Arif Mardin: In Conversation
Arif Mardin is
a mover and shaker in the music business, but at age 10,
he was the one being shook. �My father was manager of a
Turkish bank in Alexandria, Egypt,� Mardin said. �In
1942 we were there; Germans would bomb the city. We
would go down to the shelter, and at one point, famous
[Field] Marshal Rommel�s army was a few miles away � the
of El Alamein . I remember those vividly.�
Mardin survived and went on to work in New York for
Atlantic Records, enjoying one of the most illustrious
behind-the-scenes careers in the music business. He
helped to create such hits as Roberta Flack�s �Where Is
The Love,� Aretha Franklin�s �Respect,� Average White
Band�s �Pick Up The Pieces,� the Bee Gees� �Jive
Talkin�� and the Rent original-cast soundtrack,
among many others. He also has produced plenty of jazz,
including platters for Charles Lloyd, Eddie Harris,
Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Max Roach, Herbie Mann,
the Modern Jazz Quartet, Regina Carter and, most
recently, Dianne Reeves� A
Little Moonlight for Blue Note Records.
Also for Blue Note, Mardin in 2002 worked his magic
for an unknown singer and pianist from New York by way
of Texas. The result was Norah Jones� Come Away With
Me, which earned Mardin four Grammys, including for
Producer of the Year, bringing his collection to 11.
Currently Mardin is working on Jones� follow-up disc as
well as his memoirs, beginning with his birth in
Istanbul, Turkey, in 1932; through his years at Berklee
College of Music in Boston on the Quincy Jones
Scholarship; and detailing his storied career at
Atlantic, from 1963 to 2001. Today he works for EMI,
which owns Blue Note.
I spoke with Mardin by phone a few days after the
Northeast blackout, talking about the �lost� Norah Jones
album, the place of jazz in top-40 music and how a
hardcore jazz-snob got turned on to rock.
Jazz: You produced Norah Jones� Come Away with
Me. Did you expect Jones� breakthrough success in a
marketplace that seems more dominated by quick-hit teen
pop and hip hop?
Arif Mardin: No. We were so proud of the
album, and we went with the flow. We were hoping for
some modest sales, and then look out for the next album,
build the artist, but�this heartfelt music reached so
many people, especially after 9-11. Maybe we have
awakened sort of an untapped segment of the audience who
actually � rather than download � go to the store and
buy records. When I go to Norah Jones concerts, you have
10-, 12-year-old, young people to 80-year-old grandmas.
It�s just an incredible phenomenon.
AAJ: Was it your idea to have
[guitarist] Bill Frisell play on the disc?
AM: No. The story of the album is that Craig
Street, who produces Cassandra Wilson, produced the
album, and Bill Frisell was on some of the songs. When
Blue Note and Norah thought that the album was too
guitar-oriented, which went away from the original
demo-feel � more piano and straight-ahead vocal � they
asked me to re-record the whole thing, except that some
of the songs that Craig produced remained. Bill is
playing on one of them.
AAJ: What was the original conception
of the album; how did the two versions differ?
AM: The original demos were like the album
which is out now. It was sparse and piano-oriented. But
the album that was not used was a lot of guitars.
AAJ: So there�s a whole alternate guitar-album
out there somewhere?
AM: Right [laughs].
AAJ: Is that ever going to see light?
AM: I don�t think so.
AAJ: Do you consider Jones a jazz artist?
AM: Yes, especially in spirit. I mean �The
Nearness of You� is fantastic � a jazz ballad. She does
a Duke Ellington song, it will be in the [next] album,
called �Melancholia,� and she wrote the lyrics,
fantastic lyrics. She has the spirit also of a jazz
album-artist. She definitely is an improviser; I heard
her play Bach songs and things like that. She also is at
home with folk or countryish songs.
AAJ: Are you working on the new album with
AM: Yes, we have started [for Blue Note].
We�re going to [record] again in maybe a month or two.
also just produced a Dianne Reeves album.
