The Russian Tea Room
The forty-minute trip in a Checker cab from Butler Aviation
at La Guardia Airport to mid-town Manhattan gave me the time I needed to prepare
myself for this important luncheon engagement.
It was with Rob Seitov legendary A&R (Artists and
Repertoires) guy at one of the most important record companies in New York City
right-hand man and confidant for the owner of the company. The owner was more legendary still, and enjoyed
status within the American entertainment industry. A really big player.
I was psyched. I had been pestering Rob for months for some
significant business for my fledgling recording studio, and boring him
I'm sure with an endless parade of 1/4-inch demo tapes made at the studio by
local artists looking for a record deal.
Maybe he wasn't all that bored. Rob seemed to like me, and had
just given us some live Don McLean concert tapes to fix up and to mix
down into stereo. Don had come along with the project, and had spent most of his
time riding horses (we sold him one, in the end) and not much time in the
studio. The studio chores were handled instead by a startlingly handsome young
man with dark hair named John Peters. All the young ladies at the Farm liked
John Peters, a lot. Some of the older ones liked him even more.
In any case, Rob had just called me and asked if I could get
down to the city for a talk about something "very special." That I could
do, and that I had done, and here I was bouncing my way across town in a Checker
cab which, a few city blocks ahead, would turn left on Ninth Avenue, downtown,
and left again on 57th Street, stopping me in a drizzling rain under the red
awning of the elite savoring and watering hole called the Russian Tea Room. I
had been to this place many times before, and was on a first-name basis with the
bartender. Today, I had contrived to arrive a half-hour early, intending to
spend some time at the bar, contemplating my lot in life and rehearsing a bit of
body language and show-biz repartee which, if successful, might induce the
legendary Rob Seitov to like me even more than he did already. (You don't
give a hundred thousand dollars of studio business to someone you don't like.)
I check my watch on entering the restaurant, and see that
I am in fact a half-hour early. Perfect timing. There are some people in the
restaurant, but the bar is empty. Just me and my
favorite bartender, Joe T. Why they called him "Joe T" I never figured out, but
this guy had to be the best damn bartender in New York City. Good taste in
music, too. As I settle onto my bar stool, I'm hearing one of the great classics
from the early thirties coming out of Joe T's loudspeakers behind the bar one
that I could remember from my earliest days as a child. My mother, who was a
"big band" female vocalist in the thirties, always used to play the 78 rpm
record for me, explaining that she knew the artist, Al Bowly, ten years before he was
killed in London by an incoming German V2 rocket. That had to have been when I
was four years old. She would sing along with the record, misty-eyed.
Midnight, the Stars, and You, it was called.
"Ah, Mr. Markle," Joe T says to me in greeting. "Good to see you again. What'll it be, Gil?" Joe
is standing behind the bar with his two hands on the bar rail, smiling at me and
looking splendid in his garnet jacket, white shirt, and black bow tie.
"The usual," I reply. "Same as always, Joe."
"Bloody Mary, on the hot side!" Joe replies, and extracts the
basic ingredient for the drink a long piece of fresh green celery, from the
shining display of utensils and barkeep paraphernalia which has always been his
stock in trade. "One hot Bloody Mary, coming up," Joe T sings out. "And no
"Whatddya' mean, no charge, Joe?"
"The gentlemen to your right is settling the bill today," Joe
chuckles. "The gentleman to your right is paying. No charge to you, Gil."
I whirl about, and find myself face to face with a smiling Rob
Seitov, the A&R guy I had come here to see.
Rob extends his hand to me, and
I am shaking it, just about to say something clever about getting here a bit
early, when we are interrupted by the loud trumpeting of Josef, the head waiter,
who appears out of nowhere, flourishing a handful of colorful, large menus over
"Ah yes, Monsieur
Seitov!" says Josef, in his phony French accent. "So sorry about zee young man, when was eet, last week?
Not to know. Sometimes zee vodka and the bouillabaisse, eet not mix so
well, no? Ah, but I see you got him in zee taxeee, and it all OK in the
"Right," Rob said, shuffling his feet on the red rug.
"Yeah, punk rock. Must have been that bouillabaisse. No big deal. He got back
to New Jersey in one piece, I'm sure. So, where are you going to put us
today? By the way, meet Gil Markle." The luncheon room was now filling rapidly all
lipstick and coiffed blond heads and nodding males in dark jackets with real
paintings of European origin on the walls and the clinking of real crystal
glasses and real silverware. A hive of culture, and of the business deals which
kept it alive. Rob gave me a wink, and looked back to Josef for his reply.
"But of course, Monsieur Seitov, in zee usual, how should I say,
And with that pronouncement Josef led the two of us into the now buzzing body of the
hive, slapping the menus ever so gracefully against his black trousers as he
went, stopping half-way down and pulling a table out from the wall, allowing
entrance onto the pink velour banquette, where one person would sit, faced by
his companion sitting in a pink-cushioned eighteenth-century chair.
