Making a jazz album is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. You need to prepare, have all your tools and charts together, bring all the right people into the same place at the same time, and then... you gotta let go. And if everything goes right, lightning strikes, the magic happens, and the sum ends up way greater than the parts.
After months of preparation, testing out songs, writing and re-writing charts, checking out studios and calling players, all the pieces came together on September 4th and 5th, 2007. These were the two days set up to record my 5th jazz album.
I see each album as a progression, as a movement forward in time. And each album gets better! There were a few pieces of feedback that I got after "…Compared To What?" was released in 2005: people wanted to hear more songs that they recognized; they wanted to hear more piano; and there were many requests to hear me, Brian Bromberg and Alex Acuna work more as a piano trio.
So the new album aims to fill those requests: There are 7 cover tunes, and 4 originals. Brian, Alex and I perform 6 of the 11 songs as a piano trio. And I guess you will all have to deal with more piano solos.
Brian Bromberg agreed to not only play his "downright upright" bass on the album, he also agreed to produce the album with me! This is huge, and I am so glad he offered to do this. (Brian, by the way has one of the Top 10 smooth jazz albums in the nation currently, called Downright Upright.)
For the horns on this album I also called on the two guys that helped out on the last couple of CDs: Justo Almario and John Fumo. Justo and Alex go way back, and they know how to get inside the rhythm. And I just love the way John plays - sometimes he gets so close to channeling Miles that I think he might be a gypsy medium or something.
I wrote one track, called "Wes' Coast", which is a tribute to the old Riverside recordings that Wes Montgomery did. I needed the best guitarist in LA to nail that style, and I got him: Pat Kelley came in and played on that tune, as well as one other. And then I invited Courtney Lemmon to return for another funky vocal track to round out the album.
We started recording around 10:00 AM at Brian Bromberg's studio, called B2 (as in "B Squared") Studios. Brian has a lovely German grand piano there, and a great engineer named Tom McCauley that also signed on for the project.
The goal for the first day was to knock out 6 tunes in about 6 hours - not impossible, but certainly a good days work. Day one was all trio stuff, so that made things a lot simpler than dealing with different set-ups and instrumentation.
Alex's drums were all set up when I arrived, and by 11:00 or so we had good drum and piano sounds happening. The studio is set up where each of us were in an isolation room, with headphones - both Brian and Alex could see me, so I was in charge of signaling any tempo changes, stops or starts.
We started out with "Eleanor Rigby", the well-known Beatles tune. This song has a feel like the old Ramsey Lewis Trio recordings - as a matter of fact, most of Ramsey's hit albums in the mid- 60s consisted of cover tunes of pop music. He even did a whole album of Beatles tunes in 1968! To keep in the "West Coast Jazz" style I composed an intro to the song that switches back and forth between 4/4 and 6/8 time signatures, using the string part from the original Beatles arrangement as a jumping off point. We had no trouble falling into the groove on this one!
Next up was "Sunshine Of Your Love", the classic rock tune by CREAM. This was a challenge to arrange - I wanted to make it swing, but not sound like a SNL-lounge version of the tune that Bill Murray might try to sing at a karaoke bar. Of course, working with Brian and Alex brings you to a place far from Karaoke! The drums have a bit of hip-hop feel to them, and we deconstructed the melody a bit. Add Brian's double stops, and - voila! - an arrangement that even Clapton would be proud of. Alex gets to take a solo, and, luckily, he had no idea who Ginger Baker is!
The third tune was our only original of the day, "Mr. K. V.". This song is dedicated to my favorite LA acoustic bass player, Karl Vincent. After a jagged unison melody line, it settles into a swinging feel over blues changes. This song was inspired by John Coltrane's tribute to his long-time bass player, Paul Chambers (Mr. P.C.).
After a lunch break, we came back and played "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd. Having spent many drug-induced evenings listening to this band, as well as seeing them live, I always have wanted to delve into their music. This song for me has always had one of their strongest lyrics, and so I felt it would be a great taking-off spot for a piano trio. You'll have to listen and judge for yourself if we did it justice.
For the 5th song of the day we attacked a medley of two songs, the Lennon/McCartney classic "Yesterday", and the jazz chestnut "Yesterdays" by Jerome Kern. Initially I had heard this as just the two songs played pretty much one after the other. After all, "Yesterdays" is written in the relative minor of "Yesterday", and it would be pretty easy to do a double time swing on the second tune to set it apart. Brian looked at the chart the weekend before the session and suggested trying to do more of a "mash-up" of the two songs, swinging from the chorus of one to the bridge of the other - and by the time we got to the session I had found a way to do just that. The song starts with a baroque piano solo on the Beatles tune, and moves into a "Dave Brubeck - meets - Floyd Cramer" swing section before Brian takes over with a searing bass solo. This was fun!
We ended the day with an evocative song from John Mayer, "Waiting On the World To Change". Once again, I was inspired by the lyrics, and felt that although John did a great rock version of this song it really called out for a more gospel rendition. (You can see John Mayer's video for this song on his website.) Having lived through the Vietnam War (from a distance - I lucked out with a high draft number), I have spent the last few years horrified by the sad events that have taken place to our troops and to the people in Iraq. "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." I, and most of my generation, started out with such high ideals and now I have found that I continue to wait on the world to change.
Well, that wrapped up day one - a good day's work (and play!)
Today started with the quintet, which has been my preferred instrumentation for live performances - sax, trumpet, piano, bass and drums, like The Jazz Messengers, the Adderley Brothers, Horace Silver, or the Miles Davis Quintet. This has always been my favorite jazz sound - a swinging rhythm section and two horns in front. For the morning session, during which the plan was again to knock out three tunes, I called two guys that I have played with often over the last few years: Justo Almario and John Fumo. They are both brilliant players, and way too underused on jazz recordings.
