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 drop-dead iconic 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 reparteewhich, 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 charge, Gil."
"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 his head.
"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 end, no?"
"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, petit coin?" 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 blue jeans 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 from me.
"Well," he says, "nothing really changes much around here."
"No," I reply. "Still pink."
"That's it," Rob says immediately. "Pink, pink, and more pink." He's now laughing, as though to a private joke. "Pink," he repeats.
He's right. 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'."
The young 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 man says 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 in tune...
Drink your Vodka....
Can't 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 Seitov asked.
"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, orcountry, 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 money. 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.
For example, 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 playit. 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 horror.
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?"
"Naw," Larry said again. "Over there on the right, you say?"
I nodded, 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 all about.
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 of his 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 Spar...raang! issued 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 herself out 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 headphones.
"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...
Can't you see it's you?
Toy Soldiers As recorded by Larry Coryell and Mike Mandel for Arista
Records, 1975. The eventual LP was called The Lion and the Ram.
Editor's Note: 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.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.