A Chat With Musical Director, Freddie Ravel

Freddie Ravel is a multi-platinum composer, keyboardist, musical director and producer. At the time of this interview he was the musical director for Al Jarreau and was co-producing his new record. I asked him about the role of musical director and what it entails.

LL: What are you doing right now?
Freddie Ravel: Al Jarreau is coming over in about an hour and we’e going to finish putting together the pieces for the tour. Al has 15 albums so we’re digging all the way back to 1976 and up to his current new album and we’ll try to fit that into a 60 minute show.
LL: What does a musical director do?
FR: A musical director listens to every aspect of the sound like a producer, but you’re a live producer because you’re making decisions about arrangement, chord changes, starts and stops within a song.
LL: Aren’t those things arranged ahead of time?
FR: Oh yes they are, but let’s say if you’re doing a song that’s been done for a long time like “We’re In This Love Together” for example, a big Al Jarreau hit.? The artist has been doing that song for 20 years and he has to keep doing it. It’s a great song but he personally is tired of it. So instead of doing the standard groove that’s on the record, I changed it to a totally different kind of groove and slowed it down and created a whole new feel with it and I modified some changes so that it would be more current sounding.
LL: Being musical director involves mostly the live performance?
FR: Yes, it’s a live performance oriented gig. You have to write charts at times, you have to be totally prepared to make different arrangements even after you’ve written the charts because once you’re actually rehearsing it, you might find that you need a different connector to go from one song to the next and you have to write a different kind of segue. Or the artist might be a whole step lower now than they were when they sang it 20 years ago.
LL: How did your relationship with Al start?
FR: He used to come and hear me play with my band at La Ve Lee. The first call from Al was about getting together to write, to compose. It had nothing to do with musical directing or anything. He had a couple of ideas in his head about a Latin kind of song. At our first meeting we wrote a song together called “Tomorrow Today”? which we just got finished recording. Then Al said he was interested in having me put together a band for him and would I be musical director? He knew I had a solo career and knew my records. He knew I was musical director for Earth, Wind & Fire for four years; he knew I worked with Madonna. In other words he could just call me and say I trust your opinion. So I called up specific players, guys that I thought would really address his music the right way. Fortunately he was happy with my choices and we’ve all been doing it now for a little over a year.
LL: Do you sit down with the artist and work out the tunes, or take them off the record the way they are or what?
FR: Well, in the case of someone who is as established as Al, he has charts from other bands he’s had and sometimes I have access to those. But there’s a big Al Jarreau song that’s called, “Alonzo” – glorious piece of music – that’s in 6/4. So I showed him that there’s a way to treat that groove with sort of an African treatment of 6/4 and with the right kind of synthesizer sounds it can sound pretty primal. He had never heard that treatment of 6/4. And there’s an arrangement I did of “Stella by Starlight” in 6/4 that Al really likes which we are going to be doing on this tour. I showed him a way to connect these songs even though “Alonzo” and “Stella by Starlight” are really totally different worlds. But if you find the common notes in the harmony and you find a way to rhythmically treat the two, it can sound really fresh. That’s some of the things that I do and I guess that starts to blur the line between arranging and producing and musical directing.
LL: But the musical director’s work is generally after the record is done and the person’s going on tour.
FR: That’s correct.
LL: Do you rehearse the band without the artist?
FR: You try to get the band there to the rehearsal hall an hour before the artist shows up. The best thing is when the artist walks in the door and the band is grooving; you’re not sitting there having a conversation or at the snack bar having some coffee – that’s the worst thing that can happen.
LL: But generally speaking you don’t have rehearsals that are without the artist. You might come in an hour ahead and run through some stuff but basically you rehearse all together.
FR: That’s right.
LL: Have they gotten the charts ahead so they know what they’re playing?
FR: Most of the time. Sometimes the artist will tell the musical director “we really should do this song” and you have no time to put it together so you generate a chart very quickly and everyone plays it, right then and there.
LL: How much rehearsal do they generally get?
FR: In real life, most of the time the songs are put together at a sound check. If you have several days to rehearse in town you’re really lucky.
LL: You’re talking about before the tour starts.
FR: Before the tour starts. In this particular case, we have that window – we have five days. So we’re going to be able to kind of reinvent ourselves.
LL: When do these ideas like the 6/4 thing for “Stella By Starlight” happen? Is that in rehearsal or is that with just you and Al?
FR: “Stella By Starlight”? in 6/4 happened to me when I was playing solo piano at the New Otani Hotel in 1984.
LL: What about the idea of connecting it to “Alonzo”.
