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Music: John Scofield’s Gospel Mission


Engineer James Farber

Sometimes only the Lord’s music will do.

When jazz guitarist extraordinaire John Scofield rolled into New Orleans in early September 2008 to record his latest album, the Big Easy had a surprise for him. Arriving the day after Hurricane Gustav had smacked down on the city, Scofield, accompanied by engineer James Farber, and his recording band — Jon Cleary (piano, keyboards, vocals), The Meters’ George Porter Jr. (bass), Ricky Fataar (drums), John Bouttè (vocals) and Shannon Powell (percussion) — met at a studio located in New Orleans’ Bywater district, part of the Katrina-drenched Lower Ninth Ward. The city had been evacuated, so not a soul was in sight, not even the FedEx man, whose truck held Scofield’s custom-ordered Vox AC 30 amplifiers.

“New Orleans was a ghost town,” Scofield recalls from Katonah, N.Y. “We couldn’t get in our hotel, the city was flooded. And then we found out my amps were delayed, so we scoured New Orleans to find replacements. I ended up using a Matchless DC-30 and a Vox AC 30 with my [1981] Ibanez AS200. It was crazy getting everything together, but we did it.”

Perhaps observing the belief that trials and tribulations ultimately strengthen one’s faith, Scofield and company recorded an album of classic gospel material in New Orleans, and its title couldn’t be more fitting. Named for the tracking studio, Piety Street (Emarcy) features such inspirational gospel odes as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “The Angel of Death,” each track spirited by Fataar’s mighty backbeats and Scofield’s warm tone and searing solos.

“It was going to be a blues record originally,” Scofield says, “but there are a zillion blues guys out there playing the classic 12-bar blues form. But I’ve listened to a lot of old black gospel music. I’ve been a fan for years. There is so much great gospel material I thought we could make a whole record of it and I could play the blues over that. The soul aspect is what I was going for. That is a different thing to play. I used my same guitar; I just bent the strings a little more.”

Scofield often records at New York’s Avatar Studios (formerly Power Station), so he asked James Farber — a one-time Power Station staff engineer who still works at Avatar every chance he gets, and who has recorded about a dozen albums for Scofield — to join him at Piety Street Recording. One of the top jazz engineers working today, Farber’s resume includes recordings by Joe Lovano, Dave Holland, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, Paul Motian and others. But unlike some freelance engineers, Farber doesn’t carry an anvil case full of select microphones wherever he goes. Instead, Farber prefers to roll with the flow.

“I don’t own any of my own equipment,” Farber explains. “I am dependent completely on what the studio has, and I like the challenge of using different mics. Every record should be different, reflecting that moment of that group in that room and with whatever was available. I do have my first choices in microphones, and my records come out sounding like they’re mine because I have some kind of sensibility that I listen with. But unlike making pop records where the result is the imagination of the engineer, producer and artist creating a sound, I am trying to present the sound of the band in its natural state. In a way, it’s harder, but I am not trying to invent something; I’m more trying to capture something.”

While the band rehearsed and cut basic demos (guitar, drums and percussion in Piety Street’s three iso booths; keyboards, bass and vocals in the main room), Farber conferred with studio owner (and the album’s co-producer with Scofield) Mark Bingham about the choice of microphones and associated gear.

“Piety Street had so many mics I had never heard of,” Farber says. “Mark and I put our heads together as to what would work best for the session. And because I am not an SSL guy — to be honest, I do everything I can on Neves and preferably old Neves — I was a little bit leery of the studio’s SSL console. Fortunately, Mark had an amazing amount of outboard mic preamps. He has 20 Neve [33135/33114] broadcast channel pre’s and other outboard pre’s so we didn’t use a single preamp from the SSL board. It was basically used for monitoring.

“It’s just a bigger sound,” Farber says of Neves in general. “A more natural, musical sound for me since I primarily make jazz records. The rock guys prefer SSL for its focus and forwardness, but I find acoustic music just blends together a lot better on Neves. We mixed on a Neve VR at Avatar, as well. Compared to the monitor mixes I took from the tracking session, as soon as I put up the faders, it sounded twice as big.”

