A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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.

TJG: What about “Batty Bat?” That almost has a Tom Waits vibe to it for the first part.

JF: Totally! What’s funny about that one, is that there’s a verse to “Batty Bat” from the original segment that people don’t remember. The whole minor, Eastern European thing, I really love that. The way we did that was quite true to the original. Then there’s the more recognizable major part. But to really make that shift come out, we do this really long accelerando. I feel it builds the drama in a way that The Count would do. Every time we do that part live, the tempo we end up at, or the rate of the accelerando, is not so set. I love the pliability of that moment in the tune.

TJG: Moving beyond the arrangements now, how much direction did you give to everyone regarding solos? Did you think about pacing how in or out people played on each tune?

JF: To be honest, I don’t think I really thought at all about that. I will say that I wanted the solos to be short. If memory serves, I don’t think anyone takes more than one chorus on any tune. So I wanted things short and sweet, but in terms of the shape it would take, I’ve gotten to a point where I think the best thing to do is to pick the right players and then don’t say anything. I could really trust Jeff and Steven—they’re so savvy—to know when to push the boundaries and other times not.

One thing I like about the group is that we can get this kind of floating feeling without a chordal instrument. Since so many of the tunes were so major-y, I thought a lot about how to disguise that major-ness. A good example is in “Sing,” where most of the harmonic voicings are in fourths, which really disguises what the original harmony is. Another thing was adding pedal points, instead of the bass moving with all of the chord changes.

TJG: One thing that stuck out to me with “Sing” were all of the chromatic passing tones in the horn lines. Combined with the pedal point, it felt like a faded, or washed-out version of the song, where a few remnants of those really rich chords were left.

JF: Right. I think that also speaks to where the improvisation lives, too. Even in the moments of the disguised or faded version that you describe—I love that image—sometimes we’re blowing over the exact real changes, superimposed over the pedal point. So even if you’re playing super in, it doesn’t necessarily sound in or out. It lets you live in a lot of different places simultaneously.

TJG: I’d like to talk a bit more about working with Steven Bernstein in this context. He seems like such a natural fit from the get-go—how did you end up working together?

JF: I’ve gotten to know Steven over the years, doing things here and there. He was a guest on one of my Big Sackbut records, and he’s always been one of my heroes in terms of orchestrating and arranging, particularly his understanding of pacing—it’s stunning. I’ll watch him with the Henry Butler group, or Sex Mob, or one of his other projects, he has this ability to have almost a lead-sheet kind of arrangement and still draw out so much drama and burlesque in real time. He knows exactly when it’s time to push it to the edge, or take a turn, or go back to a vamp. That aspect of his musicality is amazing to me.

As far as this project, it’s a little ironic how working with Steven came about. When we were first putting it together and thinking about a name for the band, I was thinking about something like “Sex Mob meets Sesame Street” to get the ideas going. We played as a quartet for about a year, little gigs around New York, to get the music up. Then at the last gig, which was about a month before the recording, we were playing at this club in Nyack called Maureen’s Jazz Cellar and Steven lives in Nyack. I called him and said, “Hey. If you’re free, why don’t you just come play?” I didn’t rewrite the book—he just played the saxophone part. I may have had one tune where I wrote a specific trumpet part. He played the whole night with us and it was so good and so fun that I was like, “Damn. Now I have to use him!”

One of the best parts about Steven—this goes back to pacing and momentum—Jeff and I can be very muscular and almost egg each other on to more ridiculous heights. Even though it’s fun, we can get to too much of that, and it doesn’t serve the music. Steven was then such a great foil. Like if I take a solo to a ridiculous place, he’s going to respond by going to the less-is-more space. And then if Jeff goes after him, he can go ridiculous too, and we balance it out. Steven’s sense of what should go next in terms of momentum and vibe is such a great lesson. At this point, whenever we have a gig, we try to get Steven on—he’s going to be at the Gallery.

TJG: Talking about Steven as a foil is making me think about how in many instances, humor in music can come from really sharp and immediate contrasts.

JF: I think that’s exactly right. As a writer, I think about this all the time. It was in the front of my mind as I was making these arrangements. The big thing for me is to not sacrifice the musicality while bringing this playfulness to the writing. It can be easy to go to a shticky place, so I want to be well on this side of the fence from shtick. When the musical idea becomes a novelty, that’s not it for me. I’ll also say that I think I’m one of the few guys who writes dynamics in his small group parts, with that sense of contrast in mind.

As an improviser, I don’t think about it as much, and sometimes I wish I did. My hero of heroes, and I’ve said this a million times, is Ray Anderson. To me, he’s the quintessential master of humor through contrast. You’ll hear him do this ascending line up into the stratosphere, and then suddenly he’s playing this pedal tone whole note. He always has that contrast built into his playing and pacing. He can be playing faster than what you think a trombone can do, and then he’s doing this whisper-quiet tone. I think what I play is in the same spirit as Ray, but I’m not as extreme a version with that.

Working with Jeff and Steven is really great because they really think a lot in terms of dynamics. Organically, one of us will start going to this even quieter place—even in the studio, it happened—and everyone has such good ears, we’ll go, “That’s right. That’s where we need to be—we need to be even morethat way.” It’s really a team effort. Jeff is an experienced bandleader in his own right with many records, so to have three veteran bandleaders all pulling in the same direction… we didn’t speak of it in the studio even. You could just feel Steven has a really good idea, so we should go with this. Or it could come from Jeff or me. I think that contributed to the overall project more than I’ll ever know—their subtle motions to the funny or the soft or the loud or the ridiculous.

TJG: I feel like that’s the secret of a good band—how everyone balances instigating with supporting.

JF: I couldn’t agree more. The two things I always come back to—and I don’t even know who put this phrase in my head—it’s about serving the music, and thank God that I’m the age I am so I can see that’s more important than anything. And secondly, the best idea in the room is the best idea in the room, and many times it will not come from me. I think bandleaders across the board need to get with that. And if you have a large ensemble with very little rehearsal time, that’s a whole other ball of wax. But in a small group, more freewheeling situation like this, I think it’s crucial to let the best idea come forward.

Joe Fiedler’s Open Sesame plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, April 5, 2019. The group features Mr. Fiedler on trombone, Jeff Lederer on saxophones, Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Sean Conly on bass, and Michael Sarin on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.