Monday, June 15, 2009

five years later

Five years ago, in the Spring of 2004, after recording O Nosso Amor, I went to Berlin to record an album with African musicians. The date was organized for me by my dear old friend Jean Paul Bourelly (I tell a great story about the date in my second blog, August of 2008). The recording was prompted by a number of things, but the key element was the presence of Omar Sosa, the great Cuban pianist, in Berlin at that time. Omar had recorded "Cuban Roots Revisited" with me in 1999 and I knew that his first instrument was 'mallets,' that is tympani, marimba, xylophone and any other orchestral instrument that you play with a mallet (a thin supple stick with a ball of various hardness at the end). I knew Omar would jump at the chance to record an album on marimba and vibes since he recorded on piano almost exclusively. When he left Cuba he first went to Ecuador where there is a long tradition of marimba playing influenced by the heritage of the African slaves who brought the tradition of the balafon from Benin. And among the African musicians available in Berlin at the time was Aly Keita, a balafon virtuoso. Jean Paul hooked up two drummers from Benin, a bass player and Marque Gilmore on traps. This is the result.

It took 5 years to get the record out because the music was so deep and so deeply buried in what we recorded that I was terrified of dealing with it. I had taken musical risks before but never of such magnitude. The date cost a small fortune. I had to fly to Berlin, pay the musicians, pay hotel expenses for everyone, as well as the rental fee (exorbitant) for a set of vibes, and a concert marimba, plus transportation for Marque and Mathais Aobokuo from London and Paris respectively. But money aside, the project was based on blind faith. I had no music written, the musicians did not know each other. They came from very different musical traditions, the bass player, Stanislou Michalak, was a classical trained jazz bass player from Poland. But what we all had in common was the Africanization of jazz and popular music that prompted the presence of the musicians in Berlin that Spring. Jean Paul, a Haitian-American, was living in Berlin and working mainly in Europe. He had been given the opportunity to organize a week-long festival to reflect the world-wide impact of African music: Black Atlantic/Congo Square. We went into the studio cold!

I had three flutes with me, concert, alto and bass. When we got to the studio I laid them out on the stand for a keyboard in front of me in the booth that I was assigned. Next to me in an adjoining booth was Stan the bass player. In front of me in a large booth was Omar with a set of vibes in front and marimba behind, tuned boxes set up on a table. Aly Keita shared the booth with his balafon.

  The drummers where in the center room, with Marque on a pedestal at the back and the Aho Luc Nicaise and Mathais surrounded by a drums and microphones. Microphones at three levels, since they would be singing and playing a variety of drums and nobody know what they were going to do when. This created an enormous problem later on. 

Jean Paul was in the middle of the room right in front of me, with his guitar around his neck. He looked exhausted. He had organized the festival, ran it and on the final day played with every band that participated in a final day celebration. We had scheduled the date 2 days after the festival so that he would have a chance to wind-down. That was probably a mistake, since the crash after the adrenaline rush of the last day seemed to have wiped him out. Had we recorded right after the festival he might have been able to continue as his usual level of energy; as it was he played very little on the date. Nevertheless his presence was essential. All of the musicians know him and trusted him. Jean Paul is a world class musician and everyone who plays with him has profound respect for his musicianship and his integrity. Without Jean Paul the date would never have happened and with him I was afforded all of the respect that his participation signaled to the musicians and especially to the engineers. The studio, UFO in Berlin, went all out. They brought in their best engineers, a team that set up the room not knowing what to expect but determined to capture whatever happened with complete audio fidelity.

On the way to the studio Luc and Mathais starting singing the prayer for Elegba, the Orisha you petition for permission to engage in any serious endeavor. Omar joined in. 300 years of seperation, and three sons of Africa, one Cuban, still held to the same religion, and could join together in prayer. The prayer for Elegba is track 2 on the disc, Invocation. It starts with the drummers and Omar singing the prayer, Omar plays a chord on the vibes, I play a subdued rhythmic figure on the bass flute, bowed bass, Jean Paul enters with a vamp, the balafone comes in, vibes and drums bring in the swing and I switch to concert flute and play my first solo, then Omar plays a brief solo, we engage in conversations among the instruments, than more singers and on and on. About an hour later we stopped playing. It was insane. No one was leading anything, Jean Paul was grooving, just playing minimal vamps and occasionally shifting patterns. The rest of us were just listening and reacting. Aly Keita was the rhythmic foundation, the drums and percussion adding colors, accents and tremendous swing. We would wind down a section, but never stop. Someone would always continue, usually the percussionists who would shift instruments or tempo and the rest of us would just follow (the result: tracks 2, 7). 

