“This is smooth as silk,” says Al Schmitt, describing his work with Diana Krall, one artist with whom he has a long relationship. Romantic, sensual, intimate, soothing-however one describes it, Krall’s music evokes another age, an era when Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, George & Ira Gershwin, and Rodgers & Hart were composing the American songbook. Musicianship was soaring to new heights, as the big-band orchestras of the day ruled, inevitably pushing the limits of improvisation and musical form. And, in the center of it all-New York City-demand for recordings of these popular artists engendered an abundance of recording studios.
It is from this fertile environment that Brooklyn-born Al Schmitt, 23-time Grammy-winning engineer and producer, derives a work ethic that consistently produces pristine, innovative and inspiring recordings, stretching across four decades and into the future.
PATCH CORDS AND FINE DINING
It was Schmitt‘s uncle Harry Smith who introduced him to this world. Prior to opening his own independent studio, Harry Smith Recording, Smith was a recording engineer for Brunswick Records-regarded by many collectors as among the best of its time, well-recorded and bright in the high-frequency range. “He didn’t have any children of his own,” says Schmitt, “so I was like a son to him. I was in the studio from the time I was 7 years old. I’d help set up chairs, clean patch cords, all kinds of stuff. And he made a lot of money back then-we lived over in Brooklyn, and he was living on Sutton Place in Manhattan and always had a wad of cash. He lived such an exciting life and took me to all the great restaurants in New York, to the fights at Madison Square Garden, to hockey games. I thought, ‘This is what I’ve got to do. This is the way to live.'”
Many years and more than 150 gold and platinum recordings later, Schmitt continues on the path launched at Harry Smith Recording. Formative years under the tutelage of many of the era’s legends at renowned and, now, mostly departed studios in New York provided a well-rounded schooling that would serve Schmittthroughout a career that extends to the apex of the recording arts. In fact, Schmitt‘s first employer after Harry Smith Recording was Apex Recording Studios on W. 57th Street in Manhattan. “Tommy Dowd, who was kind of the head guy there, was my mentor,” Schmitt recalls. “I learned from Tommy.”
“Al was an obvious music enthusiast,” Dowd recalls. “He liked a lot of records and a lot of artists-not just popular artists but the ‘bubbling under’ artists too - and was sensitive to music, whether it was jazz or gospel or blues or pop. He had quick hands and quick ears. They ran through the song once, maybe twice, and he had it down in his mind and in his hands and was able to fly with it right away. His endeavor, at the outset, was to capture what the artists and musicians were doing. He has an unlimited horizon.”
When Apex closed, Schmitt went to work at Nola Studios. “Tommy and I were both doing a lot of Atlantic stuff in those days,” he says. “I was at Nola for a little more than a year, and I got a call from Tommy saying they were looking for another engineer at the studio he was at, Fulton Recording.” Fulton, on W. 40th Street, would be acquired by Fortune Pope, who also owned Coastal Recording on W. 52nd, as well as the Progresso newspaper and radio station WHOM. “There were a lot of studios to work in,” Schmitt explains, “There was a guy at Fulton by the name of Bob Doherty, who was an incredibly good engineer, especially for large orchestras. I learned how to record orchestra stuff from him - the French horns, all the woodwinds, the big orchestra setups. So that was a blessing too. I had some really great teachers.”
Opportunity came knocking in the form of Richard Bock, owner of the Pacific Jazz label, who favored the Fulton studio. Schmitt recorded jazz legends such as Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bob Brookmeyer and Jim Hall. “[Bock] said to me, ‘Why don’t you come to California?'” Schmitt recalls. “‘Then I won’t have to fly to New York to use you.’ I said, ‘Get me a job out there, and I’ll come.’ About three weeks later, he called and said, ‘I got you a job at Radio Recorders if you want to take it.'”
At Radio Recorders in Hollywood, Schmitt added more jazz heavyweights to a growing discography, continuing to record for Bock, as well as musician/producer/bandleader Dave Pell. Meanwhile, he was learning more recording techniques from - and teaching them to - West Coast-based engineers such as Bones Howe and Thorne Nogar, who recorded many of Elvis’ records.
