Jazz Monthly: To those of you who know the work of our special guest Mark Isham, no words are necessary. To the handful of you who might not know his work, no words are quite sufficient. Mark Isham is a renowned trumpeter, film and television composer, arranger, and music producer. Mr. Isham’s stellar achievements have garnered him a Grammy, an Emmy, a Clio award, and multiple Academy Awards and Grammy nominations. His landmark record, “Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project,” was an ambitious and daring re-interpretation of Miles Davis’s Jazz-fusion Years, and was named “Best Jazz Album” in 1999 by the London Times.
Mark’s latest CD is titled “Bittersweet.” It’s Mark on trumpet and flugelhorn with dynamic award wining vocalist Kate Ceberano and an all star rhythm section.
”Bittersweet” is an exquisite marriage of talents. Mark and Kate present some of the most poignant love songs of the thirties, forties and fifties in a pure, honest, and remarkably passionate and soulful way. Each of these songs on “Bittersweet” is like a mini oil painting. It’s a great CD! Welcome Mark to JazzMonthly.com
Mark Isham: (MI) Well thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here!
Jazz Monthly: Our honor. Mark, I know with this new project “Bittersweet,” people might hear your incredible work in the electronic field and as a successful Film and TV composer, they might say, “Hey it’s great to have Mark back on the trumpet, playing Jazz again.” But you’ve never really left Jazz, right?
MI: That’s true. Well it has been, I dare say, my primary inspiration throughout my entire career – even though there has been a number of years that I haven’t been out on the road… I always come back to it eventually. It’s still the notion of improvisation in a band that improvises together and puts themselves out there on that “tight rope” in front of the audience, that is still to me one of the most exciting things I can do as a musician.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, I love the way you said that Mark, that “tight rope” because you really are exposed when you’re playing Jazz out there live.
MI: You are. That is part of the beauty of it to me. You put together a little group of guys and gals and trust them. You trust them with the their artistry and ability to stay with you and back you up. Depending on the type of music, you have some things that are agreed upon and some things that are left wide open. You go out there and you make it up in front of people. It’s invigorating and inspiring… and sometimes terrifying! (Both Laughing)
Jazz Monthly: Yes!
MI: But all in all, I think it’s just a very provocative and inspiring experience for me.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely! You were born in New York City and your mom was a violinist and your dad taught music and history right here in Manhattan, right?
MI: Yeah, I was born right in Manhattan and I went to PS 75. My mom was a violinist in some of the orchestras around town and taught at the Dalcroze School; my dad was at Columbia. So I had a fairly sophisticated upbringing in that regard. There was lots of music around the house, and I got dragged to a lot of different types of rehearsals and concerts at a very young age.
Jazz Monthly: I’m laughing cause you said the word “dragged.” (Both laughing)
MI: Well, (laughing) sometimes to a five-year-old boy, it may not be considered the thing that you really want to do, but at the end of the day it was a big formative period for me. I was exposed to a lot of music that – of course very soon, I came to love and dedicate my life to.
Jazz Monthly: So you said that around five years old you really began studying classical piano and violin… trumpet, too, right? Or, did that come later?
MI: That came later. My mother did put me on the piano and the violin at a very young age up until …oh let’s see, eleven or twelve. By sixth grade I played both; I was in band and orchestra. Then, one year I played the Haydn Trumpet – the second movement of the Haydn Trumpet concerto. When I was twelve, my mom said, “OK, you’re good. You can stick with the trumpet. You don’t have to stick with the violin any more.”
Jazz Monthly: Talk about chops huh?
MI: Yeah, I was pretty good, pretty fast as a kid. I think that’s part of what propelled me into Jazz. By the time I was in high school, it was the late sixties and there was a lot of very, very interesting music happening. I was living in San Francisco by that time, and so not only is Miles revolutionizing Jazz once again, and Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea… people were “coming on” to change the face of the seventies. Also Carlos Santana is up and running and all of the San Francisco horn bands: The Sons of Champlin, Cold Blood… Chicago had just hit. There was a tremendous amount of exciting influences for a young trumpet player to branch out into other worlds other than just the classical world.
Jazz Monthly: By the way, how old were you when you did move to the west coast, Mark?
