Friday , May 17 2024
Matt Pierson in the studio

Exclusive Interview: Jazz Producer Matt Pierson on Jazz Over the Decades and the Joy of Samara Joy’s Grammy Wins

When chanteuse Samara Joy became only the second jazz artist to win a Best New Artist Grammy Award and her album Linger Awhile picked up a 2023 Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy, no one could have been happier than Matt Pierson, the man behind the scenes.

In one sense, the album’s win had been a long time coming for Pierson. He had worked on other Grammy-winning recordings as executive producer and in other roles. And as a producer he’d received six previous nominations.

But this was the first recording Pierson had produced that won, giving him his first actual statue.

As he was Joy’s producer and manager, her awards meant a lot to him. Of course, as he told Blogcritics in an email interview, the Best New Artist win is “an award for the artist, not the recording.” But he added, “in addition to the fact that Samara is obviously deserving based on her talent, it shows that the team we’ve assembled and partners we’ve worked with have stepped up to successfully launch her career. So as her manager, I’m very grateful and honored that she won.”

A Career in Jazz and Beyond

Pierson has associated with musical royalty for decades. As a young man he worked as a session trumpeter, playing with the likes of Julio Iglesias, Bob James, and Miami Sound Machine. His entry into the business side of jazz came in the late ’80s, when he joined Blue Note Records, where he worked in production and A&R. Later he joined Warner Bros. Records, where he signed and produced major acts like Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau and worked with stars like George Benson, Michael Franks, and Al Jarreau.

Since going independent in 2004, he’s consulted for music industry titans and worked as producer and manager for a great many prominent artists and projects. They’re all meaningful to him. “I’m enthusiastic about every artist and project I work with – if not, I wouldn’t be involved,” he says. He mentions producing Robert Randolph’s Grammy-nominated Got Soul as one highlight. “I think we were able to represent his artistic vision in a very strong, focused way, while bringing in a few guests (Anthony Hamilton, Darius Rucker, Cory Henry, etc.) who expanded that vision in a very organic way.”

Pierson also mentioned two projects with Kirk Whalum (The Babyface Songbook and Everything is Everything: The Music of Donny Hathaway) that “present [Whalum] in a wonderful light as one of the great interpreters of his time.

“More recently, Two Brothers by Chico Pinheiro and Romero Lubambo is a recording that I keep going back to myself, something that if I hadn’t produced I’d still keep in my regular rotation at home.” And he found producing jazz guitarist extraordinaire Pasquale Grasso’s series of solo and trio recordings for Sony Masterworks very rewarding, as they “have documented the work of an extraordinary artist wonderfully.”

Measure Twice, Cut Once

But what goes into recording an award-worthy jazz album? In an age of digital multitracking, Auto-Tune, and now AI, does the live, organic sound we associate with jazz still arise from musicians playing all together in the studio, much as they would in a club?

For jazz or any genre, Pierson said, “It’s always been the same basic process. First of all a lot of focus is on pre-production/preparation, so that when the time comes to press ‘record,’ everyone is on the same page in terms of the specific details being worked out, all of the musical and personal relationships have been locked in, and everyone is ready to focus on the artist’s vision.

Matt Pierson
Matt Pierson

“In terms of the actual recording process, I first make solid technical choices to document musicians purely, making sure that sight lines and monitoring allow for everyone to overcome the inherent drawbacks of studio isolation (on both audio and psychological levels).

“When that’s in place, my approach can then be all about recording as much of the music live in the studio as possible. The live interaction and emotional content is at the core of any recording I’m a part of, and those are elements that must exist live, can’t be ‘fixed in the mix.'”

The March of Technology

Still, a lot has changed in recording studios over the years. Reflecting on his long career, Pierson said, “I started working on analog tape, then digital tape, then finally on ProTools.

“I feel that when in the wrong hands, technological advancements can easily be abused – either through de-humanizing the recording process, or by over-editing and obsessing over too many specific issues, thus sucking the life out of performances!

“However, since I’m a musician and do my best to lead with emotion and story-telling, I [also] find that these tools can allow me to draw the listener’s attention/focus into the most emotionally connective elements of an artist’s vision.”

What about home recording? Is the professional recording studio itself something of a dinosaur? “The advent of home recording, combined with artist’s ability to self-produce, often takes the role of the producer and/or A&R person out of the process,” Pierson said. “So there is no longer a ‘translator’ to assist in putting what is truly most important front and center.

“The isolation that is so common these days (mainly thanks to smartphones and social media) has crept into the artistic process. So many artists find it easier to create in a vacuum. In the case of jazz and jazz-adjacent music in particular, this can greatly restrict how relatable/accessible the music can be.

“This shift in priorities from relating to an audience to performing for yourself and your peers has become a major drawback, and it risks becoming a terminal problem for the health of the music.”

Piles of Music

But jazz is not on its deathbed. Quite the opposite, in my experience – as a reviewer I receive a steady stream of new jazz releases all year round. This suggests the state of jazz might be pretty healthy overall.

Pierson agreed: “I think there is a LOT of fantastic music being recorded, released, and of course performed live,” he told me.

“There are two main issues and concerns now when compared to 20-plus years ago. First, there’s a lack of trusted gatekeepers, tastemakers who can make informed suggestions about which of the hundreds or recordings that are released every week are worthy of a listener’s time. It’s so rare that artists of vision and quality like Samara Joy or Billie Eilish can break through.”

Pierson reflects on the long view, too: “Perhaps the biggest issue (at least in the jazz community) is a lack of true mentorship. Young artists have limited opportunities to connect with masters, and the ‘gospel’ of jazz is not being handed down directly, which has always been essential to the music’s health.”

All Ears

The huge amount of music being continuously released certainly still includes a lot of jazz. The stalagmites of CDs all over my apartment are a testament to that. So who’s listening? ‘Up until recently,” Pierson said, “it’s fallen into two basic categories: existing jazz fans (who are mainly old white guys like me) and crossover from fans of other genres (which varies depending on the artist).

Piles of jazz CDs

“If your artist makes the right recording,” Pierson went on, “your vision is a bridge between jazz and another existing audience, and you do the work to get the music in front of both audiences, success can follow.

“However, most interestingly, we now actually have what has become the third leg to the table: social media and other web-based opportunities. Although there is often a lot of luck and/or novelty involved, this is the area where if a great artist is willing to do the work, great music can reach a much wider and varied audience.”

As Samara Joy is doing today, thanks only in part to those Grammy wins.

As for Pierson, he’s not resting on these or any other laurels. “I’ve just completed [trumpeter] Bria Skonberg’s newest recording, titled What It Means. We recorded in New Orleans with drummer Herlin Riley and several other NOLA regulars, and it presents her in a wonderful light, a major career statement.”

He’s also just put the finishing touches on the debut recording from Stella Cole, “a terrific young traditional pop vocalist” who’s also a TikTok sensation.

From analog tape to TikTok, Pierson has seen it all in the world of jazz. It was a thrill when Samara Joy netted those Grammys, but prizes aren’t the prize. Good music is, and Matt Pierson isn’t taking his eye off it.

About Cristina del Toboso