"For today, zees!" Josef shouts, waving his menus in a
fashion and looking at me in a manner that indicates that I am the one to slide
in between the table and the one next to it and sit on the banquette. Rob is
temporarily absorbed in the waving to a person across the room and the giving of
a "thumbs up" which conveys to me no meaning in particular, so I accept and
slide in between the two tables, jostling the plates and glasses of the people
sitting at the adjoining table and annoying them I'm sure with the passage of my
derriere so close to their luncheon meal, and sitting down on the banquette.
Rob has stopped signaling to the person across the room and slaps Josef on the shoulder, thanks him, and sits down in his chair, across
"Well," he says, "nothing really changes much around
"No," I reply. "Still pink."
it," Rob says immediately. "Pink, pink, and more pink." He's now laughing,
as though to a private joke. "Pink," he repeats.
The place is done up in pinks. Pink walls, pink tablecloths, pink napkins.
And, do I dare think the thought pink people. I look to my left as see
that I am sitting next to a frail 21 year-old with her blond hair rolled up into a
bun and speaking with what turns out to be a Romanian accent. It was she
that I may have offended a few moments earlier with my blue jeans. She's a
ballerina fresh in from Central Europe, and she's across the table from a fifty-year-old talent manager who's wearing a mustache and smoking
Lucky Strikes, one after the other. (You could still do that in
restaurants in New York City in 1975.) He is making repeated reference to
a person called Hans. "You've got to forget about Hans. He'd be with
you if he wanted to. Forget about Cerise-am-Danube. The air's polluted there now. Your future is here, with the Met'."
ballerina with the blond hair in a bun squirms in her seat. I squirm in my
seat, somewhat in sympathy, and look to my right. There sits another pink person, not 18 inches
away from me. Same age as the ballerina, same build, but apparently male.
Very delicate. He puts a chunk of salmon on top of the Caviar on top of
the little piece of toast and fits it daintily into his mouth, looking across the
table at another man, maybe a few years older, and definitely from New York
City, judging from his accent. "You've got to forget about Hans," the
emphatically, blowing cigarette smoke. (Could it be the same Hans, I wonder?) "Always in the
way of your career. Disco you don't need. Just listen to me... I was
just a half-an-hour ago sitting with Julian, and here's what he says we should
do, within of course the protection of an exclusive agreement... you shit-can
the disco music, see... and then we put you in this place on the upper East Side...
maybe not the greatest place you've ever seen, but a damn sight better than Hohokus, and then...
There's a good bit of squirming now on the banquette against the wall. The
young man to my right seems not at all convinced; the ballerina to my left
is dabbing her eyes with a pink napkin. For my part, my jeans are feeling
tight between my legs, and a long shock of hair I thought I had brushed back
falls forward over my eyes, obscuring the plate of Caviar and the chopped
egg-whites and the glass (glass!) of
Russian Vodka which had just arrived.
This is the stuff that
movies are made of, I am thinking to myself sitting here in the Russian Tea Room.
Movies! All we needed was a director to pronounce the scene adequate or
wanting, and if the former, to give us all a ten-minute break before we acted
out what came next. However, no director was needed. This luncheon at the
Russian Tea Room had a gravitas and a direction all its own, with no help
required from Hollywood.
"Drink your Vodka. You're supposed to drink your Vodka."
This was Rob Seitov, the A&R guy, from the other side of the shock of hair that had
fallen down over my face, separating us.
I wiped it back from over my eyes, and looked up into his, which were
sparkling and dancing over a show-business smile.
"Drink your Vodka," he says again. Something
snaps. I smile, but behind the smile, and still hearing the strains of the
Al Bowly tune filtering down from somewhere, I find myself imagining that the forlorn ballerina to my left has fallen out of her hapless, waif-like character,
and is nudging me in the ribs and is singing the defining couplet of
Midnight, the Stars, and You, now as a happy chorus girl...
Drink your Vodka...
That you gotta' do...
This I like. I'm on a roll here. I shut my eyes for another second, savoring a
dark, private pink, and am now seeing the dancing image of
the morose and self-absorbed effete sitting to my right, who, also now out of
character, is nudging me in the ribs, laughing, and parroting back a reply over my head to the ballerina, in time and
Drink your Vodka....
you see it's you?
In time, in tune and in stereo here in the Russian Tea Room. They have back-up
vocalists in my reverie, the two of them. Sounds like something out of Manhattan Transfer.
I love it.
