Features

Jean-Paul Vest of Last Charge Of The Light Horse: The Daily Vault Interview (2020)

by Jason Warburg

 

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Jean-Paul Vest (Photo credit: Dustin Finn)


The Sand Reckoner is the fifth studio album (plus one EP) from Last Charge Of The Light Horse, the vehicle for the music of songwriter Jean-Paul Vest. A native Texan long since transplanted to Long Island, New York, Vest’s painstakingly crafted songs combine the poetic intensity of Richard Thompson, the melodic intuition of George Harrison, the fearless complexity of XTC, and the willful experimentalism of Radiohead. Influences aside, though, Vest’s work is thoroughly original, each song a thoughtfully constructed statement, often both visceral and evocative.

The new album is Vest’s fourth collaboration with Grammy-winning Los Angeles producer Jim Watts, a friend of many years, and a powerful new entry in the Last Charge catalog (see my review of the album). Over the course of two recent video chats, Vest and I first dove deep into his creative process, before adding Jim Watts for a three-way conversation about their collaborative and often inventive approach to production. When we weren’t laughing about the commercial downside of using big words in your songs, we were exploring in detail the origins and development of each song on
The Sand Reckoner. It was a fascinating journey behind the scenes of the creation of an album that’s already firmly ensconced on my "Best of 2020" list.


Daily Vault: It’s impossible to have a conversation today without acknowledging the strange times we’re living in. It feels like an especially challenging time for musicians, with streaming providing almost no income and live music mostly shut down. Do these circumstances provide any kind of natural advantage for someone who’s always been a pure indie artist, working with a small team that isn’t fazed by recording remotely and sending files around?

Jean-Paul Vest:
I suppose. The real natural advantage is that I haven’t made the leap to trying to make a living at music—not depending on it for an income makes me able to be a little more comfortable. The quarantine didn’t disrupt our process too much, other than Jim Watts having the presence of mind to suggest that we invite one or two gigging musicians to play on the album, who weren’t able to tour this spring. He wanted to try to give back a little to the community, and I was glad to do it.

It also helped that we had the album almost entirely recorded before the pandemic hit. There were only a couple of tracks that had to be done remotely after that. One was Jeff Scroggins’ banjo track for “The Bill Comes Due.” And then Elizabeth Goodfellow, who Jim knows out in LA, added drums and percussion to “Just Once.” Other than that it was mostly recorded already, so it was just a question of sending mixes back and forth.


How has isolation and everything that’s happening in the world affected your creativity and productivity?

For me it’s ground my songwriting almost to a halt, so I was happy we had the recording almost done when it hit. I haven’t been in a place where I can write anything helpful or insightful at all—the constant barrage of “What new disaster will the day bring?” is not the right headspace for me to write. Thankfully there are other people writing and putting out good stuff right now and I’m always happy to hear it.


What were you listening to while creating the new songs on The Sand Reckoner, and what else helped to inspire them?

Going back to 2004, it seems like I get about an album’s worth of songs every three years or so. The artists that are on regular rotation for me are Rufus Wainwright, Richard Thompson, some electronic stuff—Faded Paper Figures, Kathleen Edwards, Hannah Georges, Radiohead—and bits and pieces of various jazz things. I love what Radiohead does with sonic textures; there’s so much density to their music. I’m always listening to XTC, too, and they’re a very sonically dense band as well. They pack something into every little nook and cranny and I like that.

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Tell us about the title The Sand Reckoner and what inspired you to use it.

I was stuck for a while for an album title. I was texting my dad [blues musician David Vest] back and forth various ideas, and he asked me to send him the song titles. I told him they were mostly about relationships, and he said that he saw a lot of distance in the titles. So I was exploring the ideas of distance and relationships. I noticed that the theme of balance comes up in a few songs, so I got out the old Thesaurus and mentioned the word “fulcrum” to my dad, and he said “”That sounds like something from Archimedes. And you know he wrote that book The Sand Reckoner…”—which I didn’t know.

That seemed like an interesting title, and then I discovered what the book was about. Archimedes invented a new kind of mathematics in order to try and calculate the number of grains of sand it would take to fill the known universe. He was obviously off by orders of magnitude, but I gather it was the first mathematical work to deal with what we now call astronomical distances and scale. I liked the grandness of that gesture and also the futility of it. I’m not sure there’s a real point in knowing the number of grains of sand in the universe, but I like the ambition.


