Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Musician Profile: Putter and VR Smith

Thelonious Monk, James Bond, and a life of music…

Jazz bassist Putter Smith and his wife, singer VR Smith, have devoted their lives to music and the arts. The music room in their South Pasadena home is filled with instruments, original artwork, and oriental rugs; a welcoming refuge from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles.

Putter is a Southern California jazz legend who has worked with an astonishing array of great musicians including: Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Diane Schuur, Lee Konitz, Bruce Forman, Jackie and Roy, Carmen McRae, Gary Foster, Art Farmer, Blue Mitchell, Erroll Garner, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Mason Williams, Percy Faith, Burt Bacharach, Ray Charles, The Manhattan Transfer, and Johnny Mathis, to name but a few. He worked steadily in the Los Angeles rock and roll recording scene, playing on classic records by Sonny and Cher, The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers and many more. Putter had a brief acting career, playing the villainous, “Mr. Kidd” in the James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. He is highly sought as a performer and teacher and is currently on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

Originally from the now infamous Bell, CA, Putter began playing bass at a young age. “My brother Carson Smith was a famous bass player.” he told me in a recent conversation. “He had gone to New York when I was eight and had left a little half size bass I used to fool around with. By the time I was eleven I was playing along with his records.” Putter’s first paying gig was at the Compton Community Center playing a bass with only three strings. “I think I made three dollars and I was stoked. Making money as a musician!”

VR Smith began singing in the Los Angeles area over ten years ago and has recorded two CDs of jazz standards, 2004’s
VR & The Cafe Beaujolais Band, Lost and Found and her 2009 recording, Beautiful Love, both available at CD Baby. VR acted in improvisational theatre for many years before beginning her singing career. “We did workshops in colleges.” VR says. “Robin Williams came out of one of those. He had so much information he could just incorporate into his “in-the-moment” spiel. (We) always felt like we had really done something there.” VR began singing regularly in a band with Putter and guitarist Dave Koonse at The Cafe Beaujolais In Eagle Rock. “We worked there for six and a half years and brought a lot of people in.” VR says. “The food was great and we were in the newspaper every week.” In those days the LA Times reported on jazz in the weekly Calendar section but has since dropped local coverage.

VR’s vocal style is intentional and introspective. “The words have to mean something to me.” she says. “Having acted I learned that you have different choices on how you say a thing. I try to let the tune be 
the focus and let the words fall into that.”

Putter and VR met when invited by friends to witness the first performance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. “Neither of us had ever heard of The Beatles.” says Putter. “We were into Charlie Parker!” VR adds.

Putter played bass on many famous rock and roll records recorded in the 1960s, including The Beach Boys', Good Vibrations. “They did something like 25 different dates.” said Putter. Seeking greater musical challenges he turned his focus back to jazz.  “I decided I didn’t want to do that any more. That isn’t why I played music.” he recalls. “When you’re a musician it’s because you want to play music. There are so many better ways to make money. (At times) I regretted it because we really scuffled. Then when I was in my early forties it turned around.”

Putter’s time spent with iconic jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk has been a cornerstone in his career. “I heard him live years before I played with him and I thought it sounded like (Hungarian composer, Béla) Bártok.” Putter says, “Very modern and at the same time having that old New Orleans background to it. Monk had five-tuplets together. That kind of infuses his time feel. People say he plays these triplets that are dragging, but they’re perfect fives. He was a real intellectual guy. That’s what people miss.”

“I was a young, white jazz musician in the 60s when Black Power was prevalent.” Putter continues. “We had this great history in jazz of what they used to call, ‘integration’, long before anybody else. I’ve always tried to go into any gig with someone who has a rep, with a clean brain. All of the media on Monk made him out to be a mysterious, strange person. But I knew from my own experience that whatever they say in the media is almost always wrong. (Thelonious) was a beautiful person. He was like a fountain of sweetness.”

“I got the call because I had done quite a bit of transcription of his (music). I had about two weeks (to prepare) and borrowed every record I could and went through everything. I flew up there. No book, no rehearsal. I go into the dressing room, twenty minutes before the gig. There’s Thelonious, smoking a cigarette and doing his dervish thing, spinning around, and saying cryptic things. Finally he stops and looks at me and says, ‘Are you the new bass player?’ He had this rough, Hell’s Kitchen voice. I said, ‘Yeah’, and he says, ‘White is right.’ (laughs). I knew at that moment that everything was cool.”

“We got on the stand and the first tune he plays is one he never recorded, a beautiful tune called Ugly Beauty. By the end of the second chorus I had it down because I knew the ‘Monkisms’. I knew his vocabulary. He gave me a few more little tests. By the third night I was in. I wish I could have spent twenty years with him.”

While Putter was working with Thelonious Monk at the famous LA jazz club, Shelly’s Mann-Hole, he caught the eye of the director of the James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. “I got a call about three months later and went down, thinking they wanted a bass sideline.” recalls Putter. “They handed me a script and next thing you know I’m in a James Bond movie. I could not believe it!”

Putter’s bass playing is rich and expressive. He is intently focused when he plays, finding the center of each note and listening deeply to the musicians around him. “Being a musician is something that takes focus, disciple, and regular, unrelenting practice and study.” he told me. “If you want to be an improviser you need to improvise almost every day. To me a performance is 90 minutes of full out playing with someone. It doesn’t matter where or for who. It’s always your full effort.”

“I equate jazz to poetry.” Putter says. “I feel like this music is going to live forever like Bach. It’s a great thing to have in your life, you know, a reason to live.”