MI: I was in high school. I think I was between my freshman and sophomore years –
Jazz Monthly: Something like that. So, I guess around that time we are talking your early twenties when you really branched out into the electronic music and electronic Jazz, right?
MI: Yes. You know at that time the Moog Synthesizer was just coming out into the world and those very influential Beatles records were being made. Morton Subotnickand Donald Bukalo were over at the Mills College, outside of San Francisco; they were experimenting. I heard some of those early records and quite frankly, that change from '68 to '74 was, I think, one of the most exciting evolutions in music – in a lot of genres. I was right there as this very young and excited young man, just drinking it all up… loving all of it.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and that leads me to that great CD. You know Mark, I’ve had that album for about ten years now in my collection. The Miles Davis album is an affectionate homage to Miles. It’s called “Miles Remembered,” I am sure a lot of our readers know it. It’s called, “Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project.” That came out, I guess about ten years ago right?
MI: Boy is it? It could be. It could be that long ago. That was, as a Jazz player… that period of Miles… and then into Weather Report, probably the two most important influences on me. It really showed that genres really didn’t matter. As long as the spirit of music was clearly defined, you could pretty much try anything. If you could keep your “artist hat” on – and make it communicate well – boy the world was wide open. It’s still to this day as a film composer; it’s still a concept that I just live by. I think that as a film composer it’s something you have to believe to allow yourself to find fresh approaches when scoring new films.
Jazz Monthly: I know your CD like the back of my hand; talking about “Miles Remembered –The Silent Way Project.” But I have to be totally honest. When I first got it… now here I was a lover of Miles, as were you… I said, “Alright here we go again a little tribute to Miles.” But boy was I ever wrong. I absolutely loved the CD. In fact when I was looking at the inside of it, I’m saying, “Where’s the electric Piano?” That’s the first thing I noticed. But really, Mark, you don’t miss it at all. I think it’s better without the electric piano.
MI: Well, I don’t know “better,” but I do know that we made some very conscious decisions. We didn’t want to copy. We wanted to find the “spirit” of that music. Since the record was made, they released the box set with a lot more of the comments and descriptions on how the original “Silent Way” record and the original “Bitches Brew” were actually made. I always had a sense that Miles was always sort of a “first take” guy. He was never an over rehearsed guy. So one of the things we did on that record was… it was all “live.” The whole record was made “live” at the Baked Potato here in Los Angeles, so it had a very spirited feeling about it. I also loved the sound of two guitars – especially if you pick guitar players who have completely different approaches. It becomes just a wonderful blend of sound.
So in a sense it was taking the concepts of those early records, but doing them differently in… oh… how many years later? (Laughing) Forty years later. I think, overall, I am very, very proud of it. The choices we made were good choices. One of the interesting things is we toured this record for about two, three maybe even four years after its release. Due to scheduling, we couldn’t use the same two guitarists all the time. It actually turned out to be a fantastic experience because every time you would have two different guitar players interacting on this music, a whole new thing would open up. We were doing tours with Nels Cline for instance who is now in Wilco, and that series of tours was another whole take on this type of music – which was equally as rewarding.
Jazz Monthly: It’s worth mentioning again; I mentioned it in the little intro that I did for you. This CD won best Jazz Album of 1999 by the London Times and they don’t like junk you know? (Both laughing)
MI: We were very thrilled about that. I think a lot of that came from performing at Ronnie Scott’s, and it was so enthusiastically received there. English Jazz fans – they really loved this project. Like I say, we were there for along time and I think the Times guys were down there a lot. They really responded to it. So I couldn’t be happier that we had that reaction.
Jazz Monthly: I’m recommending to people if they haven’t gotten that CD to get it! As I said I have had it for many years now “Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project,” it is worth having and then some. It is just spectacular.
Let’s talk a little bit before we get to “Bittersweet” Mark, about your film composing and scoring. When did that really begin for you?
MI: That happened in 1982. I had recorded some music with a good friend of mine who was a master of Chinese flutes and percussion, and the traditional usage of those. We had come up with this concept of wanting to write some music for his instruments and electronics synthesizers. We wrote a couple of pieces, recorded them and were shopping it around looking for record deals. Unfortunately, we got nowhere with that – but we were sending it around to a lot of people. Eventually, it got into the hands of a film director who said; “This is really, really interesting. I want to know who these guys are.”
