As some of you know, I’ve started recording my first solo album. In the year 2016 (which is when it will hopefully be released), it’s not clear that this move is a life decision that makes any immediate economic sense. The music business gets more fragmented and confused, seemingly on a monthly basis, and if your name isn’t Adele, Beyonce, or Taylor Swift, you aren’t selling large numbers of downloads, CDs, vinyl, or whatever it is that people buy these days. (I still buy a lot of CDs, though I buy downloads if I’m in a hurry.) And at the advanced age of 99 reggae years, (see How To Calculate Your Age In Reggae Years for the math), the thought that I am a “new artist” has a sort of grim humor attached to it.
Over the years, I’ve had lots and lots of people ask me why I haven’t done my own record. There are lots of answers. First of all, it takes quite a bit of ego to think that what the world really needs is a solo record with your name on the cover. I have an ego, like everybody else, but mine isn’t overly large. I love playing in great bands but my vision was always group-based, not with myself up front and center stage. I don’t even really like stepping forward to take guitar solos; I prefer to stay where I am before, during, and after.
Over my career, I’ve been blessed to work for long periods of time with many legendary artists and bands, live and in the studio: Dennis Brown, Toots and The Maytals, Roots Radics, Lloyd Parks and We The People, and these days, Derrick Barnett and Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express, just to name a few. I’ve played a variety of roles depending on the context, but I’ve never had my name on the ticket, and I’ve always been fine with that. Even with my own band, The Blue People, I don’t get featured billing, though I sing a bit and take lots of solos.
I was very affected by my experience with Dennis Brown at the start of my career; I saw how intense the pressures of stardom and talent can be, and I didn’t like it much. It seemed to make more sense to me to be back by the drummer, out of the line of fire. You make less money (sometimes!) but you see the same audience and play the same music, and have a heck of a lot less pressure.
You also have a longer shelf life as a side person; your marketability isn’t dependent on record sales and you can play with lots of different people. If Dennis Brown, for example, had done a tour as a backing vocalist for Luciano because he just wanted to be a harmony singer for a while, everybody would have concluded his career was over. As a hired gun, I don’t have that problem, and I figured out early that I wanted to be around for as long as possible.
The second reason is that presenting yourself to the world as a featured instrumental artist means that I’m competing for your attention and consumer dollars against George Benson, Ernest Ranglin, Russell Malone, Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin, Joe Satriani, Pat Martino, Steve Vai, and a boatload of other people who play the guitar a whole lot better than I do, not to mention all the wonderful guitarists who are no longer with us. Why would somebody buy my CD when they could get one by any of these people for the same money?
The third reason is that it’s expensive, at least the way that I like to record, which is to have as many people as possible playing and singing in the studio at the same time. I have the skills to make a one man band type of record, where I play or program all the instruments, but I don’t find it all that much fun. I’ve done a few projects like that, notably this one, which I completed just before I left Jamaica. But what I love about music is playing it with other people, not playing it by myself.
So why now? Well, first of all, my children have finished college! So it’s actually possible to think about spending money on something else.
But the real catalyst was going on the Jazz Cruise earlier this year with Monty Alexander. If you’ve never been, it’s an amazing experience, well over a hundred of the finest jazz musicians in the world, playing in various combinations from 11 in the morning till midnight for a week straight. In addition to being a master class in music, it was also a window into how careers work. Everybody on board was a fantastic player; however, not everybody knew how to make a compelling presentation as a leader. And not everybody knew how to present their strengths to best advantage. John Pizzarelli, son of the legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, was a shining example of how to put yourself in the best possible light as an artist. I won’t name the ones who weren’t! I’ve seen John many times and I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed what he does. Monty Alexander is great at this too, and I get to watch him up close regularly. It’s no coincidence that both of these guys have wonderful careers while other musicians, equally talented, go from gig to gig, even good gigs, without much control over what happens to them.
I realized after I got back from the cruise that being a successful artist isn’t just about talent, it’s about presenting what you do in the best possible light, in a way that makes you comfortable and able to give your best. I’m not the best guitar player alive, but I am capable of figuring out how to present what I do best in a user-friendly context. Other people do it, so I can figure out how to do it too. I’ve done just about everything you can do in music except become rich, famous, or go solo. Maybe it’s time I tried the last one!
I did make a brief stab at a solo career back in the We The People days. In 1985 I released a two sided 45 (Skateland Rock/Too Sweet For Words) that for some reason Jamaican radio jumped on with both feet and played constantly. However, for a variety of reasons I wasn’t able to follow it up with an album and so I wasn’t able to benefit further from its success. I’m better prepared now.
So I decided to start. I picked a couple of songs to record, which turned into a concept for an album. I ran the concept by a few very smart business people and they thought it made sense. The next step was to start casting the songs. I look at songs like little movies; you have to have a good script (the song itself) and you have to cast it properly (the vocal and instrumental voices to read your script). Sometimes when I’m coming up with parts in the studio I actually envision the guitar part as a character actor in the movie. Fortunately I know a tremendous number of talented people and it was a lot of fun figuring out who would sound best on what songs. Monty himself appears on two tracks, which makes things even more special for me.
At this writing, I’m more than half way through the recording process and I’m very happy with the results. I hope to be finished recording by the end of January and have the album ready to play business games with by March…that’s another whole adventure, and another whole blog post.