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Jim Beard: Serving The Music

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth ]

Joe Zawinul said, "Jim Beard is my favorite keyboard player besides myself." I think that's a pretty high compliment, don't you? Jim Beard has been on the scene since the 1980s with a resume that reads like a sideman's dream: Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, John McLaughlin, Steely Dan, and a host of other upper echelon artists. Beard is a virtuoso pianist and composer, yet he also is widely in demand as a multi-keyboardist. His perfection and taste with sonic textures is legendary.

Last November, I was in New York, and I contacted Beard for a lesson. My goal was to get advice on keyboards and sound design. We met at his music studio in midtown. We got to talk and I decided that I should interview him for Jazztruth. He had a lot to say and I learned a great deal from his stories and thoughts. Here's where I started recording:

George Colligan: So you were saying, your original set up was the two Yamaha DX-7s and the drum machine?

Jim Beard: Yeah, I had a DX-7 and a TX-7 and an RX 15, the Yamaha drum machine, and an Ensoniq Mirage, and my 4-track Fostex Cassette Recorder. That was the setup when I wrote most of [the] tunes for the Michael Brecker albums. And like I said, my interesting sampling came from that Prince CD, the one with "Kiss" on it. And also I was talking about when demoing songs, the need to sort of clearly arrange things, that and my desire to create interesting synth sounds. By the same token, if I would stumble across an interesting sound... but also lifting a weird pad from a Prince CD or something. Sometimes a cool sound would give me an idea for a song; so it would kind of go both ways. Right from the beginning, the nature, or the quality of a sound could either lure me into music, feed my desire to get involved with it, or turn me off if it's an offensive, horrible sound. Pretty early on, I was pretty sensitive to what I viewed was a good sound or a bad sound.

GC: Even as a kid when you were first getting into music?

JB: Well, no...

GC: How did you get into being a musician?

JB: Oh jeez. I can remember being 4 years old; my dad was kind of a technological nerd, he built our television from a kit, he built our stereo from a kit. We had a weird stereo, one of the speakers was in a cabinet on the living room floor and the other was on the ceiling on the other side of the room. But when I was young, my idea of a good time was to lie on the floor in front of the speaker and listen to records. A lot of it was Herb Alpert records.

GC: Really? Interesting.

JB: I mean, those records had a lot of detail in the arrangements. Whipped Cream and Other Delights (A&P, 1965)—that's a classic record. And I always loved holiday times, the traditional Christmas music with the choirs and the orchestra and so forth. I used to love that.

GC: You grew up in Philly?

JB: Yes. Ridley Park, not far from the airport.

GC: Did you have classical lessons?

JB: Yes. I had the same teacher for about 12 years. I started when I was six. I did the whole heavy classical routine. My teacher entered me in competitions.

GC: Did you get a degree in music?

JB: I went to Indiana University. After that, I world on a cruise ship for a year with the intention of saving money to move to New York. But I didn't save any money and I moved to New York anyway!

GC: And then right away you got the call to play with the Mahavishnu Orchestra?

JB: Not right away. I moved in August of 1985 and within that year I was working with Mahavishnu. Yeah, that was an interesting time.

GC: You came to New York in '85. You still live here part time and part time in Helsinki?

JB: My wife is Finnish, so we split the time between Helsinki and New York.

GC: How do you think New York as a city has changed since you've been here?

JB: I think it's a safer city now, which I believe qualifies as being better. In terms of music, it's hard to say. You might have to compare with younger musicians who come here who are hungry. I used to do jam sessions all the time with the loft scene. New York has gotten so expensive now that it seems there isn't as vibrant a scene as there used to be.

GC: I guess it depends on who you talk to.

JB: The rent—I don't know how a kid out of school with no money saved up, without a job, could move here. I guess they don't move to Manhattan, they live in Queens or Brooklyn.

GC: You're pretty well established as a musician, so I imagine you are touring a lot. You are still touring with Steely Dan?

JB: I've been doing that for two years. But we are on a break right now, so there's a tour with a band called the Dukes of September. It's Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs in one band. It's really fun; I'm playing mostly Hammond B- 3 on that.

GC: Have you done a lot of B-3 playing?

