New Civilization News: The Foothill Fanfairs    
 The Foothill Fanfairs2 comments
picture30 Apr 2008 @ 09:54, by Richard Carlson

Knowledge comes but wisdom lingers.

---Alfred, Lord Tennyson

What is beyond, is that which is also here.

---Ancient Indian aphorism

The Emperor's chief carpenter, Ch'ing, once made a music stand so perfect that all who saw it marveled. When Lu asked him to reveal the mystery of his art, Ch'ing demurred, saying: "No mystery, your Highness, though there is something. When I am about to make such a stand, I first reduce my mind to absolute quiet. Three days in this condition and I am oblivious to any reward to be gained. Five days, and I am oblivious to any fame to be acquired. Seven days, and I become unconscious of my four limbs and body. Then, with no thought of the Court in mind, all my skill concentrated and all disturbing elements gone, I go into the forest to search for a suitable tree. It contains the stand in my mind's eye, and then I set to work."


If you've ever been in a choir, particularly the church variety, you may appreciate Dave Walker's cartoon, from the UK's Church Times. [link]

On Saturday, in San Rafael, California, there will be a national competition you may not be aware of. It's the 24th Annual Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival. Actually this is the final contest, as there already have been 8 elimination contests held in cities all over the country. Now the winning groups there are being flown to Marin Veterans' Auditorium for this big deal over the weekend. It's interesting there are hundreds of these groups involved, and probably not too many are of the barbershop variety anymore. As you can see from these photos and group descriptions, the music is all over the place [link] , but you can be sure of one thing: most of these participants have heard of Phil Mattson and The Foothill Fanfairs.

A couple years ago I stumbled into the best argument I know for writing personal stuff on the Internet. I merely related the coincidental sighting of a name of a musician on a CD set a friend generously gave me, with an LP I had bought years earlier. The name Michele Weir connected me to somebody name Phil Mattson, then I began to find out things about him, and finally I thought somebody somewhere might be interested in this so I wrote about it. [link] What followed here, elsewhere I post, and in emails has been a continuous flow of messages from people who studied and performed with this great teacher. Most recently I heard from someone named Roy Turpin, who happens to be a therapist now out in California (isn't everybody?) and he has provided me a rare opportunity.

A month ago Gene Puerling died. His passing went largely unnoticed in the media, but those of us who love acapella singing know he formed The Hi-Lo's in the early 1950s, and then Singers Unlimited a decade later, and we mourned appropriately. Phil Mattson appreciated the Puerling genius, which was a style and technique completely original, and had the brilliance himself to begin teaching it to young people. Well, I suppose some folks must have thought he was crazy to attempt it...because certainly those of us who also loved Puerling thought such singing clearly was impossible---even where there it was on records. It really was impossible, because Gene began to experiment with multi-tracking and eventually had 4 singers sound like 8, then 12, or a whole choir. Phil's challenge may have been tougher, because he used real people...and they were kids.

Roy wrote that when he joined The Fanfairs, which was the name Phil Mattson gave his choir, he couldn't read music. This was over 20 years ago at a community college in California called Foothill. Today it is among the most highly credited schools in the country---and though Phil Mattson isn't teaching there anymore, you still can become a Foothill Fanfair. [link] In fact the whole Fine Arts & Communication program at Foothill is awesome! [link] The Fanfairs, as with many college groups like this, began to record what they performed, and there must have been 6 volumes or so. Roy said the group of 12 singers became so popular in the area that the number of performances they did interrupted his studies.

Quickly Phil decided to form a professional group of 6 graduates from the program, and this was the PM Singers which recorded initially for Bob Thiele's Doctor Jazz, and almost immediately was nominated for a Grammy. While Fanfairs material is very rare and costly, you still can purchase the 2 PM Singers releases on CD. Oops, I was going to send you to, but I see they're out of stock. Well, how about Michele Weir's site then? She's probably still got some---and her schedule shows she might actually be around during May. [link] The LP I found originally now is called Night In The City.

One of the albums The Fanfairs created was A Tribute To Gene Puerling. Here, on 8 cuts, Phil Mattson took Puerling arrangements for both The Hi-Lo's and Singers Unlimited, and turned them into performance possibilities for 12 college students, each singing incredibly difficult dissonant lines. The result of course are gorgeous, huge "fat chords," as Roy calls them...and some positively heavenly singing. Roy still has all the LPs, and a couple weeks ago got a new turntable and began to transfer them to MP3. He sent me the Puerling album, which of course I've been wanting for a long time, and over the weekend it arrived. Gene Puerling came to Foothill College to be involved in the project, taught some workshops, became friends with Phil, and wrote the liner notes. Here's what he said~~~