That’s basically how I got the introduction into the film business.
It was an opportunity that I grabbed onto and I realized things like this don’t come around very often in life. I applied myself very, very diligently and somehow scored a picture without really having any specific training in scoring pictures. I was helped by a couple of really wonderful music editors and producers. When I came out the other end having scored a major motion picture, I realized that this was a tremendous amount of fun. It was very inspiring and a lot of hard work, but also paid very well. They gave me money for production… so I just kept going. I found an agent and the rest is history.
Jazz Monthly: Was that “Never Cry Wolf” Mark?
MI: Yes. That was “Never Cry Wolf.”
Jazz Monthly:: Absolutely spectacular. Mark when you hit with that you already, you were really on your way because people were saying, “Hey this is a young guy and he’s playing Jazz and he’s playing electronic music.” You were right up there with the best of them at that time.
MI: As a trumpet player?
Jazz Monthly: As a trumpet player and as a film scorer.
MI: Well, I mange to keep the trumpet playing somewhat alive. With “Bittersweet” I’m pushing back out to the market place again. I’ve actually got a new band here in LA. I'm making another real push back into the Jazz world as a player. I’ve been skirting around the edges of it for the past three or four years and I really want to get back into it in a big, big way. So this is the first of the couple of different record projects that will be coming up. On the film business, it continues just to grow and grow. I keep finding exciting films, and really wonderful directors to work with. I can’t complain, things are inspiring and a lot of fun.
Jazz Monthly: Your more then deserve it. One of my favorite scores was the “Black Dahlia.” There’s kind of a funny story here, Mark. I know Brian De Palma directed the “Black Dahlia.” When De Palma and you first met… I'm paraphrasing… he had met you to score the Black Dahlia, and he said to you “Mark, I'm looking for a mournful trumpet score,” and you said something like, “Well I'm your guy; I’m a mournful trumpet player.” Right? (Laughing)
MI: (Laughing) I’d say that’s better then paraphrasing. That sounds almost verbatim.
Jazz Monthly: That was a great line, then of course you scored “Nell”, I guess that was fifteen years ago. Still sounds fresh and alive by anyone’s judgment. And of course one my favorites is “Crash” the movie. It was written and directed by your friend Paul Haggis and it won an Academy Award right?
MI: That’s correct yes.
Jazz Monthly: Now lets talk about your CD “Bittersweet.” They say its kind of Australia meets the USA right? If you could explain that Mark?
MI: Well, I met Kate about four or five years ago. We were involved in some charity concerts actually. I heard about her, but never heard her or didn’t know much about her music. So as you do in some of these concerts, you met some of the people that you will be playing with, and you try and find some common ground to come together and put a good show on for the audience. We discovered that this was a mutual love of ours. The great American songbook for lack of a better word. Cole Porter /Duke Ellington, arguably the greatest American composers were the founders of what I consider to be the backbone of American musical culture. So we are drawn to it, we performed them together and the more we did it we established this dialog that was just so exciting to the two of us. The more we did it, the more we became aware the audience reaction was exceedingly good too! Then we would get some request, “You guy’s have to do “Duke” some more, and we would love to hear this again.” Finally after the last time we did this, we just came off the stage together and said, “Alright, we have to stop talking about this and we are going to do this. We are going to make a record.”
We put together a little group – an independent financial unit. Basically we went and recorded a record on our own. Now placed in various places around the world, it’s being released on “Universal” in Australia. Kate has a huge thriving career there. We are doing it in a various tiered release here in the States and there is just a big electronic web presence for the album itself. It’s very exciting! We captured, I think, exactly what we wanted to… and more! I think even though it’s not recorded in front of an audience, we had a few friends down there and it was just enough. You know, here you are… and do it now… and do it great! (Laughing) There was kind of a vibe that we captured; we really interact on this material. We also are very fortunate to have a truly stellar band. Three of the finest musicians in the jazz world today, and we happened to find a schedule where they were all available, Peter Erskine, Alan Pasqua, and Tom Warrington; doesn’t get much better than this. We couldn’t be more proud and happier with the result of this album, and so far the response has been very, very good.
