Loud or Louder – Paquito D’Rivera

Paquito D'RiveraPaquito D’Rivera defies categorization. The winner of twelve GRAMMY Awards, he is celebrated both for his artistry in Latin jazz and his achievements as a classical composer. Born in Havana, Cuba, he performed at age 10 with the National Theater Orchestra, studied at the Havana Conservatory of Music and, at 17, became a featured soloist with the Cuban National Symphony. As a founding member of the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, he directed that group for two years, while at the same time playing both the clarinet and saxophone with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra. He eventually went on to premier several works by notable Cuban composers with the same orchestra. Additionally, he was a founding member and co-director of the innovative musical ensemble Irakere. With its explosive mixture of jazz, rock, classical and traditional Cuban music never before heard, Irakere toured extensively throughout America and Europe, won several GRAMMY nominations (1979, 1980) and a GRAMMY. (Paquito D’Rivera website)

A few years ago, the great actor-educator Bill Cosby said that in order to correct the failures of our different communities, the first thing to do was to recognize and face those failures. So inspired by those wise words Paquito sent to the editor of “Modern Drummer Magazine” an article titled “Alfred Nobel and the Invention of the Microphone.” It didn’t work out.  The magazine declined to publish the article. In a modified form it has since resurfaced in the June 2015 issue of Down Beat (page 88).

Here an abridgement of several edited versions of the “offending” article:

“I truly believe that technology is here to help the art form, not to overwhelm it. But tragically, with few exceptions , the invention of the microphone  credited to the German-American Emile Berliner in 1876, has had truly damaging results – almost as damaging as the dynamite invented by Alfred Nobel in1876.  Both have been used and abused into creating irreversible material destruction by the latter, as well as serious damages in the good taste and ear drums of listeners by Berliner’s artificial amplification device. All of that came to be with the support of sound engineers and the consent of 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 have all reached the same conclusion that the louder the music is heard, the better it is; that volume is a synonym for energy, and the one that screams the loudest is the one who wins. I have witnessed the volume and reverb go up so high on Dave Valentin’s flute, that it converts the gorgeous natural sound on tunes like Obsession, the beautiful Pedro Flores 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 applause , bad taste and excessive volume have hit jazz and popular music with such tsunami-like force that everything is now forte and fortissimo.  So, I naively thought that a well-known publication like “Modern Drummer Magazine” would be the ideal vehicle to awake drummers, as well as sound guys, percussionists, and electric players to the fact that they crossed the volume line a long time ago, and that it is about time to do something about it. But for some reason said magazine refused to publish my article.  Too bad.

“Paquito, ¡Nos hablas al alma de las innumerables víctimas de esta fenomenología! (You speak to the soul of the so many victims of this phenomenology!)”, wrote Colombian pianist Hector Martignon after reading a preview of that article, while soprano Brenda Feliciano mentioned on her Face Book page that “Many a vocalist has been a victim of this noise volume syndrome. I’m just one of them.”

On certain occasions, the legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who made all those famous recordings for Impulse, Blue Note, CTI and Atlantic with Coltrane, Monk, Hubbard, Rollins, Miles, Lee Morgan and all those hip jazzmen of the 50’s and 60’s, had the guts to say – I believe it was in a DownBeat interview– 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 nowadays it is really difficult to find jazz pianists with the elegant, delicate, yet swinging sound of Kenny Baron, Teddy Wilson, Makoto Ozone, Renee Rosnes or Bill Evans, and there is no doubt that some of the fault lies on the drummers that everyday play loud and louder, forcing the pianists to bang on the keys, to ask for more volume on their wedges and thus destroying the inherent acoustic character of the instrument. So I wonder if that was one of the reasons that Nat “King” Cole and Oscar Peterson many times didn’t use a drummer in their trios.  “Give me more piano in the monitor” is the usual request onstage and my response is a simple question “why don’t you play more softly so that you can hear what  the freakin’ piano player is playing? You left the brushes at home or what?” On the other hand, the only way to play in tune and blend in an ensemble is by listening to each other, but how in heaven can I listen and play in tune with the guy next to me if all I can hear around is guitar, bass and drums acting as if we’re on a gig with Grateful Dead or Metallica?! Without mentioning names; the other day I went to listen to the supposedly “acoustic band’ of an unquestionably outstanding drummer, and when they started playing, the volume of the PA system for that tiny club was more than enough to be used at the Yankee stadium for amplifying “KISS”.

