George Walker Petit, jazz guitarist and producer: Something Else! Interview
Emergence, the terrific new album by George Walker Petit, is just as multi-faceted as this producer, engineer, musician and composer’s career. Walker blends jazz with blues, soul, funk and even country over a 20-song project that includes 15 originals. Walker again collaborates with drummer Mark Dodge and saxophonist Justin Flynn — the latter of whom also played on Nathan Parker Smith’s Not Dark Yet — along with new additions in keyboardist Matthew Fries and bassist Phil Palombi. He joined Preston Frazier for a Something Else! Sitdown to discuss this new project and the journey toward Emergence …
PRESTON FRAZIER: Some of our readers might be familiar with your production work, as well as your solo albums, but don’t know much about you. Tell us about your musical upbringing.
GEORGE WALKER PETIT: I was exposed to music very young at home. My parents were big fans of classical, opera and Broadway music. Some record was always playing at home. But they weren’t really musicians, per se. Then came my flirtations with piano, banjo, trumpet and drums. All of those fell away before the age of 9. On a trip to visit grandparents, my brother and I were taken to a flea market — I think I was 9 — where I saw this cool electric bass by a company called Tulio for $60. I begged my grand-dad to buy it for me, and he did. I then started playing with my brother, Mike, a great pianist by that time — even at age 11!. We played the adult popular music of the time, Burt Bacharach, etc. This is what my parents liked and played, so this is what we picked up by ear. By the time I was 13, my parents had relocated the family to the U.K. where my brother and a friend of his formed a blues cover band called Cajun. We covered mostly Allman Brothers jam tunes and played regularly in the London pubs, where I was smuggled in, being under age. We played a lot on this scene. At about 15 or 16, being interested in writing and chords, I bought a used Hofner jazz guitar and started writing little love songs in the cause of unrequited love. Hell, I was 16, right?
Before leaving London for boarding school abroad, I recall a conversation with a great guitarist and bandmate Matt Backer outside the American School in St. John’s Wood when he asked what my dream was. I clearly remember saying that I wanted to be a jazz guitarist and record producer. Throughout boarding school, I continued to play both instruments but, as the school was tiny, it was really alone — so I guess I worked on my writing and technique, as there was little opportunity to play with others. My good friend back then, Niall Brooks turned me on to jazz — to Joe Pass, Miles and Ella, Stan Getz, the Pablo recordings. But at the same time I was way into the Beach Boys, the Carpenters and Ravel! Not to mention fusion bands like Passport, RTF and Weather Report. Weird, right? I had really wide-ranging influences, even back then.
By the time I started college at Vassar, I was playing bass pretty confidently and wanted to play electric guitar more. So, as with most college kids, we had bands — jazz bands, funk bands, you pretty much name it. A couple of years into college and the music department there, I became really frustrated with the limitations of the department. It’s a long story how it eventually came about, but I ended up leaving just before my junior year and took the Musicians’ Institute audition in L.A. and began their program, also playing in bars and interning in studios back then — I guess in about 1980 I could go on with the subsequent years of studio jobs, climbing that ladder – or stories about different guitars, influences and gigs – but that wasn’t your question.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Were you planning for a career behind the boards or as a solo artist?
GEORGE WALKER PETIT: Vassar was great on many levels, musically. But the department was just not really flexible back then. It was classical or nothing. I hope that has changed by now. I wasn’t really planning a career at that point, Preston. I was just following the music to participate more and open up more avenues to adventure and input. I just wanted to be doing it. Any actual planning or directional motivation came some years later, after the years in Los Angeles. In L.A., I was exposed to study, gigs, studios and many, many mentors — so the process of input from all directions, putting the proverbial big toe in lots of deep ends was still ongoing. I had little focus within the music field, but my focus certainly was music.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Your work with Brazilian artist at Na Cena Studios is well respected. Who was the first Brazilian artist you worked with?
GEORGE WALKER PETIT: Hard to say. I was hired by that company to train and hire a staff of engineers, interns and to teach the support staff how we do things in pro studios in the U.S.A. That was actually in the late ’90s. The studio in Sao Paulo bought my Amek/Neve console from my New York City studio and shipped it down there. I traveled to San Paulo about six or seven times over the next couple of years, helping get the studio and its staff on their feet. I taught sessions with real bands looking to have an American cut their tracks — Paula Lima, Walmir Borges, lots of local bands. Brazilian music was always a great favorite, so I was fortunate to have this opportunity to spend months there and hear the music first hand — and get to know the people, who are just so lovely and generous! I’ve so many wonderful memories of working and developing friendships there — some of which have lasted, fortunately.
