Mounsey Interview

M5: The interview above covers some of your work and life to some extent already. It sheds some light on your work for and with Steely Dan and Donald Fagen, as a session player and arranger, but perhaps there are some other perspectives now, different things to say about those days?

RM: The times spent working with Donald and Walter were just great musical experiences overall. Unfortunately, very few other working experiences measure up to those standards. Donald and Walter aspired to a certain caliber of perfection that was more difficult to achieve in those days of simpler technology. Technological advances since then have democratized the music production process, which is a mixed blessing, as it's given us more new voices but also an avalanche of junk. I miss those times, and sometimes I wish they could come back.

M5: Your work can't be pinned down to certain styles within the musical landscapes, but what is it that makes you decide to do something, do you need a challenge or are you comfortable with familiar grounds or ...

RM: As a working freelance musician, I'm not terribly choosy about what work I accept. I see everything as a potential challenge. All musical genres are of some interest, I think.

M5: As an arranger you also personalize a song for the artist, musician or vocalist. Do you arrange during sessions with others or do you work alone or both? And what other arrangers do you feel make a difference in the world, especially when it comes to the standards (American Songbook), because those songs have been performed for quite some decades now. If and when you have to arrange a 'classic' song, where do you start for instance?

RM: I came from a composing and arranging culture where I sit alone at a drafting table with a pencil in my hand. I generally begin there. With pop records, arranging for the rhythm section presents special challenges, as one wants to leave space for special musicians to contribute their special stuff, so some rhythm section arrangements are left quite loose, and designed on the spot in the studio to some extent. Obviously one can't do this with an orchestra, where all the nuances tend to be clearly notated in advance. There are not that many of us real 'arrangers' left. I think of some of my favorite colleagues and friends in New York, Gil Goldstein and Rob Mathes and Carlos Franzetti, and a few others, Jeremy Lubbock, Vince Mendoza, Alan Broadbent and a great favorite of mine, Jorge Calandrelli. Klaus Ogerman and Johnny Mandel are some of the greats of a slightly older generation. From the old days, my great heroes would include Gil Evans, Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini, Neal Hefti, Don Costa, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins, etc. The immortal Duke remains in his own exalted category.

M5: You wrote your first scores at a young age and grew up with classical music. Can you perhaps tell us more about the early years, was it mainly classical music you grew up with or have there been other influences?

RM: Beethoven somehow remains an important touchstone for me, especially lately. But I think I've been influenced by everything that I've heard. I discovered traditional jazz as a teenager, and later Soul music, different kinds of pop music, the Beatles' studio experiments with George Martin, etc., I find some modern electronic 'DJ' styles very interesting. Also, of course, ethnic traditions from around the world.

M5: You went to Berklee, moved to New York at the age of 24 and wor(ked) with many in the music industry, from jazz to rock, singer- songwriters, smooth jazz, R&B, soul and easy-listening, as a session player, arranger, composer, producer and conductor. Did all these different disciplines within the craft come with the territory, like gradually or did it take time, effort and study along the way to 'get' into it? And do you still 'learn' and 'study'?

RM: I think that we all continue to learn and study forever; we are all permanent beginners. Complacency is dangerous. I've always assiduously stolen from the best.

M5: Looking back on your career and where you are now, can you give some examples of people you've met or musicians that made their mark in your life, or influenced you and why?

RM: I've been fortunate to meet so many great musicians. A list would be a bore, I think. Sadly, some of the great ones, like Richard Tee and Don Grolnick, are not with us any more. I often remember Richard especially. No one will ever play the piano like that again.

M5: Life and music in New York. What's different now compared to when you moved there when you were 24?

RM: Everything is different. The music industry has dramatically shrunk and become much more technological and therefore more solitary and less social. This is a sad development. One must really make an effort to create situations where musicians create together in real time.

PQ: Your work with Steve Khan, two albums so far. People are curious to find out if there'll ever be a follow-up because they loved the chemistry and those albums were unique in their kind ...

