Following up 2019’s warmly received Open Sesame, the EMMY-nominated Fiedler highlights an expansive trombone voice, richly interpretive arrangements, and keen orchestration chops.
With Steven Bernstein (trumpet), Jeff Lederer (tenor/soprano sax & clarinet), Sean Conly (bass), and Michael Sarin (drums), plus guest vocalist extraordinaire Miles Griffith.
Available from Multiphonics Music on November 12, 2021
In 2019 trombonist Joe Fiedler released Open Sesame, packed with inventive jazz readings of material drawn from his longstanding “day job” as an EMMY-nominated music director and staff arranger for the famed children’s show Sesame Street. The effort was equally beloved by lay listeners and the jazz world alike. DownBeat praised the music’s “diverse aesthetic,” in which Fiedler blends “elements of funk, rock, free-jazz and New Orleans polyphony into a potent mix that gives depth and texture to the lighthearted compositions.” When Fiedler and the band toured the music, including a stop at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with guest luminaries Wynton Marsalis and none other than Elmo himself, the realization set in that the project would be no one-off. “I have these songbooks from the Sesame Street office,” Fiedler says, “and if you whip through the first 30 tunes, absolutely everyone knows them. But there are six or seven thousand songs they’ve done over the past 50 years, with plenty of gold in there to do a second album for sure.”
Fuzzy and Blue, Fiedler’s second volume of Sesame Street songs, shines still more light on the extraordinary wit and melodic gift of the foundational Sesame Street composers Joe Raposo and Jeffrey Moss, among others. The album boasts the same top-tier lineup as Open Sesame, with a couple of twists. Trumpeter Steven Bernstein, who played on only part of Open Sesame, now becomes an integral cog in a nimble three-horn section, expanding and varying the palette and allowing Fiedler to bring his seasoned orchestration skills to the foreground. Reedman Jeff Lederer plays tenor and clarinet and relies more heavily on soprano sax this time out, helping achieve the ideal blend of colors and registers that Fiedler was seeking. Drummer Michael Sarin and bassist Sean Conly keep the rhythms locked and creatively churning, from Dr. John/Professor Longhair vibe of “Fuzzy and Blue” to the reggae feel of “Elmo’s Song” (by Tony Geiss), to the Hugh Masekela-inspired Afropop of “Ladybug’s Picnic” (originally a peppy country novelty by the late William “Bud” Luckey).
The ensemble also gets a visit from vocal powerhouse Miles Griffith, the very model of a guest on Sesame Street. On the “I Love Trash/C Is for Cookie” melange (a one-two shot of Moss and Raposo), Griffith’s singing is unabashed, larger than life, uproariously funny but insightful, and firmly in control. He’s equally compelling in a sociopolitical vein on “I Am Somebody,” in which Fiedler combines an original song with the lyrics of Reverend William Holmes Borders — words recited to powerful effect on Sesame Street in 1972 by Reverend Jesse Jackson. Fiedler felt a need on Fuzzy and Blue to acknowledge social tumult at the close of the Trump presidency and the still-tentative aftermath of the COVID pandemic. “We Are All Earthlings,” a gentle and idyllic Jeffrey Moss folk ballad from 1993, accomplishes this as well, though Fiedler brings a stark added tension with his Stravinsky-esque horn voicings.
Together, Bernstein and Fiedler present a veritable master class in the use of mutes for endless color and timbre subtlety, in the spirit of early jazz. “We’re playing these Harmon mutes with the stems in,” Fiedler says, “which nobody does — that’s from the ’20s.” Bernstein plays his signature slide trumpet on Raposo’s “X Marks the Spot” (the only minor-key song) but otherwise is heard on valve trumpet and flugelhorn, not to mention the lower and darker G-trumpet on Raposo’s “I Am Blue.” That song opens with beautiful muted trombone and is distinctly Ellingtonian in orchestration, with horns placed outside their more common registers.
Throughout the album there’s an atmosphere of fun, “a sense of burlesque” as Fiedler put it in the Open Sesame liner notes, that flows from the trombonist’s deep love of Ray Anderson, the Jazz Passengers, Carla Bley, and other major influences. Steven Bernstein’s Sexmob is another. The improvisational openness and risk of Fiedler’s trio dates Sacred Chrome Orb, The Crab, I’m In and Joe Fiedler Plays the Music of Albert Mangelsdorff also carry over to this more song-oriented endeavor. Fuzzy and Blue, like its predecessor, is Fiedler’s way of bringing it all together, reminding himself and all of us that inspiration can and does come from everywhere and that everything is connected.
A native of Pittsburgh, Fiedler is an accomplished jazz improviser and bandleader with sideman credits including Andrew Hill, Charles Tolliver, Satoko Fujii, Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, and a host of others. In addition to his trio and other small-group lineups, Fielder leads the low-brass quartet Big Sackbut (three trombones & tuba), which has released the albums Big Sackbut, Sackbut Stomp and Live in Graz. He was nominated for an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Music Direction and Composition in a Children’s Series in 2013 and 2016. He plays lead trombone on the 2021 movie soundtrack album for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, contributing horn orchestrations for five major numbers and underscoring cues as well. While playing the In the Heights stage production in 2008 he met chief arranger Bill Sherman, who went on to hire Fiedler for a reboot of The Electric Company and then Sesame Street as well.