Most jazz musicians produce themselves and it could be the worst decision they ever make.
First of all a few things about what producing is not. It’s not engineering (that’s the job of the sound engineer). It’s not about product ownership necessarily or the finance although it can be if the artist owns the label. In the latter distinction producer morphs into executive producer.
What it is involved with and that’s why generally musicians do the job particularly when they get further into their careers is this list of requirements: personnel and song choices; arranger selection: sometimes the producer does this but often it’s the band’s musical director or someone else selected by the producer; studio choice (a biggie); engineer selection (even more important); mix engineer selection (pretty vital, usually the chief artist and producer oversees this); mastering selection (the ultimate Cinderella essential and again an important artistic choice. You don’t want a rock record mastered like an ECM record, or vice versa, do you?); track ordering. The album title may not be in the producer’s hands depending on the label and the artist and neither necessarily will the artwork selection although the producer will have a big say and often a veto in this.
It is interesting when a producer is brought in from another kind of music, often from a wildly different background. Nick Launay is the latest example, he’s the Nick Cave rock producer responsible for the upcoming Coming Forth By Day. Launay is not the first to enter the jazz fray like this by any means. On the UK scene a good example was when Stone Roses producer John Leckie came on board to make a huge difference to the Portico Quartet sound and I still think Isla was their best album and greatest period.
Ultimately producing a record is about getting a lot of practical things right. It’s also a test of taste, judgment and imagination and there is no accounting for any of these. Bringing in a third party makes a hell of a difference for an artist so heavily immersed in what they’re doing that they cannot make the correct choices.
The next time you are looking at and listening to a finished jazz album and you wonder why such and such (usually a fairly minor detail or a grating number of minor details) is just not right and actually goes some way to ruin the project ask yourself this: would having a proper producer have made these things go away? The answer will invariably be yes. Stephen Graham
Miles Davis with Teo Macero (1925-2008) producer of Kind of Blue, Time Out and Bitches Brew Photo: Columbia/Sony