KEEPING IT UNREAL: Teo Macero, RIP (1925-2008)

Teo Macero
Time Plus Seven
Finnadar : 1979 (rec. 1963)

TM, conductor; personnel unknown.

Miles Davis
On the Corner
Columbia : 1972

MD, trumpet; Bennie Maupin, bass clarinet; Carlos Garnett, soprano sax; David Creamer, guitar; Herbie Hancock, keyboards; Harold “Ivory” Williams, organ; Michael Henderson, bass; Colin Walcott, electric sitar; Billy Hart, Jack DeJohnette, drums; Badal Roy, tabla. Teo Macero, producer.

Miles Davis
Bitches Brew
Columbia : 1970

MD, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, soprano sax; Bennie Maupin, bass clarinet; Joe Zawinul, Larry Young, Chick Corea, keyboards; John McLaughlin, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; Harvey Brooks, electric bass; Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette, drums; Don Alias, congas; Jumma Santos, shaker. Teo Macero, producer.

Miles Davis
Get Up with It
Columbia : 1974

MD, trumpet, organ; Dave Liebman, flute; Dominique Gaumont, Pete Cosey, Reggie Lucas, guitar; Michael Henderson, bass; Al Foster, drums; Mtume, percussion. Teo Macero, producer.

Okay, so name a famous jazz producer. Bob Thiele? He was at the helm for Coltrane’s epochal run at Impulse, but his main contribution was a generous open-door studio policy and keeping the tape rolling. ECM’s Manfred Eicher, the Steve Albini of jazz? Yeah, though we’re fairly sure we could find nearly as many naysayers as yaysayers. Rudy Van Gelder? More of an engineer. Norman Granz? Please. Michael Cuscuna? We said famous…

Here at D:O, one producer towers over the rest: Teo Macero, easily the most important jazz producer of the last fifty years. Macero died on February 19th, and this is our humble tribute to his significant contributions to the music. For more on Macero’s early life and biographical details, we direct you to these very fine obits: Telegraph [UK] ; The Guardian [UK]; and The New York Times (Ben Ratliff).

Macero was also a musician and composer himself. His own work was overshadowed by his productions of Monk and Miles and the like, but he left a body of work that is worthwhile in its own right. “Equals” is one part of a ballet score, commissioned in the early 1960s by the Rebecca Harkness Dance Company, with choreography by Anna Sokolow (here’s a review [PDF] of a 1968 performance of the piece). It demonstrates Macero’s approach to jazz composition, and unusual voicings. Also found on the invaluable Jazz Satellites collection.

Macero’s musicianship (not to mention his fondness for Varese and other modernist composers, and for recording technology) informed his revolutionary prodcution work with Miles Davis. Their relationship was somewhat similar to George Martin’s importance to The Beatles. He pushed Miles’s music to places neither could’ve achieved by themselves. Their albums together stand as some of the most challenging, complex, and fascinating music of recent decades, regardless of genre. The Davis-Macero collaboration is unlike any in jazz, a fusing of artistic sensibilities and technical possibilities, and is a testament to both men’s artistic openness and strength of vision.

There is a wonderful Macero interview at Perfect Sound Forever:

With a lot of Miles’ records we would use bits and pieces of cassettes that he would send me and say, “Put this in that new album we’re working on.” I would really shudder. I’d say, “Look, where the hell is it going to go? I don’t know.” He says, “Oh, you know.” So he sends me the tape, I listen to it, and I say, “Oh yeah, maybe we can stick that in here.” And there were a lot of times in my career with Miles that I would do that.

On putting together In A Silent Way:

We cut each side down to 8 1/2 minutes and I think the other side was 9 1/2 and Miles said he was leaving in four-letter words and that would be his album. I said, “Look you really can’t do that. CBS will suspend you, fire me. But give me a couple of days, I’ll think about it.” And then a couple of days later I sent him up a tape and that was it. What I did, I copied a lot of it. You wouldn’t know where the splices are. And Joe Zawinul should give us half of his money for fixing it all up. Because, at the end, I thought it was all Miles’ music. But apparently Joe Zawinul claimed it was his. So we paid him all the royalties.

On editing songs:

I just tried to use my imagination. “How can I make this better? It’s good, but electronically can we do something to give it more impact?” Miles’ stuff was mostly written down. I mean it was worked on in the studio. I would record from the time he got there and then when I’d go back and edit everything. Miles would say, “You remember that thing in the second take?” I said “yeah.” And I would maybe make a loop and create it. That’s why those records were so good. Maybe people will say it didn’t sound authentic. It is authentic because you’re acting like a writer for a book, like an editor. I mean you can’t pan the book if the material is great.

