Tam Henderson, Reference Recordings Page 5
Atkinson: Reference Recordings has an amazing roster of artists, from Red Norvo to The Blazing Redheads to Albert Fuller to Minoru Nojima. How do you choose artists to record?
Henderson: What motivates me is to get a wide variety of kinds of music. I couldn't possibly be happy working in this business having to deal with the same kind of music all the time. Though many labels are quite successful doing just that, narrowing in on one area and doing it consistently well, that just isn't my idea of how this company should go. It started out, and still is, primarily focused on audiophiles, and audiophiles tend to like a wide variety of kinds of music. I realize we could probably be more successful if we were to specialize more than we do. But that to me would be boring, and it certainly would be to Keith, because he likes to do different things, the more unexpected the better.
We tend to do the unexpected for our own amusement and hope that our fans will find something to enjoy. But people will come in, for example, at CES, and say "Well, I like only jazz. What have you got in jazz?" Or "I like only classical..." Mainly what they come in and say is "What have you got with a lot of bass?" That's CES! So periodically, we need to do something with big bass, simply to keep our bass fans happy. We're planning a couple of those for this year. We haven't done one for quite a whilewe've been distracted by more musically rewarding projects.
Atkinson: What projects are you currently working on?
Henderson: This may or may not come to pass, but I read a piece that David Ranada wrote in High Fidelity magazine a few months back, that mentioned a concert of unamplified jazz he had been to at Alice Tully Hall in New York. It was a big band playing Duke Ellington's music, the object of that exercise being to see what it might sound like as played in Ellington's day. Sort of an "original instruments" approach to jazz. I said, "Well, that fits with what we're trying to do," so I talked to David and he put me in touch with the arranger and conductor of that project, David Berger. I've been talking with him about the idea of doing a record.
We had tried [a recording of unamplified jazz] that came out with mixed results, because we were trying to be too purist in our approach. We thought we could go in with our symphonic-style miking, but this particular ensemble had been so accustomed to playing with amplification, and so accustomed to studio techniques with earphones and so on, that they didn't know how to balance among themselves.
Atkinson: That's a sad commentary.
Henderson: But you go to any live jazz concert these days you will hear amplification. Whether it's one player or two players or 14 or 20 players, there'll be amplification. That's just a comment on how we've become accustomed to hear real music. I've stopped going to live jazz concerts, pretty much, for that reason, unless there's an artist that I'm particularly interested in. You don't hear real music, you hear bad PA.
Atkinson: Do you have any more projects planned with Nojima?
Henderson: Yes, as a matter of fact. We're doing another recording in August of Ravel, Gaspard de la Nuit and Miroirs, and I'm confident it's going to be magnificent. I heard him play the Miroirs in a concert a couple of months ago. I sat there and said, trying to be objective, "I don't think I will ever hear this music played any better than this." It was one of those goosebump live-music experiences. I couldn't be happier than to be able to work with him. I think he's going to be a major name in piano circles.
My highest priority for this year, and as soon as this CES is over I'm going to devote a lot of energy to it, is to find a way to record Nojima in concertos. I'm aware that it's only a matter of time before a major label will start courting him. I'm sure for his own benefit that he will go with a major label, so we have x number of months to do something. Nojima is a curiosity among performing artists. He has practically no ego to speak of, and I think that has worked to his detriment. I think that's probably why his name isn't better known than it is, but he's not your typical flamboyant egotist at all. And he's nervous about recording because he says, "Oh, there're so many good pianists."
I would like to talk a bit more about the upcoming things that we have because those are really important to me. I'm the one who gets to decide what we record, so I'm really pleased about the things coming up. The next release is another Marni Nixon album, singing Jerome Kern. This time we have some arrangements. Lincoln [Mayorga] has written charts for a small string group, we have a harp and flute, and some of them are piano, bass, and drums; there's a good deal of variety. Then there's another Chicago Pro Musica album that we did last June, right after CES, with the Threepenny Opera Suite of Kurt Weill. That's for 17 instruments, which is a fairly large ensemble to be playing without a conductor. The first two records we did with the Chicago group four years ago were very successful. They won a Grammy for the group, so we have high hopes for this one.
