Imagine walking into a studio and finding an unreleased recording of a Jimi Hendrix concert, a missing Beatles tape or the Beach Boys Smile sessions. A few years ago, producer Randy Miller unearthed something not that historic, but of supreme importance to many Houston musicians: early recordings of the late David Catney, recordings that had landed the pianist a record deal.
One of the most beloved musicians ever to grace the local jazz scene, Catney was considered a Houston heavyweight until he died of AIDS in 1994. He had studied piano at North Texas State and had taken private lessons in New York with notables Joanne Brackeen, Richie Beirach and Hal Galper. In the late 1980s Catney was starting to make a name for himself in Houston. It was around 1990, when he succeeded Paul English as the artistic director of Cezanne, that his star began to ascend.
"About the time that he took over [Cezanne]," recalls English, "was about the time he got sick. He focused on music and became the really fine player that we all remember. I think that had it not been for Cezanne at that time, he would not have had that opportunity to grow and to be heard."
Saxophonist Warren Sneed, who often played with Catney, agrees. "At that time, he knew he was ill. He just totally dedicated his life to playing jazz. He said no more weddings, no more BS gigs, just jazz all the way. Some of those nights, I remember seeing him, and it was just obvious that he wasn't feeling well. He might lay his head down on the piano, but when it was time for him to take a solo, sometimes it was just magic. It was amazing how he could channel his energies into his playing."
Catney signed a contract with Justice Records in 1990 and recorded three albums for the local label. Some of the pianist's songs appeared on TV shows and in films, including And the Band Played On. During the early 1990s Catney -- whose style owed a bit to his teachers and inspirations such as Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea -- started to click in national jazz circles. This writer was working as a jazz disc jockey at WAER/88.3 FM in Syracuse, New York, and spun Catney's CDs.
Around late 1993 Miller, who now works for Houston Sound Studios, got a call from Sunrise Studios, where he once worked. Sunrise's manager was cleaning house and wanted to see if Miller was interested in some tapes in storage. Aside from finding a few La Mafia masters, Miller unearthed old Catney demos that the pianist had recorded in 1988 and 1989. He didn't think much about the material at the time. "I just grabbed them and really didn't do much with them for a long time," he says.
After all, Catney was under contract with Justice. There wasn't anything that could have been done with the tapes. For years they collected dust. It wasn't until Miller got a call from Sneed that the producer began to realize what he had in his hands. Sneed was looking for some old material and recalled playing with Catney on some of the recordings Miller possessed. "We used to record," Sneed says, "just for the heck of it sometimes."
After dubbing the tapes for Sneed, Miller realized he had something special. "There were certain tunes, and it was like, "Man, it sounds good,' " Miller says. "I listened to it around the house and it was magic, some great moments. Warren called and said, "This stuff is great. You need to do an album.' I started thinking about it. I'm not pushy in terms of putting music out, because I want to put it out, but he pointed out to me that a lot of people would want to hear it."
Sneed agrees. "Dave's real relaxed and burning, man. It's really some of his better stuff here. I'm just on one tune. It's basically Dave in a trio format."
Out of nothing but sheer affection, Miller began working on the tapes in his spare time. The project was labor intensive, trying to extract the best from Catney's jumble of work. (The pianist recorded two or three takes of each song. Sometimes he'd change part of a song, then record it six months later.) Miller had to decide which versions were best. "An ending on one version might just crash and fall apart," Miller says. "So I did some editing. I would put an ending from another version on."
Though it seems Miller may have tampered with history, you must remember that these were just demo tapes, glimpses of Catney's development. "They were supposed to be like musical snapshots," Miller says. "There's a lot of energy [in the recordings]. It's a lot of fun."
Both Miller and Sneed agree that there are a couple of glitches, a few clams here and there, but nothing important. Catney's more pristine performances can be heard on his three Justice albums. Music isn't meant to be perfect, anyway. Take away the humanity of any song and you're left with sterility -- the antithesis of jazz. These demos are documents of an emerging artist as he tries to land a record contract. In this context, they are fascinating, but they also have artistic merit on their own. After one song, Catney can be heard saying, "The great thing about this is we don't have to use the ending if we don't want to."
"[Catney] was just one of those guys. Aside from being an excellent player, he had a certain charisma about him," Sneed says. "He was always a bundle of energy, and he was just so positive. When he became ill, it was kind of heartbreaking to see this. As he became more and more ill, [it was] inspiring in some ways. His playing on some nights was just absolutely -- well, it was always great, but some nights it was almost spiritual."
Technically the tapes didn't have the advantage of a major-label soundboard, but sound quality wasn't a major concern. Recorded live to two tracks, the songs were mixed on the spot. The recordings were never meant to become an album. Miller was able to improve the sound by using state-of-the-art production methods. "We didn't have the luxury of multitrack recording," Miller says of the original demo sessions. "The tone was pretty harsh. I just tweaked and tweaked and worked at it."
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Once it was tweaked, Miller was ready to let the music play. He sent the finished tracks to Sneed and some other friends. The response was positive. Miller now had an album of unreleased Catney material to shop around. He eventually got ahold of La Mafia's producer/keyboardist Armando Lichtenberger, and the two decided to make the Catney project the debut release on Lichtenberger's new label, Urbana. Proceeds will go to a local AIDS charity and a scholarship fund in Catney's name at North Texas State (now the University of North Texas).
To go forward legally, the project needed only the permission of Justice president Randall Jamail, who owns the publishing rights to the Catney originals. Jamail had been contacted before by industry folk interested in Catney as either a musician or a good story. Jamail was skeptical. He checked Miller out and saw the producer was earnest and accomplished. Jamail called Catney's manager and friend, Linda McDill. She, along with Catney's former partner and Jamail, believed the project sounded solid. They gladly gave the okay. "Dave was really special," says Jamail. "Anything to get his music out is worth it."
Miller says the album, titled Window of Light, will be released in early October. Noted jazz musicians Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine, who recorded with Catney, will contribute liner notes. Five songs are Catney originals; the other five are jazz covers. Miller is excited to see this project finally come to fruition.
"The fact that it's just cool music," Miller says, "that's the bottom line. We could care less about any recognition whatsoever. I just want to see this thing get out. I mean, I get what I want. People get to hear good music and get to take care of a good cause at the same time."