Bay Area Musician: Will Ackerman

Our interview with Will Ackerman will be covered in two episodes airing 7/16 and 7/23 6–7pm on KZSU 90.1 FM (or http://kzsu.stanford.edu/live). To listen to previous episodes, subscribe to http://bit.ly/BayAreaMusician

Season 2: Episode 2

Will Ackerman, renowned composer, guitarist, recording artist, founder of Windham Hill Records and the man essentially responsible for creating a whole new genre of music, was running late to our meeting. At least he had a good excuse. He had to run to town to pick up diesel fuel for his tractor.

When we finally connected with Will by phone, he apologized for his tardiness and explained that immediately following our interview he had chores to do, including mowing a field on his farm in Vermont.

What was scheduled as a 20-minute call concluded just shy of 2 hours as we delved into a variety of topics, including the history of Windham Hill, farming, construction, poetry, life in general, and, of course, the music business today.

Will Ackerman

Will and his wife have lived and worked on their property for over 20 years. After selling his share of Windham Hill Records in the mid ’90s, Will high-tailed it from the hustle and bustle of California and the music business to his refuge outside Brattleboro in Windham County. At last count, there were 17 buildings, all of them built by Will. (His first endeavor was Windham Hill Builders.) One of those structures encapsulates Imaginary Road Studios, where Will produces, not surprisingly, hand-crafted, pristine recordings for many acoustic-oriented artists.

Warmth vs. clinical perfection

After walking away from Windham Hill “with a bundle of dough,” Will decided to build his dream recording studio. Imaginary Road Studios is just that: a state-of-the-art facility blended with custom and vintage gear. But Will hastens to note that he views the machinery as a means to the end. “I see technology in service of beauty,” he comments.

To him, recording technique is only a part of the equation. It’s getting the best out of the performance of the artists that concerns him the most. And he brings the discipline of his sparse-but-elegant playing style to his role as a producer.

“If it’s not emotionally evocative, I don’t care how fast you can play,” he says.

But why produce at all? After a dozen-plus years building Windham Hill to a multi-million dollar business, he walked away and could have rightly claimed victory.

Instead, he waited the three years required under his non-compete clause and then went right back to work doing what he loves to do. He admits that the break was necessary, but it also gave him a renewed appreciation for the role of producer. And so he found himself back in business of mentoring, this time with a new generation of artists.

“I think I’m better at it now than I have ever been,” says Will, who acknowledges that a little wisdom, humility and perspective has been gained with age.

“My understanding of the gig is better than it ever has been. There’s no ego involved. I’m not a young man trying to prove anything anymore. I tell the people who come in here that I am working for them. I will tell them my opinion, but not angrily and egotistically.”

“There isn’t a metronome to be found in this place”

Will has assembled quite a team in his efforts to produce about 16 albums a year. In essence, he has his own “Wrecking Crew,” a group of top-flight, world-renowned musicians who will come in to support and back up various artists. “We laughingly call them our ‘House Band,’” says Will.

The roster starts with Will himself, as well as his partner and sound engineer Tom Eaton, an accomplished pianist. Other members include bassist Tony Levin, drummer Steve Holley and saxophonist Premik Russell Tubbs. They have collectively played with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Santana, and Lady Gaga, to name just a few.

Members of the House Band admit that sessions at Imaginary Road present some of the most challenging work in their careers. The music is essentially free-form. There are no charts, no click tracks. But Will’s intensity at getting just the right sound makes it critical to be on one’s game.

“The skill of Ackerman is he can listen”

Jeff Oster

We caught up with Bay Area composer and horn player Jeff Oster, who has produced four albums with Will.

Jeff, who has performed in everything from school marching bands to funk and lounge acts professionally, favors the flugelhorn and has developed a unique ambient style which he describes as “Miles meets Pink Floyd.” About a decade ago, after gaining traction on mp3.com with tracks he recorded on a laptop using loops and a cheap microphone, Jeff decided it was time to take his sound to the next level.

He contacted Will and sent him a few tracks. “He listened to them, then called me up and said, ‘Your music is actually good,’ ” Jeff says with a laugh. It wasn’t long thereafter that Jeff found himself at Imaginary Road.

A professional and personal friendship quickly developed and now Jeff not only records his solo work there, he also sits in as a session musician at Imaginary Road. And he and Will are part of a new quartet known as FLOW. The group has just finished up a new album which will be released in October with a concert at Carnegie Hall. When asked about Will’s approach to recording, Jeff corroborated Will’s take on the process.

Flugenhornist and composer Jeff Oster

“There’s never a written note. We will listen, and build an entire performance. I have never seen Will with charts.”

We asked Jeff about Will’s philosophy as a producer.

“The skill of Ackerman is he can listen,” says Jeff. “I would have been done 10 takes earlier but he will always get the best out of the performer. He does it by feel. There is a degree of respect and a degree of pushback. It’s very collaborative.”

And as is true with his own compositions, Will is aiming to evoke feeling with music that stirs the soul.

“As a producer he gives you a lot of freedom and he waits for the magic. He knows how to capture it. He would rather have the essence of three notes than the skillset of 40.”

Next week: The early days of Windham Hill and the role of FM radio, the sense of community then vs. today, the return of “the muse” on a trip to Italy, and Will’s affinity for physical work.

You can listen to the music from today’s show, which includes:

The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter (Will Ackerman)

Next and On One Knee (Jeff Oster)

Ritual Dance (Michael Hedges)

Bay Area Musician highlights the Bay Area’s music and musicians, their insights, their journey, and their opinions on what we can do to ensure a bright future for the Bay Area music scene. The goal is to get listeners and musicians excited about the local scene and inspire the local community to seek out and support local/live music. Please send inquiries to bayareamusician@kzsu.stanford.edu
Bay Area Musician is hosted by Sherry & George from the jazz-pop duet 23rd Hour. Click here for more info
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