RR LogoMary Foster Conklin Creating Musical Memories with Photographs

Mary Foster Conklin Photo OnePhotographs are meant to capture and to preserve for us special moments in time and there are plenty of those moments that come with Mary Foster Conklin’s new album Photographs.

Conklin talks about the title song “Photographs,” “Fran Landesman wrote the title cut of the album Photographs, with Alec Wilder and there is a poem that she wrote called Photographs and it is not like the song at all. The final lines are, ‘If ever you find my house on fire / Leave the silver, save the photographs.’

I presented the first Landesman (a tribute to the songs of Fran Landesman) evening at the end of 2012 and then I did several more performances in 2013. By the end of 2013 I had received a very nice New York Times review. It (an album) was definitely worth investing in.

At the end of 2013 John diMartino and I went back to the process of putting together a recording in earnest. It was just sorting through the portfolio of what we had been doing and doing more live gigs with a trio and getting arrangements together and stuff. Then we went into the studio at the end of 2014 and we laid down the tracks.”

The idea for recording what eventually became the Photographs album predates even 2012 and it started with an email from John diMartino to Mary Foster Conklin in which he suggested it was time to record an album together.

“We got distracted. That email came at the end of 2009 or in 2010, because I had just begun compiling songs by Fran Landesman and I was doing more of them in my regular performances. Fran Landesman died in 2010 at the end of the summer. At that time I made a commitment that I had been sort of on a fence about and I said I really should put together some kind of a tribute. I had seen Fran alive at her last New York appearance.

I decided to put the recording on hold, while I put together a full live tribute. Someone slipped me some of Fran’s books of poetry and (I wanted) a really full program worth my time, so I put that together and I presented it,” says Conklin.

Although, Fran Landesman is well known for her poetry, Conklin reminds us that she is also equally well-known for specifically writing lyrics.

“She came from New York and her husband got sick of the whole forties beat scene. That was their milieu and they uprooted the family and moved back to where he was from, which was St. Louis, Missouri. To keep Fran amused he opened up a beautiful club called the Crystal Palace and he became quite an impresario. All their friends from New York came to perform there Lenny Bruce and the Smothers Brothers and they brought Bob Dorough in to do a show. At that time she became acquainted with Tommy Wolfe who was the house pianist. That was when she started experimenting with writing lyrics. She started flipping him poems and they began to seriously collaborate on writing songs together,” she says.

John diMartino’s elegant piano introduces us to Mary Foster Conklin’s beautiful vocals and sensitive phrasing of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” a Fran Landesman / Tommy Wolfe song. The theme of the song is best described in the third last verse of this song that plays for 6:08, ‘Love came my way, I thought it would last / We had our day, now it’s all in the past / Spring came along , a season of song / Full of sweet promise / But something went wrong.’ Both longing and sorrow are evident in Conklin’s phrasing.

Conklin says, “Fran was a big admirer of T.S. Elliot and one of her favorite T.S. Elliot poems is The Waste Land, which starts out with ‘April is the cruelest month,’ and that first phrase really stuck with her, so she started to think about how a Jazz musician might interpret the same sentiment. That is when she came up with “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.”

I came to Fran Landesman’s songs through a composition that she wrote with Bob Dorough. The first one I ever heard was “Small Day Tomorrow.” I can tell you exactly the first time that I heard it. I met Bob Dorough just after he had been signed to Blue Note. It must have been ’99, maybe. His bass player Bill Takas had passed away and there was a gathering at a bar down in the Village called Arturo’s and it has nightly Jazz. He invited me to come by even though I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t know Bill Takas.

It was like looking through a window to an earlier time in the Village. He (Dorough) was at the piano and playing music and Janis Siegel got up to sing “Small Day Tomorrow.” It was like a little photograph into a time in the Village when it was full of Bohemians, cold water flats and Beatniks. It was a very special song.

