My special love of Jazz generally, but the double bass especially, will come as no surprise to you. I’ve made no secret of the fact that for me, Charlie Haden is one of the greatest musicians ever on this instrument. Having said that, my admiration does not go as far as hanging a star portrait above my bed – if there were such a thing – but there are over 60 recordings in my record collection of this virtuoso’s wonderful solos, just a fraction of his numerous productions, which I think shows very eloquently indeed just how much I cherish his music. Can you imagine, then, how I reacted when Naim Audio’s Sales Director, Paul Stephenson, called me and asked as an afterthought, if i would be interested in taking part in a Charlie Haden recording session? I hardly think this possible.
However, just before reaching seventh heaven my bubble of bliss was brutally burst. The recording session is scheduled smack in the middle of Image HiFi’s most manic production phase – although I manage to find a solution with the help of my colleagues – as well as the high season travelling, which means flights to the United States will be hard to come by, especially have to be half way affordable. But I cannot start looking yet, because Pauls invitation is still only conditional – on Charlie’s ‘okay’ that is. Unfortunately, this particular double bass player has quite the reputation for not being as nearly interested in press and publicity as hi is his own musical projects. After two tortuous days the news finally arrives. Charlie has been persuaded to let at least one writing emissary attend the recording session.
Sunday 6TH July
When I finally arrive in New York after a few minor hitches – have you ever stood in a queue at an airlines check-in desk without a ticket 30 mins before the scheduled time off, or tried to get a boarding pass? – the recording session is already under its way. Unfortunately, however, I still do not know where? well, at least Anna Tooth, who is chaperoning the project for Naim Audio, has left me a brief note at the hotel. I am trying to call her in the evening, which means after the first day of recording , she will then give me Ken Christiansen’s telephone number – he’s the sound engineer and producer here but usually runs his own hi-if studio in Chicago.. Once again, unfortunately, inquisitive journalists seem to be the last thing Ken needs at this particular moment. In fact, he does not want anybody at the Monday recording session except Charlie Haden and Chris Anderson, if at all possible, and as far as the interview is concerned I can contact Charlie after the session.
It appears that the reason for this somewhat taciturn attitude, as I found out later, was because of a very strenuous sound check and rather less than promising rehearsals. I am slowly starting to doubt when I am actually going to get to hear any of the recording at all.
Monday 7th July
recording on an analogue tape recorder and still swears by Quad Electrostatic speakers, referring naturally to the ones from 1955
Since I have been condemned to inactivity until the late afternoon I pass the time by looking through the Yellow Pages and then visiting various record shops. But there is no need for jealousy, for jazz fans at least the record shops in Manhattan are no great revelation. If you do happen across some rarity or other by Charlie Mingus, Roland Kirk or Thelonius Monk the price tag gives you such a shock that the records immediately leap back onto the shelves. For example, records by Shelly Manne or Count Basie cost about forty dollars in some places, even for ones that are relatively common. The situation is much better for classical music lovers though. Who in their right mind would leave behind a copy of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite conducted by Ansermet and played by the Orchestre De La Suisse Romande, (London CSA-2203) at a price of four dollars?
I get Charlie Haden on the phone for the first time at about 5.30pm. He is too tired for an interview now Hugh agreed to meet at the recoding session the next day and have a chat afterwards. In the evening I meet up with Ken Christiansen who is enthusiastic as he is relaxed. The second day has been extremely successful and so there are no objections at all to having a visitor at the final session. It seems I will not have to fly back without having achieved anything after all.
