Smoke Jazz

NYC Club Swings Into the Record Business
Smoke co-owner and engineer/producer Paul Stache.

The conventional wisdom says that a new jazz record label is a doomed venture, but conventional wisdom can be proven wrong. A jazz label can be started today, and it can be done successfully. Of course, it helps if it’s run by a team that has spent the past 15 years crafting one of the best little jazz clubs in the country, New York City’s Smoke.


Smoke Sessions Records grew out of the 50-seat club on the Upper West Side that’s been a nurturing home for young lions and elder statesmen alike. So it was no big surprise when this club started a label. After all, the joint jumps nightly and live recording is relatively inexpensive these days. Why not push the button and cut some sides?


True to form, Smoke Sessions Records is swinging hard, with an ambitious roster of carefully engineered and lushly packaged 2013-2014 CD releases from world-class talent, including saxophonists Vincent Herring and Javon Jackson; pianists Eric Reed, Cyrus Chestnut, Harold Mabern, Orrin Evans and David Hazeltine; and drummers Jimmy Cobb and Louis Hayes, among others. (Smoke Sessions also makes vinyl LPs and offers high-res downloads.)


Reviews of the first 10 releases have been glowing and, with many garnering playlist time on WBGO-FM, New York’s 24/7 jazz radio station, and elsewhere jazz is spun. The sides released so far have been mostly cut live at gigs, emphasizing in-the-moment spontaneity and studio-quality sound. “We’re after live magic without sound quality suffering—to sound as close as we can to studio recordings without restricting creativity,” says Paul Stache, co-owner of the club and label with Frank Christopher. (Stache is also the label’s recording engineer and record producer.)


While they could have simply split off feeds from stage mics and let it rip, a more artisanal, old-school live recording approach rules. Depending on the complexity of the band, they often baffle the tiny stage like a studio and always use high-end mics with careful (some might say obsessive) attention to placement. They track flat from the club’s Allen & Heath iLive control surface and MixRack to a Mac, running Pro Tools HD at 48 kHz, with 16 or 24 tracks.


The first Smoke Sessions date was legendary pianist Harold Mabern and his working trio; it was not really fully planned as a record date.

“We, of course, did a sound check and thought hard about mic selection and placement,” Stache recalls. “But compared to our later approach it was fairly loose; we set up mics and hit it, using hardly any baffles.”


Thanks to the club’s selection of quality mics, live recording normally uses splits from the house array. “Sometimes we double up on mics. Not so much for house sound, but for monitors—the high-end mics can get feedback using them for the house/monitor feeds,” Stache notes. “Also, horn players love to play right on the mic, so we’ll put up an SM 58 for the room and monitors, and then 10 inches further away a ribbon mic for recording.”

A favorite for recording saxophone is the Royer 121V ribbon. “That’s a dark mic, so if the player has a dark sound, I may use a U 47; no need to make a sound darker. For trumpet and trombone I love the RCA 44, that’s a great ribbon mic.” Other favored horn mics are the RCA 77, especially for flugelhorn, and the Coles 4038.


Piano sound is hard to capture right, Stache adds, and they’ve tried a lot of different lineups. A winning combination lately has been Schoeps MK 4s and matched Neumann U 87s. Placement varies according to player, but usually they’re set up wide, about 10 inches from the piano, one MK 4 and one U 87 (left channel) at end of bass strings and the other MK 4 and U 87 (right channel) near the hammers, for some jazzy growl. Stache uses the mic preamps in the Allen & Health MixRack whenever possible.


There is of course no sound booth at the tiny club, so he engineers the dates sitting 30 feet from the stage, wedged between the bar and the front door, using headphones. “I’ve been running sound at Smoke for a long time, so I have good idea of what the signal needs to sound like in the cans,” he says.


So while live tracking goes smoothly, post-production can be slow, even though with live records the temptation exists “to make it a quick turnaround and put it out. We want to stay away from that approach.” Stache says he’s spent as much as six eight-hour days to mix a release right. “If it sounds good, people will want it,” he adds.


The biggest issue with a live date cut from a postage-stamp-size stage is bleed. “There just is no such thing as a clean, isolated signal,” Stache notes. “It is one big mono feed almost. I spend a lot of time getting the panning right, to give each musician his own space, so when l close my eyes I get a true room perspective. I spend a lot of time asking myself things like, ‘Does Gerald Cannon sound like that?’ I will send a sidemen audio files and ask, ‘How do you like your cymbal sound?’ which of course is something you’d usually only do with the band leader.”


It’s jazz, with its tradition of warm, rich analog sound, so in post Stache uses as much analog outboard gear as possible. “We use nothing out of Pro Tools, maybe a reverb once in a awhile. We mix to half-inch tape on a Studer deck, with Manley Massive Passive EQ and a Teletronix LA-2A compressor, which works wonderfully with bass and horns.”


While live releases will continue, a 2015 release schedule of about 10 CDs consists of mostly studio dates, for a variety of reasons, including availability of the club. This coming year’s releases will be mostly sessions cut in the main room at Sear Sound, New York’s analog stalwart, on their Neve Custom 8038. “I’ve always been a fan of Sear Sound, with their vintage gear and mics; it is unmatched,” Stache says. “Cutting there is a whole other angle from a sound point of view. A big Neve console adds a lot of meat, depth and warmth to the lows and mids that you cannot get on a live record. At Smoke we’re tracking to 48 kHz, at Sear we’re at 96 kHz, a much higher resolution. We may even go straight to half-inch tape.”


As for the perilous nature of today’s record business, Stache says it simply requires more ingenuity in making the business end work. “It’s a big world, with great potential worldwide; sometimes we ship CDs to a smaller European country and it is 5 or 10 copies of each title, but with every country in Europe, and elsewhere, it adds up. There’s money to be made that way, and we’re making it work.”


Japan, a hot market for both physical CDs and jazz, is an important but not an oversize factor in the success of the label, Stache notes.


However, they almost made a crucial error; initial plans were for high-res downloads and vinyl LPs only, with no CDs. But they were convinced to make lush, eight-panel foldout CD packages, featuring original art by jazz photographer Jimmy Katz and liner notes by label GMO Damon Smith. Like the great jazz labels of the past, Smoke Sessions releases have a distinctive look.


“Smoke Sessions was going to be a one-off, one record for each artist, but people wanted to make more records with us,” Stache concludes. “For certain things an artist wants to do, the energy and vibe are captured better live, but other things work much better in a studio. Both are important.”

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