Jane Bunnett & Maqueque: Tierra Firme LP

THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE SOMETHING I COULD SHOW YOU AWHILE AGO. The vinyl version of Tierra Firme was supposed to be out at the same time as the CD, but there were technical issues so it only became a thing recently. I think it looks great; I wish everything I did came out on LP. Hell, I want to record an album so I can make another LP cover.

As I’ve said before, I never really got to enjoy the heyday of the vinyl era. Compact discs had taken over and vinyl was on the way out when I began shooting my first record artwork, so I got used to seeing my work 5″ square, or maybe on a slightly larger oblong package when the jewel case was no longer standard music packaging. I honestly never expected that I’d see my photos on an LP cover, but here we are, and I’m thrilled.

It was great to see my work nice and big, pretty much exactly as I imagined it a year ago when we did the shoot. Reaching into the LP sleeve and seeing another photo on the inner sleeve was gratifying. The inside shot was meant as a promo photo (see below) – if I get to do this again I’d like to try to make something that’s more of a cohesive graphic package.

The promo group shots were actually inspired by a Sonny Rollins photo Jane sent me when we began brainstorming the cover – the cover image was an idea we had later, when Jane wanted to do something that evoked the title of the record. I think we would both have wanted to take more promo setups that day, but the shoot was going long and I didn’t want to keep Jane and the band any longer.

The shoot also ended up in the year-end reader’s poll issue of Downbeat, which was richly ironic, given my (long ago and brief) history with the magazine. (Click here – it’s a good story.) With this in mind, I loved seeing a photo of mine in Downbeat.

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New books: JAZZ

I HAVE SOME NEW BOOKS FOR SALE. A year ago I celebrated the end of my old blog and the beginning of this blog by offering three collections of my old photography for sale via Blurb. Back when I published MUSIC, STARS and SQUARE, I had a vague plan to follow them up with another trio of books, the subjects of which I still hadn’t decided upon.

I did, however, have some hope that I had enough material to collect my jazz photography, most of it taken in the late ’80s and early ’90s, into one volume. Going through my files I discovered that, while my photos weren’t exactly a broad overview of the music as much as a snapshot of a particular time and place, they did hold together – for me, at least, as a record of my own enthusiasm for music and musicians I’d just discovered, during a brief but fervent period when I wanted to be William Claxton or Francis Wolff.

My friend Chris‘ criticism of my first trio of books was that the photos weren’t big enough, and that the layouts were static. That was both by design (I wanted the books to have a minimal aesthetic) and circumstance (I had never designed a book before and didn’t want to overreach my level of competence.) So the first thing I did was lay out this live shot of Dizzy Gillespie full bleed over a double page spread, to give myself the courage to try more dynamic layouts and fill the book right to its edges with pictures.

I’m rather fond of this spread. It’s my “drummers layout,” and a showcase for the most recent work in the book – a portrait of percussionist Candido Camero taken two years ago. This is probably the last concert photography I’ll ever feature in a book, but it’s appropriate to the project, even if it’s far from representative of what I really do as a photographer.

This spread is more of a showcase for what I do now – and what I was trying to do back in the late ’80s when I took these photos. The portrait of Steve Lacy on the right is one I think I got right the first time when I posted it on my blog, but the Sam Rivers photo on the left is very much improved since I scanned it with my very inadequate HP scanner, early on in the old blog.

This is my “Brazilian spread” – candid shots of guitarist Egberto Gismonti (left) and bandleader Hermeto Pascoal (right) taken backstage on the same night. This screen shot doesn’t do justice to the quality of the photos as they appear in the actual book; I’m very pleased with the quality of Blurb’s premium magazine products. That said, these might be the last magazines I publish through Blurb – whatever I do next will be a bit more ambitious, and probably be a higher-quality book.

Finally, there’s my “Jane spread” – photos of my dear friend Jane Bunnett, one an outtake from a record cover session in the ’90s, the other a candid shot taken in the recording studio for the same record. The third shot is of the late Pancho Quinto from Grupo Yoruba Andabo in the Havana studio where Jane recorded Spirits of Havana, a very big record for her, and also one for me, as it was my first time in Cuba. I’ve dedicated JAZZ to Jane and her husband Larry (along with a few other people) since they played a huge part in helping me understand the music and in developing my work.

