Andrew Cyrille tonite. (Anytime tonight, he says. And a cool “what’s happenin’” to you.) 12:40AM
In 1974, percussion master Andrew Cyrille was living in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. I was living with my great friend, roommate, and patron Nick Moy (that’s Nick’s handwritten note to me above) on 113th Street in Morningside Heights in Manhattan. Contradictory to his sometimes stern demeanor, Andrew was one of the friendliest, warmest men you’d want to meet, as I found out as we became acquainted when I recorded his bandleader Cecil Taylor several times over the year.
A budding music producer and engineer, I somehow persuaded Andrew to allow me to take a shot at recording his debut LP, a series of duets with another avant-garde great, Milford Graves. Dialog of the Drums (you can hear it here) would be a percussion only record, a music combination I was eager to hear and even more eager to capture on tape.
The only problem was I had no access to appropriate studio space.
Once, I dragged the equipment over to Milford’s basement in Queens, where he day jobbed as a homeopathic pharmacist. Most absurdly, I suggested that Andrew record a piercing solo on an African drum in our 2nd floor apartment at 11 o’clock at night. I was naive, I guess Nick was too, but I really can’t understand how we didn’t get evicted.
My recordings were adequate, I think, but Andrew and Milford were unhappy with the performances. Ultimately, they released a live recording from Columbia University.*
A couple of years later I recruited Andrew for an early tour of the Carla Bley big band I was road managing. Soon after I head to a life in commercial radio and television and Andrew and I completely lost touch.
* I did the majority of Columbia’s WKCR recordings during this period, but even though I’m the credited engineer in a few discographies, I ultimately had nothing to do with the released album. I wish I did, it’s really good.
In late 1971 my new friend Tom Pomposello and I decided to start a record company to record his music, and so I could become an instant record producer (it was easier than convincing some big company to let me do it). He was 21, married with a small child, and owned a local hippie record store in Huntington, New York. I was 19, single, a college student in New York City. By the time it was over, five years later, we had six world class releases.
We both emerged from the pop and rock fans of the 69s, but had broadened. Tom loved the blues. I loved jazz, especially the avant garde variety. We both wanted to do more to promote artists we believed in.
It seemed like a smart move not to start with the unknown Tom’s record —especially since we hadn’t figured out exactly what it would be yet— but we had a viable, commercial tape we’d recorded of college concert star Mississippi Fred McDowell (with Tom on bass guitar) at the Village Gaslight in Greenwich Village. With the sales of this sure fire hit, we’d be on our way to the big time of indie labels [wink]. Our agreement was to make blues records for Tom and jazz records for me. We had a passion for underexposed American music and we were certain we’d be the two to bring unknown artists to prominence.
The only question that lingered was where we would get the outrageous sum of $1800 to press the first 2000 copies? Tom came to rescue by bringing in our third partner Richard (Dick) Pennington, a friend of his from, uh, somewhere (I never actually found out). Dick stepped right up with enthusiasm and verve and stayed until our fourth album when he and Tom fell explosively out over something neither of them ever revealed.
Tagged: Oblivion Records, blues, jazz, producingrecords,.
Tom chose the name “Oblivion” off of the back of a Leo Kottke LP and we released Obivion OD-1 —’Mississippi Fred McDowell: Live in New York'— in 1972; altogether we put out six records in five years (it still feels like 100 records in 1000 years) before we flamed out with musical dignity intact. Tom’s album was our last, so we had fulfilled our mission.
You can listen to the complete Oblivion Records library (and bonus tracks) here and get more of the stories behind the records here.
My Oblivion Records partner Tom Pomposello and I were incredibly proud of our discography of releases. We were two young guys in the thrall of the world’s music explosion everywhere around us and we wanted to be part of it. (Just click on the covers and you’ll be able to play the complete collection.)
Not only our first record, but our most celebrated and successful. Fred McDowell had become a country blues world touring sensation in the late 60s and early 70s, and Tom, budding suburban bluesman, became his pupil and bassist. This was Fred’s last recording before his untimely passing.
Our only single came during Tom’s last trip to Mississippi when he asked Fred McDowell to locate harpist Johnny Woods, Fred’s sometimes duet partner. They found Mr. Woods at his farmhand living quarters, and in true field recording style, Tom took out his trusty Panasonic cassette machine, gave Johnny one of his Hohner harmonicas, and recorded two songs. Then he whipped out his Kodak Instamatic, posed Johnny in front of Fred’s Pontiac. Now we had enough for a record.
