In 2002, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau released Largo. His most experimental--and best--record, it was produced by Jon Brion, celebrated for his film scores and his production of Fiona Apple’s records. It’s a real studio record--it doesn’t sound “live” at all. Here’s an example: Mehldau’s exquisite, moving, and effects-heavy cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.”
Inside the packaging appears the following statement. “All music was recorded live, on the floor. There were no overdubs.”
Why not? Because overdubs are more or less forbidden in jazz. They smack of inauthenticity. Jazz is music improvised live; if you overdub, you’re not really interacting with your fellow musicians. You’re faking it. Do a google search on “jazz” and “no overdubs” if you don’t believe me. Practically every aspiring jazz artist proclaims loudly that they don’t overdub. Ever.
What most people don’t know is that the first overdubbed record was made by one of the giants of jazz, and it was truly a jazz record: Sidney Bechet’s One Man Band’s 1941 “The Sheik of Araby.” This was done in the era before multitrack audiotape, so the fidelity grows worse and worse as Bechet layers on each instrument (soprano and tenor sax, clarinet, bass, drums, and piano). The American Federation of Musicians was so outraged by the record that they banned overdubbing for years. As for multitrack recording, it was invented by a jazz musician, Les Paul, whose most famous overdubbed recording was his absolutely wild 1947 “Lover,” featuring eight guitars recorded at various speeds.
Here are a few more landmarks in jazz overdubbing.
For Lennie Tristano’s 1955 “Line Up,” Tristano had the bass (Peter Ind) and drum (Jeff Morton) parts recorded first, then altered the tape speed and overdubbed his piano part.
Miles Davis’s 1957 masterpiece Miles Ahead relied extensively on overdubs. Here’s the ebullient “I Don't Wanna Be Kissed (By Anyone But You).” As Loren Schoenberg explains,
“during the taping of the orchestral track for ‘I Don't Wanna Be Kissed,’ Davis
unexpectedly played a few random portions of his solo. Months later at the
overdub session, he had to tailor new passages to lead in and out of what he
had already played on the prerecorded track. During five attempts,
When Dave Lambert & His Singers, who would soon become Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, recorded their debut album Sing a Song of Basie in 1957, each singer sang his/her part separately, all overdubbed. Here’s “Little Pony” from that record.
Creed Taylor produced not only the Lambert record, but Bill Evans’s 1963 Conversations with Myself, an overdubbed and Grammy-winning three-piano album. But Evans may have been taking a cue from Lennie Tristano’s 1955 “Turkish Mambo,” also featuring three overdubbed piano tracks. Here’s “How About You?” from that record. Conversations with Myself sounds pretty gimmicky at first, but I don’t think Evans’s rhythmic genius was ever put on better display.
Charles Mingus’s 1963 The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady relies on extensive overdubs. The first 2:45 of “Track C: Group Dancers” is recorded straight. At that point, Charlie Mariano’s alto sax begins wailing, the guitar comes in, and the collective improvisation begins. Well, Mariano’s entire 4-minute-plus brilliant alto sax solo was entirely overdubbed.
The overdub never really died. Pharaoh Sanders used it on his 1970 album Thembi. Pat Metheny used overdubs on Bright Size Life and New Chautauqua later that decade. Smooth jazz hasn’t been hesitant about using overdubs, even overdubbing over dead people’s music (e.g. Kenny G overdubbing lame sax solos over Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World,” which caused Pat Metheny to throw a memorable fit.) To conclude, here’s Matthew Shipp’s “Space Shipp,” from his 2002 Nu Bop, on which I surmise, from reading an interview with Shipp, that William Parker’s bass is overdubbed; and Jason Moran’s overdubbed take on Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” from his breathtaking 2002 album Modernistic.
If one sticks to conventional wisdom, there’s something very wrong with all of these tracks. They’re studio gimmicks; they’re not real jazz; they violate the very principles of jazz. They’re fake, phony, inauthentic.
Back in 2002, when The Future of Jazz, a book I edited, came out, I gave an interview about jazz in which I said, “Classical music is a written art form; rock is (or has become) a recorded art form; jazz is a live art form. Of course, this is essentialist thinking, but I do think it gets to the heart of the music. The major appeal of classical music lies in harmony, in the play of resolutions and dissonances. The major appeal of rock music, at least after 1965, lies in the manipulation of electronic sound. And the major appeal of jazz will always lie in improvisation, which really has very little to do with the recording process. Improvisation is done on the spur of the moment, live.”
Here I stated in a concise form jazz’s essentialist position, one which I’m reluctant to deny now. I really do believe that overdubbing goes against jazz’s fundamental nature.
So why do the tracks I’ve posted above sound so good? Why is there more improvisational brilliance on every single one of these tracks than in the mass of Wynton Marsalis’s non-overdubbed records?
Because playing with new technology has always been a fundamental part of jazz too. If Sidney Bechet, Les Paul, Lennie Tristano, and Miles Davis aren’t enough to prove that, just think of the fact that the saxophone was one of the newest instruments around when it became one of the central instruments of jazz, and that both the electric guitar and vibraphone began as jazz instruments. Jazz has always been experimental, cutting-edge.
Studio trickery can get in the way. I find Miles Davis’s studio electric albums, with their splices and cross-fades, less satisfying than his unedited and live cuts from the same period--there’s a momentum to Agharta that Jack Johnson only hints at. Most of Jason Moran’s Modernistic is even better than “Planet Rock,” its only overdubbed cut, and I’d rather hear Sidney Bechet’s small-group sides or Bill Evans’s piano trio over their overdubbed work any day.
But as long as musicians ensure that studio trickery doesn’t interfere with the thrill that great improvising can create, let them use as much studio trickery as they want. Not all, but the majority of the most exciting jazz records of the last decade have been impeccably produced studio products, records that sound in some ways like rock records. Even if presenting something fresh and new occasionally smacks of inauthenticity, its rewards can be irresistible.