Wind back the time machine to 1976 and you’ll find the classic jazz/rock fusion recording Romantic Warrior by Return to Forever, a group then made up of keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al DiMeola and drummer Lenny White-all highly regarded virtuosos in the jazz world. This final album from the legendary band was a conceptual work, with compositions organized into a fused classical-like suite.
Zoom forward to 1999. The RTF alumni have been through a thousand different phases in and outside of jazz, and what’s this? Fusion is back on the musical horizon. The once-popular, much-scorned genre is being resurrected by some of its original innovators in a group called Vertu, which includes Clarke and White. Since RTF’s demise, they have remained friends and collaborated intermittently on projects. Most recently, Clarke helped White out on a recent solo funk-oriented contemporary jazz CD, which included another old friend, keyboardist/producer George Duke.
In 1998, the duo went on the road with guitarist Larry Carlton and keyboardist Jeff Lorber for a fusion revival tour as the “Superband.” That tour inspired the desire to jam more and brought in fans hungering to hear more fusion. Rather than just putting Clarke and White together with an array of stellar session musicians, they instead formed a real band, featuring violinist Karen Briggs, keyboardist Rachel Z and, perhaps most interestingly, rock guitarist Richie Kotzen. “This CD,” states Clarke, “has the same musicians on every track, which is very unusual for jazz today.”
Clarke explains further: “When we came up in bands like RTF, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, we didn’t have outsiders on those records. So that’s what this is about.” As for the ensemble’s name, “The concept, if there is a concept,” says White, “is just to bring virtuosic playing back to the music. Everything has been smoothed out and homogenized to the point that it’s broken.” Clarke adds, “It’s been like a quantum leap in technology since the ’70s. With just the sheer nature of having what we have today, the music is already different.”
Without a doubt, these gentlemen established themselves as incredible players ages ago. Nevertheless, they felt a need to make a statement with their new band: “We play our instruments,” White stresses. “There’s a commitment to actually be able to perform what’s on the record. There’s no drum machine or sequenced bass parts. Stanley didn’t go in and say, ‘I don’t know if I can play that, so let me put in the sequencer.’ He physically played it. That’s a commitment. We’d actually like to get some respect back.”
“We get respect from our fans and the press,” Clarke clarifies, “but when one of those award shows has an instrumental honor, it always goes to Kenny G, and that’s pretty much it.”
Given the divergent opinions in both jazz and rock about fusion, it’s not surprising to learn that Clarke and White are reluctant to fully endorse that classification for this project. Instead they refer to their music as “the 21st Century Sound.” “I’m going to stay away from the word [fusion],” Clarke says. “I never thought it was right for music we did in the ’70s and ’80s. It depicts the music, but I always thought the word was kind of lame.”
White joins in, “I agree, but let me give another perspective. With fusion, you put various kinds of music all together. But then what do you call hip hop, ’cause hip hop does the same thing? The way they make the music is different, but it is a fusion of different styles of music. Hip hop is what fusion was in the ’70s. Nowadays what is considered to be jazz is kind of a smooth jazz.”
“Lenny and I like elements of smooth jazz,” Clarke explains. “We have a bit of that on some of the songs. But our whole album isn’t about that. It’s not something you can put on AC radio and it will go from track to track. It’s almost like classical music. Not that it sounds like classical music, but it’s written very well. You can’t just walk in and play it-it had to be rehearsed. We had a month of just that. A lot of the music is very complex and demanding to play. It has the element of real composition, not like a groove with a sax on top, where you sit down by the fireplace with your lady and listen. It’s not background stuff.”
Helping Vertu capture their unique group sound on tape was engineer and co-producer Dennis McKay, an Englishman with a quick wit and a great feel for this style of music. McKay engineered Return to Forever’s swan song, so the Vertu project was a reunion of sorts. In the field of fusion and progressive/jazz rock, McKay’s credits speak for themselves-besides RTF, he worked with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jean-Luc Ponty, Allan Holdsworth, Jeff Beck, the late Tommy Bolin and many others. He’s even done work with the heavy-metal band Judas Priest.
“I did Lenny’s first solo album in the mid ’70s,” McKay recalls. “From that I got together with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke to do Romantic Warrior. That’s when I first met Stanley, Chick and Al DiMeola. Since then I’ve done seven albums with Al. I worked with Stanley on a trio record with Jean-Luc Ponty. So when [Clarke and White] called me up and asked me if I wanted to work on their new project, I said…no. Of course I said yes. I asked Stanley what is it going to be like. He says, ‘It’s like Romantic Warrior but far and beyond that.'”
