A Conversation With Tommy LiPuma
For renowned producer Tommy LiPuma’s 80th birthday, he was honored in his hometown of Cleveland with an evening of music at the 37th Annual Tri-C JazzFest, just down the street from where, years ago, he worked as a barber. Nearby, on the Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) campus, stands the Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts, named in honor of a benefactor who, over the course of a long and storied career, has amassed 36 gold and platinum records and an equal number of Grammy nominations.
The birthday bash featured artists whose music was pro- duced by LiPuma during the last half-century. Diana Krall, Al Jarreau, Dr. John and Leon Russell performed at the party, while others — including Paul McCartney, Barbra Steisand, Willie Nel- son and Randy Newman — honored their friend and colleague on prerecorded videos.
From his earliest days as a music promoter in the ’60s to owning and operating his own Blue Thumb label, then pro- ducing his first hit album (George Benson’s Breezin’) during his tenure at Warner Bros in the ’70s, to overseeing a string of legendary recordings at Montreux and elsewhere, LiPuma has played a key role in the careers of many jazz icons, including Jarreau and Krall.
I worked with Tommy during my days at Verve in the ’90s, but I’ve been a fan of his ever since I read his liner notes for the classic 1982 album Casino Lights: Recorded Live at Montreux, Switzerland (which he produced). It was then that I sensed his attraction to all kinds of music, and I could see — and hear — that he was capable of creating jazz with mass appeal without sacrificing excellence. Through the years, he and I have had numerous conversations about music and other matters; this is the first of those conversations I’ve recorded.
Michael Fagien: My introduction to you was from an album titled Casino Lights [various artists]. I remember listening to all the stars on that record — from Al Jarreau and the Yellow- jackets to Mike Mainieri — and reading the liner notes. And then I started connecting the dots. That must have been a really busy time for you, considering all the artists you were producing in contemporary jazz.
Tommy LiPuma: I wasn’t really that conscious of the fact that things were starting to explode in that era. I had gone back to Warner Bros. after being away for about two years. By that time, I knew [Montreux Jazz Festival founder] Claude Nobs very well, and we had done the live album with Al Jarreau called Look to the Rainbow in, I think, ’77. We had done four or five different cities in Europe, and then taken the best of the performances from the four or five venues and put it together, and that was really Al’s breakout album.
As it turned out, we had a week off, and Pat Rains [Jar- reau’s manager at the time] had the great idea to go to Montreux in January or February, when it wasn’t in-season by any means. It was a great week we spent there, and I really got to know Claude — spent time in his home at the time, which was above a bakery. Claude had this incredible 78 collection, and so it was just a wonderful week, and we became very close. So we decided that we were going to do this album with all of the Warner acts. That album was really as produced, in post-production, as any live album that I’ve done. We used the original rhythm sections and, in some cases, the live perfor- mances, too. But there were a lot of things that weren’t quite right. And then we added things. Like, I added the horns and some of the background things, and then put it together in the sequential order that I felt was good as a show. And that’s what Casino Lights ended up being.
Didn’t you produce the Yellowjack- ets’ first two records, which became their quintessential records?
Yeah. I did the first two records when I came back from L.A. after [working at] Horizon Records.
And I remember being struck again, sort of like Casino Lights, with this very fresh sound, which was like nothing I had ever heard before.
Well, I think it was the opening track. Russell [Ferrante] just plays this outrageous left hand, and that’s why I signed them.
You have a knack for bringing out the best in artists. Let me go back a little bit farther. Everyone knows George Benson, but it wasn’t until Breezin’ that he became a household name. What was it like to create one of the classic contemporary-jazz records and certainly Benson’s most famous album?
Obviously it was very satisfying. That record was number one pop, jazz and R&B all at the same time — number one re- cord on all three charts. Winning that Grammy, I was three feet off the ground for three days. It was really a great feeling. It’s funny, I don’t see [George] that often, but when we speak we still always have a great time. We have a great relationship.
