A visitor enters Spacebomb Studios through what appears to be a Rosewood Clothing Company fitting room on South Robinson Street. Sunlight streams through a rectangular cutout in the wall, filtered through a curtain of racked dresses.
The reception’s informal decor is a mix of designer studio, industrial chic, and modern loft. Further behind the soundproof double doors is the control room, and beyond that the performance space. The floors are covered with Persian carpets, the walls lined with instruments and decorated with colorful patterns in the Spacebomb house style. On this hot last Sunday of May, there are plenty of musicians.
This is the third recording session of Doug Richards’ arrangements of the work of Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. One of the most important musical voices of the 20th century, Jobim was the “father of Bossa Nova”, a revolutionary style that combined sophisticated harmonies and unconventional syncopations that still sounds fresh 70 years after its popular mid-century heyday. century. Many of Jobim’s songs have become standards. “The Girl from Ipanema,” from his collaboration with saxophonist Stan Getz, is, according to Performer Songwriter magazine, second only to “Yesterday” by the Beatles as the most recorded pop song in history. (For good reason, the melody is beautiful, even if the original lyrics lose their poetic transcendence in translation.)
Richards, the formidable composer/arranger/professor emeritus who led the VCU Jazz Studies program in its glorious beginnings, dove into Jobim’s songbook during the COVID lockdown. Part of the appeal was the potential to do something innovative by building on Jobim’s gnarled harmonic and rhythmic structures. Laura Ann Singh, of Miramar and Quarto Na Bossa, had the vocal strength to shine in challenging settings.
With Singh out of town for a Miramar gig in Brooklyn, the focus of this session was the music. Perhaps the biggest challenge was “One Note Samba”. Richard’s arrangements are always challenging, and this included intense ensemble sections that required exceptional precision.
In live performance, an error is swept into the next note, but a recorded one is forever. The potential for a “clam”, a missed note or a rhythmic misstep, depends on both the size of the band and the complexity of the arrangement. Even following a score, as with the compositional familiarity of Pollard or Richards, it is a daunting challenge to detect passing errors in 17 complex and simultaneous musical performances.
It is helpful for players to call their own fouls, speak up if they missed an entry, or feel they could have played a section better.
Each part is recorded several times. Then, alternate holds are made of the sections that presented the most difficulty. A metronomic click track fed through the musician’s headphones ensures tempo consistency. Although nearly every note except the solos is specified in a complete score, the piece still moves around the edges.
When there is a critical mass of material, the action moves to the control room to listen to (and play) the score along with the playbacks. The sections are identified by letters and aligned in the reading so that it is relatively easy to compare takes. With a top-notch band of musicians, many former Richards students, highly motivated to play his brilliantly gnarled arrangements, any mistakes are anything but obvious.
The goal is not to find a completely error-free take, but enough coverage that problems are minimal and faults can be corrected audibly. Then the final production challenge begins, shuffling the dozens of tracks to deliver a product with polished transparency for the ideas to shine through.
Some additional photos: