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High-End Audio Luminary Michael Fremer Produces His First Record Album

07-03-2024 | By Frank Doris | Issue 134

Reprinted with permission from Copper magazine.

Michael Fremer needs little introduction to Copperreaders. He's been a stalwart of the high-end audio industry for decades, and is currently the editor of The Tracking Angleand editor at large at The Absolute Sound. He has been a champion of vinyl since long before the days in the early 1980s when the "Perfect Sound Forever" guys would make fun of us analog advocates at trade shows. He is one of the world's foremost experts on analog playback. Fremer has also been a professional comedian, a voice actor (Animalympics, Felix the Cat: The Movie), and supervised the Academy Award-nominated soundtrack to Tron.

Now he can add a new job description to his CV: record producer. He and co-producer Robin Wyatt have released Rufus Reid Presents Caelan Cardello, an album of spontaneous, beautifully-played improvised jazz. Non-spoiler alert: the sound quality is superb. Legendary bassist Reid and up-and-coming pianist Cardello perform a selection of originals and standards with a relaxed ease, following each other through a variety of moods, tempos and musical paths with a remarkable combination of spontaneity and communication.

This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Reid and Cardello had never played together before.

We'll let Michael tell the story.

Michael Fremer: Hello! There was a story on Facebook yesterday that Shemp was the best of The Three Stooges. Can you believe that?

Frank Doris: I beg to differ! Everyone knows it was Curly!

A gentleman never tells his age, but it took you a while before you actually produced your first record album. After all the stuff you've done, how did you wind up producing this album?

MF: Well, first of all, I was peripherally involved in a bunch of other records. Don't forget, I did a comedy album [I Can Take a Joke] that I produced in 1976.

FD: I had forgotten.

MF: Well, you can still find it on eBay and in used record stores. People are trying to get $100, $200 for it now. And then you have to remember that Animalympics, even though I didn't get credit for it, I essentially hired Graham Gouldman [of 10cc] to do the songs. I sat down with Graham and told him what I wanted the songs to be like for the movie. Somebody else got the permission, got credit as being the music supervisor. He handled the legal parts of it, but the concepts were mine and I edited all the music. And then [there was] Tron.

But this is the first record that I really was responsible for from beginning to end. My name's on it as executive producer.

What happened was my friend Robin Wyatt [of Robyatt Audio, distributor of Miyajima Labs, Schroder tonearms, Tzar phono cartridges and other products] knew Jim Luce, who is a concert promoter. Once COVID hit, he was obviously out of work. Last year when things eased up, he decided to run a small concert series at the Klavierhaus, a piano showroom on 11th Avenue [in Manhattan]. They restore and sell pianos, and they have a performance space there that can seat about 25 or 30 people. It's got very good acoustics, and they have a Fazioli grand piano. And so last January Robin and I decided that we would go in and support Jim by attending one of these afternoon concerts. [It was] on a cold day pretty much like today, so I almost didn't want to go, but Robin said, "come on, we owe it to Jim." So, we go in and sit down and there's about 10 people there. And then all of a sudden, Rufus Reid shows up.

So, Rufus sets up his bass and then Jim Luce gets up and says, "I've known Rufus for a long time, but who's the next cat? Who's going to come along and really show us something new in jazz?" And then Rufus introduced Caelan Cardello.

Caelan Cardello and Rufus Reid in concert.

They start to play. And I wasn't paying attention to anything; I was just sitting there, kind of blasé. And they start playing and within half of the first tune he just hit me. He didn't sound like Bill Evans, but like Bill Evans in that he took a dark day [I was having] and lightened it up.

And I said to Robin, "It's too bad this isn't being recorded. This is amazing!" He goes, "it is being recorded. Our friend Duke Markos is recording this. He's got this equipment in the back and it's being recorded."

I told him, "if this comes out good, we have to put this out."

[I keep listening and the] rest of the program is just as good. After the second tune, Rufus [tells the audience]—and I'm paraphrasing—"Caelan and I have never played together. I've just been following him. We met an hour before the show, picked a bunch of tunes, and that's what you're hearing." Then he said, "a lot of times, people don't like uncertainty in life, but musicians love it. They love uncertainty because they thrive on it and work through new things through their shared communication with music."

