Singer and lyricist Mark Winkler is back with his 15th CD as a leader, but chances are that you have a couple of his songs in your record collection at home since over 250 of his songs have been recorded by a phenomenal list of artists. “The Company I Keep” features duets with five different vocalists and a wonderful cast of musicians, like Eric Reed and John Beasley on piano, Bob McChesney on trombone, Bob Sheppard on sax, John Clayton on bass, Ron Blake on trumpet, or Jeff Hamilton on drums.
The album opens with a tune that’s from one of my favorite songwriters, “Walk Between The Raindrops” by Donald Fagen, and features one of my favorite female vocalists, the sublime and majestic Jackie Ryan. The joy and the fun both Mark and Jackie had while recording this immediately grabs you and even though Jackie’s part is relatively short, her masterful and divine spirit shines through with each second. (Check out her album “This Heart Of Mine” from 2003, still one of the best of its genre). There is such a nice surprise here with Prince‘s “Strollin'” (from the 1991 “Diamonds And Pearls” album) featuring Mark’s good friend, Cheryl Bentyne, with whom he recorded the great “West Coast Cool” duet album in 2013. The tune, pardon the expression, relaxingly strolls along with a fine piano solo from Jamieson Trotter and an extra guitar sprinkle from Larry Koonse. The track is swingin’ like crazy!
There are six tunes written by Mark himself, like “Midnight In Paris” (music by Bill Cantos), based on Woody Allen’s movie and therefore fittingly featuring clarinet (Don Shelton) and violin (Paul Cartwright). The sophisticated lyrics are right out of the Bob Dorough bag I think. Same applies for “But It Still Ain’t So”, a bluesy straight-up swinger which features Steve Tyrell. I never really warmed up to Steve’s voice and approach and the tune doesn’t change that I must add. But things are saved right away with the witty, easily dragging “That Afternoon In Harlem” about an old jazz singer – the song has exceptional accompaniment by pianist Eric Reed and trombonist Bob McChesney. A real treat. This particular track shows Mark’s wonderful instrument in its softer, but nevertheless intense mode. His flawless style can be heard on the Gershwin classic “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and on Mark Murphy’s “Stolen Moments”, he is joined by UK-based singer Claire Martin, another top-noth vocalist in a perfect match.
We also get a sweet and tender “Love Comes Quietly”, an instant classic written by Mark, soulful and romantic, avoiding any kitsch or cliché. It’s just beautiful. And “Rainproof”, which he wrote together with “La La Land” star Angela Parrish, features Sara Gazarek on this happy little ditty which instantly finds you tapping along and humming the chorus. Featured pianist here is Josh Nelson and Sara shows her Jane Monheit diction, but in her more lucid style. I think it is a nice coup of putting together Mark’s own songs in two three-song segments here (deliberately?) and “The Sum” is another bitterwseet tune (“we are the sum of all the moments in our life”), most certainly about the loss of his dear partner for life (well actually the whole album is). I can’t help but think about Dianne Reeves performing this song – should be perfect for her.
But Mark doesn’t stick to melancholy and grief and chooses the Bernstein/Comden/Green classic “Lucky To Be Me” as the next step here and he also shows his immense courage by ending the 12-song collection with “Here’s To Life”, a tune that Shirley Horn so amazingly brought to perfection. Mark’s version is simple, engaging, and captivating. And it soothes, too. Now let’s keep on strollin’.