A Q&A with Eric Mintel
By Geoff Gehman
Eric Mintel plays two universal languages: jazz and TV theme songs. As a teen the pianist cut his teeth on “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and the “Popeye” cartoon sea shanty, sometimes entertaining his friends with his improvisations. As a quartet leader he takes turns cutting standards with classic tunes from “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and other standard shows
On Feb. 6 Mintel and his longtime quartet comrades–electric bassist Jack Hegyi, drummer Dave Mohn, saxophonist/flutist Nelson Hill–will perform their first gig starring TV themes. They’ll riff on the pop ditty for “WKRP in Cincinnati,” the soap-sudsy anthem for “The Love Boat,” the jazzy calling card for the animated Spiderman series. They’ll also play a Mintel original called “King’s Journey,” a caravan with an Arabic flair, and their caravan take on “Take Five,” which has a Spanish accent and a hip-hop kick. All this mixing and matching will be made in the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where the EMQ has honored Dave Brubeck, Mintel’s favorite musician/citizen, and “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Mintel’s favorite holiday score.
“The EMQ on TV” is another extra added bonus from Mintel, a twisty traditionalist and an adventurous ambassador. For over 20 years he’s been a rare octuple threat: keyboardist, group point man, composer, arranger, producer, booking agent, manager and publicist. He’s played sacred works—his own, Brubeck’s and Duke Ellington’s–with choirs; guested on an NPR piano program hosted by the late, great Marian McPartland, and.gigged twice at the White House for jazz-digging presidents.
Below, in a conversation from his home in Morrisville, Bucks County, Mintel discusses his early education in Japanese TV tunes, his partnership with his old-soul teen daughter, and his major mojo for the music for “Mission: Impossible.”
Q: What was the first TV theme you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, mind and soul?
A: This is going to sound funny, and most people wouldn’t completely understand. When I was seven or eight I heard these cool themes for these animated Japanese [sci-fi] shows called “Space Giants” and “Ultraman.” I probably worked them out at the piano at one point; my parents could always find me at the piano trying to make up my own themes. I tried to figure out the melody lines, not even knowing I was transcribing. Years later I was doing the same thing with Brubeck’s “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk.”
I was always impressing my friends playing these TV show themes. I would always play the Charlie Brown theme [Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy”]: that would always get a kick out of them. I’d play the themes from cartoon shows, too—little snippets here and there of “Popeye” and “Heckle and Jeckle,” although I wasn’t really improvising at that point.
Q: What theme would you have given up a finger to write, for its art, craft and royalties?
A: Oh man, I would say “Mission: Impossible.” Not only is the theme played over and over again on TV, it’s also in the movies. Another thing I would have liked to have recorded is “Linus and Lucy.” Did you know that it’s in the National Archives for aesthetically important music in the 20th century?
Q: Why do you dig the “Mission: Impossible” theme? I know it’s in 5/4, the same time signature as “Take Five,” one of your signature Brubeck tunes.
A: It’s so fun to play I love to play in 5/4; it’s not readily accessible to everyone but, hey, everyone can feel that rhythm. I love the excitement level of taking “Mission: Impossible” and “Take Five” in a whole new direction with a beginning, middle and end. In the improv section for “Take Five,” Nelson [Hill] goes into E Flat Minor, Jack [Hegyi] goes into a blues in E Flat, and I go into a whole new key that begins with a Spanish feel. Along the way we have a lot of fun with [Suzanne Vega’s hip-hop rap] “Tom’s Diner.” What can I say? I like to mix it up
Q: How about folding Stephen Foster’s “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” into Hugo Montenegro’s theme for “I Dream of Jeannie”? They have very different grooves and atmospheres but they could throw sparks matched together.
A; You know, it could work. Our process is very organic; we’re always playing themes within themes. Nelson, for example, likes to toss in other themes within “Jeannie.” We always get a kick out of that; it always cracks us up.
Q: Dave Brubeck cut across great divides of music, politics and religion. The same thing could be said of TV themes. You don’t need to speak the language to understand the language.
A: They have a global impact, absolutely. We recognize them because they’re so catchy. They’re also great to play over and expand on and create. It’s the same thing with jazz tunes: you can take them through many cultures. Melody is not the universal language; rhythm is the universal language. That’s why I gravitated to Brubeck; he was a very rhythmic player.
We’re headed in the same direction with this new tune I wrote called “King’s Journey.” It seems to be reaching many people; some are even freaking out on it. It has an Arabic feel and a high excitement level. It builds and builds and builds and at one point I hit a chord and everybody jumps out of their seats. It’s going to be our “Take Five.”
