how long we were fool’d

Lots of factors can come up that complicate, hinder, or expand the scope of expectations for a project. I try not to judge when these factors emerge, but rather acknowledge and evaluate them to see if they make the project better (it’s a tool I’m working on all the time). That’s really all that matters – does it elevate the project? Then it’s likely worth chasing. But sometimes, that ever elusive flow state can happen naturally, and when everyone is on the same page, there’s a beautiful feedback loop of energy that occurs. This post, and my last post, are about projects coming together quickly.

When one of my current quarantine collaborators and friend, Miles Butler (who also owns my favorite coffee shop – it’ll be so great to get back there!), asked me to help him with something for the Philadelphia Jazz Project’s celebration of Whitman at 200, I was happy to get on board.

With a deadline looming, we quickly booked studio time and got musicians together to lay down the foundation. Miles had a sketch of a song, but nothing fully formed. Sometimes this can lead to lots of wasted studio time. In this case, with the aforementioned everyone-on-the-same-page energy, some good stuff happened. Miles, Jasmine Thompson, and Kim Pedro Rodriguez did an extended jam with guitar, piano, and drums based on the original demo sketch. Thankfully, I had all the gear dialed in, ready to go, and was recording the entire jam (so grateful to be prepared, rather than the musicians waiting on me). The trio played around for about 11-12 minutes straight. They came in to listen to the result, and that was it. Everyone was happy with it. From there, we asked Miles’ dad, Paul Butler, to record some woodwinds. He did three passes on the full tune – one take each on clarinet, bass clarinet, and alto sax. We were out of time for the day.

I took all of the files home and did my best to mine the gold and piece something together. While a 12 minute song is great, it’s a lot to ask of a listener. I was able to trim the song down to under 6 minutes, pulling the best of the best. I then added my bass part and a subtle mellotron texture. We did vocals with Miles and Waverly Alston, and had some last minute guitar overdubs with Jeff Podlogar. I asked my friend Tom Volpicelli to master the song once the mix was finished. Special thanks to Homer Jackson at PJP for his guidance, positivity, and kindness.

There’s a lot going on in the tune, but seemingly everyone knew how to find their space and allow space for others. I think there are lots of tiny moments throughout the song, tied together with excerpts from Whitman that we repeated or strung together to form a cohesive message. He was a complicated character for sure, but this particular bit of text is a great reminder about connecting with nature after being pulled away. Seems especially important right now.

sound of yore

During this beyond bizarre time, I, like presumably many of us, have been afforded the time to do a little reflecting. For better and for worse, but time nonetheless. Today, I thought I’d reflect on a project that came out earlier this year. I play in a 10-piece soul band called York Street Hustle. Last fall, we were approached by Max at Brewerytown Beats to do a recording project. Max is on a mission to shine a light on the Philly Soul Sound, paying special attention to songs and artists that may have slipped through the cracks. The thought was to use York Street Hustle as vehicle for re-recording some of these tunes from a bygone era. Max was also interested in original material from the band.

I offered up my engineering services in addition to playing the bass. I was practically salivating at thought of working on this project. As a young bass player, watching Standing in the Shadows of Motown forever changed my outlook on music, both as a player and as a producer. I quickly became obsessed with that sound, which was further nourished through subsequent discoveries of Sharon Jones and the whole Daptone roster, really. This was such formative material for me that the idea of being able to help shape the sound world in this vintage style presented an incredible opportunity.

Admittedly, the band lacks a real catalogue of original material. So, members of the band offered up old demos and quickly wrote tunes to add for consideration. The easiest choice was a song by Ryan, one of the singers in the band. “Cruelty” had the perfect mix of vintage modern, and a nice hook. To my surprise, a tune that I wrote was agreed upon to record. This was an old demo of mine, written about 3 years ago. It began life as a psychedelic rock jam, and I morphed it into a groove centric soul/surf/funk tune that I called, “All Beak.” The band also learned, “There’s Nothing Better Than Love,” a tune from the late 60’s that was part of the initial inspiration for this project.

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All photos by Paul Best

We worked with producer Aaron Levinson at his studio in Ardmore, Range Recording. I had never worked in that room before, which is always a thrill for me. Part of what I love about being an engineer without a “home” studio is that I enjoy adapting to each space. I think that it forces me to stay present with what a studio offers and how to pair that with what the project needs, instead of perhaps reaching for the same setup that I might do if I always worked in the same space. Aaron, Max, and I all agreed that we wanted to embrace vintage production techniques. We put almost the whole band in one room together, and recorded all of the music in one day. I employed as many old school production techniques that I could cram in (minimal setup, green light on mic bleed, tube driving, roominess, and lots of compression), but I did not want to be precious or disingenuous. I truly wanted to nod to the vintage sound, but not replicate it, nor ignore the developments in recording technology over the last 50 years.

We turned around the whole EP in a month, from tracking to mastering (with product in hand!). Working quickly also forced us to commit to certain production and mix choices, rather than trying things from different angles, as modern recording technology affords us to do. Without the extra time, decisions were made, which I think was also a nod to an older style of making records.

This EP was a blast to make. It pushed me creatively in so many ways, and to that I’m grateful. We have received a few nice write-ups so far. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many more to come.