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In The Studio - Modern Drummer Magazine - October 2000 issue

Paul Wertico - "Scared" In The Recording Studio

Story by Ted Bonar


This is not your mother's jazz recording! Nor was it meant to be. Paul Wertico, long known as Pat Metheny's first-rate cymbal man, is busting at the seams over his new CD, "Don't Be Scared Anymore" (Premonition), just as he was when he put his dense, intense music to tape during the summer of 1999.

"I've always enjoyed doing solo projects over the years," explains Wertico. "But my trio [including Eric Hochberg on bass and John Moulder on guitar] has really gelled over the last few years. The time was perfect to go in the studio and really so something to document that chemistry."

Paul says the circumstances surrounding the sessions were ideal. Wertico didn't have a label at the time, and therefore was not beholden to anyone's vision other than his own. Things really gelled when Reelsounds studio owner Mark Brunner invited Paul to come over to record and test out his new recording facility. "To have total freedom to try things out in the studio was a joy and a luxury," Paul says. "I was able to make the record I wanted."

In addition to tapping into that creative freedom, Wertico's vision was to utilize his three-piece band to create a thick, intense wall of music that would satisfy his vast musical influences. "People know me as a cymbal guy with a nice touch, and that's great. But on this record I wanted to finally capture my total musical vision, not just as a drummer, but also as a bandleader, producer, and composer. That included some really intense stuff."

Another variable in the mix was the fact that the other two members of Wertico's trio are incredibly busy working musicians. "In one sense, I had a great luxury because of the artistic freedom," he says. "In another sense, my hand was slightly forced into an unorthodoxed recording method because of the time constraints of my band." Consequently, The Paul Wertico Trio broke about every rule in the jazz book while making this record.

"We pretty much did everything in an unorthodox manner," Paul says. "Out of the twelve tunes, only four were cut with everybody playing simultaneously-and even then we couldn't see each other." What's even more fascinating is the fact that roughly eighty percent was played to a click track and…gasp…overdubbed!

"The drum parts went down first," Wertico explains. "I would go into the studio and set up a click and a shaker part, and I'd just go for it on the drums. I've always been at home playing to a click, and I feel that laying the drum parts down in this manner gave me more freedom to produce all the other parts later. I've always been a form-oriented player, and since I knew the forms of the songs, as well as the vibe I was going for, after I decided how many choruses would be improvised, I just had to play along with the song in my mind.

"The click tracks were used extensively to keep everything solid," Paul continues, "as well as to have something to play along with. I also wanted to be able to give my full attention to the overdubbing of guitar and bass parts after the initial drum parts went down. I wanted to add layers and layers of sound, so using the click ensured that the basic tracks had perfect meter in which to build off of. I felt confident that since the music was so adventurous, and that as a band we play so well together, the outcome wouldn't be stiff at all."

Mark Brunner, who also engineered the session (and who is a drummer as well), brings up a fascinating point about the layering process and his view of the songs as they developed. "When Paul would play his tracks-and all but one of the drum tracks was a first take-I had no idea what was happening, because I couldn't hear the song. The click and the drum track didn't mean anything to me. But as the guitar and bass parts added their layers and solos, the tracks-and the perfection of the tempos-slowly revealed themselves to me. It was really a fascinating way to learn how important tempos are to the excitement and success of a song and how Paul found those tempos with just a click. I also couldn't believe that Paul could solo over the form in odd meters with just a click, such as the over-the-top 'free-form over the form' soloing in the five at the beginning and end of 'African Sunset.'

The click helped keep things together and fresh because the musicians embraced it rather than fought with it. Wertico explains, "The tracks have plenty of life even with the click. We were doing odd meters and building choruses all over this record, but the click just helped free me to make the music I wanted because I imagined so many things for this record." Wertico is referring not only to the multiple bass and guitar parts, but also the many layers of percussion he added to some cuts after recording the initial from tracks.

Regarding the record's opening track, "Clybourn Strut," Paul states, "That song is really the perfect opening track. It's kind of a second-line New Orleans groove, but since I'm from Chicago, not New Orleans, it's sort of a 'second-city second-line.' After laying down the drum tracks, I overdubbed three passes of percussion-timbales, tuned cowbells, and two metal studs that I found in the trash at the studio. I went for an almost Brazilian feel for the percussion parts."

Brunner expands on that topic: "This record was built from the ground up. On some tracks we have four separate bass layers, tons of guitar layers, multiple percussion tracks-and it all started with the drums leading the way with the click. The tracks would start very simply, and by the end, we had a kind of a 3-D trio record."

So how did Wertico ensure that the music would be exciting? One of the number-one rules of jazz, one would think, is that the band needs to play off one another in order to improvise collectively. "Live is great, no doubt, but we had already done a live record [Live In Warsaw! (Igmod)], so I knew that we knew how to do that. On this record, I really wanted to nail the drum parts."

