July 31, 2014

Inside the Studios, Part 1

The same technology that has seen incredible advances in computers, smart phones and the like, has also been incorporated into recording gear. It’s possible now to have your own recording setup in your home and produce high quality recordings, from beginning to finished product. Years ago the phrase “going into the studio” had a different meaning. Music was recorded in spaces ranging from two rooms to vast complexes. Every sound we heard, from popular music to commercial jingles was recorded by engineers and performed by musicians. The next few blogs will take a look at the studio scene: the musicians who found lucrative employment there, and the ups and downs that occurred in that setting.
We are going to start our series with a guest post from my friend and bandmate, drummer Tom McGrath. Tom has participated in studio work from both sides of the glass, and in this blog he relates an experience from his years as an owner and operator of a studio in New York City. His clients included well known artists such as Bernard Purdie, Art Garfunkel, and many others.
 To be on Time?...That is the Question
by Tom McGrath
In the world of the ticking clock (digital and second hand) we are always reminded that time is passing us by. Some of us have “…gone fishin’” while others have their day planned quarter hour by quarter hour. I for one can teeter between the fishin’ and organized chaos. When it comes to performing music, being on time has “necessity” written all over it. Here is my “being on time” story from some years ago.
While living in New York City in the late 1980’s I was fortunate to own a small but thriving production recording studio. Reel to reel tape was the techne’ du jour while digital was for the big boy studios. Just the same, the studio was known for its live rhythm section in support of singer-songwriters; many of who were honing their craft through producing demos. A drum magazine hired out the studio to produce and edit drum tracks. The audio tracks would be put to cassette, which would accompany the featured article. One such article was spotlighting Ginger Baker. Mr. Baker, the master of groove and improvisation, along with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, formed what was considered the first “power trio”, Cream.
The producer of the drum tracks had scheduled Ginger to arrive at the studio at 9:00 a.m. but reminded me that Ginger would probably not arrive on time, and that he, the producer, would arrive at 10 a.m. Running a business requires you to read between the lines, which I did in this case. I arrived at 8:45 a.m. to set up a few microphones and get the coffee and tea brewing. The ticking clock struck 9:00 a.m. while the rhythmic knock on the door followed seconds later. I was greeted with, “Hello, my name is Ginger Baker” with his distinct majestic English accent. He asked me if I allowed smoking in the studio, I didn’t, but how could I say no to Ginger so I obliged and offered him tea and half of a scone. The vocal narrative overdub session went great and in one take we heard the beginning of Ginger Baker’s life as an English skiffle drummer, simply magnificent.
Reflecting on this now, so many years later, it still percolates in my head, like the coffee that morning, “…even Ginger Baker arrives on time!” It meant a lot to me that someone of his musical stature understood that his timely arrival would or could affect other peoples’ schedule.
Whether you play in a pit orchestra, doing club dates, bar gigs or private parties, if the “downbeat” is 8 pm, 6:30 or 12 a.m., be on time. Allow yourself plenty of time to setup in a comfortable manner; anticipate unexpected travel delays or load-in snafus. Your late arrival could affect the other players on the date and potentially place a dark cloud over the entire gig. In the end playing music is designed to be fun and arriving on time will ensure that fun will be part of the experience.

July 6, 2014

Frank, Splank & Q Fly to the Moon

Our last arranging blog spotlights a perfect combination of the four elements that make up a hit recording.