Ken is, of course, a Naim dealer and does his recording on an analogue tape recorder and still swears by Quad Electrostatic speakers, referring naturally to the ones from 1955 not the ‘modern’ ESL 63 version. It is, then, not surprising that he prefers LP’s to CD’s, even if he does maintain that good music on an aluminium disc is ten times better than bad music on vinyl any day. But he does not actually have to resort to other producers’ work at all to indulge in innumerable hours of musical enjoyment because, according to his own account, there are over 400 master tapes which he himself recorded lying in wait in his own collection. This is where the first two Charlie Haden CD’s on the Naim Audio label came from, Private Collection No.1 and No.2. Ken had actually only made the recording for for himself and his friend Charlie, but when they listened to the tapes they realised that it would be a great shame to deprive the public of this fantastic music. On our way to a tiny jazz club Ken tells me a bit about his recording technique.
Being the traditionalist that he is, he of course only uses two microphones. His priority here is not a large soundstage, but that other microphones would simply never pick up the signals with identical phase o the main microphones, and then the differences in phase would create tonally uneven sound, but he refuses categorically to influence the signals picked up by the microphones by means of a tonal control or a limiter for that matter. He does not really have to take any trouble telling me of the essential advantages of a purist’s approach to two microphone recordings – I was a convert long before this. The rest of the evening, therefore, is given over to jazz, listening to the concert and two fans talking shop.
Tuesday 8th, July
Charlie has discovered a minute buzzing on his bass, a J.B. Vuilliaume instrument from 1840
Finally, the big day arrives. After a few telephone calls I can go and pick up Charlie and his double bass at their suite. Charlie has put a roller at the bottom of the bass in place of the peg so that this beautiful instrument can be pushed along. We walk the few hundred meters to the recording venue. The pianist Chris Anderson, Charlie’s partner in the duo, and Ken Christiansen decided on Carni Hall, which is opposite Carnegie Hall. On the one hand it has a Steinway which is immaculately tuned and on the other outstanding acoustics. But this hall, which can seat about 200 people, has something to offer Charlie Haden too – a pleasant memory – because it was precisely here that 30 years ago he recorded his album Liberation Music Orchestra which has won several awards; admittedly at that time the place was still called Hudson Hall.
While Charlie is freeing his bass from its protective case Chris Anderson is warming up a little. Ken checks the positions of the AKG-414-EB microphones again, cleans the heads of the two track Nagra and puts in a new tape. The little tape recorder is sitting on a typical little record player table with a lightweight metal frame, a double set of spikes and an MDF tabletop. There is about 10 meters of cable between the microphones and the Nagra but nothing else. A portable DAT recorder is hooked up to the out sockets of the tape recorder. This is where a back up copy is made that gives the musicians the opportunity of reviewing what has just been recorded. Ken Christiansen does not allow the analogue master tapes to be wound forward or back.
There is also a lead from the DAT recorder to two Creek headphone amplifiers, one is for the sound engineer who has to monitor the recording and the other is for Chris Anderson. That is because in most of the pieces the pianist cannot possibly hear the bass player without this artificial assistance, since the piano is about two meters back from where Charlie is standing with his instrument. The bass player, then, is at less of a distance from the microphones, and between the instruments Ken can achieve the right balance between piano and bass. It goes without saying that using an amplifier for the bass would not be acceptable in such a purist recording concept, therefore for the only alternative is to experiment with the distances between the instruments to arrive at the equally balanced volume for both. By the third day this has, of course, already been well established so that unfortunately I cannot tell you anything about how long it takes an experienced technician like Ken to find the correct positions. Again, as a perfectionist he has marked the spot where the bass has to stand, but also reminds Charlie before every piece that he should not move from the spot under any circumstances while playing. By the way, Naim Audio has fulfilled its sound engineer’s long standing wish: at the Ramada Show they introduced Naim headphone amplifiers. This means tat Ken now no longer has to fall back on other companies’ products during his recording sessions.
Before he starts the tape, Chris and Charlie agree on which piece to do next, whereby Charlie usually goes along with the pianist’s suggestions. During this short discussion, Charlie plays a few chords here and there and they decide if and when there should be a solo and off they go. This morning most of the pieces are recorded first time through – Charlie and Chris adjust to each other’s playing with wistful ease. Only once does Chris stop abruptly. His solos simply did not meet his own expectations.
