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“The guy who designed these rooms, Bill Putnam, was a total audio genius from Chicago, which was an amazing hub for all the jazz musicians in the ’50s,” he says. “This guy designed Universal Recording Studio in Chicago, and everybody wanted to record there. In fact, when Chess Records made their own studio, they bought a lot of his equipment and then hired his protégés to build the room.
“So even the sound of the Chess records is in Bill’s personal style. Duke Ellington in particular loved his recordings, and it was Sinatra who eventually convinced him to move out here and build a studio, because Sinatra was getting tired of working at Capitol, up the street. So his grand plan was, I’ll get this genius to build some rooms here. Sinatra wanted to form his own record company, which was on this floor, so he kept offices up here, and the studios were downstairs.”
Brion exults when he talks about how the legendary studios’ famous tone was often the product of sheer accident, or was destroyed when they attempted to address trouble with the acoustics.
“They can spend millions of dollars to make a piece of crap that can never be fixed,” he says. “Some of my favorite recordings of all time are the Buddy Holly records, which are stunning sonically. All the old rooms used to have that white square acoustic tile with the little holes in it, and you can hear the room. And here they are however many years on, and the scent of intimacy is just amazing.”
One of the best things Brion does at his weekly Café Largo live sets is his tribute to the godfather of the modern recording studio, Les Paul, ripping out an unbelievably authentic (and athletic) Paul-style, slap-back guitar to some odd request from the audience, say “Whole Lotta Love” or “Iron Man.” It shows off Brion’s impressive instrumental technique in a tribute to a relatively unsung giant of modern music who’s credited with being the inventor of multitrack recording, among a billion other things.
“Yeah, and right up the street from here, on Curson, behind the Guitar Center,” he says. “That’s what was going on here in ’46, ’47. Come down the street and Nat King Cole would be recording. Some of his stuff was done at the Capitol Tower, and there was a studio right across from Lucy’s El Adobe where the truly great Capitol and Nat King Cole and Sinatra records were done. It’s a TV station now. There’s a second-story auditorium in it, and it had a stage, and that’s where ‘Unforgettable’ was done, and all the mid-’50s Sinatra records, like ‘Whenever She Smiles,’ all that stuff.
“Man, I was lucky enough to hear a work tape of a Sinatra session, because he was remarkable. The guy knew everything that was going on, every aspect of every job of every person in the room. He just had incredible ears, and that seriousness about sound balance, the whole notion of ‘Hey, we’re an organism, we gotta make this great thing, c’mon, dammit!’ And that’s different than the person who comes to prominence on mere vocal prowess. It’s always amazing when you meet people who have that sense.”
Sinatra had a way of bringing out the best in the players he bossed around — and indeed in the reporters he called two-bit hookers in crowded restaurants — but they had to have the best in them to start with. Same is true with Brion — and when he hears the best, he’s a fan just like everyone else. This happened again when he came across the music of jazz-piano modernist Brad Mehldau, whose Largo album Brion went on to produce in 2002.
“The guts, that’s where the real glory is,” he says, “and that’s what somebody like Brad Mehldau has gotten through. He’s the one guy playing straight jazz who I’ll go to and I get epiphanies. You know he’s got technique and all that, but the technique is at the service of ideas, and you can see that he’s got all this concentrating at the same time, a beautiful relationship between the conscious and unconscious.”
“A beautiful relationship between the conscious and unconscious”: Brion’s description of great art, high and low, resounds in my head at Café Largo on a Friday night, where the lights are low, the buzz is way loud, and framed shots of glittering greats from Hollywood’s heyday loom benignly large. We glimpse, up on the stage, two vintage hollow-body guitars, a rickety upright piano, a creaky old celeste, a set of drums and scattered electronic stomp-boxes. Cue a gentle waltz from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and one-man band Jon Brion hits the boards. Brion impromptus his way through a versatile list of sentimental faves, re-harmonized and reordered and wiped clean and fresh, so one can see the details: a buncha Sinatra; Johnny Cash doing “It Ain’t Me, Babe”; “Well-Respected Man”; Roxy Music’s “Siren”; and old big-band/jazz/R&B/pop marvels.