Jerome Sabbagh - The Turn | Album Review & Interview
BEE JAZZ RECORDS - SSC 1385/2014
Release Date: 28th August 2014
D.M. - Jerome, thank you for taking the time out to talk about your new album, 'THE TURN'. First off, what is the family lineage. I ask because your accent is not pure 'New York-ese, but N.Y.C. is your current homebase, correct?
J.S. - I was born in Paris, France to a Lebanese father and a French Canadian mother. I moved to the US in 1993 and I have been based in New York since 1995.
D.M. - How early did the 'music bug' bite, and what first took your ear?
J.S. - There was a lot of classical music around the house but I wasn't really interested in music until I was 13 or so. I had a great music teacher, ANNICH CHARTREUX, a composer and pianist, who exposed us to a lot of great music of all kinds. She also ran a school band, which is unusual in France. I saw someone play saxophone in it and that made me want to try it. My best friend and I started playing at the same time, when we were 15.
D.M. - Was it always going to be the sax for you?
J.S. - Yes, most definitely.
D.M. - What other instruments are you adept with?
J.S. - I am not really proficient with anything else but I play a little piano (I mainly use it to write music) and a little drums.
D.M. - For the purists amongst our StereoNet readers,( and there are many!) what is your preferred brand of sax?
J.S. - For me it's hard to beat the sound of the old Conns. I play on a Conn Chu Berry (“New Wonder II”). I have two, both gold-plated, one from 1924 and the other one from 1927. They are both great and pretty different from one another. I think playing a Conn helped me develop a distinctive sound, as most people play on Selmers.
D.M. - Listening to your arrangements, am I correct to say you are formally trained?
J.S. - To a point. I started studying saxophone with a classical teacher but I stopped after two years. I am not classically trained, although I love listening to classical music. I studied privately with different jazz musicians in France, before going to Berklee College of Music for two years, where I studied with Joe Viola, Bill Pierce, George Garzone, Hal Crook and Herb Pomeroy. I never studied composition though. I approach writing music from a mostly untrained point of view. I basically sing something and try to work with it until it feels like it's complete.
D.M. - What were the circumstances of your first performances?
J.S. - They were school performances in the aforementioned school band, at Lycée Claude Monet in Paris.
D.M. - Can you name your three big formative influences?
J.S. - In jazz in general: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett. On the saxophone: Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz.
D.M. - Jerome, can you choose three musicians from any era you would love to sit in with?
J.S. - Lester Young, Elvin Jones, John Scofield
D.M. - Jerome, would it be safe to say you are an audiophile, and what sort of gear do you listen to at home?
J.S. - Guilty as charged! I became an audiophile somewhat out of necessity. I was trying to understand how to make better sounding albums in the studio and started asking a lot of questions whenever I recorded. This in turn led me to realize that I needed a decent playback system that would be pretty faithful and high quality to be able to assess things. I did some research and ended up buying a pair of Rogers JR 149 speakers. They are monitor type speakers from the late seventies, early eighties, derived from the LS3/5a. They are really great. To me, they sound natural and open, and have incredible imaging. Those speakers started the whole thing for me, I didn't know recorded music could sound this realistic. The Rogers are still my main speakers.
At first, I had a solid state system: modified Quad 34 preamp and Quad 303 amp. I liked it but I ended up switching to a modified Fisher X-100-3 tube amp (12ax7 and EL84 tubes), which is what I use today. I also have a Thorens TD 150 turntable with a Magnepan Unitrac arm and a Shure V15-III cartridge with a JICO stylus. The CD player is a Magnavox CDC 745, modified by Don Allen to use a tube output stage (ECC85). I also use a Wavelength Brick V3 tube DAC.
D.M. - Jerome, a hard one, but always of interest to music lovers, what is your one desert island disc?
J.S. - It's so hard to pick one but today I'll pick Glenn Gould's 1981 version of the Goldberg Variations by Bach. I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow!
D.M. - How far into your playing timeline was it before you started to compose?