The first song was "Mitchell's Blues", a song dedicated to Blue Mitchell, a great trumpet player that worked with the Horace Silver Quintet. He and Junior Cook left Horace and started their own hard-bop quintet back in the mid-60's (you may want to check out their recordings with a very young Chick Corea on piano). The title does not refer to the song form - this is far from a blues. It is more a reflection on the reality that many of these bands faced in the 60's, playing 6 nights a week, three sets a night in clubs across America while the jazz audience dwindled away into the Rock 'n Roll scene. Of course, now we look back and say, "Well, at least they had clubs to play in!"
Our second track of the day was my arrangement of "My Favorite Things", from "The Sound Of Music". This is a song that we have been performing live for quite a while. John Coltrane had the "hit" (check out the video) with this, and made numerous recordings, taking the two chord E-minor vamp in 3/4 to the moon and back. For my take on the song I wanted to focus on the Afro-Cuban feel of the 6/8 rhythm. We gave Alex a chance to start the song off with a conga and percussion solo to set the mood. Then the band kicks in with a 2/4 over 6/8 polyrhythmic feel. I asked Justo to play the melody a little straighter than he might usually, and we end up with what might happen if Julie Andrews performed with Babatunde Olatunji! The solos start open, and then follow the form of the song. On the way out John gets to play the Fluegel Horn (an instrument that was first extensively used in jazz by Shorty Rogers).
"Use Me" features Courtney Lemmon on vocals - Courtney also helped out on the "…Compared To What?" CD. When I went searching for songs to do as cover tunes on this album I immediately thought of Bill Withers. The song "Use Me" got me through the summer of 1972 when I was working at my father's factory in Queens, NY for a summer job during college. I would listen to the soul station on the radio, and Bill's song of love and lust was all over it that summer. He is such a pure spirit and true original - and his music reflects that. My version starts with an intro that may sound like the band is searching for the right key for the song. We finally settle into a C-minor groove, and then Courtney takes over. Stick around for the ending of this one - it is so hot, it makes me want to start the song over again every time I hear it!
After lunch, Pat Kelley joined the session and we started switching up the instrumentation a little. "Wes' Coast" is dedicated to Wes Montgomery. Wes was another total natural, like Bill Withers. His Riverside recordings set the bar for all jazz guitar records to follow. The song is in the style of the old Miles Davis Quintet, and is how I imagine a record would have sounded if Miles and Wes every worked together (to the best of my knowledge they never did). This song was so much fun to play, we could have gone on for 20 minutes. But that version will have to wait for another day. Pat plays a wonderful solo in the "Wes" style, and Fumo channels Miles for a bit. This song really shows how talented Alex Acuna is - here he holds an incredibly swinging beat throughout the tune, and still brings a sense of dance and percussiveness to the proceedings - it is so exciting to play with him - there is so much "life" going on.
"Cover Up!", the title song of the album, is the most contemporary sounding track of the collection, and it features Justo on tenor and Pat on electric guitar. Sexy and funky, it carries the listener on a little 24-bar journey as it moves through a few different tonal centers. This one is also inspired by Miles Davis, but a later incarnation, after he started experimenting with electric instruments. I take a small leap forward by letting Pat use a WAH WAH pedal on his guitar. What does the title mean? Is it a cover-up? Does it mean put some clothes on? Is it cold outside? You tell me.
We did record one more rhythm track that day as a quartet, an arrangement of "Love For Sale". This one I decided to shelve for the time being - the 11 tracks make a really great album - and so we call it a day.
Days 3 and 4:
The basic tracks are in the "can" (though it is not a can anymore, it is just a dedicated hard drive). Now the producing and editing fun begins.
All the tracks on the album were played "live", and were done in just a couple of takes in most cases (some, like "Wes' Coast" were done in one take!) At the same time, the recording studio at Brian's allows us to record each instrument in isolation - we were each in our own room, with visual view of each other and headphones for the sound. This allows each of us to go in and "fix" things, if we choose to, after the basic tracks are done.
Day 3 of the session was set aside for piano fixes. I am very picky about the quality of material that I release, and I want it to sound the very best. This style of recording allows me to go in and redo my solos, if I choose to, to really play the best that I am able. Of course, the "feel" comes first. I am not looking for the "perfect" solo, as much as the best "feel", and so very often the original take is what we ended up staying with. Sometimes, with the pressure of the initial tracks out of the way, I found that my mind and fingers found wonderful new places to go that really added to the songs.
On Day 4 I had Courtney Lemmon come back in to redo her vocals for "Use Me", and I also asked Justo if he would like to come back and play some more. This allowed Justo to play in the "big" room, where he was able to stretch out more, as opposed to the little iso room he was in when we did the initial recording. Justo really had a chance to open up with his tenor - it was great!
We were now nicely along in the project, and it was really starting to sound good!
A later day for some Percussion overdubs by Alex, and then it was on to mixing.
I am thrilled by Brian's production work – it really is an outstanding album.
- Alex Acuña: Drums, Percussion
- Justo Almario: Tenor Sax
- Brian Bromberg: Upright Bass
- John Fumo: Trumpet
- Pat Kelley: Guitar
- Courtney Lemmon: Vocals
- George Kahn: Piano
- Sunshine of Your Love
- Wes' Coast
- Mr. K.V.
- Use Me
- Eleanor Rigby
- Mitchell's Blues
- Cover Up!
- Yesterday / Yesterdays
- Comfortably Numb
- Waiting On The World To Change
- My Favorite Things