None of that really occurred, of course. It was just me,
fantasizing in real time. In the real world here in the real Manhattan I applied a
big black heap of glistening Beluga Caviar onto a little triangle of toast, smiled
again at this friendly representative of the world of Artists & Repertoires sitting
across from me, and drank my Vodka. It was Stolichnaya, the whole glass of
it, and suddenly the already warm colors of the Russian Tea Room became a touch
more vibrant. The ballerina and the dainty young man did not; they
remained altogether in character, squirming and wining and mincing their words.
"Well, let's do a bit of business,"
Rob started up. "We're
here for a reason, right?"
"Right," I said, coughing a bit in a burning throat and
shifting about on this pink velour bench in between the ballerina and the dainty
young man. "Right!"
"Well," Rob continued, "let's cut to the chase, then. You
guys did OK with that John Peters remix of the Don McLean material last fall.
Not great, but OK. Bottom end of the sound was woolly never really hit
bottom but Bob Ludwig fixed that in the cut. You know Bob, right?"
"Right," I said once again. "I bring the tapes to him myself. We
have lots of laughs."
"OK. That's good. You need to
know why a tape sounds different once you try to make a record out of it.
But that's all beside the point. We want to give you guys a chance to step up a
notch to work with some real artists. We think you got the smarts.
Smart enough not to get in the way just because the stuff you're doing doesn't
sound like what you're hearing on the radio. You get my drift?"
"Right," I said.
"Well, OK then. Listen. I'm not
going to get down and make a big speech about it. Less is more when I'm
talking to a guy who went to college. And you went to college. I know all
about it. Listen, Gil, I've got a word. I've got one word for you.
Listen to me."
I straightened up, sitting there on the banquette,
fixing Rob Seitov as best I could through that same shock of hair which had
fallen down once again over my forehead. I concentrated. The
ballerina to my left and the gay guy disappeared from my field of vision. I couldn't
hear them any more. The gruff agent talk became inaudible as well, even though
the mouths were still moving cigarettes poking in and out. The
buzz of the hive had faded into a sort of muffled silence, as though a fader on a
recording console had been drawn down. It was strangely quiet in the
Russian Tea Room.
"You ready to hear the word?" Rob
"Right," I said. "I'm ready."
"Well, look at me, straight in the eyes then."
I did my best to
look Rob Seitov straight in the eyes, brushing another maverick lock of hair up and over
my forehead. There was only one sound in the Russian Tea Room now, and that was
Rob Seitov drawing breath in between pursed lips. Then, in this near silence he
had created for me, he raised his forefinger, pointed it towards the ceiling,
rolled his eyes once, smiled, and spoke.
"Fusion," Rob Seitov said. "Jazz fusion."
Let's say that you're a young man
in your twenties, and that one thing has led to another and that you've decided
that you're going to be a professional musician. Doesn't matter for our purposes
what sort of an instrument you play could be the saxophone, or
the piano, or the electric guitar, or drums. Nor does it matter what kind
of a musician you've decided to be could be jazz, or country, or rock
'n' roll. What matters is this: you turn out to be really good at
what you do
not just really good, but terrific. People gather around you when you start
playing, oohing and aahing and making remarks about your technique, about the
intensity that surrounds you. They nudge one another, and at one time
or another they all use the word virtuoso in referring to you. "He's a
flat-out virtuoso. Never ever heard anybody play the guitar like that before. Incredible!"
Good news, right? You've got it made, right? Just get yourself a manager and
chart your way to the stars, right?
Well, wrong. You're
good, all right. Your friends are correct about that. So are the critics in
the magazines. So are the managers who are nosing around, trying to sign you to
deals but and here's the big but they're not guaranteeing you any
Everybody agrees that you're really good, but nobody is putting any dollars in
your pocket. Virtuosity turns out to be a bit lonesome, financially. You may be
a better guitar player, but your friend in a pop rock 'n' roll band who can't
keep his Stratocaster in tune, much less play Segovia on the thing, is driving
around in a Trans Am'.
So, having taken a long look
at your face in the mirror, and having approved the reflected image more
heartily than perhaps ever before (you know how good you are), you decide
to take matters into your own hands, and create a different sort of performing
group a group that will consist of you (that's for sure), and of other
virtuosos like you other virtuoso pickers. You know who they are.
They're as frustrated as you are, and will hearken to the call. So you call them.
And they hearken. And you put together, the four or five of you, a super group of
super pickers each of you super pickers endowed not just with a musician's
virtuosity, but with the super-sized ego that goes along with it. You agree to
forget, the four or five of you, about the egos. At least for the time being.
