Not long ago, Jeff Baker, the vocalist and educator, observed a building in the initial stages of construction next to his apartment in Portland, Ore. “They were building this tiny tower right in the middle and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was,” Baker says. “Then I realized, Oh, that’s the elevator shaft. They have to finish that before they can do things around it.”
Baker used the metaphor of the elevator shaft and building from the inside out—a concept he also gleaned from producer T Bone Burnett—in creating his latest album, Phrases. For the recording, Baker wrote several new songs, adapting texts by Pablo Neruda, J.D. Salinger, and other well-known authors, and also chose some covers, including both jazz standards and pop tunes by Billy Joel, Ryan Adams, and Bonnie Raitt. Then he arranged the songs for a 12-piece ensemble (including himself) featuring such heavies as drummer Brian Blade, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, tenor saxophonist Geof Bradfield, and trumpeter Marquis Hill, along with a string quartet.
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“The elevator-shaft idea really opened up a lot in my composing because it gave me an anchor,” Baker says. “Everything started to flow for me when I started to think inside-out instead of bottom-to-top or vice versa—just thinking about one thing that was really strong musically, and then allowing that to bring about other ideas and more creativity.”
In Baker’s view, Phrases is less a novel with an overarching theme and more a series of short stories on love and loss—stories that he feels are written and arranged in an authentic way, rather than as prescribed for a typical jazz outing. “I guess you can tell what part of a relationship I’m an expert at, which is the end of them, for the most part,” he says, laughing. “And I wasn’t just going to tell these stories with a Latin thing here, a swing tune there. I’m a white guy from the Pacific Northwest, so I needed to write in a way that’s true to me.”
As for arranging these stories, Baker drew on his proficiencies in keyboard harmony and music theory—skills that allow him to interface with instrumentalists on a technical level. “That’s not to say that there aren’t other ways to think about arranging,” he says. “I know a lot of singers who think more in emotional gestures, or in being guided by lyrics—and those are all super-valid places to draw from.”
While Baker played a significant role in making the arrangements of Phrases, the process was highly collaborative. His friend Darrell Grant, the pianist, was heavily involved as well. “In the past, I worked with amazing pianists and arrangers who did the work for me,” Baker says. “In this situation that wasn’t the case. It was taking the songs to Darrell, who would say, ‘Here are other ideas and other things you could think about and other harmonic choices that you could make, or other form choices, or solo sections.’ I would take these ideas home to work on, and then I’d come back with some more stuff.”
“Jeff has very much an instrumentalist’s sensibility in his singing and in his writing,” Grant notes, “so this was not the typical ‘Let’s write an arrangement for a vocalist.’ Jeff really saw himself as another voice inside the music … It’s rare that you get to be involved in a project from the conception. Jeff brought me sketches of the songs when he was just writing them. We tried various chord changes and sonic perspectives; we fleshed the songs out with parts and figured out who we’d want to play them from the very beginning.”
The arrangements that Baker and Grant arrived at were open-ended, allowing room for contributions from the other musicians who would participate on the recording session. Some of the results were not exactly surprising. “I’ve played with Brian [Blade] for a couple decades now, so the sound of his drums is in my head,” Grant says. “I had a good idea of what he would contribute to the arrangements—which was great and exactly what I was looking for.”
On the other hand, some musicians took the program in unexpected directions. Gregory Uhlmann, the guitarist in the band, gave the sort of harmonic input that comes from a deep knowledge of the fretboard, while using his electronic effects pedals to suggest new directions for the arrangements. “Greg would twiddle all these buttons and knobs and these amazing sonic things would come out,” Grant says. “That guitar wizardry informed the arrangements; we might simplify a horn thing or move it to a different octave, for instance.”
Baker says it’s ultimately that sense of openness that helped him realize his own vision for Phrases. “I wrote thinking about these incredible musicians looking at my music and having their own set of choices to make. It was so much better than me saying, ‘You have to do this—or it’s not going to work!’”