singer songwriter producer
BASS NOTE WARS
In 2010 Valentine hired Jay Vern to again write his number charts. The only change Valentine wanted was to make sure that his inverted chords made it onto his number charts this time. Nashville number charts notate rhythms as well as harmonies, and are used so a song can be sung or played in any key without changing the chart, perfect for a town that changes singers and musicians faster than socks. As a result most Nashville musicians cannot read notated charts, only number charts. When Jay was confronted with Valentine’s inversions, he asked the first in a long line of “What’s in the bass?” questions.
Valentine was used to bass as independent accompaniment separate from chords, and not as limiting chord choices. He was used to bebop. Ray Bryant could not possibly have known where Red Mitchell was all the time. Valentine had been there front and center in his early twenties ten feet away at the corner of Bradley’s bar, cheering them on with Mike Vitanza, snapping their fingers and into it with an intensity the older dudes dug since Jazz had been forgotten in disco 80’s New York, Just not by Vit and Valentine who saw all the legends up close and personal, the best of the best on every instrument, playing to ten and twenty people, and pleasantly surprised to see two jacked up 20 year olds digging it like it was 1950 ‘and the livin’ was easy’.
Valentine was frustrated because his process had succeeded with his Vegas songbook using normal notated charts. All of those chords were four note chords with the melody note on the top of the chord and also the bottom where it masqueraded as a bass note. In the piano-vocal demos, jazz pianist Billy Tragesser simply played the inversions as notated in the chart and then created a left handed jazz bass line to accompany them, something Valentine expected the Nashville musicians to do, but was sadly mistaken. Since Valentine considered bass as just another accompaniment instrument, he felt it impertinent to dictate the bass line to the bas player and instead was looking for a bass player who could create a bass line that fit like Billy T had done. But none of the many bassists auditioned or interviewed would or could do it. Number charts show neither notes nor voicings, and instead require chord names. The name of the chord depends on “what’s in the bass?”, and even then fail to dictate voicings. There are no voicings on number charts. Jay’s generous, patient attempts at number charts failed to yield the same sounds as Valentine’s notated charts when played back by other musicians, or even by Jay himself the next day. The same was true of the many other chartists and musicians Valentine hired. Determined to get his triad voicings recorded correctly this time around, he told everyone he was in the triad protection business, and asked the many musicians and professors he hired, “How do I protect my inversions in number charts?”. But the response was always, “What’s in the bass?” Finding the answer sent Valentine on a protracted musical odyssey.
The answer to the bass note question would have to go through Valentine’s chords, however voiced or inverted. But these tricky chords did not resolve as the musicians were used to, and they were routinely confounded by his inversions and had trouble finding them on the guitar neck or the piano. Those who did find Valentine’s voicings could not switch between the voicings quickly enough, and had trouble with Valentine’s syncopations, and so often concluded that his theory was incorrect and advised choosing different chords, often offering to fix his songs by offering their own, all because they could not place his triads! That’s what happened on the number charts written for Valentine’s first 7 Nashville songs; some of his chords were changed without his knowledge, and that wasn’t going to happen again.
To answer the bass note question, Valentine tricked them. First he let them try to find his inversions their way and fail. Then he got them to play the three inverted triad notes in the inverted order dictating the precise location on the guitar or piano, just for one line of a verse. Then he would give them a bass note that was really the melody note but telling them it was the bass note, just to hear the inversion without a bass note changing its sound. Valentine watched as one seasoned musician after another fought to accept the inversion and its placement, and then be pleasantly surprised by the sound they heard, routinely remarking that they’d never played the changes before. When Valentine told them that those were not bass notes but the melody notes, they would crumble as their minds played catch up, and then would ask yet again, “then what’s in the bass?” Valentine just wanted the sound of his voicings to not be ruined by the bass note. The only bass note that doesn’t change the sound of the voicing is the melody note; but using the melody note in the bass fails to provide a chord name. When asked what they would put in the bass to accomplish that task, most balked. Some bravely took on the challenge and gave options, but Valentine did not like how any of the bass notes made his chord sound. The bass note ruined the beautiful sentiment of the chord they had heard moments earlier and were now debasing in honor of some convention known as the bass line because they couldn’t figure out the chords without the bass note dictating the name.
So Valentine tried to write his own bass lines on midi, forcing him to choose the lesser of evils. He then hired known bass players to critique them. After many sessions with various musicians and professors, a female bass player happened to mention in passing something about putting the bass in the root. The comment just happened to slip out in one of the numerous consulting sessions in search of that very answer, which changed everything. If, when he had first come to town asking how he could protect his triads, someone had simply said, “Put the bass in the root”, he would have saved himself six expensive months of exasperation.
Valentine then confirmed that most musicians could agree on the name of 85% of his chords without knowing the bass note! They could hear what the chord was. Most of the time it was obvious to them. Valentine struggled to understand why they hadn’t said so 6 months earlier, but nonetheless put the bass note on the root of those chords, leaving himself only the really tricky chords to deal with.
With the bass note question answered, Valentine was confident of a quick and easy number charting experience. But his confidence was shattered and a 6 month ordeal began over the same number charts that cost him the last 6 at the hands of the bass note. Bass notes in hand, a return trip to Jay and other chartists was painful for both, took forever, and yielded the same negative result as they had in the past. New chartists also failed. Valentine wasted a lot of money and time with several chartists producing different charts with different sounds for a given song. As a test, Valentine would give a chartist the same song 2 weeks later and get a different chart – for the same song from the same chartist! Number charts were his new nemesis. He needed and hated number charts almost as much as he come to need and hate bass notes. Even with the vast majority of bass notes and chords named, no one could write number charts for his songs! When musicians played back the number charts, they just didn’t sound like the notated charts.
