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Orrin Keepnews: Classic Producer of Classics

R.J. DeLuke By

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One could go on and on about the music. The Adderley group live and blowing freely. Henderson with young firebrands Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. Wes with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb and Johnny Griffin, swinging like mad. Health's all-star band and Blakey with a horn section of Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Curtis Fuller. Wailing. It's part of Keepnews' legacy, one that's still building. The collection gives a microcosmic view of why Keepnews has been honored by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with a Governors Award for Outstanding Achievement and by the Jazz Journalists Association with its A Team award for contributions to the art form.

Keepnews isn't just digging into vaults for something to do. He is still producing new things when the right opportunity arises. But he admits things have changed in the recording business. He says there is an instability at present, that may one day correct itself. But until such time, producers and artists are dealing with an industry in flux.

"The reissue projects have been keeping me busy. The timing is nice, says Keepnews. "I'm glad to be able to devote the amount of care and digging into the existing tapes and such. When Fantasy sold itself to Concord, it opened a renewed burst of reissue activity with my own material for me. Actually, I'm delighted to have the regularity of the reissue package, even though there are projects and people I'm interested in. It's a real weird time, as far as new jazz production is concerned. As a matter of fact even as far as the reissue world in general. It's a very unstable time. So it is kind of nice to have an ongoing series like this.

Looking back over decades of outstanding work, Keepnews has a unique perspective. He's quick with his comments, no doubt enforced by the fact that he knows what he's talking about and has been through it all. Even so, the pride in his achievements is mixed with some modesty and an unfailing sense that, in many of life's achievements, there is a degree of serendipity involved. Still, there aren't that many people out there with Keepnews' experience. His matter-of-fact manner of discussing music, including the current scene, is informative and worthy of note.

"I consider the record business unstable when there isn't any Tower Records to go look at your product. To an almost a complete extent, the majors [record labels] are not messing with jazz at all, he says of the state of recording today. As for the Internet and how some artists are turning to it exclusively, "I think it is an overreaction. We're some place in the middle of an exaggerated pendulum swing here. I do think if we're all able to survive, we'll get a more normal relationship between the owners of the masters and the producers and re-producers of it, and the public. We'll get back in synch, but I certainly don't think we're in synch right now.

"The majors are always hard to predict simply because their attitudes, first of all, are always rather severely affected by corporate considerations—profit and loss sheets, which jazz rarely looks good on. I've been in this business an incredibly long time and I look back and I see that given enough time, the majors will completely reverse their position on specialty product—jazz or classical or what have you. But by the same token you have to start looking at it a little differently because we don't have 'majors' to the same extent and the same quantity we used to have in the record business.

Then there's the plethora of recordings and ease of cranking out independent CDs. "Theoretically, we have technically gotten to the point where anybody's bathroom is a recording studio, the affable producer says, and not particularly tongue-in-cheek. He adds with a grin, "And you can quote me.

With many artists recording in their own studios, Keepnews feels results can be good, but not always up to par. "Sometimes they know what they're doing and sometimes they don't. The problem is, when technology goes marching ahead, they don't always hand out free lessons to the right people. The technology may be in wonderful shape, but it's not necessarily being optimally operated, which makes technological advances risky things, at times.

When Keepnews got into the business, technology certainly wasn't what it is now. He was never a technician anyway, relying more on his intuitive feel for the music and his feelings about how the musicians he met and heard mixed in with what was going on. Who was important? Who would go on to be important? What impressive sounds were out there and how can they get to the public? Those were more important than technical issues.

He was born 1923 in the Bronx and admits there was no musical background in his family from which to draw. He listened on the radio to pop music of the day, which was swing music of the big bands. And he wasn't afraid of the night life.


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