Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Making Record-Making Records

Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music
By Phil Ramone with Charles Granata
Hyperion Books

Here is Phil Ramone’s list of producing and engineering credits at Allmusic.com, representing artists from jazz, rock, pop, and Broadway. One can definitely see a book in there. Ramone, who worked with the likes of John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavoratti, and Billy Joel, collects a number of anecdotes from his recording career in Making Records, a conversational memoir co-written with Charles Granata.

While Ramone’s greatest commercial success came through his work with mega-pop stars, jazz plays a surprisingly large role in his story. Ramone was actually cutting a demo as a jazz violinist (with charts written for him by the great Ralph Burns) when he was recruited into his first studio gig. He would win his first Grammy (of fourteen) for engineering a jazz album, Getz Gilberto. Throughout his successful production career, Ramone frequently brought in major jazz artists to add a certain élan to his sessions. One thing that comes through clearly in Records is Ramone’s passion for a wide variety of music, certainly including jazz.

Along the way, Ramone produced and witnessed quite a bit of musical history. It was actually Ramone who did the sound for Pres. Kennedy’s birthday gala, which featured Marilyn Monroe’s famous serenade, with Hank Jones accompanying her on piano. Ramone recollects: “It was pretty imposing to be on stage with Marilyn Monroe, Hank Jones, and a nine-foot grand piano!” (p. 206) I’m sure he was really checking out that piano.

Records provides laymen with a basic introduction to craft of producing records, but it is not meant to be a primer for sound engineers. Ramone is more interested in illustrating the process of collaborating with creative talent. His stories suggest there are often times when producers need to smooth egos over. For instance, he was able to diplomatically explain to Billy Joel’s saxophonist, Richie Cannata, why he wanted to bring in bop alto legend Phil Woods for a session, so that the regular band-member would not object. He quotes Cannata explaining:

“All of us (Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, and I) looked up to Phil Woods; he was the Charlie Parker of our era. If Phil (Ramone) had asked Michael Brecker or David Sanborn to play on ‘Just the Way You Are,’ I would have felt hurt. But it was a real honor to have Phil Woods play on our record.” (p. 50)

In recent years, Ramone has made a specialty of songbook duet sessions, including Sinatra’s Duets, Tony Bennett’s Duets, and Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company. All three figure significantly in Records, with the final Ray Charles sessions making a fitting conclusion. However, Billy Joel and Paul Simon probably have the greatest prominence in Ramone’s book, not surprisingly given their success. Ramone evidently even named his sons after them.

To his credit, Ramone shows little interest in passing off gossip or scandal. However, a little sense of conflict would have given the book greater dramatic urgency. Surely, there is someone out there Ramone would not care to work with again. In Records though, it seems Ramone is able to overcome every pitfall with a little creative engineering. More power to him. In any event, Records is a breezy read, that provides some fresh insights into the artists Ramone worked with, and audiophiles will dig his explanations of his various techniques and improvisations in the studio.