I was a big fan of George Benson’s even before I knew who he was. In 1962 or ’63, I was at The Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, and I was just hanging. I was a promotion man at the time, and I was up there with my disc jockey friend Bobby Dale, who had moved up to San Francisco. One Sunday afternoon, my friend said, “Hey, man, we’ve got to go by. Jack McDuff is playing the Workshop.” And I said, “Most definitely.” So we went by, and it was the quintessential Jack McDuff trio. You know, it was Jack, it was, oh god, that outrageous drummer that he had — used to sit on a bicycle seat, man. I can’t think of this guy’s name now. But there was this young, very quiet guitar player who blew me away, and I didn’t have any idea who he was. Afterwards we went back and said hello to Jack. And in passing, he said, “Oh, this is my guitar player, George Benson.” I said, “Oh, hi. How you doing?” And that was it.
A few years later he signed with Verve. And there was this great album that he had done where, on the cover, he was sitting in a red leather chair in a den or something. Herbie Hancock was on it. And I said, “Wow! This guy is definitely someone to keep my eye on.”
In late ’75 or ’76, Bob Krasnow, my partner at Blue Thumb — by now we had both joined Warner Bros. — called and said, “Man, I got a mar- riage made in heaven.” I said, “What are you talking about?” And he says, “Well, I just got a call. We can sign George Benson. Are you interested?” I said, “Man, are you kid- ding? Yeah, absolutely.” So, to cut to the chase, we ended up having this meeting with George and his manager at the time. We sat down and introduced each other. I mentioned that I’d met him briefly a few years before that, and I said, “How come you’ve never sang on your albums?” And he said, “Well, Creed [Taylor] was really trying to make me like the next Wes Montgomery.” I said, “You know, I definitely think that you should be singing more.” And so we do the album and everything, and about a year later, after the thing’s a smash, we were sitting at the bar at Mo Ostin’s 50th birthday party, and George turned to me and said, “You know, brother, you probably don’t remember this, but when we first got together, first thing you said to me was, ‘How come you don’t sing on your albums?’ And right then I said, I want this guy to produce my album.” It’s amazing. Sometimes you don’t know what affect something you say is going to have on someone.
I once asked Pat Metheny what he thought of George. I loved his response. He said, “George is probably one of the greatest jazz guitarists ever, but if I had a voice like his, I probably would never pick up the guitar.”[laughs] That’s funny. Well, I’ll tell you something, I got a lot of heat from the jazz police on that album. It’s just weird to me how people can be at this narrow road or alley where they’re just completely incapable of listening to anything out- side of that area. It’s amazing. Of all people, Ellington is the one who said that there are only two kinds of music, good or bad.
Now, this could shock some, but I must say I’m not that big of a fan of “smooth jazz.” As time went on, I got the feeling that it just became repetitive. I never felt anything fresh coming out of this area. Someone once said to me, “Well, you’re the father of that area.” And I said, “Well, shit, if I ever thought it was going to get to this, I don’t think I ever would have started.” It’s just got to the point where it’s so premeditated. You just know where someone’s going with a solo, where someone’s going with a melody. It didn’t help jazz, and it didn’t help people who loved music. Like, let’s say even Joe Sample. Joe Sample gets a lot of heat, and I think, Jesus Christ, I can’t think of one album that Joe has done where I could say, “Well, it sounds sort of repetitive.” Joe was an original and just a wonderful, wonderful player. But he got heat.
You and I are definitely on the same page. I started JAZZIZ magazine because I loved contemporary jazz. If you look at artists like David Sanborn or Mike Mainieri or Joe Sample, they don’t like to be associated with smooth jazz — not because the genre itself is horrible, but because of some of the other types of music that are lumped into smooth jazz. They don’t want to be part of that.
The thing that I had to go back to and have gotten so deeply immersed in is the swing era. There’s just something about that whole period, man. Basie and Woody, Artie Shaw and Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges and Prez — they swung their asses off. The minute that that music comes on, it’s like getting on a magic carpet, and it just takes you away.
During your career you have produced a wide array of artists, from The Sandpipers to Dr. John to Jonatha Brooke to Diana Krall, Michael Bublé and Dan Hicks. You seemingly have a jazz jones, but you stay sort of global. You don’t just stay in jazz.
You’re right, I don’t. I mean, there isn’t any kind of music that I don’t love if it’s good. Like the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? — outrageous. I loved it. But again, my biggest jones over the past year or two has been going back to my early days of listening to people that I hadn’t heard everything by, but I am just really completely immersed in it now — everybody from Artie Shaw to Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges. These were the guys. One of the things that disturbs me a little bit— and it’s little too much out of hand, I think, for anybody to reverse it — is just the whole manner in which musicians today become introduced both to music and how they get started in their careers.
