"Island Letter" Soundclip:
See Steve's Hand-Written Keyboard Lead Sheets
Steve Khan: Ac. Guitar - Mark Kibble: Vocals
The Saga of a Song
"Island Letter"(Shuggie Otis)
How can I best explain just how I arrived at this particular place in my musical life? One might wonder, what is he doing recording an interpretation of the Shuggie Otis song, "Island Letter" from Shuggie's 1974 album, "INSPIRATION INFORMATION"(Epic)? Let me try my best to offer the story as to just how this all came about.
Since I began to find my own tastes in music, probably during my pre-teenage years during the late '50s, because of the household in which I grew-up, I always loved songs and that could include anything and everything from, what has now become known as: The Great American Songbook to Rock/Pop and R&B/Soul music. As my interests began to drift and with a great passion for Jazz during the '60s, I never lost my interest in songs - even if I was never intending to interpret or record them myself. So, long before there were computers, I began to catalog the songs that I had a special feeling about in my memory - and I could always locate those LPs in my collection - I was very organized back then. I also had a collection of incredible old 45s too. I only wish that I had converted many of them to digital files as the decades came and went. But fortunately many of those same songs ended-up being found at YouTube. This was quite a remarkable development - and, it serves to preserve and perpetuate these songs. As the years went along and I had moved to New York in 1970, I was immersing myself in my personal pursuit of trying to do something special in Jazz. Somewhere around 1967, a great fusion experiment had commenced amongst musicians around my age - and we all felt comfortable mixing genres, because, in a sense, they all seemed to conjoin as one for us - even if the beat or the groove was broadly different. As long as there was a passion in the message in the music - what difference could it make? After all, chord changes are still just chord changes, right?
When Shuggie Otis' album "INSPIRATION INFORMATION" was released in October of 1974, I was somehow motivated to check it out, and I bought it. Right away, upon an initial listening, his song "Island Letter" immediately won me over, and it became a treasured love song for me from that moment right forward to the present. I never forgot this song - even though I knew, and with great certainty, that it was never going to be something that I would ever record for an album of my own. Some 47 years have now passed since I first heard this song, and over that time span, I would periodically pull it out and give it a listen. The emotions were always there with this very simple love song, with some great chord changes caressing the lyrics and the story. There was a very simple, innocent sweetness to the song and its sentiments, and I always responded to that. As categories for music are so essential to the greater music business machine, those people had to find a label for Shuggie's music, and to some it became known as Psychedelic Soul music. Sitting here now, I kind of like that appellation. The song is filled with a lot of trippy instrumental touches like a Wah-wah Farfisa organ, maybe electric guitar with Univibe or a simple Fender amp tremolo setting, early rhythm machine programming, and a version of the "Soulful Strings" in places too. It's amazing because most of the time that the tune occupies is actually instrumental. There are only two brief verses and no real chorus to speak of. So, in that sense, it is a rather strange little song. But, I still loved it. The closest thing that I ever remember as being a 'success' for Shuggie Otis was when the Brothers Johnson recorded his song, "Strawberry Letter 23" on their 1977 album, "RIGHT ON TIME"(A&M), and it became a semi-hit single. But that was kind of it to the best of my knowledge.
It should also be noted that David Byrne thought so highly of Shuggie's "INSPIRATION INFORMATION" album that he reissued that same album on his own Luaka Bop Records in 2001.
But there is actually a little more that one must never forget where young Shuggie Otis is concerned. Firstly, during 1968 as a 15 year old blues guitar phenom he was introduced to the music world by keyboardist Al Kooper on their album, "KOOPER SESSION"(Columbia). On this album, they were accompanied by Moogy Klingman(piano); Stu Woods(el. bass) and Wells Kelly(drums). For me this is remarkable because after arriving in New York in 1970, I would meet and play with Moogy and Stu often. I would also note that Shuggie sounds really great playing the blues, and it becomes strange that I don't recall him playing this way at all on his two solo albums for Epic Records just a few years later. Go figure!
One last little detail to remember would be that, around this same time, Shuggie played bass on the famous and highly regarded, by some, "Peaches En Regalia by Frank Zappa from his "HOT RATS"(Bizarre) album. So, there is always more to discover about an artist when trying to ascertain the full scope of their career and talents. In all of this exploration, I learned that the nickname Shuggie is derived from the sweet appellation, Sugar. So finally, I think I have a handle on how to correctly pronounce his name!
