Jimmy Haslip’s ARC Trio Joins Forces with the John Daversa Big Band
Interpreting the Music of German Composer MSM Schmidt
Nguyên Lê, Steve Khan, Mike Miller, Oz Noy and Brian Auger
among the guest soloists on ARCeology
For the past several years, former Yellowjackets bassist and prolific producer Jimmy Haslip has enjoyed an ongoing working relationship with the Bremen, Germany-based jazz fusion keyboardist and composer Michael Schmidt (aka MSM Schmidt). While Haslip played on Schmidt’s 2007 album Transit and 2009’s Destination, he ended up co-producing 2012’s Evolution, 2015’s Utopia and 2017’s Life. They take their chemistry to new heights on ARCeology: The Music of MSM Schmidt. This dynamic offering finds Haslip and members of his ARC Trio (keyboardist Scott Kinsey and Hungarian drummer Gergö Borlai) joining forces with the GRAMMY Award-winning John Daversa Big Band on greatly expanded versions of previously recorded Schmidt material, along with two brand new pieces composed by Kinsey and Schmidt. The result is a powerhouse collection of polished, swaggering big band fusion along the lines of the Jaco Pastorius Big Band or The Brecker Brothers’ 2003 collaboration with the WDR Big Band Köln on Some Skunk Funk.
“I wanted to see if I could make this a big band record but somehow make it different,” said Haslip. “I didn’t think it should sound like a vintage big band recording. I wanted it to sound modern and have more of an edge, which is what led me to include guest soloists like Nguyên Lê, Mike Miller, Steve Khan, Oz Noy and others. They bring progressive elements into the big band setting and add compelling ideas to each song.”
Out of the eight songs that appear on ARCeology, six were previously recorded on other Michael Schmidt records. The two brand new compositions here are Schmidt’s “Mirrors” and Kinsey’s “Quartet.” And as Haslip noted, “In approaching this project, there was the thought that if you’re going to redo songs that have already been recorded, what can be done to make them sound like new compositions? And I think with Scott’s rhythm arrangements and John’s input on the horn parts, we came up with some creative solutions.”
Haslip also credited Kinsey, who became de facto co-producer of ARCeology. “Originally, I was the point producer on this whole thing, but as time went on I just knew that Scott needed to be a part of the production team,” he recalled. “We weren’t far into the project when I approached Scott and said, ‘I want you to be my co-producer on this because you’re contributing so much great work and it’s only fair that we do this together.’ He was up for that, so I am happy to say that Scott and I co-produced the record. I can’t take full credit for what’s happened here, as Scott was the real workhorse. He played most of the keyboard and synth parts and did all the keyboard solos, of course. Also, Scott’s rhythm arrangements had a big hand in influencing John’s horn arrangements. There was a lot of cool stuff already in place for John to just embellish. But then again, John has his own unique voice for orchestration. Everything he wrote after the fact was fantastic.”
“So much of the music was already in place with the rhythm section and Scott’s arrangements,” said Daversa, who is currently Chair of the Jazz Department at University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. “So my role as the big band arranger was to enhance and excite what was already there, and in some cases add moments that deepen the spirit and energy. When I tried to write or add more than that, it felt forced and made the music feel too busy. Scott’s keyboard parts and arrangements were so intricate that all I had to do was follow the map that he already laid down. I just tried to find what the music was asking from me — nothing more, nothing less.”
Schmidt revealed that he and Haslip had originally considered approaching Germany’s acclaimed WDR Big Band or the Netherlands’ Metropole Orkest about collaborating on this challenging big band project. But as Schmidt explained, “The reason why the John Daversa Big Band was ultimately chosen was that I had traveled to Los Angeles for the 40th anniversary of the Baked Potato and there we saw John’s band in a concert for the first time. John had played trumpet on two songs from my last recording project, Life, but I had never seen his full big band. And we were blown away by it. The arrangements were so progressive that I vowed right then to collaborate with John if the opportunity arose. And with Jimmy’s support, it quickly became clear that it would work.”
