Thursday, April 24, 2014

"The Night I Became a Jazz Musician"

BILL KlRCHNER is a composer-arranger, saxophonist, bandleader, jazz historian, record and radio producer, and educator.

He is one of the editorial staff at JazzProfiles’ enduring heroes and an all-round nice guy who's The Oxford Companion to Jazz is perhaps the most constantly referenced source book on these pages.

The following essay appeared in the Journal of Jazz Studies vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 186-189 (Winter 2013) and is reproduced here with Bill’s permission.

© -Bill Kirchner, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.  This work is licensed under -

“I became a jazz musician on June 19, 1965. I was eleven years old.
Very few musicians—or anyone else, for that matter—can pinpoint the beginning of their careers with such precision. In my case, though, I can attribute it to one evening at the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival.

A little background: I was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, a then-booming, medium-sized industrial city located halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. (In its heyday, Youngstown was also known as the site of eighty Mafia murders. Front-porch shootings of mobsters, as well as car ignitions wired with dynamite, were frequent occurrences.) With the disappearance of its steel industry in the late 1970s, Youngstown is now a shadow of its onetime self.

I started to play the clarinet at the age of seven. I knew a little bit about jazz, mostly from the Timex jazz television specials, and especially from the abundance of jazz then present on TV crime shows. Jazz-oriented composers such as Henry Mancini, Pete Rugolo, John (then Johnny) Williams, and others were kept busy beginning in the late 1950s with such shows as Peter Gunn, Mr. Lucky, Johnny Staccato, Dan Raven, Checkmate, and others. My very young ears heard the pulsating rhythms and sophisticated harmonies of those scores with boundless interest.

That interest increased even more when I was ten. One night, I heard the Duke Ellington Orchestra play "Satin Doll" on The Ed Sullivan Show, then one of America's biggest purveyors of middle-brow culture. The sound of the Ellington saxophone section and those voicings reverberated in my mind's ear for weeks thereafter.
So in the summer of 1965, my parents offered to give me an early present for my upcoming twelfth birthday: an evening at the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, an hour or so's drive from Youngstown.

This festival, in its second year, was sponsored by Pittsburgh's Catholic Youth Organization and programmed by George Wein of Newport Jazz Festival fame. It took place at the domed Civic Arena over three nights (June 18-20) and also included an early morning dance with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and a Sunday afternoon piano workshop with Ellington, Earl Hines, Willie "the Lion" Smith, Billy Taylor, Mary Lou Williams, and Pittsburgher Charles Bell. (The Civic Arena, from 1961 to 2010 a showplace for Pittsburgh's musical and athletic events, was torn down in 2011-2012.)

My parents and I decided to attend the Saturday night concert, which featured a local warmup group (pianist Walt Harper's quintet), Earl Hines, Carmen McRae, the Stan Getz Quartet, the John Coltrane Quartet, and the Ellington band. For financial reasons, a bill like this would be inconceivable nowadays. When I tell young students about it, their jaws drop. But in those days, such lineups were not that unusual.

My memories of the evening as an eleven-year-old neophyte are inevitably sketchy. But with the help of a detailed review in Down Beat (July 29, 1965, pp. 13-14) by the magazine's Pittsburgh correspondent Roy Kohler, 111 attempt to reminisce a bit.

Following an opening set by the Walt Harper Quintet (Harper was a local jazz mainstay for many years), pianist Earl Hines, a Pittsburgh native, performed with bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley. Gales and Riley gave yeoman service that weekend: in addition to playing the previous evening with their regular employer Thelonious Monk, they also appeared immediately before Monk with George Wein's Newport All-Stars (featuring cornetist Ruby Braff and tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman) and throughout the Sunday afternoon piano workshop.

Of the eight tunes Hines played, I remember hearing only "Canadian Sunset" and "Satin Doll"—probably because those were the only songs I recognized. Hines was then in the midst of a career renaissance, and this was his first gig in his hometown in fifteen years, so it was probably an important evening for him.
Vocalist Carmen McRae was next, accompanied by pianist Norman Simmons's trio. I remember only that McRae paid a warm verbal tribute to Monk (who was then a new name to me), followed by a version of the pianist/composer's "'Round Midnight."

Last on before intermission was tenor saxophonist Stan Getz's quartet, with vibraphonist Gary Burton, bassist Steve Swallow, and (probably) drummer Roy Haynes. My principal memory of this group is Burton, then a 22-year-old wunderkind of his instrument. Burton played a solo version of "My Funny Valentine" that, as Roy Kohler revealed, "had Duke Ellington beaming with praise backstage."

In 2010, I corresponded with Burton about this evening, and he had some interesting recollections:

‘It was a memorable night for me as well. Stan and Trane were the reigning kings of the tenor at that time (Sonny [Rollins] had been off the scene for a self-imposed exile), and we ended up in a dressing room next to Trane, who was running fast scales and arpeggios over and over. Stan took out his tenor to warm up and sort of in musical protest, just played a single, passionate, simple melody line and put the horn down. It was a perfect example of the difference between the two musicians.’

