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Off the Beaten Tracks

Lloyd Sachs is the entertainment critic of the Chicago Sun Times

As the producer of singer Cassandra Wilson’s acclaimed albums “Blue Light ‘Til Dawn” and “New Moon Daughter,” Craig Street helped the singer erase the line dividing jazz, pop and blues with stark, boldly original textures. The albums dramatically expanded Wilson’s following by bringing her husky sensuality to the fore, inspired a wave of genre-bending experiments by other notable singers and established Street as a creative force to be reckoned with.

But even with those credentials in his pocket, Street grew wary when Ry Cooder approached him outside the Ocean Way Studio in L.A. when Street was taking a break from supervising the mix of k.d. lang’s 1997 album “Drag,” another critical triumph for him. Cooder, who has a reputation for orneriness, was working on a soundtrack for Wim Wenders on a busy day that also saw the Rolling Stones on the premises.

“He came over and in that low growl of his said, ‘You’re the fellow that did that Jimmy Scott album, aren’t you?’ ” recalled Street, who had produced the strange and wonderful Scott’s “Heaven.” An eerily moving, gospel-themed recording, it drew flak from purists for including songs by David Byrne and Bob Dylan alongside traditional numbers like “Wayfarin’ Stranger.”

“I looked up at him and answered, ‘Y-yeah,’ ” Street said, smiling. “He’s a big, imposing guy. I’m tall, but I’m thin. To my surprise, he said, ‘Y’all really nailed the essence of the spiritual.’ I was amazed he had heard of the record, let alone liked it. After Cassandra’s albums, I knew I was onto something, but hearing that from an artist like Ry Cooder, whose music I absolutely adored, I knew I was on the right track.”

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Though his relationship with Wilson has reportedly derailed, Street has been right on many tracks. Having started out specializing in what he termed “unclassifiable divas"--he also produced jazz-turned-pop chanteuse Holly Cole’s “Temptation,” a collection of Tom Waits songs--he has produced acclaimed projects by jazz saxophonist Javon Jackson, sleepy-soulful singer-songwriter Jeb Loy Nichols and blues-rocker Chris Whitley.

Pumping up his Mileage Plus credits, the Harlem-ite recently was in Los Angeles meeting with Flea (a time conflict prevented their doing an album together), back in New York and New Jersey acting on a sudden invitation from T Bone Burnett to help produce Patti Scialfa’s work-in-progress and in Austin, Texas, planning collaborations with rockers Will and Charlie Sexton and Alejandro Escovedo. He also was putting the finishing touches on albums by singer-songwriter Chocolate Genius (Marc Anthony Thompson) and confessional teen Shelby Starner.

And if that weren’t enough to establish his range, he is thinking of working with Bernadette Peters. “I like her voice,” he said.

Not bad for a guy who was working construction when he was hired to produce “Blue Light ‘Til Dawn,” having never produced a big-time record before.

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Few albums have shaken convention as soundly as “Blue Light,” a 1993 release that earned Wilson a Grammy nomination, and “New Moon Daughter,” which arrived two years later and won a Grammy. Encouraged by Street to ignore genres and sing tunes close to her heart--in addition to a bunch close to his--she reinvented herself. And drawing from a palette including pedal steel, classical and resophonic guitars, cornet, violin and African percussion, Street helped her redefine crossing over.

Cole and the formerly torching and twanging lang signed Street up to take them deeper into pop. Encouraged to tap their natural inclination toward pop, perennial jazz hope Dianne Reeves and up-and-comer Nnenna Freelon scored with their best efforts. Longtime Wilson crony Olu Dara went from playing cornet on “Blue Light ‘Til Dawn” to singing and playing guitar on his own stylistically roaming, country-blues-based gem.

“Jazz artists have always felt that they have to stay within tradition,” said Blue Note honcho Bruce Lundvall. “Being able to cross genres gives them a broader palette. We are running out of standards, after all. How many times can you do ‘Love for Sale’?”

