Nude, Not Naked
Thirty years ago this month, I was playing bass guitar at a "gentlemen's club" in London's Charing Cross Road. Our trio provided second-rate music for third-rate strippers and fourth-rate comics to an audience drinking fifth-rate wine at first-rate prices, six days a week from 9pm to 3am, with two 30-minute breaks. The money was okay, and the work hadn't sounded too arduous when I'd responded to the classified ad in Melody Maker (now, sadly, defunct). But, as I was to find out, only one player in the trio was allowed to take his break at a time.
All three of us sang, so things weren't too bad when the drummer took his break, even in those days before drum machines. When it was my time to head for the bar, the keyboard player could fill in on his Hammond's bass pedals. (Thankfully, he dared to hit only tonics and the occasional dominant, so I didn't worry about my job security.) But when the keyboard player left the stage to the drummer and me...well, 30 minutes can seem an extraordinarily long time, especially when there's a nervous lady offstage, muttering, "Hi, my name's Mandy. Can you play something by Santana?"
The drummer would play a roll and I would step up to the mike. "Gentlemen! The Twilight Club proudly presents...Mandy!" As I explored the solo possibilities and harmonic intricacies of "Oye Como Va" or "Black Magic Woman" on my Fender Precision Bass, on would come Mandy, and off would come Mandy's clothes.
I hadn't thought about this diversionary episode in my chosen career path in yearsµntil I heard ace interviewer Terry Gross talking in April on NPR's Fresh Air, to songwriter Burt Bacharach, who was celebrating his 75th birthday. Coincidentally, I had just taken my mother and daughter to The Look of Love, the Broadway revue based on the body of work Bacharach had written with lyricist Hal David from 1958 through 1972. The show had just opened, again to celebrate the composer's turning 75.
The connection between the Mandys of 1973 London and Bacharach—apart from his having written perhaps that most lascivious of modern songs, "What's New, Pussycat?," for the equally lascivious Tom Jones to sing—was that when I wasn't desperately trying to time the musical climaxes of "something by Santana" for (first) the surreptitious slipping off of the bra, (second) the brazen shedding of the panties, and (third) the joyous discarding of the G string, I was working my solo way through Bacharach's songs. The sinuous melody of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?," for example, is interesting enough in itself that an ensemble of vocal, bass, and drums can sound almost complete—nude, as it were, rather than naked (which, of course, is the effect a talented striptease artist, or ecdysiast, aims for).
Put down this magazine and fire up your Web surfer to visit Amazon.com, or run down to Borders or Tower Records, and buy The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection (Rhino R2 75339) (footnote 1). It doesn't matter where you start in this three-CD set—every one of its 75 songs is a masterful example of the 20th-century songwriter's art, with not only a beginning, a middle, and an end, but a hook to snag the tune in the listener's brain. And Burt Bacharach's arrangements are an object lesson in the use of sounds to define the edges of emptiness. (In my clip-joint drums'n'bass renditions of Bacharach's songs, there was, of course, plenty of empty space.)
Put on Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" (disc 2, track 1). It opens with piano painting the minor-key stage, punctuated by ticking hi-hat cymbals and up-stroke guitar chords. Warwick comes in, answered by a staccato flugelhorn and vamping vibes. The empty mix echoes the lyric's sense of isolation—even the drums drop out in the chorus—and when block-chording strings appear at the end of the verse, they don't disturb the feeling of aching emptiness that has been established.
Art Dudley may have dissed Dusty Springfield's "The Look of Love" (disc 3, track 1) in his March "Listening" column as "nice but hardly worth the price of an average CD," but he was uncharacteristically wrong. With this arrangement, Bacharach develops the art he showed in "Walk On By" into a true "three-minute symphony," to appropriate the phrase usually used to describe Phil Spector's productions. Ronnie Scott's tenor sax expands beyond Herb Alpert's flugelhorn to goose-bump-raising effect. This is the work of a master craftsman.
As I've written before in this space, giants walked the world of recording half a century ago. Read Tom Conrad's review of Harold Chapman's live Miles Davis at the Blackhawk recordings, which rounds out this month's "Record Reviews" (p.108, Columbia/Legacy C2K 87097 and C2K 87100). Can you imagine anyone working today, whether musicians or engineers, producing something as historically important, as musically valid, as these 40-year-old sessions?
The science of audio engineering is very much better understood these days. That science, however, gets you only so far. Back in the mid-1990s, speaker designer Ken Kantor (then with NHT) gave a talk to San Diego's Music and Arts Guild. "What's all the fuss about these compression schemes like AC3?" Stereophile's Lonnie Brownell reported Ken as saying. "Recording is an act of compression, where you take a roomful of sound and try to capture it in this tiny microphone diaphragm." Elsewhere in this issue you can read about my own attempts over the past decade to squeeze roomsful of sound into tiny microphone diaphragms. That experience convinces me that relying on science alone is not enough. You may put up a pair of mikes and press Record, but you get sound that may be honest but is also naked. The art of recording occurs in taking that nakedness and transforming it into nudity.
The recording engineers of the 1950s were craftsmen using the limited tools at their disposal—analog tape machines with background noise that would be laughed at today, microphones that were more colored than a good 21st-century speaker—yet they still managed to produce recordings that put to shame much of what's being churned out by modern production mills with the highest of hi-rez digital. Pick up one of the Pentatone SACD reissues of the early 1970s Philips classical catalog, for example, or one of JVC's XRCD reissues of the RCA Living Stereo recordings, and marvel at what those craftsmen could wrangle from their unsophisticated gear.
Those tools had gotten better by 1973, when Pink Floyd's classic Dark Side of the Moon was released, but a heavy hand in a 2003 mastering room can still reduce nudity to nakedness, as shown by the CD layer of the SACD release (Capitol CDP 582136 2). But when a 2003 engineer uses the best modern technology to practice his craft in the tradition of those long-gone giants, you get this issue's "Recording of the Month": violinist Rachel Podger superbly captured in Vivaldi by Channel Classics' C. Jared Sacks.
Footnote 1: While you have the plastic out, pick up the Standing in the Shadows of Motown DVD (Artisan 13780 1), the story of the Funk Brothers and the incomparable James Jamerson, the bass player's bass player. Buy the CD too (Hip-O 440 064 691-2). Trust me, you won't regret it. Cue up track 8, Joan Osborne's trip through "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," turn up the volume, and dance.