Joe Henry talks the open-window approach to 'Reverie'
Joe Henry recalls a crystallizing experience more than a dozen years ago at a Miles Davis concert at the Greek Theatre, a revelation about Davis’ musical aesthetic that cropped up during a moment when the great jazz trumpeter wasn’t playing a note.
Henry seems to recall with perfect clarity every detail about the incident, which was precipitated by Davis’ struggles with a microphone that was clipped to the bell of his horn.
“I could tell that something was irritating him because he kept looking toward the side of the stage to the young man who was mixing the [stage] monitors,” Henry told Pop & Hiss on Monday. “Finally, Miles stopped the band. He spoke into that microphone and called the young man out to the middle of the stage. Miles said very clearly, ‘When I play quiet, I want it to be quiet.’ Then he sent the young man back to his post.
“What was happening onstage was what happens a lot in the audience,” Henry said, “where more often than not somebody is working very hard at the mixing board to unify the sound that’s coming off the stage. But maybe the dynamics and the balance of the music don’t want to be unified.”
It’s an idea that will be in play -- even if people in the audience aren’t consciously aware of it -- when Henry appears Tuesday night at Largo at the Coronet, where he’ll be playing his new album, “Reverie,” in its entirety on the day of its release, with the same core players with whom he recorded it at his home studio in South Pasadena. That group includes pianist Keefus Ciancia, bassist David Piltch, drummer Jay Bellerose and guest keyboardist Patrick Warren.
The album is a deeply nuanced piece of music. In many respects, it's an impressionistic work whose poetically wistful character emerges from the interplay among musicians working in close proximity in real time, listening and responding to one another in the moment. In other words, the same way great jazz typically is created.
Henry previewed the recording at his home recently for musician friends and associates, including Lucinda Williams, Van Dyke Parks and Sam Phillips, along with a handful of music journalists. “I don’t do this sort of thing very often,” he said before putting the record -- vinyl, of course -- on his turntable. “In fact, I’ve never done this.”
For the live presentation, Henry said he’s moving away from relying on technology designed to make the sound consistent, because it often sacrifices the symbiotic musical dialogue among the players.
“We kind of forget that sound itself has meaning,” said Henry, who has released 11 studio albums of his own in addition to producing albums for a broadly eclectic group of musicians, including soul singer Solomon Burke, jazz musician-composer Mose Allison, R&B gospel singer Mavis Staples, singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, nouveau roots-folk trio the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the team of Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.
“In a changing world, why are you expecting this to get static, even, unchanging sound?”
Henry finds sonic inconsistency to be more human, and the human aspect of music making is more apparent on “Reverie” than most, which strives to isolate the outside world from the cloistered silence of the recording studio. Henry literally threw open the windows of his studio while recording to acknowledge and honor the connection he feels between his everyday life and his art.
“We learned from John Cage that there’s no such thing as silence,” he said. “The noise of the outer world did not distract from the music, it enhanced it. When I was listening back and I turned those microphones off from the sound mix, the songs were diminished; they were not as three-dimensional as they had been.”
In addition to the sonic aspect the ambient sounds brought to his songs, Henry valued the reminders of the real world they added.
“I’m a great admirer of W.C. [William Carlos] Williams, who was a working obstetrician and also was a poet,” he said. “He didn’t leave his vocation to go write poems; he lived a real life and wrote about it.
“I really believe that if I had ever become a rich and famous musician who could afford to hole up in a penthouse at the Ritz-Carlton to write songs, I’m sure I’d write nothing at all. I think real life is a driving force. I’m not an autobiographical writer, but the life I live produces the work. I don’t produce work despite demands on me as a parent, a spouse and a guy who has a lawn than needs mowing.”
Henry said it was on a visit to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, Spain, that the sound and form of “Reverie” took shape for him.
“It was at the beginning of a tour, and I had arrived at Barcelona, so I was jet-lagged, in that hallucinatory state. I walked over to the Picasso Museum with no particular agenda, and I was by myself. I was walking around in that sort of daze, looking at some of his very early drawings and paintings, many from when he was a teenager, on very small pieces of cardboard and wood.
“For whatever reason, I felt I knew immediately what I needed to do. I heard the sound of the record. I knew it would be all acoustic and stripped back to a small group of players. But I also knew it wouldn’t be demure. I knew it would be played aggressively, and make a passionate statement. I didn’t want it to be smaller because it was acoustic.”
A line in the song “Piano Furnace” seems to encapsulate that concept: “Let’s beat this guitar/It was meant to be heard/The way a confession is dragged out word by word/From out of the mouths/Of the sick and the cured."
“It was like that great early work of Picasso, using very humble materials. It was not a pristine presentation, but something immediate that got quickly to the point of what he meant to say. They were not necessarily framed pieces; some of them ran off the edge of the canvas or piece of wood or cardboard.
“I decided I didn’t want a hard frame sonically around what I was doing,” he said. “There would be no silence. The songs would just end and then you’d hear the sounds of life that happen all the time.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Joe Henry at his South Pasadena home recording studio. Credit: Lauren Dukoff.