Feature Story
November 8th, 1997
By Bradley Bambarger

BERKELEY, Calif.- From his Bay Area base, Lee Townsend has not only been one of the decade's most astute guides of jazz talent but has helped ease the genre's traditional East Coast hegemony. He has produced a string of diverse, diverting albums by Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Charlie Hunter, and Jerry Granelli, with the thread of continuity among those and many others being Townsend's keen ear for fidelity - emotional as well as sonic.

Besides showing a sure hand in the studio, Townsend has shepherded Frisell's ever-ascending international career, under the aegis of his Songline/Tone Field production/management company. With his international profile and West Coast roots, he has also fostered the rise of several artists in the San Francisco scene, formally and informally.

The range of expression in Townsend's work - from the funky "Medicine Hat" by guitarist Will Bernard to Marc Johnson's pastoral 'Sound Of Summer Running" (with Pat Metheny and Frisell), from T.J. Kirk's capricious "If Four Was One" to Frisell's majestic "This Land" - reflects his multifarious flair and easy-going disregard for any dogmatic definitions about just what "jazz" is. "I don't make much distinction between art with a capital 'A' and what some people might perceive as simply musical entertainment, " he says. "'I'm just interested in honest, individual emotional statements in music. Take Charlie's records, for instance. If a good-time vibe is what people get from those records, that's fine. But he's also doing something very deep. With someone like Bill, the music can go from the most delicate to the most slamming, and that grand scope of feeling is entirely indicative of what he's trying to get across. My role is to make sure that the humanity of these very different kinds of music doesn't get lost in the environment of the recording studio."

Not only is Townsend conversant with the fertile Bay Area scene and its eclectic new jazz movement, he is aligned with its inclusive aesthetic. "A lot of groups here use the jazz vocabulary but integrate rock and funk influences," Townsend says. "'They don't do it in a slick, market-driven manner but in a loose, organic way that really appeals to Me. Really, there's a freshness and irreverence to what some of the young people are doing here that is totally in keeping with the true spirit of jazz."

Reflecting his Bay Area enthusiasms, Townsend has produced records by a number of resident and expatriate Bay Area acts for various labels: Hunter's 'Bing, Bing, Bing', "Ready, Set, …. Shango!" and the recent hit disc covering Bob Marlev's "Nattv Dread" album {each for Blue Note); T.J. Kirk's "If Four Was One" and the self-titled debut album for Warner .Bros. {both featuring Hunter, Bernard, guitarist John Schott, and drummer Scott Amendola making a party out of a strict diet of James Brown, Thelonious Monk, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk tunes); Bernard's "Medicine Hat" and "Dirty Picnic" by his other combo, the pop- inflected Pothole; and a trio of discs by performance artist/composer Rinde Eckert.

A Los Angeles native, the 39-year- old Townsend fell for the Bay Area during grad school before he left his psychology studies to hook up with Palo Alto Records in the early '80s. After graduating from administrative to A&R work with that small jazz label, Townsend was recruited to run the Munich-based ECM's stateside operations. He was GM of ECM U.S. from 1984-88, based in New York. Listening to an array of world music and ECM's adventurous jazz records had helped broaden his tastes back in school, and his professional association with the label only helped reinforce his independent, open-minded aesthetic.

"I valued my ECM: experience both for what it was and for what it wasn't, " Townsend says. "Just in terms of sound, the clarity of those records was a great influence, although I tend to favor a more aggressive approach to rhythm sections and like to use the studio as more of a tool. And on my own, I've been able to pursue my interests in more groove-t'riented music and singer/songwriters."

"But [ECM chief) Manfred Eicher's artist-centered, music-fIrst vision and his tenacious defense of it have always been an inspiration. I care about how well the records sell, of course, but I try not to let marketplace considerations contaminate the process of making music."

The gems that dot Townsend's resume range from Scofield's organic jazz stomps "Hand Jive" and "Groove Elation!" for Blue Note to the otherworldly "Rios" by the trio of and bandoneon maestro Dino Saluzzi, bassist Anthony Cox, vibist Dave Friedman on Intuition. The Songline/Tone Field series on Intuition also includes the lovely "Detras Del Sol" by Argentine singer/songwriter Gabriela.

Leading off the Songline/Tone Field series last year was Granelli's "Broken Circle," which displays his edgy twin- guitar ensemble U.F.B. on a mix of impressionistic originals and quirky covers. Townsend has produced several strong albums by the unsung Bay Area native over the years, including the luminous "Another Place" and bluesy .~ Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing".

In 1992, Townsend steered the chart-topping John Scofield/Pat Metheny disc for Blue Note, "I Can See Your House From Here". Yet the highlight of Townsend's back pages has perhaps been his work with Frisell. He has tended some of the most notable, starting with 1988's "Lookout For Hope" for ECM. Of Frisell's Nonesuch records, Townsend has helmed "Before We Were Born," .'This Land," and the evocative Buster Keaton sound tracks, "Go West" and "The High Sign/One Week". He also produced the milestone "Quartet" from '96 and an earthy wonder due early next year that teams Frisell with Nashville bassist Viktor Krauss and drum legend Jim Keltner, entitled "Gone, Just Like a Train".

A Californian through and through, Townsend has a laid-back air that belies an acute sense of detail. For Frisell, working with Townsend is .'the ideal partnership," one in which a great mutual trust lays the net for musical risk-taking. "Lee is so attentive that I can relax, be off my guard-and just concentrate on playing," says Frisell. And Bernard praises the "natural sound" Townsend goes for, but moreover, he appreciates the fact that "Lee always has a positive outlook. He moves the process along in a comfortable way, not dwelling on things if you get hung up."

As with musicians, Townsend has cultivated a web of loyal engineering partners and preferred work environments. Although the plot varies from record to record, a common approach has him tracking with Christian Jones on a Neve console at the venerable Mobius Studios in San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood and mixing with Judy Clapp at the SSL-equipped Different Fur in ilie heart of the Mission district. Townsend also frequently works with engineer Joe Ferla in New York, as on the sessions for "Down Home" and "The Sound Of Summer Running" (tracking at Avatar, mixing at Sony Music Studios).

Another longtime Townsend associate is mastering engineer Greg Calbi, of New York's Sterling Sound. Townsend feels so strongly about Calbi's expertise that for years he has insisted that all his projects must be mastered by Calbi. Returning the compliment, Calbi says, "Lee is a real purist in that he takes such responsibility for the records. But there's no formula with him; he just works very hard to pre-sent a great picture of the music as the musicians created it in the studio. He makes my job easy.".

Being able to make a great record "is a lifelong learning process," Townsend says. "And what I've learned so far is that if you think you know all the answers, you'll soon be proved wrong. But with the high caliber of artists and engineers I work with, it'd be a sad reflection on me if these records weren't pretty strong."

Townsend just finished mixing a new Hunter project at Different Fur that has the guitarist teamed with a fresh setup of vibes, drums, and percussion only; the album, "Return of the Candyman" is due on Blue Note early next year. Currently, Townsend is ensconced in Avatar with Ferla working on a highly anticipated new Verve project: Scofield getting down with star groove-jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood.

"From jazz to Indian classical-all kinds of music have been such an inspiration for me," Townsend says, "that it's an honor to do this work, to help some of the important artists of today realize their visions or help expose some of the voices of tomorrow. I'm one of the fortunate few who's doing exactly what he wants to do. There's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for me. This is it."