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Jimmy Biondolillo In Interview

Mike Thorne interviewed professional music arranger Jimmy Biondolillo at the Stereo Society on October 16, 2001

Mike Thorne: What’s the arranger’s own job description? What do you tell people you do at parties?

Jimmy Biondolillo: I always use the parallel to the script doctor in Hollywood who comes in when the story is almost ready to shoot and does some finishing touches, fleshing out the story so that it works. I think that my arrangements as a string arranger/horn arranger are often just that. Great work has already been done. How can we accent it? How can we make it seem even larger than it may already be? So, I consider myself in a way a musical doctor. I just call in and give a once-over, and say, ‘Well let’s add a little, let’s tip here and tuck there and make this work that way.’ If I do my job right, when they go to mix they will have many options on how to make the record explode — if I do it right. If I do it wrong, then they keep the faders down.

You’re talking about the specific sweetening arrangement.


But, you work with groups–you work with all sorts of shapes and sizes.

True. I was answering the question as to what my main role has been in the last 18 months, and that’s been a sweetening perspective. When I do arrangements from the get-go, like for film or television, then it’s basically taking the song and, if I’m asked to produce as well as arrange, then I don’t really have to check with anybody. I can just go with the flow: cast it properly –keyboards, guitars, real drums, drum programming. In television and film it is often very time-oriented. They need 30 seconds here; a minute and a half here. So, I just figure out how I’m going to scope this and how I am going to get drama out of it. I’ve learned that in film or television, when there is a question asked when there’s a question in the script, it demands a certain kind of an answer. And, when there’s an exclamation or a statement, it demands a certain kind of answer. You learn little tricks of the trade. So, when I’m asked from the get-go on a record, I think as an arranger. I look at the producer, such as you, and I say, ‘Okay, Mike, what’s the goal?’ And, if the goal is to make it ride, make it rip, make it slow, make it large, I have to use my file of tricks and craft to make that happen.

Jimmy with Dave Tofani, saxophonist and clarinettist, on session
with Dave Tofani, saxophonist and clarinettist, on session

Casting is really the key, right? You’ve always casted well in terms of records, and I think that’s one of the things about New York that I love: you can get great cast. And, also, you steal from people their casting techniques, and I attribute that to great producers. The way they cast is so important, and the cleverness of casting, and producers like you are really good at mixing and matching. I was more traditional in my mixing and matching ‘cause I came up in a traditional arrangement style. But, when you work around producers who don’t really care that this is the best trumpet player in the world–they just care that this is the right trumpet player–that changes the way you operate.

You’re really pointing out that arranging the notes is only half of it. The other half is knowing the people who are going to deliver those notes.

Boy, that’s for sure because in knowing the notes I’ve learned a great lesson as I’ve grown older. The technique of sitting down and orchestrating is a fun one, but it is also a technique that I’m not at my best with when I’m working on a 3- or 5-minute pop record. I’m great with it if I’m working on a film or television queue, but in pop records I would love nothing better than to be able to hum the parts and have my orchestrator orchestrate them, and then I could either flesh them out or orchestrate the original line, and he fleshes it out accordingly. Because, to me, the process–the 50/50 process you’re talking about, with half ideas and half performance–that’s right on the money. When you orchestrate and you give too much time to how this is going to be perfect, I don’t think you leave any leeway for personality. That’s where arrangements either fall flat or stand up tall. You take a great arrangement–even work that I’m very proud of–and you give me the Memphis College Band to play it. Their intention may be good but they’re going to make me sound foolish no matter how good the notes are because they are not going how it’s supposed to fly. And in this town, you are surrounded by musicians who, if anything, have to be reigned in to make sure that it doesn’t become their record. You have to know how to pull them back, and that’s a good place to be.

Music notesHow do you contrast music making, say between New York and Los Angeles, and Cleveland, where you’re from?

Well, I have experience in all those towns. My extensive experiences are in London and New York. Cleveland I can’t really qualify, because when I was a young man in Cleveland, I played in wedding bands–and I played poorly in wedding bands. What I loved about it is that you could play do that and still make your way through college, because everyone was so rifted by the time the bride cut the cake that they didn’t really care! As long as you knew all the major chord changes and the lyrics, it was fine.

