Thu 6 Apr 2006
Picked up the New York Times the other morning to discover that Don Alias died. It brought to mind a line from an old Aretha song, ‘Sister From Texas’, where she sings, “Here for the moment, gone forever…” That’s the feeling I get, recalling the brief intimacies of recording with/performing with all the different musicians I’ve crossed paths with.
Flash back to 1997. I produced one song in one day for a Laura Nyro tribute album. My friend Peter Gallway was the executive producer and since I was playing 2nd guitar in Leni Stern’s band, he asked me to oversee her contribution to the project. This was low budget time, a one day session: cut the track, mix and deliver it at the end of the night. The song was an instrumental that we had already played live, so certainly one day would be sufficient.
Of course, recording never goes the way you plan on it going, it goes where it wants to go. We went in to Sony Studios up on 52nd(?) Street in New York on the far West Side. Right off the bat we couldn’t get the board to function. Digital technology, what a pain in the ass. With tape, you’d press record, and whether or not the machines were aligned, you had something. Now, not a session goes by without something crashing or some software belligerently refusing to cooperate. Meanwhile we had a full band of well paid musicians sitting and waiting. One hour, then another, then six hours later, “Is anybody hungry?” Finally later in the evening we were able to get started. Needless to say, it takes a bit of the freshness out of the moment to sit and wait for hour after hour, but we got a vibe going eventually.
The percussionist was Don Alias. I didn’t know anything about him, but he was a beautiful soul of dignity and experience. I had no idea until reading his obituary how deep his story ran. He was born in New York to Caribbean parents and picked up percussion from the streets, from the Cuban and Puerto Rican hand drummers. Later he switched to playing the full kit and became Nina Simone’s musical director. Now there are a couple of fiery personalities well suited for each other. He went on to play with Miles Davis, which is possibly how Leni knew him, as Leni’s husband Mike toured with Miles for a while. That adds a few more colorful personalites to the mix. This is not the ‘peaceful easy feeling’ club. This is the ‘let’s push it as far as we can push it, and see who comes out alive’ club.
Ah, my brother, God bless you for living life to the fullest. I’ve posted the track we cut that day, ‘Upstairs By a Chinese Lamp’, in the discography section of my site. It’s one of my favorite records that I’ve participated in. I remember looking out from Leni’s office/rehearsal space, maybe 10 stories up, with sweeping views of the bridge and the East Village, knowing that my time in New York was about to be up. Take a good long look, and kiss it goodbye.