England's Jazz Crusader
The November weather—clear and mild—is not what I expected in the U.K. at this time of year. I glance out the window of a train headed north from London to Birmingham while Richard Niles '75 pops various CDs into my Walkman. Jazz, r&b, and pop tunes randomly create a soundtrack as we whiz past quintessentially English pastoral scenery—stone cottages, rolling verdantfields, puffy clouds, sheep and cows grazing.
"Isn't that cool?" Niles asks at the end of a track. "You have to check this out," he says, inserting another disc. Our destination is the BBC studios in Birmingham where Niles will tape the season's last two installments of his nationally broadcast radio show The New Jazz Standards. It seems that Niles's passion for listening to, discussing, and writing music—especially jazz—has only intensified during the 25 years that he has been a fixture in the studios in and around London. He has worn lots of hats there as arranger, music director, composer, songwriter, and record producer.
He is most highly regarded for his work as an arranger though. The word among many of London's top pop producers is that if you need a great string chart, call Niles. His resume lists work for such diverse artists as Paul McCartney, the Pet Shop Boys, Tears for Fears, Tina Turner, James Brown, Pat Metheny, Cher, Ray Charles, Grace Jones, Placido Domingo, and many more. In 1999, alone, his orchestrations graced four number-one hits on songs by U.K. teen idols Boyzone and Westlife.
"It was inevitable that I would end up in the business," he tells me as we hail a cab outside the Birmingham train station. "I was born in California to parents who were both in show biz. My father, Tony Romano, is a singer and guitarist who played with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Cole Porter, and others. One of my earliest memories is of hearing him play duets in our living room with [jazz violinist] Joe Venuti. That's a big reason why I became a musician." Niles's mother, Pat Silver Lasky, and late stepfather Jesse Lasky, Jr., were both acclaimed screenwriters.
While he has had great success in pop and commercial music, Niles is a dyed-in-the-wool jazzer. Since jazz is not an indigenous music in Britain, it is an uphill battle to get exposure for it here. He exhibits missionary zeal in his weekly broadcast of The New Jazz Standards—a part of his crusade to build an audience for contemporary jazz. A more grass-roots effort in the campaign finds him offering his producing skills and time in his own 24-track recording studio to artists he feels should be heard.
Niles marshaled some of those musicians for his eclectic new CD, Club Deranged. This is the project Niles is most fired up over. His second release as a leader, it features top-notch performances by Niles on guitar and a roster of greats like vocalist Kid Creole, pianist Steve Hamilton '85, drummer Danny Gottlieb, saxophonists Nigel Hitchcock and Nelson Rangell, and drummer/pianist Gary Husband, to name a few. [For more on the CD, visit Niles's Website at <www.1212.com/a/niles/richard.html>.]
After 25 years of making others sound great on records, Niles decided that it is time to show his true colors. He penned the disc's music, characteristically witty lyrics, and song titles. The music runs the gamut from harmonic density in "Swan Wrap" to an eccentric rap/hip-hop groove on the title cut, to dreamy guitar and synth textures in "Pie." The way Niles sees it, all stylistic flavors have a place at the table in contemporary jazz. Early indications from British critics are that Niles's latest foray is building more momentum for his crusade.
You were at Berklee in the middle 1970s. Wasn't that a great time to be a budding jazz musician?
I was lucky to be at Berklee at that time and to study with some really great teachers and to know students like Mike Stern and others who went on to do great things. Pat Metheny was my guitar teacher and was an enormous influence. That was just before he put his group together. I took classes with Mike Gibbs, who is one of the most inventive and original writers of our time. Most of all, I credit Herb Pomeroy with turning me into a musician. He encouraged his students to be very creative in their own styles.
After you graduated, what brought you to London?
My mother and my stepfather were screenwriters, and I had moved here with them in 1962 as a kid. When I finished Berklee in 1975, I came back to visit them, but I wasn't planning on living here. My mother encouraged me to take a look around and see if I could find some work.
What was the first door to open for you?
I had no idea how to get work when I got here. I looked through a music yearbook and made a list of 25 jingle companies, publishers, record, and production companies and made appointments to see them and play the demo tapes I'd made at Berklee. Of the 25 companies, 24 said no thank you. A man at one publisher, Essex Music, was a jazz fan and was interested in an idea I had for a musical. He told me that if I ever wrote it, to come back and see him. Since that was the only interest I'd gotten, I wrote the music, the book, the lyrics, everything, in four weeks! When I showed it to him, he was impressed, and the company decided to sign me to a publishing deal.
