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David Witham: A Sideman Steps Out

By Published: April 14, 2008
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Great Engineering Can Make a Good Piano Sound Great—and Some Song Discussion

AAJ: You co-produced this with Jeff Gauthier, and I must also praise Rich Breen's engineering and mixing to the skies—it's a gorgeous sounding record with a really crystalline, shimmering sound that goes so well with the music. The acoustic piano work couldn't have been done on a Kawai Digital?

David Witham / George BensonDW: No, it was the acoustic piano at Castle Oaks. The digital piano is just controller to play the Rhodes-ish kind of sounds that happen on the record. No—[laughing] Kawai make a good digital piano, but it's not quite that great. You know, I don't know how to delicately say this, but in further praise to Rich Breen, the piano at Castle Oaks isn't my favorite piano. I'll leave it at that. It's a very earthy instrument. But Rich really made it shine; he knew how to make that instrument sound good.

AAJ: Yeah, you want to go buy it.

DW: Well, you might not say that if you saw that thing [laughing].

You know, I work at Castle Oaks a lot, doing commercial-type work. So I play that piano all the time and I knew it was capable of sounding decent—even though you might be a little dubious if you put a microscope to it. So I was comfortable with its action, and knew how to get a sound out of it that I wanted. Then you get a guy like Rich Breen, with golden ears and perfect mic-placement skills, and it works out great.

AAJ: "The Neon" starts this one off, and it's a sort of lightly-propulsive space jazz built around those two-note vampy phrases. The playing is great, including some fine solo tenor from Jon. There's a sort of light density here—it's not ominous but there is a melancholy to the melody, sort of like Herbie's tune "Vein Melter." It's the perfect album opener: any thoughts?

DW: It's sort of coming out of the whole DJ, drum 'n bass mentality. Because we use live musicians, it ends up sounding more like what you said—more of a spacier jazz kind of thing. And I wanted to do that drum 'n bass thing with humans—people playing it live. I wanted that spontaneity to carry it.

Of course, the really great DJs are very creative; they really keep the flow, and it's really an amazing thing. I like that up-tempo kind of approach. It sounds like jazz to me, for some reason. I had been exploring those kinds of rhythms and approaches to songs as a result of a collaboration with my friend Matt Cohn. He's a childhood buddy, and a very creative guy—he's a keyboard player himself. He was in a pop band called Berlin back in the 1980s. Anyway, he's really creative, and when I started that television show, I called him. I thought he'd be a good input for the show. He had this idea about neon signs in L.A. Then there would be this guy called Neon Hunter, and it would be this noir idea. We'd look at all these signs, and there'd be some kind of up-tempo track underneath.

So we took a 165-mile drive around L.A. and would shoot three to five seconds of these obscure, weird, odd, neon signs glowing in the night. And that's how "Neon Hunter" was born. We made about eleven of these little movies over a few years. Matt really drew me into the whole thing. So we made these little movies and ended up having an association here in L.A. with a place called the Museum of Neon Art, where we actually exhibited some of these movies for a while. We really struck up a great association with them, and met a lot of great artists. Anyway, these little films all have this kind of driving, drum 'n bass kind of track, and that's where "The Neon" on this record came from.

Oh, you can check that out at There are excerpts of the movies up online. The tune was kind of an experiment. I had the groove in mind, and I had the chordal pattern in mind. I had the idea that the pattern would change keys. But I really didn't know how this one would end up sounding. After we got it done, Jeff and I took it home and did our DJ thing on it—cutting it up and messing around with stuff. And then Nels came in that day for the overdubs.

That's "The Neon." It's driving around at night, seeing some crazy stuff. That's part of the musician's life. We work at night, so we're out there in the wee hours. And we see all kinds of nutty stuff.

David Witham / Andy MartinAAJ: You've talked about "Afrobeat" some, and it is the longest piece here.

DW: Yeah [laughing]. The "Jazz Odyssey," as they say, like in the Spinal Tap movie.

AAJ: I really like the improv opening, with all the little noises, effects, loops, sproinks and skronks, before Jon's soprano comes in.

DW: Yeah. I could have probably called that "Intro to Afrobeat," and maybe confused the issue a little bit less. I could have made them separate tracks that just joined together. Scott's way into the kalimbas with the delays—all of that. So I thought that could just start out the whole deal, do a little free improv. I had these weird drumsticks with small felt beaters on the back ends of them. That's how I got that kind of hammered-dulcimer sound inside the piano.

Again, that song had a very loose concept. Those kinds of rubato chords were an idea; the bass line to the song was an idea. And of course I had the idea of having an afrobeat rhythm. I wanted something that started and stopped kind of abruptly. And that was really all I knew. So we took that rhythm and just did some stuff over the top. That tune ended up having a really great arc to it. That stuff can get a little bogged-down sometimes, but that didn't happen here. Another great, great part of this tune is Scott. You know, some drummers don't know how to play those kinds of rhythms.

AAJ: Oh, Scott Amendola knows that stuff.

DW: Does he know that stuff! I said [laughing], "Do you know anything about afrobeat?" He just looked at me, like, "Didn't you know?" Oh, man. He knows that stuff. And Luis came in, and that put it right in the pocket.

AAJ: It really benefits from the rhythms, and then the absence of rhythm. The moment that the band first drops into that groove time—on a dime, from that rubato beginning—is thrilling.

DW: Well, you never know how some things are going to come out. I'm just glad that people dig it, because I do. We got a little lightning in a jar, and you can only hope that that will happen.

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