Michael Vlatkovich with his art and trombones and palm tree — April 30, 2o12 Culver City, CA — photos by Mark Weber
MICHAEL VLATKOVICH cd MORTALITY (pfMENTUM Records cd091) released in early 2015
Recorded interview July 5, 2015 at Studio 725 Albuquerque. Regarding first track on cd MORTALITY entitled “Adeptly Disguised at Chairs and Tables the Audience Listened Quietly”
I once asked Michael many years ago if slicing & dicing, editing, overdubbing, flying in, and pruning a track was organic to him. He said, yes it was. So, I thought it would be revealing to document his process in the studio. This album (cd) MORTALITY is a masterpiece.
It’s almost like there are two Michael Vlatkovich’s. One is the purveyor of spontaneous improvisation in performance. And the other is his desire in the studio to create music that conforms to a preconceived idea. And then Michael’s trombone is again another aspect of his being: He’s an old-school romantic who’s solos generally follow the path of narrative lyric statements. Like Dottie Grossman used to say: “Every time Michael solos on the trombone he’s got his heart on his sleeve.” His love of Gil Evans is well known, and his respect for Oliver Nelson and Mingus never far away.
Michael has always knocked me out as a guy who can spot a wrong note in the most densest music. He takes jobs as a rehearsal conductor at times. Makes his living writing charts for Latin bands in Southern California. Was employed by the Les Brown Estate to restore missing parts in the library of that crack band (I learned from Michael that that band is one to measure other big bands against). So, his wellsprings are deep.
MORTALITY session musicians: Michael Vlatkovich — trombone / Dan Clucas — trumpet / Jill Torberson — French horn / Bill Plake — tenor saxophone / David Riddles — bassoon, flute, soprano sax, clarinet / Andrew Pask — alto & baritone saxophones, bass clarinet / Bill Roper — tuba, bombardondino / Harry Scorzo — violin / Jonathan Golove — cello / Tom McNalley — electric guitar / Dominic Genova — bass / Wayne Peet — engineer, piano, keyboard / Carol Sawyer — voice / Ken Park — all percussion
Tracklist: 1. adeptly disguised as chairs and tables the audience listened quietly — 9:08 2. as quickly as it came — 6:31 3. or do you have change for a $20 — 5:25 4. out of the wall and into the night — 5:27 5. sometimes a red nose and big shoes aren’t enough — 2:33 6. mortality — 11:32 7. hiding out as a verb — 5:49 8. goodbye — 7:06
I’m working on an in-depth essay regarding Michael’s MORTALITY project . . .
Do you happen to know all the dates for the recording sessions and the interim mixing-prep sessions?
He says there must have been ten over-all ———— ?
Regards, Mark in Albuquerque
Mark: It’s a little complicated because it was all done with overdubs.
I do have dates on most of the tracks’ comments column in screenshots of the tracks from Digital Performer [it’s how I do tracksheets now], you can piece it together from them. I also have the timesheet which has some details as to what each session was. See if this helps. If there is something still not clear, I can go into the individual audio files & see the dates when 1st recorded. Goodbye [AKA Cloudknitters] came from another project recorded 4-23-14, mixed 9-29-14
Michael Vlatkovich at 725 — photo by Sherrill King — September 2o12
MW: How many sessions were involved in this track?
MPV: We were doing all the tracks on the cd simultaneously, so it’s hard to say. But, my guess is that there were probably ten sessions. That’s not counting the editing sessions and everything else.
MW: Were the sessions strategic, in that you had to start with a bottom track?
MPV: Yeh, I try to record something that is relatable to everybody, so in this case, the first session was two woodwinds and a trumpet. It was also suppose to be tuba but tuba cancelled. So, it was just the three musicians, Andrew Pask, Bill Plake, and Dan Clucas.
MW: And then the subsequent sessions were all within the next week, day to day?
MPV: No, it took months, because there were people coming from out of town. The cellist lives in Buffalo, New York. The French horn lives in Portland, Oregon. The singer lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. So, there were people coming from around the country.
MW: And the next session?
MPV: I’m not certain but I think the next session was drums, bass, and guitar, and some of me, I did some soloing. That was the next session as I recall.
MW: And this all took place in the year 2015?
MW: Or 2o14?
MPV: Yes. [Laughter] I’ll say Yes to anything. I don’t remember when we started, but I do remember that Carol (Sawyer) came in August, so we probably started in May, or something, maybe.
MW: So, that would be 2014. And so you had continuous sessions where you added layers? And when you had them over-dubbing were they hearing all the previous layers or just the first 3 guys?
MPV: Well, because the ensemble was 3 trumpets, 4 woodwinds, violin, cello, 2 French horns, elaborate percussion, and so forth, uhm . . . . . it was necessary, when the person who played a specific instrument came in to do what was specific to their part, regardless of whether it had been recorded yet or not. So, we were adding to what was originally recorded plus making new music, putting the puzzle together as we added people.
MW: So, what I’m saying is: that if you had ten recording sessions, say, when you got to the eighth session were the musicians playing to all the previous sessions?
MPV: Ah, yes, where it was necessary, although, there were times when it was best for them not to hear what was going on [laughter] because it was just too confusing.
MW: So, Dan Clucas played all 3 trumpet parts?
MPV: He played all 3 trumpet parts on that particular track.
MW: And he did all 3 passes at that first session?
MPV: Yes, he did all three.
MW: And the French horn did the same for both parts?
MPV: Well, the French horn was . . . well . . .with everyone there were exceptions to all of this. When I originally played, this music was done for a specific 2 concerts that occurred in Monmouth, and the instrumentation changed from what I had written. So, originally there was only one French horn, and I added a French horn who played the bass parts of the other bass that was suppose to be on the concerts. So, from the very beginning the orchestrations on this piece have changed in various ways to accomodate the new musicians and to restore what was missing.
MW: Monmouth is where?
MPV: It’s a school west of Portland, Oregon, on the way to the coast.
MW: Were these 7 pieces of music all written in 2o14?
MPV: No, no, no. “Out of the Wall and into the Night” was on my first record so it was written probably around 1980. “As Quickly as it Came” was written probably around that same time as well. “Goodbye” was written in 2o14 but the others were probably from 2003 or something.
MW: Even “Mortality”? I always thought it was because of your father’s recent passing that you had written “Mortality.”
MPV: No, I actually was thinking about Steve Fowler when I wrote that piece, when he died. [Steve Fowler, saxophonist died August 17, 2o10 in Burbank of ALS at age 61]
MW: Who were you thinking about on “Adeptly Disguised”?
MPV: Well, I was thinking about all of the performances I have done [laughter] where nobody was there.
MW: Tell us about Wayne Peet’s contributions.
MPV: Well, Wayne Peet is unusual, because, I recorded the music that we did at that concert, and realized it really wasn’t enough for a CD. And earlier I had recorded a duet with Wayne — something for an installation for a Belgian artist — and I thought that would work well to include that with the other compositions. So, since I had decided to include that with the other musicians I thought it odd that Wayne was playing on just the one thing, so, I decided to add Wayne to the orchestrations to most all of the tracks.
MW: What was the tune where you had various people take a stab at a certain solo?
MPV: That was “Mortality.”
MW: Who were the other soloists?
MPV: Well, I did it. Dan Clucas. Jonathan Golove. And Harry Scorzo.
MW: And then you settled on Wayne’s version?
[ We listen to composition “Adeptly Disguised as Chairs and Tables the Audience Listened Quietly” track 1 on cd MORTALITY ]
MW: [at :37 – :39] What was that sound?
MPV: I don’t know which sound you’re talking about. The swell was the trumpets.
MW: It sounded like backwards tracking.
MPV: No, it was just the trumpets swelling.
MPV: This was done at the 2nd session [ie. the trombone solo at 1:36 – 5:00 w/ drums and bass] The extra percussion was added later. The drums, bass, and trombone were done on the 2nd session here. Tom McNally was there, I don’t know why he didn’t play on this part.
MW: Is Tom on this track?
MW: And this percussionist, Ken Park, you’ve used before?
MW: Yes, he’s on PARLOR GAMES (2oo2).
MPV: The only people who are improvising during this part [5:00 – ] is the percussion and Carol. Everything else is written. There’s probably eight overdubs of percussion on this part [at 6:40]. A lot of percussion. Congas, bells, timbales, a lot of Latin percussion.
