Saturday, September 25, 2010

Middle Passage

One thing I really picked up from Jason was his intensity, focus and commitment to the work. He aimed for mixes that broke barriers and reached for new levels of sonic expression. It's hard to get across just how intense the space was when he was working. You had to be at your highest degree of presence and attention, more so than you ever thought possible because that's where he was at. He was going for sounds, especially in the low end, that would present powerful music, such as the Ginger Baker album, Middle Passage, to be heard more powerfully than ever before; to strike a Universal chord, create a vibrational pattern that would, perhaps, resonate throughout the planet. At times it would seem that Jason would mix as if the fate of the World hung in the balance. He loved what he was doing which probably contributed significantly to the success his work enjoyed.

Bill Laswell introduced me to Jason, and the 3 of us began to work together in 1989 right at about the same time Bill Graham and Amensty International brought the first tour of Western music to the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. These events took place only a few months before the peaceful collapse of Communism and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

One example of how strong the mood became for me was during the mix of the Swans cover of Can't Find My Way Home written by Steve Winwood and originally performed by Blind Faith, the 'super-group' with Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech.

Come down off your throne and leave your body alone
Somebody must change

You are the reason I've been waiting so long

Somebody holds the key

Well I'm near the end and I just ain't got the time

And I'm wasted and I can't find my way home...

Somehow, the combination of the way Jarboe sang it, the music, and the fact of living the song from the inside out by helping Jason set-up the mix and hearing it over and over again, put me in a mood where, within the confines of the control room, it really felt like a life or death situation. I was mindful of the song's context and history, and the self-destructive excesses it was obviously addressing. I really felt it could go either way, toward life or to death. Trilok's pitch bending, slower tabla rhythm helped produce this effect. Karl Berger, founder of the influential Woodstock based Creative Music Studio, had added a nice bell like counter line on a xylophone that seemed to draw in an angelic presence to guard the vulnerability of balancing on the edge that came through Jarboe's vocal delivery. Even as the lyrics look hopeless, the music, the performance, and the haunting dreamy nature of the audio space Jason created, gave the effect of seeing a distant light at the end of a long dark tunnel suggesting the possibility of transformation, redemption and change.

Mixing Ginger Baker's Middle Passage cd with Bill and Jason remains a career highlight for me. The album is musically very powerfully way over the top especially in the rhythm section which besides Ginger included Aiyb Djieng, Mar Gueye, and Magette Fall on African percussion, and Bill Laswell, Jah Wobble, and Jonas Helborg on bass. Nicky Skopelitis contributes passionate, soul searching guitar playing. Faruk Tekbilek adds a rich, prayer call-like Middle Eastern element with the ney ( a Turkish flute) and the zurna.

Not knowing what it is, I looked up "zurna" and got this description that appears related.

The zurna (also called surnay, birbynė, lettish horn, surla, sornai, zournas, zurma) is a multinational outdoor wind instrument, usually accompanied by a davul (bass drum) in Anatolian folk music. The name is from Turkish zurna, itself derived from Persian سرنای surnāy, composed of سور sūr “banquet, feast” and نای nāy “reed, pipe”. Turkmen say that Adam, who was moulded from clay, had no soul. It is said that it was only due to the melodious zurna-playing Archangel Gabriel could breathe life into Adam. According to a Turkmen legend the main role in zurna invention was played by the devil (note the term ″devil openings", şeytan delikleri, in Turkish for the small apertures on the bell). There is a ritual of inviting guests for a celebration which has survived from ancient times. Two zurna players stand in front of each other, point their instruments upwards and play in unison. While doing this they perform magic circular movements which remind that this ritual used to be linked to shamanism.

I contributed to the tracking by recording Aiyb and Nicky, doing some edits on the 2" tape, and recording Bill doing his famous effect of running hand drums or snares through the old Eventide H910 Harmonizer and randomly changing the pitch and feedback controls to get unpredictably sproingy textural accents.

The peak of watching Jason mix occurred during the mix of the 5th track, Basil, a 4:21 drum solo by Baker. Through extreme, but parallel processing, he created radically different textures in the drum sound which he then, using the SSL automation, brought in and out to create different dynamic sections. I'm hesitant to be more specific about the effects used but I can say that when Jason worked the automation to create or emphasize the different sections it was like watching a virtuoso musical performance. For me, it was like watching Hendrix play the guitar or being in the presence of Ornette Coleman playing the saxophone. Both Bill and I were sitting with Jason at the SSL while this was going on. I had the feeling that Bill was equally aware that we were watching a master at the top of his craft. It's a memory that I'll never forget.

