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David Chesky: Making Music in the Moment

R.J. DeLuke By

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David Chesky has enjoyed success at the helm of Chesky Records , the fine audiophile record label he formed with his brother, Norman, in the mid 1980s. The brothers built the company from the ground up and now have Grammys and an outstanding list of artists — not performers, artists — that have graced its Manhattan studios.

He’s doing this all at a time when the chasm between art and the music that goes out over the airwaves may be at its widest and deepest. As a pianist and composer, whose hands have been in both jazz and classical worlds, the problems for musicians are troubling. Americans, by and large, don’t absorb good music and don’t want to. And no one is really trying to change that attitude in this “disposable society,” he says.

Chesky views the music scene with both pessimism and optimism. The pessimism based on the reality of the scene: stunted creativity, an industry that doesn’t work on building the artist or the audience, a touch business climate. The optimism is based on the feelings that many people have: that things HAVE to come around. They can’t be shitty for this long. To some, the latter is blind faith, but in spite of all conditions, Chesky works diligently to bring good music to the public and present it in a way that puts value on the aural experience.

As a record label executive, he’s proceeding to do things the way he and his brother want them done, even it might be somewhat like swimming up stream. For the people who still appreciate music created in the moment and for the moment — long a hallmark of jazz — Chesky Records is an oasis. Not the only one out there, but its hard-earned success is one of those small victories for art that should be savored as they come along.

As a player and composer, Chesky has jumped into the fray with The Body Acoustic due for an April 27 release. It’s a jazz disc, but it’s certainly not what would be considered mainstream. That result is deliberate. The musicians are strong jazz players, but they’re not working with the usual chord changes. They’re not trading fours, nor is it head-solo-solo-solo-head playing. It’s also not Ornette Coleman. It’s ... well... Dave Chesky, who is influenced by all kinds of music.

“This is a conscious effort to do something that’s organic because I believe it can’t be contrived,” says Chesky, who is also at home composing classical works for large orchestras or chamber groups. In fact, classical concertos are more up his alley than flatted fifths . “It is organic. It grooves. And then it’s cerebral. I think that art has to have both things: the organic feeling and the conscious thing, to make it like that. It’s trying to do something different at the same time.”

The musicians joining pianist Chesky for this special gathering are Bob Mintzer on bass clarinet, Randy Brecker on trumpet, Giovanni Hidalgo on congas and Andy Gonzalez on bass. They blend like the ingredients of a great stew. It’s hip and ethereal, streetwise in a sense, and yet sophisticated.

“I wrote the music for these players before I did anything. I heard his in my head,” says Chesky. “These are the players I wanted.” Contrapuntal figures are obvious, “and there’s also a lot of counterpoint written out there too. It’s based on lines. It’s all these lines interweaving and things... The heads are written out, then we improvise on them. Jazz is improvised music, so we definitely improvise.”

The music, each song titled with a New York City theme ( “52nd Street,” “Bronxville,” Hell’s Kitchen,” “East Harlem,” “New York Cool” ), is a provocative blend of shifting lines and melodies. Each instrument has its own voice and, while moving in unison, is individually expressive. Hidalgo’s rhythms push each selection; crisp polyrhythms, exotic beats. Gonzalez offers melodic and rhythmic gems and a big sound. Mintzer’s horn is constantly exploring, the rich tone blending exquisitely with the other voices; sensual one moment, loudly preaching at others. Brecker sounds at time Milesian, splashing phrases where needed over the rhythms — and not speaking when not needed. Other times, Brecker’s more brazen; his decisions are right and his playing superb. Chesky is also a painter here, playing quiet chords; supportive in the rhythm and giving a soft cushion for the other players. His solo statements are thoughtful and cerebral. There’s no place for be-bop.

The quality of the recording is stunning, though it’s par for the course for Chesky.

