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Audeze interviews bassist, composer and arranger Chuck Israels

Chuck Israels has been a musician/bassist/composer/arranger and audiophile since his days building Williamson circuit amplifiers, assembling DynaKits and working at The Listening Post in Boston and later at Acoustic Research testing and building loudspeakers (1957-60). As a bassist, he's best known for his work with pianist Bill Evans, but Chuck has played on dozens of records and is still going strong.

"I use my LCD-1s when I need to hear deeply into editing or mixing... Every incremental improvement removes a veil and gets me a step closer to 'in the room' nirvana." - Chuck Israels

 

Here's our chat with Chuck:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?

I’m happy with almost all the work I did with Bill Evans — particularly a concert at the ORTF in Paris in 1965 that’s been poorly distributed on pirate labels but may soon become more widely available, and the work with Bill’s trio and Swedish singer, Monica Zetterlund. There were many performances with the National Jazz Ensemble in the 1970s that remain memorable. Like many musicians, I live in the present. So my favorite things are often those I’m working on at the moment. I have a fine nonet here in Portland, and as soon as we can get back to performing and recording, that will occupy my attention and dispel nostalgia. A lot of the band’s music can be found on the website.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on?

I worked for some years as a freelance jazz bassist. Most of what I do now is as bassist/leader/composer/arranger. I won a Grammy last year for my work on a project with mezzo soprano, Joyce DiDonato.

How did you get started in music/audio production?

I’ve played music almost as long as I can remember, from playing the guitar and cello starting around 10 years old. My stepfather was a fine classical baritone, and there were musicians and music in the house all the time. Paul Robeson was my kid brother’s godfather, and you don’t forget that voice, or that level of integrity and commitment. And that was only one of many impressive people to whom my parents provided access. I’ve always been interested in audio and recording and have followed that ancillary interest as long as I’ve been a musician.

Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

The bassist Oscar Pettiford was an early influence, and when I first heard Bill Evans, before I had the opportunity to work with him, his music represented an ideal balance of aesthetic principles for me.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

I used to avoid frustration, although I can certainly attest to a life that hasn’t been free of it. It took a long time, and some maturity, to realize frustration is simply the resistance you feel when you’re moving forward, so my attitude towards it has changed. I make an effort to treat it as a friendly confrontation and try to deal with it as a normal sensation on the path to achievement. I’m not always successful in maintaining that attitude, but it’s my intention, and it does help to think of difficulties that way rather than as unusual obstacles. At least those over which one can exert some control.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
I have a favorite bass — a Glaesel from 1894 that’s recently been restored, and it’s a particularly satisfying instrument.


Besides that, I work daily writing music using Finale (on a Mac) in a comfortable small studio with good playback equipment, including Audeze LCD-1s. A most useful piece of equipment is an X Keys keyboard I use with Keyboard Maestro software to control many time and irritation saving macros.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire to get where you are in their own careers?

That’s a tough one. Where I am is, in many ways, no longer available. Wherever one is headed, there are multiple paths. The circumstances most helpful to me were not strictly academic. I learned more, and more quickly, in apprenticeship situations where I was surrounded by those with greater age and experience and had to struggle to keep up. Most academic educations situations, while they are far from useless, have the disadvantage of being ghettos of like age and experience where one is more powerfully influenced by one’s contemporaries than one’s teachers.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I’ve had to use them in recording studios off and on for many years, though I much prefer simply listening to the acoustic balance among the instruments in the room, whenever that’s possible. The headphones provided by most recording studios are generally less than “audiophile” quality, and even if they were, I’m pretty happy with the sounds in the room. My old friend, Jerry Rosen, former associate concertmaster of the Boston Symphony, said, “Listening to music on records is like being kissed over the telephone.” When I told that to pianist/composer, Bill Dobbins, he’d said, “No, it’s like eating a picture of food.”

Nevertheless, we want the phone kisses of recorded music to be as close as possible to the real thing, so good recordings and playback occupy a lot of my attention. And the ability to hear a particular performance on demand is a tremendous convenience.

I use my LCD-1s when I need to hear deeply into editing or mixing, and when I don’t want to disturb other people in the house. I use the LCDi3s on trains and while walking for exercise. There’s a large and beautiful park directly across the street from our home, and I walk a couple of miles in it daily. That’s a rare chance for me to listen to music I’m not working on, and it engages my mind so that I don’t notice the effort it takes to climb the hills! That may not be the most “audiophile” or romantic reason I love the Audeze in-ears, but it’s the truth, and it’s compelling enough for me to want the best I can afford. Every incremental improvement removes a veil and gets me a step closer to “in the room” nirvana.