Your first two Last Charge albums Getaway Car and Fractures were made as a guitar-bass-drums trio, with occasional guests. The Curve EP in 2011 was more experimental, featuring loops and electronic textures. Since then you’ve had a core group but have been bringing in more guests and fresh sounds.

All the way back to high school, I’ve always been in bands and for the most part have been one of the principal songwriters. The bands seemed to come and go, and I finally decided it would be helpful if I didn’t have to come up with a new name each time. Last Charge Of The Light Horse started with myself and [father-son rhythm section] Artie and A.J. Riegger. Then after Fractures, Artie and A.J. left, but I decided to keep the name and have it represent my songwriting output, whoever plays on a given album.

It’s great to play with the three guys I play with on stage—Bob Stander [guitar], Shawn Murray [drums], and Pemberton Roach [bass, harmony vocals], who are dear friends of mine and incredible musicians. And it’s also been fun to bring in other people. As my kids have grown, they’ve been playing more and more on the records, and I like the idea of bringing in fresh textures and sounds. If you’re going to get a meal at the supermarket, you want to get something new once in a while, and I like having that option.


I’d like to touch briefly on each of the songs on the new album. In each case I’ve either picked a favorite lyric fragment, or an aspect of the song that caught my attention. Starting out with “Just Once,” one of my favorite images on the album is: “The trees are a frantic mob in the wind / delirious rave in the moonlight.”

To me that captured the sense of feeling like something exciting is going to happen, but not being able to put your finger on it. I guess right now, as it relates to the world, it’s like “Oh no, what’s going to happen next…!” But for this song, I was thinking about that moment when you feel like there’s something exciting in the air that’s just about to happen, and I was trying to capture that feeling. And living on Long Island, we’ve had a few hurricanes up here, so the trees do get a bit crazy.


It makes a lot of sense to open an album with a song that’s heralding action of some kind.

I thought so. My favorite part of that song is the rhythm guitar track. Coming back to XTC, in Andy Partridge’s book [Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC] he mentions a trick he used on a song called “Beating Of Hearts” where they tuned their guitars so that all their strings were tuned to the same note. It gives this very drone-y, sort of Middle Eastern sound. On this song I tuned every string on the acoustic guitar down to the nearest D and played it that way, and it gave it a fun texture. The song didn’t really take off until I figured that part out.


“Back Up The Hill” expresses a truth that popular music typically steers away from: sustaining romantic love over the long haul requires work, and grace, and forgiveness.

Good summation. Sometimes relationships are work, and sometimes they’re really worth it, and it’s important to remember that. And not just romantic relationships, but any relationships. Sometimes they can be frustrating. It’s the same kind of theme as “Face To Face” on Fractures.


“Choose Now” manages to convey both restlessness and confidence as the narrator forces the issue in a relationship. I love the whole song and arrangement, but to me the element that stood out above all the others is Pemberton Roach’s bass line.

Yes! Pem’s bass playing set the tone for the whole record. The first couple of songs we recorded were “Choose Now” and “Chocolate And Cherries,” and his bass on both of them was really incredible. I’ll send Pem a track and say “Here’s what I’m looking for,” and he’s great about coming back and saying “Here, I tried something completely different, let me know what you think.” Most of the time it’s fantastic.

“Choose Now” was a fun one. I wrote a little progression of four chords, and decided to hit the chords in groups of three. So you end up with 1-2-3, and then 4-1-2, and then 3-4-1, like a little mathematical game, ending up in a different spot in the progression each time. And when you naturally get to four, I cheat and throw in a fifth chord. That one really came out of noodling on the piano with the chords and the lyrics originally came from a little note I wrote to myself: “Write something simple for a change.” [laughter] Somehow that sparked this stream of lyrics.


 

“Chocolate and Cherries” feels like a sequel or complement to “All Of My Days” from Nine Kinds Of Happy. I love the layers of meaning, and word choices, particularly in the chorus: “Redrawing my heart / On the traces of a young love’s palimpsest.”