From a professional prospective I can say that for me New York has always had an immediacy to it. Actually, this immediacy is something that, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come not to enjoy so much. When I was younger, I always disliked the laid-back approach in LA and Nashville where they take their time with it. Now I want to take time with it! In Los Angeles, and you used to know this, when you do string dates we’d have three hours to do one string arrangement. In New York it’s three arrangements in three hours!Now I do one string arrangement in three hours, and I know why I want it that way: I need a great amount of give and take in a session. I need to make sure everybody is comfortable. If we get it on the first take, fantastic; but if not, I need to know that the artist and the producer are comfortable in sharing ideas, and that I have the proper amount of time to execute because to me that makes it work. Now, maybe it’s because I’ve grown older.
Jimmy with Emmanuel Ghent, electronic music pioneer

with Emmanuel Ghent, electronic music pioneer

In London I only did one string date, and I was impressed with the quality of the musicianship but uncomfortable with the way you work down the ladder to the orchestra. In New York I can get right out there and say, ‘Listen you do this and you do that.’ But there it was very orderly. I told this person; he told the conductor; the conductor told the first violinist. It was very orderly, but also I thought that by the third interpretation of what I wanted, I was going to be real lucky to get it. But in New York when you have musicians saying, ‘Jimmy B’s not smiling,’ that’s how into it they are. ‘We’re not making him smile.’ That’s what I want. I want them to know when I’m happy so they instinctively feel it, and I have that relationship with New York musicians. There is nothing like that in LA or anyplace else on a grand scale.

It seems as if you’re suggesting that here in New York it is more rough and tumble and that the boundaries between, say, production and arranging are not quite so clearly defined.

Yeah, they weren’t clearly defined when I was coming up in the business because some of the best arrangers I knew were left to run the sessions while the producer would be on the phone finding his next session. That’s how certain people were trusted, like the man who taught me, Charlie Calello. They trusted him to go and make a record. There were times the producers wouldn’t even be there! We’d just go in and knock it out and then say, ‘Well, jeez, what did he produce?’ Then, when’d you get the mix back, you’d say, ‘Well, that’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of this, I wouldn’t have added that.’

The problem I have nowadays is that I need to encourage younger producers to be themselves. I also need to educate them to what my talents can do. You know this, you’re a guy who’s familiar with the whole gamut. The orchestra doesn’t frighten you, and the electronics doesn’t frighten you. I know the orchestra frightens a lot of these young people because they feel that their musicality is lacking. I feel just the opposite. Their musicality is abundant. Their ability to interpret is limited so that’s where I come in and say, ‘Hey, why don’t we try this, why don’t we try this or that.’

So, this is your technique?Jimmy playing guitar

Yes, this and age. Really, it’s an age factor. You’re a fearless producer. I’m a fearless arranger. When I’m around young people and I’m fearless, I find I intimidate them with that. So, I have to not be as fearless and more fatherly: ‘Okay, well, let’s try that,’ or, ‘That’s a good idea,’ but knowing full well it’s going to lead to disaster and trying to make sure the disaster is minimum so I can quickly turn the session. Especially, that comes mostly, Michael, when young artists insist on their horn section. ‘Oh, no, these guys play live with me,’ or ‘These are great!’ — and you bring them into the studio, and you recognize why they are wonderful live and why when the tape is running they don’t have that ability to make it feel like it’s live.

There’s a certain standard which we tend to take for granted after a certain point.

Yeah, and I am trying to shake myself free of being condescending to those who don’t have that standard because, ultimately, they are the ones who are hiring me. I noticed that in meetings: early on when I was trying to get business I noticed my attitude was not being well received. So, I thought I’d better change my approach and be a little more understanding that they’re young and need my experience.

Do you think in an age of home studios and do-it-yourself electronic composition people are likely to assume they don’t need specialist help anymore?

