Music Performed (Part 2)

In the previous entry in this blog, I recalled some of the most memorable live music performances I’ve attended.  Most of my early musical experiences, both with recordings and concerts, were with popular music—rock and folk along with music from some Broadway shows and movie soundtracks.  In the early 1970’s, I came to appreciate that musical genre known as jazz and a new musical frontier opened for me.

I found new joy and new musical heroes in the music of Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman.  Unfortunately for me, I never got to attend live performances by many of these.  On the other hand, as I got more deeply into this music, I found I was fortunate to be listening at a time when it was undergoing some profound changes.  The beauty created by the master improvisers of the genre in the early years of jazz, as they spontaneously created melodic solos and new harmonic explorations, was being taken in new directions.  The 1970s were a fruitful decade for jazz and the live music scene in New York City was a prime showcase for the music.

Ornette Coleman’s music had already taught me to hear beyond the “solo-over-the-changes” tradition.  In his music, there was no background of repeated structure over which the soloist took musical flight, no regular rhythmic pulse or pattern of chords.  Listening to Ornette’s records, I learned there were other means by which the players could move the music forward.

In 1971, I first heard the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, which took the idea of spontaneity to a large ensemble.  This was a recording of Michael Mantler’s pioneering efforts with a studio full of all-star players of the day, including Cecil Taylor and Larry Coryell.  But the impact of the concept really came home for me when the JCO held a series of weeklong open workshops at Columbia University in New York City.  During the course of the week, the leader/composer would show the orchestra members the work and in the ensuing evenings, go over the different parts of the piece with the players, until the final night when the orchestra performed it for the audience.  I was fortunate to attend during the week Don Cherry was teaching the orchestra his “Relativity Suite”.  I had been a Don Cherry fan since I first heard him on Ornette Coleman’s albums.  Being present as he brought forth “Relativity Suite” with a roster of top level players, is one of my fondest musical memories.

In contrast with the stupendous power of a full jazz orchestra, another special concert event I’ll always remember was a more intimate experience.  This was a duet performance at a church in New York’s Greenwich Village.  Sitting on a foam pad on the floor, I watched and listened as Karl Berger and Dave Holland, both only a few feet from where I was, created musical magic as the colors from their instruments filled the space.

This was the time of the loft scene in Manhattan’s SoHo district and among the more famous sites was Sam Rivers’ Studio RivBea.  I will never forget the night I attended the performance by drummer Sonny Murray.  It remains indelibly engraved in my heart and mind, not only because of the leading edge music performed that evening but also because I met the love of my life that night and it was the first musical event we attended together.

In the days that followed, we would frequent the Village Vanguard in the West Village, for many evening performances by Keith Jarrett and his bandmates Charlie Haden (whom I also knew from Ornette Coleman’s records) and Paul Motian.  Other memorable shows at the Vanguard were those by George Adams and his band, which included Charles Mingus alumni Don Pullen and Dannie Richmond.

It was 1972 when Miles Davis came out with “On the Corner” and when I heard there was going to be a concert at Carnegie Hall, I jumped at the opportunity to get tickets.  As he was always seeking new directions, the music Miles delivered that night wasn’t exactly like that from either of his justly famous quintets.  If there is a line between jazz and rock, the ensemble crossed it frequently.  I vividly remember the red, black, and green grill cloths on the wall of amplifiers behind the players.  And I recall all the instruments, including the congas, being played through wah-wah pedals.  Even if it was one of the best rock concerts I ever attended, I finally got to hear Miles live.

More than a decade later, I finally got to hear another jazz hero live.  Ornette Coleman had just released “Song X”, his collaboration with Pat Metheny.  I attended the performance at New York’s Town Hall where Ornette and Pat were joined by Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette and Denardo Coleman.  A few years later, I had the pleasure of attending another Ornette Coleman concert, this time at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

I love the fact that jazz happens everywhere, from Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall to clubs like the Vanguard in the city, to the streets themselves and well into the suburbs.  For many years, there was a small club north of New York City up in Westchester county, where the owner, Al Defemio, would sit in on drums with guest players ranging from amateur musicians to seasoned professionals.  Al’s handmade onion rolls were famous among the players and audience alike.  The players also loved that Al always made sure they were well fed.

On one occasion, I had the very good fortune to attend a Benny Golson performance at Defemio’s.  In the close quarters and relatively small audience that would fit in the club, it was as though Benny was playing for us alone.  We sat spellbound as we listened to him play “I Remember Clifford”.  In between sets when my wife and I went over to tell him how much we enjoyed his music, he invited us to sit down and join him.  We talked about musical composition and how he went about creating the pieces he played.  In combination with the music performed, who could ask for more?

Into the Majors

While keeping up with the recording studio scene in New York City, I heard there might be an opening at Atlantic Studios for a music editor.  In the two and a half years since I got my first job as a studio assistant, I had been involved with recording, overdubbing, mixing, editing and mastering.  The promotion to chief engineer brought with it a catalog of opportunities to experiment and learn, in which I immersed myself every day.  Now, Atlantic Studios beckoned!