The second time through everything works perfectly. At one point later Charlies stops suddenly and says, Hey Chris, what are you doing? The pianist’s special chord changes in this standard tune have caught out even the most experienced of bass players – which is not surprising, though, when you know that unusual chord changes have actually become Chris Anderson’s trademark. He plays a few chords. Charlie briefly joins in and then they both start the piece again with their accustomed harmony.
Them there is another interruption on another more dramatic note. Charlie has discovered a minute buzzing on his bass, a J.B. Vuilliaume instrument from 1840. Something is vibrating that should not be. The bass player asks for som warm water and towels. When Anna returns with these the bass is already lying on it’s back on the floor.
Charlie then starts to dab the warm water onto the seams between the top and body of the bass and to wipe off the excess water carefully with the towels. The differences in climate between his home on the west coast and New York have caused the glue to dry out. As soon as there is enough moisture in the glued edges the glue expands. This first aid remedy proves to be successful about 20 minutes later. The parts are stuck together again so tightly that nothing can move that is not supposed to.
The interruption gives me the chance to listen in to the back up copy. I admit that you can hear the slight buzzing from this prodigious instrument, but nevertheless the bass sound on the digital tape is the best I ever heard. The double bass has great warmth, and richness and definition are balanced in the best way possible. Thanks to the gut strings you can hear the fingering crisp and clear without the slightest roughness – quite simply perfection. And because the microphones are so close to the source you can hear quite a few other details on the headphones you could not hear sitting in the convert hall. If they can transfer this fantastic sound onto CD, this recording will set a standard for all future bass and piano recordings .
Unfortunately, about two hours later, my wallowing in the music of Charlie and Chris comes to an end, be it live or on tape. The duo has already recorded too much material for only one CD. Finally, Ken goes through the list of tracks with the musicians and now and then, the one or the other of them wants to listen to the tape briefly. While Chris is quite satisfied with his work, Charlie thinks that his solos are still far from perfect.However, this is a view tat Ken, Chris and a completely insignificant journalist from a distant European shores do not all share. But there is unanimity regarding the quality of the recording, both Chris and Charlie and the above mentioned correspondent are all enthralled.
Chris Anderson invites me to visit him at his flat on 23rd Street on Wednesday morning there os now nothing left of Charlie’s reticence towards the press either. He suggests that we pick up his wife at the hotel and go out for dinner together, then there would be enough time to answer a question or two.
In the morning there is still enough time for a visit to Lincoln Center. the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Kurt Masur are performing Skies of America, together with Ornette Coleman and his band Prime Time. I have seldom listened to a symphony orchestra with more relish. The purely orchestral passages of Coleman’s composition are fascinating in their friction and breaks – pure excitement. The contrast with Prime Time’s electronically amplified instruments was superfluous. Even Coleman’s own solos sounded alien in this acoustic setting, because of the need to amplify the instruments. Incidentally, on Thursday night Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, Kenny Baron and Billy Higgins are giving a concert in the same place. I, however will be back in Bavaria’s Grobenzell. Too bad.
Wednesday 9th July
A bus carries me through the chaos of traffic downtown, unfortunately a little late. Chris Anderson lives in housing scheme, specifically adapted for the blind. He has already informed the security guards that I am coming and when I step out of the lift he is at the door of his calf waiting for me.
The living room is small, relatively sparsely furnished and dominated by a grand piano, but as soon as Chris sits down at the keys of this 1910 Steinway and plus a few notes, it seems transformed into heaven on earth, at least for jazz fans. Regrettably, however, I have not come to indulge, but to work. And so I conscientiously take down everything that Chris has to say bout his recording session with Charlie Haden and everything else for that matter.
There is little time left in the afternoon to go to two record shops be the early evening I leave ofo the airport – an d this time I even have a valid ticket when I arrive there.