Monday, September 22, 2008

losing control


I had been feeling sick in LA. I put it off to tension. And I kept on getting sick, fevers and pains on my left side. I felt Cuban Roots Revisited didn't reflect my playing and I wanted to play jazz. I got my three favorite guitar players, Ed Cherry, Vic Juris and Paul Meyers to each record  four tunes in a duet format, the album was called Three Deuces. Ed played electric, Vic steel string and Paul classical guitar. I wrote a number of originals, some of which I like so much that I have recorded them again. My next album out on Jazzheads is Lua e Sol, with Romero Lubambo, Cyro Baptista and Nilson Matta. Lua e Sol, the title tune was originally recorded with Paul Meyers on Three Deuces. I recently rerecorded another tune from the album, Dawn's Early Light with Kenny Barron. It was easy to record Three Deuces, we just sat down and played, very relaxed and very conversational. Each guitar player approached the problem of being the entire rhythm section differently. And they all did it superbly. The album has 13 tunes. On the run through of my tune Last Minute Blues, Ed Cherry and I got so into exploring the substitutions I wrote that we recorded for over 13 minutes. Jazz World Trios got very little radio play, Seasoning got a fair amount of play, given it was my first album as a flutist. Jazz World Trios got far less. The tracks were too long. I wasn't going to do that again so I recorded a 4 minute version of the tune that did get airplay. But I liked the free exploration with Ed so much I added it as a 13th track. Bad luck! Within a few months I was in the hospital having a foot and a half of colon removed, diverticulitis, at least it wasn't cancer.

My father Jack came to this country when he was 5, in 1903 from the Kiev region in Ukraine. He was the youngest of 10 children. The entire family came, landed in Philadelphia and opened a grocery store. My mother, Mollie, on the other hand, left her village, Hrubshief in Poland, alone with some 'landsleit' (that's what diaspora Jews call people from the same area) traveled overland and left on a boat from Rotterdam in 1913. She was 13 years old. Her father had come to New York a few years earlier, earned enough to bring his oldest daughter to 'keep house' for him. And of course to earn money to bring over the family. My Grandma Rose and the other 5 kids couldn't get out because of WW I. My grandfather and mother had plenty of time to save the money to bring them over. My mother made straw hats. I am named after my mother's grandfather, Meyir in Hebrew.  He was a house painter and ultimately either saved or destroyed my father by helping him to become one as well.

I always wondered how my father's family pulled it off. A dozen steamship tickets and enough money left over to set up a house and buy a store. They were working people (in America most of my father's brothers became contractors) and workers in Russia didn't get rich. I didn't know my father's side of the family since my father had a 'bruygis' with his older brothers, that is, one of those dark Russian angers that keeps one brother from talking to another for 20 years. Funerals are where you reconcile a bruygis, if at all. But my oldest sister Marcia, who lived on Long Island had been a member of the cousins club. So one day I asked her how Daddy's family could afford the trip to America. Marcia said, 'Daddy's father was a horse trader and he sold a whole bunch of horses twice.' So there it is. Jews like to brag that they come from a long line of Rabbis. But I get to say that I am the proud descendant of horse thieves.

My father's family left Ukraine to escape from the anti-Jewish riots (pogroms) of the 1890's . So Ukraine was up there with Germany as places I could do without. But my university had a relationship with a pedagogical academy in Ukraine and a number of Ukrainian professors were at the college involved in a program to connect models of critical thinking with their need to develop a basis for democratic education. I was the associate director of an institute for critical thinking and I was expected to participate. Somehow I managed to avoid the whole thing until the end of the academic year, close to the time the visiting professors were due to return. I got roped into giving a talk. Afterwards, Alex, one of the professors told me that he had heard I played jazz and that he was the DJ for the only jazz radio program in Ukraine. I became much more open to things Ukrainian. Plus he was a great guy, as was the other Ukrainian professor, but they were on their way back home. I gave Alex copies of all of my albums. 

About six months later I got an email. Alexey Kharchenko a Ukrainian composer and friend of Alex's had heard Jazz World Trios and he had been inspired to write a series of compositions for flute, guitar and piano. He sent me an mp3 of the music, with the flute part played on the keyboard. It was lovely, but strange, a sort of smooth jazz song, a tango, and a modernistic circus-like composition. Everything had a very dark edge (horror movies about children's dolls gone bad) but the melodies were beautiful. It was all composed, not a note of improvisation. He wanted me to help him become known in America.