Jazz Monthly: You do have some great people along with you. Alan Pasqua who of course played with everyone from Tony Williams, to MichaelBrecker, Santana and Peter Erskine of course. We all know him from Weather Report and just a great session drummer. Tom Warrington, the bass player, he worked with everyone from Stan Getz to Freddie Hubbard to even Buddy Rich. Did it feel like it was almost inevitable? Like it was just “screaming” out for you to go into the studio to kind of capture what you and Kate did live?
MI: Yes, it was like I mentioned earlier. When you put yourself out there in a particular musical scenario, and it really clicks… when there’s improvisation involved, especially when you’re doing this sort of improvisational conversation; you want to document it. You want to explore it. You know, these things don’t often come along. These “marriages” that just click and gel so easily… yea, so it was almost we had to do this just find time in our schedule and do this.
Once you step on board, the inspiration just keeps going. The record really inspired us. We are planning the next phase of all of this, and we’re looking at maybe starting in Australia – but there’s no restrictions on what we might do. We are going to do a remix contest on this and we’re looking to do some releases of remixes of contest winners. I may do a couple of remixes, so by the time we’re touring we might be able to take this out as a double tiered show – a hint of the original rendition and back and forth to a more modernized rendition of these songs also. We’re really looking at this in the most creative way possible and to just keep this inspiration and excitement building.
Jazz Monthly: Mark, this is such a great CD! When you discussed with Kate about doing an album of standards such as we mentioned, you each compiled a list of your own favorite songs, as I understand it. You compared notes and lots of the same songs were on your list and Kate's list, right?
MI: Exactly! That’s the sort of thing that kept happening. We’d say, “Well we know we love this music”…. but all right now I'm going to really bare my soul to her and say “Well what I really loved about this song was the way Nancy Wilson did it on this record,” and then she would say “I have that record I've worn that record out I'm on my fourth copy of that.” We really had a mutual admiration not only with the song, but the particular way they’ve been interpreted. So, when it came time to put arrangements together and find the approaches to these songs… it was not difficult; it was not like we had to search around. You could tell we were totally on the same wave length, and that inspired me as the arranger to push a little bit and find effective fresh approaches to each song.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely. These are more than just torch songs. Some of them as you know, kind of rip your heart out, but the interplay between Kate and you… it wasn’t all dark either. Its not just about “lost love” is the best way I can describe it; it’s like softly powerful. Sometime you came in through the “back door” to some of these songs; you didn’t hit people over the heads. You know what I mean?
MI: I do, I do. You know Kate came up with this word “Bittersweet,” and I think that for a single word it sort of sums up the over all emotion. There’s moments when it’s sweet – there are moments when it’s very dark and bitter. Over all, it is just that lovely duality… the beautiful sadness… that duality of “There are rough times and there are beautiful times.” The main thing is that… you are living! You’re experiencing! That is what we really wanted to communicate, because this is some of the greatest music ever written. You really just have to go in there with your respect for that music. If you just have that point, “I'm communicating what has already been said so beautifully – I just have to make sure I raise it to the highest level I can.” It just flowed effortlessly.
Jazz Monthly: When I first hit play on my CD player and right away “My One and Only Love, which of course Jazz fans will know, came on. The thing that you did great, Mark –speaking of your arrangements… there was no intro. It was an immediate start record. I was struck by that. It was very effective and it worked! The song was off and running and there you were… right?
MI: Absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons we put it there right up front. It’s one of the reasons I arranged it that way. In fact, it just starts off with Kate and I, and the base. It’s just to say this is a duo record. This is about two people conversing on, and with this material. There is a good chance you’ll know all of it; good chance you love all of it. We are going to converse with each other and with you, through this material. I just felt those opening four bars communicated that whole idea, therefore the album could just open up for you and you could see it through that eye. It would be that much more effective.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely. So beautifully honed. Kate kind of handed you the first bridge, and you took it into the second verse. The thing I was struck by was that there was no overplaying. Beautiful imagery – and of course we must mention Peter, Tom and Alan. They played with such control.
