Producer's Desk: Capturing the Chemistry in New Music

January 1997
By Blair Jackson

I want to be very careful not to put the work of producer Lee Townsend in too confining a box, because he's worked with a broad range of artists on many fine albums. That said, much of his best work has been on albums by modem jazz players, and to narrow that even further, he has a definite knack for getting the best out of guitarists. What I don't want to say is that Lee Townsend is mainly a producer of jazz guitarists, but let's look at his track record for a moment: two albums by the Bay Area's hottest guitar phenom, Charlie Hunter (as well as two by Hunter's fabulous side group, TJ. Kirk, dedicated to playing the music of James Brown, Thelonious Monk and RahsaanRoland Kirk); two solo albums by John Scofield; a Scofield-Pat Metheny disc; one by John Abercrombie; and a whole assortment of different projects with the always fascinating and expressive axe-slinger Bill Frisell, including a duet album with Elvis Costello, two volumes of beautifully evocative music for Buster Keaton f1lms and a few others. But also in the Townsend discography are albums by drummer Jerry Granelli, composer/performance artist Rinde Eckart, jazz bassist Dave Holland, Argentine bandoneon master Dino Saluzzi and various discs by singer-songwriter types and purveyors of that undefinable genre known as "world music." Whatever the style, though, Townsend's work is marked by a palpable intimacy and attention to crystalline sonics.

Townsend grew up in the South Bay area near Los Angeles. Although he took piano lessons, played trombone in a junior high school band and taught himself guitar, "I never considered myself a performer really," he says. "It was always more just exploring, seeing if I could execute musical ideas I had in my head." As a teenager, he listened to lots of reggae, blues and roots music and eventually made the jump into jazz. "What has always attracted me," he says, "is soulfulness and people playing together as one. That's the thing in music, besides a great song and a great vocal or whatever, that moves me the most - when people are listening to each other and are on the same wavelength and get a singular group feel that transcends all the individual parts. In the best of jazz and reggae and blues, that's what you fmd. Not to say that it doesn't happen in rock 'n' roll or classical music, too, but it was something that was really noticeable to me at an early point in those other kinds of music."

After high school, Townsend attended the University of California at Santa Cruz. It was there, he notes "that it dawned on me that there was, if not an art, a craft to making a record, and that's what I felt compelled to pay attention to, more than my own musical chops. I started noticing producers and the recording process more. And a lot of that came from listening to ECM records, and then a little later , things like Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I realized there was something more than just documentation going on in recording; that there was a whole creative aspect that captured my imagination. So much so that it pulled me out of a doctoral program in clinical psychology and got me into a studio." He moved back to Los Angeles after he landed a job doing production at the progressive radio station KCRW. Later he worked with Palo Alto Records, a jazz label, booking sessions, coordinating manufacturing operations and doing some administrative A&R work. By his second year there, he was bringing projects to the label, and he even produced three records for the company that year. Next he was hired to be the director of U.S. operations for Manfred Eicher's always adventurous ECM Records label, and that became Townsend's springboard into independent production.

What made you a producer?

I had been around studios a lot. In college I had a radio program. I took a recording engineering course. Then, when I started watching sessions, I really paid attention to what was going on. I know a lot of producers don't want to deal too much on the technical end, and that's valid, but for me, I wanted to demystify the process, so I sort of jumped in. I've learned so much from the various engineers I've worked with through the years. At the time, I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, but I asked a lot of questions.

I think that more important than whether a producer has technical knowledge is whether you have a musical point of view that prods the artist to give you something they might not otherwise get to - if you have some musical suggestions that engender some trust with artists and makes them think that they can make something better with you than without you.

How influenced were you by the whole ECM aesthetic? Jazz engineers in earlier days were probably most influenced by Rudy van Gelder's classic work, which was very dry and intimate-sounding, whereas the 'ECM Sound, , if I can use that term, was much more airy and reverberant.

ECM for me was a bridge between the classical attitude toward production and the more traditional way of recording jazz. It had the clarity and ambience of a lot of classical music, but it had the intimacy of a lot of the best jazz, and it really struck me as anew and beautiful thing at that time. I'm sure it had a big unconscious influence on me; I'm not sure how conscious it was. I loved the clarity, but I didn't want to sacrifice the intimacy and the grittiness of more pop-oriented recordings that I'd also been influenced by. What was more important to me about ECM, as an influence, was the seriousness with which the record-making process was viewed and the commitment behind it, and the fact that they were supporting musicians who were really idiosyncratic and had a lot of personality.

Did you ever talk to Manfred Eicher or his main engineer, Jan Erik Konghaug, about actual recording techniques?

I didn't know Jan Erik enough to ask him any questions, and I don't think Manfred was as detail-oriented on the technical side. But I talked to other engineers in New York, and that's an ongoing thing for me: learning from what other people have to offer. That's one of the great things about record producing. It's a lifelong learning process, and as soon as I mistakenly think I have a formula that works, the next session it proves to be wrong and you learn something new.

