Noted jazz enthusiast, producer, DJ, re-mixer, and label executive Brian Michel Bacchus has taken time from his latest project (a tribute to Chick Corea that features The Manhattan Transfer among others) to contribute a guest shot to the insideplaya. Brian and the playa have known each other for 25 years. Somewhere along the way, he found time to discover and sign the decade’s biggest selling artist, Norah Jones.
Often my partner in SoulFeast, Joaquin Claussell, asks me about the good ole days before protools and auto-tuning when Dolby SR was the rage and it was best to use it when you were running that 2 inch tape at 15 ips instead of 30. When I think back to those good ole days, I often think of my time at Island Records running the Antilles label. Not only was I given pretty much a blank slate to build upon, but the vibe and spirit fostered by my main man, Chris Blackwell, opened up opportunities and led to experiences that I would never get to have again.
Almost 20 years ago, my good friend Jean-Philippe Allard who was running Verve France approached me about co-producing and jointly releasing a major project that first appeared as if it were going to be recorded over three continents with the final tracking taking place in Morocco. The artist was Randy Weston, who had just released a trilogy of Portrait albums (Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Randy Weston). Randy was no stranger to me and I was both a friend and a fan. The arranger for the precipitous project was to be the great Melba Liston. This was a shock to me as Melba had suffered a stroke several years back and had lost the use of the left side of her body. She hadn’t been performing, much less arranging, but you see she and Randy had a deep long musical history and he never gave up on her, and conversely she never gave up on him. She was the arranger for his first United Artist release, Little Niles named for his son Azzedine. (Azzedine, Mtume and T.S. Monk all grew up together and Azzedine was the secret behind Juicy Fruit according to both Mtume and T.S. – all great musicians that were also the sons of great jazz musicians; Randy Weston, Jimmy Heath & Thelonious Monk respectively). Randy and Melba’s collaborations both live and on record went on their entire lives. Anyone that’s heard Tanjah, Uhuru Afrika or Highlife by Randy Weston knows of the potency of their musical marriage. But this was an even more ambitious project and Melba was out of commission – or was she? Randy explained to me that Melba had been teaching herself new notation software on her Mac, with the arm and hand that she had limited movement with, and that she wanted to arrange this music. The list of people that Melba has arranged for is a who’s who of Popular Music; from Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie to Marvin Gaye, Gloria Lynne and Bob Marley, in all genres across several decades. So though difficult, Melba created magic once more and it would not be her last.
GIFTED ARRANGER MELBA LISTON
With Randy Weston pulling for her and Melba telling us out the side of her mouth that, “It was going to get done!”, we started planning on how and where we were to record. Randy had a good relationship with Air Maroc as he had lived in Morocco for near 10 years and ran a very successful music club there. So he and I went to meet the head honcho here in NY and we were ushered in and served that strong sweet tea while Randy introduced us. I gave my spiel asking for help with the airfares for around 15 musicians and entourage, engineers, PR and a few label folks. After putting down his tea he said Air Maroc would be honored to be the carrier for this project, he would just like to have their logo on all CDs and advertising, which I agreed to right away. Just like that! I then found a 24 track remote truck in Paris for the right price with the idea that the engineer and I would drive it down through Spain and take the ferry across to Morocco. After being treated so lovely our hopes were dashed with the breakout of the first Gulf War and an initial restriction from the State Department for travel to Morocco. We then had to shift gears and re-organize for a recording in NYC!
As we had planned to use recording engineer, Jay Newland (Norah Jones, Etta James, Abbey Lincoln), who worked at the old RCA studios on 44th Street, we decided to make Studio A with it’s 40 foot ceilings home for the duration of the project. The power and history present on our first day of recording was palpable. And the camaraderie between all the musicians was infectious not just because they all had not been in the same room at once ever before, but also because sitting in the wheelchair with these amazing charts was someone they never thought they’d see in a musical situation again.
THE MASTERMIND & AUTHOR
The line-up, so you’ll appreciate the vibe:Randy Weston (piano, composer), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Idris Sulieman (trumpet), Phaoroh Sanders (tenor sax, gaita), Billy Harper (tenor sax), Dewey Redman (tenor sax), Benny Powell (trombone), Talib Kibwe (flute, alto sax), Alex Blake (bass), Jamil Nasser (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums), Azzedine Weston (percussion), Big Black (percussion) and Yassir Chadley (percussion, karkaba[the precursor of castanets], vocals). And out in her wheelchair leading this historic ensemble was Melba Liston. Dizzy who was only needed for one extended song, African Sunrise, stayed for two days. Abbey Lincoln came for the whole session just to hang out with us and celebrate Melba’s return. Various other jazz luminaries stopped through that had heard Melba was back working again to pay their respects. Even Quincy Jones sent a messenger from Qwest with a note for Melba.
Dizzy played a few jokes on me that started the first day I walked into the studio when he was already there. After making introductions to everyone in the control room, as I walked by again, he yelled, “Hey Man, You got a West Indian on your back!” I turned around quick but it took a minute before I got the joke. I was wearing my Island Records/Antilles jean jacket that had Bob Marley’s image on the back! That summer I would run into Dizzy again at Northsea early in the morning when he was trying to catch a few zzzz’s in the back of his cab. I woke him up with a rap on the window and then flashed my back. We both cracked up as he headed on to the next show. I would only get to work with Dizzy one more time and that would be his last recording. That same summer I also ran into Carlos Santana three times and each time he tried to steal that jacket cause of that West Indian on my back. Once in Juan Les Pin in the South of France at the invite of Patrick Moxy who was managing Gang Starr at the time. While Premier and I were groovin’ on a Chester Thompson organ solo, Carlos moseyed backstage, saw that West Indian and proceeded to coax me into letting him try it on. Wrong! Took all night to get it back. The next time was in Aruba a month or so later and then again at the invite of Vernon Reid who was sitting in with them at the Felt Forum at the end of the summer. Each time he tried, but I was prepared. I still have that jacket, worn and tattered. That West Indian is a little worse for wear but I’m proud to wear it because it always reminds me of Dizzy Gillespie and those history making The Spirits of Our Ancestors sessions with Randy Weston, Melba Liston and my elders.
– Brian Michel Bacchus –