Session Sensei: How Do I Sound?

I once told a great player he sounded exactly like Chick Corea. His response: “Sorry to hear that. By the way, which ‘Chick’ do you mean? Early post-bop Chick? (Now He Sings, Now He Sobs) Modernistic, experimental Chick? (Circle) Or this electric crap he’s been doing lately? (Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, No Mystery)” I said something like, “Ham-in-na ham-in-na, like you just sound really good.” Busted! He, of course, wanted to sound like himself. I started listening harder.
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I once told a great player he sounded exactly like Chick Corea. His response: “Sorry to hear that. By the way, which ‘Chick’ do you mean? Early post-bop Chick? (Now He Sings, Now He Sobs) Modernistic, experimental Chick? (Circle) Or this electric crap he’s been doing lately? (Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, No Mystery)” I said something like, “Ham-in-na ham-in-na, like you just sound really good.” Busted! He, of course, wanted to sound like himself. I started listening harder.

I’ll mention Steve Winwood here, not just because he, along with Richard Manuel of the Band, are often overlooked and underrated as rock keyboardists, and not because I was just listening to a great Winwood boxed set comprising most of his tracks from the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and his later solo work, but because I was once asked to play “Winwood-y” at a session. Now, I could have said, “Perhaps you mean poly-modal trippy and jammy like on ‘Well Alright,’ or perhaps English R&B funky like on Dave Mason’s ‘Feelin’Alright,’” but I didn’t; I knew that what was needed for the track was a smeary piano sound with simple voicings, a few fills, and a heavy left hand. It would make a difference what kind of piano I was to play, because lots of pedal on a grand would be too intense, and a sampled piano might not work at all without real resonant overtones. It helped to know that the sound they wanted was probably that of a mildly outof- tune upright with one mic and some drum leakage — pure magic if done right. If it were Winwood organ, I might know to use a Leslie with a stopped motor, lots of upper drawbars, and maybe C3 chorusing for color. But ultimately whatever the instrument or technique, I’m sure I’d want the track to sound like me.

The other night at a club some cat was raving to me about a young piano player who was tearing up the scene here in L.A. “Man, you gotta hear this guy! He sounds like . . . like . . .” He leaned his head back and mimed playing a keyboard. “Like Herbie!” Whoa! I now know better than to say anything other than, “Man, he must be one smokin’ player!”

I thought about Herbie later that night: Early Herbie (Takin’ Off), Miles Herbie (check out his elegant and short solo on “Seven Steps to Heaven”), and mature, acoustic Herbie (Speak Like a Child, Maiden Voyage). Then there’s electric Herbie (his Rhodes solo on “Actual Proof” is mind-blowing.) That’s just a part of what he did before 1975. Keep listening, and keep an open mind — the less you stereotype other players, and yourself, the more versatile and effective a musician you can become.