We Are Upstate NY Waxing Sounds with Scott Petito
The Hudson Valley music scene is overflowing with songwriters, instrumental virtuosos and producers who have crafted some of the most lasting sounds in rock, jazz, folk and Americana for decades. Many of the biggest names associated with the region arrived here from other parts: Dylan from Minnesota, Levon Helm from Arkansas, and the like. But, increasingly, many of our most important music-makers are Hudson Valley homegrown.
One such figure is Scott Petito, the producer, composer, multi-instrumentalist and founder of one of the busiest studios in the region, Catskill NY’s, NRS Recording. Petito was born in Kingston and took an early interest in music, beginning with the guitar. He got his first real taste of the musician lifestyle by hanging out in Woodstock during his high school years in the mid-‘70s. He spied rehearsals by the many jazz greats and session aces who called the town their home, names like legendary Steely Dan drummer Steve Gadd. There were also impromptu jams he witnessed in clubs by artists like the Rolling Stones. After honing his skills at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, the alma mater of everyone from Quincy Jones to St. Vincent, he returned to the area to work as a player in a variety of bands, then to begin his career as a studio owner, recording engineer and producer. With two partners, he established a studio in Hurley in 1984. This was followed by one in Levon Helm’s legendary barn where he worked on albums by The Band and with artists like James Taylor, Keith Richard and Rickie Lee Jones throughout the ‘90s.
“… many of our most important music-makers are Hudson Valley homegrown”
In 2000, he struck out on his own and built a studio in a barn on his six-acre spread just north of Saugerties. Since that time, he has waxed legions of important records for major and emerging rock, blues, folk and Americana artists, with an accent on jazz made by local greats like Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland.
Throughout the years, Petito has also kept up a busy career as a performer, largely as a bassist. Today, he is playing and recording with two reformed icons of the ‘60s, The Fugs and The Blues Project, as well as making his own albums – solo recordings and as a part of the jazz group, Modern Times. He also is getting back to composing music for film, television and advertising.
So how has Scott seen the music scene and the Hudson Valley evolve over the years? And what are some of his favorite things to do here that are not music-related? Read on to find out…
First off, when and why did you move to the Hudson Valley?
I was born and bred in Kingston and spent my formative teenage years soaking up the incredible music scene in and around Woodstock, from 1974 – 1978. Then I went off to study jazz composition and arranging at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. It was an incredible time to be there, with classmates like Zappa guitarist Steve Vai, Japanese pianist Makoto Ozoni and the like. Berklee taught me the nuts and bolts of music. It was a trade school. It showed me how to work in all forms of music, but also how to behave – the importance beyond music skills that are vital to a career.
I moved back here in the early ‘80s where there were lots of local gigs, everything from playing standards at hotels to my own original music. In 1984, I founded a recording studio in Hurley with two partners on the farm owned by one of them, Professor Louie. In the ‘90s, we helped create the recording studio at Levon Helm’s famous barn and did a lot of work there with him and many other artists.
What was the Woodstock/Hudson Valley music scene like in your so-called formative years?
I got interested in music early, starting on guitar before adding bass and every other stringed instrument, along with piano, to my arsenal. I was a self-taught rock and prog guy before I went off to Berklee and evolved into a jazzer.
The scene was incredible in those days. NRBQ was my local bar band and lived right here in Saugerties. One night in 1976, the Rolling Stones were rehearsing at Bearsville Studios and they came to the Joyous Lake nightclub to see NRBQ. They then locked the doors and took to the stage to play a set of their own for the lucky few who were there – including me! During that time, it was two musical camps basically. You had all the heavyweight New York studio musicians here – guys like guitarist David Spinozza, pianist Warren Bernhardt, bassist Tony Levin, drummer Steve Gadd and the rest of the guys from STUFF, who famously backed Paul Simon. I would go over to their homes and rehearsal spaces and watch them jam. Then there were the jazz guys. They were led by Ornette Coleman, Pat Metheny, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Karl Berger and the Creative Music Studio crew. I had the unique experience of learning from them as a young person and of playing or recording with many as the years went by.
As anyone who follows you on social media knows, you have an incredibly busy life. You are a record producer/engineer, a composer for films, television and advertising as well as a touring musician. How do you divide your time among these many pursuits and how did the Covid-19 slowdown impact you?
