Fred had given me the task of conceiving and designing the shape of two sets.
He was pushing me to think about the bigger picture, to think about ways of somehow moulding the performance repertoire of my own puny art into an enjoyable and rewarding entertainment.
My stuff happens in a jazz idiom. And nobody digs jazz anymore, do they? I guess because of stuff like that old standard format, the predictable ritual of regular solo successions after the head, one after the other, culminating with a bass solo and likely an obligatory trading of fours with the drummer before a closing statement of the theme – a structure repeated on almost every tune – all punctuated by in-between on-stage chatter of deciding which tune to do next, the earnest muso twittering of bearded intensities and not necessarily a lot of laughs.
I don’t want to do like that.
With idea of Set One coherent and complete and on paper, I called Fred and fixed a date. We met in his office at the University of British Columbia. It’s real easy for me to get there by bus. Plus, the place comes with a grand piano.
The first two tunes I put up received serious rebuke. Both songs from long ago written with Doug Louie. Fred demanded answers. Why do you want to do this? What is the purpose of these cut-bars? What are you saying here? How is it supposed to feel?
The argument with the first tune was predominantly harmonic. Doug had grown up playing keyboards in rock’n’roll bands. So those nasty unwelcome keys so full of sharps, yet so popular for guitar – like E, A and D – had become perfectly normal for him. His harmonic conception derives from having had to play in three sharps and four sharps every night, while Fred’s craft roots are in big-bands and be-bop where more civilized keys are favoured because of their more comfortable accommodation of transpositions for Eb and Bb instruments.
“Chinese chords!” I said to Fred, making reference to the slur once aimed at Charlie Parker’s be-bop by the non-comprehending swing musicians of an earlier generation. We both knew the story and laughed at the silly irony while Fred performed profound reconstructive surgery to make better sense of Doug’s harmonic intent. All twenty-eight bars of it. Short and sweet. A devotional atheist prayer voiced like a chorale by horns & voice as an unexpected audience-catching set-opener. In this revised form, it ultimately starts the “good” pile.
Critique of the second song focused on its stylistic ‘70s half-time-funk devices. OK. Let’s call ‘em clichés. Fred found it dated and incongruous – a poor fit with what he knew of me. Again, I had to justify its existence. And struggled to do so.
Reasons I like it are that I already wrote a complete arrangement using a Tony Allen afro-beat groove I had transcribed, and very slick horn voicings (I thought) for an especially “different” solo section with distinctly non-functional chords. I was proud of the work I had put into it and what I had learned on the journey. Like the smell of one’s own farts, however, all was illusion and self-deception. The tune has no point, said Fred, neither is there effective relation between the vocal song section and that solo section, where the chord changes of which I had been so proud are actually musically meaningless shite.
And so we started the “bad” pile.
The remaining six pieces I had prepared survived the assessment in much better condition apart from some small harmonic revisions and key modifications. Thus happy we had a satisfactory First Set, we next discussed instrumentation and other details while Fred gathered my lead-sheets and outline sketches of how I dreamed each being presented & played. He will realise arrangements and charts over the next couple of weeks, after which we’ll get together to work on Set Two.
We briefly spoke of personnel also – which frightened the life out of me. Really. Being able to benefit from the Stride-touch on my stuff is still hard to believe. But the names he identified from his first-call list are quite naturally of course the top guys in town. A very intimidatory prospect indeed. But even more amazing was Fred’s response to my casual mention that I had saved enough spare cash to pay for a rehearsal – he said that with a project of such high quality they would all be up to rehearse for free. Wow! Speechless. I can’t recall his exact words. I remember him looking at me. Straight and honest. The idea expressed was that we should have great arrangements of great material played by a great band.
All in a day’s work for Fred, maybe: another big unexpected head-spinning surprise for me.