Yes. They find they don’t need specialist help and often you would hope that somebody along the line who knows what the record could be is confident enough to call you and that you’re in their Rolodex. Generally, that would be where you would hope an A&R person would say, ‘Boy, this is great.’ Or‘Let’s try this. We have this; let’s try that.’ And there are fewer and fewer of our comrades in those positions of ’let’s try’. So, I find it important to connect with the younger producers who, in some cases, are 20 to 25 years younger than me, to get them to understand that ’let’s try’ is not me saying that there’s something wrong with what they’ve done. There’s an ego there. ’What do you mean, my record’s perfect,’ and you say, ‘Yeah, it is; what if we did this.’ And, that’s starting to loosen up a bit.

I think there are some guys — there’s one producer, a young man named Rodney Jerkins, who’s done a lot of great work. He’s from, I believe, Bed Sty, and was a child prodigy and just one stunning keyboard player. I hear what he does on his synths with his strings, and I’d love so much to use an orchestra doing his parts. I wouldn’t even try to improve on them. But I’ve never found myself in a position socially to compliment him and then take it to the next level. And I know, when you come to the record company, they worry because they think you are trying to get yourself in a position to influence somebody – politics – ‘Rodney is my guy.’ So, I just back off on that. I don’t need that.

Well, in a sense, you are trying to influence.

Yeah, influence! This kid is so talented that I really want to be part of what he’s doing. So, he’s influenced me in a lot of ways because I recognize, wow, this guy’s bigger than my talent! This kid’s the kind of talent I need to be around, you know. Let’s go! And a lot of times I get nervous when I am the most talented guy in the room because then we’ve got trouble. That’s not how I operate best. I operate when I’m with people who are really at the top of their game because I’m at my best when I’ve got to be like the deer in the woods waiting to see which way the hunter is coming. When I’m the guy that’s come up with the idea, I never feel comfortable with that because that’s not my forte.

with James Brown on session

One of the attractions of New York for a lot of people is that there’s always somebody better than you just down the street, and you always feel that pressure. Do you feel that’s a stimulating pressure?

Yeah. I never felt it as pressure because it was explained to me a long time ago with Charlie Calello, who was my mentor — I was kind of his squire years ago. He said something to me that was very interesting. I was 20 years old and I had done my very first session in New York. We did it at National Studios and orchestrated our strings and horns, and it worked out brilliantly. In retrospect the song was horrible, and my stuff was whatever it was, but the musicians were great. He came over to me and said, ‘Something very good happened to you today, and something very bad.’ He said, ‘What was good is that you did a great job, and what was bad is that you did a great job cause you’re going to be chasing that feeling all your life.’ And, it hit me that he was right on the money, and I have chased it.
So, I never worry about anybody. What I say is once you have that feeling, once you know what it’s like to be surrounded with excellence and have your own ideas, you never feel pressured that you have to be better than anybody. I just want to get to where I feel comfortable and that’s usually quite good. I have a pretty good standard there. Over the years I think it’s gotten better and also in some ways I think it’s gotten a little bit stodgy, but I’m working on that.

You talk about experience, and, of course, we all start somewhere, and some of us come to it with a classical education and we gather piecemeal experience in order to make the rounded personality we hope we become around age 85. Do you think a formal musical education helps or hinders making accessible pop music? Do you think it could be a hindrance?Jimmy with orchestra

I think it’s a hindrance if all you concentrate on is the music. I think it’s a great help if a student is taken through what the business is like. To me that’s the one thing, that musicality. What you learn in a school for music ability is subjective: someone getting the gig and you don’t get the gig; the record goes to number one and yours doesn’t. So, they’re better than you. That kind of talent I can’t weigh, but I know there are unreasonable expectations, and kids coming out of music school are clueless as to how you read a room, for instance, or how you understand protocol – how you deal with a business that is run by people who don’t know anything other than ‘this doesn’t feel right,’ and you can’t take it personal.

And, schools don’t train. In fact, I would be — and you would be the same – an excellent teacher on that level because Michael — we see through the things that need to be seen through and what’s on the page. Some kid could come up and play or orchestrate like Mozart, and you’d say that is absolutely great, but do you know how much of that is going to be necessary on this little 3.5 minute pop record? But if you want to go orchestrate for the opera, that’s fine. I never had the desire to go opera — mine is pop music. I have no idea how to be anything other than that. That’s been very comforting to me; I can be comfortable in my ignorance!