There were many times in Miles’ records that something didn’t please Miles. So we cut them out. That’s why those records are so tight. We don’t need 94 bars for solos and the drummer to take 2 minutes to do his schtick, because he’s doing it all along anyway. I mean you have to be creative. You let them play. And if I like the take I say, “That’s a good take”, but when I get it back I can just take out the few things that I want out to tighten it all up that’s what we did with Miles.

On his relationship with Miles:

We had our battles. There were times when he wouldn’t speak to me and times I wouldn’t speak to him. It’s like a husband and wife. There are times when you just like to be left alone. He used to call me at 2 or 3 in the morning and play a tape for half an hour, forty five minutes. And Miles would get on the phone and say, “How do you like that?” I said, “Well, generally the ideas are great. Let’s go in and do them.”

Brian Eno was hugely influenced by Teo Macero. Here’s his thoughts about Teo’s methods for “He Loved Him Madly”:

He did something that was extremely modern, something you can only do on records, which is, he took the performance to pieces, spatially. Now, those things were done across by a group of musicians in a room, all sitting quite close to another, like we are. But they were all close-miked, which meant that their sounds were quite separate from one another. And when Teo Macero mixed the record, he put them miles apart.

So this is very very interesting to listen to a music, where you have the conga player three streets down the road here, you have the trumpet player on a mountain over there, the guitar player – you have to look through binoculars to see him, you know! Everybody is far away, and so the impression that you have immediately, is not that you are in a little place with a group of people playing, but that you’re on a huge plateau, and all of these things are going on sort of almost on the horizon, I think.

And there’s no attempt made by Teo Macero to make them connect with one another. In fact he deliberately disconnects them form one another. This is a very modern feeling for me in music, where you think of the music as a place where a lot of things can go on.

Something you can only do on records. This is Teo’s legacy. You can hear its echoes in the extended disco remixes of Larry Levan and Tom Moulton, the production work of Can’s Holger Czukay, Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and especially in the cut-and-past productions of hip hop and countless IDM auteurs.

It’s surprising more jazz musicians haven’t embraced the Davis-Macero model and treated the studio as more of an instrument. There have been some brave exceptions – notably Burnt Sugar and various releases on The Blue Series, even if FLAM is no Teo. But largely this is an artistic road untraveled in jazz. Perhaps the “made in real time” ethos has kept the jazz producer from taking on a role akin to The Bomb Squad, Prince Paul, the RZA, Dust Brothers, Neptunes, etc.

Listening to the flood of unedited performances of Miles’ music from the recent Columbia box sets only affirms the importance of Teo’s contributions. We wonder if Miles’ disappointing comeback in the 80s can partly be traced to Macero’s lack of involvement. Whatever the case, their sublime studio concoctions from the late 60s to the mid 70s still loom large, subsuming questions of authenticity and making claims of keeping it real seem quaint and superfluous.

* * *


–Check out these good technical and editing tidbits from Teo at Remix magazine.

–Interesting review of In a Silent Way at Stylus.

–Short video of Teo discussing Bitches Brew.

–There are at least couple of documentaries on Teo, one of which is still in production: Play That, Teo. You can see a preview and photos at that site; the film is by the daughter of one of Teo’s early musical collaborators.

–For those wishing to go really deep, you can lose yourself in the Teo Macero Collection at the New York Public Library (by appointment), all 57.5 linear feet of it. Just come back and tell us all about it.

–Oh, he also produced Kind of Blue and Time Out.

Category Miles Davis, Teo Macero, tributes

17 Responses to KEEPING IT UNREAL: Teo Macero, RIP (1925-2008)

  1. I first heard ‘Equals’ on that ‘Jazz Satellites’ compilation – I was blown away by it, it was SO modern (in a good way!).

    People will always agree and disagree with some of his choices on those Miles records, but I think most people agree he got the majority of them right, and a good percentage of those creations are timeless.

  2. You actually don’t need an appointment to see the Teo Macero papers, at least for the material that is stored at the library. For the materials stored offsite, you just need to request it in advance. But to actually see any of it, you don’t need an appointment.

  3. The only one of those box sets I’m familiar with is Jack Johnson, and I have to say there’s some amazing music that was left off. I especially love the Lifetime-like free workout at the beginning of the last disc, just before the album proper starts. You don’t have to disagree with Teo’s decisions to feel that some of those improvisations are worthy art in and of themselves.

