Smoke Stacks

Cliff Sarde and Nick Francis piece together a desktop CD and get a major-label deal in the process

For years Nick Francis dreamed of producing a contemporary instrumental album. For years Cliff Sarde dreamed of having a producer to help him shape his musical ideas.

These dreams collided two and a half years ago when Sarde--a veteran Valley musician who's recorded for MCA and done extensive film and commercial work--began collaborating with Francis--program director for lite-jazz radio station KYOT--on an album.

Sarde has an extensive track record in the Valley, playing sax in his own band in the '80s and recording for prominent labels like MCA/Curb, Passport, and Innersound. But after he lost his deal with Innersound in 1991, he withdrew into a career of composing music for documentary films and commercials. Along the way he'd developed a home-recording setup that allowed him to build digital tracks with a combination of samples, loops, drum programs and live instrumentation.

Francis, a Los Angeles native who once aspired to be a screenwriter, had established a niche for himself on contemporary-jazz radio over the last 12 years. He'd worked at stations in Santa Fe, San Francisco and Seattle, before moving to Phoenix to help launch KYOT five years ago.

Even before Francis came to the Valley, the two men had established a musical connection.

"I had known him since my days 10 years ago in San Francisco," Francis says. "We played him at the station I worked at. So when I came to town, I'd run into him every now and then and we'd hang out. One day, he called me up and said, 'I've got some stuff I want to play you.' So I went over, he played me some stuff, and I made some suggestions.

"The next day, he called me up and said, 'Hey, you wanna do a record?' His feeling was that he'd been out of it for a while, and he wanted to do something that was creative and that we'd get excited about."

Beginning in the summer of 1996, Sarde and Francis hooked up about three nights a week, with Sarde playing the radio veteran his ideas, and Francis offering his approval or disapproval, occasionally suggesting that certain passages be edited.

Not facing the pressure of a record deal or airplay considerations, Sarde followed his own instincts, blending his traditional interests with a growing fascination for drum 'n' bass and acid jazz. The plan was simply to record the CD at home and give it out to people they knew.

Fortunately, one of the people they knew worked for Atlantic subsidiary Mesa/Blue Moon, and reps at the label were so taken with the desktop CD that they decided to release it, with only mild alterations. The album, titled Smoke 'N Function (also the name of Sarde and Francis' recording act), will go national on February 16 in remixed form, with two additional songs.

Both men cite Miles Davis' In a Silent Way as one of their favorite records, and Sarde says they adhered to its example by creating "a nonlinear record that's just a sonic texture that people can absorb and not rely on traditional verse-chorus structures."

The record that Sarde and Francis have made could only be a product of the late '90s, yet it doesn't readily fall into any modern category. It's way too funky and groove-driven to be called new age, yet much of it is too harmonically intricate to fall into the electronica camp. It has elements of world music--Indian instrumentation and Native American chants--but mostly for sonic coloring. At its best, as on the beat-heavy "Say Ooh La La" or the hypnotic "Native Groove," it really stakes out its own turf, painting sound on a digital canvas without regard to form.

Sarde used his saxophone background in unorthodox ways, playing all the bass lines through a MIDI sax, which works like a conventional saxophone but can create any timbre he chooses. In a sense, the whole project turned his past methods upside down. Previously, he'd worked with live bands and produced himself. This time, he played everything himself, and brought in Francis to help produce.

Sarde looks upon Smoke 'N Function as an elastic lineup that can allow Francis and him to record in any number of ways, with different combinations of people.

"I hate to compare myself to Steely Dan, because that was just super stuff, but it's similar in the sense that I want it to be changing, and not one particular band, so to speak. Because maybe on the next album I will bring in a band."

Francis is self-effacing by nature, and while he's clearly pleased with the finished CD, he doesn't expect the record deal to change his life much. Don't expect either man to quit his day job.

"Record deals are such that you have to sell a ton to really see any kind of profit on or even much money, so to me this is still kind of a hobby, and it's been really fun," he says. "It's the fantasy that I got to be able to do, so I'm really excited about it."

Melody Lingers On: No local jazz club has a greater tradition than the Melody Lounge, but since its sale in 1997, it had alienated much of its old clientele, and lurched aimlessly from one music approach to another, before closing late last year.

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