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R.I.P. Concept Album

David Berger

Stream of consciousness:  I got an email the other day from my buddy Mark Stryker (Arts editor at the Detroit Free Press) asking me why I omitted Pepper Adams from my triumvirate of baritone saxophonists.  I responded that the focus of the blog had more to do with tone than improvisation.  I never considered Pepper a warm and fuzzy ballad player.  That led me to think the same criticism of his fellow Detroiter, Thad Jones.  I don’t know why Harry Warren’s great ballad Serenade In Blue popped into my head at this point.  I then sat down at the piano and played a chorus.  God, I love Harry Warren’s songs.  I’ve made 2 CDs of his music, and I could happily make 10 more.  On our octet CD, I Had The Craziest Dream, Serenade In Blue is the only ballad and is a trumpet feature for Brian “Fletch” Pareschi, so I pulled out the CD and started to listen.


Wow!  This sounds better than I remember.  I can listen to it now for what it is.  8 years have elapsed since we recorded it.  I’ve forgotten all the out takes, all the problems, all the disagreements, all the angst, the sturm and drang.  Now I just hear the sounds on the CD as if it was someone else’s music and not mine.  Now I can just listen to it as the music on the CD and not the compromise that every project is. 


I once read a book about film editing (I have a great interest in films and film making—if I get to be reincarnated and come back to live this life again, I might choose to be a film director—it’s kinda similar to being a jazz composer/arranger/bandleader/record producer, but I suspect there is more money in it and definitely more women).  But I digress.  In this book the author said that it is best to let some time elapse between shooting a film and the editing process, so that the emotions on the set don’t color your perception of the final product.  I have found the same to be true when recording a CD.  If possible, I like to wait 2 weeks or more before I edit, mix and master.  This isn’t always possible, but it is optimum.  


I Had The Craziest Dream was a total labor of love.  Like many of my projects, it came out of left field.  My almost lifelong buddy, Bob Schwartz, (we met when we were 12.  He was playing The Swingin’ Shepherd Blues on flute, which then led to us discovering the world of jazz together.  He has since become a very successful D.C. lawyer and semiprofessional saxophonist.  He called me on the phone and asked me, “If I gave you $100,000, could you produce a CD with my 2 favorite saxophonists, Harry Allen and Joe Temperley?”  Do you ever feel really lucky?  Like the universe is lining up and throwing you a hanging slider right down Broadway? 


I told him “No problem”.  My initial reaction was that a quintet album might be too similar to their other recorded work and then suggested that we add 3 more horns, piano, bass and drums—an octet.   This would give me the opportunity to write the arrangements and give this album a specific point of view.  Bob enthusiastically agreed.  My next question was, “What’s the concept?”  With all the great songs that are written and all the songs I haven’t written yet, there’s too much to choose from.  We need to limit our scope.  Making art is about limitations.  So I suggested that one tried and true way was to choose one composer and just record his songs: Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Berlin.  Then Bob said, “What about Harry Warren?”  To which I responded, “Who?’  To which he responded, “Exactly, Harry Who”.  Just coincidentally Bob was reading an excellent book by Wilfred Sheed about the great songwriters and he was amazed that Warren had written more hits and standards than all of them (including Irving Berlin), but even pros like me don’t know who he was.  I googled Harry Warren.  42nd Street, There Will Never Be Another You, I Only Have Eyes For You, and 100 more beauties like that.  How could I not know this guy?  This is perfect.  Bob and I decided that we would right this wrong and make this American genius famous at last (BTW he also composed At Last).  I don’t know that we have the power to make anyone famous, but it’s good to aim high. 


So here is our concept: the songs of Harry Warren, octet featuring Joe and Harry.  We talked about hiring our idols from our teenage years to fill out the personnel: Phil Woods, Hank Jones, et al.  I called Phil, but he was unavailable.  We decided that Hank’s health was too fragile.  At this point I suggested that we use 6 of the cats from my band.  They wouldn’t be names that will sell CDs, but they would do a fine job both playing the written material and soloing. 


Next I had to fine-tune the concept: write the arrangements to capture Harry and Joe’s styles.  I hear them both as swing musicians.  What we used to call transitional players.  Not quite bebop, but more sophisticated than swing.  Coming out of Lester Young, but also Ben Webster, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson and Paul Gonsalves.  So this is the general area that the charts will be in.  Next I came up with the idea of giving each of the cats a feature number. 


We set two 6-hour days to rehearse and then two 6-hour days to record (Thursday thru Sunday).  Harry was stuck in Southeast Asia and couldn’t get a plane out due to weather conditions, so he missed the 2 rehearsal days.  When we started rehearsing, the style of the charts seemed to be baffling the cats.   Although they were playing the notes, we weren’t playing like a band.  I explained that I needed them to take more authority and responsibility than they do in our big band.  I need all the personality and originality that they can give and rely less on me directing them.  And so they stepped up to the plate. 


The final piece was added on Saturday when Harry finally arrived.  I had known Harry for years, but we had never worked together.  I actually had no idea if he could read music, or how well.  Could he blend in with the others, catch on to everything we worked out in rehearsal?  All those questions were answered when we ran down the first tune.  Not only is Harry a first-rate soloist, but his reading and ensemble skills are beyond remarkable.  He understood the arrangements, players, everything immediately.  So much so that he raised the bar for everyone else.  To say that we were inspired is an understatement.  At the end of the day, as Fletch, Matt and I were leaving the recording studio, I remarked to them that every one of Harry’s solos on every single take was amazing.  He could play the simplest trite riff, and it sounds so inspired and beautiful.  To which Matt clarified, “It’s not the what, it’s the how”.  When you are a virtuoso on your instrument, like Harry and Joe, every note is a precious jewel. 


Recording music in a studio is an interesting set of compromises.  Engineers would like every musician in a separate room, so they can control each one’s sound completely without any bleed from the other instruments into their microphone.  Most recordings are made this way now.  My experience has been that musicians play with the most sensitivity to each other when they are in the same room, sitting close together and not wearing headphones.  This is how we rehearse and perform, so we are all used to it.  It feels intimate. 


At my first recording as a leader, 45 years ago, the engineer wanted us to sit far apart from each other with the drum in a house.  I was unprepared for this.  One of the musicians explained the situation to me and the engineer: you can either make a good recording of bad music or a bad recording of good music; which do you want?  That has always stuck with me.  I can only compromise so far on each.  Every recording that I have made as a leader has been recorded with all the musicians in one room.  I have recorded the vocalists in a booth, but I hope to record them in the same room in the future.  This would require a larger room than we have had for most of our recordings. The only headphones used were by our pianist (Isaac is seated far from the bass and drums and he needs to hear the vocalist). 


Engineers have specific microphones that they use for each instrument and specific set ups for each instrument.  Our engineer, Roger Rhodes, was a bit baffled for a minute with how to record Temperley.  It seems that Roger’s normal mic set up for the baritone sax was too close to the instrument.  It was picking up extraneous noises from Joe’s sax that you don’t hear a foot away.  This took a little mic placement adjustment and experimentation. 


Then there was the issue of Fletch’s harmon mute.  I grew up listening to Miles Davis playing harmon mute trumpet solos.  I love that sound.  Miles would rest the mute right on the mike.   This enables us to hear lows in the sound.  Any distance from the mic eliminates all those beautiful lows.  When I asked Fletch to do this, Roger said that it wouldn’t work.  The mic was too sensitive.  I insisted that we need it.  The next day Roger brought in a cheap mic.  It worked like a charm. 


There was one song that didn’t make the CD—I Was Only Serious.  In addition to the 12 Harry Warren standards, I composed a song in the style of Warren and got my buddy, Jon Hendricks, to write the lyrics.  We tried having Jon record the vocal, but his advanced age and the toll it took on his voice and concentration, made this impossible.  What a shame!  When I suggested to Bob that we find another vocalist, he said that although the song was great, it would be confusing to put a tribute in with Harry’s songs.  People wouldn’t understand that it wasn’t Harry’s.  So I saved the instrumental track and years later had Denzal Sinclair overdub Jon’s lyric.  It’s not Jon, but it’s Denzal. 


As with most of my other CDs, we finished recording all the tunes and still had an hour or 2 of studio time left in the last session.  At this point I usually like to re-record the first few tunes from the first day of recording.  I have found that the playing and the recording improves as we work, so we can usually get better sounds if we revisit those first few.  This isn’t always possible, but I highly recommend this process.


So now we have an hour of music in the can.  The cost of mixing and mastering in New York can be quite expensive.  My Swedish buddy Peter Axelsson has mastered most of my recordings.  His attention to detail and dedication to the music is unparalleled.  He introduced me to a fabulous Swedish engineer, Bruno Paulsson, who recorded our Hindustan CD at his studio in Malmo while our band was touring Sweden in 2005.  He also mixed our Champian CD.  When Bruno found out about the Harry Warren project, he made me an offer to mix that I couldn’t refuse.  It was cheaper for Bob and I to fly to Sweden and mix than it was to mix it in NY.  Plus I got to work with Bruno again.  Although I have sometimes used the same engineer to record and mix, I think it is preferable to have a different set of ears.  The same goes for mastering. 


After Peter mastered the CD, Bob’s wife Nina did the artwork, and Bob, Michael Feinstein and Wilfred Sheed wrote the liner notes.  That’s right, Wilfred Sheed—the guy who wrote the House that George Built, the book that hipped us to Harry Warren.  By the time we recorded our CD, Wilfred was extremely ill and needed 24-hour care.  Bob sent a limo to pick him up on the eastern end of Long Island and bring him to the studio so that he could see and hear what he started.  Like I said, this project was a labor of love.


So, to paraphrase the Bard, I have come here to praise the concept album, but also to bury it.  What with the technology of downloads, few people purchase albums anymore.  Fewer even pay for downloads.  The idea of a listener sitting down and listening to 45-78 minutes of music that was programmed as an integral experience has pretty much left this earth.  For artists like me, who are not limited to 3 to 5 minutes of development, but enjoy letting it spin out and tell a story for an hour, this is a sad loss.  But like losing my parents, former lovers and friends to the grim finality of death, life goes on and I optimistically search for a new means of expression and love, and cherish the warm feeling in my heart when I feel thankful for those great strokes of good fortune that have come my way in this life.

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  • Daniel Kassell on

    You’re still a trumpet player, you get a gig, show up, play the music — now your own creation — now let commerce discover both Harry’s; and Joe’s beautiful baritone buzz.

  • Mark Taylor on

    Great article, recording is a lot of work but a fun process!

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