‘What I remember most about the night was my encounter with Duke. After my set with Getz, Duke came up to me and complimented me on my solo vibes piece. He said he always appreciated it when someone found something new to do with an instrument (as was typical of many of his sidemen). He was very gracious and sincere, and that began a casual relationship that lasted for quite a few years. We were both on RCA at the time, and found ourselves at industry functions often, and we also were regularly booked on the same nights at George Wein's festival events. Duke always had generous and charming things to say to me whenever he spotted me in a crowded room, like, 'Now I know this is a class affair, you're here.' He was famous for his flattery of anyone and everyone. One of the highlights of my life was when he invited me to come to a recording session of his band at RCA studios. It was the Far East Suite project, and I was thrilled by the experience.’

George Wein, ever the shrewd programmer, saved the John Coltrane Quartet (with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones) and the Ellington band for after intermission. Nine days later, Coltrane recorded Ascension, his most outre recording, so with the benefit of hindsight, it's not surprising that Coltrane that night took the music right to the edge. As Kohler put it, "Even the most dyed-in-the-wool Coltrane fans seemed confused as to whether the saxophonist was kidding or not." A number of listeners walked out during the set, and others (including my parents and me) probably would have if not for Ellington being scheduled immediately afterward.

This was my first exposure of any kind to Coltrane. I remember him playing "My Favorite Things" on soprano saxophone (which I then thought was a clarinet), and Jimmy Garrison doing a flamenco-like solo bass interlude. Almost a half-century later, I wonder what my reaction to this music would be today.

Then came Ellington. I don't remember much about his band's performance, except that I was thrilled that they played "Satin Doll." Also, Billy Strayhorn, who grew up in Pittsburgh, was brought on as guest pianist for

his own "Take the 'A' Train." But according to Kohler, the orchestra was in good form that night, and I have no reason to believe otherwise.

And that was the evening that changed my life forever. After that, my dalliance with Top 40 radio came to a halt. I borrowed Joe Goldberg's Jazz Masters of the Fifties and other jazz books from the library, started listening to whatever jazz I could find on the radio, and bought my first LPs with whatever little spending money I had. In short, I became the jazz nerd of my elementary school, much to the puzzlement and occasional derision of my peers. (A couple of my all-white classmates had problems with jazz books I was reading that had pictures of black people—think the N-word—on the covers.)

Fortunately, my high school experience was far better. I had a hip band director who led and wrote for a "stage band" where I got to play my first improvised solos and write my first arrangements. And it all went from there.

But if not for June 19, 1965, I wonder if things would have advanced as rapidly for me as they did.”

“NOTE: The only recorded documentation of the 1965 Pittsburgh Jazz Festival is The Jazz Piano, an album recorded at the Sunday afternoon piano workshop. It was issued by RCA in the 1960s, and reissued on CD with additional tracks by Mosaic in 2007.”

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Carmen McRae - Revisiting A Grand Dame of Jazz

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“There's always a tigerish feel to her best vocals - no woman has ever sung in the Jazz idiom with quite such beguiling surliness as McRae.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Carmen McRae is the true grande dame of jazz. Like so many of the best women Jazz singers, including her friends Shirley Horn and the late Sarah Vaughan, Carmen is an accomplished pianist. This means she not only has a feeling for harmony, she has true knowledge of it. Carmen always knows exactly what she is doing.

The term ‘Jazz singer’ is a dubious one, and Sarah Vaughan objected to it. It means many things to many people, including merely a style that entails a cer­tain indefinable jazz feeling. If it means anything specific, it surely denotes some­one who can improvise with the voice. In a well-made song, the intervals of the music bear a significant relationship to the natural inflections of the words, and to alter the melody compromises the mean­ing and diminishes the dramatic effect of the song as a whole. Unfortunately, that is exactly what all too many ‘Jazz singers’ do. Carmen is a spectacular exception. When she changes the melodic intervals, she somehow, mysteriously, deepens the song, increasing the impact of the words.”
Gene Lees, Jazz writer and critic

“No singer since [Billie] Holiday had been more adept at singing behind the beat than McRae, or more skilled at shifting from an intimate conversational delivery to hard-edged reconfigurations of melody and lyric.”
Ted Gioia, A History of Jazz

“No singer was more stubbornly verbal than Carmen McRae, who inflected words as though she were giving them a tongue-lashing. McRae was famously outspoken and her songs had a similarly tart ap­peal. You didn't necessarily turn to her for profane insight into the song­writer's art, but you occasionally got it anyway. This is especially true of the numerous [Billie] Holiday tunes she covered.