As for the actual sessions, McKay states, “We recorded it at The Site outside of San Francisco [in a rural part of Marin County]. They have a Neve 8078, and both Lenny and Stanley said, ‘Let’s use the old Neve; we want some warmth.’ We worked there for 13 days without a day off. We did most of it with the full band on backing tracks, with a few overdubs-about 30 percent. It was a great place, great people, great food, and we all got fat.” Clarke adds, “It was a nice environment. That was the best move we made-not to record in New York or L.A. We woke up and there was basically only one thing to do-go to the studio.”
McKay says that he made every effort to give the band a big, warm sound, and to that end “sometimes we quadrupled guitars and violins. I used a lot of ribbon mics, RCA77s, and some tube mics, especially for the upright bass and cymbals. We only used dynamic mics for the toms. All Lenny and Stanley kept saying to me is, ‘Depth and warmth, Dennis.’ So the approach was to try to keep it warm and stay away from digital stuff. But the CD is not entirely massive- there’s a vocal track that Richie [Kotzen] sings and a live jazz club-like piece.
“For reverb I used the Lexicon 480, and I got a new unit called the M3000. I used an AMS on Lenny’s drums, plus any other reverbs they had in the room. I try not to use too much EQ from the board. I try to get it from the source. I tell the musicians I’m recording, ‘When you get a sound you love out there, all I have to do is re-create it in the control room, but only bigger.’
“The longest time was spent getting sound on Lenny and making it unique. Anyone can get a drum sound with a couple of mics, but Lenny’s playing requires more. He does very fast rolls; some are loud, and some are quiet. Because there was going to be a lot of instrumentation, I had to make sure these subtleties came through. I didn’t want to add EQ afterward because it would be noisy. We used a 421 on the toms, 57s on the snare, and ribbon mics on the cymbals. For the bass drum, a D-12 plus an RE20; one in and one on the side. That gave it the attack, and I didn’t use any gate.”
Because he had worked with White and Clarke before, McKay knew what they expected. “I’m pretty fortunate,” he says. “I can imagine if someone else was doing this project, it would be like pulling teeth. They want a certain sound, and you can’t bullshit them. They’ve done this almost all their lives, and Stanley has his own studio, too, which we used for overdubs.”
White describes the situation from the musicians’ standpoint. “We let Dennis handle the technical areas. We tell him what we want based on our previous studio experiences. Between the three of us, we have a great marriage.” McKay quips, ” I just had to make sure their hands wouldn’t touch any of the knobs.
“Stanley would say, ‘Lots of depth,'” McKay says. “He wants to feel the bass, not in terms of air pressure, but in body. Like it vibrates the room without distorting it-resonation with clarity. Every track on this album has a different bass sound. And because Stanley’s famous red bass had gotten pretty banged up, Alembic decided to build him a new one. It was a year in the making. It’s got little read-out lights by the frets. It cost something like $26,000. The sound is very dynamic, but there are too many variations. We had to go back and drop in for certain sections and remember what EQ we were using for the bass, because it’s so versatile.”
During the mix, on a Neve with Flying Faders at Track in North Hollywood, McKay found that the most efficient way of editing and mixing was to work in short sections. “That’s the only way it was going to work,” he says. “I’d mix like a minute and 20 seconds, put it down and listen back; Lenny and Stanley would approve it,” he says. “We’d alt some reverbs, different panning, a little sound change, and then go again for the next section. There was no way we could change the EQ. We did at least six to seven edits on every track, and a minute and 20 seconds could take six hours to mix. On the track called ‘Toys,’ it took three days to mix with edits. This was so complicated. There are sections in this music that people will be wondering, ‘How did they do that?’ But I didn’t use Pro Tools or Sonic Solutions; I just used the program in the Neve. I’m actually a bit of the ‘old school’-after 30 years of doing this, I prefer hands-on.”
McKay concludes, “I wouldn’t change a thing on this project. Sonically it’s modern but has the old style of mixing.” As far as White’s and Clarke’s comparisons to the beloved Romantic Warrior are concerned, McKay says, “To me this work is far more musical, more arranged, and with more overdubs. Romantic Warrior is great music, but it’s very straight. This has been carefully thought out, a lot of work has been put into this album. Stanley, Lenny and everyone else worked very hard on this CD. I think they didn’t want to let anyone down. What they were saying is that nobody is doing this right now. So when you hear it, it’s amazing and very different.”