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Louis Hayes at Showplace Studios

David A. Orthmann By

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Hayes savors the moment by quietly going back to the drums. He's in no hurry to break down the set and leave. For just a few more minutes the realities of the world outside can wait.
Housed in the rear of a nondescript building on a busy northern New Jersey thoroughfare, Showplace Studios is a no frills workspace nearly devoid of worldly distractions. The Showplace consists of an office, a small lounge, a control room, and studio. Regardless of where you are in the compact area, everything is just a few steps away. Before the musicians arrive to begin the day's recording, the place is silent except for the low drone of the recording machinery. The only sign of life is a small TV in the lounge turned to CNN with the sound off.

The leader of today's session, the venerable drummer Louis Hayes, is the first to appear. His vehicle's GPS system and a phone call saved him from getting lost in the suburban sprawl. A couple of longtime band members, tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton and bassist Santi DeBriano are the next to arrive. Before entering they share a joke about the Gentlemen's club on the other side of the building.

For the better part of an hour the studio is a beehive of overlapping preparations. Burton warms up by playing some long searching phrases. The Showplace's owner and engineer, Ben Elliott, takes off his coat and instructs assistant Ben Sampson to make adjustments to the piano mike. A few feet away, DeBriano and Hayes sing the head of one of the tunes they'll record later. Burton talks about one of his compositions, describing it as "like a ballad—just that vibe." As Hayes looks on, pianist Helio Alves and Burton begin to rehearse another tune. Jack Kreisberg, who has produced dozens of discs at the Showplace and is in charge of today's session, walks in and surveys the scene. "Everyone's here but Steve," Hayes says to no one in particular. As if on cue, guest artist Steve Nelson brings his vibes in from the rain soaked parking lot, one piece at a time. "Not everyone has to solo on every tune," Kreisberg says. "I want to keep it to five minutes per track."

Taking up most of the studio's area, the band's set-up resembles an obstacle course. The players are spread out at odd angles, several feet apart. Hayes's drums and cymbals are against the rear wall. DeBriano and Burton are housed in isolation booths in the room's corners where they can hear (with the aid of headphones) but can't see each other. Alves's piano takes up a good chunk of the studio's middle, and he sits with his back to DeBriano. Nelson and his vibes are close to another wall, behind some waist-high sound barriers.

Separated from the studio by a thick pane of glass, the control room is a world of its own. The recording board takes up the entire length of the room. There's a narrow isle and another row of related equipment. As the musicians continue to warm up and go through the tunes, Elliott manipulates several of the board's faders and isolates sounds from various parts of the studio. Sampson mentions that Nelson needs both mikes to register in his head set. Elliott looks intently at the board as if seeking answers to problems only he can anticipate.

In the studio everything is getting more focused and you can sense that they're ready to test the sound level of Alves's "Double Rainbow." Hayes counts off a medium-to-up tempo in three-four time and then, almost immediately, brings things to a halt. DeBriano can't hear everyone else through his headset. After quizzing Sampson about the kind of headset the bassist is using, Elliott reaches back to the rear panel of equipment and makes some adjustments. The band starts again. Nelson's introduction is bolstered by Hayes's hard accents and boisterous fills. Burton's statement of the melody leads to Alves's solo. Though the band is still playing, for a few seconds in the control room you can only hear Hayes's bass drum. Satisfied with the drum's sound, Elliott makes another adjustment and everyone is audible once again. The take ends with Hayes's shuffle beat over a vamp amidst Burton's mellow asides.

The band crowds into the control room for the playback. Elliott asks Hayes if there's too much ping on the ride cymbal. Hayes replies that it's just fine. They all return to the studio for the first real take. Hayes sounds even bolder than before and the band responds in kind. After they finish a brief debate ensues. Is this "The take?" Kreisberg points out that a nine minute track has little chance at radio airplay. DeBriano half-jokingly says, "Tell them to shove it. You're Louis Hayes." They try it again and play a strong take in less time.

Horace Silver's classic composition "Peace" is taken as a brisk bossa nova. Hayes leads the way with an introduction comprised of time on a semi-open hi-hat and rim knocks to the snare. The first take features short solos by Burton, Alves, and DeBriano, using the bow. Hayes thinks something is missing and suggests that Nelson add some bebop touches to the melody—"However you feel it." His idea pays off when Nelson's additional edge is contagious and the band plays with considerably more energy.


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