Jimmy Haslip: The Multi-Tasker

Jazz bassist talks about his work as a producer of other artists across many genres

Jimmy Haslip is perhaps best known as the bassist and founding member of the contemporary jazz band, the Yellowjackets. In addition, he’s released several albums as a leader including Arc and Red Heat and he’s performed and recorded with a virtual who’s who of jazz and pop, including Bruce Hornsby, Pat Metheny, Bonnie Raitt, Rod Stewart, Al Jarreau, Donald Fagen and many others. However, for the last twenty or so years, Haslip has been producing a variety of artists, mostly but not exclusively within the jazz/rock genre. Most recently, Haslip co-produced the Jeff Lorber Fusion album, as well as guitarist Dave Hill’s most recent CD.

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Jimmy Haslip of Yellowjackets
By Michael Franks
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Jimmy Haslip of Yellowjackets with Mike Stern at Jazz at Lincoln Center
By Frank Stewart

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Given his double life as musician and producer, we thought he’d be a great subject to kick off this series of interviews with producers, who do their best to bring the creative vision of artists to the fore.

How did you make the transition from musician to producer?

It started really with the Yellowjackets. Once I got in that band, we did the first record in 1978 with Robben Ford. It really was Robben Ford’s project, but that was the first thing we all did together. That was produced by Steve Cropper. It was called The Inside Story for Elektra/Asylum. It was an interesting record and the process was great. It was great working with Steve, who was a legendary guy at that time, and still is, for that matter. Shortly after that, we ended up getting a separate deal with Warner Brothers. That’s what ended up becoming the Yellowjackets and Tommy LiPuma produced that record.

I had been working on stuff in the late 70s and early 80s with a lot of different producers, from Ron Nevison to Tom Dowd and Eddy Offord and Steve Cropper. I was always interested in how all that worked. I kept my eyes and ears open, and listened to what people said and what people did. I watched how the production was handled. I took a lot of mental notes during that time, never really thinking that that’s what I would lean toward later in my career, but it was just something I was interested in. I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of heavyweight producers, including Gary Katz who produced Steely Dan. At one point, he took me under his wing. I know that the 70s and 80s were an educational period of time for me to pick up on things, because I was working with really well-known producers.

What did you learn from people like Katz and Dowd? Was it about the little things or the bigger things?

Both. As far as the bigger message, I would say organization and having a lot of resources. And as much as injecting ideas, making sure that you listen to the artist or the band and understanding what the direction is. If the artist and band have a distinct direction, you honor that and listen to that. And, if they didn’t have a direction, then you really try to connect with the artist or the band and see if you can find what that direction can be. Make sure that that’s discussed and everyone is in agreement. In all cases, having abundant resources and a list of musicians who play all different kinds of music, so that you can cast a situation, either in a traditional aspect or a non-traditional aspect.

All these things were swirling around in my head. I’ve always loved music. I got my feet wet working on Yellowjackets’ records. The early ones were produced by Tommy LiPuma and I took a lot of notes there. He’s a famous guy and really knows what he’s doing. At a certain point, we started producing ourselves and that laid the groundwork for me to start honing in what it was all about in producing a record. I have to say that being in a band and at a certain point being in a self-produced band, that’s what gave me the opportunity to organize myself and understand what a producer does, from beginning to end. From finding a studio, getting an engineer, getting the material together, determine if there are any guest musicians, and the whole etiquette of talking with other people’s managers or even lawyers. The whole nine yards including artwork and art direction. I’ve always been into all aspects of the creative process of making a record. I grew up in the ‘60s when there were albums and artwork was very important and also gathering all the credits and making sure the t’s were crossed and i’s were dotted.

Do you think that being a bassist gave you any particular advantage?

There’s something to that. There are a lot of producers who are bassists. But I don’t think it’s mandatory [laughs]. A lot of the producers weren’t even professional musicians. I think the door is wide open to anybody that is passionate about music and has hopefully some organizational skills, although I have worked with some producers that were unorganized, but they did have some assistants. They had it together enough to understand that maybe they weren’t so organized and that they needed to hire someone to help them get organized. You have to be organized. On top of all I’ve mentioned, there’s a budget. You have to allocate the money and know what’s being spent and where to spend it. In my case, I’ve always wanted to come in under budget, so that the artist doesn’t have as much to recoup or whatever money is left over goes into the artist’s pocket. So there’s that financial side in addition to getting the musicians, engineers, studios, music, arrangements, art direction and so on. A producer has to wear a lot of hats. In some cases, I feel like a good producer is a good multi-tasker and I happen to fit that bill. Also, I think it’s important for the producer to have a passion for the music and also have a rounded knowledge of music. And even in my case becoming an ethnomusicologist, where I actually study music from all over the world and therefore have a sense of what’s around me and what’s available.

