Happy Birthday, Duke…

The Duke will certainly forgive this belated birthday (April 29) memory from The Chicago Progressive published in January of 2015….and what better time to celebrate the late, great Charley Krebs.


The Studio Rat –

I recently commiserated with a friend over the excessive use of applied side-chain reverberation on several new jazz recordings. It seems to be an epidemic. Our conversation led to the value of “a frame of reference.” It’s worthwhile to step back and remember what reality sounds like for this class of recording and these most acoustic of instruments. By assimilating the audio image of various acoustic realities, we can apply their lessons to the palette of digital control and tweak our way to mellowness. In short, the “Large Hall” preset of your favorite plug-in is not your ally.

Coincidentally, a very interesting recording from 1951 has been re-released. It is an artistic segue of incredible subtlety and marks a shift in the history of the recording craft, and of jazz itself. “Masterpieces by Ellington”. This was a merging of new technology and an artist who understood its greater implications. We must endeavor to understand audio and the interaction of this emerging music form with the space in which it was recorded, Columbia’s new 30th Street Studio, “The Church.”

It’s the oldest name in the history of recorded sound, but it took more than longevity to make Columbia Records one of the most powerful labels on the planet. Clean custom consoles, a collection of excellent German microphones, and a large and knowledgeable staff of producers and engineers became the label’s hallmark during the boom years of modern recording. While Rudy VanGelder was making jazz history in a living room in New Jersey, Harold Chapman was flexing audio muscle at The Church. View his discography and be amazed.

Any connoisseur of the recording arts must stand in awe at the harmonic convergence of this time. It was the beginning of the modern recording era, 1948-51. Magnetic tape had arrived from Germany. Post-war radio associated audio electronics was at its peak. Columbia Records developed the 33 1/3 rpm microgroove vinyl record. The aforementioned “excellent German microphones” were in abundance. Columbia then converted an abandoned Lutheran church into the very definition of a recording studio. This is timeless, groundbreaking recording on a grand scale.

Add Ellington…I tend to rave about Ellington. Deal with it. The core aspects of this evolutionary moment are better left to scholars. His genius is multifaceted at this moment as he and Strayhorn exhibit brilliance in realizing the long form of jazz.

“Yet this is also one reason for the album’s stunning artistic achievement. Ellington used the new medium in daring fashion. Rather than pack the extra space with more songs (an LP spinning at 33 1\3 revolutions per minutes held about 20 minutes of music preside, compared with the 3 or 4 minutes on a 78 rpm disc), he recorded much longer arrangements…a 15 minute ‘Mood Indigo’, an 11 minute ‘Sophisticated Lady’, and 8 minute ‘Solitude’, and a new song, ‘The Tattooed Bride,’ that clocked in at 11 plus minutes.” – Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan’s excellent article, “Duke Ellington’s Best Album” .

Ellington’s new musical form lent itself to and indulgent approach with dynamics that were never served better by a physical space. The band embraced the old church and played to every part of the vaulted ceiling. The room returned a voice unique and flawless. The relationship between source and environment was an instrument.

The ” record album” was born.

I listen carefully to the recordings from this studio in the decade that followed, through the advent of stereo recording and try to imprint the sound of the room to an internal audio bank of memory. This “frame of reference” is the true ally. I bring that recollection to my adjustments of digital reverberation.

In my neighborhood there are some classic places of worship. I go there to listen. I often engage the “selective hearing principle” and focus on decay, in all its linear beauty. In the right circumstances, the balance between source and return is the focus of great detail. Frequencies gained, frequencies lost…it’s magic.

Artists associated with Colubmia’s 30th Street Studio are, Glenn Gould, Igor Stravinsky, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Dave Brubeck.

…and notably:

Duke Ellington – Piano In The Foreground, Masterpieces by Ellington, Ellington Uptown, Festival Session, Piano In The Background, Such Sweet Thunder.

Miles Davis – Miles Ahead, Milestones, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain.

Art Blakey – Hard Bop

Leonard Bernstein – West Side Story

Duke Ellington