It is time to move on. And I don’t mean it in the “forgive and forget” kinda way. Not even a little bit. I don’t expect some magical healing or togetherness to happen. But something that I can always believe in is forward motion. This year, I aim to keep moving and to do better.
Thanks to Matt Spitko for asking me to play bass and organ on this Petty tune. I loved his re-working on the song, and it’s been a true pleasure to be his bass player for the past several years. Hope you dig.
Weird, tragic, confusing, depressing, horrific. I could go on and on to describe 2020 in many more words (let’s give “unprecedented” a break, shall we? I’m tired of that one). BUT, I would much prefer to use this space to express gratitude. My little world, like everyone else’s, experienced a radical shift. But we still found a way to make music, stay connected best we can, and carry on. For that, I am incredibly grateful and spoiled that I get to do what I do with the people I do it with. I wanted to write longer and individual posts about lots of these projects, but it feels right to at least mention a few bright moments in my musical life during the past year.
A large portion of my year has been spent working with Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman over Zoom. These two masters of songwriting are collaborating on a new musical based on the movie, “Working Girl.” It will premiere on Broadway…someday. The experience has been really amazing for me, and I’ve learned a lot. We work over Zoom and utilize cloud collaboration to produce demos of the songs to be included in the musical. I’m grateful for this experience that would have only happened this way under our current circumstances.
Power of Attorney
Earlier this year, I worked with Max of Brewerytown Beats/Brewerytown Records to mix and re-mix some reissues and previously unreleased material from the 70’s. His devotion to Philly’s rich musical history is truly admirable, and I’m honored that he trusts me with this work. From the press release:
In the early 1970s, the funk / soul band Power Of Attorney was formed at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford (30 miles northwest of Philadelphia). The story of their formation is just as powerful as the music that they left behind.
In late 1972, the prison’s Activities Director Theodore “Ted” Wing broke ground on a new recording studio. As part of the rehabilitative arts and music initiative, the space was built to offer a creative outlet for incarcerated individuals to express their musical talents. In November of ‘72, an audition was held throughout the prison to form a band.
It has been reported that over 1,600 men auditioned for a spot in the band. Wing ultimately settled on a lineup that consisted of William Smith (lead guitar), Charles McDowell (bass), Merion Wilson (tenor saxophone), Edward J.X. Smith (guitar), and Otis Graham (drums). With a lineup of gifted musicians and a fresh new recording studio to practice and lay down tracks in, the band Power Of Attorney was officially born.
A Spiritual Vibe
Gigs can come through many different avenues, but I don’t think I’ve ever been hired through a chance encounter, some small talk, and then “hey, we need a bass player for a session next week – you interested?” Such was the case with meeting Dr. Guthrie Ramsey and Vince Anthony. The session became an incredibly memorable one for me, and I later learned that it was special for Dr. Ramsey as well (the story is told much better than I could ever tell it here). A Spiritual Vibe, Vol. 1 was released this year, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
Tiny desk season is a big one for musicians, as getting the NPR light shined on an artist can be a massive career break. I recorded one audition earlier this year – just before the first lockdown, in fact, which makes it even more memorable. This video did not win, but the playing by my friend Arturo Stable and co., plus the incredible vocals of Mary Liz, does not disappoint.
Before anyone could really make sense of how concerts would or could work during the pandemic, Anthony Tidd had already put together a virtual festival! The Act4 music festival started in April, and I had the honor to record sets by my friend Sumi Tonooka and the great Kenny Barron! I was glad to do something in the wonderful space @exuberance, which has been dark for most of the year. You can still watch the concert here.
Despite all of the restrictions and changes to everyday life, musicians continue to create. I draw huge amounts of inspiration from this that I try to take into my own writing and projects. I won’t be able to include all the projects that I’ve worked on, but a few 2020 releases of note:
The Anchoress – PRISM Sax Quartet and Piffaro Renaissance Band
This powerful piece, by David Serkin Ludwig and Katie Ford, is based on a medieval story but feels shockingly appropriate for our time. We recorded all parts at the Curtis Institute of music, and learning how to mic some of those less familiar Renaissance instruments was a fun challenge!
Hotbed – 2020 singles
I had a blast mixing a few singles for this band. It’s always great to go wild with studio production, which is permissible with a psych rock band.
Alex Maimone – Honey Lavender
It’s hard to believe that this is Alex’s first release. She sounds seasoned, and was relaxed and professional in the studio. Plus she hired a great band to back her.
This new project by my friend Miles was a real joy to put together. Excellent songs and playing all around, and the important social commentary felt timely to release just before the election. More from this project next year!
I hope that everyone is staying safe and finding their joy in each day. Wishing you a Happy New Year!
I recently read David Byrne’s book, “How Music Works.” One chapter, in particular, emphasizes the importance of the space in which a composition is performed. Byrne asserts that not only is the venue critical to the composition’s performance, but composers are writing to the venue, whether it is a conscious choice or not. He cites examples ranging from Bach’s organ works sounding best at more modestly sized churches (the intricate contrapuntal lines get blurry in large churches) to punk bands writing songs best heard in the cramped and sweaty CBGB.
This year, physical spaces have transitioned into virtual spaces. We’re all experts at Zoom and meet regularly (begrudgingly?) with our floating headed colleagues, friends, and family. So how does this inform the music written today? Notice I didn’t question if music would be written during this time, or written collaboratively for that matter. Artists are compelled to create and will naturally react to what’s going on around them.
All this pre-rambling is meant to set the table for a recent project I was a part of: Mutual Mentorship for Musicians, or M3, is a new program that pairs up remarkable collaborators from historically underrepresented gender identities to create new music. I was thrilled when my friend, Sumi Tonooka, hit me up to mix the work she’d been doing with collaborator Jen Shyu.
From a workflow perspective, the setup was pretty simple. Sumi and Jen would hop on to Zoom to record together. Once they worked out their ideas, the two would improvise together, each locally recording their parts to be integrated together later. That’s where I came in. They both sent me their stems to stitch together, mix, and master.
Besides the extremely high level of artistry, what struck me most is that the music is truly written for the “space.” As improvisers, Sumi and Jen are reacting to each other in a musical dialogue. Anyone who has tried to play music remotely with another person has instantly met the frustration that comes with internet lag or latency. It’s impossible to play in sync. But with the music created by Jen and Sumi, you’d never know it. The improv within the compositions develops in a way that is extraordinary considering the way in which it was written.
The piece premiered last night along with works by two other pairs of composers. Everything will be available for a limited time here, or embedded below. Jen and Sumi’s piece is a powerful ride, addressing themes of identity, race, family, and so much more (synced to a set of moving visuals done by Sumi). I was glad to be a part of this one.
I love recording bands. I mean, I love recording all kinds of instruments and ensembles, but there’s something special about capturing the chemistry that exists between a handful of people who have a bond that is more than a friendship but less than significant others. A band’s dynamic is really its own category.
I was thrilled to get the call by the Stereo League boys to do a day together at Retro City. The band wanted to record live, to really tap into that aforementioned special dynamic. They’d been playing and gigging a lot, so putting everyone in a room together to hit record just made sense.
Another great aspect of working with bands is the temporary feeling of being a part of the band, even if it’s just for the day. I always try to find my place within their existing framework, as I find it helps the production feel like a lighter lift, and the songs always benefit.
The guys just released one of the songs we started that day. Since our session, the song evolved quite a bit, so hearing the final master was a combination of familiarity and surprise. I hope you enjoy!
I’ve been making more of an effort to pay attention to breathing. Call it mindfulness, deep relaxation, meditation – whatever it is, I’m finding how powerful and impactful it can be on my daily life. It sounds so simple, since breathing is an involuntary function. But it’s not simple, and I’m finding how important it can be during my day to take small pauses for intentional breathing as opposed to short, pressured breathing that can creep in and serve as a backdrop and vehicle for stress. I’ve casually read about the science of why the focus on breathing makes a measurable difference, but my own experience is enough for me.
This preamble really exists to plug an event happening tonight – Aquifer of the Ducts by James Allister Sprang. Tonight, James shares a 40 minute, multi chapter work that incorporates tape loops, modular synths, and sound design. It’s meant to be absorbed as a complete meditative experience.
James called me to mix and master his piece. I always try to tap into that “creative flow” while working, but for this project, I truly made an effort to monitor my breathing and physical response while working. If a change I made elicited a measurable response for me, I kept it. It’s not unlike mixing non-ambient music, but with the absence of traditional melody, harmony, and structure, keeping tabs on my response became my main measurement of how the mix was shaping up.
Nerdy tech indulgence: for most of the mix, I would automate several parameters. These could include volume, filters opening and closing, resonance, etc. For a few of the automation tracks, I spelled the word “aquifer” while handwriting the data points into the software.
I’m attempting to get my website up to date, share projects that have been released during the pandemic, and practice gratitude. Let’s see if I can do it all in this post, or at least kick things off as the first in a series of updates.
I first met Drea D’Nur at the Singing Nina fest that I produced in May, 2019. Her performance, along with my friends in Rootstock Republic, was nothing short of spellbinding. She truly encapsulated the spirit of Nina Simone, which was particularly impressive considering that her voice does not resemble Nina’s one bit. Anyway, we hit it off after that performance and proceeded to work together on subsequent stagings of Dear Nina in later 2019.
So, when Drea called and asked me to travel to Buffalo to mix her album release show, I was both honored and a little intimidated. She was entrusting me to convey and deliver her sound in a foreign venue. Oh, and it was an enormous show. Drea was the center piece at the piano, but was surrounded by electric and upright bass, drums, percussion, a horn section, keyboards, backup singers, poetry, and dancers.
The performance was a complete immersive experience. Even in writing this, I’m transported back to that night (I can’t believe it was earlier this year – somehow it feels both immediate but so far away). It was an icy night in Buffalo, but the theatre was ablaze. Drea is a commanding but giving performer, and she took all of us with her that night. Thankfully, we recorded the entire show. I took the files home to mix and master. Drea released everything as a live album several months ago, so this post is long overdue. I will say this: treat yourself to all 20 minutes of “Moongazing,” you won’t regret it.
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.
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 nicewrite-ups so far. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many more to come.
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.