Using the SSL 4064 G+ board with Digidesign Pro Tools HD 32 I/O with Apogee AD/DAs (mixed to a Studer A-820 half-inch reeling RMG900 half-inch tape at 30 ips), Farber recorded the group live, including Scofield’s solos, cut at what he calls “a very loud level” in the iso booth.

L to R: George Porter Jr., Jon Cleary, John Scofield and Ricky Fataar

Photo: Shawn Hill

“Sco’s guitar is always going to sound like him,” Farber says. “It’s the way he plays the instrument and attacks the strings, and he’s been using the same guitar forever. This was a little different than recording him on some of his jazz albums only because he was playing blues, and at quite a high volume. To walk into his booth was a little dangerous.”

Running Neve 33135 mic pre’s on the amps, Farber used a Shure SM57 and a CharterOak tube mic on the Matchless, and a Shure SM57 and a Coles 4038-SA ribbon for the Vox. Mic placement was “probably not off-axis,” Farber tries to recall. “But I don’t know how far from the amp; maybe 10 inches. I move the placement around a little bit after I hear it. They wind up in different places all the time. The mics were probably close to the middle of the speaker.

“I use two different mics on each amp for different colors. Without having to EQ anything, I can play with the balance of those four microphones and create what is the right color and tone for the individual song. I had two different colors on each amp, and each amp had a different color from the other one.” Additionally, Farber placed a Blue Bottle mic in “omni” high in Scofield’s isolation booth to capture ambient sound.

Farber compresses guitar while recording, “basically to contain a few things that might stick out too much, using a gentle-ish setting.” Here, he had Neve 33609 compressors for the Matchless and a Daking FET II on the Vox.

A first for a Scofield album, Piety Street‘s vocals give the music a soulful and uplifting spirit. Jon Cleary’s and John Bouttè’s vocals were recorded in the main room, along with piano and bass, but the piano was covered to prevent leakage, and the bass amp was out in a hallway, well-isolated from the live room. Farber ran a CharterOak tube mic through a Portico pre and an LA-2A compressor for Cleary (who favored a lot of compression). Boutte required a simpler chain — a U47 mic with a dbx 160 compressor.

In a particularly unusual production move, Scofield and Farber preferred to hard-pan the guitar and keyboards, a result of their mutual fondness for ’60s jazz and R&B records.

“James and I did this before on my record Feels Good to Me,” Scofield explains. “We separated keyboard and guitar hard-left and hard-right and it worked really well. I like hard-panning in jazz records. It can really help to get definition on the sound.”

Even then, Farber placed a bit of the Blue Bottle ambient sound in the left channel to prevent drastic isolation of the guitar. Once back at Avatar for the mix, Farber maintained the hard-panning aesthetic, thinking of it as a live performance.

“I just try to make it sound like a band,” he says. “I want you to feel like you are listening to a band playing on a stage for the most part. Maybe a little bit of a super-extreme version of that with this record, because even if you are sitting in the front row and the piano and guitar are on the left and right, you wouldn’t hear it this separate.”

At Avatar, Farber mixed Piety Street on his favorite Neve console, using an SSL FX G 384 stereo compressor on the mix, Neve 31102 and Pultec EQP-1A EQs, and two reverbs: an EMT-140ST plate and a TC Electronic M5000 with the Gold Foil Plate setting.

“The TC Electronic reverb is what we had at Piety Street,” Farber recalls. “I got used to that sound. I don’t use a lot of the software reverbs; I’m a jazz guy. The mixing was really mostly balance and reverb, and the hard-panning was carried over from the rough mixes at Piety Street.”

Scofield has recorded jam-band fusions, straight-ahead jazz joints, tributes to R&B masters, duets, trios and quartets with fellow master musicians, and one album where the goal was simply to be “quiet.” Piety Street finds the 59-year-old guitarist creating yet a new rift in his sound, one borne of adversity and perhaps a little faith.

“Each time you record you learn something,” Scofield says. “This was great because I had the adversity with the guitar amps, but I really like the guitar sound despite the fact that I didn’t have my amps. It made me think, ‘You can always compromise.’ Recording is a compromise because it never sounds like it does to your ears, like the band in the room. But a lot of times it can sound better. On a good day it can sound incredible.”