MW: And Tom’s guitar solo is obviously improvised [starts at 6:39].
MPV: Yeh, Tom played with just the drumset and the bass.
MW: Did she say “Holy cow”? [at 7:56 while Tom is wailing on electric guitar]
MPV: Yeh, Holy cow, look at the guy go! [laughter].
MW: How many sections are there on this written music?
MPV: Well, there’s the first section which occurs three times. There’s the 2nd section, you could call it the trombone solo. And then after that section you go back to the previous Section A. This section A has a few modifications. Then it goes to what I guess would be called a shout chorus, which was hard to mix because there’s these 2 conflicting parts. We finally, we tried it where we put each part on right and left, and I didn’t think it sounded particularly good so we ended up putting them together so that some of the people are on the left side and some are on the right side. And then that goes into the guitar solo, and the guitar solo, that form is, it starts 16 bars, and then goes 8 bars, and then it goes 4 bars. And then we’re back to Section A again for the ending, with a modification. Actually, the Section A the last time is played with the original Section A and also the modifications that occurred on the Section A the second time, so it has everything the third time.
MW: When you have modifications like that do you call them A2, and A3?
MPV: Well, I just put: Play First Time Only, play second time only. That was how it was written out.
MW: The score itself was written for the Monmouth performance. So, the score has sat around for quite awhile before you did this project.
MPV: “As Quickly as it Came” was originally written as a solo piano piece. Which made it nice because then I had some music for Wayne to play. I just orchestrated the piano piece.
MW: So, on this track, how many parts are there?
MPV: Well, there’s everybody. It’s the same orchestration, there’s the 3 trumpets, all of the woodwinds, and so forth . . . .
MW: Did you double the trombone parts?
MPV: Well, on the original performance there was a tenor trombone and a bass trombone, and the bass trombone was changed to tuba (for the recording). There is only one trombone, with exception, sometimes I was playing the French horn parts because there wasn’t time to do all the French horn stuff.
MW: So, there’s 14 musicians . . . .
MPV: But there’s many more parts.
MW: Wow, it’s almost too much to count. Did Andrew Pask take several passes himself?
MPV: Yeh, he played baritone saxophone, alto sax, and bass clarinet. The only one of the woodwinds who didn’t double was Bill Plake, he just played the tenor saxophone parts, of which I believe there was only one.
MW: And did Jonathan on cello take several passes?
MPV: No, he just played his part. There were a couple places where he did add a note here or there, but that was pretty rare.
MW: So, if you add the 7 percussion parts, there’s 27 parts.
MPV: Well, there was a lot. And David Riddles played bassoon on this. I’ve known David a really long time, since 1975. He’s on my first album. He does volumes and volumes of studio work.
MW: So, still, that means 27 parts.
MW: So, on a track like this one, how many mixing sessions were there?
MPV: Well, every time we did a session we had to go in and edit, because we had to prepare for the next group of people that were coming in. We had to make adjustments.
MW: So, you had a mix session AFTER each recording session. This is becoming more complicated that I thought.
MPV: It was logistically very complicated, yes. It was like what I imagine doing a music video is. People have all these little segments of video and somebody has to keep track of everybody, where they are, and then they use them in the appropriate spots. Yes, it was very complicated. Wayne did an exceptionally good job. And we spent time organizing it. We did click maps, because the click doesn’t stay constant. There’s different tempos. There’s places where there aren’t click and places where there are. We had to leave spaces for things that hadn’t happened, yet.
MW: What were the click maps for, just for you to clarify things during the mix?
MPV: We needed clicks for people to play so that everybody was agreeing on a tempo. Because the rhythm section was not first.
MW: So, Wayne fed them the click track down their headphone.
MPV: Yes, and the click would modulate, it would get faster and slower.
MW: So, the mapping was done to what already existed in the recording?
MPV: We mapped it before we even started. We had a good idea what was going to happen, but there were improvisational sections that we didn’t have mapped out because we didn’t know what was going to happen. Regarding the music, we had stuff already done so that when they came in they just played that section of music.
MW: How long were the recording sessions?
MPV: Well, they were long. They took eight hours. I mean there was a whole lot of stuff to do. That’s a lot of people to record [laughter].
MW: So, when you brought in Harry Scorzo, who did he record with?
