Morphing the Sultans
"And a crowd of young boys,
They're foolin' around in a corner—
Drunk and dressed in their best
Brown baggies and platform soles.
They don't give a damn
'Bout any trumpet-playin' band.
It ain't what they call rock ‘n roll.
And the Sultans, yeah the Sultans,
They play creole…., creole…."
The singer's voice trailed off nostalgically. Behind him, the soprano sax embellished his last words with a mournful sigh.
The time was just before midnight on a balmy spring evening at Mapleshade. The C-Nuts were finishing the last take of their last session. The tune was their new version of "Sultans of Swing," the Dire Straits piece they had already recorded at their first session, three months earlier. The quintet was relaxed and comfortable, feeling good about all the good music already in the can. They had long since recovered from the culture shock that overcomes studio musicians first exposed to the three-microphone, dangling wire funkiness of Mapleshade.
As soon as the take ended, the singer, Pat, asked to hear the playback. He listened all the way through with a widening grin, then pulled off the 'phones and said, "It ain't the big band idea we started with, but this one really does it for me."
In the course of our sessions, "Sultans" had become a kind of anthem for the C-Nuts. The story of the metamorphoses of their anthem is, in a microcosm, the story of the whole project.
The story starts with my friend Paul Story, the superb engineer who has done all of Mapleshade's editing and digital mastering for the last four years. Paul, a first rate musician (classical bassoonist and jazz guitarist!) with a discerning ear, is rarely effusive about music he hears.
Paul was saying, "Hey man, you gotta hear these guys. They're like a half dozen of the best studio cats around here. For a couple of years they've been playing together doing these interesting, quirky jazz arrangements of the rock 'n roll hits they grew up with. And they can really play." Coming from Paul, that was the equivalent of beatification. I wanted to know more, so he hooked me up with Wes who turned out to be a convincing spokesman and an even more convincing drummer.
That Song? You Must Be Kidding
A couple of weeks later Pat and Wes were hanging out with me at Mapleshade, talking about songs for their project.
They seemed to think I'd be concerned about too many slow tunes or not enough radio airplay tracks. I'd just heard their six song demo; the power and drama of two of those songs had knocked me out. I interrupted, "Damn, forget about all that marketing crap. If you can transform a dozen really good rock songs the way you did ‘Boys of Summer' and ‘Money', you'll have a killer album."
In a week the C-Nuts came up with a song list. Mapleshade's resident rock scholars were unimpressed. Rick wanted to see much stronger classic rock material. Eldon wanted more numbers that would appeal to the punk perspective. Eldon and Rick both agreed that the "Sultans of Swing" was particularly unpromising.
"Damn, Mark Knofler's guitar riff is what made that song," observed Rick, right on the money. "How're you gonna put that across with a sax and a piano?"
The C-Nuts stuck by their guns; they wanted to do only songs they'd been listening to as kids, particularly songs they could transform with their jazz alchemy.
I shared Rick and Eldon's doubts. But my mentors in jazz—Clifford Jordan, Walter Davis, Shirley Horn—without ever saying a word directly, had drilled into my head a principle far more important than my doubts: you can't make people play great on music they don't feel. So I held my peace.
C-Nuts 1, Critics 0
A couple of months of hard rehearsing later, the C-Nuts came in for their first session. They came in with strong reinforcements, including a two-sax front line and a Hammond B-3 to augment their basic piano trio; they'd even been considering an extra trumpet player. Obviously, they had some ambitious, highly-produced arrangements in mind.
They wanted to open with "Sultans of Swing"—and they wanted to use their full complement of reinforcements. So I started arranging mikes and musicians and music stands. They, of course, had all been well-warned about my minimalist methods. But when I started cramming the two horns in among the piano, B-3 and drums already encircling my funky two-mike plexiglass wedge, I could see doubt and fear creeping into their eyes.
After an hour's tuning and tweaking and repositioning, we rolled tape for the first take of "Sultans." By the end of the first chorus, my reservations vanished. I loved it. Steve's arrangement turned the tune into a Ray Charles big band romp. Pat leaned into the lyrics with some old-style rock belting that brought to mind the '60s and Bob Seger's take-no-prisoners vocals. The two saxes filled out the sound like a full brass section.
But the C-Nuts weren't quite satisfied. Steve rewrote a few of the entrances. The horn players polished up a couple of their riffs. Steve and Wes changed some of the drum accents. And, a rarity among singers, Pat turned out to be as accomplished a musician as the rest. Between takes he was busy touching up the charts and trying out new chord voicings with Jon at the piano.
The band knocked off two more takes and Pat's belting vocals lost not a whit of intensity—a tribute to his passion for the music.
By the way, when I played back the tapes, the fear and doubt in the C-Nuts' eyes turned to pleasant surprise in less than ten seconds.
The next tune of that first session, Peter Gabriel's "Shock The Monkey" took the opposite tack: no big production number, no reinforcements, just the piano trio and lots of space in the arrangement. Pat and the trio created high drama out of a few startling shifts in dynamics, some stabbing Monk-like piano chords from Jon Ozment, a handful of pregnant pauses. The starkness of it was like a glass of cold water in the face.
Good and Getting Gooder
With each succeeding session, the C-Nuts moved towards tighter, simpler approaches to their songs. Only three subsequent tracks used reinforcements, a banjo, a conga and a return engagement for the B-3 Hammond. And at each succeeding session, you could hear the quartet tighten up a little more, their improvised licks and solos growing ever more confident.
In fact, the last three tracks the C-Nuts laid down were and are my favorites. Third to last was "I Don't Like Mondays," the Boomtown Rats' 1979 hit about the quiet, studious little girl who, one Monday morning, shot eight of her classmates to death. A chilling song, it presaged Columbine by more than two decades. Pat, with perfect balance, walked the tightrope between rock singer and jazz crooner. For me, it's his best singing on the album.
The next-to-last tune of the project, "Middle of the Road," proved irresistible just because it swung so hard. Jon's soul-steeped organ groove—and the way Wes and Steve locked into that groove—made it hard to sit still. On the vocals, Patrick didn't just lean into the song, he stomped on it.
The very last tune of the project, the redo of "Sultans", is to my mind the purest jazz on the CD. You can hear how completely the C-Nuts have discarded the notion of a "produced" number. Steve's new arrangement, good as it is, has turned into nothing more than a framework for some from-the-gut accompaniment and a couple of burning solos. The
C-Nuts have even let go of the period flavor, the swing feel of their produced version of "Sultans." Theit creative juices have turned from concept to cooking.
A few weeks later, Steve, Wes, Pat and I were sitting in the listening room at Mapleshade, checking out the trial edits they had put together. Finally we got to their "Sultans of Swing" track. They'd elected to use the last take of the last session, unedited. I said, "I love it, but have you guys considered putting in both versions, the stripped-down one and the earlier big band version? They're so different, I think it'd be hip to include both."
That went over like a lead balloon. There was a long silence. Everyone looked at everyone else. "Nah," Pat finally answered, "the first one's OK, but compared to the last, it feels kinda high-schoolish to us."
Have you ever noticed how recent converts can be more Catholic than the pope?
Upper Marlboro, Maryland
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