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Chris McNulty: A Siren From Down Under

By Published: January 24, 2012


AAJ: Correct me if I am wrong, but you came out of the gate producing your own recordings? Please talk about that experience.

CM: Yes, it seems that I have always been heavily involved in the pre and post production process. I have no idea how that came about, probably out of sheer necessity, but just about everyone is doing this these days. I've always had an abundance of multi tasking skills, sometimes to my detriment. Having full creative and artistic control has always been a given for me. Now I think it might be somewhat difficult for me to give up that kind of control—you know, having someone make decisions or pass opinions about a piece of music on your behalf.

In a way I'm kind of way past that, meaning I know what I'm doing and I like the results I get. Even now, the thought of hiring a producer kind of disturbs my equilibrium, not to mention my pocket. I'm actually not sure what I'd do with one? If I was approached by a different label and they were paying for it that would be a whole other story and I'd have to be ready to work within their perimeters. I'd always want some degree of artistic freedom though.

Paul (my co-producer for both Dance Delicioso and Whisper the Heart) and I work great together. We may decide to bring someone into the mix during the session, if we're both playing a lot, as was the case with Dance Delicioso. However, it I was going to hire a producer, I'd be more inclined to hire another musician to help run the session. Neither Paul nor myself feel like we need anyone else involved in the pre-production stage and certainly not in post production.

Between having a great co-producer in Paul and awesome engineers such as Mike Marciano and/or Dave Darlington and then Darlington in on the final mix, we really have this thing down to a fine art. Well we're always learning new things of course and making new mistakes.

In the case of Dance Delicioso, having twelve musicians playing on such a diverse selection of material (the day before Thanksgiving), could have been more than challenging, but we did this in two very short days with literally no headaches. For that particular session we hired Bob Sadin to manage the session, though he certainly didn't produce the recording. So much of the prep work was done by us before hand. In many ways Bob really helped by keeping the stress away from Paul and I, which was just what we needed for that particular session.

For me, especially now with the use of Pro tools you can really work many of the kinks out beforehand and save a lot of time in the studio. Getting the lengths of each piece defined, test running sonic and arrangement choices and seeing what works coloristically or sonically are all great options to have before going into the studio. We now find most of the time in the studio is spent recording the music and that's it—we're out of there and into post-production quickly. So in the end, I hardly see the need to have anyone in the mix making musical decisions about an arrangement on my behalf—I have Paul's ears and my vision and they are both interchangeable.

I think the whole scenario changes if a major record company is involved and you have a young artist or an artist with limited skills at working independently or arranging their material. The record company is paying for everything and their goal is to not just to break even but make serious ducats. Nowadays, many fiscally successful jazz recordings are produced to the nth degree, it's a studied market. We are seeing more and more jazz artists and their recordings caught up in that dance, as has been the case with pop music for more than half a century.

Personally I still want to hear the music first. Don't get me wrong, I am absolutely fussy about the sound and the vibe, the musical excellence of the piece, the mix, the mastering. I am hands on with every aspect of the process, but I want the music to speak to me without too much interference from over arranging or over production. I like the fact that we can edit ourselves a lot more now, but micromanaging this is not what I am about. The bottom line is I hire the players for the stamp they are going to put on the music. Meaning I conceptualize the music, then envisage what kind of player/playing I want or what combination of players I hear on what songs.

For instance, the sonic and arrangement choices I made with one of my originals, "Dance Delicioso," is a perfect example. I completed the tune perhaps a week before the recording; it was strong and very well defined quickly. Paul and I have our strengths and weaknesses, but we often work independently of each other on certain tunes or aspects of them. In this case, I did not even have time to score this tune, but I knew what I wanted. I had the melody and the figure written as well as most of the harmony.

I already knew it was going to be a bit like a pied piper kind of thing, meaning each of the players were going to join in at different points in the song as the lyric also implies, I also knew very early on what instruments I was hearing—Joe "Sonny" Barbato's accordion playing, Gary Thomas
Gary Thomas
Gary Thomas
' tenor, and also a vocal group. It was a real fun piece to create and work on, mainly because the concept was so strong visually and the harmony was not too difficult. Other pieces I've written have taken a lot more work—the three originals that appear on Whispers the Heart, for instance, and the string quartet I wrote for one of them were more than challenging—the harmonic and rhythmic figures were difficult on all three.

