The Making of Ike Sturm’s Jazz Mass: Interviews with Ike Sturm and Randy Merrill

Jazz Mass Album CoverIke Sturm is a bassist, composer and the Music Director for the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter’s Church (the “Jazz Church”) here in Manhattan. His remarkable Jazz Mass, a work for voices, strings and jazz ensemble, was commissioned by St. Peter’s, recorded in 2007-08 at Avatar Studios and mastered by Randy Merrill at Masterdisk . It was released in October 2009 and received a 4.5 (out of 5) rating from the venerable jazz mag Downbeat — an extraordinary achievement. Below is an interview with Ike, followed by an interview with Randy Merrill, on the subject of the making of Jazz Mass.

TMR: I assume the project began with the commission from Saint Peter’s. Is that true or do its origins go back further?

Ike: I heard a lot of film and symphonic music while growing up in a musical family and I am always reaching for ways to express the vocal and orchestral sounds that move me so much. I was asked to write a mass for Saint Peter’s, where I work as the music director for the Jazz Ministry, and I dreamt about putting all of these sounds together. I wanted to write something special, as the piece was dedicated to my friend, Pastor Dale Lind, who has served the jazz community in New York for over 40 years. I wanted the music to sound free and uninhibited by the form or religious context, hopefully offering a new and creative means of expression in worship.

As a musician/composer/musical director, when did you find the time to compose — and what tools did you use?

I remember spending many late nights at the piano during that summer, searching for harmonies and drawing melodies on sketch paper. After motives settled and emerged, I transferred them to Sibelius on my mac laptop, which helped me explore textures and counterpoint beyond the limits of my piano chops. I sent midi files to my dad, who is an amazing composer and arranger, and he opened my eyes and ears through his brilliant thoughts, questions and ideas.

How did you choose Avatar as the recording venue?

I first recorded at Avatar in 2003 as I was finishing school and was knocked out by the sound of the studio. We were there for my friend Ted Poor‘s record with Ben Monder and had the good fortune of working with engineer Aya Takemura, who ended up mixing my first record, “Spirit,” at Avatar in 2004. I knew Aya had engineered there for years and had worked with one of my favorite bassists, Dave Holland. Along with her gracious spirit, she has incredible vision and skill and I looked to her when deciding on a studio. The initial tracking involved septet with horns and rhythm, which required good eye contact, yet isolated sounds, making Avatar an ideal choice.

Ike Sturm
Ike Sturm

The recording sessions took place in November 2007, and then resumed in April 2008. What was the reason for the five-month gap?

Time flies! This was a busy time for my young family, my church work and my playing schedule. Aya and I met a number of times to carefully plan before each session, as we had very limited time in the studio and were working with a lot of musicians. I wanted to choose and prepare all of the takes before every recording date, allowing the strings and voices to be affected by the musical choices of the soloists.

What comprised the “additional tracking”?

Strings and my solo bass piece were tracked at Systems Two in Brooklyn.

Was there anything notable / challenging about the recording sessions? Looking back on them, what part of the experience stands out to you now?

The entire experience was unbelievable. I was surrounded by amazing musicians that brought joy to each session. The band had a great personal and musical dynamic and laid down most of what is heard on first takes. I remember asking Donny McCaslin to try out an unwritten section to shake things up and then hearing his masterful solo without hesitation.

Recording Session
The Recording Session

I conducted strings and choir in the sessions and I will never forget how it felt in the room when those sounds came to life. We did three passes of each take for strings and choir with the intention of triple-layering the chamber groups for large ensemble effect. As Aya had guessed, we ended up preferring the single passes without layering; 10 strings and 14 voices gave us a clear texture that could blend beautifully with the band. All I had to do was put the musicians in place and their gifts took everything to a new level.

What were your requirements when it came to the mastering stage?

Finding the delicate balance between preserving the organic, natural mixes and compressing just enough to make the recording accessible for diverse listening environments. Due to the orchestral nature of the piece, I wanted to maintain as much dynamic range as possible.

Was the mastering process difficult, or did it require any kind of special attention?

Randy, like Aya, dedicated himself fully to the project. We first met about 12 years ago at the Eastman School of Music, where Randy was working as an engineer. I think he must have absorbed a lot from that time, balancing the demands of diverse musical styles every day. He had a very intuitive sense of how to approach my music and we listened to records that excited me from a production standpoint.

We experimented with a few things that made me feel as if we left no stone left unturned. Any thoughts I had about subtle EQ or compression were met with a willingness to try it along with a helpful response. I’ll have to leave it to Randy to explain the technical side of what he did to make the mastered version so polished.

