Sunday, August 23, 2015

Banned in New York - The Story

On occasion, I will revisit my older recordings just out of curiosity or to reinvestigate the measures and approaches that I may have been working on during a given period. Recordings are wonderful markers that chronicle an artist's progress, attempts at experimentation, and aesthetic awareness. Recently, at the suggestion of a visitor who is also a prominent music journalist, I sat and listened to the full CD version of "Banned in New York" in it's entirety. I hadn't heard it in many years and I must admit that afterwards I felt like I'd newly emerged from an intense live show. The immediacy of the recorded performance was, at times, quite startling and I often didn't even recognize myself in the whirlwind that was emanating from the speakers. Those guys were playing. REALLY playing on an extremely high level. And, as a result, they elevated my output as well. I can truly say with all humility that it was most certainly a shining career moment, and I am extremely proud at what we, collectively, were able to develop and share. 

"Banned" was recorded in New York at the now defunct Sweet Basil (later renamed Sweet Rhythm) in 1998 with a single mini-disc recorder placed on a table in front of the bandstand. We were booked there for a week's engagement after many weeks of domestic and international touring. The group was Jason Moran, piano; Atsushi (Az'shi) Osada, bass; and drummer Rodney Green, who was only 18 at the time and was the newest member of the band. After having so much success on the road, of course my young musicians wanted to make the best possible impression at home in New York. All eyes (and ears) would be on this new group, as much had been written and said about the (yet another) young band of unknowns that I'd assembled. I was more than confident that we would make a strong statement. However, artists in their efforts to be flawless, can sometimes be excessively critical of their work. This is actually what led to the documentation of our playing that week.

 "Banned" Band

Throughout the week's engagement, Rodney made it a point to record every set each night, so that he'd be able to pinpoint areas in his own performance that he felt may have required adjustment and improvement. I am normally not one to listen to recordings of my groups during residencies or when on tour, as they may compel me to micromanage and nitpick actions made by my band members. I prefer not to offer too many comments or suggestions to musicians as eventually it serves to work against the objectives of the group itself. Musicians who have been admonished or counseled too much eventually "tighten up" in fear of making mistakes or displeasing the bandleader. I feel that it is far better to allow the personality and identity of the ensemble to define itself without excessive coaching. I was told, many years ago by a wise elder that "If you have to say too much to the cats that you hired, then you hired the wrong cats." These words, I firmly stand by.

However, Rodney was more than overwhelmed from listening to the recordings night after night.  He was quite relentless in encouraging me to have a listen, which I didn't submit to doing until the final day of our week. At that point, I too was taken by the rawness of the playing as well as how seamless our connection and interaction with one another was. Many weeks on the road tends to have that effect on musicians - their environmental awareness and sensibilities are heightened. Unfortunately, bands don't develop a solid group sound and character in this way very much anymore due to the lack of steady touring opportunities for most as well as the challenges of maintaining a consistent musician lineup. This reminds me of another wise quote that was told to me years ago: "The best way to keep a working band, is to keep the band working." More wise words from a cherished elder. (I'll cover this subject in a later entry.)

After having listened to the recordings several times, I then took a copy to Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall and told him that I wanted to release a set of that week's music as a live CD, which I hadn't done at that point. Previously, I objected to the unnatural staging that took place during most live tapings when the audiences were aware of what was happening. Many patrons know that during a live recording quite possibly, their shouting and applause could also be immortalized on the very recording itself. Many iconic live recordings have been ruined by an errant whistle, holler or otherwise during a sensitive moment in the music. This, just so someone can brag "Hey, that's me right there!" That fact that no one actually knew that we were recording, coupled with the fact that WE didn't either, made for a much more natural and uninhibited documentation that is full of the atmosphere, realism and ambiance that was present in the venue during those evenings. You can hear the cash register, the bartender making drinks and the buzz of the crowd. There is no overzealous applause (actually, sometimes there was NONE at all, which is honestly what happens. A LOT.) and I didn't stop to address the audience until I announced the band at the end of the set. We were "keeping it real" before keeping it real became a thing.

I strongly felt that the collection of those live recordings more realistically captured the urgency and raw connection of the band than on my most recent studio release. We listened together in his office and Bruce agreed, even though we had only just released "Zero" a mere 3 months before. It was quite an unprecedented (and risky) move to have 2 recordings in circulation at the same time, but the sales of "Zero" were really slow because the music on that project was possibly too conceptual for most people. At that point, very few "got" it. But when "Banned" was released featuring us playing primarily jazz standards, people realized that we actually were on to something fresh and that we DID know what we were doing and as a result, the sales of both "Banned" and "Zero" shot through the roof. Brilliant marketing strategy, if I do say so myself. We’d modified and personalized those standards that we'd been playing to the degree that they almost sounded like originals as a result of the band having been on the road for almost a year straight. So we had an intensely special, almost telepathic connection with one another. The transitions and segues exhibited on the recording clearly exhibit this. I also employed sonic cues and signals that we'd worked out amongst ourselves, so there was no need to count off songs or to mention what song was coming up next. Everyone knew the cues and knew where the music was going based upon the content and non-verbal direction of my playing. Our sets flowed like a continuous suite of music - full of sweeps and unexpected turns and transitions. It was a very fertile and exciting period, and can only happen as a result of mutual respect, awareness, consistency and dedicated playing together and when all are thinking as a unit.

My other idea was to issue it as a sanctioned "bootleg" recording. So, we deliberately gave the cover art a washed out look and hand wrote the credits to make it appear as amateurish as possible. The only giveaway that it wasn't a truly underground release was the presence of the Blue Note logo (which was hand-drawn as well) on the package. In an effort to add to the mystery, we also choose not to list where it had been recorded, even though the venue was still paid an agreed-upon fee.

So, to anyone who has not heard the project, I humbly invite you to look it up and have a listen. Hopefully you will get a glimpse into the collective mind of a “working band” that is truly playing in the moment with absolutely no reservations, and perhaps you too will emerge inspired and impressed by the work. After listening to it again, I most certainly was  - and I’m ON it!