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Making Lemonade On The Bandstand

An audience experience that left me wishing for more lemons

Music culture is inclusive, generally speaking, and it is not out of the ordinary for a band to invite guests to join them on the bandstand.

I have seen many amazing guest artists join a bandstand and bring whole new aspects to the show already underway, adding new elements to the musical recipe that is cooking. It can be an unexpected treat for all to have a guest make a special unscheduled appearance.

Only once have I seen a guest invited up who showed that they were musically out of their depths, and what happened next both surprised and delighted me.

I was at a great jazz club in New York listening to a fantastic pianist play solo piano with captivating charm and charisma. Over the course of the set, he played a variety of obscure jazz standards in long winding seamless medleys, that all tied together in uniquely satisfying ways. Towards the show's end, he invited a guest, whom I assume he had just met, to join him. A couple of bars into the song, it was clear that this guest was a novice, with some pitch, form, and time issues, but was not aware of it. This could have been a musical disaster, but it wasn't. The pianist identified the problem immediately and expertly accompanied his guest with clever finesse, making each missed step seem like a choreographed stunt. The guest shifted keys, and the pianist was right there with her modulating and adding connecting musical layers, laying the steps before each footfall. It reminded me of old silent movie stunts that always seem to work out like in Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or Charlie Chaplin movies or Mr. Magoo driving around blindly as his environment elegantly rises to meet him before he falls. But in this case, the environment was a pianist and they lifted their guest at every turn.

This song was a display of mastery on the pianist's part who was smiling broadly and clearly enjoying himself. He was reveling in the challenge and taking his audience along for the exciting, nail-biter of a ride. There was no sign of mockery, only impish pleasure in the comedy and artist's challenge of the moment.

I enjoyed the performance so much that when the song was over I secretly hoped the guest would sing another song — the way one enjoys watching the near mishaps in an old silent film. The thrill is in the artfulness of the resolution.

I walked away from this show elevated. This generous pianist had given everyone joy, including this unprepared novice. This kind of thing can only happen in a live music setting. This never would have made the video cut or the recording, but it was pure magic to be there. This could have gone many ways, but I was so glad it went the way it did.

Examples In My Own Work

One example of making mighty fine lemonade out of lemons from my own work occurred during the recording of my album "Windmills."

The album was to be produced and arranged by a dear long-term friend. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the arrangements weren't ready on time for the scheduled recording dates. There we were, in the studio, all of us hired and ready to play without the music.

What happened then was improvisation. We arranged this album on-site, as a collective, staying on time and on budget! There were elements of figures for the rhythm section on half of the songs, but it was largely a blank slate — even for the title song, the "arranger" said, "I got nothing. This song is so repetitive." That is when I stepped forward with my idea of how we might approach it, and then we just recorded that. A verbal description with world-class musicians collaborating in real-time: that's how we ended up with this version of "The Windmills of Your Mind."

On the first day of recording, the rhythm section and I recorded the framework of the songs, leaving holes where the horns would go. We created a framework for the songs. I called the horn players explaining that there were no charts for horn parts but that we had left spaces for the horns and asked if they would be able to help create their own parts in the studio and they agreed. I noticed that one of my good friends a brilliant horn player who was on tour in NYC from elsewhere was in town and I called him to see if he would fill in for the "arranger" on that horn. He agreed. There was only one day before the session and a lot to pull off! On this day, I also recorded the vocal tracks. Two days after the rhythm section was recorded, the horn players arrived, they divided up the sections between them "Intro/Outro," "A-section," "B-section," etc. We agreed on who would take solos where. The three of them sat down with pencils and music paper and wrote out the parts for the whole horn section on-site and we recorded their parts. That is how the album got done. Sometimes life is improvising. There are whole sections of the album where we as a collective we're just going with the flow. The whole outro on "Love Like Ours" was improvised (not pre-arranged) and the long outro on "His Eyes, Her Eyes" was just "letting the tape roll" as they say, and the band and I were improvising. This was the sweetest lemonade!



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