How do you turn off your player instinct? The “Wait, I could play that” impulse.

I think that being so passionate about music and understanding so much about the different kinds of music helps me to take a back seat in that sense. How many records have I listened to in my lifetime? I’m 57, so you can imagine that’s a lot of records. I’ve listened to records with maybe not technically astute musicians, but of course they had a lot of feeling or the right sort of grease that was necessary to make the song come to life. From my perspective, it’s not all about the chops. It’s about the song, for one. And then it’s about creating the right atmosphere for that song and making that song come to life.

How do you pick a project or artist to work with? Or do the projects pick you? Producing is, after all, a real commitment on your part.

It is a very serious time commitment when you take on a project. You want to be available. My problem especially in the last five or six years is the time factor. I have been involved in a lot of projects even at the same time. Recently, I’ve almost produced like five records simultaneously. That was a challenge [laughs]. Fortunately, I was able to allot time and because I am such a multi-tasker, I can jump from one thing to another and immediately be focused on what needs to be done. I pride myself on that. I don’t necessarily want to perpetuate doing five projects simultaneously, because it is challenging and it wore me down. I was producing my solo record with Joe Vanelli as co-producer. The fact that I had some co-producers on some projects really helped me because if I wasn’t physically able to be at, say, a mixing session, I could be on the phone or get MP3s. I had a partner in the production team. That allowed me to multiple projects all at once, including my own solo record, and a couple projects with Jeff Lorber—a Norwegian saxophonist and a Las Vegas singer. Plus, a record by guitarist Dave Hill. And one with Robben Ford and Michael Landau for Shrapnel. They were all different kinds of music. I was really running around on a hectic schedule.

How do you decide what to work with? What if the music is great, but the person is difficult?

Fortunately that hasn’t happened yet. I have worked as a sideman with people who are demanding or unreasonable or unfocused. I know what that could be. That’s not something that I would really be interested in unless the music was really amazing and there was an amazing vision for the project. I might put on my helmet so to speak.

There’s another element to production and that’s psychology. You have to be a therapist on a certain level. And I mean that in a very positive fashion. There is an etiquette when you work with certain artists and you don’t want to start throwing things out there that would upset people. You have to have common sense. You have to edit yourself. You might be thinking about some things that you’d like to say to someone, but you can’t voice that, because you have to keep motivation at the top of the list. If you’re on a schedule, everything has to keep moving forward and in a positive light.

I would think being in a real band has got to help in that regard, because you are used to dealing with band dynamics. So many bands have broken up over recording sessions gone awry.

That’s true. Things can get hairy. Egos can get in the way. Tempers can flare. Things are said and next thing you know there’s a blowout. I’ve been in some situations, though more as an observer than participant. I was in a session once where a fistfight broke out.

Did it involve a drummer?

Actually, no. They were co-composers, the piano player and the singer. They were having a riff from the very beginning of the session. We thought it would just blow over once the music started. And it was actually the drummer and I who broke up the fight [laughs].

Now that’s a rhythm section.

We were able to cool everybody out and stop brawling, but that session was over. That’s the only experience I’ve had like that in the thousands of sessions I’ve done. Thankfully, it’s not a common occurrence.

I was going to ask you if you were the hands-on or hands-off type, but I didn’t expect to mean it literally.

Yea, when I’m involved in something, I’m ready to go the whole nine yards with it. To be involved creatively with ideas and input into the mix of things. And help the artist as much as I can, for better or worse. Obviously, not everything I suggest might not be acceptable or might not be a great idea, but to me if someone has ideas, it’s good to voice them and put them on the table. Even if it’s a bad idea, it still may lead to a good idea. It’s all good food for thought.

What sort of learning curve did you have? Were you pretty well-versed in the technical aspects? Some producers like the late Tom Dowd were very knowledgeable about the technical aspects.

Yes, he was incredible. I don’t quite have that depth of knowledge for engineering. I know quite a bit about it. More than anything, I’m in touch with about a dozen really great engineers who I work well together with. I know that I can book an engineer who I have a relationship with but also who is on a high level of professionalism and expertise.

I have done thousands of sessions, so I think at this point in time I have a good idea of what needs to be done. In fact, at one time I had to fire an engineer. This was a project I was brought in on. I had to go to another state that I’d never worked in before with people I’d never worked with in a studio I’d never worked in before. I was a fish out of water, so to speak. That was a challenge. The demos of this band sounded great. But when we got into the studio, the one thing that happened was that the drummer wasn’t working out.

