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Meeco: Keeping It Real

Meeco: Keeping It Real

Courtesy Jeffrey Galvezo Sales

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No rehearsals. No click tracks. No overdubs. No edits. Immaculately crafted though they are, and contrary to the assumptions such finesse may arouse, Meeco’s productions are wholly without artifice and are grounded on the classic values of feeling and spontaneity and real-time performance. In a word, 'authenticity.'
The Berlin-based producer and composer Meeco has a niche but devoted following, built up over a series of romantically inclined and elegant albums released between 2009 and 2014. The discs, which have pronounced Latin flavours, are Amargo Mel (Connector, 2009), Perfume E Caricias (Connector, 2010), Beauty Of The Night (Connector, 2012) and Souvenirs Of Love (Double Moon, 2014). Each has been enthusiastically reviewed at All About Jazz. The good news, Meeco reveals in this interview, is that the series is to resume.

Along with fellow Europeans Nicola Conte and Manfred Eicher, Meeco is an inheritor of the mid-twentieth century American archetype of the jazz producer as auteur, a non-performing presence in the studio who influences a recording so profoundly that, whether they write the tunes or not (Meeco writes all his), they rank as the author, or at the least co-author, of the finished work. Figures such as Blue Note's Alfred Lion, CTI's Creed Taylor, Columbia's Teo Macero and even Prestige's Bob Weinstock, though Weinstock's influence was felt more often in his absence from, rather than presence in, the studio (at Rudy Van Gelder's, Weinstock preferred to sit in an adjoining room and watch TV). Weinstock, however, laid down strict protocols for his productions—no rehearsals and multiple takes only in exceptional circumstances—which influenced the character of Prestige's recordings. Meeco also eschews rehearsals, but his reasons for doing so overlap only partially with those of Weinstock and saving money is not one of them.

Meeco says that his next album will include some new directions, but it will adhere to the classic production values that make its predecessors so special. Immaculately crafted though they are, and contrary to the assumptions such finesse may raise in listeners, Meeco's productions are wholly without artifice. No rehearsals. No click tracks. No overdubs. No edits. They are grounded on the classic values of feeling and spontaneity and real-time performance. In a word, "authenticity." In all his albums, there is only one instance where Meeco edited a track, and that, he says, was simply because it was too long. His music-making aesthetic is the polar opposite of the one set out by Brian Eno in his 2004 essay, The Studio As Compositional Tool (Continuum).

Given his albums' sophisticated international vibe, it would come as no surprise to learn that Meeco is the scion of a well-heeled family and, as a child growing up during the jet-set era, was taken on annual holidays to the Côte d'Azur, Rio and the Swiss ski slopes, autograph book to hand in case Jane Birkin, Astrud Gilberto or Audrey Hepburn were among the beautiful people strolling by. In fact, Meeco was born in Berlin in 1976 into a fairly normal middle-class family. It was, however, a cultured one. His mother was a poet and his father, a school teacher, was an accomplished classical pianist.

Meeco aims high with his music and right from the start he has mustered the lineups on his albums from masters of the art. Among them are trumpeters Eddie Henderson and Wallace Roney, saxophonists Benny Golson, Charlie Mariano, David "Fathead" Newman, Bennie Maupin and James Moody, flautist Hubert Laws, guitarists John Scofield and Lionel Loueke, pianist Kenny Barron, vibraphonist David Friedman and Stefon Harris, bassists Buster Williams, Richard Bona and Ron Carter, and drummer Victor Lewis. Most of these players cut their teeth during the real-time recording age, although one of them, Bennie Maupin, was also involved in an album which is emblematic of the full-on post-produced, non-linear, edit-heavy era: Miles Davis' Teo Macero-produced Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970). Meeco's distinguished vocalists have included Eva Ventura, Talib Kweli, Eloisia, Freddy Cole, Gregory Porter, Joe Bataan, Zé Manoel and the aforementioned Jane Birkin.

Before the interview, a little biographical info... Meeco, who was born Michael Maier and dubbed Meeco by Cuban musicians with whom he worked in the early 2000s, began piano lessons at the age of six. When he was thirteen, he decided he wanted to be a drummer. But after a couple of years, he began missing melody and harmony and, hopeful that his son would one day return to the piano proper, his father bought him a Korg Workstation. The instrument, which included a sequencer, stimulated Meeco's songwriting and was a watershed in his development.

As a teenager in 1990s Berlin, Meeco was fortunate to find three gifted mentors: the American-born pianists Bob Lenox and Reggie Moore and the producer Marco Meister. Meeco took lessons from Lenox and Moore and both appeared on Amargo Mel. Meister, with his brother Robert Meister, created the remix disc which is part of the double CD Beauty Of The Night. In his late teens/early twenties, Meeco spent a lot of time hanging out in Meister's studio and this is when he learned the basics of recording.