“I know it sounds corny, but I never learned how to separate music, to make distinctions between genres,” Street said. Whether fleshing out a sound, as he did in getting Escovedo to add accordion to cello and violin for his recent New York performance to simulate a horn section, or cutting to the bone on Whitley’s “Dirt Floor” to highlight the beauty of his voice, he is a welcome reprieve from business as usual.

The quietly handsome Street radiates a cool self-containment and looks younger than his 43 years. During his recent trip to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin he moved without wasted motion in jeans jacket, jeans and a dark pullover, eyeglasses atop his head.

Street says he listens to music “most of my waking hours” and gives every indication of being able to talk about it to the same degree. References to literature and art and films line his insights. He talks with infectious enthusiasm about drawing inspiration from the drip-method paintings of Jackson Pollock, the killingly fanciful modernist fiction of Italo Calvino and the classic westerns of John Ford--songs from which he is hoping to record as a pet project. He also envisions curating a tribute to blues immortals Robert Johnson, Son House and Skip James.

Street’s wide-ranging interests were nurtured by his parents. His father, who is black, is a retired professor and writer whose musical tastes run from bebop to Celtic folk music and who is an unrepentant tweaker of home-listening systems. His mother, who is of Russian Jewish descent (“the anarchist side of the family”), is an educator and child psychologist who took the lead in exposing her sons to high culture.

The family moved from Oakland to Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district--Redondo and Adams--when he was 5. They later lived in Baldwin Hills. When he was 11, the Streets moved back to the Bay Area. Having been turned onto rock music as a Boy Scout--the first time he socialized with white kids, he said--he began playing guitar in blues cover bands modeled after British rockers.

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At 16, he got a job as “a coffee guy” at Pacific Recorders. Under a state-funded program, he was trained as an engineer. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute and, briefly, San Francisco State, but “was never much for school.” He studied photography and did some commercial work, but lacked the passion to pursue it. A record store job was critical to his development. “I had unlimited access to anything I wanted,” he said. “I played stacks of songs, one cut after another, and saw how music could fit together. I learned how you got from one music to another, without making distinctions between genres.”

He applied his programming skills and attractively deep voice as a free-form deejay on San Francisco’s listener-sponsored Pacifica station, initially working the midnight-to-7 a.m. shift. A turning point came when he received a National Public Radio grant to do a radio documentary on Jimi Hendrix. After interviewing record producer Alan Douglas, then the official curator of the Hendrix estate, Douglas lent Street Hendrix’s masters for the program.

The man brought in to do the mixing, Neil Young producer Elliot Mazer, recognized a kindred thought process and told Street he should become a producer himself. “I thought Elliot was out of his tree,” Street said. “I thought producing was engineering.”

Now he thinks differently, having immersed himself in the techniques and mind-sets of producers ranging from cut-and-paste master Teo Macero of Miles Davis fame and the Stones’ Jimmy Miller to Alan Douglas (the only man to handle both Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix) and eclectic high conceptualist Hal Willner. Early Dylan producer Tom Wilson was an inspiration as well.

“I remember hearing Dylan start off ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ by playing the wrong song, laughing, and then playing it the way it was supposed to be played. I remember thinking that someone decided to leave that on the record. Wilson did all sorts of outlandish things, even with Simon and Garfunkel,” Street said. “That he was black and doing what he wanted made a strong impression on me.”

Street plans his recordings thoroughly, preparing eclectic tapes to convey his ideas and suggest source material. In addition to Dylan and David Byrne, Jimmy Scott, whom Street teamed with the young jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson, got an earful of Mahalia Jackson, Bob Wills, Curtis Mayfield and Emmylou Harris.

At the same time, he prides himself on working fast, striving for no more than one or two takes plus overdubs. His penchant for “dropping elements into a room and letting them react with each other” can send technicians fixated on things like recording levels and balances into a tizzy. But he makes spontaneity work. “I don’t like polished perfection,” Street said. “I like it when stuff [messes] up. If something doesn’t work, there’s a good chance it will lead to something better.”

