An interview with
Jon Rosenberg

By Beppe Colli
Apr. 2, 2017

While preparing my review of Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me: The Micros Play The Blues, I noticed that this time the group had not recorded at the same studio they used on their two previous albums. I decided to get in touch with Jon Rosenberg, who recorded, mixed, and mastered those albums. He replied in a friendly, jovial, manner, so - one thing leads to another - I thought that doing an interview was not a bad idea.

Meanwhile, while listening to an old album by Muhal Richard Abrams that I like a whole lot, I noticed that Jon Rosenberg had recorded that one too, way back in... 1986. So there was a lot to talk about.

I did my homework, had a look at his discography - which is quite humungous - and decided that doing an interview was definitely a good idea. He agreed, and the interview was conducted by e-mail, last week.

If I understand correctly, you've been a recording engineer for about... thirty years, right? Of course, I'd like to know how it all started. Did you develop an interest for music, and later for (what we could define as) the technical side of recorded music? Or was it the other way round (as in "studying audio engineering" and then developing an appreciation for music)?

I grew up hearing jazz thanks to my mother's love of the music. Billie Holiday, Dave Brubeck, and Louis Armstrong records were played frequently at home. In junior high, I was assigned to write a paper about jazz. I began reading Downbeat magazine to get information about the current jazz scene. At that time in the mid 60s records like Ornette Coleman at the Golden Circle were being voted by the readers as record of the year! I sent my father who commuted to NYC to find these records so I could hear them. Needless to say it was a long way from Louis Armstrong but I loved these sounds too. As things evolved, I became first a jazz record collector and then afterward started to play the tenor saxophone. I pursued music training at Wesleyan University and at the Creative Music Studio run by Karl Berger. Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre taught me privately for several years. My first love though was records and recording so I asked a friend of mine who was doing an album if I could come along to observe. It was a studio named Hi Rise Sound in midtown Manhattan and I asked the owner, who was doing the engineering, whether I could come in the evenings and assist him doing anything that would be helpful. Long story short, I was engineering sessions within six months doing mostly rock and pop demos and absolutely loved it. At that time in 1983, I became friends with Tim Berne and I asked him whether he wanted to come in and record. He brought a guy named Bill Frisell and they made a duo record that also utilized a lot of overdubbing. The name of record is Theoretically and I believe it is still in print. It was also reviewed in Downbeat which was personally very exciting for me. Later on that year, I recorded an album by Mark Helias that featured Tim, Mark, Herb Robertson, Gerry Hemingway, and Dewey Redman. That came out on Enja in 1984 and may still be in print also!

At that time, the apprenticeship system was still in full bloom, so I think you "paid your dues" (as "gofer", "runner", "tea boy") in many studios. Did you have a mentor? Do you remember any particular lesson learned (technical, or otherwise)?

So no as you can see, I started engineering late (almost 30), did not go to audio school, did not do much time as a gofer and I started by recording some pretty heavy duty jazz right away. That, however doesn't mean I knew what I was doing! David Baker, the great jazz engineer, became a bit unreliable during the mid eighties so Giovanni Bonandrini of Black Saint was hoping to find another engineer to make recordings for him in New York. Tim Berne recommended me and my first assignment was recording The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet with Wayne Horvitz, Bobby Previte, Ray Drummond, and John Zorn in 1985. Again I muddled my way through it but the album came out and did well. Next in 1986, I was sent in to record Muhal Richard Abrams, who was the core artist at Black Saint and a kind and compassionate man. He realized, I think, that I was way over my head recording Dave Holland and Andrew Cyrille, but he liked my enthusiasm I guess and his approval cemented my relationship with the company. He remains a friend and supporter for whom I've made countless recordings since then. That led to a fairly steady stream of recording for Black Saint and Soul Note for many years, documenting such artists as Geri Allen, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian trio, David Murray, Phil Haynes, Roscoe Mitchell, Dave Douglas, Steve Lacy, Henry Threadgill, Joe Lovano, Julius Hemphill, Drew Gress and many others that had given me so much joy as a record listener. I also met and recorded Phillip Johnston and Anthony Braxton.

Was there any "signature sound", any "acoustic labeling" you particularly appreciated? (Such as what's called "the Rudy Van Gelder sound".) Or did you favour a more "transparent" approach? (I think that in the "pop/rock" world two good examples are Phil Ramone and Al Schmitt, and later, George Massenburg.) "None of the above"?