I started off doing demos for the musical. It was my first time working professionally in the studio. I asked a bunch of questions and learned a lot. Soon afterwards, someone else at the company asked me if I could write a string arrangement for a disco song. It took four days to write the arrangement because I was so nervous about it. I had never had any of my string charts played before. When I walked in to conduct the session, my hands were shaking. To my surprise, it sounded fantastic. Everybody liked it and I got paid four hundred pounds cash!
Through a series of events, I ended up working as a staff arranger for EMI Music. I was taking various artists into the studio and making demos. A trombone player on one of the sessions was also an arranger, and he asked me to help him with the arrangements on a double album project for United Artists. Cat Stevens was producing the project called Alpha to Omega for his brother. That was my first major arranging gig, and after that I started to get a reputation around London as an arranger.
Did you work with Cat Stevens after that?
I worked with him for a while. He was a brilliant artist and producer, and I learned a lot from him. He helped me with my songwriting and told me a lot about performing. This was a great thing for someone who had only been out of school for six months. Later, I got a chance to work as music director on a TV series with David Essex, who was a big star over here back then. After that, I worked as music director for pop star Leo Sayer.
Was this the kind of work that you had originally hoped to get into?
I had a composition degree from Berklee and really wanted to be a songwriter and compose music for jazz albums with various ensembles. I was lucky enough to meet some great musicians here like Paul Hart [composer/arranger], and Laurence Juber [former guitarist for Paul McCartney and Wings]. I brought drummer Lars Beijbom ['75] over from Sweden. We all collaborated on an album, contributing a few tracks each. It was really fun. Even though I was embarking on a commercial career, from the start I wanted to spend some of my time on creative, jazz-oriented projects.
What is at the top of the pyramid of the musical work you do these days?
Arranging and jingle writing are at the top, producing comes after that. I do a lot of commercial arranging and get called by production companies to work with artists from Europe and Japan. I have a jingle company with a partner named Graeme Perkins. I write the music and he contacts the agencies, gets the briefs, and makes sure that everything goes well. We work for five or six agencies on a regular basis.
What are some of the dynamics of the jingle business in London?
Usually the agencies usually want the jingles done pretty fast, and I can do that. On a recent project, they wanted something that sounded like the Swingle Singers. I got the call at 3:00 p.m., and by 5:00 I was in the studio with some singers. I told the agency people to stop by around 6:00. When they got there, they were hearing the finished product, they didn't hear us working and trying to make it sound good. I make it a point not to present anything that is unfinished. Clients generally don't have a musician's imagination and won't understand how it will sound when it is done. I can make adjustments later if they want me to. Whoever is paying the bills is always right—even when they are wrong. It is my job to please them.
When you are asked to write an arrangement for a pop record, do you get a lot of direction from the producer or the artist?
Only rarely do producers give me much direction. They might say, "I was thinking of having strings on this song, what do you think?" Or they might tell me they want some hip brass on the track.
I work frequently for a very good young producer in London named Steve Mac. He produces lots of number-one hits for groups like Boyzone, Five, and Westlife and is very good at it. He just sends me the tracks and expects me to show up in the studio with a good chart. We have a good working relationship; I know what he wants and he knows what I will do.
With less experienced producers, I will listen to their ideas for the track, then I will write what I feel is best for the song. If this didn't make producers happy, I wouldn't be working so much! It is my philosophy that in the studio, the object is to get paid by a producer who has a big smile on his or her face.
Give me some background on the orchestral piece you wrote for the Pet Shop Boys.
The Pet Shop Boys, Neil and Chris, asked me to write an overture to be played before for their live show, and they said I could use any size orchestra I wanted. The only directions they gave me were that it had to be eight minutes long and include the melodies from nine of their hit songs. They wanted it to sound like a big Hollywood production, so I used an 80-piece orchestra. We recorded at CTS studio here with the brilliant Steve Price engineering and Nathan East playing bass. I try to get Nathan on my sessions whenever he is in town. Neil and Chris walked in just as we were finishing laying it down, and they loved it. It was later released on a CD single.
You seem to make time in your busy schedule to do jazz projects that attract far less attention than the pop projects you've worked on.
It has helped to keep me from becoming cynical about music. These days, I elect to spend time on speculative creative projects for myself and other artists. I just finished my own album—which I am really excited about. I also recently produced an album of standards and songs I cowrote for a fantastic young singer named Eliza. I could spend more time trying to make more money on commercial projects, but I'd be depressed.
