Mike Moreno: Focusing on the Music
“ I want a record to be organized in a similar way to how I would set up an hour and twenty minute set. The order serves as a kind of storyline for the record. ”
A native of Houston Texas, guitarist Mike Moreno has been making waves. After graduating from the famed Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Moreno received a scholarship to study jazz at the New School in New York.
Moreno first paid his dues playing gigs around New York, and has since been able to perform with some of the biggest names in jazz, including the Joshua Redman Elastic Band, Lizz Wright, Nicholas Payton, Greg Osby and Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Though he spends a lot of his time playing and touring as a sideman, Moreno leads his own band and has recorded two albums under his own name, Between the Lines (World Culture Music, 2007) and Third Wish (Criss Cross, 2008), which have received strong praise from fans and critics alike. Fresh from a series of gigs in Europe, Moreno is hitting his stride as he prepares to head into the studio later this year to record his third album.
All About Jazz: On your debut album Between the Lines, the material consists of all original pieces, while for your latest recording Third Wish you have decided to include several jazz standards. What was behind your decision to include these particular pieces as opposed to recording a second album of original material?
Mike Moreno: When I began thinking about which tunes I wanted to record on Third Wish, I'd originally intended it to be entirely standards. Not the usual songbook standards from composers such as George Gershwin or Cole Porter, but jazz standards that were written by artists that I felt had had a strong influence on my writing and playing.
I wanted to record pieces by players along the lines of Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and even older writers such as Billy Strayhorn, without including any of my original tunes. At the last minute, I decided to include a few of my original tunes alongside the standards. These were songs I'd written awhile back but had not recorded, so I took the opportunity to include some of my older material on the new album.
Also, since this album was released on the Criss Cross label, and was recorded very quickly compared to my first album, it was essentially a live recording. Because the album was going to be recorded very fast, and Criss Cross was going to do all the mixing, I wanted to use some simpler material, such as standards, that we could get down in one or, at the most, two takes.
With my original music I like to shape it after we record it, I don't want it to just be a recorded version of what we do as a live group. I like to take advantage of the benefits that the recording studio offers. When I record my own tunes, and am more involved in the mixing process, I tend to finish the composition after it has been initially recorded. I like to add layers and textures that come to me once I've had a chance to hear the tune back in the studio.
AAJ: That leads me to my next question. You have now recorded two albums, one where you could take your time and be more involved in the mixing process and one that was essentially done live and the label mixed it afterward. After recording using these two approaches do you now have a preference for either, or do you find that certain songs lend themselves to being recorded with a "live" feel as opposed to the more compositional approach you discussed earlier?
MM: It definitely depends on the song, though usually I want the record to be about the tunes themselves and not necessarily about the soloing. I'll usually go with whatever take had the best overall vibe with the melody and the arrangement. For Between the Lines, I did go in afterward and add overdubs, basically adding different layers of guitars.
I really enjoy listening to alternative rock and folk records, even pop records. Most good pop and rock artists don't just go into the studio and record the track in the same way that they play it live. They use the studio to help create a sound that is different from the live versions, while a lot of jazz records are done in a very "live" sort of way. So I end up having a recorded version of the song and a live version that may be very similar, but are different at the same time. To me recording a tune and performing it live are two totally different things.
AAJ: Apart from having control over the arrangements and mixing of each tune, do you also like to have control of how each track is being recorded? Not in a demanding sort of way, but do you have certain microphones that you prefer to use, or is there a particular amp that you find sounds better in the studio than in a live situation?
MM: I'm not really concerned with a lot of that stuff. I'm usually more concerned with the music itself. To be honest, I'm not much of a gear guy in general. I like to try out different microphones when I'm there, but I'm not one of those guys who knows about all the different mics and the different types of recording equipment. I just focus on playing the guitar. This means that I have to make sure when I hire an engineer they really know what they are doing, because I'm not going to help them out much on that end of things.
I prefer to focus on the music and leave the recording to the engineer. I might make suggestions such as "let's try a different mic that's darker or brighter," but most of my input in the recording studio is usually during mixing. For me, the mixing process is usually pretty long. For Between the Lines, I had a definite idea of what I wanted each track to sound like, so I made sure to take enough time to mix it properly in order to bring out the sounds I wanted. I mixed for two full days and then went back and did a bit more on the third day. I find that I need at least two full days to properly mix one of my albums.
Mike Moreno (l) with Lizz Wright (c)