The Making of Luther Vandross’ “Give Me The Reason” Part 3 The LA Sessions

We were getting near the end of our memorable time at Air Studios in Montserrat, and memorable it had been. No more technical glitches with my synthesizers and syncing to tape (Thank God!). The songs were coming out great. The level of musicianship was very high, but that’s what Luther expects. We had made friends with Yvonne Kelly, the studio manager, and a few nights, when even though I was working they maybe didn’t need me for an hour or two, Kathy and I would sit by the pool and chat with Yvonne. She had some incredible stories to share about the various artists that had been at the studio since she was there. I could see why people want to come there and record. It was an amazing environment for creativity, at the foot of the Volcano that years later would destroy the island. First however hurricane Hugo flooded the studio and in reality that was the end of Air Montserrat. We were treated well and George the Chef was really making great island food for us. Breakfast at Ovalston house was also really great and relaxed, with some local woman making breakfast for us.

I have never seen a creature of habit like Ray Bardani our engineer. He was incredibly dedicated to his work and I was getting a lot of support from him. He was happy Luther was moving his music into the future, but still maintained that solid RnB background. Ray was like clockwork. I remember a few years later us working, at Right Track Studios, on Luther and David Sanborn’s albums. Every day, for a noon session, I’d be at the studio at 11:15, making sure my synths were ready to go and the work from the night before was ready to be addressed. Then at 11:30 the assistant engineer would walk in and put a corn muffin and coffee on the table in front of the board for Ray. This went on for months, like clockwork, Ray would literally show up 5 minutes later, like clockwork, every day.

Back to the sessions now, one day when we were working, we were asked if turkey hotdogs and veggie burgers were ok for lunch. Everybody was cool, but Ray’s wife Teri said Ray will only eat beef. Well, this is what they had, so we all said we won’t say anything to Ray. Sure enough, we sit down to lunch and Ray starts eating the hotdogs. He says nothing, but at the end of the meal Marcus says “These turkey hot dogs are really good.” Ray is so into talking to the assistant about the SSL board that he doesn’t even hear Marcus say anything. A few months later we told Ray he ate turkey hot dogs and I don’t think he believed us! I think he’d be happy if he just ate cheeseburgers, drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and worked.

So we had our routine. I worked with Marcus and I worked with Nat Adderly Jr. as well. I was learning a lot about arranging from Nat. He is a true giant as an arranger and I learned a lot watching him work. He did, however, work slow and he required patience, because he’d be changing things up on the spot.

Luther got a song into a movie and we are going to cut the track at Air Studios. Yeah, everybody got a double scale session and it ran till about 4 a.m on our last night there. I then had to pack up all my gear and have it ready to leave by 11 am, so nobody really sleeps and we get the track cut.

Before we leave Yvonne gives everybody Air Montserrat tee shirts, very prestigious! We head to the airport and back on the puddle jumper. However, some weather was delaying us, so Marcus Whips out his bass, sits on a bench and starts practicing. I guess looking at the Caribbean inspired him.

They can’t fly above the clouds, so we are hovering under and bouncing around. Everybody’s uncomfortable, but Kathy was very cool and held onto my hand and calmed me down, so when ew went to the duty free shop in Antiqua and I bought her a bottle of Chanel.

Okay, we were home! Luther stayed at some high end Westchester hotel and we were going to Minot studios to do overdubs. So we started to address the tracks and there were additional tracks to be cut as well.

Minot is a cool studio, out of the mainstream, with a musical family vibe of the Westchester regulars. Always passing through is Sharon Bryant, Porter Carroll, Michael Colina, Vaneese Thomas, Wayne Warnecke and a host of others. It’s managed by Thom Cimelo, a character who’s always making deals at the studio. He runs it really tight and a sweet but a bit quirky young lady, Iris Cohen, is the assistant. She knows Ray like the back of her hand and always has his creature comforts available to him. That Harrison Board there, however, really sounds great. My synths always sound excellent in that room and these tracks were smokin.

We started to do some string parts and Luther listens and says “Jason, did you make these String Sounds.” I said “Yes, I did.” He then asks me to leave the room so he can have a meeting with Marcus. They call me back in and Luther says “I love those string sounds you make, so I want you to do the strings that Nat arranges and I’ll pay you instead of the orchestra.” Inside I’m going whoa. I’m imagining how that new Saab will look in our driveway and what color we are going to get. Oh yeah, they throw in that we are going to go to LA in 2 weeks and they want me to come and work on new songs. I’m like how much better is this going to get? Don’t get me wrong, this was no piece of cake. Long hours and very meticulous work, because Luther hears everything and he is great to work with, but very demanding. It’s very cool that Marcus is producing as well, as he is starting to really get a grip on how to work with synthesizers.

Marsha calls me, gives me my flight number and I’m off to LA. We decided to rent gear out there, but as the years went by, I would end up shipping my gear out there. So I’m in LA staying at Le Mondrian, very nice, $50 a day per diem and we eat out every night and work late. I really had some jet lag the first night, but I was cool after that.