A relationship breakdown put a pause on Meeco's recording activities after Souvenirs Of Love. He returned in 2020, not with another jazz album, but a hip hop one, We Out Here (New Def). Hip hop had been Meeco's first love as a teenage musician. His jazz audience will be delighted to learn, however, that his fifth jazz album will be released in 2023.

Meeco talks about all this in the interview below. He concludes with a list of six albums which have been influential on his development, by Horace Silver, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Erroll Garner, Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley, and Miles Davis.

From Hip Hop to Jazz

All About Jazz: What caused your move away from hip hop and towards jazz in the mid 2000s?

Meeco: I realized it was not the real me. I was always trying to imitate someone—let's make a beat like Dr Dre or whatever. It was not authentic and I decided I wanted to do my own thing. So I started following my heart and writing my own songs and they turned out to be a mixture of jazz, latin and classical. In time, that led to Amargo Mel.

AAJ: It was an extraordinarily assured debut.

M: Even now I think it is probably my favorite among my albums. There is a special magic about it, especially the songs sung by Eva Ventura—"Nocturna," "Para Siempre A Mi Lado." [Check the YouTube below this interview.] I very much wish I had done more work with her. The album is not perfect, of course. There are too many songs. But you have a tendency with your first album to put everything on it, because [laughs] you don't know if you will ever make a second one.

AAJ: One thing that stands out from that album onwards is the internal cohesion of your lineups, which is impressive considering you put them together on a project by project basis.

M: I don't know why, but it seems that I'm good at assembling bands, getting people together who are in harmony with each other musically even though they may never have played together before. It's a bit like being a football manager who looks at lots of different players when recruiting a team and with each album I'm intent on bringing my dream team together. I start by looking at the song. What does the song need? How can I emphasize certain aspects of the song? Who is the best person to do that? And then who is the best person to work with that person? It all has to fit together.

With Amargo Mel, actually getting the musicians to work with me was the big hurdle. I had no track record. I'd tell people who I had in mind for the band and often they would laugh. But I thought, I can ask, the worst that can happen is that they say no. And in jazz, everybody knows everybody, so once somebody says you're OK, you're in. I began with getting the best musicians I could find in Berlin. Then I met Charlie Mariano, who gave me Eddie Henderson's email address. I went to New York, met him and we instantly fell in love with each other. Eddie is such a beautiful person, a very warmhearted guy. He took me under his wing and he introduced me to many, many people.

Real-Time Production Values

AAJ: Once you've put a band together for an album, how do approach producing?

M: You could say I'm old school. We never rehearsed. Not one time. No overdubbing either. It's all live. I would never rehearse because if you rehearse a song too much the feeling and the spontaneity is gone. So I introduce the musicians to the material in the studio. For me, feeling is the most important thing. I want music which touches the soul.

I should say that Amargo Mel was a little different, because it was my first album and I couldn't afford to fly the Berlin musicians to New York or the New York musicians to Berlin. So the rhythm section and the vocals were recorded live in the studio in Berlin and the solos by Eddie Henderson, David Fathead Newman and so on, those were overdubbed in New York. But Perfume E Caricias , Beauty Of The Night and Souvenirs Of Love were all recorded live in the studio in New York.

AAJ: What about post-production? Do you ever splice different takes together?

M: I only ever use complete takes. In all my albums there is only one time when I edited a track, and that was simply because it was too long. "Cut and paste" would not be possible anyway, because I never use a metronome. There is no click track. So every take is at a slightly different tempo, meaning you can't sync them. I insisted on this right from the beginning and many musicians were surprised—but they loved it, many of them came of age professionally when that was the norm. Again, it's about keeping the authentic, live feel in the music. Once you play with a metronome you bow to the metronome.

Some producers keep editing the music until, for me, eventually, they edit the life out of it, they erase and delete any feeling in the song. They may get a technically faultless track, but it's not appealing to me. I prefer to do perhaps three different takes and choose the one that sounds the overall best. I have been lucky, of course. You can only work like this if you have musicians on the level that I have been fortunate enough to work with.

AAJ: How detailed are your arrangements?

M: I provide the basic song structure, that's all. Let's say, intro, verse, chorus, solo one, solo two, back to the chorus, ending. We develop the actual arrangements together in the studio. Sometimes a song might have a horn or a bass line I've pre-written, but I leave the musicians room to develop things themselves naturally. I might say to Buster Williams or Richard Bona, this is the bass line I've come up with, now make it your own. I don't say, play it like this. If I did, then why would I want to use Buster Williams or Richard Bona?