But you’ve also introduced a third aspect of arrangement. The first is the notes; the second is the musician, but you’re talking about reading the room. That’s quite a rarefied idea.

Well, reading the room is something you do with your orchestra and you also do it with your politics of music. You and I recently were at a party together ,and it wasn’t a place to go in and look for work. It was a celebration of great work, and what was pleasant about that is that everybody read the room properly. It was great to reunite with old friends and colleagues. Every morning I have my breakfast at the Brooklyn Diner, and I read the room. I look around and it looks like it’s the music crowd today and there’s a table I can say ‘hi’ to or not–that’s reading the room on a political basis.

In an orchestra or in a recording session, you have to read the room. You’re an expert at that yourself, especially with dealing with female vocalists of strong character. You have a unique knack for that–strong vocalists in general–you have a unique knack for knowing how to read the room, knowing how to make them comfortable. My strength in reading the room is knowing what not to do, and that comes from basically having done the wrong thing enough to see that they’re not calling you and it can’t be your talent–it must have been something you said or did. Among musicians in an orchestral setting, reading the room is very simple. If my musicians have an attitude problem and it’s affecting the way they’re performing, then it’s my adjustment to make, not theirs. I have to go out there and adjust the session so they start working the way I need them to work.

I’ve corrected it now, but I used to make mistakes when I had inexperienced people in the control room–behind the board–and I would be in the room conducting the orchestra. Then when I’d come back in after the first run down, the fear in their faces having just heard this orchestra on their record was I like, ‘oh, my god, what are you doing!’ Now I have it very cool. I have my partner, Mark, run the orchestra down. I sit right there with these inexperienced people, and I read them carefully. I see those eyes go wide, and I say ‘Don’t worry, they don’t know the song yet…. Don’t worry, this is going to happen,’ and I explain the arrangement the way it is going to happen. Now these sessions move flawlessly. My biggest problem was trying to be everything to everybody, and then I figured I had to read the room differently to make these sessions with younger, inexperienced people work.

But it is often true that, when a high level of musician comes in to play solo or the string section opens up, it changes all the rules in the music itself. How do you cope with that? Do you always anticipate it? Do you always call it directly?

Jimmy in studio with musiciansNo, I don’t, but that’s where you need three elements to be at their best. The engineer has to make that musician sound terrific on tape. That is something I don’t do. The musician has to feel that they are the right person for the job; that’s my thing, or your thing—casting. And I have to be so on that I make sure that what I get is what the record needs, not what makes this record become this solo artist’s record. They come in and play a saxophone solo, and it sounds great but it’s out context with the rest of the record, you know. Another element I can control is making sure that the performer comes in and the string section comes in. I give them the play grate and contribute what’s necessary, and I think that’s the easiest part of it as I’ve grown older. It’s almost like what doesn’t belong kicks itself off the record, and for years I was so petrified to take it out. Now I’m thrilled to take it out.

So, what parts remain difficult?

Knowing that you knocked it out brilliantly, and you get the final mix. It’s not used or it’s edited, or it’s used in part, and you recognize that somebody came in later and took your part, put it on a synth. There’s your part and it sounds okay, but it’splayed because a synth player felt that this would be more what he’s used to, but it says ‘Arranged by’–me! Take the credit, but it’s not how you heard it. So, that’s difficult–not getting the final mix. Maybe a film director would say, ‘That’s not my final cut. I didn’t mean for her to be naked in this scene. I just wanted a nice shadow on her!’

So, politics are probably getting more and more serious. Do you find that they are sometimes difficult with high-level acts that you work with such as Britney Spears? Is there a committee at work here or do you find that’s a fluid place to work?