Luther wanted to do a funky club track Marcus wrote called “I Really Didn’t Mean It”, fun and cool sounds. The next day we go in and continue the track, but I hear that the big shots at Columbia want to come by to give a listen, so I get off for 2 hours. Since we are at Westlake Studios on Beverley Blvd, the Beverley Center is just a few blocks away. Next store was a producer (can’t remember his name) who had produced Men at Work and he invited me in to listen to some tracks from this new band he was producing. The following week Michael Waggoner was next store. He was a legendary heavy metal producer and man those tracks were loud! I head over to kill an hour and stand by the elevator. The door opens up and wow who is standing in front of me but Muhammad Ali! Deep! I say How’s it going Champ? He smiles and gives me a handshake. I go back to the studio as Walter Yetnikoff is leaving (with a smile on his face) and tell everybody about Ali. Even Luther is duly impressed.

We get back late of course and the next morning about 10 am, I hear a commotion outside my door. I put on my bathrobe, open the door and there are like 20+ models in a line waiting, some just have a T shirt on, a couple are topless and it’s like they are just in their own world. A couple of them say hi and I ask them what’s up. A famous photographer from Germany is doing a photo shoot and they are auditioning models. So it is in LA.

That night Luther tells us he’s going away for the weekend to do some shows and we will reconvene on Monday. The weekend off in LA, not very exciting, I however get a call from the great engineer Michael Hutchinson who is in town and wants to know if I can do a session with the band The Breakfast Club. Very cool, yes I am off all weekend, let’s work! I bring some synths to The Village recorders and meet Steven Bray and the band and we lay down a cool bass line. I used some of the rental gear I had, like the Roland Super Jupiter and Matrix 12, along with a DX7 for the master keyboard session which goes real well and some extra cash doesn’t hurt. I spend the next couple of days seeing old friends and now it’s Monday and back to work.

I, however, get a call from the studio saying that Gregory Hines is coming in to do the vocal with Luther for his and Skip Anderson’s song “There’s Nothing Better Than Love”, a great song and it sounds like a hit to me. They say call back at 5 pm and we’ll know by then when I am needed. Meanwhile I hear from my friend From RCA Arnie Holland who tells me that he’s on his way to LA and has amazing seats for The Eurythmics at the Greek Theater, do I want to go? I’m thinking I’d love to but I won’t know until 5 pm. He says cool, he’s getting in at 5 and let’s check in. Well I call the studio at 5 pm and Ray says to me I’m not needed until 5 the next day! Ok, so it’s going really slow. The Eurythmics were just great and this is turning into a very good trip. I come back to the studio next day just in time to go out to dinner at Luther’s favorite spot Ghengis Cohen, a West Hollywood Vibey Chinese restaurant that serves Luther’s favorite dish, the famous No Name Duck…happening!!

Marcus and I are very locked in and we will finish his songs that night, do some touch ups the next day and then I’ll work with Nat for 2 Days and then home after 2 1/2 weeks in LA. Nat and I were working on strings and overdubs on “Because It’s Really Love” and it was a beautiful track. The strings sounded great, then we are done!  I packed up the gear, all done.

It’s about 10 PM and I got a call at the Mondrian and Luther says he wants to put another part on a song and he has background singers in and wants me to work after the session. Late night coming up. I went to the studio about 10:30 and Luther tells me it’s just the end of the song he wants to put one part on and it shouldn’t take long. I still have to unpack the gear and reset-up some keyboards. I walk in the studio and in-front of me I see this stunningly beautiful woman sitting on a stool. I ask Nat “Who is that?” He says “That’s Lisa Fischer one of Luther’s Background singers.” He introduces me to her. She is just so nice and since that moment we have been friends for over 30 years. She’s a superb talent who also sang with the Rolling Stones and now has a rising solo career.

Well I was now done with Give Me The Reason and it was the beginning of my 10 year relationship with Luther. The Next Month I’d go back to LA for more work and I walked into Tower on Sunset and there being released on the same day is TuTu and Give Me The Reason. Wow, two major releases on the same day. It was the culmination of being a part of two amazing albums in 1986. I got a few calls from some of my synth friends who were genuinely happy for me and congratulated me for jobs well done. I waited to see what was next for me, it didn’t take too long for things to pick up to the next place, the journey was in full motion.

On a side note, I was, a few weeks after the releases, walking down 48th St. to go to a session and bumped into a musician that that I knew. He asked “Hey man, what’s been up, have you been keeping busy?” I said yes very busy. I told him about Miles and Luther and a couple of other things I was working on and he seemed genuinely surprised. He had no idea that I was working on any of that stuff. It made me think that good news never travels. If I would’ve gotten fired from any one of those projects, everybody in New York would’ve known about it in 10 minutes. That’s just the way it goes in life. At that point I said to myself; just make sure you don’t get fired from a gig! It’s the way it is in this life, and I’ve always said, that America loves success but hates successful people.

Peace, Jason

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Jason Miles

From his synth programming on Miles Davis’ 80s masterpieces to his current album Kind of New with Ingrid Jensen-dubbed by one insightful veteran journalist as the “Quincy Jones of Contemporary Music”—has not only helped shape the landscape of contemporary jazz, but also brought his rich sonic textures as a keyboardist, arranger and producer to artists in a multitude of genres.

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