And then they kept playing together. They played for about an hour, and one song was more spectacular than the next.

FD: Is the album in the sequence that they played?

MF: No. A couple of things happened. They did a very long extended dreamy piece, and Rufus played arco [bowed] bass. To me it was the highlight of the whole show, but they wouldn't let us use that track because they made a mistake. Don't ask me what it was; I didn't hear it. I suppose one of them came in too early or was playing the bridge where the chorus should be, whatever it was. They just said, you cannot use that. And of course, the sequencing had a fit 20 minutes to a side.

We had to rearrange [the sequence] and I had to chop a lot of [between-song] dialog because Rufus was talking a lot. It was great stuff to hear, but it wouldn't work. [This is where] all the dialogue editing I've done over the years came into play.

Caelan Cardello and Michael Fremer at the Klavierhaus.

FD: The between-song patter does add to the whole you-are-there kind of feel. I think the album would be missing something without it.

Anyway, the fact that the two of them never played together before makes the recording really incredible. As you noted, musicians love walking a tightrope, and it can be a trainwreck, or it can be absolute magic. But there's been so many times when you've seen a performer and thought, oh my god, I wish somebody had recorded this. And of course, they never do. But this time, they did!

MF: I went backstage and Duke Markos had all his [recording gear] in a closet. Duke Markos is a very good engineer. He did stuff at the Kennedy Center, and he did a years' worth of WBGO live, the jazz station in Newark. And he'd recorded some records for Robin previously of the Cuban piano great Elio Villafranca. The whole thing was [also] recorded to video with multiple cameras. So we go back there and Duke says to the video guy, "I want you to meet a friend of mine, Michael Fremer." Without missing a beat, the guy goes, "oh, WBCN in 1974!"

FD: It was fate.

MF: Then I walked back to Rufus and said, "if this comes out as good as it as it sounded here, I want to put this out on record. What do you say?" He [answered], "well, we can work something out. You'll pay me and you'll pay everybody and we'll be good with that." Caelan was good with it. And Caelan's father, who was there, was good with it.

A couple of weeks later, Duke had worked up a rough mix for us. And I knew right away it could be great. It wasn't great yet, but you could tell it could be great. The bottom end was a little bit problematic, and I facetiously said to Robin, "as long as we're paying for this, and as long as it sounds good on my stereo, that's all I really care about."

FD: You have a world-class system, so you're in a very good position to tell what the recording actually sounds like. What happened between the recording and then actually getting it mixed and mastered? I know you said record producer Joe Harley got involved and Bob Ludwig did the mastering.

MF: We went back and forth with the audio files for a couple of weeks, changing the bass. The bass was a little bit plummy, then it got a little too lean. Once we got the equalization where we wanted, we had to place the instruments [in space]. It's only two instruments, and in recording the piano, the microphones were placed in such a way that the left and right hand were separated. And I hate that. I don't want to sit there and [hear] the left hand on the left speaker and the right hand on the right speaker. So I [asked] Joe, "how would you place the instruments on the stage?" He suggested putting—as well is it could be implemented—Caelan's left and right hands in a line perpendicular to the soundstage by lowering the left-hand level a bit so it would sound as it looked.

 So there's the illusion of [the sound] being the way it is on the keyboard, but perpendicular to the listening position, which is exactly how it should be. [Then] Duke panned it where [he thought they] should be. He had the audience on a separate track. I mean, he had lots of microphones, and six tracks of 24/96 digital. We got the mix really good, and I said to myself, you know what? I'm just going to send it to Bob Ludwig. I know Bob, and I think he would really dig this, [but] not to [actually] master it, [because] he was retiring. I just figured, he's presented so much great music to us. He might dig this record. So I sent it to him and he got back to me very shortly thereafter saying, "you know what? I want to master this. I want my name on this because this kid [Caelan Cardello], everyone's going to know this kid in a couple of years, and I want my name on this record."

Bob mastered it, and it came back even better than what we sent him. What did he do? I can't tell you what he did, but it was good, and then it was "finished." You know what I mean?

FD: That's the magic of a great mastering engineer.

