Friday, March 28, 2008

Phil Ramone and Paul Simon's Music

Producer Phil Ramone

Love in Hard Times: The Music of Paul Simon

Songs from The Capeman
BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn)
April 1–6, 2008

Under African Skies
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn)
April 9–13, 2008

American Tunes
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
April 23–27, 2008

Brooklyn Academy of Music

Paul Simon

If you’ve been listening to the radio since the 1960s, you've almost certainly heard songs that Phil Ramone had a hand in. Aside from producing the albums that made Billy Joel a superstar in the late '70s--The Stranger and 52nd Street, which won an Album of the Year Grammy in 1979--Ramone also has worked with the likes of Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Ray Charles. Perhaps his most enduring musical collaboration has been with Paul Simon, with whom he has worked since recording “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” for Simon’s 1972 debut solo album. Ramone produced Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years (1976), as well as the 1981 Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert in Central Park.

Now, the 73-year-old Ramone is reuniting with Simon as musical advisor for the storied singer-songwriter’s month-long residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Love in Hard Times: The Music of Paul Simon. Three separate programs will take audiences on an illuminating odyssey through one of the greatest songbooks in the past half-century of American music: Songs from The Capeman, Under African Skies, and American Tunes. After a long day of Capeman rehearsals, Ramone discussed his association with Simon.


Kevin Filipski: How did you get involved with this project as musical advisor?
Phil Ramone: Paul mentioned this a long time ago. “What’s your schedule like?” he asked me. He described it as a project with three particular evenings that take a musical journey through his life, so it was very intriguing to me. I’ve known Paul a long time, and I’ve been part of a lot of it. I think my role that’s developed over the years is as a co-producer with Paul. He knows that I’ll look after the overall picture, the very detailed picture. He is very fussy about how things are presented. I’m another set of ears for him--and eyes, in this case. Sometimes, I can just put my hand up in the air and he’ll nod in agreement: “That doesn’t work, does it?” [Laughs] We have developed our own set of signals over the years. Typically, he will take a show on the road for a month, sort of like spring training to work out the kinks. When the artists are onstage performing, I’m in the audience delighting in hearing and watching. In sum, there are a lot of roles to play, so “advisor” is only a word.

KF: How did you first begin working with Simon in the studio?
PR: He had called me out of the blue back in '71 or '72. He was in the midst of his first solo album, and producer Roy Halee’s schedule wouldn’t allow him to fit in some recording sessions, so Paul called and asked me to work on the song “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” The way I work is different than other people, and we established a good rapport from the start. So he called me to work on his next album (There Goes Rhymin’ Simon), and our relationship developed into something unique. I’ve been lucky to be able to work with him over the years, including the Simon and Garfunkel concert in Central Park.

KF: Did your closeness to Paul and his music help you in putting together this project?
PR: Of course. But the more you know, the more you want to know, and the harder it gets to make things perfect. This music is part of American culture. The Puerto Rican and Cuban influences in The Capeman, the Brazilian and African influences in Under African Skies--it’s all so complicated and it sounds so wonderful. For example, in The Capeman, there are so many things going on in those songs. Paul made it his life’s study to look at the history of doo-wop and see how it developed. Studying is one thing, but he gets the emotions right too. I love what happens when he and the singers get together onstage to sing The Capeman songs.

KF: The Capeman is a musical about a Puerto Rican teenager who killed two youths in Hell’s Kitchen in 1959. It wasn’t successful on Broadway but it’s obviously considered pivotal to Simon's career, since it’s part of this project.
PR: It’s terrific that it’s being revisited years later. The Capeman was a musical with an unusual point of view--and, like an opera, it had tragedy. In this concert, you get to hear the purity of the voices and what they're singing about. It’s incredible how these artists can just stand in front of a microphone and sing with all of their body and all of their heart.

KF: For Under African Skies, Mark Stewart is listed as music director. How are your roles different?
PR: Mark has been on the road with Paul many times in his career and has a remarkable understanding of his music. He’s a born leader in encouraging the musicians; he gets under the skin of the performers. I find his attention to detail is incredible. You can ask him something like “What did you do in Munich on this day five years ago?” and he’ll give you the whole chronology of the songs and arrangements.

KF: The program for the final concert, American Tunes, seems less thematically focused than the other two. How were the songs chosen?
PR: When you take records like Graceland or Rhythm of the Saints, there’s a combination of African influences and Brazilian influences in Paul’s American songs, so even for Under African Skies there’s a musical menu that’s fairly diverse. But for all of these concerts, the first thing is to think of what singers would be perfect for certain songs. Then you make choices based on their availability. I think the experience for the audiences will be as transcendent as it is for Paul and the artists and me. At all of the concerts, Paul will sing and will play backup for the other artists.

KF: How is the material being approached?
PR: These songs have been done in certain ways at previous Paul Simon concerts, so part of our celebration of the music this time will be to shine a new light on it, so to speak. For example, it will be interesting to hear someone like Josh Groban do something that's not part of his usual repertoire. We hope to bring out new aspects of the music's timelessness.

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