Yet Another Stunning ‘Blue Coast Session’



Check out the recordings from this great session here. More on Jenna here, and Matt here.

text by Ori

pics by Bob Bergner

What’s always puzzling in a recording session is whether it will produce decent music or truly great music. Ordinary does not count.It takes two to tango and in this case what a great dance it was. Matt and Jenna have known each other in the past, but busy schedules and geographical barriers kept them away for five years or so.

There comes the third person to this party. Cookie Marenco needs no introduction in the BAAS circles and probably by now in the greater audiophile community as well. As it turned out, Cookie knows Matt and Jenna and convinced them to collaborate on this project. Cookie is to the artists what Matt is to Lyle and Ricky Lee-Jones. She plays the subtle role of an enabler, with her musical insight and magical artistry on the mixing console. These are not “filler words” to liven up the review and we will touch on her studio wizardry later.0027.jpg

I should note the assisting staff, working behind the scenes on documenting the studio session, keeping track of the analog tape machine and the web production (some tracks were uploaded to the Blue Cast website).

Frankly, this all came out of the blue. I received an email through BAAS that Cookie invites up to 6 members to a studio session/party. What in the world does that mean?I considered it an adventure. Whatever comes out of it ought to be unique. I mean, how many of you have been invited to a recording session like that?!

This actually takes guts on the part of the studio and performers. Recording good music relies  on bringing artists to the point where they “click” and produce art rather than bang notes. Recording sessions in front of a live audience take a mighty effort to put together and not all come out great. How on Earth this one will go?

I know the Blue Coast studio from a previous visit and tried to imagine a small audience sitting around tiny tables with the performers up front. Nah, ain’t gonna happen…

Like I said, not knowing what to expect almost guarantees a “great” adventure. The question in my mind was not if I should attend. The question was if I can afford to miss all that fun!I don’t have a clue what other BAAS members were thinking. I expected this list to close in minutes, yet it took a whole day to fill the few slots. Unbelievable!

Next time when you get such a generous invitation – jump on it. That’s my free advice and you will thank me for it, I guarantee it.I arrived at the session a little early. Matt and Jenna were in the middle of a take and I just tried to get out of the way. Cookie went up the stairs from the control room and stood at the door of the acoustic room, trying not to break the concentration of the performers before the next take. Cookie plays the role of a producer in her subtle way. She knows what she can ask from the two and she does it in the most constructive way. A little advice here, a good word there. There are no bad sessions, just good and better ones… I like her philosophy!

At that point in time, this was still a studio operating as a studio “should”. Then came the mob…BAAS members started trickling in right around 6PM and within an hour it turned into a big party. Matt and Jenna took a break every two or three takes and mingled with the few of us that were there. Cookie produced some munchies and a few visitors brought several bottles of wine. It’s a real party!

During the evening, a few friends showed up, some from the music industry. This was a lively studio session for sure. Now, one might think, how in the world do you make music under the circumstances?

I had my own doubts as well, but heck. It’s a great locale with fine people. Let us enjoy the moment, whatever happens is fine with me!

My hat is off to Matt and Jenna. I don’t know if they were prepared for this or it was dropped on them out of nowhere. Here you are in a recording session. You come out and there is a bunch of strangers wanting to chat with you… I’m sure it felt odd in the beginning.

People started asking Matt about his work with Lyle Lovett and recently with Mark Knopler. Jenna tried to disappear, but we didn’t let her… She is a great vocalist and it was her music we were celebrating. The dynamics of this afternoon was definitely a factor in the outcome, both for the audience and the performers. Of course, having the usually friendly BAAS crowd helps as well…It seemed like everybody was genuinely enjoying the atmosphere and the company. Here and there Cookie drags the duo back into the recording room and they go for another piece while we, the audience, listen in the control room. Usually they’ll have two takes of the piece and we got to “vote” which is better. Not that we know much…

The theme was moody songs (I could not find the tissue Cookie promised!) yet the atmosphere was quite cheerful and full of energy. If singing moody songs requires that the singer and audience will shed tears then this was a complete failure…One thing I noticed is how professional Matt and Jenna are. They switch modes from party time to “work” time in an instant and it’s quite amazing to see this and hear it in person.

Blue Coast recordings are all about musical expression. This session was done without headphones. The placement of the vocal microphone was chosen so that the Matt could see and hear Jenna and they can “work it out” together in the studio. I don’t want to elaborate on the technical aspects but I can tell there was some serious thought about preserving the “feel” of the music and acoustic space in the final recording. Luck has nothing to do with it.

You also come to realize how difficult it is to record this way. Any mistake and the whole track is a waste. “Standard” production would record one instrument at a time. It’s easier to  salvage things, but where is the interaction between performers? Clean – sure. Artistic? Rarely.

Reading to this point, now you might think “that sounds really great”, but wait. There is more!Remember my early hallucinations… Audience in the studio, live take, ice cubes hitting champagne glass, smokey dark club… No, that did not happen. I mean, no champagne, smoke and all that. But it was such a great atmosphere that for some reason we found ourselves all crammed into that little recording room and Matt and Jenna hit it with two fresh tracks. What a treat!

There was no second take on these nor was there a need for one!I was standing in there in awe, afraid to produce a squeak. All of us were. It was like a moment of magic. The performers were in their zone. We were just those long-time friends that always are there to support you… And you never know what comes out of such an “experiment”.I heard two artists come together in full support of each other. Jenna is very much into her singing and lyrics. Matt was giving her just enough space to maneuver, musically speaking. The piano did not jump to the front of the stage, the spot light was on the singer, but it was dim. You could see and feel the piano notes caress the singing, flow together in an amazing dance. This duo was not about Tango. It was a ballet at its highest level. Strong in its message, fragile in its delivery. Great pianists find that moment of musical illumination at times. This was one of these moments and I’m glad to have been there to witness the magic.Jenna has a special voice and needs no praise, but in these last two pieces she truly let loose. Maybe it was the wine, maybe the long tiring day, maybe (I’d like to think) it was the place and time and the great atmosphere. She stretched her voice, not being afraid to break or falter. In these two tracks she was soaring effortlessly at the edge of her vocal abilities.It’s not the technique that gets me, but what it does to the overall presentation of the song. I will take an imperfect artistry over polished musicianship anytime!

The geeks that we are… We went down to the control room to hear these takes on the tape. You might wonder “why?!”Well, it happened and I’m glad it did. When you are in the studio, you realize how loud the piano is relative to the vocalist, especially Jenna. I’m sure Janis Joplin or Louis Armstrong would have equalized the levels but that’s not Jenna’s style. She is singing from the heart, to herself actually.  Sometimes it’s just a delicate whisper into the mike.When you hear the tape, it’s a whole different song. Levels are much more like you’d want them to be. Tonal balance is great. Music and harmony emerge and they are nothing like what you’ve heard in the recording session!

And that’s my Epilogue to this great musical journey. It started with a colorful pianist, touched on the lyrics and soul of the vocalist and closed the loop at the mixing room, with a great artist in her own right. Without Cookie, this music would not be what it is.If I had to pick one thing that made this evening special, I’d go mad. There was so much to take from it for each and every music lover that I cannot even start. Like I said, don’t miss the next one. I hope there is a next one!

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San Francisco Audiophile Society

San Francisco Audiophile Society