Jay Newland '84: No Newcomer
|Jay Newland '84 won four Grammys last February for his engineering and production work on the Norah Jones CD.|
Many people saw Jay Newland for the first time at the February 2003 Grammy Awards show standing next to Arif Mardin and Norah Jones, the evening's big winner. Newland, who engineered and coproduced with Mardin the hugely successful Come Away With Me CD for Jones, may have seemed like a newcomer, but his journey to multiple-Grammy glory took 19 years. It should be noted that Newland also engineered Directions in Music with Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, and Roy Hargrove, which earned him a fifth Grammy the same night. Newland has worked on five other winning CDs through the years.
After graduating from high school in Taunton, Massachusetts, Newland hadn't figured out what to do with his life. "I had an acoustic guitar in high school but I couldn't play it," Newland says laughing. "I went out to California, and that's where I got really interested in music." Newland knocked around, attending a college in New Jersey and then working on construction jobs before deciding to enroll at Berklee as a music production and engineering major.
"I enjoyed my days at Berklee," he says. "The MP&E program was very small back then. When I graduated, there were only about five or six graduates. Wayne Wadhams and Don Puluse were teaching us the basics of mic placement, signal flow, signal processing, and tape editing with razor blades. A huge part of my Berklee experience was learning how to hear music better. Ear training was invaluable." To Berklee students thinking about a career like his, Newland advises, "Show up for your Pro Tools classes, but don't skip ear training!"
In the fall of 1984, Newland moved to New York. For a few years he worked at a jingle studio and a jazz loft before landing a job at RCA in 1987. RCA's midtown studio recorded classical orchestras, Broadway shows, jazz, and film scores. "I was fortunate to work where they were recording nothing but acoustic music," says Newland. "There were some great engineers who had been recording since the 1950s and 60s, and I learned a lot. I got to work with such artists as Charlie Haden, Hank Jones, Abbey Lincoln, Gerry Mulligan, Randy Weston, Dizzy Gillespie, and Pharaoh Sanders."
When RCA closed the facility in 1992, Newland had enough contacts to become an independent engineer. His subsequent work with veteran jazz and blues producer John Snyder involved recordings with blues legends such as Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Johnny Copeland, Lucky Peterson, and Mavis Staples. "We'd go to Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans to record," recalls Newland. "I did the Mystery Lady record with Etta James that earned Etta her first Grammy. Later records, Deep in the Blues, with James Cotton, Joe Louis Walker, and Charlie Haden, and Beyond the Missouri Sky with Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden, won Grammys. Charlie Haden's Nocturne CD also got a 2001 Grammy. My association with Charlie has been great and has led to many other things."
Perseverance has been key to Newland's success. "There were times in my early years when there were three of us wanting to become the engineer. A few days later, one had quit, and a week later the other one quit and I was still there making the coffee. I've done some strange sessions in my career, but they all add up to something. When I showed up for the Norah Jones sessions, I was ready."
That opportunity came in October 2000, when Blue Note Records A&R man Brian Bacchus asked Newland to record demos with Jones. "We went in and cut 13 songs in two days, rough mixed them, and sent them off to the record company," Newland says. "I knew this was great stuff. I played Norah's demo at my sessions in Memphis, New Orleans, and Paris. People loved it everywhere. My parents loved it, and so did my niece who is in college. That usually doesn't happen. I knew Norah was someone to watch."
The folks at Blue Note loved it too. They signed Jones and recorded in the spring of 2001 with a different team. "I was hoping they'd at least ask me to engineer, but that didn't happen," said Newland. "They finished the album and it was good, but the approach was very different from the one I had taken with her. Neither Norah nor the company really liked it, and Blue Note decided to do it all over again. They came back to me and brought in Arif to produce. In the summer of 2001, we recorded new tracks and used the demo versions of "Don't Know Why" and "Turn Me On" for the final album. Arif and I worked side by side on the tracks and the mixes. I'd never crossed paths with him before. It was a thrill and an honor to work with him."
As strong as everyone felt the disc was, nobody expected it to sell 14 million copies worldwide. "That's a big record," says Newland, who says that Blue Note will recall the same team to work on Jones's next record. Is there trepidation about making the follow-up record? "I'm sure the record company would like us to go in and do the same thing again, but that will be hard to do. Norah has really good instincts. So she just needs to go in and make a record that she feels she can listen to, and it will be good."
Asked if there have been new offers since last February's Grammy triumph, Newland replies, "I've been in touch with agents, but I'm not looking for someone to make me the busiest guy on the planet. There is a quality-of-life factor to consider. I am trying to raise two kids who are 12 and nine. I don't want to be working just to be busy, I want to do projects that are really worth listening to."