MF: Paul Gold runs Salt Mastering [in Brooklyn, New York]. I asked him why is it called Salt Mastering? He said, I think mastering is like salt. You want to use just enough salt to enhance the flavors, but you never want to taste the salt. And that's what I think mastering should be. You should never "hear" what you've done, but it should just be better. And that's what Bob did to it.

Then we had to figure out who was going to cut the lacquers, and I decided we're going to do all of this at Chad Kassem's place [Quality Record Pressings]. It'll be a one-stop operation. We'll have it mastered on Doug Sax's [old] mastering system. Why not? And Matthew Lutthans is doing the cutting over there now, and Matthew has worked with [mastering engineer] Kevin Gray for a long, long time. We got the test acetates back, and they were ideal. It was so good. I was so excited by that. Then we had to get it plated and it was [also] done [at QRP].

Then we had to get the jackets done. This is a whole 'nother story, so [at the time all this was going on] I'm helping Patrick Leonard with his new record. Patrick Leonard produced all the early Madonna records. Also Amused to Death for Roger Waters, and two of the last three Leonard Cohen records, those fantastic, unbelievable records. What happened was that Patrick, out of the blue, had called me, and this is before any of the [Rufus Reid Presents Caelan Cardello] record happened. He told me, "I'm putting out a new rock record that I produced, and it's got Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull on it, and Martin Barre, and Tony Levin, the bass player. And Jeff Beck was supposed to play on it. And there's other great players on it."

He says, "so I'm putting this out on vinyl first. I figure that's the best way to get a buzz going. All the synthesizers are Seventies-era. There are no digital synthesizers on it." He told me he'd finished it, and sent it to Bob Ludwig to master. He'd said to Bob, "this project is so perfect for vinyl. So, what do I do?" And Bob Ludwig said, well, you should call Michael Fremer because he knows more about it than I do at this point!"

That happened before my record. That's why I felt comfortable sending the files [for Rufus Reid Presents Caelan Cardello] to Bob. I mean, this whole thing's gone around in the most incredibly positive circles.

And one day [Patrick] called me and said, "Hey Michael, I just got off the phone with Elton."

FD: Elton who? (laughter).

MF: Elton Schwartz. So that's a whole 'nother ride that I'm on…

[Patrick] turned me on to this guy, Greg Greenwood, who's a jacket designer. He did a kind of Blue Note look for [Rufus Reid Presents Caelan Cardello.] Then I contacted Stoughton Printing; I know those guys from having spent time with them at the Making Vinyl events. We did the tip-on paper on cardboard jackets with a nice matte finish. I don't know who I would've gone to otherwise, but Patrick helped me with that. So there's so many top people working on this thing.

FD: Aside from the fantastic sound, the pressing is flawless. It's dead quiet and it's perfect.

MF: Yeah. It's very important for a quiet acoustic record like that. I was worried that compared to the acetate, the test pressing would not be [as good], but it's so close to the acetate. Chad's distributing it [via Acoustic Sounds/Analogue Productions]. We pressed 2000 copies. Music Direct and Elusive Disc are also selling it, and [others].

FD: As of this writing you're Number One on Chad's 180-gram vinyl top sellers list.

MF: It's ahead of the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Steely Dan, which is crazy. It's been that way for four weeks almost.

FD: I have to think you might've had doubts, thinking, hey, is this going to do anything? Did I just waste all this money?

MF: We didn't do this for the money, and we don't care if we lose money. This music has to be documented. And we didn't stress over it. I had the money to do it because my website's doing incredibly well now.

FD: You and I, we've paid some dues.

MF: Yeah, we did pay our dues. We did pay our dues.

FD: And it's a great story for people to know: that you should never give up or you should never think that you can't do anything because you're…

MF: Old. Never think you're too old. Never think your best days are behind you. Never.

Track Listing

Side One

  1. Intro: Jim Luce
  2. Mean What You Say (Thad Jones)
  3. Bolivia (Cedar Walton)
  4. Whims of Chambers (Paul Chambers)

Side Two

  1. It's the Nights I Like (Rufus Reid)
  2. Stablemates (Benny Golson)
  3. If You Could See Me Now (Tadd Dameron)

Album cover photo courtesy of Jacqui Wyatt.