I highly recommend checking out Basil, it's some of the most powerful drumming you'll ever hear. It's about the only drum recording I know of that musically and sonically compares with John Bonham's Moby Dick for a powerfully melodic drum composition.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Jason Corsaro

I started out my audio career doing live sound and lights on the Western Canadian bar band circuit. The request from nearly every drummer at the time ( late '70's, early '80's) was to make their drums sound big, powerful, and live like the sound of John Bonham's drums, Led Zeppelin's drummer. I agreed with that direction and always aimed for the Bonham drum sound for rock drummers.

In the mid-80's I found myself back in Western Canada after having attended the Institute of Audio Research for a year in New York City. I was hoping to transition into a job at a recording studio. As luck would have it, there was only 1 professional studio in Calgary, Alberta, where I lived, and they didn't employ a full-time staff. So back on the road I went. Drummers still wanted the Bonham drum sound, and I hadn't heard anything better to aim for. The last band I went out with before moving back to New York was a top 40, some hard rock, cover band called Bladerunner. They were named after the same movie that's based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I disliked Bladerunner's (the cover band) music so much that I wouldn't see the movie for a long time thinking it must be equally as bad - wrong about that! However, their version of Highway to Hell did turn me into a bit of an AC/DC appreciator.

It was while working with Bladerunner that a drummer first requested a rock drum sound other than John Bonham's. He was really into the drum sound from a new group called the Power Station, named after the legendary New York recording studio. I'd remember the big radio hit they'd had with their cover of the T-Rex song Get It On ( Bang A Gong) and the drum sound did stand out as being huge, powerful, and contemporary without sounding electronic or unnaturally processed. Tony Thompson, formerly of the R&B band Chic, played drums for Power Station but his sound was largely the result of the brilliant and innovative recording and mixing techniques by engineer Jason Corsaro. The drum sound that Jason got was so powerful that Thompson was asked to join Led Zeppelin as a replacement for John Bonham after his untimely death.

I was fortune to assist Jason on about a half dozen or so projects in the early 1990's. Working with him was like being in graduate school. I regard him as a mentor. By that time I'd been working at a busy, top New York recording studio called Platinum Island for a couple of years and had worked with a number of the industry's top professionals. I knew my way around a state-of -the-art recording studio and an SSL mix room. I already was successfully engineering projects on my own. Jason took it over the top. He was my guide and doorway to the next level of recording studio wizardry.

Jason seemed liked Bill Laswell's secret weapon. His intial introduction to me was not in person, but through a mix of the song Cold Metal by Iggy Pop. This was from Iggy's Instinct album which Bill was producing. The plan was to mix half the album at the Power Station with Jason, and half at Platinum Island with Robert Musso. Bill arrived at Platinum Island for the first day of mixing with a mix Jason had done of the song Cold Metal to play as a reference. The track literally jumped out of the speakers, it sounded AMAZING!! and still does. So much so that Bob Musso became visibly nervous. After Bill left us to set-up the first track, Bob was lamenting that Jason had all these great live chambers (to use as natural reverb) available at the Power Station. I mentioned that we could use Platinum Island's studio East live room as a reverb chamber and proceeded to set it up as such. It worked quite well for that purpose and marked the first time I'd ever used such a technique. Now, live natural reverb is something I try to incorporate whenever possible. It sounds so much better than digital reverbs. To Bob's credit, he was able to get mixes powerful and intense enough to live side by side with Jason's on the Instinct record.

Platinum Island passed the mixing test resulting in Bill Laswell bringing Jason Corsaro in to mix his next major label production, The Swan's cd titled The Burning World. The first track we mixed is the first one on the cd, The River that Runs with Love Won't Run Dry. This uplifting and anthemic ode to love under will has a timeless sounding quality partially due to its Eastern flavor from Trilok Gurtu's tablas and L. Shankar's electrified classical Indian violin stylings.