When Marc Cohen (now Copeland) first showed up at my college radio station he played an awesome mainstream alto saxophone. So he shocked me the day he came in with a trio wired up and echoplexed I felt like I’d seen a future first defined by the Tony Williams Lifetime. We made a deal and he brought back a quartet, and before it was branded we called his music ‘electronic jazz.’ No jazz-rock here, just plugged in supercharged jazz.
Tom really wanted to discover a bluesman. Which was really hard to do in New York City. So a talented blues hustler called Charles Walker kept turning up musicians and songs and we kept recording them, for more than a year. Our smallest selling album, with one of my favorite tracks.
Never paying much attention to mainstream jazz singers, I initially paid no attention to the hubbub surrounding a session I missed one summer in 1972 at WKCR. But then I heard the tape. Joe Lee Wilson was great.
The record caused a sensation and became a turntable hit at the biggest New York jazz station, but we were too inexperienced and broke to work it properly. A great record faded again into oblivion.
Tom Pomposello, my great friend and the artist that inspired our record company. And our final release. Recorded in bits and pieces over four years in dozens of locations, with Tom’s truth telling slogan •file under: Suburban Blues.0 comments Tagged: LP cover, Oblivion Records, blues, jazz, music, record label, recording, records, producingrecords,.
When I started out recording in the late 60s, my goal was to make hip and popular music. You know, like The Beatles. Since things rarely turn out the way one hopes, I spent most of my recording experience in jazz, particular avant-garde jazz. While it’s music that reminds many of heavy traffic mixed with fingernails on a blackboard, for me it provided a thrilling window on expansive thinking. These were experiences that made sure I’d work hard to never be complacent. There’s no trade I’d rather have for those times.
Almost 40 years after the fact, it’s hard for me to imagine I was lucky enough to work with one of the great, world class talents like pianist/composer Cecil Taylor, who, along with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, was a leading figure in the resetting of jazz expectations for over 50 years. Especially considering that I was 22 years old. But often, cutting edge artists on the fringes of mainstream culture like Taylor don’t always command the attention of the leading recording institutions, and it’s the young, passionate fans (like I was) that can fill the breach.
Cecil’s (temporary) manager enlisted me to record and “produce” only since I could access some premium tape decks and microphones, and because I’d work tirelessly for his music. We recorded the "Return Concert" in November 1973 at The Town Hall in New York, and later in the winter traveled to Washington D.C. and crashed in a friend’s place to record a show at the Smithsonian. I spent months pouring over the tapes prepping them for release on Cecil’s own label, Unit Core Records (only the Town Hall show was released, as Spring of Two Blue J’s).
I still have to pinch myself about my brief association with an artist like Cecil Taylor at one of the great peaks of his career.
You can listen to the entire album here (and bonus tracks here), and there are some of the stories of the recording too. Cecil’s not an easy listen, but if you’re up for it there are a lot of rewards.0 comments Tagged: producingrecords, jazz, composer, 1973,.
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Photograph of Michael Mantler by Tod Papageorge, 1968
Another in my ongoing series of horrified-to-be-identified-as-my-“mentors:”
Mike was first hand proof that talent, planning, vision, drive, hard work, and sheer force of will could combine to accomplish dreams beyond anyone’s expectations. He didn’t have any particular interest, I think, in showing me much of anything really, but he was an incredible role model, trying to keep his family’s heads above water, struggling against all odds to be viable fringe artists in a highly commercial world. It was a time in my life that would never be repeated, and one that made a huge difference to me.
Mike would probably recoil at the whole idea of mentorship —by now, we’re probably more like friends or something— but I don’t know what else to call it. He was already a young legend in avant-garde jazz when, as a naive 18 year old, I crashed my first professional recording session he was producing, his then wife Carla Bley's “Escalator Over the Hill,” He patiently figured I was a friend of one of the superstar orchestra’s if he even noticed my presence. I went on to play their records on college radio, and then he and Carla trusted me right out of school to work at their innovative artist record distribution service (itself an outgrowth of their incredible, idealistic collective, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, JCOA). I wasn’t too impressed with the job I did, but a few years later Mike asked me to be the sound man and assistant roadie on Carla’s first big band tours. It was an unforgetable experience not only for the music, but for the pride with which Mike managed the unruly, artistic bunch they’d gathered. I repayed them after a year by ducking out days before our first European tour (a real loss on my part), but it didn’t stop us from staying friendly for the 30 years since.
