Monday, November 8, 2010

The making of a radio show, part 2: In the studio with Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson

More in this series: Part 1 (Nancy Harms), Part 3 (Debbie Duncan)

Clockwise from top: Arne Fogel, Maud Hixson, Rick Carlson, hamming it up
Maud Hixson is not happy with her latest take of “Laura.” She makes that abundantly clear with words never heard in a Johnny Mercer song.

It’s one of several funny moments during this afternoon’s session at Wild Sound studio. Recording is hard work but there’s an easy, relaxed feel to this group: vocalist Hixson and her husband, Rick Carlson, on piano, Wild Sound’s Matthew Zimmerman at the board, singer/radio show host Arne Fogel calling the shots.

Matthew Zimmerman
This is the second set of recordings for Fogel’s new series for KBEM on the Great American Songbook, tentatively titled Minnesota Voices: Certain Standards. The show will run for 13 consecutive weeks, 5 days/week, a total of 65 segments. That’s a lot of radio shows—three months’ worth. 

Each segment will be 3 minutes 30 seconds long, which may not seem like much time but it’s forever, until suddenly you're out of time. Each segment will include an intro and outro, Fogel’s comments (about the song, the songwriters, the history, the context), and the song itself, which means that each song can last no longer than about 2 minutes, or 2 minutes 20 seconds at the absolute outside.

I wonder how this will work with Maud, who approaches every phrase as if she has all the time in the world.

These are the songs we hear in today’s session:

“I See Your Face Before Me”
“I Fall in Love Too Easily”
“All My Tomorrows”
“For All We Know”
“I Wanna Be Around”

I’ve heard Maud sing several times, and I always feel as if she’s whispering in my ear, sharing secrets. There’s a profound intimacy to her style and interpretation. Also a delicious coolness. Think Chet Baker in a dress. Rick is known as a singer’s pianist. He’s tuned in and receptive, a true partner in making the music, simultaneously weaving a safety net and expressing his own complex and lyrical ideas. Both are students of this music and experts at performing it.

Rick Carlson
Most of today's songs are on the languorous side. Both Maud and Rick are fighting colds, but there’s no sign of that in the takes Fogel ultimately chooses for the program. For “All My Tomorrows,” take 1 is too long. Fogel calls for take 2 and suggests, "More salooney." Take 3 is magical. Throughout the session, he listens, then asks for more of this, less of that—time, tone, legato, rubato, attack, mood. Zimmerman works his juju at the board, at one point patching in a four-word phrase Fogel has asked Maud to sing several times. It's like the final jewel in a Patek Philippe.

The last song of the day, “I Wanna Be Around,” includes some devilish intervals. Maud, the purist, sings the original chart. I thought I knew that song, but the chart seems different. As it happens, the version I know (and most people know) is Tony Bennett's Top 40 hit from the 1960s. Backed by strings and tinkling piano, it swings hard. Maud has Frank Sinatra's version in her head, and a cold, and those intervals waiting to trip her up, plus this is the final recording in a grueling session already running overtime. She nails it. Revenge is sweet.

Fogel reminds us of the song's history, a story he’ll likely share in the radio show. It’s credited to Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt. Who’s Sadie Vimmerstedt? A woman in Youngstown, Ohio, who once wrote Mercer a letter suggesting he write a song called "When Somebody Breaks Your Heart" and including this idea: "I want to be around to pick up the pieces." Mercer wrote the song, then shared the credit and royalties 50/50 with Vimmerstedt, making her a wealthy woman.  

Why is each program 3 minutes 30 seconds long? Fogel explains that they modeled the series on The Engines of Our Ingenuity, a technology and culture radio program produced by KUHF-FM in Houston that also airs on KBEM. It’s a good length. Not too short, not too long, enough to stop, listen, and learn something.
Arne Fogel, Maud Hixson
Next up: Debbie Duncan and Tanner Taylor.

Photos by John Whiting.

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