What was the mastering session like?

It was great to have our friend and guitarist Ryan Ferreira with us for the mastering session. Ryan played a huge role in the sound and shape of the project and can hear anything. I think he had a blast seeing Randy at work and the three of us exchanged ideas about the mastering. Ryan had very specific ideas about the EQ on his solo guitar track and Randy gave him the flexibility to discover exactly what he imagined as he played the piece.

When you look back at the process of creating the Mass and the recording of it, what would you say was the most challenging period?

The summer leading up to the first performance and recording was unquestionably the most challenging time. The dates approached and I was staring at empty paper, desperately trying to find sounds that could relate to the powerful text. Composing renders you completely vulnerable at times like this and it is simultaneously the most frightening and wonderful thing in the world.

An interview with Randy Merrill

Randy Merrill
Randy Merrill
TMR: How did you come to master Jazz Mass?

Randy: I did a test mastering for one of the songs. My mastering was halfway between a straight-forward jazz record and the sound of a modern pop record, and I guess it’s was what Ike was looking for.

And what were the sessions like?

Well, the album was done over two sessions, with Ike and the guitarist Ryan Ferreira attending. The first of which obviously was doing the bulk of it and then the second of which was doing revisions. It was a pretty interactive session — we were kind of all working on it. It was another overnight session. [Randy is referring to mastering Darcy James Argue’s album Infernal Machines — see this post.] At that point I was still working out of Scott [Hull]’s room in the evenings. So I didn’t start until 7 or 8 o’clock at night.

Looking at the graphic representation of the music on your screen, I can see that there’s some peak limiting in sections but the waveforms are still shapely. And you can hear that there’s a wide dynamic range.

Yeah. We found that we had to master this in sections.

Why?

Throughout the course of one piece the tone would change and we’d have to make adjustments in the mastering. So a lot of times I’ll print, say, the first part of a song, and then if I need to make an EQ move or level move or something I’ll take another pass and we’ll splice the two versions together to make the final mastering.

That’s interesting. Can you give me some examples?

Let’s say you set your EQ to sound good on one of the louder sections. Remember, instruments tend to get a little brighter when they’re played with more force. So if you center your EQ around the louder spots — making them sound good without being too bright or too aggressive or whatever — sometimes your quieter sections start to feel a little dull by comparison. So you have to trim a little low end out of it or add a little more upper end to make the lower sections speak a little bit more. Not that you’re trying to defeat the dynamics — because that still comes across — but you also want intelligibility in the quieter, more intimate sections. These are not big changes I’m talking about — they’re very slight EQ adjustments. There were also spots where we were adding reverb to different sections too because maybe the choir part was a little dry for a particular section and yet it was intended to be really full with a big room sound. That’s another reason we’d do a separate pass. And different solo instruments. You might EQ a track so it sounds great for the whole track but then you get to this one solo section and the horn doesn’t sound quite right or the bass is too big or something.

Is this common practice in mastering?

It’s useful in more dynamic kinds of music. Though in can be used in more dynamically consistent music like rock, too. Maybe a mix engineer has done some pre-limiting and a mix comes in sounding flat. Maybe the chorus doesn’t quite “hit”. You might make a little bit of an EQ change just to make it pop out more. Or at the beginning of a song the bass feels loud but when it gets to the chorus it’s perfect. You don’t want to trim the bass on the entire song, you just want to do it in the sections where it’s too much. But I’d say that it’s more the exception than the rule in rock.

It seems like it’s a technique especially suited for large ensemble jazz. It probably doesn’t happen much in classical, because you figure they do want those extreme quiets and blaring louds.

Not totally. Some of the classical stuff that I do, people want a little more of a balance. It wouldn’t be as much tweaking as you’d put into a jazz album. But there are times where classical artists want the quiet spots to speak a little bit more. It all boils down to the listening environment, and what the normal listening environment is for most people today. It’s usually not a hi-fi situation where you’re going to hear every bit of detail, and it’s usually not a quiet, isolated room where the listening is an event and an experience. In those settings, having all of those dynamics is really great because you can actually appreciate it. But if somebody’s got a CD on in their car on their way to work, they’re not going to hear the quiet spots.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a client that has wanted to leave every bit of dynamics in the recording. They usually want some kind of adjustment between quiet and loud. It’s not even that they’re competing with anything, like for radio, or being concerned about the track showing up on an iPod shuffle. They just want to be able to hear the quiet parts in their usual listening environment.


The photo of Ike and the photo of the recording session were sourced from Ike’s website. Visit for the latest news on Ike’s musical activities.