You’re right about the connection to “All Of My Days.” Funny story about that song. I was reading an article about a solar-powered Scottish farmhouse that was built literally out of the bones of an old stone ruin. They incorporated what was left of the old stone walls into the new walls. The new walls were very angular and straight outside and very organic and curvy inside. It was a very unusual looking building. But while he was describing it, the architect used a word I didn’t know—palimpsest. [“A manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing, but of which traces remain.”] So I looked it up and thought “That’s a great metaphor for the human heart”—you’re writing and rewriting a story, but you can still read traces of the older versions.

And then a little voice in my head said “This is why you’re not famous.” [laughter] “Everyone else is writing songs about sex, and you’re writing songs about palimpsests.” I thought “Okay, fair point” and started to write a different song, but after a while it steered its way back to this PG-13 version about kisses and 25-year-anniversaries. And then I made it a reggae song so there’d still be some sex. [laughter]

One other sonic note on this song. There’s an absolute stroke of genius on Pemberton’s part—when we get to the flute solo, he stops playing for a few bars. So you go from this loud, driving guitar solo over the chorus, back into the verse which is a bit quieter, and suddenly there’s no bass, and there’s a flute solo, and it creates this very dynamic “scene change” in the song. It was really a brilliant thing to have done. The ability to know “Hey, this gets better if I’m quiet for a moment,” that’s a hard thing for musicians.


“Running My Finger Along The Scar” features another dynamite bass line, this time by Jonny Flaugher. The song offers a clever twist on the theme of nostalgia for a former love, because it feels like the narrator is trying to convince the listener it wasn’t that big of a deal, even as he’s dwelling on it.

Jonny is a friend of Jim’s—he played on a song or two on Race To The Sound too. On this song I wanted to describe a very specific feeling. When you get your heart broken, it’s fresh and raw and all you can think about for a while, and then over time you move on, and if you’re lucky maybe you realize you weren’t that happy and it was for the best, and you’re able to let go of all the intense emotions about it.

And then a couple of decades later, you’re clearing out a bookshelf or something and you come across something that reminds you of that time. I wanted the song to be about that moment of recognition where the breakup is so long ago that it almost feels like it happened to a different person, and you can remember it without all that vivid emotional baggage—not necessarily fondly, or unfondly, just sort of “Oh yeah, that happened…”


On “Midnight Parking Lot” I loved the contrast in sound between the electronic rhythm section and your son Nick’s organic and evocative trumpet.

That one was a lot of fun. I knew it needed something but I wasn’t sure what until I hit on the idea of trumpet. I did actually have to pick someone up at midnight in a parking lot and did see birds playing, which surprised me at that time of night. I liked the juxtaposition of the world-weary couple driving home in exhausted silence, musing on the birds playing at night. I didn’t feel like I needed to say anything more; just put those two ideas next to each other and let them work on each other.

“Midnight Parking Lot” is a good example of how much Jim’s insight helps to shape the recordings. I sent him the raw tracks with some notes about which parts I felt should be featured, and the results left me wondering whether I should include the song on the album. But after some time went by, Jim tried a second mix with a bit more free reign. He pared a bit here and there, and de-emphasized one or two things, and suddenly the song really bloomed. It’s great to have someone I trust who can listen to each song with a bit more objectivity, and really find the heart of the arrangement and bring that to the forefront.


I love the observation at the core of “Old Habits”—that “You concentrate and the commonplace feels strange.”

As I’ve gotten older I’ve started thinking about a lot of things that I do or believe just because I’ve always done or believed them, and not because I’ve examined them and taken them out in the light. I wanted to capture that moment of wondering if you’re the person you thought you were all this time, or if maybe you’ve changed. I wonder about that, particularly in reference to politics or religion now. I feel politics has become more a matter of believing than of thinking and examining various viewpoints rationally. Instead people just say “I’m on this team and you’re on that team.” It makes it hard to have a dialogue.


“The Bill Comes Due” is a sharp, concise little “you’re gonna get what’s coming to you” dig. Using tablas in place of a rhythm section and adding that kind of eerie banjo gave it a restless, exotic feel.

That was a fun one. I have to thank Martha Trachtenberg and Tom Griffith for putting me in touch with Avirodh Sharma, who played the tablas—that came out great. The banjo came about after I met Jeff Scroggins at a house concert on Long Island and was just blown away by his playing. Tablas and banjo are an unusual combination and one that worked very well, and then Martha added great bluegrass harmonies on top of that. It’s an odd time signature, too—5/4 time. I struggle sometimes writing something so sparse and straightforward, but I thought “Okay, you’ve said it, just stop, walk away, don’t try to write three or four more verses.” Just let it go.


