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?

AAJ: It came off very well. The New York theme of the compositions, does that come from anything in particular?

DC: No. I just live in New York. But it is a very New York thing, because you have the uptown Latin feel, and you have the jazz players. We’re all New York musicians. We’ve lived here all our whole lives. I’ve known these guys since we were kids, you know? This is sort of like New York. It’s a blend of jazz, Latin and classical music. That’s the way New York is. It’s a big stew, Asians, Chinese, ethic everything. You walk down the street and you walk by Lincoln Center and you hear people on the street playing bongos, and you walk inside and hear an opera. That’s the thing about New York City, you hear all these kinds of music just walking around.

AAJ: How do you think this is going to go over. There’s a conservative group of people out there who like their jazz more standard, and there’s a group out there that maybe likes things more wild and free.

DC: I think it will go over well. All I know is I like it. You know something? Conservative is great, but the world goes on. Otherwise we would have never had Ellington. We’d be stuck with Scott Joplin, because people would say, “What is this Ellington?” And then you’d never have Dizzy.

People try to play post-Bach now, but you know, we’ve had 50 years to hear this. Imagine if we just walked into a club in Boston and heard Bird and Dizzy for the first time, after listening to Glen Miller. We’d probably say, “These guys are from Mars or something.” But now it’s not so strange. I believe music has to reflect its environment and time. That era is done. These guys did it. Miles and all those guys. They did it. Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Clifford Brown. It’s been done, and done fantastic. So I think younger players have to go forward.

I have a label, right? And we do Clark Terry. Clark plays in his style, because that’s Clark. We’re not asking Clark to do something different. That’s his thing. But for the new young people coming up, they’re not supposed to play like Clark. They’re supposed to take it to the next thing.

AAJ: Do you think they’re doing that, by and large?

DC: No. Everything today is so commercial oriented that people forget what it’s about. You hear all these singers today, it’s like torch son singers. You listen to the harmonies. It’s like you walked into a club 50 years ago. It’s the same changes. With the exception of a few people.

Our society has become so conservative. Look at the people who are doing the urban ghetto music, the rap thing. They’re reflecting their contemporary culture. Whether you like it or not; it’s different, it’s new and it reflects contemporary urban ghetto life. Jazz is supposed to do the same thing.

AAJ: You started out in Miami. From a musical family?

DC: No. Mom was a schoolteacher. She made everyone play music. She just thought it was good for discipline.

AAJ: You started playing pretty young?

DC: Age 5.

AAJ: What was the scene like down there?

DC: I left Miami before I got out of high school. Miami’s a great place if you want to go to the beach and chill. But the reality is New York is where it’s at for everything. For jazz, this is ground zero. That’s where I had to come, and at 17 I left.

AAJ: Who were your first influences in New York?

DC: I used to see Thad Jones. The Buddy Rich band. Oscar Peterson, when I was about 13 years old. But then I came to New York and just got on the scene, started writing and I had my big band, a Monday night rehearsal band. It was fun, great. One of the best times of my life. I always had a big band. We did a record for Columbia called Rush Hour. This was 1978, something like that.

From there I started getting into writing for television. I became an orchestrator, then I started my own label. The television thing was work for hire. Everybody did that in those days. TV shows, jingles, anything. That’s where you made your living. Jazz paid you nothing, so in the daytime you were a studio musician. That’s where you’d really learn because every day you did something different.

AAJ: Who are your influences as a composer?

DC: I like Strauss. I like Stravinsky. The French composers. All those guys. Most of my work is in the classical area. I enjoy both. There are two musics: good and bad. I don’t look down on jazz for being jazz. It’s great. Sometimes I play drums in the park and some of those African guys are like those guys at the Philharmonic. It’s just a different thing. They play these polyrhythms and I sit there and can’t comprehend how they know what they’re doing. Because if you wrote that stuff up and had great players look at it, they’d be baffled.

There’s all kinds of great music. There’s just different styles. We tend, in this country, to be very elitist about music that’s in a symphonic hall.

The other day I went to one of Giovanni’s workshops, the conga player in my band. He just sat there alone and played and this guy is like Heifitz. He’s just playing congas. But nobody can do what he does. Nobody. He’s a great musician. Phenomenal. And I’m humbled by all of it.

AAJ: What moved you into producing and your own label?

DC: Just getting things done I just got sick of waiting for the phone to ring. As a musician you’re always waiting for the phone to ring.

