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OK 80

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It’s ORRIN KEEPNEWS’s 80th birthday!! Who is Orrin Keepnews, with his clangorous name that hardly rolls off the tongue? This from the estimable Terri Hinte at Fantasy Records:

    On March 2, producer ORRIN KEEPNEWS will mark a major personal
    milestone–his 80th birthday. To help him celebrate that “incredible fact,” as Orrin terms it, Moose’s Restaurant and the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy are producing an event on that Sunday afternoon–at Moose’s Restaurant in San Francisco–which will feature live music and tributes from Orrin’s friends and surprise guests.

    In addition to appreciating his enormous contributions to jazz as a record label head, producer, historian, and all-around catalyst, we at Fantasy are among those who count Orrin as a valued friend and colleague. He joined the company in 1972 as Director of Jazz A&R, relocating from New York to San Francisco, where he has lived ever since. He thereby found himself under the same roof as his Riverside masters: earlier that same year Fantasy had acquired the legendary jazz indie which Orrin co-founded in 1953 and where he served as head of A&R operations until Riverside’s 1964 demise. His new duties included overseeing Fantasy’s ambitious twofer reissue program, and Orrin relished the job of reissuing albums (by Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery, and myriad others) he’d himself produced some 20 years before.

    Orrin was reunited with his Milestone masters as well, Milestone being another Keepnewsian record company venture (Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, and Sonny Rollins–a Milestone artist to this day) that started up in 1966 and in ’72 became part of Fantasy’s growing family of labels.

    In the fall of 1980, Orrin departed Fantasy for the freelance life, but was
    unable to resist launching one more label: Landmark (Mulgrew Miller, Bobby
    Hutcherson, Wesla Whitfield), which was distributed by Fantasy and which
    Orrin continued to operate until 1993.

    Since then, Keepnews has remained very active as a producer of both reissues and contemporary artists. His most recent Grammy (2000) came in the “Best Historical Album” category, for RCA-Victor’s 24-CD Duke Ellington box; next week he’ll know whether he’s done it again, having been nominated for his Artie Shaw boxed set.

    This spring, Milestone will release two of Keepnews’s more recent productions: “State of Mind,” a label debut by Bay Area tenor saxophonist DAVE ELLIS (due out 4/22); and “Live-Lee,” recorded live at the Jazz Bakery in L.A. by LEE KONITZ and ALAN BROADBENT (a 6/3 release).

Here is Daniel J. Levitin’s profile of Keepnews from The Encyclopedia of Record Producers:

    Orrin Keepnews (born March 2, 1923) is one of the most prolific producers in history. Although he has never actually counted, he is known to have produced over 500 records in his 35-year career (more than one record every four weeks).

    He was the first to record legendary artists Bill Evans and Wes Montgomery, and has figured prominently in the careers of Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Stanley Clarke and Flora Purim. He started three distinguished jazz labels: Riverside, Milestone, and Landmark.

    While it is difficult to find a common “sound” throughout his work, it is easy to find a common vibe; Keepnews’ genius is in his ability to capture jazz artists at their most comfortable, relaxed and creative. In a medium that is primarily a live art form, Keepnews has managed to record some of the classic, definitive performances of the genre. Although it is difficult to single out highlights in Keepnews’ long recording career, one particular session at the Village Vanguard in New York yielded two stunning CDs, the Bill Evans Trio’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. The recordings capture Evans in an intimate setting, his improvisational skills at their peak.

    Monk’s Brilliant Corners and With John Coltrane CDs are also must-haves, true classics in the jazz repertoire. These four albums are prototypes for what a generation of jazz artists have tried to achieve on tape.

    INTERVIEW WITH ORRIN KEEPNEWS:
    DL: You said in your book that you’ve tried to maintain the attitude that it’s the artist’s album and not yours, but at the same time, it’s your job to manage the recording session, so there’s potential conflict there.

    OK: Yeah, but it’s the kind of thing that tends to be more potential than actual. What you need to accomplish more than anything else is … a very real working partnership between the artist and the producer, which means a recognition on both sides, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit, that each has his areas of being the decision-maker. I am never going to say to an artist: “That was the take, I’m not going to let you lift your horn on that tune again,” but I’m not going to let somebody say to me, “Yeah, that was good enough, let’s go on,” if I don’t believe it was. If you are able to establish a workable, creative relationship with the artist, you’re going to come out pretty good or better. If you’re not able to establish this, then neither of you belong in the studio.

    DL: How do you relate to the technology of recording? How involved do you get with sounds, for instance?

    OK: First of all, you have to realize that in my production work, I go back to one-track: professionally, I’m a little older than stereo, so I’ve been through a lot of technological change, and I’m a passionate believer in using technology rather than letting technology use you.

