In the Belly of the Beast: The Story of a Recording Session

Victor L. Schermer By

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In a fine jazz recording, the fusion of the singular moment with eternity is actualized. With recording, and with jazz, the here-and-now is forever.
It is no coincidence that jazz emerged around the same time that Edison invented the phonograph. Both jazz and recording by electrical impulses were among the early signs of "modernity. Furthermore, jazz is an improvisational form of music that is composed as it is performed, and, unlike classical music with its well-tempered scale and relatively uniform standards, jazz is almost impossible to notate in more than its barest outlines. The only viable way to preserve it is on recordings. Recordings are the footprints of the jazz Goliath as it wends its way through time. However, unlike live performances, the only witnesses to the recording process are typically the musicians, the sound engineer, and perhaps the producer.

I've always been curious about what goes on in the back rooms of the music world. Ever since I began listening to jazz recordings, especially those superb Blue Note LPs engineered by Rudy van Gelder, I wondered what it would be like to be present at the creation. What goes on in the studio as a jazz recording is being made? Who runs the show: the producer, the engineer, or the musicians? How do they decide when they've got a good "take ? What constitutes the optimal sound for a particular group, and how does the engineer arrange the microphones and adjust the controls to capture the truest audio image? How does the creative process evolve in the studio? Human memory is deficient and fades quickly, but a recording is mercilessly accurate and destined for posterity. It has to survive repeated scrutiny and come out on top. Furthermore, in this age of downloadable tracks, the amount of competition escalates. How, then, do you get a group of musicians into a recording studio for a day or a few days and come up with something memorable for all time?

Recently, at dinner, I casually shared my wish to attend a recording session with All About Jazz publisher Michael Ricci, and lo and behold, he took it seriously. A few weeks later, he asked me if I'd accompany him to a recording session in northern New Jersey (not very far, as it turned out, from van Gelder's studio in Teaneck). "How about doing the story you suggested to me? inquired Mike. "Oh, yeah, Mike, sure I will! I replied without hesitation. There's nothing quite like a fantasy come true, even if it takes you into the belly of the beast.

The recording date of note was scheduled for March 2, 2007 and featured seasoned pianist Don Friedman with his sidemen, bassist Martin Wind and drummer Tony Jefferson. All three are highly respected free-lance jazz musicians who have also logged considerable time together under Friedman's direction and were working just then across the Hudson River at the Kitano Hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan, while Friedman, coincidentally, was preparing for a tour of Japan. Peter Bernstein, a top New York guitarist and good friend of Friedman, would sit in on a few tracks as special guest.

Some time prior to that, producer John Sutton had asked Don if he wanted to do a recording. Don had written a tune called "Waltz for Marilyn dedicated to his beloved wife, and expressed an interest in honoring her with a CD. So John reserved the state-of-the-art studio of Manfred Knoop, head of Twinz Records, for the gig. Sutton would fly in from Denver for the weekend, and the recording would be made in its entirety on Saturday, to be mixed on Sunday-quick and convenient, but high pressured for the musicians. The engineer would be the experienced and in-demand Tom Swift, and John would invite the cover photographer, Bryan Murray and his wife, Catherine, as well as the writer of the liner notes, AAJ's own Dr. Judith Schlesinger, to get the feel of the session and do some photos and documentation for the CD. Everything was set up to the dime, and it had to run as smooth as silk.

Early that Saturday, Mike and I drove north on the New Jersey Turnpike from Philadelphia to the town of River Edge, not far from Patterson, in an area of urban-suburban sprawl just across from Manhattan and extending westward to the woods and hills of New Jersey's northwesternmost reaches. We expected to find the studio in an office complex, mall, or warehouse. Instead, we found ourselves in a residential neighborhood with homes and gardens of post-World War II vintage. We parked outside a large white two-story home wondering if we had misread the directions. But in the driveway, we saw a sign for "TwinzRecord Studios that directed us to a door at the side of the house. We descended a flight of stairs into a world apart-a world of glass and wood partitions, a Steinway grand piano, and a sound booth lined with stunning arrays of equipment.


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