J.S. - I started composing as I learned to play. I always had a band that I played regularly with, even when I was just starting up and it was important to me to try to write my own material. I wasn't very prolific though. At Berklee, I didn't write much. I only started to make a serious effort to start writing music with some regularity when I put together my band in NY in the early 2000's, after the end of the collective Flipside, which lasted 5 years. Both Greg Tuohey and Matt Penman, who respectively played guitar and bass in Flipside, were prolific writers and wrote great tunes, so I didn't feel the need to write much. After that band ended though, I wanted to find my voice and lead a band. Writing music was key.
D.M. - You have played with three special musicians for the past decade. Tell us a little about them.
J.S. - Sure! First, I want to stress that, as a jazz musician, having a working band has always been important to me. Jazz is a collective effort. It's social music. As musicians, we draw from one another, we have a conversation with each other. Ideally, in a great band, each musician is himself, but the collective sound is unique and adds up to more than the sum of everyone's individual contribution. My favorite music in jazz has come from real bands.
BEN MONDER is one of the great guitarists of our time. He is a great accompanist, sensitive yet probing. He has a wide palette of sound and is someone who I feel is really expanding the vocabulary and scope of guitar. JOE MARTIN ( Bass) is a great soloist but, more importantly, he always makes a point of making the band sound good, of doing whatever is needed for the music to feel right. Everything TED POOR (Percussion) plays has a point of view. He is always 100% committed and is particularly adept at shaping the music and giving it an arc.
All these guys are bandleaders in their own right and I feel fortunate to have been able to lead this band for ten years now. I write music with them in mind, knowing that they will sound great on it and make it better. They never cease to inspire me.
D.M.. - Your new album, ” THE TURN ” is not the first recording is it?
J.S. - No, that is correct. This band has recorded twice before, on “North” (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2004) and “Pogo (Bee Jazz/Sunnyside, 2007).
D.M. - You chose to go ' live to two track', a format with inherent risks as well as abundant joy when it all works. What was the deciding factor for you, or was it a group decision?
J.S. - Dave, It was my decision. It so happens that the very first record I made, with Flipside, was recorded live to two tracks by David Baker. At the time (1997), I knew nothing about recording - and how to record wasn't my call back then - but I enjoyed the process. There seemed to be an immediateness and energy to the sound quality that I didn't experience as much later on, when recording multitrack. I think a very good engineer making mixing decisions right there in the studio, as the music happens, tends to capture the essence of the music better than when mixing later.
With two track recording, I also like the fact that no individual edits are possible. With multitrack, it's usually possible to fix almost anything with ProTools. I find the two track process refreshing and more honest. Musicians tend to focus better if they know that no edits are possible. I think a lot of jazz records are overproduced and over-edited these days. Jazz is improvised music. The goal is not perfection, it's emotion.
Lastly, going direct to two tracks allows me to use tape, which sounds a lot more lifelike to me than digital and is not completely unaffordable.
D.M. - James Farber was at the console for these tracks. Can you tell us a little about his work, and how you came to record with him?
J.S. - Before recording “North”, I researched different engineers. I listened to a lot of records and tried to figure out what I liked and disliked. It turned out that many of my favorite sounding modern records were recorded by James Farber. Records like “Meant to Be” (John Scofield), “Dharma Days” (Mark Turner), which both used the same instrumentation I was about to record with (saxophone, guitar, bass and drums). So naturally I called James. I think he was sensitive to the fact that I was calling him for specific reasons and even though I didn't know much at the time, he took the time to explain the whole process and flesh out the choices I would have to make. He loves recording live to two tracks and suggested using tape. He also suggested studios.
James is very easy to work with. He is always prepared, extremely professional and brings a great vibe to the studio. He makes everything easy in what can be a stressful situation as a band leader. He gets good sounds fast. Usually, the very first playback you hear with him at the helm already sounds great, better than what most people end up with. James plays piano and really understands the music. He's worked with the best musicians in jazz over the last 30 years or so, for good reason. I loved recording “North” with him and, since then, I've used him every time I could. We both love the two track process and we've now done four records that way: my three quartet records, as well as my trio record “One Two Three”, with Ben Street and Rodney Green. His sense of balance and his ability to come up with a great mix live are really extraordinary. I am not sure that I would attempt recording live to two tracks with anyone else at this point. As far as my quartet goes, he really is part of the recorded sound of the band.
