Monday, April 7, 2014

Remembering Jesse Winchester

I only had a few encounters with Jesse Winchester but they were all memorable.  One time he remembered my playing but another time he didn't remember me.  My first recollection of Jesse is a small apartment in Montreal where he had a big Revox tape recorder on a piano, I think, and it was the first time I had seen a Revox close up like that.

But before I ever saw Jesse, he came into my life when I was managing a folk duo called Breakfast (Allan Fraser and Sue Lothrop).  Sue called me from Montreal and said they were going to need a couple of hundred dollars from the band fund to pay the union initiation fee for an American guitar player they wanted to play with them at the Venus de Milo Room  (on Rue St-Catherine I think).  I said "absolutely not" but they went ahead and did it and Jesse played with them for that gig and a few others. After that, he was playing coffee houses on his own.

Then a year or two later I was asked to produce the 2nd Fraser & DeBolt album for CBS Records, New York.  The label definitely wanted somebody else to produce but were at least reassured that I had produced sessions for an ad agency and knew how to stick to a budget and fill out a contract.  At one point I heard Allan talking to the A&R guy saying "well it's either Phil Spector or Brian"  I had to laugh.  Spector was priced out of the market, one other suggestion from New York was an unknown musician and studio rat called Todd Rungren who had just recorded Jesse Winchester's debut album (and as rumour has it, accidentally erased some important masters).  Finally it was agreed that I would co-produce the album with Jesse and Jesse came down to the Fraser & DeBolt farm in Cookshire for pre-production. Everybody was tripping on mescaline and I think he might have been a bit appalled - though he was still enjoying his brandy.The whole circus moved to Toronto where we set up shop in a brand new studio called Manta (we were the first paying customer and my budget of 22 or 26 thousand was way more than any Canadian album project).  However we accomplished very little in the first 5 or 6 days except to exaspertate David Greene who was their top engineer.  He handed us off to suave Californian called Lee De Carlo who was a little more comfortable with our scene - and even brought his own stash.  But in the midst of this, Jesse lost patience.  I think, as they say, he wasn't having fun - so he just made a call and went home.

A little while later, I went to Lennoxville, Quebec to see Jesse's first gig with his new American band - hand assembled by Albert Grossman, I heard, and shipped up to Canada to play (and presumably record) with Jesse. After playing a bit with Jesse in Canada, they headed back to the states and became the Amazing Rhythm Aces.  Jesse was still getting his feet wet playing with a band but I recall it was a great show - with Jesse digging in to some solos digging in to some solos on a Gibson 335.

A few years later I was introduced to Jesse and he complimented me on my playing at a recent gig.  That made me feel real good.

It was many years till I saw him again.  It was at the Folk Alliance Conference where he was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award (orsomething equally prestigious).  He was walking with his wife and I spoke to him briefly and refered to that time long ago when we had tried to produce Fraser & De Bolt.  I don't think he remembered too much about that but he was very cordial.

And now I hear that he passed away.  He was definitely one of the great ones - so many classics...

here's a nice audio portrait with wise words from Jesse: