MYSTERY and MOJO
December 1, 1995
By Dan Ouellette
On the opening night of Bill Frisell's five-night stint at Yoshi's last May, I found myself sitting next to Lee Townsend, Frisell's Berkeley-based record producer. The crowd was buzzing with anticipation, as the Seattle-based guitar master would tonight debut his new trio. Townsend leaned over to tell me that the group would be expanded to a Quartet a few months later for a recording project.
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.
As the house lights dimmed, the unassuming Frisell entered. Lugging his magical axe and looking not at all like an electric guitar superhero, he walked from the back of the house, nonchalantly maneuvering his way through a maze of tables and chairs to the stage. From the moment Frisell walked under the stage lights and plugged in, Townsend, who at 37 is already considered to be one of the most respected record producers, ceased talking. He settled back in his chair and began his job of listening.
As Frisell launched into his witty and humor-laced set, I could sense the wheels turning inside Townsend's head. I knew he was mentally taking note of everything from the compositional subtleties of the new pieces to the sonic interaction between Frisell and young jazz violinist Eyvind Kang. Townsend didn't say a word throughout the hour-long set.
"Unfortunately it's sick, but true," he told me at the end of the first set. "Instead of coming here to naively enjoy and experience the music, I've got five thousand questions running through my head. I'm thinking about how we can adapt the arrangements, how the pieces will work with trumpet and trombone, how much we'll have to overdub, and how long it will take for the band to find a seamlessness between what's written and what is improvised."
Townsend ended up attending four of the gig's five shows, listening intensely to the music Frisell com-posed for a TV special featuring Gary Larson's "Far Side" cartoons last fall and for the sound track of the Italian film, La Scuola. He observed what worked and what didn't. He took notes on what he planned to recommend for inclusion on the album when the group was scheduled to begin tracking at Mobius Studios in San Francisco during the first week of August. "As it gets closer to working on the record, I'll be getting more specific in my own mind about the music," Townsend explained. "Then I'll sit down with Bill and we'll come up with a plan together so that the record will tell a story."
In August, Frisell and crew flew in and the studio tracking went as planned. Not long after, the entire project was mixed, and earlier this month Townsend traveled to New York to put the finishing touches on the recording at a digital mastering studio.
While he works with many out-of-towners, Townsend's clients include the dynamic doubleheader of East Bay-based new jazzers the Charlie Hunter Trio and TJ Kirk (formerly known as James T. Kirk) , celebrated performance artist Rinde Eckert. and singer-songwriter Stephen Yerkey. Townsend - whose producing credits also include jazz guitar giants John Scofield and Pat Metheny, legendary Argentine bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi, and bassists Dave Hol- land, Anthony Cox, and Marc Johnson - comes at it aIl with a hands-on attitude. TaIl and solidly built, with long brown hair puIled back into a bushy ponytail, gets involved far beyond sitting behind the recording console in the recording studio and signaling the engineer to start the tapes.
"Lee does everything," says young jazz guitarist Hunter, a Berkeley homeboy and rising international jazz. "Be-fore we went into the studio, he showed up at every trio gig. That was great. He showed us he was serious about our music. He cared about it the same way he cares about every project he's involved in. He goes aIl the way. He puts integrity back into the music business."
So, with all those hoops being jumped through in studios across the land, it's refreshing to hear Townsend sum up his philosophy of producing records as simply being a servant to the songs: to celebrate them and make them bloom. Judging by his work, he's got a green thumb when it comes to organic musical cultivation. He says, "My motivation is .just to serve the music, which means to do whatever's necessary for each project. My job is to stay open and flexible and serve the songs, not rubberstamp them with the Townsend style of doing things or let the pressures of the market contaminate the music. Every artist needs different support, different input from me. 01timately, the music isn't about the producer and it's not even only about the artist. It's only the music that is sacred. The magic of music is an ineffable thing, a mystery, where everyone -t he composer, the musicians, the producer - have to sublimate their egos. As the producer, I try to stay faithful to the music's transformative quality."
Townsend explained his tracking philosophy to me: "Most often at first, I like having the musicians play together in the studio. You can change, replace and add parts later, but that way you, at least, retain that original spark and mojo in the music that occurs when musicians are reacting to one another in the moment.
So what is the mojo and why is it so essential to the recording process? "Well, it started out as kind of a joke," said Townsend as we talked in his austere, gray-carpeted office space off Hopkins Street in North Berkeley. "But for me, mojo is when the music has a feel, a soulfulness, an amazing groove and chemistry that is somehow magical. As a producer, I have to analyze the music to find the mojo in it. I'm always balancing on that fine line between emotional reaction and analytical scrutiny, because, for me the most fulfilling music is both emotionally satisfying and intellectually stimulating."
Townsend grew up around music. His mother was a pianist who also played violin in an orchestra and accordion around the house. Both he and his brother took up musical instruments as kids. Townsend started classical piano at seven, played trombone in junior high school ("I was sad on it") and later in high school picked up the acoustic guitar. A fan of rock, blues, and jazz, Townsend traveled throughout Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, which expanded his interest and opened his ears to all kinds of new music. He then attended UC Santa Cruz as a psychology major; while there he took an elective course in recording engineering. That class proved pivotal a few years later when Townsend quit the doctoral program in psychology at Berkeley's California School of Professional Psychology.