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 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 ear drums. 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 have 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.” How in heaven can I listen and play in tune with the guy next to me if I am not able to hear my own horn with all that noise around me?” And then, since the electric bass emerged on the scene we have bassists who always think they are playing with Kiss or Metallica. Usually they ally with the drummers, and I even think they buy earplugs together, in sets of four, so they can have some fun amongst themselves while making life unbearable for the rest of the musicians.

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

One evening at the annual Jazz Festival in Punta Del Este, Uraguay, trumpet player and leader Terrance 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. And the only thing required was to be quiet and listen with attention. That is what music was invented for in the first place, isn’t it?

Here is a little taste of Paquito’s music (Tico Tico) – note the driving samba rhythm of the Pandiero (Brazilian Tamborine) and the absence of an overbearing drum kit.

 

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I hear you Paquito, but it isn’t quite that simple. I think part of the problem is that audiences have forgotten how to listen. Away from the serious concert hall, the music has to compete with ambient audience noise, the big screen TV, cell phones, hand held devices and other extraneous noise. The musicians respond by just cranking up the volume. Having said that I agree that most drummers play way too loud. After hearing some classic recordings of the Teddy Wilson Trio (The Complete Verve Recordings of the Teddy Wilson Trio, Mosiac MDS-173) I came to the conclusion that all drummers should have their sticks broken and be forced to play with brushes. Teddy Wilson is the consummate elegant and tasteful pianist from a bygone era. On that collection of 8 CDs he is a accompanied by a plethora of acoustic bass players and drummers. Among the drummers on the recordings there were the giants of the day – Buddy Rich, Denzil Best, J.C. Heard, Specs Powell and the impeccable master from the Count Basie Band,  Jo Jones. If my memory serves me well all drummers only used brushes and the outstanding result was one of incredible pulse, drive and swing.

While the following is not an example of the extremes of the above debate it does illustrate some of the problems. Two recent concerts in Cranbrook illustrated some of the difficulties facing approaches to amplification. Both concerts were held at the Royal Alexandra Hall. The first concert featured the stellar Classical Chamber group Octagon playing the music of Schumann and Beethoven. The music was completely un-amplified  and the resulting sound was gorgeous – from the ultra soft to the ultra loud there was a full sonic spectrum. The second concert, just several days later, was by Bluegrass musicians. This genre of music is known for a  reverence for “a true acoustic sound” so, by definition, the amplification was not over the top. In fact it was quite modest. However, for one brief moment towards the end of the concert there was a lull in the amplification and the true possible glories of the music were evident. In any given musical environment, when to amplify and what to amplify is a tough call. Who plugs-in, what microphones to use, and how many to use are all questions to be considered. On top of that there are the expectations of the audience. In the case of Octagon the audience had no expectations of amplifications and that made life very simple. The musicians had vast experience in playing in completely acoustic environments and the audience had no expectations otherwise. The audience was amply rewarded for its faith. In the case of the Bluegrass concert, despite the philosophy of the musicians, there was an obvious audience expectation for some amplification. After all that is the norm. How well a group of acoustic bluegrass musicians could fill the given sonic envelope was open to question.   This would have been a good venue to test the possibilities. After all, unlike most venues, there was no ambient noise to defeat and the audience was attentive and committed to the music. It was a great concert with attentive and sympathetic sound techs and patrons, but one wonders how much better it may have been if the musicians had played the room like their classical counterparts.

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