This unusual approach to jazz is probably best exemplified in the making of the song "Long Journey's End." Brunner explains, "That song was brutal. Paul started playing a repetitive pattern, a la Ed Blackwell, on drums with an upbeat click. Before he started tracking he had told me just to keep running the tape and that he was going to see how long he could play the pattern. He laid down this absolutely blasting repetitive pattern for six-plus minutes. It was incredible." Wertico elaborates, "I was hoping to go for about three or four minutes, but I got into the groove and just kept hammering away." After the drum track was completed, the fun began with the percussion, bass, and guitar parts.

"We went right to the edge on that one," Wertico continues. "I layered two percussion tracks, then we added four bass tracks, with poor Eric having to play some pretty repetitive bass parts-both on upright and electric, some with electronic processing-for six minutes. Finally, it was time to add the guitar. John's such an emotional player, and he really got into it on this one. For the ending he looked up at me, and I was so excited about what he was playing that I just waved to him to keep going. The guitar sound is really distorted and thick."

Wertico finished off by layering some huge cymbal swells to add to the cacophony, overlapping a chaotic track during the few moments of relative calm. And indeed, the track is exciting and enduring. Upon listening, it's obvious that the layering approach worked to the benefit of the music. The effect is that after six and a half minutes of outright onslaught with the full band, the guitar picks up the gauntlet for another minute or so with some of the best feedback soloing this side of Hendrix. " I wanted that kind of intensity for that piece, as well as a trance-like quality. When you listen to the track with headphones on, it feels like your racing through time and space. I feel that we were able to capture the magic because of the overdubbing and layering, not in spite of it."

However, even the tracks that weren't layered still weren't done "traditionally" in any sense. On the quirky, Ornette Coleman-inspired waltz, "Justa Little Tuna," while playing the track as a group live to a click, the trio purposely included "mistakes." "I wanted a light-hearted piece to relieve all this intensity," Paul recalls, "something that has some humor. On one fill I dropped my stick on a microphone, on some others I fall completely out of time. I really wanted that drums-falling-down-stairs effect. Again, because it was recorded to a click, I think the track is even more effective."

Brunner also adds, chuckling, "One of the purposes of this project was to satisfy Paul's twisted mind. What was beautiful was that he made a point to include everything that felt or sounded good, despite whether or not there was a technical difficulty. There was never a time where the vibe was sacrificed for the technique. It was always the other way around."

"You know, as a result of this process I generally had less to worry about," Paul explains with a laugh. "I didn't have to worry at all about whether I was locked with the bass!" What came out of this multi-layered jazz process is very definitely a locked feel.

The craziest of all the tunes is the final track of the album, "Testament." It has five totally different parts, and was completely cut 'n' pasted together. Says Brunner, "I didn't know where this song was going when they first started laying that down. We recorded chunks of music and put them next to each other. In one of the sections where they were recording live, Paul was playing a very rock-type pattern with all sorts of kicks and arrangements, and he gave me a cue to cut off the click. Then they went into this outside, free-form soloing section with double bass licks and skronky guitar all over the place. That part went from being totally in time to totally 'outside.' It wasn't until we mastered the CD that all the parts came together for me as a song. When all the parts were pasted together, it just worked beautifully."

According to Wertico, "excitement" was a main ingredient in the recording process. "Everyone involved was excited and believed in this project," Paul asserts, "and we were all committed to this process of trying to make a jazz record differently. There wasn't one moment when I questioned the decision to record in this manner. Because of the talent and the vibe of the people involved, I knew that we would come up with something special. The process felt free and liberating. That's what makes this music so rewarding to me."

Brunner explains another vital ingredient to making this record: "We had fun. The sessions were so relaxed. The record was recorded over a three-week period, averaging four nights a week of studio time. But that was all after-hours and not nearly all of it was intense playing. We relaxed, ate, drank, smoked some cigars. We found the vibe. We took our time making a record fast."

As for the drumming, it's inspiring. Wertico's long-held reputation as a cymbal master will not be tarnished with this effort, but the overall sound is more versatile and intense &endash; and well, louder than some may expect. Unique grooves, a slow bluesy backbeat, solos in five and seven, free-form excursions, double bass drum flurries, overdubbed percussion, and a Bonham-type hip-hop groove are all included here. "I grew up listening to everything I could get my hands on," Paul says, "from solo drum recordings by Andrew Cyrille, to Hendrix and Keith Moon, to lots of ethnic music, to the heyday of fusion, to Steve Reich &endash; you name it. Oasis is one of my favorite bands right now &endash; that wall-of-sound from the guitars! I wanted some of all of that on this album."

Wertico obviously loves his music and the process of creating. "A lot of people know me for my flat-ride playing," he says. "I love playing that way. But as I look back on this record, I set up my flat ride for the recording … and didn't play it once!"

But after all of the rule breaking during the making of this album, Wertico still managed to follow a few. "I broke some rules about how to make a jazz record from a technical recording aspect. But the rules of music stay. Vibe. Feeling. Chemistry. Space. Intensity. Commitment. It's all there."

All except the flat ride, that is.

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