MI: We talked about that, and we tried a couple of different approaches, especially with Alan because Alan is such a gorgeous, gorgeous piano player – not only as a soloist and as a trio player, but also as an accompanist. I knew that with him we could explore different styles of accompaniments. In fact, in a couple of the tunes I said, “Alright let’s go ten degrees more outside on this… or ten degrees more heavier… take it thirty percent lighter and let’s see where that goes. You could speak in sort of philosophical generalities like that and they would respond – and respond so beautifully. I think we found for each tune that certain tunes have more interactions and certain tunes have almost none. The tune is almost stripped down to the barest bone.
Jazz Monthly: Cause what do you have to prove Mark? You have nothing to prove!
MI: Well, that’s it! It’s like you say, “All the masters and the giants have reordered these songs.” So I felt the best respect we could do here is show the beauty of the material and show that we can converse on this material.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely.
MI: There was no effort to make a chop fest or to make this a virtuosic performance, only virtuosic in the artistry… in a way that the tunes are interpreted. Kate sums it up very well in the EPK interview that we did, cause she said it was a revelation to her at one point, and that the real test of this and the real challenge of this was not what you were going to sing… but what you weren’t going to sing.
Jazz Monthly: Beautifully said. One of my favorite tunes on here is Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s great song “Skylark.” Again Mark, you taking the first bridge and I'm saying “Oh wow” then you take it into the 2nd verse again. That really worked quite effectively. At the end just when you thought that the performance was over, you came on and tagged it… you took it to the end.
MI: That’s one of the other things that we experimented with. Just changing up the forms and breaking the mold of, “Well the singer is going to sing the first time through the song, then the horn player is going to play a solo, then well go back…” I mean we have about eleven songs. There’s got to be ways that we can break this up so that the strength of this thing is the “conversation.” So sometimes I start… sometimes Kate starts… as you pointed out we split the songs and places that you wouldn’t normally think of splitting the songs. Sometimes Kate sings it once in one key and then I sing it in another key. Just try to break it up so that it gives, again the beauty of the material and the conversational aspect of our interpretation.
Jazz Monthly: ... and making beautiful music in just a thoughtful way... and so musical... just so beautifully done. The Duke tunes are, I think there are three tunes… “In a Sentimental Mood” you took such a wonderful solo… just a beautiful intonation… back and forth with Kate till the very end. It was almost like you were dancing with her. You know what I'm saying?
MI: Thank you so much! I couldn’t be happier that you say that and felt that because that’s literally the feeling we wanted to convey. That’s what it is, it’s a dance between two people who enjoy dancing with each other and enjoy dancing to that music and want to share that with people.
Jazz Monthly: You know on “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” the one thing I noticed, it felt like I was almost eavesdropping on your talk over sessions. I had a feeling, correct me if I'm wrong; you purposely made the tempo into a slow lazy, “Don’t Get Around Much Any more.” We are so used to swinging it. It was such a beautiful lazy, soulful tempo that really worked. It was just so refreshing. It didn’t have that fast “businessman’s bounce” swing. (Laughing) Do you know what I mean?
MI: Yes, (Laughing) I'm glad you liked that. That was one that we did on the very last day of the session. We wanted to “over record” so that we could throw some songs out and not feel bad about. My wife said, “Pick some other ones that you haven’t thought about doing; just throw them together.” I said, “But the recording session is this afternoon.” She said, “Come on you can do it.” (Laughing) That was one of them, so I sat down on the piano, and said let me rethink this. I had the same feeling as you; this song has been heard so many times. Every great trumpet player has played it and every great singer has sung it. We just need to find another fresh little approach. That little piano rift came to mind… and there we go.
The band was just stellar; I could not have been more pleased. These guys were great, but they were just especially great that day and the way they interact…
Jazz Monthly: I was really struck by the rhythm section: Alan, Peter and Tom on “I Wanna Be Loved,” because they’re kind of anchoring you… and then at the end, I don’t know if I’m saying this right but it was kind of a musical flirting between you and…
MI: Yes. (Laughing) that’s exactly it. I’m assuming that they sent you all the artwork and everything we did. But, we sort of mocked that up. We are both happily married to other people but you know, we wanted to mock up “feelings” about these lovers who just can’t seem to get it right. There’s this… “Bittersweet”… the mood of the album. There are times in just one syllable she sums it all up.
