Critics At Large: Interview with Matt Dusk and Steve Macdonald

 

Talented singer Matt Dusk continues his exploration of the great songs of a bygone era with his new disc, out today, My Funny Valentine: The Chet Baker Songbook (EOne Entertainment). Dusk doesn’t call the album a ‘tribute’ record, which would suggest a copy or aping of Baker’s soft singing style, something that Dusk accurately maintains would not fit his crooner voice. Rather, he takes on Baker’s catalogue, and finds a happy ground between how he normally swings and how Baker sings. Dusk sat down with Critics At Large‘s David Churchill to discuss extensively the making of the CD. David also wanted to look a little behind the scenes of how the live performance side of Dusk comes to fruition, so he asked for Steve Macdonald – Dusk’s sax player, musical director and “wing man” – to sit in and offer his insights into that side of putting out a disc like this, and ultimately performing the material live.

dc: Matt, for you, what is the appeal of Chet Baker?

md: It’s the way he sounds when he sings. It’s very quiet and he sings without care. There’s a tenderness to his voice, almost simplistic. When I first started listening to Chet Baker as a teenager, I didn’t like his voice that much because it was counter-intuitive to what I was doing, which was crooning. Over the course of time, I started exploring different things and his voice became one of those “different  things”. His style actually helped me discover a new side of singing. Steve would always send me new songs, saying ‘hey, we should cover this or that song’. He proposed a Baker song, and I said, ‘I don’t want to do it’, because I guess I just wasn’t ready to receive them. So, for me, Chet Baker is a whole different way of singing.

dc: Steve, what intrigued you about Chet Baker that you thought Matt should be singing his songs?
sm: Initially, when he finally told me he did want to cover Chet, I was a little confused, because, as he just said, he’s on the other end of the singing spectrum in terms of delivering the song. And yet I always liked Baker and thought it would be a cool idea for Matt to sing them. What I thought was most interesting for Matt was that Chet sings just like he plays the trumpet. If you listen how he plays trumpet and you listen how he sings, it’s like they are one and the same. His approach is very similar regardless of whether he has the horn in his face or not. So, I thought, ‘if Matt’s checking this out, this could be interesting’. Up to then, Matt always sang in the Frank Sinatra way. But Chet sang like an instrumentalist would approach melody and lyric. So, I thought, ‘what a cool thing for Matt to do’.
md: Though the way Chet sings is incredible – the way he phrases – it’s very difficult for me to do that, because I grew up knowing how to do something completely lyrical, whereas Chet was very musical when he sang. It’s almost like, ‘here’s the written music, I’m going to play it like an instrument would read it.’ So I couldn’t necessarily go in and sing it the way he sang it, because it didn’t make sense to me the way he sang it musically, but the way he approaches how he uses his voice was very interesting to me. However, it was also very important to me that this not just be a tribute record where I imitated him. That’s why I called it The Chet Baker Song Book, because I still had to be me. That was the thing. I had to sing songs that would sound right for my voice. Because if I was to sing certain of his songs that would not work with my voice, it might sound cheesy.
dc: Steve and I were talking earlier, and I said to him, ‘Oh good, this isn’t a tribute album. I can still hear Matt in this. He’s trying a new approach, but he’s still Matt Dusk.’
Steve Macdonald blowing sax

md: It’s growing; it’s growth. Steve will tell you, the way he plays the saxophone will change over the years. You are going to learn new and exciting things, and you are also going to learn some bad habits too. Over time, hopefully you will figure out the bad ones and weed them out. But sometimes you don’t. Chet had a lot of bad habits that he never figured out (laughs). But myself, I’m kind of at a crossroads in my life so whatever I do it has got to be really good. Steve uses the analogy where if you have giant biceps you don’t go to the gym and keep working your biceps, you work on other muscle groups. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t continue to tone those biceps, just not as much. So, whatever project I work on, it’s still got to be what I do best. And yet still try to expand upon that.