If Holiday made the word ‘love’ shimmer with unrequited longing, McRae cast it in caustic languor. Consider her 1965 live recording of "No More": Holiday sang the line, ‘you ain't gonna bother me no more no how,’ as if trying to key up her resolve; McRae phrased those words as if she had a gun in her purse.
- Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz [paragraphing modified]

There was noting quite like hearing Carmen McRae sing, especially in-person.

To my ears, she was the epitome of a song stylist, but watching her style a song was a captivating and beguiling experience. I told her once that she was my “witchy woman,” to which she laughingly replied: “Be careful, or I’ll put a spell on you.”

Of course, she knew. She already had.

And it wasn’t only me. Carmen had a way of enchanting anyone who ever caught her in performance.

The reason was simple. She loved singing Jazz and she was good at it. She knew it, the musicians who backed her knew it and we knew it.  And if you were in her presence while she doing her thing, you knew that you were in for the thrill of your life.

What Carmen served up during her performances was akin to a musical feast: phrasing lyrics with meaning and understanding; picking tempos that were always just right; scatting – just enough – while employing the cleverest of harmonies; and just when you thought that you didn’t have room for dessert, she’d offered up a stomping version of “I Cried for You” or “Three Little Words” and leave you screaming for more.

I always sensed a great sadness in Carmen, too. The weightiness and gravity with which she handled certain ballads spoke of a life with its share of disappointments.

She was nobody’s fool, but few of us go through life without some emotional bumps and bruises and it appeared to me that Carmen had had her share of these, including some personal relationships that didn’t work out.

It was easy to catch the sense of this if you listened closely to her banter between tunes or observed her knowing facial or lyrical expressions when she sang romantic ballads.

Carmen brought the Jazz musician’s life to her music,  a life which was never an easy one, even during the best of times.

I loved seeing her work at a club whether it was at Sugar Hill in San Francisco, or P.J.’s  on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood or at Donte’s Jazz Club in North HollywoodCA.

Can you imagine a rhythm section made up of Joe Pass on guitar, Jimmy Rowles on piano, Chuck Domanico on bass and Chuck Flores on drums backing Carmen at an intimate Jazz club located only a 10-minute drive from my home?

Welcome to my world in 1972 when Carmen worked a week at Donte’s.

The room was loaded with musicians during her appearance and Carmen was always gracious about visiting with as many of them as possible during the breaks between sets.

With her signature – “Hey baby, what’s happening?” – she come up to your table and there would be hugs and giggles all around.

She was a queen who deserved to be an empress. Those of us who understood this treated her royally and gave her the respect that she merited.

In return, she bestowed upon us a treasure chest filled with rendition after rendition of great vocal Jazz.

Thankfully, much of her gift has been saved on recordings.

While I’m grateful for the recorded legacy of her music, there was nothing quite like watching her weave her special charms into a song while sitting three feet away from her in a Jazz club.

When you were around Carmen, "baby," it was always “happening.”

We put together the following video tribute to her with the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD.  It features Carmen singing Let There Be Love accompanied by Norman Simmons on piano, Victor Sproles on bass and Stu Martin on drums.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Cal Tjader - Stan Getz Sextet

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Getz’s session with Cal Tjader looks forward with some prescience to the bossa nova records that were to come. Certainly the coolly pleasant backings of Tjader's rhythm section make up a cordial meeting-ground for tenor and vibes to play lightly appealing solos,....”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

Although the title of this feature is very formal, in reality, the Cal Tjader - Stan Getz quartet was never a working group.

It was a “one off” that came together to produce a February 1958 Fantasy LP with the same title as this piece [Fantasy F-3266/OJCCD-275-2].

In today’s terms, the sextet on The Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet was a hybrid made up of two players from vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s regular working group at the time - pianist Vince Guaraldi and guitarist Eddie Duran - and two musicians from the quartet then on tour with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz - bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Billy Higgins.

Ralph J. Gleason offers this background as to how the LP came about in his insert notes to the recording:

“WHEN STAN GETZ played the Black Hawk in San Francisco ..., the time was ripe for the recording of an album that had been under discussion for a long, long time.

Cal Tjader had been an admirer of Stan Getz ever since the latter first shot to national jazz fame as the tenor saxophone star of the Woody Herman band and Stan had heard Cal and played with him at various sessions since Cal first went out as a member of the Dave Brubeck Trio. However, recording Stan with the Tjader group wasn't easy. They never seemed to be in the same part of the country at the same time. It wasn't until Stan came to the Black Hawk to fulfill a short engagement, during a period when Cal was laying off prior to reforming his group, that it was possible to work it out.

Getz' group at the Black Hawk featured two young jazz players who were totally unknown then: bassist Scotty LaFaro and drummer Billy Higgins. But they gassed Tjader as they had gassed everyone who heard them in the club. And it was decided to use them on the date along with Vince Guaraldi, Tjader's regular pianist, and Eddie Duran, the wonderful young guitarist who has been growing in stature in recent years for his in-person appearances and his work on his Fantasy albums.

