By Matt Micucci, JAZZIZ
Trumpeter/composer/multi-instrumentalist Darren Barrett released his new album, Mr. Steiner, on November 8 via his label, dB Studios. This nine-track collection finds Barrett exploring the innovations of studio musician/electronic musical instrument inventor Nyle Steiner who, among other things, invented brass-style electronic synthesizers in the ’60s and ’70s known as Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI) and Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI).
Mr. Steiner celebrates the marriage of electronic instrumentation and jazz sensibilities and marks Barrett’s reunion with saxophone legend Kenny Barrett, with whom the trumpeter recorded his first studio album, First One Up (2011). It also featured guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel on one track and special guest saxophonist Noah Preminger.
We asked Barrett to take us through each track of Mr. Steiner to understand the inspiration behind each song and some of the work that went into the making of this new album.
The EVI is capable of playing two or more notes at the same time so it can play intervals and chords. I wanted three compositions on Mr. Steiner to display this chordal playing (and I wanted them to be relatively short in length). “Mr. Steiner” was the first of these three compositions. On this strong and exciting track, all chords are played by the instrument and Roni Kaspi on drums keeps things moving forward. When I’m producing tracks, I sometimes like to use 1 shot samples that you find in rap and R&B music so here, you can hear some that echo explosions or metallic hits. While I wanted to focus primarily on the EVI on this project, I did want to play some trumpet since many people know me as a trumpet player and the EVI may be new for some listeners. I was able to sneak in a short trumpet solo towards the end of the song at the high point of the composition.
“Keep It Moving”
When I am composing, I always write with the mindset that the melody is the most important aspect and everything needs to support that. I am also always trying to find a way to incorporate acoustic instruments with electronics and blend genres.. This entire project was tracked to a click track to give me the freedom to remix things in the production stages. Since we were playing to a click track I had the freedom to pull out the acoustic drum tracks and put in a drum machine track or a loop track. What I decided to do here was to keep the acoustic track in and put a drum machine track on top of it. I did this on the B section of the song which is only eight bars.
Drummer Mathéo Techer is a skilled session drummer and is able to play great with a click so it was easy to merge the drum machine with his playing to sound cohesive. I really love the melody on the B section and decided to use trumpet for a more contrasting sound to the EVI. I’m still exploring ways on how to make the trumpet and the EVI coexist in a track. It’s an extremely fun journey.
“Only You Know”
The EVI is a very expressive instrument. Creator Nyle Steiner designed it so the player would be able to achieve all dynamic levels and brightness levels by applying breath to the breath sensor. With the composition “Only You Know”, I was trying to vary the different levels of expression with volume and brightness filtering with the EVI. In the mixing stages of things, my mix engineer Kenny Lewis (Mix Emotions Music) and I started to experiment with automating effects. A good example of this is found in the piano solo played by the fantastic Santiago Bosch where we experimented with several different effects on the piano solo but decided to use a ring modulator to add grittiness and distortion to the sound. I am very interested in film scoring and I wrote this composition with a film scoring a scene in mind.
“Nu Vibrations” features the EVI playing chords but comping like a piano. I wanted the bass and drums to provide a groove that we could vibe on. Skilled guitarist François Chanvallon and I were able to have fun interplay between each other in real-time. My music has a lot of Reggae undertones because my parents are Jamaican and I grew up listening to Reggae music. If you listen closely you can hear the Reggae influences. I’ve been playing a lot of piccolo classical trumpet lately and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to incorporate that sound into my music. At the beginning of the song, you hear the piccolo trumpet with heavy delay on it. I felt that the raw sound was too direct so I decided to put a delay on it to soften the sound. Bassist Gonn Shani provides the low-end pulse to set the groove in motion. I wanted him to really be active and to provide bends and slides to bring the flavor.
“dB Plus KG”
After playing through“dB Plus KG” with my band, I knew that it would be a perfect song for Kenny Garrett to play on. I always love to hear Kenny playing songs with a backbeat and hearing him implement his incredible vocabulary over grooves. We have a history; I was honored to have Mr. Garrett on my debut recording First One Up. He said something that touched my heart: “Woody Shaw played on my first recording Introducing Kenny Garrett on the Criss Cross label. By me playing on your first recording, I feel like I paid Woody Shaw back for the favor he did for me”. This was really awesome to me and it was very kind of Kenny to perform on that recording.
Fast forward to Mr. Steiner, I let him hear the tune and he liked it and agreed to play on it. When we were in the studio, all he needed was one take to make unbelievable magic. KG is a legend! “dB Plus KG” has an old school R&B feel to it and I knew I needed organ and guitar. Chad Selph is a young keyboardist living in New York City. He was my student at Berklee College of Music for years and is extremely skilled. He has an open invitation to play on any of my recording projects, so he recorded the perfect organ track for the song. Berklee College of Music Professor Jeffrey Lockhart is my first call for guitar session work. He is really incredible because every track he records is golden. On the recording, I panned two different guitar tracks, one hard left and the other hard right all awesomely played by Mr. Lockhart. There is one percussionist I can always trust to play my music right and that is Judy Barrett. She knows exactly what to add to a song to make it special. No recording project leaves dB Studios without her approval because we trust her ears.
With the composition “Botnick”, I wanted to implement an audio effect on the whole mix in the intro before the melody comes in. I found the perfect plugin which turned out to be a heavy chorusing effect and automated it in real-time playing around with the amount of chorusing as the introduction played on to the melody. Noah Preminger played on this one and my only request was to occasionally to play against the harmonic progression or to play around the target chords. He did that and more- he’s an awesome talent.
“Deal for Real”
“Mr. Steiner” is the third project that guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel has performed on for dB Studios and he is featured on “Deal for Real”. dB Studios is so honored to have this extraordinary musician working with us. What’s exciting about hearing Kurt play on my music is that he always comes up with a sound conception to match the track or to match the mood of the track. He has a great understanding of production and it’s always exciting to hear what he’ll bring to the table.
Bassist Daniel Ashkenzy was the rock of this entire project. He provided every track he played on with sonic depth and harmonic beauty. This track also features pianist Bosch, who has been recording with me for years now and is my right-hand man at dB Studios. I love the way he plays against the harmony and his use of melody. He is also a synthesis guru with a great knowledge of that world.
“You See Me”
“You See Me” gave me the perfect opportunity to mix the drum machine with live drums (as I did on “Keep It Moving”). This time around I went with the classic Roland TR 808 sound conception for the drum machine. There’s a great emphasis on the guitar work played by Jeffrey Lockhart. Mr. Lockhart’s rhythm guitar was the perfect compliment to the EVI melody. Guitarist Roy Ben Bashat doubled the EVI melody beautifully. Roy is an incredible young talent that plays with so much patience and maturity. Roy and I have a special connection when playing melodies together and I think it shows here.
“EVI Theme #1”
“EVI Theme #1” is the last of three compositions to display chord mode using the EVI. I wrote the melody on this one and then I put it all together with Bassist Gonn Shani and Drummer Roni Kaspi. We did this one old school!