MPV: I think he recorded with Jonathan Golove, but I’m not sure.
MW: And that would be an 8-hour session?
MPV: Well, possibly, not necessarily for him specifically because he didn’t have as much to do as some of the other people. You know, it’s complicated, the music was extremely difficult in some places, so it was tough getting them to play it.
MW: So, you’d throw up the red flag quite often?
MPV: Yeh, we did it in sections, absolutely.
MW: Which means you had a very clear idea of what you wanted, down to the second.
MPV: Well, there’s usually always a point in the project where I don’t know what in the world is going on, but, it becomes clear after awhile, it becomes obvious what should happen. It’s just difficult finding people who are very creative, yet, are very capable musicians in terms of their technique and experience. It’s hard to find people who can do both equally well. Usually what happens is they have one strength over the other and you have to adapt to their abilities and make it work.
MW: For Ken Park’s eight passes, did that all happen in one day?
MPV: Yes. Well, he came in and did the percussion overdubs, the non-pitched stuff and pitched percussion, he did that all in one day.
MW: So, he did a first pass with the drumset and then he came back and did the overdubs?
MPV: Yeh, he did drums the first time and then he came back and did percussion.
MW: Tell us about Dominic Genova.
MPV: He’s an exceptional bass player. Both him and Ken Park were in the first band I had, so I’ve known both of them since 1973 and have played with them since 1973.
MW: And the French horn Jill Torberson you know from Portland, Oregon.
MPV: Yes. She’s mostly a visual artist, works with metal, she’s a welder.
MW: Let’s talk about the cover of MORTALITY. You said the picture of the house was not the house that you grew up in in St Louis?
MPV: No, I forget exactly when that house was purchased but my guess would be around 1976. I grew up in Affton, which is in St Louis County. This house (on the cover) is in the city — South St Louis, which was behind Bishop DeBourg High School, on Rhodes Avenue. The car is actually the neighbor’s car. Yes [laughter] we got the image from Google Earth.
MW: So, was the very last recording session the piano with Wayne Peet?
MPV: Yes. I think Carol might have been the one before, she was 2nd-to-last.
MW: When did it occur to you that you needed to put piano on all the other tracks?
MPV: Truth be known I wouldn’t have used the piano had it not been for the fact that I used that duo piece. But in retrospect the piano certainly added a tremendous amount to the orchestration. That celeste on “Quickly as It Came” was really a great addition. And playing the inside of the piano on “Change for a $20” was really great addition and helped the transition back to the thematic material. So, there were all sorts of reasons to have a piano on the recording.
MW: And that’s that Steinway that’s behind him (at the mix board) in the recording studio? That’s piled high with sheet music on top of it.
MPV: Yes. The microphones are always there, inside the piano, so it’s not an issue of having to clear the piano.
MW: Where is the celeste:
MPV: The celeste was just a keyboard, it’s not a real celeste.
MW: So, what’s the intent for this composition “Disguised as Chairs”?
MPV: Well, this is the answer I always give for everything, and it’s really the truth: I always want the title, or subject — it could be either one — in this case it was the title, to have some relationship to the music rather than this ethereal thing. So, I transposed all of the letters of the title into musical pitches and created a row and built the composition based on the title. And as far as what comes out, it’s however in the world I can get that particular row to make some sort of sense to me. So, it ended up in this configuration. I mean, I had an idea of what the instrumentation was going to be so I knew the orchestration and all that sort of thing, so I just had to figure out how in the world to get the row to work and the apply it and orchestrate it for that instrumentation.
MW: Is the A Section the row?
MW: And the subsequent sections?
MPV: The subsequent sections are the row, with the exception of the shout chorus, and the solo section of course is not the row, neither the guitar solo or the trombone solo. Although, the refrain that’s in between the guitar solo is part of the row.
MW: What does Michael Vlatkovich mean by shout chorus?
MPV: Well, it’s a big band term, and usually they play the theme, and then there’s solos, and after the solos, there’s usually a shout chorus which is the high point of the piece, and then after the shout chorus they go back and play the theme, and then it ends.
MW: So, when all is said and done, your music is written with the intent of having musicians open up and play?
MPV: Well, all of my music is created with the hopes that I’ll experience what I have experienced listening to other people’s music, that’s what it’s all about for me. I’m trying to relive experiences that I’ve had listening to other people’s music. I’m trying to recreate those experiences for me.