Most jazz record dates, as anyone who has ever attended one knows, begin late and are one long tortured attempt to get enough material done right to fit on one LP. Once in a long while a date will jell from note one. This was one of those dates.
A critic journeying across the Bay to San Francisco to catch what he thought would be the last two hours of the date almost missed the whole thing. The album was recorded in record time (no pun intended) with less than three hours work. No tune, except two, had more than one take and even then it was a tossup as to which to use. …

As Vince Guaraldi, the swarthy Borgia of the piano, put it when the date was over, ‘When you got it, you got it.’ And they have.”

This album has long remained one of my favorites for the reasons mentioned in this excerpt from Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960: [paragraphing modified]

“Tjader suffered to some extent from the general lack of imagination that characterized much of Fantasy's jazz product in the late 19505. While other jazz producers of the day, such as Norman Granz or Orrin Keep-news, constantly strived for different formats, personnel, and concepts for their artists, Fantasy tended to churn out a steady stream of similar-sounding albums, usually featuring Tjader's working band.

One of the few exceptions to this rule, Tjader's collaboration with Stan Getz showed the benefits of mixing Cal with new blood from beyond the occasionally anemic Fantasy roster. In addition to Getz, the session featured Scott LaFaro, Billy Higgins, Vince Guaraldi, and Eddie Duran. The band drew on some of the permanent fixtures in the Tjader repertoire—Cal's waltz Lizanne, the blues Crow's Nest, and Guaraldi's Ginza Samba—with Getz leading the way with a charged tenor performance.”

This video is set to Vince Guaraldi’s Ginza Samba to give you a taste of what’s on offer in this wonderful recording.

Please click on the “X” to close out of the ads.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Rudy Van Gelder: A Signature Sound Revisited

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I never thought much about the quality of the sound on the Blue Note LPs that I purchased in the 1950s and 60s. I didn't need to.

Blue Note’s sound quality was something that one could take for granted because the now, legendary Rudy van Gelder was the commanding force behind it and, as you’ll come to understand after reading the following interview, he obviously gave it a great deal of thought.

The sound on Blue Note’s albums had a “presence” that wrapped the listener in an audio environment which was dynamic and vibrant.

The sound came forward; it reached out; it enveloped.

Rudy made the sound seem as though it was emanating from musicians who were performing it in one’s living room.

In a way, this is more than an analogy because Rudy’s initial recording studio was the living room in his parents’ home in HackensackNJ before he built his own studio in near-by Englewoods CliffsNJ.

Rudy doesn’t talk much about himself or his views on the subject of sound engineering.

Fortunately, James Rozzi was able to interview him at length and publish Rudy’s responses to his questions in the November 1995 edition of the now defunct Audio Magazine.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought this rare glimpse of Rudy van Gelder discussing himself and his technical approach to sound recording would make an interesting feature for its readers.

It is hard to imagine let alone conceive of what The World of Jazz would have been like if Rudy Van Gelder hadn’t been around.

© -James Rozzi/Audio Magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Dr. Rudy Van Gelder’s formal education was in optometry, but his heart and the majority of his professional years have been devoted full-time to the recording industry.

Ask any Jazz buff about Rudy, and they’ll name him as the recording engineer responsible for all those classic Blue Note and Prestige Records, among almost countless others.

This interview, one of the very few that Rudy has granted in his 40 plus years in the business, was conducted in his Englewood Cliffs, NJ studio, a gorgeous facility just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. I thank him for sharing his history and his views.

It’s a given in the Jazz world that you have set the standards for Jazz recordings for the past 40 years. In an ever-changing industry, how do you continue to maintain consistent quality in your recordings?

I prefer to do my own masters, my own editing. By ‘my own,’ I mean, I want it to be done here. It’s not that I influence what it is. It’s just that I need to be involved in the whole process – up to and including the finished product – in order to give my clients what they expect of me, which is the reason why they are coming here. They agree upon that before we can do anything.

This is really the only major stipulation I have, that I do the process. It’s not because it is expensive, because the expense is minimal. I purposely keep it that way because I don’t want the money to be a part of their decision.

The point is that I’d like to have at least some measure of control over the finished sound before it’s sent for replication to the plant.

This is contrary to the way most studios work.

The business, at least from my point of view, has really become fragmented – more like the movie industry. There are engineers who do Jazz recording who don’t own the studio and don’t have anything to do with the maintenance, ownership or operation of the studio.

They just go to a studio as a freelance engineer and use the facility for their own clients. Obviously, this is not the situation here. I own the studio, I run the studio and I maintain it. It’s my responsibility, I’m here everyday, not somebody else. It reflects me.

Being involved in the complete digital post-production is highly unusual for any studio. Would you please explain it?

