Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Album – The BIG Session (part 3)
This was actually a pretty low-key day, after the madness of yesterday. I knew we wouldn’t be recording any drums on this day, so I scheduled the 2 performers that were not going to use drums, with the plan of working on their tunes, and then packing up and heading home that day. We were still set up at Avast Studios in Seattle. The first session of the day was Del Rey, and the second was Robin Holcomb.
I’ve been a fan of Del’s music for some time now. I’ve had a few of her records over the years and find her style of straight-ahead, but incredibly clean and widely-influenced to be an inspiration. She’s a great interpreter of old blues music, and of particular interest, she had a personal connection to Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, having hung out with him in California when she was growing up and learning to play. On top of all that, she lives in Seattle, so she was an obvious choice for the record.
Del originally wanted to do a tune called “Lazy, Lazy River”, but changed to a different song called “we’re all feeling good”. The idea was to have her play with a trio of clarinets, although she only had 2 clarinet players on hand – Hans Teuber and Craig Flory. I decided that the best way to get a natural, live kind fo sound would be to get her and both clarinetists to play live, facing each other, and by positioning them right, we could get a minimal amount of bleed from mic to mic, but also capture a good live performance where they wouldn’t have to use headphones or anything – I made this call when I saw them performing like this shortly after I got to the studio. I knew they’d be the most comfortable and the results would be way better than trying to isolate them and have to use headphones.
We ended up tracking Del on guitar and vocals live, with a live bass clarinet track. Then we would overdub 2 regular clarinet parts on top of the live tracks. This turned out to be a really successful concept. Del and the bass clarinet really locked in quickly and we had a great take on the second pass. Just a couple of minutes later we had the 2 clarinets set upm which was important for the interplay, and laid down 2 versions of them on top. Most of what they played was arranged by Hans, but there was some imrov as well as things went down and got into sort of a dixieland vibe. It was a terrific performance from everyone and we were done within an hour of starting.
Del, Hans and Craig hung out for a while as Robin Holcomb arrived and we started setting up for the next tune.
I’d never met Robin before, but had heard her solo albums, and her recordings with a band called Varmint with Keith Lowe, my bass player. She also sang on a fantastic Bill Frisell album called “Nashville”. She has an amazing voice and a really unique take on traditional music, althogh she mostly performs her on original compositions. Having Robin made on the record made sense in alot of ways – her husband Wayne Horvitz was there in the bad already playing keyboards, she was quite comfortable working with keith, and she was really enjoying diggin into one of my favourite sheiks tunes: “Blood on my eyes for you”. I didn’t know what form the song would take, as she had worked out an arrangement for it completely on her own.
We set up the grand piano for her, and she started playing around with her arrangement, and showing some things to keith. I just wanted to hang out and get a feel for which way it would lead, and I realized shortly after we started that the best approach would be to get her to get a live performance down and then we could add some textural things from there. The bass lines were also integral, so we decided that keith and robin would play live. we would overdub her vocals and go from there.
The other issue was that about 1/4 of the bass stuff was better as a bowed part, but switching between plucking and bowing with no rests was going to be impossible. so… we recorded piano and bass live, but anytime there was bowed bass, keith would just sit out. Keith and Robin spent about an hor running through the parts and rehearsing, so by the time we actually got to record, they were ready and knew the parts. Wayne and I sat in the control room following through the chart of the piece, and making a few notes. WE got through a take, made a few adjustments, the main one being that we would also break the tune up into 3 seperate parts – an intro, the main body, and an outro.
Sounds complictaed, but they actually got through it in 2 takes. Since we all knew exactly what was going on, I did a quick edit to put the 3 sections together, and then Keith added his bowed bass parts. After that, we had a complete instrumental take. We got Robin set up to record vocals, and I think I might hae edited the parts a little bit too close together, because it felt a bit unnatural the way it was flowing. I fixed it in pro tools, and she was able to nail an incredibly haunting voal part in 2 takes. It tied together this piece of really intricate music that pays homage to the sheiks, but really doesn’t resemble the original piece in any way. I’m really glad we have a few songs like this – ones that aren’t straight blues takes. It really opens up the possibilities of their music.
After the vocals were done, I was actually out of time and had to start making my way back home. It was decided that wayne would add a few overdubs of his own, and they would email me the files. I would add some guitars and ambience as well at a later date.
With that, we wrapped up the most intense 2-day session I’ve ever dealt with. three cheers for Stuart and Cameron from Avast for accomodating s, and making the session such a success!!!