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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Recording in New York




New York is always great if you’re a visiting jazz musician. The sheer concentration of high level musicians there is unequalled anywhere else in the world. I’m not sure how many times I’ve been to NY – must be approaching twenty times at this stage – and I’ve been there in many capacities, as a tourist, as a teacher, and as a performer, but this was my first time there to make a recording. Earlier this year I decided that it was about time I recorded a new album - my last one (Renaissance Man with John Abercrombie), though only released last year, was in fact recorded in 2008. Such are the vagaries of the recording business these days that it took four years to get it out.... 

So it was definitely time to record again, and as I thought about it, I came to the realisation that I'd like to record it in New York, and do it with some musicians who were a) great, and b) with whom I had a history. Quite often musicians go to NY to make Allstar-type albums, and many times the results are unedifying since there's almost no rapport between the leader and his or her sidemen. In these situations there's often a 'guns for hire' feeling from the NY musicians - of course they play great, but they're there because they've been hired and since it's not a working band, they don't really have an investment in the result. I didn't want that, so I asked two musicians with whom I'd played in the past - Tom Rainey and Dave Binney - to record with me, and my son Chris, who's an up and coming guitarist in his own right and who (for obvious reasons), also knows my music and whom I knew would put the work into learning the sometimes difficult pieces.

So early in January Chris and I took off for NY - I decided to go a few days earlier in order to be able to see some music, and to ensure that jetlag would play no part in the recording process. If you travel that far and at quite an expense, the last thing you want is to be sleepy during the recording! We arrived on the coldest New York day for months, just missing a snowstorm and arriving from a relatively balmy 8 degrees in Dublin to a frigid -10 or so in New York. I'd seen the forecast so I had brought the right gear for the weather, but it's always a shock to step into that kind of icy wind, one of a kind we don't ever get in Ireland. More cold weather was forecast for the week that we were there, but I think the media really hype up the approach of bad weather - there was quite a bit of hysteria around the idea of the 'polar vortex' that was apparently going to strip the skin off our faces if we went out for more than five seconds. It reminded me of the great send up of this kind of media-induced panic from the Simpsons….




Our (perfect) host while we were in New York was the wonderful bassist and all-round great guy Arthur Kell who has a fantastic house in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, complete with much of the original 19th Century woodwork intact - in a city where space is at a premium, Arthur's house is spacious and full of character and we were very lucky to be able to be able to base ourselves there for the duration. Shortly after we arrived we were also lucky to be able to see a fine concert by Arthur's quartet at Matt Garrison's very nice venue Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn. This was my first time visiting this venue, and I was very impressed - it has good sight lines and, from where I was sitting, the sound was very clear.


(Arthur Kell's Quartet, playing at Shapeshifter Lab)

Arthur's music is quite unique, complex at times yet always tuneful, and with some really nice hooks to the pieces. It's very hard to put your finger on what the music sounds like in terms of being able to compare it to one modern jazz genre or another, it really is very characterful music with a sound of its own. For this gig the guitarist Nate Radley subbed for the altoist Loren Stillman and did an incredible job on virtually sight reading the music - more evidence of the kind of high craft skills you find in New York. I'd heard some of this music before, but it was very interesting to hear it with two guitars, (the other musicians, apart from Arthur on bass, were Brad Shepik on guitar and Mark Ferber on drums), it gave it a very different and attractive sound. At the end of the gig I ran into Matt Garrison which was really a pleasure - I hadn't seen him since 1993 when he was a student at the IASJ meeting in Siena in Italy, so it was nice to see him again. Of course apart from running this great venue he is also an incredible bassist……

Sunday also gave me a chance to meet with and catch up with the guitarist and arranger Dave O Rourke, an Irish jazz export to NY, and someone I've known since we both met queuing up to see Louis Stewart play in the late 70s in Dublin. Dave runs the fantastic Jazz Standard Jazz Discovery Program at the club of the same name, a development program me for youngsters in New York which both gives them an educational element and an opportunity to play in one of NY's finest clubs. As always it was great to meet up with Dave and talk about the past, present and future of what's been going on with us since we last met. Dave's made a serious career for himself in NY, as an arranger and composer, and is without doubt one of the most generous people I've ever met in the business. Dublin's loss was NY's gain….






(Left to right - Lindsey Horner, RG, David Gage, Chris)

The following day was a busy one - beginning with a trip to Brooklyn to have a session with Matt Jacobson - an Irish drummer livening in NY for a year on a Fullbright Scholarship - and some other young musicians. We just got together and played through some tunes and some open improvising. It was an effective way to loosen up and reconnect to the instrument again in preparation for the recording, and all the young guys sounded really good.

Then we were off into midtown Manhattan to meet one of my oldest musical friends Lindsey Horner, and visit the very legendary bass shop owned by David Gage. If there is an acoustic bass Mecca anywhere, then this is it - the signed photographs on the wall alone are testimony to the fact that this is the the place to come and buy a bass, or have a bass repaired, or just to chew the fat and see what's happening in the bass world. The shop has a great vibe - a sense of professional pride in their work is in the air, and you get a feeling of old-school craftsmanship from meeting the people who work there, and from watching them at work. I'd never met David before, but Lindsey introduced us and he very kindly gave us a tour of the building, which is being refurbished upstairs and is deceptively big. Floor after floor of basses….. it doesn't get much better than this if you're a bassist, and we even were invited onto the roof, which had a spectacular view, and from which the photo at the top of this piece was taken.

Then it was back to Brooklyn to meet my brother Dara, who's been living and working as a Drum and Bass DJ in New York for almost twenty years. We met him and his partner Meredith, and again had fun catching up, at a great Turkish restaurant  where I ate not wisely, but too well…. it's always a dangerous thing to eat so much food when slightly jet-lagged, especially when you know that you've still someplace to go - and we really had somewhere special to go - the Village Vanguard to see the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.