There are more important things to attend to.
the kind of music that you will be playing together. What's it gonna' be:
pop, classical, jazz, rock 'n' roll? A hard matter for the four or five of
you to take seriously, since you are all accomplished, each of you, within all
genres of music making. You on your guitar for example, can play Chet Atkins
more accurately than Chet ever played it himself. You can bring the orchestral
triumphs of the Spanish masters back to life on your acoustic instrument with a
depth, and feeling, that they only hinted at, by comparison. Let's not forget Jimi Hendrix. You too can make your electric guitar
"listen to itself" in the sound field of its stadium-grade loudspeakers, and
make it feed that listening experience back into the same sound-field, creating feedback
howls and screeches. Only, you can do it better, because the parental "twang"
that first scorching of the strings that set the feedback into motion was
accomplished with the V-word. With a very special verve. With virtuosity.
So there will be no talk of genres of the kind of music that you and
your super pickers will perform. You are not to be limited in this fashion. You
will allow yourselves to perform in all genres, perhaps even
simultaneously, if the collective spirit wills powerfully enough. Let the
pundits decide at a later date what it was you were doing. Commit this question
to your biographers. For the moment, you satisfy yourself with the notion that
everything that people have been saying about you is "spot on," and that you are
in pioneering mode. Out of this effort there will coalesce there will fuse
something new. Something that will deserve in the end a name all its own.
Nor are you done yet. There is the question of your demeanor, and the
demeanors of your partners in this new musical venture. These demeanors must be laid-back
to the point of inscrutability. No glad hands or shouts to the crowds; no
leaping about the performance stage, twirling your mike at the end of its cord
like a lasso. No theatrics or burning guitars or Kiss stage makeup. No attempts to
explain what you are
doing to those who will flock to your side, notepads flipped open and pens poised.
Silence instead. The music of the Gods is meant to be played, not talked about.
So you will play it. Play it with a stolid, black, laconic intensity
absent anything resembling a sense of humor. For, this is jazz fusion, and
you are virtuosos.
Larry Coryell at Long View Farm
This was a very delicate message that Rob Seitov had just tasked me to carry
back to the countryside recording studio in central Massachusetts: that, we
were about to take rock 'n' roll up a notch. The fact is, we
felt that we had just been taken up a notch or two ourselves, having recently
hosted Stevie Wonder and several hundred reporters from all over the world for
the press party debut of Songs in the Key of Life, having recently
re-mixed several albums of posthumous Jimi Hendrix material for the New York
producer Alan Douglas, and most recently having a spent a month with Stephen
Georgiou aka Cat Stevens in residence, making what would turn out to be
his last long-playing record for the Western world before embracing the religion
of Islam and selling all his guitars at auction. "Up a notch," I was supposed to
say, explaining that these other guys weren't exactly "hacks," but that they
weren't virtuosos, either. We were about to be sent a virtuoso none other than
Larry Coryell and we had to be ready.
And ready we would be, by
God. To start, we would run out and buy every jazz fusion album in sight.
Bitches Brew we had, but nothing else by Miles Davis. John McLaughlin and
the Mahavishnu Orchestra had to be found and digested immediately, followed by
anything that had Chick Corea's name on it. That was the assignment for me, the
archivist in the group. Technically, we had a far more exciting challenge on our
hands. This was the opportunity no, the obligation to record an acoustic
guitar so perfectly that, in playback, the recording would be indistinguishable
from that same acoustic guitar being played live. I would invoke the
then-current Memorex tape commercial in making this point: behind the curtain,
when it was pulled aside, one would not see a recording artist sitting on a
stool holding a guitar, but a loudspeaker. Everyone would laugh at that one, but
the point was made. We had some work to do.
But we weren't
exactly starting on our one-yard-line, either. We knew where the "sweet spot"
was on the wooden floor in the middle of the recording studio the
precise location where even-numbered harmonics reflected off the wall surfaces
seemed to naturally congregate, producing that warm "pre-CBS" sound so sought
after by the manufacturers of guitar amplifiers, and so easily captured by a
microphone. And we had the microphones. Our two new Schoeps mikes were pricey,
but they were the
hottest and flattest transducers made in the world, and we knew how to position
them in front of an acoustic guitar. Our trusty Neumanns we would suspend on
wires, up and away from the musician, in order to capture the amazing ambience
of that old wooden room in the middle of the farmhouse. As for the musician
himself, he would sit on a stool of precisely calculated height, positioned
right over the magic "sweet spot." The resulting stereo image would be
accurate to three decimal places.
As for the equipment on the
other side of the plate glass separating the recording studio from the control
room, we were ready there, too. Keep your Dolbys; we would be using the brand
new Blackmer-engineered DBX noise reduction technology: 96 db of inky black
silence. No tape hiss to give away the show. Tape machines galore, including a
stereo deck running 1/4 inch tape at 30 ips to capture the stereo image of the
guitar at the same time that the larger multi-track tape machine was doing its
own job. Sometimes the stereo tape would be the memorable one, and not the
two-inch tape which became the property of the record company.
