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Paul Wertico: All In A Day's Work


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Seven-time Grammy winner Paul Wertico, a name long-synonymous with innovation and Herculean energy/talent in the world of drums, has stepped out of the box once again to present an album that defies genre boundaries. In addition to the usual suspects of his trio including guitarist John Moulder and bassist Brian Peters, Wertico has combined forces with Israeli guitarist Dani Rabin and saxophonist Danny Markovitch to form the Mid East/Mid West Alliance. The product of this marriage of talent recently came together at Studiomedia Recording Studio in Evanston, IL, where, after two short evenings of transcendental artistry, Impressions of a City (Chicago Sessions, 2009) was born.

With the help of Nick Eipers, master engineer and owner of Chicago Sessions, this recording rises above even Wertico's high artistic standards. This team has created a dreamscape that combines experience with differing definitions of mood, daily life and emotional maturation. Their strengths and talents allure from track-to-track. This collective and wholly improvisatory vision manifests itself as a soundtrack for the weary ear, offering a different perspective of what music is and what it can be. There are large servings of ear candy for the soul. A beast lurks deep beneath the musicians thoughts whereas, in other moments, there are tinges of beauty that speak as a siren would, calling out to the vulnerable lives within their sounding range. Tearing through this Babylon of sound, Wertico's impeccable ability to marry artistic dreams with talent are alarmingly in tune and have provided, yet again, a new standard bearer for music and the shape of it to come.

All About Jazz: This recording is quite unique...not like a jazz album at all. Can you tell us the story behind the formation of the Mid East/Mid West Alliance?

Paul Wertico: The story behind this is as intriguing as the record is. I've had my trio since the '90s. It's basically been John Moulder, who is one of my best friends and an incredible guitarist. I've played with him since the early '90s when I played on his first CD, Awakening. Then there's Brian Peters, who I met a few years ago when I recorded my CD, StereoNucleosis. He's this young genius. He plays, or at least it seems like it, just about every instrument imaginable, and also does fantastic engineering, mixing and a lot more. The three of us have been playing together for about five years.

Then one day out of the blue, I heard from a guitarist named Dani Rabin, who had just moved to Chicago with his saxophonist friend, Danny Markovitch. They're both from Israel and moved here recently from Boston. They said they got my name from Jamey Haddad, the great percussionist who plays with Paul Simon and Paul Winter and teaches at Berklee [College of Music, in Boston]. They asked me if I wanted to hear them play, so I could give them my opinion of their music. I said sure, and wrote down a date for them to come over to my house, but I must have forgotten about it. They showed up at my door one night while my family and I were having dinner and they had tons of amps, pedals and other equipment...I thought, "Oh no." But once they got set up and began to play...it was incredible. I couldn't believe how great they were, they sounded like an ECM record!

After hearing them I thought they would be a wonderful addition to my trio. They were exactly what I had been waiting for. My wife and I hired them, along with John and Brian, to play for my daughter's Bat Mitzvah. Both Danny and Dani know a lot about Israeli music. During the luncheon after the service, the four of them began playing and as I listened to them, I knew that I had found the perfect combination of players.

Once I knew we were going to play together as a band, I realized we had two guys from the Middle East and three guys from the Midwest...so that's when I came up with the Mid-East/Mid-West Alliance idea.

AAJ: Chicago Sessions is not a well known label...yet. Why did you go with them as opposed to someone better known for this album?

Paul WerticoPW: Nick Eipers, who runs Chicago Sessions, talked to me while I was playing with Larry Coryell at the Jazz Showcase in December 2008. This was after I had already met Dani and Danny. He asked if I wanted to be on his label. I wasn't sure how I felt about it at that time, so I didn't say yes or no, I kept my options open. In the interim, I heard from Nick a few more times and then he told me that the label was only looking for original music. I knew it was going to be a perfect match from that point.