D.M. - For the more technical readers, describe the actual sessions. What was the miking, how was the room set up, etc?
J.S. - James uses many microphones, even though he mixes everything live for my records - and he is a master at microphone placement.
For the saxophone, over the years, we've tried several microphones but at Sear Sound, where the mic selection is incredible, we've always settled on their Neumann M49, which we set up from the beginning this time, knowing we both liked it. It was going through an old tube Pultec preamp and a EMT plate reverb. There was a Coles 4038 ribbon microphone on the guitar amp, and an RCA 77 and a AKG C12 blended in on the acoustic bass. James uses many mics on the drums and, to my ears, he is one of the few engineers who still manages to get the drums sounding like one instrument doing that. I love the way he records drums. In the case of my records, it helps that the drums are panned to the right, like on many older jazz records, as opposed to spread out in stereo. James also used a room microphone in omni.
We recorded at Sear Sound, on their Neve 8038 concole. We were all in the same room and didn't use headphones. We were perhaps about 6 feet apart from one another, in a circle, so we could see each other. There was some baffling around the bass and drums. There was also a bass amp in the room, strategically located so we could all hear the bass, but also so that it wouldn't be picked up by the microphones. This is pretty much the way all my records were done with James. It's pretty old school overall, except for the number of microphones on the drums.
D.M. - What sort of tape machine was employed, and which speakers did you do the mixing with?
J.S. - We actually ran two tape machines at the same time, a Studer C-37 tube tape machine and an ATR-102 solid state tape machine. In the end, we picked the ATR and recorded at 30 ips to 1/2 inch tape. Tape brand was RMG. The speakers were the speakers at Sear Sound, a pair of Genelec 1031A. James has recorded in that room with that gear a lot and he is intimately familiar with how everything sounds.
D.M. - When it came to mastering, did you choose DOUG SAX and JETT GALINDO, or did they come with your choice of mastering house, “The Mastering Lab”?
J.S. - Doug founded The Mastering Lab in 1967. I chose to work with Doug and he picked Jett, as he likes to work with someone else these days. They were both great to work with. Same as for James Farber, I chose Doug because I love the sound of many records he's been involved with: the Sheffield Labs records (the Wagner, Prokofiev and Stravinsky/Debussy LPs), his vinyl remaster of Sonny Rollins' “Way Out West” for Analogue Productions and his remaster for CD of “Ray Charles and Betty Carter” (two of my favorite records). I always wanted to work with Doug and I am glad I was finally able to, especially now that we are going to cut vinyl.
D.M. - Jerome, let's take some time to reflect on the new album. On first play, it struck me as being a great 'collection ' of tunes.
J.S. - Thanks! I'll take that as a big compliment. I am not a fan of the concept album in jazz.
D.M. - I interviewed Denver based keyboard man, Jon Wirtz earlier this year, and his album 'Tourist' was very much a narrative - steered collection. But listening to 'THE TURN', for me, it is definitely 'a collection'. Having listened to the first two tracks of 'THE TURN' I thought I knew exactly where this was coming from. But after listening to the rest of the set, that thought had turned to a question of, where is this coming from?
Perhaps because of this, I found by selecting certain tracks, I could sequence two distinctly different mini albums. This was interesting to me because by sequencing tracks 2,5,7 and 8, I had a short album which reflects possibly, your glance back at your jazz roots: an acknowledgment it seems, of a solid understanding and love of your predecessors.However, by sequencing tracks 1,3,4,and 6, I found a very experimental and forward looking perspective. One where you demonstrate a confluence of influences and your willingness to 'mix it up a little'.
Is this a fair reading to you?
J.S. - Yes, I think it's fair, although I hope the record adds up to something cohesive. Sequence is really important to me and I spent a lot if time coming up with this particular one, trying to make sure transitions were natural from one song into another, and trying to keep the listener's attention up to the very end of the record. Balance, a sense of flow and a sense of surprise are important in the sequencing to me.
