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Two in One 

Randy Newman proves to be a songwriting double threat

If you just think about his wise-guy mystique, you might overlook how much songwriter Randy Newman really wants you to come to his live performance at the Variety Playhouse on Wednesday. "An audience keeps it fresh for me," explains Newman about his eagerness to tour behind his Nonesuch Records debut. "[Performing is] easier than writing, and it's a way of avoiding [writing]."

Seriously, Newman hasn't been able to avoid it for at least the last 40 of his 60 years. Both the American songbook and American cinema are the richer for his labors.

After having assembled admirable scores for a host of major comedies, dramas and cartoons, Newman finally won an Oscar last year for "If I Didn't Have You," one of his compositions from Monsters, Inc. Nonesuch's Songbook Vol. 1, released last month, showcases the songwriter, self-accompanied on piano, singing a few of his pop hits ("I Think It's Going to Rain Today," "Sail Away"), trenchant social commentaries ("Rednecks," "The Great Nations of Europe"), heartstring-tugging love songs ("Living Without You," "Marie"), and characteristically nostalgic movie moments ("Ragtime" from Milos Forman's film, and "When She Loved Me" from Toy Story 2). These songs and material that will constitute future Songbook volumes make up his current tour setlist.

Newman's musical education dates back to childhood. "I had it all the time, from the time I was 7 years old, says Newman. "Piano, then harmony, counterpoint and orchestration." Growing up in L.A., the young Newman studied with classical composer Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco, who was responsible for training many notable film music writers, such as Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini and Andre Previn.

One of Newman's uncles, the composer Alfred Newman, was once the head of music for 20th Century Fox. "I admired Alfred's music a great deal, just that it was moving stuff and really helped the pictures [he wrote for], like Wuthering Heights and How the West Was Won," says the younger Newman, who despite his own training and lineage seems a bit surprised to be complimented on his own sophisticated orchestrations. "But what I have that's rarest [in films] is a melodic sort of gift," he says. "Nowadays there aren't many people that can do it. And then I have the technique to be able to go and do action stuff like Monsters."

Most of Newman's dozen or so studio recordings were done before he was a household name in Hollywood, but he sees a mutually benign relationship between the two parts of his career. The popularity of his film music, he says, "expands my audience, but more importantly it expands my own abilities, harmonically and in terms of orchestration." Penning kid-friendly ditties for cartoons was also "a very different kind of songwriting" from the vignettes about carnival freaks, sociopaths, bigots and unfortunates that he'd created for his albums.

"My style, for good or ill, had become this kind of third-person character thing," he says. "And that was my own choice: I just found it more interesting than talking about, 'I love you, you love me, you don't love me, I don't love you,' and then writing 90 percent love songs. I thought you could have more latitude if you did what I do. But occasionally, it's nice to just do a straightforward 'You've Got a Friend in Me.'"

Lovers of love songs and tender tales wouldn't do wrong to pick up the 30th anniversary edition of Nilsson Sings Newman on Buddha Records. The release blends Newman's composition and piano playing with the airy, affecting voice and luminescent production of the late Harry Nilsson. It's a little touch of Newman for the sweet side of your palate.

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