The trombone, as musical instruments go, is a sock puppet. No keys, no valves, no frets or marks defining the line between E and F. It is, like Daniel Tiger or Elmo, just a tube plus imagination. How can such a simple thing travel to so many magical places?
Joe Fiedler is one of our greatest trombone artists, a musician whose range of tones and techniques can feel infinite. He hums and coos; he shouts and growls. Fiedler plays ballads and blues and bop, too, not to mention his capability as a New Jazz wizard who can blend advanced composition with high degrees of improvisational freedom. And, of course, he has been the musical director for the beloved children’s program Sesame Street for a generation.
Fuzzy and Blue is the second of two recordings on which Fiedler gives the music of Sesame Street a spin around the creative music block. As Francis Davis notes in his terrific liner notes, it’s unfair that these melodies have not inspired more jazz, given how blues-driven they are, not to mention backed up by a combination of familiarity and harmonic sophistication. But, hey, it was worth the wait because Fiedler’s band—Sean Conly on bass, Michael Sarin’s drums, reed wizard Jeff Lederer and, on this date, Steven Bernstein on trumpets—plays this music with vast imagination and joy.
The most familiar tune here is the one that has been covered by singers quite often, the heart-tugging Kermit the Frog thesis, “Bein’ Green”. But Fiedler wisely ditches the song’s long-earned sentiment and turns it into a punchy brass-band chart that abounds in musical wit rather than pure heart. The theme is shared among all the horns (Lederer using his soprano saxophone), a chattering tossing back and forth of lead voices as Sarin keeps things bouncing with snare-rim clatters and a hint of a New Orleans parade groove. Lederer and Fiedler both snake their improvisations in curving, blue patterns that make this sentimental classic into something witty and sexy.
Fiedler is at his most vocal on the theme “I Am Blue”, using a mute to state the simple melody in wah-full bliss. Bernstein plays the bridge on his plaintive open horn, the slow drag of the rhythm section being as irresistible as it is subtle. Lederer solos on clarinet, reaching down low and arcing up high, slightly raspy and buttery as it suits him. Fiedler continues to use his mute on his solo, crafting a statement that manages to be intricate and modern while still seeming straight out of the playbook of a classic Ellington trombonist. Equally masterful is the leader’s open-horn solo on “I Am Somebody” (the only tune here written by the leader), which finds him flying across the horn like a red-hot player who has no restrictions.
That track also features guest vocalist Miles Griffith, known for his starring role as Jesse in the premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Blood on the Fields. His ability to mix sly humor, growling vocal thrill and harmonic adventure is a perfect match for the affirming “I Am Somebody”, which calls out the dignity of all people but does it with a sense of snap and play.
Griffith is back in Monster Mode on “I Love Trash/C is for Cookie”. If these tracks seem like, well, the silliest on the date, then be assured that even these have an effortlessly artistic center. “I Love Trash” is opened with a hip muted trumpet-led brass figure that brings us into a Latin groove. Griffith delivers a vocal reminiscent of Jon Hendricks. Conly is wonderfully rubbery beneath Bernstein (Harmon-muted) and Lederer (tenor sax) and then Griffith’s scat solo that ends with some witty pidgin English reminiscent of Slim Gaillaid. On the out-chorus, the crazy vocal cycles in duet with Fiedler. It’s more than a joy.
In many cases, the star of this set is Fiedler’s work as an arranger. His “Bip Bippadotta Suite” leads off with a familiar theme (“Mah-na, Mah-na” apparently) that sounds practically Ellingtonian. Trumpet and clarinet play the descending “call” lick, and Fiedler answers it on trombone using a vocally harmonized multiphonic technique, after which it is reprised in a hard-bop style. The second theme in the suite is a modified blues with an “I Got Rhythm” bridge in stop-time, and the tight harmony of the motif is played with what can only be called glee. “Fat Cat” closes it out with even more fun, the brass making playful use of plunger mutes and Sarin popping his percussion to evoke the 1930s drumming styles. It’s a parade, man, and you’ll want to join the line of dancers.
Fuzzy and Blue has more than one mood, however. “We Are All Earthlings” is a haunting tune from the pen of Jeffrey Moss, and Fiedler’s arrangement makes it that much darker. If this were on a less whimsical jazz album, the phrase “tone poem” might get thrown around. The composer most often represented on the set is Joe Raposo, who has his fingerprints on half of the compositions. Raposo had the wisdom to treat his Sesame Street music with plenty of seriousness. “X Marks the Spot” sounds like a tango with a solid harmonic form, giving all the soloists room to explore. Moss’ “Captain Vegetable” has a similar groove, but it sets everyone free on a set of appealing minor harmonies.
I’m so glad that Joe Fiedler made these Sesame Street albums, bringing together at least two of his musical identities. But it is equally wonderful to know that Fiedler’s catalog is vast and rich with other material—executed with the same amount of playfulness and zest. His band Big Sackbut takes a brass band approach that has clearly informed Fuzzy and Blue, and this sound suggests just one way Fiedler reminds me of the late Lester Bowie. Both are artists shot through with a sense of freedom but one that never veers off into self-seriousness. Like Bowie, Fiedler entertains, but he doesn’t pander. His musical personality is a smile and sometimes a laugh, but if you don’t take them seriously, well, you are missing the point. Both artists use a bit of humor to get deeper.
Like Open Sesame from 2019, this album reminds us again that creative American music is a remarkable magnet for influence. The source material can come from anywhere, with the soul and skill of the musician the only limiting factor. Like Kermit and his buddies, Joe Fiedler’s music is just a stepping stone to take you anywhere that imagination might go.