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The Randy Hoexter Group Releases "Fromage": Jazz Interpretations of Cheesy Pop Hits

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Randy Hoexter "Fromage" is Atlanta-based pianist/composer Randy Hoexter's second recording as a leader, following his highly-regarded debut Radiant. Inspired by The River, Herbie Hancock's tribute to Joni Mitchell, Randy chose to do a collection of cover songs, with the intent of re-inventing familiar material. However, instead of selecting deep and poetic material such as Mitchell's, Randy decided to take on the arguably greater challenge of “cheesy" pop songs.

Once this concept was established, Randy interviewed many of his fellow musicians, did research, and dug into his own past to put this collection together. Among his resources: Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry's 1997 Book of Bad Songs, James Sullivan's Slate article on “The enduring appeal of an abominable pop song," as well as many “worst songs" surveys.

Randy puts it like this: “I did lots of research on surveys of the “worst songs" of all time, and certain titles kept popping up. These songs are part of the culture, especially for people my age. The goal here is not to make fun of these songs, but to take them seriously and do our best to make some modern art."

Once the material was selected, Randy went to work creating arrangements that both explored new harmonic and rhythmic areas but still honored the original themes and ideas in the songs. Many of the tunes were reharmonized or given a new meter in order to take them in new directions. The timeless sound of the piano drives all the arrangements, and the majority of the charts feature a five-piece horn section with trumpet, saxophones, trombone and a signature bass clarinet. All of the instruments are brought forward at various times for solos and features. These demanding, modern arrangements immediately brought to mind the talents of Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip, who enthusiastically joined in. Legendary drummer Dave Weckl contributed three tracks as well. Randy also brought in a group of the Southeast's finest jazz players including saxophonist/multi woodwind virtuoso Sam Skelton, brilliant guitarist Trey Wright, Veteran session drummer Tom Knight and Cirque du Soleil percussionist Kit Chatham.

Fromage, an elegant name for the everyday, sums up a recording that takes the listener to a new, and yet familiar place.

About the Songs

Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves - (Bob Stone) This was a number one hit in 1971 for Cher, telling the story of a young woman and her family traveling the south with some kind of medicine show. It most famously mentions picking up a boy south of Mobile, Alabama, which is somewhat unlikely since Mobile is on the Gulf Coast. Both the odd spelling of “Gypsies" and the ampersand are original to the title. Despite the questionable lyrics and production, the Cher recording is quite nicely arranged, featuring some interesting chimes and harpsichord. It is also one of the only tunes in this collection that had a bridge or interlude. The obvious choice here was to go with the “Gypsy" theme to a greater degree than the original, featuring some Spanish motifs and Flamenco percussion. For the same reasons, Randy chose to use a variation on the “Caravan" chord changes for the solo section.

You Light Up My Life - (Joe Brooks) Easily the biggest hit in this collection, this song was number on the charts for eleven weeks in 1977. The song was originally used in a movie with the same title, which was not very successful. However, when Pat Boone's daughter Debbie released it it was wildly popular. A very sentimental tune, it has been performed by artists as diverse as Robert Goulet, punk rocker Patty Smith, Jean Carn, and Whitney Houston. Along with a few others, this song arguably paved the way for the “power ballad" formula songs of the 80s and 90s performed by artists like Air Supply, Celine Dion and others. It features a pleasant chord progression and melody, albeit hampered by an out-of-tune piano and flute as well as other production issues. Nonetheless it attracted several Grammy nominations. Randy's approach on this was to get far away from the sentimental sound by going with a drum-heavy and rhythmically intense treatment. Originally a waltz, he added a beat to the first of every pair of bars to create a 7/4 feel, like an asymmetrical “tripping" groove, with frantic James Brown-esque accents. A grinding bass/guitar ostinato rounds out the arrangement.

Delta Dawn - (Larry Collins, Alex Harvey) Originally a hit by Tanya Tucker, A cover of this song was to be recorded by Barbra Streisand (!) but she rejected it and the chart-topping Helen Reddy was brought in, riding high after her hit with “I Am Woman." The Australian singer did her best American accent, and the song shot to number one in September, 1973. Bette Midler was also attracted to the tune and recorded it around the same time. Another deep-south-flavored “story" song, It chronicles the mental illness of a beautiful southern belle known as Delta Dawn. Apparently jilted by a fiance, she drifted into mental illness and wandered the streets. As common as it is for lovely young ladies to have trouble replacing boyfriends, her story is nonetheless poignant, perhaps striking a note with attractive, lonely women across America. From a compositional standpoint, this song is quite spare; there are two back-to-back verses followed by many choruses, with the verse theme never to return. My version, among other changes, brings back the verse for a recap, as well as doing some theme development. In an attempt to capture the sadness of this girl, Randy chose a high piano figure to support the verse, and a generally gentle time feeling. Rather than a southern gospel feel, he chose a sort of modified Bossa Nova because of its romantic and tragic overtones. Towards the end, several themes are layered in order to highlight the confusion and circular thoughts that I imagine preoccupied poor Delta's mind.

Muskrat Love - (Willis Alan Ramsey) A 1976 hit by the Captain and Tennille, this song is about the courtship of two muskrats, Susie and Sam. It included synthesized squeaking sounds of the amorous rodents, possibly because actual muskrat mating sounds were unavailable at the time. The bass line was created from the melody hook and the last beat removed to create a sort of latin-rock groove in 7/4. Decidedly darker and more sinister than the gentle original, this version highlights the fact that muskrats are actually quite feisty and often fight one another in fierce territorial disputes.

