Tuesday, July 15, 2008

SESSIONS 5 & 6, July 12 and 14, 2008

“California girls are the greatest in the world – each one a song in the making.” So begins the last verse of Jon Stewart’s one hit “Gold.” And so begins this belated recording blog, belated not because I haven’t gotten around to writing it, but belated in that our two previous sessions were postponed – one of them twice. And California girls is the theme of this chapter in our recording history, because these two sessions largely revolve around two prime examples of the species: Mary Lou, and our friend vocalist/flutist Karen Emerson.

About the “belated” part, Mary Lou’s return from visiting her family in California coincided with the first significant rain we’d seen down this way in almost three months. This being south Texas, of course, the interval between welcoming rain and suffering from it can be very short. As soon as the rain started in earnest, Bett and Joël became concerned about the sensitive electronics that form the nerve center of Mandala Music. The studio is located in a somewhat elderly building with a flat roof. And, flat roofs being what they are, leaks occur – especially when precipitation goes from a delightful drizzle to a tropical torrent in record speed. In any event, our late June and early July sessions were postponed until order returned to the universe and Bett and Joël could resume being jazz musicians rather than a two-person bucket brigade. Once the water receded and the rain lilies began to appear, Mandala Music got back into the music business and we rescheduled our two missed sessions into one double session on Saturday the 12th, to be followed by our already scheduled four-hour session on the 14th.

You may recall that in our last sessions we had three songs “complete except for Mary Lou’s vocals.” We made them our first priority. Mary Lou set straight to work on providing the 4th vocal part to “Crazy Love.” By this time, Kathy, Steve, and I were very comfortable with the recording process, but this was the first time under the gun for Mary Lou. Thanks to the relaxed atmosphere that Bett and Joël create, she was able to cope quickly with the unfamiliarity and nailed down her part in relatively short order. Steve announced that we didn’t need to do any “dressing” on this song and that it was well and truly finished. We then moved on to “Take It Like a Man.” Now very relaxed, Mary Lou added her vocals without incident. I was a little surprised that she didn’t have any trouble with the second verse. While she was away, Steve came up with a second harmony and recorded it. I’m not sure whether anyone told her that the harmony would be there, but rather than being distracted, she carried on and nailed it. After another track in which the girls provided the percussion that is a feature of the song when performed live, “Take It Like a Man” was also finished.

And now it was on to “It Ends; It Begins.” Although Mary Lou likes to refer to her contribution to this song as “my one note,” the three of us had developed a somewhat tricky and very precise phrasing while she was away. Once again, no problem. With a touch-up or two, the song was almost ready. We had previously provided Karen Emerson with a rough cut of “It Ends; It Begins” and asked her to see if she could come up with a flute solo for us. We also encouraged her to supply some phrases elsewhere in the song if so inspired. As it happened, Karen arrived to the studio just as Mary Lou had finished her tracks. After greetings to everyone, Karen unpacked, had a single rehearsal play through, and then provided a mesmerizing performance. She had indeed provided phrasing throughout, and there isn’t a bit of it that won’t appear on the CD. I had felt for a long time that Kathy’s haunting lead vocal would make the song a highlight of the finished product. Karen’s contribution only confirmed that opinion for me. Less than 45 minutes after she walked into the studio, Karen was heading out the door. What a wonderful artist and person she is.

With the three “almost” songs completed, all that was left for us to record were four songs. Three of these feature only Steve and myself, and the fourth is the song on the album that we wrote for Mary Lou to sing. Because it only came into the repertoire the night before the Saturday session, we decided to let it wait until Monday. So, the four of us looked at the time remaining and figured that we should at least get the guitar tracks down for the three “Steve and Don” songs before the session was over. And then hunger arrived. Joël was also shattered after spending the previous night recording into the wee hours, so after Steve laid down a guitar track, we took a one-hour food break.

