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New Music by Dead Guys: A Profile of JRB Records

It had to happen. With even the simplest of electronic keyboards these days being able to lay down 16 different tracks; with sophisticated sampling equipment that can capture just about any timbre and allow it to be played back on a keyboard or even a guitar; with MIDI and other software that can write the music you play and play the music you write; and with music-editing software that allows infinite cutting and pasting, it was only a question of time before our rapidly ending millennium produced a one-man-band record company centered around a single individual capable of arranging (and sometimes composing), playing, recording, and marketing music in versions that sound as if they were produced by dozens of performers.

The one-man band in this instance (and there may be more of which I’m not aware) is Jeffrey Reid Baker, who for many years has been in the business of "alternate classic perfection" but who has recently formed his own record company (JRB Records, of course) to both promote and sell recordings already made as well as new releases still on the drawing board…or should I say computer monitor. Bakers’s basic strategy is to take existing works of classical music, from pop hits such as Für Elise to more substantial works by the likes of Liszt and Gershwin to an entire single work such as Orff’s Carmina Burana (owned by Sony, which has released the "O Fortuna" opening on two different CDs, Leasebreakers and The Chorus: Greatest Hits) - music by the "dead guys" of this article’s title - and offer them in new timbral garments, some of them as simple as a quasi-Wurlitzer organ, some having the allure of a full (electronic) orchestra. Purists beware! JRB also offers several Christmas CDs, two of which feature Baker’s characteristic manipulations while another - Christmas Straight Up - presents jazzed-up Christmas tunes performed by The Bob Curtis Trio + 2 (actually Bob Curtis overdubbed on piano, bass, vibes, and guitar, along with Neil Burgett on drums).

Not unexpectedly, Baker runs his entire operation out of a studio in his house on New York’s Long Island - in Huntington, to be exact, maybe four miles down the road, as it happens, from where I live. So, with little expenditure in gas, and accompanied as always by my trusty Marantz PMD 360 cassette recorder that I’ve had longer than I care to remember, I paid a visit this past June to that studio, which is filled with an acoustic grand piano, several keyboards, a merdeload of electronics including a computer where much of the final product is put together, and (are you ready for this) an immense collection of LPs. From this point on, I am pretty much going to pass the mike to Baker, who is as enthusiastic a conversationalist as he is a musician, and who therefore needed almost no prompting from yours truly.

"Right now, what I am is President of JRB Records. As an officer, I am responsible for the chores that come with that position. With this company, that’s pretty much everything. When people ask me what I do, I say I’m in shipping, and I do a little music on the side! I do a lot of the artwork, which gets finalized by a couple of people I work with, I come up with the concepts, I accept the records that come into the company, I do the A&R…. And I think I now have a description of what I do as Jeff Baker the performing artist: I am, I think, not the first, but the first admitted sound sculptor. A music sculptor. Yes, I’m a trained pianist, a trained arranger, a trained composer…. I think Beethoven was the first to hang a shingle on his door that said ‘composer.’ He didn’t take court appointments but rather wrote for whoever would hire him. He was the first musical capitalist, and I like him for that. He did it all too: He had to play performances to get people interested enough in the music to buy it, he had to do things that were nonmusical. If he had a computer now he’d probably be doing covers, either for albums or for his music. I was a math major in college, and also a computer programmer. I had this odd array of talents.  

"As it turned out, because of the personal computer coming in the later 1970s-early 80s, I got back into programming. The day in November of 85 that I actually heard the computer play the keyboard (in my own studio) this vision took place: If I had enough stuff, I could make my own records. And within six months of that time I had a recording contract. After another five or six, maybe seven, years, I said to myself, ‘You know, with everything that’s available now, I could have my own record company.’ Because I bought so many records when I was young, I never envisaged a record of mine without everything. I always said to myself, ‘I would like to do this project.’ And then the cover would appear, and the concept of the liner notes, and then the music?it would all get blended together, and it was all one thing. And now you can do it all.