AM: Yes, she has an incredible album. Her
rhythm section [is] Peter Martin on piano, Reuben Rogers
on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. Then we have
Romero Lubambo on guitar � Brazilian � on a few tracks
and Nicholas Payton playing trumpet on �You Go to My
Head,� just a fabulous duet with Dianne [and rhythm].
AAJ: It sounds like a great band.
AM: They play to enhance the music. They don�t
want to shine, themselves. The solos aren�t long. All
the music they played is to support and make songs
memorable. I�m known as an arranger and a producer who
loves to add stuff, more strings, more horns, and this
�less is more.� It�s fantastic.
AAJ: I understand people didn�t expect the
success of Norah Jones. Does that change the way you
hope to market Dianne Reeves? Do you think she could
have a similar breakthrough?
AM: I think this album is going to be very
successful. The singing is so direct. I think Dianne
definitely is wearing the crown of Sarah Vaughan. This
album is so fantastic; her every note, it makes sense.
With �Skylark� you feel like you�re up there with the
birds looking down into the meadows. A great version of
�Lullaby of Broadway� � everybody usually goes [uptempo,
but] this is about the sadness of chorus girls. She
sings it slowly; it�s so beautiful. I mean really,
really she outdid herself.
[At] the beginning of summer, she appeared at Alice
Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. My wife and I and [Blue
Note president] Bruce Lundvall, we all went to the
concert, and she was singing songs from the album. It
was so personal, we were kind of devastated, it was so
lovely and feeling.
AAJ: Norah Jones seems like a breath of fresh
air for a lot of listeners. What is the difference
between pop music and art, and where does jazz, from
Charles Lloyd and Sonny Stitt, both of whom you�ve
worked with, and Norah Jones and Dianne Reeves more
recently, fit in?
AM: I�m looking at the young people today
playing, dedicated musicians. Instead of going to
lucrative pop music or whatever, they play in small
clubs and they just play the music they love. I hope
there [is] more of an awakening of jazz with the people
because obviously the sales of jazz records aren�t as
big as pop records.
AAJ: It�s just a fraction of the industry
total. How can that market be improved, how can artists
be exposed to young people?
AM: Well, you have some examples [such as]
Diana Krall. Maybe great videos, some concerts�I don�t
AAJ: Some people feel worried that jazz is
headed toward a nostalgic, kind of museum-piece future.
AM: You have a point there, but when an artist
[such as] Dianne interprets songs, and you get into the
lyrics, it�s back to incredible, Billie Holiday time, or
even � she was not a jazz singer, but � Edith Piaf. You
get into the meat of the song, and she�s acting out the
persona. I worked with Bette Midler for many years, and
I learned her craft, her art, that she becomes the
person. When she would do a vocal, she would think,
�Shall I be that person, shall I be this person?� Then
she would latch on to the persona of what the songwriter
is trying to say. Dianne is doing that.
|I was totally 'jazz.' I shunned all kinds of rock or pop music. When they paired me�with The Young Rascals...the first record we made became number one, so I said, 'Maybe I should concentrate on this.|
Also I think it�s a matter of education. Today young
pop-music and hip-hop have very little to do with jazz.
The basis of jazz is improvisation and freedom. If the
musician is a mediocre jazz artist and the solos go on
and on and on, you bore the people. But if you have a
stellar instrumentalist, and he gives you an incredible
solo, it will touch hearts. You see, we have to really
lift the level of musicianship a little bit.
AAJ: Speaking of great musicians, you worked
on Charles Lloyd�s Dreamweaver in 1966, with
Cecil McBee, Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett. That was
a pretty �New Thing,� Coltrane-style kind of record.
With Jones and Reeves, they play more conventional,
verse-chorus-verse songs and standards. Do you follow
the avant-garde versus neo-classical controversy among
AM: No, but at the same time, I�ll give you an
example: The �Skylark� arrangement for Dianne Reeves.
