Mid-January 2017 I recorded with a couple of my favourite musicians. The guys are players I've worked with before and for whom I have a great amount of respect. Truth be told they're much better players than I am. But, I remember advice I received years ago from a bluesman in Detroit: 'Always play with musicians that are better than you.' Good advice.
I prepared ahead of time, not only making sure I had daily practice, which is a given, but also putting together the music, the studio and the players. The correct order is, of course; 1) book the studio, 2) find the players and 3) sort out the music.
My goal for this session was to produce music which could be used as a demo. I'm aching to work with a trio again, and a good quality demo recording can show a prospective venue that they can expect the highest calibre of music,
Anyway, I thought I would run down the session and list a few things I do at every rehearsal or session in order to make it flow, and to keep the players happy.
I went through a fair few songs in setting the playlist for the session. I had a few objectives:
- The performances were for listeners, and venue owners, not other musicians (by that I just mean that if we're looking to book work at venues where music is complimentary to the overall experience, the music needs to represent that);
- The song selection should represent a variety of styles and tempos;
- If we got 4 good takes from a 4-hour session I'd be happy;
- I wanted the music to sound joyful. Nothing pretentious or maudlin. The music should compliment any venue, not compete with it.
I refined the selections and got to work. I had charts for a few (Mr. Lucky, Sun Dance, We Kiss in a Shadow). I had a chart for Skylark arranged by Simon Mavin. I always like to include an Ellington or Strayhorn, so I transcribed the melody and chords for Upper Manhattan Medical Group, then looked it up in a book to correct my errors. I like to give transcribing a go, although it's not one of my strong points. Keeps the ears awake, but for most things I leave it to professional transcribers. For a few years I have been having transcriptions done by Collin DeJoseph. I highly recommend his great work, we recorded his transcription of Sun Dance at this session.
I decided to try Pughouse Studios in Thornbury. I know a few people who spoke very highly of the studio, and it's owned and engineered by Niko Schauble, who has always been one of my favourite musicians. Pretty daunting I can tell you to have one of the great Australian drummers watching you record.
I booked the guys next. Mark Fitzgibbon is a fabulous piano player who I have worked with before. He is a supremely talented musician, one of the best in the country. I knew he would play the hell out of the music, and he has that joyous American swing in his playing which is a rare and beautiful thing.
Kim May is one of my favourite bass players. Kim can do it all and then some, and he's a great guy. Fortunately for me the guys were free, probably due to the fact that the recording was done during the Christmas/early-January slow period.
What to pay the guys is a sensitive issue. I'll tell you my philosophy. I always pay well. I want to be thought of as someone who treats their fellow musicians fairly. That means above scale where possible, and ideally send them home early if we've got what we need. I can't always pay what I'd like, but I firmly believe in paid rehearsals, setting a minimum wage for 'percentage-of-the-door' gigs (where I'm leading), and paying scale and a half for recording.
Once I had the guys and the songs I set to work on arrangements. My transcription for Mr. Lucky was from a Donald Byrd/Herbie Hancock record. I knew I wasn't going to record that version, as I do like to try fresh things. However, this was a last minute addition, so I left it as it was, figuring we'd come up with something at the session.
For September in the Rain, I had a recording of the Red Garland version, which led me to transcribe it and correct it similar to UMMG. Then I worked out an intro and ending.
I also had a transcription for We Kiss In a Shadow which, like my chart for Mr. Lucky was done by a friend of mine in Toronto, Ali Berkok many years ago. Ali's done many great ones for me over the years. The players booked, studio arranged and the songs were ready. I send the charts to the guys a couple of weeks before the session.
The final playlist was:
- Mr. Lucky (Henry Mancini, transcribed by Ali Berkok)
- September in the Rain (Harry Warren, transcribed by me, later corrected by Mark)
- Skylark (Hoagy Carmichael, loosely based on an arrangement by Simon Mavin)
- Sun Dance (Barry Harris, transcribed by Collin DeJoseph)
- Upper Manhattan Medical Group (Billy Strayhorn, transcribed by me, corrected from an Ellington/Strayhorn score book)
- We Kiss In A Shadow (Richard Rogers, transcribed by Ali Berkok)
- Waltz for Mildred, an original ballad
At the Studio
I brought my Taye kit to the studio around 9:30am, an hour before the other guys were due to appear. I play a Taye GoKit, which I've added-to and changed over the years. My current setup is:
- 18 x 7.5 bass drum (open tuning, no muffling or felt)
- 12 x 6 small tom
- 14 x 11 floor tom
- 14 x 6.5 Yamaha Recording Custom snare which Ive had since 1989 (and my brother had before that)
- 20" Craig Lauritsen right-side cymbal (1772g)
- 18" Craig Lauritsen left-side cymbal (1501g)
- 14" 60's K Zildjian hi-hat cymbals from Steve Maxwell's in Chicago
- Bopworks Mel Lewis drumsticks
- Promark TB5 brushes
- Vic Firth T1 mallets
- Remo coated ambassadors on all tops and bottoms
When I arrived Niko was having the piano tuned. It was a very convenient setup as the car park is right next to the drum recording room. Niko greeted me and I loaded in. Had a drum sound in about a half hour, as I'd tuned the drums to pitch and just needed to fine-tune.