“Balanced On The Edge” has one of my favorite summaries I’ve ever heard of what real love feels like in that moment of recognition: “I know a passing fancy from a thunderbolt / I know a dissertation from an anecdote.”

You know the real thing when it hits you. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s interpretation of the song, but for me this is kind of about that moment when you meet your kids for the first time. You don’t know who they are, don’t know what they sound like or look like, really, yet, but you know the real thing when you feel it. There’s a sensation of “Okay, here it comes…”

It’s such a unique thing with your kids. With anybody else, you fall in love after you get to know them, and with your kids it’s the other way around. You’re completely in love before you know anything, before your kids even really look like themselves yet.





Your piano playing on this track is really evocative, too.

Thank you very much. I had intended to go downstairs and mic up our upright piano, but I procrastinated and then when I wanted to do it, my wife was hosting book club at our house, so I recorded that on my midi keyboard upstairs while book club was going on downstairs. [laughter] There’s a little trick I used—I recorded the piano part twice, and the second time I played almost exactly the same thing, but an octave higher. We ghosted the second piano line back in the mix, sitting behind the other one, so there’s just a hint of this sort of twinkly, sparkling, dreamlike flavor to it.

That’s also one of the songs where Jim’s co-production really jumped out because I intended that to just be piano and voice and Jim came back and said “I’d like to try something” and added his friend Trevor Menear’s guitar playing on it. It’s just gorgeous and I was really happy to have his “voice” on there. And then Jim and Pam sang harmonies, and Jim’s friend Eric Van Thyne added some synthesizer at the end. To me, what they came up with for the coda section sounds like what flying must feel like if you’re a bird. It really made the song soar.


In “April Morning,” the narrator finds himself taking on the personality of the work he’s deep inside of, and then feeling adrift when the project ends. It’s a sensation I think will resonate with any creative person.

Yeah, I think so, or anyone who’s had to switch jobs. I was thinking about the experience of having to look for new work after a long time somewhere. My friend Tom did a project called “Demo Listen Derby” where every week he released a new song on YouTube that he had written and arranged and recorded. It was such a consuming experience that when he was done, he said he felt emptied out and kind of adrift. He had to step away from music for a bit and find his way back into it. I was thinking a lot about that when I wrote this.

I think the music captures some of that too, that feeling of “Okay, what happens next?” That was my first crack at string arrangements—it’s pretty simple, but my friend Leann Strom agreed to come play violin and her brother Jon Preddice played cello, and then Jon introduced me to Keenan Zach who played upright bass, and we had Gwen playing flute on that too. And again it’s a bit of different sonic texture for the end of the record.


Speaking of Gwen—your children have guested on your albums before, but this is the first time all three have been featured. As a dad myself, I have to ask: (a) how much fun is that, and (b) what are the conversations like when you’re layering your musical direction over the parent-child relationship?

It’s great fun. You have to be a bit sensitive, of course, but I try to keep it as low pressure as possible: “We’ll go and try this out and see if it works…”

My son Nick is studying music in college, so he’s getting into the process of recording and arranging things himself, and enjoying that. He’s getting comfortable recording the trumpet [his main instrument] and we work through the arrangements together. For “Running My Finger Along The Scar,” I mostly wrote out the trumpet line working with a scale I had read about John Coltrane using, the double-diminished scale. It has an interesting tonality, so I wanted to put the trumpet solo in that scale. It was Nick’s idea to do the harmony and he worked that out and it was fun to do that together.

We had a fun moment with Gwen on this album. We had tried the flute for “April Morning” and I had also recorded that part on a mellotron sample, with more of a “Strawberry Fields Forever” or Moody Blues feel to it. We had decided we weren’t going to use the flute, and then Gwen and I were out running errands one night when Jim called me and asked if we could talk Gwen into taking another crack, because live flute would sound better. We did, and it came out great, and I told Gwen “See, you had a Grammy-winning artist call and request you personally.”

This was Nolan’s first time playing on one of my records. I think drumming is more a hobby for him than a life-long passion, but it was fun to work out “Just Once” with him. Then as we were mixing it, Jim suggested we add a few more touches, and he got Beth Goodfellow to play on it, which came out great.


One of the things I love about your work is the thought and care that you put into every detail. Your song publishing is under the name Curlock & Jalaiso Music. Please tell us about that name.

When he was young, my son named his stuffed animals Curlock and Jalaiso, and I thought “What great names!” Curlock was a turtle and Jalaiso was a puppy.


What’s your favorite track from each of your albums?

It’s funny, as time goes by, sometimes I’ll still love half a record and don’t need to hear the other half. Sometimes you don’t know until you’ve gotten the song out of you. From Getaway Car, “Now You Know” is the one I still like the best, and then “Getaway Car.” The two that most people like from Fractures are “Face To Face” and “100,001”—I like those very much, and would probably pick “Face To Face,” but “One Kind Word” is my favorite song from the album to sing live. It’s fun, and we do it well.

With Curve, I’d choose “Lately” just because it felt so different from anything I’d done before. From Nine Kinds of Happy it would be “This Is Where,” which if I’d written it a month sooner would have been on Fractures. That’s one we always have fun playing live. On Race to The Sound, it’s “More.” I also perform “Cool Night, Quiet Place” quite a bit solo. And I still really like all the songs from the new one. Today I’d pick “Chocolate And Cherries,” but it would be a different one tomorrow.


 

 


Everyone is talking about what a rolling disaster 2020 has been. What are your hopes for 2021?

Don’t get me started on politics. Let’s just say that I’m looking for something quite different. My hopes are for good health, fewer wildfires, more sane people in positions of power, and the opportunity to hang out with friends a bit more. That’s been rough; thank goodness for FaceTime and Zoom and WhatsApp. Really, I’d just enjoy the chance to see people and play some music.


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Jim Watts                                               Jean-Paul Vest



Liner Notes

A Conversation with Jean-Paul Vest and Jim Watts, Co-Producers of The Sand Reckoner



First of all, how did the two of you connect?


Vest
: We go back a long way!

Watts
: We’re coming up on 40 years. We met in high school, in sophomore year French class. Then during our senior year, JP and another friend of ours started a band, and that ended up being the first band I ever played in. It was short-lived and as amateur as anyone could possibly imagine, but we had a good time. Along the way, we invented a very fun game called frisbee tennis—I would probably have a coronary if I tried to play it now. It was quite vigorous! [laughter]

Vest
: It was born of a “What’s available to do at two o’clock in the morning, after a gig?” situation.

Watts
: Our more recent collaboration started about 10 years ago. JP and I had been in touch over the years, and then when I moved to Los Angeles, I fell out of touch with a lot of folks. I was working all the time and for a while 12 hours was a short day. But eventually we connected on Facebook, and one day JP sent me a message asking if he could send me tracks to mix. I said absolutely, and those tracks became the Curve EP.

He sent that first track, “Something Out Of Nothing,” with self-deprecating comments—“If you’re not too bored by the song…” or something like that. I put the rough mix on and was immediately blown away by how amazing the writing was and how creative the production was, and we’ve been going ever since. This is the fourth record we’ve done together and it’s been a huge pleasure for me.


Describe your working process—Jean-Paul, what do you deliver to Jim, and Jim, how do you work with that material?

Vest: I’m at the point now where I start recording a song idea and it helps me to work out the lyrics and where it’s going to go. Then that transitions into a full-fledged recording. For some of the songs, I’ll get it just about where I think it should be before I send it to Jim, and then sometimes I’ll send him just the basics and say “Here’s the guitar and voice, (or) here’s piano and voice, what do you think should happen here?”

Watts
: Sometimes he’ll send me a track in the early stages for my thoughts, and sometimes he’ll send me the track at the point where he’s done with it. From there I’ll start listening and thinking about what else it might need. Over these four records we’ve done, my partner Pam Aronoff and I have ended up doing a lot of backing vocals. This record was a lot less dense in terms of the production than Race To The Sound, which had everything but the kitchen sink on it. Once I start working on it, I’ll work through the mix and enhance as necessary. Sometimes I add instrumentation, though not so much on this record.