I called the studio manager and much to my joy, an interview was scheduled.  We met, spoke and he offered me the position of music editor.  I accepted.  Atlantic Studios!  Atlantic Records!  First entry into studio A, the largest of the three studios on the premises, was a visit to hallowed musical ground.  So many records I’d grown up with, and others that were significant parts of the soundtrack of my life, were made in this room.  So many musical heroes created magic in this space.  Names sped through my mind:  Ray Charles, the Coasters, the Drifters, the Rascals, Aretha Franklin, Doctor John (the Night Tripper), John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young), Buffalo Springfield, Cream, the list goes on and on.  The roster also included a long list of artists who recorded elsewhere but whose work was released by Atlantic, among them, artists such as Led Zeppelin, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, AC/DC, Phil Collins, Robert Plant, the Rolling Stones – a dizzying array of musical delights for the new employee.

To friends, I summed up my primary responsibilities as music editor as being to make long songs shorter and short songs longer.  Despite the exception a few decades before, when radio stations played Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” single which clocked in at over six minutes, it was common practice to edit album length songs down to somewhere around three or at most, three and a half minutes in length in the hope that this made them more likely to get played on the radio.  When management at the record label decided that a certain album track would become a single, my job was to create a copy of the album master and cut the copy to a shorter duration.  (Since editing in those days was accomplished with a razor blade, and since the master mix used for the album was needed for the album, it was necessary to create a tape copy in order to create an alternate version of a song.)  On some occasions, the record producer would already have an idea of what parts of the song they wanted to remove in order to create the single but in most instances, I was left with this creative decision.  Of course, approval (or rejection) of the edit, was the producer’s call.  In a typical single edit, a verse might get removed.  If the song contained a long instrumental break, this was shortened.

The Procrustean task of the editor was a bit more complicated when a song needed to be lengthened.  Recall that these were the days of the “dance single”, versions of songs longer than those on the album, that had become popular in the dance clubs.  How to lengthen a five minute song to eight minutes or more?  Where radio singles involved removing verses or shortening instrumental breaks, dance singles would have verses (or choruses) repeated and instrumental breaks doubled (by repeating sections or using sections within the break to build a longer, more complex break).  All this, in those days, accomplished with a fresh razor blade, a grease pencil and an Edit-All bar (a metal block with a tape-width groove to secure the section of tape being edited, and angled slots through which to pass the cutting blade).  There was no “Undo” button.  There was no “Nudge” button to move an edit point.  Instead, the engineer manually “rocked” the tape back and forth past the playback head, a hand on each reel, listening to the slow-motion playback for the point at which they would make the edit.  When the engineer thought they had the point, they’d carefully mark the tape with the grease pencil, loosen the reels and place the section of tape in question into the Edit-All bar.  If an edit didn’t work, the tape had to be spliced back together and a new cut attempted.

For today’s users of DAWs (digital audio workstations), where one uses a computer mouse to select a musical passage and make a menu selection to alter said passage, imagine this:  On one occasion, we needed to “censor” one word the vocalist sang and the decision was to reverse it — make that one word occur backwards, while the rest of the music played normally. As our “workstation” of the day was nothing more than a razor blade and a stout heart, we needed to figure out where on the width of the 2” (~5 cm) wide multitrack tape the vocals were recorded.  Manually rocking the reels on the multitrack machine, we could find the start and end of the word in question.  Then, with a ruler, lines were drawn along the length of the tape to “outline” the location of the word.  Using that ruler, the razor and some determination, the word was cut from the tape and the excised section physically inverted, then re-taped in place.  And it worked!  What involved some time and a lot of sweat back then can be accomplished in a second today.

The editing room in those days was also a tape duplication room.  In addition to the reel-to-reel decks, there were racks of cassette decks.  Cassettes had replaced the 7” (~18 cm) reels of tape provided to producers as “refs” (reference copies) of a day’s work in the studio.  Cassettes were also made for the label’s promotion department, in order for the folks there to become familiar with each month’s album releases.  The reel-to-reel decks were also used to create sub-masters, which were formatted copies of albums, sent to tape duplication facilities for mass production of pre-recorded cassettes and (yes) 8-track cartridges.  Cassette sub-masters were pretty straight ahead copies of each album side.  The sub-masters used for 8-track cartridges got a unique treatment.  For those not old enough to remember the format, it was comprised of a continuous loop of tape inside a plastic cartridge.  As the program played the first stereo pair of tracks and reached the end of the loop, the playback device would switch to the next stereo pair of tracks for the next pass of the tape loop, then switch again to the third and four pairs of tracks each time the loop reached its end.  Having the four programs on adjacent pairs of tracks allowed for keeping the tape loop relatively short.  It also meant that sub-masters required an album be divided into four “programs”, each program destined for its own two tracks of the available eight.

