Branford Marsalis has always provided his music to me in advance and asked me to "design what you hear." Believe me, those words are an art director's dream; that level of trust is really hard to find. But it also places an enormous responsibility on your shoulders; you really want to make sure you get it right.
This project was a collaboration with longtime Marsalis pianist Joey Calderazzo and presented a unique challenge; to my ears, the music was incredibly "open" and sparse, with lots of space around the two instruments. At the same time, there was a very obvious familiarity between the two musicians, and that closeness also informed the music. I was intent on somehow capturing and conveying these two disparate concepts on the cover.
I knew the focus, or part of it at least, would be on Branford and Joey. I came up with the idea of using scale to represent the openness of the music; the familiarity aspect would have to be provided by the two musicians. I mocked up some very detailed computer sketches for Branford to help visualize and explain my concept using stock art and models.
With a preliminary green light, I started looking for locations with high ceilings and a unique, ambient vibe, as I did not want the musicians to be overwhelmed by their surroundings. I found a warehouse space in South Boston for the shoot, and it was perfect; a giant, empty space with concrete floors and a huge brick wall painted white. I knew the musicians would just pop right out of that background. Unfortunately, that plan fell apart at the last minute.
I discovered that the photographer for the shoot, Boston-based Stephen Sheffield, had a connection to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The museum had just recently opened the new Art of the Americas wing, which featured a beautiful, massive granite wall. We negotiated to do the shoot on a Monday holiday. However, a holiday meant more visitors and we had to start the shoot at 6 a.m. to be finished when the museum opened to the public at 9 a.m. Working musicians seldom like a call time that early, but we were running up against a tour, so Branford and Joey, knowing our time constraints, were game. The space was lit by skylights, which meant we did not need to set up any additional lighting and could move quickly.
Sheffield and I started marking off spots on the floor for the musicians to stand and began framing the shot. Sadly (predictably?), my tight script just wasn't working; I had pictured the musicians at either corner of the frame, walking either toward or away from each other. Unfortunately, it lacked the energy I was seeking and looked "too" staged. Thank goodness for digital cameras tethered to laptops so you can see the shoot in real time!
Meanwhile, Branford and Joey started goofing around and cracking jokes. Sheffield was ready and snapped the singular shot that became the cover There were no others like it because Joey had just said something that made Branford laugh. If you look closely, Branford is covering his mouth and Joey is looking off to the side so that he, also, wouldn't start cracking up. ONE shot. And there you have it...that "thing" we were missing; that "thing" that gave a human connection to the scale and space concept. The poster really accentuated the spatial concept, due to not being constrained to a square format.
By the way, Branford was also more than capable of being a cutup, and both the musicians kept the shoot quite loose as Sheffield and I fine-tuned ideas on the fly. See the outtake above left. In retrospect, I think Branford and Joey's personalities were key to the success of the shoot, and the body language on the back cover illustrates those split-second moments that work.
I have always looked to some of the classic Blue Note covers for inspiration. Reid Miles and Francis Wolffe really changed album cover design with their interesting use of size, scale, perspective and, of course, their simple yet beautiful typography. This was my guide — and goal — for this album cover, and "Songs of Mirth and Melancholy" remains one of my favorite covers I've worked on.