Blair Clark makes music like a gourmet chef cognizant of a lovely presentation of locally grown, healthfully prepared nourishment for all the senses, body and soul.
"I like to make it an experience. It's not a meal with just bread," he says during a recent chat. "You have to put more on the plate to make it memorable meal. Music is a meal."
Clark's style is to be in fellowship with his audience and his fellow players.
"That's what entertainment is all about. I'm an entertainer, more at home on stage than any place else. Art is the ability to indulge yourself in conversation with the audience."
Those are the qualities that led the late Chuck Workman to develop a deep friendship with Clark.
"Chuck saw the gap between vocalists and players—where it was expected that the singer be off on the side of the stage and to stop singing when the players took over. He was interested in developing a continuity, like Ella Fitzgerald's concept with scatting, bending notes and shaping sounds, allowing the singer to vocalize and be part of making music. Singers, vocalists have to use their whole body. I've always tried to bridge the gap between singers and players. Ella Fitzgerald was a player and a singer — she was a musician."
Workman's mentorship led to the newly released Blair Clark Sings The Great American Songbook Live @ The Jazz Kitchen in CD and DVD formats. They are dedicated to Workman.
"The Great American Songbook songs are stories," Clark says. "It's always been tricky to take something that's been done perfectly to begin with and not destroy it. Collaborating with Michael Stricklin on arrangements, we allowed each song to have a different personality without destroying its originality."
With Kenny Phelps on drums, Frank Smith on bass, Reggie Bishop on keyboards, Michael Stricklin on saxes and Mark Buselli on trumpet, flugelhorn and percussion, Clark explains "We evoke the essence of the story while giving the listener something new to think about."
A case in point is My Funny Valentine, which Clark presents through the sentiments of "a gay man to the person he loves." While the nuance is different from its original presentation in the 1937 musical Babes in Arms — where Mitzi Green as Billie Smith pokes fun at the foibles of Valentine "Val" LeMar, yet doesn't want him to change because he makes her smile and laugh — the inner truth of the song remains. This is true for the each of the album's ten songs.
While "When I Fall in Love," "Autumn Leaves" and "The Shadow of Your Smile" remain as ballads, Blair spices them up with Latin rhythms and a bossa nova beat. He talks about why it makes a difference in our lives to "see, hear and feel" these change-ups while having access to the songs in their original settings.
"Kids need to hear that music. One of the things I appreciate about Mayor Jim Brainard is his dedication to music," says Clark, who lives in Carmel and operates, with his wife Heather Ramsey Clark, the Midwest School of Voice.
"Brainard's father was a music teacher," adds Clark. "Bringing the Great American Songbook Initiative to Carmel allows our young people to become acquainted with the birth of American music. That's what Michael Feinstein [artistic director for the Center for the Performing Arts] is about, too. I was raised listening to the greats. My father was a folk musician. Growing up in Lansing, Michigan, I was exposed to phenomenal musicians."
As a graduate student earning his Master's degree at Michigan State, pianist, vocalist, composer Henry Butler mentored Clark.
"Working with a blind musician with perfect pitch was a phenomenal experience. We were doing current music along with the old standards and he didn't categorize — jazz, pop, classical. We did it all. It was music. It was life.
"That's really what Chuck [Workman] was about too," Clark says. "It was good to sit with him, listen to the stories, grow from his experiences, gain perspective about love for the sake of the joy of elevating humanity to its highest potential one person at a time every hour, every day — and have fun aspiring to honesty, seeking justice, being peace-filled. It's not the roads we take but the roads we recover from and music helps us connect."