Making Records: Scott Petito and the Zen of Jazz Production

Scott Petito

Arguably, or maybe not even, jazz music is America’s greatest intellectual and cultural achievement, its most revered artistic export and one of the very few reasons why Europe and the East take us seriously at all. For all its globally sourced diversity, jazz is, of course, a black innovation, a black property. As such, it also provides an ever-present and grounding reminder of who the real heavies are on this continent.

What makes jazz so heavy can be addressed in numerous ways: harmonic sophistication descended from the high classical tradition but rendered fluid, on tap, evolving in the moment of ensemble improvisation; rhythmic sophistication that could, and did, makes Stravinsky’s head spin. Underlying jazz is an entire philosophy of creation. Aspiring players and composers face a grueling path of education and apprenticeship, the acquisition of advanced musical skills and actionable theoretical understandings. But it’s all in preparation for the moment in which they just give it all away and wave bye bye.

For the sixth installment of the Making Records, I spoke with Scott Petito, the area native who, as a bassist and a producer, is well into the fifth decade of his prolific career. Scott has done it at all: he’s played with everybody, and he’s recorded everybody else. Space is tight, so I encourage you to check his website if you want his almost absurd bona fides. Otherwise, just take my word. 

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In a paradox typical of his story, this Berklee-educated virtuoso bassist, composer/arranger and owner of NRS Recording in Catskill has, for 30 years, played with The Fugs, those revolutionary tricksters and musical primitivists fronted by a pair of Beat poets, Ed Sanders and the late Tuli Kupferberg. For his audition, Petito sent Sanders a tape of himself playing all of Bach’s Cello Suites on fuzztone electric bass.

Petito’s local visibility in recent years has come from the long-running series of tribute shows he has put on at the Bearsville Theater, the Falcon and other choice venues. OCD in their exactitude, Petito’s shows go for the big game — late Beatles studio works, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and others.

Our talk could have gone any number of directions, but we found it dwelling on jazz and its recording. Scott’s thoughts come right from the heart and the mystery of America’s greatest form.

John Burdick: You have recorded more jazz than any other local producer, and NRS is something of a jazz mecca, a known place to capture, to represent the art of this elusive, fundamentally live music. Has it always been a focus of your production/engineering career?

Scott Petito: I’d say yes and no. Early on in my career, I was the singer-songwriter guy, believe it or not. Every folksinger and songwriter you can think of I pretty much made a record with in the ‘80s and ‘90s, plus all the time we spent with the Band, and all of those groups, so I didn’t have as much time to do jazz, though I always did some. Jazz is a first love of mine. I just sort of got off on a tangent in which I made a few records with different singer-songwriters, and suddenly that was just the world I was in. It’s really only been in the last 15 years that I have concentrated on going back to it, partly when I started playing it again, which rekindled old friendships and led to new relationships.

JB: The great producers of jazz — Rudy Van Gelder, Orrin Keepnews,  Manfred Eicher — recorded prodigious amounts of music, and the lore surrounding jazz sessions is that they are strictly time- and money-conscious, get ‘em in and out, befitting the tight margins and small, cognoscenti audience of post-swing era jazz as a commercial art. 

SP: It is somewhat of a misnomer about the finances of jazz. Yeah, the records take a shorter period of time to make, but there’s really not much less money spent for the time involved. In fact, jazz players are some of the highest paid players in the world. We’re talking many thousands of dollars to get a top player to play for a single day. That’s higher than the average session player in the rock world.

But there are some time limitations, from a production standpoint. The players are usually so good, so focused, that within a few takes, one or two, they pretty much have the material down and they recorded what they intended to record. That’s really where the time savings come in. You’re not dealing with as many overdubs. On the other hand, you’ve got to be ready to record the best sounds you possibly can, because it is an audiophile medium. Before people walk in the door, I am ready to record. I don’t even know what they’re bringing in necessarily, and I am ready for them. That’s probably the biggest difference — you never know when you’re going to get that take, and it could be while they’re taking their coats off, literally.

I never feel rushed. We spend a couple of days tracking. We take some time off. I usually end up mixing a lot of it alone, going back and forth with the artist. A lot of that comes from the fact that the heavier jazz cats, the Dave Hollands and the Jack DeJohnettes up here, they didn’t attend mixes when Miles was mixing Bitches Brew or any of these things, so it is not really in their psyche to sit there and watch as the sausage is being made, but of course they’re the best listeners, so I immediately want the feedback.

JB: It seems to me that this agile and in some ways unfussy recording ethic (as opposed to the obsessive and highly constructed nature of much pop production) speaks to the act-fast, don’t-look-back Zen of the form — jazz as something that truly belongs to the moment. Recording the unreproducible…

SP: But that was true of all sessions, even rock sessions in the early years. The Beatles recorded their first album in one day and then a record every six months after that, and that didn’t count touring, sleeping and everything else you need to do in your life. A typical union session was three to four hours, and even throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s in pop music, most of my friends who are on the real hardcore studio scene were running from studio to studio for three-hour sessions — Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd, David Spinoza, Hugh McCracken — they played three hours on a session, maybe it was Dionne Warwick, and then they were off to do the next one. 

The concept of these long drawn-out records was kind of an ‘80s and ‘90s thing, when budgets got very big and you’d hear the story of Roxy Music working on records for a year or two or three. Jeff Baxter has a great quote, when Steely Dan or whomever was in the studio; he said, “We used to spend the first two weeks just looking for a comfortable chair at $350 an hour.” The money was so huge in terms of budgets and the return. Even esoteric bands could spend lots of time in the studio.

