I only have so much time here. There is a chicken boiling on the stove and mouths to feed and, alas, I am the conduit between them. Some say that this is a sign of pure vanity: my belief that, without me, nothing would get done. But I've tested the theory. And if I don't put a chicken on the table in the next hour no one in this house is going to eat, and there will surely be hell to pay. This doesn't prove I'm not vain, I don't suggest; only that I've come by it honestly. By the same token, the new album you now hold in your hands. Tiny Voices, is -if you'll allow me- the chicken that, well, only I could deliver. For better or worse. Suitable for weddings and bar mitzvahs, it was lovingly prepared and fashioned with just you in mind.
This is my ninth album. (You can saw me in half and count the rings.) It is my first for Anti-/Epitaph Records, though I have been in deep with them for sometime now, as I produced Solomon Burke's album Don't Give Up On Me last year on their behalf. It's nice work if you can get it, and Solomon and I even have matching Grammy trophies which would make handsome bookends, should hard times ever return and we are forced to share an apartment in, say, Echo Park. But back to my story: with a few exceptions, most all of the songs on Tiny Voices were written during a fairly short span of time. I tried to imagine the dramatic arc of a movie (one that would perhaps star Edward Norton or Wesley Snipes as yours truly), and then wrote songs accordingly. And can't you just picture the scenes? Me at the start of the Cuban revolution; me in Biblical times; me at the circus, or me struggling beneath the flag of god-knows-what hopelessly misguided country? Yes, I'm quite sure you can see it, though it is all pure fiction. Such is the songwriter's craft, and such is the sleight of hand that is our stock in trade. We sing the word "I," you automatically picture The Singer out on the high seas, riding the dip and pitch of every verse that goes by. "Joe Henry owns a monkey!" some of you have even written in the past. You believe it and I love you for that. It gives me purpose and direction, and don't think for a minute that I don't appreciate it.
Here's what you'll need to know: Tiny Voices was recorded essentially "live" over a five-day period in December of 2002, at the old Sound Factory in the heart of Hollywood. For these sessions, I took the coward's way out and hired only excellent musicians; ones with whom I could also enjoy a good meal. If you follow that simple rule, I find that the rest of the process generally takes care of itself. That, and I was very careful before hand not to record any elaborate demos that I would have to conquer or live to regret. I provided, as reference, only the most skeletal song facsimiles to those involved so that everything was a matter of mutual discovery. "Action!" I would yell, and things would start tumbling into (and out of) place. It is a veryliberating way to work and songs surprise you at every turn. (Remember "The Crying Game?" Fair enough.) I assembled a band that had as its core Chris Bruce on guitar, Jennifer Condos onbass, and Jay Bellerose on drums and percussion. I had the luxury of two brilliant keyboard players sitting back-tp-back in the room: David Palmer and Patrick Warren; and to this mix I added the great jazz clarinetist Don Byron and his frequent confederate Ron Miles on trumpet. The iconic drummer Jim Keltner dropped by one evening and sat with Jay at a single kit for the four-handed take of the song "Flag." And finally, my old friend, the late Gregg Arreguin, made his last studio appearance as an already-ghostly presence on "Widows of the Revolution." We sat with our knees touching as we played, he and I, and I swear he was levitating. But then there was something about Gregg's person and his playing that was always beautifully... untethered. Ask anybody.
This record may sound wildly different than the ones I've made before it. It did to me, at first. But I am frequently amazed at how things that strike the ear as foreign and abstract to begin with, soon become familiar and orderly. Even inevitable. After Scar, (my release of 2001), this seemed the next logical step, as working with Omette Coleman, Brad Mehldau and Marc Ribot on that record inspired, certainly, a continuing interest in a particular sonic philosophy. It has something to do with accepting chaos, and with favoring discovery over self-expression. Suffice it to say that it has never been my intention to try to make a "jazz record" (whatever that is), but I have found great purchase by inviting musicians with a jazz sensibility into my proverbial house and seeing where they place the furniture. In that regard, I am unoffendable and love the mystery involved. The world is big, after all, and I've been influenced by all of it: Edith Piaf and Leadbelly, Malcolm X and Dick Van Dyke. And I think I hear them all in here. I believe Don Byron also practices this afore mentioned unnamable philosophy, which is how he can pledge equal dedication to the music of both Stravinsky and Micky Katz, and why we rarely needed to discuss direction. (In fact the only direction I really gave any of the musicians before the first day of of recording Tiny Voices was to watch Luis Bunuel's "The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz.") There are many ways a song can take shape, and they can always be different. They need only to be, finally, a living thing unto themselves. Then you are free of them. I find this an easy enough idea to embrace, and strangely comforting in these truly interesting times.
Speaking of which, there is an ancient Chinese curse where this is what you wish upon your enemy: "may you live in interesting times." What could be worse?! Not much, they seem to be saying. But I'm determined to make the best of it.