On Friday, May 13th as "Island Letter" was officially released, I created a post for Facebook and amongst the many wonderful messages from friends and fans alike was one from the great guitarist Anthony Wilson, who wrote the following: "Hey Steve, did you know that Shuggie is my brother-in-law?" Now how about THAT?!?!?! This "saga" just keeps going and going.
During 2020, I had the fortuitous pleasure of getting to work closely with singer Mark Kibble, perhaps best known to many of you as one of the leaders and principal arrangers for the simply brilliant vocal group, Take 6. I wrote about that experience here at this very website in a special page that I created: "Working with Mark Kibble." Specifically, we came together to work on the UK trumpeter/arranger Reuben Fowler's Steely Dan Big Band Tribute on the legendary song, "Aja." When I first heard what Mark had created with his usage of multiple vocals, I actually got tears in my eyes, because to be around that kind of artistic excellence and creativity was not something that I expected to happen at this latter stage of my life, my professional life. In the end, as the leader and producer of his own project, Reuben made a decision not to use Mark's lead vocal, and asked to be allowed to keep only Mark's background vocals. Needless to say, this was a decision that made me furious. But Mark was far more gracious about it than I could ever have been. So, at the very least, it is a privilege to share with you all that now exists of Mark's completed work, my own rough mix from March/April of 2021. But that sad aspect to this story aside, I found Mark's vocals to be so inspiring that I decided to send him an mp3 of "Island Letter" along with the lyrics to see if he might be interested in us doing something together to put a unique spin on this song that was almost 40 years old. After Mark had listened, he wrote me back in December of 2020 saying: "Hey Steve! Man, I really do like this tune! I see the potential for sure! Thanks for turning me on to it! I'd love to do this with you, so we should definitely talk it up! Right now I've got a pretty steep laundry list of projects to do that will take me well into January, but let's see what we can make happen then. It's a real pleasure working with you my friend!" And so, or so it seemed, Mark and I were on our way. The next step for me would be to try to craft an arrangement that would best feature Mark's extraordinary vocal creativity.
The question might be asked, what was I hoping to achieve, and by what date could that be accomplished? Such questions are really not that easily answered, but simply put, here is what I would say. As I knew that I was not likely to ever be making another album as a leader, because I could never again afford to self-finance such a venture, this project with Mark Kibble would have to be an isolated song - in other words, what some people are now calling "a single." But that, in no way, is anything like what I used to think of as a 'single' when I was a kid. I knew that I would have to find a way to place it with some kind of empathetic label, one that might have the understanding and machinery in place to, at the very least, make it officially available via iTunes, and to promote it at Jazz radio - even though it is not in absolute a Jazz song. The reason for all of this thought beforehand was that, in all conscience, I could not see Mark and I putting in all of this creative effort and energy, and then just giving the song away! Meaning that people could just access it to listen to at no cost to them. That just did not seem right to me - even if, in the end, it is almost impossible to prevent that from happening! I also knew that I would have to find a way to somehow construct a video presentation that would just involve a sequence of still panels to span the length of the piece - that aspect was, at the time, still undetermined. As my work was to begin in January of 2021, my hope was that MAYBE the completed mixed and mastered song might be ready by July or August at the latest. Little did I know that I was not going to even come close to making that projection come alive at all.
When I began working on the details of the arrangement, I knew that I wanted to extend the Intro in order to set-up the all important mood of the piece before Mark's lead vocal would enter. I also felt that Shuggie's original key, with the vocal beginning in Ab major would be fine for Mark's rather unlimited vocal range. The next big question was tempo. I measured Shuggie's original tempo, which of course I had liked very much, to be @ Q=92 on December 20th, 2020 as some time went by after having constructed some of the basics of the arrangement, I began to feel that that tempo was just bit too slow. So, I went up to Q=96, on December 30th, 2020, for a time, and after living with that for awhile, even that tempo felt too slow. And so, even though it would be faster than Shuggie's version, I went up to Q=100, on January 7th, 2021. And that is where the tune has remained ever since. As for my own modest role in the piece, my voice would be on my Martin MC-28 steel-string acoustic guitar with the addition of my Strat orchestrations.