Let’s give you an example. You can wait for the phone and you can’t take control of your life. You have to ask people, “Am I good enough?” You go through your life asking a third party to justify your existence. Mr. Executive at the record company. “What do you think of my record?” The creator probably knows. You just have to do it.

Look at the guys in Paris. They paint in the street. They paint and they just sell it themselves. They do the whole thing. Why can’t we do it in music? You walk up to a guy in Paris who’s painting on the street. You say, “I like your painting, I’d like to buy it.” He doesn’t say, “You’ll have to talk to my agent and manager.” He cuts you a deal right there. It doesn’t mean he’s not an artist. He’s got nobody to do it. We just think in America we live in this golden cage. Back in the days of Beethoven, they produced their own concerts.

AAJ: You went looking at different ways to go about it.

DC: Exactly. I said, look, if I’m going to get this done, I’ve got to believe in myself and just do it. And that’s it. I got thrown off Columbia Records. I got dropped. What was I going to do, sit home and cry? Sit home and send tapes and beg people to give me a record deal? I said forget it. I went out and worked and started my company with my brother out of a studio apartment. And we went to the mailbox and we packed the records and mailed them. We did everything ourselves. This was around 1986.

AAJ: How about the concept of the way it’s done, the techniques. How did that come about?

DC: As a conductor, I worked for years in the studio, right? They always had 9 million microphones all over the place. One in the tuba bell, one in the piano, etc. etc. And when you hear it in the mix, it sounded so weird to me. You had to put the balance together. And when I was standing on the podium, it sounded fantastic. So I said, if I ever start a company I’m going to do an audiophile from a one-point perspective. Like you’re there. So that’s when we developed the stereo MS mic technique. So the orchestra gets the balance and that’s it.

It’s sort of like black and white photography. We take a picture of an event and capture it in a moment of time. Through a clear lens, not through a rose-colored lens. We don’t sit there and say, “OK, let’s overdub this. Call this guy in.” You know, whether it’s jazz, rock and roll, blues or a string quartet, it’s about real people in a real room, interacting. Creating art. A recording is supposed to capture that moment in time. That’s what it’s supposed to do.

That’s our mantra. We stick to that. Some people like it and some people don’t. It’s a purist approach and that’s what I want to do. When you heard the Clark Terry record. That’s what Clark Terry and those guys sounded like at that moment in time.

AAJ: So as a producer, you approach it from an artist’s perspective.

DC: Yeah. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, so I know what it’s like to be the artist. I know what it’s like to be the producer.

When you work for our label, you can’t be hacks. You have to really know what you’re doing, because you can’t fake it. We don’t do all this stuff, overdubbing and using other musicians. If you’re on the label you have to be a serious musician. You have to be able to cut it. If you’re a string quartet, you gotta get out there and play live. Just get out there and play. Boom! There are no questions, you know? And that’s the way jazz is. That’s why we need great players.

AAJ: When it’s all said and done and the recording is there, that’s got to be pretty satisfying, I would think.

DC: People have gotten lazy today, due to the fact that we have multi-track [recording]. In the old days, you had one microphone. The drummer couldn’t play loud. You had to listen and balance. We have things in music called dynamics. Piano. Mezzo forte. Forte. Today, people get lazy. They walk into s studio. Everybody sits in a booth. They put on headphones and they play loud. There’s no dynamics. There’s no interaction. You know why? Fix it later in the mix. So technology has made us lazy. If you make a mistake, touch it in. It’s more perfect, but it’s antiseptic.

Jazz needs dynamics, just like classical or folk or blues. You listen to pop music on the radio. It’s all compressed. It’s just one level. Loud all the time. That’s all you hear. Everything is pumped up artificially loud. The whole society is just wonder bread, white bread. It’s all McDonald’s. That’s what people want. But it wasn’t like that [before]. People played dynamics. Musicians are supposed to listen. There’s supposed to be interaction, not just boom boom, bang bang, play as loud as you can.

AAJ: The interaction certainly comes off in your new record.

DC: Yeah. Most of the time I played quietly. When I have to play loud, I play loud. Most of the time I leave space because I listen. There’s no point in clouding it up.

AAJ: Things are going well at Chesky? I’m sure there are frustrations along the way, but you’re happy with thing?

