John Beasley: Making a High-Production Recording on a No-Frills Budget

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“Even if we have no budget or a low budget, we persist,” John Beasley writes about producing jazz recordings. “If we are given the key to the kingdom, we blitz!”

(Photo: Raj Naik)

My recording career as a solo artist has been predominantly in the jazz genre, with 15 such albums to my name. Budgets for my recording projects have ranged from $30K for my debut album, Cauldron (Windham Hill, 1991), with a major jazz label, to the last one I just released in November 2022, an indie project called Holidaze with an extremely limited budget.

Why do musicians go to the trouble of recording, especially when budgets can be “starving artist” situations? We play because it’s our calling. We record because it’s a tangible document for a legacy, but also because we have the urge to share our art with the world. We share a human need to see if others like what we’ve created.

Even if we have no budget or a low budget, we persist. If we are given the key to the kingdom, we blitz! I’ve worked on around 250-plus records and count 20 as a producer. Here are my tips using the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) method when you have a no-frills budget to have an enjoyable recording experience and make a great-sounding album.

Keeping Things Simple

Pre-production is key to keeping the recording process simple. Plan your course of action diligently.

Find the studio to fit the sound you want with the right equipment at the right price. Music charts should be written for the budget. They should be ready and easy to read with clear roadmaps. There is nothing wrong with writing difficult music; we all love a challenge. Just don’t expect to get it done in a short time. Better to write for your budget than to half-ass your music with subpar performances.

Spend your money on making music rather than editing. Bring more tunes to the studio than you need, but aim for about 35–45 minutes of music. Longer records mean more expenses.

Keep the following tips in mind when casting your ensemble and leading rehearsals for your recordings:

· Hire top-talent musicians and engineers who are artful and know your identity, vision and intention for the recording.

· Rehearse elsewhere to work out kinks and get the feel and the essence of the music. Book gigs (where you’re paid to rehearse), rent a union hall ($25/3 hours) or use free school facilities if they’re available during non-school hours. (Remember, favors cost $0.)

· At the studio, do a run-through, but press “record” to capture spontaneity. After the run-through, listen to make sure you like the sounds. Then start doing takes.

· Create an atmosphere of relaxation and camaraderie in the studio, because this will help reduce the number of takes you need. Tell jokes if you have to. And take breaks for the clouds to clear up and restore creativity.

· Talent is what really makes a record. Hell, music can be recorded on an iPhone. As long as the music is good, that’s the key.

Keeping ‘Stupid’ Things Simple

Always remember to mind the ticking clock. Do whatever is necessary to not waste time and money in the studio.

Avoid stressors, distractions and drama. Time is money, so don’t waste it.

Avoid “microscoping.” Do a maximum of three takes. I recommend doing two takes and then listen — you’ll know how it feels when you are recording and can make changes to forms, solo lengths, etc.

Time is wasted when you go back and forth to listen to every take. Remember, you are all good musicians — and you heard it the first time! After you’ve done two takes, go in and listen. If you still don’t have it, do another. But after three takes we all start to lose spontaneity. I recommend leaving it and going back to the song later.

Task someone to handle the administrative work and logistics of the rehearsals and recording sessions such as parking, food orders, errands, answering phones and facilitating guests or photo/videographers.

Partnership Recordings

My trilogy of MONK’estra albums were successful recordings that were cheap to make compared to other big band records. How?

MONK’estra Plays John Beasley (Mack Avenue) had three different size bands: trio, septet and 16-piece big band. Legendary engineer Al Schmitt handpicked me to offer a day in the famous Capitol Recording studio along with his right-hand man, Steve Genewick, at no charge in exchange for the recording to be filmed and used as masterclass content for a popular online music production school called “Mix with the Masters,” which features Schmitt’s genius behind the board. The recording ended up costing me far less than it would have if I didn’t have that partnership with the school. The MONK’estra members all learned their parts before rehearsals and showed extreme dedication to the project, making lots of sacrafices for the greater good.

Self-Funded Outings

Holidaze is a trio album of Christmas music, six songs recorded in a three-hour session with no rehearsal (because I’ve worked the drummer and bassist before). Christian Euman would bring his creative spontaneity and Edwin Livingston would give the music his big sound and swing. Recorded by Tally Sherwood at True Tone Studios, I knew Tally had the experience to mix live. And because we recorded at his studio, we were up and recording in no time.

We talked through the vision: Since we were familiar with the timeless Christmas songs, we discussed the personality we wanted to give to each song, whether it would be lush, humorous but with a lot of groove. The idea was to listen, respond and to trust each other that we would take the song through the arc of the story with some surprises. It was to be a press-and-play — so keep the not-so-obvious blemishes because we wanted to make a record that captures being in the moment, like the iconic jazz records of the ’50 and ’60s before multitracks.

It doesn’t take a fortune to create a successful record. Plan, be prudent, anticipate moving parts, surround yourself with a purposeful and passionate team, and you will make a record that you will hold dear to your heart and be proud of for many years to come.