When you listen to early productions of yours with the knowledge you've gained and many years of hindsight, do you hear things you don't like?

Most emphatically yes. [Laughs] Sure, I cringe all the time. I guess that's okay, because that was then, this is now. I might cringe at something I did a year ago. But there was always a reason behind everything I did, and actually I feel okay about most of them. How can I put this - I like it when productions take a stand; when you make a commitment and you do something and you live by it whether it's always successful or not. To use an example, I listened to Bill Frisell's Lookout for Hope, the first record we did together, and I can't believe some of the choices we made in EQ'ing the cymbals and the kind of reverbs we decided to go for. I probably wouldn't do something so crude and extreme now, but that record has a sound, so maybe I should. Nothing else sounds quite like it.

I think every artist who's been around has a few of those in his or her catalog, whether ifs Leonard Cohen's disastrous t record with Phil Spector, or something , like the Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow. No record needs as much reverb as that has on it, but it sounds like Surrealistic Pillow!

Right. That's true. Ultimately you have to please yourself. But of course you're going to cringe because your tastes change and what you know about music and recording changes. The main thing is, 'Does the music come across?' If the music comes across, then you haven't failed. If you serve the music and it has a voice of its own and you present it in the highest way it can be presented, it doesn't matter what you think of your EQ or reverb.

Is there a certain kind of artist who appeals to you temperamentally?

I think there is. Like most people, I like artists who absolutely have their own original sound. I like people who are, like myself, motivated by the deeper powers that music can have and that are influenced stylistically in a multifarious way. The kind of artists who appeal to me are the people who are able to channel delicate and extreme emotions i through their music, more than through some sort of interpersonal image they like to project or some public image they want to cultivate or create. There's a certain "realness" that I need to be able to feel from an artist so that he or she and I can have a connection.

All these folks you've worked with are pretty hard to pigeon-hole.

For me, that's the blessing and the plague. It's people whose work I find most compelling and challenging, but I also know that it's the hardest to market. But that's okay.

When you work witb an artist in a number of different contexts-say someone like Bill Frisell, wbo does so many different kinds of music - do you tend to record bim tbe same way time to time?

It changes. With Bill we usually do it direct and amps; sometimes the amps are both close-miked and far-miked, depending on our track situation. The direct is useless when it's a distorted sound, but it's very helpful with some of the more transparent sounds.

What do you gain from working witb tbe same artist over a period of years? Sometimes people get burned out working together over many albums and they need a change, regardless of how the last record they made together was.

Why I like it is because the people I've worked with over a long period of time are people I've grown close to and respect a lot and we've developed a certain kind of trust that also manifests in a certain kind of efficiency, so you don't have to hem and haw a lot.

Have you had difficult projects, ones where it seemed like pulling teeth? And was it anything you could have foreseen?

Yeah. Sometimes you can foresee it but you can't do anything about it.

You're in denial, or you think you can work around it.

Exactly. Or you have to make it work, or whatever. Or if you're astute and flexible, you can figure out ways to circumvent problems or diffuse them so the work still comes through in a positive way. My general feeling is that with the caliber of musicians that I'm fortunate enough to work with, if the process feels strong and sound and respectful, then the product is going to be good.

The artists who are harder for me to work with are the ones that aren't as concerned with the overall musical picture, and are instead more concerned with their parts or how loud they are in the mix or whatever. For me, the cardinal rule is we're there together because we can build something together that otherwise wouldn't get built. So if you're overly concerned with your own sound--and that goes for the producer, too - if that eclipses the overall picture and what's best for the music, you're in trouble. So it's important to determine as early as possible whether you're on the same wavelength in that regard, and it's not always easy to ferret that out early on.

The people I've worked with on a repeated basis are, generally speaking, great team players, and that's the inspirational part of doing the work-when everybody realizes the record itself is the most important thing. It takes on a life of its own and you can't get in the way of that.

There's also the thing of finding that balance between serving what they want, what they need, and challenging them, prodding them in a way that the music stays fresh and doesn't become something that's predictable or pat.

When you're working in an idiom that has such a high degree of improvisation, what degree of familiarity do you need to have with the tunes to be able to judge whether something is a good take or not?

The simple answer to your question is "a lot," most of the time, but not always. The more involved answer is, with someone like Charlie [Hunted, for example, they're out there writing new tunes and developing them onstage, and I'm always on him to give me tapes of the new tunes so I can become familiar with them - nothing more. I always tell him, "I don't care if it's a lousy version." Or if I'm working with a singer, I might say, "I don't care if all the lyrics are done; I just want to hear what's going into the process of making this, so I can understand it better." Then, when it's time for true pre-production, I go to rehearsals and we work on arrangements together and get inside the music in a different way.

So my personal preference is to know the music well before we go into the studio, rather than hearing it fresh, like a listener, in the studio. Regardless of what style of music it is.

