Every year, the Mill Valley Film Festival in Northern California produces a trailer to promote their festivities in theaters. You may have seen one or two of them. They’re funny.
This year, the ad agency that handles their account asked me to write an entertaining song, which they would then animate. No money, but I could do anything I wanted. Naturally, I leaped in with both feet. Wouldn’t you?
With high-handed disregard for budget or talent availability, I wrote a song that Steve and Edie might have sung in 1963: a big Vegas-style show band thing with lots of energy and lots of glitz.
I demoed it quickly and sloppily. The only excellent thing about the production was the vocal performance by the inimitable Robert Vickers (a.k.a. Bud E. Luv) and the dazzling Lynn Ray. It’s funny about being funny: Ya either got it or ya don’t. They do – in spades.
As it happened, everybody at the agency and the film festival went ga-ga over the demo, and they were champing at the bit to produce it. Gulp. Writing a flawless, funny and idiomatic chart for a Vegas showband is, unfortunately, not in my skillset. What was I gonna do? You can’t fake this sort of thing with sampling CDs, you know.
Enter Rick Walsh. He’s one of those humblingly versatile orchestrators, and he leaped into the project with as much gusto as I did. If I’d known at the time what a heavy cat he was, I might have been too intimidated to ask his help. I’m glad I didn’t know.
He’s the kind of guy who can make six horns sound like 11. And he writes so idiomatically that the best players love to work with him, which was what happened. In short order we had a session rarin’ to go. The only caveat Rick issued was this: “I don’t like to be micro-managed,” he said. And I promised myself that I would keep my meddling to a minimum.
To prepare for the live sessions where we would realize Rick’s orchestration, I recorded my MIDI demo tracks, the scratch vocals, and a click from MOTU’s Performer into my Roland VS-880. I took the VS-880 to the studio and dumped all the tracks onto a TASCAM DA-88. The big band players listened to all of these tracks as they played their parts, and I made the click particularly hot for the drummer. I wouldn’t normally feed the click to the horn players if the scoring consisted mostly of hits with lots of rests in between. But the piece ends with a chord held for four bars, and they needed a reference for the cut-off.
At this point you need to know a little something about the tune. It starts with a Broadway-style melodic fragment that’s repeated throughout the verses. Example 1 shows the first few lines set against a very simple, tick-tock pizzicato texture.
Interestingly, I kept my MIDI tracks for this section in the final mix. When you listen to the mix, see what you think about the transition from MIDI to live instruments – if you can tell where it is! The string part builds for two verses and explodes at the bridge into a roaring show-band samba with all the trimmings.
A week before the session, I got to see Rick’s arrangement, and it was wonderful. Perfect. He had taken the quarter-note triplet feel of the vocal in Example 1 and morphed it slightly into the rocking samba you see in Example 2. The only thing that caught my eye were the sax figures in bars 1, 2, and 3 – they didn’t make sense to me. It seemed to interrupt the flow of the melody by climaxing before the downbeat. But since I knew Rick doesn’t like to be micro-managed, I shut up about it until we were well into the session. When I finally heard it, It sounded weird. And I still didn’t say anything because of the micro-management issue.
I heard it again and I still didn’t get it, so I said, “Rick, I think the sax figure at bar 61 might be fighting the vocal. Could you nudge it back one eighth-note so it hits on the one?”
“Oh no,” Said Rick. “This’ll work, It’s great. You’ll see.” Something in his tone of voice reminded me of a former boss of mine who once said the secret to his fabulous success was hiring people who were better than him and letting them do their jobs.
So Rick coaxed a perfect performance out of these terrific players, and it hit me (as it would have earlier if I had been doing my job instead of worrying about Rick’s) that we were monitoring the horns way too hot. It’s only natural to do so, because you always make the thing you’re recording at the time the loudest.
The engineer ducked the saxes, boosted the vocals, and wow! The sax figure was pure joy. It became this Brazilian shove on the and of beat 4, and it was suddenly my favorite thing in the tune. I wriggled in delight. The moral: Have faith in the geniuses you work with.
Speaking of the and of beat 4: This session taught me a lot about what it means to be a great drummer. The rhythm section laid down their parts prior to the horns, of course, which meant that the drummer had to play the kicks on the and of 4 (Example 2) without being able to hear the horns accent the same figure. I wondered whether he would be comfortable smacking them all by himself – but only for a moment. As you’ll hear, his kicks line up perfectly with the horns.
And now for some thank-yous. To Dennis and the folks at Scheyer/SF: Bravo. To Cindy, Darren, and Kyle at Russian Hill Studios in San Francisco: You spoiled us all. To all the players on the date: No, you don’t have to go to N.Y. or L.A. for world-class studio talent. And especially to Rick Walsh – that’s him playing lead trombone on the Louis Bellson Big Band recording of Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige,” which is getting a lot of airplay on jazz stations these days.