I feel very much connected to the tradition of jazz and to the lineage of the tenor saxophone. I also tend to write music that generally doesn't sound like jazz standards and, as you point out, I've drawn inspiration from different wells. I've tried to reconcile these two impulses in my music, particularly with this quartet. I think that particular duality, which, as long as the playing brings things together, doesn't have to be a contradiction, is constitutive of who I am as a musician.
D.M. - Track three, 'THE BANSHEE' is a case in point. Starting with an off kilter percussion line (the time signature of which I am still trying to figure out), with a steering bass line in another time signature, it engages immediately. Ben Monder does some clean chordal work on his guitar. Very tasty, very neat. So far, so fantastic. But at the three minute mark, Ben kicks into overdrive, stomps his peddle, and starts shredding volleys of riffs in one of the most compressed, filthy tones this side of TONY IOMMI on a good day. At this point, I was thinking, O.K., ghost of MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA Very nice.
Then you chip in again, playing against Ben, and I find myself thinking, I could slide this onto a mix tape of mid-period ' HAWKWIND' and nobody would pick it. Has anyone else made these associations? Your thoughts please?
J.S. - I am not sure these particular associations have been made before, but it doesn't necessarily mean they are not valid, although, to be honest, I've never really listened to either Black Sabbath, Mahavishnu or Hawkwind. Ben's approach of the guitar is unique but, particularly when he uses distortion, it's influenced by rock music. “Banshee” (which is in 4/4) ( I could not work it out, it sounds so complex-D.M.) was definitely conceived as a rock tune, bordering on metal, although I think it's a lot more adventurous.
D.M. - Let's jump to Track 6, 'CULT'. It starts with suitably atmospheric percussion to set the mood. The sax lines waft in, and almost imperceptibly, Bens' guitar chords start echoing your lines. As the track develops, it evolves into some rather disturbing sonic territory. I was thinking, Miles Davis, circa 'DARK MAGUS'.
By the way, those final guitar chords echoing in the fade out should be the start of a whole new track. Thoughts?
J.S. - I could see that. It has a vamp and some fairly adventurous playing, although I don't think of it as nearly as raw and experimental as early seventies Miles.
If I had to pinpoint a specific influence for “Cult”, I remember thinking of a specific track on French guitarist Marc Ducret's 1990 album “Gris” when I wrote it. Even though I wrote “Cult” years later - and I hadn't heard Ducret's album in years - I think I was trying to capture a similar vibe, filtered through my own experience and the act of remembering a track years later, accurately or not. Even then, I hope it sounds like its own thing. As much as I love a lot of music, in jazz and other genres alike, I am not trying to sound like anyone else, quite the opposite. I am trying to develop my own voice in a way that takes into account my love for the jazz continuum and other things.
D.M. - Jerome, the concluding track, (which I think could ably cap either of my imagined mini-album track lists) is 'ELECTRIC SUN'. Without wishing to gush, I think this is a perfect composition: perfectly conceived and performed. This is the one with the makings of a future standard. Does it have that special feel for you?
J.S. - Thanks a lot! I don't know that I was thinking of a standard as much as my idea of a pop song but I like the way it turned out. It's a very singable melody and it feels complete, at least to me.
D.M. - Do you have a sense at this point which direction you may follow more strongly- the glance back, or the edgy steps forward?
J.S. - No. It's all one to me.
D.M. - Last question. Philosophy time. You would know the phrase 'The Music of The Spheres' - what does it mean to you?
J.S. - To me, 'The Music of The Spheres' is what happens when you play and you feel completely free and completely in control at the same time, when everything feels right. In effect, it feels like you are not really playing but something else is playing through you. It happens once a while and the hunger to experience more of that feeling is the reason I play music.
D.M. - That is such a cool response! Jerome, thank you for your time. I know a number of StereoNET readers have their copies of 'THE TURN' already, and all have good things to say about it. Keep us in the loop.
J.S. - Thank you Dave, I will.
A walking encyclopedia of music, David’s broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.