Co-Producer Anthony Marinelli conducts the band in Westlake Studio D
It takes nerve to remake a masterwork like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, an album revered for its complex, groundbreaking arrangements; deep social significance; and beautiful soul singing. But having weathered the physical, political and emotional devastation of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band earned the right to jazz up whatever they want.
The remake was conceived by co-producer Shawn Amos, VP of A&R at the band’s current label, Shout Factory, while en route to Las Vegas for a band/management meeting last October. “I’d heard stories from Mark [Allen, band manager] about most of them losing their homes, being displaced, losing friends,“ Amos says, “and I heard a Marvin Gaye track on my iPod. So when I sat down with the band, we were talking about what was going on with them — where they were living, insurance claims. I started talking about the timelessness of the [Gaye] album, and I threw out to them that it would be amazing if they covered it.”
The bandmembers seized on the idea and suggested that Amos produce them. “I was flattered and terrified,” Amos says, “and the first call I made was to Anthony Marinelli.” Co-producer Marinelli and his production partner, engineer Clint Bennett, have worked on numerous Shout Factory releases, including the surprising remix of Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream (And Other) Delights, in their Music Forever studio (Hollywood).
“The one sonic thing I wanted on the record was for this to sound like a studio record,” Amos says. “It’s important to get them all together because that’s how they play and they’re an improvisational band, but I wanted a lot of presence. I wanted to hear air coming through the horns and the keys clanking, and finding a room to do all of that was key.”
Miking Efrem Towns’ trumpet
The project began in Westlake Studios (L.A.) with an attempt at the awesome title track, which features explosive new lyrics performed by rapper Chuck D. Drums, sousaphone and guitar were each in an iso booth, and the rest of the players set up in a semicircle in the main live room in Studio D.
“On ‘What’s Going On?’ the band had worked up a big-band arrangement, but I pulled drummer [Terence Higgins] aside, and we came up with just a funky beat and then a bass lick and laid down basic tracks. Most of what we did in Westlake was conceptualizing and getting those basic tracks,” Marinelli recalls. Bennett recorded to Pro Tools at 96k, but most of the processing he did at Westlake was through the studio’s Neve VR. Royer supplied numerous mics for the session; Bennett used 121s and 122s on all of the horns, and an SF24 for group vocals.
After three days in Westlake, the group had those basic tracks and “Wholly Holy” rearranged as a New Orleans jazz dirge. “We spent the better part of a day on that one,” Marinelli says, “coming up with arrangements on the fly, with music paper flying all over the place. But once we nailed it, they could improvise from there.”
At Bismeaux: (L-R, top row) Kevin Harris (tenor sax), Kirk Joseph (sousaphone), engineer Clint Bennett, Revert Andrews (trombone), Terence Higgins (drums), producer Anthony Marinelli, Efrem Towns (trumpet). Seated: producer Shawn Amos (left) and Roger Lewis (baritone sax).
The next opportunity for all to convene was when the Dirty Dozen played at South by Southwest. “The one date that was real was the record was going to come out on the [one-year] anniversary of Katrina,” Amos says, “and Austin was our last chance to make that date.” Amos booked time in Ray Benson’s Bismeaux Studio, where they brought in a Pro Tools rig and the same batch of Royers. “They have an old API desk,” Bennett says of Bismeaux, “and a huge wall of this esoteric outboard stuff. A lot of it they built themselves, and it’s really great stuff, but I used up every channel on that API first and then ran a couple of things through their custom-built tube pre’s.”
One of the guest vocal tracks was laid down live with the band in Bismeaux: Ivan Neville on “God Is Love.” After five days in Austin, the production team returned to Hollywood for the Pro Tools mix at Music Forever. They had virtual piles of tracks to assemble. “It wasn’t just mixing,” Marinelli says. “It was creating arrangements, post-recording, as well — mixing and matching pieces, almost like a remix.”
Part of the proceeds from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s jazz/soul/rap remake of What’s Going On? will be donated to the Tipitina’s Foundation (www.tipitinasfoundation.org), which benefits the New Orleans music community.