I have lived in both the East Village and the West Village for most of my time in New York. They are very special neighborhoods. I became a huge fan of all of Bob Dorough’s songs. Shortly after the concert that Fran Landesman was in, he gave a full concert of the recordings of the songs that he had written with Fran. I think that album is called Small Day Tomorrow. If I liked something I would just go up and ask him for the sheet music and he is an incredibly generous songwriter and eager to share. He sent me anything that I asked for, so the early stuff “Small Day Tomorrow,” and “Wings of Heaven,” is pretty obscure. I don’t think anybody has recorded it other than Bob with the 5th Dimension in 1969. That was when Bob was the music director for Spanky and Our Gang back in Los Angeles. This was before Schoolhouse Rock and before a lot of things. He was living in Los Angeles and he was working as a producer and a music director for Pop bands. Spanky and Our Gang was one of his groups. They did a Fran Landesman tune called “Without Rhyme or Reason.”  Mary Foster Conklin Photo Two

That is my thing, I like to find (songs) that haven’t been done to death and if it has a story even better. I have a great affection for the west coast anyway, because I feel like it has a very definite musical voice. That is exactly how I met Mark Winkler also. I always say that the Matt Dennis album that I did is like the gift that keeps on giving. It brought me to the west coast and it introduced me to (Mark). Mark had just done his Bobby Troup recording. When we met in New York it turned out that he had a Matt Dennis and Bobby Troup song that I didn’t have and I had a Matt Dennis and Bobby Troup song that he didn’t have.  We were sort of destined to cross paths and we ended up coming together to do a couple of nights of Dennis and Troup. We did it both in New York and out in Los Angeles. That was the beginning of our friendship. Mark Winkler is a terrifically talented songwriter and he just keeps getting better and better.”

Both Conklin and your correspondent agree that “Long As You’re Living,” the last song on her album Photographs, is like stepping through a doorway into the 1940s and 1950s.

“New York in the forties and fifties must have been an amazing place. It certainly was an amazing place for music. To be in the coffee houses in Greenwich Village or to be on 57th Street and listening to Bebop, can you imagine a better time?

It (the song) is Oscar Brown Jr. at his best and I think the only things missing on there are some bongos,” she says.

Houston Person’s chatty saxophone opens up a Jazz adaptation of the Lennon and McCartney tune “For No One.” The dialogue between Mary Foster Conklin and Person is engaging and it feels like we are eavesdropping on a conversation. Shinnosuke Takahashi’s drums are subtle and he and John diMartino (piano) are charming as they accompany Conklin.

“The reason that I did The Beatles’ tune is John has done a bunch of Japanese recordings and one of them he has is an instrumental that is all Beatles’ tunes and at one point he slipped me his arrangement for “For No One,” and he said it would be really interesting to hear this with the lyrics and to see what we could come up with,” she says.

While acknowledging that more often now the Lennon and McCartney songs are being recognized as modern day standards, Conklin says, “When I was younger I didn’t understand what made a standard a standard. As I got older and more experienced musically, I began to understand why standards are timeless. Their use of language and structure and the fact that you could rearrange them and they would still sound great. The other factor was the emotional investment and so many of the standards resonated with so many people, because they were the songs that were written during the Second World War or the songs were part of their childhood or their adolescence.

My father-in-law was a huge big band fan and he was the one who introduced me to the Benny Goodman sextet and stuff like that. There were questions that I continued to develop as a singer. What are the songs that “get me” and that are part of my coming of age? Geesh, one of the first albums that I bought was Rubber Soul and those songs resonate on a deep level with me, because they are part of my time. People like The Beatles and all of the writers of the ‘70s, Carole King, James Taylor, Phoebe Snow, Stevie Wonder and all of their songs, whether you like them or not you know them, because you heard them to death.

I think everybody (attaches memories to certain songs), whether they realize it or not and that is what I mean by something that hits you deeper emotionally, because it is tied in with something in your life,” says Conklin.

As we start to talk about the Johnny Mandel, Alan and Marilyn Bergman song “Cinnamon and Clove,” Conklin begins to laugh, “I went out west and Mark Winkler and I did a show together, I did “Cinnamon and Clove,” and Mark said that’s from (Marilyn and Alan Bergman’s) acid period don’t you think. ‘The moon is like a tangerine and that kind of stuff.’ He said it was slightly hippie, dippy (note: Johnny Mandel also was a co-writer for this song).

Conklin takes time to talk about some of the musicians who appear on Photographs, “We call Shinnosuke Takahashi, Shinn and he has since moved back to Japan. I met him two years ago when I was starting to experiment with personnel that I wanted to bring into the studio. I had seen him play many times with John (diMartino) and he was wonderful. He is what I would call a very tasty drummer. He was a real pleasure to work with and a real professional. When you find good drummers you keep them. He was just a pleasure.