No one is more decisive than lang, who convinced Street that she should cover Steve Miller’s “The Joker” on “Drag.” “I’m used to working super fast, but in a different way,” lang said. “Craig got me back to performance with a more organic method that probably will have a severe impact on how I approach recording in the future.”

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Street casts himself as a benign motivator. “It’s a real Tom Sawyer type of thing, getting a bunch of people to paint a fence,” he said. Though he is appreciated for the easygoing environment he creates--he directed the elderly Scott, who was suffering from laryngitis, from a couch on the studio floor--he also has been known to alienate artists.

“Craig is fun to work with, but in communicating, he can sometimes come across as arrogant,” said guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, a onetime close collaborator of Wilson’s who helped Street line up musicians for live tributes he produced after arriving in New York in 1985, including a Town Hall celebration of Hendrix.

“One big point of conflict is that Craig is a very control-oriented producer who has an appreciation for expressive-type players, some of whom have gained their reputation from their sense of freedom,” said Bourelly “It’s hard to put constraints on guys who are not used to that.”

Perhaps women as well. Repeated attempts to reach Wilson for this article through her publicist, record label and management failed. But Lundvall conceded that Street is “a sensitive issue” with her. The singer and producer, he said, “had a falling out.”

Street didn’t deny that he and Wilson have hit a bump in the road. “Those two records were really intense experiences for everyone involved. There was a lot of pressure.” But, he said, “I’d work with her again at any point in time.” (She is scheduled to produce her next album, a Miles Davis salute she has been leading up to by performing songs by and associated with him in concert.)

The Street-Wilson partnership grew out of a long-standing friendship. Signed to Blue Note as a seasoned member of Brooklyn’s avant-funk M-Base collective, she was asked to tone down her sound. Uncomfortable with the idea of working with a name producer, she took Street up on his offer to produce her.

Having stopped presenting live shows, he was working in high-end construction crews, making good money “renovating fancy places.” With Wilson’s support, he got $1,200 from Lundvall to make two demo tracks: a tough, smoldering version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and a ripe reading of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.” When Lundvall heard them, he said, “I just fell out. I said, this is it. This is the whole plot. It’s so fresh. Great, who is this guy?”

And, he would come to ask, where is this guy? Frustrated with the difficulties of reaching Street on scaffold phones after he had hired him to produce “Blue Light ‘Til Dawn,” Lundvall put him on the Blue Note payroll as an A&R; consultant, a position he still holds.

Hearing about the reported falling out, you wonder whether the fiercely independent Wilson chafed over Street getting or taking too much credit for her success. He sighed in annoyance over such an interpretation.

“I have an ego like everyone else,” he said, “but I’m really not interested in getting the kind of credit people are giving me. I’m flattered by it, but I didn’t come in and create who Cassandra is and what she is. That stuff was there.

“Whether she chose to access it is another issue. Everyone has access to a lot of things. It was no accident that in the middle of the Grammys, Aretha did Puccini. My job is to mirror who the artist is and wants to be at a given moment. Sometimes that means getting them to overcome fear or self-consciousness. I knew that Cassandra used to play acoustic folk music and liked artists like Bread, Seals & Crofts, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. I said, you listen to that stuff, why don’t you do it?

“Cassandra really went out on a limb in making ‘Blue Light ‘Til Dawn.’ She was advised that I would be her ruin in abandoning tradition and making her uncategorizable. But she was so open and cooperative and allowed me a complete collaboration.”

Street has yet to score a mega hit, nor is U2 knocking on his door. But that’s fine with him. “I’m in a position to avoid as much of the industry as I choose to,” he said. “I’m just here to enjoy this and have fun with it. If it isn’t enjoyable or fulfilling, I’ll do something else. As long as I can make records with people I like, I’ll do it. If not, I can always go back to construction.”


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