Hah. I told you. It’s always the drummer’s fault, it seems.

Well, the drums are the most important element in making a record, especially if it’s a band playing tracks live. I tried using a click track but this particular drummer had no experience playing with a click track. The click became a moot point. Then the engineer wasn’t getting sounds that I thought were acceptable. I let it go through the recording process and this was a time when drum machines were prominent. I’m a frustrated drummer and I owned a Linn drum machine and I used to enjoy programming drums. So I rented a Linn drum machine and every night I’d program two or three tunes, staying up until 5 AM. Then I’d go in the studio the next day and lay down the drum machine information and have the band play to the drum machine. I did that for five days and four nights and got the recording done. The mixing part was becoming a disaster and I took a shot at mixing the record myself. And that’s when I realized that mixing is an art form unto itself. I had no skill at that time. I knew what a record should sound like, but I didn’t have the skill to make it happen. That’s when I realized how important it was to have a mixing engineer, if not from the inception of the record, at some point when it was time to mix a record, if I didn’t feel confident about the tracking engineer, I needed to have a mixing engineer there to take over.

Over the last ten years or so, about how many albums have you produced?

Starting in the ‘80s when I began producing Marilyn Scott records, I was also producing Yellowjackets records, I’d have to say that I’ve produced almost 70 records in the course of about 23 years.

What albums do you think you made a difference with?

I’m really proud of. my first solo record Arc, that I co-produced with Vince Mendoza. I actually was the one who brought in Vince, because I was a big fan of his writing. To me, the songs are the most important aspect of a record. You can have great players and terrible songs and that’s not going to work. If I can find songs from outside that will work, I’m fine with that. The objective is to try and find really good music.

There’s another record by a guitar player by Matthew Van Doren and I oversaw the project from top to bottom. All the music and casting the musicians and creating the atmosphere of the record came from my head. Although I have to say that the artist was the composer and he wrote some great music. When he came to me, he knew he wanted to play with some great musicians but that was the bottom line. After hearing his songs, I casted the record so that it had these pockets of musicians that created certain atmosphere with three or four songs each. Because it was a guitar player’s record, at first I didn’t want to have any keyboards on it, though I eventually decided to do three of the songs as an organ trio. There were no synths, no piano, no Rhodes. I could really frame the guitar and that would be the main chordal instrument. I’m very proud of that record.

Listening to the last Jeff Lorber record Now is the Time and hearing that group live doing “Mysterious Traveler,” I thought that particular tune seemed to have your handiwork on it.

Yes, I came up with that idea. It came up from a conversation I had with Jeff at one point just hanging out. We had just listened to bunch of music he had written. He’s a very prolific writer and arranger. So I knew he was going to have plenty of material. And he had this idea to resurrect the Jeff Lorber Fusion. He had an idea to redo some of the older catalogue, which I thought was interesting. So we were listening to a lot of the older material and picking stuff. I had my favorites, like “Water Sign,” which was always a favorite of mine, so I knew that had to be on the list one way or the other.

That was a hit of sorts at least for a fusion record at that time.

It was and it stood out. And it was also the title track of that record. There was no argument there. He completely agreed. He had some ideas for stuff that was a little more obscure, but I remembered the songs, like “Chinese Medicinal Herbs” and “Black Ice.” There was some stuff he had written that was new. There was one thing he played me called “Dr. Moy” and he wasn’t too sure about that. But I loved it. We also ended up writing two or three things and there was one of them that was hitting home with us, called “Pixel.”

And he asked me about musicians and he wanted me to suggest some musicians. He was interested in Vinnie Colaiuta and I’ve had a longstanding relationship with him so I contacted him. He came in on three days of sessions. We also had Dave Weckl, who played on “Chinese Medicinal Herbs.” I also brought in Jimmy Branly, who is a drummer I’ve been playing with locally in LA. He’s from Cuba and I wanted to bring that element in, plus he plays timbales and percussion. He ended up playing drums on three tunes and hand percussion on three tunes.

He played me this track that he had heard and it was by this singer named Irene Bea. She had taken the essence of one of his tunes “Rain Dance” and she wrote a lyric to it and made this really cool R&B funk tune out of it. I thought it was brilliant, so I asked if there was any chance we could get her involved. We brought her in. She ended up writing lyrics to a couple other things, including another track he had buried in his backlog of tune ideas. It was called “Sugar Free.”

Anyway, we’re sitting around one day and I don’t know how we got on the subject, but both he and I have similar tastes.

Both of you worked at record stores at a young age.