"Purists get furious with me: ‘He doesn’t really play it.’ Of course, I do play the piece - there’s a ragtime I’m doing right now. But then you say to yourself, ‘Can you get it better?’ Glenn Gould, one of my idols, was really the first one to do this. He would make umpteen thousand takes and then slap together the tape. He also did extramusical things - his radio shows, and I used to listen to them religiously. Anyway, I finally came up with an answer for the purists who say I don’t play it. I ask them, ‘Do you like Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony?’ And whether they say yes or no, I say, ‘Yes, but you can’t stand it, because he’s not really playing it. He waved a stick.’ And yet they give him credit on the record for the performance. Some people are just dumbfounded, for example, when they hear A Composer's Christmas. They say, ‘That’s you? You’re doing this?’ And I say, ‘Yeah. I have my orchestra!’ I was once going to call it the CEO - the Combined Electronics Orchestra.

"I’ve taught piano for a very long time. You take a student in, and you’re trying to hone that student, who can’t play anything, to playing it well. The computer can’t do a thing: It’s stupid, it’s an idiot. But it has a memory and a half. So it will do what you tell it to do. It’s like having a student, and you make the student do what you want. But if you don’t know what you want the student to do, he’s never going to play it very well. So, when you download these things from the Internet (these MIDI files) they’re horrible. They’re a direct transcription off the page, and there’s nothing that sounds worse than music off the page. That’s where I am now, that’s what I do now. Is it fun? It is fun. I have Glenn Gould’s love of audiences (that’s facetious, of course). Gould once spoke of an audience’s "gladiatorial urge to hear wrong notes." There’s a certain amount of paranoia to that statement, I suppose. But there’s something about trotting the boards as a classical pianist. I had the ability to do that, but no desire whatsoever. And, also, it’s the same piece over, and over, and over, and over…. At least here when I get it done, I get it done. I’ve made a record, and I move on."

I gently prodded JRB in the direction of his background and training: "Let me preface that by talking about two people. One of them was my father, who was a musician. He was a composer. He had a doctorate in music and music education from Columbia University. He studied with Edgard Varèse and a lot of other people there. So I grew up around musicians. I heard people talk about music as if it were normal, everyday life. That was the musical side of my upbringing, plus my grandmother played the piano, and I heard her play classical music all the time, and I got into it. I didn’t think it was anything strange, although Dad was into show music and jazz. But there was the other side of the family. There was my grandfather, whom I was very close with, who was radio editor of the New York Sun. He knew Armstrong, he knew Lee DeForest, he knew the guys that invented TV. He was telling people about TV before they knew about TV. So here I am with a guy who was always being told he was nuts: ‘You can’t send pictures through the air.’ Here was a guy I grew up with who was always looking, technologically, for the cutting edge of what was going on. Whatever I’m doing now is a combination of those two people. My mother was singing with a group called The Night Owls when she met my father.  

"I started taking piano lessons when I was 11?I had started making stuff up when I was about nine or 10, and they figured maybe I should take lessons. So I used to go to my lessons with Aaron, Book 1, and the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto under my arm! I knew where I wanted to go from the age of nine, when I heard Rudolf Serkin’s recording of the "Moonlight" and "Pathétique" Sonatas on Columbia [the LP still sits on JRB’s shelves]. JRB at Trinity Pawling School (1964)The first four bars of the "Moonlight" did it. Right away, at the age of 11, I wanted to be the next Rudolf Serkin … and shortly after that Horowitz! Because I heard it on a record, records became tremendously important to me. A lot of people, I’m sure, heard Serkin play it in concert, and thought of the record as a token. I thought of the record as the thing. My favorite record, when I was growing up, was the Mendelssohn Piano Concertos with Serkin, which was the first album produced by John McClure, who later produced my Carmina Burana. I kept studying from 11 until I went to high school. When I went to high school, I really didn’t have a teacher any more, because it was a private school upstate. But I kept learning pieces, and when I graduated and went to college at the University of Vermont, I studied with Imelda Delgado, whom I just ran into and for whom I wrote a Berceuse Lydian, which she has played in concert. She now has an album out on Boston Records called Reminiscing, which is wonderful. Norman Dello Joio said her performance of his Third Piano Sonata was the best ever. I studied with her for two years, and then I studied with Norma Auchter. I studied all the theory and early composition with Frank Lidral.  