"The Fanfairs are responsible for setting quality performance standards which vocal jazz ensembles across America are following today. Each member of The Fanfairs is a full-time music major at Foothill College... All study applied voice as well as an instrument. In addition, all members gain experience performing para-professionally as soloists, arrangers, and teachers...
"My thanks to the talented Fanfairs for their on-going commitment to high quality performances in person and on this record. It goes without saying, that their dedicated conductor, Phil Mattson, is certainly one of the prime reasons for the success of this great group, and indeed, for the whole exciting field of vocal jazz.
Carry on!
Gene Puerling"

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8 May 2008 @ 17:50 by jazzolog : Interview With Peter Eldridge
I suppose most Phil Mattson students follow the New York Voices, which many feel have a purer style than Manhattan Transfer. So far as I know, no member of the Voices came out of a Mattson classroom...but they certainly are aware of him. I just came across an interesting interview with the Voices' sorta leader (as in Puerling with the Hi-Lo's) done just as their latest album was coming out last August. It probably always will be available at the All About Jazz site, but just in case here it is~~~

Peter Eldridge: A Lot of Other Stuff
Peter Eldridge |

By Dr. Judith Schlesinger

In 1986, a group of kids from Ithaca College got to sing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Although it was on the patio, rather than the main casino stage, it inspired the creation of the New York Voices, one of the most successful and long-running vocal groups in music history. The Voices seem to be on continuous tour, performing at the world's most prestigious venues. After six of their own albums, and two Grammy-winners with Paquito D'Rivera and the Count Basie band, they are about to launch A Day Like This (MCG Jazz, 2007), their first studio release in eight years.

In the midst of all this, Voices co-founder Peter Eldridge has been carving out a strong solo path as a singer/songwriter/educator/arranger/producer [Note: All of the Voices have their own independent projects.] There are three Eldridge CDs so far: Stranger in Town, a dreamy mix of jazz standards with stellar backing from Michael Brecker, Donny McCaslin, Lewis Nash, Romero Lubambo and Claudio Roditi, and Fool No More, the first collection of Peter's compositions [both out in 2000, from Rosebud Records].

More delightful originals are gathered up in Decorum (Reuben's Tunes, 2005), and some of its tracks have been showing up in interesting places. For example, “Surrender” is the title track of Jane Monheit's 2007 Telarc album, while D'Rivera has covered “Difficult.” Eldridge is also the English-language lyricist for Ivan Lins, the Brazilian composer that many consider the successor to Tom Jobim; one of their collaborations, “Minds of Their Own,” appears on Nancy Wilson's Grammy-winning RSVP--Rare Songs, Very Personal (MCG Jazz, 2004).

Eldridge's music is as multifaceted as he is: quirky and clever and romantic, both vulnerable and hip, it's full of barbed social commentary as well as hope and joy. Never a moon/June/spoon kind of lyricist, he finds new aspects of love to write about, and all of it rides in on beautiful, catchy melodies that sound like no one else's.

AAJ finally caught up with Eldridge between his many commitments, and spent a few happy hours discussing his life and career, the history of the Voices, the state of the world, and his Paris Hilton song.

All About Jazz: Let's talk about your most consistent gig of the past twenty years, which has been the New York Voices. So far, you've been most widely known for being part of that. I don't know if we want to get into my complete bafflement as to why you guys aren't more famous and richer than you are. Like, what happened?

Peter Eldridge: That's a good question. There are so many different theories why. I just think it was never the right mix of machine and motion and tune. I don't know--we kind of do what we do, and maybe to a fault--we didn't take advice from those people who said, “You know if you did this song, you'd be in every household in America.” We never did the novelty song. I think for vocal groups, it's good to sit on the novelty side of things. Take Manhattan Transfer, the ultimate example, who did “Boy from New York City,” or “Java Jive”--they're campy, funny songs. They didn't get famous by doing a beautiful ballad. It goes with the territory. And we never really signed up for that.

AAJ: Well, there was “National Amnesia,” which hit pretty hard when it hit [their first album, New York Voices (GRP, 1989)].

PE: Yeah, in New York, on the smooth jazz stations. But other than that, it wasn't a big hit at all. I mean, the hard core people will go, “Do you guys ever do that song?” And we go, “Huh?” It's kind of a mixed blessing in a way--we don't have to go out every performance and do our old stuff. The easiest comparison, again, is the Transfer, who goes out and does their hits, because that's exactly what their audience wants to hear.

AAJ: But they don't write anything.

PE: Right.

AAJ: I think they're just tapping into the doo-wop nostalgia thing, from the '50s.

