Chris Carver, jazz composer and keyboardist: Something Else! Interview

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Chris Carver joins Preston Frazier for an in-depth conversation about Wonderland, the Mississippi-based jazz composer and keyboardist’s well-received follow up to 2015’s Ghost in the Machine. He also discusses his early years in music, how his musical vision has evolved and the benefits of having a second job.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How does Wonderland differ from Ghost in the Machine?
CHRIS CARVER: They are very different. Ghost in the Machine is very chemically charged, with a monophonic melody over it. There’s a simplicity to it, but with burning playing by the guys. I wanted it to be a showcase. It features a lot of digital synth, too.
With Wonderland, I stepped up my composition and melodic playing. I wanted a warmer sound. I also like my stuff to focus on the ensemble. I wanted it to sound like a really well rehearsed live band.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Did you produce Ghost in the Machine?
CHRIS CARVER: I did most everything but the mastering. There were a few songs that I recorded at a studio called the Lodge in Mississippi and engineered by William Coates, who’s an awesome engineer and a ridiculous drummer. We recoded most of it in the room, and then do overdubs online.

PRESTON FRAZIER: The keyboard sounds on Wonderland are very warm and organic. The Hammond solos are fantastic.
CHRIS CARVER: I used live instruments and kept the synth work down, and I have to give credit Phil Lassiter for his amazing horn arrangements. The guy knocked it out of the park with his arrangements. The horns made a big difference in the project.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell us a little about your writing process for Wonderland.
CHRIS CARVER: I didn’t have any deadlines to meet, so the writing process started two or three years ago. The time-consuming part is really picking out the musicians and fleshing out the parts. This project was more melody driven. I would write out melodies, while Ghost in the Machine was groove focused. I really wanted this to be more melodically and harmonically driven. Sometimes, it would start with a piano; sometimes, it will start with a guitar. Sometimes, a chord progression would start things off. I don’t have a set process. It happens when it happens. Production-wise, a majority of the songs started with a melody. I would then sit down at a midi-keyboard studio or Protools, and flesh it out. I do all this in the box, then I’ll start pulling things out and moving them around. Usually, the arrangement is done before the rest of the musicians hear it.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Do you recall which basic tracks were recorded by the band in the same room?
CHRIS CARVER: “Wonderland” was one that was 100% on line.

PRESTON FRAZIER: That’s amazing, because of the live feel with Jeff Coffin and Adam Nitti on the song.
CHRIS CARVER: I met Jeff through Adam Nitti. I’m a huge fan of Jeff’s. He’s on a couple of tracks on the album.

PRESTON FRAZIER: The second song, “Saboroso” is amazing. What’s the concept around the song?
CHRIS CARVER: I have a love affair with Brazilian music and wanted a legit samba/Brazilian song. I called in a bunch of guys to help me flesh that out. I started with percussionist Emedin Rivera, who’s a phenomenal New York based percussionist. Phil Lassister did the horn stuff. The melody came to me quickly, then the solo and turns came a little later. Mauro Hector, the guitarist, had a huge impact on the song. He’s a great blues player and has jazz chops for days. We had a bit of a language barrier, but my dad speaks fluent Portuguese and it work out really well.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Do you recall what you played on it?
CHRIS CARVER: I played the Hammond B3 Organ and a Ravencroth for the grand piano. I also kept a little Fender Rhodes on the song.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How about the song “La Piroq Ble”?
CHRIS CARVER: It’s named after one of my good buddies in town who owns a club called the Blue Canoe. It’s got a great vibe. It’s a fantastic listening room which attracts a lot of talent. It always has a great New Orleans-type vibe, and it’s a great place to play.

PRESTON FRAZIER: That features Jason Palmer on drums and Adam Nitti, too.
CHRIS CARVER: Yes, and it was recorded via cyber space. My solos were live for the most part. The solos on this song are a pretty early take.

PRESTON FRAZIER: “Thing of Beauty” featured Brent Mason on guitar.
CHRIS CARVER: Brent is a good buddy of mine. Of course, he’s a Nashville legend. Whenever I need that sweet guitar sound, he’s the guy I call.

PRESTON FRAZIER: “Whatchulookinat?” is amazing!
CHRIS CARVER: Yes, that’s a fun one! I was kind of thinking: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I wanted a good old blues track with a little bit of a twist. I wanted a dirty B3 sound.

