Kay Sa

Thelonious Monk came up several times when I was discussing a new Soundkeeper Recordings project with Markus Schwartz. It was in the autumn of 2017 that I first proposed doing a follow-up to Markus’ Equinox, which I produced and recorded back in 2010, and which was selected by Stereophile as their Recording of the Month in February of 2011. That October marked the centennial of Monk’s birth and there were celebrations and concerts to commemorate the occasion.

Markus had been thinking about Monk and wanted to incorporate some of his music in the new project. He was also considering a different constellation of players to comprise his band, Lakou Brooklyn, this time out. His frequent musical associate Monvelyno Alexis would remain an important part of the band, taking on lead vocal duties for this album, in addition to his role as guitarist, composer, and co-arranger. Instead of the trumpet and flugelhorn featured on Equinox, this project would feature soprano and alto saxophones played by Godwin Louis, who is a graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz Performance, and was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Saxophone Competition. For this session, Markus also brought a different contrabass player to the ensemble: Haitian music pioneer Bobby Raymond.

I wanted a spacious, lively, yet warm environment for the recording sessions and chose to return to the 19th century church I used for the previous Soundkeeper Recording, Winds of Change. Coordinating the busy schedules of all involved, Markus said we could record at the end of June. I reserved the space and on the appointed day, the band arrived early to set up and get the feel of the space. The plan was to run through the tunes, take an afternoon break, and then return to the church and play the tunes again as a second “set” as if at a gig.

This session marked my first serious use of the new Metric Halo 3d hardware and software. I set up the gear and ran a few sound checks with the players, letting them listen to the short recordings I captured as part of the sound check. When everyone was satisfied with what they heard, we were ready to go.

For those interested in such things, the equipment used for the Kay Sa recording session:

  • Microphones: Earthworks QTC-1 (aka QTC-40, matched pair, separated by a custom designed baffle)
  • Mic cables: Nordost Tyr 2
  • Interface: Metric Halo ULN-8 (serving as microphone preamps, analog-to-digital converters, digital-to-analog converters, and headphone amplifier)
  • Computer: Apple MacBook Pro
  • Software: Metric Halo Console X (including its Record Panel)
  • Power cables: Nordost Heimdall 2 (for ULN-8) and Nordost Purple Flare (for computer)
  • Power conditioner: Monster Cable HTS-400
  • Vibration isolation: Custom made base to support computer and interface

The material included a number of traditional Haitian tunes, some augmented by music and lyrics from Monvelyno. The band also played two tunes by Thelonious Monk: “Bye-Ya” and a Rara (Haitian processional music) version of “Epistrophy.” When Markus and I, listening to the playbacks in my studio, had trouble deciding which of the two takes of “Bye-Ya” to include in the album, it dawned on me that we could include both. We chose one for the body of the album and the other as a “bonus” track to add after a pause following the last main track.

Every session has its special moments and while this one holds many great memories for me, one in particular stands out because it provided a perfect illustration of the power of music. Early in the session, the band played “Minis Azaka,” a traditional Haitian song with original lyrics and music from Monvelyno. As the song proceeded, I found myself standing and swaying to the music. As Monvelyno sang the lyrics in Haitian Creole, a language I do not speak or understand, I stood there wiping tears from my eyes. When the take was over, I told the band that was the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever had the good fortune to record. I was still wiping my eyes when Markus informed me that the lyrics are powerful and sad. I didn’t see the translation until many weeks after the session, but in those moments as they played it, without my understanding the words, the music and the Monvelyno’s vocal performance spoke to me in a profound way. Jeff Buckley was spot on when he said music isn’t merely an art form, it is a force of nature.

The 3d-updated Metric Halo hardware and software came through brilliantly, allowing a new sense of inner dynamics to be captured in the recording, along with a sense of focus and of the air in the room that I’ve not heard before with other recording devices, analog or digital.

Stand by for a Kay Sa page on the Soundkeeper Recordings website, with more information about the album, including samples from all the tracks, lyrics, photos from the recording sessions, etc. The album will be released on May 1st. 

Brother Markus, thank you again. You, Monvelyno, Godwin, and Bobby have given music lovers another treasure trove of beautiful Haitian music to inspire the soul and warm the heart. Ayibobo!

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