Chesky thinks of himself as a composer, for the most part, and largely in the classical vein, but “I can play jazz . I played my whole life. I started out with my big band with George Wein when I was 18. And then I went into conducting and arranging for TV, films and that stuff. Then I started my label. I’m a composer. Jazz is really a player’s medium. Classical music is a composer’s medium. Because when I write symphonic, you tell the guy in bar 10 that he’s playing a note short and that’s the way it is. But I always liked to play jazz.”

Chesky studied with the great jazz pianist John Lewis, but he admits he plays jazz more at home than in public.. “Then I did that Clark Terry session. And I had this talk with John before he died, and he said, ‘You should really think about doing some jazz things, what you were taught.’ And I was, like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah...’ I couldn’t see myself doing it. I wanted to write my violin concertos, etc.”

Things changed with The Body Acoustic. “One day I was sitting there and this idea came into my head and it’s great and it’s a lot of fun, and it’s also an outlet for me, to play and just enjoy my life, instead of getting around in the classical world.”

Chesky hopes to tour with the group, provided he can get some gigs in an atmosphere that has been difficult for musicians. He said he thinks the new CD will be well received, but her isn’t going to go out on a limb. “You just never know. I have no idea what’s going on. Things I see when I pick up the paper, I’m just blown away with. I think it’s a stagnating time for creativity here.”

Chesky’s whole life has been music, playing piano as a child and moving from his native Miami to New York City as a teenager. He had success in the 1970s at a very young age with a big band record, Rush Hour on Columbia Records. But it was the rat race, the rejection, the “waiting by the phone” not knowing when some deal might be on the other end, that started him hunting for a better way. That way, he decided, was to make it HIS way. A bold step, but he had the vision and balls to pull it off.

The Chesky brothers’ idea for the record label gestated through the 1980s, finally getting off the ground in 1986. David talked to scientists and engineers about the parameters of recording capabilities and the brothers began remixing some classical works for release that came out on audiophile-quality vinyl. The process then grew to creation of original recordings. In a rented studio, the brothers recoded jazz violinist Johnny Frigo and soon afterward, Clark Terry and Phil Woods. The company was on its way.

The company has continued to record classical groups, as well as Latin and pop, and in the jazz realm has brought to startling audiophile life the music of Paquito D’Rivera, Peggy Lee, Herbie Mann, Joe Henderson , Lee Konitz, Fred Hersch, Tom Harrell and more .

The philosophy, succinctly stated by the company, is “to achieve the impression of reality with the most advanced technology available, careful microphone placement, and, most of all, a recording team that pays attention to every minute detail...” And the Chesky brothers are constantly examining technologies that will put the listener “there,” in the moment.

Chesky talked about music, recording and the new CD with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz: The Body Acoustic has a very different sound, to me. Where did that concept come from? What were you trying to do?

David Chesky (DC): You know, I used to be a jazz player. I’ve been a jazz player my whole life, but for years I’ve been writing symphonic music. And the thing is, the group came about because I get frustrated with orchestra. Even though I love classical music, I can’t stand the bureaucracy of the system, you know what I mean? The principal’s office. The director, the conductor, the manager. Just to get something done, it’s ridiculous. It’s a Byzantine structure.

We do a lot of jazz records. It seems that jazz is stuck in this mode where it’s not... People are going back to the ’50s. Things are sounding, like, old, you know? I just wanted to do something new. Take the harmonic language of the 21st century, the language, and apply it in jazz. So it’s not based on 2-5-1 traditional jazz changes. It’s a different language.

Because I think language has to reflect the times. This is how I feel. This is how I hear harmony. Any way, it causes the players to improvise in a different manner. And I also wanted to leave a lot of space. This is why I didn’t have a drummer. He’s a conga player. There’s space. I like the minimal space. There doesn’t have to be all this: [imitates a ride cymbal beat], in your ear all the time. Not to say that it’s bad. It’s just what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to just do something crazy, like throw instruments against the wall just to be cool and different. It’s still organic, because the bass and drums still groove. There’s still an organic feeling. And yet on top of it, it’s layered. It’s more sophisticated harmonically. We’ve got to go forward, you know?


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