Rarely have effects pedals been given such a sonic soiree. To introduce and showcase the new models in his Seamoon FX Pedals line, Gotham session legend Neil Jason reached for his pen, his bass, and his phone to channel what he’s been doing for the past fifty years: Creating and recording music at the highest level. For the just-released Super Session Vol. 1 by Neil Jason and the Seamoon All-Stars, Jason tapped drummer Steve Gadd, trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonist Ada Ravotti, keyboardist Paul Shaffer, guitarist John McCurry, and trombonist Tom “Bones” Malone to cut his tracks at the landmark Power Station at BerkleeNYC, in midtown Manhattan. One of the tunes, a version of Brecker’s “Sponge,” is a direct link to what got Jason into the effects game. Seamoon’s first pedal in 2019, the Funk Machine, is a painstakingly-crafted reboot of the vintage Funk Machine box that everyone in the Brecker Brothers used on “Sponge” and other songs, captured on the classic live side, Heavy Metal Bebop [Arista, 1978].
The vibe at the three-day, late-spring session, which included photo and video shoots, was a combination of happy homecoming and anticipation. The veteran musicians and behind-the-scenes personnel, like renowned instrument tech Artie Smith, warmly caught up with each other before getting down to the matter at hand: adapting the new Seamoon FX pedals into the new music laid out in front of them. Having to deliver under pressure was old hat to this crew, and soon the magic moments were erupting throughout the main room. Just after the music was put out to the world on August 25th, we got Jason to reveal all about his analog endeavor.
How did you come up with the idea for the Seamoon Sessions, and what was the concept?
Originally, my partner Jack Thompson and I had the idea to do an old school-style session to showcase the diversity of our pedals down in south Florida, where we have the Seamoon FX warehouse. We’re a bass-centric company but players of other instruments are digging our pedals, too. As a result, I was going to write a few tunes based on what the pedals did, and bring in some local musicians to record them at the Power Station in Pompano Beach. But as I started reaching out to friends about doing the session, we realized all the players we wanted were up in New York. Fortunately, Power Station at BerkleeNYC, had an open slot, so we moved the project north. As all of the incredible cats I spent my career playing with—Steve Gadd, Randy Brecker, Paul Shaffer—said yes, it grew from a demonstration of Seamoon FX Pedals to a very important session. Everyone was digging the tunes and it became as much a record project as anything else.
The tracks are shorter than one might expect, given the all-star lineup.
Yes, the songs were structured that way. I wanted to get to the point of each tune and showcase the sound of the band and the pedals, as opposed to having six or seven-minute tracks where everyone takes extended solos. My goal was to have a stylistic rather than a solo-istic record. A lot of people have been hitting me up saying they dig the short versions; it reminds them of the days of real singles.
Can you discuss each of the three new pedals in your line?
Obviously our first pedal was the Funk Machine, which is an analog envelope filter that has quite a few quirky qualities and is very reminiscent of the one I used 40 years ago with the Brecker Brothers. Our second pedal is the Grind Machine, an analog distortion preamp that has a wide variety of settings. It ranges from a modern distortion that will cut your speakers in half to just a little bit of warmth that sounds like an Ampeg B-15 that has been on for an hour. It’s a serious amount of power and range in a regular size pedal box.
Our third pedal, which was released the same day as the album, is the Octatron. It’s an analog octave box with one octave down, two octaves down, and a sub function, which also exists on the Funk Machine. It’s got a round, liquid sound; you can hold a note and it doesn’t get grainy or digitize in either octave. And the sub function is the secret weapon, even by itself with the octaves off. It’s a subharmonic that can fatten the heck out of your bass amp because it’s a better kind of low end. As you turn it up you’ll hear the thunder, but if used judisciously you can turn your bass into a ’61 P-Bass with 40-year-old strings.
The last pedal in the present line is the Skye Machine, which will be out soon. It’s three of my fave choruses in one box, and you can have the output in stereo. The choices in the choruses are ideal for different instruments, whether you want a smooth chorus for keyboard or a sparkly one for guitar. I like to put the pedal in stereo whenever I take a solo.
How was the bass recorded on the album, and how are we hearing everyone’s Seamoon pedals?
You’re hearing the guys’ pedals different ways, both through amps and direct. A key with our pedals is they become a part of the sound of your instrument and they also interact well with each other, so we made sure everyone had plenty of level on their effects during the sessions. For recording my bass, I had a B-15 but I didn’t end up using it. I went with a direct clean sound and a direct effects sound via my pedalboard. That’s how we did it in the New York studio scene of the ’70s and ’80s—almost always direct only.