I let go almost completely with the lyrics. Unless they are in English, the singers write them. We might discuss subject matter, but I don't really see myself as a lyricist. I'm about the melodies. The only album for which I wrote the lyrics was Souvenirs of Love, where all the lyrics are in English, with the exception of two tracks which I co-wrote with friends.

Burn Out... And Recovery

AAJ: Why was there such a long gap between Souvenirs Of Love and We Out Here? And why did you return with a hip hop album?

M: Basically, what happened about ten years ago is that my life changed significantly, and ultimately for the better. I separated from my former girlfriend and left Paris, where I had lived for a few years, and returned to Berlin. I was very unhappy and writing a lot of sad songs. Then I got into a new relationship and got married and became a father and it wasn't that life at all anymore. Also, I realized that most of the ideas I was coming up with were more or less the same, they had the same melodies and chord progressions. I had burnt out. I realized I had to do something completely different to restore my creativity. This is when I came up with the idea of, after all that time, trying to do some hip hop beats again.

AAJ: Years earlier, you moved away from hip hop because you didn't feel it was the real you. What had changed?

M: I was older, I had developed my own identity. In 2020 I had the maturity to say, I want it to sound like this, not I want it to sound like this guy or that guy. Today I feel comfortable going there without the need to imitate anyone. And I mean, hip hop developed out of jazz anyway. The rhythmic element came out of jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, etc.

For the follow up to Souvenirs Of Love, I plan to go in a direction which combines all these elements—jazz, hip hop and soul. I started doing this a bit on Souvenirs and I will take it further on the next album. I'm not going to copy Robert Glasper, but the way he opened things up is a big inspiration. I'll maybe still work with my good old friends from former records like Eddie Henderson and Buster Williams, but do something a little different to what I did before. The album should come out towards the end of 2023.

Before that, this autumn [2022], I'm going to release another hip hop album. It's different to We Out Here because it includes some live elements, like I'm playing Rhodes and Wurlitzer and Hammond organ, and also some live bass.

Must Jazz Hybridize to Survive?

AAJ: Do you think jazz has to mutate, incorporating hip hop or whatever, in order to stay relevant?

M: [Firmly]. No. I like to create blends with other musics, but that's not because jazz needs it, it's because that's what I want to do. You read it all the time: jazz is dead. No, it isn't. Jazz is an art form that will live forever. But there will always be different ways of interpreting it. You can look at it in the traditional way—which is absolutely fine, I love the traditional way—or you can have a new approach to it. How you do it is just a reflection of yourself and your environment. Jazz doesn't need to be "modernized."

AAJ: Final question. You've worked with some of the great jazz musicians of our age. Are there any you have kind of missed out on along the way, who you would like to have recorded with?

M: Oh yes, absolutely. McCoy Tyner. I desperately wanted to work with McCoy Tyner. And Yusef Lateef. There are some artists with a particular sound, a particular touch, that I would love to work with, and I tried, but for one reason or another it didn't happen. And I'd love to work with Ahmad Jamal and Pharoah Sanders.

Six All-Time Classic Albums

Meeco says: These are classic albums, but they all have a twist. On each of them, I've picked out what is for me the key track. They have all had a particular impact on my writing. You'll see I've picked a lot of ballads, because this is where I am coming from.

Horace Silver
Song For My Father
Blue Note, 1965

My favorite song is "Calcutta Cutie" because of the atmosphere that is created. The voicings, the way he plays, it's just mesmerizing.

Bill Evans Trio
Sunday At The Village Vanguard
Riverside, 1961

I could listen to this album for two days straight without sleeping. My favorite track is "Alice In Wonderland." The way he plays the intro, the harmonies, it's just wonderful.

John Coltrane
Giant Steps
Atlantic, 1960

"Naima" is my favourite track, for the way Coltrane plays and also the harmonies. The harmonies on "Naima" have had a huge impact on my writing.

Erroll Garner
Concert By The Sea
Columbia, 1955

Because of the feeling and the energy of Erroll Garner's playing. My favourite track is "Teach Me Tonight," it's so personal to him. I always tried to learn the way he plays the piano.

Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley
Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley
Capitol, 1962

The whole album had an influence on how I approach vocals. The track I would pick out is "The Masquerade Is Over." The atmosphere, the whole vibe is something else.

Miles Davis
Ascenseur Pour L'echafaud
Fontana, 1958

Again it's all about atmosphere, colors, moods. Miles Davis basically created the music on the spot, just looking at the movie. That approach had a huge impact me, musically and as a way of recording, without rehearsal, live in the studio, going for the feeling.

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