I've been a staff producer and executive at record labels like Sony, Mack Avenue and Gramavision before recently striking out on my own. (Some jazz fans might even remember me as the founding music and program director for the storied jazz station WBGO 88.3 FM). My involvement in the recording arts got its start in commercial broadcasting. After grad school, I landed at a regional public radio station where I was simultaneously exposed to both Dr. Billy Taylor's "Jazz as America’s classical music" philosophy, and Rudolf Serkin’s chamber music series in Marlboro, VT. And through another happy accident, I spent an afternoon in the Maestro’s presence with him alternately playing and offering his musings on music and life. Those kinds of experiences shaped my approach to producing jazz records. Here's some of what I've learned along the way.
1. Use what works
My approach as a producer is to exploit techniques that have evolved over the years to record and mix both acoustic and electronic instruments. This applies to the aesthetics as well. So whether it's the concert hall sound of Wilma Cozart and Bob Fine of Mercury Living Presence records, or the extraordinary studio sound achieved by Rudy Van Gelder or Al Schmidt and Tommy LiPuma, it’s about whatever will capture and convey the artist’s vision.
2. P is for preparation and pre-production
Jazz may be an improvisatory art form, but that doesn't mean everything should be improvised! A little preparation can go a long way. Gather information about repertoire (including scores and/or lead sheets), instrumentation, featured soloists, potential overdubs, and any mics and outboard processing gear that your engineer might require. I also like to get a floor plan of the studio for the engineer to map out the positioning of the artists and mic placement/isolation. And if your budget can withstand it, ask for some set-up time in the studio the night before recording session.
3. Rehearsing new music is essential, playing it on the road is even better
Generations ago, it's reported that musicians said that the difference between Blue Note Records and every other jazz label was "three days of paid rehearsal." Most artists don’t have the luxury of going into the studio for an extended period of time to write, rehearse, track and mix their albums. So it's essential to rehearse the music you plan to record, be it in a rehearsal room, living room or even your garage. That way you can use your limited recording studio time to the full advantage. Even better, intersperse new music in your live shows to gain insight into the construction of your next recording project. When I'm producing an artist, I try to attend as many rehearsals and shows as possible to gain insight and successfully capture the artist’s vision when we enter the studio.
4. Creating a positive atmosphere yields the best results
I still consider the opportunity to be in the recording studio with artists and engineers as an experience to be approached with both joy and reverence. One thing every successful record I’ve ever worked on has in common is an enjoyable studio experience. A positive mood can go a long way towards getting lasting performances that touch the listener’s heart and soul. That kind of positive energy cannot be accomplished by technical execution alone.
5. Don't wait to "fix it in the mix"
Believe me when I tell you that it is the bane of every engineer’s existence to hear an artist or producer ask for something in the mixing or mastering session that should have been addressed previously. We’ve all gotten used to the power of digital audio workstations and software, but the laws of physics will not be denied. Choosing to ignore them inevitably leads to unhappy results. So fix it before the mix!
Al Pryor is three-time Grammy Award winner who has worked with artists like Cécile Mclorin Salvant, Danilo Perez and Harry Belafonte. He runs Al Pryor Productions LLC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org