Once we have gotten to the point of recording and mixing the two-track tape that has all of the tunes the client wants for the CD, the next step is to get together with the producer or the musician, whoever is in charge of the project – and sequence it.

We have to put the tunes in the order that they will appear in on the CD, get all the timings in between the songs precise, and takes all the noises out.

As for the medium for that, the most common medium is DAT [digital audio tape]. Now most people – including musicians and producers, except for those who work here – believe that this is a master tape. That format was not designed to be and is incapable of being a master.

There are other elements required for CD replication that cannot be incorporated into a DAT.

There is just no room on a DAT for the information which tells your CD player to go to track one when you put a CD in and press "play." The information that makes this possible has to be incorporated on the CD. The DAT must be transferred to another medium that incorporates this information. This studio uses a CD-R. Prior to the CD-R, 1630 was the de facto standard. I consider that now obsolete. Most recording studios do not get involved in this process.

If most recording studios don't get involved in digital post-production, then how is it commonly done?

The very fact that most recording studios don't care to do it has created the existence of what are called mastering houses. They don't have studios. They don't even have a microphone. They just put the numbers on there and then transfer from one medium to another.

Why are you so concerned with accom­plishing this process yourself? Isn't the equipment expensive?

Yes, it's very expensive, very difficult to ac­quire and maintain. The problem is that there can be processing at this stage, quite extensive processing.

Intentionally changing the sound from that of the DAT?

Intentionally changing the sound! Chang­ing the loudness to softness, the highs to lows. Yes, it's a very elaborate procedure; it is a part of the recording process that most people don't even know exists.

Who is responsible for making the decision to alter the sound at this late a stage in the recording process?

Whoever is following the course of the pro­ject, usually whoever is paying for it or their representative. I'm now defining why I in­sist on doing everything myself. And you can extend this into the reissue process too. Reissuing is nothing but post-production. The people who were originally involved in the recording are no longer there, or they no longer own it. These mastering decisions on reissues are being made by someone else, someone affiliated with the company who now owns the material.

What are your feelings on issuing alternate takes?

Now, to me that's just a sad event which has befallen the record industry. The rejected outtakes have been renamed "alternate takes" for marketing reasons. It's a disser­vice to the artist. It's a disservice to the mu­sic. It's also rampant throughout the land, and I'm just telling you how I feel about it. I would recommend to all musicians: Don't let the outtakes get out of your hands. Of course, that may be easier said than done.

You must be disappointed by much of what has been released as alternate takes.
Yes, when I hear some of this stuff, I'm re­minded of all the problems I had, particu­larly on these outtakes. It's like reliving all of the difficulties of my life again. So I don't take a lot of pleasure in that because I know I can do a lot better now, and all that does is reinforce my uneasiness. Of course, when it was a recording problem, the music was usually still so good that it was worth it to me. And the fact that it's still being heard— in many cases being heard better than ever before—is an incredible experience. And it's clean, with no noise. I don't like to com­plain too much.

I feel that way very often myself, the way you described, being able to hear the music better than ever. I'm not a person who locks into the sound as closely as I do the music. The music is all-important to me, but sometimes I become distracted by how bad the sound is. It seems that a big prob­lem in translating those old recordings onto CD is the sound of the bass. It be­comes very boomy.

Well, you can't blame that entirely on the people who are doing the mastering. That particular quality is inherent in the record­ing techniques of the time—the way bass players played, the way they sounded, the way their instruments sounded. They don't sound like that now. The music has changed the way the artists play. Now everything has got to be loud. A loud .drum­mer today is a lot louder than a loud drummer of 30 or even 20 years ago. It's all relative. But as far as that certain quality you're talking about, some of it is very good, by the way. There were some excellent bass recordings made at that time because the bass player and I got together on what we were trying to do.

Considering the reverence given to the his­torical Blue Note recordings and the fact that they were accomplished direct to two-track, do you get many requests nowadays to record direct to two-track?

 Usually they say, "I want to go direct to two-track like the old days." And I say, "Sure, I'll do that." I can still do it, or we can record to the 24-track digital machine. As far as the musicians are concerned, regarding their performance out in the studio, that's trans­parent to them. There's no difference in the setup. I sort of think two-track while I'm recording and actually run a two-track recording of the session, which very often serves as the finished mix.

But this is the real world now. The musicians will listen to the playback, and the bass player will say, "Gee, I played two bad notes going into the bridge of the out-melody. Can you fix that, Rudy?" Now, it used to be that when a client asked for a two-track session, I would never run a multi-track backup. They didn't want to get involved in it, for money reasons. They didn't want to spend the money for the tape or didn't want to have to mix it af­ter the session. I went along with that for a long time. But the bass player would still come in, hoping to fix wrong notes, and I'd sit there like a fool and say, ‘Well, I can't do anything about it. The producer didn't want to spend the money for multi-tracking.’

