Friday, February 23rd, 2018

Frank Perri : Finding inspiration beyond ourselves

By Frank PerriMarch 31, 2012

MUSIC COMPOSITION

Frank Perri
Frank Perri is a keyboardist and arranger with a range of live performance, recording and arranging credits which reads like a who’s who of ‘been there and done it!’  If we mention that Frank has arranged for and led the Duke Ellington Orchestra, has guest conducted the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, is musical director of ‘Break The Floor Productions’, one of the world’s preeminent dance entertainment companies, AND has appeared in the US TV show “Pan Am” on ABC Television, you can see we’re not exaggerating.  Oh yes we forgot to mention; Frank is an amazing keyboard player!

As a performer and an arranger/orchestrator, Frank has worked with Bette Midler, VH1, the Grammy Awards, Whoopi Goldberg, Montel Williams, Giorgio Armani, Howard Stern, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Adam Pascal, the International Dance Music Awards, the United Nations, the March of Dimes, the MARS corporation, and Kim Sozzi.  He was also the featured Keyboardist for the New York Islanders Hockey Team for the 1999-2000 season and was hit with three hockey pucks during that period.

As a music director he has led shows and bands at Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theater, Nassau Coliseum, Hammerstein Ballroom, the Gibson Amphitheater, the Jackie Gleason theater and Irving Plaza and was interviewed in the February 2008 issue of the American Federation of Musician’s magazine, “International Musician” regarding his work as a music director and arranger.

Frank’s father still asks, “When is he giving up this music garbage and getting a real job?!”

                    What a fickle woman the muse is.  She never comes when asked, she shows up when we’re never ready, deserts us at the drop of a hat.  Paul Simon famously wrote about this very problem in his song, “Cecilia”, complaining about the muse deserting him at every turn, and complaining in the form of what?  What else, other than the form of a catchy and inspired song.  Cecilia, for those who still haven’t figured it out after all these years, is the patron saint of musicians.

                    We are all required at some point in our lives to call upon her.  Some occupations more than others, which is why a muse is more commonly associated with the arts, music and writing rather than say, accounting.  But even an accountant at some point may need to reach for inspiration.  But what are we to do when we call and she very commonly doesn’t answer?  Sometimes we need to look beyond ourselves to find her hiding where we never expected it and sometimes right in front of our very eyes.

                    I stumbled onto this very fact by accident, and embarrassingly many years into my career.  I was music directing a show that featured a tap dancer.  At some point the tap dancer had to refine and change some of his choreography so the music was put on hold for a bit while he worked out some new steps.  As this wouldn’t take a long time, the band was confined to the bandstand because as some have learned the hard way, you don’t let musicians go on break if they don’t need to.  Some never come back and some come back but need help standing!  Anyway, I digress, but there we all were sitting quietly listening to the silence being punctured by the sharp sound of taps hitting a stage in various combinations, in that machine gun manner that makes you sometimes wonder how a human can move their feet so fast.

                    I glanced over to my left to see the bass player furiously writing in his music book in an almost inspired manner.  He kept writing, tapping his chest, counting, erasing and then writing again.  I leaned over to him and asked what he was up to.  He leaned back and said, “This guy is showing me rhythms I never even thought of.  I’ve been in such a rut with my playing that as soon as I get home tonight I’m taking these rhythms he’s tapping and I’m going to find a way to translate them to my slapping and popping!”

                    “Interesting”, I thought to myself but as the band sat there in silence longer and longer I started to think about this very situation.  Have I ever looked to anything else for inspiration?  Have I done this and not realized?  At that point I made a decision to start looking outside myself for inspiration and instead found a world much richer than I had previously experienced.

                    I started small, taking solos and repertoire from other instruments and rewriting them for the piano, my primary instrument.  Right away this provided me with challenges I have never experienced as a pianist.  Every instrument has its cache of trademark and cliché riffs.  They’re cliché because we all play them and we all play them because the notes of those specific riffs tend to lay under our fingers for our specific instrument. 

                    I noticed that guitarists can skip across fifths and octaves with relative ease because all they need to do is shift strings.  I noticed how wind players such as saxes and flutes seem to have an endless number of notes that always pour by the thousands from their fingers due to the fact that their hands barely move as they dance across the octaves and scales instead of how my slow, lumbering hands have to constantly traverse up and down a black and white landscape to achieve the same thing.

                    At first I limited myself to finding way to translate this repertoire with all its idiosyncrasies to my instrument.  I faced new and unfamiliar note patters, fingering problems, and techniques that don’t translate easily, all to be conquered eventually by nights of slow and sometimes, painful practice.  But I was rewarded with a fresh palette of ideas. Melodies I had never thought of.  Skips and jumps in solos I had never considered.  Technical difficulties that let me discover new ways to express myself.  For example, when a flute player is holding a note for two measures and lets their finger side a bit off the open hole on the key to bend the note down and back up, how do you translate that to a piano?  I’m not sure I was entirely successful, but it led to many different and fun experiments trying to achieve something similar in my playing.

                    Still, after all this new inspiration, these new ideas, I still longed to be able to cross genres in the same way as my bass player friend had.  I wanted to look at something different and find a way to translate that to the piano.  Tap dancing is one thing, as a tap dancer is probably the closest to a musician that a dancer can get but could I look beyond that?  Could I look at a ballet dancer and see music and patterns in the way their feet so effortlessly seem to hover above the ground?  What about a painting?  Can I see ideas for solos in the color pigments and in the artist’s inspiration left behind as echoes in the form of embossed brush marks trapped in oil paint, like an insect in amber?  Can I push myself even farther than that?  Could I see music in how someone dresses?  Or how two people interact while having lunch together? It is difficult, but not impossible.  You have to open up and let yourself want to see it.

                    As for me, the journey still continues, and I suspect will continue for a lifetime.  I won’t tell you what I found and continue to find as this journey is for each person to uncover and try to realize for themselves and I won’t ruin or color that experience.  I will tell you that I learned that there is a world beyond my instrument out there waiting to be discovered.  And that this isn’t limited to musicians.  Maybe you’re an engineer needs inspiration on how to approach a mix or tracking session.  Maybe you’re a dancer who’s longed to move and fly in a different way.  Or maybe you’re just an accountant who wants to believe numbers are more than lines and curves on paper.

                    Is the muse a stubborn woman who refuses to come when beckoned?  I used to believe that.  Now I see the muse almost as a playful child.  Someone who sees coming when called as boring.  Instead the muse wants to play hide and seek.  She’s there but she wants you to find her.  And when you go looking, that’s where the real inspiration lies.

                    I have a friend, a mixer whose mixes I’ve always admired.  One time I asked him what his secret was to always having different and inspired mixes. His response simply was, “I’m not trying to mix a song. I want to create a universe.”  That is sage advice.

                    Now stop reading and go do something completely different and contradictory for inspiration. She’s been waiting for you to come find her.

– Frank Perri, March 2012.

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