As far as processing and recording music goes, in 2008 anyone can do almost anything with a click of a computer mouse. Some 30 years ago, though, a tape delay meant slightly staggering two tapes of the same track and crossing your fingers, and edits to a recording were made with a razor blade and tape. Take, for example, In a Silent Way, Miles Davis’ 1969 buttery groove-and-only-groove album. The edited-down sessions came in at under 20 minutes; eventually released as two tracks totaling just under 40 minutes, it’s a landmark of studio alchemy. The man behind the final version was producer Teo Macero, the studio brain behind Davis works such as Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, as well as countless other recordings. Modern recording technology can do things that Macero could have only imagined three decades ago, but imagine them he did.
Born in New York in 1925, Attilio Joseph Macero came out of the Navy and in 1948 landed at Julliard, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in composition. New York City’s burgeoning avant-garde jazz scene provided a more hands-on education: In 1953, he co-founded with Charles Mingus the fabled Jazz Composers Workshop, and went on to participate in several albums released by Workshop members. In 1957, he signed on as a staff producer with Columbia Records, where, as he told an interviewer in 1996, he suddenly found himself with “a whole engineering department and research department at my beck and call.”
Macero produced brilliant traditional recordings (including Davis’ much-loved Kind of Blue), but he was increasingly interested in working with studio effects — actually improvising/inventing effects — and from-scratch editing techniques. As the ’60s wore on, Davis was increasingly interested in pop music, electronic sounds, and modern composition, leading him in a less-linear, non-traditional direction, making Macero an ideal studio partner. Of a session with the trumpeter, Macero recalled in the same interview: “He plays the mute, and all of a sudden, a little passage goes by, and he plays an open horn. Then I pick it up somewhere along the line, maybe with the mute again, and then followed by an open horn. And it’s really terrific. I mean when you listen to it you think, ‘Gee, that’s a piece of music.’ Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?”
In this way, Macero literally assembled most of Davis’ albums through the ‘70s. To Macero’s chagrin, Columbia has in recent years released box sets containing the sprawling, unedited sessions of Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way, and other Davis/Macero productions: “They put all the mistakes back in,” he complained.
By that time, Macero had been gone from Columbia for more than two decades. He had returned to playing his own music in the early ’80s, releasing a rampage of recordings on his own Teo Records and other labels, and moved on to production work for artists such as Tony Bennett, Robert Palmer, the Lounge Lizards, Vernon Reid, and DJ Logic. After years of being dismissed by jazz snobs, the albums he made with Davis underwent a serious reevaluation in the ’90s, while at the same time the influence of his pioneering editing work was amply evident in a new generation of electronic music that continues to evolve based on principles he first made practical. He died February 19 at age 82.