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!

Music Performed (Part 1)

There are different paths one can take when making a record and each offers its own unique rewards.  One path seeks to create something that cannot exist in real life, a work of sonic fiction valuable for the imaginary landscapes it embodies.  Another path seeks to capture, as closely as the latest technology allows, the sound of a real performance in a real space.  While I appreciate both types of recording, I am most interested in exploring the idea of records that sound like performances.  The reason is simple:  For me, the record is merely a vehicle that provides access to the music.  While I love records, for me, the greatest excitement in music is the performance event.  Capturing the performance event is my favorite way to make a record because listening to a performance is my favorite way to listen to music.

Jeff Buckley was spot on when he referred to music as a force of Nature.  Music has impacted so many parts of my life, I can’t imagine its absence.  Though most of the music I have come to love has come to me via recordings, for this entry of the Soundkeeper blog I’m thinking of those musical performances I attended that have left me with lifelong memories.  I wasn’t fortunate enough to attend concerts by the Beatles, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and many others too numerous to mention, and for these I will be ever grateful for the recorded legacies they left behind.  On the other hand, I have been lucky enough to be present at performances by many other musical heroes and these remain indelibly engraved in my being.

Several of the memories were created at the old Fillmore East on the lower east side in New York City.  My first visit occurred shortly after the release of John Mayall’s landmark album “The Turning Point” when I saw him play it live.  I also attended performances by B.B. King and Taj Mahal in this theater.  Sitting in the third row as Moby Grape rocked the room with “Omaha” and later, the band’s bassist Bob Mosley sang a solo a capella “Ode to the Man at the End of the Bar” brought home the energy of one of my favorite bands of the era.

In the Summer of 1971, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Square Garden was my first arena concert.  Musical hero after musical hero came upon the stage, thrilling me to live performances by so many folks I’d previously only heard via recordings.  From the opening set by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan (the latter one of my first world music heroes) to subsequent performances by George Harrison and Ringo Starr (right there, half of my all-time favorite band), Eric Clapton (one of my first guitar “teachers”, whose records I would play over and over again as I learned to play different parts), Leon Russell and Billy Preston, these were some of the most exhilarating performances I can remember.

When a Rolling Stones tour was announced, it seemed like getting tickets would be near impossible.  The promoters decided to hold a lottery whereby folks would send in postcards and the winners would be drawn at random, each winning postcard entitling the sender to purchase four tickets to the show.  I remember an evening of filling out postcard after postcard and dropping them in the mailbox.  As I was about to take a trip out of state, I’d asked good friends to try and secure a ticket for me, in case they got lucky with their entries.  When the drawing was complete, it turned out eight of the postcards I’d sent in were selected.  I got to go and so did 31 friends!  Our seats might have well been near the ceiling—not that there was any trouble hearing the sound system though—but hey, it was the Stones!  Live!

The best seats I ever had at the Garden were for Genesis on the “Duke” tour in 1980.  I’d just mastered the CD for this album and really enjoyed being present when the group performed the album at the show.

Fun though the arena shows are, my favorite live concerts have been the ones in smaller venues, where there is more real contact with the artist.  Perhaps my favorite of all was a triple bill at New York’s Beacon Theater.  The roster that night included Van Morrison, Linda Ronstadt, and Tim Buckley.  Van had just released “His Band and the Street Choir” and the band played many tracks from the album along with some favorites from the previous record, “Moondance”.  Though I was familiar with and admired Linda’s voice from her work with the Stone Poneys, she was still a relatively new discovery to me.  Tim Buckley had just released “Starsailor”, his follow-up to “Lorca”, both of which remain two of my favorite albums.  It was a treat to be present as his band performed songs from both albums and to hear Tim sing in person.  I particularly admired the musicianship in this band where both the vocals and instrumental lines would tend toward more oblique and quite original turns than are typical of most popular music.

More recently, I’ve had the good fortune to attend several performances by Richard Thompson at the Tarrytown Music Hall.  Over the course of a bit more than a year, I’ve also finally gotten to hear another of my favorite artists at this same hall:  I love all of their albums but being in the room when Los Lobos plays and sitting still are two things I am not able to do at the same time.

That visceral experience of being in the presence of music being performed is to me, life lived to its fullest.

Next time out, live jazz in New York City.