So I decided I wasn't going to do that anymore. I think of it as a two-track date— we're talking about a small acoustic jazz band now, not any kind of heavy produc­tion thing—and I run a multi-track backup. Then when the bass player asks to fix a cou­ple of notes, I look at the producer or who­ever is paying for the session, and that be­comes his decision, not mine. He now has to answer the bass player.

So the final product may consist of both multi-track and two-track recordings?

That happens. Right. And my life is a lot happier. And the producers have come around a little bit too.

How did you first become affiliated with Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records?

There was a saxophone player and arranger by the name of Gil Melle. He had a little band and a concept of writing, and I recorded him. This was before I met Alfred. I recorded it in my Hackensack studio in my parents’ home. So somehow—and I was not a party to it—he sold that to Alfred to be released on Blue Note. And Alfred want­ed to make another one. So he took that recording to the place he was going. It hap­pened to be in New York at the WOR recording studios. He played it for the engi­neer, who Alfred had been using up until that time, and the engineer said, "I can't get that sound. I can't record that here. You'd better go to whoever did it." Remember, I wasn't there; this is how it was related to me. And that's what brought Alfred to me. He came to me, and he was there forever.

Those Blue Note records, they're just so beautiful....


Did Alfred and you work at producing those jazz masterpieces? Did he have you splice solos?

Yes, he did. He was tough to work for com­pared to anyone else. He knew what he wanted. He knew what that album should sound like before he even came into the stu­dio. He made it tough for me. It was defi­nitely headache time and never easy. On the other hand, I knew it was important, and he had a quality that gave me confi­dence in him. The whole burden of creating for him—what he had in mind—that was mine. And he knew how to extract the maximum effort from the musi­cians and from me too. He was a master at that. I think one of the reasons our relation­ship lasted so long was because he listened to what other people were doing parallel to our product. I don't believe he ever heard anything that was better than what we were doing. I have no doubt that if he had heard someone doing it better than what I was doing, he would have gone there. But he never did, and that made it possible for me to build this studio. I knew he was always there.

Once you developed that sound, you knew exactly what to do initially. When the mu­sicians walked in, you knew right where everything should be regarding micro­phone placement and all of that. And you went from there. From that point, it was just minor alterations according to that session.

That's very well put, and do you know why that was? Because Alfred used to come here often. He used to bring the same people out in various combinations. They all knew what I was like. Everybody would come in and know exactly where their stand was, where they would play. It was home. There were no strangers. They knew the results of what they were going to do. There was nev­er any question about it, so they could focus on the music.

Then when Bob Weinstock of Prestige Records started with you, there was that whole crowd of musicians, sometime cross­ing over personnel.

Well, Weinstock would very often follow Al­fred around, but with a different kind of project in mind. And you know, when I ex­perimented, I would experiment on Bob Weinstock's projects. Bob didn't think much of sound; he still doesn't. He doesn't care. So if I got a new microphone and I wanted to try it on a saxophone player, I would never try it on Alfred's date. Wein­stock didn't give a damn, and if it worked out, great. Alfred would benefit from that. 

I've always thought of the Prestige dates as a more accurate indication of what was happening in the clubs. Although I know that after a Blue Note session wound down, the musicians could go out into the clubs and play original tunes, with Pres­tige it was mostly standards. That's what they went out and jammed on. And that deserves documentation as well.

Absolutely. I agree with that, and I’ve said so, though not as well as you did. I wouldn't want the world to be without them. There are people who say that the difference be­tween Blue Note and Prestige is rehearsal. That's just glib. That's bullshit. That's not even a fair way to put it. It resulted in a lot of my favorite recordings. You know, those Miles [Davis] Prestige things ... they can't hurt those things. It's really one of the most gratifying things I've done, the fact that people can hear those. It's really good.

When you were in the control booth listen­ing to the sessions, were you ever aware that those sides would end up as classics?

 Well, you can't see into the future. I had no way of knowing that. But I knew every ses­sion was important, particularly the Blue Note stuff. The Blue Note sessions seemed more important at the time because the procedure was more demanding. But in ret­rospect, the Prestige recordings of Miles Davis, the Red Garland with Philly Joe Jones, the Jackie McLean and Art Taylor, the early Coltrane—sessions like that—turned out to be equally if not more important. I always felt the activity we were engaged in was more significant than the politics of the time, to the extent that everything else that was happening was unimportant. And I still feel that way. I treat every session ... every session is important to me.

Have you done any classical or pop?

There was a long period of time parallel to those years when I was working for Vox, a classical company. I would get tapes from all over Europe and master those tapes for release in this country. I did that for 10 years or more. So I had three things going: Blue Note, Prestige, and Vox. Each of them was very active. And I did some classical recordings: Classical artists, solo piano recordings, a couple of quartets.

How about pop?