Video: Putter Smith, VR Smith and pianist Jim Szilagyi perform George and Ira Gershwin's, ‘Love Walked In’

Friday, September 3, 2010

Career Tracks: Chi McClean, Part 1

Photo by Andrew Keller

This is Part 1 of an interview with indie artist, Chi McClean, the latest installment in the occasional Career Tracks series of interviews. You can read Part Two of our conversation here.
Chi McClean is a singer-songwriter with an intimate, down-home style and classic California good looks. Originally from New York, Chi moved to California to sample the surf and take a shot at the music business. With the release of his 2009 debut recording, Something Out There, (co-produced by Chi and Boone Spooner) he dove full-time into the indie DIY life, touring extensively across the United States. Chi has performed live on national television (The Early Show) and earned several songwriting and performance awards. He is sponsored by Taylor Guitars and Elixir Strings, is touring continually, and in pre-production for his next record. On a recent stop in Los Angeles we had a chance to talk about music, the importance of building relationships, marketing yourself, and the power of the national media. 
You can find out more about Chi on his website: www.chimcclean.com and pick up his music at Amazon.com, CD Baby, and the iTunes Store.
Your songs have been described in the media as “Southern Rock” or “Classic Rock”. What do you think is unique about your music and the way it connects with people?
CM: People say that the recordings and the live performances, particularly when it’s just me and a percussionist...it’s an honest and true performance. People like the fact that you can hear the squeak in the guitar strings and some flubbed notes. They identify with that and like that it’s not over-produced.
There’s a directness and an honesty. That’s what I get…
CM: There’s a lot of introspective stuff in there. I think people grab onto that as well.
You have been touring in different parts of the country to support this record. Where have you gotten the best response? How would you describe your audience?
CM: The release at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco was awesome. I find that on the Central Coast of California, the beach towns, people seem to really latch onto the music. Most of the time I’m touring solo. I sell a bunch of CDs. I get radio play.
Are you selling merchandise as well?
CM: Mostly CDs. I have some glasses and stickers. I have yet to design a t-shirt!
You’re a surfer. Do people know that about you?
CM: I think so..long blond hair, flip flops, sunburned (laughs)!  On my website (www.chimcclean.com) there’s some talk about surfing. Generally when I go up and down the California coast I’ve got my boards with me. On the blog there’s always a picture of ‘break of the day’ or whatever it is. 
Has your ability to do solo gigs given you a better opportunity to build an audience?
CM: Honestly, for me, it’s the only way to really do it. I would love to have a band that was really well rehearsed and play out with them all the time, but it’s just too expensive to do. Logistically it’s really hard. A lot of (industry) people have told me, “If you write something, make sure you can play it solo.” It makes sense now that I’m out there.
You’ve got to be able to stand on the song too…
CM: Exactly.
You worked with independent artists and record labels at Liquid Audio in the early days of Internet music distribution...really the first wave of Internet-driven DIY. You also have a background in sales and marketing. What have you been able to apply to your music career from those experiences? 
CM: There are all these one-stop shops. For example, I printed my stuff through Oasis. You print 1,000 CDs, they have a hook-up with CD Baby, within a month you’re up in iTunes, eMusic, Rhapsody, Walmart. It’s just so easy to get your music in as many place as possible so people can easily find it. 
I’ve got a background in sales, marketing and business development but the most important thing is just being a nice guy on the phone, being persistent but friendly, doing what you say you’re going to do, sending things on time, showing up on time, being honest with people. If you are trying to play somewhere you’ve never played before and they ask you what your draw is, don’t tell them you can bring 100 people and have 5 people show up. That’s going to be catastrophic for you and it’s not going to do the venue any good. Like any business, it’s all about relationships. 
Put yourself in their shoes. They deal with maybe a thousand people in a week, just blasting them with music. How do you make your email stand out, and if you’re lucky enough to get the gig, how do you make sure they remember you? Maybe they won’t remember your music but they might remember if you did something nice for them, if you offered to coil some cables at the end of the show, asked how they were, or just said ‘thank you’. Even if the mix wasn’t any good, you say it was good (laughs)! Send a ‘thank you’ note after the gig. I think people remember that. Many of the people who book (venues) are also musicians. Maybe you can offer to book a show where you’re from, or turn them onto some musicians that are hot. Share contacts in a way that builds relationships. 
At the most fundamental level you need to have music that people are going to like, but, it really is a relationship business. If you get the call for a local support act when a big name comes through town, they might be thinking, ”The last band was great but they were complaining about the mix the whole time. This guy is really nice. He showed up on time and did what he said he was going to do. He promoted the pants off of the gig and the mix engineer thought he was a nice guy. He was really easy to work with.” They want the easiest possible thing. Have everything lined up so they can just email you once.
How did you build your website?
CM: My friend Boone Spooner is also a web designer. He was really instrumental in getting everything online. He arranged the site so I can add, edit, and create content. Everything is set to go. He was a huge help.
You recently appeared on national television on The Early Show. How did you hook that up and what did the exposure do for you?
CM: A good friend in that business liked my music enough to make some introductions and get my CD into the hands of the right people. It was a really amazing experience. I think I sold, in a day or two, over a thousand downloads, and a bunch of CDs, a big spike for me. It was also a great resume builder. I can say when I’m trying to book a show, “I just recently played on national television, CBS, The Early Show.” That’s a huge help. People start to pay attention. I may have an invitation to come back when this new record comes out which is fantastic.