The committee rules, Mike. The committee is in working order with Britney from the security to where she is going to be signing an autograph the minute your session is done. But what I was remarkably overwhelmed with was, when she was in the control room when we were first working out the songs, that her mom did a good job. Britney is a professional. She was there; she gave her best; she gave her enthusiasm. These two young producers who had never worked with an arranger before–how on and how excited they were. So, I recognized that, in this case, even the label in the control room respected it: they weren’t there. They put the team together, and we went in and did our thing.

Now, I’ll be honest. If the team comes out with something the label doesn’t understand, it is not going on the record. No matter who screams–Britney or whoever–it’s not going on the record. They made it very clear that they wanted Britney to start to appeal to her audience that’s growing old with her. They know that she’s absolutely adored by young women, by young kids of a certain age. They know that, but it’s a big risk because she’s got extreme gifts. But they want to get her into movies–that whole pop thing. I’m not an expert at it, I can only judge somebody by when they are there: are they prepared and do they put into it what you need. What she did is she brought her level of talent, and it made everybody else come up to that level. I was impressed because I had heard so many stories, but she’s not a lazy person – that’s the key. If you’re lazy, then stardom can pass you up; if you’re not you build there and you go from there. She’s got gifts. That was a fun session. Those are fun dates.

What sort of contrasting sessions do you remember? Not contrasting meaning ‘not fun’ sessions but just different style sessions?

Graphic showing Jimmy BiondolilloIt’s an unusual thing. These past three years I don’t think there’s been one session that has overwhelmed me. Just experience alone; I don’t get overwhelmed. I have never been overwhelmed by artists because egos are what they are. I have been overwhelmed by the insecurities of producers, but that hasn’t been in the last three or four years because people know me and my work, and they tend to call me in because they want that. But, I have had sessions where I think I’ve been embarrassed in front of orchestras by somebody saying something as simple as, ‘Do you really think that’s making this record better? It’s like you’re the producer.’ I don’t want to say that and, when someone says that to you, you start questioning. ‘Well, how bad is it? It sounds good to me. Am I the wrong person?’ I came to the conclusion a long time ago that if I give my best effort and it’s not working, then it’s the producer’s fault for casting me.

Do you find sometimes that classical arrangements are generated or instigated just to provide a pretensive quality rather than for their own reasons?

Yeah. I think that it’s very unimaginative to go classical on a pop record to try and think okay, I’m going to upgrade this pop record; I’m going to bring class to it, and I think that’s become so obvious in some records. Then, I think what’s wonderful about it is there is a place called Muzak, and where those records usually end up is in your elevator. I think that classical music is absolutely the best and highest form. I truly believe that, but it’s not what I do. So, I don’t aspire to it. I don’t do it well. I enjoy it, but it’s not what I do. I also love the Demon Drums of Japan, but I don’t do that. But I suspect, if people want to look down on pop music or what we do, then that’s fine; it’s just an art form that’s a lot of fun for me.

Well, you find yourself having to arrange elements such as strings and crash guitar chords in the same track. What crosses your mind when you have to meld those together?

This is how you can answer that with experience. There are times that my strings need to be felt and there are times that my strings need to be heard. I didn’t understand that when I was young. I always thought they had to be heard and because of that I would do things that would make them stand out and compete and, therefore, never sound right. But, there are times now I can tell you that a guitar sound sounds great, but you don’t recognize that I’ve got four cellos and two upright bases playing fifths underneath it. They’re never going to be heard, but it’s going to be felt, and I know that it’s going to make it sound and feel better.

There’s a part of me that is so proud of that, but how do you explain that to the layman: ‘I did that’ or ‘I’m part of that chord.’ They’re not going to understand it. So, for me I recognize a crash chord for what it is, and that is it’s a necessary energy builder. It’s the primal source of rock, but I also understand that the orchestral abilities to flesh that out bring more than just strength to it. That’s experience. I wouldn’t have known that when I was a 20-year old arranger. But as a 46-year old arranger I am very proud of the ability to say, ‘I know how to make that sound even better.’ You won’t hear it, but you’re going to feel it.

It’s as if there’s split there between say the chamber music approach of a four-piece rock n roll band and the more orchestral approach where you’re underpinning an instrument and having to explain to an instrumentalist what the contribution is by showing what it is if you take it out rather than hearing it.