For the first two sessions I did the standard assistant's job of patching, keeping notes, etc while also hanging back, staying out of Jason's way and not saying much which was the politically correct way of working as an assistant - not offering any input or opinion unless something drastically wrong was occurring. I was amazed at Jason's use of effects. He would compress, eq, sometimes gate them, and run effects into other effects like chorusing a reverb, etc. I told him how nice the Studio East live room sounded as a reverb chamber. He wasted no time taking advantage of it, using it, in some instances, as the snare drum reverb, sometimes running the live room through a flanger, sometimes pitching it down, and timing the SSL gates just right for maximum effect.

At the end of the second night, Corsaro had, a 'let's get real' talk with me that was kind of a kick in the ass. I don't remember exactly what he said, but something to the effect that I could either continue working as any other stay-in-the-lines assistant engineer jerk or I could seriously help him mix the record as a co-pilot. From then on I was right beside him at the board watching his every move like a hawk, making suggestions when appropriate, even helping with automation moves when his hands were full.

Here's a review from Amazon on the first record Jason and I mixed together with Bill Laswell producing:

5.0 out of 5 stars Simply one of the greats
One of the greatest rock cds ever released, this little-known gem is stunningly packed with brooding, hopeless lyrics that tell us that nothing is left, nothing matters, and there is no release.
God Damn the Sun and (She's A) Universal Emptiness are two of the most desolate, powerful songs I've ever heard.
Outstanding cd without a weak track.
The review implies a nihilist slant to the subject matter but I also find redemptive aspects alongside the bleakness especially in the 6th track, Saved which has the lyrics:

When Sunlight Falls On Your Shoulder
You Look Like A Creature From Heaven

You're Holy When You Open Your Eyes

And Look Up Inside That Sheltering Sky

You're An Angel, I'll Never Betray You

But I'll Always Be A Lonely Child

Perhaps writer Michael Gira or the character portrayed will always be a lonely child but his heart is in the right place as he evokes the same kind of ecstatic adoration James Joyce brings to Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake, and then majestically declares himself Saved in the choruses.

The last couple of tracks to mix were acoustic alternates to two of the album tracks, just acoustic guitar and a lead vocal. Jason told me to go ahead and mix them. He stood beside me as I mixed and critiqued what I was doing. This brief mixing lesson from him felt like a direct transmission from a master as if something more than the basic instructions he was giving me was being passed on.

At the very end of the last Swan's session Jason pointed to me and said " You're going to be a Star." I was wearing a black t-shirt with a white, upright pentagram on it, a five-pointed star - the same shirt mentioned in the Danzig post. I thought that he must mean the shirt and that's what he was pointing at whereupon he said, " I'm not talking about your shirt."


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Buddy Miles - A Jimi Hendrix Conspiracy?

Today commemorates the 40th anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix. I have Electric Ladyland playing right now, starting with the first track: . . . AND THE GODS MADE LOVE. Perhaps the 3 dots represent the 3 qabalistic veils of nothingness that precede the manifestation of existence on the qabalistic Tree of Life? Or something else, entirely? Conceptually, the 3 dots seem to indicate something going on before the Gods made love. Just musing here . . . we've since moved on to CROSSTOWN TRAFFIC followed by VOODOO CHILE.

Earlier this year while in Tuscon producing an album with Mark Growden, I met the owner of an established music store and a dealer/collector of guitars. He showed me a Hohner Bass that Paul McCartney had signed and given to him. He also had a drum head signed by Ringo on his wall. I don't have his name at the moment, but will get it.

We were at his house in the desert hills above Tuscon, to return some Neumann U67's we had borrowed for Mark's sessions. Our host showed us his amazing home studio - a vintage Neve desk, Studer 800's, the works. THEN . . . he pulled out a shoebox full of cassettes which he said were copies of everything that Hendrix had ever recorded, all his ideas, jams, everything! Quite an amazing collection!!

He put one on over his studio's Genelec monitors. The music just seemed so fresh and alive, definitely had that Hendrix spark, you could almost feel him playing it. The sound was raw and immediate in all it's unproduced and unprocessed glory. It was our host's educated opinion that these raw cassettes sound better than recent commercial releases of Hendrix's archival materials which he felt were too bright and overcompressed.

. . .

Buddy Miles entered Greenpoint Studio for the first time with a white Stratocaster, embossed with an American flag design, slung over his shoulder which he proceeded to lay across the large black table in the control room area. He said that Jimi Hendrix had given it to him. This was in the early '90's some 20 years after Hendrix died. It was my first time meeting Buddy. In a way, he introduced himself to us with that Strat. Hendrix was obviously still very important to him and loved by him.