MW: An example?
MPV: Well, SVENGALI, Gil Evans that I just love, would certainly be one, I just find amazing. Billy Harper’s solos on some of those tunes, that one ballad in particular. That was a live recording at some church in New York. So, it’s just music that has touched me in some way. My hope is to recreate that. [Gil Evans album SVENGALI, 1973, on Atlantic, with the ballad “Cry of Hunger”)
MW: Do you listen to your own music at home?
MPV: I certainly listen to them quite a bit when I’m involved in the project to figure out what in the world is going to happen and then on occasion I will listen to the products to reconfirm how I feel about them.
MW: On the MORTALITY sessions and this track in particular you have to make concessions and compromises, are there some that you regret?
MPV: There’s no real regrets. The thing that I have always found mysterious is, that the first rendition of the A Section doesn’t sound right to me, and the second rendition and the third rendition sound correct to me but for some reason the first rendition doesn’t sound correct, and I don’t know why.
MW: In terms of blending horns, let’s talk about that some more, you say it comes pretty easy.
MPV: Well, Wayne does that more than I do. I mean, the biggest problem we had was where in the world to put the voice — I thought we had the voice too loud a lot of the time, particularly when the voice was doing trumpet or some other instrumental part — on “As Quickly as It Came,” was one of those. But, Wayne usually takes care of that stuff.
MW: Is the raising of certain instruments within the orchestration an approach you work with. Mostly, it sounds like everything is blended equal. And besides, that’s a whole other can of worms if you start coloring your orchestration like that. Adjusting the levels of certain horns, there’s no end to that.
MPV: Yeh, it can be an ugly road to go down. It’s more about the foreground, the background, and the middle ground, and what’s more important, what’s less important, that sort of strategy. And then of course the stereo field, where you place things. That shout chorus was really problematic, because of the independence, to find a way for both of those parts to sound, because they’re so frantic.
MW: And these two lines are different?
MPV: Yes, a certain number of instruments are playing one line, and a certain number of instruments playing another, in counterpoint. And it’s twice as fast. Because the tempo.
MW: When you wrote the score did you put a tempo indication on the parts:
MPV: Yes. But, some of the sections are tremendously faster than we played it live.
MW: Was that a good thing?
MPV: Well, it had it’s advantages and disadvantages [laughter] I mean, people couldn’t play it! So it gave it a real frantic quality.
Michael Vlatkovich Quartet in performance at Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque — May 19, 2003 — Chris Garcia (drums), Jonathan Golove (elec-cello), Michael Vlatkovich (trombone), David Mott (baritone saxophone) — photo by Mark Weber
Michael Vlatkovich 7-tet rehearsing at Chris Garcia’s folk’s home in East L.A. — September 15, 1993 — photo by Mark Weber — Bill Plake (tenor), Rob Blakeslee (trumpet), Vinny Golia (clarinet), MPV (trombone), William Roper (tuba), Anders Swanson (bass), Chris Garcia (drums)
ion Zoo: Lisa Miller (piano), Clyde Reed (bass), Carol Sawyer (voice), Steve Bagnell (bass clarinet) at Prophouse Cafe, Vancouver BC — June 27, 2o12 — photo by Mark Weber
Take no prisoners tenor saxophonist (& flutist) of inexplicable and astonishing proportions Bill Plake — Hermosa Beach pier — June 7, 1997 — photo by Mark Weber
Wayne Peet conducting the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble — March 14, 1982 at UCLA Schoenberg Hall rehearsal for performance that night — photo by Mark Weber — (John Carter on clarinet is in foreground)
Wayne Peet at Newzone Studio, Los Angeles — August 10, 2013 — photo by Mark Weber
Carol Sawyer is going Canadian in a big way (she’s an American expat living in Vancouver BC) — March 7, 2o12 — photo by Mark Weber in Vancouver
Bobby Bradford & Tom McNalley on a blistering hot day in Mendocino County — May 15, 2008 — photo by Mark Weber
Violinist maestro Harry Scorzo — October 26, 2009 Suoth Pasadena, California — photo by Mark Weber
Michael Vlatkovich — September 16, 1993 — photo by Mark Weber