Originally appeared in KeyboardMag.com
In my long and varied career, I’ve produced albums by artists like Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, Tommy Flanagan, Grover Washington, Jr., Jimmy Scott, Cedar Walton, Jimmy Smith and many others. Here are five things I’ve learned along the way.
1. What’s our story, Morning Glory?
I almost always begin a project by trying to find out from the artist(s) some idea about what kind of a musical story we are trying to tell with the album we are making. Since this music is all about telling your own story in your own way, I like to talk through with the artist as much as possible, and in as many dimensions as possible, about the most unique and freshest approaches he or she might be able to take to each of the songs and original compositions that are going to be recorded.
2. Take care of the music (and the music will take care of you).
I try to start out with quite a bit more artistic “grist for the mill” than we will eventually need for the final album. That way, we can experience the wonderful creative process of certain material coming to the fore and other stuff falling by the wayside as we prepare for the actual studio or live concert recording process. Quite often, we are blessed to have a vibe or central mood emerge in harmony with the story we are hoping to tell, and sometimes the music takes on more of a surprising life of its own while it is actually being recorded.
3. The music is the magic.
As jazz vocalist Abbey LIncoln wrote and sang, “The music is the magic.” No matter what, it is most important that we are recording material that the artist really wants to record, and quite often by far my most important job is to get out of the way to let the magic happen with as much unfettered swing, imagination and passion as humanly possible.
4. Create a circle of love.
I learned very early in my over 50 years of presenting jazz as a club owner and concert/recording producer, that, as seemingly corny and utopian as it may sound, our music is all about love, dedication, honesty and integrity, and it is a supreme necessity that the musicians can hear each other and themselves with warm and natural clarity. I try to never to lose sight of the fact that “we” don’t really create this music, but we do have the invaluable job of helping to create the best possible environment to allow the shared creative cycles of our music to happen.
5. Make lemonade.
One of my primary mentors, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, liked to tell me, “If all you got is lemons, then just make some great lemonade.” When I was producing a McCoy Tyner album for a Japanese record label in the 1990s with a whole group of great young jazz lions like Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, and Antonio Hart, quite out of the blue we got a very special request from the label to cover a Dolly Parton tune, the suggestion of which I felt absolutely certain was not going to bring a smile to McCoy Tyner’s heart, or be well received by any of his all-star sidemen either. Fortunately I remembered that the Japanese music lovers had a huge and enduring passion for certain classical themes by Chopin and Beethoven, and I suggested some of the these themes as a counter-proposal to the Dolly Parton request. The very successful album we made with McCoy & Company wound up being called “Prelude and Sonata.” Who knew?