Live reviews

Joe Fiedler’s ‘Open Sesame’ album launch at The Jazz Gallery, NYC

Joe Fiedler’s ‘Open Sesame’ album launch
(The Jazz Gallery, NYC. 12 November 2021. Live Review by Dan Bergsagel)

Joe Fiedler (centre). Publicity photo by Scott Friedlander

I have coaxed friends to many strange and unpredictable concerts, but this week’s “Sesame Street Trombone Jazz” was one of the more unusual invitations. Yet after Open Sesame’s album launch for Fuzzy and Blue – Joe Fiedler’s second collection of adaptations of songs from the children show’s playbook – “Sesame Street Trombone Jazz” feels like the most joyous and natural thing in the world.

Joe Fiedler is a multi-musical trombonist: a leader, a sideman, a pit man, but crucially, since 2009, a musical director on Sesame Street. Over a decade of up-close exposure to the musical craft on the show has left him steeped in its musical history, and uniquely placed to combine his jazz sensibilities with the melodic clarity and charming humour of the show’s songs. Selecting from over 2700 extant songs (at times squeezing in a dozen to a show), Fiedler has adapted a mix of classics and genuine obscurities.

They open with a neat, tightly controlled trombone and trumpet pair on ABC-DEF-GHI with Joe Irabagon leading the melody and taking the first solo on soprano. The tone fits a straightforward major sound, and between the group improvisations there is heavy focus on dynamics, switching rambunctious drums and shrill trumpet with controlled percussion and softer horn tones. Together Fiedler’s trombone and Steven Bernstein’s trumpet share a dizzying array of mutes, used to great effect throughout – from the very sincere vocal-esque trombone lead as Grover on blues-infused I am Blue, or for Bernstein in a call and response with Irabagon’s tenor as The Grouch and Cookie Monster on the medley I Love Trash/C is for Cookie.

The variety in horn mute use, with each selected introducing a different character through a different timbre, felt like a pared-back horn-only version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and drawing on the same principles of musical education through playfulness and melodic personality. Special guest singer Miles Griffiths brought characters to life in a much more literal sense, with show-stealing scat contributions as Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster (with such immortal phrases like “I love those sardines on the ground, I love those tomatoes on the ground”), and a funky, angular Fiedler original setting of William Holmes Borders’ poem I am Somebody. The Reverend Jesse Jackson featured on the show in 1971 in a call and response of excerpts of this with 5-6 year olds, and instead he had a call and response with an enthusiastically participating crowd in the Jazz Gallery in 2021.

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There is a sense that Open Sesame is at heart a light, fun thing, but during the pandemic and the US election struggles of 2020 Fiedler was compelled to bring in a more earnest tone. We are all Earthlings was an opportunity for Sean Conly to play with different bass modes – arco, plucked, loose and flappy – beneath breathy, serious brass. This was in contrast to the lively Being Green, which highlighted the importance of drummer Michael Sarin on all the tunes. Snapping, jumping and brushing, but constantly busy and changing, the drum role pushes the phases in the songs along expertly and is perhaps the lasting watermark of the buoyant spirit of the originals. Sarin’s role on The Sesame Street Theme is indispensable: building tension as the New Orleans horns layer and grow.

Unlike some of the less well-known tunes (I am Blue, for example, features only on the Sesame Street record spin-off Grover Sings the Blues) the theme is deeply familiar, and hearing a jazz version of it has that double-take sort of magic that The Bad Plus leant into so hard. However, unlike jazzified versions of 90s grunge, Fiedler’s adaptation of Joe Raposo’s original composition feels unnervingly natural and joyous. In truth, all of Open Sesame’s Fuzzy and Blue was unnervingly satisfying – hitting a note between scripted nostalgia and improvised jazz that was both exciting and comforting at the same time. And if you like your children’s television shows served with a shot of something stronger mixed in, then this is for you.

LINK: Open Sesame on Bandcamp

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