The Truth about Music - by Ernie Rideout
  ( Keyboard Magazine Sept, 2001 )

An epic trail of Grammies and disappointments behind him, Loris Holland returns to the basics - and shows you how, too

By Ernie Rideout

His name is known everywhere gospel music is performed. He's a legend among the elite of the New York session scene. Major recording artists owe their success to his production talents. Keyboardists around the worlds try to emulate his style. Yet no one seems to have seen Loris Holland.
There are reasons why you've never found him making acceptance speeches at award ceremonies or appearing onstage as musical director for the top acts he produces. One of them is that he views his musical talent as a gift from God, which is therefore beyond considerations of remuneration and recognition. Infused with a bubbly and gregarious Caribbean spirit, his charisma is striking; yet he prefers to remain in the background, in the shadows.

On the terrestrial side of things, Loris has an ear for detail and a persistence for perfection that drives most mortals out of the studio. And he's been burned enough times during his career to distrust nearly anything the recording industry has to offer. Factor all this together, and you might get a picture of a recluse, mad in both senses of the word.The Truth is somewhere in between and beyond.

A person of immense talent such as Loris is not generally the product of a simple equation. Indeed, growing up as he did in a corner of British Guyana surrounded by three mile-wide rivers, expanses of jungle, and Brazil and Venezuela, his influences were numerous and strong. First and foremost was that of his piano teacher/church organist mother. Her complete ban of any music in the households that was not classical or from a hymnal has its origins in the night-club-related accidental deaths of her father and her brother. Though they died years apart, each had been performing "that stuff": popular music. Working against this was the influx o American popular music of every stripe delivered to Loris daily via the BBC and the records his father would play --- but only when his mother was out. Another tributary was the tide of reggae, ska, calypso, and Spanish-influenced music that poured from the club houses in Loris's hometown.
Now imagine all of this at work on a child who could play anything on the piano, having heard it anywhere, and only once. "I'd come home from school and do my homework," Loris recalls. "Then I'd play the pieces my mother had been teaching me until I fell asleep at the piano. My father would carry me into bed. As a kid, I never remembered going to bed, I'd always wake up and wonder how I got there."
Not surprisingly, with so much stimulus and pressure Loris developed a rebellious streak. Despite the ban on pop music, he became the hottest keyboard player in town by the time he was 13, managing to conceal his nightly gigs for a year and a half - until he missed the ferry home one night and his parents discovered the mop and pillows dressed up to look like a sleeping classical piano student. From then on, the battle that raged within Loris was between hi parents' vision of his destiny and his own inner musician.
The results over the next few years were predictable: electrical engineering scholarships interspersed with expulsions and even deportations - the latter from Canada, his passport having expired because the funds earmarked for its renewal has mysteriously been re-routed into the purchase of synthesizers. Eventually, his parents relented, and Loris, by then the best player in any genre in his corner of the world, made his way to New York, this time on a scholarship to the Aaron Copland School of Music.


1975 was a great time to be a young hotshot in New York. Musicians such as the Brecker brothers, Steve Jordan, and Steve Gadd were creating a vibrant blend of jazz and pop styles. Loris's next-door neighbour and classmate, bassist Marcus Miller, kept throwing prime sessions with those same studio greats his way. Although Loris blew them away, a confidence crisis led to his first big conflict with the music biz.
"At the time, I didn't realize that these were the top guys in the studio and jazz world," says Loris. "They'd keep calling me to do these sessions - and I would just not show up. I was scared, t thought I wasn't good enough, that I was a foreigner. Plus I'd heard Chick Corea play, I'd heard Bob James play. I thought, 'Man, I don't know anything about this stuff.' Marcus eventually got pissed at me, and stopped throwing jobs my way. I was messed up."
"What people liked about me was that I had a way of playing chords that would freak them out," he says. "But it was just from my classical training; it was just voice leading. In Jazz, polyphony isn't something they looked at too much in those days. To me, every voice has a destination. You can't just play a chord and then jump somewhere else. Every note, every finger represents a person on a journey. If you did a leap here, then this other one would do a leap there. As I progressed into modern music, I brought Bach with me." For an introduction to Loris's approach to keyboards, see "Get Back to Bach" on Page 38 ( Keyboard Magazine Sept 2001 )
One day Loris walked into Brooklyn's Pilgrim Church, one of the largest black congregations in the city. And became born again. "They had no music director," he recalls. "So I told the pastor, 'I'd like to play for you.' I played a hymn for him, and he flipped out. He said, 'Do what you want, and I'll pay you.' I said, 'You don't need to pay me.'

"I started encouraging other students from college to come, and pretty soon I had a whole orchestra to work with. I wrote all kinds of arrangements. At fist, I felt that traditional gospel music was archaic. I thought, 'How can they move in parallel motion all the time? It's ridiculous. They have to learn!'
"This attitude blinded me to the fact that this was an art form unto itself. It was American music, a tradition that you have to learn if they're going to accept you. So at first I was discriminated against by some, because I have a Caribbean accent and my music sounds different. I had to learn and adapt to get in."

See examples 10 through 17 on page 40 and 42 for a few of his favourite gospel stylings.
Continuing to turn down secular gigs - including one to be Whitney Houston's music director - Loris put together his own gospel/fusion band to play his material and set off to spread the word at churched and parks around New York and the Eastern states. He also had a group of the best gospel singers in town that he hired for recordings. Despite his best efforts, though, the impediments ("You play too loud to be a Christian band," You're too avant-garde to be a Christian band," "I'll give you a record contract if you take out all the 'Jesuses'") took their toll. "I found myself out on the road," he says, "with the band breaking up, the record still not done, and no deal in sight."
Then gospel star Shirley Ceasar called to ask if she could record one of the songs that Loris had been shopping. He found himself put in the producer's chair for Ceasar's entire album, his first production credit - or so he thought. "But there was a problem. Sanchez Harley and I produced the whole album. But at the last mix. This drunk guy shows up, and says, "How y'all doin'?' Turns out he was the contracted producer. Although my name was all over the record as a writer and player, I got no production credit. I got no points on the album. I was so devasted that I left the gospel recording business."


