LEE TOWNSEND'S LAID-BACK DEMEANOR BELIES his status as the favored producer of jazz guitar's "dream teams. As head of his own production company, Townsend has worked with the likes of John Scofield, Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie and Bill Frisell. Along the way, he has helped shape a new, ecumenical style of guitar-based jazz, one that looks toward pastoral Americana, inner-city groove and world music for inspiration.
The 4O-year-old California native dropped out of graduate school to pursue production at KCRW, a Los Angeles NPR affiliate renowned for its eclectic programming. From there, Townsend moved on to Palo Alto Records, a jazz indie label, doing everything from production to A&R. He then landed at ECM Records, home to Metheny, Frisell and other jazz players who were forging a unique, airy sound during the Seventies and Eighties. Townsend says that although his years as ECM's general manager had a tremen-dous influence on him musically, much of what he wanted to do lay outside the confines of the label. "ECM was truly great at creative, compositionally-oriented improvised music, with roots in both jazz and world music," he says. "But there were parts of my musical life I couldn't express there, like groove-oriented, back-beat material or work by singer/songwriters."
In 1988, Townsend left ECM and found-ed the Berkeley-based Songline/Tone Field, around the same time that Bill Frisell left the label. The two began working together, with Townsend producing a series of Frisell's albums which combined a jazz aesthetic with heartland roots, creating a uniquely American musical form. Since then, Townsend has produced numerous releases, including records by funk-jazz guitarist Will Bernard, eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter and bassist Marc Johnson. Through an arrangement with the German label Intuition, Songline/Tone Field issues other Townsend-crafted, "cross-genre" musical projects. He also continues to work with his old friends, most recently producing Frisell's Gone, Just Like a Train (Nonesuch, 1998), as well as A Go Go (Verve, 1998), a collaboration by John Scofield and Medeski, Martin and Wood.
GUITAR WORLD: You've worked with some of the most distinct voices in jazz guitar. How do you capture them on record?
LEE TOWNSEND: It's a balancing act, finding a way to challenge people to come up with fresh things within their musical vocabulary. You have to make them feel some trust and security, so that they can experiment. And you've got to value the mystery in music and not try to dictate or control too much, but do gentle prodding.
GW: Do you feel the guitarists you work with, such as Bill Frisell, are redefining jazz guitar?
TOWNSEND: That's one way of putting it. Frisell redefined jazz playing by unapologetically broadening it in terms of the vocabulary he's been able to integrate into improvised music. He's a one-of-a-kind composer and he's sculpted a sound of his own that is totally original and immediately identifiable.
GW: You've been with this kind of "cross-genre" music for more than a decade now. Have you encountered any resistance from hardcore jazz fans?
TOWNSEND: There are certain schools of thought that have a resistance to it, but that's getting to be a pretty dusty mentality. For some time, there was a movement to present jazz like America's classical music. In certain ways it is, but the unintended result of that makes jazz more of a museum piece. That's the opposite of the spirit of what great artists like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane were operating under. What keeps jazz fresh is the constant influx of other musical languages. Right now, San Francisco has a community of younger musicians who've come up with a passion for jazz, but who have a lot of experience playing rock, pop, and world music. The cross-fertilization that goes on here is really stimulating; there's a lot of musical vitality and I'm inspired by it.
GW: Part of that evolution involves bringing jazz players together with musicians outside of the idiom, like the Scofield/Medeski, Martin and Wood project. Did you use different recording techniques than you had on the Scofield records?
TOWNSEND: I guess a little bit. It was the first time we used only one amp with John. We went with a really focused, in-your-face sound. Later we added some subtle processing - reverb, compression and delays. On a couple of songs, we used the spring reverb from a crusty old amp just to add some grit into the sound.
GW: You often get a pristine recording without making it sound sterile. Are your recording techniques more pertinent to jazz than rock or funk?
TOWNSEND: No. Obviously, when you want distortion, it's antithetical to being pristine. But I like to hear the overtones, complexities and elements like fingers on strings or vibrations of wood, in all kinds of music. For me, it's about hearing the different levels intention in a person's sound. Even when listen to something raunchy, I want it to sound beautifully ugly.