PE: Well, they started with the doo-woppy kind of vibe, but then began trying on a lot of different hats, expanding the concepts of what vocal jazz was about at the time. As different as the two groups are ultimately, that element has certainly inspired and opened creative doors for the Voices.

AAJ: I guess that pompadour was your concession to the doo-wop vibe... [referring to the 1989 publicity picture of the original Voices, in which Peter sports an impressively styled hairdo and everyone's in carefully-posed Glamour Mode. Peter refers to that photo as “the escort service shot”].

PE: That takes me back. It's funny to see that group of people, as compared to what it is now, it's pretty amazing--just the journey of becoming a person through this experience. Walking into something, from the beginning--”I'm singing, in a vocal group?” From that vantage point--right from the get go--it was weird, because I was just a piano guy. My older brother and sister both sang; I played for them. And singing always scared the bejeebees out of me.

AAJ: Really? That's hard to believe.

PE: Something about it was just too vague and too vulnerable. I remember singing in the kids' choir in church and Mrs. Herman--Mama Herman we called her--who was the choir director at the church in New Jersey. There was a small solo in some bigger piece, and she wanted to hear each kid sing by themselves. So she said, “I'd like each of you to get up and sing something.” Well, you never saw a kid bolt out of a rehearsal room faster than me. It was like, “I'd rather die... than get up in front of all these people and sing by myself.” There was no way in hell. So I sprinted out of that room, never to go back. I had a pretty substantial fear of singing.

AAJ: Cantaphobia?

PE: Yeah. Something about it felt bigger than I was, and then it's such a vulnerable thing: it is your soul, coming out of your mouth.

AAJ: But not everybody sings like that.

PE: True, but for me it was way too daunting. And I didn't do it until that fateful summer, when I sang “Ticket to Ride” for my Pirates of Penzance audition.

AAJ: (we laugh) Did you get the gig?

PE: Yes, and in college the fear lessened. I became a voice major, a classical voice major, because I'd been a classical piano major and I just hated sitting in a practice room by myself for hours and hours, practicing Mozart sonatas. I didn't like all that alone time. I'd wanted to be an accompanist for great singers. I was the accompanist for everybody at school. I played this whole art song repertoire, that's what I thought I was going to do: German lieder, operatic arias, 20th century atonal music. I loved French chanson the most, particularly Poulenc and Debussy, who were so jazz-based, though I wasn't really aware of it at the time.

But the more I think about it, the vocal group thing was always important to me. I was a pop kid--The Fifth Dimension, even The Carpenters, the Association, the Beatles of course, Queen, Fleetwood Mac. All those harmonies made me crazy...the more the merrier. I'm sure that's a major reason I'm in the Voices now.

AAJ: How about the Mamas and Papas?

PE: The Mamas and Papas too, yeah. And the Transfer. I remember when they came out with “Four Brothers”-- I was eleven years old, and I was up there in my room pretending I was them. That's undeniable. And in this journey that I've taken, that was a great place to start. The Voices was also a great place to start--it wasn't just me, going out there by myself. I was protected in this veil of being in a group.

But, after twenty years, you do become more your own person, your own musician--I have changed so much, in every way. I had so much to learn, like how to sing correctly, which I didn't. For a number of years I didn't know what I was doing And from writing to arranging music, it's been a slow and steady evolution to what I'm doing now, which is something entirely different.

AAJ: I don't know how many groups stay together for twenty years. What keeps the New York Voices together?

PE: Well, after about the fifteenth year our tax guy said “Congratulations, Voices, this is a career now.” But we all do other things, we all supplement. I think we've all improved with age, individually and collectively; we have an undeniable sound together that's become even more powerful and refined over the years. At this point, the four of us are siblings, or husbands and wives, or some strange combination of both, in all the best and most difficult ways, but we care a lot about each other and respect each other as musicians. Don't get me wrong: we've had our moments over the past two decades in this insane music business when we've said, it's been great, but maybe it's time to stop. We've each sat on that fence at one time or another, but whenever we've come to that place of winding down, whatever you want to call it--fate, the universe--all of a sudden something pretty major and substantial and creative and rewarding on every level comes along and says, “Not yet!”

AAJ: Like what?

PE: Oh, like an album and a tour with the Basie band.

AAJ: Can't say no to that one.

PE: Right. I remember the specific moment when we said, we've had a great time, look at all the great things we've done, this is really hard, but maybe it's time. We were starting to put the wheels in motion for that, and all of a sudden: Basie tour. Basie band. Long commitment, really great gig.

AAJ: And one of your Grammys.

