Into the studio

Published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, Summer 2008, and Just Jazz, October 2009

It was a somewhat incongruous setting for a New Orleans jazz record deal. I was the guest of the British Phonographic Industry at its 1985 BRIT awards ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel, thanks to a splendid Liberal peer, Lord Winchilsea, who was both a keen jazz fan and an avid collector of juke boxes. Chris Winchilsea spoke for BPI in parliament and he ensured that I was at a table at the awards with the iconic pop record producer Trevor Horn and his wife Jill Sinclair.

As the reverberations of Phil Collins' act slowly receded, Chris casually mentioned to Trevor and Jill that I led the Granny Lee All Stars jazz band. Polite conversation ensued and then, right out of the blue, Jill asked me, "How would you like to make an album?" "Very much so," was my instant response, whereupon she offered us the free use of their SARM studio for a day. If I'd known then the value of this amazing offer, I might have hesitated a little, but, as I didn't know, I gratefully accepted.

Gordon the Sound Engineer soon contacted me and we agreed a Sunday date. Nothing fazed him but it soon became apparent that he was not entirely cognisant with a style of jazz that regards anything after 1929 as modern. Having recently produced "Frankie Goes To Hollywood" albums for the the ZTT label, it began to dawn on the studio that the Granny Lee band was not quite of the same genre. Cheerful Gordon 'phoned me: "How much do you hope to get done on Sunday?" Puzzled by this, and thinking that the planned six hours was somewhat excessive for a fifty minute album, I replied, "Oh, a whole LP." There was a long pause. "Hmm ...," said Gordon, "we've just spent two weeks on a single for the Pet Shop Boys."

Another call from cheerful Gordon, "Michael, what individual pieces does your drummer have?" It seemed a curious question but I happily complied: "Probably a bass drum, a hi hat, a couple of cymbals - you know that sort of thing; but why do you ask?" "Well, I need to have a microphone for each item!" I began to worry that we were way out of our depth.

Recording day arrived and I arrived early at the studio. Not early enough to be there before our replacement drummer, however. Chris Serle couldn't make the gig and I'd booked a dep. Nothing unusual about this in the jazz world, but cheerful Gordon was worried. He met me at the door: "I gather you haven't played with the drummer before." "Never played with him? I haven't met him yet." We went inside the amazing hi-tech studio and I introduced myself to Dave Hawthorne, the dep drummer.

The rest of the band arrived on time and we set up and started. Cheerful Gordon and his colleagues took to it immediately and realised that a couple of mikes and long single takes were what was needed. We recorded nine tracks, almost fifty minutes of music, and enjoyed ourselves immensely. The state of the art equipment was hardly challenged - it was used to put the vocal on to "Memphis in June" separately, and to delete an extra beat in the introduction to "Basin Street Blues" but otherwise all went smoothly.

Despite a couple of generous reviews I suspect the record was only bought by loyal Liberals. Certainly I was from time to time regaled by it as background music when booked to speak at Liberal dinners. I still have a stock for anyone who would like one - free! Never mind the top 40 - it never reached the bottom 40, but it was good to have, literally, a record of the band, and I am grateful to Trevor and Jill for their generosity.

There was a curious postscript to the band's long day in the studio. We staggered wearily along to Peter Stringfellow's club for what was the oddest venue imaginable for New Orleans jazz. We had another dep drummer. This time it was an old guy very experienced on the London jazz scene. I gently warned him: "You'll need to watch our pianist - he tends to race." "No bugger races with me," he replied. But he did!