Beyond Tradition & Craftsmanship: Quincy Jones and Steve Lacy
There have been two viral interviews of Quincy Jones going around the web lately. Jones, a veteran producer, arranger, and composer, is a well-deserved EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), including 30 Grammy Awards. He produced and arranged for Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, and many others. As you might imagine, he has some fascinating stories and opinions—some so inflammatory that his daughters requested he apologize. Though Jones has led the complicated, sometimes problematic, life of a “dog,” his influence on popular culture is undeniable.
A Living Legend in a Changing World
Jones has been immersed in musicianship most of his life. He has developed the ear, mind, and technical knowledge to create boundary-pushing arrangements and catchy phrases. And he has never stopped creating. Today, between his own creative work, he is promoting and bankrolling Quest TV, which has been dubbed “The Netflix of Jazz.” For all these reasons and more, Jones is also someone we believe to be aligned with the principles of master craftsmanship.
However, over his career, the world of music production has changed as much or more as Jones has changed music. He is a classically-trained musician who speaks of advanced scale books. Recording music used to be a process of artfully capturing an artfully performed musical segment. Today, there are innumerable digital tools that have expanded access to the field. Any Apple smartphone or computer gives the user the ability to record high quality audio with GarageBand.
Enter Steve Lacy, a talented west coast producer who has worked with some of the most recognized musical artists of the present day—Kendrick Lamar, The Internet, and Ravyn Lenae, to name a few. Where Jones posses a more traditional background, Lacy represents an emerging DIY movement in music today. Where Jones is incredibly notation-minded, affirming his pride in being able to notate any melody or rhythm he hears onto paper, Lacy is more in-the-moment in his creative process. He speaks of laying down vocal tracks on his phone while driving and, even today, prefers to record his music directly onto his iPhone (with the assistance of various instrument cables).
Though the image of Lacy in a studio eating sour patch candy while recording a guitar riff onto his phone may seem irregular, his process is not. His interview details his playful repetition of musical ideas over the course of a session. Over a simple beat tapped out on his screen, he records a few bars, scraps it, records a slightly different version. When he has the riff right, he moves on to bass. Some of his completed songs are just loops: a verse and chorus on repeat, some are more traditional in structure.
The contrast between Jones and Lacy reveals how our lives are continually being changed and challenged by technology. Jones, in his interviews, scorns a large portion of music today as redundant and complacent while lamenting musicians who don’t know the theory behind what they are creating. Our view of craftsmanship certainly agrees with Jones here in that we know that the past is generally the best teacher of mastery, but Lacy’s commitment getting the perfect feeling is nothing to be snubbed. His ambitious, dogged, sometimes dangerous, recording preferences are still valid.
Lacy, of course, does have technical skills on guitar and bass and, presumably, an unknown degree of understanding of musical concepts. This is the promise of the digital world—giving professional creative abilities to almost anyone, even a high schooler, and giving them a place to share those ideas. Does traditional musical knowledge help one wield music creation technology better? Probably. Do you need that to create something of note? Not anymore.
The takeaway from looking at these two musicians—one who is just beginning to emerge, one a seasoned and recognized industry veteran—is that we need to sometimes looks beyond our traditional conceptions of craftsmanship, and recognize the world-changing potential play and experimentation have. Ideas turned over in the mind are, after all, the core value of any work. And there’s never been a better time to find a way to express them.