Music notesBoy, that’s the truth, and you don’t often get a chance to do that with the instrumentalist because their participation is rather quick. They come in, they do it, and they understand it’s going to go through quite an osmosis. But it is fun if you ever have a chance to sit with somebody after the fact and say, ‘Here’s what it was before; here’s what it was with you; here’s what we did to make what you did even sound better with this track.’ That’s a fun thing, but how often do you really do that? The session goes in and out unless you’re having a situation where you’re also much more social, and musicians like to drop in and say hi, and they’re comfortable with that. Today it’s just bing, bing, bing, bing. You don’t get people dropping in and hanging out like it used to be. That was a very important part of the Media thing we were talking about.

Used to be some very good bars just around the corner

Exactly. Bars around the corner and bars on the page. People used to come in, different arrangers, saying ‘You know what I did this on that session?’ or, ‘Have you ever thought of putting trombone on that fifth?’ We don’t do that anymore. People don’t share like that anymore. But, at that time and in that space, when you and I first met in the mid/late seventies, the fun of it was that there was a great deal of sharing going on. I don’t know what’s changed, but I notice that the sharing is not there as often, but people can always come and hang out on my sessions. I don’t mind.

Well, there were more large studios in the olden days.

Yeah. There were staff engineers. Engineers were very, very loyal to musicians and also to arrangers. I used to get great work. I met you because of an engineer you know recommending me to your work. I don’t think that happens anymore.

Do you think that’s removed an apprentice-type approach to training? Do you think that this, in general, is going to limit people’s horizons?

Well, that’s why I wouldn’t mind at some point if I could sit down with young musicians who are ready to hit the marketplace and tell them that part of the connect-the-dots in their career is going to be to remember to look at the picture you are drawing, and not just connect-the-dots. What’s the big picture supposed to be? Most of the people I know who can be encyclopedic about Mike Thorne and his career, right, and every record that you’ve ever done, I’ll meet them on occasion. I say I’m a friend of yours and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I know this record’ and it stuns me because they are truly fans and yet they are not musicians. But musicians who you would wish would be fans are oblivious sometimes to the records they’ve played on! ‘Oh, I didn’t know I even played on that!’. There’s something not quite right about that, is there? I bet that every musician that played on a Beatles record could tell you the bars they played. But, I know guys who say, ‘Hey, remember when you worked ….’ or ’What record? I don’t remember that. I did 55 sessions that month.’ There’s something about that seems very, very uncomfortable, but that’s how it works.

Would you ever recommend to somebody that they take a career in music?

Yeah, as long as they are not a relative! Because you know, Mike, there’s a part of me that understands the sacrifice that we make to be pursuing what we pursue, but I think if it is someone I truly love, I don’t want to see them go through the pain. But if they’ve got a gift, whatever I say isn’t going to matter, anyhow. If they are so driven, they’re going to say ‘Thanks but I am going to go do it anyhow,’ because I’ve even had people say to me, ‘When are you going to get a job?’

But if we make it, we achieve the privilege of being paid for something we like doing.

Yeah, and those days bring me back to what Charlie Calello said: ‘You did what you did well. You did a great job, and you will pursue that for the rest of your life.’ You do pursue that feeling and the fact that people will pay me to sit for three hours to orchestrate or sit for three hours in a session and conduct and put it together – it’s nice. If I had a half dozen of those a month with today’s rates, that’s a high income. But, with the state of the business you can get hot and do a dozen in three months and not do any for the rest of the year.

Hot and cold cycles seem to be a characteristic of a lot of businesses, but they’re quite acute in the music business.

Yeah, I think we’re even experiencing that now. The entertainment business, has a soft belly. So, when something as absolutely devastating as what happened just down the block from here happens, people recoil, and then they say, ‘Let’s go and make a commemorative record.’ There’ll be ten thousand commemorative records in which I have no interest. I’d rather donate blood, it seems to be a much more commonsense thing. I think the old joke is that we’re in season when we’re working, and we’re out of season when we’re not. I’ve had very busy times when it didn’t make sense, but generally, I know the seasons. I know around the holidays the business just unplugs. That’s what’s unnerving about now: we can all point back to September 11, and it’s felt ever since then as if I’ve been on an extended Christmas holiday. I just cannot seem to get anybody to move forward. What’s that about? I’m ready, but it doesn’t feel right yet.

But it’s a resilient city.

Music notesWe’re here for that reason – you and I. I respect you enough to say, ‘Okay, I am going to go down to see Mike. I am going to do this interview because it is important.’ Why? Because you’re important; you make it important. But there’s something I want to counter with that. We are also in a business that, quite honestly, is a luxury item. So, I don’t want to take it for anything more than it is. It’s what I’m good at, but it’s still a luxury item. When people are in a luxurious mood, they go and spend money and we get hired. I think at critical points people need entertainment, and we’re there. And I truly want to give lovingly of my gifts–whatever those might be–but I also think there’s a critical financial point at which you say, ‘I can’t afford to do this anymore. I’ve got to go do something else.’ I just hope that this Sahara Desert that we are traveling through in terms of emptiness–a void of the business–I hope it just carries a little bit more and then we get back to normalcy.

Another version of the hot and cold cycle is that we are indulging in a labor of love.


So every so often it works.


And, every so often it doesn’t. Is there any reason for those cycles?

I think it’s a good point that has a lot to do with age. Our business, unfortunately, tends to glorify youth. It’s unfortunate because you can take some of the best records made by some of the youngest artists, and you look at who was behind it and it’s always someone who is seasoned – like you or me –that know how to bring it out. Youth in its exuberance tends to overlook that. It’s, ‘I did this; I did that.’ An artist’s an artist, and you’ve got to sit back and let them say that. But we also know that, unfortunately, the record company business is now being populated by people who believe that.

There were days when people believed, ‘Okay, Elvis, that’s fine, but let me put you in with these guys because I know it will work.’ I get a sense of uneasiness when I see an interviewer asking a question of an artist that makes me realize the interviewer is clueless as to how music is made.

That’s a very depressing scenario, but what’s an optimistic version of that.

Well, I didn’t mean it to be depressing; it’s realistic. The optimistic version of that, I guess, is with the artist, it’s not about age, it’s about talent. The artist who recognizes that they need more, that their gifts are certain and they’re confident but they need it to be more They are not afraid to go out and bring in talented people. And then the talented people coming into the room will think they are coming to the rescue. That’s the real key: when an artist gets a sense that the people in the room are there to rescue the record, then the whole project goes south. The optimistic approach is that you’re there because they need you to make this even better than it is. I always see the A&R people at the mastering sessions where they have the least amount of control; now they feel they are contributing the most because a mastering engineer is saying ‘I am going to take five dB and turn it this way,’ and they feel like, ‘There you go; I knew all along that five..’

Music notation
When I see them appear at the mastering sessions, I always chuckle. I think, ‘be there when you’ve got to be courageous. Come in when there are forty musicians in the room and change something.’ Then I’m impressed. I must say I’ve had people come in and make changes that have impressed the hell out of me, and I’ve said, ‘Oh my, let’s pull that out and let’s do this.’ And, I’ve been glad that they spoke up. What’s optimistic is when people trust the talent. I’m optimistic that there’s enough talent to be trusted.

Ultimately, that’s all we can do.

That’s all we can do. We’re in the business of trusting the talent. I’m always amazed–even with you–I always get charged just by watching you listen to your music because it’s like, when you watch someone who’s done that listen to the music, you can see that music in them. For me, as an arranger, that’s a very comforting place to be because music is also very visual for me. I can be walking in the park and see something that immediately stimulates a musical response not just a verbal response – especially in a city as tenacious and edgy as New York. You walk out the door and two cars screech together and you hear baaaannnng. You hear that discordance: where’s my brass section when I need it! And, there are times when you see a mother comforting a child that’s just fallen and then bringing the child from tears to giggles, and you hear this wonderful lilting violin come from violin to banjo and everybody goes on their way. So, the musical aspects of our visual city make New York the place to be for me.