    DL: Could you give me an example?

    OK: I think there are instances in which I will believe in the validity of overdubbing and layering, but I also believe that it can be drastically overused to undercut and do away with the spontaneity that’s a very important part of jazz. A lot of that comes out now that so many people are recording live to two-track again with digital, because multitrack digital still remains incredibly expensive.

    It gives me great pleasure to be able to tell a bass player, “No, you can’t repair that part, it’s there. Everybody else was playing great, you got a bad note or two, that’s tough. We’re going with this.” Because a lot of musicians, particularly musicians who are playing instruments that can just be plugged in and taken direct, are aware of the fact that they don’t really have a sound in the room – musicians get aware of these things very fast – so there a lot of piano players, guitarists and bass players who for years have relied on being able to punch in and fix notes. And this sometimes has a very negative effect on performance. But on the whole, progress is a wonderful thing.

    DL: There is a remarkable consistency of engineering in your albums in that the balances and the sounds are all very true. The drums always sound like drums, the piano like a piano …

    OK: I must confess at being a big surprised about that. I know I’ve had a consistency of attitude; I didn’t know I had a consistency of sound as well. I’m not denying it, I just didn’t know it. I was doing an RCA reissue with a fabulous veteran engineer named Ray Hall recently, and he was trying to remember if he had ever done a session with me back in the old days, in the ’50s. He was remembering one particular session which was a possibility, and he said, “All I remember about that session is that the producer wanted no echo.” And I said, “If the producer wanted no echo, it must have been me.” I have a feeling about natural sounds. If anything, I can be accused of being too dry. My philosophy of sound with jazz is that the sound is only a means to deliver the performance.

    DL: You say in your book, The View From Within, that club owners are the last to know talent.

    OK: Yes, although I might want to revise that and say that although they are the last, they may still be a little bit ahead of the critics. I’ve always been very suspicious of record reviewers and critics. As a producer I consider most reviewers my natural enemy. I’m aware that it’s much more attention-getting to be negative; people remember bad reviews a hell of a lot more than they remember good reviews. And a good review is just saying an artist and the producer were effective, whereas in a bad review, [the reviewer] is saying ‘I am more discerning and I am more clever than either the artist or the producer.’

    DL: You are a big discoverer of talent …

    OK: I’m a pretty good developer of talent, I’m a pretty good acceptor of recommendations for talent when it’s at early stages, but on principle, I don’t know that anyone ever really discovers anybody.

    DL: There are people who are known throughout the world as major forces in jazz, whom you are responsible for having brought to the world. My question is whether you find them yourself, or, as was the case with Cannonball running into your office and saying, “You have to go to Indianapolis and hear Wes Montgomery.” When you first hear them, how do you know that they’re going to be big? What do you listen for?

    OK: I knew Cannonball and knew he was not the type to go running off at the mouth about anything. So I knew it was a very serious recommendation. I flew out to Indianapolis, and sat down at the bar where Wes was playing, and I would say that it took me between 14 and 20 seconds to realize that I was in the presence of something goddamned important. The first time I heard Thelonious Monk, I heard a test pressing of his first session for Blue Note, and I knew I was in presence of something special.

    DL: How?

    OK: Invariably, it is someone with an individual voice, somebody who sounds like himself on that instrument. I would also say that it’s someone whose obvious passion for what he’s doing makes itself known to you; you just hear the music and you are hearing passion, you are hearing creativity, you are hearing the cry of an artist. So it seems like it’s all happening instinctively and swiftly like a flash of lightning, but what’s actually happening is that your taste, your experience, your judgment, are all constantly operating within you and then something comes along which strikes you as being an embodiment of all these things together.

    DL: Have you ever missed the boat on anybody who later became really big?

    OK: I did pass on Coltrane at one point, although everyone else did at the time, too. I heard Coltrane in the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-‘50s, with Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums), and I heard what was really a rather ordinary, young bebop tenor player. Which is exactly what everybody else was hearing at that time. I was really very busy listening to Miles for the first time, and listening to Philly for the first time, and that was about all I had room for.

    DL: Was there anyone whom you heard and said “That’s it!” but it didn’t happen? Famous failures?

    OK: There were a number of people I thought would be wonderful and they weren’t. In the sense of their not becoming major stars. I still have not figured out why the very first person I ever recorded, Randy Weston, never got bigger. Now Randy Weston has been on the scene for upwards of 35 years, and he is recognized as a superior artist, but he’s never been a star, he’s never been famous to people outside the jazz world. And I never could understand why; I thought Randy had absolutely everything.

    There are really two steps to the discovery of genius. One is to hear it for the first time and to know it, and the other is to eventually have a significant amount of public and or critical agreement about your excitement.

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