Saxophone Journal Features Article About Cracked Ice and its Founder
Saxophone Journal has published an article about the band Cracked Ice. In fact, the founder of Cracked Ice is featured on the cover of Saxophone Journal, the industry’s leading magazine about the instrument and its players. What follows are excerpts from the article:
Crispin Cioe is a saxophonist with a resume that reads like a Who’s Who of Popular Music that spans about thirty-five years of gigging and recording. Crispin has built a career as a first-call sideman, co-founder of a successful horn section called The Uptown Horns, and now as a bandleader with his new group Cracked Ice. Their debut CD is called Soul Noir and it features Crispin’s modern twist on the classic soul genre. His writing and playing pay tribute to this important idiom of American music in a way that pushes the envelope forward without losing that classic soul feel. For Crispin, this band and this CD are a culmination of a life’s work in music playing with the top performers of our day. . .
So what are you doing for work right now?
I always work a lot. My band Cracked Ice is pretty busy right now. We are ramping up the original gigs right now. We did one a couple of weeks ago at Joe’s Pub in New York. Throughout the year we will be doing more, hopefully, up in Boston, too. The group also plays all kinds of private events, corporate parties, and receptions. We book maybe thirty, forty, or fifty of those a year. The thing about this band is that it really is a band. It really is fun with those kinds of players entertaining people. I absorb all of the business nonsense so they don’t have to deal with that. Some of these musicians are players who wouldn’t necessarily be doing this kind of work. The guitarist, John Putnam, is in the pit band in Legally Blonde on Broadway and everybody else does a bunch of other stuff, too. In fact, our keyboardist, Charlie Giordano, is out on the road right now playing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, subbing for Danny Federici, who’s been ill.
Did you record your new album in your own studio?
I wanted to get a pretty natural sound and I wanted it to sound like a band. So after I wrote all of the songs we rehearsed for a few days. I went into a great studio in Stamford, Connecticut called the Carriage House. It’s a vintage scene, an old barn, he has old mics and old amps, but everything is really kept up. It’s already set up for doing bands. Sonny Rollins did one of his recent albums there. Mike Brecker recorded there a lot. They have an old SSL automated board but it goes into ProTools. That was my compromise with analog and digital. I recorded through this vintage gear into this great board with excellent tube equalizers and then into ProTools. Next, I went to my engineer’s house and did all of the rest of the overdubs and mixing in ProTools. And I have gotten really good feedback on it. People like the sound of the CD.
I know a lot of people like to argue about two-inch tape and I agree that it sounds great. But in the end, you will have to put the music into digital to press CDs so it is inevitable that you will wind up in the digital realm.
A couple of years ago I did an album with some old friends from Boston called Duke and the Drivers. They asked me to work with them and they wanted advice about recording in New York. I hooked them up with Joe Blaney and he is well-known for his analog approach. So they actually recorded that album simultaneously on two-inch and ProTools and it was so cumbersome. And although I think the record sounds fantastic in the end everybody agreed that it was too much to go through. You really don’t get that much of a difference. So it was that experience that led me to believe in the way I came up with for this CD.
It sounds very authentic and the production choices were excellent. There is a great balance between the natural, acoustic sounds and some judicious processing with the reverb and other effects.
I could have gone completely old school and really made it sound like the past. I just decided that the way I ended up doing it was the honest thing that I wanted to hear, for better or worse!
There are some cool modern twists in the production on the CD. The next to last song has that cool ending where it’s just Susan singing and some rhythm tracks and you hear just the high mids. You wouldn’t have heard that back then in soul music.
In the psychedelic style, they would have but not the soul bands. It was just an idea that I liked.
You wrote every tune except for one cover song. The vocal parts just struck me that someone who actually sings wrote them.
I do sing but not much on the record. I did a couple of back ups. I get a lot of inspiration from singers. My approach on the sax is very much about melody.
When I was listening to your lead tracks on the CD my first impression was that you were possibly playing a hard rubber mouthpiece. You’ve got that dark, round sound and it doesn’t sound metal at all. Some rock sax players can sound abrasive and “metally” and that’s cool for certain things. But for this style that you are playing now, I think you have the perfect, classic sound.
Thank you very much. As a studio musician, you have to be able to do different things. But more and more now I feel like just playing the way I play. On this CD my goal was not about showing everything I could possibly do as a player. I didn’t want to stick saxophone solos in there that were going to sound like they were coming from another place. I wrote the songs first and then arranged them according to what these songs needed. I’ve been advised to expand the saxophone presence on the next record but I will do it naturally.
It’s obvious that the band can grow in any direction they want to.
Yeah, but I didn’t want to do a smooth jazz record. I have nothing against it and some of my friends like Jeff Golub and Chris Botti have done really well with that while still sounding great and still very much like themselves. But that wasn’t what I wanted.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that you were doing really well with the Shag Dancers down south. My first professional gig in the 1980s with Steve Smith and the Nakeds exposed me to that scene. We did some Clarence Carter tunes and the people would come out and do the shag. I thought it was really cool.