It�s a departure from the original chord changes, but at
the same time, the feeling is there and the melody is
always supported by new harmonies � but it�s not
distracting. It is slightly avant-garde, but at the same
time, it�s beautiful. Sometimes you will have ultra-,
ultra-different chords piled upon each other, and, if
the object is to be totally avant-garde and�devoid of
melody, well maybe that�s sort of a Stravinsky-like
approach. But if you�re playing a song, you have to also
be a little true to the original melody.
worked with Ofra Haza [on 1989�s Desert Wind ].
AM: Yes. She�s Israeli, but she came from
Yemenite Israeli, so she spoke Arabic too. Wonderful
woman. She brought in some kind of desert tradition.
AAJ: Do you listen to a lot of world-fusion
AM: A little bit, not too much. When I travel
to Istanbul, because I have an apartment there � I come
from Turkey originally � you turn on the radio and you
hear a lot of interesting ethnic music.
Some of your work, such as �Good Lovin�,� Aretha
Franklin�s �Respect� [from Franklin�s 1967 album, I
Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, on which
Mardin worked as arranger] and Average White Band�s
Cut the Cake, is considered classic. Other
albums, such as your work with Hall & Oates, Culture
Club or Phil Collins � people don�t accord them the same
kind of time-tested character. How do you assess the
fickle trends in top-40 music?
AM: Well�I think the strength of the song is
more important. I don�t know if that is a factor. Today
it is more like a handsome, young man or a very pretty,
sexy, young lady dancing well and relying on videos and
effects. Some of them, their voices may be pretty, but
they are out of tune in many places, and they are being
corrected by computer software. That�s what we call
today�s pop music. It�s really not an advancement at
all. Top 40 of the �60s and �70s and �80s were totally
different. [But] I�m not a person who says, �Those were
the good, ol� days,� because in the �70s, �80s I used to
use synthesizers. Today a lot of people say, �Let�s
record analog.� Fine, if the artist is really keen about
that, fine, but give me Pro Tools anytime, because it
makes my life easier. The conversions,
analog-to-digital, are so much better now, that digital
sounds very sweet. I remember in 1987 or �90, I was
recording with the Bee Gees, and we had one of the first
digital multi-tracks, and the sound was terrible, very
brittle. It�s not like that today.
AAJ: You worked with the Bee Gees in the �70s
also, you did �Jive Talkin�,� which was a huge, smash
AM: Right, but that was kind of
state-of-the-art technology too.
AAJ: Some people worry that was the end of the
artist-driven music market and the beginning of the
producer-driven scene. Then the �80s came along, and it
was sort of a dark age for pop music, with payola in the
AAJ: �and overproduced, out-of-touch music,
whereas jazz-rock and punk rock were pushed underground.
the and �80s I was very happy to work with Chaka Khan
for example. We made great records. [Mardin produced
1979�s Chaka Khan, featuring �I�m Every Woman,�
and 1984�s I Feel for You.] Again that was sort
of a state-of-the-art fusion of rap and synthesizers.
But the drummer was playing drums!
AAJ: That�s real, organic drumming and not a
AM: Excuse me, that was a drum machine. I will
a speech in October at the AES [Audio Engineering
Society] Convention, and it is about, will technology
replace the artist? I�m going to say that technology is
great, you can�t stop it, because people will invent new
devices, new machines all the time. It is, in whose
hands the technology will be, because you can use the
technology to great advantage, or you can manufacture an
artist, a singer from nothing. Those are the points that
you have to weigh.
AAJ: Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but is
Norah Jones a kind of penance for Boy George?
AM: Whoa. What did I do with Boy George?
AAJ: Some people would think he�s sort of one
of those produced artists who isn�t relevant today.
