Shilts’ move from Rick Braun’s label ARTizen Music, which released Shilts’ previous disc HeadBoppin’, to NuGroove’s roster gave the label’s President and co-owner, David Chackler cause to rejoice, "NuGroove was the original home for Down To The Bone. I’m excited to have Shilts back with us."
Shilts discusses the impetus for making Jigsaw Life, "I wanted to do a follow up to my last album, HeadBoppin’ as I thought it was about time. I was also making a final break from Down To The Bone, so this was an ideal opportunity. I get influenced by things all the time when it comes to music and not always from musical things or situations."
He managed to set aside the whole month of March in 2008 to record the new album, "I did have some tunes, two in fact that were already written but the rest were all written, produced and recorded in March this year. I just had to block out that time so I knew I had to get it done."
Having sequestered himself in his home studio to make the recording, he tells, "I wrote six of the ten tunes on my own. The remaining four were co-written by myself and pianist and good friend, Bill Steinway. Also involved were Randy Jacobs (guitar). He recorded his parts whilst on tour with Dave Koz in Japan. Nate Phillips (bass)," and he adds, "Bill Steinway did a lot of keys and solos. I did the rest, and on some tunes did everything except guitar."
Something that distinguishes this record from his previous solo efforts, HeadBoppin’ (2003) and See What Happens (2001), is that Shilts was able to depend on several other musicians to manifest his ideas into a physical sonic form. For instance, the string arrangement on "Broken Silence" required the cooperation of several other musicians as Shilts explains, "I was playing around with strings on the intro and liked the way it was sounding. Then I thought, ‘wouldn't it be great to do a song with just sax (soprano again) and strings.’ Then I got a little carried away and added a drum groove. Then I got Bill to put on some Hammond and Randy some guitar and it sort of changed, so I asked a very good friend of mine back in the UK, Simon Hale, who has done string arrangements for everyone from George Benson, Jamiroquai, and most of the pop bands and artist out of Europe, if he would knock something up for me. He made it into a string quartet and played all the parts in midi for me. I just assigned the samples to the different parts and let it run in live, so to speak. I think it sounds quite authentic and it is one of my favorite tracks on the CD."
The song "Out of the Box" was another collaborative effort, "Again," he reaffirms, "this was a tune I was experimenting with. I had the backing track down first and decided to put on a head. Some days it flows, others it doesn't. I was struggling with a melody so I put it to the side. When I went back to it a few days later, it flowed. I thought of three sax players playing against each other and in unison. The track got very funky when Randy put on the guitar and had a southern style to it. I called it ‘Southern Fried Sax’ but when it was finished it stuck out from the rest of the tunes on the album, so I decided to title it ‘Outside The Box.’"
It was during the recording of "Piece by Piece" from Jigsaw Life that Shilts declared himself a "Yamaha Artist," after the company provided him with a soprano saxophone which he used on the song. "I'm not sure it needed it," he questions, "but to me it sounded sonically good. I have been guesting on stage with Boney James in his live show whenever we had the chance. Boney was kind enough to ask me to play a duet with him on soprano and me on tenor. It sounded great. I had wanted to get back into playing the soprano for a long time. I've just become a Yamaha Artist, so it was an ideal time for me to experiment with a new soprano which I just got from them. I went on to play it on a few more tracks and loved the way it blended with the tenor."
Though Shilts offers many tracks that optimize funk grooves and R&B/smooth jazz traction, he counterbalances those peaks with some valleys which he does in the ballad "A Promise is a Promise," as he deems, "Well, I decided I needed to show that I do have a gentle side, and again it was an ideal chance to show my soprano off, so I thought let's put a song on here for the ladies, and they like it a lot. I don't think one ballad out of ten tracks is too much to ask."