Eighty percent of my time is devoted to recording and producing records here in my studio, NRS Recording in Catskill. I built a barn on my property to house it in 2000 and have been busy ever since with too many projects to list here, so you can see them on my website (laughs).
During Covid-19, I stayed busy with a lot of remote mixing and mastering. We started recording groups again as soon as folks were vaxxed in early 2021. One of the most interesting projects I did in that period was Time Out Outtakes, an alternative version of the first million-selling jazz record from 1959 by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I did this long distance with Dave’s son Chris, culling through the seven days of recordings from the Sony Records’ vault to create an eye-opening selection that shows how this challenging new music evolved in the studio. We also mixed an outtake disc from sessions we did here for the acclaimed 2017 album Hudson by Woodstock’s own drum legend Jack DeJohnette, with John Scofield, John Medeski and Larry Grenadier. By Spring 2021, we were back to doing sessions for forthcoming albums by Wadada Leo Smith and Modern Times, a band I play bass in with Omar Hakim, Rachel Z, Jay Collins, Joe Locke and Mino Cinelu. Now I’m back to doing a ton of jazz, blues, singer-songwriters and the like. Live playing is and will always be a part of my life, but long tours are over for me.
You’ve also been involved with The Band, as a group and via individual projects with their legendary members, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. Tell us a bit about these works.
What can I say – I loved them all! They were my friends and I learned a lot by watching them play and record. All three were characters and so was Richard Manuel, who I only knew for a short time before he passed. We basically moved our studio from Hurley over to Levon’s place after The Band reformed in 1986, without Robbie Robertson. We did critically-acclaimed records with them during this period at Levon’s, ending with 1998’s Jubilation. Along with solo stuff like Garth’s contributions to The Right Stuff soundtrack, tracks for Rickie Lee Jones and much more.
Speaking of sessions at Levon’s, you got down to the roots of rock-n-roll when you worked on All The King’s Men, the Elvis tribute album of his legendary guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana. What was it like having to tell the guest artists of the album, including Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, what to do in the studio?
Incredible, of course, and also strangely empowering. I have a good story that perfectly illustrates it. After a take on one of the songs, I yelled down to Keith and asked him “What do you think?” He looked up at me and said “I don’t know! That’s what the f*ck you’re here for!”
You’ve had the distinction of producing and playing bass in one of rock’s most infamous acts, The Fugs. How and when did you become involved with this iconic ‘60s underground band and is it still a going concern?
One of The Fugs’ co-founders, poet and writer Ed Sanders, is a long-time Woodstocker. In 1984, he and Tuli Kupferberg decided to reform The Fugs 20 years after they started as a way to protest the election of Ronald Reagan. We even created a rock opera called Star Peace that parodied his “Star Wars” missile initiative. We toured internationally, played places like Joe’s Pub in NYC and also do a local show almost every year, sometimes as a fundraiser for the artists’ colony, Byrdcliffe. Almost 40 years after I joined this band on bass and as producer, we’re starting work on what will likely be our final album, Volume 3. Because of my work with The Fugs, I’m often called a “Punk Jazz Musician!” I kind of like that.
And speaking of iconic ‘60s acts, you are also presently recording and touring with another legendary band, the Blues Project. How has that experience been?
Great, we are working on vocals right now for an album that will soon be released. Guitarist/co-founder Steve Katz, who I knew from other projects and, of course, his work in Blood, Sweat & Tears, asked me to join the band on bass. We’re heading off on an East Coast tour in the Fall and will play here at the Colony Woodstock in October.
James Taylor, Pete Seeger and Stevie Wonder are just a few more of the legends you worked with. Any special memories of these stars?
Almost too many to mention. I spent a pretty good amount of time with James and Pete. The best was when you saw them play and saw the raw love of music on their faces. Stevie always had an entourage so it was tough to get close, but even from a distance, his genius is unmatched.