The studio is in the perfect neighborhood for such things. San Antonio’s “South Town” features art galleries, live theater, music venues a ‘plenty, and excellent food. The girls had done some scouting and we settled on Mad Hatters Tea Room for a sandwich and soup sort of late lunch or early dinner. There’s something about the name of that place that appeals to me.

We returned to the studio refreshed and well-provisioned and jumped into the song we were working on before. This is a love song that Steve and I wrote that’s in ¾ time. We call it “Love in Three-quarter Time.” It’s the most complex song we have written, featuring three distinct themes as well as vocal counterpoint. Despite its complexity, the most difficult element for us to execute was maintaining the tempo. I’ve often thought that it’s a good thing that we’re not primarily a dance band! After two or three tries, I gave up, and left it to Steve to lay down the all-important first track. After that, the vocals came relatively easily, and yet another song was “in the can.”

It was always Steve’s plan to save “Raccoon Rumble-seat” for late in a session when my voice was tired. It’s a blues shouter in E, and we always play it late in our gigs so that I can take advantage of the raspiness in my voice. We figured it would be the last thing we could manage, so we jumped into it. Because there are two changes of tempo in the song, Joël thought it a good idea for us to lay down the guitar tracks simultaneously. Steve just played his funky bass runs and I hammered away at the Takamine. Then Steve put in his lead licks, and, finally, I let it all hang out on the vocal. With just a “quick fix” or two, this song was also in the bag. I’m looking forward to hearing this on the CD. More than 30 years ago, an old friend of mine handed me a piece of paper that included what has turned out to be the first fifteen words to this song. It’ll be fun to hand him the finished product.

Unfortunately [or not], we finished the song too quickly and went on to our last “Steve and Don” song. “South Texas Saturday Night” is a good-time song. It’s got a little country and a little rock in it. When I first started working on the lyrics, I thought that it would fit into the genre called “Texana.” Steve and I had some difficulties getting it ready for live performances, and we had put it away for a time before we completed it. However, once we debuted it, it has become a favorite of ours and of our audiences. I also thought that this song would be a problem to record. Steve and I swap lead vocals for one thing, and for another, Steve’s initial guitar lick is keyed by my hammering on the low E string. Not an easy thing to record individually. Joël asked us to play it and, after we finished, he said that we should do it in two tracks – one just guitars and one just vocals. So we did it and, with significant help from Kathy’s amazing ear, managed to get the song’s ending perfectly.

And we were still not finished. We had time for Steve to lay down two guitar tracks for “Sweet Music Man,” the song we had written for Mary Lou’s lead vocal. But that would wait until Monday. Back to Leon Valley we came. The girls picked up some Thai and Steve and I selected a bottle of Syrah to have with it. An amazing day!

On Monday, Mary Lou and I arrived at the studio first, with Steve and then Kathy to follow. I laid down my guitar track to "Sweet Music Man," a song that was inspired by our friend, jazz trombonist, band leader, and vocalist Ron Wilkins. The first hint of the lyrics came to me when we were visiting Ron in the hospital. Steve carried the lyrics around with him and came up with a beautiful, simple tune for it. Steve’s guitar solo on this recording is economic, free of frills, and gorgeous. Mary Lou’s task here was not to over-vocalize. Simplicity should be the key not only to the guitar work, but also the singing. And so, Mary Lou delivered a soft, yearning vocal that pleased the four of us. “Sweet Music Man” was in the can with only 90 minutes gone in the session.

So, all thirteen of the songs we had intended to record were at least in the rough cut stage. Steve, and Kathy took advantage of the time remaining to add some vocal flourishes to “Looking Back.” Mary Lou will have some contributions to make there, and there’ll be even more from Kathy on the song, but we left early so that Joël could provide us with a rough cut of the whole CD. The four of us will listen and decide which songs require a touch of guitar here, a bit of vocalizing there. We have two more sessions scheduled for July, and we’re hoping to use them to make our final contributions. Everything else will be up to the magic of Bett and Joël.

These two sessions were a long time coming, but they were very productive and very rewarding.

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