04/17/13 By Scott Krane
5 Delicious Masterpieces of Sound Recorded by Phil Ramone
(a belated eulogy, perhaps)
The death of legendary pop music record producer Phil Ramone on March 30 in Manhattan from complications of pneumonia following a surgery to prevent an aneurysm is an injury for the music industry as whole, and it hits close to home for me personally. His son, BJ was a close friend of mine growing up, and I spent much time at Mr. Ramone’s villa in my teenage years. There I practiced in the recording studio with a couple of bands, BJ cut his teeth in the booth. Today, BJ is a great engineer with a lot of credits to his name. Phil was a generous and talented man. As a tribute here is a review of five records produced by the studio wunderkind.
John Coltrane – Ole – 1961 –Atlantic
Paella; and heavy on the sauce. This was a comic version of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, for the combo but with open modal forms. Sketches was recorded a year earlier, same year as My Favorite Things, which as one critic indicates, also had an opening title track with an extended modal vamp featuring Coltrane on soprano. It is also noted elsewhere by a critic that the B-side evokes traces of The Africa Brass Sessions that were soon to come (for their ethnic feel). The album was underrated. The mic-ing of instruments portrayed Ramone's inexperience. The levels come out too high and distorted, despite a recently digitally remastered version. Perhaps Dolphy's flute mic needs to take five steps back from the flute.
This must have been one of Ramone’s first projects. Eric Dolphy is on the flute, sounding sharp, splintering the recording with fragments of glassy tone. Because he was under contract with Prestige, he had to be listed on the personnel as George Lane, a pseudonym. That is how things were back then. Freddie Hubbard is on trumpet. It is always nice to have him in the lineup; this is an important musical choice that enhances the phrygian vamp especially on the opening number like an artist chalking sketches. Trane coming in like a freight as always, purchasing huge—er, oversized sonic canvases thanks to the trusty old rhythm section: McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, the rolling thunder of Elvin Jones on the drums. But now, a second bassist has been added, one Art Davis. On his ninth album, John Coltrane is as grandiose as ever. This was right before he went to Impulse! records. “Aisha” is a lovely down tempo modal piece, Dolphy sounds fantastic. The colors are vibrant throughout. The title-track “Ole” is a simply phrygian phrase, a stepwise repetition and the piece goes on for some eighteen minutes or more.
Getz/Gilberto – 1963 – Verve
Phil was only a teenager, but the boss of bossa nova. This won Grammy Album of the Year and two other Grammy awards including best non-classical. It is astounding how much Ramone grew as an engineer between the release of this and the release of the previous album.
Recorded music has hardly ever been so sublime. A tenor saxophone has never sounded so gentle. The important thing to listen for here, are the textures. The blue-collar brushing of Gilberto’s nylon strings breathe sexually against Astrud Gilberto’s vocals on “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Corcovado”. “Desafinado” is also a highlight. Creed Taylor was the producer. Released around the same time as the film adaptation to Nabakov’s Lolita, the femme fatale theme of “The Girl From Ipanema” is a prevalent trope for the era.
Blood on the Tracks – Bob Dylan – 1975 – Columbia
"A saxophone somewhere far off plays…"
When Bob Dylan met up with Phil Ramone in 1975 to record Blood on the Tracks, the world of recorded music was in for a very special treat. Perhaps here, under Ramone’s brilliant auspice, Dylan capped the first chapter of his career. You could call this a watershed in which Dylan would soon drift from the cadre of Robbie Robertson and The Band. After the country of Nashville Skyline and the thunder of live-touring with the aforementioned, here Dylan is in all his genius simplicity, recalling Times They are a-Changin’ and Free Wheelin’, for the folky isolation. Here the screeching Hammonds of the ‘60s have been turned down in volume. The strings are the theme. The upright bass is heavy. The poetry is perfectly simple: timeless, epic narratives, inspired by classic works of fiction: "She was born in spring/ and I was born too late/ blame it on that Simple Twist of fa-eeet." This album is as blue as it gets. It is Dylan’s fifteenth studio endeavor and Phil Ramone is the right choice. Bob debuted the songs on the record before recording for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Neil Young when he was with Crazy Horse. He played it for bluegrass champion Peter Rowan too. “Shelter From the Storm”, “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Idiot Wind” are masterpieces. Fifteen musicians, including Dylan were recorded on the album, mostly alternating guitars. Also note, this was a return to Columbia records after Planet Waves.
Paul Simon – Graceland – 1986 —Warner Brothers
This is the great feat of pop. This is the great studio recording. Majestic South Africa in all its honky funk is embraced by Paul Simon: the mysterious rooms of a sonic mansion, desert skies, collages of Americana, bouncing in sonic textural bliss. Moments of a cappella beauty on “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless” and plenty of creole spices. A must for anything with ears. Guitaristic volume swells imitate pedal steels, warm tube tones, dripping throughout steady tempos and painting the harmonic structures in water colors. Paul and Phil were old friends: Phil produced Still Crazy After All These Years, and actually wrote the changes to “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”. Here, the Boyoyo Boys are as good a rhythm section as Paul ever played with. It won Grammy Award Album of the Year in 1988.
Paul Simon -- Rhythm of the Saints – 1990 – Warner Brothers
The percussion shakes the whole rainforest. Apparently the saints have gone marching into Brazil. No longer the boss of bossa nova, the Getz/Gilberto engineer has returned to the Portaguese speaking country. This would be the last time Paul and Phil would record together. Some say it failed to follow-up to Graceland, but this one won Phil Grammy Album of the Year for the 34th annual Grammy Awards. Actually, it was album of the year as well. Grupo Cultural Olodum, an Afro-Brazilian group, make up part of the rhythm section. Thundering batukamba rhythms thrill the listener. As always, Michael Brecker is a hero on the horn. The poetry is immaculate, showcasing Paul Simon’s eternal talent. The drums on “Obvious Child” were recorded live at Pelourinho Square in Salvador, Bahia, but the drum tracks for the other songs were recorded in Rio de Janeiro before being mastered at Phil’s own studio with a veritable regiment of musical personnel: some seventy plus musicians. Listen for the background vocals on “Spirit Voices,” a duet with Milton Nascimento.
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