PE: Yep. Both those CDs that won Grammys [1996 Grammy winner, Count Basie Orchestra with the New York Voices Live at Manchester Craftsman's Guild (MCG Jazz, 1996), and 2002 Latin Grammy winner, Paquito D'Rivera's Brazilian Dreams (MCG Jazz, 2002)] were actually the very first time that we performed with those groups. Those recordings were the first time we did that music. And to think that afterward we'd go on tour, and how incredibly powerful it became. They are good records, good documents of the beginning of that journey, but--the Paquito stuff--it's just killer now. That's my favorite thing that the Voices do: the Paquito gigs. The music is incredible, there's so much energy, it's so dynamic--but there's also a lot of depth, and it shows off everybody in a beautiful way.

AAJ: One thing I know from having seen so many of your concerts is that you never do things the same way twice. We can't sing along with every lick.

PE: Once again, that goes back to not having that kind of success. If we'd had a huge album, or a big hit, people would be, “You're gonna do that, you're gonna do blahblahblah, aren't you?” Then we'd have to do it. But that's never been a problem. For better or worse. We've just done what we do, because we've coasted on word of mouth. And we have this incredibly loyal cult following.

AAJ: All over the world, yes?

PE: More so in Europe than here, but here too; we have our pockets in the States.

AAJ: Like Altoona?

PE: They love us in Altoona. And Boston. And Seattle. There are places... but for some reason we can't break into Chicago. That's been the most elusive city for us.

AAJ: Really? But you go to Germany practically twice a week.

PE: We are sort of rock stars in Germany. We play the halls there, where here we play clubs.

AAJ: I remember your telling me years ago that when you played Japan, they would throw panties on the stage...?

PE: Naaah...the only time something like that really happened... we were in Nova Scotia, at some big vocal jazz collegiate festival. It was four thousand kids who wanted to do what we do. We were the Beatles that night. There were girls in the front row who had a towel, and they threw it up at me on stage. And they were gesturing--wiping their foreheads--and I said, “Me?” So I wiped my forehead and stuck the towel in my pocket, but they wanted it back. So I threw it back, and they all just dive-bombed for it.

AAJ: Who are your superstars?

PE: If I ever met Joni Mitchell, I don't know what I'd say; her influence has been so strong that I'd probably just stammer around her. I've loved her music since I was four years old and my sister Gail was playing “Chelsea Morning” on her guitar. But the cool thing is that now I'm meeting and working with some other heroes. I'm writing lyrics for Ivan Lins--in Los Angeles he introduced me to the crowd as his English lyricist.

AAJ: I've heard Nancy Wilson do a wonderful version of one of the songs you wrote together: “Minds of Their Own.”

PE: That was a joy. The funny thing is that lyrics take me forever. Music? I could write three or four songs a day, probably. Melodies. The lyrics--even a song like “Difficult”--that little waltz--not every day all day long, but I was tweaking that for weeks.

AAJ: Why do you think that is?

PE: I think it's partly because you want to say something new. Even if it's a love song, you want to have some element in it that's fresh, that hasn't been said before. And maybe I do this to a fault, but God forbid it's trite or preachy. What's that quote? “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I think it's true. It's like a puzzle to me. And I don't want it to be too obvious.

AAJ: Talk about unusual love songs: “First Morning” is about whether or not to get into the shower with someone after your first night together.

PE: It's about beginning to know someone by wandering around their place, getting little glimpses of them while they're getting ready for their day. I'm really proud of those lyrics. I wrote them with my dear friend Doug Worth, who lives up in Boston; he's a poet and an English professor who was a teacher of [pianist] Andy Ezrin's, so I met Doug through Andy. We've worked on a number of songs together. I like the “coffee warms the air/coffee table books” lyric setting up the whole scene: I think it really sets a mood.

AAJ: It does; you can practically see what's happening. You have said that you love to write more than anything else.

PE: Yes.

AAJ: So you love the thing that's hardest for you to do?

PE: I think writing lyrics is hard because I've always had a hard time articulating what I was feeling verbally, in any capacity. So writing lyrics was the way to do it, for me.

AAJ: Many of those lyrics are very personal.

PE: It was my way of finding my true nature. Some of them were definitely like pages of a diary. I remember Judy Niemack, back in the early 90s, was the first person who heard my original songs and said, “Wow, crying on the inside.” I don't want to be like that now. I hope that the person and the lyric-writer are more intertwined these days, instead of my being Soupy Sales by day--walking through life as a make-'em-laugh guy--and then having to wallow in all this other stuff.

AAJ: You're also making a lot of rather pointed social commentary.

PE: I'm having trouble with the world the way it is right now, and needing a way to express that.

AAJ: In 1998, you were asking whether it was wise to be “Part of this World.”

PE: Wow. (laughs) In 1998 specifically?

AAJ: Says right here [date on unreleased demo]. What do you think now?