AM: No, no, totally wrong. Boy George belongs
to the punk generation. I remember, when we were doing
vocals, he did one vocal, right? I said, �Can I have
another one?� Because I would like to take maybe a good
verse from another take. He said, �Why?� I said, �For
insurance.� [He said,] �You think I�m going to die?� He
refused to give me another vocal. So whatever he sang,
it was one take. He definitely was not a manufactured
AAJ: You�re working on your memoirs?
AM: I am. It�s a little slow, but I have four
chapters finished and maybe [three more] chapters
outlined. It�s slow: correcting, looking at my old
scrapbooks, putting photographs together and things like
AAJ: Can you give us a taste of what you�ll
AM: It will be nothing but music and anecdotes
and jokes. I don�t know artists� sex lives; I�m not
involved with what they do after the studio. There will
be no tabloid kind of thing. It�s going to be music
history, who played what; also my early life in Turkey,
how I was brought up, and early jazz activities.
AAJ: What would be your most memorable moment
in the studio? Whom do you remember best, working with?
AM: There are so many great moments.
Definitely with �I�m Every Woman,� we had a feeling that
this is going to be great. Of course any session with
Aretha Franklin, I would go home and tell my wife: �You
weren�t there. She sang incredible stuff.�
AAJ: Do you have any plans to work with her or
any other of those artists again?
AM: Usually it happens. We always talk to each
other on the phone. Being a producer my relationship
with artists, it�s always like family. [Aretha] picks up
the phone and asks advice, this and that. We did work
much later, when she was with Arista. So if she calls
me, I�ll work [laughs].
AAJ: Speaking of family, you have a son and a
AM: Yes, Joe and Julie. Joe is a
producer-arranger-orchestrator, and he�s working on
many, many projects. Julie is an avant-garde artist; she
creates imagery�she used to do it in the dark room, now
she�s scanning stuff. She creates visual art, usually
it�s about toys that promote war or violence against
women and children. She�s a very driven, young lady.
My wife [Latife] also writes novels. She�s been in
top-10 in Turkey. They�re all historical novels, 19th
century. She writes in English, and it�s translated back
into Turkish. She has a very interesting system.
AAJ: You did Smokey Joe�s Caf� [in 1995
with the original Broadway cast]. That was a
AM: Yes. It was their life�s work actually,
and it was a musical review on Broadway. We all got a
Grammy for that.
AAJ: I heard the song [�Smokey Joe�s Caf�] by
the Robins, who became the Coasters, in a Brendan Fraser
movie set in the �50s, and I thought it was really
catchy, and I got the album and realized almost all
their songs were by Lieber and Stoller.
AM: Yes. The Coasters were fantastic. That�s
just a few years before my time, before I joined
Atlantic Records. Coasters were probably recorded �58. I
was in Berklee College of Music at that time, and joined
Atlantic in �63.
AAJ: So you heard it on the radio, but you
weren�t working with�?
AM: I never listened to that kind of music; I
was totally �jazz.� I shunned all kinds of rock or pop
AAJ: So how did you open up your ears to other
I was hired by [A&R chief at] Atlantic Nesuhi
Ertegun, a true jazz fan and a great guy, I was working
in the studio as an assistant, and really watching him
produce jazz records � MJQ, Herbie Mann. When they
paired me and Tom Dowd, a great engineer and my mentor,
with The Young Rascals, I was a novice. The first record
we made became number one, so I said, �Maybe I should
concentrate on this.� So that was like,
jazz-to-back-burner a little bit, but not too much,
because I still worked with jazz artists at that time.
AAJ: Eddie Harris had huge hits in the �60s
[Mardin produced The Electrifying Eddie Harris
with its hit single �Listen Here� in 1967], and Charles
Lloyd played at the Fillmore Auditorium [when the club
was dominated by psychedelic-rock acts], Laura Nyro
played on a bill with Miles Davis�
AM: Yeah, I worked with her.
AAJ: �so that was maybe just a time when
promoters put together more colorful bills.
AM: This gives me a good idea, that we should
really pursue that.
Arif Mardin Portrait by
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