Friday, October 30, 2009

Recording What?

We have to set up a studio and immediately all sorts of technological questions are raised, such as how much technology do we want, and that depends on what we think we're trying to record.

In a way this is an easy question because all we have to do is have some understanding of what the jazz establishment is doing, and just do the opposite. After all, nothing makes decision making as easy as watching someone get the exact opposite results they intend to get. People record jazz CDs to sell, and they don't sell. They wildly don't sell. So it's not like we can do any worse--and by following along with everyone else we know it's going to fail--therefore, just do the opposite.

We already have a quiet room for practicing, the floors are covered with heavily padded carpet, there are bookshelves, thick drapes, soft furniture. It might be something like Rudy Van Gelder's living room used to be. A room with a comfortable feel. Right here we aren't talking about recording studio with perfectly designed acoustics. No soundproof glass, no way musicians can't see one and other. Maximal human contact and interaction.

What was Rudy recording? That's the next question. There's something missing in so many contemporary releases. Again, using the same logic as above, we can rule out that Rudy was recording the sounds of the instruments. Why? Because they do that so much better now and the records aren't as good and they don't sell as well. Our hypothesis--and again, how can we do worse?--Rudy was recording the night. Listen to Midnight Blue, not listed on the credits is the night. I don't know if the album was recorded at night, in the darkest part of the night, but you can sure as heck hear the night on that album.

He was also recording their soul--which eventually came through their instruments. So how do you record the sounds of a person's soul, which I believe is slightly different than recording soul. Or, put another way, Rudy was recording the musicians themselves first, their instruments second. How do you do this? Well, this first step is certainly to put less emphasis on recording sound. So we aren't using state of the art technology. Garage Band, a pretty good audio interface (PreSonus Firestudio), and some reasonably good microphones.

That brings us to soul--does soul have depth? I'm old enough to believe yes. Do they talk about depth of soul in music school? No they don't. Is there a certain depth of soul that leads to good and possibly great music? Probably. How does one get that?

That's where we have to leave off.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Needle in a Field of Hay

Down in this neck of the American Woods it’s difficult to find musicians. There are musicians, but it’s not like St. Louis or New York, where there is a very great chance you’ll meet another jazz player just walking down the street of the Delmar Loop in St. Louis or wherever the New York hangouts may be.

We’re not looking for just anyone. It’s like a good marriage, that no matter what personality issues there are, and there will be some, the music comes out right—Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, Dizzy and Charlie Parker, the Wynton Kelly rhythm section, Grady Tate and Ron Carter, Elvin Jones and…..Jimmy Forrest. Fooled you on that one. Here’s another trick question. John Coltrane and….Duke Ellington. Not McCoy Tyner. It’s got to be right. Right right.

This hasn’t been easy. We were lucky the first go around. Amy was 15, and we just used all of her teachers. That means everyone was checking their personalities at the door of the studio, they were teaching, still, even though the sounds were being recorded.

Then a funny thing happened when Amy was 16. She became quite good, so good and so happy with these unholy fast tempos that the bassist had to bow (no pun intended) out. His hands just hurt too much. He also had a rock back that, according to Amy, is showing some promise of success. He didn’t have time to practice our stuff for 5 hours a day, just to get a quarter inch more inside the pocket.

We’ve also decided to cut back on the drumming, cut it to congas—which will give the songs a deep groove, and fit with the vibes. But finding the elusive bass player, that’s some trick.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Beginnings

If you want to get rich, nowadays, there must be some way--it seems that the two tried and true methods are down to one, since real estate just went bust. The other way is to invent something that society desperately needs.

Producing Jazz is way down on that list. It is so far down on that list that it actually reaches into a new list--Things You Do for Love. It may also graze the list of Things That Are Nearly Impossible to Do.