The Composer
“Fly Me to the Moon” was written in 1954 by Bart Howard, an accompanist to singers such as Mabel Mercer and Johnny Mathis. The song itself was originally written as a waltz, then became a bossa nova, and originally was titled “In Other Words.” In 1960 Peggy Lee recorded the song, and after an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” the publisher officially changed the title to “Fly Me To the Moon.” A recording of the song has traveled into outer space on both Apollo 10 and 11, and it was used effectively in the final scene of the movie “Space Cowboys.”
It’s a basic song harmonically , but employs an effective musical device, alternating between C major and the relative A minor, a device also effectively employed in songs like “The Autumn Leaves” and “My Funny Valentine.” It uses a straightforward 32-bar form divided evenly in half, with a nice outer space/romance metaphor: Fly me to the moon/Let me play among the stars/Let me see what spring is like/On Jupiter and Mars. By 1995, some 300 recordings had been released, providing Mr. Howard with lifelong royalties.
The Band
Big band aficionados all have their favorites, but there is little debate that the Count Basie Orchestra was swing personified. For close to 50 years, Basie led a band that could outswing any other. Directing subtly from the piano bench and leading by example, Basie inspired an infectious groove that made the ensemble internationally famous. Singers love bands that make them sound better, and the Basie band was on the top of their list.
The Singer
From the magazine The Atlantic in July of 2007:
“Frank Sinatra was the greatest vocalist in the history of American music, and elevated popular song to an art. More profoundly than other figure, excepting perhaps Elvis Presley, Sinatra changed the style and popular culture of America in the twentieth century.”
The Arranger
From the Quincy Jones website:
“Quincy Jones has been nominated for a record 79 Grammys and won 27, more than any other musician. He produced the best selling album “Thriller” and best selling single “We Are the World. He has participated as an arranger and producer of over 400 albums.”
These three musical giants collaborated on the 1964 album “It Might as Well be Swing.” Cut one on side one is the focus of our blog.
According to the liner notes, Quincy Jones flew to Hawaii for a musical sit-down with Sinatra and his accompanist, Bill Miller. He was working under a deadline, and as is often the case, deadlines inspire an arranger’s best work. As the needle touches down on this LP, the first thing you hear are Sonny Payne’s brushes on a snare drum establishing a perfect tempo. In the fourth bar a subtle skipping lick sets up two E’s an octave apart. This is Sinatra’s cue.
Regarding that tempo, we clock in at 122 beats per minute, a technical number mostly irrelevant to musicians. I have never once played in a band where the leader or the drummer enunciates “okay ready? 120 beats per minute” and starts the song. Tempos are felt, and Basie was the master of that. He often times noodled on the piano setting up the song and found that perfect groove before he cued in the band.
The first 16 bars of “Fly Me to the Moon” are exquisitely simple, and Sinatra can be partly credited for this. I recently heard an interview with Quincy Jones and radio host Jian Ghomeshi. Jian wisely brought up the subject of “Fly Me to the Moon” and Q (as Frank called Quincy) stated that the first 16 bars were not what they ended up with — Sinatra said, “that’s a little dense, Q” and adjustments were made. What we get is basically a jazz combo anchored by Freddie Green’s ever-steady strumming on the guitar, some tasty flute from Frank Wess, and a relaxed and swinging Sinatra. The saxes eventually sneak in and echo the notes of “in other words.” You’ll notice throughout that Sinatra, unlike many singers who love the sound of their voice, does not extend his words at the ends of phrases, but cuts them off, leaving space for the band to be heard. If you have the best band in the land behind you, it’s an obvious choice.
The second half of the song, at :40, introduces a delightful skipping lick from the saxophone section, and a very subtle backbeat riff from the trombones. Harry “Sweets” Edison, a Basie alum and frequent companion in the studios with Sinatra, enters with some muted trumpet at :52. Quincy Jones knew something that the great arrangers know. One of the best ways to get people to listen harder is to write softer. This sparse but swinging musical setting is building a tension that is finally released at 1:12, as Sinatra finishes the first go-round of the song. As Sweets lays into straight quarter notes, Sonny Payne sets up the band with two full bars of one-beat triplets. The ensuing crescendo unleashes the Basie band in all their glory. Quincy writes a paraphrasing of the melody with a wonderful “doit” (an upward fall) from the brass section.
Quincy doesn’t beat us over the head for too long. The decibels come back down and Q recasts the song’s melody. After a few hearings you literally can sing along with the brass section as the notes and the words match up. Frank Wess adds a bit of flute and the second half of the song is set up with an outrageous brass chord, complete with a downward fall. A more animated Sinatra sings “Fill my heart with song” backed by saxes and trombones, and the song chugs along to its conclusion. The musical term “tag” is a commonly used device as an arrangement nears the end. The last four bars, or the last sentence, of the song is repeated once or twice. Quincy writes a tag for Sinatra and Frank finally employs his marvelous phrasing that he learned from trombonist Tommy Dorsey early in his career. In the line “Please be true” he holds “true” for two full bars, refusing to breathe, singing straight into “in other words” — a marvelous musical moment. The Basie brass and reeds answer his phrases.
The ending we anticipate in Count Basie arrangements does not disappoint, in fact a slight twist makes it that much better. Most swing musicians know what the “Count Basie ending” is: three rhythmically-spaced chords followed by a low, emphatic “exclamation point.” The word “Splank” for Basie was coined by Sinatra — a good onomatopoeic description of the lick. Splank-Splank-Splank-Boom. In this case, Basie provides the splanky chords figures and Sinatra provides the closer with “you.”
This musical magic occurred in a mere 2:31. I’ve listened to this cut hundreds of times, thinking as an arranger, listening for something that could have been done slightly different, slightly better. It’s not to be found.
It’s perfect.