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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.

Tom Swift, a gentle bear of a man, was seated at the controls checking the setup well before the musicians arrived. I introduced myself, and Tom said he would be available to answer my questions between recording episodes. I seized these opportunities like a curious kid in a toy store. I have a passion for sound equipment that I have never quite fulfilled in my life, other than a brief stint at a radio station and the six-speaker high power stereo that I've rigged up in my apartment. I had a hard time keeping my hands off the zillions of dials, mixers, preamps, computer parts, and digital software whose sole purpose was to provide a digital multitrack feed of 20-60 gigabytes of the best quality and well-configured sound to a hard disk that would on the next day (Sunday) be mixed down to two channels. Subsequently, at another studio (JWS Studios in the Denver area), the song layout would be decided and a master created that in turn would be used in production. I felt it was my duty not to interfere with what I soon realized was a very sensitive process both technically and psychologically, such that even the slightest electronic maladjustment or human emotional tension could throw off the entire course of action.

The "trick to making all this come off well is that the engineer must fine tune every detail at the beginning, and then continue to "tweak it throughout the day, while at the same time there must be a relaxed and unobtrusive ambience within which the musicians can maintain rapport and engage in spontaneous and mutually inspiring music making. Evidence of Swift's acute sound sensitivity occurred early on, when he heard some unusual overtones from the piano coming over the control room loudspeakers. He called over Manfred Koop, and the two decided the overtones would not affect the quality of the recording and could safely be ignored. In the meantime, Friedman was woodshedding some phrases on the piano, while Wind, Jefferson, and Bernstein filed in and began setting up, each in a small acoustically sheltered room, with windows through which they were visible to each other and sound openings as well as earphones through which they could hear each other play. As Swift assured himself that all twelve microphones were strategically placed for optimal "pickup near the piano, bass, drums, and guitar, the musicians tuned up and started jamming informally, affording Swift an opportunity to do a final sound check. Then, without so much as a pause, they began playing a Friedman original, "Autumn Colors. Swift thought it was going so well that he decided, with a smile of satisfaction, to use it as a "take. He obviously dug the group, and to his credit, somewhat in the manner of the great van Gelder, he managed to do his complex technical maneuvers without interfering with the musicians. At the conclusion of the tune, they came into the control room and listened to the playback with evident pleasure. They congratulated each other, made some off-color jokes, as musicians often do, bounced back into their cubicles, and continued with the recording.

At this point, the group of us in the control room were loosening up and making informal conversation while the music came through the loudspeakers. I picked Sutton's brain and found him to be an old school jazz-o-phile, having been, among other things, a disc jockey in his younger days. His self-employment as founder and executive producer of Jazz Excursion Records, fronting new recordings by saxophonists Richie Cole and Jim Saltzman, the Dan Loomis Quartet, and the Nathan Eklund Group, among others, is obviously a labor of love. Again the comparison with the early days of the Blue Note label came to my mind, as I recalled the dedication of Blue Note co-founders Alfred Lions and Francis Wolff. It was gratifying to meet a producer like Sutton who is more interested in the music than the dollar sign. Sutton is a genuine idealist who wants nothing more than to promote jazz as a legitimate musical form. He expressed great respect for professionals like Friedman, who can come into a studio or a nightclub, and spontaneously create pieces approaching masterpiece status. He contrasted this with young rock 'n roll musicians, who may take weeks or months of repetition to get a couple of tracks recorded properly. Soon, Ricci and Schlesinger joined us, and we were all reminiscing about our peak jazz experiences. We were also multi-tasking, aware of the music in the background.

Suddenly, we grew quiet. Schlesinger broke the silence, and spoke for all of us when she said, "Hey, something's not right in there! They're not doing so well! We all agreed that the momentum of the session was slowing down, and apparently the musicians felt the same way, because they stopped recording and started woodshedding some parts repeatedly. Then they went back to recording, and Swift mentioned that he was going to re-record some parts and do some cut-and-paste editing. It appeared as if the bottom were falling out of the recording session. We were worried.

Like back-seat drivers, we tried to diagnose the problem. After a lot of debate, we came up with the mundane theory that it was late in the morning, and the musicians were getting hungry! Fortunately, someone had ordered a combined Chinese and Japanese lunch for everyone, and the musicians labored on until it was finally delivered from a nearby restaurant. The four players looked dejected as they lumbered into a conference room where we were all treated to a mix of wanton soup, spring rolls, rice, sushi, and various entrees in those perennial white cardboard containers. Food can be a social lubricant, and a friendly atmosphere developed. Musicians and listeners were now in one room and "breaking bread together. We were becoming a cohesive group.

The hunger theory proved to be valid. After lunch, the group recorded the popular bossa nova tune, "Você E Eu, featuring an extended two part piano-guitar improvisation by Friedman and Bernstein. Wow! They were really swinging now! They were "in the zone, as it is sometimes said, and those of us in the control room were ecstatic and relieved. Jazz "heaven occurs when the music swings. At such times, it feels as if the inspiration is emanating from a transcendent Power, a creative Muse or godhead. The contrast between the awkwardness of the late morning recording and the afternoon groove was astonishing. Great jazz is not a predictable occurrence. You can stir in all the right ingredients, but the cake may not rise. In this case, the needed leaven consisted of "time out, food, lightening up, and fellowship. The "rugged individualism of the morning session was superseded by the energetic and cohesive musical unity of the afternoon. The group played virtually non-stop to complete the 10 tracks in a frenzied creative flux.

As everyone was packing up, I sat down next to Tom Swift, who was staring at a computer screen showing the records of the sound waves from the twelve microphone inputs. As Tom frenetically manipulated the cursor and some other controls, he seemed to become a conjurer, a sorcerer. Puzzled, I asked him what he was doing. He indicated that he was taking some of the tracks from the part of the morning session when the playing was awkward and reconfiguring them. Indeed, when he played back some of the changes, they sounded fantastic. This was a far cry from the days when analog sound tapes were edited using a razor blade and Scotch tape to cut and paste parts of a re-take. Just as digital photographers can edit their photos in myriad ways, so a sound engineer, using software like Pro Tools, can manipulate and combine aspects of music into a seamless revision of the original sound. Is this cheating? Who can say? In a digital age, the borders between music, art, and technology are blurring. Although purists covet the original live and un-retouched sounds, most modern recordings are re-mixed, edited, and significantly modified from the original input.

Musicians Wind, Jefferson, and Bernstein gave a quick listen to samples of the music, were satisfied, packed up their gear, said warm goodbyes, and moved on to their various Saturday night gigs. Friedman hung around a bit longer to discuss some details with Swift and Sutton. All three were delighted with the session. On Sunday, Sutton would get together with Swift to do some further editing and create the master CD. Mike and I thanked everyone for the opportunity to attend the session and were on our way back to Philadelphia as night fell. I felt content and satisfied, having fulfilled a long-time wish and spent a day with dedicated musicians and passionate listeners, getting a "Swift Kick from the engineer (that's the name of Tom's company), and experiencing the energy and excitement of spontaneously creating music that will become a permanent record of the jazz legacy. In a fine jazz recording, the fusion of the singular moment with eternity is actualized, as it is in all those moments in our lives that are well-remembered and passed along in song and story through the generations. With recording, and with jazz, the here-and-now is forever.

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