Bass is featured on the opener, “The Skye.”
I would say the whole album is bass-centric in that the bass is featured in some way, but that’s especially true of “The Skye.” I came up with the main riff, which combines a bass line, a melody, and some harmonics, and it had an ethereal sound to it, so I tried it with the Skye Machine. I wrote the song from there, and what’s interesting is for as much movement as there is in the bass, there’s plenty of room for the band. The guys understood the concept. Randy solos around the bass line, and at the end, John and Paul have sort of interchanging solos. Pedal-wise, the horns used a light Funk Machine setting, Paul’s keyboards had the Skye Machine in stereo, and John soloed with the Grind Machine. I played my white Manhattan Prestige Bass, which had fairly new LaBella strings [RX-S4C Stainless Steel Round Wounds, .45-.65.-80-105], with the back pickup favored, through the Skye Machine in stereo.
Ex.1 shows the opening eight bars of “The Skye.” Measures 1, 3, 5, and 7 are all about letting various strings ring. The open E rings until you play the C on the E string. The fifth-fret harmonics on the G, D, and A strings ring until the pickup for the melody on the last 16th-note of the bar, with one stipulation: hitting the open G on the last 16th of beat two stops the G harmonic and replaces it with the ringing open G string. Lay back a bit to maximize the triplets and the overall swing feeling.
Steve Gadd has the solo track, “GaddSpeak.”
I asked Steve if he wanted to play a groove through the Funk Machine, which I had set up in the control room, to see how it works with drums. He said, Sure, and he came up with a cool, nuanced, funky beat, as only Steve can.
Your cover of the Brecker Brothers’ “Sponge” sits in a comfortable place, tempo-wise.
There are so many funky nuances to that tune, it can swing and rock at the same time. But if you play it too fast you can lose some of that. On the session we tried a few different tempos and stopped. Randy was right behind me in the horn booth, so I asked, Where can we take this so we can feel the swing of the figures and make it funky for the solos? He gave me a tempo, we clocked it, I counted it off, and that’s the take on the record. One of the magical moments is when we’re coming out of the solo section back to the head [at 2:04]. I started pumping eighth-notes and Steve’s hi-hat is closed, but he hears me and opens it gradually, building to a smashing crescendo, which leads Paul to play higher on the keyboard. Those are the kind of things you can’t write in a chart, it just happens. Everybody played through the Funk Machine, which is the sound of “Sponge.” Additionally, Paul had the Skye Machine and a little Grind Machine, and John had the Grind Machine. I played my white Manhattan Prestige with the back pickup favored, and along with the Funk Machine, I had the Octatron, using just the sub setting.
Example 2a and 2b are from “Sponge.” 2a has the opening groove, for which Neil adds a low F in some of the measures to help anchor and propel the section along. These are not present on the original studio and live Brecker Brothers recorded versions, but Jason began adding them live while playing with the band over the years. 2b shows the B section, which builds up to Jason’s triplet fill in measure 15, which is written. Don’t forget the swung feel for both examples.
“Fresh Funk” has a party vibe with a brief call-and-answer bass melody in the bridge.
That started as a groove I came up with playing around with the Funk Machine, while I was on the road with Roxy Music. I’ve always loved the vibe of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” [Motown, 1977], and I wrote a tune in that spirit to showcase the versatility of the Funk Machine. I even found a party sample in my library that you can hear at the end. For the bridge I left a four-bar space thinking it would be cool to step away from the bass line to play a quick melody using the Octatron one octave down, which Ada answers on tenor sax with the Funk Machine and Octatron. Elsewhere, the horn section had the Funk Machine and occasional Octatron, Paul had the Skye Machine and Grind Machine, and John had the Skye Machine. I played my white Manhattan Prestige with both pickups on, and the Funk Machine with the sub setting on—and what’s interesting is how differently it reacts in the A section, where I’m slapping, and the B section where I’m playing with my fingers.
Ex. 3 contains the first 26 measures of “Fresh Funk.” In the slapped A section, listen for the ocassional spot where Jason plays both the G (popping with his thumb) and the C (popping with his index finger) on the upbeats (as shown in bar 4), which is a reaction to what he’s hearing from his Funk Machine. At Letter B he switches to fingers and then retuns to slapping for the transition at Letter C, only to briefly switch back to fingers for the climactic fill in bar 26. Sit slightly in top of the beat throughout, to push the groove forward.
