With the band
“it’s Hava Nagila, but don’t play it like that. It shouldn’t sound like the Hava Nagila until the last solo.”
“It’s Funky Nagila.”
“It’s Hava Nagila meets Shaft. Oh, fuck, it’s just Shaft.”
The bass player — double bass player, mind — starts whacking the strings in a surprisingly convincing imitation of the opening guitar riff.
Solo two goes to the sax player. Solo three is my friend S, who invited me to sit in with her band, playing fiddle. “More bluegrass.”
I’m sitting this one out, listening as they work out the details.
“The fiddle should take the second solo,” says the keyboardist/harmonica-player/singer. The accordion player nodded in agreement.”The sax sounds too much like a clarinet. It’s too recognizable. It should be last. It’s a better reveal.”
And it is. And so it went until nearly midnight, when I finally caught the subway home, just one stop from the other side of the park.
I’m playing a wedding with the band this weekend, schlepping my fiddle and mando down to Red Hook on a Saturday afternoon. I got called in for a single song, a tune that was a big hit back in 1919 at the Ziegfeld Follies. But as the evening wore on, I joined in on other tunes too. A couple of Argentine waltzes. A moody, tremolo-heavy House of the Rising Sun. A Parisian cafe rendition of the theme from Charade. Except for the Funky Nagila and a tune the groom has written as a surprise for the bride — a concession to the occasion — every tune is in three. This is the group’s schtick. And while it sounds at first like it might be limiting, it actually provides enough consistency to allow them to perform in a million different styles. In a few short hours we’ve covered jazz, bluegrass, old time, blues, klezmer, cajun, and, yes, funk. I’ve never had so much fun. Or done so much improvising. The beautiful thing about playing second fiddle on waltzes, though, is that it’s easy to fake it. Find your inner tuba and you’re golden.
Home alone last night, I put on my headphones and practice my mando tremolo. I sketched countermelodies and tapped my feet. And then I played through a couple of baroque sonatas for good measure. Playing folk/improvisatory styles makes the rest of the playing better. It loosens up both arms and brain, giving you a new perspective on the architecture and a more nuanced rhythm. It’s more fun. And isn’t that the point?