“Bones Howe did this session with Henry Mancini, the Peter Gunn record,” Schmitt illustrates. “Evidently, he and the producer just didn’t hit it off for whatever reason-hard to believe, because Bones was so easy to get along with. So I wound up doing the other half of the album.”
With its marriage of Mancini’s hip compositions and Blake Edwards’ modish private-eye creation, Peter Gunn was a tremendous success on television. Meanwhile, RCA opened a studio: Schmitt was the first engineer hired. Mancini’s new producer, Dick Pierce, also took a liking to Schmitt, using him on all of Mancini’s recording dates at RCA, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Blues and the Beat and Music from ‘Mr. Lucky.’ With 1962’s Hatari!, Schmitt won his first Grammy. “I was doing everybody,” Schmitt remembers. “Billy Eckstine and Billy May; a great album with Ray Charles and Betty Carter. I was doing all the Sam Cooke records, Ike and Tina Turner. It was great, just an incredible experience.”
While demand for his engineering services grew, Schmitt also aspired to produce. When engineer Bill Putnam was nearing retirement, he asked Schmitt if he’d come to work on Frank Sinatra sessions. “I went to my boss at the time, Steve Sholes, the guy who originally signed Elvis to RCA and was head of the West Coast at that point. I said, ‘Look, I have an opportunity to make more money at another studio, but I would really like to get into the production end. Either way, you’re going to lose me as an engineer.'” RCA agreed to promote him once he’d found a replacement, which he did in Jim Malloy, a friend from Radio Recorders. In addition to recording all of Sam Cooke’s last records,Schmitt worked with artists such as Ann-Margret, Eddie Fisher, the Wayfarers Trio and the first psychedelic group from San Francisco, Jefferson Airplane.
DUAL CAREER PATH
“When you were a staff producer at RCA,” Schmitt explains, “you weren’t allowed to touch the board, so I didn’t do any engineering for several years.” When producer and friend Tommy LiPuma asked if he would help on a project, Schmitt wasn’t sure he had the chops after such a long layoff. The album, Dave Mason’s Alone Together, was another watershed moment. “I realized, ‘Hey, this is what I grew up doing,'” says Schmitt. “This is what I loved about the business in the first place, capturing a sound.’ That’s when I got back to doing some engineering. Some records I’d produce, some I just engineered, and some I’d do both.”
That blueprint would feature in subsequent projects, from Al Jarreau (Schmitt produced and engineered We Got By and All Fly Home, and co-produced, with LiPuma, Glow and Look to the Rainbow, on which he also engineered) to Steely Dan (mixed “Peg” and “Deacon Blues” from Aja, and recorded the orchestra, with Johnny Mandel, and mixed “FM [No Static at All]”). Artists from George Benson to Toto clamored for his expertise; Breezin’ brought Schmitt his second Grammy, Toto IV brought another.
COLE AND KRALL
Today, Schmitt is perhaps best known for the sonically exquisite recordings of Natalie Cole and Diana Krall, artists who complete the circle from the orchestral sessions of his youth in New York through the West Coast pop and jazz of Mancini and Chet Baker and back to an ultra-cool manifestation of all that is good about popular music. A young artist with tremendous vocal and instrumental ability, singing Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter standards with the backing of young turks like Russell Malone and Christian McBride, not to mention Johnny Mandel’s artful arrangements-it sounds like just the work Schmitt was born to do. Going even further, he has remixed several of these albums in 5.1 for release on the Super Audio CD format, such as Cole’s Unforgettable and Krall’s When I Look in Your Eyes and The Look of Love. “You have so much more space,” Schmitt confides. “You can do more things. I’m having a real good time. Now that Verve signed Natalie again, we just finished a record with her that Tommy LiPuma produced. It’s back to the old stuff, like Unforgettable, the great records she was making back then. And to be in the studio with Diana is one of the joys in life; she’s just sensational.
“What can I tell you? My life is pretty good.”