So it was especially lovely when Jane offered to play at my book launch party this past weekend. Along with pianist Danae Olano from their group Maqueque, Jane picked out a series of numbers by musicians like Frank Emilio Flynn, who was featured on the cover of last year’s photozine MUSIC, and Don Pullen and Dewey Redman, who both appear in this year’s JAZZ. I probably wouldn’t have met or photographed any of them without Jane, who prompted me to talk a bit about each musician between numbers. It made the whole event extra special – I wish you could have been there.

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Jane Bunnett & Maqueque – On Firm Ground

IT HAD BEEN OVER TWENTY YEARS SINCE I’D SHOT AN ALBUM COVER FOR MY FRIEND JANE when she contacted me late last year and asked if I’d take the photos for her next CD. A lot had happened since then. I’d moved out of my loft around the corner from her house, got married, had kids and left the business – twice – while Jane had gone from strength to strength, with an Order of Canada, a whole bunch of other awards and four Grammy nominations.

Of course I said yes.

Brainstorming for the look of the record started with the title – Tierra Firme and/or On Firm Ground. Ideas started with a photo of Sonny Rollins in a stark studio setting, but moved on to the idea of superimposing pictures of lush greenery on the band. I sent a bunch of images back at Jane, including an old Lou Donaldson record and bunch of others that evoked a pastoral take on psychedelia that was popular on LP sleeves in the late ’60s.

I began making sketches and collages in my notebook after we visited a shooting space that was both competitively priced and conveniently up the street from Jane and her husband Larry’s Parkdale house. It was a gallery and performance venue that had a very useful white wall and another big wall of windows. We booked a time, canceled once, Jane found a makeup person, we booked again and were ready to roll.

I arrived with my “studio in a bag”, the standby kit I’d put together after I’d seriously returned to shooting, with two new additions – a pair of Westcott LED lights to replace the household bulbs I’d been using and a Tiltall tripod that was once a stalwart in my old studio. The band arrived and I occupied my time waiting for them to finish with hair and makeup by obsessively moving my light stands a few inches forward and backward for an hour. This is what it all looked like from my perspective by halfway through the session:

Roxanne DeNobrega, the hair and makeup artist, brought along her friend Sonia Blayde, a photographer, to document her work. She helpfully took shots of the session and graciously let me share some of them here.

At work, Gallery 345 (photos by Sonia Blayde)

The group shots were done but I knew I wasn’t even halfway finished. Using stock photos for the superimpositions was briefly discussed, but I pushed for doing the “nature shots” myself. The problem was that the record was Latin Jazz, and it was winter in Toronto – hardly the time or place to shoot equatorial lush greenery.

The closest big patch of nature was High Park, where I’d been a few months previous and posted a few nice Instagram shots of bare trees and autumn leaves. I had to wait a few days for a warm spell to melt as much of the snow cover as possible before I could head back and try to get those shots again, this time with my Fuji X-T2 instead of my cell phone. The photos I came home with were a bit bleak and monochromatic, but the miracle of Photoshop allowed me to boost the saturation to the edge of cartoonish hues.

At work in Allan Gardens, March 2019 (photo by Cordelia McGinnis)

More shots of greenery – preferable the lush, green kind – had to be collected. This meant a trip to the greenhouses at Allan Gardens, where I knew I’d be able to get at least some close-ups of foliage that might be useful somehow. It turned into a family outing that I spent most of bent double, focusing on plants or shooting through the canopy of palms in the big main room.

With hundreds of shots to work with, I could finally get to work. Once upon a time this would mean providing a graphic artist with my raw shots, which would be re-shot and mechanically married and re-shot again. Photoshop put all this work back in my hands, and I spent a week tidying up the shots of the band and then another couple of weeks trying out a variety of double and triple exposures, sending them along to Jane and Larry via Facebook Messenger for approval.

What I was doing was as much graphic arts as photography, which was fine by me – I had wanted to be an illustrator when I was young, years before I bought a camera. Over four decades later and with the miracle of cheap computers and digital technology, I’m able to realize an old dream I thought I’d given up on years ago.

Once we’d agreed on a shot, I put together a mock-up of the cover as a sort of proof of concept for Simon Evers, the designer who put the whole package together for the record company. I also provided a bunch of raw shots from my trips to High Park and Allan Gardens to use as graphic elements, and the headshots I’d taken of the band at the end of the shoot, also treated as double exposures with bits of lush greenery, to push the whole graphic conceit of the record a bit further.

It all came together in a quadruple gatefold package that hit the stores a few weeks ago.

Reviews have been fantastic, which is great. As for myself, I’m proud of pushing myself to do something a bit outside my comfort zone, with the encouragement of Jane and Larry.