The VJO is truly the Rolls Royce of jazz orchestras. Their combination of a tradition stretching back to 1964, the opportunity to play every Monday night over such a long period, having the best writers composing for them (Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely), and having a band bristling with great soloists and players has made them into the extraordinary unit they are today. I usually try and see them whenever I'm in NY, and on this occasion they were at the top of their form. The set contained an extraordinary long form piece by Bob Brookmeyer, followed by two signature McNeely pieces, and all this bookended by two great swinging Thad pieces. Hearing this music, played so brilliantly by this band, in the most famous jazz club in the world, is what makes New York special for anyone who loves jazz and its traditions.

Rehearsal 

The following day we began the serious work - the reason we came here in the first place, to record the music. But before going into the studio, I'd booked some rehearsal time at Michiko Studios, a favorite professional rehearsal space for New York jazz musicians. That become clear in that while only there for a few hours, I ran into Mark Helias and Nasheet Waits (great guys both - Mark told me he'd got an Irish passport since I'd seen him last!), and saw Lennie White crossing the lobby.

We had four hours to get through seven pieces of varying degrees of complexity - both Chris and I knew the music, and Tom and Dave are both incredibly quick and skillful, so it doesn't take them long to learn new music. In the time that had elapsed since I released 'Renaissance Man', I had written quite a bit of new music, and as someone who composes a lot, I had many compositions which had never been recorded before, so I wasn't short of material. I'd selected pieces that I thought would work for the instrumentation and and the players, and had written two new pieces that I felt would fit well in the overall shape of the recording. It was clear as we went through the pieces that most would go down with little trouble, and a couple of pieces would require a fair bit of work. At the end of the session I was happy that we'd knocked some of the rough corners off the pieces, familiarized ourselves with the shape of them, and made great strides towards ensuring a fruitful two days in the studio.

That evening we went to see Dave's quartet at the 55 Bar - the club he's made into a regular spot for his bands and music. I envy him the luxury of having a place like this to play on a regular basis - this is still the only way you can properly develop music. Dave's quartet, which on this occasion featured John Escreet (piano), Eivind Opsvik (bass, and subbing at the last minute for an indisposed Dan Weiss, Nate Wood on drums. Dave has definitely done that most difficult of things - developed a group sound, and it was a pleasure to hear a working band tear through original material like that. The fact that Nate Wood could play the music so well despite subbing at the last minute, was yet again a testimony to the wealth of talent in New York.




In the Studio

So, at last we got to the studio, the legendary Systems Two in Brooklyn. Incredibly well run by Nancy, Joe and Mike Marciano, this studio is one of the best jazz studios in the world. I say 'jazz studio' because it is set up and run with a complete understanding of the requirements for jazz musicians, and the people who have recorded there read like a who's who of contemporary American jazz. When you record there you can see why it has the reputation it has. I first went there in the mid 90s, recording with Steve Coleman, and was knocked out by how quickly they got a great sound and how easy the whole environment was to work in. Recording is not easy - it's such a different environment to live playing, and sometimes it's hard to get a natural atmosphere going and overcome the potential sterility of the studio.

The difficulty of getting a natural atmosphere can be compounded by poor studio equipment and slowness of the studio engineer and technicians. There's nothing more counterproductive to creative playing than hanging around for ages waiting to get a decent sound or for the engineer to set up the mics. In Systems Two this never happens, and when we arrived everything was set up - music stands, headphones, personal headphone mixer (a HUGE timesaver!), mics, guitar stands - and though there were isolation booths around the saxophone and drums, there were great sight lines everywhere and everyone could see each other, and get a good sound on the headphones.

In the first day we recorded four of the seven pieces, two of which went down very easily and two of which required more work. Again we were helped in our work by the great sound in the studio, and the speed that our engineer Max was able to organise things in the control booth and get a great natural sound for playback purposes. In recording, there are a lot of balancing acts going on - how many takes do you make? Will you get a better take if you do another, or will it get stale? How finicky do you have to be about getting things technically perfect, versus allowing things to sound natural despite the odd glitch here and there? What needs to be fixed in the studio, or what can be fixed afterwards in the editing? All of these things need to be balanced, and there's nothing that helps you more in making your decisions than experience. Even then you can sometimes get it wrong.



(The setup for our session at Systems Two)

But I was very happy with the first day's work, and with such great musicians I always knew that we'd get a good result.

Next day it was back to the studio, and we finished the recording, the very last note being logged at exactly 4pm - the designated finishing time for the session. The big piece on this day was 'Hands', the first movement of my guitar concerto, built on a riff that I love, and here adapted for the quartet. There are quite a lot of tricky passages to be negotiated on this piece, but eventually negotiate them we did - which was a relief, because prior to the session I wasn't sure if it would work in this format or not, but I was very pleased with the final result.



And I was very pleased with the final result of this trip to New York - thanks Dave, Chris and Tom!

I've written before concerning the amount of musicians in New York, and it being a double-edged sword, but it's always great to visit and it's certainly great to have the chance to record there with such great musicians. So much incredible music has been recorded there over the years and it was nice to be even a tiny part of that history.

If you'd like to see some more photos from the session, click HERE

And in case you're interested in getting a taste of what we recorded, HERE are a few short clips of some of the pieces we did - the CD should be out later this year - watch this space!




2 comments:

  1. This blog is making me miss new york ... minus ten degrees or not... ha ha ah. Congratulations on recording and what sounded like a great trip. j.keogh

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  2. NY Recording Excerpts sound great - look forward to hearing the full album

    ReplyDelete