Occasionally you think some tunes may have benefited with some interjecting but you get what you get. I don't have hundreds of thousands of dollards in my budget. In the end I hire the musicians for the vibe they bring and the stamp they are going to put on my music—and I often don't want to dictate the final outcome. I don't want to interfere with their creativity anymore than I'd want someone interfering with mine. Of course certain decisions have to be made. Paul and I do this a lot, we get home and listen and might think "oh boy that solo is way too long"

This happened on "If You Never Come to Me" [Whispers the Heart]. The solo was great by the way, but the entire tune needed something different in the mix sonically. Usually we get this right beforehand, but as is the case sometimes, that particular tune got added at the very last minute, so we didn't have a clearly defined concept. It's sometimes a choice I will make—to go into the studio with perhaps one song that has not been arranged—left open for a reason—a nice blank slate. Protools is a great tool in a situation such as this—we cut the solo in ½ and then went back in the next day and added a soprano solo as well as adding voice and flute as unison melody over the guitar solo. I think it works beautifully.

So I don't really know what the advantages or disadvantages of having a producer on board might be or what they'd bring to the table for that matter. Right now it seems that I've been able to get by without one by either doing it myself or having Paul as co-producer. When I first arrived here in 1988, everyone was telling me that I had to have a producer for this first recording and I really questioned it. I was thinking why, who knows my voice here, who really knows my sensitivity or my standard of what's cool or not.

I already have my repertoire defined, what else do I need? I was naïve but then on the other hand I was also pretty savvy. What I saw back then was this tendency for every singer to have a producer, I'm not sure it ended up amounting to much more than a large expense. The concept of empowerment comes into question. I just hate the idea that folks think artists, vocalists in particular, have to be produced. I think it sends the wrong message. Having someone take care of the session is one thing, but handing over the controls to someone else is completely foreign to me.

I think there are huge consequences for remaining passive. For one thing at the end of the day, the mistakes I make are mine. I don't have to deal with regrets about decisions I might have or not have made by placing blame. It's clean and simple, the buck stops with me...err...or with Paul.

AAJ: One of the interesting things you do is the rearrangement of standard material, which adds a whole different emotional level. The I Remember Yousession is a prime example in the way that you interpret "Easy To Love" and "More Today Than Yesterday." Please comment.

CM: Well, Paul has had the most to do with this particular aspect—he's a real genius. Interestingly enough though, the "Easy To Love" arrangement evolved out of a working gig situation. Guitarist Rob Bargad
Rob Bargad
Rob Bargad
added some slightly different harmony. I think I added some changes and then shortly before the I Remember You session, the inimitable Bollenback stamp appeared on the tune.

That arrangement in particular gathered momentum as it rolled across the musical landscape. It's intriguing watching how that happens, with both my own compositions and other musicians' arrangements. I love the fact that tunes, arrangements often evolve just as we do. You know, most times you do a tune for a year or two and then let it go, it's served its purpose, something comes along to replace it. But occasionally something stays on for longer, taking different shapes as it passes through different hands and ears, or as it passes through each emotional or musical stage. I find that fascinating.

AAJ: I gather that in your repertoire the American popular songbook is still deeply appreciated?

CM: Yes, indeed. I will never stop interpreting those songs. They are golden, like diamonds in the rough. I am composing more and more, but I am not trying to write songs similar to those. Why would I even try—Jerome Kern
Jerome Kern
Jerome Kern
1895 - 1945
, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen
Harold Arlen
Harold Arlen
1905 - 1986
, Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer
1909 - 1976
, Cole Porter
Cole Porter
Cole Porter
1891 - 1964
, and Rodgers and Hart. Those cats were pure genius.

The romance and brilliance that came out of this particular period of American musical history was profound. I make a list and I add tunes to it that I love and sometimes it takes me a decade to perform or record them. Some of these tunes are close to sacred to me and often I don't feel ready to do them, even if I truly want to, so I have to move them further down the list. As was the case with "Porgy," it took me a decade of dreaming about that song, it was there for the taking, but I knew better. I'm glad I waited.

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