It’s not like I’m thinking that we should go back 50 or 60 years. I’m not talking about that. You can’t go backwards in time, but the point is that now you’ve got everybody and his brother going to these schools, you know. You’ve got Berklee and other schools, and everybody is going. And the first thing that these kids are getting are the rudiments. It’s not that scales aren’t important; they are if you want to learn changes and all that stuff. But all of these brilliant geniuses from that period, you know, they didn’t have any formal training. They learned it on their own.
Now, I understand that the dynamics aren’t the same. And by that I mean you don’t have the amount of clubs that you had back in those days. You don’t have the interaction between people. You don’t have the big bands today that were such a breeding ground for people to get their chops and their own style. And I think the thing that bothers me the most is that, with the exception of a few people, I can’t tell one fucking guy from the other. I
can’t. It’s like, you go back and you think, man, all I had to hear was two bars of Zoot Sims. I knew it was Zoot Sims. Stan Getz, Ben Webster, any of these guys. The minute you heard them, you knew who it was. They had a style. Diana Krall — you hear a bar, and you know it’s Diana.
I don’t know exactly what the deal is, why everybody wants to sound like everyone else. I’m not even quite sure whether or not it’s quite a conscious effort that they want to sound like some- one else.
You told me something maybe 20 years ago, and I’ve used that quote not just in music, but in my other life, in medicine. We were talking about artists and how some of them became solo artists, and how some of them didn’t have it in them to become solo artists. I mean, they’re decent players. They could play in a rhythm section, but being a solo artist, as you know better than anyone, is a completely different animal.
We were talking about an artist — and I’ll leave his name out of this — and someone else in the room said, “Yeah, he’s such nice guy.” And you turned to me, and said, “Give me a prick who can play.”
That’s not an original line. Woody Herman said that originally.
Right. But I liked the way you said it. Literally, there are times where I’ll be dealing with some sub-specialist physician, and someone will say, “Oh, yeah, I love going to him. He’s such a nice guy.” And I’m like, “Give me a prick who can play.”
Yeah. That’s the truth, man. It’s not like you have to live with this person, man.
With all of your experience and having produced so many hit records, what was it like walking into the studio to do Paul McCartney’s record? [Kisses On the Bottom, 2012]
By the time he got in the studio, Paul and I had been talking for a year, a year and a half, so it wasn’t like something that just happened over a period of a few months. I went over and spent time at his studio and his house and whatnot in East Sussex, just going through things. The first time I went there, I went there with about 40 or 50 songs that I thought, you know, let’s try these. And I brought Tamir Hendelman. Tamir is a great piano player who plays with John Clayton’s band. He’s an Israeli cat. Lovely guy. The reason I took Tamir is because Tamir can play anything at the drop of a hat.
So I wanted to try all these songs. By the time I left, I went through about 10 out of the 50 that I thought were possible, and then we kept looking and looking. By the time we went in the studio, we went in with about 18. We ended up with, I think, 15 that were usable. I don’t know what it would have been like if Paul didn’t like the vibe or whatever. I think if he didn’t like the vibe, we wouldn’t have gotten there.
It wasn’t until toward the point where we were about ready to make the major jump and go in and start that I brought up Diana. At first, he wasn’t keen on the idea because he thought that I was talking about a duet album. I said, “No, Paul, this isn’t a Paul McCartney/Diana Krall album. This is your album. I’m just talking about her comping for you. And then he got it, and he said, “Yeah, let’s try it.” So I called Diana, and of course she was really excited about it. And then we went and spent an afternoon at his apartment in the city, just playing and singing some stuff. He felt very comfortable with it.
The first song we did was “Cheek to Cheek,” which we ended up not using. It was a little shaky. Everyone basically knew, I think, including him, that it wasn’t quite right. But there was a song that I had suggested that was from Guys and Dolls; it wasn’t in the film, but it was in the Broadway show. It was called “More I Cannot Wish You.” It’s a song where the father is singing to the daughter what he hopes for her and that kind of stuff. Paul liked not only the style of the song, but he found a pocket for it, I think because he had a young daughter. It just probably hit a spot in him. When we did it, when we tried just running it through, I said, “Yeah, this one’s going to work.” And it came out great.
And that just snapped everybody down. From that point on, we were on a roll.