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Vocalist/Lyricist Mark Winkler Teams With Pianist David Benoit For 'Old Friends'

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Bravos are in order for the new album 'Old Friends' by Mark Winkler and David Benoit. I think it is Mark Winkler's best, but I know it's my favorite. It could probably only have come out of a year of aching hearts and soul-searching. I find it very moving. Both Mark and David Benoit and the musicians were obviously feeling deeply during these tumultuous times. Beautiful work.
—James Gavin, Journalist and Biographer of Chet Baker, Peggy Lee, and Lena Horne
Singer, lyricist Mark Winkler and pianist, composer David Benoit have teamed up to record an album that pays homage to their 37 years of friendship. Old Friends is a collection of some of the artists’ favorites songs by some of their favorite composers, as well as three original tunes, newly rendered in an affable collaboration by two musicians at the top of their form.

Winkler and Benoit are seasoned artists in the music business. Winkler is a popular performer, lyricist, and recording artist. He has recorded more than 16 CDs, which consistently chart high on the JazzWeek radio chart. His lyrics have been covered over 200 times by such artists as Dianne Reeves, Randy Crawford, Liza Minnelli, Bob Dorough, Jackie Ryan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Lea DeLaria, Britain’s Claire Martin, and many more. He is also a producer who has worked on a host of albums for other vocalists.

Pianist, composer, and arranger Benoit has received multiple GRAMMY nominations. One of the founding fathers of contemporary jazz, he has recorded more than 35 projects as a leader, and has worked with many well-known musicians, including the Rippingtons, Emily Remler, Alphonse Mouzon, Dave Koz, Faith Hill, David Sanborn, CeCe Winans and Brian McKnight. Benoit also composes film scores, among them “The Stars Fell on Henrietta” (1995), produced by Clint Eastwood, and “The Christmas Tree” (1996), produced by Sally Field, voted Best Score of 1996 by Film Score Monthly. Benoit has a long association with Charlie Brown specials and the music of Vince Guaraldi, beginning with his hit recording of “Linus and Lucy” and continuing to his scoring and playing on multiple Charlie Brown specials.

It’s hard to say much good has come out of the pandemic, but this album probably would not have been made if life had been normal. Benoit had a tour scheduled for Japan in March. The tour was cancelled but his wife, Kei, who had flown to Japan before him to spend time with her mother, was unable to leave when the country went into lockdown. Alone at home, Benoit invited Winkler over for dinner, after which the two retired to the living room where Benoit started accompanying Winkler on the piano.

Halfway through “The Shadow of Your Smile,” Benoit suggested they make an album together. Benoit had played on a couple of early Winkler CDs and produced his 1987 album, Ebony Rain; however, they never really collaborated on a duo project. Their concept was to just pick songs and composers who were meaningful to them. Winkler relates, “We didn’t see each other for the first 3 months. We talked on the phone a lot, coming up with ideas for the album. After a while, I did go over to his house to practice once a week. It turns out, you can actually sing while wearing a mask. And it was easy to stay separated. He sat playing at one end of his 9-foot grand, and I stood singing at the other end.”

Los Angeles is rife with fine musicians, and Winkler brought some of the finest for this recording, including Gabe Davis on bass, Clayton Cameron on drums, Pat Kelley on guitar, Stefanie Fife on cello, and Kevin Winard on percussion. Each are mainstays on the Southern California music scene and have performed on dozens of albums. Winkler also asked producer Barbara Brighton to work on the recording. This is the 7th album of Winkler’s that she’s produced. As Winkler notes, “When we started working together, I used to argue with her constantly. But she really has my best interests at heart. She has great ears and great taste, and I’ve come to realize she’s almost always right.”

Three songs on Old Friends were written by Benoit and Winkler. Benoit asked Winkler to write the lyrics to “Dragonfly” for an album he did with Jane Monheit in 2015. “In a Quiet Place” was composed by Benoit with lyrics co-written by Winkler and Shelley Nyman. The tune was originally a popular instrumental by Benoit called “Kei’s Song,” which he wrote for his wife. “Thirty Years” is another Benoit composition with lyrics by Winkler and Heather Franks, who was Winkler’s private student in lyric writing. The song is dedicated to Christopher Loudon, the late jazz journalist who was a strong supporter of Winkler and mentor to Frank.

Winkler included “I’ve Got Just About Everything” because he is a big of fan of Bob Dorough and liked the hipster lyrics in the song. Winkler sings Dave Frishberg’s “Sweet Kentucky Ham” with gentle poignancy. “Better Than Anything” is a laundry list song to which Winkler added his own fun lyrics that mention some of his favorite musicians with whom he’s performed in Los Angeles.

Benoit loves Johnny Mandel’s music and brought “The Shadow of Your Smile” to the project. Winkler was friends with Richard Rodney Bennett, who wrote the lyrics to “I Wish I’d Met You,” and was excited to introduce the song. Benoit and Winkler do an intimate, duet version of “Two for the Road” by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse.

Benoit doubles on the Hammond B3 on “When This Love Affair is Over,” and Stefanie Fife’s sensitive cello playing is featured on the Paul Simon medley “Old Friends/Bookends,” “Dragonfly,” and “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” a song Winkler has loved since he first heard as a teenager. “I’ve known this song for so long, I really didn’t have to learn it for this record.” Benoit knew Leonard Bernstein and “Some Other Time,” the wistful tune from “On the Town,” about parting from someone close to you, was the perfect way to end the album.

Old Friends is imbued with warmth and camaraderie. Winkler, Benoit, and the rest of the band maintain a light, sensitive touch that has great emotional depth but is never overwrought. Benoit perhaps sums it up the best, “Working with Barbara Brighton and Mark was a highlight for me. I think this is Mark's best work. He is restrained and heartfelt. He never overdoes it, but always stays true to the melody, respecting the composer but adding his own imprimatur when needed. The song selections are fresh and original, and, I must say, I'm happy with the arrangements. Again. never too much, but elegant and tasteful. You can hear the communication with Mark and me, and it's superb. This is a result of a certain maturity that only comes with age and a willingness to put the time and effort into the project. This could be a happy result of Covid-19 giving us all the time we needed to make it right. And the results are self-evident.”

Old Friends will be available on CD Baby, Spotify, Amazon and iTunes on February 19, 2021 on Café Pacific Records.

This story appears courtesy of Mouthpiece Music.
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