Escape (The Pina Colada Song) - (Rupert Holmes) Another giant hit song, and one that seems to press a button with almost everyone, this ode to infidelity was the last number one hit of the 70s. With the sensitive opening line, “I was tired of my lady" (pronounced “laydeh") we find a disenchanted lover looking for some “escape" in the personal ads while his partner sleeps. They exchange letters, arrange to meet, and in one of pop music's most famous payoffs find they are cheating on each other... with each other! An odd sort of happy ending, but nonetheless memorable. It also triggered a resurgence in the popularity of tropical drinks. It seemed obvious to go with a “Caribbean" groove on this one, with a healthy dose of percussion and an active bass line. The slide guitar melody interlude from the original is used as an intro figure.

I've Never Been to Me - (Ron Miller, Kenneth Kirsch) Written from the vantage point of a world-weary jet-set woman who has lived the glamorous life at the expense of having a family, this bit of advice to a frustrated, bored housewife was a number one hit in the UK and a number three in the USA. The narrator gives a number of examples of her exciting life, such as being “undressed by kings" and “moving like Harlow through Monte Carlo" while pining for her unborn children. A spoken word section in the middle (is this ever a good idea?) drives home the point that paradise is “that man you fought with this morning, the same one you will make love to tonight." Strangely, this sentimental and mellow song manages to include the word “whoring" in the lyric. Musically, most of the power-ballad arranging techniques are in evidence, so a more energetic latin/jazz feel with a swing chorus was used.

Seasons in the Sun - (Jaques Brel, Rod McKuen) A pop version of “Le Moribond," (The Dying Man) by Jaques Brel, this song was a number one hit in 1974 for Terry Jacks. Apparently it was to be recorded by the Beach Boys, but for one reason or another, they chose not to finish it, leaving Jacks to release it. What appears to be a suicide note set to a catchy pop melody, This song has been covered by a number of artists, including Nirvana and Bad Religion. This arrangement opens with a brief quote from the “Spring" concerto of Vivaldi's “The Four Seasons" (for obvious reasons) and then proceeds to the main song. The inspiration for the repeating ostinato bass line was the strangely out-of-place tremolo guitar riff that opens the original recording. Randy chose to repeat the chorus twice in order to experiment with different treatments. This was probably the most difficult track to perform due to the fast tempo and some unusual rhythmic variations.

Yummy Yummy Yummy - (Arthur Resnick, Joey Levine) A staple in the “bubble gum" genre, this lighthearted tune blended two of of everyone's favorite pastimes: junk food and sex. Featuring somewhat nonsensical lyrics and a deliberately (I hope) nasal lead vocal, the song evokes a childlike quality that contrasts with its lusty overtones. A hit for the Ohio Express, it reached number four on the charts in 1968. Another bubblegum group, 1910 Fruitgum Company, also released a recording of the song in the same year, followed with a version by Julie London a year later. Again, a gentle bossa nova and lush harmony seemed to be the antidote to the manic and somewhat rough-edged original. Though the tempo is quite close to the original, this mellow style makes the song feel slower. Soprano sax lends an elegant and plaintive note.

Honey/Dies Irae - (Bob Russell/Trad.) Another pop song about death, This tune goes the “sentimental" route in describing the loss of a beloved wife or girlfriend, referred to only as “Honey." Bobby Goldsboro had a number one hit with this tune in 1968. The recording features an “angelic" soprano voice drifting in and out and a substantial number of verses. Also distinguishing this song is the use of a very small number of melody notes and lot of melodic repetition. This song also lacks any kind of bridge. Despite any perceived shortcomings, this song has been covered by a number of artists, including Dean Martin, Jim Nabors, Tammy Wynette and Andy Williams. The verse melody of this song seemed to cry out to be used as a latin montuno, or rhythmic piano figure, due to the heavy repetition of the main theme. Randy also chose to weave in “Dies Irae" or Day of Wrath, a Catholic requiem chant from the middle ages, due to the morbid subject matter. Decidedly not sentimental, Dies Irae, full of terror and suffering, seemed like a suitable antidote to the soft original. Considered a bit “heavy" for today's Catholics, it is no longer used in the liturgy. There are nineteen verses.

Billy, Don't Be a Hero - (Mitch Murray, Peter Callender) A catchy, light song about a young man getting himself killed at war, this tune was nearly simultaneously released in the UK by Paper Lace and in the States by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods. Exactly what a “Heywood" is has long been debated. Paper Lace was also known for their next single, “The Night Chicago Died," which could have also been in this collection, except that it didn't seem fair to feature the same writers twice. In order to rectify the apparent mismatch between the happy music and the subject matter, a dirge-like military funeral feeling and some dark harmony is used. A somber drum cadence carries throughout, and a beautiful pensive bass solo by Jimmy Haslip is featured.

Canon - (Hoexter/Pachelbel) Anyone who has attended a wedding knows this one. Apparently much of Pachelbel's music was lost, and this composition was rediscovered in the early 20th century. It was written sometime around 1694. Pachelbel was arguably a one-hit wonder of the baroque period, so his music probably belongs here. The Canon is built on a repeating figure called a ground bass, in this case constantly cycling through eight bass notes throughout the piece. Melody figures appear in one voice, then are repeated in the two other voices, all of which are violins. The lack of a strong theme other than the chord progression made this difficult to arrange as a jazz tune.. Randy chose to keep the eight-note bass pattern while experimenting with meter structure based on 5 and 3-beat measures. Bits of the original lines appear, but this arrangement is best thought of as a new piece, or as an homage. *


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