There was going to be a big conference on democracy in education in Kiev the following Spring (2003) and if I participated I would get a plane ticket on the college. I emailed Alex, the DJ professor, and asked him how much it would be to record in Kiev. He said $20 an hour and I told him the dates and to have Alexey set up the other musician and the studio to record his music. I told the folks at my college they could count on me to present at the conference. Staying in Kiev to record after the conference posed a problem. I can't speak or read Russian and they use another alphabet so you can't even guess whether it's the Gents or the Ladies bathroom, During the conference the folks from the college were going to be put up in a conference hotel where everyone spoke English. I made a deal with the people from my college. I would give an extra day of workshops on implementing critical thinking in the classroom if they would arrange for me to stay in the conference hotel for an extra week.

I told Alex to tell Kharchenko to write out lead sheets (melody and chords) for some of his tunes and that we would improvise on them, just like Jazz World Trios and that I would not play the complex written flute parts that he had played on the mp3 (wouldn't because I thought I couldn't, to be perfectly honest). I was told by Alex that Kharchenko understood completely. We were going to play jazz with his compositions, rather then play the compositions per se.

The conference went well. I loved the food (my mother learned to cook from my father's mother, so Ukrainian food is my 'hamische tahm,' the taste of my mother's home). I gave my workshop. The day before the end of the conference, Alex and Alexey came to my hotel room. Alexey Kharchenko spoke no English. He gave me a stack of music paper in plastic covers. I glanced at them quickly. They were written in pencil on small sheets of manuscript paper, full piano scores with the flute part written into the treble clef over the piano part and with chord symbols that I barely understood (it was a German notation that I finally figured out how to read). The flute parts looked really difficult (they were what he had played on the mp3). I put the music away and gave my final workshop. 

The next morning everyone was packing to leave the conference hotel, except for me. I was starting to panic about the recording. After breakfast, as the college folks were walking to the buses that would take them to the airport the woman that I had arranged everything with came over to me and told me she was very sorry, but I couldn't stay in the conference hotel since I was no longer participating in a conference. I freaked! She told me that Alex would make arrangements for me in one of the two hotels in Kiev open to foreigners. I laid down on a bench with a cigar and put my hat over my face (the picture above). Kharchenko showed up about a half hour later and said, 'the sun is shining bright. That was all the English he remembered from school. I got my stuff, we got in a cab and went to a hotel. They let me register, Alex was there with the necessary papers. I could barely understand the desk clerk who supposedly spoke English. I was on my own in Ukraine and had the stack of unintelligible music to deal with. We were to start recording the next day.

We went to the studio by subway. It became an elevated train as it crossed the Dneiper River. There was a beach and an amusement park. The train was full of families with blankets and lunch baskets. It was like my childhood on the BMT Culver line going to Coney Island. I felt at home. I was wearing a skull cap, and more than once someone walking by would whisper 'Shalom.' It turns out Ukrainians are part-Jewish like white southerners are part-black, it's a family secret that is almost bragged about, sort of like being descended from horse thieves. 

The recording was very difficult, I had lost control of the process. After the first tune I realized it would take every day I had available to record and mix. I had 10 hundred dollar bills (the preferred currency in Ukraine) and I knew it would all be gone before I left, even at $20 an hour. We negotiated how I could play solos by extending sections of the compositions, but I had to play the written flute parts. Somehow I managed to and the music has a sweet charm that has resulted in a number of visual artists using the album as the sound track for electronic portfolios with Eastern European themes. The recording, Milling Time, the name of one of Kharchenko's tunes. is my third album on flute. It was a great experience, returning to my father's birthplace and I had gained a great deal of confidence as a flutist. I had dealt with complex written music, something I dreaded. I am probably the only flute player on the planet that doesn't practice from etude books. I always hated to play classical pieces, because I could never tolerate how lousy the music sounded while I was learning to play the piece. I practice the basics like a classical flutist, hours of long tones and hours of scales and arpeggios, but I never play the classical repertoire and have never really learned to be comfortable playing complex music as written.