A lot of that popular stuff came with Creed Taylor later in the '70s. He was oriented more toward trying to commercialize jazz music. You're familiar with his CTI label? That's another world altogether. That's when we started to be conscious of the charts. I love the sound of strings, particu­larly the way Creed Taylor handled them with Don Sebesky. And I love an exciting brass sound too. Creed is a genius as far as combining these things that we're talk­ing about. I'm not at all isolated in the world of a five-piece be-bop band. As a matter of fact, sonically, this other thing is more rewarding.

What are your feelings on digital versus analog?

The linear storage of digital information is idealized. It can be perfect. It can never be perfect in analog because you cannot repro­duce the varying voltages through the dif­ferent translations from one medium to an­other. You go from sound to a microphone to a stylus cutting a groove. Then you have to play that back from another stylus wig­gling in a groove, and then translate it back to voltage.

The biggest distorter is the LP it­self. I've made thousands of LP masters. I used to make 17 a day, with two lathes go­ing simultaneously, and I'm glad to see the LP go. As far as I'm concerned, good rid­dance. It was a constant battle to try to make that music sound the way it should. It was never any good. And if people don't like what they hear in digital, they should blame the engineer who did it. Blame the mastering house. Blame the mixing engi­neer. That's why some digital recordings sound terrible, and I'm not denying that they do, but don't blame the medium.

A lot of people argue that digital is a cold­er, sterile sound. Where do you think that comes from?

Where does it come from? The engineers. You've noticed they've attributed the sound to the medium. They say digital is cold, so they've given it an attribute, but linear digi­tal has no attributes. It's just a medium for storage. It's what you do with it. A lot of this has to do with the writing in consumer magazines. They've got to talk about some­thing.

What should be discussed is the way CDs are being marketed as 20-bit CDs, but there is no such thing as a 20-bit CD. Every CD sold to the public is a 16-bit CD. You can record 20-bit and it is better than 16-bit, but it has to be reduced to 16-bit before you can get it onto the CD. History is re­peating itself. 

It reminds me of when they marketed mono recordings as "re-mastered in stereo." All they did was put the highs on one side, put the lows on the other, and add a lot of reverb to make it believable. Then they'd sell it as a stereo record.

Do you feel today’s jazz musicians stack up to the players of the 1950s and '60s, Blue Note's heyday?

Well, there are a lot of great kids around. You know, technically they're great. I feel they're suffering from a disadvantage of not being able to play in the kind of environ­ment that existed then. You don't want me to make a broad statement saying, "Gee whiz, it was better 20 years ago than it is now." First of all, I don't believe that. I don't even think of it that way.

Do you see yourself as a technician and an artist?

Absolutely. When you mention the techni­cal end, the first thing I think of is making sure all the tools are working right. The artistic part is what you do with them. The artistic part involves everything in this place. There's nothing here that isn't here for an artistic reason. That applies to the studio. The whole environment is created to be artistic. It's my studio and it's been this way for a long, long time, and people like it. It's even mellowed through the years, and people are aware of that. Musicians are sen­sitive to that. Someone came in here only yesterday and said: ‘If the walls could only repeat what has happened here ….’”

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The "Return" of Pianist Jessica Williams

N.B.: Following a two-year convalescence from back surgery, pianist Jessica Williams has announced on her website that she will be performing on May 17, 2014 at a house concert in Seattle, Washington.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would celebrate this forthcoming occasion by re-posting this piece that appear shortly before Jessica underwent her procedure and entered into the long period of recovery from its effects.

Welcome back, Jessica!

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles was prompted to put this piece together by the arrival of the correspondence that closes it [a notice to her fans that she required back surgery; removed for this re-posting].

I first “met” Jessica around 1980. This was back in the days when one could kill a few minutes waiting for a business appointment or a luncheon while perusing the local record store.

Usually privately-owned and operated, every community in southern California seem to have one and some of these Mom-and-Pop stores even had a Jazz section.

It was during one such diversions that I noticed an LP in the cut-out bin by Jessica Jennifer Williams entitled Orgonomic Music [Clean Cuts CC703]. On the back of the album sleeve was the following quotation by Wilhelm Reich:

"Love, work and knowledge are the well-springs of our life. They should also govern it.”

I didn’t know who Reich was, nor did I know anything about “Jessica Jennifer Williams” and the only musician in the sextet featured on the album that I was [barely] familiar with was trumpet player Eddie Henderson.

But what the heck, Philip Elwood of The San Francisco Examiner said of Jessica that she was a devotee of Reich’s whose sentiments I agreed with, the LP was only a buck, so I gave it a shot.

Boy, am I glad I did. I’ve been listening to everything I can get my hands on by Jessica ever since.

However, it wasn’t until 1992, thanks to a fortuitous business trip to San Francisco, that I had the opportunity to hear Jessica in person as a part of pianist Dick Whittington’s on-going Maybeck Recital Hall series.

