Much has been made of the fact that during the pandemic, many of us have been urged to stay apart, social distanced from family members and dear friends outside our immediate households. Fortunately, longtime pals and musical compadres, jazz singer Mark Winkler and multiple Grammy nominated pianist David Benoit found a hip, emotionally compelling yet elegant and quite glorious workaround to reconnect creatively and collaborate on a sweetly intimate yet often whimsically swinging, exquisitely arranged and produced set of classics (some well-known, some (quite literally!) deliciously obscure) and originals whose title says it all: Old Friends.
Their 37-year friendship included some early collabs, with Benoit recording Winkler’s “Land of the Loving” (vocals by Dianne Reeves), producing Winkler’s debut album Ebony Rain and playing on a few of the singer/songwriter’s early projects. Benoit had a tour of Japan set for March 2020 that was canceled. His wife Kei, who had flown to Japan before him to spend time with her mother, was unable to return to the States when the country went into lockdown. Home by himself, Benoit invited Winkler over for dinner and the two naturally gravitated to Benoit’s 9-foot grand piano.
Halfway through “The Shadow of Your Smile,” Benoit suggested they make an album together. Quite organically, a tasteful, lightly swinging version of the Johnny Mandel classic formed the emotional foundation of the album, whose set list – based solely on songs and composers who were meaningful to them – grew to include tunes by everyone from Henry Mancini (“Two for the Road”), Leonard Bernstein (‘Some Other Time”) and Randy Newman (“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”) to quirkier sources of lyrical pleasure like Bob Dorough (“I’ve Got Just About Everything”) and Dave Frishberg, whose soulfully rendered ballad “Sweet Kentucky Ham” gives Winkler a fresh, whimsical opportunity to engage in his quirky trademark passion for “food songs.”
The production by longtime Winkler associate Barbara Brighton, is sheer exquisite coolness, from her placement of a peppy guitar solo by Pat Kelley on “Better Than Anything” (not long after Winkler name-checks him in his additional lyrics) to her harmonic coloring with Stefanie Fife’s haunting cello on three tunes, most prominently on the whimsically poetic “Dragonfly” (originally recorded by Benoit with Jane Monheit) and the duo’s not so terribly strange but sweetly heartbreaking rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends.”
Winkler teams with his songwriting student Heather Frank to pen joyfully reflective lyrics for Benoit’s ballad “Thirty Years (Only Sunshine Days)” and crafts the perfect romantic sentiments to turn Benoit’s signature instrumental “Kei’s Song” into the beautiful, freeflowing vocal ballad “In a Quiet Place.”
Because Benoit and Winkler are endlessly prolific and busy jazz cats, only time will tell if Old Friends is a singular transcendent one-off opportunity or the start of more collaborations to come. But for now, let’s rejoice in this celebration of enduring friendship that is yet another musical silver lining to and escape from this crazy and anxious time.