Thanks Mike, you made a real difference in my struggle to become a professional adult.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about Mike without mentioning some of his stunning work. His music isn’t for everyone (on his website he quotes one reviewer saying “’Silence' is possibly the least listenable record I have ever heard”) and requires a dedicated listener, but the rewards are great. Aside from his playing and composing, Mike was no slouch as a producer either. He always knew to not only get the very best musicians, but that it didn't hurt if they had name value for sales (check out Robert Wyatt, Jack Bruce, Don Cherry, Jack DeJohnette, Pharoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor, and Don Preston, among many others). Here's a few worth checking out:
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Jazz recording entrepreneur Joe Fields
I’ve been posting quite a few of the records I produced or engineered at the beginning of my career, and lately in particular, the Muse records. Which has gotten me thinking about the incredibly important role Muse founder Joe Fields didn’t mean to play in my work life.
Somehow or other I ended up in Joe’s office (above the West 71st Street Bagel Nosh) in 1976 asking for a gig “producing” records (like I even knew what that was). Joe, in his always enthusiastic way, happily gave me an immediate assignment (I think it was the first Linc Chamberland LP), and for the next three or four years I was a willing student in his unintended record business class.
(For those who won’t read the Wikipedia entry, Joe started Muse in the early-70s after a long stint at Buddah Records where he started an in-house jazz label Cobblestone. It was a label of jazz “blowing” sessions, meaning it was primarily mainstream jazz artists who’d come in the studio and in two union sessions –six hours– record enough material for a complete album. Muse Records was among the last of its breed, in a day where the most revered mainstreamers had gone corporate. The result was an unparalleled 20+ year archive of jazz in America from 1972-1995. And Joe continues to add to the legacy with HighNote Records.)
I won’t bore you with all the things I got out of those “lessons,” but suffice it to say that Joe had forgotten more than I would ever know. How to pick an artist? How to promote? What to ignore? How to negotiate? What’s important, what’s not? When’s a good time to take a chance? Who was Juggy Murray? What was ‘producing’ anyhow?
A few of my Muse Records productions
Joe introduced me to the real world. Without him I never would’ve gotten to work with 24 track recording, or get to meet the legendary Rudy Van Gelder. To say nothing of the artists like Hank Jones, Willis Jackson, Jaki Byard, or the others. And, he didn’t mean to change my musical tastes —I’m sure it was of no consequence to him whatsoever— but I walked in dedicated avant gardist and walked out a lifelong soul jazz devotee. (Soul jazz didn’t only sell better and longer, but was a lot more fun.)
There was a lot of history in Joe that I just soaked up and it was always fun dropping by the office just to listen to him on the telephone, working it with an artist, a studio, or maybe a distributor or radio station. Things that were second nature to him were golden to my uneducated ears, and I just couldn’t get enough. My only complaint is that I wanted more. More projects, more time, and more money. Mainly more projects, because they were just so much fun. But, I was going broke on the $250 a record he was paying me, though I now know if he paid me anything more he would’ve gone out of business. Lesson #1, being a survivor in the independent record business is never easy, and probably requires you to disappoint almost everyone wanting a better payday.
It was at a disastrous Muse session in Brooklyn that I called my friend, Muse liner note writer, and future partner Alan Goodman to come and help me figure out whether to stop trying to make a living at record producing and try my hand in the then revolution of cable television. You know who won.
Working with Muse Records was a once in a lifetime, unforgetable experience. Not all the records I worked on for Joe were wonderful. And some were beyond fantastic, truly world class. But, no matter the project, it was a rare privilege Joe Fields allowed me.
Joe was, and continues to be, a generous man. Thanks guy, I couldn’t be a producer without you.0 comments Tagged: mentors, producingrecords, Muse Records, jazz,.
Doesn’t his name say it all?
Willis Jackson single handedly pulled me away from the avant garde and towards the soulful, bluesy expression of jazz that was popular in the African-American neighborhoods of mid-century America. He didn’t try to, he didn’t mean to, he didn’t want to, it was just that he was so damn good.
In 1977, less a producer than a ‘recording supervisor’ (my credit on Single Action) I arrived at our first session together (In The Alley), and my first session for Muse Records, with virtually no information on what we were recording or who was playing. Willis was tough and a little paranoid and had no idea what to make of the skinny suburban white guy from the record company. He didn’t want to talk to me unless he had too and so I barely knew what was happening minute to minute during the six hour session. Until that day I’d never heard any of his music (it wasn’t cool enough within the jazzbo circles I traveled in) and when I looked into the studio I thought I’d been time warped into the 1950s: five African Americans 20 years older than me in conked processes and starched white shirts and ties. They hit the first tune and Willis looked up at me and asked if they had enough to fill the record, knowing full well he didn’t; he started packing his horn up to psyche me out. By the end of five tunes I told him we were eight minutes short; he revved up a blues and kept it going until I faded it to make the length.
