"Just to be nominated is really cool," jazz keyboard legend Jeff Lorber tells me graciously after winning his first Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. Just days after claiming his prize, Lorber talked to Keyboard about his winning musical perspective.
A big congratulations on your recent Grammy win. Was this actually your first win after seven nominations?
Yes it was. I’m used to the moment when the announce the winner and it’s not me! I know what that feels like.
Were you in New York City for the award ceremony?
Of course! It’s a fun party, and a great opportunity to see a lot of people. I understand that music isn’t really a competition. The fact that I can make a living as a musician and I have done so for a long time is plenty award for me. I’m very grateful for that fact. That’s all I need right there.
But the fact that you’ve been nominated seven times is proof that you’ve continued to push musical boundaries, regardless of what accolades came your way.
That’s absolutely true. If you stay “in there,” some good things might happen. One thing that I always remember is that between 1989 and 1994, I was part of a group that did a lot of dance remixes. There was a lot of competition for those gigs - going in for a couple days in the studio with a big SSL board and a few 24-track machines. And at the end of those sessions, the A&R guy would get a cassette tape. He’d put that cassette into his tape deck and listen. And that was the moment. You either did your job and put some music on that cassette that was happening, or you didn’t. It's a binary thing. So I always think about that moment when somebody hits the “Play” button on Spotify and gives you 15 seconds to listen to your new song. Is it going to be something that makes them say, “Wow. That’s Cool?"
I read an article recently that said musicians are actually writing music differently now to capture people’s attention quicker on streaming services.
You’re absolutely right that every year, people’s attention spans get shorter and shorter. But there’s something about a great record that gets you from the first second you hear it. Who knows what it is, but you know it when it hits you.
What do you think it was about your latest album Prototype that nabbed the Grammy for you this year?
I think the writing, production and playing on this record are all solid. It’s got some artsy tunes, as well as some more commercial things on it. I’d like to think the work I’m doing with Jimmy Haslip, Gary Novak and Andy Snitzer is getting more focused and even better as time goes on.
Your album also seems to evince the idea that in this world of constant technological advances, sometimes a good piano or Rhodes solo is all you need!
Yeah. I’ve always enjoyed getting into technology, and I’ve been into synthesizers from the beginning. But by the same token, I realized pretty quickly that if you get too carried away with technology – like spending too much time looking for sounds, you can lose what you really ought to be doing, which is writing music. My approach is pretty basic. I’ll come-up with an idea, and I’ll usually start-out with some kind of drum groove that I’ve catalogued from other records that I’ve worked-on over the years. This is in Pro Tools. I’ll sit down, write-out some [chord] changes, play through it and put a bass line on it. Then I’ll put a real piano on it, maybe some guitar, and see where it’s at. To me, that’s what really works. Real instruments. I have people say to me all the time, “Man, your mixes sound great. How do you get a great mix?” And I tell them, “It’s not the mix! It’s the songwriting, it’s the arranging, and it’s having musicians who can play and who know how to create a good sound.” It’s about knowing how to stay out of each other’s way so all of the puzzle pieces fit together well. It has to have all those ingredients.
So the secret to your success is, there is no secret. You get-up, you flesh-out ideas, and you write music. You do the work. And that's why you have and continue to create a body of work.
[Producer] Brian Grazer talks about that in his book "A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life." Early-on, he was interested in music and got a meeting with Sid Sheinberg, who was President of MCA/Universal. Grazer asked him, "How do I succeed in this business?" And Sheinberg grabbed a yellow legal pad and a pen and handed it to him saying, "This is it right here. You've got to create something!" [He laughs.] I thought that was pretty cool.
Are you a fan of plug-ins and virtual instruments?
I find that they sound amazing when you listen to them in headphones. But if you listen to things like synthesized piano or drums on really nice, big speakers, sometimes they just don’t measure up. The kind of dimension and space you get from recording live drums and from a real drummer that reacts emotionally through the song is hard to beat. I think it’s a lot different if you work on vocal music, where the listener pays so much attention to the lyrics and the vocals that whatever is backing it up is a little less important. But in instrumental music, you don’t have that. Everything becomes much more important. I do like using things like [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere and Keyscape when I’m working and writing on the road. When I listen to that stuff in headphones in a hotel room, it’s very inspirational. But for years, I’ve used an M-Audio keyboard with the Wurlitzer sound in [Apple] Garage Band to practice. It works great.
Having spent your life in pursuit of musical excellence, what do you try to impart to the next generation about patience and the art of learning one’s craft?
I tell people that they should take music seriously, and figure out what it is they really want to do. Then they should do focused practicing on it to achieve their goals.
It’s funny. I used to tell people, “Don’t get into the music business unless you’re ready to work super hard, because it’s not easy.” But now, I think it’s actually a better time to be a musician than it used to be. I see so many people that went to school whose professions are being outsourced. Those people don’t have jobs anymore, but people who learn how to play an instrument and can create have so many different jobs to choose from. They can make music for TV and film, or video games, or commercials. So I’m starting to feel that music isn’t such a bad idea!