PE: It's a struggle. We've become an amazingly unloving and uncaring and disrespectful people. And I just think that's such a shame. How did it start? Has it always been there? The older you get, the more you think, you know what, we are animals. Animals do stupid things: they go after each other. We do our best, but we're human, and we treat each other really crappy, whether we mean to do or not.

There's a new song that's on the new Voices album: “The World Keeps You Waiting.” It's about the fact that, even though all this is going on, you can find your own place, live the life you want. The first line is: “Maybe it means that I will be lonely/maybe I'll step aside and let the others go.” If don't want what's being presented, I'm making that choice--as opposed to being at the mercy of that situation.

AAJ: Your lyrics have always had topical messages, but somehow the word “bitch” doesn't appear anywhere.

PE: (much laughter) That's so funny you should say that, because just last night, my new song, “You Stupid Bitch”--I'm so excited about it!

AAJ: In my notes for this interview, I wrote: “Peter's lyrics intelligent, psychologically astute--examine things like the nature of fame, anxiety, ambition, living in the moment, therapy...”

PE: Um. A lot of therapy tunes.

AAJ: Definitely.

PE: I would bring them in and read lyrics to her, and sometimes she'd be like “Yeah, congratulations!” And other times it's “Hmm. Gotta work on that a little more.” But so much came out of therapy.

AAJ: You could do a whole collection of therapy songs.

PE: The Therapy Cycle.

AAJ: I always liked “Caught Me on a Good Day:” “to hell with self-improvement/I'm laughing in the face of every fear.”

PE: Some days you wake up, and life feels just bigger than you'll ever be able to cope with, and other days it's like, wow, I'm in control today. There's no real rhyme or reason for it, but you want to leave well enough alone: enjoy it, and not make too much out of it.

AAJ: Another favorite is “Full Grown Man on the Playground,” which is about adults who still play childish games.

PE: That's about never growing up, even though you might be the head of a corporation or whatever.

AAJ: Then of course there's depersonalization, or lack of connection, which you address in “Postcards and Messages.” [Note: all of these songs are on Peter's first solo CD, Fool No More, (Rosebud Records, 2000)]

PE: That was written after I was home for three days. I was nesting, trying to catch up on life after being on the road for the better part of six months. And by the third day I came to the crazy realization that I had not had any interaction with one person. I'd been sending stuff out, just this one-way form of communication, leaving messages, not speaking to anyone. What a crazy, weird thing--and I live in New York, where I'm surrounded by a zillion people. How could this be? How could I go three days without a single communication with anybody that's reciprocal? That's where that song came from.

AAJ: Did you just sit down and write it?

PE: That's a good question. I never just sit down and just write the lyrics, but the music... Like with “Difficult,” I was watching a Richard Rodgers special on PBS--that American Masters thing--I was just completely jonesed by it.

AAJ: Jonesed?

PE: Excited, captivated, inspired. I went over to my keyboard in my apartment. It doesn't sound anything like a Richard Rodgers song, but it was inspired by him nonetheless. It was pretty much sitting down, and then it was done.

AAJ: That's a great tune [”Difficult” appears on Peter's second solo CD, Decorum (Reuben's Tunes, 2005)].

PE: Yeah, that one seems to be getting a lot of response. It's showing up in a lot of different places. I don't know how it evolved--bits and pieces of the melodic form came first. “Interesting Person” was also a sit-down-and-write-it kind of song. Some take forever. There's no rhyme or reason for that either. But you can tell when you're in a good place: there's freedom there, no outside disturbances or pressure to create a certain kind of piece. That's what still keeps me so excited about teaching at the Manhattan School [of Music]. My students say, “I just wrote this song because I felt like writing a song.” The world hasn't told them “no!” yet. That's inspiring to me.

AAJ: What a gift, yes.

PE: I started teaching because I needed to have a secondary income from what the Voices were doing. I don't need it that much now, but I just love it; it keeps me excited and energized to hear what they're doing. There's nothing like it.

AAJ: One question: all different styles you've done--the range of things between the Voices, and doing Fred's [pianist/composer Fred Hersch] songs [at Lincoln Center], and then the solo stuff like Fool No More---all this brings me to the “unbinnable” thing. [Singer] Kate [McGarry] and I talked about the day when Tower Records had bins. She's an unbinnable artist, as are you. Are you pop, funk, jazz? All of the above? And your influences are also all over the place. I read somewhere that the first album you bought with your own money was Sly Stone.

PE: Their Greatest Hits (Epic, 1970) LP. I saved up my allowance and it was the very first LP I bought when I was a kid. I wanted that album more than anything in the world. And my grandmother told me I was going to hell.

AAJ: For what?

