Thursday, January 29, 2015

Producer's Notes: Building The Groovalottos Album Pt 4

Bob Yen engineering as Redbone thumps the groove
Albums always take me a long time to produce. That is to say, I take my time producing them. I'm big on letting tracks season before I go back and adjust or overdub. Once I had the basic tracks on a CD, the CD lives in my car and I'll listen to it throughout the production process. First, I like to get a great take and build from there. As the production evolves the sound and feel might shift slightly, but the basic tracks are always the foundation.

Eddie Ray's drum tracks are about as funky as you can get. After redoing my keyboards from the original scratch track, it was time to bring in Redbone and do the bass lines. Redbone and Eddie Ray have been playing together for years, having been in the legendary band, West Side Soul together in the 1990's, they are a bass an drum unit. Listening to the basic tracks and then listening to other records with great, funky bass and drums I began to get ideas that would lift our sound into a new paradigm rhythmically.

My sensibilities had been colored with the work of great jazz musicians playing on soul and funk records as well as the 1990's era of hip-hop where producers like Pete Rock, Ali Shahid Muhammad, DJ Mark the 45 King, and DJ Premiere created some remarkable sounds from their sampling and looping work, juxtaposing swing beats against straight time beats. Ironically, virtuoso jazz players and untrained DJs turned producers have similar ears and concepts that escape conventional concepts of how music should be performed.

Producers notes on playback. As usual, Redbone nailed it.
Listening, for example, to the bass and drum work of James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin of the Funk Brothers/ Motown studio band of the 1960's. On several records, like "Hitch-Hike" "This Old Heart of Mine" and "Baby I Need Your Loving", you can hear the bass and drums are rocking two different time signatures against each other; giving the songs their edge. In the movie "Get On Up" we see a depiction of James Brown brow beating his musicians when they question his mixing of time signatures on the song "Cold Sweat". In this scene, we see Brown encouraging his musicians to the ink of their instruments as drums, similar to the philosophy that Eddie Ray brings to The Groovalottos, grooving is a counting game.

Redbone is a natural born talent and genius of the bass; being self taught on the instrument and growing up singing doo-wop on the street corner as a kid. From the first time that he came to a band rehearsal, it was clear that he understood and felt the groove and could make us feel it too. You see, a soul-funk record is about feeling, and the ability to convey that feeling to the listener. I would put him up against most conservatory trained jazz or rock bass players any day, as he comes with the kind of soul in his playing that they aspire towards. As a band, one thing that we often do in rehearsal and at gigs is play around with time signatures on tunes. One night, while playing a tune in 4/4, Eddie Ray decided to go into 6/8 while I went into 2/4 and Redbone stayed in 4/4. It's a math problem along the lines of solving equations and looking for the common denominator.

With the use of technology and 'industry standards' the differential between a band's live show and their record has grown wider and wider. The standard for recording is that the music is turned into a matrix of time corrected loops sewn together. Steely Dan used to do a version of this pre-looping. For the studio version of the album, they'd record in California, with California studio musicians who are in the pocket and predictable. For the tour, they'd put together a band of east coast guys who are wild and unpredictable. James Brown had bands that could do both. The same can be said for Sly and the Family Stone.

Also taking a page from Motown's studio band, they were all active jazz players who would record in the studio all day and play out at the clubs at night. The jazz clubs provided them with an opportunity to experiment with grooves, feels, and chord voicing. Elements of these experiments would often find their way into the arrangements of the songs they'd record the next day. In gathering footage for our documentary, "The Song Keepers" we ended up collecting hours of footage of our live performances and audience reactions. Pin-pointing elements that made particular performances stand out and translating them to the studio was how we created our basic tracks.

For any organic player, the studio can be a very restrictive environment. Most of my work as a producer has been trying to find ways to be organic in the studio, even when dealing with the electronica approaches of my last couple of albums. The production challenge here was getting Redbone to play like Redbone at a gig who can play in, out, next to, under, over, in front and behind the pocket naturally. Today, he was making the mistake of trying to lock himself to Eddie's kick drum. What I needed him to do was respond to it.

Since we were recording the bass DI, Redbone was able to sit in the control booth and record to the playback on the monitors instead of through headphones. I was able to sit behind him and be the annoying voice in his ear, coaching him through the bass parts. The end result: 12 of the best bass track recordings that I've heard in quite some time. "Ask Yo' Mama" is on it's way to being an instant classic album.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Gilda's Stone Rooster is the Place To Be on the Second Saturday of Each Month

Second Saturdays has moved from The Weary Traveler in Bourne to Gilda's Stone Rooster in Marion, a wonderful venue with a homey feel. One of the few venues on the Southcoast that specializes in live jazz and mature r&b/ soul.

The premiere of The Groovalottos brought a packed house and a buzz throughout Marion and Wareham that Gilda's Stone Rooster is the place to be on the 2nd Saturday of each month.


December 13 
January 10
February 21
March 14
April 11
May 9
June 13

Monday, August 11, 2014

Producers Notes: Building The Groovalottos Album Pt. 3

Whether it's the sweet soul sound of the Delphonics, the southern funk of the Dramatics or the expansive soul of Curtis Mayfield; like any great stew or soup, the quality and success lies within the basis. In the case of soul, funk and blues, it dwells within the rhythm section. Thom Bell's string and horn arrangements on "Ready or Not" are powerful, but would not be as powerful if it were not for the rich groove sustained by the drums and bass below the haunting melody and atmospheric harmonies.

In the tradition of Black American, small combo music the structure is traditionally, drums, bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, whereby a competent pianist/ keyboardist can fill in for one or both of the guitar parts. Traditionally, the left hand locals the groove and the right hand colors with lead lines. As a left-handed pianist, I occasionally flip this tradition, playing leads with my left hand and comping the groove with my right.

Going back over the album tracks, Eddie Ray did some amazing drum work, along with the amazingly inventive and inspired bass work of Red Bone. On the original sessions, my keyboard parts were meant to be scratch tracks to be later replaced, but a few of them were keepers as rhythm parts and a few leads lines. As we build the textures and colors of the album, I once again return to my inspiration vaults to flesh out the arrangement. The weekly gigs during the summer at Torino's Restaurant in Hyannis, have given us a wonderful opportunity to experiment with the sounds on the songs as background music for the customers.

An album from my record mother's collection, that I wore out as a kid was "SOUL" by Billy Preston, particularly his renditions of "Shotgun" and "Drowning In My Tears".  I couldn't help but notice from the line notes that Preston played both the piano and organ on the tracks on this album, laying out the rhythm parts with the piano and leads with the organ. As a young one, I was completely unfamiliar with the concept of multi-track recording, and envisioned Mr. Preston playing the piano with one hand and the organ with the other, seriously trying to figure out how he did it all with only two hands. Later on I learned about overdubbing.

As I mentioned before, Preston, Jimmy Smith, Horace Silver, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and
Ray Charles were among my old-school influences as soul and blues pianists and organists.  Of the latter day musicians and producers, I have to give respect to Kashif, Bernard Wright, Pieces of A Dream, and Teddy Riley in particular who were masters of the respective "Mid-Tempo Groove" and "New Jack Swing"styles that were keyboard/ synth dominated, yet maintained the integrity of the small combo tradition.

I created a listening list of great rhythm guitarists as well, as a means of inspiring color and textures for the album's arrangement. These guitarists included:

Jimmy Nolan
Curtis Mayfield
Jimmy Hendrix (especially his work with Buddy Myles)
Eddie Willis
Catfish Collins
Chuck Berry
Freddie Green
Les Paul
Nile Rodgers
Alex Weir
Tony Maiden

For the last two sessions, the focus was to create and record rhythm tracks for the songs that would compliment the incredible bass and drum work of my brothers, locking the groove together and allow for endless possibilities of framing and coloring by lead keys, as well as backing and lead vocal parts.  From my listening list I was able to ascertain that by habit of rich, complex harmony voicing would be over-kill on a solid rhythm track, resolving instead to use a lot of 2 and 3-note chords.

As with any old recipe, there are no exact measurements, only approximations. While there are always going to be certain key ingredients that you'll need to make the dish you want. The quality of the ingredients, knowledge of the chef, monitoring of the cooking process, and ability to make proper adjustments during the process will usually yield the flavor experience you're looking for.

On we funk...

By the way, we're playing the Hard Rock Cafe in Boston on August 14th...

To Be Continued...

Friday, August 1, 2014

Producers Notes: Building The Groovalottos Album Pt. 2

When listing my producers, I failed to mention one influence who had nothing to do with funk or soul, but was amazingly inventive. George Martin who produced the Beatles albums also came with some serious skills and techniques. His actual background was classical music, which translated well to the expansive work he did with the 'Fab Four' on their Sgt Pepper album. Another producer to pay close attention to is Marcus Miller, owner of some of the best ears in the industry. Having Miles Davis, Luther Vandross, E.U. (Da Butt), The Jamaica Boyz, and Chaka Khan among his credits would make him one of the most diverse producers in the business. Another favorite producer/ band director is Joe Sample and his work with The Crusaders as well as Randy Crawford. However, while his classic version of "Street Life" is a great record, it's his recent versions of the song with just Ms Crawford and a trio that bore some true influence on this project.

"Multiplication Rock" and subsequently DeLa Soul had it right: three is a magic number. The power trio has been and remains a mystical element in the music business. The Nat Cole Trio, Buddy Holly and The Crickets, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and the subsequent (and musically superior) Band of Gypsies, Pieces of a Dream, Genesis, The Jamaica Boyz, The Police... the musical mystery of a band comprised of three people that sound like twelve people, even when they perform live. However, the advent of multi-track recording led to the phenomenon of the record
and the live show becoming two different entities. For example, the handclaps and tambourines that enhance the "live" version of The Ramsey Lewis Trios' "In Crowd" the same way that the six voice female chorus fleshes out the harmonic elements of Jimi Hendrixs' "Hey Joe". In other words, taking a trio in the studio, recording them, mixing it and calling it a record in this day and age sells the potential of the recording short.

Listening to an album used to be and should be an experience. It's the producers job to make it such. Whether it's John Coltrane's "OM" or Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" from the first note of the first song, to the fade on the final tracks end should be a journey along the lines of an epic poem or novel. The challenge of any producer working with a trio is the maintain the integrity of the band's magic, while expanding on their sound. The other challenge is that this ability is not a precise science.

With The Groovalottos, we ended up with these amazing basic tracks, without a drum machine or sampler in the house. The main idea was to get a good take on the drums, knowing that there will be a few fixes on the bass, and the initial keyboard and lead vocal tracks being purely reference or "scratch" tracks. The great thing with this band is that we have been playing together, live for so long that the tracks were pretty tight and very funky. However, what a band does live often has to be simplified for the recording process. What makes the song great in a live setting comes across as way to busy, or in the words of the movie "Amadeus," 'too many notes...'. At the same time, certain
elements that are crisp and pop live, often need to be enhanced in the studio.

Off and on, I've been listening to the raw tracks in my truck's stereo (my preferred listening room) for the past couple of weeks and taking notes: spots where the drums need to be fixed; spots where the bass needs to be tightened; keyboard sounds and styles that will better fit the mood and groove of the song; percussion parts; backing vocal arrangements... all of the elements that the average listener is unaware of that Quincy Jones refers to as "ear candy."

When Jones shared his process during the production of a project, he noted that he will obtain what ever the top ten albums are of that year and analyze them for what them hit albums; infusing this analysis into his own work. Of course the context of this conversation was in relation to his work on Michael Jackson's hit albums "Off The Wall" and "Thriller" as well as his own "Back On The Block", all of which were recorded before 1990. It's safe to say that the top ten pop and r&b albums of those days were by top musicians and producers. Today's top ten albums are done on computers for the most part. Other than mix down and post-production/ mastering, there is very little in the contemporary top ten that could have any kind of meaningful impact or influence on this album.

As I learned in the early part of the 2000, even albums by bands use a lot of sampling, looping, cutting and pasting. The musicians play their parts and the producer goes back, finds the 8 bars that they want for the verse, then the 8 bars for the chorus; cuts and pastes them and viola! A backing track. Even one of my favorite band producers of these times, Quest Love of The Roots uses this technique. Even Prince, back in the days of The Revolution, handed his drummer, Bobby Z a drum machine to work with.

My last three albums were primarily MIDI productions with a few live elements added as enhancements. For the most part, I manipulated MIDI to sound as much like a real band as possible, leading to a side career as a re-mix artist, with electronica producers from around the world sending me tracks to give the 'mwalimadelic' touch. The basis of these productions is a click track, basic keyboard part, and minimal quantizing, as well as 16 and 24 bar loops. As a musician, there is a certain indescribable charge and pleasure that comes from playing with other musicians at the same time that MIDI just can't touch.

Most labels won't admit to it, but there is such a thing as a "producers kit" consisting of kick, snare and percussion patches that the producer cuts in over the real drummers part so that the sound is consistent with the 'industry standard'. Very few drummers of today's music world have actually heard their own drums on their band's record when the producers get through 'fixing' them.

Two things happened to the music industry that have basically killed the industry: labels stopped hiring music people as A&R and instead started hiring MBAs and technology created an artificial sense of perfection. A first glimpse at this, as well as the beginning of the end of my innocence as a musician came as a young studio musician. I had the opportunity to do a session with a legendary artist (who I will not name). He made a record many years earlier that I literally wore out, and I learned to play a keyboard passage from the album that was very complex. At a break in the session, I played it for him on the piano. He watched and was blown away, admitting that his version was recorded in two pats that had been over-dubbed, and it took him a number of passes to get it. "Too bad I didn't know you back then, we could have gotten it out in one shot." He chuckled.

It was the influence of Billy Preston that led to my habit of assigning keyboards like guitars, with one as the rhythm, one as the color, and the other as the lead. I also like using horn arrangements for my backing vocal parts, along the lines of The Turtles on "Happy Together" or Joe Cubas recording of "Be With You". On the next trip into the studio, I'll be laying down the rhythm keyboard parts, locking in with the drummer. After that, we'll do the bass line fixes with Red Bone, followed by percussion tracks.

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Producers Notes: Building The Groovalottos Album Pt. 1

The Groovalottos keyboard player and producer, Mwalim DaPhunkee Professor, began his habit of keeping a journal while working on a project many years ago when he produced his first demo back in the mid 1980's. Usually, these notes are simply a tool used to keep the project on course, but for this album, he decided to share his notes as they come. Welcome to part One:

This is going to be a premiere album by a band of seasoned players, so the album needs to be a statement... a calling-card of sorts. After many months of gigging and rehearsing, The Groovalottos were ready to start recording their album. After giving a listen to the original track laid down by the original line-up back in 2011, as well as the efforts of Eddie Ray and I to fix those tracks, I came to realize that we are so far beyond where we were in 2011, musically and philosophically, that the consensus (the way we decide things in the band family) was to scrap the original tracks and start from the ground up.

The thing to understand, both James "The Big Bad" Wolf and Nick "Papa Smurf" Wolf are both phenomenal live musicians in the genres of blues and progressive rock. Even in the early days of the band, when we decided that the direction of the band would be 'soul-funk' the deceptive simplicity of funk and soul created a certain learning curve. Billie and I would fall into singing or jamming on a classic funk or soul tune that would leave the Wolfs looking at us inquisitively and resulted in us giving them a listening list. Nick is a wonderful student and voraciously consumed our listening list, evolving into one of the most formidable young 'soul-funk' bass players in the scene. However, with the addition of Red Bone, the band is a much more cohesive unit of seasoned funk, soul, blues and jazz players.

Another factor in the decision is the fact that the original recording was by a live band, playing what they do on stage in the studio. With the advent of multi-track recording what happens live does not always translate well to the studio. As a studio musician, the notion of having to re-record a part because it fell of beat, out of key or needs to be simplified comes with the territory, but for the less experienced it can cause hurt feelings. The standards of the industry right now are such that re4cordings have to be perfect or as close to perfect as possible. Even rock records consist of a lot of sampling and looping and electronic over-dubs of drum part with the sounds coming from industry 'producer packs'. I've produced plenty of projects that follow that formula, including a couple of my own albums, but The Groovalottos album needs to be special... it needs to be real music played by real people, incorporating some of the production elements from the contemporary industry.

Steele Dan, a band that really consisted of two people, had an interesting way to deal with this issue. When it came time to record the album, they would do it in California where they had access to tons of studio players, who were very steady, predictable, and safe. Then, when it came time to go on the road, they'd recruit a bunch of folks from New York and Boston who were unpredictable, busy-styled and musical risk takers; thus adding excitement to their life show. The JBs, the late, great James Brown's back-up band also understood this, playing the tune more conservatively in the studio and stepping it up when they were on the road. Likewise, Motown would have one arrangement for the studio and another for the live show. (In the case of Stevie Wonder's first record, "Finger Tips" they released the live recording because they were not able to capture all of that energy in the studio)The Groovalottos is a band in this tradition.

One of the very cool things about the current state of the music industry is that the industry has less and less control over the music that is being produced and marketed, which is creating opportunities for bands to reach their audiences on a global level without having to sound like what's currently 'in'. Unfortunately, especially in much 'urban' music being produced the slave mentality thrives as indie producers scramble to sound like the industry; not unlike the former slaves who refused to leave their plantations after emancipation.

Years ago, I'd gotten some wonderful advice from Quincy Jones about producing. He suggested that once you know the kind of sound your looking for, grab up a few albums produced in that style and listen to them over and over before going into the studio; a practice that I gratefully incorporated into my own process. When producing "The Liberation Sessions" I obtained copies of old air-checks from WBLS in New York, trying to make the CD sound as much like an urban radio broadcast as possible. When producing the classic house influenced "DEEP Soul Chants & Hollers" I got on a steady diet of classic records spun at the Paradise Garage in NYC and the Warehouse in Chicago during the late 1970's to early 1980's.

To produce an album like the one that I have in mind for The Groovalottos, required me to listen to a combination of soul, funk and jazz records produced during the 1970's and '80's that did not use a drum machine; hip-hop albums produced in the late 1980's to the early 2000's that used samples and updated productions of the classics of the 1960's and 70's. I started my homework in March of 2014.

My Producer Listening List:

Curtis Mayfield
Thomas Bell
James Brown
Charles Stepney
Sly Stone
Isaac Hayes
Gary Katz
Wilton Felder
Stix Hopper
George Clinton
Boz Scaggs
Jim Healy
Joe Wissert
Rod Temperton
Chucky Thompson
Pete Rock
DJ Premiere
DJ Muggz

After and during my listening sessions, The Groovalottos began rehearsing my originals with the focus of simplifying the arrangements for studio recordings. After a few weeks of this, we went to lay down the original tracks were set for June 30th and July 7th at the Musicians Development Institute in Plymouth, MA. For the same reason that we went to REO Studios and Ron Orsmby, a studio and engineer designed for recording music by live muscians, we chose MDI. For those of you who do not know about MDI and Bob Yen, this is one of those humble looking studios of great power. Several major labels use it as one of their retention studios for production and mix-down work. Bob himself has been an engineer and sound man for countless major rock and blues albums and tours.

Following the formula, we got down excellent takes on the basic tracks for all twelve of the songs on the album as well as some other material. Like any well-made building, the foundation has to be excellent so that the house will stand. Now, to let the cement dry and settle before we start framing the house.

To Be Continued...