by Dead Guys: A Profile of JRB Records
BY ROYAL S. BROWN
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 Im 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. Bakerss 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 Orffs
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 articles 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 Bakers characteristic manipulations while
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
Not unexpectedly, Baker runs
his entire operation out of a studio in his house on New Yorks
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 Ive 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, thats pretty much
everything. When people ask me what I do, I say Im 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, Im 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 didnt 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 hed 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 thats 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 doesnt really play it. Of course, I do
play the piece - theres a ragtime Im 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 dont play it. I ask them,
Do you like Leonard Bernsteins performance of Beethovens
Sixth Symphony? And whether they say yes or no, I say,
Yes, but you cant stand it, because hes 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, Thats
you? Youre doing this? And I say, Yeah. I have
my orchestra! I was once going to call it the CEO - the Combined
"Ive taught piano
for a very long time. You take a student in, and youre trying
to hone that student, who cant play anything, to playing it
well. The computer cant do a thing: Its stupid, its
an idiot. But it has a memory and a half. So it will do what you
tell it to do. Its like having a student, and you make the
student do what you want. But if you dont know what you want
the student to do, hes never going to play it very well. So,
when you download these things from the Internet (these MIDI files)
theyre horrible. Theyre a direct transcription off the
page, and theres nothing that sounds worse than music off
the page. Thats where I am now, thats what I do now.
Is it fun? It is fun. I have Glenn Goulds love of audiences
(thats facetious, of course). Gould once spoke of an audiences
"gladiatorial urge to hear wrong notes." Theres
a certain amount of paranoia to that statement, I suppose. But theres
something about trotting the boards as a classical pianist. I had
the ability to do that, but no desire whatsoever. And, also, its
the same piece over, and over, and over, and over
. At least
here when I get it done, I get it done. Ive 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 didnt 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 cant
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 Im 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 Serkins recording of the "Moonlight"
and "Pathétique" Sonatas on Columbia [the LP still
sits on JRBs shelves]. The
first four bars of the "Moonlight" did it. Right away,
at the age of 11, I wanted to be the next Rudolf Serkin
shortly after that Horowitz! Because I heard it on a record, records
became tremendously important to me. A lot of people, Im 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 didnt
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
"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! Its 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 dont.
We have a blues album I
Got The BLUES for Christmas, with Peter
Green, and to me the blues is classic, not classical. But its
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 up.
And they got profound, and they got deep, yet there was that river
of humor running below it. Thats JRB Records. Each of the
companies now is trying to be more serious than the next
more pure. Well, believe me, were not headed in that direction.
Perhaps some day Concerto
Grosso will get released! I still have it. We taped it
1968. I got a C+ on it because I didnt have a score. It was
"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 Ive got guys
who are having music thrown in front of them for a film theyre
going to record in two minutes. And these two worlds are colliding.
I didnt know which way to tilt. This was in 1974, around the
time ragtime was coming out. Im taking this class, and he
asked us to write a 20th-century piece of music. I said, Hey,
ragtimes 1910, 1915. And so I went in there: The kids
are sitting there plunking
these cat-across-the-keyboards pieces 'serial music', or as I call
it docacaphonic music. Theyre 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, Thats a wonderful little
piece. Why dont you take it down the hall. Theres a
guy teaching here now named Dave Jasen. Hes into this ragtime
thing. So I walked down, played it for Dave, and it turns
out Dave produced Eubie Blakes records. The whole thing was
very strange, because Eubie was in Dads class.
"So, after that day, I said, You know something.
I dont 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 dont 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 its
not just the theory, its 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 Boyfriends 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
didnt 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
didnt 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 Ive 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 dont want to say that the thing
didnt 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 cant. 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 youre stuck
with one sound. Within that one sound are an infinite number of
shadings of that sound, but its 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, its all automatic. But the pianos
more automatic, because theres 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 its
more than that. A synthesizer was a machine that synthesized sounds.
We now have sampled sounds: those are sounds that are real, theyre
recorded. We also have what are called additive synthesis, we have
subtractive synthesis, we have FM synthesis: Theyre all in
this. Theres 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. Theres
another synthesizer, a Proteus 2, that I used heavily on A
Composer's Christmas. Again, its
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 Im
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. Im 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 didnt 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 no
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 childrens
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, Bakers 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 didnt
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, theres
a flow of the art. But I always stay a generation behind, and thats
a piece of advice: Stay a generation behind. The stuffs more
stable. Let everybody else crash their systems every day. And its
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 dont have a cause.
Its 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!)
Guetta Plays BACH Electric .Its
the string quartet from the Israel Philharmonic, and its Ilan
playing Bach concertos. But hes using an electric guitar.
Its 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, This
is a JRB record. One thing that I learned from the P. D. Q.
Bach thing was, Do it well. Were not farce, were
doing things pretty straight. Hes doing farce, but he does
it extremely well, and thats 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, Dont record anything if
youre going to just do it again. So JRB Records is also
founded on the fact that were not going to compete with somebodys
record collection. Why is somebody going to buy Jeffrey Reid Baker
playing the "Moonlight" Sonata? Ill tell you why:
Because Jeffrey Reid Baker is not doing the "Moonlight"
Sonata. I have an album thats slated for ages from now called
The Moonlight Concerto. Its the four big sonatas ["Moonlight,"
"Appassionata," "Pathétique," and "Waldstein"]
orchestrated for piano and orchestra. Im 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 weve discovered is that its really
hard making a good record. And it should be. It should be a birth.
So were 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 havent heard about
us, its because I spent three years building catalog. This
year, were dedicating a lot of our time to going public. Weve
got ads going out on radio, weve got fliers going out to people
on our mailing list, were 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."