My main influence was and is Rudy Van Gelder and the sound that he got with Alfred Lion's help. Front row in the club with the music right there in front of you. Punchy and visceral not pretty and distant. That's my own preference but I've mixed many records that sound quite differently according to the client's wishes.

The oldest album I have that you engineered is one by Muhal Richard Abrams, Colors In Thirty-Third, recorded in December, 1986 at Sound Ideas Studio in New York. (In the liner notes you are credited as "engineered by", which I suppose means you both recorded and mixed the music?) But I'm sure that's a big chunk I missed, and which I'd like you to talk about.

The big chunks, other than my Black Saint association, are my involvement with the Knitting Factory era in the early nineties. I didn't work for the club but I made many records for them including a couple with the legendary Thomas Chapin. It was a great period for the music and a great period for me. Then there were the many records I made for Fresh Sounds in the late nineties with such artists as Kurt Rosenwinkle, Ethan Iverson, Bill McHenry, Jill Seifers (still my favorite vocal record!) and Gerald Cleaver. I then did many records for Steeplechase Records during the 2000s with such artists as Lee Konitz, Dave Stryker, Harold Danko, and Rich Perry. Finally a current relationship with High Note Records comprising of reviving and refreshing old live recordings by everyone from Jimmy Rushing to Freddie Hubbard to Jaki Byard.

At the start of the 90s I hosted a radio program, and one night I played the Piano-Cello Song, off Colors In Thirty-Third, as my closing track. I went to eat something in a bar, and - what a coincidence! - inside was Dave Holland having a drink. He told me that the music he played on that album was quite difficult. The whole thing was recorded in a day! Do you have any recollection of that session?

I can't comment too much on the content of that album since I was too scared and overwhelmed and praying I wouldn't get fired on the spot.

For a long time, Black Saint and Soul Note recorded a lot of "avant-garde" music by U.S. musicians who would have gone unrecorded in their own country. I have a few by Muhal Richard Abrams you engineered, also Song Out Of My Trees by Henry Threadgill, which you recorded at Sear Sound. Looking at your discography, I saw that you get an engineering credit for many Box Sets listed as "The Complete" by various artists (but the Abrams box doesn't feature the "Colors" album). Would you please clarify things for me?

I believe my previous answer covers that ground. It was an amazing and gratifying relationship that shaped my whole career. A massive thank you to Tim Berne for putting me together with them.

Phillip Johnston is an artist with whom you have developed a long, fruitful relationship. I have Big Trouble and Flood At The Ant Farm, which you engineered, also The Needless Kiss by the Transparent Quartet, and I bet there are a few more, up to the last three albums by the Microscopic Septet. Would you mind talking about this collaboration?

I was a fan of Phillip Johnston's composing before we ever worked together. His combination of the serious and the humorous, contemporary and retro, has always hit a sweet spot for me. It was a thrill for me to have the chance to assist him in documenting his music. There has always been a good mesh between us and I have recorded everything from jazz albums to movie soundtracks to commercials for him over many many years. I hope to continue working with him for a long time to come.

The most recent album by the Microscopic Septet was recorded at Tedesco Studios. While looking at the liner notes of some Phillip Johnston albums you engineered, I saw they were also recorded at Tedesco Studios. But I suppose that that studio - just like all studios all over the world - changed a great deal, from analogue to digital, and all those technological changes. So I'd like to know if you had "a period of transition" when it comes to recorded sound. Did digital sound brittle, at first? Did you perceive a difference in the tone of the instruments you recorded? Did your approach to equalization change?

My goal when I walk into a studio or concert hall with a group is to walk out as soon as possible with good sounding tracks that would be fun to mix. Whatever gets me there the fastest and at the lowest cost without compromising quality is fine with me so I've been through the analog tape, digital tape, and now hard drives but the goal remains the same. The biggest factor that goes into how a record sounds is the feeling the musicians have in the room. I'm not a gearhead, as you can tell but generally I like Neumann microphones and Neve electronics. This equipment seems to capture the heart and soul of a musician's sound most clearly. For remote recording, I currently use MOTU hardware and software which has the best mix of simplicity, quality, and reliability.

I liked the sound of The Micros Play Monk CD a whole lot. You recorded, mixed, and mastered the music. Which takes us to the whole "loudness wars" topic. Of course, this practice is more common when it comes to "pop/rock" music, where a lot of fine music has been ruined by squashed dynamics due to overcompression at the mastering (and lately, post-mixing) stage. How do you see this scenario, and what's in store for Jazz?