I'm really glad we went with Nick and Chicago Sessions because so often a label can ruin a project by wanting to have too much control over it. But Nick just let us do whatever we wanted to do. He didn't run any interference. The album wouldn't have been the same if he had done that. Instead it turned out just as I had imagined it would.

Although Nick is a wonderful engineer, we decided to edit the record down ourselves. We gave it to him as a finished product so he could master it. At first I was worried. I didn't tell him we were going to edit it and mix it because I wanted control over it and plus I didn't know Nick all that well yet. I didn't know if he'd be game. I did know though, that his records sounded great, but it's hard when you have all these unnamed improvised pieces on a recording that are interspersed. You can't just tell someone on the phone what you're looking for. But when we gave it to Nick after Brian mixed it, he was thrilled with the results. Then I was really glad we went with him and his label. It wouldn't have been the same with some other labels.

AAJ: How is this album different than others you've recorded as a leader and as a sideman in the past?

PW: I thought to myself that if we're going to do this, we're all going to come in and just improvise. There's not going to be any tunes or anything written out. But I just knew it was going to be great. I wanted to take that chance. In fact, we didn't even play together until that first night of the recording. We set up in the studio, ate some food, and began to play and it was unbelievable. It's basically a free album. I suggested moods and things that I thought would round out the album, then somebody would start and we would join in. There were no overdubs. Everything's totally live, so all those complex sounds going on at once were recorded in real time.

At one point during the recording I knew it was all just meant to be. Dani had all these unusual things going on with his guitar parts. He said he usually had a little tin cup full of marbles that he put on his strings, but for some reason he didn't have any marbles with him. But right next door to the studio was a craft store! I knew they were closing in five minutes...we quickly ran next door and asked if they had any marbles and they pointed to this huge wall that had marbles of every size. We just started laughing!

The whole recording was so natural. We just kept playing and we actually could have finished mid-way through the second night, because we already had enough material for a couple of CDs, but we kept playing anyway. Nick was totally cool with it since the studio was booked for a certain amount of hours anyway. Plus, we were having so much fun.

AAJ: How did you come up with the title: Impressions of a City?

PW: I'm the Head of Jazz and Contemporary Music Studies at Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago, so I'm in the city all the time. When you're in the city, you hear sirens and noise constantly. When we were playing, I was thinking that this is what the music sounded like. There were so many things going on. All kinds of wild sounds and textures were happening. With all of this, I thought it sounded like the city. So when I needed a title for the CD, I thought I'd call it Impressions of a City. After I figured out the CD's title, I came up with tune titles that describe a day in the life of someone in the city.

During two of the tunes Dani Rabin had a radio on with the local traffic report. He manipulated it with effects and it fit perfectly with the music. But then we had to get licensing permission to use it, so we had to try to figure out what station, and what program, we were listening to at that time. We then figured it out by the recording logs. We finally got permission to use the broadcasts but there were also some legal restrictions. We said forget it. So Brian wrote his own traffic reports and went through the same effects processing by doing it on his own. I guess that's the only thing that's "not live" on the record.

Then Nick stepped up to do the cover art. Usually, on his label, there's a drawing of the leader's instrument on the cover. We didn't want that. Nick then put a collage together of photos he took and drawings that went with impressions of the city. He was a bit nervous that I wasn't going to like it, but I thought it was fantastic. I credited him as the executive producer of the album because of all of this.

AAJ: Can you explain the difference between an executive producer and a producer for an album?

Paul WerticoPW: Usually an executive producer is basically the person with the money. Sometimes, it's someone who puts up money but also oversees the process. There are different degrees of producers who put their name on things. Some hire all the musicians, some arrange, some compose. I knew that this was my artistic vision and I put the concept together, but Nick did so much and was just so great in general, that I took credit as producer and he's listed as executive producer.

AAJ: What's the difference between the work on pulling together a project like this where you're the leader versus the work you do on a project where you're a sideman say like one of the albums you did with Pat Metheny?

