I have been looking forward to this week for a long time, ever since I saw it on the Jazz at Lincoln Center schedule. Little did I know just how great an experience it would be.
Last night was opening night, not only of this project, but also for the JALC 2012/2013 season, and if this is any indication of the year ahead, it’s going to be a good one. Bobby McFerrin is our guest. We all know how varied his talents are; the range of his expressions, his rich musicianship. But little did I know just how cool a dude he is. No divo, he. The last three days of rehearsals with Bobby and the band have been full of collaboration, exploration and discovery.
Paul Simon happened to be in the audience last night, and Bobby invited him to come up and join us on Scarborough Fair (one I arranged for the band). When he humbly declined, Bobby insisted. The audience insisted, too. Finally, Paul raised slowly from his seat, sporting his usual hat, and found his way to the stage. It was one of those spontaneous moments that remind you that life is worth living.
Paul and Bobby fooled around for a while on a vamp, messing around with different pieces of the melody, reharmonizing it and fitting it different ways into the time. Then we segued into the chart, which Bobby had me to do in A minor (not the original D minor), so there was some concern whether Paul would feel comfortable singing a forth away from his usual tonal center. But, of course, we’re talking about a veteran performer, and in the spirit of being part of something special, Paul embraced the moment - and the new key.
Often when we do these collaborations Wynton “farms out” the arrangement responsibilities to the ten cats in the band who can write. While this may seem like a huge potential for danger (when we performed with Chick Corea last year, and Wynton explained this format to Chick, Chick said “You sure you want to do that?”), it is always, in my opinion, the most interesting of our concerts. Ten different people hear ten different ways. For me the disparate nature of this programming - with it’s resulting broad range of colors, textures and styles - is an absolute positive. And there is a through-line: the fact that we know each other’s playing so intimately allows us to make creative decisions that “outside” arrangers might never make. And a lot of thought goes into Wynton’s deciding which arranger is to do what song.
Whenever I can, I like to write music deep in the woods of Northeast Pennsylvania, in my log cabin. It’s quiet. Very quiet. In fact, one of the compositions on my recent release, “The Creep,” is called Cabin Fever. Without Internet or cell service, this environment is practically devoid of distractions, perfect for getting into a creative frame of mind. Yeah, the occasional black bear that comes sniffing around might grab my attention, and the beauty of the fireflies at dusk, or the awesomeness of the milky way might take me away from work for a bit, but if anything it adds to my inspiration.
This quiet, however, was broken the other day when, on a dark Saturday night there was a wrapping at the front door. My head snapped around to see my neighbor, the Philadelphia cop who owns the cabin down the road, his face practically pressed up against the window It reminded me a little of Jack Nicholson in The Shinning.(“Here’s Johnny!”) I hadn’t seen my neighbor in a couple years. He explained he is in the National Guard and spent the past year in Af-getto-stan. Charming. Alright, this area is not known for it’s dense population of liberals. Anyway, we shared a few quick updates, and I told him I would stop by his cabin the next day and say say a quick hi.
The week in PA was productive - I finished my arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” and had tackled about half of “Ain’t Necessarily So,” another chart for Bobby. It was a beautiful Sunday: warm and dry. A long weekend like this (Labor day) brings many of the cabin owners and their families to the area. Their idea of spending time in the country is quite different from mine, and usually involves driving noisy ATVs up and down the road, and shooting shot guns at bottles.
It was time to get out of here. I packed up my stuff, ready to hit the road back to the City in my Hippie-Mobile, and remembered I had promised my neighbor I’d stop by and say hi. I walked the couple hundred yards down the dirt road to his place. In the front yard I met some more cabin owners who were chilling in aluminum folding chairs, sucking on beer cans. One guy immediately shared with me a story about how he had to end an argument with the couple up the road by pulling out his 45 hand gun and firing off a couple rounds. While he is telling me this fascinating and inspiring anecdote, I notice my neighbor setting down and opening a long olive green case. He pulls out a familiar-looking piece of machinery. “What’s that?” I ask, trying to act nonchalant. “This, my friend, is an AK 47.” His 20-something year old son chimes in, with HIS five year old son hovering around his legs: “Yeah, this gun has killed more people than any other weapon, in all of history. And I’m includin' nuclear bombs!” I figured this might not be the best time to bring up my civil rights activist parents.
“Well,” I stretched my arms up above my shoulders, as if it were time for bed “I really gotta be hittin’ the road,” expressed in my best hick vernacular.
As I waked up the driveway back towards the road, I heard a couple shots. I didn’t look back. Then I wondered if my neighbor, the night before when he was in my cabin, saw the Jazz LP on my stereo with a picture of an African American on it. I kept walking.
Anyway, I am looking forward to the next two evenings with Bobby McFerrin and the JLCO. The show will be webcast. Click Here for link:
Here's a shot during Paul Simon’s visit on stage, during Scarborough Fair