I “stayed close” to Jessica’s music in the 1990’s thanks to my association with Philip Barker, the owner of Jazz Focus Records for whom Jessica made a number of recordings including her Arrival CD which has the distinction of being the very first disc issued by Philip’s label [JFCD001].

Thanks to a tip from Gene Lees in one of his JazzLetters, I was also able to score one of the limited edition [1,000] Joyful Sorrow compact discs that Blackhawk Records issued as her solo piano tribute to the late, Bill Evans.

It was recorded at The Jazz Station, CarmelCA on September 15, 1996 on the 16th anniversary of Bill’s death.

Sadly, too, The Jazz Station in Carmel is no more, but Joyful Sorrow endures as just about my all-time favorite Jessica recording.

Thankfully, Jessica has subsequently released quite a number of solo piano and trio Jazz recordings, many of which are available as audio CD’s and Mp3 downloads.

Jessica is a powerful and pulsating pianist.  He music literally “pops” out at the listener it’s so full of energy and enthusiasm.

She records many solo piano albums, a format which can sometimes be a recipe for self-indulgence and excessive displays of technique.  But Jessica’s music is always tasteful and informed. You can hear the influences from the Jazz tradition in her playing, but you also hear innovative probing and forays into her unique conception of what she is trying to say about herself and how she hears the music.

Her touch on the instrument is such that she makes the piano SOUND! It rings clear and resonates as it only can in the hands of a masterful pianist.

As Grover Sales, the distinguish author and lecturer on Jazz has commented:

“Jessica Williams belongs to that exclusive group Count Basie dubbed "the poets of the piano" that includes Roger Kellaway, Sir Roland Hanna, Ellis Larkins, Jaki Byard, Bill Mays, Alan Broadbent, Cedar Walton, the late Jimmy Rowles and of course, Bill Evans. All share in common a thorough working knowledge of classic piano literature from pre-Bach to contemporary avant garde as well as the classic jazz tradition from Scott Joplin to the present.

All developed an astonishing and seemingly effortless technique that enabled them to venture anywhere their fertile imaginations wished to take them. All take to heart the dictum of Jelly Roll Morton in his epic 1938 interview for the Library of Congress: ‘No pianist can play jazz unless they try to give the imitation of a band.’

 And for all of their varied influences from Earl Hines to Bill Evans and beyond, all are instantly identifiable—unique in the literal sense of this often misused word.”

Writing in the insert booklet to Jessica’s Maybeck Hall CD [Concord CCD-4525], Jeff Kaliss notes:

“It's all there in the first track. Within a few choruses, Jessica Williams shows her hand, or hands: the harmonies in seconds (hit way off to the side of the piano), the punchy attack, the dust-devils in the upper octaves, the nutty quotes. It's familiar Jessica, but she's got plenty up her sleeve for the rest of this remarkable entry in the Maybeck menagerie. …

She came to my awareness as a word-of-mouth legend, a Baltimore-bred genius whose history and personality were said to be as mysterious and unpredictable as her keyboard inventions. As soon as I got to hear her, I was into the reality of her spontaneous magic and not much concerned with the legend. …

[She] has remained a best-kept secret … commanding awe and quiet in the clubs she visited … [her playing] filled with energy and imagination.”

One gets more about her sense of “energy and imagination” when one reads the following notes that Jessica wrote about herself and her music for her Intuition CD [Jazz Focus JFCD 010]:

“I'm occasionally asked where I studied to learn to do what I do; who taught me, what "tricks" are involved, what secrets enable me, how does the process occur... how does one "distill magic out of the air?" The truth is that there are no practice techniques, no miracle drugs, no mantras, no short-cuts to creativity. I tell them that I've played piano since I was four, that I've played jazz since I was twelve, that I've never taken another job doing anything except what I've always known I should be doing in this life: playing music. And maybe that's a part of the answer, if indeed there is one. It's about Castenada's PATHCampbell's BLISS; you follow it no matter where it leads, and over many years you learn to control it, channel it, allow it to happen.

You become the bow; the arrow is the gift. You never fully own it, just as you can never explore all of its depths, because it springs from the infinite possibilities within you. In this realm, your only ally, your only guide, is intuition. It is seeing instead of looking, knowing instead of believing, being instead of doing. It is Coltrane on the saxophone, Magic Johnson on the court, Alice Walker on the printed page; it is the primary intuition of "right-brained" activity, the birthing of idea into existence.

Perhaps it cannot be taught, but it certainly can be shared...and it is in the sharing that we all experience the best parts of ourselves. We instinctively intuit our organic truth; when we learn to live it, our planet could be paradise.

Your dreams are your sacred truth. …”

You can listen to Jessica’s quite stunning pianism on the audio track of the following video tribute to her on which she performs Alone Together from the Joyful Sorrow Bill Evans tribute CD.