Lee Townsend: Creative Music from the other side of the Glass
And last but not least, I like people who have a sense of humor and whose work reflects some playfulness and wit. If we're not having a good time working on their music together, it's a squandered opportunity and something is wrong.
Obviously not everyone is on the same level of brilliance as everyone else. But if I like the people involved and somehow resonate with some important aspects of their music - and if I feel like I can learn something from them and make a meaningful contribution to their work, then I like to dive in.
AAJ: You've worked with some of the most original and talented guitarists in contemporary jazz: Metheny, Scofield, Frisell, Abecrombie, Hunter and in particular on some very creative sessions such as 'I Can See Your House from Here' etc. What was that session like, for example?
LT: First of all, it was an honor to do it. Let's face it. Those guys are monsters. And in addition, we had a rhythm section of Steve Swallow (who in my mind is a legend) and Bill Stewart. So to be entrusted with what had the potential to be such an important inter-generational meeting was a responsibility that I took seriously. Part of the task was to balance the way John likes to work with the way Pat likes to work. The dynamic was pretty fascinating. And it was a challenge to have the record tell a story that transcended whether a particular song was John's or Pat's and not have it be an album that came off like a string of impressive guitar solos - because spectacular soloing is a given when you are dealing with improvisers of that caliber.
AAJ: What do you find yourself doing at these sessions to help make them happen?
LT: You know, part of what keeps producing music interesting is that every project is different and each one requires something different from me. My responsibilities range from helping develop the idea for a project to planning the logistics of it all; helping select material, musicians, the engineer, going to rehearsals, making suggestions about musical arrangements and overdub orchestration, recognizing when there is some magic happening and of course, helping shape the whole thing sonically. So it is often a balancing act between paying attention to the smallest details while at the same time maintaining a larger overall vision for what the project can become - having a respect for the process to insure an engaging and hopefully, provocative product.
AAJ: Why do you think artists want to use you most? What do you bring out in a session?
LT: I'm not so sure. Hopefully because we share a sense of exploration and wonder and have some fun working on their music together. I guess to really find out you would have to ask them. But I can imagine that it comes down mostly to trust and taste. I am simply trying to bring the level of the production up to the potential of the music - so that it somehow elevates it rather than suppressing the spirit of it in some way - which is always a risk when you are in such an artificial and stressful situation with the burden of posterity on your shoulders under time constraints. Part of it must have something to do with making people comfortable and helping to elicit good performances and giving them a feeling of confidence that the stuff is going to come out sounding good and engaging. I don't want to make too many claims on my own behalf, but I guess I have a pretty decent sense of when something feels good rhythmically and maybe even a bit of a knack for recognizing when an exceptional performance is taking place or a special moment is happening .... bottling that and then building upon it. Part of the job is coming up with right kind of idea to take a piece to an unexpected or more fully realized place. Sometimes that happens, but I wish it could happen more.
AAJ: I know. Seems to be about being so entranced when it does happen that those moments keep us searching for more of that. Can you discuss your production company Songline/Tonefield and its evolution?
LT: Well we started it in 1988 when I left ECM and New York and moved back to the Bay area. It all started with Bill Frisell and that relationship has continued to grow and blossom ever since. In fact, the entire situation with Bill has in a certain way, turned out to be something like a foundation for my work especially in the way our musical values have developed in a parallel way over the years. It's very reassuring and rewarding to have that kind of camaraderie. It really is a privilege to work with someone of that level of artistic importance and extraordinary humanity. I am very grateful.