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Chops: Alan Goldsher on Converting Jazz Classics into EDM Bangers

Learn about the ex-Digable Planets bassist and author's new musical project

Alan Goldsher
Alan Goldsher is Big Al Bassman (photo: Natalie Rosenberg)

The co-writer of George Benson’s 2014 autobiography Benson is now making EDM versions of jazz standards alone in his Chicago apartment. “I don’t know who it will appeal to. It’s so hard to get people to listen to it,” Alan Goldsher, that writer/musician, tells JazzTimes. “[But] with what Robert Glasper and Snarky Puppy are doing, people are more open to an amalgam like this, I think. I think.”

Goldsher’s latest self-released album, which came out January 7, has a mouthful of a title. “The original title was Big Al Bassman and His One-Man Chi-Tronica Party Time Groove Machine Funks Up the Jazz Classics,” he says. “It looked ridiculous on the cover, so I cut it down. It’s just me being silly.” He pared it back to just Big Al Bassman Funks Up the Jazz Classics; the cover features a clip-art-looking jazzbo in silhouette.

Another Goldsher album due out this spring is Still Sticky, partly a tribute to organ-based soul jazz. “I’m wrapping up a boogaloo version of [the Knack’s] ‘My Sharona,’ which would have been done by now if my MIDI keyboard hadn’t died,” he explains (with a sad emoticon) in an email. “I’m going to pitch it to legit labels if Big Al gets some buzz.”

Goldsher, whose main instrument is bass, used to hold down the rhythm section for jazz-rappers Digable Planets, who won a Grammy in 1994. As a solo artist he’s flirted with the major-label world before, via offbeat tribute albums to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. “One of the Sony labels almost signed it, but their legal team nixed it,” he says. “Then I did a Coltrane one, and the estate was like, ‘Yeah, no.’”

The jazz/EDM tinkerer has been more successful co-writing and ghostwriting celebrity memoirs, as well as writing music-based fiction and nonfiction, for two decades. Besides Benson, he’s penned books like 2002’s Hard Bop Academy, a biography of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and 2010’s Paul Is Undead, a fictional oral history of a zombified Beatles.

During breaks from copywriting and authoring, Goldsher fires up Logic Pro X and, in his word, “Alan-izes” jazz classics of the 20th century by Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and more. “It has become a relatively templated process,” he says. “Which was not by design. It’s just kind of happenstance.”

The process begins by figuring out a tempo. (“I spend way too much time doing that,” Goldsher admits.) Then he stacks as many as 11 beats on top of each other, which, he says, sounds less chaotic than it seems. “Even when I’m using this many beats, it still sounds pretty simple. That’s kind of the goal, to get all the little nuances I like but still get a good groove.”

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On his version of the Kind of Blue classic “So What,” Goldsher moved its well-known bassline up an octave and coated it with phaser and flanger. “The bass is the only instrument I really play well,” he says. “I was shooting for a Jaco Pastorius sound.” He pauses for a beat. “Yeah, right.”

Goldsher then converted Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderley’s real horn parts into MIDI files and bolstered them with “screaming electric guitar.” After adding hi-hats and shakers, he saved the whole project as a WAV file and plugged it into Apple’s GarageBand, a simpler program that he calls “audio software 101.” From there, he added reverb and compression and beefed up his bassline. Then he listened to the final product on multiple systems to ensure sound quality. “I’ll listen to it on my computer, on my nice speakers, and on my telephone,” he explains. “Because that’s how people listen to music these days.”

Can Big Al Bassman’s offerings find a wide audience? Goldsher is cautiously optimistic. “I know enough DJs that if people know about it and they understand what it’s about, it will get played in a lounge [or] a club,” he says. “If you’re in Chipotle and you hear [an unfamiliar song], you’ll think, ‘Wow, that’s a really cool tune. Who is that?’ Then you’ll Shazam it and it’s some dude you’ve never heard of. I’m hoping to be that Chipotle guy.”

Combining jazz and EDM is still unusual in American music, but Goldsher says he’s “not a trailblazer. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything of a commonality,” he says of the two genres. “It’s just my weird little brain that mushes it all together.”

Beyond his prolific musical output—eight albums in two-and-a-half years—Goldsher is working on separate books about Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero. On his website, he offers to co-write or ghostwrite your autobiography. So does he consider himself primarily a musician or an author?

“My six-year-old daughter says, ‘You have three jobs. You write books, you make music, and you’re a daddy,’” Goldsher says. “So that’s how I’m going to roll.”

See our JazzTimes 10 of Great Jazz Memoirs.

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