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COURTNEY PINE: Modern Day Jazz Stories

Interview | Artist By Paul White
Published September 1996

Jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine is breaking down the barriers between acoustic and electronic sound generation, marrying jazz with modern forms such as hip hop in a cross‑genre partnership which is partly forged in his own home studio. Paul White hears some Modern Day Jazz Stories..

Courtney Pine's remarkable jazz career started at school when he was 13, taking piano and clarinet lessons. Though he subsequently decided that the saxophone was what he really wanted to play, his musical heroes, including Grover Washington Jr, John Coltrane and Miles Davies, all played the piano, and Courtney's piano experience has been very useful, as he now spends quite a lot of time in his home studio, working with a MIDI sequencer connected to an ageing Sequential Prophet VS keyboard. As you might expect, he's also had a lot of experience with MIDI wind controllers.

One of the motivating factors behind this interview was Courtney's latest album, Modern Day Jazz Stories, an essentially acoustic modern jazz album underpinned by hip‑hop loops and DJ vinyl pyrotechnics. Unlike the many hip‑hop records that have a jazz influence or feature a token jazz performer, Modern Day Jazz Stories is most definitely jazz with a hip‑hop influence, rather than vice versa, and unlike many compositions that use off‑the‑shelf loops, many of the drum loops on this album started life as an acoustic kit in the studio, while some of the more experimental loops were produced by Courtney at home.

Despite Courtney's obvious enthusiasm to do this interview, numerous obstacles conspired to make it as difficult as possible. Just before my first attempt, my camera bag was stolen from the Audio '96 show, so, armed with the company camera and a new tape recorder, I set off for the Pine residence in London for a second try. Courtney had just had a problem with his house alarm system, which had gone off unexpectedly, then refused to turn off. Undeterred, and pausing only for a cup of coffee, we went straight into interview mode, but shortly after I switched to a second cassette, my shiny new mini‑recorder ate the tape. Obviously, the patron saint of technology was taking a day off! That left us in a studio full of recording gear, looking desperately for something that could be used to record the rest of the interview.

The only cassette deck in the house was a ghetto‑blaster which Courtney went to get from another room. Unfortunately, as soon as he entered the room, the alarm went off again, and no amount of punching in codes would silence it — we had to sit and listen to the siren for a further 15 minutes before it timed out! When we finally got a mic rigged up to the ghetto‑blaster, we found that it was purely for karaoke use — you couldn't actually record with it! At one point we were seriously considering finishing the interview on Logic Audio so that I could take the result back on a SyQuest disk, but we eventually settled on Courtney's DAT Walkman — and even that involved us pooling resources to find enough batteries to make it work!

Talking Technology

How does a musician playing what is essentially acoustic jazz find himself so deeply involved with technology?

"For me, it was important for composition. I could hear other sounds, I could hear a whole orchestra, and I wanted to get my hands on that. I'm also a science‑fiction freak, and using technology was another way to get to places I couldn't previously get to. What they don't teach you in music lessons is how to play things you hear — it's more about classical playing — but for me and the kind of music I was listening to at home, it was a matter of sitting down at the piano and bashing away until you found the right notes. Though you can play chords on the sax, the pitches are all over the place; a keyboard is truly polyphonic.

"I bought my first Atari computer in '86 with my first royalty cheque, and I couldn't afford a grand piano, so I got a DX21 and some Dr T's software. The next royalty cheque bought my first sampler, and so it went on. I wanted to hear my compositions before giving them to the band, and this was a way to achieve that."

Your studio now includes some pretty serious equipment, including a Yamaha 02R digital mixer and a couple of Alesis ADATs. How far do you want to take your recording — do you want to make records at home?

"I want to record and mix here — it's very serious. What you see here is only a temporary setup, as I'm having a studio built onto the side of the house, where I can rehearse and record. On the last two albums, I've utilised bits that I've recorded here — with Modern Day Jazz Stories I did the loops, backing sax, flute lines and keyboard parts here. Some of the stuff was transferred to an acetate so the DJ could spin it in, then we'd play over the top in another studio.

"The musical style of the album is something from our locality — we've been doing this for quite a while. At some of the more modern jazz clubs, you'll see a DJ spinning and band playing, sometimes interacting, and I wanted to get that onto record. The problem is that most wind jazz players don't have a grip on the technology, so they call someone else in and end up playing their part after everything else is done. I wanted to do something which reflected both my studies in technology and in jazz.

