BWW Interview: Jeff Blumenkrantz Discusses Upcoming Jazz Album Featuring Alysha Umphress!
Composer, arranger, and performer Jeff Blumenkrantz, who was nominated for a Tony Award for his work on URBAN COWBOY, is preparing for the release of his latest album: I'VE BEEN PLAYED: ALYSHA UMPHRESS SWINGS JEFF BLUMENKRANTZ. Alysha Umphress, currently starring in the acclaimed Broadway revival of ON THE TOWN as Hildy, is featured in vocals on the album, which is a compilation of classic jazz standards arranged by Blumenkrantz, as well as some of his original music.
Blumenkrantz took the time to chat with BroadwayWorld about the album and its Birdland release party in early January, as well as the many aspects of his career. Read the full interview below!
What inspired you to do this project with Alysha specifically?
I've been friends and collaborators with Alysha for so long. I guess it was always in my head to do a recording with her because I just think she's so gifted. And you know, she's sung in my concerts for year. There's been a history of her singing my songs. But I think it was having seen her in ON THE TOWN at Barrington Stage. So when they announced the Broadway production, I thought, people are going to hear her sing those jazzy songs, and people should be able to go to iTunes and buy a jazz album of hers. And I thought, I want to be the person who makes it. So it was really inspired by her performance.
That was two summers ago. I had this idea very late in the game. It was this past summer that I thought, oh my God, we need to do this! And she had just finished BEACHES at Signature in Virginia, and she was getting ready to go into rehearsals. And I asked her, can you do this? Can you manage this? And she was like, I can do this. So we just slammed it together. It's amazing how well and quickly it happened.
Did Alysha's rehearsal schedule with ON THE TOWN make it difficult to put the album together?
It just created a very small window of availability. There were also other players involved. I really wanted to use the pianist Tedd Firth. And their schedules only overlapped in a tiny window. That really dictated when this got recorded. We actually recorded the album when she was in rehearsals. It was like, the week before they went into the theatre. And Alysha came down to the studio each night after rehearsal to come down and sing.
That's amazing that she had the stamina to do that.
You know, I cannot believe what she did. I have hours and hours of her stellar singing recorded. And I listen to it, and I just think, wow...and it just keeps coming. She's great.
You said you've been collaborating with Alysha for years. Do you remember the first time you worked with her?
Of course. We met doing this thing called the Raw Impression Musical Theatre Festival. And I was there as a writer and she was there as a performer. They assemble everybody in the same room...by the way, this is a festival where the theme is to write short musicals very quickly. All of the actors have to get up and sing for the writers. When I walked in the room, I saw Alysha right away, and I didn't know her, and she just looked really scary to me. It was winter, and she was wearing these really crazy, big scary boots...she had on lots of eye makeup. I just thought, "Ugh...I can't work with her." It was just like a first impression. I just didn't want to work with her.
So we were going to watch them perform, and then they were going to divvy up the actors among the writers. And so I knew I didn't want her...and then, she got up and sang, believe it or not, "Taylor the Latte Boy," and I became obsessed. And then I started saying, I have to get her...I have to get her. And I did! They randomly assigned me to her, and my collaborator and I wrote this whole musical around her interpretation of "Taylor the Latte Boy" because it was so amazing. So, that was the beginning of it. And then we became instant friends, and I asked her to do every concert I've ever done.
What has it been like working with Alysha, especially given that it's her debut solo studio recording?
Well, just for the record, she has another recording, which is a live concert that she recorded. But it's funny, she said something to me recently...she said that in the studio I made more specific requests than she was used to getting. You know, she's done a fair amount of recordings. She sung several songs for BRING IT ON, and various things that she'd just pop in for a song. But when I was thinking about this CD as a whole, I had very specific ideas and my own aesthetic and ways I like to hear jazz songs and ways I like to hear my songs. So I was a little...I don't want to say bossy, but I was a little specific. I would ask her to simplify this, or take more time to do this, and take less time to do that, you know, the same way I was with the musicians. But she was incredibly prepared and she couldn't have sounded better. I was pinching myself the whole time.
Did you work together to choose the track list?
I basically went through my whole catalogue. I narrowed down, which are the songs of mine that could be made into a jazz style or that are naturally jazzy. And then from that list, Alysha would say, you know, I definitely want to sing this, or I definitely don't want to sing that. So we whittled it down, and then from that, there were a few arrangements that I've written...some of which Alysha has already sung in concert, and some of which were written specifically for this album. And I just thought, we need to record this because we love singing it so much.
Do you have a favorite track on the album?
Every day it's different. I have a few favorites. My favorite track that I wrote is Two Cents. And my favorite track that's a song that I didn't write is I Don't Need Anything But You, which is that song from ANNIE. I wrote that arrangement. When we decided we were going to make this album, I was like, I want to sing that song with Alysha. So I wrote it specifically for this album, and I just love the way it came out. And I wrote Two Cents for the web series Submissions Only. Alysha's singing it more like a fifties songs. I feel like it's a great match of style, material, and performance.
Tell me about the release party you're having for the album in January.
We're going to perform the whole album, which is going to be amazing, to hear her sing for an hour straight. I sing on four tracks so I'll pop up for those duets. But really, it's all the musicians who recorded the album, and they are ridiculous. And we're just kind of celebrating this thing. The funny thing is that we all got together in August to make this, and I've been alone with it ever since, and now we reunite. So it's very exciting for me to get to hear it played live. And also there's the pianist Tedd, and I just call everything he plays a Tedd special because he never plays it the same way twice. It was interesting to pick just one of the Tedd versions to put on the album, and it'll be exciting to see which of the Tedd specials we'll get at the live concert. And Alysha is also a wild card, in an exciting way. So I just can't wait for the live interpretation of the album, and then to know that the next day the album will be released unto the world. [laughs]
Do you have a preference between composing and arranging?
They're such different halves I couldn't even compare them. For me as a songwriter, I spend a lot of time working on the lyrics. And then the music is just the icing on top. And doing the arrangement is just sort of all icing. It's just all style and all fun. It's just sort of taking my composing hat and expanding it. I do love these arrangements though, especially the Annie song, and then there's a Rogers and Hammerstein duet, which I wrote for myself to sing with Victoria Clark probably fifteen years ago. And now it's Alysha's. Alysha owns it. I had to steal it back from Victoria because Alysha has just put her stamp on it. Those are two of my favorite arrangements I've ever written.
In addition to being a composer, you're also a performer. Do you think of yourself primarily as a composer or a performer, if either?
I started my career as an actor, so I guess those would be my roots. But I've been at the piano since I was five. Honestly today I go where the inspiration is. If there's an acting job that inspires me, I pursue it. And in the absence of that I pursue a writing job. And in the absence of that, I pursue an arranging job. So those are sort of the different hats that I'm wearing now, and the good news is that I'm usually inspired.
Do you think your different career paths have influenced each other?
Oh yeah, a ton. Having had the experience of performing, when you're writing something, you have a sense of what it's going to feel like to sing that or say that, or if it's going to feel motivated or satisfying...on both sides of the line. Is it going to be satisfying to watch? Is it going to be satisfying to execute? So it makes a huge difference.
You received a Tony nomination for URBAN COWBOY. How did that honor affect your career?
That was an incredible experience, getting to write songs as late in the game as I did. But the Tony is an incredible thing to be able to put in your bio. It's so widely known and respected, and it's been a real gift to mention that. It's really nice. It was a really great experience to be involved in URBAN COWBOY, and that was a nice bonus.
There were a lot of musicians working on that score...did you have the chance to work closely with any of them, or did you mostly work independently?
Here's what happened. It was originally intended to be a score of pre-existing country music. The man who had developed the project died before the out-of-town rehearsal period. So, that was when Lonny Price took over as director. He started to feel like the show would benefit from material written specifically for the show. So he started putting original songs in and I was one of the people who was writing them. And around the same time, they replaced the musical director, and the person who took over that was Jason Robert Brown, so he started writing also. So my main relationship to the show was Jason because he was not only musical directing the songs I wrote but also orchestrating them. So that was who I worked with most closely, and I've worked with Jason not just as a composer but also as an actor, and I'm a huge fan.
You've had several acclaimed Broadway stars sing your work besides just Alysha (Audra McDonald, Sutton Foster, Rebecca Luker, etc.). If you could work with any star you haven't collaborated with before, who would it be?
Jessie Mueller. And...oh God, there's so many. I just did this benefit with Betsy Wolfe, and she's top of my list now too. I'm spacing...there's so many people, I'm sure. Oh, Zachary Levi. He was so good in FIRST DATE. And Annaleigh Ashford. She's been at the top of my list for so long.
I've Been Played: Alysha Umphress Swings Jeff Blumenkrantz will feature Umphress singing original songs by Blumenkrantz, and several original arrangements created specifically for Umphress of the standards "Spring Is Here/Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most", "I Don't Need Anything But You", and "You Are Never Away/ Ten Minutes Ago". It is set for release on January 6th, 2015. It is now available for pre-order at Amazon.com.
An album release party and concert will be held on January 5, 2015 at Birdland in New York City (315 W. 44th Street, New York, NY 10036). Tickets are available now at BirdlandJazz.com.
From This Author Louisa Brady