JAMES CARTER

The first all-electric outing by acclaimed multi-reedman James Carter is a brilliant, earthy modern jazz recording of integrity and substance, by a cast
By By Robin Tolleson,

The first all-electric outing by acclaimed multi-reedman James Carter is a brilliant, earthy modern jazz recording of integrity and substance, by a cast of veterans versed in the freedom of Ornette Coleman's harmolodics, as well as modern street funk. Carter has been hailed as one of the brightest young musicians in jazz, a player equally conversant in the bop masters and the avant-garde, while carving out what is unmistakably his own niche. He has worked with engineer Danny Kopelson and producer Yves Beauvais on several other occasions over the last three years, including the saxman's In a Carterian Fashion, Chasin' the Gypsy and Ginger Baker's Coward of the County. Layin' in the Cut was tracked direct-to-24-bit/96kHz stereo over two days at the Magic Shop in New York, with guitarists Marc Ribot and Jef Lee Johnson, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston joining Carter. The direct-to-2-track recording has amazing presence and punch.

Danny Kopelson admits that part of the reason for recording the CD that way was financial. “Based on the players you have and the type of music at hand, things like direct-to-2 offer good budget constraints,” he says. “It eliminates the mixing process, therefore studio time and materials required to do that, because it all goes down at once. James is pretty organic, and I think his playing speaks to that, in terms of being raw and straight-ahead and gutsy. So I think the direct-to-2 is a format and style of working that is particularly conducive to James. Yves, as the producer, has a great acuity on an artist-by-artist basis, developing a work style for each artist. I really have grown to admire Yves' versatility in that respect, to really suss out what best suits an artist's performance and material style. So this worked for James. This way, he could get to do more things repetitively until he liked what he did.

“We used a Genex 8000, an 8-track digital machine, and simply recorded on two of the eight tracks. And we used outboard converters in and out, rather than go straight into the Genex.” They rented the Genex from Ted Jensen of Sterling Sound, who did the mastering on the project. “That was a helpful arrangement, because Ted knew what he was dealing with when it got to mastering. Ted has the magneto-optical disc Genex recorder with the oversized discs, and it actually has two recording sides with 30 minutes a side,” Kopelson explains. “What I found was that the low-end response had the best of both the analog and digital worlds. It was clear and bright, like you come to expect from digital playback, and it had that meaty kind of thickness that theretofore I had only associated with analog. It was really exciting to hear it come back that way.

“The low end on that record has a particular fascination to me,” Kopelson continues. “It's really distinctive in illustrating a very favorable element of that 24-bit, 96k format. I don't think I made any great adjustment because of it, but what I did do was monitor through it. So I made certain balance and EQ decisions based on how I monitored through it. Not only did I feel that I got back an accurate representation of what I originally monitored, but that the quality of the low end on this digital format was really very different to me. I have associations with a lot of low end in digital format being very linear, not with that analog saturation sound, so that the low end is there, it's hard and it's punchy, but it's not thick. The quality of thickness that analog would give low end has always been somewhat absent from most digital formats.

“We just did a direct thing with the bass. I try to get the preamp to it right away. I don't have much of a run out of the DI into the preamp, so I can run line-level from the studio back into the control room, as opposed to it being mic level running back into the control room. With the bass, that tends to hold on to the integrity of it a lot better. The low end is better, and the harmonics tend to be a little more uniform. That's pretty standard for me.”

The same depth and power came through on the drum sounds, too. “Yeah, it's very clear on Calvin Weston's drum kit that the [low end] is there across the board. It just really has a wonderful saturate presence. It being sort of an unusual jam record like that, it was new to all of us. No one quite knew how it was going to sound. We went to one rehearsal a couple of days before, but it's really kind of raw in the sense that James performs that way.”

They didn't use a lot of isolation at the Magic Shop. Basically, the musicians set up in a circle in the 42×23 tracking room and then tracked live, laying down multiple versions of most songs, blowing as long and free as necessary, going for complete takes. “The Magic Shop just suited that particular instrumentation,” Kopelson says. “Everybody was in the same room, so the only thing we did do was remote the two guitar amps, so that you really don't have a whole lot of guitar bleed on either the drums or James' saxophone mic. What's nice is that there is leakage of James on the drums somewhat. There's a little bit of cross-coloration, but not a whole lot. Some of [guitarist Marc] Ribot's stuff bled, I think, because it was so loud. It's nice to get the leakage to work for you and enhance and support that vibe.

“Toward the front of the room, you had a circle of James, Marc, Jamaaladeen and Jef Lee. Calvin was all of 12 feet away from the nearest guy. They were all in greater proximity to each other than Calvin was to any of them. We're talking about relatively small distance, so we didn't get any real, pure isolation on the drums. We just put up a little baffling to stop it from dominating. On the louder passages, he hits pretty good, which is nice, because the drums sound full. I think I put a ribbon mic overhead the drums and mostly pretty standard stuff. I just miked the floor toms in sort of an area strategy and didn't go for super-tight or individual miking on the rack toms. I just hung a mic over the two rack toms so one could get two and then one over the floor toms. It was pretty minimal. We weren't going for anything sophisticated. The idea was having the bottom — sloppy is good.”

Layin' in the Cut offers a wild mix of different sounds and colors from Carter's saxes and from the guitars. Carter squeezes and honks his tenor on “Drafadelic in Db” and gives a lesson in textural playing on “Motown Mash.” “Terminal B” is spray of unusual guitar sounds, and Carter sounds like he's eating his soprano alive, shouting out strange, twisted sounds. “He also plays bari sax in the upper register, and he can make it sound a little like a wacky soprano when he starts getting into his kind of Albert Ayler thing. It's hard to tell what it is,” Kopelson notes.

The album closer, “GP,” sounds like the sax has a chorus or phase effect, but it's actually guitarist Jef Lee Johnson doubling Carter's line. “A lot of times, the guitar tones were hard to distinguish from some of the wacky stuff that James does,” Kopelson says. “So in that tune, when they're playing the head, that's exactly what you're getting. You're getting James playing a harmonic edge in addition to the fundamental note, playing some of the reed sound a little harder, so it's kind of whistling over the top of the fundamental. Jef Lee has that really compressed thing that almost sounds like the same voice. One's electric and one's acoustic, and they make that third thing happen where you're not quite sure what you're hearing. And part of it has to do with the balance, where I tried to get that ensemble thing, so I wasn't looking to push James way out front. Sometimes when you destroy the balance, that thing goes away. So it just so happened, by pure luck, that by going for the ensemble sound on the head, I had the kind of balance that produced a little bit of that wacky tone.

My feeling has always been that you're better off taking what you get as live performance. He's the artist; it's up to him how he wants his horn to sound.
Danny Kopelson

“At first, I thought we kind of undermixed the guitars. Some tunes I still feel might be a little guitar-shy, but I've really grown to like that kind of jam mix with the guitars as the support. With James jamming out front, I can't see how it would work any other way. My tendency was to keep the guitars back, and, to me, it really kind of spoke to that. After hearing it and listening to it, it clearly dictated to my intuition which way it should go. It's unusual, in that you almost can't hear a speck of reverb on the thing. It's just kind of dry-bones, so it really has a particular character. You can hear the room, but without it reverberating in an ersatz way, which I think Yves is very sensitive to. If he hears something that's a little too lush or creamy, digital reverb, his back goes up. And I think for this he was really right. It was so raw and loose in a lot of ways. That kind of documented sound suits it well.”

For Carter's horns, Kopelson mostly relied on a Neumann U47 mic. “It seems that wherever we go, the 47 tends to be the winner in a comparison. We might have used a Coles on something, but I can't be sure of that,” he says, while also reporting that Carter sometimes wanders around a bit while he's playing, making accurate tracking a challenge at times. “He's from the Sonny Rollins school of, ‘I can't feel what I need to feel and play and stay on your microphone at the same time.’ If a lavalier didn't sound so shitty, I would use that on him, which is what Sonny uses. But the sound on the horn [with the fixed mic] is sort of like the Doppler effect. James definitely moves around a lot. But my feeling has always been that you're better off taking what you get as live performance. He's the artist; it's up to him how he wants his horn to sound.”

According to Kopelson, there was only minor editing done to the direct-to-2 sessions; more important was finding the right takes of each tune. “I think some chunks were pulled out of extended soloing,” he says. “There was a tendency for people to kind of get involved like, ‘Yeah, the guitar solo is good on take three, but I like my tenor solo better on take four.’ So maybe one of the cuts was edited that way. But usually when that was the case, it was like, ‘Okay, let's try one more.’ So the idea of the 2-track format, being ‘play until you like it,’ was used often enough.”

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