From L to R: Sean Conly, Michael Sarin, Joe Fiedler, Steven Bernstein, and Jeff Lederer. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.
Trombonist Joe Fiedler has released a number of acclaimed albums on his own imprint, Multiphonics Music. It’s an apt name due to Fiedler’s interest in multiphonics, an extended instrumental technique where one plays and sings at the same time. One might not associate timbral experimentation with music for children, but while Fiedler is an exploratory improviser by night, he writes and arranges music for the television show Sesame Street by day.
This February, Fiedler released a new album, Open Sesame, where his different musical lives collide. Fiedler assembled fifteen tunes from the Sesame Street archive—from instantly-recognizable classics to deep cuts—and put them through their paces. The result is a delightful romp, where imaginative arranging and gloves-off improvising reveal new shades of the Sesame Street material. Writing for PopMatters, jazz critic Will Layman notes, “the music here can be playful or even silly, but Fiedler has chosen songs that have good bones: hip melodies, interesting chord changes, or structures that allow the musicians to dig in and improvise with fire.”
This Friday, April 5, Fiedler and his Open Sesame band—saxophonist Jeff Lederer, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, bassist Sean Conly, and drummer Michael Sarin—come to The Jazz Gallery stage for two sets. We caught up with Fiedler by phone to talk about his arranging process and the musicians who’ve influenced his playful aesthetic.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been working on Sesame Street for a decade now. What made you want to bridge your musical worlds for this project now?
Joe Fiedler: The project really was born a few years ago. I hadn’t really thought about doing it at all. And to be honest, I kept the Sesame Street world and the jazz world separate for a while. But a few years ago, Ben Young—the great jazz historian and DJ on WKCR and he does educational programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center—Ben was starting a jazz series in the Hudson Valley. He knew I was from up here, and we got together, just shooting the breeze, talking about performance opportunities and what not. He likes my Big Sackbut project and he suggested that I do Sesame Street music with Big Sackbut. And he said that I could do workshops and things like that, and I was like, “That’s a really good idea!” I then just sat on it for a while and never thought more about it.
A couple of years later, I came back to it, but thought about doing it with my existing group, rather than Big Sackbut. At that point, I started poking around the archives at Sesame Street. There’s a huge library with all of the original lead sheets and I was amazed. So Ben put the seed in my head, and then I eventually came around to it. At that time, I was listening to a lot of Downtown jazz stuff from the ‘90s, like old Sex Mob stuff and the Jazz Passengers, and I thought I could do this fun, upbeat, not-so-serious project and use the Sesame tunes as a vehicle.
TJG: As you were going through the Sesame Street archives, how did you decide on what tunes to do for the project?
JF: Originally, I was going to a “Greatest Hits” or all most-recognizable music. But some of these songs are so iconic and have been done so many ways, that I thought it could be hard to make them my own. A good example of that is “Bein’ Green.” I always think of Ray Charles’s version, and there are so many amazing versions, so I was like, “I’m not even gonna touch that.” And then it’s such a beautiful tune, and I don’t want to make it goofy. So right off the bat, I knew I wanted to get at least a few of the most-known, like “The People in Your Neighborhood,” “Sing,” and “Rubber Duckie.”
After that, I found myself going onto YouTube and watching old Sesame Street clips. The second thing that caught my eye was the animation. I fell in love with these late-sixties, early-seventies animations that were all done by this company in California called Imagination, Inc. in San Francisco. There were really psychedelic with all of these jazzy tunes, like the pinball number count thing. The music was so not Sesame Street because all of the music was actually produced in house. So I ended up doing four or five songs from those animations.
At that point, all of the tunes were in major keys, because that’s Sesame Street. Then I felt I had to dig and find a couple of minor-key tunes. So we did “The Batty Bat” because it was in minor. Once I had about ten tunes for the project, it became about filling it out, and deciding what was missing.
TJG: Once you had your full set of tunes, how did you go about arranging them? The tunes are all clear, but beyond that, you made some really striking transformations.
JF: One of the bands that I’ve been drawn to over the years is Sex Mob. I love how Steven Bernstein is able to keep melodies the same and then change the groove behind it. On my end, it was more of an organic process. The very first arrangement I wrote was to “Somebody Come and Play,” which is another one of the more iconic songs. I was on a tour to Japan and was listening to some funky tunes on the flight over, and then thought I’d write a funky bass line and superimpose the melody over that. It was a bit by circumstance.
I knew that in general I wanted the whole project to be more groove-based, using rock and funkier elements. As I got further into arranging, I thought that I could push the ridiculousness up a notch. So with “Rubber Duckie,” I thought it would be a great place to juxtapose this fun-loving, little ditty with an aggressive, almost punk-rock thing. I think the juxtaposition of the sweetness and the familiarity with this very different style… there’s a lot of humor there. I think of the Jazz Passengers, and Carla Bley as composers/arrangers with a lot of humor. I really like going right up to the line of, “Man, you just ruined it.”
I also wanted to keep everything pretty short. It feels more like a pop record in some ways, with all the tunes about 3-4 minutes long. Part of my strategy with that was that once the joke is made, it’s made. We can’t beat it to death—let’s make a nice joke and get out.