Ricky Sweum: String Theory

Cicily Janus By

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AAJ: You said you hired a Grammy Award-winning engineer to do the mastering and mixing of the album. What did you learn by going through the post-production process with someone of that caliber?

RS: It's such a different world. A lot of what's habitual for me as a musician is that I'm focused on the sound, rhythm and the melody. I worry about the interaction with the other guys and the rises and falls in the context of the music. But when it's all finished the mixing and the mastering is a whole different way of listening to music. My ears just don't usually live there. For me, the whole process was a great experience to live in for a while. I learned how to listen to how things actually sound. I didn't have to worry about rhythm and the things I would normally listen to and for and I could free myself from having to hear the music in ways I typically hear it. Instead I'm listening for subtle colors and brightness and darkness and the relationships between balance levels. Bob Dawson, who did the mix is a master. I felt amazingly confident in turning the project over to him with a list of different things I wanted to have fixed. Not only did he take care of the list he took care of his own list.

AAJ: How much of a hand would you say the average musician has in the post-recording process?

RS: It depends. You can be involved as much as you want. I wanted to produce as much of it as I could but my training doesn't lie in that area. It truly was a learning process throughout. It's just not where I normally live. But these guys make the big bucks for a reason. I once heard it described to me that you have to find an engineer that has golden ears. They live in that place all the time.

I tried at first, thinking that I would have a much more hands-on approach to mixing, having some guys from the Air Force band do some initial mixes. But our experience levels were as such that we would get to the point where we thought, okay this sounds better but not perfect and none of us had a clue as to what to do. That's when I knew it would be worth going to those golden ears.

With David though, I thought I would be able to just drop it off and let him do the work like I did with Bob. But he wanted me to be there. He wanted to know what I wanted to get out of it and what I was hearing. He wanted me to bring in reference CDs that I've listened to. I've listened to some of them hundreds of times and I realized that I had taken for granted the things I heard that really made them different from each other.

For example, I love ECM records but when I started to really listen, I thought everything sounded like it was in a concert hall and there was lots of reverb. So I had to rethink what I would want for my project. Then I listened to a Chris Potter recording and it had no reverb at all. It sounded very crisp, like it was done in a small room. So it seemed that this CD was going to sound like it was either in a small club setting or a large concert hall. It was all very subtle yet significant.

I was almost done with the whole process when I played him one more. It was one of Michael Brecker's CDs. There was something about the sound of Brecker and where it sounded coming in from the mix. He listened to it and then cocked his head and said "I'm glad you played that for me. It puts the tenor in a different space." That's the word he used! It was like the tenor sound was like a bubble over someone's head, roundish...and after I heard him say it was in a different space, talking about that CD, the sound was then more like a little laser beam in a smaller area, instead of here and there. I learned that this part of the process was about putting the sound in a different space and a whole different concept. It was an amazing experience to work with someone who devotes their lives to hearing music in different spaces.

Ricky SweumAAJ: How do you feel about the recording now, having gone through this part of the process in such an intimate way?

RS: It's just comforting to know that this project has been touched by these two great listeners of music. Everything on here is original and I'm able, when I listen to it now, to focus on the actual music.

AAJ: What influenced you during this process?

RS: This was the first time the group had hit the studio and we weren't used to it at all. We were in separate rooms when we were used to playing very tight, close to one another, and playing acoustically. But when you're in the studio, you're separated by closed doors and the lifeline you have is just a pair of headphones. It took a couple of hours that day to really feel comfortable with it. It was definitely awkward for me. Initially it felt like a job we had to do. We had to stay focused and come back to that little instance of separation. From the moment you go into your mind and you're feeling that resistance...as in something that doesn't feel ideal you have to change.

I had to realize that this was the situation we were in. Instead of reacting negatively, we just decided to own it and make music. I took my shoes off and started swaying back and forth and getting into the music. Music is such an audio experience and yet for me, early on, some of the most significant music that influenced me were recordings I've made live, on my own. Concerts, bootlegged...they enter this different dynamic. Instead of being something you hear, I was there, seeing it. I was feeling whatever you can feel from being a live person who was watching them physically interacting with each other and then how they interact with the audience.

Those were really significant to me because I could go back and listen to the whole recording and remember the whole experience as opposed to just remembering and hearing a sound. Sometimes I feel that music is too sterile otherwise. Yet I get goose bumps when I listen to music like this. Not only is the music great but to experience that energy in a live situation reconnects you to what I love about music.

AAJ: Where did Pulling Your Own Strings come from?

RS: I wrote the tune, Pulling Your Own Strings the first year I was at William Patterson. This was the first time I really had a "band." We got together and said, okay, let's see what can happen if we play together as much as we possibly can.

William Patterson is a great school to go to because we had all those fantastic players but for me, the schooling didn't really begin until after the classes were done. Every evening you could go there and people would have these Jam Sessions. It was a great atmosphere. You could go room to room and jam with different guys. But with my group, we almost made ourselves exclusive. We felt drawn to do something more than just the typical jam session mentality. Also, when you're in school you're often placed by your teachers in the different ensembles. This also means you're not always placed with the people you really want to play with.

We used our intuition and said there's something really special about playing with this particular group. We all felt this way. Night after night after night we got into the whole collective. I'm sure it's not new to get into the collective improvisation thing, but sometimes, in jazz, there's a great new idea that comes along an dit dies with that person other than having others pick up on it and recognizing that it is really special. For us, it became less and less about hearing the arrangement and having us solo one after another. We made sure everyone played collectively, improvising the whole time. What came from this was me taking the time to write and contribute to that ensemble with my writing. I would get these riffs together and piece it into tunes. Pulling Your Own Strings came from that time in my life as well as a lot of the other tunes on this album. I guess over time since then I shelved a lot of them.

Once I entered the air force down in San Antonio, I put another band together called, Eat the Sun. There were some truly decent players and some exceptional players and once we began playing the tunes resurfaced. I loved this tune and when I started to play it again for this, I knew it would be my favorite tune on the album. It also reflects what I believe in.

I believe we have a certain amount of control over our own destiny. But like a marionette doll that's controlled by the strings, our human bodies are like that doll. There's this force so much greater that's actually controlling everything. Some say it's God but to me, to use the word God is a cop out of responsibility or saying I just don't understand the nature of reality. I'd like to say that God takes care of everybody but I'm deep seeded in my belief that we're not separate from God. We at least have some sort of communication with that power. To take it even further, we are that power ourselves and yet to be fully in control of that, you can't have your ego in the way. If you sit around in a box in a room and do nothing, I believe nothing will happen to you. If you decide, in turn, to do great things, in turn, great things will happen to you. Our will to have things happen is a very powerful and under used tool in most people's lives. This is my visual imagery behind Pulling Your Own Strings .
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