I heard it through the grapevine—multi-talented singer/musician/music producer-arranger/philosopher/humanities professor Derek Menchan is about to drop his new album, his second, entitled The Incredible. His first album, The Griot Swings the Classics (2018), was quite well-received, even achieving top of the chart ranking for its category on Amazon for a time.
At the end of this interview, there’s a YouTube link to one of the singles on the new album, “At Last,” a cover of the Etta James classic. Menchan’s version of “At Last” is simply phenomenal. It’s a taste of what to expect when the album is released later this year.
Eileen Murphy: What can you tell us about your new album—for example, when will it be released? Who’s on it? What’s on it?
Derek Menchan: Indeed, new stuff coming, and I plan to drop it late Fall.
When I wrapped work on the project, just two months ago, I looked back and saw that I had recorded in three different states, and had collaborated with no less than eight artists on this project, each amazing in their own right. I teamed up again with drummer Marty Morell, formerly of the Bill Evans Trio, and a mutual friend of ours, pianist John C. O’Leary. My good friend, Shawn “The Cat” Edmonds, trumpet—the big Broadway dude—is on it, and you’ve heard him before, at a couple of my chamber music season’s concerts–and, as I say, five more world class musicians. I have to say, though, that my new discovery, the Houston singer, Kaci Timmons, really steals the show, in her vignettes on the record.
What’s on it is a huge question, but let’s just say that my first album was very much an introduction to the Menchanverse. This album is a full hang; a party, with me. The Incredible is a deep spelunking trip into the philosophico-spiritual underground cave complex of the American Negro unconscious. Not that I, as a Black male, dare to even try to speak for all Negros, but the album’s voice will resonate with many, from so many different perspectives.
EM: What is there about your new album that you feel will probably attract and engage the listener/audience?
DM: When it comes to me and my work, I don’t churn out crowd-pleasing “hits”; I create art, so my listeners include admirers of old school vibes, and connoisseurs. So, I do have a following, but even newbies to my sound will love that it expands and opens up even farther than in my debut, onto a vast sound-world, covering, both, the mundane and spaces hitherto untraversed. It’s a big trip, this album. It is a sprawling, massive recording.
EM: You sang and played multiple musical instruments on your last album, The Griot Swings the Classics. Do you continue to do so on the new album—if yes, can you comment on how that’s working out?
DM: Yes, yes. There is a curious level of meta always at work in what I do. My mruzick is aware it is being created, by me—manufactured— and thus it acts in accordance with that self-awareness. It’s kind of like David Lynch’s quote from his Twin Peaks multiverse, about the tulpas: “Someone manufactured you.” My mruzick is an artifice— a deliberate set of re-imaginings—and it knows that it is. It is a figment; a phantom. So, it adheres to spectral, rather than human, rules of music. It’s what John Fogerty wrote: “Wondrous apparition, provided by magician…” My mruzick plays involved games with the attentive listener. Think of the theatrical stage direction: larvatus prodeo (“I advance, masked”). My music presents itself to you, authentically, yet it is masked. It is itself—in disguise. Just as the Hindu god Krishna does with being human, so does my mruzick with musical presentation: it merely plays at being actual.
EM: You’ve said that the inspiration for your first album was your beloved mother. Who or what is your new album inspired by?
DM: The albums complement each other, they’re bookends; Griot channels my mom; The Incredible, my dad. On this album are, again, tunes I recall digging from my childhood, and at least one my dad and I would croon, together. We would, laughingly, recreate the singer’s vocal stylings, and that is what I do here—not laughingly, but lovingly—re-imagine, in homage to, both, the artist(s), and my late father.
EM: You recently posted a little taste of the new album…a cover of the Etta James classic, “At Last” [see the end of this interview for the link to Derek Menchan’s version]. Why did you choose that song and does it reflect the timbre and tone of the rest of the work? And tell us a secret…just between me and you…whose photo was in the picture you hold in the YouTube video?
DM: The interesting thing is that all I knew at the start of the project is that I wanted to pick up where Griot left off, so much so that it is literally what occurred. My album was selling well, and I was already eyeing tunes for The Incredible. One day, I just thought of the iconic string intro to Etta’s “At Last,” and mused about how her version captured the sound and feel of an era–and knew I could do the very same thing, mruzick-style. So, I did, mine evoking an era just after hers.
And, what people don’t realize is that she isn’t the only one who covered that tune. I grew up on a Lloyd Price rendition of this cut, and I kept both versions in my heart when I created mine.
“At Last” is a good representation of the evolution in the aesthetics of my mruzick, on this album; the sound I and my engineer created here is totally evocative of a private entrée—a stepping into a smoky, pastel-colored, heady, and aromatic portal to the past. You’re going into a big speakeasy here, so get ready. Lots of entertainers in there, and they span the decades, baby.
And you’re going to love this: the pic I am effusing over in the video is a photograph of me, in concert.
EM: I do love that. So, can we look for an album that’s more jazz-based or R&B influenced?
DM: Oh, more than just that! The album is simply gargantuan; literally twice as long as the Griot album. You can expect a bit of everything here. I would say it is sonically the equivalent of a music history lesson being presented as a ride at Disney World. You’ll get taken on an almost hallucinogenic trip from one American music luminary’s sound-world, to another, then another, etc. By the end of the album, you’ll see why it is named as it is.
EM: Do you write any of your own songs? Can we expect to see any originals on this album?
EM: I am a composer, it is true, and have done original works, for soundtracks, and stuff that had world premieres and all that. I can do that, but it isn’t where my passions lie. I am an arranger and a producer. I am following the path of The Immortals: Quincy Jones, Neal Hefti, Billy May, and Nelson Riddle—cats like that. I am the guy you want to call when a real crooner comes to town and you need those slamming charts that channel the cats and gals from the Atomic Age, or when you need a truly atmospheric soundtrack. I’m really not from this time. I’m the reason people in my family believe in reincarnation…
For more information on The Incredible album: https://www.patreon.com/bluclokrecords
Derek Menchan’s new single “At Last” is available on all platforms on July 19.
Derek Menchan’s album The Griot Swings the Classics is available here.
Read Eileen Murphy’s previous interviews of Derek Menchan for Cultural Weekly:
Photo credits: Jamin Smith, except for The Incredible album cover photo credit
Photo credits: Jamin Smith, except the single “At Last” cover photo credit; Single “At Last ” cover photo credit: Damion Weller