When my dear pal Richie LaBamba Rosenberg asked me to produce, engineer and mix a new project, his jazz big band arrangements of the songs of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, I had been listening to an old vinyl record, Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session. It’s a recording of Frank Sinatra with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, produced by Dave Cavanaugh and recorded way back in 1961! I was fascinated by that record. How could it sound so good, having been recorded at a time when the technology was not nearly as advanced as what we have today? The cover photo offers a clue: there’s Sinatra standing in front of Nelson Riddle’s orchestra, in Capitol Records Studio A in Hollywood. If you look closely at the photo while you’re listening to the tracks, you can hear the instruments positioned across the stereo field exactly as you see them in the photo. There were no overdubs, no cross-panning, no doubling of instruments. Just great arrangements of great songs, recorded live in a great studio, and featuring Frank Sinatra with the best musicians in L.A. – playin their asses off!
Today’s recording studios offer artists and producers tools that probably were not even dreamed of back in 1961. They provide producers the opportunity, if they so choose, to edit, blend, distort, equalize, compress, expand, re-synthesize, and in myriad other ways manipulate the artist’s music, until it sometimes bears little resemblance to the original performance. As a producer, engineer, and gearhead, I’m totally down with having this much control over my projects. But I’m also an avid fan of American Jazz. And I believe that jazz should be approached with a lot of respect (reverence, really) for the original performance. When you have great songs like those written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, amazingly rich arrangements by LaBamba, and a soulful and adventurous singer like Southside Johnny Lyon, it becomes the producer/engineer’s job to find the right recording space, choose the proper microphones, assemble the best musicians, and let them do that voodoo that they do.
The 12 songs of Grapefruit Moon, the Songs of Tom Waits were recorded over 4 sessions. The first two were at Jon Bon Jovi’s carriage house – a fabulous studio – and Jon was a gracious and welcoming host. The final two sessions were at the legendary Avatar Studio C in New York City. The core was a traditional 17 piece jazz big band, with 4 trumpets, 5 saxophones, 4 trombones, piano, guitar, bass, and drums. The saxes typically were configured as 2 altos, 2 tenors, and a baritone. But per LaBamba’s beautiful and often surprising arrangements, the saxes might switch over to clarinet, bass clarinet, flutes, or soprano sax. And sprinkled throughout these arrangements are latin percussion, Hammond organ, dobro, accordion, cello, tuba… and even a choir on one arrangement! Every effort was made to record the performances “live,” just like that old Sinatra / Nelson Riddle record from the ‘60s. Initially there was some push back at this old school approach, but early on, Southside Johnny and the musicians began to really enjoy just getting into the studio and making great music – together.
As you might imagine, scheduling rehearsal and recording studios along with 17+ musicians was pretty challenging – as was wrangling the infamously wacky LaBamba. Fortunately we had an excellent Production Supervisor, Sascha Peterfreund, who handled scheduling, rentals, budgeting, engineering assistance, and lots more. (Thanks, Sascha. You made everything run smoothly, and I truly could not have done this without you.)
The final mastering was done at The Mastering Lab in Ojai, CA by legendary mastering engineer, Doug Sax. It was truly a thrill to meet and get to work with Doug who, from the 1960s until his death in 2015, mastered many of America’s most iconic jazz, pop, and rock records and CDs.