I was both worried and elated. The playing felt very natural. I wasn't over-playing, really responding to the musical environment and rather than playing jazz solos, all of the players were playing short contrasting sections. It was a real musical conversation. Everyone was listening very hard, the interactions are as good as anyone could hope for. We were being carried by the music as it was created in the room, no thought, no planning, no constraints, just free expression as the context of our mutual creation led us to new places. But it was hard to tell what was happening, since things would alternatively come together and fall apart. As I said, we played for about an hour without stopping. When we finally came to a halt, Jean Paul said to me, "Let them do their thing." I freaked, he was telling me not to play. The musicians, without me and Jean Paul, played for another half hour or so. They sounded fine (tracks 6 and 14) but I was getting very agitated. I felt that Jean Paul had disrespected me in front of the musicians. What was particularly disturbing was that I had played with a great deal of forbearance, and so I was paranoid that the musicians hadn't really heard me play. After they finished, I said to Jean Paul, 'I'm going to play with the bass player.' The drummers asked if they could play as well and I went into the booth and played 7 minutes of free improvisation, technical and harmonically complex (track 13). With my musicianship clearly established we continued recording (tracks 3, 8 and 9). Jean Paul didn't play for the rest of the day. We ended up with about 3 hours of music  including some lovely duets between Omar and Aly Keita (tracks 1 and 4). We had been in the studio for about 6 hours and all of the musicians were wiped from the intensity of the music not to mention the tense interactions between Jean Paul and myself.  We all went home for dinner and some sleep. I went to  Bavarian restaurant within walking distance of the hotel and ate too much and drank too much. I didn't eat with the guys. I was too ambivalent about what had happened and too drained by the emotional experience of the music.

The next day was more relaxed. It turned out that Aly Keita could only record that first day.Without the balafon, which can only play a C major scale, we could play with a bit more harmonic freedom. Playing with a diatonic instrument in one key was a challenge, although Omar had an uncanny ability to add extensions that reflected whatever poly-tonal moves I would make during my solos. As the saying goes, 'we played all 12 notes.' Omar was amazing, playing harmonic extensions to C major that permitted any note I chose to play to sound good. But still, with C major as the background there were restrictions and playing just with vibes and marimba permitted a wider palate of harmonic structures and more jazz soloing (tracks 5 and 11). In addition we recorded a tune by Omar (track 12) and a tune by Jean Paul (track 10). The date finished I took a hard-drive with everything on it and got on a plane for Newark and home.

When I got home I called Phil my engineer and he downloaded the files onto his hard-drive. When he looked at the files they were very difficult to make sense of, about 30 microphones, plus some rhythm section overdubs and over-dubbed piano on two tracks. Plus the tracks were enormous in length, there was over 4 hours of music with some tracks of uninterrupted playing ranging from 20 minutes to over an hour. Phil set rough levels and burned me four cassettes. I drive a 2000 VW and only have a cassette player in my car. I started listening to what I had. I listened for about a year in fits and starts. I had Phil make me cassettes with the flute taken off so I could hear the recordings as rhythm section tapes, giving me the possibility of rethinking the whole project. But the more I listened the more I liked what I had played. I couldn't figure out what Jean Paul's problem was but with all of my insecurities I shelved the project. 

I had recorded Algo Más for Jazzheads and Randy Klein liked the album. It had received good reviews and modest sales. I played the tracks that would become O Nossa Amor for Randy and he picked up the album. This led to Con Alma (my 'hit' album) and consolidated my relationship with the label. I mentioned the 'Berlin date' to Randy but I had a problem. When I asked Scott Price, Omar's manager about using Omar on the record date we agreed that his company Otá Records would get first refusal on the project. But my relationship with Randy was paramount to me and we were putting out a lot of records. So the Berlin date stayed in a hard-drive for a few more years. I stopped listening to it, but I never gave up on the project. Finally in Fall of 2006, before I began the hectic recording schedule of 2007 that resulted in Straight No Chaser and Lua e Sol I asked Phil to take a look at the Berlin tracks with me. This resulted in one of the most productive collaborations of my musical life.

The first problem for Phil was to make sense of the tracks. As you can see from the photo, there are three levels of microphones on the drummers. Phil had to find the best track to use for every instrument and every segment, since the drummers sometimes played standing as well as sitting. Everything was bleeding into all of the tracks, so to find the best track required careful listening, especially for the background vocals. Luc had a vocal microphone, Mathais singing was picked up by whichever drum microphone he was next to. Plus there were tracks of over-dubbed percussion, including the clapping on track 4 that had little relation to the other tracks in terms of ambient volume. To make things worse, the drum set was not well-isolated and so setting EQ became a real problem. And the same for vibes, marimba and balafon. Although each instrument had its own microphones, there was significant leakage since all three instruments were in the same booth. But the technical aspect of mixing was only part of the problem. The real problem was finding the boundaries within the music that would enable us to extract a hour of music, divided into pieces of reasonable length from the extended improvisations.

As you can see from my indications of the tracks a few paragraphs back, individual songs were edited out from the lengthy takes that we recorded. So the first day with three extended improvisations (one without me and two with me) resulted in 7 different tracks. The second day was better organized, the improvisations shorter and more focused. But still a great deal of editing was required. A lot of great playing ended up being left behind. For example, my 7 minute improvisation with Stan was cut down to 4 minutes. The short duets between Omar and Aly Keita were fractions of what they recorded. The short 'rap' by Luc against some changes of Jean Paul's was a one minute segment of an entire composition. Finding the best music, with the most coherent structure from the wealth of material recorded required great ears. First of all, just keeping track of what was heard so that choices could be made was hard enough, and then using musical judgment to select the places where the music made a definitive statement required a exquisite sensitivity to the music. Phil Ludwig, my engineer, a guitarist and bass player, with decades of experience as a working musician and long years as a recording engineer, has the best ears in the business. As I said in the liner notes: 'We became one head with two sets of ears.'

"Tales From The Earth" has an official release date on October 2009. Otá records has given me permission to put up some track on myspace. Check it out. It is magic music!