PE: For buying that music, I guess. Or something. I remember I was like five years old. To me, it was just such freedom, and life, and all the layers of stuff going on. It was so beautifully put together. I was completely in love with that music.

AAJ: At five?

PE: Yeah, even then.

AAJ: You do draw from a lot of different sources.

PE: If I had to pick my trilogy, it's Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, and Stevie Wonder. And The Beatles, too. It doesn't get much better than that. I go all over the place. There's something I love to do that I know you do, too: make mixes for people.

AAJ: It's so much easier with iTunes.

PE: Definitely. I'll go from the third movement of “Bloch's Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra” to a song by the Roches to an old Chet Baker tune. I know a lot of the jazz community gets really uncomfortable with that, but I like to think this is changing a little bit--it's not just about “My Funny Valentine” in 1956 anymore. That's so...done. Let's move on! When I read Down Beat, it seems like there's not that stranglehold of people who are just doing this--[snaps fingers like a Cool Cat]--all the time. So hopefully that will continue. And with Kate, whose music is so organic--she does standards in a new way, but she's so respectful of the lyric. That's pretty rare.

AAJ: There has to be a common denominator somewhere in the music you like, even if it comes from very different places.

PE: Well, the emotion, probably. Once again, I think I was seeking that. As a kid, it was my salvation to hear someone expressing themselves emotionally--on piano, Bill Evans. You just get that extra thing --soul? Music that elevates you and gives you hope. I've always been a real fan of music that's bittersweet, that has both sides. I think I write music like that. I'm drawn to songs that have both the plus and minus; I like the mix.

AAJ: It's not often that you write a purely happy song. For example, “Sunday Driver” [on Decorum] is cute, and it swings, but there's also a serious message in there: slow down!

PE: It's about why we're all going crazy, and maybe that guy who takes forever has got the right idea. The last line: “he just wants to make the day last/and me, I'm going nowhere fast.” I think we all do that. When you're driving home, you've got to make it through that light. But what's the big deal about another minute and a half? That's a current phenomenon for us--we're always racing. I don't think it was like that ten years ago. It's just insane.

AAJ: There's so much stimulation coming in constantly from all angles, which is why--a little editorial comment here--why kids “need” Ritalin. Ritalin is actually speed: it calms them down because it enables them to keep up, to field all the crap that's zooming at them, and not feel so overwhelmed by it.

PE: Wow. I didn't realize that.

AAJ: Ritalin is pharmaceutically very close to cocaine, which is why kids can sell it on the street. And we don't even know the long-term effects of the stuff! OK, I'll get off that soapbox. Tell me more about what you're up to.

PE: I've also started writing choral classical music now. I had church gigs when I first moved to New York with the Marble Collegiate choir--great choir.

AAJ: Wow. I used to work on their “Help Line” crisis line.

PE: Small world! I remember waiting for the point in the service when everybody says the Lord's Prayer together, and noticing that it was kind of robotic. I looked around wondering whether anyone was thinking about these words, or was it just from memory and rote and routine. I thought: what do these words mean? So I took each line from the Lord's Prayer and re-wrote it--paraphrased it--and then I set that as an a cappella piece. It appears on their first studio album; it's called “Prayer,” and it just got published a month ago. I've done a few of those. [Drummer] Ben Wittman said, “Wouldn't it be cool to do a whole album of this kind of stuff?” Yeah, you'd better believe it.

AAJ: Sounds like you're pulled in many different directions at the same time.

PE: It's very confusing for me to prioritize: what am I doing?? I love writing bossa novas, I could do a whole album of Brazilian music. I love doing this choral stuff; it's really wonderful, overwhelming. I wish someone would just go, “Do that! There you go. That's the stuff!” But that ain't happening. And speaking of unbinnable...I think that's been the problem.

AAJ: It's a great gift, and a great handicap. If you could only do one thing well, you wouldn't have all this anxiety about choice.

PE: When my students say, “I'm not sure if I wanna do this, or do that,” I say, “I don't want to get too heavy, deep and real right now, but if you were going to die tomorrow, what would you want to spend the rest of the day doing?”

AAJ: I always felt that people needed to hear the stuff you were writing. As a psychologist who hears a lot of mindless, angry churning in today's music, I want to hear the antidote: an intelligent, original, musical commentary on life and what it means. But without being preachy.

PE: Some people want preachy.

AAJ: Yes. And there's always a market for people who want the answers spelled out for them, people who wander around at EST weekends where they can't go to the bathroom for twelve hours.

PE: I almost did one, about ten years ago. I think I'm one of the few people who demanded my money back and actually got it. I've been there: life isn't working for me, and this is A Way to Answer All My Questions. Ridiculous. But my friend went, and said afterward, “You can hardly see the implants, they're right along the hairline.” But hey, if it works? Whatever works.