"I left there after three years. I had caused enough trouble! In my third year we had to do a musique concrète piece. I not only wanted to write the piece but to give my opinion at the same time. So I did it for bathroom instruments. It was called Concerto Grosso. It was actually before P. D. Q. Bach. A friend of mine described the piece as ‘an aleatoric progression of lavatorial sonorities’! It’s funny, but almost at that time I think JRB Records was being born. We are a classic-classical company. Sometimes you put the ‘-al’ on, sometimes you don’t. We have a blues album I Got The BLUES for Christmas, with Peter Green, and to me the blues is classic, not classical. But it’s all done with a sense of humor, not ha-ha humor but a wink under the surface. Like in the original Star Trek: I always got the feeling they were on the verge of cracking upJRB 7 Dick Hyman at JeRBil, Inc. (1991). And they got profound, and they got deep, yet there was that river of humor running below it. That’s JRB Records. Each of the companies now is trying to be more serious than the next…and more pure. Well, believe me, we’re not headed in that direction. Perhaps some day Concerto Grosso will get released! I still have it. We taped it…in 1968. I got a C+ on it because I didn’t have a score. It was improvised.  

"Then I went to Long Island University at C. W. Post, and I studied piano with Oksoo Hahn - her father was Prime Minister of Korea when the Korean War started. She was a great teacher. But at the time I was also studying some composition with Howard Rovics and Raoul Pleskow, who was head of the department. At the same time I had met Dick Hyman. We became friends, and he would invite me into sessions. So I was going to Post and seeing the white castle, and I was going to the city and seeing the real music world. So I have the two worlds now: I have the college world, with the masters degree, the musicology; and on the other side I’ve got guys who are having music thrown in front of them for a film they’re going to record in two minutes. And these two worlds are colliding. I didn’t know which way to tilt. This was in 1974, around the time ragtime was coming out. I’m taking this class, and he asked us to write a 20th-century piece of music. I said, ‘Hey, ragtime’s 1910, 1915.’ And so I went in there: The kids are sitting there JRB 7 Dick Hyman at JeRBil, Inc. (1991)plunking these cat-across-the-keyboards pieces 'serial music', or as I call it ‘docacaphonic’ music. They’re sitting there, and cobwebs are growing between their elbows and the desk, and I got up, sat at the piano, and played my ragtime piece. I got a standing O! Raoul Pleskow said to me, ‘That’s a wonderful little piece. Why don’t you take it down the hall. There’s a guy teaching here now named Dave Jasen. He’s into this ragtime thing.’ So I walked down, played it for Dave, and it turns out Dave produced Eubie Blake’s records. The whole thing was very strange, because Eubie was in Dad’s class.

"So, after that day, I said, ‘You know something. I don’t belong here.’ I had to start writing. I had always had my teaching, so I started incorporating composition with my teaching, and I took on a number of composition students. As it happened, I had the opportunity to study with Rudy Schramm in 1977 in Carnegie Hall. He taught Eubie Blake. Rudy taught music as a yardstick, which is the way I teach it. I don’t teach it as a style, I teach it as a yardstick. His rhythm theory is the best on the planet, and it has not yet been published. And it’s not just the theory, it’s the practice. I used to go home at night and tap rhythms with all of the right accent values, and everything else. My piano playing became 100 times better, and it was invaluable for working with the computer. Invaluable, because you can see the theory coming to life. I studied with him for about two years, and then I started to get into work for commercials and things like that. I then started getting involved with some song writing, at which point I peripherally met Bob Feldman, who wrote things like My Boyfriend’s Back, I Want Candy, and all those hits in the ‘60s. It was funny, because after working with Bob for awhile I started to figure out how people who know nothing about music but who are in the music field think about music. Talk about getting away from the college thing! This is about as far away as you can get. Dick Hyman at least had the musical credentials. Feldman didn’t even have the credentials, but he knew how to write a hit song. He wanted to start SOB (as in Sounds of Brooklyn) Records, and so I was involved in that on a business level, and I was bringing in money people. And so I started getting involved in this thing called administration. He made me SOB #2, which was vice president! So I got to see how you put a record together. It was like getting a Masters, but getting it in the right place. Instead of learning more about Vivaldi, I was learning about how records get pressed.  