We get a Jazz Channel with our cable TV setup, and they play contemporary artists. There is also a smooth jazz channel, but I don't listen to that. I started to listen to this straight jazz channel to see who's out there playing, how they sound. But I began to listen less and less. There was no question the musicians were good--but for the most part, they were indistinguishable from one and other, especially the guitarists. This is because jazz education is for the most part standardized. And wherever there is standardization, there is also a lack of heart. McDonald's may taste good, but you don't go there for a memorable meal or a signature dish.

So the first problem is finding musicians who sound like themselves, that is, they sound like their heart. There is plenty of documentation that music schools don't, can't, teach players how to connect with their heart. But this was always the strength and engine of jazz, musicians as the rugged individualists, John Wayne each and every one, forging their own frontier on the plains and forests of swing. Now the music hasn't the strength, nor the engine to continue. And like an airplane whose engine fails, it falls. That's jazz history. I don't think one can argue otherwise.

I was very lucky to have a teacher that insisted on each student connecting to their heart. In the age of McDonald's and suburbs and strip malls, this isn't easy. In my case, I knew that the method was the right one, but it takes a very long time. So I wasn't the hot guitarist in town when I was 20. I was getting blown away on the bandstand by the kids coming back from Berklee. It's not that they were playing great music, but they were MUCH more competent--and they would always want to play Giant Steps. And they weren't very nice, not helpful, just arrogant.

Given this, Mom and Pop know which musicians they will NOT be using.

A Little Bit of Business

I'm going to change the focus of this blog just a little bit, and before I do that I've got to post this little exchange between myself and Scott Yanow. Basically, it regards a comment he made on my last post, and I'll reproduce that comment here:

Scott Yanow said...

Hi Bob,

I just read your very intriguing analysis of an unknown reviewer and his or her lack of comprehension of classic jazz. Your ideas and assumptions are fascinating, but it is a pity that they are completely inaccurate.

I am the reviewer of the Yves Francois CD. I have nothing against spontaneity. Coleman Hawkins once said that it can't be jazz if there are no mistakes. I love early jazz, whether it is called dixieland, New Orleans or classic jazz. In fact, I wrote a book by the latter name. I have been listening to, writing about, and even playing in that idiom of music for 35 years.

Whether I know anything about jazz is of course open to one's opinion. Critics are not above being criticized. But I do prefer that criticism (whether of critics or of musicians) include at least a little bit of reality.

Yves Francois is a fine trumpeter and his playing always has the chancetaking spirit of the best jazz. However the CD in question includes some performances that are more important historically than they are musically. There are obvious mistakes and lost moments heard along the way, not just an occasional missed note, and a few of the selections probably should not have been released. The music is fun and has its enjoyable moments, but it is full of flaws.

Yves has since told me that he likes my writing and my understanding of early jazz. That is good enough for me.

In the future, when you criticize a review, do a little bit of research first. Perhaps you should actually listen to the music in question before criticizing the critic.


Scott Yanow

I replied that basically I would stand by my comments, although I would certainly back away from my strong language that he didn't know anything about jazz. Because he says that he's part of the jazz establishment and has been so for a long time, he has watched the slow and painful demise of jazz, and is in a sense part of the problem. The problem is that everyone professionally involved in jazz has been watching this demise occur for about 50 years and no one seems to understand why it's happening or how to stop the bleeding. So in that sense, there is a crucial bit of jazz knowledge that so many jazz folks seem to lack. Scott is in a large boat.

The other part of my response was very simple--and again, many jazz critics do the same thing--that they conflate the artist with the producer. These are two different skills. If Scott says that some cuts shouldn't have been released--that's a problem for the producer, and those skills. It isn't a matter of whether or not Yves can play, where Yves is playing, or who he can get to play along with him.

Which brings me to my little change in focus.

I could sit here and rail against that very jazz establishment, the jazz programs in universities, the music schools, the record labels--and all I would produce is one long whine. There's just no point to that. So I'm going to begin to chronicle what it's like to produce a jazz CD in these tough times. Occasionally I get an email from someone wanting me to post a review of a particular CD, and if I choose to do so, I will post a review. Other than that, it's diary time. A Mom and Pop record company is born. We'll also be publishing some novels.