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David Chesky: Making Music in the Moment

By Published: March 9, 2004

AAJ: What moved you into producing and your own label?

DC: Just getting things done I just got sick of waiting for the phone to ring. As a musician you’re always waiting for the phone to ring.

Let’s give you an example. You can wait for the phone and you can’t take control of your life. You have to ask people, “Am I good enough?” You go through your life asking a third party to justify your existence. Mr. Executive at the record company. “What do you think of my record?” The creator probably knows. You just have to do it.

Look at the guys in Paris. They paint in the street. They paint and they just sell it themselves. They do the whole thing. Why can’t we do it in music? You walk up to a guy in Paris who’s painting on the street. You say, “I like your painting, I’d like to buy it.” He doesn’t say, “You’ll have to talk to my agent and manager.” He cuts you a deal right there. It doesn’t mean he’s not an artist. He’s got nobody to do it. We just think in America we live in this golden cage. Back in the days of Beethoven, they produced their own concerts.

AAJ: You went looking at different ways to go about it.

DC: Exactly. I said, look, if I’m going to get this done, I’ve got to believe in myself and just do it. And that’s it. I got thrown off Columbia Records. I got dropped. What was I going to do, sit home and cry? Sit home and send tapes and beg people to give me a record deal? I said forget it. I went out and worked and started my company with my brother out of a studio apartment. And we went to the mailbox and we packed the records and mailed them. We did everything ourselves. This was around 1986.

AAJ: How about the concept of the way it’s done, the techniques. How did that come about?

DC: As a conductor, I worked for years in the studio, right? They always had 9 million microphones all over the place. One in the tuba bell, one in the piano, etc. etc. And when you hear it in the mix, it sounded so weird to me. You had to put the balance together. And when I was standing on the podium, it sounded fantastic. So I said, if I ever start a company I’m going to do an audiophile from a one-point perspective. Like you’re there. So that’s when we developed the stereo MS mic technique. So the orchestra gets the balance and that’s it.

It’s sort of like black and white photography. We take a picture of an event and capture it in a moment of time. Through a clear lens, not through a rose-colored lens. We don’t sit there and say, “OK, let’s overdub this. Call this guy in.” You know, whether it’s jazz, rock and roll, blues or a string quartet, it’s about real people in a real room, interacting. Creating art. A recording is supposed to capture that moment in time. That’s what it’s supposed to do.

That’s our mantra. We stick to that. Some people like it and some people don’t. It’s a purist approach and that’s what I want to do. When you heard the Clark Terry record. That’s what Clark Terry and those guys sounded like at that moment in time.

AAJ: So as a producer, you approach it from an artist’s perspective.

DC: Yeah. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, so I know what it’s like to be the artist. I know what it’s like to be the producer.

When you work for our label, you can’t be hacks. You have to really know what you’re doing, because you can’t fake it. We don’t do all this stuff, overdubbing and using other musicians. If you’re on the label you have to be a serious musician. You have to be able to cut it. If you’re a string quartet, you gotta get out there and play live. Just get out there and play. Boom! There are no questions, you know? And that’s the way jazz is. That’s why we need great players.

AAJ: When it’s all said and done and the recording is there, that’s got to be pretty satisfying, I would think.

DC: People have gotten lazy today, due to the fact that we have multi-track [recording]. In the old days, you had one microphone. The drummer couldn’t play loud. You had to listen and balance. We have things in music called dynamics. Piano. Mezzo forte. Forte. Today, people get lazy. They walk into s studio. Everybody sits in a booth. They put on headphones and they play loud. There’s no dynamics. There’s no interaction. You know why? Fix it later in the mix. So technology has made us lazy. If you make a mistake, touch it in. It’s more perfect, but it’s antiseptic.

Jazz needs dynamics, just like classical or folk or blues. You listen to pop music on the radio. It’s all compressed. It’s just one level. Loud all the time. That’s all you hear. Everything is pumped up artificially loud. The whole society is just wonder bread, white bread. It’s all McDonald’s. That’s what people want. But it wasn’t like that [before]. People played dynamics. Musicians are supposed to listen. There’s supposed to be interaction, not just boom boom, bang bang, play as loud as you can.

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