Smitty: I am certainly happy to welcome to JazzMonthly.com for the very first time one of the individuals in this business that I truly admire for what he’s doing. He’s a musician’s dream and I think he’s really a dream for fans because he has created something that will allow musicians to really have a great time making music and, at the same time, fans can not only hear, but see what these great musicians are doing in a very improvisational setting and having fun doing what they do best. The founder of Studio Jams, please welcome the incredible Mr. Tom Emmi. Tom, welcome to Jazz Monthly.Com!
Tom Emmi (TE): Hi, Smitty. Thank you for that nice intro. I couldn’t wait to hear who it was you were gonna be talking to.
Smitty: (Both laugh.) You are welcome, my friend. Glad to have you here. Now, you have created something so cool. I think with what you do with Studio Jams, it is one of the incredible things that I hope that all jazz fans will get to see because you give us such a window into what happens when these great musicians get into the studio and really kick it and how music is really created. You give us so many different facets and different angles as to what happens with music. And when I was at your studio, I just thought it was a dream to be sitting there and watching these great musicians just kickin’ and just come up with something that is once in a lifetime. Talk to me a little bit about where this idea came from.
TE: Studio Jams started about—well, the concept started back in 2001. I am friendly with the Flecktones of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and there was a date back—again, I think it was 2001—when they were in Philadelphia, where we tape our program. They were in town for a couple of days and at the time I was producing another music-related show, a show called Music Makers, and I reached out to Victor Wooten, the bass player with the Flecktones, and said “Hey, Victor, what are you doing on Saturday afternoon?” Because they were playing Friday and Saturday night. “Would you like to come into the studio and jam and I can get a few other cats together and we’ll jam to tapes?” And the original intent was just to create some B roll for this other music series I was producing, and so Victor said “Sure.”
He came in and Future Man, his brother, the drummer with the Flecktones, came along and Jeff Coffin, the sax player with the Flecktones, so the three of them and Joey DeFrancesco, the monster B3 player. Joey was in town. Actually, he’s from Philly, but he happened to be in town, again, for the weekend, Friday and Saturday night, so I reached out to Joey and Tuck Andress from Tuck & Patti. I called him, he was up in New York, and invited him down, and who else? Derek Trucks from the Allman Brothers Band and from his own band too, and he came down. So we had a wonderful assembly of musicians and I just told the guys “Hey, play whatever you want to. Just play it well. Give me five or six tunes and we’ll see what comes of this.” And again, I was just looking for some live B roll footage for this other show.
When it was done, Victor said “Tom, this was fun. This should be a show in and of itself.” And with that thought in mind, I ended up cutting it together into a show and then about, I don’t know, four months later or whatever, Bela and the Flecktones were back in Philly and I said “Geez, maybe I just got lucky that first time. Let’s try it again.” So I brought Victor in a second time and Stanley Jordan was in town at the time and we did the same kind of thing and it was great, and so I produced about six of them or so, six different episodes, on spec before I got a licensing deal with BET and BET Jazz, and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. It’s been really great. I feel just really blessed to be able to be a part of it. I mean, the musicians are what really make the program. I’m just the conduit, if you will, you know?
Smitty: Yeah. How long does each jam session last?
TE: In real time, two, two and a half hours. You know, again, I tell the guys when they get there—and what’s really nice is that I try to mix it up with musicians who may not ordinarily work with one another or oftentimes they’re meeting each other for the very first time, and I capture a lot of that on tape, so they’ll come into the studio and for the first 20 minutes they’re shaking hands, introducing themselves to one another, and adjusting their rig, and I try to make it simple for everyone so I have the backline all in place so they can just come in and plug in and play, although occasionally some of the musicians prefer to bring in their own amp or they’re particular about some piece of equipment perhaps, so the first half hour they’re just kinda getting to know one another and getting comfortable with the studio. And you’ve seen the studio. It’s just a fabulous space.
Smitty: Yeah, I was gonna say that it’s very easy to get comfortable because, man, what an incredible place. I wish the whole world could see your studio. I mean, it’s state of the art.
TE: Well, they can. They can watch Studio Jams any day and they could see it there. (Both laugh.)
Smitty: Absolutely, man.