"I had a guy called Sparky, who works in the hip‑hop field, and a DJ called Pogo, who did all the vinyl stuff and checked that it sounded OK. This went directly to analogue tape, but I also had some material on my Mac, which I took over to the studio in the States. That caused problems, because my material was set up for 25fps [frames per second] SMPTE, and of course the Americans use 30fps. We also had problems because the co‑producer put the sax on track 23, right next to the timecode, so whenever I played hard, the code stopped working. Once these problems were sorted it was plain sailing."

Was it a conscious decision to record on analogue multitrack?

"Yes, I wanted the warmth of analogue, and I've always enjoyed working with Neve desks. But we had some problems recreating the classic old sounds for loops. We went to another smaller studio, which had a nice piano and a Neve desk, we used an old drum kit with all the old ride cymbals, but we could never quite recreate that '60s sound. We had great musicians who played with the right feel, but it wasn't the same. You can bit‑convert, or change the pitch up and then back again, but you can never get back to the sound of a particular day in 1964 or whatever. Those were the things that were a bit disappointing to me, but it took the sound somewhere else. There were some loops that we had to keep in — I had a Dexter Gordon piano loop which I'd recorded from my cheap turntable over there, and when we came to play it back against a piano in concert pitch, there was a tuning difference. So we tuned the loop to get it close, and there was a setting where the detuning was really nice, so we kept it that way."

Studio Toys

What are the key elements of your studio?

"The S770 samplers are central to my system. I went through the stage of having masses of tone generators, but six months later I'd be bored with the sounds. So I decided to use samplers, and the London retailers TSC offered me a Roland S770 for the same price as an Akai S1000. It just worked — I felt it sounded better, and the screen made editing a lot easier. The S760 has a slightly different sound, which is useful, but I still have some traditional synth modules, including a Roland D550 and an Oberheim Matrix 1000, which works particularly well with the EWI wind controller. I also produce music for other people, so it's useful to have access to all those other sounds.

"My sequencer is Logic Audio running on a Mac with a Digidesign Audiomedia card fitted. I find it does everything I want, and the audio side is great. It's been very reliable, but I like to set my screen resolution for a larger window size, which makes the screen rather cramped. I think a second monitor would make things better.

"The Alesis ADATs originally had some teething troubles — one of them was eating tapes until quite recently, but it's now been serviced and updated to the latest software, which seems to have cured it. These hook up to the 02R via the optical cables, but I've kept the wiring looms for when I take my ADATs out. Ultimately, I'd like my recording system to be as portable as my instruments so I can bring copies of the master tapes back home on ADAT to work on.

"My last console was a Soundtracs PC MIDI, but the 02R has been a revelation. The analogue desk seems to have more bass and is warmer, but the amount of stuff you can do in the 02R is incredible. The EQ is very strong, so you have to be careful with it, but I really like being able to see the graphic EQ curves. The desk has now become a part of the creative process, and if I'm working on a loop, I can mix and process the sound all at the same time, then resample it. I don't think the effects are anything special, but the compressors are really nice.

"One problem is that I'm already running out of inputs. I think that with my next royalty cheque, I'm going to get another one and chain them up. One day we'll have a system where everything talks to everything else. OK, at the moment I've got a Mac Power Book running Yamaha's Project Manager, but ultimately, I'd like to be able to sit down at just one machine and do everything.

"I don't need that many outboard effects with the 02R, but the Ensoniq DP/4 is very good, as is the Sony R7 reverb unit. I wasn't in the bracket to buy a Lexicon PCM70 or 80 at the time, and I needed something that would just give me quality reverb. I find the R7 very clear and transparent — I really like it, though the internal battery has died, so every time I turn it on, it resets to the factory defaults.

"I have a Digitech harmony machine which I use for detuning effects — I haven't got into creating real‑time harmonies with it yet, though it's something I'd like to do. It could be useful live. Most of the rest of my analogue rack of gates and EQs is going, because now I have the 02R, it's pretty irrelevant. I do, however, have a Peavey analogue filter, which I tend to use as a kind of parametric EQ rather than as a triggered effect. It really lets you change the character of a sound when creating samples or loops."