Finally, as concerns the most important arrangements of all, the long
driveway had just received a new layering of pink pea stone. A new cow was
being fattened in the barn, and a sump pump had been installed in the basement
under the control room, which would otherwise flood whenever it was raining and
short out the studio power supplies which were installed there, to everyone's
And raining it was that day in November, 1975. A Nor
'easter had blown in from the Cape, carrying with it blinding torrents of rain
and great gusts of wind. The shutters were creaking, and the howl of the
wind could be heard in the supposedly sound-proof acoustic echo chamber in the
bowels of the barn. We were all wondering if Larry Coryell would make it
OK, driving up from New York City as he was, alone in his car.
"There he is. It's got to be him." This from a half dozen faces
pressed against steamed-up farmhouse panes of glass. "It's got to be him."
And it was. A ramshackle 60s vintage Chevy with New York State license
plates had just lurched onto the property, pulling half-way up the pebbled
drive, and stalling there. It back-fired once. Out of the vehicle
and into the pouring rain
struggled a man carrying a black guitar case. He dropped it
unceremoniously onto the pink pea stone, which was flowing in strong rivlets
around his ankles and
down towards the street, and unzipped his fly. He stood there in the rain for a
moment, thus exposed, and then proceeded to relieve himself at great length,
in arcs coursing from left to right, and then back again. The rain poured
down on him, and onto his guitar case, and onto his waving masculinity. Not to matter. This guitar
virtuoso had to go. He had to go bad.
Larry Coryell made his way into the farmhouse, and into the large kitchen where
several of us had gathered to greet him and to wish him well. He was very wet,
with rainwater dripping in streams off his head and onto his yellow rain
slicker, and from there onto his guitar case, which he was hugging tightly. This was a good
place to dry out, however. A large fire burned brightly in the fireplace, and
the kitchen counter offered a fine selection of beers and wines and cheeses and
steaming metal canisters of freshly brewed coffee. Friendly people were there
too, all wreathed in smiles and more than ready to disburden this visitor of his
guitar case, sit him down by the fire, and fix him something to drink.
"Naw," Larry Coryell said, "I'll hold onto this. Where's the studio?"
"Well it's right over there," I said, "just past the fireplace on the right.
Whata' ya' have? Want a drink or something?"
said again. "Over there on the right, you say?"
and Larry shuffled his feet once or twice on the floor and padded off past the
fireplace. Confronted by the heavy soundproof studio door, he banged it hard
with his guitar case, causing us to wince over the wines and cheeses, and
opening it a crack. He leaned into the crack with his shoulder and stumbled into
the studio area, dragging his guitar case in behind him. Not fast enough,
though. The guitar case got caught in the door, which is made to close
automatically. It made a sound when the door hit it sounded like 440 cycles
that would be the note of "A" on an acoustic guitar. We all winced once again
over the wines and cheeses.
Studio professionals pull
together in a moment like this, and without a word of instruction from me we all
moved instinctively, not following Larry into the studio, but into the control
room, where we could see what was going on through the large, plate glass
window which separated the two areas. We had to turn on the lights; no one had
been in the control room for hours. The tape machines had been turned off. No
tape on them. The
room was cold.
But there he was, Larry Coryell, on the other side
of the glass window. He was still dripping wet, and was in the process of
shedding his yellow rain slicker. He gave it a funny look, then hung it
unceremoniously on top of one of the brand new Schoeps microphones, dragging it
to the floor on the boom of its mike stand. The whole arrangement sat on the
floor in a wet heap. Larry then focused on the musician's stool sitting in the
"sweet spot" in the center of the studio, and gave it a hard kick in the
direction of the chimney, where it came to rest six feet away at a precarious
angle. Not waiting to see if it too would fall to the floor, Larry grabbed
his guitar case, unsnapped the metal clasps, and extricated the guitar, which
gleamed in the lights. Then, righting the stool, he sat down on it over there by
the chimney, six feet away from the spot of sweetness, holding his guitar in his lap.
"It's all right,
gang," I said. "He just wants to tune his guitar. Long trip from New York City.
The thing is wet. Just got closed in a door jam. It's his ax. Got to make sure
it's OK. Tune the thing up."
People gave me a
strange look, but I was apparently correct. Larry Coryell picked strongly on the
high E-string of the guitar. You could hear it faintly, even through the
sound-proof glass windows. He cocked his head at an angle; then picked the same
string again. He cracked a faint smile. Terrific, I thought to myself. These
guys have perfect pitch. Forget about playing that same note on the piano across
the room to see if it jived; forget about the tuning forks. He heard that note
of "E", and it was the "E" he knew by heart. That's what perfect pitch is
Larry then moved his left hand along the neck of
the guitar, applying pressure on a fret about half-way up, and picked at the
E-string again. A higher note was heard. Larry smiled again, tossing his head,
and spreading a spray of rainwater on the floor. He was still very wet. But not
so wet that he would ignore the other strings on his favorite instrument. He
picked at them too, one at a time. Then he started picking at more than one of them at a time,
his head lowing slowly to and fro. Such expertise. "Listen to this guy
tuning his guitar," I said out loud. "Have you ever seen anything like this
before? This, my friends, is the virtuoso, preparing the tonality
instrument with extraordinary care!"
