Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Paquito D'Rivera on "Alfred Nobel and the Invention of the Microphone"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Many Jazz fans, particularly those with an awareness of sound engineering and audio systems, have been making the argument that Paquito D’Rivera puts forth in the following essay for years.

Of course, the title that the Cuban-born clarinetist and saxophonist and winner of 14 Grammy Awards chose for this piece is an intentional error meant to capture the attention of the reader and thereby reinforce the point he is making in this article which appeared in the Woodshed: Pro Session column of the June 15, 2015 issue of Downbeat magazine.

Paquito explains it this way.
“I strongly believe that technology is here to help the art form, not to overwhelm it. But tragically, with a few exceptions, the invention of the microphone (credited to the German Emile Berliner in 1876) has had truly damaging results — almost as damaging as the dynamite invented by Alfred Nobel in 1867.

Both have been abused to create irreversible devastation: namely, material destruction by the latter, and serious damage to the good taste of listeners by Berliner's artificial amplification device. All of that came to be with the support of sound engineers and the consent of the musicians—some of them talented professionals—who increasingly ask for more and more volume in their reference speakers, and consequently in the house. It seems as if we've all reached the same conclusions that the louder music is heard, the better it is; that volume is supposed to be a synonym for energy; and that the one who screams loudest is the one who wins. Doesn't it go that way? How sad!

I have witnessed the volume and reverb go up so high on Dave Valentin's flute that it converted his gorgeous, natural sound on tunes like "Obsesion," the beautiful Pedro Florez classic that Valentin and his many fans enjoy so much, into something more appropriate for a heavy metal band. These days, the circus-like atmosphere, the unnatural pyrotechnics, the reliance upon gimmicks to provoke easy applauses, bad taste and excessive volume have hit jazz and popular music with such tsunami-like force that everything now is forte and fortissimo.

A few years ago, the legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder— who made all those famous recordings for Impulse, Blue Note, CTI and Atlantic with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan and all those hip jazzmen of the '50s and '60s — had the guts to say that jazz pianists don't want or don't know how to get a decent sound on the piano. And, to a certain point, he was right, since it is really difficult to find jazz pianists with the elegant, delicate yet swinging sound of Kenny Barron, Teddy Wilson, Makoto Ozone, Renee Rosnes, Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans. There is no doubt that some of the fault lies with the drummers who play louder every day, forcing the pianists to bang on the keys and ask for more volume in their wedges, thus destroying the inherent acoustic character of the instrument. I'll bet that was one of the reasons that Nat "King" Cole many times didn't use a drummer in his trio.

"Give me more piano in my monitor" is the usual request onstage, and my response is always a simple question: "Why don't you play more softly so that you can hear what the freakin' pianist is playing? You left the brushes at home, or what?"
The great Argentinean pianist Jorge Dalto was convinced that drummers were carriers of the "original sin," and when they did play another way-meaning softly and tastefully — it was with great effort and went against their nature. "Otherwise, they would have taken up the harp or the violoncello, no?" he would say, half in jest. I think Dalto was exaggerating a little bit, since you are still able to find drummers like Ben Riley, Ernie Adams or the wonderful Brazilian Edu Ribeiro to swing your butt off without breaking your eardrums. So, please do not misunderstand me. The drum set, as well as the brass and even the saxophones, are instruments that have strong sonorous presence. I think that keeping that in mind all the time would make a big difference in balance and finesse.

Here is a statement that I've been hearing since my early days at the conservatory: "If you can't hear the guy next to you, you're playing too loud. That's the only way to play in tune." But how in heaven can I listen and play in tune with the guy next to me if I am not even able to hear my own horn with all that noise around me? And then, since the electric bass emerged on the scene, we have the bassists who think they're always playing with Kiss or Metallica. Usually they ally with the drummers, and I even think that they buy earplugs together, in sets of four, so that they can have some fun among themselves while making life unbearable for the rest of the musicians.

Wynton Marsalis told me once that he thought that mics are here to enhance the music, not to cover it. That's probably why they have removed even the contact microphone from the contrabass of Carlitos Henriquez (I love his walking bass!) in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — so the drummer has to come down to hear what his partner in rhythm is doing.

One evening at the annual jazz festival in Punta del Este, Uruguay, trumpet player and bandleader Terence Blanchard ordered the removal of all the microphones, including that of exquisite pianist Ed Simon. And guess what? Miraculously, everything was heard crystal-clear and with tremendous energy and swing.
The only thing required was to be quiet, and to listen with attention. That is what music was invented for in the first place, isn't it?                              DB
Paquito D'Rivera is celebrated for his artistry in Latin jazz as well as his achievements as a classical composer and performer. He is also known for his heartfelt convictions and playful sense of humor. Visit him online at www.paquitodrivera.com.

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