FR: That happened last night before he arrived and rang my doorbell. I was noticing as I was playing through the songs myself that there was this really beautiful combination of chords that could easily get us to “Stella By Starligh” The way the keys and the notes worked it was just delicious to go from “Alonzo”? to “Stella”?. But what I thought would be better was to go from “Stella” to “Alonzo”?. Because everyone knows that “Stella By Starlight”? is a standard and then when you go to “Alonzo”?, which is? a big Al Jarreau hit, the audience would be thrilled to go from a standard to a classic of his.
LL: So this is before the rehearsal time with the band.
FR: Right, this is pre-production. The artist vetoes and approves what ideas I have that he likes or what ideas I have that he needs to modify and improve. When you have rehearsal you have about seven people you’re paying and a rehearsal hall and instrument rentals. It’s like a record date – you want to have your charts and your pre-production ready before you go into the studio.
LL: Is the record out yet?
FR: There’s a couple of finishing touches to do on it, so no. It should be released in February.
LL: Does it have a working title?
FR: Probably “Tomorrow Today”.
LL: How did you come to be the Musical Director for Earth, Wind & Fire for four years?
FR: My first album came out in 1989 in the old days when I used to play that club, Miami Spice which was in Marina Del Rey. We went to #6 on the national charts with that record – that was my debut album. Through that record Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire heard me on the radio and he saw me play at Bon Appetite, that little club in Westwood. After that he approached me at that club and said “Freddie I want you to meet my brother Maurice”? and I said “Man are you kidding me”?
LL: Yes… my heart would beat a little faster.
FR: Yes, I mean are you kidding? I’d love to meet, I mean, you know,? “God”. When? So a couple weeks I later met Maurice and we just hit it off. I took him some of the compositions I had written for my next record. About a month after that he invited me to join the band and serve as the musical director and do what I’ve already told you except that it was Earth, Wind & Fire so it also involved horns. Which is a whole other world. It was great. After 4 years with Earth, Wind & Fire, Maurice decided that he didn’t want to tour with the band any more and he wanted to start his own record label which he did. And he asked me to be the first artist on his label. The record that came out of that was “Sol to Soul”?. It was certainly one of the most profound professional experiences I’ve ever had. I was like a kid in a candy store working with him. That was basically my second solo album; there’s six different styles of music on that record which is really unusual. There’s a song I wrote with Deepak Chopra on that album, there’s stuff with Maurice, with Verdine White playing bass, with Peter Erskine on drums, with a salsa big band and a Latin singer from Nicaragua by the name of Luis Enrique. It’s a real highly diverse album.
LL: What work did you do with Madonna?
FR: There’s a particular cut on “Sol to Soul”? that Madonna heard called “Quedate Conmigo” which means “stay with me”. It’s a big salsa tune. My manager called me and said, “Fred you’re not going to believe this: Madonna heard “Quedate Conmigo”? and wants you to play piano on the track ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’ for the Evita movie.”? She did a kind of Miami dance track with it. We had a recording session and we had a great time, a fantastic time. After that she asked me if I’d be in a video with her and of course I said I’d be honored to. The video was an Andrew Lloyd Webber tune called “You Must Love Me”?. This girl works – all the stories you hear about a workaholic are totally true. I’ve never seen someone work so hard. She’s smart, she’s astute and she knows what she wants. I really respect her. I enjoyed working with her in the studio. And when I was playing the piano she said, “Freddie are you familiar with the music of Cachao” and I said, “Yes, I know who Cachao is” and she said, “Well that’s kind of what I’m looking for in the piano.”
LL: I don’t know who Cachao is.
FR: It’s a real insider musician kind of thing. He was the guy who invented the”discarga”, and discarga means jam. He’s the guy who came up with Mambo bass lines. In the 30’s and 4’s and 50’s, in the whole Cuban music thing. Gloria and Emilio Estephan and Andy Garcia, particularly Andy Garcia, made a documentary movie on Cachao’s life that I saw in the New Art theater in Santa Monica about five years ago. He’s an underground icon; it’s the kind of thing most Americans wouldn’t know about and she knew all about him. That immediately told me what she wanted. I started playing very authentic kind of piano against this London produced dance track that was exactly what she wanted. And that made it great. One more thing I did with her – she wanted me to play piano on another song called Buenos Aires which is also part of Evita so I did that as well.?
LL: I know your music, but I don’t know that I can describe it, so tell me in a nutshell what you would say your stylistic orientation is.
FR: Well, it’s kind of tricky but I would say that most of my music has a Latin/jazz element in it, but it also has elements that are funky and elements that are R&B.
LL: Is there a particular Latin orientation?
FR: I would say it’s Cuban and Brazilian.
LL: Well, you’ve been doing a lot. I’m impressed.
FR: No rest for the weary here.