EARLY REFLECTIONS (93-94)
In October 1993, about 18 months after I graduated from music school, I recorded what I intended to be my debut album. I wanted it to showcase my then-current trio and a nice range of my skills and interests. I got the final version of the album ready to be sent to the compact disc manufacturer, but my car broke down and I could no longer afford to get the CDs made. The project was shelved until 2020, when the recording engineer talked me into listening to the material again. I liked enough of it to assemble and release a new, greatly streamlined version that remains faithful to my original objectives. My middle-aged self likes this new version far more than the original unreleased version, but those were different times.
That’s the short version of the story. Below is the long version.
The History of Early Reflections (93-94), Explained
The title of the album references 1993 and 1994, so some understanding of the history would be helpful. What led to these recordings being made?
In 1992, I graduated from music school, played a six-month gig as a staff pianist at Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, and returned to my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina to kick off a career as a freelance musician. Over the following year, I played many piano trio gigs, most frequently with Ron Brendle on bass and James Baker on drums. By the time October 1993 came around, I wanted to document the musical rapport of the trio with a view toward releasing some of the recordings as my debut album.
At that time, professional-quality audio equipment was still financially out of reach for most musicians and dedicated recording studios were still common. So I took the trio to Reflection Sound Studios there in Charlotte, which was one of the most renowned studios in the region, especially for album projects. Most famously, the rock band R.E.M. recorded two of their albums there. Reflection had a large, beautiful main studio that featured a Yamaha grand piano I loved (that’s it on the album cover), and even more importantly, Mark Williams was the Chief Engineer there. Mark had a sterling reputation as a brilliant engineer who also made a good project partner, particularly while the java coffee was flowing and the Lava Lamps were lit.
Nice. You also mentioned that the recordings were made with only two microphones. Why did that happen?
At that October 1993 session, I wanted to take a minimalist approach similar to the ones used on the classic jazz recordings from about 1955-1965. I wanted to hear the acoustics of the room on the recording and I wanted as little equipment as possible to be used without compromising the end result. I wanted to avoid the heavily engineered approach that came into vogue in the '70s, in which multiple microphones are placed very close to each instrument and the room sound is minimized. Further, I wanted to make a live stereo recording rather than a multi-track recording that would have to be mixed down to stereo later. I was a full-time freelance musician, so my strategy was not just motivated by purist nostalgia; cost was a primary consideration.
We used only two microphones to capture a stereo recording of the entire band (condensers in a Blumlein configuration, if that means anything to you), and we balanced the volume of the instruments by moving the instruments and microphones around the room. The microphone signals were fed through a minimal amount of gear and recorded to Digital Audio Tape (DAT), a now-defunct medium that was popular back then.
Got it. What happened at the session, and how close did you get to releasing the album?
The trio recorded many standards and jazz tunes that day, playing in the same loose style we played on our gigs. I assembled a sprawling, varied album from the session and had the album mastered in Nashville; I even attended the mastering session, which was fascinating. (Mastering involves optimizing the final sound and technical quality of the recording in a highly controlled listening environment.) The final master and the graphic art were ready to be sent to the CD manufacturer. Soon I would receive 1000 shrink-wrapped CDs, the minimum quantity you could order.
Then my car broke down and I could no longer afford to get the CDs made. At least that's what I told myself at the time.
But that's only partly true. With hindsight I can say that I could have borrowed the money and kept on track. The truth is that I had no idea what I was going to do with 1000 CDs and I was afraid of facing that reality. Should I have mustered the courage to move forward despite my fear? Maybe, but who knows.
Okay. You were a 25-year-old, full-time freelance jazz pianist in Charlotte, North Carolina, and you were trying to figure out your next move. Tricky times. You mentioned some of the technological limitations back then; what were some of the issues caused by CDs being the primary music medium in that era?
Streaming obviously didn't exist yet, so listening to the radio and physical media were still the only ways to hear recorded music. Due to those constraints, an artist's self-released debut CD was basically an expensive business card---a way for people to hear what the artist had to offer.
Also, the music world had fallen in love with the expanded capacity of the CD relative to vinyl; a single vinyl album could only hold about 45-50 minutes of music, whereas a single CD could hold 80 minutes of music. As a result, back then it was common for artists to release single CDs with 12, 15 or even more tracks in order to fill the capacity of the CD. In fact, hype stickers on CD packaging frequently boasted about how many minutes of music were on the CDs ("Over 78 Minutes of New Music!"). Of course, quantity does not equal quality, so many albums back then were padded with lesser quality music to fill the CD space; even if an artist only had 8 or 10 good tracks, they would release 15.
But you already assembled and mastered the album once; why do it again 28 years later?
By 2021 standards and in my now-middle-aged musical judgment, the original, unreleased version of the album is bloated and self-indulgent (perhaps not unlike this Q&A!). For instance, the centerpiece of that version is a 15-minute ballad. Yikes! Many listeners would have never heard the rest of the album because they would have been put to sleep by that ballad! (The ballad was "You Must Believe In Spring" by Michel Legrand, an exquisite but very long song, especially at the slow tempo we played it.) But in defense of my 25-year-old self, in keeping with the times I was trying to create a comprehensive "business card" and ballad playing has long been one of my stronger skills.
So how does this new version differ from the original version?
First, it only exists because Mark Williams, the engineer of the original sessions, got in touch with me in 2020 and encouraged me to revisit the recordings. I listened to all the recordings from the October 1993 session as well as a similar February 1994 session, and I liked enough of them to produce a new version of the album. This version omits the less inspired tracks of the original version (the ones that sounded like a business card) and it adds a couple tracks from the 1994 session. The result is a compact collection of inspired performances that still meets my goals of showcasing the band and the skills and interests I had back then. Like most jazz players, I mostly played songs from early American musical theater (like the Porter and Gershwin songs on this album) and jazz compositions by the masters (like the tunes by Monk, Kelly, and Kenny Barron on this album). Though I currently focus more on my own compositions, I still enjoy dipping back into that classic material from time to time, so it still feels relevant to my work.
But regardless of its history, I think Early Reflections (93-94) stands on its own as an accessible, enjoyable piano trio album that even has a fun playfulness to it along the way. I hope you agree.