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Chris Tarry: New Challenges, New Influences, New York

By Published: December 17, 2007
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Hooking Up With Musicians in New York and Making a Record Sound Like a Bazillion Dollars

AAJ: Excuse me for missing the point, but I can't help but be interested in the fact that you say you met these guys the first work you came to New York. If I moved there, I wouldn't meet anyone the first week. Did you walk around with your bass in your hand?

CT: I had a lot of friends here already. Ian Froman from Metalwood lives here. I met most people by playing sessions. Or I'd see them at a club, and go talk to them, and then we'd organize a session or something like that. It was pretty much a question of me hitting the ground running in combination with people having heard of me through the success of Metalwood. That's how I was able to hook it up quite quickly.

ChrisAAJ: Yeah, it's not like you moved there from nowhere and with no résumé.

CT: Exactly. I came from a pretty successful career in Canada. It did take me a while to get going to the point where I was making a living doing sideman stuff, but it started out pretty easily because I had tunes and I could play. That makes it easy to meet people. That's what I always tell people: "If you've got your own music, get people together and play it. People will hear you, and it's going to lead to other things.

AAJ: I love the sound of this record, which you produced yourself. You know your way around the studio, obviously. But Jon is playing acoustic piano exclusively on this record, isn't he? But this is the Fender Rhodes-iest acoustic piano I've ever heard; there's a reverb and sparkle on it that really has that electric piano quality. He even seems to comp at places like one would on a Rhodes as opposed to a piano. Why am I hearing this?

CT: Well, it was recorded at a small studio here in New York that belongs to a friend of mine who's a pianist—he's also a big piano tuner in the city. So he really knows how to take care of pianos. The studio has a really good piano.

But it's really my friend and business partner, the great engineer Shawn Pierce. He mixes all my stuff, and he's mixed dozens of records for a lot of famous people. Now he does Bill Frisell's stuff. He's just one of the greatest engineers in the world, and I just send the record to him and he mixes it. And that's how it comes back! He lives in Winnipeg, in Canada. So for the next record, I'm going to fly up there and mix it with him—just to save time. But we work well together. He also mixed all the Metalwood records. He's an incredible talent who doesn't get enough recognition.

AAJ: It's great to have a relationship with someone so good, especially in your line of music, where a lot of records are made pretty quickly.

CT: As was this one—we recorded this in just over a day. He's great at dealing with stuff where you give him something that wasn't recorded in a bazillion-dollar studio, and definitely didn't come out of the studio sounding like it came from a bazillion-dollar studio! But [laughing] he makes it sound like a bazillion dollars!

AAJ: That's a lot of dollars.

CT: That is a lot of dollars, especially at fifty dollars an hour—you're getting a hell of a deal.

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Sorry to Be Strange: Tunes

AAJ: Let's talk about some tunes on the CD. "Merry-Go-Round has a Bach-like sort of elegance, and I think that this one—like, say, "Then There Was One —is really marked by a signature sound of this group, which I'll call delicate density. Here you've got your bump-and-run bass, cymbals, piano, guitar, Kelly's sax—everyone's playing. Everyone's busy, but it's not crowded and the playing isn't egotistical—it's a group busy-ness, with a sense of oneness despite all the simultaneous lines, It's a great tune as well, with nice variation of the accompaniment under the piano and your bass solo.

Chris<CT: This was a tune I wrote quite a long time ago. It appeared on a record by Toronto drummer Barry Romberg.

AAJ: Which one?

CT: It was a group called 3 Sisters—it was me, Barry Romberg, Daryl Jahnke and Geoff Young. A two-guitar record.

AAJ: Oh, I'm so embarrassed. Not only have I heard that record [Village (Romhog Records, 2005)], but I reviewed it.

CT: Well, if you wrote that review, you mentioned that you really enjoyed "Merry-Go-Round. It was a very under-promoted record; it just kind of came out. But the reviewers did seem to like that tune.

And I liked it too, but it was never how I envisioned it. I had more of a different group concept for it. So it was actually the oldest tune I had lying around. I'm generally not a fan of rerecording music that's already been recorded, but I thought that this was a strong tune that [laughing] deserved a second shot!

So that's the history of the tune. I think I originally wrote it as a sort of exercise in using ninths—it's got these root-fifth-ninth intervals in it, and I wrote it as an exercise to try to get around the bass in that manner. I wanted to see if it was possible to write this sort of chordal melody without losing the bottom end on the bass. So that's what I came up with.

In terms of how the band approaches it—the thing about this band that I love is that even when people are soloing, it's a group. With every note, there's a trust, and anything can happen at any moment. So the way it sounds on the record just happens to be the way that we played it at that second. We did a couple other takes, and they were all completely different, and all equally good.

And that group sound is really what I'm going for lately. With a drummer like Dan, you never know what you're going to get from tune to tune—which I love. And everybody else in that band does the same thing. When we're on the road or when we're in the studio, I definitely write a sketch for people, and that's it—the tune is just a chalkboard, and anyone can write on it as they wish. They can change it up, and I want that—that's what I'm going for. That's really a jazz concept.