We were doing David Torn’s record years ago. Bill Bruford was on it and Mick Karn from the group Japan. They talked about their recording budgets for Anderson Wakeman Bruford Howe and a Japan record. It was about a million dollars combined, and this was esoteric prog rock. That was the kind of money that was floating around at the time. That doesn’t happen on an almost level anymore. Maybe Billie Eilish could get that, but she’d still record in her bedroom

JB: Pop and rock players, in my opinion, are expected to be chameleonic and referential, to have a lot of sounds and stylistic gestures under their fingers and on their pedal boards. In Jazz, it is more about the one true voice — a sound and a language discovered and developed over a lifetime, at enormous expense of effort. You’ve had my favorite improvising guitarist (and songwriter!) John Scofield at NRS numerous times. He has one sound, with variants, and a huge expressive range. I would find it kind of intimidating to be the one responsible for making sure that profound voice is making it to tape. How do you approach that?

SP: You do no harm, hopefully. I don’t need to try any new tricks, though sometimes I do anyway. I know what works. He has changed. All these players change, but they change in a kind of evolutionary manner and sometimes you don’t recognize it until you go back and listen to a much earlier record.  Scofield in particular is not overly concerned about sound to begin with. He’s much more concerned about the cohesion of the players in the room. So for me, the prep is more about making sure he’s comfortable. Can he see everybody? Can everybody see everybody. I spend a lot more time with headphone mixes and things like that. 

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Scofield will be first to admit there are a lot of guitarists with more chops than him, but it doesn’t matter. In the end, that doesn’t matter to the any of the greats. He’ll say, “it’s all about the melodies”

JB: I see him as the Neil Young of jazz guitar. Everything hurts. He is always pushing up against the limits of his chops in a way that, say, the great Pat Metheny or your friend Kurt Rosenwinkel never are. It leads to this feeling of deep physicality, even struggle, in his playing. Living on the edge of what he can almost play…

SP: A lot of the guys I’ve worked with, the top people, one of the reasons they are so notable is their attitude — they have a “let go” attitude. Like “ok, that is what I just played,” like I talk to you. I just said something. I can take it all back but it is still out there, you know what I mean?  They feel that way because their real genre is live. They love records but the real job is communicating to an audience, and you can’t take that back. Whatever they’re saying, they stand behind it, good or bad, and I think that’s a real lesson for a lot of young players. You’ve got to live with what you created. If you want to figure out a different way to create, there’s a woodshed to go do that in.

JB: You think that could go either way when recording for posterity — could make you more Zen about it, or more obsessive and anal!

SP: The big distinction between the very best players and the ones still striving to get to that place is exactly that — the best players are rarely not Zen about their performance. It’s almost always, “that’s what happened. Move on.” That doesn’t mean they’re not critical and won’t say I think we can do a better take. But it’s more the group aesthetic at that point, not so much about the individual. They will do a take again sometimes because there’s a compositional thing they want to make happen, but once you’re in the zone of improvising off of all the people in the group, most people will tell you they don’t even remember being in the room! They’re not thinking This is pure creation.

JB: Most producers have serious playing days in their past and are, at this stage in their careers, able multi-instrumentalists of a specialized kind, part designers and sound makers whose chief skill is always keeping that final arrangement and mix in mind. But, as a bassist, you, sir, are what I believe they call “a bad m*th#erf*ck#r.” How have you approached this dual path in your career and maintaining your pretty bleeding edge playing skills while producing mountains of other people’s music?

SP: Right now because I am making a solo record, I try to do four hours a day of playing, starting at six in the morning. It also keeps me writing new stuff.  I’d love to say eight hours but I don’t really need that much anymore. Three to four hours of concentrated playing a day works when I need to really be together as a player. Practice and play, two very important words to think about.

JB: Your last original record, the excellent Rainbow Gravity, I would call a jazz fusion record, heavy harmony, fusion grooves, and a real compositional component as well as improvisational. Is the new one in the same vein?

SP: This one is a little more groove oriented. I am a little less finicky with the harmony this time. I’ve got some really great people playing on it. Randy Brecker just laid down an amazingly great trumpet solo. And Gadd is on it. A lot of drummers. Omar Hakim. In fact I am doing a session with Omar, his wife the pianist Rachel Z, and Larry Grenadier. Larry and I are going to play two basses on it. So this will be an interesting one. That one we’re going to track live, next week.

I do approach those records with a pop sensibility. Sound is really important to me, arrangement is really important.

JB: The fusion I grew up always seemed more compositional, a higher ratio of song to solo than much mainstream jazz, and then of course I discovered the very first records by Weather Report, Chick, Herbie — and they are groovy but almost entirely free form, small footprint compositions if any at all!

SP: They were coming out of the Miles school. But when Chick, Zawinul and Herbie left Miles — arguably the three most successful of the Miles alumni in terms of players and composers — they recognized right away: people need songs. Chick wrote “Spain,” he wrote Windows;” Herbie wrote “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man;” and everything on the mid to late Weather Report albums is very compositional. Almost all of Wayne Shorter’s music is written. When he walks in with a tune, very often it could be a 20-page chart. One of the big issues about playing with Wayne is that you have to be a really great reader as well as an improviser. He’s, to me, probably the greatest living jazz composer.

They never left open improvisation, but they came from a compositional point of view and that’s what led to their success. Once you give people a song to hang their hat on, then you can go almost anywhere. 

It’s amazing how far you can take people. Jacob Collier is a perfect example of that, using just intonation, negative harmony, massive modulations to strange and foreign keys, and this is in pop music! He’s not everybody’s cup of tea but he’s one of the great musical thinkers in the world, and he’s showing that, presented in a certain way, the audience is there to accept music that leaves the vi IV V ii I progression that’s been used thousands of times.  Most of the best music has some experimental element to it. We often forget that the audience can go places.

For more about Scott Petito and NRS recording, visit http://www.scottpetitoproductions.com. 

Check out more articles from the Making Records series.