THOUGHTS ON MY CD "SIGAME"
Sigame remains one of my favorite recordings, and I truly hope you will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it. As chronicled in an article wrote originally for DownBeat magazine just before the CD was originally released (entitled: “Ridin’ the Wave: My Major Label Journey”, the original version of which I’ve attached to the end of this article), it was really music that came out of the resolution of an admittedly frustrating several year adventure I had in which I did my “dance with the majors”, and was perhaps
also the first CD I did in which my youthful ideals and perceptions of what I did and why gave way to a more mature, adult perspective on what I was looking for in my music career, and, more broadly in life.
As you’ll read in that article, I certainly had my fair share of ups and downs while recording my two CD’s for RCA Victor (BMG) (both of which I was actually quite proud: “..so far” (1999 RCA Victor) and “Anthem” (2000 RCA Victor).) On the positive side, I gained greater notoriety for my work than ever before, if only due to the pure cachet value of having been “chosen” by a major in the first place, a fact that surely played a role in my (at present) only Juno win (the “Canadian Grammy for the uninitiated!) for “…so far” (my CD’s before and since have been nominated a total of 6 times). On the negative, I found myself increasingly sublimating my instincts as artist and person when dealing with a dispassionate, business-first world and with people in this world often seemingly lacking true creative vision, but instead more concerned with a “bottom line” mentality that proved eminently frustrating.
It was with pure joy, then, that I finally left RCA before pursuing what would have been the 3rd CD (even the manner in which I was let go was somewhat duplicitous: I was told that in order to do the 3rd CD for the major, they were going to slash my budget by two-thirds. When I balked and was cut, little did I realize that they were contractually obligated to pay me a lump sum check worth MORE than the budget for album 3 if I walked; I received a surprise check on my birthday, which certainly lightened the emotional load )…
As chronicled in my Down Beat article, I fired my then-manager, agents, lawyers; and was suddenly back to doing things just for me. It was confusing, but also extremely liberating. Without any particular agenda and able to support myself at least for a few months with my “windfall” check, I hit the road as sideman with violinist Christian Howes and guitarist Rez Abbassi’s co-led band, playing organ (and attempting desperately to effectively hammer out a groovin’ bass line with my left hand as part of my duties). We performed smaller venues in the mid-west, and while not a high profile tour, it was satisfying to clear the creative and emotional cobwebs; to not think but merely to just play, for a couple of weeks…
Once I returned, I found myself surprisingly inclined, after a seeming mental block for months on end, to return to some sketches of tunes I had first improvised while doing a soundcheck a few months earlier for a concert at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Often I compose in bursts of (seeming!) creative inspiration, in which I allow any and all influences, from the slip of my fingers on the keys, to a random chord progression, to fuel my ideas, without self-judgment. I put such ideas into separate folders, give them often tedious-sounding titles containing just enough information to remind me of what the inspiration of the piece was (“movie tune”, “new waltz”), and then file them away.
When I started feeling re-inspired, then, I fortunately had just such a “stash” of ideas ready for further development, and, dusting them off, found myself quickly finishing tune after tune, until I had more than enough material for a new CD, the material for which eventually became the new recording “Sigame” you have or will shortly be exploring.
The music on the CD also reflected interest I was beginning to increasingly have in a form of acoustic-based “jam band” type of sound I was hearing on the parts of many of my peers, from Charlie Hunter, to Sam Newsome’s Global Unity, to some of the work I had previously heard coming out of drummer Leon Parker, to Brian Blade’s Fellowship. Listening to these influences, I realized that their common thread was a sense of groove and melody holding things together, to which I wanted to add my “characteristic” sense of adventure, yet with less of the “over-the-top” quality that perhaps characterized some of my earlier work (my CD “Rhythm-Dance” particularly comes to mind with it’s exaggeratedly close-miked, mega-sized-sounding Bosendorfer piano; rock-and-roll mix, and lots of clusters and aggressive playing, much as I still am a fan of the melodies and general vibe of that particular recording)…
With Sigame, I was particularly sensitive to the type of piano sound I wanted, and went right to the “source” for inspiration – Gerhard Feldman of Bosendorfer. My intent was to use their piano in part because of my relationship with them as a Bosendorfer Artist; unfortunately there wasn’t a suitable one available, but Gerhard thankfully showed me a Steinway for which he has re-vamped the piano action, such that it really was the best of all possible worlds: a Bosendorfer piano action, tempered by a slightly mellower Steinway sound. I was in heaven, and the piano for the session was secured for the date.
I also needed to choose an appropriate studio. I was eager for the CD to come out as soon as possible, and time being critical quickly reserved time at the dependable Sound on Sound studios in mid-town Manhattan, at which I had previously recorded my Justin Time CD’s “Paired Down, Vol.’s I and II”. Remarkably, days before the session was scheduled to take place, they unceremoniously cancelled my booking due to their decision to do some studio equipment upgrades, and I found myself scrambling to find a replacement facility. I must have gone around and played in every room that could accommodate the large Steinway I was planning to bring in for the occasion. When the situation seemed dire, I finally managed to find some time at the (now recently-defunct!) “Hit Factory”, a famed studio with a giant orchestra-ready room at which they had available space on the days planned.