sm: Yes, you’ve got to stretch yourself. Because artistically you just can’t always be doing the same stuff. There has to be growth, evolution and exploration, and that is where you find your expression because you will try stuff that will work and try stuff that will not work.
md: (laughs) And we are really good at doing stuff that doesn’t work! We are really good at failing at it too (laughs again). But you know, you look at so many different artists, but they are only remembered for a handful of things.
dc: That’s true. If I’m being frank, if you asked the most average of jazz listeners to name a Chet Baker song, “My Funny Valentine” is probably the only one they can come up with.
md: That’s true.
dc: Just in terms of how he’s known. I like Baker, and I have a CD or two, but listening to your CD I kept thinking, ‘oh yes, I forgot he did that.’ For example, the version you did of “Time After Time” was lovely.
md: Thank you.
dc: … but with so many of his songs, I forgot these were Chet Baker songs. He’s not Sinatra in terms of that pantheon of songs Frank’s known for. Which leads to my next question. How did you decide what songs of Baker’s to do if you didn’t want to do the ones “wrong” for your voice, as you suggested?
Chet Baker, later in life

md: This is part of the issue of choosing songs. I’m very good at crooning. My ability to scat and finding alternative ways to sing things is not my strength. My strength is to swing and sing the melody, so if the lyrical portion of the song was too short, it would turn into an instrumentalist’s record, because there are a lot of his songs that are meant for blowing and there are some of his songs meant for singing. So, one of the reasons I chose, for example, “Come Rain, Or Come Shine” was because growing up it was a favourite song for me that Sinatra did, and I also really liked Chet’s version too. Now when Chet did it (recorded near the end of his career) he did it very softly and simply. It was him, and I think bass and piano. But I wanted it to be lyrical within myself. So anything I knew I could sing well tended to be the songs he sang that I went ‘ha, that’s great. Maybe there’s some things we can take from it’. But it’s still a song that I think people should know that Chet Baker did. Again, coming back to the Songbook idea. One of the songs was “But Not For Me”, which was a Gershwin tune, and I just couldn’t get behind the lyrics to sing it. And yet, it was one of Chet’s most popular songs. So it came down to doing songs that I thought would still be cool and contemporary for today. We, uh, stretched it on some songs (laughs).

dc: When you were putting the album together and you decided, ‘I want to do a duet’, such as when you used Emilie-Claire Barlow, did you think, ‘this song needs two voices and this is the singer I want?’
md: Well, to be honest with you, that was a last minute decision. I wear two caps: the artistic cap and the business cap. And when I was sitting down with my new label, EOne Entertainment, we were talking about other artists they had on the label. EOne also represents Emilie. Originally, I wanted to do a duet with Molly Johnson because I really liked her voice, and she said, ‘sure, we’ll do it,’ but it just never happened. And I thought, ‘oh, I totally forgot about Emilie.’ We share similar people in our bands. I saw her show about a year ago and really liked it, so I pitched the idea. And, it was just a dream come true. I mean, the way I envisioned the song, “Embraceable You”, I thought ‘it’s a nice song’. We did a quick take of it, never intending to use it on the disc. But then I played it back and it worked out so beautifully, that I just had to use it. And then we thought ‘let’s get [trumpeter and flugelhorn player] Guido Basso to melody on the verse. In the end, it wasn’t what we planned, but it worked out way beyond expectations.  It’s one of my favourite tracks.
dc: Arturo Sandoval, how did he come to play trumpet on the CD?
Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval

md: The way the whole Baker Songbook project finally came together was while I was experimenting with what to do for the new album. I had recorded a bunch of contemporary covers, people like Billy Joel to Joe Cocker, Bryan Adams to Norah Jones, just to see what would fit my voice, and I also recorded a whole bunch of old tunes. Terry Sawchuck, who helped me produce the record, got 30 songs from me. I asked him, ‘which ones do you like?’ He said, ‘I hate all the new tunes you are doing. Your voice is suited to the old stuff. I said, ‘okay.’ I sat down with my manager and we talked about why I would want to do an album of “older material”. There had to be a reason beyond the fact that is what works with my voice. I was talking about Arturo to someone about something completely different, and I said, ‘there are several artists I loved when I was growing up, why don’t we do a songbook of somebody who hasn’t been done’?And Chet Baker hadn’t been done in ages. We dove into his material and we immediately knew we needed a trumpet player, and Arturo was the first name that immediately came to my mind. Around that time he had a disc out called A Time For Love. On it, he played very softly. He doesn’t normally play that way, just like I normally don’t sing softly. It seemed just so right that we were both pursuing styles we weren’t known for, so I said, ‘let’s ask Arturo.’ And everybody said, ‘let’s get Chris Botti.’ They tried, but it never worked out. And so I said, ‘let’s go back to Arturo.’ And he was just fantastic to work with. As I said, he’s not known for that kind of performing, but I think he does an amazing job at it on the track.