PRESTON FRAZIER: I first became aware of your work when I received a copy of the self-titled solo album by Drew Zingg, of Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs fame. I was amazed by the sound, the song selection and the production values. How did you come to produce Zingg’s project?
GEORGE WALKER PETIT: Well, thanks. The CD sounds great. On that project, I produced, engineered, mixed, wrote two of the tunes and pretty much put the whole thing together. I ran into Drew Zingg at a friend’s birthday and asked him why he’d never done a solo album. He answered that he did not know how. As he was a significant early influence from our times in bands together, and we had a common love of such groups as Steely Dan, I offered to make the record for him. I put together a board and an LLC to support the project, raising funds and planning. The board consisted of many of his Vassar pals. Then I reached out to Vinnie Colaiuta and Will Lee to form the rhythm section. [Keyboardist] George Whitty was contacted after Drew gave me his coordinates, and we had a team in place. We recorded at a great studio in LA and I mixed in New York City at my own studio. Glad you like the CD, Preston. We’re proud of the musical results of the project.
PRESTON FRAZIER: After Drew Zingg, I found your amazing solo albums, 2007’s End of August and 1997’s Patachou. Both offer a distinct feel. Tell us how these two projects came about?
GEORGE WALKER PETIT: I was living in northern Vermont in the late ’80s, early ’90s and had a great quartet playing my music. That band and another jazz group I was in opened at jazz festivals for Joe Henderson, John Scofield, James Carter, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, McCoy Tyner, etc. I also had a studio that was built in a barn up there. I recorded a lot of music of my own for industrial projects — videos for ski companies, TV commercials, radio spots as well as for local bands. Honing my engineering chops and approach to arrangement, mixing and the capture of sounds. Patachou, my first record as a leader, was with my band up there. It was a scary thing, doing one’s first release, but it got me a record deal and an invitation to sit with legend Tommy Lipuma at his office in New York City to discuss my career. He wanted to sign me to Impulse!, but with the other contract already in place, I opted not to fight with them. My loss!
End of August was recorded and mixed in my studio in New York City, after I’d moved back in ’97. At that point I could already feel that just playing and writing jazz was too limiting for me — perhaps as a result of my earlier years as a kid, being exposed to such varied music. I love playing jazz, or blues, or funk, or reggae! I also write whatever comes to mind; it’s not limited to the jazz vocabulary or philosophy. To me, it’s just music, all of it. I don’t sit down to write a jazz tune per se – I sit with an idea and follow where it leads me — both compositionally and stylistically. Somewhere along that path, the tune makes its own personality apparent. I consider End of August a vast improvement in my approach to engineering and arrangement in studio settings, and in the subsequent approach to mixing. I’m a huge fan of about five famous engineers — Joe Ferla, Elliot Scheiner, Al Schmitt, James Farber, a few others perhaps including Roger Nichols, Bill Schnee. I learned, and continue to learn, so much from the work these gurus have available to hear and study: Clarity of sound, reality, no tricks, getting a great performance to tape. All these things inform my work. And, as a player, the influences are too numerous to mention. They’re all in there with my playing now, which I hope has come to sound like me.
PRESTON FRAZIER: This year saw the arrival of Emergence, your adventurous new project. Let’s talk about the concept for the project, and some of the original compositions.
GEORGE WALKER PETIT: Two years ago, I had a good hard look at where I was and what I wanted going forward in my life. A big part of that life is music — not all of it, but a big part. Perspective was the first thing to look at. Where I to lose my ability to play or hear, i.e.: work and create, I’d still have my wife, health, love of life and desire to learn. That had to be faced. Music is of huge importance to me, but without it I’d live. So, having considered all that and how I wanted the next decades to look, musically, I realized that I’d spent 40 years learning how to play, how to write and engineer — how to realize the potential of a project, gig, mix and release — and what struck me is that life is a learning process full of adventure and turns that is never fully at an end as long as you’re breathing, right? I mean, every time I pick up the instrument or sit behind a console, I am learning. And it never bores me. But I also clearly saw that I have not, to date, fulfilled some of my own goals, set along the path since I was playing in those London pubs as a young teenage bassist.