In a sense, I have been living with Shuggie Otis' "Island Letter" for decades, so it really didn't take me but an instant to realize that, from a rhythmic perspective, of course, involving Latin rhythms and sounds, this song would function perfectly as a Bolero-Cha - in other words, the arrangement would alternate between sections that were played as a Bolero and then that section would smoothly become a Cha-cha-cha. My first such experiment doing this appeared when I interpreted my father's song, "Our Town," which appeared on my 2016 album, "BACKLOG." The 2nd time I used these rhythmic devices/feelings was on the beautiful standard, "Too Late Now," which appeared on my 2019 album, "PATCHWORK." In both cases, the Cha-cha-cha did not appear until the Fade sections, providing a wonderful contrast. So, "Island Letter" becomes a most unique experiment with sections that alternate and flow in and out of one another. Hopefully, it was a successful concept.
Then, the larger question of format was confronting me front and center. With only two short verses and no chorus, how could I make more of that without any additional lyrics? I decided that the best way to handle that would be to repeat those 2 verses with a modulation somewhere in the middle. After trying several different approaches, what felt the most natural to me was to just go up a 1/2-step, and have Mark sing the repeat in A major. When speaking with Mark about the shape of the arrangement of the song with respect to his vocal contributions, I tried to keep it simple, but I know that I asked him to think of the song, now in our hands, as a blank canvas for his vocal explorations and inventions. He was to consider that no section was out of bounds or off limits to his voice or voices. Of course, as this idea was born during the Time of COVID-19, the pandemic was to play havoc with Mark's work life, especially where touring and recording with Take 6 was concerned. There were vast periods of time when I had pretty much no idea if and when Mark was going to be able to get to "Island Letter" and place it within the queue of work to be done - though this was to be more of labor of love as opposed to an assignment or a task.
In the original Shuggie Otis version of his own song, there appeared two different, what I would refer to as, instrumental interludes or breakdowns. The first of those I ended-up labeling as letter [C], and I always envisioned that Mark's voices would appear somewhere within that 10-bar section. That section precedes our modulation, letter [I4] which is an 8-bar cha-cha-cha section that is headed towards Mark's reprise of the 1st Verse, [D]. Later in the arrangement, we have Shuggie's Breakdown, letter [F], which leads us into our fade and the ride-out from my acoustic guitar.
When one is crafting an arrangement, especially for the vocal creativity of an artist like Mark Kibble, it is important to maintain a sense of harmonic growth and surprise throughout. Sometimes those elements might not appear right away, but only after some time and multiple listenings. Such was the case with the unfolding of "Island Letter." When we officially modulated at [I4] with Mark's lead vocal returning at [D], I finally arrived at just the right touch which was really influenced by some of the work of Take 6. Here, this small piece of harmonic inventiveness happens on beats 3 & 4 of bar 6 of this section. Those 2 beats go by so quickly you might not even notice that anything has happened, but it did. As we are going back and forth between Bm7 to F#m7, before the return to Bm7, I knew that I could insert a ii-V of the bV substitute (with the V chord being F#7) - so here the b5 becomes C7 and placing a iim7 in front it, it becomes Gm7(9) to C7(13b5). Again, it goes by so quickly that you shouldn't really notice it - but the idea was that with the added impact of Mark's background vocal artistry, it would turn into a moment of magic. As this lead vocal section concludes we arrive at a 2nd 8-bar guitar improvisation, this time at [I5] with the alternate changes of now: Fmaj7(9) to Bbm9/Eb - adding the same kind of variety that first appeared during [I3], except 1/2-step down. When we arrive at [E], this becomes the repeat of what was [B], but now we are given another opportunity to insert another little harmonic touch especially designed for Mark and again it appear on beats 3 & 4 of bar 6, but this time I am employing a more 'normal' ii-V to Bm7 with a rich sus chord, E/F# or F#7(9sus) going to F#7(#9). Again, the melody note of A-natural is all-important because it really must be observed by the supporting harmony.