My clients prefer a fairly conservative sound which is not heavily compressed. Since very few of the records I work on are that commercial, there's really no pressure to compete with the latest Kanye West release. Some types of music take heavy compression very well like rap and hip hop but not music with acoustic instruments. I agree overall with the great mastering engineer Bob Ludwig who I believe said these overly compressed records tire you out listening to them. It seems immediately impressive but the music wears out its welcome quickly when it sounds that way.

Once upon a time, I remember reading that the difference between Prestige and Blue Note was "two days' rehearsal". I see that nowadays groups often record their albums thanks to Kickstarter, in just a few days. Which is also what happened in the past. The difference is that once upon a time, Mingus, Monk, and Coltrane played a series of concerts, and then recorded the music, something which nowadays is not really to be taken for granted. What kind of additional pressure does it put on the engineer?

I don't feel the pressure. The challenge is for the artist to pick musicians who can execute the music with a minimum of rehearsal. It can come into play for me when there needs to be a lot of fixing when we examine the tracks to be mixed. It's amazing what you can do now with Pro Tools but artists aren't always ready for the bill at the end of the process. It can take many many hours of that kind of work to get a recording in shape to be heard.

How do you know when a mix is done? (Not "when there is no money left", of course!)

The process can vary widely in length but generally speaking since I've been listening to recordings for both business and pleasure for my whole life, there's a gut feeling I get so I can say "it sounds like a record". I'm not saying I feel that way about every album that has my name on it but at this point in my career, a large percentage do. Sometimes however even though I feel the record is finished, I need to work with artists so they can feel a sense of cloture with the project. That's a big part of an engineer's job also.

In 2010, you won a Grammy® for Best Jazz Small Group Instrumental Recording for an album by James Moody that you engineered. Congratulations! I'd like to know if, in these changing times, do you still feel part of a group of peers. In previous decades, there was a "tradition" in sound, but nowadays it has been argued that "people with a laptop in their bedroom" have made professional studios - and professional sound engineers - totally redundant. Gentrification has added more pressure. Nowadays, who do you regard as "my peers"?

The engineers I've consistently looked up to the most throughout my career are Rudy Van Gelder, David Baker, James Farber, Joe Ferla and Jim Anderson. If any of them saw or do see me as a peer, I'd be very flattered. I'd also consider Joe, Mike, and Nancy Marciano, along with the rest of the staff at Systems Two Studios in Brooklyn, as my peers in that we often confer together about how best to record some of the large and unusual ensembles I've worked with over the years.

Having a look at your discography, I saw you've recorded quite a few titles by Anthony Braxton. In the 70s, when he had a record contract with Arista, Braxton's work was in many ways a signal of change - a "Jazz" album could now feature a wind quartet, a clarinet-synthesizer duo, a "bop" quartet. Which provided audio engineers with new challenges. Would you mind talking about your collaboration with Braxton, and some of the challenges this collaboration provided to you?

My most lasting contribution to music of this era will probably be my work with Anthony Braxton. He proposes seemingly impossible situations and completely trusts me to figure something out in order to document it. The amazing thing is that we always seem to find reasons to laugh together throughout the whole process. I could write a book on these experiences alone but suffice to say that Anthony has been a blessing to me, my family, and the whole human race as far as I'm concerned. It's been a special privilege to have a front row seat watching him work with musicians to get what he wants.

I've read that The New York Times is greatly reducing its coverage of live concerts, also the number of record review, which could deprive "difficult" musicians of a much-needed stage. "Ever-shorter attention spans in the age of multi-tasking" seems to be the new normal, which is bad news for anything that needs one's full engagement. From where you sit, what's the weather forecast?

You've really hit the nail on the head here. Right now, the biggest problem is the loss of support in Europe that has made it harder and harder for musicians to pay their bills and set money aside to make recordings. Records companies are dropping like flies so there's no money coming from that source either. It's an ugly situation from a commercial standpoint but I have no doubt that acoustic forms of jazz will survive one way or another.

Of course, this conversation could last for days, and I'm sure there are many things I haven't asked. Is there anything you would like to add right now?

My greatest thrill as an engineer is to watch some of the finest musicians and composers on earth work to meet the challenges of transforming their ideas into reality. It's a dream for someone such as myself who's fell in love with records as a boy. Who could imagine this ever coming true? But it has for me!

© Beppe Colli 2017 | Apr. 2, 2017