Music: John Scofield's Gospel Mission

Mar 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Ken Micallef

BLUES GUITAR, SOULFUL VOCALS ON PIETY STREET

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Engineer James Farber

Engineer James Farber

Sometimes only the Lord's music will do.

When jazz guitarist extraordinaire John Scofield rolled into New Orleans in early September 2008 to record his latest album, the Big Easy had a surprise for him. Arriving the day after Hurricane Gustav had smacked down on the city, Scofield, accompanied by engineer James Farber, and his recording band — Jon Cleary (piano, keyboards, vocals), The Meters' George Porter Jr. (bass), Ricky Fataar (drums), John Bouttè (vocals) and Shannon Powell (percussion) — met at a studio located in New Orleans' Bywater district, part of the Katrina-drenched Lower Ninth Ward. The city had been evacuated, so not a soul was in sight, not even the FedEx man, whose truck held Scofield's custom-ordered Vox AC 30 amplifiers.

“New Orleans was a ghost town,” Scofield recalls from Katonah, N.Y. “We couldn't get in our hotel, the city was flooded. And then we found out my amps were delayed, so we scoured New Orleans to find replacements. I ended up using a Matchless DC-30 and a Vox AC 30 with my [1981] Ibanez AS200. It was crazy getting everything together, but we did it.”

Perhaps observing the belief that trials and tribulations ultimately strengthen one's faith, Scofield and company recorded an album of classic gospel material in New Orleans, and its title couldn't be more fitting. Named for the tracking studio, Piety Street (Emarcy) features such inspirational gospel odes as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “I'll Fly Away” and “The Angel of Death,” each track spirited by Fataar's mighty backbeats and Scofield's warm tone and searing solos.

“It was going to be a blues record originally,” Scofield says, “but there are a zillion blues guys out there playing the classic 12-bar blues form. But I've listened to a lot of old black gospel music. I've been a fan for years. There is so much great gospel material I thought we could make a whole record of it and I could play the blues over that. The soul aspect is what I was going for. That is a different thing to play. I used my same guitar; I just bent the strings a little more.”

Scofield often records at New York's Avatar Studios (formerly Power Station), so he asked James Farber — a one-time Power Station staff engineer who still works at Avatar every chance he gets, and who has recorded about a dozen albums for Scofield — to join him at Piety Street Recording. One of the top jazz engineers working today, Farber's resume includes recordings by Joe Lovano, Dave Holland, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, Paul Motian and others. But unlike some freelance engineers, Farber doesn't carry an anvil case full of select microphones wherever he goes. Instead, Farber prefers to roll with the flow.

“I don't own any of my own equipment,” Farber explains. “I am dependent completely on what the studio has, and I like the challenge of using different mics. Every record should be different, reflecting that moment of that group in that room and with whatever was available. I do have my first choices in microphones, and my records come out sounding like they're mine because I have some kind of sensibility that I listen with. But unlike making pop records where the result is the imagination of the engineer, producer and artist creating a sound, I am trying to present the sound of the band in its natural state. In a way, it's harder, but I am not trying to invent something; I'm more trying to capture something.”

While the band rehearsed and cut basic demos (guitar, drums and percussion in Piety Street's three iso booths; keyboards, bass and vocals in the main room), Farber conferred with studio owner (and the album's co-producer with Scofield) Mark Bingham about the choice of microphones and associated gear.

“Piety Street had so many mics I had never heard of,” Farber says. “Mark and I put our heads together as to what would work best for the session. And because I am not an SSL guy — to be honest, I do everything I can on Neves and preferably old Neves — I was a little bit leery of the studio's SSL console. Fortunately, Mark had an amazing amount of outboard mic preamps. He has 20 Neve [33135/33114] broadcast channel pre's and other outboard pre's so we didn't use a single preamp from the SSL board. It was basically used for monitoring.

“It's just a bigger sound,” Farber says of Neves in general. “A more natural, musical sound for me since I primarily make jazz records. The rock guys prefer SSL for its focus and forwardness, but I find acoustic music just blends together a lot better on Neves. We mixed on a Neve VR at Avatar, as well. Compared to the monitor mixes I took from the tracking session, as soon as I put up the faders, it sounded twice as big.”

Using the SSL 4064 G+ board with Digidesign Pro Tools HD 32 I/O with Apogee AD/DAs (mixed to a Studer A-820 half-inch reeling RMG900 half-inch tape at 30 ips), Farber recorded the group live, including Scofield's solos, cut at what he calls “a very loud level” in the iso booth.






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