Friday, June 5, 2009

The Cats

(Left to right: me, Matt Heredia, Steve Talaga, Tim Froncek, Tom Stansell.)

The Blue Lake Faculty Jazz Quintet consists of folks who, for the most part, have taught at the camp at some time or other over the years. Some of these guys (Tom!) I've known for, oh, nearly 30 years; others (Matt!) were brand-spanking-new to me.

The rundown:

Tom is one of my best friends and favorite saxophonists. He played tenor for this tour, and he's got a beautiful sound, laid-back time feel, etc. (He must be a "natural," since he professes to almost never practicing -- though he plays with enough groups in Western Michigan to keep his reeds wet.) Tom's one of my favorite folks to play with -- we have contrasting styles (many's the time when I've played my butt off, only to have Tom follow me saying a whole 'nother thang and showing me what I wished I'd played...), but I think our approaches, while different, are complementary -- and I hope that just maybe I have occasionally inspired Tom half as much as he inspires me every time he plays.

Tim, the musical director of the quintet, is, quite simply, a world-class drummer who just happens to live in Western Michigan. I've worked with Tim over a couple of decades at the camp, and I'm fortunate to have some recordings of Tim playing my tunes at Blue Lake concerts, which I've used from time to time to introduce my material to new groups. Here's the thing: *every* drummer I've asked to listen to this or that track that's got Tim on it has come back to me: "Who IS that guy?"

I first met Steve a couple of years ago in Grand Rapids, when I was helping out Blue Lake by playing tenor in a symphonic band (yes, it was a really big band, but not the sort I usually play with... I tried to make sure to scoop less...). They'd arranged to have a jazz quintet play at an after-rehearsal party (hey, Tom was in that quintet too! -- in fact, come to think of it, it was three-fifths of this group...) and that's where I met Steve. Beautiful cat, and great player and composer -- I'm looking forward to posting some of his tunes (with his permission!) after we have our July get-together at Blue Lake...

Okay, Matt's story is flat out the coolest story of the tour. First, as I had noted in the previous post, I'd expected to meet the guys in Paris and that we'd all fly together to Toulouse, but that didn't happen. However, the only guy I didn't know in the group was the bassist, Tom Knific -- but I knew a fair bit about him, because I'd helped put together the promotional materials for the group, including assembling the photo montage that was used on the posters (sorry about that, Steve: the only photo they gave me of you was Really Dorky, but I did with it what I could...).

So I knew his bio, and knew pretty darn well what he looked like: it's a certain form of intimacy when you Photoshop a guy, scaling him and cropping him and generally messing with him. You get to know the guy.

(I mean, of course, in a totally superficial, not-really-knowing-the-guy-at-all kind of way. What I really mean is: you get to know the dude's head size, since you're making a montage of the cats and you need to scale everybody's head to be more or less the same size, lest one of the guys stands out as some sort of encephalitic freak. [No offense intended toward any actual encephalitic freaks reading this. Some of my best friends are encephalitic freaks...] [Just kidding, please get away from me.] So anyways, I'd really had to monkey with Tom K's head size, since he was also holding his bass and I wanted to get the proportions just right... Bottom line: I *really* knew what the dude's head looked like, even though I'd never met him...)

When I got to the Stansell's place in Vire-sur-Lot for our first get-together in France on the night of our arrival, there were the folks on the poster! But wow, Tom K really looked ... different. Younger. And really ... different. I just figured his head looks ... really different ... in photos.

Turns out, it wasn't Tom! The Real Tom Knific had a family emergency at the last possible moment, and as a result had to back out of the tour. Tim and Steve were suddenly faced with having to find a Fake Tom Knific in a day or two. To help clarify the situation: they had to find a replacement who...

1) Had to be a great player.

2) Had to be able to drop everything for a week on almost no notice...

3) Had to have a valid, ready-to-go passport.

Tim was left calling folks on the weekend before Tuesday's departure for France. Here's what you might have heard at Tim's house:

"Hey, man, how you doing? Uh-huh. Cool... Say, would you be available to leave Tuesday and spend a week in France?"

But you had to wonder: anyone who actually *could* leave like that -- would you really want them in the band?

Turns out, in the case of Matt, you would. Matt was studying at Julliard, but he took a pause for a while to fulfill his lifelong dream of working at a Subway franchise somewhere in the depths of Western Michigan. Although he slung a mean Chipotle Southwest Sauce (tm), he walked even meaner bass lines and swung his ass off. And his manager at Subway was tolerant of his taking a week off to tour the south of France with a jazz quintet. (I mean, the guy was the manager at a Subway: he'd heard 'em all...)

So: on a Sunday night Matt was asked if he could go, and on Tuesday he was IN FRANCE! Work hard at Subway and someday you too might get to ... oh never mind, it's not going to happen to you.

At any rate, these guys were great fellas to tour with and travel with and hang with, and I can sincerely say it was a pleasure and I wish I could see them and play with them more often!

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