The Sound of Joe Henry

8:28 p.m. Jan. 31

A good record producer is like a good editor. He or she maintains originality of the voice. The producer becomes an advocate for the artists material. The producer has vision.

Joe Henry fits this bill.

A few years ago Henry told me how he investigated Sam Cookes Night Beat as a template for his I Believe In My Soul compilation with soul singers Ann Peebles, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Mavis Staples and Billy Preston (who played on 1963’s “Night Beat”). Henry did not set out to imitate Cookes intimate, stripped down affair, but he wanted to study the prominent vocals……….

…..Henry heard how the band responded to the words and phrasing. That dicated the arrangements. Henry’s willingness to take chances is what makes his sound come alive. He generally gives his band songs in their most skeletal form so the material grows in a process of mutual discovery.

Henrys non-judgemental sense of adventure found him a new audience in 2007 with music inspired by the soundtrack of the hit 2007 film Knocked Up. The collaboration with Loudon Wainwright III can be heard in the offshoot Strange Weirdos, released last summer.

(Film director) Judd Apatow gave us that rare combination of specific direction and an incredible amount of freedom, Henry told me last week. You dont usually wind up with both those things, sometimes you dont wind up with either of those things in a film. It was very gratifying and a great opportunity to work with Loudon. Ive been a fan since I was a teenager.

On Henrys latest CD Civilians he grouped all 12 original songs together to create a unified body just as if he were making a film. This could be icongruous in an era of downloading and sharing single tunes. I still imagine how a record works as a complete piece, Henry explained. If I was a filmmaker, I would still make a complete movie even if someone was going to rent the DVD and go right to scene selection. It still helps me control the arc of the overall piece. It doesnt change at all if some people wont honor that when they listen to a record. You cook a meal with an idea how the whole thing works even if someone is only picking up the salad.

Pseudo Beach Boy Van Dyke Parks and instrumentalist Bill Frisell guest on Civilians. Parks also played accordion and piano on Strange Weirdos. I was at Van Dykes 64th birthday party three days before the (‘Civilians’) sessions began, Henry said. Bill had flown into town early to attend the same party. It was a great group of people. Eric Idle was there. At one point Van Dyke walked up with a mint julep or whatever in his hand and said, I hear Bill is going to be at your house recording. I said Yeah. He said, How would I get myself invited into that madness? And I said, You just did. I just thought at whatever point he materialized, we would know what to do.

While working at Warner Brothers Parks produced the first records of Ry Cooder and Randy Newman. Parks arranged the strings on Henrys second record (Murder of Crows) in 1989. We barely met at the time, Henry said. The producer (drummer Anton Fier) I had at the time completely ailenated Van Dyke and didnt use the score he wrote. I was horrified by the way he was treated. He is one in a million and I feel myself incredibly lucky to be associated with him.

After Henry gets off the road touring to support Civilians he will embark on working on a contemporary New Orleans jazz record with Allen Toussaint. It will be a record unlike anything hes done before, Henry said. There will be some progresive interesting players who will take some old material in a new light. Im real excited. Oh yeah, good editors get real excited too.

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