RM: Steve Khan is a good friend and a great musician who is always searching and refining his own unique voice. I am certainly open to doing another project with Steve, but we haven't discussed it. It's very difficult to find a commercial home for such a project.

M5: Before Steve Khan, Georg Wadenius was part of the Blood, Sweat & Tears ensemble and Wadenius later on also hooked up with Steely Dan. Georg Wadenius and you worked together as well, can you tell us something about that?

RM: I haven't seen Georg Wadenius for some years, but I have worked with him often in the past with great pleasure; he's a fantastic musician and a wonderful guy, and we were very friendly, though we rarely saw each other. I hope to run into him.

M5: Do you keep track of musicians you worked with, like Steely Dan and do you keep up with what's going on in the musical world nowadays?

RM: I have to say I feel a bit out of touch right now. Sometimes it seems much less important to hear the latest Top Ten pop record and more important to listen carefully to, say, the rain on the roof.

M5: What kind of music do you listen to yourself?

RM: I generally listen to music that has nothing to do with anything that I do every day; exotic ethnic music, some classical music, etc. My friend Rob Mathes gave me a recording of late Beethoven string quartets performed by string orchestra under the direction of Leonard Bernstein; that is extremely inspirational stuff.

M5: What's it take to be a good arranger and producer?

RM: An arranger and a producer are generally two very different people. I'd say that the most important thing to hold on to in creating arrangements is the big picture; to be able to step back and understand the big concept, and not to be too detail-obsessed. I guess that applies to producing, too.

M5: When looking back, what projects in particular were you proud of and why?

RM: I have a special pride in a Natalie Cole project called 'Stardust' from a few years ago -especially a version of 'He Was Too Good to Me', performed as a single live take with orchestra and trumpet soloist Wynton Marsalis. Natalie is truly one of the great singers and musicians -very gifted, very intelligent, highly skilled and lots of fun to work with. I am also very proud of my recent production for Aaron Neville, 'Nature Boy--- the standards album', which was a great critical success but not particularly successful commercially. Unfortunately, Aaron's record was surrounded in the marketplace by other 'standards' projects of very mixed quality.

M5: The Flying Monkey Orchestra, can you tell us about those days?

RM: The FMO projects were undertaken just for fun, really. Ron Goldstein, who worked for Private Music and is now the president of Verve Records, persuaded me to be a recording artist and submit material to Private Music, which subsequently passed. I then finished the project called 'Dig', which was released on Sona Gaia (Narada), but my relationship with Narada was a very unhappy one. So I released the following two projects, 'Back in the Pool' and 'Mango Theory' on my own tiny label. They met with some very modest success and remain popular with a handful of people. I was lucky enough to enlist lots of wonderful musicians to contribute.

M5: Your most recent work, like for Michael Buble, Peter Cincotti, Jane Monheit or debutante Chiara Chivello. They're all 'young' ones, and with the exception of Chiara perhaps, contemporary artists who delve into the treasure of the Great American Songbook and other classic compositions. You've also worked with Rod Stewart, Aaron Neville, albums solely with standards from the songbook. Were these songs also significant to you when you were younger or do you think the interest in those tunes grow more intense the past couple of years? If so, why do you think it did? And how about the craft of songwriting in general, is original material harder to write than adapt or arrange an existing song?

RM: The recent trend to record 'standards' is a very mixed blessing, I'm afraid. I have deep affection and respect for this music - the Nelson Riddle / Frank Sinatra recordings remain some of the greatest of all time - but current remakes are often lackluster and phony. I won't dignify the execrable Rod Stewart records with any comment. A singer's ability to truly connect with this genre is very rare nowadays. In my recent experience Michael Bublé may come the closest to really capturing the whole attitude. Alas, many of these projects are simply driven by cynical marketing strategies, to the great detriment of the music and those of us that truly love it.

M5: Back to the present. What are your plans for 2005 and the future, are there any goals you'd like to achieve or projects you'd like to realize?

RM: The near future is wide open for me. I really have no idea from day to day what comes next. I have some interest in more serious-music projects for orchestras, projects with New York jazz musicians, and so forth.

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