Inside the sessions for Bob Dylan’s gutsy new standards album: ‘People broke down crying’

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Shadows in the Night engineer Al Schmitt, winner of nearly two dozen Grammys, is still marveling over the chances taken by Bob Dylan on the forthcoming project — called it a “totally different kind of record.”

The collection of Frank Sinatra standards, reformulated for a five-piece from the original big-band charts, is “something he’s wanted to do for 40 years,” Schmitt tells Stephen Peeples. “People broke down crying, listening to the record. … It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard Dylan do.”

That included its strikingly intimate setting, at Capitol Records’ legendary Studio B recording space in Los Angeles, with Nat King Cole’s Steinway nearby.

“He came in to the room,” Al Schmitt remembers, “and he started looking around and talking. He liked the acoustics. He said, ‘Boy, this one sounds really nice. Where would I be singing?’ I said, ‘Right where you’re standing.’ So, that’s where the mic went, the vocal mic. And then it was his band. We had an acoustic guitar, an upright bass, light brushes on the drums, an electric guitar and a steel guitar. No headphones, everybody around him. When he couldn’t hear enough of the rhythm guitar, we just moved him closer. Everything was live. … There was no tuning, and there was no fixing. Everything was what it was. That’s part of the charm of the record.”

This Spartan approach went into every part of the sessions. Bob Dylan decreed, for instance, that he didn’t want to see any microphones, beyond the one for his voice — sending Al Schmitt scurrying to hide them. They ran through 23 tracks in all, Schmitt adds. Ten made the final running order for Shadows in the Night, due Feb. 3, 2015 via Columbia Records. “He picked some obscure songs that are great songs,” Schmitt says.

At a playback session, Bob Dylan found himself taken aback with what they had created. “He said, ‘I never heard my voice sound this good before,'” Schmitt recalls. “So, that was a great thing.”

And to think, it almost never happened. When management called to set up this session with Bob Dylan — one of the few legends with whom Al Schmitt hasn’t worked — their schedules didn’t sync up. Luckily, Dylan’s people were able to shift his recording schedule to accommodate Schmitt.

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