“Hey Bones” has a throwback vibe.
That’s inspired by and is an homage to all the great funk bands with horns, like James Brown, Tower Of Power, Average White Band, and P-Funk. I was working on a sound using the Funk Machine and the Octatron set one octave down and I came up with the main lick. I thought of the title, “Hey Bones,” and I called Tom “Bones” Malone to see if he would do it, and he was all in. He takes his trombone solo through a Funk Machine, and to introduce it in a fun way, I added the conversation between me and Tom. Then I had everyone in the band do the chant, “Make no bones about it”—a nod the verbal interplay those classic bands often had, live. Paul used the Funk Machine and I played my white Manhattan Prestige with both pickups on, the Funk Machine, and the Octatron set one octave down.
“Oh Yeah” is a swinging reggae track.
I arrived at that in an interesting way. While I was on tour with Roxy Music, we were playing the reggae song “Boys and Girls” [Boys and Girls, Reprise, 1985] in the set and I was experimenting with using only the sub function on the prototype Octatron pedal I had. Everyone in the band dug the sound I got, so for this record I wanted to write a reggae tune to showcase the sub function. I laid down a rhythm track and started singing a melody that I realized was from a Roxy Music song I recorded in 1980, called “Oh Yeah” [Flesh + Blood, ATCO], which wasn’t a reggae track. But it worked well, so I went with it. I brought in my demo and after listening to it, Steve Gadd came up with a feel and concept on the spot that was way cooler and swung more than I could have ever imagined, so credit to Steve. Paul and John used the Skye Machine and Bob Franceschini overdubbed his tenor sax solo through the Funk Machine. I played my white Manhattan Prestige with both pickups on and the Octatron, using the sub function only.
Ex. 4 has the opening four measures of “Oh Yeah.” Dig how Jason swings the descending Carpeggio in bar 2. He advises. “Laying off some of the downbeats is a key to the part, and I also plucked up near the fingerboard to get a tubby sound. There’s less tension on the strings there, so you have to play a little lighter, which helps you lay back.”
“Nitecap” is a classy, hard-grooving closer, with a bass solo and quick nod to the “Barney Miller Theme Song” near the end.
Everyone is digging that track and the irony is it’s me playing everything at the studio in Florida, before we got to New York. I wanted to showcase a heavy groove by having a simple bass line with lots of space, again using only the sub function on the Octatron to fatten the sound. It’s in that Verdine White/Earth, Wind & Fire style of playing pickups and ghost-notes leading into a strong downbeat. I played my white Manhattan Prestige with both pickups on and the tone knob backed off. Then I overdubbed a solo using my red Manhattan Prestige bass with the back pickup favored and the Estring tuned down to D, through the Skye Machine in stereo mode. As for the “Barney Miller Theme,” I happened to go from the root to the third in my groove part going out, and I realized what it sounded like, so I had to play the whole line. I tried to phrase it differently when the line descends, using some slurs and not attacking every note. Parts like that, by Chuck Berghofer, or Chuck Rainey on the “Sanford & Son Theme” are iconic and should be heard by younger players who might not know them.
Examples 5a and 5b are from “Nitecap.” 5a shows the opening lick followed by what Jason typically plays groove-wise in the A section. Lock tight with the kick drum, right in the center of the pocket. He offers, “The trick to playing the upper-register lick is the open A, which gives you time to get down to the low G on the downbeat.” 5b contains the song’s B section, which starts with track-opening lick transposed up a minor third (though played lower in pitch and position on the bass). Following six bars of groove, Jason’s solo begins in measure 7. Note how the overdubbed solo swings in contrast to the straight-16th feel of the groove. “I was thinking of the swinging phrasing of Randy and Michael Brecker when they were in Horace Silver’s band,” explains Neil, who deftly works through dominant 7th arpeggios with a bluesy flair before ending on a low open D (tuned down from E) and two harmonics. The track-opening lick then returns to set up more A section grooving.
How do you reflect on the project and will you play the music live?
I’m thrilled with all of it, the record and the accompanying videos. Everyone was excited to do a real session and interact with each other, and it turned out to be quite an historic date. I hope to be out there playing live very soon. We’re also working on more music and we have more pedals and products in the pipeline, so stay tuned. –BM