After this last lead vocal section, we arrive at the final breakdown, letter [F] which I initially conceived as being 16-bars long - as opposed to the prior breakdown section [C] which was 8-bars. My original idea was that, perhaps, Mark willing, everything would dissolve down to what would be, in essence, an a cappella section for some Mark Kibble magic - IF he heard it this way. In essence, my idea was that Mark would assume the role once inhabited by the bass, the guitar and the keyboard - something that he is completely capable of executing. Having to wait to hear what Mark might do - I toyed with the idea that perhaps only the conga, güiro and foot hat would accompany the vocals. If you are looking at the keyboard lead sheets provided here, you might wonder what all of those notes were for. Well, originally I thought that we might take what Shuggie had done and just take it into this century and decade. But, fortunately Mark Kibble came-up with something else, and to aid him in recording his new ideas, I sent him a completely stripped down version of the 16-bars. What Mark came-up with was completely phantasmagorical - moving the harmony around, and closing out the section with a miraculous Jazz cadence. When I heard that, I couldn't believe it. As the great Marc Quiñones was recording his contributions afterwards, Marc and I decided that he should play a little something, a pick-up, to announce his arrival on bar 9 of the section as the Cha-cha rhythms return in full. Letter [F] better than fulfilled my fantasies of what it could be. It built-up right into the [G] section, which is one last vehicle for my acoustic guitar, but also for the improvised explorations of Mark Kibble. This becomes the 3rd key area that these sections touch upon: [I2] featured Emaj7(9/6) and Dmaj7(6); [I4] featured Fmaj7(9/6) and Ebmaj7(6); [G] now offers Cmaj7(9/6) and Bbmaj9/6. I'm not sure why I did it, but I felt that I could leave the first 6 bars open for Mark to do 'something' and then the acoustic enters and just solos until the very end with Mark coloring the events as he felt things.
Letters [G2] through [G5] were initially conceived as having very simple Shuggie Otis-related changes - a nod to the original version, but, once again, after many, many listenings, I began to hear the need for some alternative harmonic touches that would drive the piece home with some unexpected tensions which would provide another opportunity for Mark's vocal majesty. Each of these 4 harmonic additions occur on beat 3 & 4 in bar 4 of each of these sections. The idea for these kinds of adventures in superimposed harmony are inspired by the work of keyboard giants McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. What I heard them do so many times during their wondrous careers was to insert the sense of altered V7 chords even where they did not exist. So here, where we have 6 bars that alternate between Cmaj7(9/6) and Bbmaj9/6, if we wanted to pull harder to return to the Cmaj7(9/6), it would be reasonable to assume that adding in a sense of G7(alt.) would be most effective even if the bass never observes that additional harmonic sense. And so, that's what I did in each of those spots, with the idea being that Mark Kibble would actually color each one of them. That was my hope and concept!
It goes without saying that Shuggie Otis was telling a story here, a love story which, for the moment, didn't seem to be working out as he might have hoped. So, it becomes a story, a song filled with a kind of innocent sweetness and yearning of a youthful kind. But, take a look at his lyrics and you decide for yourself.
How, did you think about me at all?
Or just happened to hear my call?
'Cause I didn't get the chance to tell you
That I would want to see you again
Oh - how - I - miss - you
We talked about your beaches
And we laughed
about your trip to the States, what a gas
And you're here without holding the past
Could you tell that this was going to last?
Oh, I - want - you
It was on January 8th, 2022 that I finally heard from Mark that he had finished the vocals. What a moment that was. As has been my experience in working with Mark, I was, of course hopeful that the vocals that he sent would be perfect for the song and that I would not have to cautiously ask for a few other touches that I felt were missing. As it happened, there were a couple of spots that Mark happened to miss and so, we had a really great phone conversation - which as it was in the past, Mark was complete cordial, professional and accommodating about these extra spots. And so, he set out to work on them. It wasn't all that long before I heard from him in the overnight hours of Sunday, January 10th and the results were remarkable. So, in that moment, we were almost there. When we worked on Reuben Fowler's "Aja" together, Mark initially sent me some 18 vocal tracks. For almost anyone, that's just too much for me to handle to make rough mixes which would eventually be submitted to players like Rubén Rodríguez, Marc Quiñones, and Rob Mounsey. So having the vocal balances be close to just right is essential. In the end, on "Aja" Mark sent me 5 stereo pairs where he assembled the balances as he likes to hear them. This was perfect for me. This time after some very carefully thought out labors, Mark sent me 2 mono tracks (lead & harmony vocals) plus 4 stereos pairs of background vocals and lastly, one bass voice track. I didn't even have the strength to ask him exactly how many individual tracks he had performed, but surely, it had to have been over 20 tracks! So, while you are admiring his immense artistry, think about being able to hear vocal work on that grand a scale.
