Pete Mills: The Anatomy Of A Jazz Release
I had the first-hand experience of observing how saxophonist Pete Mills put together his latest recording Sweet Shadow (Cellar Live, 2014) from conception to release. If you take one thing away from this journey, it is that fish got to fly, birds got to swim, and jazz musicians have got to record. And, even though jazz occupies less than 1% of the records sold, and even less if we are talking about music downloads, jazz musicians keep recording and releasing sessions.
Disclaimers first: Pete Mills happens to be a good friend of mine. When you are a jazz critic, me, and an ex-patriot Canadian saxophonist, Pete, both living in Ohio where brass instruments are most noted for dotting the "i" in a certain football team's "Script Ohio," you tend to gravitate towards each other. I wrote the liner notes for Pete's Art And Architecture (Summit Records, 2004) and interviewed him for the notes to the highly acclaimed Fresh Spin (Summit Records, 2007) with Hammond B3 organist Tony Monaco. Mills is a graduate of both the Eastman School and the University of North Texas music schools, he teaches at Dennison University, and plays in the Columbus Jazz Orchestra. He has recorded as a sideman on dozens of discs, and Sweet Shadow is his fourth release as a leader.
Back in the winter of 2012, Pete called and told me he was thinking of recording another album. He had just come back from Winter Jazzfest and his creative juices were percolating. My reaction was, why? Then, why not take your wife to Europe for a month or buy a new car, instead of taking time out from your teaching and touring schedule to write new music, rent rehearsal and recording space, pay engineers, mixers, musicians, videographers, and publicists? He mentioned something about that fish and birds thing. You see, jazz musicians need snapshots or freeze-frames of their lives. These take the form of recordings. One hundred years after we are gone, Pete's music will still be here, probably in bytes and bits in some cloud somewhere, but still here. Not something we can say about Buddy Bolden's sound or countless ensembles over the years that never laid down tracks to wax, analog tape, or digital devices.
But let's back up. Your notion that there is a modern version of Blue Note's Alfred Lion or Verve's Norman Granz signing up talent, paying for recording sessions, and arranging distribution are gone. That is unless your name is Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, or Pat Metheny. Sure those giants can command the attention of large media conglomerates, but if you are today's equivalent of Hank Mobley, or Ike Quebec the onus is on you to document your music. And records aren't made in the early morning hours after a Five Spot date at Rudy Van Gelder's studio. These days, the musicians are spread out over the country, if not the world. Coordinating schedules for a drummer touring Japan and a German bassist who lives in Brooklyn can be trickier than playing Thelonious Monk's "Trinkle Tinkle."
Certainly records can be made on the cheap in home studios, and a lo-fi recording will sound sort of okay on your iPod through those crappy little earbuds. But, to record in studio, with a skilled engineer, and have that session mixed and mastered by a professional is indeed a thing of beauty. One that will cost you some serious bucks.
The question still remains, why go to all that trouble? With the rise in digital downloads and the subsequent piracy, many small (and large) labels tanked. Sure, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga know that half of their fans are illegally downloading music, but half of 3 million is still quite a bit of money. Saxophonist and entrepreneur Tim Berne's Screwgun Records sales were cut in half by fans that found no need to support him, and instead stole his music. Berne gave up the independent record business. You can be certain that within days after Pete's music was available, someone posted 'free' digital copies somewhere on a server in an Eastern bloc country.
So, why did this saxophonist go to all the trouble?