dc: Since neither one of you were in your comfort zone on this, do you think you helped each other step outside what you normally do?
md: At the end of the day, as an artist, you are always sort of insecure, you are also a little vain, so you want to make sure what you do comes across as well done. I know Arturo worked very hard at it. He therefore really embraced that side of the music, but at the same time he put his own spin on it.
dc: I want to talk about you two, Steve and Matt …
md: … husband and wife (laughs).
dc: How did you two meet and how long have you been playing together?
sm: We met at York University [in Toronto] in 1999. I was performing in my end-of-the-year recitals, and at the end of my set, Matt walked up and said, ‘hey, you sound good. Do you want to play in my band?’ And I said, ‘sure.’
md: No you didn’t; you said no.
sm: I didn’t .
md: You certainly did. You said you didn’t have time for me …
dc: Well, you said you were like a married couple …

(all laugh)

sm: I had heard of Matt because a few of my friends were in his band. They would come back from the weekend, talking about the gig they had with Matt. I think Matt might have been having trouble with the sax player he was working with at the time, so he approached me. We gigged together for a couple years, but then the work dried up a bit. I was at a day job to make ends meet, and I got a phone call out of the blue from Matt saying, ‘we’re going to Las Vegas for a year. Can you do it?’ Part of it ended up being for a forgettable reality show that eventually broadcast on Fox in 2004 called The Casino.
Steve Macdonald and Matt Dusk, in 2007.

dc: Steve, you not only play saxophone in Matt’s band, you are also the Musical Director. Describe both sides of your job with Matt?

sm: I’d been working with Matt even before any of the record deals. He and I got tight, and he started to work closer with me on managing the ins and outs of the operation of the band before we recorded any of his albums, so we got to know each other, and got to know that I was somebody he could trust and depend on. When the transition was made to the major label, and all these new people were coming in, Matt said, ‘you’ve always been my guy, I’d like to you to continue to be my guy’. I walked into that relatively inexperienced, so it took me a bit of time to get the hang of it. But, what the job entails is putting all aspects of the live show together – I mean, what you see on stage. For example, getting musicians, doing arrangements that are needed for the live show, charting the music and rehearsing the band. Then, of course, when you are on stage, if there is anything odd going on, I’ll step in and make the adjustments, but of course Matt is pretty great at doing that himself. But if he’s too occupied in the performance, I’m pretty quick to jump in and address anything that needs addressing.
dc: Give me an example.
sm: It happens a lot when you are working with a band that is untested. For example, we travel to different countries and we need pick-up players. We fly in, exhausted, and we are in a rehearsal studio with a group of guys we’ve never played with before and I have to run the rehearsals. I send the music in advance, and sometimes they are prepared and sometimes they are not. My job, then, is to make sure they have the right idea about what they are supposed to do. When we get to the show and, for whatever reason, they are doing something particularly bone-headed or wrong, I have to intervene and correct them. It could be a drum groove, or it’s an element of arranging they are not getting. My task is to lean over and give them some direction to put them back on the right track.
dc: With Steve as your Musical Director, what freedom does that give you, Matt?
md: Just time. I don’t have the experience, or knowledge. It’s like in a car, different parts do different things. Steve can talk to all the parts and get them to work the way they are supposed to work.
sm: I speak “musician”.
md: Musicians, as in any trade, if you don’t know the lingo they understand then they don’t respect you. For example, I can get on stage and sing and dance, but if I don’t know how to come in on the downbeat of “one” then I’m useless to them. And we’ve both worked with singers who don’t have that ability, and they really shouldn’t call themselves professionals. Having Steve there allows me to work on being the front man, or marquee artist. In reality, whatever name you see on the marquee is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a good core group that make it happen. If you give me lots and lots and lots of time, I probably could chart out the music very slowly, but I just don’t have the time. And Steve’s expertise over the years has allowed him to become very efficient at it.
dc: Let’s switch back to the Baker disc. I saw on the liner notes that there were two orchestras.
md: Correct. We did the rhythm and horns…
sm: The big band part …
md: … In Toronto. And we overdubbed it with a full the orchestra we recorded in Russia.
dc: Russia?.
Matt performing onstage with Steve, in 2006