James is one of the most talented guys I’ve been around, a deceptively great guitar player. Everything arrangement-wise in a song comes from his guitar playing. There’s always interesting bass motion, the horns are his middle voicings and the rhythm comes from the way he hits the guitar. His longtime bass player, Leland Sklar, says he just takes James’ bass notes to build his lines in songs. This became apparent to me when we were doing a session and I saw sheet music for church hymns in James’ guitar case which are similar to his guitar style. James’ brother, Livingston, who I’ve also worked with extensively, has the same unique approach on guitar. I met Livingston in the mid-80s and started working with him first, then James, then also their sister, Kate. One of the most beautiful things I ever worked on was Kate and James’ version of “Auld Lang Syne.”
You, of course, make your own music. What are some of the recent solo works you are most proud of?
My last album, Rainbow Gravity, is a return to my jazz roots. It’s a tour-de-force with friends I’ve worked with over the years: Jack DeJohnette, Rachel Z, Omar Hakim, Mike Mainieri, Bob Mintzer, David Spinozza and more. I just asked people to play and they did and I’m so very grateful. I just finished a new one with some of the people above and folks like Steve Gadd and Randy Brecker that I hope will be out in the Fall.
Tell us about your studio in Catskill and why you decided to build it in what some would consider an out-of-the-way place.
My original studio, the partnership, was in Hurley close to Woodstock. Then I set up and worked for most of the ‘90s at Levon’s house. After Rick Danko passed in 1999, I decided to move operations to my house. I had six acres just north of Saugerties and built it there, a barn that has grown with more and more capabilities since I started in 2000. It began with producing a record for Tom Pacheco and it just grew from there. Some of my favorite work has been with another great local songwriter, Michael Franks.
How has technology, the fact that many people can make albums of their laptops, impacted your business?
Honestly not as much as people think. Some of my business is working with artists who may do some work at home on their own, then mixing and mastering here to bring it up to pro level. As for recording technology, I am investigating and incorporating new things all the time – sometimes it’s a plus; sometimes not.
Changing gears from the stars, who are some of the young local artists you think might emerge as big artists of the future?
Big stars, that’s a loaded question. The music business is different now; it’s led by focus groups rather than strong visionary A&R that will give a few albums for an artist to develop and become what they call “bankable.” Because revenue streams for musicians are drying up, it’s the new artists and the ones in the middle who are getting squeezed, the ones who are having an almost impossible time making a living purely on music. The mega-stars are doing fine and if you established a cult following a while back, like folks like Eric Anderson, Rory Block and Dave Holland, you can still cut it, playing summer festivals in Europe and like. Emerging artists have to tour constantly to cut it financially, with very little support from labels like a band I work with, Blue Museum. And the big way to first exposure isn’t radio or MTV, but a few seconds on TikTok. And that’s even changed the way artists have to write and arrange songs, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Why do you think the Hudson Valley has become such a hub, a home and recording and performance hub, for so many musicians of so many genres?
Well, it really started in the ‘60s with rock manager Albert Grossman bringing up Dylan and everyone followed Bob on up here. The wealth of musicians brought recording studios and clubs and, since it’s a great place to live, musicians still flock here. We’re communal beasts by nature, and since this is such a great place to live, they keep coming. That ‘60s mystique still draws musicians and other kinds of people involved in the arts who want both community and a great lifestyle.
What are some of your favorite activities and places in Catskill and the Hudson Valley that have nothing to do with music?
I love to swim and hike and there are almost too many good places to mention to indulge my passion for the outdoors. We also now have so many great places for coffee and bagels, like Bluestone in Saugerties and HiLo in Catskill. And there are fantastic restaurants like Annarella in Saugerties and the New York Restaurant in Catskill. I knew two couples who left a few years back because they a) couldn’t get good coffee and b) couldn’t go out to eat after 8 pm at night.
How has the Hudson Valley changed since you came here and how to you see it evolving in the future?
First off, way more good coffee shops (laughs). It’s really a great place to live and has attracted many more people, especially because of the Covid pandemic. And now there’s gentrification, a changing demographic and housing issues for long-time residents. I’ve been here since the ‘50s and we’ve been through boom and bust before. But this time, with work-at-home becoming more of a reality, even my wife does it, I think the boom may be here to stay for a while which is good for all the local businesses, even one like mine.
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Scott Petito Productions and NRS Recording Studio
Old Kings Road, Catskill, NY