Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sheets to the Wind

I have some good news and some bad... or more accurately, I should just say: I have some great news, and some good news that should have turned out better.

Imperfect news first... In grad school (English Lit, University of Washington), creeping up on 50 years ago, I got to know a guy named Bruce Lofgren; he was taking Lit courses but really hoped to have a career in music. He played Jazz guitar, could compose and arrange too, and he was studying privately with guitarist Larry Coryell--who would soon head East to become part of Gary Burton’s Quartet playing a light version of Jazz-Rock (Lofty Fake Anagram and such).

Maybe Bruce picked up some of Larry’s tricks and style, but he maintained Lofgren
too. He moved to Los Angeles and carved out his career, playing mostly electric Jazz, doing some arranging, teaching part-time in the public schools, eventually forming and maintaining somehow for a couple of decades now a so-called “rehearsal band”--his Bruce Lofgren Jazz Orchestra meeting regularly for the joy of playing Big Band music, but only rarely getting anything more than a one-night gig, paid Musicians Union scale. (Famous examples would be the bands organized by Terry Gibbs in L.A. and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis back in the Apple.)

How or even why we became friends I don’t remember, but something connected us
tenuously; and one would check up on the other when passing through each other’s turf. I (indirectly) got to hire Bruce to work on the music for several commercials, and every so often Bruce would ask me to create the phrases suited to some song he’d composed--this even though, back in grad school, one night at a party held on visiting poet John Logan’s rented houseboat, Bruce had pinned me like Nabokov toying with a moth for his butterfly collection, shouting from thirty feet away, loud enough to be heard above the party din, “Leimbacher, you’ll never be a poet... you’re too normal!"

I’ve borne that hidden, never-quite-healed wound of words ever since, unable to claim otherwise. I write all sorts of things, it’s true, but--speaking objectively--I do rely on a quick wit and a slick surface patina that work well for headlines, slogans, ad copy, naming projects, puns and word play, etc. I stick with the brief and quick, and that includes lyric poems and the occasional song lyric.

So in the decades since college I’ve put words to maybe a half-dozen Lofgren tunes. The only one that might actually have been heard heretofore was the title song for Bruce’s album Move into Your Car--a timely suggestion now, but issued two decades too early! And even sung con brio and with suitable irony by moonlighting lead/harmony vocalist Janis Siegel, Manhattan Transfer’s superb nine-GRAMMY award-winner. But the album went nowhere, and our song went with it.

In late October of 2012, Bruce emailed me that over the Halloween weekend, his long-lived BLJO would be playing at an L.A. club, during which he intended to present the world premiere performance of the long-awaited second song from collaborators L&L, this one a sexy, double-entendre number called “Sheet Music” that I’d dreamed up, turning music terms into bedroom talk in a comically racy, slightly silly way.

After so much time gone by, I certainly couldn’t remember the words I’d worked up--still can’t--but that “Sheet Music” would finally be performed was good news. Bruce had better news too: the vocalist would be a charmer he’d met, a younger relation of the late, highly regarded Jazz bassist Red Mitchell (a granddaughter, he thought).

Best news of all, a friend of Bruce’s would videotape the whole gig and I’d then receive a duplicate DVD of it... “All right,” I thought, “this could be great!”

The weekend came and went; a brief email assured me that the performance was a success, the audience laughed and applauded our “world premiere,” and my copy
would be coming soon...

Six weeks later, Christmas drawing nigh, I finally held that CD-sized dream right in my hand, about to play the sweet proof of my royalties-rich future as a songwriter. I loaded the disc, pushed “Play,” waited another excruciating minute, then saw, and heard...

Good news: the BLJO is near twenty strong, dressed vaguely as pirates but offering no band routines; still and all, solid soloists and tight ensemble work on Bruce’s inventive charts.

Not-so-bad news: there was nearly an hour of other tunes before the vocal section began, but then “Sheet Music” came right after Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny"! Heady
company indeed.

Not-so-good news: Bruce’s video ace did nothing but set up a single camera--at an angle and distance to take in the whole band--then start the tape rolling and (probably) head to the bar for a couple of drinks. (Oh, someone changed focus a few times, but it might well have been Bruce himself since the framing didn’t include him much of the time anyway!)

Worse news: whoever was playing soundman was also a minimalist--i.e., one microphone, positioned for solos or full-band power only; an adequate solution, but...

Worst news: one not suitable for an unknown singer and song, with tricky lyrics obscured by an arrangement that perhaps zigs too loudly when the vocalist needs light zagging instead!

Yes, it’s true, the words could not be heard, nor the entendres doubled, unless the listener was sitting close to the singer. So the performance likely impressed no one; that premiere may have been its derniere as well.

Then, heaping insult on injury, the “Music Impossible” DVD dupe self-destructed
after just two viewings! Proving once again that “There’s many a Slip ‘twixt Sheet and Hip.”

* * * * *
Next: the good news, one of the best things that’s happened to me in twenty or thirty years...

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