Sunday, May 4, 2008

In a Silent Way

This is the last in a quartet of obituaries - a psychedelic record collector, an accordion player, the father of LSD, and the greatest record producer who ever walked the Earth.

Let me tell you about Teo Macero.

I have a friend who, like me, collects records from the 1960s. But she doesn't glamorize the decade and is always quick to point out that, for most of the things that the 1960s are touted for, it was really the 1950s when things started getting serious.

Attilio Joseph Macero was born and raised in Glens Falls, New York. After serving in the United States Navy, he moved to New York City in 1948 to attend the Juilliard School of Music. He studied composition, and graduated from Juilliard in 1953 with Bachelor's and Master's degrees.

In 1953, Macero co-founded Charles Mingus' Jazz Composers Workshop, and became a major contributor to the New York City avant-garde jazz scene. As a composer, Macero wrote in an atonal style, as well as in Third Stream, a synthesis of jazz and classical music. He performed live, and recorded several albums with Mingus and the other Workshop members over the next three years, including Jazzical Moods (in 1954) and Jazz Composers Workshop (in 1955).

During this time, Macero also recorded Explorations. While he had contributed compositions to other albums, this was the first full album of his own compositions, and Macero's first album as a leader. The 1958 short experimental film Bridges-Go-Round by filmmaker Shirley Clarke featured two alternative soundtracks, one by Louis and Bebe Barron and one by Macero.

Macero found greater fame as a producer for Columbia Records. He joined Columbia in 1957, and produced hundreds of records while at the label. Macero worked with dozens of artists at Columbia including Mingus, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Johnny Mathis, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Tony Bennett, Charlie Byrd, and Stan Getz. He was also responsible for signing Mingus, Monk, and Byrd to Columbia.

Macero produced the seminal Dave Brubeck Quartet album Time Out, and Thelonious Monk's first Columbia recording, Monk's Dream, as well as Underground. He also produced Mingus' first Columbia album, Mingus Ah Um. Beyond jazz, he produced a number of Broadway original cast recordings including A Chorus Line and Bye Bye Birdie. And he produced the soundtrack to The Graduate, by Simon and Garfunkel.

But all these accomplishments pale to the work Macero would do with Miles Davis.

Davis’s routine in the late 1960s was to record a lot of music in the studio with a band, much of it improvised and based on themes and even mere chords that he would introduce on the spot. Later Mr. Macero, with Davis’s help, would splice together vamps and bits and pieces of improvisation.

For example, Mr. Macero isolated a little melodic improvisation Davis played on the trumpet for “Shhh/Peaceful” on In a Silent Way and used it as the theme, placing it at the beginning and the end of the piece. Even live recordings he sometimes treated as drafts; the first track of Davis’s Live at Fillmore East, from 1970, contains a snippet pasted in from a different song.

Helping to build Miles Davis albums like Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way and Get Up With It, Macero used techniques partly inspired by composers like Edgard Varèse, who had been using tape-editing and electronic effects to help shape the music. Such techniques were then new to jazz and have largely remained separate from it since. But the electric-jazz albums he helped Davis create — especially Bitches Brew, which remains one of the best-selling albums by a jazz artist — have deeper echoes in almost 40 years of experimental pop, like work by Can, Brian Eno and Radiohead.

Macero strongly believed that the finished versions of Davis’s LPs, with all their intricate splices and sequencing — done on tape with a razor blade, in the days before digital editing — were the work of art, the entire point of the exercise. He opposed the current practice of releasing boxed sets that include all the material recorded in the studio, including alternate and unreleased takes. He was not involved in Columbia’s extensive reissuing of Davis’s work for the label, in lavish boxed sets from the mid-’90s until last year.

Teo Macero died in February in New York at the age of 82.

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