Concord Records’ NEXT Collective brings together what many are calling the supergroup of this generation of musicians. Combining the talents of Ben Williams, Christian Scott, Matt Stevens, Jamire Williams, Kris Bowers, Walter Smith III, Logan Richardson and Gerald Clayton, these musicians give some credence to the term “supergroup.” Originally conceived by Chris Dunn, Senior A&R at Concord, the record moves past the outdated “jazz” labeling and delves into the more pop-oriented influences of these incredible musicians.
Leading up to the February 26th release of ‘Cover Art,’ we are bringing you interviews with the musicians and previews of the songs each one arranged for the record. Our last interview is with Chris Dunn, Senior A&R at Concord Records and Producer of the NEXT Collective.
The Creative A&R position has really changed a lot of the past few years. How did you find your way into this position?
I always like to say I Forrest Gump’d my way into this position [laughs]. There was nothing planned about it; I never even dreamed about doing this. My father worked at a radio station called KJAZZ in the Bay Area — it was the only commercial jazz station of its kind. He worked there for a long time, so I got bit by the jazz bug and ended up working there and stayed for eleven years. During that time, my father was also doing radio promotion for Concord and was really tight with the owner, Carl Jefferson.
When KJAZZ was sold I was in between gigs doing a syndicated radio show that ended up falling through. I guess you could say he casually insulted me. He was like, “Hey, Concord is looking for warehouse workers for the holidays.” And you know, I was like, “Fuck you. I used to have all of these labels sending me stuff because I was a DJ and now you expect me to work for a label and I have to box these CDs up?” It was humbling. I hadn’t really been doing it for a while, so I wasn’t getting promos anymore because I wasn’t affiliated with anybody. The last thing I remember him saying before I accepted was, “You get free CDs.” So I started off doing holiday work in the warehouse and I told my father not to tell people what I did before because I didn’t want to look like a loser. Then I eventually moved into the office and got to be a courier [laughs]!
How did you move up the ranks then?
To be honest with you I was not the best employee, but I just casually asked if I could try to put a compilation together and see if anybody liked it. My boss was very kind and open to it, so she was like, “Yeah, go ahead!” I made a Valentine’s Day compilation that they passed around to the people at the office. People liked it but they thought I had to tone it down for the casual listener. But because of that compilation I think they discovered that I might be helpful in other areas.
Eventually John Burk kind of took you under his wing, right?
Yeah John Burk became my mentor and eventually gave me the opportunity to do what I do now. He was a busy man, you know, Vice-President of the company; but I was always kind of one of those weird guys who if you said something to me, I’d figure it out for you. So it got around to me that John was looking for a Protools setup that he wanted to be able to work into his office. So I went in there and was like, “Oh I happened to be online and found this cool desk that I think would work great.” They ended up buying it and John’s thank you was having me set it up for him [laughs]. Like I said, I’m just the courier.
So I’m in there setting it up and he’s listening to music. He kept looping this one part over and over again, so I said, “You’re having a problem with that one section. That’s why you’re playing it over and over again.” John was just like, “Really? What do you hear?” I told him that one part was out of tune. I guess after that, the connection was made of me trying to make a compilation and I’m sure by then people knew what I had done before that. So John asked if I wanted to work on some more compilations.
It was from that point on that I guess he saw something in me. When the company was bought it was decided that they were going to move it to LA. So John one day came to my desk and said, “I don’t know what your plans are or what you’re thinking, but how would you like to move to LA with the company? You would work for me and I’ll teach you how to produce records.” I think I might have said, “What? So you’re not firing me?” With an offer like that I mean, why not? So I moved to LA and John absolutely kept his word. He showed me the ropes and I worked on everything he worked on. He was very gracious with his knowledge and probably taught me more than you probably should teach anybody. He was really giving back. I love him for that. I guess it was the right situation at the right time.
So you move down to LA and get in the producer’s seat. What was the first project you took on by yourself?
It was Christian Scott. It was funny too, because when we had gotten Christian Scott’s first album, it came through a distributor. It eventually got to us and it came with the photo. John was like, “What do you think?” I said, “Well, it’s cool and there are a couple really good tunes.” But at the time I really wanted to sign another band, Kneebody. So I was like, “Look at him — he’s really handsome, he’s Donald Harrison’s nephew. He’s going to be a problem.” He just laughed and told me to give him a call to feel him out. So I hit him up and we got along almost immediately. It was really strange. He only had a few minutes to talk and then was hopping on a train to do a hit with Poncho Sanchez. Once I got off the phone I immediately went into John’s office and was like, “Hey, I think this dude’s going to be the shit. I agree with you. Lets go for it.”
The next thing you know, we’re going for it and as we’re setting up for the recording, Christian and I are talking more and more. In my mind I kind of wanted to produce it, but I didn’t think Christian would want to work with me on it. So John casually was like, “Hey I think you should produce it.” I called Christian and I literally thought he was going to just say no. But he was actually like, “Yeah man, I was thinking the same thing. Let’s produce it together.” So Christian Scott was the first one I produced.
In that first production, did you fit into the role pretty seamlessly?
Of all the good advice that John was giving me, one of the better things he said was, “You know, if you find a good studio, a good engineer, a good mixer, and assuming the musicianship is there, you’re good already. The only thing you can do from there is ruin it.” So as long as you don’t try to affect things too much, it should be fine. For some reason that stuck with me. When I produce I’m really just helping the artist get the best out of themselves.
Aside from signing artists and producing traditional albums, you’ve constructed a few concept albums. How did these Ninety Miles and NEXT Collective-type projects come to be?
