When I was in junior high school in the early 1960s, I used to read every article and every magnificent equipment review (Marantz! Fisher! Thorens! Pickering! Dynaco!) in a now-defunct magazine called Hi-Fi/Stereo Review. In addition to feeding my adolescent dreams about audio components, it gave me my earliest education in music and music criticism.
One feature article pitted the magazine’s two principal jazz writers against one another to debate the question, “Is Ella Fitzgerald a Real Jazz Singer?” Nat Hentoff, now better known as a cultural and political commentator and columnist, took the affirmative. I always felt bad for the writer assigned the negative, Leonard Feather, jazz scholar, producer, voluminous writer, and compiler of the Jazz Encyclopedia.
Circles close. Years later, in 1971, I found myself working as co-lead singer of a ten-piece horn band at the Village Gate alongside Lorraine Feather, Leonard’s daughter. Lorraine has been my pal and correspondent ever since. Lorraine has a new album out, Such Sweet Thunder, the music of Duke Ellington with her own lyrics, plus one tune, “Mighty Like the Blues,” composed by her late father. It’s distributed by the Sancturary label and available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and all the other popular websites. Nat Hentoff wrote the liner notes.
You probably know Lorraine’s songwriting already. She makes the bulk of her living doing lyrics for films, cartoons, and the like. In The Jungle Book II, she co-wrote “Jungle Rhythm” and “W.I.L.D.” with Paul Grabowsky. In the upcoming Princess Diaries, Julie Andrews sings Lorraine’s “Your Crowning Glory.”
Such Sweet Thunder marks the third of three recent albums for Lorraine, the first two being Café Society and New York City Drag (lyrics to the songs of Fats Waller), albums that, she says, enabled her to make a “breakthrough into radio.” She works with the absolute tops of West Coast jazz players, guys who obviously have a ball playing Ellington tunes.
Lyricists of Lambert-Hendrix-Ross type tunes, with vocals based on riffs and jazz solos, often get themselves trapped into more or less nonsense stuff about “swingin'” and “the night that Bird played” and so forth. Not Lorraine. She has used the songs as jumping-off points for literate, witty, and often strikingly beautiful lyric flights. I longed for a lyric sheet, which the album does not have. Lines keep popping out at you, and I found myself writing frantically, trying to get the best of them.
From “Tenacity,” a wry reference to Carl Sagan: “Earth from Heaven is a pale blue dot.”
From “Lovely Creatures,” this bit of hard-won wisdom: “You can’t live off the tender beginnings of each love affair…You look inside and see there’s someone there.”
The Cole Porterish trope in “Antarctica”: “Used to call me your precious little cormorant. I’d erase your last message but find I can’t.”
From “Peaceful Kingdom,” arguably the most beautiful tune on the album:
“I saw the painting back when I was a child, as did we all, Lion and Lamb resting together in the shade of a tree, blissfully unaware of how life has to be, full of cruelty as well as the good.”
Lorraine has a clear lush voice best displayed, I think, on slower tunes like “Kingdom.” She can obviously handle the breakneck nimbleness required of uptempo jazz, but she’s no belter. The ballads on Such Sweet Thunder stand out, and I expect will get most of the radio play, especially “Kingdom,” with its gorgeous, spacey background vocals.
Lorraine gets up early these days in her northern California coastal home, which she shares with dogs and cats and her husband Tony Morales, the longtime drummer for the R & B group The Rippingtons. Tony has retired to “a real job,” as Lorraine says, afflicted with the stress injuries that plague drummers. And she works. Her own songs, she says, let her spin out her lyric ideas unfettered by the usual commercial constraints, which can be considerable:
“I was just doing a gig that involved being on a conference call with eight people at a time discussing songs for an animated film — what I could say for these characters, what I couldn’t say. So when I do my own projects, I like to give myself freedom to write about any old thing.”
Such Sweet Thunder makes me long for the old days of tube amps and the stereo I never got to assemble, so I could listen to this rich compilation of Ellingtonia and Feather from a warm LP. That’s fitting. Lorraine’s father’s oldest and best friend was Benny Carter, he knew the Duke well, and Lorraine’s godmother was Billie Holiday.
And she’s still carrying on.
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