Session Sensei Don39t Let Em See You Sweat Part II

April 1, 2010

When we left off last month, I’d been called in to play accordion on a fast-paced session with unfamiliar and difficult music. I’m not that comfortable on accordion, and a large contingent of the band’s friends and family was peering at me through the glass.

I scrutinized the chart I’d scrawled and asked, “Do you want to take this in sections, or . . .” “Nah, we’re just going to do takes and see what happens,” came the reply.

Digital recording lets us track lots of takes and pick the best one, and these days, that’s exactly what most people do. Some producers even “comp” together a track out of the best material from many passes. This is a great opportunity to stretch out and try different stuff. It also assumes one can get through the track, something I had not yet accomplished. I had barely learned the tune and I was already on the spot to match a band that had been rehearsing for weeks and playing together for years.

On the first take, we had a couple of false starts as we tried to lock into the Tex- Mex rockabilly groove, but it was pretty good overall. I’m buried in my chart, watching out for the odd number of bars in the verse and the deceptively simple chorus.

“Nice,” I was told. “On the next take, we’ll mute the guitar, and you play the solo.” By the fourth time through, I was really getting it, internalizing the odd form and anticipating the musical twists. My written chart started to fade away — I wasn’t so much counting anymore, just painting in broader strokes.

On take 7, I thought I’d nailed it, but they wanted one more: “Just try anything, go a little crazy. We can always go back and edit.” I thought take 7 was better technically, but as we listened to my final, “crazy” pass, I realized that despite a few fluffs, it had better energy. I bet that on the final record, that entire track will be there — no edits or comping, just an honest performance.

The moral of the story is that music works best when, mentally, the written chart fades. This is why bands rehearse, and why you have to internalize the music you’re playing, even if it’s on the spot as a hired gun. A combination of experience and reverence for the recording process helped me navigate uncharted territory and do a good job. Now, back to the squeezebox woodshed!

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