The guys arrived in sequence. Kim first as he needed to set up in the control room. Mark arrived around 11, as we really just needed a quick talk-through before we begin. My philosophy for the session was, admittedly a bit old school. The tune were selected but the arrangements few still a bit 'rough'. But, I believed that with the right players, we could knock up a suitable arrangement, nail a good take and move on. I liked the idea of doing that while the 'red light' was on. The challenge was very exciting to me. Here's how the songs went down:
Initially my arrangement was medium tempo, and it had the following syncopated figure I bar 31, and again repeated for the ending:
Mark made a couple of key changes which really lifted this arrangement:
- The tempo was increased to a snappy 238 bpm, which was a great idea and really made the melody pop
- The syncopated figure was gone, it just didn't work at a faster tempo, and more importantly it was unique to a particular version of the song
- For the intro we tried a few things, including 8 bars of drums up front. we settled on a hard-swinging 16 bars of the 5 chord (F7) and a block-chord-style arrangement.
- The ending was condensed from a longish tag to just the last 4-bars:
In about 15 minutes we had it. For me it was important to start the session this way, as it set the stage for a collaborative approach to the music from the start. We worked together well and I was very happy with the outcome. We had a track started, arranged and recorded in 25 minutes. Here's the finished product after I added a bongo track (when the guys had gone home):
The session proceeds much like that from then on. We discussed and tweaked, tried a take or a section before the red light went on. I enjoyed this type of recording, and I suspect that I'll try it again for the next recording. There's something to be said for bringing the music 'almost-ready' and letting your trusted colleagues help you get it over the line. I think everyone feels more a part of the process, and a sense of pride at their contributions.
In summary, I was more than pleased with the results. I've posted a few of the tracks here, including Mr. Lucky which I've included above. I've earned a few things over the years about not only recording sessions, but about rehearsals, and being a leader in general. I'm not the preachy type, and I only offer the following points as my take on the 'art' of leading a group;
- Hire the best players you can, and don't be intimidated if you feel you're not up to their standards. Great, empathetic players will draw it out of you, although you do need to be mostly up to the task, so play every day.
- Pay well, as well as you can afford. I like to pay for rehearsals, and in general I like to minimise the number of rehearsals if the program is largely well-charted mostly-improvised music. Negotiate fairly with venue owners and never, ever play for free (apologies, that sounded preachy).
- Be very professional when marketing or negotiating. Venue owners, agents and private individuals need to have confidence that you are professional, reliable and will deliver. They're your customers, make them feel special.
- Always have food, coffee, some type of gratuity on top of pay, and if possible take the guys for lunch/dinner.
- Be prepared - sort out the music, communicate specifically regarding dates, times, what to bring, what's expected, where to load, what to wear, etc. This will remove anxiety and awkwardness.
- As far as the music goes, make great, easy to read charts. Make them clear, properly transposed and available ahead of time. I've created a few custom bits in Sibelius to make them more easily readable. Carefully select the staff sizes and try to limit the page to 8-9 staves. I prefer 100 gsm 90 brightness A4 paper, although I may switch to a 100 gsm cream-coloured stock to further reduce glare. While we're talking about charts, most importantly try to bring something new to an arrangement. I've made the mistake before where I've simply transcribed an arrangement I liked. Make it your own, even if that means stripping it down to its essence.
Anyway, these are a few thoughts, a few things I try to do for each opportunity I'm afforded to play music. I never lose sight of how lucky I am to have this in my life, and while most musicians aren't the warm/cuddly types, in my own way I want them to know how much I appreciate the chance to work with them.
After the initial session I asked Toby Bender to add some percussion. Best decision I made, he's a cracking good player who really lifted the music. You can hear his congas on Mr. Lucky above. And you can hear his playing (as well as Nico playing triangle) on Skylark on the Urban Trio page.
So in closing, what would I do differently if I could re-book this January's session:
- I'd hire a conga player as opposed to playing the bongo parts myself. I'm an OK bongosero, but there are far better players around. It only occurred to me the morning of the session to add them, and I chucked them in my car.
- Put more thought to my own parts ahead of time. I decided what my parts will be literally while we were recording them.
- I'd take more photos of the guys and the experience.
That's about it. I thought the session went well. We finished all 7 songs and the guys were released an hour early. We had no rehearsals, and the music sounded great. Niko did a terrific job, capturing the sound of the trio accurately, clearly and beautifully.
I hope you enjoy listening to the music. And if you're a venue booker, agent or anyone look for great music, give me a ring :)