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David Witham: A Sideman Steps Out

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As a sideman, you have an assignment and do it. When it's your thing, it's just wide-open spaces, and you have to focus in.
David WithamYou may not know keyboardist David Witham's work, but the chances are actually pretty good that you've actually seen him play. As the musical director for jazz/pop guitar icon George Benson, the L.A. based Witham has put in plenty of road time, and he's also done side work with Chick Corea, k.d. lang, Randy and Michael Brecker, Ernie Watts and Jeff Gauthier.

It's great to be a working musician, and Witham never has to worry about being out of work. But until last year, his recorded output consisted of one album: On Line, a self-released effort recorded in 1988.

Two decades is not a short time between albums. And no matter how capable a musician is as a sideman, writing and performing music as a bandleader is, well, different. Witham's good enough a player to do any music—but what kind of music is "David Witham" music?

Judging from Witham's magnificent Spinning the Circle, released in 2007 on the Cryptogramophone label, "David Witham" is dense, vibrant, melodically accessible and rhythmically charged. The song titles ("Afrobeat," "Con Quien") suggest genre exercises, but Spinning the Circle is a deeply coherent album and its music—fiercely performed by Witham and former and current West Coasters like drummer Scott Amendola, percussionist Luis Conte and bassist Jay Anderson—sounds effortless.

There were more prominent jazz releases in the last year, but Spinning the Circle is as good as any of them. Best of all, while the CD's ear-pleasing from the first spin, its tunes sound better with repeated hearings, and its effervescent grooves and ear-seducing melodies are worthy of the deepest, most attentive listening.

Chapter Index

  1. Spinning the Circle: Just Make a Record
  2. Individual Players: Old Friends That Happen to Be Great Musicians
  3. Great Engineering Can Make a Good Piano Sound Great—and Some Song Discussion
  4. More Songs and the Life of a Working Musician



Spinning the Circle: Just Make a Record

All About Jazz: I want to talk about your great recent CD Spinning the Circle, which was released last year on the Cryptogramophone label. This is music from a two-day session you did in December of 2006 and features drummer Scott Amendola, bassist Jay Anderson, percussionist Luis Conte, reedman Jon Crosse, and yourself. On some tracks, pedal and lap-steel guitarist Greg Leisz and guitarist Nels Cline also appear. This is your first new recording since, I think, your self-released On Line recording from back in 1998, on which Jay and Jon played as well.

This is a mixture of acoustic and electric music and all but two of the tunes are your compositions. The band configurations go from trio to sextet, if you don't count overdubs. The tunes vary but there's, I think, something innate to all of them—besides that the playing is magnificent throughout. The common thread is the hopefulness and optimism of your melodies: pieces like "The Circle," "Afrobeat" and "N.O. Rising" have a deep, non-cynical hopefulness that is really palpable, which isn't to say any of it is saccharine. I also don't mean to suggest that the music is without a melancholy side, because I hear that as well, even in something like "The Neon." The music is always spacious no matter how many voices are involved at any moment, and I love how the instruments are always used as needed—it's not like everyone has to be playing the whole time on a song.

I want to talk about individual songs, and the players, but first tell me—did you have any idea about what sort of an album you wanted to make, any intention?

David WithamDavid Witham: Really, the main intention was to get a CD done [laughing]. Jeff [Gauthier] had offered me this deal with Crypto; I think that was in 2001. And it just sat on the backburner for all that time. Then 2006 rolled around and it was like, "holy moley—it's time to get crackin' here."

And then it took a year to get all these guys in the room at the same time! I wanted to do the record in January of that year, and we ended up doing it in December. Anyway, I had songs that I knew I wanted to do, or ideas that I had that I wanted to become songs. And that little extra time actually helped those ideas ferment and become something.

The goal was truly to make a record with live musicians, with my friends—guys who I knew would do a great job, even though I didn't know how they would play together. I knew how Jon and Jay would play together, because we've done stuff. I had played with Greg in many different contexts over the last twenty years, but never anything like this. And Nels is a fairly recent friend. I've known him for the last ten or twelve years. Well, maybe fifteen years. Same with Scott; I love his work, but I didn't know how it was going to be when we all got together.

So it was a little gamble, but my instinct told me it was going to be fine because they're all great guys, and great musicians. So the goal was just to do it; the project had just been sitting on my shoulder for quite some time. Sometimes you get a little blocked and you have to overcome some inertia, or even trepidation: that "who am I?" thing. I've worked with a lot of people, but it had been twenty years since I'd really made a record.

AAJ: Right. It's one thing to know who you are when you're playing with other people, and another thing entirely when you're making your own statement.

DW: Absolutely. That was a big question. And I kind of put that question to the side for a little while when I was working producing this community access television station show called "Portable Universe." Originally it was just a kind of venue to showcase groups I was working with—people who might have fallen through the cracks. And eventually I ran out of bands. So I just started bringing people in who I had encountered along the way and so I met all these wonderful artists and creative people. And I sort of became—well, not a voyeur, but an observer of artists and the creative process. How these people get this stuff out into the world.

David Witham / Jeff Gauthier

And I think I must have needed to do that. You know, as a sideman, you have an assignment and do it. When it's your thing, it's just wide-open spaces, and you have to focus in. So watching people do that helped me a lot over the course of five years there. Then it just became obvious: "Okay, it's time to go. Who am I going to use? Okay, I like these guys." And you just start getting into the logistics of it. And like I said, it took a year. Everyone's busy.

And when you start planning, there's a sort of momentum that builds with that. You've set a deadline, so you have to finish the songs and get all the ideas together. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. With this record, I think it happened nicely. And you don't really know that until you're done mixing and mastering, but I could tell from the moment we got in there that it was going to be a good two days [laughing].

AAJ: When everybody showed up for the first day of recording, had any of them seen the music?

DW: Jay and Scott and I had rehearsed the day before at my house. Jon lives out in Ohi, which is about 100 miles north of me in Long Beach, and you know what the traffic is like here. He was late. So we got probably an hour with Jon, and probably a three-hour rehearsal with Jay and Scott. Luis hadn't heard any of, and Nels hadn't either. I actually do recording sessions all the at the place we did the record, and Greg lives just a few blocks away from there, so I went over to his place one night and gave him a CD of some demos and the music, just to get it in his ear.

I kind of let Greg make the decision of what songs he'd want to play on. I did originally have the idea that he would play on "Who Knows," but he thought that would work better as a trio tune. And that was good advice; that worked out just swell. I could hear Greg playing on that, but that song was written by a guitarist [Mike Miller] and it's nice to play a guitarist's song with no guitar in it.

AAJ: Yeah, sometimes it's nice to have the instrument of composition missing from the composition.

DW: Well, that one is a weird one because Mike plays the guitar like a pianist. His voicings are very influenced by Keith Jarrett and, I think, a lot of other piano players. And, you know, I always wanted to play with Mike because I liked his music so much—I love his songs. And he and I did play a little bit, and it was fun and I really got a kick out of it. But I realized that I was in the way! He didn't need a pianist in the band. So [laughing] I said, "Well, I'm just going to admire this from afar. We can be friends, and we'll collaborate somehow."

AAJ: Well, it takes a clear mind to recognize these things.

DW: Well [laughing], I don't know about that. I don't know how clear I am at this point.


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