Fuzzy and Blue “Open Sesame”
Who would have thought we’d encounter the music of the long-running television show Sesame Street through a progressive jazz outfit? Well, this is not the first but the second time for trombonist Joe Fiedler who released Open Sesame in 2019 and is the EMMY-nominated music director and staff arranger for the show in his “day job.” The first album played to rave responses from both jazz and non-jazz enthusiasts. When they toured the music, Wynton Marsalis joined them at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola as well as the show icon Elmo. Fiedler claims that even though most people know 30 or so songs from the show, there are six or seven thousand songs they’ve done over the past 50 years, more than enough to make a second album. Thus, we have Fuzzy and Blue with the same progressive lineup that graced the first effort.
It’s a three-horn front line with the leader joined by trumpeter Steven Bernstein, who plays a larger role this time; multi-reedist Jeff Lederer who wields tenor sax, clarinet, and mostly soprano sax in this outing, along with drummer Michael Sarin and bassist Sean Conly. Note there are no chordal instruments as this quintet mostly plays the music of the show’s foundational composers Joe Raposo and Jeffrey Moss. Vocalist Miles Griffith joins on two selections.
With Fiedler’s heart in neo avant-garde this music is certainly not kids ‘stuff as you’ll glen from the opening “ABC-DEF-GHI” which right away features Bernstein and the leader inventively using plungers and mutes in the spirit of early jazz, carried through even to larger extent in Raposo’s “Bein Green.” Fiedler says, “We’re playing these Harmon mutes with the stems in – which nobody does – that’s from the ‘20s.” Not only does Fiedler draw on early jazz but also what he calls ‘a sense of burlesque,” influenced by the music of Ray Anderson, the Jazz Passengers, Carla Bley, and bandmate Bernstein’s Sexmob. Inspired horn interplay and brief solos from each member over snappy rhythms mark the title track, composed by Steven Lawrence where NOLA influence prevails as well.
Miles Griffith takes over on “I Am Somebody,” a tune composed by Fiedler with lyrics from Reverend William Holmes Borders, whose words were recited powerfully on Sesame Street in 1972 by Reverend Jesse Jackson. This is one of the ways Fiedler plays to the current political divide and social unrest; the other through the instrumental Moss penned “We Are All Earthlings.” Griffith also goes the humorous route in the Moss-Raposo “I Love Trash/C Is for Cookie” medley, scatting to great effect.
Bernstein’s lower and darker G trumpet colors “I Am Blue,” a song that opens with Fiedler’s muted trombone and Ellingtonian-like orchestration with the horns in unexpected registers and Lederer delivering an expressive clarinet solo with both Fiedler and Bernstein digging deep into the blues. On the other tunes, excepting “X Marks the Spot” in a minor key where Bernstein plays his signature slide trumpet, he plays valve trumpet and flugelhorn. In that same tune, which builds off a well-known black spiritual, Lederer’s tenor burst leaves no doubt that he nods to his major influence, Albert Ayler. The band through Conly’s walking bass line gives a reggae feel to “Elmo’s Song” and reaches into Afropop a la the late Hugh Masakela on “Ladybug’s Picnic,” originally rendered as a country tune, composed by the late William “Bud” Luckey.”
Strains of old music and big band music run throughout, all tracing to Fiedler’s wide background and some of the same threads that run through his other bands. He has one with a tuba and three trombones and like this one, his trio is pianoless. Consider too that Fiedler has played in big bands of Anthony Braxton, Andrew Hill, and with Bobby Sanabria on the Latin side where the trombone is essential. Speaking of which, Fiedler’s solo on the extended medley of “Bip Bippadotta Suite” shows yet another extraordinary use of mutes and highly vigorous exchanges among the band. Lederer is outstanding on soprano in the closing “Captain Vegetable.”
This spirited session proves inspiration can come from some unexpected sources. And, as a former radio friend of mine once said, “It’s not that jazz is a type of music – it’s a way of playing music.” Dig in. This is all in the spirit of fun.
- Jim Hynes