New York City studio legend Neil Jason looks back at key sessions in his storied career
In this exclusive recurring series, New York City studio legend Neil Jason looks back at key sessions in his storied career, which includes #1 singles and albums with Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, the Brecker Brothers, John McLaughlin, Yoko Ono, Roxy Music, and Bryan Ferry.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
One of the numerous perks of being an in-demand session player in the thick of the ’80s record-making scene in New York City was the high probability of being in the right place at the right time. Such was the case one brisk February day in 1985, when Neil Jason was at the Power Station working on tracks for Cyndi Lauper in Studio A and Billy Joel in Studio C. As he was there daily for a span of a few months, he had noticed that Dire Straits was in to work on their album Brothers in Arms. On this particular day, Mark Knopfler, the band’s leader, guitarist, composer, and vocalist, came into Studio A to say hi to Cyndi and everybody. On his way out, he looked at Jason and said, “Neil, do me a favor — when you have a minute, come and talk to me in Studio B.” “Sure,” was his response.
Jason had worked with Knopfler once before, in the second half of 1982, at the Power Station, for his soundtrack to the 1983 film Local Hero. Knopfler was a fan of producer Neil Dorfsman, who engineered Local Hero and likely recommended Jason and drummer Steve Jordan. Offers Neil, “What I learned from those sessions is how brilliant Mark is as a guitarist and producer. While most people think of his guitar playing as a mix of blues, roots rock, and country, he’s also a devastating picker. He can play in the style of Chet Atkins and Roy Clark one minute and then turn around and unleash a jazz lick that’ll take your head off!” He continues, “He has very long fingers and an incredible plucking hand that puts him in that special class of guitarists like Jeff Beck, who don’t use a pick. Likewise, Mark can write in many styles; listen to the jazzy track ‘Boomtown’ on Local Hero.”
A break came in the Lauper session, and Jason headed to Studio B, sitting down next to Knopfler behind the console. He recalls, “Mark said, ‘I’d really like you to play on this record, and I need to do it very quickly.’ The band had a world tour beginning at the end of April, and they needed to get the record out. I said, ‘I have the few weeks here with Cyndi,’ and he said, ‘Well, we can do it at night.’ I said, ‘Absolutely, whatever you need.’ Immediately, I thought about John Illsley, the excellent bassist and founding member of Dire Straits. There was nothing I was going to play that would have been any better than his contributions, so I asked Mark, ‘Where’s John?’ At that point, John came into the room, opening the door with his back, and when he turned around he had two casts on his arms! He explained that he went running around the Central Park Reservoir the morning after the band arrived in New York, and he tripped on a cobblestone and broke both elbows. Mark made it clear that John would be credited with playing bass on the album, and I would be given a special guest credit — along with Sting, not bad company! I had no problem with that. I was psyched to be able to record with Dire Straits, and in my glory to be running from one amazing album date to another.”
The bulk of Brothers in Arms had been cut at AIR Studios, on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Having had some problems with the drum tracks, Omar Hakim was brought down, and he redid the drums in two days. Mixing the record was also going to take place at the Power Station. Knopfler was one of the first people to own a Sony 48-track digital recorder, and he had it flown in and set up. Admits Neil, “My memory of how many tracks I played on and what the songs were is fuzzied a bit by time. I remember there being bass lines on a few of the tracks, either by John or Mark. For example, I didn’t play the main bass part on ‘Money for Nothing,’ but I recall Mark having me play slides on my fretless — almost like a Syndrum effect — for the intro, where Sting is singing. The results of that would only be on an extended version of the song.”
Jason recorded in the control room, sitting next to Knopfler, who was on a stool, with one of his guitars in hand. Neil Dorfsman was at the board. Jason plugged his trademark ’65 L-Series Fender Jazz Bass and his fretless ’84 Sadowsky J-bass — both strung with brand new Dean Markley Super Rounds — direct into the board. He recalls, “Mark would teach me the song, for which I’d jot down my own quick chart, or he’d demonstrate the feeling he wanted from the bass. Other times he would add a guitar part to the track. It was mesmerizing to be that close watching him play. John was also present at times. The general instruction I got from them was to feel what the band was doing and play accordingly. He continues, “I remember ‘Walk of Life’ being fun to play, with its quasi-country, two-beat feel. I believe there was a notated chart for the reggae-ish track ‘Ride Across the River,’ and I may have either added foam under the bridge or muted the strings with my hands. I also did takes for ‘So Far Away,’ ‘Your Latest Trick,’ and ‘The Man’s Too Strong.’”
Truly the surprise of the session was one of the last tracks cut, “One World,” where Knopfler let the full Neil Jason — slapping, effects, and all — emerge. Effects for bass was something Jason was long into, inspired by early influences like Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins. And in the Brecker Brothers, where the band was trying to push all boundaries, Neil had quite an array of them (including the Seamoon Funk Machine, which Neil’s company, SeamoonFX Pedals, re-released in 2021). So, having a few pedals in his gig bags for sessions was a constant.
For “One World,” Jason surmises that it was the hard-edged, funky nature of the groove that led him to move from finger plucking to thumb slaps and index-finger pops, with Knopfler’s approval. He laughs, “Knowing Mark’s experimental nature and commitment to getting just the right sounds on a track emboldened me to try out some pedals. I had my trusty Ibanez CS9 Stereo Chorus and a Boss VB-2 Vibrato pedal in the latch setting, so I could set the tempo of the vibrato to the tempo of the track. While I was doing that, it must have caught Mark’s ear, and he said, ‘Oh, what’s that? Let’s use that!’ My idea was to kick on the Vibrato pedal for longer notes at the end of phrases, as opposed to moving my finger side-to-side or bending the string to get a vibrato effect. I so appreciated that Mark ‘got it.’ Overall, ‘One World’ is as quintessential a recorded sound of my ’65 L-Series with effects as there is, and it was the perfect end to a terrific week.”
As quickly and vigorously as the album adventure started, it ended, and Jason was on his way to the next spate of sessions. Brothers in Arms would go on to hit #1 globally, capture two Grammys, and become one of the best-selling albums of all time. Neil sums up, “It was a fantastic experience to get to play on Brothers in Arms, and to help out a brother in bass.”
Example 1 shows the nine-bar phrase that serves as the intro, choruses, and solo sections of “One World.” Neil Jason kept his Stereo Chorus pedal on the whole time and kicked on his Vibrato pedal for the accented notes on the G string in bars 2 and 4 (the latter with its ear-grabbing high D’s against the A chord, which helps to cement the E dominant bluesy tonality). Also cool is the way Jason lays off the downbeat the third time through the I–IV progression, in bar 6. He recalls, “The groove had an almost shuffle-like lope to it, which is what gave me the space to add syncopation. Try to lay back a little, even as you drive the track.” –BM