The overall vision when building the roster for me was to build a roster of cats who wanted to play together and be on projects together. I wanted that family vibe. I always have that in mind when I’m signing acts. When I was growing up in my generational heyday in the ‘80s, you had all of these cliques and they were on everybody’s records. Nobody was ever out of the spotlight because even when you weren’t doing a record as a leader, they were always on another type of collaboration. Their names were always out there and you would never forget about somebody. Today in the rap world it’s the same thing — the more records they’re on, the hotter the perception is. I wanted to get back to that in jazz.
So the idea was to build a roster of a family where cats wanted to play together and you could start to do these projects. It just so happened that Ninety Miles was John’s idea. Obviously David Sanchez was a no-brainer. We wanted someone younger so we got Christian. But I really pushed for Stefon Harris because you don’t really here a lot of vibes with that. I thought that would change the game and they would obviously kill it. So even though all of the artists were mine, the first opportunity was John’s idea.
For the NEXT Collective, again it was out of the fact that we were signing these three artists and the VP of Marketing, Mark Wexler, was like, “What can we do different than just releasing three new solo records?” It was John Burk again who said, “How about we do a band?” I’ll be honest in that I hated the idea. So I called up Walter and asked him what he thought. I really thought he would agree with me and that’s probably why I called him first [laughs]. But he was into it and thought it could be cool. I was like, “Well let’s not do a compilation record, let’s try to think of something different.”
The thing about all of these artists who make up the NEXT Collective is that they’re all great writers and great arrangers. So the problem I have with these types of compilations is that you potentially waste a good track that they’ve written. And when you get a band together of leaders like these, you’re not going to get the same thing you would if it was your own band. To me that would be kind of a shame that your first tune on the label wouldn’t be 100%. So generally this project was really raised out of the necessity to do a project that would raise everybody’s profile — especially the new signings. With these new signings too came the full band. We couldn’t have done this before signing these guys. Timing was everything for this project.
In putting together the NEXT Collective, you ended up with a pretty amazing roster. Was it difficult to get the musicians to agree to this at all?
No, I think the hardest part really was getting everybody together for three days to record it. We actually had to move up the recording and have less prep time because of the small range of time everyone had. Everybody was really open to the idea once it was discussed though. Starting with Walter, Logan, and Matt who were being signed, they were really into it. We decided to take advantage of our artist roster and just build out from there. Timing really is everything. Gerald ended up having some time and I was thinking about signing him as well. I just asked him if he would be interested and he was totally down. From there Ben was available and we were honored to have Jamire come on as well.
The unexpected person was Christian. The intent was to just do the album without Christian because in fairness, he’s been doing this for a minute now and I wanted everyone to get their proper shine. But Christian and I were mixing his record, aTunde Adjuah, and I was really excited about how the Collective was coming. I had demos from Matt and Walter and I played them for Christian. He was like, “Wow, that shit is really killin! Can I get on a couple of those tracks?” Especially with the band being what it is, it was such a perfect fit. We wanted to showcase the full roster too a little bit. From there it was just: How do I get all of these sons of bitches in one room at the same time [laughs]?
As the producer, how did you manage to get everything done you needed to in three days?
For me the benefit was really in the planning. It was about setting things up in a way that would make things easiest for them. Conceptually I said, “Hey, come up with two tunes and whichever works best will be what we go with.” We had been thinking about the instrumentation and I gave them a little trick so that we didn’t have to worry about balance. I said, “Think about one tune with the full band in mind, and then the other tune could be whatever works best for the arrangement of the tune that you really want to do.” So I think that’s what set them up for success because everyone knew who was going to be on what and when that was happening. So from there it was getting some of the harder tunes out of the way because some people weren’t even there all three days. Scheduling really dictated the way we recorded it. It was really my job to worry about the time and it was their job to just worry about the creative stuff.
With Concord in general, there is a really great scene of new musicians coming up. What is your overall thought process for building the roster?
Like I said, I felt it was important to build a family environment where cats want to play with each other. When you look back on those historic labels, from Prestige to Blue Note, I don’t know if all of those cats at the time realized that they would be legends. They were all connected, so it just made musical sense. I think that’s what should be happening again now. There are so many talented artists out there in general though. If I could sign them all I definitely would, but that’s just not how the business goes. But for me the guideline is simple — I like when people are moving the music forward.
Moving forward with the NEXT Collective, is this a one-off project or will there be more records?
I definitely see a few more records with the Collective, certainly at least one more. You always have to be careful about the cheese factor. It’s dangerous. I mean this project could have been a total flop and I think that’s why you have to really give the artists their due. They did an amazing job. They gave it their all and the music is real. The musicianship was ridiculous, so how could we not do another record?
As far as this first record goes, what kind of impact do you see with it both for jazz fans and a general audience?
I hope people dig it. There are two sides to it, like you said. For the jazz fans I think it’s always good to hear something that can put another light on the music itself. A project like this shows people that jazz really can’t die. You might want to have a debate on whether it’s popular or not, that seems fair. But as far as the talent level or these musicians that are out there doing it, there is no way you could think that it’s dead. There need to be some new additions to the songbook. Like the cats said, back in the day Sonny Rollins was flipping Broadway tunes. Trane’s “My Favorite Things,” Miles Davis, all of those cats did it. It’s not so different from what these cats are doing now. I think what people may have forgotten over time is that you should embrace what’s happening today. A project like this gives the music some shine and it also allows for some growth from a fan base standpoint.
People who are new to jazz don’t really have an entryway into the music because there’s no familiarity to it — it’s all new to them. I think when you do a project like this where it might be a tune that they know, they really feel that. Now they’re engaged and now they feel like a part of it. It’s easier for them to appreciate and understand it. It’s not so complicated anymore, because it’s really not. You either feel it or you don’t. As long as you feel it, that’s a good thing. So I’m hoping this project opens things up for some new listeners.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)
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