News Column

Teenager revives live music recordings inspired by yesteryear

October 16, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 16--Huddled around a phonograph on a recent Sunday afternoon, six musicians pointed their horns, tenor banjo and a bass saxophone into the recording machine's old brass bell and blared a hot jazz tune fiery enough to transport you to 1920s New Orleans.

In a music-loving city filled with state-of-the-art recording studios, members of the band Bat City Six showed their unconditional love for early jazz by instead recording their high-spirited covers on a 1906 Edison Standard B Phonograph in an East Austin home.

It takes a special music producer to pull off a recording of this kind, one who knows the ins and outs of yesteryear's sounds and one who has mastered the inner workings of a phonograph. Not just any phonograph, but one that plays and records (with the help of a special attachment) wax cylinder records. These toilet paper tube-looking records predate the disc-shaped records most people know.

Standing beside the phonograph, making sure the Bat City Six's recording sounded precise, was 17-year-old music producer Colin Hancock. The teenager, who launched Semper Phonograph Company, has produced wax cylinder recordings for several of Austin's old timey bands. Hancock enjoys re-creating the music of eras gone by, music that he's passionate about preserving, for a generation of music listeners who walk around with extensive music catalogs in their pockets.

"I tell my friends that I probably have the strangest collection of music on my iPod," said Hancock, who listens to rock and rap as well as jazz. "My music ranges from 1888 to today."

Hancock is methodical about his process, focused and strives hard to make the recording sound as perfect as possible. When he played back a tune, the six men, dressed sharply in slacks, ties, suspenders and suit jackets, all leaned in close to the phonograph, analyzing every note.

Hancock has a fine-tuned ear himself. He's a multi-instrumentalist but says he's known as a trumpet kid at St. Stephen's Episcopal School, where he's a junior. When Hancock was about 7 years old, he picked up one of his dad's Bix Beiderbecke CDs and grew fascinated by the music of the 1920s influential jazz soloist. At 8, he had his first trumpet. By 10, he had discovered wax cylinder records from his dad's jazz book. But nothing springboards a curious mind like meeting an idol.

At 12, Hancock met jazz musician Wynton Marsalis through a friend of his father. "It was scary, but a dream come true," Hancock said. "He actually started playing piano, and I got to play his trumpet, which was inconceivable." On his way out of Marsalis' New York home, Marsalis noticed Hancock's interest in his Graphophone, given to the musician by Columbia Records.

"I never use this; it's just collecting dust," Marsalis said. Next thing Hancock knew, he and his father were lugging the vintage record player on the New York subway. Hancock now has well more than 100 cylinder records he's collected over the years.

Hancock may be a teenager, but he leads the recording session with the group of men with confidence. He chats with ease about great musicians of past decades with the veteran performers. The Bat City Six -- made up of members from the East Side Dandies and Thrift Set Orchestra -- trust him.

Which is good, because when you're working sans electricity, you've got to get creative. Band mates stood close to the recording machine so it could capture the best sound quality possible, and they constantly adjusted -- one step forward, another step back.

"Is this what bands went through back then?" said tenor banjo and vocalist Westen Borghesi after some rearranging.

Hancock poked his head almost inside the phonograph's bell and announced the name of each upcoming tune. "'Dixie Jass Band One Step' performed by the Bat City Six for the Semper Phonograph Company," Hancock spoke loudly into the vintage machine. He would repeat his announcements several times during the four-hour session that required multiple takes (there's no editing).

Recording tunes such as "Kansas City Man Blues" or "Snake Rag" for the Bat City Six without electricity required soundwaves to travel down the horn and funnel into a diaphragm where soundwaves vibrated into a little needle, which cut grooves into the wax cylinder.

When it comes to recording over a used wax cylinder, you have to put in a little elbow grease. Hancock shaves the wax cylinders to wipe away the recording grooves using a 1918 Dictaphone shaving machine. He found it at Uncommon Objects on South Congress, where it was mistakenly advertised as a sewing machine because of its furniture-like base.

But 21st-century technology wasn't ignored. When the band needed a stopwatch, Hancock turned to his trusty smartphone. He also used a device called an archivette to connect the phonograph to his laptop. Once songs downloaded, he listened with headphones and identified trouble spots.

For Borghesi, who says he's been obsessed with the old-time music for almost half of his life, the recording experience was thrilling.

"It makes me listen to all of those original old recordings in a whole new life," he said. "Now I imagine how unbelievable it must have really been to hear all of those great musicians live back then."

Hancock hopes to re-create and record music on 78s soon. He'd like to continue researching sound restoration as a hobby, but plans to study architecture in college. Jazz, for him, feels personal and has the power to soothe.

"When I want to sit down and read a book or relax, I listen to the teens, '20s or '30s music," Hancock said. "That's the kind of music I want to listen to when I want to feel good. Even the blues makes me feel better. It just speaks to me."

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Watch a Semper Phonograph Company video of the Bat City Six recording process online at youtube.com/watch?v=sAAL5n0if0g.

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(c)2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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