Mathis, Zappa, and my night of enlightenment
By Chris Van Hof ~ Posted Fri, 11/14/2008 - 1:51pm
Johnny Mathis meets Frank Zappa. Hilarity ensues.
I had an incredibly weird experience last weekend. I'm a trombone player in addition to being a classical music radio person, and I'm fortunate to get contracted for a gig every now and then. Last Saturday, I was asked to play for Johnny Mathis in Utica at the beautifully restored Stanley Theater. As a well-trained freelance trombonist, I immediately said yes (The definition of an optimist? A trombone player with a cell phone. har har.). A gig's a gig, right? Then I realized that I was playing for Johnny Mathis, who is more or less famous. I read up on him, watched videos of him, and got excited to play with someone with such a storied career and formidable talent.
While I could regale you with the colorful story of my search between the rehearsal and the show for Saranac Pale Ale on tap (a surprisingly hard thing to find in the town in which it's brewed), instead I'll share with you the really weird part of the experience. It began during the drive to Utica with my fellow trombonist, Evan Dobbins (of the Rick Holland/Evan Dobbins Little Big Band). Evan has a monstrous musical mind, and has information at the tip of his brain pertaining to seemingly every kind of artist in every genre--the kind of person I like to just listen to talk about music for a couple hours. He also does not have a cell phone, is a trombone player, and is someone I would still call an optimist. This last fact I find remarkable.
Anyhow, here's the weird part: on the drive to Utica, as we prepared to perform some well-crafted, but in all honesty cheesy samba-ized versions of standard tunes, Evan played Frank Zappa the whole way. I was a Zappa rookie, and immediately was entranced by his music. I stared off into the passing landscape along the Thruway, mesmerized by the incredible talent of the musicians in Frank's band, and the mind-bending complexity of his compositions. While soaking it up, I thought about the upcoming gig, and realized how different my life experience was going to be in about two hours. If it were ever possible to live an evening in two such completely dichotomous musical worlds, then I can see Russia from my house in Bloomfield.
On the drive home, the starkness of the differences between the two was more pronounced for me. I got into the car humming "Brazil" (with incredibly smooth vocals, mind you), and was immediately bombarded by electro-acoustic mixed meter alchemy. I was delighted. My brain was shocked in the kind of way that only a great punch line can shock. Putting these two musicians up next to each other was invigorating. Johnny Mathis was completely new to me. Frank Zappa was completely new to me. They are musical polar opposites who both do what they do so well, and having their music mix up together in my brain was a singularly weird experience.
And then--as I tend to do--I got overly philosophical and reflected on my daily life. I realized how exciting music can be in terms of bringing new perspectives to a person. I thought about the glory of musical bounty that is available to us, from Haydn to Honegger to Hendrix. I pondered a possible conversation between Johnny Mathis and Frank Zappa. I was inspired by how music can shock, jolt, massage, coddle, teach, insult, cleanse, calm, enrage, enlighten. See what I mean--way too philosophical for my own good.
This is a little cliche, I know, but I still find it very inspiring in a weird way that it took Johnny Mathis and Frank Zappa to remind me, a person who lives music day in and say out, how powerful music is.
With that thought in mind, I'll seek to enable you to recreate my evening. I leave you with "Brazil" (I think this is the same chart I played in Utica), and "Heavy Duty Judy" (from "The Best Band You Never Heard," the disc playing in the car after my gig). Feel free to cleanse your palette with Bach afterwards.