AAJ: It seems you're often in search mode yourself, like in your song, “Deliver Me” [on Fool No More]. That's powerful stuff.

PE: Those are questions I've had my whole life. I grew up in a churchgoing family. We moved around a lot, and did a lot of different churches, trying different denominations. When I was in a junior high school, I got into this major Billy Graham thing--ordered the stickers!--had a real hell complex. I thought I was going to hell, and needed to repent. With all the therapy I've done, I still haven't figured out where that came from. It didn't come from my folks.

AAJ: Not even grandma?

PE: No. Not ultimately. She was powerful, but not that powerful. The thing of being a believer started there: wanting a religious experience, wanting a connection. The way my life is now, I'm a spiritual person in a lot of respects, but there are still too many questions. Life makes so little sense in too many ways. I admire the people who say “here's what I believe, and here's my God and what He or She thinks, and this is what's right and this is what's wrong.”

I'll never forget an interview on TV with a senator from down south. There was a horrible small plane crash, and the senator was supposed to be on the plane, but he wasn't. They're interviewing him, and he's saying, “I just thank God He didn't put me on that plane.” And I'm thinking, “What about the other people on the plane? Were they not in the club? Did God hate them?”

That's horrible. It's condescending. Ultimately there are so many questions I don't know how anybody can really go, “This is it. Done.” At the same time, I also want to be respectful of those people, because it's everything to them. It's how they get by. For some people I know, it's almost like a drug: “I used to be a coke addict, but now I'm a God addict.” They still don't know who they are.

AAJ: All these questions have been out there for centuries, and your lyrics try to examine them. Now: to the really important stuff: do you think you'll ever write a song about Paris Hilton?

PE: I did. I wrote “Open Book” [on Decorum]; that's my “I'm famous because I'm famous” song. It boggles my mind that she's such an icon, that people like that are so important. That's what “Open Book is about: “as long as I drop my pants, and throw my dirty laundry as far as I can go, I'm gonna do alright.” People will connect with me because I've behaved in this manner--on some level they think it's cool, or they'll feel sorry for me, and that's how I'm going to become famous. That is unbelievable to me. So I did write my Paris Hilton song.

AAJ: I was only kidding, but you're right: “Open Book” is it. Then on the other end of the spectrum is your “Deliver Me.” As the testimony of a seeker, it's comforting, and even singable at the same time.

PE: I was playing down in the East Village, doing a solo set at this little club that's no longer in existence. I do “Deliver Me” less now; it's a song which is too personal, too exposed. But it never fails that someone comes up and says, “I've lived that song, every day.” That night it was this girl with blue hair and fifty thousand piercings, really Gothy-looking. And I was thinking she and I are as opposite as any two people can be--but she was the one who came up and said, “I've lived every line of what you just sang.” And I said, “You know, you just made my week--that you and I are connected on that level.” Because I wouldn't have thought it possible.

AAJ: Those connections are precious and rare.

PE: Especially in these days when everything is so extreme. The extreme Christians, the extreme anti-Christians--everything is so ultimate; there's nothing in the middle. I think I write for the people in the middle. And I believe there are a lot more of them out there than you'd expect, given what's in the media.

AAJ: But how are you going to reach these people if you're doing the Voices over here, and Moss over there? [Note: Moss is a new singing group composed of Eldridge, Luciana Souza, Kate McGarry, Theo Bleckmann, and fellow New York Voice Lauren Kinhan; they plan to record their first CD in August, 2007.]

PE: I don't know. I always fought the fear of going out on my own, taking that chance. I've looked for security blankets, both professionally and personally, situations that seemed protective and solid. But I'd be lying if I said I'm still the group-oriented person I was when the Voices started twenty years ago. I'm just not that guy anymore. So it's about what I can offer with who I am now, and whatever the musical endeavor happens to be: New York Voices, Moss, solo opportunities, working with other musicians. I'm carving out more of a path for myself as a soloist and composer with something different and individual to say.

AAJ: The Voices have been traveling all over the world for more than two decades, and nobody's killed anybody. That's something.

PE: Absolutely! I do love and respect them all very much. They are tremendously talented people, each in their own, very specific way. As you get older, you just become more opinionated, more passionate about what you think good music is and what it isn't, and when you're part of this warped democracy, that becomes difficult. It's very hard because every decision is a group decision. It isn't Singers Unlimited, which was Gene Puerling's vision [founded in 1971]. Or, in the Phil Mattson [PM] Singers, Phil says: “You sing this, and you phrase it this way.” With us, it's like, “Well, what do you think?” Somebody will bring in something, someone will arrange, but then we'll all rearrange, and re-compose. There's a lot of that going on, probably to a fault.