Buddy was a real, larger-than-life character. Most people know that he was a solid and powerful drummer with great feel but what many don't know is that he was also an amazingly strong and soulful singer, one of the best I've ever worked with. He and I got along great, mostly, I suspect, because I provided him with significant quantities of Alchemical Gold Patchouli essential oil which he loved and applied copiously.

Miles, it seemed, liked to live life to the fullest. At night he would go out and rage against the dying of the daylight in his own inimitable fashion. He would inevitably show up the next morning very hungry, usually ordering a couple of Chinese food dinners for breakfast. After breakfast he'd get very sleepy. Imad, our assistant engineer, would brew up a pot of strong coffee to jump start Buddy back into service. Sometimes the coffee wasn't enough, so Imad would up the caffeine level with a couple of No-Doz tablets. This would usually suffice.

One day, a few hours into the session, Buddy became very emotional. I suspect he'd been given an extra No-Doz dose that led to his state. For some reason, between takes, he started thinking about Hendrix. Maybe it was because he was playing with Bootsy Collins who sounds as good, and with a similar style as Hendrix, but on the bass. Buddy was upset, he said, about bad elements in the music industry feeding Hendrix drugs which eventually destroyed him. He got so upset that he started to break down and cry. Bootsy got up from his bass station, went over to Buddy to calm him, patting him on the back and saying in his classic falsetto voice so familiar on his recordings, "It's alright, Buddy, it's alright." At the time, the whole scene appeared quite comical, though Buddy was genuinely distraught.

Buddy Miles was a close friend, musical partner, and part of Hendrix's immediate circle in his latter years. Buddy genuinely believed, he said it more than once, that unscrupulous people were supplying Hendrix with drugs to control and bring him down. I have no idea about the truth of this but it does make one wonder about his death.

. . .

One of the pleasures I had recording Buddy Miles was hearing him sing Dylan's ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER (the song titles are all in caps because that's how they're printed on the Electric Ladyland cover, and I'm honoring the Hendrix legacy today). Although Buddy banned Stevie Salas from playing the classic Hendrix riff for this song, his version feels much more like Hendrix's cover of this apocalyptic classic than Dylan's original. Buddy aced it on the vocals. I can still vividly remember the power of him belting out the vocal across Greenpoint.

Friday, September 17, 2010


I use Google Ad Sense to try to monetize this blog. I do not choose the ads that go up on it like the one for Eckanker below the last post. Ads on this site do not constitute an endorsement from me.

As always, caveat emptor, which means buyer beware.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Waking the Skeleton Key

Just finished mixing an extended EP for my friends JemalWade Hines and Moksha Sommer who make up the core of HuDost. I've known Jemal since he was 19 and watched him develop over the years into quite the accomplished musician, producer and arranger. Their music is psychedelic and folky sounding with rich vocal harmonies, that also rocks out at times. Far seeing and reaching lyrics point toward transcendental subjects sometimes becoming passionately devotional like ecstatic Sufi poetry.

At the start of this project, Jemal wrote a blog commenting on my Weaving Threads posts. It can be found here.

I approached these mixes, on one level, as an experiment in the transmission of baraka - a kind of spiritual energy ( for lack of better terms) that may be related to what Reichians call "orgone" or to what Hermeticists call LVX.

In the language of Science, the state of matter called "plasma" most closely approximates baraka, to my estimation.

In physics and chemistry, plasma is a substance similar to gas in which a certain portion of the particles are ionized. The presence of a non-negligible number of charge carriers makes the plasma electrically conductive so that it responds strongly to electromagnetic fields. Plasma, therefore, has properties quite unlike those of solids, liquids, or gases and is considered to be a distinct state of matter. Like gas, plasma does not have a definite shape or a definite volume unless enclosed in a container; unlike gas, in the influence of a magnetic field, it may form structures such as filaments, beams and double layers. Some common plasmas are stars and neon signs.

So, one way of looking at it: the aim was to come up with mixes and music that had a star-like nature.

Plasma was first identified in a Crookes tube, and so described by Sir William Crookes in 1879 (he called it "radiant matter").

A spiritual energy also described as "radiant matter" doesn't appear a contradiction in the cosmology of G.I. Gurdjieff who maintained that all energies, paranormal, extrasensory or not, have a material basis.