That’s right. For some reason we start talking about Weather Report and their record Mysterious Traveler. I always loved that record and the vibe of it. And Jeff told me this story that when that record came out, he couldn’t get enough of it and he could play the record in the store. He played Mysterious Traveler just about all day and by the end of the day, the manager came over to him and said, “Will you please play something else?” He was really angry at Jeff. And Jeff always remembered that. I worked in a Sam Goody’s in Long Island and that same thing would happen. “Take that Goddamn record off and put something else on!”

I went home that night and started thinking about that record. Of course, I have that record, so I put it on. And I thought, “Wow, how cool could this could be if we did a cover of “Mysterious Traveler”? There is something about the song that fit the concept of Jeff’s record and also had to do with what influenced him and what influenced him to put this band together called the Jeff Lorber Fusion back in the ‘70s. When I brought it up to him, I think he might have been taken aback on some level, but he was interested. We did maybe a little more on the R&B or funky side version, but I also wanted to make sure that we had that spacious atmosphere.

I knew that Jeff was really into astronomy and so am I. It’s one of my hobbies. I used to have a telescope at one point. I love reading about the planetary system. Same with Jeff. He’s even met Stephen Hawking. I’m envious of that. He’s like a rock star in that arena. A song like “Mysterious Traveler” fit in that way too.

As far as records to be proud of, I’m very proud of that record with Jeff Lorber. I also got to work with Bobby Colomby, who is legendary and who produced the first record by my teacher, Jaco Pastorius. And of course, he has a seriously deep background in music and was a great drummer.

Bobby has such an energy about him.

Yes, that’s true. Looking at that Jeff Lorber record, you can see how three people can work together to make something cool out of it. Bobby brought in the Blood, Sweat & Tears horn section, which is prominent on five or six of the tunes of the record.

Who are some other producers that you look up to in some way?

I’m a big fan of Daniel Lanois. I really like Peter Gabriel’s So which is a quintessential production for him. I also love Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball album that he did. I had the pleasure of being hired to play on some tracks, that never saw the light of day, but I spent a couple of days in the studio with him and an engineer. It was just me and a drummer overdubbing on some tracks. That drummer was Terry Bozzio. It was for a Robbie Robertson record.

I love Tom Dowd. I also got to work with him on several projects, as a musician. I played on some recording with Rod Stewart and this band called Blackjack featuring Michael Bolton on vocals. It was like a corporate hard-rock band in the ‘70s. I always compared it to a version of the Raspberries. We had elements of that pop-psychedelic thing and elements of Yes. We actually did two records. The first one was with Tom Dowd and the second was with Eddy Offord, who was another guy I admired, because I loved those Yes records. There are probably so many more. It’s a long list. I’m sure George Martin would be on that list though.

About ten years ago, I made a commitment to educate myself further than what I already knew, so I could become a better producer. As I start moving along here age-wise in my life, it’s something I feel I can do without having to travel so much and be closer to my family. It’s all making sense to me as a career direction. Right now it’s 50/50 as far as doing live performances and producing, but at some point, I’d like to change that ratio to maybe 80/20 with playing live 20% of the time and the rest spent producing.

At this point I feel qualified to do any type of music. I grew up in the ‘60s which was a renaissance era for eclectic music There were so many different types of bands and all genres were accepted.

When I interviewed Bobby McFerrin recently, he pointed to radio during the ‘60s as having a formative influence on him musically.

That created a serious foundation for anyone. In my house, it was super eclectic. I had my brother, who was ten years older than I was, listening to hardcore jazz and classical music. And my dad was listening to Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria and even the Jackie Gleason Show and Mantiovanni and Stan Kenton. Then we had an aunt who lived with us and she was into crazy pop stuff like Jerry Vale, Johnny Mathis, Connie Francis. That was in my aunt’s room. And I was hanging with my peers, so there was Led Zeppelin, Beatles, Stones, Jethro Tull, Grand Funk Railroad, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, Cream, Sly & the Family Stone, all the Motown stuff. You can only imagine that all this music was flying around my house, sometimes simultaneously, like a Charles Ives vibe.

I was seriously into film as a kid. There was all that film music from Capra films and all the great black and white films from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. I had an endless resource of material. Once I started focusing on producing, all those elements came into play and I saw that I was qualified on some level. I just needed to build a resume. At first it was word of mouth, but now people are recommended to me.

Given that you were doing five records at once, that balance you sought may have been out of whack and your wife may not have seen the benefits of you not touring.

That’s a big part of that equation—my family. I would rather just do one project at a time and have time for my family and even for myself, to recharge the batteries.

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