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Tim May's L.A. Scene


Tim May's Bio

A few days ago Mel Bay guitar editor Corey Christiansen and I were talking about the differences between various "takes" that are recorded at a typical (or not so typical) recording session. Corey has a beautiful new CD of standards called Awakening (Mel Bay Records), and I have a new release of originals, Trio (Mayzing Records). With both albums being in a jazz style and including lots of improvisation, each take of a given tune was quite a bit different from the last. In a creative context like that, or in any musical situation where there is a lot of creativity and improvisation going on, the players' mindset makes a big difference in the performance.

As with any improvised music, where the goal is to be spontaneous and free, the players have to be set up with a good headphone mix so everyone can hear one another, and all technical problems have to be worked out so the players can begin playing and recording right away.

Corey and I both found that the first few takes are often the best. That's because when playing a piece of music for the first time, there is a certain "excitement" there. This may come from a couple of places. One thing that is happening is that everyone is hearing this brand-new song for the first time and, especially if it's a good piece, that is very inspiring. I can remember getting that chill when we heard someone like Barbara Streisand or the late Ray Charles in the headphones singing a new piece for the first time! I got even more chills when I heard the outstanding and flawless performances by my fellow musicians on many sessions, sometimes repeated over and over again!

But there is something special about that first take, or even the first rundown. I found that when I'm playing a piece in which I'm coming up with the guitar part (which is more often than not the way many rhythm section players work), the first rundown is very important. On hearing the melody and basic groove established by the rest of the band, the first parts I instinctively come up with are often the best. I may refine the parts, but I always try to remember my first impressions.

I've played many sessions where after a few takes I would try to play with a different approach, just for the sake of playing something different; while this can be successful, it can also compromise the overall performance. So I try to defer to my first instincts. I have to add here, however, that as a session player, if the writer/producer or whoever is running the show wants me to try a different approach, that's my gig and flexibility is part of why I was hired in the first place.

When we begin to record, the first or second take is often the best for reasons other than technical perfection. There is a certain spirit and freshness to the first few takes. After a few times playing the same song, it's sometimes necessary to dig deep to make the extra effort to present the same enthusiasm evident on the first take. In addition, perhaps because session players think that there will be at least a few more takes, they can take a little more adventurous approach to their playing. Personally, I prefer to hear a band "go for it" and make a few mistakes rather than play it safe in the interest of technical brilliance.

Some projects are done in a way that involves DOZENS of takes. These are mostly high-budget pop albums. It's not that players are making mistakes, but rather more about waiting for that one "outstanding" take where everything just felt exceptionally GREAT! That's where the discipline of playing perfectly over and over comes in. You don't want to be the only guy that flubbed up an otherwise great take after playing all day!

With the precision of digital recording, it's pretty easy to make edits and fix any mistakes, or overdub entire solos for that matter. I've found that to be a great convenience for most music, but for performing an improvised jazz solo, it's hard to beat the sound of all the players interacting with each other in "real time"! There is a cohesiveness, often times very subtle, that is hard to replicate in an overdub situation.

In another context, the "best take" in the professional music world may not be your favorite, but that's the one they're going with. Here's the scenario: It's a late night following a long day, and the band has to record a few more numbers. The trumpet guys are fried, and we record a take on a piece with some high, difficult trumpet passages. They nail it, but you feel the guitar part could have been better. Unless it is a glaring clam, let it go!

In a situation like this, you definitely don't want to stop and ruin the take by making a noise or a verbal announcement. I've also seen players talk or play immediately after the music stops, essentially ruining a possibly salvageable take. Don't do that- unless you want the trumpet players to turn over your car after the session. If it is something obvious, talk to the engineer or producer. Maybe you can punch in a section, or redo your part if the situation permits. Times like these are always a judgment call, but you have to take into account the overall situation and be aware of the other players' predicaments. Sometimes the take they keep for the project isn't the best take for you, but that's the way it goes. It may well be the best overall take.

I hope this article inspires you do your best to make sure every take has the same fire as the first!

Happy Thanksgiving!
'til next month,
Tim May

OK....let's take two.......

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