With the ARC Trio laying down foundational tracks at Kinsey’s home studio in L.A., Daversa and his hand-picked crew added their horn parts in Miami. And as Schmidt mentioned, “We actually wanted to be there when the big band was recording and would have loved to have flown to Miami, but unfortunately entry into the US was still impossible because of COVID.” Added Haslip, “I wanted to be there for the big band sessions, but John said it was too dangerous to consider flying into Miami. So I passed on going there, but I stayed in close contact with John as he recorded everything because he was sending me files to listen to. And we got it done.”
While Haslip went into this project thinking that it would be Michael Schmidt’s next recording, the composer himself came up with an alternative plan by the spring of 2021. “Michael said, ‘After listening to the rough mixes of all this music, I think it should be an ARC Trio record.’ I was on the fence about that, but Michael was pretty adamant about it. We eventually settled on the fact that it would be an ARC Trio record with the John Daversa Big Band, plus special guests, performing the music of MSM Schmidt.”
Drummer Borlai fuels the proceedings with an almost preternatural prowess behind the kit, as the ARC Trio tackles tunes like Schmidt’s Weather Report-ish “Red and Gold” (with acoustic guitar solo by Steve Khan), the exacting big band funk number “Swing” (featuring tenor saxophone soloist Seamus Blake), the slamming “Qin Shi” (a showcase for the remarkable Parisian-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyên Lê) and the explosive “Clark Kent” (featuring solos by guitarist and former Chick Corea Elektric Band member Mike Miller, Hammond B-3 organist and fusion pioneer Brian Auger and Daversa himself on some high-note trumpet fusillades) with remarkable efficiency and aplomb. Haslip contributes singing fretless bass solos on the bubbling groover “Falling” and the dynamic “Qin Shi.”
“The complexity of some of my compositions is often a challenge for the musicians,” acknowledged Schmidt. “This is partly due to the fact that I am not a trained musician. I often deviate from my original idea when composing and then the song takes an unplanned twist which I like better than the original idea. At this point I don’t want to hide the fact that I sometimes shake my head in retrospect when listening to what I’ve composed. But it may be precisely this naiveté that makes some songs so attractive. In any case, with every song I have an idea which instruments, and sometimes even which musicians should play. Accordingly, my demos have always been largely composed. This is probably why the songs later sound like the musicians recorded them all together. Moreover, and without exception, excellent musicians are playing the music.”
Daversa’s active arrangements are bristling with intricate counterpoint and hard-hitting accents that elevate the songs on ARCeology to pulse-quickening levels. “It’s pretty wild that we got these performances,” said Haslip. “My hat’s off to all the guests and especially to John for putting the big band together for this project. What I did as a producer was just oversee everything and make sure that we got all the files, that everything was locking up, that we got all the best people we could get to assist in making these songs come to life. So I was blessed with a pretty cool bunch of folks that came in on this and made it all happen.”
A bevy of guest soloists put their exclamation points on Schmidt’s tunes here, including Lê, Khan, Miller, Blake and Auger. Said Schmidt, “Nguyên had always been a candidate for a solo on my previous projects, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. I see in him a completely independent artist, like Allan Holdsworth, who contributed his genius to my last project Life. Lê plays on two songs here, ‘Qin Shi’ and ‘Si Kitu,’ and he takes them both to the next level. And the way Steve Khan became part of this project was curious: During a phone call with Jimmy, we talked about which musicians I would like to work with and I spontaneously remembered Khan, of whom I own almost every album. When I suggested to Jimmy possibly using Steve, he laughed because they had just spoken together a few minutes earlier and while we were on the phone, Steve was calling Jimmy again! If that wasn’t a sign…!”