I love engineering, mixing, producing for others and will continue to do so. But I also love playing guitar, writing and performing in front of an audience. This is an energy one cannot get in a studio It’s a big part of my personal musical definition that I have ignored for at least the last 18 years. That has to change. The ration of my working for others dreams to my working for my own has to be rebalanced. So that was the start of Emergence. I decided to accept myself as a solid player, as valid and justified in my pursuits as many of the household-name players for whom I have worked. I also realized, and this is actually a hard place to arrive, that I am really good at it. As an engineer and producer, with over 100 releases for others and recurring clients, I have obviously developed a signature and approach. I can’t really deny that. Granted, I’ve so much to learn still and development is something I embrace and hope for. But I decided it was time that I focused my efforts on my own music.
I wanted to play, record, write and perform all the styles I loved. I did not want to do a straight-ahead album or a full-production album. Whatever style I wanted to include on Emergence, that represented what I love about music — well, I was going to do that. And if you can’t pigeonhole me? Good! After all, with iTunes and other download sites now, I find most consumers browse through an artist’s catalog and order a la carte. So, I wrote in different styles for the project. I recorded each style in a way that complimented that music. I mixed a Steely Dan-influenced arrangement in the way they might have — or a straight-ahead trio tune as that should be treated. No rules, no limitations. I hired a band of friends — all great players, but friends first. I told them what I was trying to do in the studio, and they looked at it as a great adventure. It was challenging to approach all the styles with the right energy and direction, but I knew these guys could bring their A-game, regardless of how much jazz they were playing. We all agreed that it’s all just music. And they kicked ass. They found a way to bring their own lives to the sessions. It’s right there, recorded on two CDs. The project, with all its styles, sounds like a band — and that was the goal and my dream.
There are 15 originals. All of them mean something to me personally. There’s a tune written for my father before we lost him — that he never got to hear — called “Before You Go.” That was hard to record. Also, a tune with a humorous title or two — just so much music. Then there are five covers, from “Wooly Bully” to a Joni Mitchell anthem. And the bottom line for me is, this project shows what I want to do and everything I have learned since buying the Tulio bass 46 years ago. And that was the idea. I got it down on tape — well, recorded anyway!
PRESTON FRAZIER: Do you have plans to tour behind Emergence? What’s next in 2016?
GEORGE WALKER PETIT: Well, I want to do a few things. I need to secure management and representation and get the music out on the road I’ve always wanted to bring a group to the European festivals and call tunes ranging in styles like the Emergence project. Call a bop tune and then after it, play “Wooly Bully,” or a samba or a gritty blues. But I also want to continue recording and mixing music for others. I love it and I’m helpful to others, helping them realize their dreams as well — and most often better than they’d heard it in their heads. That is a lovely thing to be able to do, and I am very aware of how fortunate I am to do that. I’ve done the last 12 or 15 album mixes for clients from Turkey, Ireland, France, England as well as the U.S.A. Most people just send me their tracks and tell me to go at it and “do what you do.” That’s how I work best when mixing. With the immediacy of the internet, we can virtually sit in the same room — via Skype — or I can just receive new files in minutes. Revisions and input goes back and forth instantaneously, so it’s truly a great way to work. Most of my clients trust me, and realize that they don’t need to be in the room when I am working on the sound of a drum kit or the minutiae of a mix balance. That’s strong trust and respect — and I don’t abuse it. And gigs, lots of live music for me now. I just booked 11 gigs in 11 days at the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival in June. Can’t wait.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Finally, give our readers a list of your top 5 favorite albums.
GEORGE WALKER PETIT: Oh now, this is totally unfair. Impossible, Preston. It depends on mood, what I need to hear to learn, what is going to get me out the door in the morning or relax me after a day of work — or simply what is fun. So, it ranges from the Beatles to Devo, from Debussy to Brad Mehldau, from Sinatra and Jobim to the Four Tops or Stylistics, Brigadoon to Miles to Bowie to Scofield. It’s all music. It all heals and inspires.
George Walker Petit’s ‘Emergence’ is available for purchase via CDBaby.