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Steven Jurgensmeyer began his career as the Art Director at the trailblazing record label Rykodisc, working closely with Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, Bob Mould, Robert Cray and Morphine, among others. He joined Rounder Records as Creative Director, working with musicians such as Alison Krauss, Robert Plant, Harry Connick Jr, and Madeleine Peyroux. He is now the principal in his own studio and has worked with Carly Simon, Dan Zanes, Richard Lewis, the legendary Jamaican label Studio One and, of course, Branford Marsalis. His work can be seen at www.stevenjurgensmeyer.com.
Marsalis Music: You were the Art Director for Branford’s two latest recording projects, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy and Four MFs Playin’ Tunes. Could you please explain your concept for each project?
Steven Jurgensmeyer: It was a great pleasure working directly with Branford on Songs of Mirth and Melancholy. He sent me a CD of the music and asked me to “design what I heard.” Upon hearing the music, two things struck me pretty immediately; one was the openness of the music, and the space “between” the notes. The second was the obvious familiarity and intimacy between Branford and Joey. So… you had two really contrasting ideas at play here, and I really wanted to create something beautiful, that would stand the test of time and sit comfortably amongst the classic album covers from Blue Note and Prestige. I knew a sense of scale was going to be a key to success; luckily, we were able to utilize this wonderful, towering wall in the Museum of Fine Arts’ new “Art of the Americas” wing. I loved the stone and the natural light; it really filled the “spacious” role, but also became another player in the composition. The “other thing” I needed to capture was the familiarity Branford and Joey share as musicians. They brought that naturally with their personalities and relationship. There was a lot of clowning around (as the outtakes attest!), but their body language in the final shot provided exactly what was needed. Photographer Stephen Sheffield caught that moment; I knew immediately that this shot was the cover. The typography is a nod to the simplicity and grace of that classic era of jazz sleeves and to the album’s title. This cover is my favorite piece in my career to date.
With Four MFs, we wanted to illustrate the importance of each band member and their musical personality and contributions in this particular quartet, as they had really jelled into a formidable unit. I knew I wanted “motion” to serve as the metaphor for the music and, in turn, highlight each musician in focus, while the others “played” around him or her. A friend recommended photographer Eric Ryan Anderson, who uses a lot of motion techniques; he was game and the shoot was on. As with any shoot, no matter how tightly scripted, you always have to improvise and we worked the quartet hard to get those shots! It was an incredibly difficult shoot; a lot of fun, to be sure, but a long day and hard work.
Marsalis Music: What was the biggest challenge during the Four MFs shoot?
SJ: The biggest challenge of theFour MFs shoot was keeping the guys moving and staying out of the subject’s way so that he remained the focus. It’s not easy to plan and direct spontaneity! Since we were tethered to a laptop we could see that the concept worked, but Eric was also constantly shooting; it was very different in that you just had to trust (and hope!) that you were getting the shot. But the guys were great and had a lot of fun with it. Branford has a way with telling a joke at the exact right moment to keep everyone loose; you can actually see the punch line moment in the photo featured on the inside of the LP.
Working toward solid concepts that helped define the overall project and serve the music AND that were actually “do-able” was certainly imposing! The Mirth shoot was much easier because it was only two, not four, musicians and was static. But both shoots went very well, because we had a script and two talented photographers who “got” what I was trying to accomplish. It’s a long, bumpy road between concept, shoot, choosing the cover image and seeing the finished piece in stores but it’s hugely gratifying when it works so well. While the distribution, marketing and selling of music is constantly evolving, I’m a firm believer that the album cover remains a central piece of the artist’s story.
Marsalis Music: Did the band choose their own outfit ensembles for the Four MFs photo shoot? Who’s the most stylish member of the Branford Marsalis Quartet?
SJ: While we had stylists and some wardrobe, the guys are all very snappy dressers on their own. It’s hard to say who’s the most stylish, but the studio shared space with a men’s clothing designer and, let’s just say, Justin had a field day over there. Who knew he had a thing for bowties?!