PW: When it's your own project and you're able to work with someone like Nick, who allows you to do all the things you want to do and places zero restrictions on you, it's truly wonderful because even though you get to have all the veto power you want, you don't ever need to use it. We were all totally into the music right then, right there, so there was never an issue. But when you work on something as a sideman, you're basically trying to make someone else happy. Part of being a successful sideman is that you make whoever has hired you sound the way they want it to sound. It's always gratifying, especially for someone like me who's been on countless recordings, when you can just be yourself and still get the end result your client wants.

However, many times the leader wants something very specific. They may also do a number of takes of each tune and then not use the takes you really loved because they may not have liked the way they played. Sometimes those records aren't exactly a hundred percent of what you feel it could have been.

In the case of this album, it was exactly what I hoped it would be. I knew what we had and we used what I liked, but because I'm the producer too, I tried to make sure everyone was happy as well. I was watching out for their best interests because that's usually what works best.

AAJ: Recording a record that's essentially a live studio performance versus doing one that's "tweaked," is something you don't see that often nowadays. What is the advantage of doing your recording this way?

Paul WerticoPW: Well, there's the kind of record where you play and it is what it is. You're basically presenting to the listener a performance of that moment. Then there's the kind of record where you spend years tweaking every particular note until it's "perfect." In this case though, it was both. It was totally live, but I feel we have a perfect record. We didn't have to do anything to it...it was the best of both worlds.

To me, there's a danger of doing things over and over so you can make it perfect. If you do it too much, you can take the emotion out of it. I feel this is what happens in modern music quite a bit. Sometimes they're taking the humanity out of the music that's supposed to be portraying humanity. It's one thing to sound like a machine if it's supposed to sound like a machine. But if you're trying to express yourself as a human being and show a certain side of your emotions, then let it have some human qualities. You can present a studio recording as the final product that's been made as perfect as possible, whereas a live record is a documentation of a moment of time.

Yet what's really funny about what we did is that we didn't even have the luxury of getting in there and micro-tweaking everything. We were under a deadline to get things done. Luckily, it was good enough the way it was. I guess that's why I'm so proud of it. It's really real. It's not something we made up and fixed. This record is the way we actually sound.

AAJ: The older recordings in all genres really, used to be done more like this one, where it was recorded on one take and live, right?

PW: Back in the day, there was no multi-tracking. The whole band would play in front of one or two mics or you'd be staggering the musicians according to their instrument. Up until the last few decades most things were recorded live. Sometimes it seems like that's almost a lost art form. On older television shows or old radio programs, everyone that was a part of them had to deal with making their performance every night as perfect as possible. Nowadays it's not uncommon to play something and screw it up a little and the producer will say, "Don't worry about it, we'll fix it later." I think maybe some people have become a little lazier because of this way of thinking...that it doesn't really matter too much if they hit the right notes spot on or not.

It's as if they can just put it in Auto-Tune and tweak it. But then again it's about the artistic aesthetic and what someone is really looking for in a particular recording. The general listening public doesn't want to hear any mistakes, they want to hear something they consider perfect. That's understandable and you don't want to subject your listeners to your mistakes if you can help it. But you have to be artistically honest at the same time. If you fix everything so the art isn't even human anymore and is "too perfect," you're not giving the listener a true representation of yourself. It's a bit phony. For instance, I don't play the harp, but I'm sure I could probably play a harp and record it and punch in the right notes and make it okay.

But I think this is the reason why expertise isn't appreciated as much anymore in a lot of things. People just don't know what is real or not. Kids don't seem to respect expertise as much anymore either. Perhaps it's because they don't understand how long it takes and how much work, dedication and love is involved to truly master a musical instrument. They sometimes think if they can do something on a Wii then that's just as good as doing the real thing. A professor I was having a conversation with the other day, who happens to be an amazing guitarist, had a kid say to him, why should I want to practice the guitar...I can do it on Guitar Hero. The kid had no idea of what really went into the art of actually playing a real guitar. After all, if you're on Guitar Hero you instantly have an audience cheering for you and you suddenly have adoring fans. But that's all ego stroking and fake. Hopefully, there will always be some kids who want the real thing as well.