JB: Yeah, I've done some gigs here or there that were exclusively Hammond B-3. But most of the time, like with something like Madeleine Peyroux, I would have a set up with a Steinway piano, a Wurlitzer, and a Hammond B-3. That really served that music well.

GC: How do you adjust your set up, or your mindset, for this wide variety of gigs you have been doing?

JB: If it's a more electric oriented gig with more emphasis on synthesizers, then that's obviously much different than doing an acoustic gig of course. After a few years I had a working set up that I used for a good stretch. Two controllers: the Yamaha 88 weighted key controller (the KX88) and then the KX76 on top. And then I had different versions of these midi control boxes, that you could assign different splits and routings and so forth, and then midi cables running to a big rack of synth modules.

GC: And you would always bring that?

JB: I would always bring that for the Mahavishnu stuff, and then I got called for John Scofield, and he had a pretty electric setup as well. I was only with that band for a year. Wait, I did Wayne Shorter after Mahavishnu. There were several different bands, one was with Kenwood Dennard on drums and Alphonso Johnson on bass and one with Omar Hakim on drums and Victor Bailey on bass. There were maybe seven or eight different configurations with Wayne. Then I did Scofield, and then I did Wayne again, and then I did John McLaughlin and the Heart of Things. But I found that this approach with two keyboards, with all of these bands, that these songs had a strong emphasis on arrangements. These songs were recorded with a lot of overdubs and different sonic layers. My job was to recreate the sounds on these recordings. I saw this as a fun challenge.

I saw this task as making me the orchestrator. It takes thought in terms of the ergonomics of it. Let's say this section needs some pads in this part of the keyboard that are warm and rich. Then if stuff gets wild, I'll have something splashy in the top part of the keyboard, and then maybe I'll have a solo sound in the other keyboard. Some keyboardists now just have sort of one keyboard and then their laptop. That would drive me nuts! Because this is like having—let's say 10 people—who can play all the instruments, but they can only play one instrument at any one time, so they have to switch up constantly. No, you want to have everything ready to go all the time! If there is a spontaneous need to play a certain sound, you don't want to have to press some command on your laptop, you want it to be within reach.

When I was doing Wayne Shorter's band with David Gilmore on guita—this was 1996— that's when the Roland JP 8000 came out. [This] was the beginning of the whole virtual sound-modeling thing. It was cool to play the instrument because you could adjust the sound in real time with the knob. It had a lot of cool Joe Zawinul type of sounds. Almost like weird creatures speaking from another planet or something. So then I added a third keyboard. Well, actually four keyboards, because with Wayne and John, there was a grand piano as well. A piano to my left, two keyboards next to that, andthe JP 8000 on my right.

John McLaughlin and The Heart of Things was a fun band. I had to do a lot of homework! But it got to the point with that band where it reminded me of a band of swashbucklers.

GC: A lot of virtuosity...

JB: Which is not naturally my thing. That's not necessarily what I look for in music. It's ok in measured doses.

GC: What do you look for?

JB: Music! Musicalness!

GC: [Laughs] I hear you ! But for any musical situation, you always rise to the occasion, right?

JB: Exactly; The craftsmanship of making the music at hand. The priority [is] serving the music. Now, if the music is about getting out there and beating your chest and trying to impress people, then sure, I'll rise to that. If the music is about repeating a little rhythmic part that has to be in the pocket, and that's all you have to do night after night, then I'll do that—whatever serves the music best.

I just find that there doesn't seem to be an overabundance of musicians that have that as their priority. A lot of musicians have their own agenda. It's like, "This is what I do regardless of who I'm playing with."

GC: But don't you think that every musician goes into a situation having to make judgment calls?

JB: For example, with Steely Dan, I'm such a fan of their music. Those records helped me create my musical concept and my harmonic vocabulary as a teenager. When they gave me the charts, about 55 to 60 charts, I felt like I already knew must of their music. And so much of their music is so tangible and strong. So most of the gig is just about making the sound of the recording come to life. But there are times in the show where they will give me extended unaccompanied piano solos where they wanted me to be me. So then I can get into some stuff, like classical meets Fats Waller spun out of a riff from "Babylon Sister," and then you gotta turn on a dime and play the part from the song, you know, just nail it.
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