By the end of the six hour session I’d stopped making fun (in my head) of the tenor saxophone/organ based soul jazz, and realized why it spoke to so many millions of people. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise but a human one. They were playing songs that people knew and loved, with a feeling that anyone could understand. I was late to the party, but it wouldn’t be over for me even 30 years later.
(You can hear the entire albums by clicking here.)0 comments Tagged: producingrecords, soul jazz, jazz, Muse Records, 1977, 1978,.
T-shirt sketches & designs by Frank Olinsky, 1978
I got a call in 1977 from trumpeter, composer, Carla Bley major domo Mike Mantler, asking whether I’d be interested in going on the road for the first tour of The Carla Bley Band as sound man and back-up tour manager. Mike single handedly ran the whole shebang, but one man could only do so much. Since he’d be playing in the band, someone needed to do the rest during the shows. I’d known Carla and Mike for much of the decade and we’d already worked well together at their non-profit New Music Distribution Service. Carla was an clearly an extraordinary composer (her “Ida Lupino" continues to be a favorite of mine in almost every interpretation), an irrepressible personality, and probably a great bandleader. Besides, they were offering me the most money I’d ever made.
I’d always wanted a road gig, but the closest I’d ever gotten was turning down the Blue Öyster Cult (mine was never really a rock’n’roll personality), so I had a hoot. Over a few tours I got to work daily with a motely crew of misfit genius musicians as great and diverse as Roswell Rudd, Terry Adams, Don Preston, Philip Wilson, Andrew Cyrille, George Lewis, and Gary Windo. (Emblematic was the hiring of pianist/composer “Blue” Gene Tyranny who Carla brought on without hearing a note, she just loved his name.) Never too crazy, never too normal, it was an unbeatable experience to tour North America before I quick-turned into media full time.
Prepping for our first European Tour I commissioned a tour T-shirt from my school friend, designer Frank Olinsky (future co-designer of the MTV logo for me). As they were coming off the press and we were heading up to Woodstock for rehearsal, my freelance radio boss Dale Pon called and demanded I move with him to Los Angeles to re-launch an FM radio station in Los Angeles. Over a three hour period he cajoled and screamed and persuaded me to change the rest of my life. I hated to miss the shows, and Mike and Carla were none too happy with me, but the future beckoned.
(T-shirt sketches & designs by Frank Olinsky, 19780 comments Tagged: Carla Bley, Dale Pon, Michael Mantler, WHN, tour, watt, producingrecords,.
When I thought I might make a living as a record producer I kept obsessive track of my sessions, hoping they’d add up to a career. When I morphed into a television producer, I forgot just about everything. I’ve tried to recreate my record life here, but I’ll update it as I remember more. (Just click the linkable titles, and you’ll be able to play the entire records.)
Mississippi Fred McDowell
Live in New York
Gunter Hampel and his Galaxy Dream Band
Marc Cohen, John Abercrombie, Clint Houston, Jeff Williams
Tagged: 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, producingrecords,.
In The Alley
Eric Kloss & Barry Miles
Production Supervisor/Assistant Producer
The Gator Horn
Joe Chambers (& Larry Young)
Willis Jackson & Pat Martino
Walter Bishop, Jr.
David S. Ware
Birth Of A Being
hat HUT Records
Sweet Double Hipness
The real start of a work life in media (my original plan had been to be a chemist) was falling in love when The Beatles hit America in February 1964.
Like almost everyone else (at least in Huntington, Long Island, our home town) I taught myself guitar and started a band with my best friend, singer extraordinaire (and percussionist) Rodney Johnson, and second guitarist Phil Courtemanche. By the 10th grade I’d switch to organ (an instrument I could actually play) and Rodney and I had joined forces with Phil Alexander on vocals and guitar, Ray Frisby on drums and vocals, and Brian North on bass. We were your basic cover band playing soul and pop hits of the day.
Rodney named the group (he named our first trio The Evil Lords; he had a knack, you know?) The Neglekted Few. Notice the “K” (like the Byrds, you know?). Since he was the lead singer, top billing seemed natural for a minute; it didn’t take.
I loved every aspect of being in a band. The freedom, the fun, the music. Mostly the company of like minded friends who taught me more than almost anyone since. I liked booking gigs, and figuring out the best equipment to use that we could afford. Most of all I liked putting together the sound. Producing recordings became my next logical step.
The Neglekted Few, Huntington High School, 1968:
Phil Alexander: guitar & vocals, Fred Seibert: organ, Rodney Johnson: vocals & tambourine, Brian North: bass, Ray Frisby: drums & vocals