Next came the task of choosing sidemen. Drummer Dafnis Prieto at the time was seemingly fresh from Cuba, but had already been making quite a stir on the New York scene, and playing with some of my favorite groups, including the bands of Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill. I approached him and he was very receptive to doing the music, so the drum chair was set. The bass chair proved slightly more problematic. I originally impulsively hired a great young bass player named Omar Avital, someone who had increasingly gained a name for himself playing on the scene that had cropped up around a club in the village called “Small’s”. I made the mistake, however, of hiring him before actually trying him out with the drummer, and it became clear after the first rehearsal that as talented as he was, he just wasn’t gelling groove-wise with the particular drummer I had chosen. It was an awkward situation, with the session scheduled for just a month from then, but as is often the case as leader, the music ultimately had to win out, and I was forced to “unhire” him (though I offered to pay him much more for that one rehearsal than would be the norm as compensation for him not actually doing the session). His replacement was the seasoned bassist Ugonna Okegwo, known then particularly for his longstanding stint as a member of pianist Jacky Terrasson’s trio. Ugonna was (and still is) a “no-frills” bassist – deep, deep groove, not much technical bells and whistles, but better able to lay down an in-the-pocket foundation than at present any other bass player I have worked with. Particularly striking was hearing him, during rehearsal, play a groove-oriented piece by himself; it was amazing how often other bass players in that situation could be prone to losing the groove, but with Ugonna it was rock-solid, whether playing with others or not. And his minimalistic approach blended beautifully with Dafnis’s virtuositic musicality, so my trio was set…
While again originally planned as an “acoustic jam band”-oriented album (one of the final pieces was even ultimately named “Jam Band” for lack of a better title idea on my part), it quickly became apparent in rehearsal that I would be wise to try and center the music as much as possible around the particular gifts of Dafnis’s drumming. Unlike other Latin-oriented drummers I had encountered, Dafnis had an ability to really swing, and to play in an interactive, musically-sensitive manner that was really quite remarkable and fresh-sounding. So while the CD ended up featuring pieces such as “Cubano-Funk”, which functioned as a more straight-ahead virtuosic show piece for Dafnis’s “grooving out” mood and ability to blend drum styles (in this case Cuban with “backbeat”), there was also plenty of pieces in which I called upon him to interact musically and sensitively, even while still laying down the original-intent of an acoustic “jam band” texture: Le Shuffle, Jam Band, Fort Greene Park, and so on.
Because of my attempts to musically meet Dafnis’s tremendous talents halfway with my compositions, I also realized early on that I needed a bit more color instrumentation-wise to round out a few of the tunes; I kept, more specifically, hearing in my head the sound of acoustic guitar, and so got the word out among my musical colleagues that I was looking for an acoustic guitarist comfortable with the Latin idiom who might fit the bill. After auditioning a couple of potential prospects in my Brooklyn home, Freddie Bryant entered the scene and was a perfect match.
I had also vowed to make the CD all-acoustic (especially after the electric adventures of my previous release “Anthem”, on RCA, much as I was proud of it). But perhaps as evidence of my tendency to go-with-the-flow and not necessarily follow any hard and fast rules, I had the pleasure of hearing Freddie Bryant performing as sideman at the Vanguard prior to my recording session for “Sigame”, and was delighted to hear his “groovin’ out” solo on electric (hollow body?) guitar. It was a sound that seemed perfect for an old “warhorse” tune I had written back when I was in full “Don Pullen” mode (ie. trying as hard as possible to emulate the musical modus operandi of my then-teacher, Don Pullen, a habit I’ve long since shaken). The composition was entitled “Le Shuffle”, and it was admittedly modeled a bit too close to home to a tune Don wrote called “Jana’s Delight” at least in terms of groove and structure (though not melody). Eventually, I threw Freddie into that piece on electric to set a truly soulful tone and the piece finally worked.
The final ingredient musically was violinist Christian Howes. Much as he had played the hell out of his Yamaha Silent String Electric Violin for my BMG disc “Anthem”, for this project I brought him in – again to add some color variety – and insisted that he play all-acoustic. For logistical reasons he ultimately didn’t arrive until the mixing session, and ultimately overdubbed string parts written for “Summer”, as well as adding a kick-ass solo to the end of what became the title tune of the CD, “Sigame”, which he laid down in one impassioned and impressive take.
“Summer”, in particular, remains one of my favorite compositions, in part because it’s a bit of a tonic to the perception people have had of me in the past as a “bangy” pianist – it sums up the more introspective, lyrical side to my writing and playing I think perhaps more effectively than any other composition I have written in this vein to date.
The CD was rounded out by the cryptically-titled “Prologue” (cryptic because it was inexplicably put at the end – perhaps a “Prologue”..of things to come? )…
The CD ultimately went on to earn my then 5th Juno nomination and has remained my most “commercially successful” CD in terms of radio play. I really hope you enjoy it!