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Charlie Peacock: Accepting the Gift of Freedom

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Charlie Peacock's been in the music business for twenty-five years; his recordings as a solo artist and producer (Amy Grant, Al Green, CeCe Winans, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Switchfoot) in the pop, gospel and alternative rock genres have sold millions of records. I'll admit I looked askance at his new jazz CD Love Press Ex-Curio—prejudiced by his background, I couldn't believe he could make an album of convincing music that incorporated improvisation. Still, the roster of musicians on the CD was impressive—Ralph Alessi, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jeff Coffin, Joey Baron, just to name several—so I gave the CD a listen. It's very much to Peacock's credit that the quality of Love Press Ex-Curio immediately overwhelmed, and eliminated, any snobbish reservations I might have had about him. It's a fantastic record that successfully fuses acoustic and electric playing (Peacock's own piano and Fender Rhodes work is very much at the level of the other players), organic time and looped percussion, improvisation and studio editing. Peacock's not afraid of improvisation, nor is he reluctant to structure improv into concise and memorable songs—and the result's as unique as it is enjoyable. I spoke with Peacock at home in Tennessee.

All About Jazz: Let's start with a question so obvious you're probably already tired of being asked it. You've had an extremely successful career in the pop and gospel worlds as a producer and as a solo artist. At this point, I guess you could have continued that indefinitely or you could have gone into any area that interested you. Why a jazz record?

Charlie Peacock: In 1999, I was probably completely burned out on making pop records, so I started looking for an antidote to that. I'm one of these artists that really believes that you create and then you assess. On a very large scale, that might be three or four years of working and then you've got to take the entire month of December and just see if you're going in the right direction. So I've done that for the last twenty-five years pretty faithfully, and in '99 it was one of those assessment years, and the antidote for me was to get back to improvisation first. And so I got with my friend [saxophonist] Jeff Coffin, who plays with the Flecktones, and started just improvising with him—free improvisation. I wanted to get completely away from composition, pop song structure, and all of that, and just let my love of improvisation lead me to where the next steps were. So over several years, that started taking me into different areas, whether it was working on a duets record with Jeff or starting Love Press Ex-Curio. But that's how it all started.

AAJ: So this album, Love Press Ex-Curio, was tracked in two basic sessions; one was in New York City and the other was in Bellevue, Tennessee, which I assume is close to where you live.

CP: Yeah, it's at our house here.

AAJ: Were these sessions recent or were they done over an extended period of time?

CP: It started three years ago. It had been an ongoing project and when I started a new production company for developing pop artists, part of putting that business together was to have a development relationship with one of the independent distribution mechanisms. I had worked with Red—Sony Red at that time—on Switchfoot [the multiplatinum alternative-rock group Peacock produced] records, so I knew they could do a good job, and I made a deal with Red to release indie-level product. And then it was like, "oh, I can put this record out.

AAJ: So when did you do the basic tracks?

CP: I think they started four years ago.

AAJ: I wonder if, when you're dealing with a long-term project like this, and going back to tracks, and adding things to them—do you ever reach a point where you're saturated with the work and not even sure whether it's good?

CP: Yes, definitely, and I think that that was one of the benefits of not working on a schedule for this sort of first go-around. I could relearn—or maybe, in some ways, learn for the first time what kinds of assessment skills I needed to sharpen to be able to pull that off. So it was a good R&D time for me, and I learned a lot through it. And now on my subsequent projects—I've got two more going right now—I'm giving myself deadlines. Because, you know, the whole rest of my career has been on deadlines. If you really become an active participant in the music business, then you only get that first record without a deadline, in a sense anyway, because you've been working on it your whole life. And after that, depending on whether you're producing or doing your own work as an artist, it could be every three months, it could be every year, every year-and-a-half.

AAJ: The tunes on Love Press Ex-Curio—not to suggest they are 100% composed, but were they written just before the sessions? Or were you writing in the studio?

CP: Some of them written for the sessions and some were written afterwards. It really depended on how that particular piece was coming together. All of the New York sessions had a lot of detailed parts written for them, and the Bellevue sessions were more born out of, say, one evening of a jam session.