AAJ: Is that part of why you never got further along, do you think?

PE: Who knows? I could've gone out and fallen on my ass. I hope it's not too late. And I also heard that Capricorns do better in their second half of life, so I'm OK.

AAJ: There ya go.

PE: I've heard that from a few different people: “Oh, you're just getting started.”

AAJ: So is that where you really want to go, the solo thing?

PE: If the Voices and more solo opportunities could co-exist, that would be great. I'm hopeful, but not sure if life really works that way. We shall see.

AAJ: So what is Moss, then?

PE: Moss is on the “let's-do-a-gig-every-year-and-a-half” plan. Luciana's busy, we're all so busy--it's a joke, just trying to get together for a rehearsal. Well, I have March blah, I have this morning here...The five of us sitting in the room with calendars? It's a joke, it's just funny. We're about to record this album in August, and we probably won't see each other until the day before. But it's like that with the Voices too. Now Kim lives in Pittsburgh, we're all spread out, and we all have lives, people have kids... the only time when we rehearse is when we're on the road in Germany. We have time over there. We sit in a hotel and work on the new stuff.

AAJ: Given your collaboration with Ivan Lins, I wanted to ask you what it is about Brazilian music that gets to you so much. Can you articulate it?

PE: It's harmonically incredible, it's melodically beautiful, it's rhythmically sensual and ... it's the best of everything. There's so much for the ear to jump on: are you hearing that next chord? How things move around, how beautiful the harmonic line is... “Luiza.”

AAJ: new favorite Jobim tune.

PE: And the language is the most beautiful language in the world. They could be singing about taking out the laundry, and it sounds like they're having the sexual experience of their lives.

AAJ: I know you've had some major life stress lately. How has that affected you?

PE: My mother's stepping into Alzheimer's the way she did has made me reassess the way I deal with my life. I've cut out a lot of the crap. Things that would feel so big--like trying to avoid any type of altercation with people--are suddenly insignificant. When the Voices are arguing over an arrangement, or someone's getting bent out of shape about the mix of a tune--including me!--it's nothing, compared to what she's going through. And you really start picking your battles, sorting out what's really important to you, and what isn't. It's amazing.

New York Voices l:r: Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader, Kim Nazarian, Peter Eldridge

AAJ: It must be terrible when someone you love is there, and yet not there at the same time.

PE: Yeah. She's been in this world, but gone, for over two years now, and it just kills you. Cause we were really close; we were quite the team. It's been hard. She cries quite a bit, and you don't know why. I think the emotions are all kind of raw now. Happy and sad are one. They're all there.

AAJ: It's hard to tell what's really going on.

PE: You hope to God she's not going, “Get me out of here.” You just hope that she's content in whatever she's going through, that she's not inside of herself going, “Help!” and can't express it. That's the hardest part, because you just don't know. “Are you happy, Mom? Are you okay?” And she'll just stare. That experience has been my defining moment of the last three or four years. The one salvation is that I'm cutting out a lot of bullshit that I needed to get rid of many years ago. I'm finally doing it. Some people never get to do that. It's finally growing up, I guess.

AAJ: The last question I usually ask is, “What do you want to say to people?” This is your chance to say whatever you want--your soapbox.

PE: Well... wow... I could go in a lot of different directions.

AAJ: That's always true with you. (we laugh) But is there something that we don't know about you that we should?

PE: I'm trying to avoid any pidgeonholing at this point in my life: oh, he's the lyric baritone, or the funny one--all the one-dimensional perception that's inevitable when you're part of a group. I hope that people are starting to see that there's a lot of other stuff there too.

Selected Discography

New York Voices, A Day Like This (MCG Jazz, 2007)
Peter Eldridge, Decorum (Reuben's Tunes, 2005)
Ann Hampton Calloway, Signature (N-Coded, 2002)
Paquito D'Rivera, Brazilian Dreams (MCG Jazz, 2002)
Peter Eldridge, Stranger in Town (Rosebud, 2000)
Peter Eldridge, Fool No More (Rosebud, 2000)
New York Voices, Sing, Sing, Sing (Concord, 2000)
Jason Miles, A Love Affair: The Music of Ivan Lins (Telarc, 2000)
Don Sebesky, I Remember Bill: Tribute to Bill Evans (RCA, 1998)
New York Voices, Sing the Song of Paul Simon (RCA, 1997)
Count Basie Orchestra, Count Basie Orchestra with the New York Voices Live at Manchester Craftsman's Guild (MCG Jazz, 1996)
New York Voices, What's Inside (GRP, 1993)
New York Voices, Hearts of Fire (GRP, 1991)
New York Voices, New York Voices (GRP, 1989)  

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