md: Mhmm. Economics breeds necessity [ed. essentially, it is cheaper to use a Russian orchestra than a North American one].

dc: Steve is listed as conductor in the notes.
sm: Of the big band only.
dc: Conducting, in this example. What does that entail? Have you conducted before?
sm: Yes, I’ve conducted for Matt before, but not often. Most of what we do doesn’t require it. It’s very rare that it is called upon. In this particular instance, since I’d spent so much time preparing the music – I was working with Matt. I was working with the arrangers. I was doing a bunch of the copying. A lot of this stuff I knew quite intimately by the time we actually got to the floor. Matt said, ‘you’re the right choice for this, so go up and do it’. I was up there conducting the big band. It was very necessary because there were all sorts of things going on such as time, tempo and metre changes. It’s all very technical stuff that can be a nightmare if you don’t have someone waving their arms at the front.
dc: Let’s talk about Baker himself. Before the interview started, Matt, you and I were talking about the tragic nature of Baker’s life. Did that have any draw for you to do the disc because he was such a troubled soul?
md: When I watched the Bruce Webber documentary, Let’s Get Lost (1988), it was kind of the roof on the building. I was debating if I was going to do this, so I thought ‘let’s just watch this story and see.’ After watching that and researching him, I would not use the word “tragic” to describe Chet Baker. I don’t find his life very tragic because everything he did, he did to himself. It wasn’t like something out of the nowhere happened to him. Everything was done by choice and in a strange way he was happy to make those choices. Seems like he never regretted anything. His was more a ‘that’s life’ kind of guy. But especially after watching Webber’s film I felt I understood the man more and therefore I could approach the vocals. I took away from that that he really didn’t care for much. For him, little was very sacred. I mean, be it his life, relationship with his family, with his lovers. In the film, his ex-partners make very clear how he was. When I was doing the vocals, it was like I sometimes had to step back and go, ‘maybe I shouldn’t care as much. Perhaps I should have a couple drinks and just do the song and see what happens’. Sometimes it would work; sometimes it wouldn’t.  I didn’t shoot up and do any crazy things (laughter), so yeah.
dc: What do you hope the listeners take away from the album?
md: I want the listeners to take away a sense of just awe. Not for me, though I am part of the record, but I want them to feel the same way I did when I first heard the finished CD, I thought this is just great music from absolutely everybody involved. And I want the listeners to walk away thinking ‘this is terrific, now let me find out more about this Chet Baker guy. Maybe I can go online and watch this Let’s Get Lost doc, and go wow, that guy’s amazing. Let me go listen to his stuff’.
dc: Finally, what gigs do you have coming up soon to promote the disc?

md: There’s a promo at First Canadian Place in Toronto at noon on the 12th. RUN now, if you’re reading this on the 12th at noon (loud laughter). On JazzFM (91.1) in Toronto that night at 7 PM we have a live to air concert. We’re playing on The Marilyn Dennis Show on the 14th, Valentine’s Day (CTV, 10 AM in Toronto). Also, on the 14th, we’re doing a free gig at Yonge-Dundas Square. March 23rd we play the Randolph Theatre in Toronto at Bathurst and College. It’s a gorgeous new venue that only holds abut 500 people. In the fall, we will start to tour the world with the disc. And then next year, a new album (laughs).