My next project would be another one that got out of hand. Milling Time was a sweet record and I'm glad I did it (I dedicated it to the memory of my father). But is was useless as a career move. It was too idiosyncratic and not really a jazz record. I decided to take another look at Brazilian music. Romero was much too busy to rely on and I wanted a guitarist that I could build an ongoing relationship with. I found out about Richard Boukas, an excellent guitarist and fine musician, a student of Brazilian music. Richard organized the Brazilian section at the New School University jazz program. I sent him Jazz World Trios and asked him if he would put an album together for me. The great and innovative Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal had, upon reaching 60 years of age, set himself the task of writing a song every day for 365 days. The result was published in manuscript form  as the Calend├írio do Som. Richard suggested that we do an entire album of compositions from the Calend├írio and set himself the task of translating Hermeto's obscure chord notations into arrangements for the quartet. Hermeto combines standard chord symbols in layers that don't have names, but once you understand how to read them it shows the voicing  (arrangement of notes) he wants and they always sound wonderful. Richard hired Nilson Matta to play bass and Paulo Braga to play drums. He picked the very best musicians! Nilson and I have recorded three more albums and Paulo recorded another album with me before he moved back to Brazil.

Boukas had very clear ideas about how he wanted to bass and drums to play. Everything was carefully arranged and notated. Nilson and Paulo were annoyed by the constraints and there were moments in the 2 days of recording where I thought things would blow up in my face. We finished the recording and I was reasonably happy with the results. Richard is a great guitar player and although it was no Jazz World Trios in terms of spontaneity and musical interaction, it sounded fine. I would have to fix parts here and there, the music was very difficult, but the tracks were clear and I had played through the material as I felt it should be played. After the session was completed Richard asked me if he could double some of melodies on guitar (something typical of Brazilian music that frequently has a number of different guitars in a single ensemble). He also wanted to add his voice as another instrument. Richard has amazing ears and he can sing anything written with perfect intonation. Plus there is a tradition in Brazilian jazz to have guitar players sing while they play and especially sing along with their solos, without using words, but choosing syllables that give it that special Brazilian drive. I booked the studio for another day. 

When Boukas tried add the guitar to double the melody I had played, he decided he didn't like the way I phrased it. I had my flute so after he recorded the melody I tried to match his phrasing exactly. It took the better part of an hour. When Boukas says exactly, he means exactly, and I'm a free player who likes to take liberties with phrasing. We took a break and the engineer called me over. He said, 'you have a really nice record, if you get involved with Boukas it will take forever and cost you a fortune.' I had to make a choice. I got involved with Boukas. We rerecorded just about everything I had played to meet Boukas' ever more specific ideas of how the music should be played. Boukas was on a roll. He added layer after layer of guitars, big guitars, little guitars, an electric guitar (he had played on a classical guitar for the basic session) a steel-string guitar, banjo and an electronic effect that made the guitar sound like a Brazilian button accordian (a semphona). This took days and days. I had to leave for a week-long argumentation conference in Amsterdam. Boukas asked me if he could record voice over-dubs and percussion while I was gone. In for a penny, in for a pound! I said yes. When I got back he had recorded voice melodies over my flute melodies (frequently already doubled by guitar), he had recorded multiple voices as a chorus, he had song along with his guitar solos and had hired a percussionist to put in percussion colors and effects. The flute ended up being buried. He had spent about as much time (and therefore money) recording while I was away as everything we had done since the basic session. And all of those layers were recorded separately so mixing would be a nightmare, and would take forever and so would cost an additional arm and a leg. 

By the time we finished mixing, including micro-tuning instruments where the intonation didn't live up to a standard of accuracy that Boukas alone may hear, I was broke and Boukas was wiped out emotionally. He had a very rough patch for a pretty long time beginning the last day of mixing. He told me that I shouldn't feel responsible, I didn't. He had spent my money like it was going out of style and the result was an album in which, although any single track sounded great, the total album was not what it should have been, given the wonderful music and the great musicians. Boukas' layered arrangements were structurally repetitious and ultimately not very interesting as one tune followed another along the very same sequence of musical ideas. Although there were lots of instrumental colors, most beautifully selected, almost every tune started small with a flute melody (sometimes doubled by guitar) and then got more and more acoustically complex, layers of guitars, percussion and voice and then, the big finish, with Boukas' multi-tracked singing. The album, Tudo de Bom, cost me more to make than any album I ever made before or since. And I learned my lesson. After Dan Weinstein, Alexey Kharchenco and Richard Boukas I would never lose control of a recording again. My ex-wife Lesley had left the marriage before the Boukas recording. When we would discuss finances she would always say to me, 'you just don't understand money.' As unhappy as I was when she left, I was relieved that I didn't have to confront her with what Boukas' project cost me. 




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