We have three more projects in the can already. It's enormously satisfying to me, more than a dream come true; it never occurred to me that I would ever be able to work with my very favorite singer of all time. Eileen Farrell was, I think, the greatest singer this country has ever produced. She started her career in the '40s; she had a radio program, branched out and did concert appearances with orchestrasshe was a singer who could sing anything. Eventually she was at the Metropolitan Opera. She had the biggest, warmest, most luscious dramatic soprano that I had ever heard.
There was something about her singing that just vibrated within me, and it was she who made it possible for me to get into opera. It was the last musical form that I resisted, but it was through her singing that I began to explore opera and find things that I enjoyed. So I followed her career all through my teen years and early 20s, when she was at her peak. But in addition to her operatic singing, she always was able to sing popular music as well. She had a complete and different way of singing. She was the only trained singer who could turn that off and approach popular music on its own terms.
Atkinson: Unlike, say, Kiri Te Kanawa.
Henderson: Precisely. Who tries. But you can always hear that opera singer singing, behind it all. When Eileen Farrell stopped singing in public and began her teaching careershe was at Indiana University for many yearsshe sort of faded from public sight.
About two years ago, there was a PBS TV special, one of their fund-raising devices where everybody gets up and does a couple of numbers. Itzhak Perlman was the host, and he came on and said, "Well, we're especially pleased to have Miss Eileen Farrell singing for us tonight. She's retired, but we're very happy that she could come and be with us. And she had only one condition, that she could bring her own accompanist." So out she came and behind her was Leonard Bernstein! I feared the worst. You know, it had been a long time, but she sang a couple of numbers, and it was astonishing that a woman of her ageshe's now well into her 60sstill had the basic quality of her singing. It's largely still there. That wonderful, communicative way that she has with the music is unmistakable.
I wrote her a fan letter and said, "Would you consider making just one more recording for your fans? I will do anything I can to help bring it about." One day the phone rang and she said "This is Eileen Farrell..." and I nearly fainted. One thing led to another and it's worked out.
Atkinson: What have you recorded with her?
Henderson: We have two albums in the can. One of Rodgers and Hart, and the other of Harold Arlen songs. She's always had a close relationship with Harold Arlen, and has always specialized in his songs, so I'm especially pleased about that. We did those in the studio with musicians that she prefers to work with these daysthey're in Charlotte, North Carolina strangely enough. There's a pianist who's very, very good at accompanying. His name is Loonis McGlohan, and he understands that style of Cabaret music from the inside out, and is wonderfully supportive of Eileen. And although she is not interested at all in performing any more in public, she is willing to do some recording. Those two will be out as quickly as possible, in the spring or summer, and then we've already agreed to do two more records with her this year. We'll be going back in May to do two more.
Atkinson: Still concentrating on the Golden Age of Songwriters?
Henderson: Yes. Eileen also had close ties with a composer named Alec Wilder. He was a curious composer in that he wrote popular music and classical music. He's not nearly as well known as the other composers...
Atkinson: He did write the definitive book on American Popular Song...
Henderson: ...but since she and Loonis McGlohan also worked with him and wrote some things together, that was a logical thing to do. Some of Alec Wilder's songs are well known, but not all of them by any means. And this record's largely of things that are never performed. I think that it may not be box office, but it's going to be a very beautiful album.
Going through the experience of doing the first two albums, it was obvious to me that Eileen's most successful songs are the slow, tortuous love-gone-wrong songs.
Atkinson: Like Rodgers' & Hart's "Where or When"?
Henderson: Exactly. So I said, "Eileen, let's do a record of torch songs." She said "I'd love to!" We worked out a program of "He's-done-me-wrong-and-walked-out-the-door" songs, and I think it's going to be a major success.
Beyond that, we don't have a contract yet, but everyone's in agreement that we make two records with the Dallas Wind Symphony in July. I've been looking for a long time for an ensemble to do a piece of music that I'm personally anxious to do. It's called La Fiesta Mexicana by H. Owen Reed. I think it's the only piece he ever wrote. Maybe not. Anyway, it was on one of the early Mercurys in the mono era, and I've always been fond of that piece. It has lots of bass drum, bells, and percussion of various sorts, so I think it will be a good CES-type thing to do. And the other record we're doing with them is all the Holst wind music. So those I'm excited about. It's going to be a busy year...