Jazz Monthly: You know when I saw on my CD, even before I hit play on my CD player, I saw “Do It Again.” I knew it wasn’t the Steely Dan tune. (Both laughing) You know Mark; this is one of the few tunes that George Gershwin did not write with his brother Ira. He wrote it with Buddy DeSylva as you know. Buddy DeSylva wrote the lyrics. Again, it’s you and Kate are in such a playful mood. I guess that’s just the best way to describe it, “Playful."
MI: Playful, exactly. I think that’s the sweet side of the record, I think it goes into playful. I think that is a very good choice of words. That’s a lot of Kate’s personality. She has a tremendously playful side to her. She brings that into the recording session with her… kept us all in great sprits. When a song like that comes up and you want that mood, its very easy to find that with her because she lives right there.
Jazz Monthly: You know the final song on here, I just want so much for people to get this CD because they will rewarded and blessed a hundred fold on this, is of course Cole Porter’s “Every time We Say Goodbye.” This is a great way to tap this marvelous CD. I was struck by, again the phrasing and again the toying by Kate and you – stretching into the next measure. I’m trying to describe this, I don’t know if I’m describing it right, kind of holding back…
MI: I know what exactly you mean, because that song has been done so many, many times by so many giants. I actually did a fare amount of research into more obscure versions. I was trying to figure out how do we want to harmonize this. The original is beautiful and there were so many different ways it’s been interpretated. I found a beautiful recording of Chet Baker and Paul Bley. Just a duo recording, and Paul basically was just re-harmonizing on the spot. Just gorgeous, gorgeous things he did that I just blatantly stole, (both laughing) and put into our version. This help set that mood and set that willingness to make it feel more stretchy and malleable you know. So I have to give credit to Paul. There were some wonderful things that he did that I borrowed.
Jazz Monthly: We do urge everybody to go out and get “Bittersweet.” It is such a beautiful, beautiful recording. Just before we close the interview Mark, and by the way it’s a great joy to talk to you. I know you received the coveted Henry Mancini Award a few years ago for Lifetime Achievement from the American Society Of Composers Authors and Publishers, ASCAP. We want tell everybody that this award is presented only once a year to a prominent film composer who has demonstrated, I guess what they call “Leadership Qualities in the field.” Now what was that like? Henry Mancini, Mark, that’s quite a ways from a kid who went to PS-75? (Both laughing)How did that feel receiving the Henry Mancini award?
MI: It was tremendously validating I must admit. You know I have to remember that with the Life Time Achievement Award, I still feel like I'm approaching my prime. (Laughing) I have a lot more to do, so I don’t consider by any means that my lifetime is anywhere near completed here. It was certainly tremendously rewarding to know that the body of work I have done up to this point has touched people and has inspired people to think of me in this way, especially by your peers. Marilyn Bergman is such an icon. She was there and presented me with the award. My whole family came in, it was such a beautiful night and I was so grateful for that experience.
Jazz Monthly: By the way Mark. What’s going on in your life right now with composing? What are you working on now?
MI: I’m working on a Joel Silver thriller called "The Factory,"staring John Cusack. That’s under way. Got a couple of things the agents are trying to close deals so I probably shouldn’t say. (Both laughing) Obviously we are promoting “Bittersweet” getting ready to see where the first tour might start. I’ve also started an instrumental band here in LA. At this point it’s just designed to be a local project. The last time I did that we made a record and toured the world. That was “The Silent Way Project.” (Both laughing) So who knows?
Jazz Monthly: I want to tell everybody to just go out and get this CD, “Bittersweet” with Kate Ceberano and of course Mark Isham and an all star band. They brought the music home. You know… that’s the best way that I can describe it.
MI: Well thank you so much! Your support and appreciation means such a great deal to us! I’m so glad that the record has touched you, it was our intention to do that. I’m sure Kate would say this with me; it just pleases us so much, that our intention has been delivered. Thank you so much for your tremendous support on that, we really appreciate that!
Jazz Monthly: Thank you so much Mark Isham for being with us.
MI: It’s my great pleasure. Thank You.