An enjoyable part of mixing Waking the Skeleton Key for HuDost was that Wade encouraged me to add samples of my ambient recordings from around the world, when appropriate. One track ends with the ambience from a very surrealistic evening I had with Bill Laswell and Janet Rienstra in Giza, Egypt near the Great Pyramid of Khufu. More on that story another time.

On an alternate High Velocity mix that I did for a track called Invisible, a cover of a song by The Church that's to appear on a bonus companion cd, I added a prayer call from outside a mosque in Tashkent, Uzbekistan for the intro and outro. At the end you can hear a child soliciting for money whereupon my guide turns to me and says, "he is a real religious . . . little . . . shit", only the word "shit" has been obscured by someone's breath so that it comes out sounding like "it."

Anyone interested to see how well this experiment worked, or just to hear great, inspiring music, can order Waking the Skeleton Key by clicking on it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Aleister Crowley's Secret to Great Music

Before I make his secret no longer so, I thought I should provide a link to anyone who wishes to hear "Love" in all its audio glory:

Be Bop Or Be Dead

Aleister Crowley's Secret to Great Music is:



which can simply mean to play a lot with passion. This maxim was most famously put into practice by Jimmy Page, founder, producer and guitar player for Led Zeppelin. It seemed to work for him.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Love" - Buddy Miles, Bernie Worrell, and Umar Bin Hassan

One necessary skill both in bardo voyaging and the recording studio is the ability to make fast decisions, to take the optimum path when suddenly and unexpectedly at a choice point. Timing can be crucial.

I'd just finished a session with ex-Jimi Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles and former Funkadelic funkster Bernie Worrell on the Hammond B3 organ at Greenpoint (Bill Laswell's studio at the time), when Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets showed up for an evening session with the Jungle Brothers. At the time, Umar was working on his own album, Be Bop or Be Dead for the Axiom label. He mentioned to Bill, who was producing it, that he had a new poem called Love. Would he like to hear it?

Umar began reading in rhythmic cadence from barely legible scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad with as much passion and intent as if he was delivering it to a sleeping Universe - gently, deftly, shockingly, coaxing it awake.

Buddy Miles turned around and went back to the drum kit and started into a jazzy swing rhythm accompanying Umar, accenting and punctuating his phrases. Bernie got back behind the keyboard and started laying down a walking bass line and supporting pad on the organ.

I'd already starting tearing down the drum mics when I realized what was happening. Immediately I stopped, as Bill told me to put up a fresh reel of tape. Fortunately the Neumann U47 Tube mic was set-up and plugged in at the customary vocal station. I told Umar to get on the mic, start from the top, and rolled tape. Bernie worked out a short intro, and they were off.

Umar was fully there with the poem, fully in the moment and Buddy and Bernie were right there with him. Umar read the poem straight through once, only pausing between stanzas to let Bernie solo. Buddy on the drums and Bernie's accompaniment was completely unplanned, totally spontaneous. That was the performance that ended up on the record. No second takes, overdubs, or punch-ins, that was it, one pure creative moment that lives on.

And that's how Love entered the human dimension this one time.

The poem deals with all facets of love, the highs, the lows and the in-betweens. There are a lot of words to it but here are some highlites:

One night I was truly seeking. I was standing inside the rain. As love passed by it whispered, time to leave the pain. I'm here whenever you need me. I'm the beckoning call. I can be your rise to glory or the madness before the fall. I cried out LOVE ... what do you want from me, you've got to tell me now. Love just smiled and answered, must I also tell you how?


Hard laughter disguising softer fears. Love becomes entangled as deception cheers. Love that moment you can't understand, it's when love is asking for a helping hand. Intelligence is vital, love takes reason. Passion without wisdom is romantic treason. Love is the rain that greens the leaves, it's the part of death that never grieves...

And it ends with:

Love plus patience can become understanding. When love becomes promiscuous it becomes too demanding. Waiting on love can become the love of time. Being impatient with love can lead to serious crime. Love is to be considered. Love is to be kind. It's a wise old gesture from a childish mind. To never take advantage. To never abuse. To never mistrust. To never accuse. Love is to be honored. Love is to be shared. Love is to be tried, but never dared. Love is to desire. Love is to yearn. To be able to give and ask nothing in return. And then to be able to speak words so true. I love you - and I love you too!

- Umar Bin Hassan