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.
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.
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.
In thinking on what to write about this new project, I realized that I’ve never been in a band that was this collaborative. For about a year and a half, Aaron, Adam, and myself would get together about once a week for the sole purpose of writing. We’d alternate who hosted (the host made the coffee), and we would just see what came of it. As a bass player, I’m usually in the position of writing my bass parts, and often contribute structure ideas, will write an occasional bridge, etc. And as a producer, I’ve certainly written songs and collaborated with songwriters. But to write as a weekly exercise with others, well, refreshing doesn’t do it justice.
When the songs felt drum ready, we asked Fred Berman to join us. Since everybody in Philly knows Freddie, I don’t have to expound on how perfectly he fit into and expanded upon the songs we started.
Now, we are in the middle of recording a full length album. We chose our favorite 12 songs from those writing sessions, and hope to have the record out later this year. Until then, we’ll be releasing a series of live in-studio performance videos from a session we hosted at Rittenhouse Soundworks this past January. Thanks for checking us out.
In my attempt to get current with my website, I couldn’t think of a better album to start the updating process than “Free,” by Monique Brooks-Roberts. This record displayed a transformative artistic process in a way that I’ve never witnessed before. Working piecemeal over the course of about 2 years (Monique lives in Colorado, so we had to carefully plan studio sessions for when she’d be in town), “Free” became a cathartic story of a truly special artist.
One of the highest honors of doing what I do is the trust an artist gives me with their sound. We all know what a violin sounds like, but it can be a challenging instrument to record in a natural and expressive way. And Monique is not playing solo etudes, either. Her sound has a vibe, complimented with a full band at times, electronic production at others. Effects are also a big part of her sound, which can be easily overdone. Since the album is largely instrumental, the violin is doing everything a voice would be doing, and more. It had to sound full, rich, natural, and hopefully, unique. At our first session, we did a microphone shootout, just like we would do for a vocalist. Finding the perfect signal chain for her violin was everything. When we were reviewing recorded samples from all of the different signal chain options, we both immediately knew which one worked. That set the tone for all of the following sessions, as the “voice” became an established entity.
Some thank yous: thanks to Daniel Bowen of Symphony 21 for connecting me with Monique. Also thanks to Retro City Studios for being a great facility run by excellent people. I firmly believe in finding the right recording space for each project, and Retro City was a great fit for Monique’s energy.
I’m so grateful for Monique’s trust and artistry. She created a beautifully fresh record – an album that has depth, variety, and soul. Check it out!
I’m not great at maintaining this blog. I’m even worse at telling people about my upcoming gigs. Here I am trying to change both! Here’s a list of some upcoming dates that I’m really excited about. These include performances as well as shows that I’m producing and/or mixing. Hope to see you!
Saturday, September 13th
Weekender EP release show
Thursday, September 19th
Vince Tampio Jazz Quartet
Chris’ Jazz Cafe
Sunday, September 22nd
Weekender EP release show (NYC)
Gran Torino, Brooklyn
Sunday, September 29th
Dear Nina: A Sonic Love Letter to Nina Simone
Milo – The Meeting House
Sunday, October 20th
Dear Nina: A Sonic Love Letter to Nina Simone
Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center
Friday, October 25th
The Right Fiction
World Cafe Live
This past March, I spent a week with Symphony 21, an organization that aims to promote and inspire young people through music. It’s a brave mission fueled by seemingly endless ambition and energy from the founder, Daniel Bowen – someone I am honored to call a friend.
This isn’t a music education program that gives kids glockenspiels or ukuleles and attempts to connect some dots via Mary’s little lamb. No, Symphony 21 flies in world class musicians from around the country to give a multi media performance and presentation of original content with lighting, sound, visuals, with full interaction and participation from the audience. The bar is set high, with the idea to get young people excited about music and thinking creatively.
