How to Make an Album or a Dream Come True
Origin Story: I first met Ed Croft in 1997, when he was the saxophonist for Buddy Blue’s band during the sessions for Greasy Jazz, the first of several albums I produced and recorded for Buddy in my home studio. Tatted, talented, quick, and focused, Ed couldn’t help but exude cool and was always a great guy to hang with. We were instant friends and remain so to this day. I am proud to count him amongst my closest.
One day, while driving home after a leisurely round of disc golf, Ed and I were blown away by a song we heard on Jazz 88. It was Lou Donaldson’s scorching 1970 Cadillac Club performance of The Scorpion and though it may sound corny, I’m pretty sure we actually pulled over to listen to all 10 minutes and 59 seconds of that exquisitely extended boogaloo!
Among our adventures since, there was the 2000 album Muggles Meshugana Lounge, a funky, stony, and rollicking ride through ’70s soul, ’50s rock, and ’60s psychedelia that features his incredible marimba-laden rumba version of the surf rock classic “Misralou”….and “Willy Wonka.”
Ed had been involved in this new project and had hired me to produce it. Plans were made, time was booked and on the morning of the first session, Ed arrived to regretfully inform me that his singer and co-leader in the band had quit the night before!
I carefully listened to him, trying to work through the potential quagmire by considering our collective strengths and resources. Two hours later, we found ourselves surrounded by wonderfully talented musicians, all pulling in the same direction to create one of my favorite albums ever!
One of the key takeaways for me in that experience was the discovery of Ed’s vocal-like phrasing. When Ed takes the melody, you can almost hear the words bursting forth with truth and clarity. The intention and emotion seem to intertwine and coalesce through the very honesty personified within his rustic tenor sax tone.
In other words, his saxophone sounds like a person.
Over the years, I have often visited the idea of making a particular sort of record with my friend. One like the Blue Note soul jazz records of the mid to late ’60s that we musically bonded over. The sweat and swagger of top-shelf musicians just getting down for the absolute ‘getting down’ of it all.
One day my wife, Cookie, asked me, “Who would you most want to record?”
I told her what I just told you.
“What are you waiting for?” she asked.
The next day I called Ed.
I told him what I told her and you.
Over the next several weeks, my musical pal and I got together at my place every Sunday for pre-production meetings, where we shared the results of our thoughts and research.
First off, let me say that pre-production is not really something I do. I love to walk in cold and greet the music as it happens. Most of what is agreed upon conceptually between the artist and myself happens at the first (and usually only) meeting, so we have a general idea of what we are trying to accomplish. The rest of the decisions are largely dictated by the music itself.
Regardless, I can say without reservation that preproduction was a very real and apparently, very necessary part of the process with the project.
For one thing, what songs were we doing?
While I was a bus driver, I would pass the time by coming up with all of these classic pop songs that would be perfect for this dream project of ours and add them to an ever-growing list (one notable candidate was a James Brown’s Bossa Nova version of Terrence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name,” which still may happen one day, but…).
It was a fun game, finding all of these songs to reinvent and reinterpret, but we kept running into an unexpected malady: while the genre we were referencing has plenty of great examples of melodic groove, the musicians seemed to overwhelmingly opt for simple blues forms to groove within.
When we realized this was happening, we also understood that we were taking for granted the incredible impact that a great melody brings to the singer’s performance as well as the listener’s experience. Still…which melodies and why?
I had recently been learning a classic pop song and noted how all of its dynamics and emotional peaks and valleys were already “baked” right into the song. In fact, it’s the very thing that had attracted me to it as a singer in the first place! Since we had already established that Mr. Ed Croft was the de facto singer, the solution seemed simple: follow those melodies to their source and see what else is down there. On this extended deep dive, I can tell you we discovered an abundant treasure trove of great songs that have been left to wither, seemingly forgotten amongst the scrap heaps of pop nostalgia.
It was at this point that we realized (to paraphrase the movie Jaws) that we were going to need a bigger boat.
Emboldened by our newly-minted vision, we had a dozen or so solid contenders within a short time and worked up a set of AI-aided demos in an effort to discover novel ways to recast the arrangements. Experimenting with different tempos, feels, and styles, we’d find the right direction, record his sax over it, and move on to the next song and the next.
After several weeks we then turned our focus to the core band. We knew that we were going to go with a classic soul jazz-style bass/drums/keyboard rhythm section, but with a bit more bite. A little less polite. Maybe, as I like to say, taking out a little guard rail here and there.
After a lot of searching and asking around, the answer was, as it turned out, right in our own front yard. You see, I have learned a lot about Ed Croft through this process and one of his more surprising attributes (and I don’t know why I was so surprised) is that he seems to know absolutely everyone.
Let’s just say he knew some folks.
Three days later, I have tested out the setup and the equipment with which we will be recording the four musicians (on location at Ed’s house), selected the mics, and plotted out the general setup and the means by which we’ll be monitoring each other.
These first sessions will provide the foundation upon which we will begin to build an album and we’re going to take you along with us for each step in the process, pointing out the myriad musical and technical choices and the reasoning behind them along the way.
We don’t know exactly where we’ll end up, but it’s about the journey as much as the music, as always.
This opportunity has been “hanging out on the horizon” for a very long time and I think I may actually explode before this weekend.
Just, you know. FYI.
To be continued and stuff…