Fortunately, most music fans, average listeners, all that they hear is what you have placed in front of them. These days, if they even make it through an entire song without interruption, people listen and follow along with the song as presented. In the end, as musicians/artists, we are all making music that, first and foremost, we believe in and hear a particular way. In that sense, we are recording music to please ourselves and some vision of what we hear. For musicians like me, primarily instrumentalists, even acknowledging that, I don't record music for other musicians! If I can feel good, reasonably O.K., and my bandmates feel similarly, then that is good enough for me. Reaching beyond that very small circle of players/people - I always hope that somehow the music will reach average people and music fans and that some songs will touch them. That has been my hope, and it has never changed - at least not since I began to grow-up a little bit about music and its creative process. Here process becomes a key word. There are those people, mostly professional music people, who listen to music and hear the "process" (how it was recorded and made) more than just hearing a song unfold. That, to me, is most unfortunate. I would never want to listen to music with thoughts of process in mind. I just want to hear the song, period!
In trying to tell the story of this interpretation of Shuggie Otis' "Island Letter," I am trying to be as honest and direct as I can be. If one just looks at, what I am still referring to as the "Tray Card" (or back cover) for this one-song release, it becomes obvious that everything was recorded remotely by each of the principal participants. I recorded the basic elements at home, here in New York City, knowing from the outset that virtually everything that I recorded would be eventually replaced by real players. Once the piece was structurally sound, I sent it off to Mark Kibble, who lives and records himself near Nashville. When I finally had Mark's vocals safely tucked into my Protools session. I sought out Rob Mounsey and his magical keyboards and orchestral brilliance. Rob recorded his parts at home in Brooklyn. Rubén Rodríguez, who decided that his 5-string Electric Bass would be best for this piece recorded himself in the studio of Adan Pérez in the Bronx. Finally, Marc Quiñones recorded all 6 of the Latin percussion parts in Miami. If it sounds complex and not such an easy task, you are right about that. No one was more relieved than me when all of the contributions from these great artists were finally housed in one PT session! If you will allow me, I would love to now sing the praises of these three wonderful musicians.
Rob Mounsey and I have been good friends and musical colleagues for what is now nearing some 45 years. Anyone who might have been following my recordings since 1998's "YOU ARE HERE" - a joint venture with Rob - would know about the depth of this relationship. For my part, I am always counting on Rob for so many things beyond just realizing the notes that I have written out for him. He has never failed to deliver something special and unique in return. I am constantly amazed by his talents and the broad scope of those talents. As Rob and I are both huge fans of Mark Kibble as a voice, as many voices, as an artist, and, of course, as part of Take 6, above all else we viewed this project as taking the jewel that is Mark's voice and placing it on a beautiful satin pillow of harmony and rhythm. That is always the goal with anything that we might do. We hope that we have done that. As I have mentioned several times in this piece of writing, "Island Letter" comes from 1973 and a style of music, Shuggie's music, that was hard to categorize - as socially and musically, we were all still deep into the latter psychedelic period of life and music in the USA which began in the late '60s. So, knowing this, once Rob's basic Rhodes-like contributions had been realized, I asked him if he could create some orchestral touches that might conjure a sonic tribute to those olden "hippie" days. I pointed out several sections where I thought that this could work - and once he had them and showed them to me - I thought that it might be nice if he subtly added those same sounds earlier in the piece as a kind of foreshadowing of what what was to come. And, as always, Rob did that brilliantly. Once again, working with Rob on this very special, one of a kind, piece of music has been a joy and so very rewarding.
Rubén Rodríguez, in his way, has been a huge part of almost all of my albums since 2005, and before that, several special projects. We recorded and toured together with the Caribbean Jazz Project and both Dave Samuels and Dave Valentín. We too have a wonderful musical history together that extends into our personal friendship. When I first sent Rubén an mp3 of a rough mix, I wanted his opinion about whether he thought that the Baby Bass or the 5-string Electric Bass would be the best choice for this particular piece of music. He responded by suggesting that he felt that the 5-string electric was the right way to go. His touch and playing make it obvious that he made the right choice. Though we haven't done too much of this on my recordings, from the outset, I told him that IF he heard some subtle thumbing here and there, that would be fine with me. I suggested that this could happen in both letter [C] as well as the Outro in letter [G]. In both sections he added plenty of sabor along the way. His playing is perfect throughout - and his usage of the extra lower register notes is beautiful as well. I am, once again, so happy that Rubén could be a part of this. Mil gracias hermano!
Marc Quiñones and I have been colleagues and friends going back some 30 years now, as it is with Rubén, beyond everything else, both of them have served as my teachers and guiding lights where the wonders of Latin music are concerned. When we are working together on something, I know that I am in the best hands possible. Having Marc move away from the New York City area was a great loss for many of us and that move to Miami makes it difficult to record in a way that is the most efficient for me - but, one has to accept these kinds of contemporary problems and just deal with it. When Marc agreed to be a part of this, I was so happy and so relieved that this huge percussion task would fall into his very capable hands and imagination. In all, he realized some 6 parts: conga, bongó, timbal, mini-maracas, güiro and campana. Even though we might describe "Island Letter" as a Bolero-Cha, Marc came-up with some really interesting approaches to keep it from becoming something too familiar. As he has taught me, a Bolero never begins with an avanico from the timbal - even though I do all of my demos that way - much to his amusement. Usually, traditionally, there is a brief pick-up to tempo from the bongó. But here, right at the top, Marc did something really novel, and has a little flam on beat 3 before the actual downbeat, but then, a timbal hit and an avanico on beat 4. When he sent me his tracks, I couldn't help but smile when I heard this one small moment. From there, he added so many wonderful percussive touches that I can't even cite all of them. You just have to listen and follow along with this journey. Having Marc on board here is yet another dream come true - even at this latter stage of life.
As I was developing my arrangement for "Island Letter," I wanted to try to incorporate as many of the sections and those flavors into this new treatment, but along the way, things just seemed to morph and change. And, as I was communicating long distance with the project's co-artist and easily the most important person, Mark Kibble, sometimes I couldn't be certain that our thoughts and concepts were aligned regarding certain sections. What I chose to label as letter [F], which can be found on Pg. 5 of the Keyboard Lead Sheets, what you will find there looks and sounds NOTHING like what Mark and I ended coming up with. Originally, Mark did work with what he heard. But after I had finally heard what he had done, I thought that the best of all worlds would be to simply send the 16-bar section with percussion only - no guitar, no keyboards, and no bass, and just allow for his creativity and brilliance to shine through. I also mentioned, as a possible model, what Take 6 had done on their magical 2010 interpretation of "White Christmas." Eventually, what Mark sent back to me became one of the most pure moments of vocal brilliance within the song. In essence, it is all Mark Kibble. And, the superb cadence at the end is also ALL Mark Kibble's imagination in full flow. As he brings us to letter [G] and Cmaj7, his voices pass through: A7(#9#5b5) [C on top] - A7#5 [A on top] - Dm7(9sus)/G [G on top] - Db7(9/13b5) [Bb on top]. I still get goosebumps every time that it goes by.
Getting through the recording process is laborious and stressful enough, but if you were thinking that "Now, the most torturous part is behind me!" You would be very, VERY wrong. One's work does not end when the recording of the music is completed. In truth, it is actually only beginning. Mixing the music, in this case just one song, is so much more difficult than most people imagine. Here I have a brilliant co-artist in Mark Kibble, and the extra-special level of the vocals he brought into this interpretation deserve all the care one can provide them with. But, in my process, the love and care that the contributions of Rob Mounsey, Rubén Rodríguez and Marc Quiñones deserve no less. As I have stated on far too many occasions, if I had recorded a full album, I would not have been able to afford to go into a studio with a great engineer and spend the hours and days necessary to mix it all. I can no longer do that - nor self-finance a full album. What was I do with one song that has become so very important to me?
For me, there is really only one viable option and that is to call upon the mixing skills of my trusted and respected friend Malcolm Pollack with whom I have recorded and mixed countless album projects. The last full album having been, "BORROWED TIME"(Tone Center)(2007). More recently, Malcolm mixed the bonus track, "Nature Boy" from "PATCHWORK"(2019) and my Chick Corea tribute from last year, "Bleeding Orchid"(2021). Malcolm, sometime ago, had constructed a state-of-the-art mixing facility in his home in Eastern Massachusetts and he is and has been fully capable of doing first class mixes. The downside is that we would be doing these mixes via remote. In other words, I would not be physically present for any of it. I don't like this aspect at all. However, for Malcolm, he can mix on his own time and quietly and then send me the mixes as he arrives at them. Some people refer to this method of doing things as "mixing in the box" - that is to say, mixing via computer - and not a really studio board and console w/ outboard gear.
I can't begin to explain what a complex mix Malcolm and I were facing with "Island Letter." For this reason, I have shared above a combined screenshot of my Mix Window for the Protools session that I eventually sent up to Malcolm. I know that it is not easy to distinguish all of the details at that resolution, but when one never deals with vocals on this scale: 2 mono lead vocal tracks, and then, 5 stereo pairs of background voices. That alone is daunting. Thank goodness that Mark Kibble did his own sub-mix for me of those background parts so that they are balanced and panned as he would want them to be. That was a huge help. Then, you add to that, Rob Mounsey sending a 2 stereo tracks of his Rhodes, which has to be blended, and in addition to that 9 stereo tracks of Rob's incredibly creative orchestral sounds - all deserving of attention and care. Then you add in 11 tracks of Latin percussion - and it was going to be quite something to blend all of this together. I don't believe that I have faced something even close to this since maybe "Cada Gota de Mar" from "SUBTEXT"(2014) which featured the multiple voices of Mariana Ingold; or going back much further, the mixes involving the vocals of Manolo Badrena on some of the remarkable songs from "PUBLIC ACCESS(1989) - recorded and mixed by Malcolm Pollack. Both settings were complex just because of adding into everything else a full kit of drums. In the end, every single detail sung or played by these great musicians deserves to be heard, and when someone is unhappy with the way a mix turned out, it becomes very hurtful because of all of the effort. But in the midst of complex textures, there are times where one elements somehow "wins out" over another, however it is never for the lack of attention or caring.
My process, once I have received any particular mix, is to burn a CD-R and then listen carefully on my real stereo system. That's the ONLY way I can be reasonably sure that I know and understand exactly WHAT I am hearing. This is crucial. What I usually do is listen once, at a forceful volume, just to feel the music - that is huge for me. After that, the process of fine-tuning the mix begins. I will listen again and perhaps take some notes about moments or sections that bothered me. Then I will sit down with a note pad and better organize those notes. And then, I will write them down very carefully in a Word doc. At that point, Malcolm and I schedule a "meeting" via phone where he is seated at his workstation and I am looking at an open version of the original Protools Session. And we carefully go through my notes and comments as they appear in order - both of us having printed out the Word doc. When we last mixed "Bleeding Orchid," it required some 14 passes at mixes and all of that back-and-forth. However, the complexity and density of "Island Letter" becomes another matter entirely and we both knew that this was going to be very labor intensive - and there would ups and downs and perhaps even a few testy moments between old friends and colleagues. But Malc and I do the best that we can when those moments appear.
In terms of hours/days and the span of time, I suppose that this wasn't all that long a process. I think it spanned a bit over 2 weeks - but, make note that, there breaks when one or both of us had to attend to other important things in life. Somewhere during this arduous journey, I wanted to seek out the blessings of both Rob Mounsey, for his obvious wealth of contributions to this work, and, of course, Mark Kibble, the artist who gave life to the entire piece. At about Mix 14, I decided that our mix was at least close to ready to present to Rob and Mark, and to then get their comments and suggestions. Rob's were very brief and actually only involved the words to two of Mark's improvised lines during the Breakdown at Letter [F]. Mark offered 5 areas that he wanted to see expressed a little more fully, and one of those moments included exactly what Rob had mentioned. And so, Malcolm and I went back to work and tried our very best to implement and improve upon the splendid comments proposed by Rob and Mark. At around Mix 16, I was prepared to send Mark a close to final mix. Mark wrote this to me in response: "Hey Steve!! The mix sounds SO GOOOOD!! I love it! Great job!! Thanks for addressing my thoughts, and thanks for inviting me in on this great work of art!!" I was just overjoyed to read this - I remain so.
Once we had Mark's approval, Malcolm and I sought to resolve some final small touches to be able to bring this musical portrait of an old love song to its conclusion. We actually went as far as Mix 22 before finally I could say that, "This, I believe, is good enough. It's O.K." But no, the process did not stop there! Even all of that, I heard something, a very small detail and I knew that if we didn't take care of it - it would drive me crazy for the rest of my life. And so, Malcolm and I went through a few more mixes before finally arriving at Mix 25 - and that is when I felt that we were done. There will be those who might wonder, "Was this final mix the vision in sound that you had in your imagination when you began to shape this arrangement? The short and simple answer is, "No." I actually heard things quite differently, but, when one is on a journey such as this, you have to constantly adjust your own vision along the way, and sometimes accept that a difference in sonic approaches does not make it wrong - it is just another artistic form of expression. As long as the love and beauty was captured for me - along with a kind of physical representation of the key elements, I can be happy with our efforts. Mostly likely, in time, I will come to view this final mix in a better and much more fulfilling manner. That has been the way of things for me in the past, and I'm hoping that it continues here.
When the final mix was completed I moved into the mastering phase, and completed mastering "Island Letter" on March 1st with the brilliant Greg Calbi @ Sterling Sound. I've lost track of how many albums I have mastered with Greg, but there is no doubt that this was the first time that we had ever mastered a single song together - not to mention that we were able to do it without my attending the session. Greg did a wonderful job to try to bring out the best in our mix as it was presented to him. I like to describe Greg's artistry by using the term, the phrase, that he finds a way to aerate the mix. What I mean by that is that he finds the frequencies that somehow put some 'space' in between the sounds of the various instruments. It is a very subtle form of this art. For me, as is my custom, I think that it is going to take 6 months to one year to come to some small sense of peace about what we all have created together. I am certain of these things and that is that the contributions of Mark Kibble, Rob Mounsey, Rubén Rodríguez and Marc Quiñones were absolutely spectacular - exceeding my wildest hopes. They are each superb players and performers and added so much to the whole.
Next, over a period of just 3 days, with the assistance of the masterful drummer and video editor par excellence, Jimmy Branly, we put together a video, composed of still panels of varying content to try and tell the story contained within the lyrics, but now with images as a visual aid of sorts. I had a concept in mind and with Jimmy's help, expertise and wisdom, we were able to make it happen. You can view the results by visiting YouTube and this VIDEO page.
As it often, probably way too often, I decided to do something a little crazy, or very crazy, insane and have some special "COLLECTOR'S EDITION" CDs manufactured in a most limited quantity. In order to do this in the most professional way with both the audio and the visual aspects, once again, I reached out my dear friend and long-time colleague, graphic designer, the magnificent Janet Perr and she took my cover and back cover demo designs and turned them into what you now see here. Janet and I have done all of the recent albums together since 2005, and the process of working with her has always been so much fun for me. Often this becomes the only "fun" part of making an album - in this case, a very special one song project with Mark Kibble. For those of you who still own a real stereo with a CD player, you will be able to obtain a copy in a number ways relatively soon.
Finally, I could turn my attention to the business aspects and focus fully on them to arrive at the conclusion of this great adventure. Fortunately, Joseph Patrick Moore's Blue Canoe Records had agreed to release this singular song digitally only. This option only happened because the great bassist Jimmy Haslip, now a consultant and A&R man for the label, believed in what I was doing in creating this work alongside Mark Kibble. As I was writing this piece, Joseph informed me that the release date would be on May 13th. I am still working hard to best prepare the song and all of its details for that very special moment.
During the time that I have been conceptualizing and writing these various pieces for the site on "Island Letter" and working with Mark Kibble, world events have weighed heavily on my mind with Putin's Russia invading Ukraine, and unleashing untold damage and chaos on 1,000s upon 1,000s of innocent people. Like all such things, it has been horrifying to witness - even at this great distance. It's so sad to think of the loss of life, the displacement of people and families, the destruction of important cities and the cultural and historical treasures within - it is all such a terrible waste. I often sit here and think to myself that perhaps none of this would be happening if women were in charge of everything. One has to wonder! Today is Thursday, March 24th, and there is no end in sight. When, if ever, will we see the slightest sense of PEACE on the European continent and around the world? I certainly have no answers for that. But, undaunted by these tragic events, I remain wishing anyone and everyone who might be reading this the grace and strength to survive these times.
[Photos: Mark Kibble Portrait by Tonya Osborne
Photo of: Rob Mounsey by Paul Mounsey
Photo of: Rubén Rodríguez by Carlitos Padrón
Photo of: Marc Quiñones by Néstor Rigaud
Photo: Steve Khan by Simon Berg]