So When we last left this scenario I made it through meeting Miles, doing the demos, started to record and we are in full album mode. Miles was coming in and out of the studio at various times. He’d come and listen and play a little bit and leave. It was up to the team in the studio to put this whole thing together. Marcus and Tommy, Myself and engineer Eric Calvi. Everybody at Clinton studios was very cool treated us well and knew we had something going on that could be important for many people. The days were very long. We’d start at around noon and it wasn’t unusual for us to work till 2 am. Since it was crazy to go home every night, I stayed at the Howard Johnson’s a few blocks from the studio
Along with the 3 tracks that were cut already, there was a fourth song, “Back Yard Ritual”, written by George Duke and put together on, I believe, his Synclavier in his LA studio. The Synclavier was an interesting instrument. It started out as a high end workstation with FM synthesis technology until they changed it over to what I believe was one of the first digital audio workstations. Seems like they infringed on Yamaha’s FM patent, so oops. The price was also crazy. It could run one into the hundreds of thousands for a full blown system. There was so much money in the music business at that point, that they did get people to buy them. It was made by New England Digital and was being used by some very high end users like Nile Rodgers, Pat Metheny , The Bee Gees and many others. It was not, however, in my future, though I got plenty of pitches from them to buy one. Now, if you can find one, they are probably cheap!
There were new songs ready to go, as I mentioned in my last column “Full Nelson” was a very Prince kind of vibe. The main chorus synth vibe was done by the Oberheim Matrix 12. Oberheim was a very inventive synth company that had a truly patented sound based on the 2 pole filter. It showed up on so many classic songs like “Jump” by Van Halen and “Jump” by The Pointer Sisters among others. On Full Nelson it was front and center. Miles had an OBXA and the first sound on the synth was A-1. That was the sound. Miles Loved it and always kept his OBXA on A-1. It was time to move on with the material and we did a very creative composition called “Tomas”. Marcus wrote it dedicated to Tommy. The thing about the way we worked was that Marcus was very good at describing the kind of sound he was looking for. You can’t believe what some producers would do to describe what they were looking for. The less they could describe, the longer it took me to get it together. On TuTu we were always working and tweaking until it was perfect. We started out with kind of an ostinato vibe, that was a sequence created that sounded like a digital metal pipe with glass surrounding it. It distinctly moved the track along nicely. We really built it up and the synths were really enhancing Marcus’s orchestrations. From Pads to bigger pads the song was filling up the speakers in the room every day. Marcus wanted to try to get some of his musical compadres on the album like Omar Hakim, who overdubbed drums over the Linn Drum. He also wanted to get Bernard Wright on the album as well. Bernard, when he 13 was already a prodigy and truly had a gift for the pocket and harmonies. The acoustic piano was set up in the large room and Marcus guided Bernard through the song and It was nice blend. I would say about 15 minutes after we finished that, Miles comes in the studio. Marcus starts to play him the track and the minute that Miles heard the acoustic piano he just said “stop the tape and take that shit off of the song now!” Wow, what a shock, Miles did not want any acoustic piano on the album. Man I felt so bad for Bernard. The first time he plays on the project and this happens. But the happy ending is that Bernard did make it on the album and on “Tomas”. We exchanged the synths for the piano and all was well.
We were also going to do a Reggae vibe song. It was called “Don’t Lose Your Mind” A very electro Reggae vibe. When we started the song, Marcus said he’s really going to lean on me on this song. We needed the most innovative sounds and samples because we were building the whole song on unique samples. Sampling in 1986 was a fairly new technology that let you record a sound in a digital sampler like the Emu Emulator 2 which was very cutting edge. I started to sample crazy stuff like sounds off of the TV onto my stereo betamax and then transferring them in to the Emulator. Miles also told Marcus he wanted to use the Polish violin player Michael Urbaniak on the song. That was big surprise but it really worked well. Michael of course wanted to play when Miles was in the studio but that didn’t happen. He ended up coming back a few times, once with his mother from Poland to meet Miles, but that never happened. Yes meeting Miles and being on the album was big deal. I was so in the middle of these 14 hour days that I never even thought about that stuff. The work was intense and detailed.
