Stuart Nicholson

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A couple of years ago I was invited to tour Compass Point Studios just outside Nassau in the Bahamas. Apart from its historical significance — this was once the home of Island Records, where Bob Marley recorded all his great hits — the experience was very illuminating. Compass Point is a state-of-the-art studio and I was able to talk to the recording engineer at some length.

There was once a time, he said, when somebody like Paul Simon would arrive with a huge entourage of musicians, take up residence for about ten weeks and the end result was usually a hit album. Today, a vocalist like Céline Dion will arrive with just her musical director. That’s because the huge orchestra that customarily backs her — the desks of violins, violas, cellos, arco basses, the trumpets, the trombones and the powerful rhythm section — all exist in cyberspace. Today, it’s possible to purchase legal samples of every instrument under the sun, enabling the sound engineer to construct an orchestral accompaniment on hard disc, starting with the rhythm tracks and building up through the rest of the orchestra through sampling alone.

Very cost-efficient in saving the fees of 40 session musicians being flown into the Bahamas, and nobody (except the real pros) can tell the difference. There’s also a carry-over to performance, my recording engineer pointed out. Today, at most big pop concerts, at least 70 per cent of the sound you will hear is prerecorded and pumped out through the PA, and mixed with real-time sounds. Vocals are terrifyingly in tune, he said, through a computerised voice-corrector, and the result is a kind of bland perfection.

This kind of sonic legerdemain is not just confined to pop music. In the 1950s, the English classical producer Walter Legge and others argued that a recording was superior to a live performance, if only because a performer could attempt take after take over hours, days or weeks before admitting the best performance into the public domain. Equally, Legge realised that the truth could be manipulated in the studio, for instance, by using his wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to sing the high notes for Kirsten Flagstad’s Isolde.

Examples such as this make you wonder whether the quest for perfection is bleaching out humanity in recorded music. Of course, there are those that argue it’s not the means used to achieve an end, but the end it achieves that matters. Others can be a bit more sniffy. Jazz, for example, seems to have learnt little from the possibilities offered by the recording studio, and while bands such as those led by Miles Davis and the group Weather Report had no misgivings about tape-editing and using musique concrète (music constructed from recorded sounds) techniques to produce music that could never exist in real time, there have been few takers until recent years. The reason is that there’s always been a strong body of opinion which felt that recorded jazz should sound like a ‘captured’ live performance.

Yet there’s a curious paradox here — very few jazz recordings are actually made in live performance because the artist wants to have some sort of control over the final product. So it’s rather refreshing that one of jazz’s major voices has not only made an exemplary live recording, but he has also ensured it is free from after-the-fact rationalisation. What is more, to make sure his music remains fresh at the point of delivery, he and his band never rehearse. Beyond the Sound Barrier by saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter was recorded on tour in Asia, Europe and North America between November 2002 and April 2004. ‘Going beyond the safe and sound, that’s what all this music is about,’ he told me. His quartet — with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums — was formed in 2002 and the new band quickly sparked a creative renaissance for one of the most revered composers and saxophonists in jazz. Their first release, Footprints Live! (Verve), garnered huge international acclaim, with some commentators even claiming Shorter’s quartet was ‘the best band in jazz’. On their new recording, they certainly pull off some astonishing feats of individual brilliance and group improvisation. There are moments when the band would not sound out of place following a concert by a mid-European composer such as Lutoslawski, yet the next moment they explode into rock rhythms, such as on ‘Smilin’ Through’. Throughout, the music is a triumph of the unexpected, with Shorter’s solos on soprano and tenor saxophones dramatic yet inscrutable as he plugs into the harmony of the spheres, his musical logic often suggesting a celestial third trumpet part.

This is music created in the here and now that relies on enormous skill, creativity and empathy to make it work. It is in essence a series of musical photographs of performances that will never again be repeated, and a reminder that with all the wonderful things recording technology can do today, it is in danger of taking us further and further away from authenticity, instead of, as here, reconnecting us to it.