Q: Have you transferred your fondness for TV themes to your daughter Tess? Do you two sing them while driving? Has she introduced you to tunes from more recent, hipper shows?
A: Tess is an old soul. She wants to hear Burt Bacharach and Frankie Valli. She remembers a lot of things we used to play in the car during long drives. “Take Five” is her favorite song. She even loves “SpongeBob [SquarePants],” but, then, of course, everybody loves “SpongeBob.” She’d love it if I came up with a hit version of the “SpongeBob” theme.
Tess is a musical sponge. I’ll play a theme for her and she’ll play it right back to me on the piano, in time. She’s got the inner pulse. I helped her develop her own tune, a piece called “Cat’s Eye”; it’s our first composition together. She has the same gift at the piano I had when I was her age . It’s funny how things come around full circle.
Q: Would you like to write tunes for TV ads? Or would that gig be too commercial, too corny, for you?
A: You’re asking all the right questions. I’d love to write something as catchy as the theme for the “I Love New York” ad from 1978; that has been ingrained in my memory for years. That’s another one we play. In fact, we flip that theme into [Mintel’s original] “Just Around the Corner” because it’s in the same key and it’s that accessible. A lot of game show themes are accessible, too: “Password,” “Hollywood Squares,” “Family Feud.” “The Dating Game”: that’s a great vamp
Q: What was the toughest stretch of your career, when you thought twice about calling music a calling?
A: The early years were tough because you want to get as much work as you can. You’re right out of the gate, going on the road, hitting the college circuit, playing a music that’s not as popular as pop or rock but at the same time is positive. Thankfully, jazz has become more popular the longer we’ve played. We’re seeing younger faces in the audience, partly because of the tremendous interest in social media. The students we reach at schools, through concerts, workshops and master classes, are sponges. There’s a whole generation getting into jazz, a music that for years they didn’t know existed.
Yes, I’ve had some hard years. But thank god for the music and good friends who support you and love you. Failure is just not part of my vocabulary.
Q: How about the most rewarding stretch of your career, when you felt, as Mr. Sinatra sings, “king of the hill, top of the heap”?
A: We’re rewarded every time we play a concert, every time we connect with people, every time we see smiling faces. I love the positive energy whether we’re playing for 2,000 or two. To lift everyone up is such a beautiful feeling. I’ve felt that feeling playing at the White House for Clinton and Obama, during over 10 concerts at the Kennedy Center, during a special concert at the United Nations. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List?
A: Negative people. Life-enhancing people–that’s who I roll with.
Q: What tops your Bucket List?
A: I’d love to write themes for shows for sure. I’d love to write film scores, too. I used to be a budding film director; as kids we’d make these funny films and I’d put the music behind them. We’ve played music behind poetry. I’m such an emotional player, so it’s a lot of fun to put these musical feelings to words and images.
I’d like play all over Europe. Oh hell, let’s say I’d like to play all over the world–we want to take over the whole world. We want to make jazz more popular and maybe, along the way, help create a little more world peace.
Eric Mintel: The Scoop
He grew up in Upper Black Eddy, Bucks County, the child of a jeweler who refurbished pianos.
One of his teen-age jobs was serenading fashion shows in a lingerie shop.
The late Dave Brubeck was his mentor and remains his muse. The older musician helped the younger musician by writing liner notes for CDs, praising him for making jazz more accessible and inspiring him to live better. “Dave was all about freedom and equality and he said I played his music better than he played it,” Mintel told me in a 2013 interview for ICON magazine. “It’s an honor to know I was one of his main men.”
In 1998 he and his quartet members performed a holiday concert at the White House for an audience that included President Bill Clinton, no slouch as a jazz saxophonist. “We were standing in line waiting for the president, surrounded by Secret Service agents,” said Mintel in the same ICON Q&A. “I gave President Clinton a copy of a CD of ours with Brubeck’s ‘Blue Rondo.’ And Clinton looked at it and said: ‘You know, Dave told me I was the only elected official who could sing the bridge to ‘Blue Rondo.’”
In 2011 the Mintel quartet returned to play the White House, where Mintel learned that Brubeck starred in the first jazz concert that President Barack Obama attended with his dad.
“You know, I tried to get another White House date with the Bush administration,” said Mintel in 2013. “But I heard nothing but crickets.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His top TV themes range from “Those Were the Days,” the theme for “All in the Family,” to “Underdog.” He can be reached at email@example.com.