Wind Controllers

Which wind controller system do you prefer, and what improvements would you like to see?

"The first wind controller I bought was the Akai EWI 1000, and that worked fine, although it took some getting used to, because it has touch‑sensitive keys rather than mechanical keys. As a sax player, you're taught to keep your fingers on or close to the keys, but with the EWI you have to keep them away. I actually did an article on this for SOS, after which Yamaha contacted me and said I should try their WX7. This has mechanical keys and a sort of pressure‑sensing reed you can use as a controller by biting on it as you play. That was rather different to the Akai system, where you blow around or across a kind of teat — not like playing a saxophone at all. However, what I didn't like about the WX7 was the plastic keys and the light weight — it wasn't like picking up a real instrument. It also doesn't have the pitch range of the Akai.

"The latest acquisition, an Akai EWI 3020, has a ribbon controller underneath, rather like a Polymoog, and it's nice because it actually does a glide function so you can put a bit more personality into your sound. If you hear two guys playing the same patch, you'll still get a different degree of expressiveness depending on how you use the controllers."

What performance control do you have with the way you blow? The main performance controllers seem to be underneath the instrument, operated by your thumbs, which can't be natural for a wind player.

"Apart from velocity, you have the pressure sensor, but there isn't really that much control. With a sax, when you play harder into it, or if you change the shape of your mouth, you change the shape of the note. With these controllers, it's more mechanical — you blow into and squeeze the mouthpiece. Wind instruments are very closely connected with the brain in that you don't have to move your hands to change the sound. With the EWI, you have to use several things in combination, and it still doesn't do as much as a real saxophone. We need a unit that can actually deal with that type of information, and hopefully the VL series of physical modelling synths will go some way towards meeting that need. If you play harder, you can have the sound get sharper, as it would do on the saxophone."

Physical modelling synths seem to have the ability to turn controller information into expressive timbral changes, but that still doesn't solve the problem that you can't use your mouth in the same way as you would on an acoustic instrument.

"Yeah, what we need is something with a real mouthpiece that would take the information in, then convert it to MIDI information. Even though they're using different pitchings and tunings and that sort of thing, it still isn't quite right. At the moment, the variations come from the programming, but what you need is to be able to control the variations from the actual interface."

You've said that the Yamaha VL1 interested you in all areas apart from that of signing the cheque!

"When it came out, I thought it was a great idea — I read all the literature — but then I saw the price, which was ridiculous! You pay, at the most, £2500 for a Mk 6 saxophone, which is a really good horn, so who's going to pay £4000 for an instrument that's still an unknown quantity? Is somebody going to book you because you have one? That kind of money is a serious investment — so I've stayed clear and waited for the price to come down."

It seems that you may have done the right thing, because Yamaha have recently announced their sub‑£500 VL70m physical modelling module [see page 40 this month for a sneak preview — Ed] based on the VL1, with a simplified user interface and incorporating a wind controller interface.

"That's definitely on my list! The VL70 should also be better suited to horn players because of its simpler interface. We don't want to edit too much, we just want a sound that we can play expressively — the only time we want to edit is when we hear somebody else with a better sound than us! There should be scope for getting deeper into sound editing if you need to, but learning a Charlie Parker song is hard enough without having to worry about MIDI controller data and suchlike."


What direction will you be taking for your next project?

"I'm going to continue what I'm doing in the jazz/hip‑hop kind of vein, incorporating the old styles of jazz but sculpting it using filtering, pitch‑shifting, and whatever else it takes to get that traditional sound into 'now'. I'll still be using loops underneath the music, but they will all be acoustic — created by an acoustic drummer, then processed.

"On the album, I'd often play a solo, load it into Logic Audio and then put it down maybe 24 or 25 semitones. The Digital Factory section of the program is great for that kind of thing, because the sound doesn't have to be clinically perfect. What I want is something with more of a street feel. I also like working with microtones, or changing the saxophone to make it sound like a whale. I can do that with Logic Audio or the samplers. It's a bit hit‑and‑miss, and a lot of times it doesn't work, but you just have to keep trying, putting in the numbers and seeing what comes out.

"It's down to utilising the traditional forms of jazz — the improvising, the interaction with musicians — but surrounding that with lots of detuned stuff that could never exist in a natural environment. I could never play some of those detuned sax parts, but hearing them come back at me inspires my playing to go in a different direction."