Back at Pilgrim Church, Loris's reputation continued to spread. Offers came in from the top touring gospel acts, such as the Winans, the Hawkins Family, and secular artists. Loris wanted to keep his $ 350 per week commitment to the church, in spite of having a growing family to feed. "One scripture stood out to me that said, in essence, God gives you gifts in order to make room for you before great men," he says. "So I said, "Shoot, I might as well do this thing.'"
Once he freed himself to the world of commercial work, the floodgates opened. His work producing Tramaine Hawkins paid off in spades as her album became a major club hit - the fist for a gospel artist. Tommy Mottola brought Loris in to co-produce Mariah Carey's Christmas album, working alongside Walker Afanasieff and Mariah herself. His songwriting partnership with percussionist Bashiri Johnson led to a writing/production deal with Zomba Music and Jive Records. "They offered me all this money," he recalls. "I said, 'Oh my God, I need a house for my family!' So I signed. And my whole life changed."

Loris was in heaven in London's Battery Studios, working night and day alongside the likes of fellow Jivers Mutt Lange, Nigel Green, and Bryan Adams. Among his successes from that period are his work with Jonathan Butler and Ruby Turner - although it was his treatment over the latter that led to his once again pulling up the stakes and heading home. "Ruby's album turned out to be a number one record," he says, "but I hated it. They made me take out a lot of stuff that I wanted on there, they stripped it down. By that time, I'd get very upset after every mix, because it was never good enough for me.

Plus, the office staff back at Zomba was telling any independent artist who called for me to work with them. So we parted ways.
"I built a studio in my house on Long Island, thinking that would make my wife happier to have me around more,"
he says. "Bad idea. My marriage was starting to go, I wasn't happy with the production work I was doing, and the guy who managed my singing group had been undermining me - all my best singers left to go join Mariah Carey." Loris once again withdrew into the world of Pilgrim Church, and found himself sleeping in a friend's studio that specialized in jingles and rap and hip-hop production.


The clients of Loris's crash pad provided some work and education for him. "I'd play something for them," he says, "And they'd say, 'Oh, can we sample that and put it on our track?' I'd say, 'Fine.' People would call me to do a bass line on a Minimoog. I learned that they didn't care how well it was performed or how musical it was; they wanted a vibe. They just wanted a painter to paint yellow.
"Then Tony Prendatt called me to say he was engineering with this woman named Lauryn Hill. I didn't know who she was. He said, 'She's with the Fugees, she's working on her own record, she's got a limited budget, the players that she ha are terrible, and she's a hip hopper.' As soon as he said that, I thought, 'Oh boy, more frustration.' But he said, 'Come and meet her. She got a char that needs a virtuoso keyboard part.'
"So I went and did the part in a couple takes. She loved it so much, she had me redo everything else on the track. Then she had me do a b-3 on another track, then a Rhodes part - she wouldn't let me go home! Then they kept calling me to come in and replace music that other guys had done. "She loved how I play the Rhodes an the Wurly - just like Deniece Williams did when I worked with her. I'd play something simple, and Lauryn would go, 'Yeah, yeah! That's it! Keep playing that!' She'd put on a kick drum, and pretty soon they'd have a whole beat behind it. Then she'd say, 'That's it! Sample it!' "I'd say, Lauryn, don't sample it. Let me play the whole thing.' She would only want those few notes, though: Repetition is the whole thing for hip-hop. But she liked the way I'd go back and repeat stuff with a little bit of variation.

That's the whole things about establishing form: repeating, with variations.
"So she got used to me doing the tacks all the way through without sampling. I introduced her to some other fabulous musicians to work on the record. After the album, she wanted me to be her musical director on the road. I didn't want to go on the road, but I helped her with her band. And the album was huge."


After projects for Lauryn Hill, Celine Dion, and others, Loris headed to Los Angeles to take an A&R job at a major label. "I went to L.A because I was tired of doing jingles and production for people. There was no spirituality in it. You have to suck up, I'm tired of the pretension.
"But what the label promised didn't come through, and I was stranded there. I had nothing. I was broke, staying with friends downtown L.A in the diamond district, where during the day the richest people in the world are, and at night the poorest. I got to know a lot of the street people, and it made me realize that I had to do music for them. I decided to quit the music industry and not work for the pimp anymore. My principles always outweigh the garbage that comes along with money. You have to have principles and integrity - those are the only things that are lasting.
"So I decided to finish my own album, which I'd been putting off for years. I realized that the only style of music where you could address serious spiritual issues and have people listen was reggae. I grew up with that style, and so my record, Time Shadow, reflects that. I'm a Christian, but I'm not preaching to anyone. What I'm talking about with my music are important issues that we need to address.
"The thing that I'm most excited about though, is that I've started an educational website [ lorisholland.com ]
." It'll contain Loris's Secrets to Musical Wisdom. I have a technique for the piano that no one else has. It'll be a combination of a book, a video, and online instruction.
"You don't have to be Loris Holland to play the music that's around today," he concludes. "You just have to be confident, and have fun doing it. It's the spirit of playing together that exerts that confidence. Just make some time for you and your God to have music."

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