Tell me about your big band, Bandzilla. While it was together, you backed some pretty big- name artists.
I formed the band in 1987 when I was asked to do a TV series for a comedienne named Ruby Wax. They wanted something like the Tonight Show band. It was unusual for British TV to have a contemporary big band on a show. After the series ended, I kept the band together.
How did Paul McCartney come to work with the group?
I worked with him on a song he wanted to produce as a "45" for his wife, Linda, on her 45th birthday. He wanted to record a standard tune called "Linda." Jack Lawrence had actually written it for Linda when she was a little girl. I told Paul that since it was an old song, we should record it with my big band in swing mode. For the B side, we would do another version of it as a funky Latin thing. We talked about it on a Thursday, and he wanted to record it the following Monday, and then give it to Linda on Tuesday. Pressure! I wanted to do the best arrangements I could because he is such a musical hero.
I found him to be a very down to earth guy. On the day of the session, he walked in and immediately put everybody at ease by cracking a few jokes, fooling around on the trumpet, and asking the drummer about his kit. He heard the arrangement once, and got it instantly. We recorded both versions pretty quickly.
You produced a hit song for Norwegian singer Silje Nergaard that featured Pat Metheny. How did that project come about?
Pat Metheny introduced me to Silje. She had written a song called "Tell Me Where You're Going" for him, and he agreed to play on it if we would go to Brazil to record it with him, so we did. On the session, he played lots of acoustic guitars and overdubbed an electric solo. I was convinced that it was a hit and decided to form a little record label and release it. We put some money into hiring a song plugger to get it onto the radio.
There is really only one pop station in England, the BBC's Radio One. If your song gets on there, you have a chance of getting a hit. The song got on their playlist and stayed there for five weeks. It went to number one in Japan.
What led to you becoming the host of The New Jazz Standards show on BBC Radio Two?
Some articles I had been writing for a magazine called Making Music came to the attention of BBC producer Bob McDowall. He asked me if I would like to be a presenter [radio host], and I started presenting two shows, Jazz Notes and Adventures in Jazz. Listeners were enjoying them. I approached Bob about creating a series specifically geared toward contemporary jazz. I borrowed the name from The New Standards CD by Herbie Hancock. I wanted to convey that it was new jazz and that it had a lasting quality.
After the series began airing, we got an unprecedented amount of positive fan mail and got nominated for a Sony Award. We have just finished a second series and will continue with a third. We are discussing turning the show into a TV series. I think it is important to present contemporary jazz in all its many facets, in a way that is accessible. Sophisticated music doesn't have to be inaccessible.
I don't think a lot of jazz musicians are thinking about why someone should spend their money for their album. From my work in pop music, I understand that nonmusicians buy a record because they want a piece of your lifestyle. They want something that they can put on their stereo that will bring them to another world. If you can give them the emotional thing they want, you've got it. Doing radio is fun. I like introducing people to great music.
You present very diverse artists on the show like Brazilian vocal group Boca Livre; the James Taylor Quartet [acid jazz group]; Stanley Clarke's fusion group, Virtue; and Michael Brecker.
Contemporary jazz is very wide-ranging. You have everything from neobop to bluesy material to jazz gospel, fusion, or funky stuff. It is wonderful. In my opinion, there is way too much elitism in music. You hear people saying that only this or that style is valid, or I only like this. There is good and bad in all styles. I think it is a lot harder to make attractive music than it is to make unattractive music. What matters to me is that the people making the music love it.
What lies ahead for you?
My ambitions include getting a New Jazz Standards TV show off the ground. I would like to get more involved in film work and producing contemporary jazz artists. I have a state-of-the-art digital studio at my home. It is a great place to work, and I'll continue to produce more jazz there.
As a producer, how do you help to guide a new artist?
I advise artists to follow the lyric from the Mercer/Arlen tune "Accentuate the Positive." You accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don't mess with Mr. In Between. The strongest advice I could give to anybody is to find out what is the best thing you do and forget about the things you don't do very well. You don't have to be versatile. Even studio players become known for a style that they do best.
As regards Mr. In Between, doing stuff that you are just okay at will dilute the effect of the strong things that you do. Stick to what you are best at. Those who do that become artists with a 'concept.' In music, as in sculpture, it's what you take away that is important. What's left is you, the artist.