Oh Warren Vache (cornet), what’s not to like? (You can hear the smile in her voice) I first heard Warren a million years ago, in the early ‘00s. There is no one who plays like Warren.

A couple of years ago I was thrilled, because I was commissioned to do a college program for two nights. The music program spanned from the ‘20s to the ‘70s and I knew I wanted some sort of horn player and instead of saxophone I went with Warren. I knew I needed someone who could start with Louis Armstrong and (end with) Chuck Mangione. Warren was such a pleasure. It was a good paying gig and we had a lot of fun together.

I knew when I was going into the studio, I would invite Warren in. John and I were starting to compile the songs and we (would say), Warren could play on that. That would be good for Warren. He is also from Jersey and I’m from Jersey. It was such a pleasure and a privilege to have him and to also have Houston Person to come in and guest on one tune (“For No One”). That kind of stuff is just what dreams are made of. I see Warren a lot, because he plays for Annie Ross and I don’t live far from there.

Houston Person is a legend and a saxophone player that plays like a singer and he knows all of the lyrics. I had a phone conversation (with him) the year that I did the college gig, because I needed some specific directions, while I was driving and John said why don’t you call Houston, because he is the big driving guy. He drives everywhere and he will be able to give you the navigation to where we need to go. I ended up having a very long conversation about driving directions with Houston Person late one night. He is such a nice guy. We geared that whole take around Houston, because we wanted him to be comfortable. We wanted him to just do what he does. He was great and he had a good time. It was such a big thrill and I am a big fan of those recordings that he did with Etta Jones.”

About Joel Frahm she says, “He is very special. He played on my Matt Dennis album. Most of the time my budget will not allow me to go in there with a full quartet or quintet, but he is definitely one of my first call guys when I do. He did not disappoint. He is a sweet man, a great musician and a real pro. It was very exciting to be able to bring him in again and have him join us on the recording. Mary Foster Conklin Photo Three

Ed Howard (bass) has a long tradition of backing great singers like Shirley Horn and Karrin Allyson and he was a generous and creative force in the studio, as was Paul Meyers (guitar).”

Mary Foster Conklin grew up in Englewood and Tenafly, New Jersey and she was one of three children.

“My dad sings, but not professionally and my parents loved Broadway and Opera. When my dad was drafted in the fifties, after Korea he was stationed in Frankfurt (Germany) and he was delivering babies, because he was a medical student. He delivered 150 babies during his army time. He brought my mother and my older brother over there and in order to feed their theatre habit they would play musicals of the latest shows. When I was a kid they would continue that. I can remember falling asleep listening to whatever record they favored at the moment. A lot of musicals, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Scott Joplin and they would play it on the hi-fi at top decibel, whether we were sleeping or not.

My older brother played the clarinet, so I played the clarinet.  I played the piano and then I started to sing and all of the years that I spent in choirs and stuff kept me out of a lot of trouble,” she recalls.

Continuing to describe her childhood years she says, “I grew up going to the Riverside Church in New York, which is up in Harlem and at that time in the ‘60s they had a tremendously special Jazz station called WRVR, so I also got to hear some of that. I took a lot of Jazz dance classes and I had a particular choreographer and teacher who was a huge Jazz fan. He was the one who introduced me to Dexter Gordon. I think I grew up as a musical sponge. The radio when I was a kid was much more varied. You could listen to AM radio and hear The Dave Clark Five, The Beatles, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington on a morning show. I miss that terribly. That and variety television like Ed Sullivan. When The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan my parents let us stay up to watch it. I fell asleep before The Beatles came on and the last thing that I remember seeing was the Lipizzan horses.

I had a good friend (in high school) who was a singer and songwriter who got me into Laura Nyro, Phoebe Snow, Carole King and I will tell you something there is nothing more hilarious than a doctor’s daughter from Englewood, New Jersey playing “Poverty Train,” and singing at the top of her lungs. That was the first Pop singing that I did.

I had a wonderful choir master who had big ears who was a very strict task master, but at the same time was feeding us music theory and teaching us the language of music. It was a big honor to be in that choir and he gave us a lot of musicianship along the way. I was much heavier also in high school and so I was much more of a character actress (in musical theatre). Laura Nyro was a big favorite when I was in high school.”