Things got complicated when, for example, the first two or three songs on an album might total 10 minutes in duration and the next two or three songs might total 12 minutes and then next group of songs might total 8 minutes and the last group say, 9 minutes.  The goal was to build the four programs to be as equal in duration as possible.  Program 1 might have three songs, program 2 might have just 2 songs, etc.  The loop of tape put into an 8-track cartridge had to be long enough to accommodate the longest of the four programs.  In the example cited here, we’d need to have enough tape for the 12 minute program.  That means at the end of the 10 minute program, there would be a 2 minute wait until the player got to the end of the tape loop and advanced to the next program.  The wait between songs could be a long one and needless to say, completely discarded the spacing decided upon by the artist, producer and engineer when they assembled the album master.  From my own experience, I know that a difference of half a second in spacing between songs can change how an album feels when listened to from start to end.

Some record labels would opt to maintain the album sequence, equalize program lengths as best they could and the listener got to wait until the tape got to the end of the loop before the album proceeded.  Others would re-sequence the album — change the song order from that decided upon by the artist, producer and engineer — to arrive at the most equal program lengths possible for songs of the given durations.  (If a change in spacing between songs of half a second can change how an album feels, changing the order of songs can create what is essentially a different album.)  Still other labels would simply divide the total album duration by four and if a song was still in progress when the tape loop reached its end, it would continue when the playback device switched to the next program – often with several seconds of music simply missing. (!)  The technique at Atlantic was to maintain the sequence if possible, but rather than have songs interrupted when the tape loop reached its end, the songs would be faded for a gentler transition to silence.  Then, the tape would be backed up about 10 seconds and to start the next program, the song faded in from silence, picking up where it left off and continuing to its end.  The word in the studio was that one of the label’s major artists once said “Anyone that buys an 8-track deserves whatever they get”.  Its compromised sonics aside, it was for the obvious musical reasons that I was never a fan of the format.

Just a few short years later, the world of editing was going to be revolutionized. So was the world of recording, as new technology came to the fore, bringing with it new possibilities and new adventures.

Music: In Gratitude

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the vehicle by which Music first came to me.  It was a small, tan and reddish brown, all-in-one record player, which had one speaker, perhaps 3 inches in diameter, located between the light brown platter and the base of the tonearm. The “needle” assembly was the type that had a small extension going to the side, which could be used to flip the assembly over in order to expose a second needle. One side was used for LPs and singles, the other side for “78s”.

The records it played were a mix of some classics (I can distinctly recall the green label on a 78 rpm set of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”), several “33s” of original cast recordings, and a few pop albums (Elvis’ Gold Records stands out in memory) but mostly, the “45s” filled with the street corner harmonies of rhythm and blues based late ‘50s Doo Wop, as well as other R&B.  I can still see the pale blue and tan colors on the label of a single by Little Anthony and the black and red label on the single of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?”

As music took hold of my spirit, I became increasingly interested in both how music is made and later on, how recordings of music are made.  At age nine, I started piano lessons, then guitar lessons.  We didn’t have a piano at home but I did have a guitar. Guess which one stuck. (Many years later, once on my own, a piano did come but guitar had a good head start.)  I had a set of drums too but growing up in an apartment building set limits on when they could be played.  A few years later, some school friends and I started getting together to “jam” on Saturday afternoons.  I started recording our jams using my brother’s reel-to-reel tape recorder and found I could play drums, then add a guitar part.  It would be several years later that I would hear the terms “multitracking” and “overdubbing”.

If listening to music (of all types) was becoming an important nourishment for the deepest parts of me, the “minimum daily requirement” increased significantly the day I first heard the Beatles on the radio.  While other music seemed to have pre-existed, to have been there waiting for me to find it, the Beatles felt like the moment.  Their music brought a good many firsts to my experience.  I’d never before anticipated an artist’s next release – and each new Beatles release seemed to present a new musical world.  I’d never concentrated on the lyrics to this degree.  (Actually, for the first several listens to any song, I still hear sung lyrics as another instrument.  Only after I’ve digested the vocals as raw sound do I find myself hearing the meaning in the words.)  It is amazing to consider how much musical ground this ensemble covered in a very short amount of time.  There is probably much more I can say about the Beatles and the impact their music had (and has) on my life.  For now, I’ll just say they added value to it.  I know of nothing greater any work of art can accomplish.

Some years later, I was turned on to jazz and with it, radically expanded musical horizons.  Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and countless other artists simply opened up the way I heard music, providing musical landscapes I couldn’t have imagined before.  Charles Mingus could put so much passion in his compositions, the rhythms themselves might warrant an “R” rating.

Ultimately, music is the performance.  It is played and then it is gone.  While there is certainly nothing like being in the presence of the players when the music is created, the overwhelming majority of the music I’ve heard came to me through recordings.  How else could I have experienced the music from so many who had already passed by the time I heard them?  What magic!  No wonder I became fascinated with records from an early age.  Music of the ages, music for the ages, all available at the listener’s whim.  Those early experiences with the reel-to-reel recorder were just the first tentative steps.  I didn’t know it at the time but I was just getting started on a long, wonderful journey.