"So this was a period that didn’t seem fruitful at the time. But because I was putting this band together in 1983 or ‘84, I bought a keyboard, a Yamaha DX-7. At that time, it was the state of the art. But I had avoided all of that. Because, back in 1973, I was working in Northport as a one-year sub in the schools. As I’ve always said, my idea of fun was not planning retirement and carrying picket signs. But the school had bought a Sonic-6 Moog, and, being a fan of Switched-on Bach, which also was a seminal album in my life, I would take the thing home over the weekend. I still have the recordings I made on this. One of the funniest ones I made was of the Pineapple Rag of Scott Joplin. I don’t want to say that the thing didn’t stay in tune very well; but I sent the results to Dick Hyman and said, ‘I always wondered whether you could do Scott Joplin on a synthesizer.’ He wrote me a note back and said, ‘I guess you can’t.’ I still have that. It was awful, awful. The best thing I did was a Czerny School of Velocity piece. It was so much of a hassle with the overdubbing on the tape, and getting the thing right - it was a mess. It had the sensitivity of a freight train. And so I said to myself, ‘To hell with this.’ Then, when I was starting this band, I ordered a couple of DX-7s through a cousin who was living in Japan. They went for 900 bucks in Japan, and they were 2,000 here.

"So we got the DX-7s, and I sat down and started programming the thing, and I loved programming the sounds. The easiest part of the piano is that you’re stuck with one sound. Within that one sound are an infinite number of shadings of that sound, but it’s one sound. So all you have to deal with are the shadings. But with this keyboard there are infinite possibilities of sound. When you really think of it, you could almost get a cerebral hemorrhage. This is a big problem. People think, ‘Oh, it’s all automatic.’ But the piano’s more automatic, because there’s less decision. This little machine right here [a Kurzweil K2500-R "Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology" (VAST)] is almost infinite in the number of sounds it contains. People would call it a synthesizer, but it’s more than that. A synthesizer was a machine that synthesized sounds. We now have sampled sounds: those are sounds that are real, they’re recorded. We also have what are called additive synthesis, we have subtractive synthesis, we have FM synthesis: They’re all in this. There’s 128 megabytes of free memory in this machine. I have a complete chorus in here singing "doo wop" and every other syllable imaginable, which I can load off the hard drive. This thing is a concert-grand Hamburg Steinway. Three-hundred-megabyte samples, every key played at various volumes for the full length. This is as good as having the instrument in the room. There’s another synthesizer, a Proteus 2, that I used heavily on A Composer's Christmas. Again, it’s a sample-based thing with strings, oboe, a beautiful English-horn - you could cry for the English horn. "

In 1985, Baker got himself a relic, to wit a Commodore 64 personal computer with all of 64K on the hard drive?your basic game machine. But he was able to get some music software and run the computer into a MIDI synthesizer. "So, now JRB and Orchestra (1987) Photo: Alison Kahn ReynoldsI’m playing the DX-7, but while you could play up to sixteen notes on it at once, you could only get one sound out of it at a time. So I got myself a four-track channel mixer, an extra module, etc. I very slowly played through the last part of The Firebird with this hardly passable string patch. But when I heard the whole thing going by pressing the space bar, I got chills. It was love at first byte! And so, even though I was teaching 60 students a week (I was even teaching on Sunday evenings) I said to myself, ‘I want to do this. I’m going to build this.’ So now I not only had to pay all my other bills (and I had two kids) but also buy all this equipment. So, I ended up with a ton of synthesizers, a new computer (the 128!) and I did a demo. The next thing I know I was recording for Newport Classics. I got a contract on the Liszt record, which is now The Fantastic World Of Franz Liszt, and I did the Gershwin record, now The Fantastic World Of George Gershwin . And then I did Carmina Burana, with the New York Choral Society. Unfortunately, JRB does not have the rights to that record, although I would like to get them. And then I did what is now Fantastic Favorites for them [also reviewed herein]. After that, I got antsy, and I didn’t feel Newport was doing the sales that they should do. So I moved to a different notch. I started working for a couple of other outfits, one of which was Score Productions in Atlanta, which noJRB & John McClure (1988) producing Carmina Burana longer exists. I would get a call: ‘Can you get this to us tomorrow?’ And it would be something like a full, big-band arrangement. And I loved the challenge. It was invigorating, and I was making some decent money. I did everything from new age to big band to classical to ragtime to underscoring for children’s stuff. Then, of course, they started to get shaky and fall apart, and I said, ‘What am I going to do now?’.

