Project: Hewitt

Scott Hewitt at the doorway of creation

In a year full of musical highlights, the ones that I believe will stand out the most occurred during a week-long visit to the Berkshires. My dear friend Scott Hewitt invited me along on a working vacation to put the finishing touches on his “vanity project” of original songs. After a few days of recording at his brother’s studio in Amherst, MA, we’d spend the weekend at the Saratoga Jazz Festival. I kept a mini-journal and took plenty of photos, even some video.

Scott had a few days’ head start on me, so by the time I arrived at Watercourse Studios, he had already done most of the guitar and bass work. After catching up on a little sleep, we went on a mission to borrow some drums from Lorraine and started adding my parts. Our goal was to come away with four new recordings and add some drums to a track or two that Scott had started two summers ago on his last trip to Doug’s.

Way Across the Water is a song Scott wrote years ago that was once a staple of the Verge of Something repertoire, so its calypso rhythm was very familiar to me but still a challenge to synch with the track. I was very comfortable with Norman’s Song as well. It’s one of Scott’s newer ones, but it swings with a groove that Scott and I have honed for years.

 

Taking the borrowed drums for a test drive while Doug gets the mics in place

I found the other tracks to be far more challenging. Another Bend in the Road is a song that Mystic Canyon plays, so my percussion part has always been more decorative. Here I had to relearn it and provide the rhythmic momentum. Before the Duel was the wild card; we had no idea how this would turn out. We decided to keep it simple with a slow heartbeat that became increasingly rapid toward the end. That simplicity left surprisingly little margin for error.

We got a lot of the drums down on Day 1 and finished them on Day 2, including take after take of silly arhythmic fills for Scott’s old ditty Razzy Hat. The rest of Day 2 found Scott working on vocals and me working on a bottle of rum. I took one late night stab at a backing vocal track for Way Across the Water before we all agreed we needed fresh ears in the morning.

Imagine Doug’s surprise when my first vocal track on Day 3 was nearly indistinguishable from my rum-soaked take 9 hours earlier. He decided to keep them both as stereo harmonies. I added harmonies to a few more songs and a harmonica solo on Before the Duel that unexpectedly took only two takes. Scott added a guitar solo to his beautiful jazz ballad Elsewhere and we wrapped the session just in time to host a party for Doug’s friends.

The Zen Cats ride again - Doug and Scott Hewitt
The Zen Cats ride again - Doug and Scott Hewitt jam at the "Wrap Party"

Of course, it would not be a Hewitt party without some music, and everyone joined in the jam. The recording process had given me a different perspective, as I remember catching details that might have otherwise faded into the groove. Even after dozens of hours of dissecting and reassembling music, we still found the energy to jam into the wee hours. Luckily, Doug keeps a schedule that synchronizes well with our West Coast body clocks.

The next day we took off for Saratoga Springs, but that is a story for another time. Until then, I hope you check out Scott’s Myspace to hear the fruits of our labor.

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Beyond the Campfire

I’ve been working on this post for a while, not quite sure how to whittle down what I’m thinking into a cohesive piece. What I’ve decided to do is use this as sort of a conversation starter and discuss some points further in their own posts as warranted.

Over the years I find myself more and more frequently in the unusual position of being a more experienced player than some of my musical co-conspirators. It’s forced me to think long and hard about what that experience has taught me, what I might pass along to a younger player if asked.

I enjoy music most when played with others – it’s probably why I don’t practice nearly as much as I should. As I have said before, I believe I’m a stronger ensemble player than a soloist. For a player in a band or ensemble of any kind, this element of musicianship is a much more important quality than talent. So without the benefit of that musical education, what would someone need to do to make the transition from casual jams to a band? 

We’ve all sat around the campfire, enjoying someone playing guitar, only to have the whole thing fall apart when a second guitarist or (heaven forbid) a drummer enters the mix. Whether it’s ego or insecurity, some players are so focused on what they are doing they cannot hear or feel how it fits into the whole. There is so much more to musicianship than just being able to play your instrument. A little time spent focusing on the following aspects of playing will go a long way to improving that campfire jam. These are just some random and generic bullet points that could apply to any player.

  • Learn lots of simple songs. They can help form the building blocks you’ll need to play harder stuff.
  • Learn the underlying concepts of harmony, rhythm and form in each song. You’ll be amazed how frequently they will reappear in another song.
  • Look around, make eye contact, see if anyone is trying to cue you to do something different.
  • Be open to suggestions and criticism. Don’t take it personally.
  • Know when to stand out and when to support. If you don’t have a lead, do something complementary or contrapuntal, or just find a simple pattern to vamp on. Don’t compete for attention when it’s someone else’s turn.
  • Sing only if you know the words. If you’re singing harmony, try to match the phrasing and style of the lead.
  • Paying attention to dynamics (not just volume, but also crecendos and accents) will instantly set you apart.
  • Serve the song. You don’t need to use the whole box of crayons on each and every picture.

I’d love to hear what you think. What do you think is important for musicians seeking the proverbial “next level” of musicianship? Some of these ideas, yours and mine, will be fodder for future posts.