Mardin Magic: A Tribute to Producer Arif Mardin
Christopher Loudon on All My Friends Are Here, a tribute to the late Arif Mardin
Unintentionally of course, Arif Mardin crafted his own eulogy. Naturally, given Mardinâ€™s stature as arguably the most accomplished arranger/producer of the past half-century â€” the genius responsible for everything from Dusty Springfieldâ€™s landmark Dusty In Memphis to Barry Gibbâ€™s career-altering falsetto, the stratospheric launch of the Average White Band and the equally meteoritic blast-off of Norah Jones â€” it is shaped of music. Mardin aptly referred to what would ultimately become All My Friends Are Here (NuNoise Records) as his â€œlifeâ€™s work.â€ Begun in 2005 and completed by his son and co-producer Joe after Mardinâ€™s death, in June 2006 at age 74 of pancreatic cancer, it is an incomparably rich, atmospheric celebration of all aspects of the 12-time Grammy winnerâ€™s vibrant life and career. Indeed, it is not too early to cite All My Friends Are Here as a prime contender for album of the year honors.
Mardin wrote or co-wrote all but one of the albumâ€™s 13 tracks. Some, like the exquisitely romantic â€œLonging for Youâ€ (written when Mardin was 23 as a ode to his then fiancÃ©e Latife) date back decades. Others are brand new. To perform this heady potpourri of songs, father and son assembled more than a dozen of the artists whose careers Mardin launched and molded, including Bette Midler, Norah Jones, Raul MidÃ³n, Barry Gibb, Chaka Khan, Danny Oâ€™Keefe, the Average White Band, Daryl Hall and Felix Cavaliere.
All My Friends Are Here opens with the albumâ€™s only non-Mardin composition. Co-written by Bette Midler and Marc Shaiman, â€œThe Greatest Ears In Townâ€ is a rousingly upbeat, biographical number performed by Midler, with a little backing assistance from Barry Gibb. Done in a style best described as â€˜Istanbul swing,â€™ it traces Mardinâ€™s Turkish roots, his arrival in New York in the late 1950s, his lifelong passion for jazz (and martinis, or â€œmardinis,â€ as he called the potent concoctions that were his specialty) and his emergence as a hit- and star-making mastermind at Atlantic Records and, briefly, for EMI. The tempo slows for the misty â€œSo Blue,â€ the first track recorded for the album, featuring Chaka Khan and David Sanborn. Mardin did not live long enough to hear Nicki Parrot record the slyly seductive, Lee Wiley-esque â€œNo Way Out,â€ accompanying herself on bass, but he did leave detailed instructions for the slinky, noirish arrangement.
Though Mardin worked with dozens of artists, he personally signed only one, Raul MidÃ³n. The blind vocalists/guitaristâ€™s acclaimed 2005 album, State of Mind, was one of Mardinâ€™s final projects prior to All My Friends Are Here. Here, MidÃ³n delivers a haunting reading of Mardinâ€™s shimmering â€œGoodbye to Rio.â€ Two years prior to his discovery of MidÃ³n, Mardin did a brilliant job of placing Dianne Reeves in gorgeously minimalist acoustic settings for the petal-soft A Little Moonlight. He takes a similarly tender approach with Reevesâ€™ cloudily melancholy â€œNo One.â€
Mardinâ€™s swirling â€œSo Many Nights,â€ bordering on madness with its sinister Phantom of the Opera overtones and sly references to David Raksinâ€™s â€œLauraâ€ and Bernard Hermannâ€™s â€œJennieâ€™s Theme,â€ serves as an inspired showcase for Danny Oâ€™Keefe intoxicatingly chafed rasp. â€œSo Many Nightsâ€ provides an ideal introduction to All My Friendsâ€™ most striking cut, â€œCalls a Soft Voice.â€ Also the albumâ€™s most deeply personal track, it examines the fogged condition of Mardinâ€™s mother during her final years. Carly Simonâ€™s performance, caught in the restless state between dream and nightmare, is nothing short of magnificent.
Norah Jones, in the estimable company of Joe Lovano and Jon Faddis, delivers a finely mellow â€œLonging for Youâ€ that is equal parts wistful pining and wishful fantasizing. Amy Kohn, whom Mardin dubbed â€œmusical devil in a red dress,â€ lives up to her soubriquet with a brilliantly murky one-woman play set to the tune of â€œDual Blues,â€ complete with femmes fatale and vice cops. Dr. John, whom Mardin befriended in the 1970s, is in exceptional form, growling his way through the angularly atonal â€œChez Twangâ€™s,â€ a dazzling, shake-off-the-funeral-rags salute to New Orleans. Saturday Night Live music director Katreese Barnes leads a loping, sensuous â€œLonestar Blues,â€ featuring Mardin on piano and built around an astounding, down â€™nâ€™ dirty Willie Nelson guitar solo.
Finally, Hall and Oates, Barry and Robin Gibb, Felix Cavaliere, Phil Collins, Donny Hathawayâ€™s daughter Lalah, Cissy Houston, Randy Brecker and members of the AWB unite for a chanting treatment of the celebratory title tune. But one track remains. It is Mardin, alone at the piano just two months before his demise, making the most graceful and understatedly profound of exits, tiptoeing out to the gentle, somber yet sweet strains of â€œWistful.â€
Joe Mardin has also produced a companion DVD entitled The Greatest Ears In Town. Tracing Mardinâ€™s life from his aristocratic youth in Istanbul to his career-capping success with Norah Jones, it interweaves home movies, vintage performance video and reminiscences from Atlantic Recordsâ€™ cofounder Ahmet Ertegun, Aretha Franklin, Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Daryl Hall, Carly Simon, Dianne Reeves, Marc Shaiman, Jones and at least a dozen other luminaries with track-by-track footage of the recording of All My Friends Are Here. The documentary has already earned accolades at film festivals around the globe and Joe Mardin is currently seeking a DVD distributor. Hereâ€™s hoping he locates one soon. For glorious as the album is â€” and it truly is the masterâ€™s masterpiece â€” it is that much more magical when paired with the film.