AURAL ROBERT feature column by Robert Baird

Stereophile, April 2001

Engineers are often lost in the routinely harried process of making records. Although a few like Tom Dowd and Rudy Van Gelder have achieved some measure of fame, most labor over consoles in the shadow of the more visible (and better paid) producer.

At times, though, the line between engineer and producer blurs. That's the case with Jim Anderson, an unassuming but increasingly preeminent jazz engineer who is responsible for more than 50 sessions by such artists as Joe Henderson, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Terence Blanchard, and J J. Johnson. In the past few years, he has developed a particularly close relationship with singer-pianist Patricia Barber, having produced her last four albums for Premonition Records (distributed by Blue Note including the newly released Nightclub 90749).

Engineers are primarily defined by their "sound," and Anderson is no exception. "I can't make a sound like anybody else. I can only make a sound like me," he says over coffee one morning. "I can't make a Rudy [Van Gelder] sound. I can imitate him, but it's still going to sound like I did it. I like a very clean, simple sound, but at the same time a very direct one. The way I hear a mix when I'm working on it, I try to fsten to every element of the band, concentrate on it specifically to the exclusion of everything else. If something leaps out and is constantly taking your attention, it's not a balanced recording."

"Balanced" is also a good description of Anderson's personality. Not surprisingly, he plays well with others, managing to get along with such difficult personalities as Cuban expatriate pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, for whom he has engineered Diz, The Blessing, and Inner Voyage, and Barber, whose audiophile-respected catalog Anderson refers to as "my resume."

"My band is really a quartet, not a trio, because Jim is the fourth member of the group," Barber says from her home in Chicago. "He makes me feel so at ease, so calm." She recounts with a laugh how, during her first sessions with Anderson, for Cafe Blue (Premonition/Blue Note 5 21810 2), she returned from lunch to find that he had mixed the entire album while she was gone. This kind of trust continues to be the basis of their creative partnership. "He's very efficient," Barber says. "He makes my life so much easier."

Anderson obviously appreciates the fact that Barber has faith in him. "She has total veto power," he says, "but for a lot of people, the process [of recording and mixing is downright boring and uninteresting. To me, it's the most fascinating part of the whole thing. I can sit there forever and keep plugging away.

"Patricia just comes back for the results, which allows me to be a little less self-conscious about what rm doing. Once a player fixates on something, they never get it out of their brain. That little piece that they've just played over and over and over-when it comes by, they obsess on it, and that's all they hear. They won't hear the flow or the phrasing. [For them] it's often like hot dogs and sausage. You don't want to see how [records are made. It comes under the heading of `What you don't know won't hurt you."'

One strong suit Barber was quick to mention was the way Anderson supports her vocals. "I love the sound of my voice in the recordings I've done with Jim. Even if I have a weak voice, if it's worn from a gig, the way he feeds my voice to me while we're recording allows my voice to actually get stronger as the session goes on. It makes me so confident that, unless I have absolute laryngitis, I can sing."

Anderson is not a fan of using compressors while recording, although vocals are an occasional exception. "It just distracts my musical listening. But there are times when you need something to sit inside a mix. With some singers you have to [use compression]you have to squash it down. With Patricia, I don't use a compressor, I hand-ride it: I listen to it and shape the line by hand."

How to record vocals is one of the tricks Anderson picked up while working in his first love: radio. As a student at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University, he eventually took charge of the school's recording studio while also working as an engineer at its radio station, WDUQ.

"We had a pair of AKG C12A tube microphones. Only one worked. The first recital we had to do, we hung this one microphone in the hall-almost like Mercury Living Presence. It was the Tamburitzans [a group of folk-singers/ dancers on a full stage. We hung this thing and, I think, accidentally found the sweet spot. We turned it on and said `Wow! Listen to that!' Everything was there frequency-wise, top to botttom-the image. It was just the best sound. I was hooked."

Anderson parlayed his college-radio gig into a full-time job as broadcast engineer with National Public Radio, where he worked from 1974 through 1980, along the way working live dates by such luminaries as Eubie Blake, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, and Charles Mingus. For the past two decades he's been a fulltime record producer. The first session that he soloed on as engineer was This Bud's for You (Muse out of print), a 1984 quartet date by Bud Shank with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, and Al Foster. It was then that Anderson began to establish his own way of working.

"I don't know how other guys run their sessions, but I can get a drum sound up pretty quickly-and usually keep the session running on time.

"Because, again, of radio, I tend to be very gingerly about the amount of EQ and compression I use. The idea is not to paint yourself into a corner. You try to get the right mike in the right place. I try to approach things with the right kind of mix, the right kind of microphone, as opposed to using a lot of compression and EQ; this, to me, has a lot more punch and clarity.

"It's all spice. A little too much spice and it's never going to work. If there's not enough spice, it doesn't work either. You've got to find the right recipe."

One recipe Anderson is excited about is the impending surround-sound revolution. The 5.1-channel mixes he's fashioned from Barber's Nightclub sessions, though as yet unreleased, have him enthused about the possibilities of the new medium.
"With stereo, maybe we've all become a little dulled to it. But with surround, new cilia are being excited; new spots on the brain are being touched for the first time"

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