An epic trail of Grammies
and disappointments behind him, Loris Holland returns to
the basics - and shows you how, too
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.
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.
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO HOLLAND
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
"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.'
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
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."
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.
RE-EDUATION OF LORIS HOLLAND
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.
the whole things about establishing form: repeating,
"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."
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."