Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Recorded in August, explained in November

How does one explain the rationale behind a 48-minute piece of music that contains nothing but improvisation and was recorded in a single day? Madness? Self-indulgence? Impatience? Yes.

One Day in August, which you can stream or download at my Music V2 site (linked in the list to the right), as well as the excerpt embedded in the post below, was recorded as just another goofy idea on Monday, August 25, 2008. I took the day off as part of a four-day weekend to celebrate my birthday. Since the wife was at work, I had all day to myself, a studio packed with musical equipment, and a couple of fancy new Heritage guitars that I wanted to record. It was either that or surf the Web all day...

I had been wanting to record a long-form improvisation ever since I was first exposed to the work of avante-garde jazz musician Sam Rivers, who has been a major inspiration to me in the last year or so. In the '70s, Rivers was known for his trio performances, in which he would perform extended improvisations on tenor sax, soprano sax, flute and piano over a pulse-oriented rhythm section, frequently with Dave Holland on stand-up bass and Barry Altschul on drums. The rhythm section would keep going for 30+ minutes, and Rivers would pick up and put down instruments as he felt necessary.

The approach I used for One Day is not nearly as avante-garde as Rivers' work, however. But I approached it from the perspective of near-total freedom. The only prep work I did was to set MIDI tempos in my digital recorder (Korg D3200) for a few changes throughout, practice a couple of initial funk drumpad approaches to get things going, and work up a quick chord progression (Amaj7 - Asus4 add 6) to start from. That progression reminds me a little of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir, but it's a fun one. I stay more within range of regular tonality than most free-jazz musicians do, but there are some moments of chaos in there.

I first recorded the lower drum kit (kick, snare, toms) along with the click track provided by the MIDI tempo map. The map was done in 4/4 time, but I used a simple click and was thereby free to drop and add beats as I felt them...or screwed up. ;) Lots of, shall we say, "flexible" timekeeping. Hey, I'm just a guitarist.

After I recorded the lower kit, I overdubbed the cymbals. This is difficult to do, because a real drummer obviously has only four limbs and makes everything fit together in real time. My overdubbing technique makes it possible to play drum/cymbal combinations that are physically impossible in real life, and the improvisational and long-form nature of the music means that I have a hard time anticipating on cymbals what I did on the lower kit, especially with drum fills where the cymbals usually drop out. So, it's goofed-up from the start. But such it the flawed beauty of life. Part of the challenge of being an improvisational recording artist is living with the results.

From there, the fun part started. I LOVE playing bass guitar. I'm no Stanley Clarke, but there's a physicality involved with bass that the more dainty guitar can't give you. You feel it or you don't. I think I was feeling it on August 25, and I'm happy with the bass here. It's not perfect, but you can hear the fusion of funk and hard rock bass legends that have inspired me. Think Alphonso Johnson meets Geezer Butler. I recorded the bass--a Conklin Groove Tools 5-string--into my Fractal Audio Axe-FX guitar preamp (used on all non-drum tracks on this piece) and then direct into the mixing board. The newer firmware for the Axe-FX contains a bass speaker cabinet simulation that allows wonderful bass guitar recordings, I believe.

Next, came the clean rhythm guitar, recorded on my homemade parts stratocaster using the neck and middle pickups. This particular instrument is wonderfully resonant and alive, and you just can't get a bad sound out of the damned thing. I started with the above-mentioned chord progression in a clickety-clack funk rhythm. From there, I went all kinds of places with it for 48 minutes, just experimenting with different chord forms and movement. I really was feeling it more than thinking it. I'm sure every guitar teacher on Earth would be horrified. :)

From there, three separate tracks of lead guitar, going in and out as I felt it. The initial lead track was recorded on my Heritage H-157 Black Beauty, which gives an intense, heavy sound. At about 5:00, the Heritage H-555 semi-hollow comes in with a slightly more mellow sound, using an Axe-FX setting with an automatic 'wah-wah' feel. Thirdly, my ESP Mirage Custom started providing some whammy-bar madness at about 16:30, in a manner reminiscent of Vernon Reid, the guitarist from Living Colour.

Part of my original intent was to have all three lead guitars blasting away at once, in something of an electric tribute to Ornette Coleman's seminal Free Jazz album. There were several sections I recorded that way, but I ultimately chickened out in the final mix and had only one lead guitar going at a time, for the most part. I felt the music breathed better with one-at-a-time, and the interplay between the three wasn't as consistently good as I had wanted.

That's about it for the recording process. I'll write some more about One Day in August tomorrow, hopefully going a little bit less technical and a little deeper into the inspiration behind it.

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