"When my dad died in 1981, I realized that life was too short to not follow your heart," Townsend ex- plained. "So I left grad school and went into recording." He scored a DJ slot at KCRW in Santa Monica. A year later he took a job with the now-defunct jazz label Palo Alto Records where he served as production coordinator, a job that involved a range of logistical support including booking studio time and managing the album pressings. "That was a great intro to the business," Townsend said. "In my first year, I hung around studios and soaked it all in. In my second year, I was given the chance to record albums by Denny Zeitlin, Dusan Bogdanovic with James Newton, and David Friesen." He hired as sidemen such well-known artists as Charlie Haden, Joe Henderson, John Abercrombie, Paul Motian and Chick Corea, began to garner a rep and was lured away to New York by the German jazz label ECM to run its American operation. During his four-year stint with ECM from 1984- '88, Townsend continued to produce albums, working with Abercrombie, bassist Dave Holland, and a young guitar upstart named Frisell.
Deciding to concentrate full-time on producing, Townsend quit his administrative job with ECM, moved back to the Bay Area, and took the plunge as an independent producer. One of his first clients was Frisell, who left ECM and signed on with the Nonesuch label. It was a rough couple of years, Townsend admits, but other gigs soon followed with such artists as Holland, Paul Dresher, and Rinde Eckert - creative musicians who are brilliant in their own right but not exactly hit-parade winners.
"I try not to worry about the market when I make records," Townsend said. "I'm fortunate to be working with musicians who operate on a high level of artistry. It's not just talent, but the depth of what they have to say that's so important. I feel my job is to bring that out, to serve their art and present it in the best way possible. Most of the people I work with - Rinde, Bill, all the guys in TJ Kirk - are individuals who don't easily fit into a market niche. But that's the personality and essence of a true artist: they're difficult to categorize. So I just try to present them in the most pure way possible."
Townsend said he's not interested in making albums only for the music intelligentsia or for people interested in having something to complement wine and cheese. "1 want the music to engage and communicate to people. I want people to pay attention to it, to investigate and discover what the artists I work with are saying through their music." Townsend credits his wife Phyllis Oyama, whose experience in dance and documentary filmmaking has taught him the high standards he demands in aesthetics, presentation, and composition. "That's at the crux of producing. When you go to see a film or dance performance you're there to pay total attention. I try to bring those same sensibilities to record making."
As for making hits or conforming to the latest musical trends, Townsend said he's got more important things to be thinking about. "My only hope is to take the music to the limit of how it deserves to be treated. I treat it as the most important piece of music in the world even if it's meant also to be fun. Music can be a spiritual experience. not just in the reverential or religious sense, but in the way it can display the human spirit. If music inspires me, I'm hoping that it will do the same for the listener. That's what keeps me involved in this."
Townsend waved at all the high- tech gadgetry surrounding him as he sat behind the huge mixing board at Different Fur Studios in San Francisco's Mission District. "It doesn't mean a thing unless it serves the song well." he said. "The technology is totally neutral and vapid on its own. It's just a tool to serve the humanity in the music."
On my way out of the mixing studio, Townsend, munching on a blueberry scone and washing it down with a Calistoga. told me why paying attention to minute details is so important . " I take the time to get a song right because of the care the artist took in creating it and recording it. The mixing part often takes as long as the actual
A couple of days later, we talked in his office again, and Townsend reflected on how technology has advanced the art of recording. He said that the creative engineers he works with Christian Jones and Judy Clapp as well as Greg Calbi, James Farber. Oliver DiCicco, and Joe Ferla -keep him up on what's new. "They help me to integrate what's possible into my work. To the layman's ear what we're doing may not make a difference at all. But my job is to be a nerd about it - little things like tweaking the guitar sound in a certain way or giving the vocals parts just the right reverb."
So Townsend deals with things such as the EQ (equalization), which he defined as the adding or subtracting of different sound frequencies to bring out the desired characteristics in an instrument. If you want the guitar to have a more in-your-face quality or a voice to sound more strident, you adjust the EQ. Then there are the esoteric things like compression, echo, ambience - all technical processes that Townsend told me cross into the realm of artistry. "Pay- ing attention to all this has an aggregate effect. The listener may not notice little things here and there. But I'm convinced that if I don't attend to all the imperfections I hear, you'll notice on a subliminal or unconscious level that the proper care wasn't put into the final product. Ultimately, I have to please myself. It's like a writer obsessing over getting just the right word. You can settle for something less and no one will probably notice. But you would know, or maybe your editor would know, that you were shirking your responsibility."
Not long after observing Town- send and Eckert working together on Do the Day Over, I returned to Different Fur, this time to scope out Townsend finessing the sound on the Charlie Hunter Trio's debut record, Bing, Bing, Bing!, for the prestigious Blue Note jazz label. At the time, Townsend was fine-tuning the number "Scrabbling for Purchase," get- ting just the right guitar sound for the organ-like tremolo solo which he memorized lick by lick. The 28- year-old Hunter, in his new jazz "suit" of T-shirt and jeans, stood alongside, asking for some reverbs here, less highs there.
After the tune was finished, the effervescent and slightly mischievous Hunter retreated to the upstairs lounge. While noodling licks on his eight-string guitar, he told me about Townsend. "Lee has Dumbo-sized ears. When we started working together all of us in the band knew that we couldn't be fucking around playing half-assed, sorry-sounding music. Lee's the ultimate in quality control. He makes you feel comfortable, but he also makes you feel like you can't fall short because you're doing something so important."
"The musicians I work with a pretty even-tempered bunch. They're not flamboyant. I don't believe in the myth of artists creating their best work when they're full of angst. I'm attracted to working with people who channel their drama through their art and are able to laugh at it all through their music. They're having fun,
and so am I."