Not only that, but the targeted schools are located in underserved communities. These programs aren’t presented in cities with access to music and live performances everywhere. The programs are presented in areas where students might not be able to identify each instrument being played, let alone hearing a live performance of those instruments.
The work feels important, and the response from the students has been incredible. During the hour long presentation, Daniel has the ensemble perform his own compositions as well as compositions of members of the group. The students get to see that a violin can be electric (literally), and it can be hip and modern. They get to see how technology and music interact through the use of live looping an instrument. We even present a song where we live sample the students stomping and clapping and loop them into a track while projecting the whole software process on the screen. It shows these young minds the limitless possibilities of many disciplines in the arts, and hopefully opens them up to considering directions they didn’t know existed.
I have to share a particular high point during the tour. During one school program, I could feel someone staring at me. Even while the ensemble was playing full blast (we’re loud) with backing tracks, projected visuals, and dramatic lighting, someone continued to stare at me. I looked over and saw that a little girl was seemingly mesmerized by the mixing board. I motioned for her to come over and put my headphones on her so that she could listen to the mix up close. That moment was such a great reminder of our obligation to share what we know. While the school tour is pretty draining and demands my full attention to help present the programs effectively, that moment is exactly why we do this.
The weeklong tour culminated in a community concert at the end of the week. We presented an expanded version of the school tour program with more music, different presentations, and oh yeah, a 30 piece orchestra and full rhythm section. As previously mentioned, we go for cinematically loud, so mic’ing up strings to get them to show volume can be a real challenge with feedback. This year, we rented 30 special microphones that mount on each string instrument. To some, spot mic’ing every instrument might seem like overkill, but I am here to say that the result was incredible. We really rocked that concert hall. It was easily the largest show I’ve ever mixed (especially as a studio rat who infrequently mixes live sound). Between the orchestra, rhythm section, and electronic backing tracks, we were well over 50 channels of audio. With the lighting, haze, and celestial theme to much of the music, I felt like I was at the helm of a space ship.
I’m incredibly grateful for this week of music. My body was exhausted by the end, but my soul was full.
All photos by the fantastic Sarah Murray.
I’ve been trying to get to Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s Outsider’s Improvised and Creative Music Festival for 3 years. This year, it was looking like I was going to miss it again, so I had to make a real effort to get myself there. Why is it so hard to commit to engagements and show up anymore? That’s probably worthy of another post.
Anyway, this particular installment of the festival featured Jamaaladeen with Marc Ribot on guitar and Will Calhoun on drums. It was clear that there was no real pre-meditated plan here; the three players were to have a conversation and interact musically. I love improvised music, but often feel like some kind of structure can be helpful as a unifying or start and end point (at least for the audience – it’s generally always fun for the musicians to stretch out). But when you have players who are amazing communicators and can fully express their intentions on an instrument, it’s worth going along for the ride.
I’m not a music critic and will not pretend to be one here. All I can say as a takeaway from this music is that it made me feel more alive. To be so in tune and present in the moment while interacting with the talents of others onstage (and for it to be good and entertaining) is not only remarkable, it’s infectious. All of us in the crowd were drawn in for the dialogue.
After about an hour and a half of non-stop music, it seemed that the show was coming to an end. Will Calhoun was playing this hypnotic groove on a synth drum pad, and Jamaaladeen had taken off his bass to watch, as we were, with a smile on his face. But, Will wasn’t done. He smoothly transitioned back to the acoustic kit and starting playing a groove that was reminiscent of James Brown’s Mother Popcorn. Jamaaladeen and Marc hopped right back in. Then, Jamaal went over to the mic and started chanting, “Get me some popcorn!” Unanswered, he finally, plainly, said, “there’s a bag of popcorn and the back, can someone bring it up here?” My friend turns to me and asks, “is he serious?” Immediately, as if Jamaal heard him, says, “I’m serious! Get me that popcorn!”
The popcorn makes its way up to the stage, and Jamaal feeds it to Will and Marc as they play, making a remark about how real they are to eat popcorn on stage. He then hands the bag of popcorn into the crowd and motions for it to be distributed. As the bag made it’s way over to me, I realized that on this particular Easter Sunday, I was taking communion in the church of Jamaaladeen Tacuma.
Sometimes (often), I get too caught up with the doing that I miss out on the dreaming. I’m finding it helpful for my soul to be in regular contact with people who are natural dreamers. This has been the case with a current project, “Singing Nina: a cultural festival and conference.” I met David Rose at my favorite coffee shop in 2018, and David shared a dream with me. His concept was to produce a concert of Nina Simone’s music as performed by musicians from the Curtis Institute, putting an interesting spin on Miss Simone famously being denied admission to that institution. I loved the idea, but thought that it would require a fair amount of work, doing custom arrangements for a string ensemble, plus recruiting the players, etc. I quickly went into “doing” mode.
By total coincidence, I’m in the middle of making a record with violinist Monique Brooks Roberts. Monique is part of a string ensemble called Rootstock Republic, who already presents a program called “Dear Nina,” an evening of Nina Simone’s music arranged for string quartet, bass, harp, piano, and voice.
Sometimes life aligns in a beautiful way. I thought it would be a good idea to have a sit down with a person I greatly admire and respect, Jim Hamilton. Jim has an incredible studio in Germantown, and presents concerts monthly. His perspective would be vital to the conversation started by David and myself. After our first meeting, it became clear that we should present a festival around various locations in Germantown to celebrate the life and music of Nina Simone. One night of dreaming, and we have a festival. Almost.
Of course, without an audience, there is no festival. Otherwise, it would just be a really fun day of activities for David, Jim, and myself. So please, dear reader, I encourage you to check out the links below to read about the festival lineup, and get involved if it resonates with you.
For general admission tickets, click here
If you’d like to make a tax deductible donation to the festival, click here
Ever since moving to Philadelphia, I’ve been a fan of the PRISM Quartet. Aside from saxophone quartet being one of my favorite textures, the group’s ferocious devotion to new music, collaboration, and discovery with unapologetic integrity is worthy of true admiration.
When I learned about the “Unlocking Your Inner Composer Workshop” series through a local arts radio show that I help produce, I was filled with excitement at the opportunity to work with the PRISM Quartet and special guest Tyshawn Sorey. I couldn’t believe my luck: the workshops were held at a library that is within walking distance of my house, and I was available to attend all of the offered dates (a requirement). The whole premise was built on inclusion: the workshops welcomed any level of experience, and to be sure that no one would be turned away, there was no fee to attend.
Over the course of three sessions, we soaked in as much as we could to write a one minute piece for the ensemble (a miniature). Tyshawn and the quartet taught us about idiomatic writing for each instrument, extended techniques, and gave examples of non-traditional notation so that no one had to feel obligated or intimidated to write a formally notated piece.
The third workshop was a recital of all pieces from our class, and the results were wonderful. The pieces were all so different and I truly enjoyed each one. Hearing all pieces back to back exemplified the varied routes that creativity can take. Sure, formal written notation is a fine way to convey a musical idea, but certainly not the only way. Some composers wrote instructions as to what they wanted to hear, others wrote a theme and allowed the ensemble to improvise over the theme. One person recorded themselves singing a simple melody, then played it back for the ensemble to learn and build upon. I’ve often felt that one of the signs of true artistry is being able to fully communicate an idea, and these workshops were a great exploration of that notion.
For my little piece, I tried to utilize the colors available through the ensemble. I wrote two contrasting mini-pieces within my mini-piece: one with a more impressionistic feel, and the flip side was more aggressive and direct. While I am so grateful for being able to play and record music for a living, one downside to this lifestyle is that it’s difficult to find time to work on my own music that isn’t attached to any project. These workshops reignited my inner composer, and reminded me how important it is to keep writing for myself. The whole experience was an honor and privilege to be a part of, and huge thanks to the PRISM Quartet for putting it all together.