I got another strange look
from my friends, now because Larry had become a good bit more active on the
other side of the glass window. His left hand was dancing up and down the neck
of the guitar, seeking out several frets at a time and holding strings down upon
them simultaneously. His right hand was more active still, striking these same
strings at the precise moment they were pressed upon the fret by the fingers of
his left hand some twelve inches away, causing these strings to ring out in
different tones, depending on the fret. Several such strings were being caused
to ring out at the same time. Larry's head, once cocked inquisitively in the
direction of a single note, was now swinging in large arcs. There was rain water
splashing everywhere. Larry's hands blurred, and now appeared to be in two
places at once, in a frenzied dance. Faster and faster they went. Notes, notes,
and more notes. Fury, then fury redoubled. Then, with no warning, a final
from the guitar, with Larry's right hand frozen in the air and his head locked
into a tilted position. He held this pose until the Spar...raang!
faded and died out into silence. A bit of rain pattering outdoors
could be heard once again. Larry Coryell
then raised his head, and his eyes slowly met ours, which were staring at him
with astonishment from the other side of a glass wall.
"Didcha' get that?" he asked.
"Didcha' get that?"
We didn't "get that," of course. There was no tape on the tape machines. And
let's be fair we thought Larry Coryell was tuning his guitar, not performing a
one-of-a-kind and never-to-be-repeated jazz fusion composition which he had just
conceived in a driving rainstorm on his way from New York City. If, as a
recording studio, we were destined to take rock 'n' roll "up a notch," we were
off to a very poor start.
I was elected to explain this failure
to our guest, which I did with the greatest tact, and diplomacy. Larry, for his
part, was less diplomatic in his response, which was one of stony silence. At
first, at least. He finally delivered a great sigh, and announced that would
retire to his bedroom until further notice, which notice would not occur under
any circumstances until his wife arrived. He then disappeared up the stairs,
leaving his guitar on top of his yellow rain slicker which was itself on top of
a pricey and now very wet Schoeps microphone. We could only shrug our shoulders,
feel bad, and wait for Julie.
Fortunately, we didn't have long to
wait. First to arrive was not Julie Coryell, but Larry's long-standing comrade-in-arms,
Mike Mandel keyboard player extraordinaire. Mike had been playing off
and on with Larry for years, and was a card-carrying member of Coryell's seminal
fusion group The Eleventh House. Mike shuffled into our midst carrying a long
black suitcase in which his main instrument, one of the early ARP synthesizers,
was hidden. Dressed in black himself, and the first thing he wanted to do once
inside the house was to flick the raindrops off his ARP carrying case, and to
make a joke or two about his wet trip on the Connecticut Turnpike. It was on
that highway that Harry Chapin had met his death only a few years earlier,
driving in the same direction.
"Where's the main man?" Mike asked. Mike Mandel had
this terrific habit of preceding everything he said with a chuckle and a smile.
"Upstairs," I replied. "Taking a few moments off."
"Great," Mike said. "That'll give me some
time to set up. That's the control room in there, right?"
"Right, Mike. Right in there." Mike gave another
chuckle and a smile, picked his black case up off the floor,
and disappeared into the control room. He didn't want to set
up on the other side of the glass, in the recording studio, and would explain
to us later that no eye contact between him and Coryell was required (or
possible, since Mike Mandel was blind.).
"We've been doing this for years," he said.
"We just wing it, anyway."
Julie herself arrived only a
few moments later. The rainstorm had now ended, and there were white, fluffy
scuds of tiny clouds chasing themselves across the valley just to the east of
the studio complex. A yellow shaft of sunlight burst out of nowhere, focusing
itself as a theatrical spotlight on the young woman as she extricated herself
from her automobile. She looked up into it, blinded herself for a moment, and then spun
around in a wide circle, her arms extended. Julie Coryell was laughing, there in
the middle of a circle of sunlight in central Massachusetts. Julie Coryell had
arrived at Long View Farm.