He assesses that the main difference between Jigsaw Life and HeadBoppin’ is "It's more to do with the production I think. Rick Braun and I produced HeadBoppin’ together. I decided to produce Jigsaw Life myself and record it solely in my own studio. I enjoyed the process a lot and really enjoyed getting into the new technology I acquired to do the project. I was able to write and produce the songs as I went along so this enabled me to make lots of changes if needed as opposed to recording with lots of ‘live’ musicians where as soon as they leave the session the tune is pretty much cast in stone. I was able to change tempos and keys as I went."
The decision to name the album, Jigsaw Life was obvious to him. "I do a lot of jigsaw puzzles with my children and one night it struck me what a great idea it was, and how long they had been around. It occurred to me that life was like a jigsaw, in that pieces of your life come together and make you up as a person. I just thought I could have a lot of fun with the concept. Once I decided on the title, I knew what the cover would look like and thought I could transfer the jigsaw theme to so many things. I hope that when people hear the album they can hear different sounds and influences in each track."
He supplies about his gear for the recording, "As I mentioned, I recorded in my own studio, which I have called ‘Union Jack Studios.’ Also as I mentioned before, I have become a Yamaha Artist and this tied in perfect for me as I already owned so much Yamaha studio and recording equipment, from computer software to keyboards, monitor speakers and my mixing desk. I just love the quality of tools they produce for music and they are at the top of the technology chain in regards to new developments."
Since the studio is in his house, it gives his children easy access to the equipment as well as himself. He sets, "My children know that when daddy is in his studio, he is working and they are great with that. I do let them come in and we record messages to family and they make their own CD's with them singing and messing about. They both love music and that's very important to us as a family. I hope one day they both decide to take up an instrument or learn to sing but it's something they will tell me about when they are ready. I don't believe in pushing children into something if they don't show an interest."
Though the production of the songs can be A-class, it is something else to bring them onto the live stage, and Shilts exclaims about that part of his job, "I love playing to an audience. It's the only real time when you get a proper feedback on your music. If the audience is into what you are doing, then it just gives you more energy to give them the best performance you can. There's no buzz like it."
He reveals, "I have been playing two tracks from the new CD for some time as I wanted to see what the reaction was. It's been great. I have a very talented group of musicians backing me but the line can change from gig to gig. Bill Steinway is my musical director and helps me with arrangements too. He's a great asset and a very talented guy. Others that have played have been Rodney Lee (keys), Gerry Brown (drums), Chris Bailey (drums), Kevin Chokan (guitar), John Menzano (bass), CC Thomas (bass), Ron Jenkins (bass), Carl Burnett (guitar) and Brian Dunne (drums). I'm looking forward to adding new tunes to the set and will get around to playing most of them at some time or another."
When it comes to which venues he prefers to play, he notes, "Each venue has a different vibe. I must say I do prefer to be up close to the audience and that way you can gage how they are responding and if you need to extend a tune or not. I also love festivals because it's a great time to hang out with other artists and catch up with friends. It’s always great to see friends on the road and have a pint and a chat after the gig back at the hotel bar. Sometimes these can turn into quite a party!"
When he looks back over his choice to become a solo artist and his decision to have a separate identity from his work with Down To The Bone, he cites one special musician that has made this transition go more smoothly for him. "Probably for me in the last two years, someone who has become a great friend is Rick Braun. Rick was there from the time we first moved to the US from England, offering help and advice to me and my family. Since then we have all become close friends. Rick also put my name forward to his partners at ARTizen as their first signing, which led to my album HeadBoppin‘. I learned a lot from Rick during that project and went on to play in his band. He is a fantastic musician and has a natural gift as a producer. We have so much fun on stage and the best part is I get to work with a true friend."
Shilts may continue to play shows with Down To The Bone in the future, but there is no denying that he has established a separate identity from them. Jigsaw Life is another notch in Shilts belt buckle. It expands his girth as a saxophonist and composer, and makes his stylized jazz-funk a product of his own designs with a set of musicians who transform his ideas into melodic verses.