You're obviously not concerned about taking your own playing and electronically shaping it to use it as part of one of your compositions — some purists might object to working this way.

"I want to pitch‑shift things, reverse them, fine‑tune them — I want to put my playing into places that I can't get to with my actual horn. I use loops way down in the baritone register, and people wonder 'what instrument is that?' Sometimes I'll use Logic Audio, sometimes I'll use the sampler. The reason I have so many samplers is that they all produce different results. For example, I might create something in Logic Audio, then transfer it to the S760 and timestretch it manually rather than in auto mode. That way, you get that gritty, bright sound — you can distort the stuff in ways that you could never play on a real instrument."

Does that mean you steer clear of CDs or CD‑ROMs of ready‑made samples?

"Oh no, I have loads of them, but I don't use them exclusively, and I tend to use the different samplers to totally destroy the sound and then build it up again. You can do things like change the bit rate to distort the sound in interesting ways.

"When we recorded the album, the co‑producer Eric Calvey, who's a very good engineer, was watching me working with a piano, drum and bass loop which I filtered, transposed up a semitone, time‑stretched back down, then digitally filtered, which took around 15 minutes. He rubbed his chin, then said 'Hang on a minute, plug the original source into a Focusrite'.

"He sat there for about half an hour trying to get the sound I was getting, then he suddenly realised what I was doing — it's not just about filtering, but about the way each machine has its particular way of changing the sound. That's something you can't do with EQ — when you slow down a drum part, things that the drummer would do before flams are magnified, so the picture becomes bigger.

"A lot of people come into technology from the electronic side — jungle or techno. Nobody seems to do this on the acoustic side — it's all about putting up two mics with no EQ and keeping everything exactly as it was played, but we can take that and use technology to do something else with it.

"On the road, we all use the Roland MS1s — the little Roland miniature phrase samplers — which are great for putting together ideas. I also have a Wavestation and I'm very interested in the vector thing, where you have one sound which changes when you press harder or use the joystick. I was looking at the Emu Morpheus, as that seems to offer a lot of scope in that direction."

Will future work feature mainly the saxophone, or can we expect another foray into electronic territory?

"I would really like to get back into electronic territory, but I need the right tone generators and interface. I've tried sampling the saxophone, but it's not quite right — it's an organic instrument that's different every time you blow it. I'm still holding out for the manufacturers to make the perfect wind controller or wind unit."

Lexicon Jam Man: Dream Machine?

"I have a Lexicon JamMan, which lets you store and replay loops very quickly. I once had a crazy dream about Roland Kirk, the American saxophone player who did circular breathing and often played two instruments at once. In this dream, Kirk played one line that was going around, then he played another line at the same time, and they went around accompanying each other. Then he took the sax out of his mouth and the sound kept on going! For years, I was thinking, how could I get this effect? Then this machine came out, and my dream came true. I could play a line, trigger it, play another line, pull the sax out of my mouth and it would still go. At the moment, this is more of a road tool than a studio tool."

Going Shopping

I asked Courtney what he felt he needed next for his studio.

"My new shopping list obviously includes the VL70m, but I'm also looking to get a Pro Tools system, a Focusrite EQ, and one major reverb unit. I like the idea of having Pro Tools plug‑ins, such as being able to get a Focusrite EQ or Lexicon reverb in software. I've heard about bands recording whole albums on Pro Tools, but I want to know if anyone has been brave enough to do that for jazz. You have to have some way of backing up the data, such as transferring it to ADAT via an interface.

"I had a bad experience with my hard drive, where I had it in the studio, and I had to lean it up on its side because there wasn't room for it. After we'd finished recording, it refused to work unless it was kept on its side. I had to get it serviced and lost all that data — that whole album was gone! Some kind of removable, large‑capacity drive would be a good idea for backups. At the moment, I have a SyQuest EZ135 drive which is great for saving samples. That's the other thing I'd like — some kind of SCSI switcher or patchbay so that I can use the same drive on both my samplers and my Mac.

"When it comes to effects, I've been looking at the TC Electronic MC2000, but I've also heard good things about the Lexicon PCM80. I like the idea of having effects that can change in response to your performance — where the reverb time gets longer as you play harder, for example."