I for one found the sunshine particularly welcome, and I'm not talking about the sunshine which was now streaming down out there on the driveway. I'm talking about that bundle of sunshine which was Julie Coryell herself. No stay-at-home-spouse, Julie Coryell was very much
involved in her husband's work, traveled with him regularly, and was a
performing artist in her own right. She was very beautiful, confident, and self-assertive. She had
lived very successfully through the sixties, read all of Gloria Steinem, and had
been thoroughly and deeply liberated without having contracted anything like that army boots attitude which so marred the behavior of so many of her shouting feminist sisters. Julie was down-to-earth, bright as could be, and a lot of fun. Within 24 months after
leaving Long View Farm, she would write and publish a definitive text dealing
with the jazz fusion phenomenon, which remains to this day the best and most
interesting book written about it. For the moment, she was eager to put my mind at rest on the topic of her somewhat moody significant other, who was still in a full pout in his bedroom on the second floor
of the farmhouse.
"Don't worry about it," she laughed. "This has happened before. They're all that way, if you want to know the truth. They take the music much too seriously. I'll go up there now and talk to him."
It was only a few moments later that Julie tip-toed back down the stairs, having absented herself only long enough to remove her boots and jeans and everything else she was wearing, replacing them with sheerest, most beautiful white negligee
we had ever encountered out there in the deep Massachusetts countryside. So clad, she drifted down the staircase like a bit of fluff in a breeze, her bare feet playing in the
drafts of the cold farmhouse. She stepped briefly in front of an afternoon sun,
low in the sky, which passed easily through the frills and lace, but not her.
Ignoring at least one dropped jaw, which was my own, Julie
reached the bottom of the open staircase and moved slowly across the room like a biblical princess, her black hair brushed
out and her eyes straight ahead. Positioning herself
directly in front of the fireplace, she then stretched her two arms up towards
the ceiling hiking her flimsy cover well up onto her upper thighs, making it
now more of a teddy than a negligee and uttered a little squeak.
"Oh," she said, "it's so wonderful here.. so, so natural!" She then
dropped her arms to her side and collapsed onto the couch in a heap of white,
billowing, transparent fabric. I motioned to one of the girls in the kitchen,
and another two logs were quickly added to the fire, and a hot cup of coffee
carried over and placed into Julie's outstretched hands.
Mike Mandel trudged by, muttering to himself about something, carrying one of
his electronic keyboards past the fireplace and into the control room. He gave
no acknowledgment, even as a blind man might, to the barely filmed over Odalisque stretched out on
the divan sofa. He just trudged on by. He had apparently been in the presence of this negligee before,
or one like it.
"That was quick," I say to Julie, feigning a certain nonchalance and, contrary to my every instinct, acting as though the installation of a nearly naked woman on the coach in front of my fireplace was an everyday occurrence.
"Didn't take long," Julie said. "Had to get out of those city clothes. You ready?"
"Ready for what?" I say, choking on my words.
"Ready for Larry, silly! He's on his way down. Wants to record something with Mike."
I'm simultaneously relieved and terror-stricken. This was the fire call we were waiting for.
The moment had arrived for us to make a proper recording of Larry Coryell to archive this creative genius for the ages this
time with tape on the tape machine. I take hurried leave of my
Odalisque, and race out to the shed separating the farmhouse from the other studio in the barn.
"Hey, Jesse!" I yell. "Get over here. We're working!"
Things are now falling into place quickly. Jesse spends a few minutes with
Larry in the studio, re-centering the stool on the "sweet spot" in the middle of
the room, getting Larry comfortable on the stool with his guitar, and
positioning the mikes in the manner we had rehearsed many times. For my part, my
eyes are darting around the control room, executing the usual count-down checks.
Faders where they ought to be, patch cords firmly pushed into the console,
outboard limiter-compressors lit up and set to twelve-to-one... everything seems
green and go, except, except... there is no tape on the big tape machine. Where's the two-inch tape?"
I find myself shouting.
"Right here, Gil," I hear from the young man who's
working part-time hours after school and sometimes into the night. "Right here,
in this box. Says something about Cat Stevens outtakes. Stuff he didn't like.
We'll just throw that on and we'll be up and running in a few seconds."
"Wait," I shout. "You say Cat Stevens? That's crazy. Go get a new box of tape.
There should be one left under the parrot cage in the kitchen. I mean what I say. Go
out and get a new box of tape."
The boy gives me a quizzical look, but then wheels around
obediently and heads out of the control room, towards the kitchen. He collides
with Kathleen, our studio manager, kitchen overseer and mainly, keeper of the
bank books. She's standing in the doorway to the control
room, spreading and wiping her hands on her kitchen apron. She's shaking her
head, looking at the floor. She steps around the young man who just bumped into
her, raises her head, and makes blazing eye contact with me.
"Well," she said, "I just hope you know what you're doing. We have to feed
these people tomorrow, and the next day. We just got that new box of
tape, and it cost a hundred dollars. What do we do tomorrow, when they
want to record another of these long, rambling fusion things?"
Kathleen is a picture of beauty as she stands there, arms akimbo, in the
doorway leading to the kitchen. She's right, to boot. What do I need an old tape
of Cat Stevens outtakes for, anyway? I always loved Kathleen. I still do.
