So the story has been set up now. Miles dies in 1991. In 1992 Ivan sends me the cassette of the wonderful, amazing songs he sent to Miles and now the daunting task of trying to get a deal for a project that isn’t a project yet and is just an idea. In 1993 there were still plenty of record companies and many to go to, to pitch this project. However, what am I pitching? I have some great songs but what is the concept? You can’t go to a label unless you have the concept nailed down from top to bottom. At first, I thought about pitching the project with Ivan being the artist. Even though everybody at the labels that I went to had glowing things to say about Ivan nobody was interested in making an album with him as the artist, because it was all about what could we sell in the United States and selling an album with a Brazilian artist singing Portuguese was not going to cut it with labels and not going to get me a budget that could really make this an album worthwhile doing. As time went on it started getting a little bit more discouraging, because nobody seemed to get it, that the songs were just totally spectacular, and if we maneuver the right way the general public all around the world would really love Ivan’s music. For as much as every great musician that I knew loved Ivan’s music and songs, they were not very familiar to the general public. If they were at all, it was a very small percentage of people. So the question looms, how do I turn the songs into a recording project that will get a label interested in giving me $100,000 plus?
It was obvious to me that a lot of work and thought was going to have to go into this, to really make it so that funding the project has to be a no brainer. Meanwhile, life goes on and I have work to do, as my career was starting to change at that point. For many years, I worked with so many great artists programming keyboards and playing keyboards for producers like Marcus Miller, Tommy LiPuma, Luther Vandross, and many others including high-end jingle producers as well. All through that period of time, I was paying a lot of attention to how various producers worked and what it really took to make a first class album, and in my mind, I was definitely ready to make the leap. However, Marcus always said; never go into something else until you’ve got it fully covered and you can make money doing it. He was so right, as I saw many people fall by the wayside, leaving situations before they were ready to be left and failing at the next effort. That is not something that I was really thinking about and I had put 15 years into studio work and just wanted to keep on growing and building from there. I spent 10 years working with Marcus Miller and now he was moving to LA! We had just bought a house here and it was obvious that the next move was staring me right in the face. I had to go and accept the fact, that if I didn’t grow, I wouldn’t have a career, because the studio business was rapidly changing as well, and there was less work out there.
I started out slow as a producer and was producing some children’s albums for my friend Arnie Holland and his company Lightyear Entertainment. They were all very successful including one that I did with the wonderful Phlycia Rashaad that won several awards. I then got a Cine Golden Eagle award for my score for the animated film “The Snow Queen”, which was an American and Russian collaboration. I also did a Jane Fonda workout video in between and the point being, that I was getting ready and learning how to make these various moves, while also adding lots of names to my Rolodex from all the sessions and great musicians and artists that I met over the years, as well as the albums that I was a part of.
Arnie had a very ambitious project called “People”. It was an award-winning book that he wanted to turn into an animated film, to be animated in Moscow since he now had a relationship with the Russians there, who are really brilliant animators. A fellow by the name of Joshua Green was heading up the project and I was very happy to say they wanted me to do the complete music project for the movie, including making an album of all the songs going in, and scoring the film as well. This could be the project would really start getting attention paid to my work as a producer and composer, as well as keyboardist. There was a section in it that really needed a Brazilian Carnaval kind of scene and music to match it, and I thought, “Wow, I’m definitely going to go to Ivan and see if he can come up with a very great song that we could do and he would sing.” He loved the idea and was on board, as were some other fantastic artists like; Al Jarreau, Brenda Russell, Chaka Khan, Heavy D, Vanessa Williams, Peabo Bryson, Lea Salonga , Sounds Of Blackness and others. I was meeting with songwriters who were friends and who loved the project and meeting new people as well, but in the back of my mind it was always I need to have a situation where I can pitch the Ivan Lins project to a label and if I can make this album happen, the chances will be better.
Well, there is going to be another column talking about the making of the album “People” and all the craziness that, that brought into my life, because it took 2 1/2 years to make this album and the film, and I wound up getting an Emmy nomination.
I had also been learning my lesson, severely, about working with different artists and that whole deal; dealing with well-known artists and new artists. A few projects I was working on just couldn’t get off the ground, mainly because so many artists are absolutely crazy and sabotage themselves from the very beginning. I made a solo album called “World Tour”, that I got out thanks to Michael Brecker’s manager Darryl Pitt, who secured me a deal. That was a deep introduction to me about what happens when you’re a solo artist and you are dealing with the label. Things can go south really fast if they are not backing you up, spending some money and actually really believing in you.