"And then it dawned on me. I had gotten my masters back from Newport, and I had done a thing for Score that never saw fruition called A Composer's Christmas, which I owned. Now, Neil [Burgett, Baker’s recording and mastering engineer and sometimes percussionist] married a girl named Shoshana, who ended up being a graphic artist and now works for Xerox. She said, ‘Jeff, we have no problem with artwork.’ I realized we didn’t have a problem with anything. And so, in May of 1996, JRB Records was born. Of course, the equipment had changed like crazy, and it changes like crazy. There is no longer a state of the art, there’s a flow of the art. But I always stay a generation behind, and that’s a piece of advice: Stay a generation behind. The stuff’s more stable. Let everybody else crash their systems every day. And it’s a lot cheaper."

And where is JRB Records today, three years after its birth? "JRB Records is a classic-music company with a rock-‘n-roll attitude. My favorite way of describing it is ‘New Music by Dead Guys.’ We don’t have a cause. It’s more a case of ‘Hey, that looks like fun.’ For example: I just signed a record from Israel with a label there called Zikidisc. The artist is Ilan Guetta, and the name of the album (I did the title! I stay up until 3:00 in the morning doing titles!) Ilan Guetta Plays BACH Electric .It’s the string quartet from the Israel Philharmonic, and it’s Ilan playing Bach concertos. But he’s using an electric guitar. It’s unbelievable. He even does the Concerto in D Minor for two violins, and he overdubbed two guitars. The minute they sent me this record, I said, JRB after finishing A Composer's Christmas (1996)‘This is a JRB record.’ One thing that I learned from the P. D. Q. Bach thing was, ‘Do it well.’ We’re not farce, we’re doing things pretty straight. He’s doing farce, but he does it extremely well, and that’s why it works." I suggested that the same could be said of Spike Jones. "An absolutely great example. Spike Jones is marvelous. Another guy: Stan Freberg. Great music. So it has to be done well, but it also has to say something different. Glenn Gould said, ‘Don’t record anything if you’re going to just do it again.’ So JRB Records is also founded on the fact that we’re not going to compete with somebody’s record collection. Why is somebody going to buy Jeffrey Reid Baker playing the "Moonlight" Sonata? I’ll tell you why: Because Jeffrey Reid Baker is not doing the "Moonlight" Sonata. I have an album that’s slated for ages from now called The Moonlight Concerto. It’s the four big sonatas ["Moonlight," "Appassionata," "Pathétique," and "Waldstein"] orchestrated for piano and orchestra. I’m also releasing two world-premiere Rachmaninov recordings: a version of the Third Piano Concerto edited by me for two pianos as Rachmaninov and Horowitz were known to have played it in the basement at Steinway; and a re-arrangement of the Cello Sonata for two pianos. In the three years what we’ve discovered is that it’s really hard making a good record. And it should be. It should be a birth. So we’re not doing an immense number of records a year. I would hope to eventually get up to four to six, maybe 10. But I want them to be really, really, special. If people haven’t heard about us, it’s because I spent three years building catalog. This year, we’re dedicating a lot of our time to going public. We’ve got ads going out on radio, we’ve got fliers going out to people on our mailing list, we’re doing this piece for Fanfare…. Anybody that comes to our site and wants to leave a note, anybody that wants to call on the phone, anybody that wants to write to us: We read everything."

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