Most of the artists you work with are fairly idiosyncratic and, for lack of a better term, uncommercial. Have you ever had an artist say to you at the beginning of a project, «Hey, I want to make a more commercial record this time out"?

Not necessarily in those words. But when, say, John Scofield decided to make more groove-oriented records that were perhaps less abstract than what he'd been doing, that was welcome for me, because I'm often really groove and melody-oriented. I loved the records he'd made before we worked together, but I guess it's not a coincidence that when we got together he took this slightly different turn. And to take that groove-oriented approach to its full, blossoming potential is inherently more commercial, I guess. But the motivation is still musical rather than commercial.

I've listened to so much music, commercial and noncommercial, I feel like I've internalized what is the right kind of presentation, regardless of the musical idiom. At least I hope I have; that's what I'm trying to achieve. So it doesn't become so much an issue when you're in the studio making decisions -"Let's see, what's going to be more commer- cial?" It's more about "What serves this music the best? What's the goal of the record?" And if I feel like at the end of the day we've achieved that, I can look in the mirror that night and be proud when I hand it in to the record company and say, "Here, do something with this." [Laughs]

A lot of the artists I've worked with are not concerned with making something blatantly commercial, but I think they do care, and they don't want to discount their potential audience, and they count on me to help them shape it in a way that'll make it a presentation that people can appreciate and digest.

Also, the engineers I work with over a long period, like Oliver [di Ciccio] and Christian lJones] and Joe Ferla and James Farber in New York and Judy Clapp in L.A., have taught me a lot, and we've also built some sort of relation- ship where we're able to experiment and try new things, but in a time-efficient way. I have to give a lot of credit to those people, because they're high- caliber engineers who are creative in their own right.

You've produced john Abercrombie, john Scofield and Bill Frisell, who are sometimes unfairly lumped together. Can you talk about what makes each of them tick?

The thing that's valid about lumping them together is that Scofield, Abercrombie, Pat Metheny - all those guys grew up with a passion for jazz but with a lot of pop and classical music influences. They're people who have expanded the vocabulary of jazz because they've integrated other musics into it; it's not more complicated than that. It's just a fact. And it's a fact I appreciate because it's made the world of jazz a much more interesting place for me, whereas it might have not been as fun for me if it was more. ..museum-like, which I find is a less compelling trend with a lot of jazz that's happening in different circles.

What's different about those guys, though, is that they've all found a real individual sound and voice - not only the sound they get out of their instrument, but they all have compositional identities which are usually more than just one thing. There are a few compositional directions that each has developed and mastered that can't be mistaken for anybody else unless it's some Johnny-come-lately copy-cat. But in terms of people of their generation or before, there's nobody like that sound - Bill's sound, Sco's sound, Abercrombie's sound.

What was your experience with Pat Metheny like?

I knew Pat for many years, since he was an ECM guy. So we had a long history and a friendship, but John's album with Pat [I Can See Your House From Here) was the first time I'd been in the studio with him as a producer. He's a musician on such a high level, it's really a challenge to stay focused and understand the things he's not satisfied with. There were a fair amount of overdubs, and we did some interesting editing between solo takes. It was a good ex- perience and it was a challenge because he and John have different ways of working. John is very spontaneous and doesn't want to overdo things, and Pat takes a long time to warm up and get inside something. For me, both are valid ways of working, so it was just a question of rectifying those two styles and making it so both of them were comfortable.

Do you have favorite studios?

Well, it depends on where I am. Here ~ in the Bay Area I love Mobius and The Site, and I like mixing at Different Fur. In New York, I really like [the former] Power Station A and C they're great recording rooms. For mixing, River Sound is fine, Power Station is fine.

You've talked about how much you love living in Northern California. How would your career be different if you lived in LA. or New York?

It's hard to say; it would probably be totally different. I probably wouldn't have worked with Kirk and Charlie and Rinde.

Who are some of the producers who have influenced you?

In the jazz realm it would be people like Teo Macero and Manfred, because they brought something active and fresh and different to the jazz world, rather than just documenting performances in the studio. In other areas, like anybody else, I admire Eno, Malcolm Burn, Lanois, T-Bone Burnett, Mitchell Froom, all those people.

Do you think you have a sound as a producer? You mentioned Daniel Lanois; on Emmylou Han"is' Wrecking BalI, I think I heard the sound of the reverbs before the first note of music appears!

[Laughs] I'm told that I do have a sound - that there's a certain naturalism to it. I like big sounds. People say it's detail-oriented and warm. For me, I just know how I want things to sound, and how satisfied I am is a function of how close I get to that ideal that's in my mind. And actually, I don't want to jinx it by describing it too much.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I just hope I can keep making records I feel good about, and working with artists who have something deep to say. I want to make music that runs the gamut of human experience - that's about fun but also has something real to say. I just want to try to keep growing.