Rick Jensen is a veritable Renaissance man of cabaret. Not only is he a performer, but he is also a songwriter, producer, arranger and accompanist. He is a three time MAC Award winner, two time Bistro Award recipient, and two time GLAMA Award winner and has been referred to as being a cross between Cole Porter, Peter Allen, and Tom Leher. Rick spent many years playing for and musical directing the late, great cabaret artist Nancy LaMott, who recorded one of his songs, "In Passing Years," on her Beautiful Baby CD.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Rick.
Rick: Thanks! It's funny that you should call now, because I was just on the phone talking to Sherry Eaker from Back Stage. She's putting together a book on cabaret which is going to be released in February. It's going to deal with the in's and out's of cabaret; how to put a show together, the business of cabaret, that sort of thing. She's going to compile the writings of Bob Harrington, who's the guy that started the (Back Stage) Bistro Awards.
J: Is he the cabaret reviewer for Back Stage who died not too long ago?
R: Yeah. It's been a while. It's been five, six years.
J: Now what Bistro Awards have you won?
J: You got your start at piano bars, after you moved to New York from Minnesota, right?
R: Yeah. And that's where I really learned the American Popular Songbook, because it was not part of the culture where I grew up. Gershwin is not a common household name in Minnesota. I grew up with Country Western and Pop on the radio. But I always had an interest in songwriting, and that led me to the American Popular Songbook, because of the high quality of songwriting in it.
J: How long did you work in piano bars?
R: Oh man! I started working in them after moving to New York in 1979, and I worked in them until after Nancy (LaMott) died, which would have been five years ago. I was doing other things as well towards the end, but I was still doing a couple of nights a week in piano bars. And then when Nancy died, it was kind of my wake up call ... that I was done with counting my tips out at 3:00 in the morning and having another scotch and water before going home. That got old fast. Nancy's death had a big impact on me, and made me get more serious with my work.
I actually met Nancy in a piano bar back in 1980. She was managed by Bernard Jay, who was Divine's manager, of all people. She was singing at Reno Sweeney's at the time, trying to develop a following. I was playing my song "In Passing Years" and the joke about our first meeting is that she came up to the piano, told me that she was a singer, and asked if she could sing my song. I said "No," because I didn't know who she was. And that's how we met.
Later on, she got a gig at the Marlin Beach Hotel, which was down in Fort Lauderdale. It's long since been torn down, but they used to hire cabaret singers to do shows in the evenings. We went down for three weeks in June in 1980 or 81, and that's how we got to know each other. I started playing for her and was her music director for years, while she was doing her shows at The Duplex. She had a poster back then that said "Playing Friday Nights for all Eternity."
We kind of parted ways in the late 80s. She was figuring out that she wanted to start recording standards and stuff, and I was pursuing a more contemporary style. We still remained friends and when she recorded her first album, she wanted to record "In Passing Years," so I arranged it and played the session. I did arrangements for her second album, and we recorded one more of my original songs for her third album, which got shelved for some reason. She went out of her way to try and get it included in a cabaret anthology album which Camille Barbone was putting together. It didn't happen, but luckily, with the cooperation of her family and David Friedman, it ended up on my CD.
J: That would be "After All Those Love Songs." I love that song. It's one of the most beautiful songs on your CD. I find your CD to be very intriguing, because if someone were to ask me to sum up its overall style, I wouldn't be able to do so. You have gorgeous ballads, some pop/folk type songs, a 30s megaphone type number about an S&M relationship ...
R: I think it's confusing for a cabaret listener, because in cabaret you have a real retro thing going on, where people are trying to keep the standards alive as they were sung many years ago. I think what a lot of cabaret people don't realize, is that my generation ... people who are now 40, 50 years old and maybe ultimately are the people who go to the Algonquin and cabaret venues ... we grew up listening to songwriters like Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez. And a lot of our music came out of the folk world, which is very close to cabaret. Folk clubs were places where people would sit down, shut up, order a drink or coffee and listen to the music; very much how people will go to the Algonquin today. They really listened to the lyrics, which really doesn't happen any place else, not even in jazz clubs, where people are noisy and not as reverent to the song itself. And these songs that we grew up with, from the 60s and 70s, are now 30 years old. Now, when I was growing up in the 70s, 30 years back would be the 40s. So that's where I'm coming from, that time frame; not the 40s and 50s but the things that stand out from the 60s and 70s that I think are worth keeping around.
So what I do is kind of a variation of that theme, and I tend to lose a lot of folks right there. The songs that I recorded on my album actually had a life in the New York piano bars and clubs for years. And I just wanted to put down these songs in stone before the turn of the century; things that I really didn't want to leave behind. And so I wanted to make a 'pop' album; actually, more like an adult contemporary album. Something that would fall into a James Taylor-kind of an album, or a Billy Joel album, or slightly like an Elton John thing, because those are the roots that I grew up with.
J: You mentioned that the songs on your CD had a life in piano bars. I'm used to piano bars doing show tunes, Cole Porter numbers ... that sort of thing.
R: There was a change in that trend which started in the 80s. The piano bars started to do less sing alongs to Music Theater songs, and more to the Beatles, and "American Pie." Although too much of that, too much of anything, gets boring, so it's fun to have a bit of both.
J: You are involved in so many aspects of cabaret. You music direct singers and shows, do arrangements, produce CDs, perform and write songs. What do you consider yourself to be, first and foremost?
R: In my heart, I am a songwriter. I sing out of a need to sing my songs. I think that there is always something different that happens when a singer sings his songs, as opposed to when a singer interprets a songwriter. So that's where my singing comes from. I wouldn't expect people to come to hear me sing a Gershwin song. But they may come to hear me sing something I wrote, because I may give it a slant that they'll really be interested in.
J: What are you working on now?
R: I'm producing records for cabaret artists right now. Barbara Fassano and I produced her album, The Girls of Summer, which won the Bistro Award for Outstanding Recording this year. I also recently produced an album for Amy Treitel called Teach Me Tonight, and I'm producing records for Frank Dain, Marc Vincent, and Jeanne MacDonald.
J: Do you direct shows, music direct, or both?
R: I musical direct.
J: I've been curious as to the difference between a director and a music director in terms of their roles in putting together a cabaret show.
R: When I music direct a show, my job is to help the singer arrange the songs so that they will provide the best fit for his or her voice. A director's job is to see the whole picture, because at some point, you get so that you can't really see what they are doing out front. You can kind of feel if they are telling the truth when they are singing, but you need somebody who can see the overall picture.
J: So you're more involved in arrangements, making sure that the songs are in the right key and working with the singer as a 'singer.'
R: Yeah. And making sure that they stay in an honest place that's going to read right to the audience.
J: But the overall sculpting of the evening would be the director's job?
R: Well, it depends on what the show is about. Sometimes the shows are just about the music and a music director is enough. Sometimes shows are more thematic, so the development of the show has a lot more to do with what a director is going to bring to it. But I always feel that if the show isn't right musically, then they have missed the point to begin with. They have to start with that or there ain't much for a director to look at.
A director can do lots of really basic things, like tell you if it feels right that you are standing for a song, or if you should sit, or comment on what are you doing with your hands. Or say "I don't like all that talking before a song; I think the song speaks for itself." Or "I don't think those three ballads work in a row because you're putting me to sleep." Just stuff that your piano player can't help you with because he or she is too busy playing to notice.
In the old days, quite frankly, nobody had directors. Directors became a trend, maybe a necessary trend, that came into itself in the mid 80s. Before that, people just used a buddy, because everybody was in show business. Nancy used to have her friend Bruce Hopkins direct her; he was somebody whose opinion she really trusted. And I think that's the point; it needs to be somebody that you really trust and somebody that you are going to listen to. Because you can't listen to everybody; you have to decide who you are going to listen to.