'Tis the Season : Outside It's Hardly a Winter Wonderland, but Inside the Studio . . .


It's the end of July, and the spirit of Christmas is nowhere to be found amid the heat of summer. Or is it?

Christmas in July may sound like a department store fantasy, but it's a very real event in the recording studios of Los Angeles, when performers and musicians take up the unusual task of creating the sounds that will ring throughout the months of November and December.

And on a hot afternoon at the Capitol Records building in Hollywood, the essence of the season is very much in the air as noted orchestrator Johnny Mandel conducts the performance of a tune for "Let's Share Christmas," a new holiday recording by jazz singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli, scheduled for release Oct. 1.

The musicians, casually dressed in cool summer garb of jeans, T-shirts and other lightweight clothing, situate themselves for the recording, tuning their strings, warming up their horns, chatting amiably with one another. But there's not much in the conversation or the studio to indicate the seasonal nature of the date.

RCA staff producer Ron Fair smiles when asked if the atmosphere is appropriate for the creation of holiday music.

"I sure hope so," he says. "I guess I could have had them hang some tinsel or something, but the only thing I ever bring to my sessions is my favorite picture of Elvis," he says, pointing toward a small snapshot of Elvis Presley placed on top of the studio console.

Bassist John Clayton, who also provided an arrangement of "White Christmas" for the album, takes a somewhat more dispassionate view. "Well, you know how it is with musicians who work the studios," he says. "If it's July, they know it's Christmastime."

A few days earlier, "A Hollywood Christmas," a Varese Sarabande album featuring Charles Nelson Reilly, Karen Morrow and Linda Purl among others, also got underway, one of a string of similar sessions taking place around town (as well as in New York and Nashville), as the record business begins to prepare its holiday releases.

The rush of activity reflects a growing awareness in the music industry of the importance of the seasonal record market. Mike Fine of Soundscan says the top 50 holiday albums last year sold 11.5 million copies in the seven weeks between Nov. 1 and Christmas, with the No. 1 and No. 2 albums, by Mannheim Steamroller and Kenny G, each selling nearly 2 million units.

Further underscoring the commercial viability of seasonal recordings, the last album on the Soundscan chart sold 73,000 copies, which is far better than some alternative releases do in an entire year.

As the Pizzarelli session gets underway, composer-arranger Mandel, whose substantial catalog of accomplishments includes ballads like "The Shadow of Your Smile" and "Emily," a classic jazz film score for "I Want to Live" and the memorable theme for the movie "MASH," stands at the podium. A compact, dark-haired man with intense eyes and a thoughtful demeanor, Mandel, 70, looks two decades younger than his age.

Positioned between two interconnected studio chambers, he faces an orchestra of 52 players, with a large string ensemble on his left and an array of trumpet, trombone and woodwind players on his right. Around the periphery of the room, drums, percussion and string bass players perform in separate glass-walled cubicles that allow the audio engineers to keep the sound separate from the full ensemble.

Although Mandel never raises his voice, there is no question about who is in charge of the recording session.

"What I'd like to do right now," he says to his players, "is rehearse the section starting at letter B. OK? Here we go."

Mandel counts off four beats and the music starts, only to come to a quick halt as he lowers his hands.

"I'll tell you what," he says. "We're going to take it a hair under that tempo. It's got to be a little bit slower."

Another downbeat and the strings begin to play a sequence of rich harmonies, as Ray Kennedy's piano adds delicately sprinkled ornamental notes. The song is Frank Loesser's sentimental classic "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

Isolated in a soundproof vocal booth in another part of the studio, Pizzarelli, the star of the album, sings the opening lines of the song. A rising jazz guitarist before he emerged as a singer, he blends a sweetly youthful Harry Connick Jr.-like sound with smooth, rhythm-based phrasing inspired by Nat King Cole.

The "Let's Share Christmas" recording is a potential career breakthrough album for Pizzarelli, whose previous recordings have had neither the high budget nor the rising expectations associated with this outing.

"We're doing this like a real old-fashioned record date," explains Fair, the RCA staff producer. "Of course, in the old days it didn't cost an arm and a leg to cut a record like this. Now, it's like $313.89 per man, and this is our 18th session. But holiday albums have become big sellers, and we're obviously expecting the record to sell every Christmas, forever."

At the moment, however, Pizzarelli is less concerned with sales projections than he is with the lush sounds of Mandel's orchestration.

"The charts we've got are so wonderful that all you want to do is just sing and let the music envelop you," Pizzarelli says. "And why not? We've got arrangements from Michel Legrand, Pat Williams, Ralph Burns, Clare Fischer, Don Sebesky--and, of course, from the king here, Mr. Mandel."

Meanwhile, Mandel is having some problems with his orchestration.

"What did I hear in the strings there that I shouldn't have?" he asks, bringing the music to a halt. A discussion with the string section follows, resolved finally by changing notes from a B-flat to a B-natural in one of the violin parts.

"All right," Mandel says, "I think that does it. Let's try one." He looks toward the control room, adding, "How're we doing in there? All set?"

Positioned behind a console big enough to run the Starship Enterprise, engineer Mike Ross punches his intercom button and says, "In a sec, John." Seated in a wheeled chair, he scoots from one end of the console to the other, pushing sliders and punching buttons to set up the 42 tracks of music that will be recorded simultaneously.

A moment later, the big tape machines come up to speed and Ross advises Mandel, "We're rolling."

As the first take begins, Fair sits in the rear of the control room, listening intently.

"You plan it all ahead of time," he says. "You get the arrangers, bring in all the musicians and put all the music in front of them. And then you wait to see what you've got. It's a very different process from the pop records I usually work on, where you're changing things all the time and taking months to do it. I mean, I just don't see myself going out there to tell Johnny Mandel he's got to change something."

Given the lovely sound of Mandel's harmonies and the perfect setting they provide for Pizzarelli's voice, it's unlikely anyone would want to change anything with the orchestration. The first take, however, doesn't quite get it. Pizzarelli hears some distortion and someone else suggests that a flute passage needs better definition. Mandel is the voice of reason: "Don't worry. We'll get it."

A second take of the tune is much better. Mandel moves into the control room for a closer listen, followed by as many musicians as can squeeze through the door. He grabs a pencil and sits behind the console, watching his score carefully, occasionally circling sections in the music. "That's pretty damn good," he says as the music comes to a close.

"So what do we do, John?" Ross asks.

"I'll tell you what," Mandel says after a moment's thought. "We still have an hour with the musicians. So we'll just do another one to see if we can beat it. And if we can't do any better, we'll call it a day."

What, exactly, does Mandel feel it would take to "beat" the version of the orchestration that's already recorded?

"I can't think of any one thing," he says, "because there's nothing here that I can find fault with. Once you've got all the notes and you've got the musicians in the room, then it's purely a matter of feeling. And that's a quality that is very elusive. It's at the point now where I can't tell anybody what to do anymore. It's just a question of capturing the magic."

Back in the studio, Mandel calls his musicians to attention, raises his hands and says, "OK. Let's do it."

The take goes smoothly, a bit slower than the previous one, but with a flow that seems to wrap the instrumental timbres around the rhythm in a deep, enveloping embrace of sound. When it concludes, several of the musicians nod approval.

Mandel walks into the control room for the playback. He listens intently until, about halfway through, he looks up, nods and says, "That's it. That's what I was talking about. It's got the magic. I can't define exactly what it is, but it's got it."

And who knows? Maybe, in the summer heat of Southern California, the magic that finally turned up was simply the spirit of Christmas, busily darting from record session to record session.

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