TE: So for the first half hour, they’re just getting to know each other and then I just say “Okay, guys, play whatever you like and give me five or six tunes” and typically about every 20 minutes or so they’ll go on and move on to the next tune, and sometimes it goes in the straight ahead direction, sometimes it’s funk and sometimes R&B, rock. You’d be surprised, Smitty, how many different directions it goes because the eclectic mix of musicians…one particular session really comes to mind. We had Chris Thile. He plays mandolin. He’s with a group called Nickel Creek, which is sort of one of the modern bluegrass bands. But he’s just a monster player. He’s only 25 years old, I think, but he’s setting an incredibly high bar for the mandolin. And put him in a session with Steve Kimock as well as Karl Denson, you know, some of the jam band… And again, in jam band circles Karl Denson’s tiny universe is real popular on the jam band circuit, but by mixing this bluegrass mandolin player, the session just had such a unique feel. The musicians seem to get off on it even more than I do, Smitty. It’s just really wonderful to be—well, you know. You were there with Althea [Rene] and Kirk [Whalum] and all those guys.
Smitty: Yeah, yeah. What I really appreciate so much, and I think it’s just a dream for musicians and the fans as well when they see this, is that you are blending a lot of music and cultures, and it’s like East Coast sounds meet Brazilian or West meets East, and you break it down, Chicago sound blending with Detroit sound, but in the end it’s all fun, great music, you know? And I think that’s a beautiful thing. And I’ve never seen a frown in that building, never seen anyone frown. And we’ll get to the DVD, but I noticed that when you listen to the guys talk on the DVD and looking at them when they’re doing their short interviews, every one of them to a person mentioned the word “fun.” They mentioned the word “improvisation,” “creativity,” so you’ve created such a utopia for these great musicians to come together and do what they love to do.
TE: Yeah, and I’m not taking the credit for it and I don’t mean it to sound this way, but they do. They tell me that this reminds them when they were just getting started to play and they would do the garage jam sessions in the neighborhood with their friends.
TE: Where they just put their instruments on, plug in, and say “What do you wanna play, guys?” And it’s very loose in that regard and they do have lots of fun and you know, Smitty, music is just the universal language.
Smitty: So true.
TE: One of the things I’m really looking forward to very soon is, I’ll be taking a three-camera crew with me and we’re going to Pescara, Italy, then to Copenhagen, Denmark, and then up to Stockholm, Sweden, and we’re going to be taping some episodes with Italian, Swedish and Danish musicians who I have never met. I’ve studied a little bit online, looked at their My Space pages or their Web sites and got a little feel for what they play, but I don’t know their music or their personalities from Adam, and it’s a little bit riskier in that, again, I’m trying to pair them up, so I’ll have Carlos from one band playing with Jean Paul from another band and I have no idea how these guys sound, much less how they’re gonna sound together. I’m not totally winging it like it might sound. Michael Lington had suggested a couple folks in Denmark. So I’m using recommendations and trying to intelligently walk in the dark, if you will, but it’s gonna be fun because I believe that the concept can work worldwide. I mean, it’s not just an American, you know, the Studio Jams concept thing.
Smitty: Oh yeah, I like that. You’re stretching out. I like that, man. I just have one question. Can I go?
TE: (Both laugh.) I’ll put you on first alternate. How’s that?
Smitty: There you go. Yeah, I’ll stand by, man, I will stand by. Actually, I will be at North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland during that time, but I love your adventurous concept.
TE: And you know what? I touched upon something that I really have to say too and that is the crew, my camera people. And the musicians have all been just wonderful about really tearing down the wall between artist and crew, so when we’re taping sessions and my camera men are literally two feet away from the fret board as the guitar player’s doing his solo, and he’s very comfortable with that. Now we obviously try not to get in a musician’s way, but they allow us into their world and that adds so much. My crew, they just love it. I mean, some of them are frustrated musicians themselves or they all love music, so they’re not just setting the camera up on a tripod and pressing “record” and watching it go down there. They’re as much part of the action as the players are.
Smitty: I noticed that too when I was in the studio. They are really into it and when you look at the DVD, you know it because they capture every essence of the jam session and the camera work is incredible, and I have to say something about the quality of this DVD. It is so sharp, it’s so crisp. I mean, when I look at James Lloyd, I see James Lloyd as I see him when we’re standing in some theatre. Gerald Veasley, you know, it’s like “Well, that’s him. There’s no doubt about it.” I mean, the camera work is pristine, it’s incredible, and the sound quality is magnificent, man. I really can’t say enough about the camera guys that you have working with you, the crew.
TE: Oh, thank you, Smitty. I’ll be sure to pass that on to them because, again, I feel blessed to be able to work with them and a lot of the camera people are proactively reaching out to me. “Tom, when’s the next session? When can we do it again?” I’m feeling pressure from my camera guys to keep doing the sessions, which is nice.