  4. Thanks, Bob, for stopping by and clarifying the Teo collection access policy. Are you familiar with the Macero papers? Any significant items you plan on spotlighting in your NYPL blog?

    Thanks, too, to godoggo (totally agree) and Vincent, for the comments.

  5. Drew, I’m “vaguely” familiar with the Macero papers, although technically they are not under my curatorial control. The gems are the materials relating to Miles Davis, including worksheets for his recording sessions, and correspondence. Someday, perhaps…

  6. I’m getting 404 on “He Loved Him Madly,” FYI.

    Thanks as usual for the thoughts and music. Eno’s comments are especially interesting — I have always felt a cavernous space listening to Bitches Brew. Any more info/thoughts on Zawinul vs. Davis on In A Silent Way?

  7. I’m afraid more musicians probably don’t follow Miles and Macero’s mix and match recording model because it’s too expensive. Because of his commercial success, Miles could record his band at multiple recording sessions for a single album, but most jazz performers get one day to record and one to mix (especially the more adventurous ones). Sad but most likely true.

  8. Bradley, that sounds spot-on. Not a small consideration: time.

    lj: thanks for the tip. Should be clear now on “He Loved Him Madly.”

  9. the “equals” link seems broken for me (file not found) though “he loved him madly” and all the others work.

    too bad, that’s the one track I don’t already have, and I was looking forward to hearing his work outside of the davis context. of course I’ve heard his monk, brubeck, and such but those seem to be more “real-time” jazz ventures as you said. are there any other records besides those with miles which showcase his “studio-as-instrument” approach?

  10. hang tight, cw. we’re working to get “equals” fixed.

  11. Ok, cw (& anyone else who’s had trouble): “Equals” is finally up and running. Sorry for the glitch.

  12. Not only is it more expensive, though this is less the case today than it was when Teo and Miles were working, but it is really a different aesthetic than what most jazz musicians are interested in…free or not, they (we) are into those 94 bars of schtick. I am not sure I would even want to hear jazz producers emulate Macero’s concepts and quite often I wish I could hear some of those Miles sessions without the radical panning and hard separation. But despite my old-fashioned biases, Macero clearly upheld one of the most important aesthetics of jazz: experimentation…there is still a made-in-real time ethos, it’s just that it is displaced to the studio. I think what he and Miles accomplished is much closer to hip-hop in terms of genre. “Jazz”, if we mean it to be bebop-centric, will never and cannot use these kinds of approaches. Macero experimented his way right out of that tradition (thankfully).

  13. I downloaded the Equals clip and what’s great is I had no idea what it would sound like. Once it started playing it took a bit to have any idea when it was recorded/made.

    The box set that shows the genius of Teo is the Silent Way box, it’s the shortest one, 3 discs. Some of the unreleased tracks are really great, but they don’t belong on “In A Silent Way.”

    The difference between the parts of the “unedited” tracks and the final album might not seem obvious to someone not very familiar with the final album, but it’s enormous. That he took the solo on “Shhh/Peaceful” and copied it to the end to make it a theme seems like a revolutionary thing, to your point of using the studio as an instrument (in that case using editing to actually write the composition).

  14. I haven’t A/B-ed He Loved Him Madly from the original Get Up With It release and the version on the complete On The Corner box set, but my impression is it’s somewhat different, somehow. Very specific, I realize….

    Anyway, Complete Cellar Door is an argument *against* Teo circa Live/Evil, in some ways. I realize all those sets had to be squeezed onto a two LP release somehow….

    It really doesn’t matter, though. Long Live Teo, rest in peace.


  15. another thought re: producers….Macero’s really a composer/producer. My vote for most important producer of the past 30 years might go instead to folks like Pia and Werner Uehlinger, without whose enormous personal investment and risk Hat Hut et al would not have been. They and people like them put their money where it counted, when America wouldn’t touch the music with a ten foot pole.


  16. Thanks for the additional comments, everyone.

    PB: it’s possible that the OtC version of “He Loved..” is different, via the remastering job. Nice thought, too, re the unsung of Hat Hut etc.

  17. Thanks for this well-crafted and useful post. I’d always heard that Macero’s contributions were important, but hearing the Silent Way box–the raw material and the final entity–just blew me away. It’s a whole different thing. The music these guys created together still sounds like it’s from the future.