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The First Take

We had recorded each of the other tunes that day and had left this piece for last, which, looking back, was brilliant idea. 

Throughout the session, there was an inspired atmosphere in the studio and the right energy between the three of us. What you hear on the album Elm was the first take we did of The Snow Leopard. 

Understand that the first take is special because there’s only one first take. After that, you have take two, three, and so on, and while those later takes can be good, the first take is special because it’s fresh and you didn’t try to do something different or better from the previous takes. You’re not thinking or trying. Trying is the enemy of creativity in a recording studio or in any performance situation. 

George and Jack had such a high level of musicianship and technical expertise and experience under recording pressure that I knew we could stretch some musical boundaries that day. In the recording studio, every time you put your finger down on a note, it can be forever. So you want musicians who can make something special from that permanence. 

Jack DeJohnette

The arrangement we recorded was meant to be very simple. Jack would play an intro on the cymbals and set up the time. Then George would come in with a repeating bass figure. Next, I played the melody for one chorus followed by a piano solo on a C pedal point. I wanted to play over a pedal point in order to simplify it and allow for the most possibilities for interaction and creativity. 

I thought my solo was really happening. I felt connected, leaving lots of space, but on fire. It felt like a controlled fire. We were burning but it was relaxed. To use another metaphor, it was like the eye of a hurricane. It felt like the calm in the middle of a storm. 

I gave instructions to the guys that after the piano solo, I would play part of the head once and then we would go into the bass solo. Now, very few bass players can play an interesting linear solo at this fast tempo. But George was one of them as well as Dave Holland. And on that take, George played a brilliant solo accompanied by Jack. 

After the bass solo, I was supposed to play a fragment of the head and then Jack would come in with an extended free drum solo. After the drum solo, I was to come back in again to play the head and go out. That was the arrangement. 

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. I played the piano solo, George played his bass solo, and while I was supposed to come in with the melody, something came over me. 

I wanted to break free from the form and swing while bringing down the tempo. Not a metric modulation like halftime. I just wanted a completely new tempo. Now, this kind of impromptu change is very difficult to pull off without causing a train wreck. 

But I knew how sensitive George and Jack were to the music. They were deeply listening to everything. I then did something I wasn’t supposed to do.

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Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, marketer, & tech guy

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