There was a lot of patience involved with making this album.Everything from the orchestration parts to the release points of the notes on the keyboard had to be perfect. Parts crossed over each other and if it wasn’t perfect, it could really sound sloppy. Many of the sounds I did were very complex. That made me really realize that I had to keep a detailed log of every sound. You never knew when we would have to revisit a part to fix something or adjust something. I really had to have these sounds detailed to the max. This was also before I had a a stereo mixer so we were going into many direct boxes right into the the Neve board. Right after TuTu I went on the lookout for a great stereo keyboard mixer so i could control the blends and not have to rely on the engineer (that is another story).
Marcus came to me on a Thursday and said to me the next day we were really going to get into “Don’t Lose Your Mind” And this would really be the cutting edge moment when we would really depend on samples to carry the song. I had a small road case filled with Floppy disks for the Emulator. I’d sample everything. I had Stockhausen samples, orchestra hits, Crazy drum sounds, Orchestration lines, any time I could plug a Mic in and sample something, I did and all that work paid off. I’d trade with other synth guys and Emu also had a sample party one year at Unique Studios in NYC where everybody who used Emu gear came together and we would trade floppies of our sounds. Somewhere later in the night of the session Marcus turned all the lights down in the studio and we started to build up “Don’t Lose Your Mind”. Miles wasn’t on the track yet. The object was to do some crazy stuff and see how Miles reacted when he played when all of these crazy samples and sounds were happening. I have to say we all had a great time putting this together. Tommy and the others in the studio at the time had no idea what we were up to but Marcus and I were in total sync and the track is so innovative. It had an improv section where it was orchestrated around Miles Improvisation. We left that night feeling we had done something very cool. It was all coming musically together. To me this was going to be some real groundbreaking work that people would go “Wow” when the heard it or people would hate it and ask “What the hell were we thinking about”.
Tommy had given Miles a whole bunch of albums from Warner Brothers. Miles out of nowhere called and asked about this group Spitti Olitti. he was really asking about Scritti Politti the unique electronic band of the moment. Their first album Cupid and Psyche 85 was blowing minds around the world and Miles picked out the song “Perfect Way” and wanted to cover it. To me it was cool because David Gamson 1/2 of Scritti was a new friend and I had done some work with them on their next album and on a duet they did with Chaka Kahn. David was a deep musical thinker and I was committed to make this a great cut. We actually got through this track pretty quickly (by that I mean 2-3 days) We were closing in on the end of the album. Kathy came in on my last night at the studio. She was taking care of some stuff for me that I needed to get done in NYC but didn’t have the time to take care of business, Kathy came back to the studio with some real trashy magazines like Star and the Inquirer for some entertainment. She also got lyric ideas from some of these stories. It was funny watching Tommy the bon vivant of bon vivant laying on the couch with his shoes off, reading the Inquirer and giving us the classic line “where do they get this shit from?”
So Tutu was basically done and what was going to happen with it. Would people buy into it? The answer obviously was yes. It exploded in Europe and the argument was on. Was it Jazz? What was it? Well it was new and Fresh and Miles career was just reinvented. He got crazy busy, started making a lot more $$ and I cemented my name as helping create the first real electronic jazz album using all synthesizers. Still, it wasn’t like my phone was ringing off the hook, but things were improving and the next step was my adventure of working with Roberta Flack and then Luther Vandross.
Still it seemed that people only like bad news because few congratulated us or recognized what we did or what I did.We created a new musical world for Miles and he built on that. A side note; there was a release party and we went. Miles was there and he walked over to me and gave me a big hug and whispered something to Cicely Tyson and she smiled. That was the real beginning of my friendship with Miles. I saw Gil Evans there and so wanted to meet him. Miles introduced me to him, except that Gil was eating a pastrami sandwich and his hands were pretty greasy. But it didn’t matter, he shook my hand and I became a human napkin. So great work or not, you never know how it winds up, with me it was with Gils Pastrami sandwich.
From his synth programming on Miles Davis’ 80s masterpieces to his current album Kind of New with Ingrid Jensen-dubbed by one insightful veteran journalist as the “Quincy Jones of Contemporary Music”—has not only helped shape the landscape of contemporary jazz, but also brought his rich sonic textures as a keyboardist, arranger and producer to artists in a multitude of genres.