Browsing the endless shelves of tapes, vintage vinyl, musical scores, session notes and photos archived in the basement of Teo Macero's Long Island home, it's easy to get lost among the myriad glimpses of jazz history. Next to a box full of unreleased rehearsals and live performances from Miles Davis' febrile “electric” period of the early 1970s, there might be a ream of contact sheets of a young Charles Mingus, his ear poised above the fingerboard of an upright bass, circa 1958. The images conjure a time of innocence — and innovation.
“Even back then, we were always experimenting,” Macero says, a bemused glint in his eye as he calls up the memory. “That was half the fun, to see what you could do with some of this stuff. It didn't matter if it was a monaural or a 2-track tape machine — if I could help make the music sound different or adventurous, I was right there.”
While it can easily be argued that modern jazz as we know it wouldn't be the same without Macero's studio touch, the leaps he made with recording techniques, tape editing and the use of early electronics are rarely viewed in the same light — an oversight that merits renewed attention. When he first joined the staff of Columbia Records in 1954 — at the age of 28 — as a music editor, Macero was a saxophonist and composer with a degree from Juilliard under his belt. He had already tried his hand at early tape splicing, overdubbing and pitch manipulation with Explorations (Debut, 1953) — his first recording with Charles Mingus, several years before Mingus himself signed to Columbia. Macero won two Guggenheim fellowships in 1957 and 1958, and before long, he was producing now-classic albums for Mingus, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Mathis, Leonard Bernstein…the mind-boggling list of heavies in pop, jazz and classical music goes on.
Macero also cultivated relationships with early avant-garde electronic composers such as Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky (who together started the studio that would evolve into Columbia-Princeton's Electronic Music Center) and Edgard Varèse in particular. “I used to visit the maestro in his home on Sullivan Street,” Macero recalls. “I was there when he was working on the ‘Poem Électronique’ for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. It was fascinating to me because I was hearing all these sounds — later on, it inspired me to use tone generators on the [A Tribute to] Jack Johnson record I did with Miles [Columbia, 1970].”
Macero's studio collaborations with Miles Davis were indeed the most fruitful; from 1959 until Davis' self-imposed “retirement” in 1975, the two worked together on more than 20 albums, and Macero was often given free reign to try new approaches. Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) — tracked with RCA 77-DX mics and an Ampex 2-track tape machine — was one of his earliest stereo recordings and featured some of the results that heralded what became “middle-side mixing.” “I found out how I could make a 2-track sound better,” Macero explains, “by mixing it to a new tape with one mix in the center and the other out to the sides. And when you raise that center level up — you can't believe how it pops. [But] you had to be very careful because you could destroy the stereo image.”
The engineering department at Columbia Studios was constantly busy creating new devices to duplicate the sounds Macero had in his head. Among these was “The Clipper” — essentially an early version of a stereo limiter — and a more inscrutable gizmo called “The Switcher,” which isolated multiple frequencies in a stereo mix and enabled a surroundlike cross-panning effect. “You can hear it on the Water Babies album I did with Miles,” Macero says, referring to the 1967 sessions that went unreleased for nearly a decade. “There's a section where Tony Williams sounds like he's playing the drums with eight hands and feet — it's moving all over the place.”
With the free-form funk-rock fusion that Miles Davis perfected on Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), Macero's facility with tape splicing came into play — a technique that added to the controversy spurred by Miles' decision to go electric. “The point is that those pieces are compositions,” Macero says, citing the hours of editing that went into the making of Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, Get Up With It (Columbia, 1974) and a slew of live double albums that Davis released between 1970 and 1975. “That's what really bugged the critics, because they couldn't fuck it up. They said that it ‘wasn't jazz,’ but the point is, what is jazz? Jazz is composition. I mean, if you take it out of its infancy and really do something with it — that's staying true to what jazz is.”
After leaving Columbia, Macero continued to work with Davis and later took on projects with Robert Palmer, Prince Paul (on Vernon Reid's Mistaken Identity [Epic, 1996]), DJ Logic and many more; his legacy as a legendary producer has kept him in a steady flow of activity to this day. He recently recorded and mixed a full-length album with the New York University big band and regularly releases material on his own Teo Records label. Colorful, insightful and maverick to the core, Macero might be one of the last of the true greats of the jazz era, but he insists he isn't finished yet.
“I might have slowed down a little,” he admits, “but I still have a lot more up here, I can tell you that. Some days I feel like my head will explode — there's so much music waiting to get out.”