Mostly, though, it’s nice to be working again, and especially with old friends.

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Jane Bunnett in the ’90s

Jane Bunnett, outtake from The Water is Wide CD cover, 1993
Jane Bunnett in my Parkdale studio, 1993

AFTER A BREAK OF OVER TWENTY YEARS, I shot an album cover for my old friend Jane Bunnett the other day. I’ve written about collaborating with Jane on my old blog, but I put that project to bed before I got around to writing about the records I worked on after New York Duets, Live at Sweet Basil and Spirits of Havana. I honestly meant to talk about the albums covers we made in the mid-’90s, but those posts got lost in the rush to bring Some Old Pictures to a close, so now seemed like a good time to revisit that work.

Spirits of Havana did great things for Jane’s profile, so she and her husband and trumpeter Larry Cramer decided to charge ahead with a sort of all-star record featuring musicians she’d worked with before – pianist Don Pullen, drummer Billy Hart and bassist Kieran Overs – and two singers, Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee. It was a challenge musically since Jane’s main instruments, the soprano sax and flute, both reside almost exactly in the same register as the human voice, so she’d have to share a lot of harmonic space with these two legendary jazz singers.

Jeanne Lee, Harbourfront, Toronto, 1993
Billy Hart, Harbourfront, Toronto, 1993
Sheila Jordan, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993
Don Pullen, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993
Sheila Jordan & Jeanne Lee, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993
Jane Bunnett, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993

I ended up spending a couple of days documenting the recording and a gig with the band at Harbourfront. By now I’d spent a few years in Jane’s orbit, and her regular collaborators were used to seeing me around with my camera; Don Pullen, always wary with photographers, especially when he was playing live, had become something of a friend. It would be a few years before I became obsessed with jazz singers, but I was thrilled to be in the studio with Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee. Lee’s stark, beautiful early ’60s recordings with pianist Ran Blake were a particular favorite of mine back then.

The Denon Canada cover of The Water Is Wide is still probably my favorite cover of all the ones I did for Jane. I had just taken over my whole studio in Parkdale and finally had a space dedicated just to shooting, so I put some thought and effort into it; with just the title of the record to work on, I spent a night painting a white seamless backdrop with a rough, near-abstract expressionist image of a river meant to curve up and around Jane’s head. (Ever the thrifty Scot, I used leftover paint from two different shades of blue sitting around from painting my living room.) I was – still am, probably – in love with the look of jazz records from the ’50s and early ’60s on labels like Contemporary, World Pacific, Riverside, Prestige and Blue Note. I tried to duplicate the feel and visual vocabulary of those records for the cover image.

The Water is Wide actually has the distinction of being both my favorite and most disliked cover for Jane, mostly because of a photo I took that was intended for the back, or inside the CD booklet. I’d set up a shot with Jane and her instruments and sheet music in a corner of my studio after we’d finished with the cover shot, and while I was shooting my little cat Nato – a diva who loved walking into photo shoots – paid Jane a visit.

We thought it was cute, but at the insistence of the label boss a rather garish variation of the original image ended up on the Evidence Records version of the album in America. I have always hated this cover, which is about a thousand miles from the look I worked so hard to achieve for the Denon release.

My love affair with the look of old jazz album covers was still in full force two years later when Jane asked me to shoot the cover of a record she was making with Frank Emilio Flynn and José Maria Vitier. This time around my inspiration was more specific – Irving Penn (of course) and some other studio portraits of jazz musicians from the ’50s and early ’60s, especially Donald Silverstein’s iconic shot of pianist Bill Evans from the cover of his legendary Sunday at the Village Vanguard album.

I wanted to do something elegant and minimal, so I used a tabletop I’d made from some weathered barn boards and put a lot of work into lighting Jane as if she and her horn were a still life. The period homage was particularly appropriate for this record, which was being released on the recently-revived World Pacific label.

Jane Bunnett in my Parkdale studio, Toronto, 1995

I was very pleased with the results, and with the restrained layout of the World Pacific cover. Today, it reminds me of the happiest period in my Parkdale studio, when I still felt challenged and the prospect of an ongoing career as a studio portrait photographer still seemed viable.

Today, it would be foolhardy to think too much about my photography in the context of what I once understood to be a “career,” but the sense of challenge has gratefully returned, and the album cover I’m working on for Jane right now is a considerable technical and creative challenge. But more about that later.

Don Pullen died in Los Angeles, California on April 22, 1995.

Jeanne Lee died in Tijuana, Mexico on October 25, 2000.

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