'American Idol' Music Should 'Support the Singers,' Says Bandleader Ray Chew

Ray Chew

The final 13 "American Idol" contestants got their first chance to work with Jimmy Iovine's stable of top-name producers last week, and on the episode airing tonight (Mar. 9), they sang songs by their own personal "idols." Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Shania Twain, Celine Dion -- all the usual suspects -- are covered on the the show, along with a song by an artist that Jennifer Lopez had never head of until Tuesday, Ryan Adams.

The two-hour show was taped Tuesday night and then edited for tonight's broadcast, most likely the last time the show will not be staged live for the East Coast. Beyond "technical difficulties" that delayed the start by 20 minutes, all 13 singers were able to get in their performances and hear full critiques within the two-hour running time. Steven Tyler also had a chance to give a couple of ladies pecks on the cheeks and Randy Jackson had time to joke around with Motown founder Berry Gordy between takes.

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We'll see how it sounds tonight, but on Tuesday, the audience reaction was most enthusiastic for Scotty McCreery and Naima Adedapo; Casey Abrams, Jacob Lusk and Pia Toscano delivered impressive overall performances; and Haley Reinhart became the first contestant to greet criticism with a bit of diva sass.

After the taping, Billboard.com caught up with the show's new musical director Ray Chew to inquire about his new job:

Billboard.com: The new wrinkle this season is Jimmy Iovine and his crew of producers working with the contestants and studio musicians. How is that affecting the song arrangements, and is it eating into the time you have to prepare?

Ray Chew: These are world class producers, and my job is to bring to the stage all of the things they have worked on in the studio. Pretty much everything. We plan our renditions according to the work they have done with the producers. There is not a whole lot of time -- maybe a day or two. Tonight we only had our core unit, and over the course of the season we will expand the band to include horns and strings. Last week we had real horns.

Last week we saw a significant stylistic range -- country, '60s rock, Latin pop, '70s pop -- and the band seemed to handle it all just fine. How would you grade your performance?

A 10. I have to always be a 10. It's got to be a home run every time we play. It's got to go over the fence. These are well-seasoned pros who know how to get it right quickly, big-time event musicians. I always have to stay in the moment. I can't get caught up in anything except playing the music. Later on, I'll roll back the tape and enjoy the performances, but right after that it's on to the next music.

It's quite loud in the room, and there's been some criticism about how forceful the band is playing. Is that due to the mix? What role do you have in determining the sound of the show?

The mix for the room is separate from the mix for broadcast. There are a lot of conversations between a lot of people on that. The final choices on the mix come from producers and broadcast executives. All I can do is offer opinions and suggestions, but I don't have any final say. Musically, we are following the plan laid out by the show's producers and the music producers working with the singers. We make sure we're providing the right support for the singers.

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