So where do we go from here? Well after the “People” project, which really came out fantastic, Arnie suggested I make a solo album for his label. To cut to the chase, I can tell lots of stories about that, and I will, but we ended up calling it “Mr. X” and it really was a terrific album that, again, didn’t get the support it really needed to compete with everything else out there. That is again another story, but my theory came through as I had a fantastic Rolodex and called many great musicians and artists to participate and they did. The reason why I bring this up, and I will be telling more stories about both of these projects, is that I made sure that I could get Ivan to participate and be an artist, and also do another one of his songs and get a great singer to perform it, thus raising the profile to show labels what the possibility was of his music if it was done a certain way.
Then the moment happened when it all came together. On the “People” project I had Ivan and Chaka Khan perform a special song that he wrote for the movie called “Festa Brasiliera” where half the words were in English and half the words were in Portuguese. My wife Kathy is a wonderful lyricist who wrote the English portion and then also wrote lyrics to the song that I was going to do on the “Mr. X” album called “Beneath The Moon and Sky”. I was able to get Janis Siegal from The Manhattan Transfer to do the vocal, and it all came into my mind that the way to go into do the Ivan project, was to have the songs sung in English for the American audience, so they could relate to the music and not have to think they’re listening to a foreign language, which may not go over well here. All of a sudden I felt a new sense of purpose for this project and how I was going to get it off the ground.
We are in 1996 and it still isn’t so easy getting the transition going and getting the perception in the business that I am now a legitimate producer and not just a session guy, even though I never really was that. I was always part of production teams that made mostly albums and multiple songs for records. That would keep me in the studio with the artist for weeks and sometimes months, whereas your normal session guy really did go from session to session almost every day. I was able to create my character within these albums and that helped a lot.
I was also doing some projects for a major label, and it was very interesting watching how everybody up there worked, and I had a friend, who was supposed to be a good friend, working up there and he recommended me, along with a few other incredible musicians, to be a part of this arrangers group. That was truly a moment that I will share at some point, because it was the closest that I had gotten to leaving the music business, because of betrayal and jealousy. Something that is rampant in this business, then again not just this business, but it hurts when you trust people. There are so many forks in the road and so many chances to go into the minefield and make big mistakes.
For the sake of not turning this particular piece into “War and Peace”, we will move ahead in time. It is 1998 and I am fairly depressed about the events that have happened over the last couple years, with various nefarious people masquerading as friends in this business. Just when you think it could get worse, a real friend comes out of nowhere and offers you something very exciting. Jay Beckenstein was the leader and saxophonist of the very successful jazz group Spyro Gyra. He always said to me, that if he ever got a solo record deal, he wanted me to produce some music on it, and he called me, and it was happening, and he did want me to produce a few tunes. It was very exciting, to have a real friend, with no strings attached, just want to do music. He challenged me and wanted me to arrange a Weather Report Song, “Black Market” and he wanted it, as he said, “Jason Miles style”; Very contemporary, with lots of cool sounds, and a great vibe. I was also going to do an original song, that had a very African vibe to it, and I was going to bring in an African choir to do it as well.
This was moving along very very nicely and the music was sounding great. We had some amazing musicians playing on the project like; Omar Hakim, Marcus on bass, Mino Cinelu on percussion. We then did this African tune and I called Bikithi Kumalo, the great bassist from South Africa who had played with Paul Simon on Graceland. He brought singers along with him to do the choruses and he also wrote lyrics for the chorus to fit.
Jay’s album really came out well, as he had some wonderful people working on it, but what he said to me next was something that would absolutely change my life. He said that the Weather Report song “Black Market” came out so great that I should think about doing a whole album of Weather Report songs. I thought about it and I was like, “Wow that is a really good idea,” as they were one of my absolute favorite groups and I also had had a personal relationship with Joe Zawinul for many years. So the question that you may be asking is, “How does this all relate to making this album that ended up winning a Grammy and really moving my career to the next level?” In the next article, I will talk about how fate takes a hand and how this project by doing all the songs of Weather Report led to me getting the Ivan Lins project off the ground. Stay tuned and thanks for reading this and following my saga
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