By Jack Firneno
As far as 88-year-old music arranger Marion Evans is concerned, Hollywood reached its apex of its ability to create music for musicals back in the ‘30s.
Back then, musicians would play to very short, meticulously-timed sequences of film, piece by piece, for song-and-dance numbers.
Eventually, they began pre-recording the orchestra and having the dancers practice to that, instead of vice versa. A full, live take made it easier to synchronize the audio and visual and, he said, yielded better musical performances.
“You really get the feel of the music, and the orchestra didn’t get tired of playing it,” he explained.
It’s ultimately subjective — pop music and movie soundtracks have successfully relied on synthesizers, multitracking and studio magic for decades now — but Evans’ opinion is certainly an informed one. In fact, it even helped win a Grammy for a record-breaking album a couple weeks ago.
Evans’ work as an arranger, he said, boils down basically to point and counterpoint: taking the chords and the melody, and distributing the elements among the instruments tastefully.
“It’s like two politicians on TV talking,” he said. “If they’re talking at the same time, it’s cacophony.”
Since starting out with the Glenn Miller Orchestra after World War II, he’s worked with the likes of Count Basie and Benny Goodman through Carole King, Willie Nelson and Burt Bacharach, among hundreds of others.
He orchestrated 11 Broadway shows, was nominated for two Grammys, and worked on the first single release in stereo for RCA Records.
And while he didn’t bring home any awards personally on Feb. 8, Cheek to Cheek, last year’s collaboration between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, brought home the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.
Even before the award, Cheek to Cheek made Bennett the oldest performer to have a number one record and Gaga the first female performer with three number-one albums in the 2010s.
The album, which sits significantly on Evans’ arrangements, was spurred on by a session he’d worked on for Bennett’s Duets II album in 2011.
Gaga was a last-minute addition to that record’s lineup, resulting in Evans getting a 2 a.m. call from Bennett to arrange the piece. It also meant the entire band, including the singers, would all have to play at the same time in order to make the production deadline.
“We were lucky, we got to record it when the whole band was there at once,” he said.
Evans has always preferred to work live instead of, say, the rhythm section recording one day, the horns the next and the singers sometime after that.
“It’s the feeling of everyone sitting next to each other,” he explained. “You get a sense of the music and you can fit everything much better if you’re all actually there.”
To him, then, it’s no surprise the track inspired a full-album collaboration. And, if pressed, he’ll admit he wishes Cheek to Cheek was recorded the same way. But Evans doesn’t dwell much on what could have been, and he doesn’t like to brag about what he has accomplished.
He’d rather tell you about what it was like where and when he did it, and how it gets done.
Living with his wife, actress, singer and former Miss Alabama Terri Rinaldi Evans, in Holland for the past five or so years, Evans gets the chance to do that every so often.
Among arranging projects, he works as a professor and teaches a masters course with a group of musicians and arrangers out of Arcadia University. He and his wife collaborate on a show based on the music of the television show Downton Abbey, an effort that includes a significant amount of research into the music of the show’s era.
Evans speaks casually and in great detail about recording and arranging. The conversation itself has a certain in-the-moment feel, much like the kind of studio sessions he enjoys, where he fixes on a certain time period or idea, and expands on it.
He lights up talking about the evolution of the recording industry, from two microphones recording onto “platters” in a rented ballroom through the ‘30s, to the first recording studios in the ‘40s and the explosion of rock and roll and multitracking in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
He used to track the ebbs and flows and fads of the industry — “I’d count how many records used guitars, and then decide I should use guitars. Then it’d be something else,” he observed — and lends a sort of behind-the-scenes expertise to recordings that always stays constant.
Little things like changing the key of a song when a male and female were duetting, so that each could sing in a range where they are comfortable. Most songs stay in the same key the entire time, but on a duet album Evans has to shift the song’s tone many times without making it obvious to the listener.
He used the track “Anything Goes” on Cheek to Cheek as an example. “It modulates every eight bars or so. If you listen closely, you’ll hear it,” he noted.
It’s work like this that keeps his phone ringing even now. This week, he headed to New York to arrange and conduct a session for a New Jersey-based songwriter, and hopes to work on a larger project with singer Michael Buble sometime, after their experience together on Bennett’s Duets II album.
But for now, he’s on board to work on the Bennett/Gaga follow-up record, slated to focus on Cole Porter songs. Although sessions haven’t been scheduled yet, he noted, “I’m already writing the arrangements in my head.”