The invitation to this festival came almost exactly two years after my last festival experience, Zappanale 20. I came back from Zappanale 20 drained, disgusted, disillusioned, and thinking that I was done playing covers of Zappa. When I returned from Zappanale I received the invitation to play bass in Mayhem Circus Electric, and that has defined my playing for the past two years. These past two years were among the most fulfilling, if not the most productive, I have had as a musician. Working with MCE and the other New Haven Improvisors Collective events gives me the opportunity to play the way I like to play (instinctively), with people I like to play with. It is also notable that the last time I played any of the music of Captain Beefheart was the last gig I played with Doctor Dark… at Zappanale 16 in 2005! In that context the invite to play Rochefort, which came via Zappa frontman Napoleon Murphy Brock, and was pitched as me playing Beefheart music, was in one way a large step backward. But I also know that I value the connections I made through Zappanale, and still deeply love the music of both Zappa and Van Vliet.
So that is the framework of the “grand bargain” that keeps cropping up with me and festival performances. My hope is that gigs like Rochefort lead me toward opportunities to play experimental, improvisational, and world-style music. Meanwhile, when I get an opportunity that involves playing “inside the lines” in the way that this one did, I just put my nose to the grindstone and do my best. I *can* play this way, it is just that I don’t play this way naturally. And no mistake, the gigs I was asked to participate in at Rochefort were very inside the lines affairs. I thought I was doing one set of Beefheart music, with a few tunes involving Napoleon… uh, no. The Rochefort gig turned out to be a complete set with Napoleon, and no hacking the corners off the music there. Play the piece correctly, and play it well as an ensemble. Then came participating in a Beefheart tribute with ex-Magic Band members. Beefheart music is hard to play correctly. Even though it sounds improvised it is not, and the parts are very specific. I think that I have some very good bass parts for Beefheart music, but they are not exact to the reference recordings. Next, Moris Tepper wanted his bass parts played very tightly, and that would have involved me reading chord charts, which he didn’t want me to (but happened anyway, just not by me). Oddly, the closest thing to carte blanche was given to me by blues guitarist Innes Sibun. I had never heard of him before, but now I have and am thankful for that opportunity. In a way it was just slinging blues shuffles and Hendrix tunes. But I was also able to work with timing and dynamics and feel and all the things that I can do when not replicating someone else’s bass parts. The blues shall set you free!
Napoleon was a real pleasure to work with.
He and I are very different, and in the past I have not been able to square-up that difference. I met him for the first time at a Paul Green School/Doctor Dark gig at the Knitting Factory NYC back in 2004. After that I met him when we were at Zappanale, or he was on the road with project/object. The main difference I feel is that Napoleon takes himself very seriously, and has no self deprecation at all. That is rare, and maybe so rare that I did not know how to interface with it. I have had some time to reflect on what he does, who he is, and how he works. He is a professional and a showman. There is no shoegazing, ennui, or artifice. What you see is who he is. Very serious, very consistent, very funny, very giving, and in a way very patient. Being able to work directly with him, as part of the challenge of bonding with new bandmates, and playing some music I have never played before, was just amazing. The core of the band was Charly Doll, Nicolas Mignot, and Benoit Moerlen from the band Peach Noise (among other credits). Suffice it to say that they are all top-shelf players, hard working to the brink of mania, and I can now count them as my friends. Working with that unit was pure pleasure.
The Beefheart tribute was a different story, but not a bad one.
Eric Drew Feldman ended up playing a lot of the bass parts on keyboard, and in the end the Magic Band alums did a lot of the heavy lifting. I played bass on a few things and was more than happy to let Eric take the bass chair. In the end the huge setlist of over 24 songs never materialized, and the setlist was being cut down on the side stage before the hommage/finale. I got to watch Eric play the bass solo “Hair Pie” to open the hommage set, and damn did it send shivers down my spine. It was a real honor to watch him work. Same with Moris. I believe that the Beefheart tribute was a triumph, and the credit goes foremost to Eric and Moris for making sure the pieces were done in the form and spirit that was intended.
Innes Sibun was one of the nicest people I have played with, maybe ever.
He is also a real-deal guitar strangler and Rory Gallagher freak! I think back to that Rory album I got out of the cut-out bin back in the late 70’s and this encounter takes on a deeper significance. I love the blues, and love playing it and immersing myself in it. At Rochefort we made a 4-piece with Bruno Bertrand on drums and Or Solomon on keys. That was a pretty rockin combo, and it seemed that Innes was pleasantly surprised that his mutant “pickup band” worked so well together. Bruno and I got on great, and the same with Or. At our first gig at the Corderie park Innes created a “secret word” moment by blurting out “Giggity”, in reference to Glenn Quagmire from the show Family Guy. That led to a running joke and a lot of unintentional hilarity. WOOT!
Moris Tepper was the wild card for me.
He had contacted me early and asked me to play bass with him. He sent me MP3’s and my impression from our conversations was “get the feel right, don’t worry so much about the notes”, but the more I listened and played along to his songs the more I knew that this wasn’t a person who was going to let anyone freelance on his material. So I worked my ass off, but what I should have done is asked for charts. I believe that on Moris’ side of the table he wishes he had just delivered charts along with the MP3’s. On a personal level we got along fine, and shared some really fine moments together. Musically what he wanted was so far outside of my comfort zone that I had to scramble, the stress got a bit much, and a compromise was reached. French bass/guitar player Jeff (name soon) played on most of the set. I played three songs that has 2-bass-2-drum arrangements.
Moris’ set was, I believe, one of the most ambitious at Rochefort. He had Rob Laufer with him, writing horn arrangements, playing drums, directing sidemen, and even writing out a few chord charts for me. That ambition, combined with the lack of rigid rehearsal scheduling, shifting priorities, and some tricky set changes, made it a very gripping experience. My feeling is: I could have played his set and done it well, but there would have been compromises on my need for charts, and to a lesser degree on intonation. Fretless bass is cruel mistress, and if you need super strong fundamental pitches and are used to keyboards and fretted Fender bass, then fretless will always come up short. And not being the best (I have good pitch, not perfect) I was never going to nail it the way he wanted it. Moris wasn’t willing to make those compromises in rehearsal, but IMO ended up with a compromised live performance. Still, the audience dug what he did, and I got to be part of a really cool set by an artist I now have a deep respect for.
For the festival program in general: In hindsight it would have been better if I knew what pieces I was playing, and could practice them without working on a load of extra pieces that I never got to play live. As it was I busted my ass learning a lot of material that I never got to play and as a result I was spread a bit thin. I also never got to see a few of the sights around the town of Rochefort that I wanted to see. That is in hindsight. In the moment I was having a ton of fun and would not have changed anything.