AAJ: You play quite a bit of Fender Rhodes on this record, and there's a lot of your piano as well on the tracks. But really, your ultimate instrument here is the studio itself.

CP: Yeah, most definitely. You won't see me taking any five-minute solos, because [laughing] I would be completely bored by my own playing! To me, you've got be a real giant to be given that much real estate—and I think that maybe part of what people are liking about the record is the economy of the events as they're put together and how you get from one event to another. As opposed to a jazz record that has a head, and then a four-minute solo, an interlude and another four-minute solo. I always liken it to real-book jazz, and I stopped liking that kind of music about twenty years ago. I'm much more interested in what happens with improvisation and then what kinds of composition can be melded with that—with the improvisations.

AAJ: In terms of the studio, for this project anyway, how did you work? Were all the players in the same place at the same time? Or were you building the tracks up, and, say, adding the horns one by one?

CP: The bulk of it, 80% of the music that you hear, is all the musicians in the studio at once. It was important to me to do that; that was one requirement that I did give myself. I would risk that much. I wouldn't be the sort of auteur producer who is locked in a room with ProTools for three years, just tinkering with everybody's performance. I really wanted to risk playing with people, because that's what happens in pop music—progressively, over time, you risk that less and less as you attempt to buy these sort of microinsurance policies to make sure you succeed by commercial standards.

AAJ: You build a record.

CP: Yeah. And I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to put myself in a situation where things could just come completely undone. I also wanted to put other players in without a lot of control on my part—like, say, [drummer] Joey Baron. Whether he had played to tracks very much or not, I'm not sure. And part of our discussion in the beginning—because I brought prerecorded tracks for us to play to in New York—was him saying, "well, what do you want me to play? And I said, "I just want you to play what you hear. So don't feel that you have to hold something down in a traditional way or that you have to play completely free because the groove is already implied for you. So it was a challenge to other people, too, to interact with the electronic parts of it.

AAJ: You got a pretty fantastic roster of musicians to play on this record. I suppose trumpeter Ralph Alessi is as prominent as any of them; he's on both sessions and his lines are often central to the tracks.

CP: Uri Caine was the one who told me about Ralph. That guy is just a giant trumpet player.

AAJ: Yes, he's on a lot of great records lately.

CP: I think you're going to see him really rocket in the next couple of years. Number one, he's just as skilled as anyone on the planet. But his vocabulary's also very big and he's a very soulful player.

AAJ: I won't bore you by listing every musician who plays on your CD, but two players who seem incredibly important to how the music works are the two bassists: Victor Wooten on electric bass on the Bellevue stuff, and James Genus on acoustic on the New York material. Even during the more static, programmed sections, they add a real human warmth that is audible and palpable.

CP: That's great. That's what I was hoping for, because I like the repetition in the static parts—the ability to loop things. But I always try to combine some elements that were more random, a little more reckless and human.

AAJ: I'm going to ask you more about that. But first, let's talk about "When Diana Dances, the CD's leadoff tune. It's got a swaying elegance to it, and while it's not overcomposed, it's got—like many of your songs—a very memorable theme. It starts with a sort of Spanish vibe, with Ralph's trumpet and Jerry McPherson's spaghetti-western guitar, then goes into its trumpet/tenor theme. But that's just how it starts. Tell me something about this song.

CP: "When Diana Dances is no exception to this: in every case, these songs in their original form were considerably longer than they are. So part of my job, I think—and this is where there's a fine line between production and composition—is to recognize in someone's improvisation a repetitive theme, or a theme that ought to be heard multiple times, or expressed again. I think that when you hear the sections as they unfold—when it shifts to a new picture in a sense, to a new scene, to borrow from a film vernacular—part of the reason it does that is that's exactly what happened naturally in the improvisation. But it may have happened later or it may have been just a moment that then, from a composition standpoint, I took and capitalized on more. That's something I did over and over again as I was delighted by what someone was playing. As a producer or composer, I was saying, "oh, you should have stuck with that a little bit longer. So through the production process, I helped them stick with it a little longer. I'd sort of stay in those moods longer, or repeat things that maybe they had only played once. A bass line that had only been a snapshot of four bars ended up being eight bars.

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