Fast forward to Conklin’s college years, “I sang in a punk band with purple hair when I was in college. My first gig in New York I was subbing for a friend of mine who was having health issues and he was part of a Connecticut band called the Vacant Lot. We played in an old Punk club called 8BC in the bombed out East Village in 1984. I made a big Cyndi Lauper outfit. I always say I had purple hair back when it meant something.

It was very taxing on the throat. The other complaint that I had, even though singing in Rock bands is a lot of fun, you couldn’t hear the lyrics and that bothered me. I like Billie Joe Armstrong and Green Day, I liked American Idiot, much more than I expected, when I saw it on Broadway.

“I was also a DJ in college. I had a friend who was deep into radio and she pulled me onboard and I became a DJ, because I have this great DJ voice. It was so much fun. It was one of the really happy things that I enjoyed in college, because you are hanging around with like-minded people who love music, all kinds of music and you have the run of a huge music library. You don’t want to play what everybody is playing and you are introduced to people like Horace Silver and Dexter Gordon. I guess Chuck Mangione was very big at that time, Weather Report, Manhattan Transfer and I played more Jazz, because I had a bigger library at my fingertips. At the time when Punk came in I had big arguments with people about the aesthetic value of Punk and what it was about. I was very passionate about it at the time. What they hell was this new, rough, distorted music that was very disturbing and simplistic, but was at the same time a breath of fresh air, after all of the Disco. It was a fun time to be a DJ.

I liked radio and I like radio to this day. I started doing it again last year when a friend of mine who had a long time show in New York reached out to me to sub for him. I think the first day I had three days to put a two hour show together and it fell together so quickly that it was like riding a bicycle,” says Conklin.

“I majored in theatre (in college) and I got the opportunity to study with the great Morris Carnovsky who is one of the original members of The Group Theatre. Then he was blacklisted in the fifties out in California, before he came to light again in the fifties at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which at that time was run by John Houseman.

He (Carnovsky) was a tremendous teacher and I fell into doing a lot of Shakespeare and he was horrified when I dyed my hair (purple). He said how are you going to go to auditions with purple hair? He was very encouraging. I came to New York right after college to do theatre and I had a voice teacher who was actively pushing me to go into club work. He said you are really made for club work rather than musical theatre and you really should put something together and to do something.

I had a real problem. I thought I don’t do standards, because they are my grandmother’s music. That’s not my thing and I finally started putting something together. I said I like Rock and Roll and Classical and a little Jazz. I went back and I started looking at old Blues. I have always been a Peggy Lee fan and Peggy Lee was instrumental in bringing some classic Blues to the forefront.

I found this book in the library about the Blues and it had this great discography. I just started following threads. I started to throw classic Blues in with musical theatre tunes and I started doing some Pop tunes and Beatles. I was just trying to find my voice.

I got a job in a big band in Art Lillard’s band and I sang with them for twenty years. That really got me more focused on doing Jazz, because I was actively working as a Jazz musician. Art refused to fire me, so it was the old school method of sucking on the bandstand to get better. Every time that I didn’t know a standard I had to go home and learn it. When Art would get booked for parties and weddings I had to know all of the standards that the band was going to play and know my keys and all of that kind of stuff. Also, the more I did it the more I enjoyed it. As I got older Jazz was more interesting musically and it was more challenging. I go back and forth. I do some theatrical stuff, but I am more interested in Jazz as a medium and also improvisation and spontaneous composition and all of that heady stuff,” she says.

Photographs, by Mary Foster Conklin is a superb album. The genre is Jazz, but it is so much more than Jazz, because Ms. Conklin’s vocals, the quality musicians and the great production quality should appeal to anyone who truly appreciates very good music.

Mary Foster Conklin says, “There are five Fran Landesman tunes on Photographs, but I knew I didn’t want to do a full Fran Landesman tribute album, because there were other songs that I had been doing that I really wanted to include. There is a feeling that this album is almost a memory piece and that each song is a very distinct photograph of a time and place for me.”

How fortunate for the rest of us that we can share in this moment in time. 

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This interview by Joe Montague  published February 28th, 2016 is protected by copyright and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine © All Rights Reserved.  Photos and cover art courtesy of Mary Foster Conklin protected by copyright ©, All Rights Reserved This review may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved