The Famed Keyboardist/Producer on Topping the Charts with Willie Nelson
Keyboardist and producer Matt Rollings (Lyle Lovett, Mark Knopfler, Keith Urban) topped the Billboard charts for the week of March 19, 2016 with Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin, the album he produced along with Buddy Cannon for Sony Legacy.
The album hit #1 on Billboard's Top Current Jazz and Top Traditional Chart, #14 on Billboard’s Top Albums Chart, and #40 on the Billboard Top 200 Chart.
We caught up with Rollings for a quick chat about his work on Summertime.
Matt, you’ve produced your share of acclaimed artists – from Edwin McCain and Keith Urban, to young upstarts like Connor Leimer and others. How was working with Willie Nelson different than your other production experiences?
Well, first of all, it’s Willie Nelson! Willie is a true icon in every sense of the word. It’s kind of like the student trying to teach a class to the professor. But in fact, Willie is above all a lover of music. He breathes it. And when he likes what he’s hearing, he simply wants to be a part of it. So working with him is a joy, because he goes right to that innocent, magical place of creating. For as many hundreds of records he has made, and thousands of shows he has played, and millions of miles he has traveled, he still get’s excited about the music. So as producers, our job is easy. Just sit back and get out of Willie’s way.
How did you approach putting the album together? Did you start with a setlist of songs for the project?
The first thing Buddy and I did was to put together a list of Gershwin songs that we thought would be good for Willie. We sent the list to him, and he helped us to cull it to 11 or 12. Buddy and I had already decided that the album was going to be rhythm section and just a little bit of sweetening. The Gershwin catalog has been recorded with orchestra so much that we thought a simpler approach would be fresh. As the arranger, I then started listening to as many of the recordings of the songs as possible. I wanted to first, get a sense of the original harmonic/melodic intention when the song was written, and then soak up all the variations that had been created over the years. After that, I created arrangements based on all of that information, but always with Willie in mind. Trying to be mindful of his aesthetic as an artist. I wanted to create a jazz based foundation, but one with a big open door that all listeners could walk through. Ed Cherney recorded and mixed the record brilliantly. Jay Bellerose, Dean Parks, David Piltch and myself were the rhythm section, the great Paul Franklin became our “orchestra,” and Mickey Rafael added the perfect counterpoint, as he always does with Willie. And of course Willie’s singing and guitar playing complete the picture.
What kind of keyboards did you use on Summertime?
The arrangements are based around piano for the most part. We tracked in Los Angeles at EastWest in Studio 2. They have a lovely Yamaha C7 that I played on most of the tracks. Two of the tracks were cut on Wurlitzer, “You Can’t Take That Away From Me”, and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The only other keyboard I used was a Hammond B3 organ to sweeten a few of the tracks. So it was very “old school,” keyboard-wise.
Look for Matt’s lesson on crafting the perfect piano intro in next month’s May 2016 issue of KEYBOARD. Find-out more about Rollings at MattRollings.com.
Willie Nelson – “Summertime”