We are getting a lot of play on this record in Myrtle Beach. It’s like number five on the charts.
I love the vocalists on this CD. The first couple of tracks are so burning and then the fourth track came up and it had me reaching for the liner notes. Your male singer Brent had me convinced that there was a third singer involved. Most guys have one sound and Brent has so much range he sounded like a completely different guy!
Brent was with Tower of Power for four years.
Susan has the goods, too. She sounds like Tina Turner on one song with great pacing. She doesn’t give it all away in the first two bars.
She is definitely very strong in that area between rock and R&B, which I wanted.
Brent and Susan are very complimentary, and that’s a hard thing to do. Look back at all of these decades that this music has been around and there are only a few combinations that have truly worked. It’s a hard thing from a personality standpoint. Finding two people that have the chemistry to sing together and then the chops as well.
My whole concept on this album was the male-female vocal duet. In the 1990’s I did some film score things for independent films. What I got into during that period was focusing on songs for soundtracks. There was underscoring but I used the songs for that. I did a film called Burnsy’s Last Call. The entire film was shot in a bar in downtown New York. So when the director showed me the rough cuts I thought that the whole soundtrack could be songs playing from the jukebox in the bar. They didn’t have enough money to license well-known songs so I wrote and co-wrote a bunch of songs. The concept was one-hit wonders you’ve never actually heard. I wrote songs with Debbie Harry, David Johansen, Graham Parker, Lou Christie, and The Smithereens – a wide range of people I knew. I think you can still find that album on Amazon.com. After doing some of this work I realized I could write inside a given style really well. But I needed to think about my style. So on this CD, I didn’t co-write with anybody. I wrote a lot of songs for this CD and tried to pick the ones that were more personal.
Each one of the tunes on your CD can trace its roots to a classic style or groove in the soul tradition. The first song has that amping bass groove you hear on Rescue Me’ and many other Motown tunes. But the thing that stuck out to me was when you get to spots in the song where you expect to hear a five-chord or something else kind of cliché and you picked something more hip and modern without taking away from the soul feeling. It sounds like you have been writing for a long time.
Years ago when I was more active with the Uptown Horns e did a bunch of writing together and did a CD of our own. was a blues and R&B kind of thing. It was our band and we ought in a bunch of singers like Peter Wolf, Soozie Tyrell, id Bernard Fowler. In the 1980s & early 1990s, the horns wrote together a lot. I also wrote another concept for myself back in that period where I was thinking more of like the smooth jazz thing but in that era and I really wasn’t happy with what I did. I was always trying to write with other people or just by myself to find out more about writing. And not just technically but what I wanted to do and say as a writer.
I did a TV show years ago. I used to play with Buster Poindexter with the Uptown Horns. In the mid-1990s we had a show called Buster’s Happy Hour on VH-1. It didn’t go for a long time. We did a whole season of shows in like one month. I produced all of the cues and the theme song. But where my life seemed to be leading me all along is finding my own voice and doing my own music instead of the for-hire stuff. And I have nothing against that because I have a lot of friends who do that but I have always have been trying to find out where I could fulfill myself the most with my talent.
There was one more thing I wanted to talk to you about regarding your CD. The fact that you did all of the horn parts by yourself with no other brass, no trumpet or trombone, is impressive…
I decided one way or another I wanted this to be a self-contained band album. If I was going to start having other people play on it I could go nuts and I could have a huge horn section. At some point as I got closer to the recording I decided I was going to do this all myself. I have been in the studio on sessions where I had to stack horn parts up before. For this CD I voiced it like the alto was the trumpet, you know. I’ve got some good feedback on that decision. What I found was that on some of the tunes there is a bit of a New Orleans sax section sound. Lloyd Price, Wardell Quezergue, Fats Domino. As I listened back to the tracks I thought it was honest and it works. So I will probably stay in that mode for a while.
It’s an interesting choice because when it’s all saxes it sounds more like an organ, you know? Have you ever heard any of those saxophone choir CDs by David Bilger?
Yes, I have. So I thought that will be our sound. Rather than make apologies for it, this is the sound. Also my engineer Larry Alexander helped a lot. I told him I was going to do that so we really worked on making it appropriate in the mix. On the song, New Shade of Blue, the song is coming out of the Albert King vibe. I thought that if I put the saxes all stacked up and voiced right it will be pretty close.
It was refreshing for me because not to slag on our trumpet-playing brothers here, sometimes with the trumpet added in here some of the lines can start to sound “showy.” That’s why always liked the Memphis Horns because their blend isn’t as brassy as other sections. You have plans to do another album?
Yes, I have been writing but I still want to do business with this CD. I want the band to start working more live gigs in the Northeast and Southeast . . . When we play live it really gets people going. The goal is to get out and groove.
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The full text of the Cracked Ice Article in the Saxophone Journal is posted on Crispin Cioe’s website, Crispin Music.