Recently, I received a call from a Cyril Vetter, a multitalented renaissance man from Louisiana, who wanted to turn me on to a project he had been producing calledDeacon John's Jump Blues.This multimedia tribute to great New Orleans music and the artistry of slide guitarist Deacon John is a combination film, studio CD and HDTV concert document done earlier in the year at the Orpheum Theater in New Orleans.
Vetter asked me if I would meet him at Seventeen Grand (one of Nashville's best surround sound mixing facilities), where he was overseeing the mix of the project with studio co-owner/manager and mixing engineer Jake Niceley. I didn't realize when I arrived at the studio that I would be in for such a fine audio-visual treat — Deacon John's Jump Blues features inspired playing and wonderfully filmed and edited footage of some of the most legendary artists from the Big Easy, including Dr. John and Allen Toussaint.
Deacon John might not be one of the most recognizable names outside of the Crescent City, but he was part of Toussaint's recording band, playing guitar on such notable tunes as Ernie K-Doe's “Mother In Law,” Lee Dorsey's “Workin' In a Coalmine” and Irma Thomas' “Ruler of My Heart,” among many others. To underscore his importance in the region's classic music, Deacon John Moore was inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame in 2000.
Vetter — who also wrote the 1960 Swingin' Medallions frat rock anthem “Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)” — first came upon the idea to do the project when he caught Deacon John, Wardell Quezergue and Teedy Boutte performing on the same bill at an after-party show for the 1999 Big Easy Awards.
“The repertoire at that gig was primarily jump blues tunes typical of the kind of seminal recordings produced during the '50s and early '60s. Jump blues is the big band/rhythm-and-blues hybrid that formed the bridge between World War II-era big-band swing and early rock 'n' roll,” recalls Vetter. “I believe these recordings signaled the transition from swing to a more R&B-influenced dance-band repertoire [jump blues], which eventually mainstreamed into what came to be known as rock 'n' roll. The performance innovations from piano players like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair; drummers like Earl Palmer, Charles Williams and Smokey Johnson; and sax players like Lee Allen and Red Tyler forever changed the way those instruments were played in popular music. Cosimo [Matassa] was willing to experiment and innovate with the recording technology. Producers like Dave Bartholomew, Bumps Blackwell, Ahmet Ertegun, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and Wardell, and writers like Bartholomew, Toussaint, Dr. John, Dorothy Labostrie and others created hits that became the standard to which other early rock 'n' roll recordings were judged and later recordings were informed.
“After the gig, I asked Deacon why he never recorded an album of those kinds of tunes. He asked me why I hadn't produced one,” says Vetter. “So over the next few months, Deacon and I selected a list of tunes that we felt represented the music we were trying to re-create. We wanted to do an homage to that special era at Cosimo's. Armed with a song list from Dave Bartholomew, Ray Charles, Smiley Lewis, Professor Longhair, Shirley & Lee, and a couple of other tunes maybe not quite so identified with the Governor Nicholls Street Studio, but with points I wanted to make in the film, we set out to produce Deacon John's Jump Blues. Since Deacon has worked as a professional musician in New Orleans for almost 40 years, and played guitar on many of those seminal recordings, his life provides an ideal platform from which to tell the story of that music, that studio and those people.”
The show was co-produced with Vetter and his daughter, Gabrielle. It was recorded by David Farrell of Ultrasonic Studios in New Orleans and Seventeen Grand's Jake Niceley using a Euphonix 40-channel hard disk recorder in order to provide 5.1 surround audio to the HDTV video via timecode. David Niles of Colossalvision HDTV in New York directed the video recording using the HDNet 1080i truck based at DirectTV's HDNet in Dallas.
Besides Deacon John's Jump Blues, Vetter has also worked with Niceley on another Colossalvision project with Niles for an HDTV cinematic tribute to 9/11 that will be part of a permanent memorial museum a few blocks from where the World Trade Center used to be.
“David Niles contacted Cyril and myself and we put a session together to record music for this tribute film at Ocean Way,” says Niceley. “It was all done live with an orchestra and rhythm section, singers and background singers. Everything was done live like back in the old days. It was filmed in HDTV.”
Niceley mixed the track — a version of the old Harry Nilsson classic “Remember Christmas” — on Seventeen Grand's new linked pair of Sony DMX-R100 digital consoles, which replaced the facility's Euphonix CS3000. The switch to the new Sony was partially due to the fact that the DMX-R100s are much easier to use for many of Seventeen Grand's clients.
“Many engineers and producers who may have only had a few days to mix a project or do overdubs just really didn't want to have to take the time to learn all of the idiosyncrasies of a complicated console like our Euphonix. They just want to put their stuff up and go. It's easier to do that with these Sony consoles,” states Niceley. “The Sonys perform very well, and the EQ and dynamic sections work very well. I really like the way the surround folds down into the stereo, and I can do a separate stereo mix simultaneously for about the same price that I could mix a typical stereo album.”
Down the road from Seventeen Grand, I popped in at Masterlink Studios (which is part of Al Jolson Enterprises) to check out Grammy-winning producer and engineer Bil VornDick's latest project.
Acoustic Syndicate, from Shelby, N.C., has worked with VornDick for several years, and comprises brothers Bryon McMurry (banjo, vocals), Fitz McMurry (drums, percussion, vocals), their cousin Steve McMurry (guitar, vocals) and Jay Sanders (acoustic and electric bass). The band plays an engaging synthesis of acoustic and electric music that showcases the jamming sensibilities of ensembles like the Dave Matthews Band, Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident.
“Acoustic Syndicate plays all of the major festivals in the U.S.,” says VornDick. “They've done the Tellurides and Merle Fest. They opened up for Widespread Panic at Bonnaroo, and they recently sold out the Fox Theater in Boulder [Colo.] a couple of nights in a row.”
Their last CD (Crazy Little Life), produced by VornDick, made it to the top of the Americana charts and featured solid tracks like “Carnival,” “Sunlight Falls” and the seven-minute-plus “Brown Mountain Lights.” The new album, titled Terra Firma, is due out in March on the Sugar Hill label.
While I was in the studio, VornDick and the band played some new material that they had recorded that week. Among the songs I heard was the up-tempo title track “Terra Firma” and “Marie St. Lauriat,” which everyone was very enthusiastic about.
“We're really excited about this album,” enthuses Jay Sanders. “The drum sound is bigger and the songs are much more edgy, rock-oriented. Still, it is all done with our acoustic instruments. What we have done has been called folk rock by some people and we've also heard it called grassrock, but there's nothing bluegrassy about this record. It's as far away from that as we can get. We like to think about it as just good acoustic rock 'n' roll.”
VornDick recorded this project on a Tascam MX-2424 hard disk recorder, 24-bit/48 kHz, and mixed it through the Manley SLAM! at 96 kHz simultaneously to an Alesis MasterLink and an Ampex 104 2-track half-inch machine set at +5 on GP9. Tracking and mixing were done at Masterlink, while overdubs were handled at VornDick's Mountainside Audio Labs.
“Even though I'm able to cut and paste, the musicians are so good that I hardly did any of that. Most records right now are cut-and-pasted to hell, but these guys play really well; it's just not needed,” says VornDick. “This album is much edgier than the last album, and the songwriting is directed to a much larger audience. ‘Redbirds,’ a progressive light jazzy song, is a highlight.”
While “edgy” was the theme of the day at the Acoustic Syndicate sessions, VornDick was also celebrating the International Bluegrass Music Association Recorded Event of the Year Award for his production of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Sweethearts (Rebel Records).
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