DC: It’s tough for everybody now in the record business. There’s a big recording company going out of business today and they’re having an auction. It’s a company that rents things to all the studios. It’s a statement that there’s no more big studios for live music. Everything is pro tools in your house. It’s a whole metamorphosis. I think this young generation that grew up with MTV and the Internet has lost the ability to listen to music attentively. It’s become background. Let’s listen to music on a $10 computer speaker while we surf the net. When I grew up, you went home with your friends, you sat down and put the record on and you listened. Music was for listening, not background. That’s why you have all this compressed music now. It’s an aural wallpaper for most Americans. I hate to say it, but that’s the way it is.

AAJ: Do you see that changing at all?

DC: I don’t know. It’s not going to change unless we educate people. People are lazy. If you don’t have it, you don’t miss it.

In this country, we talk a good game but at the end of the day we don’t have music education in schools, we don’t hip people to music, we don’t teach them about it. Believe me, all these young kids growing up in inner city schools, before they get into the rap they should know who Coltrane and Ellington were. For some reason in this country it’s not important to preserve our history. We live in the disposable era. You go to a fast-food restaurant, you take it out in a carton, you eat it and you throw the stuff away. That’s how we look at music. It’s hot for 10 minutes and then it’s gone.

Go to Italy, go up to the most ignorant truck driver, he still knows who Puccini and Verdi are. If he doesn’t know the operas, he knows something about it and not only that, there’s a respect in his voice for it. We don’t have this. We should respect artists. Jazz is an American art form. Kids growing up should know who Ellington is and Coltrane and Dizzy. It should be taught in school, and if they don’t like it and they listen to rap, no problem. But they have to know where they came from. It’s part of their culture.

They teach math, the civil war and all these other things. This should be included. But it’s not a priority in America.

AAJ: No it’s not. That’s kind of a pessimistic view, but accurate.

DC: You know it’s accurate. But at the same time, I still do my thing because I believe people will do it. But you can’t stick your head in the ground like an ostrich.

I had heart surgery a year and a half ago. I could say: ignore it, it doesn’t happen. I’m fine. But you don’t. My heart valve was no good. I went into the surgeon and they fixed it. It’s now better. I work out everyday and I run and all that stuff. It’s a problem. You have to adjust it and fix it. It’s the same thing in music, if we have a bad educational system. I’m sick and tired of people telling me how great it is. I’m sick and tired of when I go to orchestras and they tell me what a great job we’re doing educating kids in music. At the end of the day, I can’t sell a Brahms’ Fourth. So that’s the judge. So when Brittney Spears and whoever sells 10 million copies and Brahms sells 2,000, there’s a reason for that. So we talk a good game, but at the end of the day you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.

AAJ: What’s next on the horizon for Chesky?

DC: Plugging away. We’ve got some interesting concepts we’re trying to put together. I’m trying to do this cool chamber music group, jazz musicians but doing the chamber style. That’s something interesting we’re working on. The usual suspects.

AAJ: Player, producer, composer. Is there one you call yourself over the others?

DC: And I develop new ways to record too. I do a lot of recording development. We do multi-channel. I’m very involved in technology as well.

AAJ: Is there one thing you call yourself above the others?

DC: My identity, if it was a perfect world, I guess would be a composer. Unfortunately, the music I write, I have to do something to subsidize it. I want to record my violin concerto, and my clarinet and guitar concerto. If I want to do that kind of music, I need to subsidize, because the problem is with the society. We don’t put value on it. So I have to do this, or teach. A lot of great jazz musicians are teaching at universities because they can’t make it.

What perplexes me is that we don’t really need skill in art anymore. If I go to a brain surgeon, that guy better go to school. I went to this IJAE thing, and I was just so humbled by all these young, talented, brilliant kids we have in this country. There were so many great groups. I heard the North Texas thing, the U of Miami band, the Oregon State Jazz Choir. What talent. And you know what the sad thing is? We take the best of this country and we squash them. These kids will be playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and christenings. And then we take the worst of this country, people have no education in music and just do it, and we make them our idols. It totally perplexes me. It’s inverse. The taste in this country has been going down ever since the ’40s. In the ’40s, Glen Miller and Artie Shaw and these guys, they were pop guys, but they were such schooled musicians. And then you get to the rock and roll era, and it gets lower. And now it’s so dumbed down that the people who create music know nothing about it.

I just think we don’t require skill in art anymore. That’s what perplexes me, because it’s totally commercially driven. The lowest common denominator. But we have great musicians in this country. We just need to water them, like a flower, and let them grow, and respect them and encourage them. But we don’t.

Visit Chesky Records on the web at www.chesky.com .

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