It almost sounds like the setup to an old comedy routine: A jazz/rock keyboardist walks into a bar with an eclectic Grammy-winning producer and comes out with … a biography. Yet it’s no joke. Musician/author Ben Sidran has indeed penned a winning, novel-like narrative of the late great Tommy LiPuma, praising his imperial credits (forming the Blue Thumb label with Bob Krasnow, producing Miles Davis, George Benson, Bill Evans, Paul McCartney, and more) while still managing to make the larger-than-life knob-twiddler bite-sized and all too human.
From his roots in an Italian immigrant family living in Cleveland to the ills of childhood (literally—a long-term bone infection gave him plenty of time to reflect on the Nat Cole, Charles Brown, and Little Jimmy Scott sides he heard on the radio by his bed) all the way to late-in-life victories such as discovering and producing Diana Krall, LiPuma—in Sidran’s eyes—had mastered the musical life to its fullest. But it turns out we could easily have missed him; he got an F in music in grade school and nearly stayed a barber like his old man.
Sidran hung tough with LiPuma during the former’s time at Blue Thumb (and beyond), and you can sense the intense but jovial camaraderie of their hang: that of an elder Zen master and an up-and-coming one shooting the breeze, loving a life of high art and low jazz. Those elements merge during a tale of Miles Davis going to LiPuma’s house to discuss working together on Tutu, that pair’s first production. You can sense Sidran’s salivating fandom (but smarts) as LiPuma recounts Davis’ eye-popping reaction to the paintings on the producer’s walls—a reaction he knew would occur as Miles was a painter himself, who brought ink and pads everywhere he traveled. The way Sidran sets the story up makes Davis and LiPuma sound like kids in a candy store, gorging themselves on the divine nature of their calling.
The author also makes sure to mention, over and over, how LiPuma’s life goal was to make jazz, world music, and deep R&B palatable to a mass audience without watering down its edges. Throwing in his obsession with collecting modern art and his drive to present both uniquely soigné performers such as Chris Montez, Claudine Longet, Gábor Szabó, Eumir Deodato, Antônio Carlos Jobim, and João Gilberto and their elegant indie-pop interpreters (Everything but the Girl, Aztec Camera) just adds spice to an already zesty affair.
LiPuma was nothing if not a raconteur. There are stories of dropping windowpane (LSD) in Vegas, up-tight-and-vivid views of his production method and madness (“first real lesson—pay attention”), and languid, loving descriptions of historic jazz and soul records that show how the sausage was made while still smelling sweet. At nearly 300 pages, this Ballad moves at a brisk clip and is a sharp read for devoted fanboy and casual reader alike, all while leaving you wanting more.
Plus, any book that starts with a murder on a dirt road in Sicily works for me.