NORD

Posted on 18/12/2014

I’ve been privileged to be associated with Clavia, the makers of the various, red Nord Keyboards, since 2006. But I’ve been using their gear since long before that, and would be today even if I weren’t associated with them. Many things are more complicated in the music business today compared to the heyday of the CD and Vinyl ages, when people actually bought music and the industry generated enormous amounts of money. Not so much anymore. Alternatives ways of generating income for artists and the business are emerging, but as the latest debate about Spotify and other streaming sites demonstrates, we’re still far off target.

However, one of the real privileges of being an active musician today is that we have accessible, light-weight, reliable, amazing sounding gear. Being a keyboard player up until very recently was probably the worst seat on the bandstand. Heavy, unreliable, expensive, complicated gear, with Kafkaesque user interfaces. I asked my friend, the extraordinary keyboardist Brad Cole, who’s been in the business since the 70’s, about working with gear in the 70’s and 80’s:

“Ah, cassette backups. How could I ever forget those palpitations I used to get backing up the Prophet 5 and hoping that the data would be usable when I needed it. Other warm and fuzzy memories: Sequencers that did not have random access (if you made a mistake, you had to start over), FSK sync tones (before there was SMPTE sync for the prosumer), Akai’s first sampler (had an astounding 512kb memory), Eprom burners for drum machines…”

And that’s not counting the weight of the Hammond, the Rhodes, the Leslie, the CP-70 etc. When you think about what you can do today with a Nord Stage 2, that weighs just 16 kg, it’s pretty difficult to be nostalgic about the good old days. This trend is true for many other instrument groups, but I think keyboard players are particularly blessed. And in my mind Clavia is really the company that stands out, and leads the way. It’s an honour to be associated with the best, and starting today I even have a small space on their website: click here.


Gad Elmaleh

Posted on 21/11/2014

I’m rounding the year off with a month at the Palais des Sports in Paris with standup comedian Gad Elmaleh. He’s celebrating 20 years of performing, and has put together a special show for the occasion, which includes a live band. I had the chance to put the band together, so I called up some of my favorite musicians and friends: Maxime Garoute, Mike Clinton and Eric Sauviat. The French-speaking readers probably know Gad already, but for everyone else you can get an idea of who he is by watching this episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s show “Comedians in car getting coffee”: Click here.


Andy Newmark

Posted on 11/11/2014

I love this text from the incredible drummer Andy Newmark, known amongst many other things for his legendary work with Sly and the Family Stone. It sums up a lot of the challenges and rewards of working in the studio. Thanks to my friend James Eller for turning me on to this.

“I sat 5 feet away from Jim Gordon, in the drum booth at Trident Studios in London, as he recorded Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain in 1972. I was Carly’s road drummer and played on a few tracks on her No Secrets album, however I wasn’t cutting it when we recorded You’re So Vain. So Richard Perry, the producer of that album brought in the heavyweights. Jim Gordon, Klaus Voorman, and Nicky Hopkins to record You’re So Vain. Carly’s road band, which included me, was sidelined for half the tracks on that album, except for Jimmy Ryan who played on everything and played that great guitar solo on “You’re So Vain”. Anyhow, I was totally cool with Richard Perry’s decision to bring Jim Gordon in. I was in London for the duration of that album, as road bands often were back then, on call at any time. I saw this as an opportunity to watch Jim up close. I had been listening to Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner ever since Mad Dogs and Englishmen. I asked Jim if he would mind if I sat in the drum booth and watched him play. He was totally cool with that. So I watched Jim do 40 takes (Richard Perry was famous for doing a lot of takes) of You’re So Vain. You see, back then the live performance in the studio had to contain all the magic in the basic backing track. There was no fixing it or replacing parts after the track was recorded. You could repair little things but the vibe and groove had to be all there in the performance. Perry pushed players right to their limit. I liked his style. He had a vision and wasn’t going to stop till he got it out of the musicians. He made great bloody records that all stand up today under scrutiny. He always used the best players on his records. As a player, working for Richard Perry was a step up the ladder in session world. It meant something. Anyhow, I watched Jim like a hawk for 4 or 5 hours, playing that song over and over again. It’s one thing to hear a player on a recording but to see a player playing live is a whole different ball game. Body language reveals so much about where a drummer is coming from. Seeing Jim play up that close, and fine tuning his drum part, was like getting intra veinous Jim Gordon…his DNA being injected into mine. And I got it, big time. I saw what he had and what I didn’t have. But not for long. I really understood where his notes were coming from and went away from that session knowing what I had to do to improve my act. Jim never played a rim shot on 40 takes of You’re So Vain. He hit the middle of the snare drum so hard that the head was completely caved in, in the middle. It was a 6 inch crater in a perfect circle. He hit the exact same spot every time he hit the snare drum. That means all his backbeats sounded as identical as humanly possible. Engineers love consistency from players. I was suffering from total rim shot dependency, playing tight, funky and snappy, New York style, like Bernard Purdie. I am a New Yorker. Jim had that West Coast lazy thing going on. His notes seem to have length. They breathed. Legato drumming I call it. There was all this air around each of his notes. And his groove was so relaxed and secure and comfortable. It was like sitting in a giant arm chair that fit perfect. He made all the other players sound amazing right from Take One. And he made the recording sound like a real hit record right from Take One. I was blown away. The tom tom fills were like thunder. I still copy him doing that today and think about him in that room every time I do it. I put my left hand on the high tom and my right hand on the floor tom and play straight 8th notes (both hands in unison) that crescendo into a chorus. Just like You’re So Vain. His drumming was intelligent and impeccable on that record. There was no click track either and Richard Perry was very demanding when it came to tempo. (By the way, click tracks have ruined pop music today). Don’t get me started. That’s something else I had to improve on. Playing time. I’m still working on that. Jim nailed that track at least 40 times and every take on the drums was brilliant and useable as a final drum track. However Richard Perry wanted to hand pick where Jim played certain fills and all the other cats too. So that’s where a studio musician’s discipline comes into play. You have to play the same track for hours and maintain the feeling and learn every note in your part till it’s written in your DNA. Then on top of that, you have to take instructions after each take from the Producer telling you exactly what to amend or delete in your part. It’s a lot of mental work going on. Not all players are cut out for this kind of disciplined playing, and designing a part. That’s what great records are. Great parts. Jim was like a computer. He did everything Richard Perry asked of him and still kept all the other stuff going in his part, take after take after take. And he hit the drums so damn hard. His snare drum was monstrous and it wasn’t even a rim shot. I was stunned at the power in all his notes. He saw that whole drum part in his head as if it was written on paper and handed to him. And take after take, for maybe 4 or 5 hours with breaks, he played it spot on every time. I got it…big time. Thank God I was replaced by Jim that day. What I got from that experience took my playing to another level completely. I put funky drumming on the back burner after watching Jim and started trying to make my notes real long, relaxed, with lots of air around them, giving each note it’s full sustain value, and even tuning my drums so that the notes would sustain for their full value. And every note was thought out. That’s what Jim did. He didn’t play any throw away notes. Not one!! Not even an unintended grace note on the snare drum. That’s what making records is all about. You have to own and believe in every note you play. Every 8th note on your high hat has meaning and character and tells a story. You can’t just be playing mindless time with a back beat. Drummers who do that sound bored and uninvolved. A drummer has to be involved in every note and put life into each one. This is what Jim did. I know this for sure. It’s a subtle thing but it makes all the difference in a player. Discipline, restraint, and conviction in every note. That’s when real music starts to happen.”

Andy Newmark, November 9th, 2013.

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