With the money he’d spent on charts, Valentine could’ve demoed the entire library! So he asked his sextet to do paid band practice, but they refused. Jay informed him that it would take too long for the musicians to learn the odd voicings, and that telling them what to play might anger these quality sessions players who get paid triple scale to be creative on a Country star’s record. Like the well known bass players Valentine had interviewed, they would be insulted if one ask them to “read” a part, which 90% of the cannot do. They don’t read notated music,, they read number charts. Jay admitted that that playing the same musical templates was the bread and butter of the now moribund Music Row demo scene. Country Radio is 10 ‘feels’ or grooves on top of which these virtuoso musicians beautifully fill and solo, making even a subpar song sound great. What they do is transform any song into a great Country Radio song. They also have about 30 or 40 more genre and subgenre templates in their repertoire which they can mix and match them in any combination. That’s why people go to Nashville, for the Nashville sound. They don’t go there, as Dylan did, looking for a new sound.
So Valentine was forced to learn how to write number charts himself. He hired Tiger Fitzhugh to teach him how. Tiger was a professor and a player and had written numerous number charts for Valentine and had gotten closer than anyone else to achieving the correct sound on playback by expanding the charts to include horn line notations and timings, drum notes and other instructive niceties that unfortunately made the charts too busy but demonstrated to Valentine an understanding of his theory. Tiger first taught Valentine how to accurately mark his syncopations and number the 85% or chords all agreed on, and even worked out some of the mystery inversions on his archtop guitar. Valentine finally wrote up his own number charts. For the tricky inversions, Valentine simply named them as jazz chords, sevenths, diminisheds, suspendeds, and put the bass in the root. He tested the accuracy of his number charts with musicians and two notation software programs, and heard them played back with the correct timing and rhythm and also the correct sound on most of his chords. In a practice session Jay Vern was able to play most of the voicings the first time through on piano, and the difficult ones after minor instructions, making the comment Valentine had heard so many times before: “That’s nice. I’ve never played these changes before!” Music to Valentine’s ears. With accurate, proven number charts in hand, the recording sessions musicians would now be required to honor Valentine’s voicings and syncopations, and would know where ‘one’ was both rhythmically and harmonically. He would not have to change the complimentary sound his voicings had with the lyrics and the subject matter, matching the feelings of the lyrics and the moods of the metaphors and Valentine’s vocal timbres. He was after his unique sound after all.
With the chord name and bass note issues solved and in the number charts, Valentine would move on to the recording process. Valentine first hired Tiger Fitzhugh and Patrick Worley, a young classical guitarist, to record the guitar neck voicings on acoustic guitar to keep the other musicians harmonically honest and to give electric guitarist Danny Parks a sample of the voicings properly ‘aped’ on the guitar neck. Valentine dragged the acoustic guitar tracks into Logic and listened to them up against his midi piano and bass tracks and heard no discrepancies. These recordings, made in Valentine’s Belmont apartment, ended up in the background on the final recordings. With the piano and the acoustic guitar playing the voicings, Parks was at liberty to brilliantly play ‘around’ Valentine’s chords from charts he objected to as harmonic and rhythmic ‘minefields’. You’d never know from listening, though his and all the tracks were heavily edited.
Valentine recorded the drum tracks in the studio wing at Danny Parks’ ranch along with Danny’s rhythm electric guitar and lead electric guitar parts which were always perfectly suited to the sentiment of each song and always added a cool, sexy, modern vibe to the old school foundations. With Tommy unavailable, Parks wisely suggested Brian Fullen to play drums on the sessions. Valentine had Fullen play without a kick drum to emphasize the top of the drum kit for a jazzier sound. Fullen’s work anchors the production with perfect time, and enforces the often difficult beat requirements by playing on the beat with hardly any lag to match the clock-like precision of the bass tracks recorded at Colada Mix in Miami and played by Adam Lucas ‘reading’ the demanding, tricky, unique bass lines. Valentine recorded Jay Vern and Larry Franklin and Roby Turner (piano, fiddle and pedal steel) at Station West which Larry’s wife managed and where John Caldwell engineered. Five fun days were not without musical consternations, each fully exploited for their humorous value by the musicians who yielded fitting, perceptive accompaniment.
EDITING and MIXING
Editing was extensive and time consuming. All the drum tracks were rerecorded to omit the kick drum mic and focus on the top of the kit, but otherwise with few notes, since Fullen nailed Valentine’s sound, having played Cole Porter songs six days a week for two years in his youth. Other overdubs were also necessary as Valentine coached and cajoled the masterful virtuosos to play outside the constraints they had become accustomed to by recording for huge name acts in a big money business. In Valentine’s songs they play a lot more. They also play with the vocal, a big no-no in Country Radio, as the mixes present the vocals as just another instrument as much as possible. All of the piano, fiddle and pedal steel parts were recorded on Trident consoles which impart a bright and thin color on the music. Valentine had no idea of the dramatic difference that each brand of console imparts, and was surprised when mixing and mastering engineer Roland Alvarez took him from studio to studio to hear the difference. Alvarez would later wrench out much of that Trident brightness in the mixes, for which Valentine purchased $100,000 in additional equipment. The playing sounds so simple and effortless in the final mix that the listener will forever question that any issues could possibly have ever existed. The result is as Valentine envisioned, songs full of music and true to the sentiment of the hummed melody each song started as.