So that tune changes all the time. It goes into swing in the solo section, but sometimes when we do it, it doesn't—sometimes it breaks down into a free thing. Sometimes it goes into a rock groove. I like to play with musicians who can go anywhere at any moment.

ChrisAAJ: It sure makes it fun to tour on the stuff, doesn't it?

CT: Oh, man, you should hear it. The pianist now is Henry Hey. Jon couldn't do the tour, and Henry's a great fit with the band. I just finished writing for the next record, which will be done by the end of the year, and it's the same band—just a different pianist.

AAJ: "Yeah Guys! has your monster seven-note bass vamp in the theme before the group goes into some rather spooky improv; there's an odd little interior to the tune with lots of Pete—he sort of plays two solos around Jon's piano solo. It's quite a demonstration of different things this group does well in one tune—that tuneful exterior and then that equally tuneful, but very improvisational center.

CT: This was the first tune I wrote when I moved to New York. I had been listening to a bunch of people around New York, and it seemed like I was hearing some complaints about my tunes—it was always that the melodies were a little too pretty. So I wanted to write something in the vein of [laughing] an unmemorable New York melody!

So I wrote that. Then, when it came time to record it, I knew that a vamp bass line like that can be really repetitive. So I wanted to break it down and then build it back up. The idea was that it would start out in a really slow swing, and then speed up. That was the idea—then everybody just threw the solos around the room. That's how we played it—and that was the first time we played it.

AAJ: This is another that, I suspect, could go in any of a million different directions on tour.

CT: We did, and it became the opening tune. And it was different every single night.

AAJ: Incidentally, that was a pretty daunting criticism you got from those New Yorkers. "Too pretty —how do you sit down and de-prettify something?

CT: Well, the flipside of that is that maybe some of the melodies had been a little too in—so I just took it as an opportunity to write something a little more out.

ChrisAAJ: I think that "Vienna in the Spring is your first-ever recorded vocal composition, sung here by Leah Siegel. It's a powerful rock/jazz ballad enlivened by Pete's acoustic guitar and Kelly's soprano sax. The production really bolsters the rock/ballad quality, with that whapping snare thump, and her vocal is really out of this world. It's a great song that's rather wonderfully sung, and you wrote the lyrics in addition to the music. Had you ever written lyrics before, and where did this tune come from?

CT: I have done a little bit of pop writing, but not anything that's been published anywhere. I do everything in New York to make a living—I play a lot of jazz music, but I also do a lot of singer-songwriter stuff. So I would say the style of the tune, rather than rock/jazz ballad, is a classic Jeff Buckley-ish singer-songwriter tune. That's sort of what I was going for.

I had just finished recording Leah's latest record—I don't play with her any longer, but I was on her record, and so we were doing a lot of playing around then. So I pretty much wrote the tune for her, because she has that quality to her voice. I wrote the tune and the lyrics and she just came into the studio and sang it in one take. And that was it.

And that kind of tune, placed in the hands of people who maybe don't get a chance to do that kind of stuff all the time, is going to take on more of that jazzy kind of sound. That's why it came out that way. I think it turned out beautifully, and I'm just so proud of it. I really like it.

AAJ: There's no reason this song should fit on the record. But when I hear the album all the way through, it always does fit.

CT: And I grappled with that a lot. I grappled with even putting it on there. Then I tried a bunch of different versions of the record, and I thought that it worked kind of up front in the order—kind of, "What the hell was that? Well, on to the regularly scheduled program. I am a really big believer in the idea that any kind of music is good if it's good. It can all go together on a record if it's good.

And that goes along with the whole concept I have for the band—I try to make it as genre-less as possible. At the same time, I play electric bass, and I try to make electric bass function in a legitimate jazz way. I guess that leads back to not making traditional electric-bass records. I'm not about that.

AAJ: "Then There Was One starts the CD off, and it's more of that "delicate density thing that I keep harping on. This one has a pulsing, vibratory feeling under Kelly's lead tenor, which is deeply melodic yet never overly sentimental.

CT: The solo he takes on that tune is beautiful. I love his pacing in terms of building solos—he's so patient.

AAJ: It's as if he always knows how much time he needs to get where he's going. I think this song seems as representative of this band and what it does as anything here.

CT: I think this one just sort of came out; I'm not sure when I wrote it. It was written in the first year I moved to New York sometime, and it just sort of came out. And you're right, and I hear it the same way. It's definitely the quintessential sound of this band. I think that's because at that point, the band was kind of solidified, and I started to write with that in mind. It was kind of, "Okay, now I know who's in the band. I know what Dan sounds like. I know what Kelly sounds like. I know what Pete sounds like. I'm going to write a tune with all that in mind.

And I think that that's when I do my most successful writing. And that makes me really excited about the next record, because I've written everything for everyone individually in the band. I think, "Oh, this'll be a great part for Henry. Or for Pete, or Kelly. And [laughing] that might be why people say, "How about the bass? Because I'm the last person I get around to. I'm always like, "Oh shit, I've got to write something for myself. So the bass takes on this understated quality. When I get to the studio, I haven't really written anything for the bass.

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