Vest: I really enjoy the fact that, having set the precedent of adding a lot of guests to the records, my approach to songwriting and arranging now is “Okay, what would make this song sound great” as opposed to “I’m the guitar player, what am I playing here?” Jim commented to me recently that no two of the four records we’ve worked on together sound very much alike.

Watts
: They really don’t—each one has been its own thing, and they’ve gone back and forth. Curve was more experimental and JP did everything on it except for what I added here. Then Nine Kinds Of Happy was pretty much a band record with his live band; we just added backing vocals and a couple of random bits of instrumentation. Race To The Sound was again much more experimental. A couple of songs on that record, I did almost the entire production here—for example, on “Cool Night, Quiet Place” he sent me a guitar and a vocal track, and I did the rest with musicians I work with out here. And then the new record is again oriented more towards a band record, although not entirely.


Walk us through how the final arrangement came together on, for example, “Balanced On The Edge.”

Vest
: I started with the piano and vocal and wasn’t sure if it needed anything else, so I sent it to Jim for his feedback. It hadn’t occurred to me to put guitar on that, but I was really happy when Jim suggested getting Trevor to play on it.

Watts: When I heard the track, my initial thought was to just add some atmospheric harmony parts to it. And then it occurred to me to ask Trevor Menear, who’s really one of my very favorite guitar players here in LA, to play on it. He played guitar on Dawes’ last tour and I’ve seen him play at clubs around town. It was a great session. He literally was not in my house for an hour, including setting up his gear, plugging in and tuning, doing several takes, packing up and leaving.

Later I added backing vocals just at the end of the song. The final touch was when Pam sang on it, she felt like the outro still needed something to fill the gaps between Trevor’s solo and the vocal part, which was cyclical.  So I reached out to one of my former student workers at Loyola Marymount who’s a very talented keyboard player, Eric Van Thyne. I asked him to keep it very subtle and he added these fluttering, almost birdlike little synth lines.

Vest: Another song where I felt like Jim had a real big impact was “Just Once.” At first it had basically the same beat all the way through. Jim’s great at recognizing when a song could use a “scene change” part way through, and he had Beth Goodfellow change up the beat a little bit on the choruses and it made such a difference. On the last record, on “What If” there’s that little breakdown in the middle—that was Jim’s suggestion as well. Sometimes you just need something a little bit different to keep a song from getting repetitive.

Watts
: Elizabeth Goodfellow is an amazing musician and she’s someone who has kind of an instinctual feel. I felt like the percussion on that song needed to be filled out, and I thought about just adding some shakers, but the best outcome is almost always to get a really good player who can play what you need. I just let Beth loose—a lot of the percussion fills were entirely her ideas. Same thing with bass; JP and I can both play bass, or we can get a couple of the best bass players we know. 


There’s some great bass on this album.


Watts: These things develop organically, but partway through we started realizing we had all this great bass playing on this album. I try to be thematic to some extent, like on some records I’ll use a specific effect and I’ll use it on every song and give the record kind of a sonic signature. For this record, as it started developing, I said “Alright: bass.”




Jonny Flaugher played great on “Running My Finger Along The Scar.” Pemberton played amazing bass lines on “Choose Now”—that one still makes my jaw drop and I want to ask him how he came up with that! Jonny also played on “Back Up The Hill” and Pemberton played on “Chocolate And Cherries,” where the bass line isn’t as flashy but I featured it quite a bit because it’s the main counter-melody in the verses. Then on “Midnight Parking Lot,” there’s actually two basses; the higher one is JP playing the melody and the lower one is me on the bass synth. It’s a really bass-driven record.


For each of you: what’s your favorite thing is about working with the other?


Vest
: I love that even though we tend to like the same things, Jim just hears things a little bit differently than I do. Any record that you make, you want to be excited by what you hear. Working with Jim, I know I’ll be excited by whatever comes back.

Watts
: I work on a lot of different records, and JP is just a consummate songwriter—I really enjoy his songs. Several times on this record we were finishing up a song before I finally read the lyrics and was just blown away. The songwriting’s always great and the production ideas are always surprising. Just really interesting, creative records that I can listen to over and over again. I can’t say that about every record I work on; quite a few of them go in the pile and stay there. But JP’s records, I listen to them consistently.


[Many thanks to Jean-Paul Vest and Jim Watts for speaking with us. Visit www.lastcharge.com for more.]

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