In my report on the Johnny Mandel concert at the Jazz West Coast 3 festival last fall, I remarked on the exquisite performance by Pinky Winters of one of Mandel’s songs.
Ms. Winters sang Dave Frishberg’s lyrics to Mandel’s “You Are There,” accompanied by only the composer at the piano. Together, without embellishment, they created magic, something at which this masterly singer has excelled for many years to recognition that comes nowhere near her level of artistry.
At JWC3, I learned from Ms. Winters and her producer, Bill Reed, that she had recorded an entire album of Mandel songs with the great pianist Lou Levy, her companion in music and life who died in 2001. In 1983, they performed in the Great American Songwriters series at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. Until this spring, the recording of their Mandel concert was squirreled away on a reel of tape. The good news for those who relish singing that serves the song is that the recital has emerged on an imported compact disc. Slightly less good is the news that The Shadow of Your Smile: Pinky Winters Sings Johnny Mandel…with Lou Levy, produced by the Sinatra Society of Japan, sells for nearly forty dollars. If I had not received a review copy, I would have paid the forty bucks. Singing of this quality is worth it.
Why? Maybe the key lies in that phrase from the October Rifftides review: “without embellishment.” Pinky Winters does not scat, swoop, or indulge in any form of “jazz singer” posturing. I have no doubt, given her innate musicianship, that she could embellish up a storm, but—like the man who knows how to play the accordion in Mark Twain’s definition of a gentleman—she chooses not to. She merely sings the song, with impeccable diction, interpretation, time and phrasing, and with intonation that is centered in the heart of each note. Strike “merely;” there’s nothing mere about her kind of artistry. The great bassist Red Mitchell once wrote a song called “Simple Isn’t Easy.” He might have had Pinky Winters in mind.
In her two minutes with Mandel’s “You Are There” (lyric by Dave Frishberg), she presents the song as a chapter in a life story. Through her subtle phrasing, “it’s morning,” makes us feel the freshness of morning. She sings “pretend the dream is true” with the softest diminuendo on the word “dream,” and we’re dreaming. At a dynamic level of double piano, she makes the piece a soliloquy. She works the same magic with Peggy Lee’s lyrics to Mandel’s “The Shining Sea,” with “Cinnamon and Clove,” with “Emily,” indeed, with all ten of the songs she caresses here. It’s no wonder that in his back-cover endorsement Mandel says, “I’m proud to say that many fine singers have recorded my songs, but none of them made me as happy as what you’re about to hear on this record.”
Levy’s accompaniment is half the story of the album’s success. One of the finest of the generation of bebop pianists who followed Bud Powell, he was a member of Woody Herman’s Second Herd and of Chubby Jackson’s big band. He went on to solo with power and imagination through a career that brought him together with a high percentage of the top jazz artists of the second half of the twentieth century. He worked often with Stan Getz, his pal from the Herman days. Levy’s sixth sense about what singers need made him a favorite accompanist of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson and, of course, Pinky Winters—the royalty of vocalists in the second half of the twentieth century. Levy once said, “I’ve played for every singer except Pavarotti.” That’s a tough break for Pavarotti.
In addition to the pieces with Winters, Levy plays “Theme from M*A*S*H,” “El Cajon” and “A Time For Love” as piano features, aided by the late bassist Bill Takas, who also assists on the vocal tracks. The intimate quality of the recording captures all of Levy’s full-bodied harmonies. The album ends with a 1991 recording of Ms. Winters singing “Take Me Home,” Mandel accompanying her in what is described as a demo track. Some demo. Some album.
Ruth Olay says
I want to add my comments about Pinky Winters who I think is one of the very best singers around. She is one of the few who really sings the lyrics, and I love her vocal quality.
I’ve known Pinky for a number of years and am so proud of her finally getting recognition – or I should say even more recognition. She deserves it all ~!