John Moulder /Paul WerticoAAJ: Most of the recordings I hear now seem to sound the same. The subtleties of the sound on a recording are more rare. Why is this?

PW: It all depends on how much a record is compressed. When a record is mastered today it's often going under the theory that louder is better. When you listen to a typical pop, rap, or rock recording, there's not going to be a lot of dynamics in the music. But a jazz record will have soft and loud points. However, this doesn't make it easy to listen to when you're driving in the car because all of a sudden a ballad comes on and you can't hear it. But with a pop or rock record, they don't want that to happen. They'll take softer dynamics and boost it up to basically about the same level as the loud dynamics so you that can hear everything all the time.

If it's done this way, it's often more difficult to really get inside some of the fine nuances and subtleties of the recording. Everything on the recording has been pushed to the front. This is done so that you can hear the music whether you're riding your bicycle, taking the subway, or cruising in your car.

But I find that there's also a certain cool mystery in being not able to hear an instrument clearly all the time. Sometimes things are better when they're left up to your imagination. I remember when I was growing up I would try to figure out what my favorite drummers were playing. I didn't know exactly what they were doing because I didn't have a great stereo, so I made up my own interpretation. Actually, sometimes when I finally heard their parts clearly, I was actually disappointed because I now knew exactly what they were doing, and not only did that take the mystery out it, but sometimes what they were playing wasn't as good or as interesting as what I had imagined it to be. It's like if you're cooking, you don't always want to be able to taste every spice equally or have ever bite taste the same as the last.

AAJ: If you had to describe this recording to someone wanting to pick it up, especially given it's extreme genre-bending qualities, how would you do it?

PW: It's really a great headphone record. But it sounds great in the car as well. There are elements and sounds in the music that I'm not even sure as to how we obtained them. Things come out of the left and right channels and there's a spatial awareness to it. It's like wearing 3-D glasses. Stuff jumps right out in your face.

There are jazz, rock, classical, and ethnic elements. There are even loose characteristics of very early jazz music, where everyone's improvising at the same time, mixed in with avant-garde elements...alongside harmonic rhythms that move all around. Even after working on the album during the mix, I still constantly hear new things I hadn't noticed before whenever I listen to it. Actually, the music blends beautifully with any outside sounds, so it's almost like a living, breathing record that constantly changes depending on the environment in which you're listening. I've done many records before that I really liked, but there's truly something to be said for this one...I just keep thinking to myself that this time I got it right!

Selected Discography:

Paul Wertico's Mid East/Mid West Alliance, Impressions of a City (Chicago Sessions, 2009)

John Moulder, Bifröst (Origin, 2009)

Larry Coryell Organ Trio, Impressions: The New York Sessions (Chesky, 2008)

Paul Wertico Trio, Another Side (Naim, 2006)

Wertico, StereoNucleosis (A440, 2004)

Paul Wertico Trio, Don't Be Scared Anymore (Premonition, 2000)

Paul Wertico Trio, Live in Warsaw! (Igmod, 1998)

Pat Metheny/Derek Bailey/Gregg Bendian/Paul Wertico, The Sign of 4 (Knitting Factory, 1997)

Pat Metheny Group, Imaginary Day (Warner Bros., 1997)

Paul Wertico/Gregg Bendian, Bang! (TrueMedia, 1996)

Pat Metheny Group, We Live Here (Warner Bros., 1995)

Earwax Control, 2 LIVE (Naim Audio, 1994)

Paul Wertico, The Yin And The Yout (Intuition, 1993)

Pat Metheny, Secret Story (Nonesuch, 1992)

Pat Metheny Group, Still Life (Talking) (Nonesuch, 1990)

Pat Metheny Group, First Circle (ECM, 1984)

Photo Credits

All Photos Courtesy of Paul Wertico

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