And, as the great Quincy Jones once advised, “Leave the door of the studio open for God to walk in.” That’s my mantra: Be flexible, and always be open to new ideas. DB


Production on the Fly: In-Studio Learning Experiences with John Beasley

One of John Beasley’s early jobs as a producer was for alto saxophonist and composer Yosvany Terry’s 2005 album Metamorphosis (EWE). “At that point, Yosvany had a working band in New York, and they played all the time,” Beasley said. “We had two days in the studio. They came in, rehearsed and just played what they played on their gigs. My role was just to usher. When you’re working with a musician and a composer at that caliber, it’s about facilitating. So, I was there to make sure the music got down on tape and sounded good, and then listen with fresh ears. I remember taking some of the tunes down from 11 or 12 minutes to 7, that kind of decision. After recording, we noticed we had a pretty long record. I talked with Yosvany and the executive producer of the label about cutting a tune. At that time in the early 2000s, we were trying to make records that were 50, 52, 55 minutes long.”

Lee Ritenour’s 2015 album A Twist Of Rit (Concord) was a totally different kind of affair, with a larger budget and a larger cast. “That record was older tunes of Lee’s that he’d recorded in the past, so we had access to the original arrangements done by Tom Scott and others.” Beasley remembered. “Because it was live in the studio, kind of like doing a direct-to-disk record, pre-production was so important. We prepared the charts exactly as we wanted them before we started. I think we cut that quick — in two days maybe. It was two keyboard players playing at once, two guitar players playing at once, the horns were live in the room with us; everything was live. So, my role was sort of rearranging, reharmonizing some of these tunes to make them a little different. The challenge for Lee and me was that we were both playing and producing — we had to play as good as we could and also listen, objectively, at the same time.

“At that point, we started listening back for takes that felt really good. We had to decide whether to go with either a good-feeling take that may not have been perfect, or a perfect take that didn’t feel as good — those kinds of decisions. For me, it’s usually what feels good. It was recorded live to Pro Tools multitrack — we could fix certain things, and we had enough of a budget where you can spend an hour or two after every tune tweaking and punching. But what’s important to me for jazz records or jazz-type records is that you pick a good take because you like the way it feels, and you just fix what glaringly needs to be fixed. Because you want the intention of the take to be there. It’s still jazz, it’s still that essence.”

Beasley has produced a number of recording with vocalist Dianne Reeves, including a new version of her song “Freedom Dance” recut with a trio and overdubbed percussion and guitar for a dance troupe based in Denver. “The percussionist Munyungo Jackson has a studio at his house, so he layered a bunch of stuff and sent it back to me, and I kind of weeded through it in my home studio and figured out what worked and ended up using a lot of it,” Beasley said. “Same thing with Romero Lubambo playing guitar, who sent tracks and we used what we wanted to use. And then a guy in New York was mixing, using the Audio Movers online platform to send mixes back and forth. And then Paul Boothe, Dianne’s road manager and a great engineer himself, was in Texas listening to the mixes. Working with great jazz singers like her, you don’t need to do a lot of takes, which is great.”

Pivots in the Studio

Sometimes being a good producer means changing course in the middle of a project in order to improve a recording — or save it outright. The triple-Grammy-nominated 2021 album Bird Lives (ACT), co-produced by Beasley and Magnus Lindgren and recorded in Germany with the SWR Big Band, was just such a project. “We get to the first day of rehearsals in this big soundstage, and the drummer is a mile away from the lead trumpet player, strings are all baffled off — it seemed impossible.” Beasley said. “They wanted to record live in that room that way. Charlie Parker’s music is challenging. And on the second day, one of the string players came down with COVID, which a couple others caught despite all the precautions we had taken in the studio. That shut down the production for 10 days. Meantime, I started talking to executive producer Hans-Peter Zachary, saying, ‘This could be a blessing — why don’t we just layer this record?’ We had two-and-a-half weeks to record. We recorded the rhythm tracks and the brass together, in two separate rooms. And the woodwinds were separate, so it ended up being a layered record. It doesn’t sound like that because the rhythm section tracks are so burning. But we did what we had to do.”

The first MONK’estra CD Beasley recorded with his award-winning big band, 2016’s John Beasley Presents MONK’estra Vol. 1 (Mack Avenue), was another important learning experience for the bandleader and producer. “It showed how I had made mistakes, and I had to pivot in the studio to make up for some of my lackadaisical pre-production planning,” he said. “I started with six arrangements. So I paid for the band to go to United Recorders for a day and told them it would take three to four hours. The lesson learned: It always takes longer than you think.” —Ed Enright

Grammy winner and Emmy nominee John Beasley is a versatile pianist, composer, arranger and session player who distills decades of technical and creative experience and knowledge from playing on or producing music. Beasley began his career in his 20s backing jazz icons Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. Since then, Beasley has performed with a wide range of artists, including Dianne Reeves, Ivan Lins, John Patitucci, Chaka Khan, Christian McBride and Carly Simon. His work as a composer-arranger extends beyond jazz. He was music director for international tours with Steely Dan, AR Rahman and Queen Latifah and co-musical director/arranger for Chucho Valdés’ La Creación project. Beasley is the music director for the International Jazz Day global gala concerts hosted by the Herbie Hancock Jazz Institute, which earned him an Emmy nomination for 2016 “Jazz at the White House” hosted by President Barack Obama. As a recording artist, Beasley has released more than a dozen albums, three of them with his MONK’estra big band. His latest album is the Charlie Parker project Bird Lives (ACT Music) with Stuttgart’s SWR Big Band. Beasley was commissioned by Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra to write a song (“Fête dans la Tête”) for its 2020 program. He wrote a commission for the LA Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles called A History Of Jazz. Currently, he is working with several European jazz orchestras on programs featuring the music of Chick Corea and Weather Report, as well as Beasley’s original symphonic works. Visit him online at johnbeasleymusic.com.




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