Haslip and Schmidt began conceptualizing this project in August of 2019, then Jimmy got together with his ARC Trio bandmates to record basic tracks in January of 2020. “Once we were happy with the basic tracks, I sent them over to Michael for approval and he totally dug everything,” he recalled. “And by the time I got everything over to John, COVID had hit. So things were a little challenging, I should say. John was in the middle of the school term, so his schedule was kind of tweaked. And a facility that he was thinking of working at down there had to be shut down because somebody that worked there got COVID. Obviously, there were obstacles once COVID came into play, and things just kind of dragged on. I was supposed to go to Miami when John was working on the arrangements but because of COVID, we had to rethink that. So we had to record the horns virtually.”
After four days of recording all the horns in Miami (and violinist Abby Young on one track), Daversa sent the files to Haslip and Kinsey in Los Angeles. “And then we implemented them into the master tracks of the trio,” said Haslip. “At the same time, I started casting the songs for soloists. That’s when I started getting hold of Nguyên Lê, Steve Khan, Oz Noy, Seamus Blake, Mike Miller, Steve Tavaglione and Judd Miller. And I persuaded Brian Auger, who lives like nine blocks from me, to play B-3 on something. We even got vocalist Mer Sal to sing on a tune. So in preparing for this it took me from August of 2019 all the way until I finally finished mixing everything in September of 2020, which is a long time!”
The resulting tracks on ARCeology represent a high-water mark in all their careers.
A charter member since 1977 of the multiple GRAMMY Award-winning fusion band Yellowjackets, Bronx-born electric bassist and longtime Los Angeles resident Jimmy Haslip has released three albums as a leader and presided over 50 albums as producer, including recordings by keyboardist Jeff Lorber, guitarist Jeff Richman, saxophonist Eric Marienthal, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, vocalists Marilyn Scott, Gino Vanelli and Michael Franks, and prog-rock musician Cody Carpenter. Haslip was a member of the rock group Blackjack from 1979–1980 with Bruce Kulick, Sandy Gennaro and Michael Bolton and later toured with guitar god Allan Holdsworth in a trio with drummer Virgil Donati, as well as in a potent combo with Holdsworth, keyboardist Alan Pasqua and drummer Chad Wackerman. Haslip was also a founding member of Jing Chi with guitarist Robben Ford and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, recording five albums with the fusion supergroup.
John Daversa is a distinguished trumpeter, composer, arranger, producer, bandleader and educator. He is a multiple GRAMMY Award-winner, along with numerous other awards and honors. In addition to his active career as a performer and recording artist, Daversa is Professor and Chair of Studio Music and Jazz at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. In 2017 the John Daversa Big Band’s album, Kaleidoscope Eyes: Music of the Beatles received three GRAMMY nominations. Daversa’s 2019 big band release featuring young DACA artists, American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom, won three GRAMMY Awards. Daversa was musical director and producer for projects spearheaded by leading female jazz artists, Karrin Allyson and Regina Carter, in 2019-20. He is dedicated to creating meaningful, honest music with positive intention, entertaining and bringing benefit both to students and music lovers throughout the world.
Michael Schmidt (aka MSM Schmidt) has been consistently turning out high quality jazz-rock recordings over the past decade with a who’s who in American fusion as his sidemen, including electric bassists Haslip and Will Lee, guitarists Miller and Noy, keyboardists Kinsey and Mitchel Forman and a phalanx of superb drummers in Dave Weckl, Gary Novak, Virgil Donati and acclaimed German drummer Jost Nickel. Originally a self-taught drummer, Schmidt transitioned to keyboards during the ‘90s as he began developing a knack for composition. “Realizing that my drumming skills were too limited, I discovered that it was more satisfying to compose music. And with the help of my friend Helge Mruck, who showed me how to play keyboards and create songs on the computer, I began composing. As time passed, keyboards and software became more and more user friendly, which made composing easier for me. Not knowing how to read and write notes, I searched for sounds that are close to the natural instrument I had in mind, so that musicians who I wanted to play the music got an impression of my idea. However, I always needed the support of professionally educated musicians who were able to put my music into playable charts.”