But here is Mike Mandel right at my side, who has
heard this strange exchange of opinions, and is scratching his head with
two fingers which, among others, were otherwise poised and ready to apply to his keyboard
synthesizer. He's wearing a funny smile. Larry Coryell is not smiling, however.
I look out through the big plate glass window and see him on his stool, with his
guitar, surrounded by one Schoeps and two Neumann microphones. He is
definitely not smiling.
"What's going on in there?" he shouts into the
three microphones. We hear him at an excruciatingly high volume level in the control
room. Kathleen winces.
"Just trying to get the right reel of tape up onto the
machine," I reply. "Just a couple more seconds. Hey, as long as we're talking,
what's the name of this tune? What's the name we're going to write on the box?"
I wink at Kathleen, whose face softens a bit. The young man is back from the
parrot cage, tearing the plastic wrapping off the new reel of tape. He mounts it
onto the 3M tape machine with a loud "clunk," spins it forward for a second,
back-tensions the reels, and give me a thumbs up, his job done.
"Toy Soldiers," Larry Coryell responds. "Toy Soldiers."
So I make a quick note on the track sheet, and motion to
Kathleen, who knows enough to push on the heavy control room door and back
into the living room and kitchen. She twists the heavy black knob on the
wall on her way out the door, which turns the track lights down to a dim
presence, accentuating the thousand tiny little lights which are now blinking in
red and green on the recording console. It's show time
here in Control Room A, so I nod to the young tape operator, and to Mike Mandel poised
behind his keyboard, and I press the button on the console so that Larry Coryell can hear me in his
"We're rolling, Larry," I say into the mike, simultaneously hitting the
'play' and 'record' buttons on the big 16-track tape machine.
"All right!" I hear from Mike Mandel to my left.
"What's going on in there?" I hear again from Larry
Coryell, who is fighting with his Koss headphones. No need to respond. Mike's
synthesizer is growling along through the opening bars of this composition called Toy Soldiers. They
have not rehearsed it, Larry Coryell and Mike Mandel; they don't need to. What's
more, they will play this tune only once
absorbed the two of them in that black, humorless
intensity which is the calling card of the virtuoso. I try as best I can to resonate to this
exciting creative process, sitting here at the recording console, with a 16-track tape machine spinning ever so quietly just a few inches behind my
chair. A virtuoso I am not, but I can listen well, and with great
sympathy. I ignore what might first strike me as discordance. I turn a temporarily deaf
ear to tonal imbalance. I tolerate a perhaps deliberate lack of synchrony between
two talented musicians playing together at the same time. Let's face it, I want this musical
performance being captured on two-inch tape to be great. But, even my best efforts
fail me this once, and I find myself hearing what appear to be mistakes. Yes,
mistakes! Executed with virtuoso flare perhaps, but simple, flat-out
performance mishaps nevertheless. Oh, my God!
This realization breaks the spell,
and my enthusiasm plummets. I find myself no longer
listening, but concentrating on VU meters instead fascinated by the dancing
of little black needles on their yellow scales. It gets worse. I am being hypnotized by these little dancing needles,
and my mind is wandering. I find myself no
longer in a Massachusetts countryside recording studio, ministering to the needs
of two jazz fusion recording artists, but transported on gossamer wings back to another
place and time to the Russian Tea Room in
mid-town Manhattan, where, seated between a young Romanian ballerina on the one hand,
and a gay disco prince on the other, I am serenaded by the two of them
cheerfully singing to me in accurate harmony voices:
Drink your Vodka...
That you gotta' do...
Drink your Vodka...
you see it's you?
Soldiers As recorded by Larry Coryell and Mike Mandel
Records, 1975. The eventual LP was called The Lion and the Ram.
queried about the apparent harshness of the essay appearing above, its author
replied that he "had read it all," and that nobody else except maybe
Julie Coryell had ever said anything
meaningful about jazz fusion, and that, having perhaps nothing meaningful to say about
it himself, he just wanted "to join the crowd."
During this same exchange he said he wanted an expression of thanks extended
to the movie director Stanley Kubrick. Why, he never explained.
Larry Coryell photo credits are due to DiamondDog.
Subsequent to the Larry Coryell sessions at Long
View Farm, and in some measure because of them, the studio was called upon to
make additional recordings of jazz and jazz fusion artists. These were to
include Paul McCandless (Oregon), David Darling, Archie Shepp, Max Roach, Michael Kamen, the Paul Winter Consort, David Sanborn, Jeff Lass,
Dick Odgren and Pat Metheny. Steve Gadd, the one-time and incredibly talented
drummer for John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, also spend substantial
periods of time in the North Brookfield studio, but playing black funk music
hailing from Mikell's upper East Side nightclub in New York City, and not jazz fusion.