PRESTON FRAZIER: “Return of the Flying Dutchman” smokes too. It’s got Hedras Ramos Jr. and Larry Belton Jr.
CHRIS CARVER: Oh boy, that took a while. I’m a huge progressive rock fan – Thank You Scientist, Dream Theater and Rush. At the time, I was talking to Adam Nitti about doing a prog rock project and there’s this part right after the guitar solo that I just kept adding to, with strings, timing changes, etc. It’s really a handful, and a fun end to the album.

PRESTON FRAZIER: You have quite an extensive session and sideman background, but that’s not your main gig.
CHRIS CARVER: I did that for several years, but I came a crossroads where I thought, “Do I want to continue to pursue music, or get a real job?” I went with getting a real job. I hurt my back on the road and my mom talked me into seeing her chiropractor. I decided after that to pursue chiropractic as a career here in Mississippi. The great thing is, I still get to pursue my passion for music.

PRESTON FRAZIER: You’re from Mississippi?
CHRIS CARVER: No, my family is from Peoria, Illinois, were I was born. We moved here to Mississippi when I has a young child. I claim Mississippi as home. I grew up in a hot bed of musicians here. It’s either sports or music, and I chose music. I have a very musical family. My mom’s a singer and my dad’s a bass player. Music was a logical choice.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Was your first instrument piano?
CHRIS CARVER: Yes, my Mom realized I had a knack for it at an early age. She put me in Suzuki lessons and I did that for several years, then did classical training up until high
school.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Did you study in college?
CHRIS CARVER: A little, I really didn’t have too much time, as I got my first gig around 19 and started playing on the road. I was traveling and going to school part time. I also realized classical wasn’t where it was at for me. I got into jazz and blues, and secular music. Around when I was 18, 19, there was a big-circuit band that picked me up and I toured with them – Shagadoo – for quite some time. We toured the entire region, over to Florida, Texas and up to Indiana. They are still around.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Was it a difficult transition from classical to jazz?
CHRIS CARVER: Not so much. I was taking lessons at Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, during my first couple of years in high school. There was a teacher there named Ray Liebau, a tremendous jazz player who talked me improvisation and turned me on to really cool music. I kind of started backing away from my classical lessons at that point. I really started learning the ropes in the jazz scene. I toured with the band until I was about 23 but, at that point, online music was gaining momentum. I thought, “Do I really want to continue to pursue this full time?” I then went off and did my academic thing.

PRESTON FRAZIER: In Shagado, did you primarily play Fender Rhodes?
CHRIS CARVER: I has playing primarily Korg keyboards. The Titan was my main rig. We were kind of a dance band. These days, I stick primarily traditional stuff.

PRESTON FRAZIER: After you graduated what was your next musical step?
CHRIS CARVER: I moved back home and met up with some of the guys from the original band. I did some studio work with them, and also put together a band with them called Pulp Fusion. The band had a great bass player named Nate Holloman who, at the time, was living in Memphis but he got a gig in Vegas. We needed a new bass player and I threw Adam Nitti’s name out. I never met him, but sent him a note and asked his to come down to play. He was very cool and knocked the sessions out of the park. We became really good friends. That really was the start of me doing my own stuff. Luckily, with Adam’s encouragement, I ended up doing the first album, which was a few years ago. Adam is probably the biggest influence on both those.

PRESTON FRAZIER: You mentioned Adam Nitti’s encouragement on Ghost in the Machine. What else did he contribute to the project?
CHRIS CARVER: He played on all but two songs, I think. Leslie played on the others. He’s like a brother. I can bounce musical ideas off him; he has great ears.

PRESTON FRAZIER: I actually wasn’t familiar with you or Adam Nitti until I heard Leslie Johnson’s second album, The Leslie Johnson Project. That’s how I discovered your album Ghost in the Machine.
CHRIS CARVER: It’s a small world! I’ve been called to play on a bunch of albums by bass players. Adam, Leslie and Jermaine Morgan, who’s an Atlanta cat. All tremendous players.

PRESTON FRAZIER: It kind of opens up a wormhole of music.
CHRIS CARVER: Yes, that one session with Adam opened up a new world of connections with great musicians.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Finally, what are your top 5 favorite albums?
CHRIS CARVER: In no particular order, Herbie Hancock’s Thrust; Steely Dan’s Aja; Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life; Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall; and Brent Mason’s Hot Wired.


Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Preston Frazier
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