Wednesday, October 06, 2004

LA Stories (Epilogue)

As I’ve mentioned previously, I made two trips to Southern California this past spring/summer. When I began planning for them, the one thing that was at the top of my list from the moment the determination was made to go, was to figure out a way to hear Brian Hughes while I was there.

Brian is a Jazz guitarist, and is one of my very favorites. His genre has undergone numerous changes in description over the years, morphing from what was originally called “Fusion” (i.e.: a fusion of jazz and rock styles), into “Smooth Jazz” to what is now being called simply, “C-Jazz” (the “C” standing for “contemporary”). Now lest any of you latent Jazz aficionados take me to task for comparing Fusion with Smooth Jazz, please allow me to note that I worked in the Jazz Music business for eight years and yes, I do know the difference. In the 70s when Fusion got its start with Weather Report, John Scofield and Pat Metheny, Fusion was “out there,” “experimental” and “fresh.” As more and more artists adopted it, if became less so as it became mainstream. By the 80s, it had lost the Fusion tag and gained the somewhat nebulous moniker of “Contemporary Jazz,” which covered everything from Metheny to Natalie Cole. Artists such as George Benson, Al Jareau, Kenny G, David Benoit and Yanni made Contemporary Jazz, “Pop” music for almost a decade. And while all are fabulously talented artists, that inevitable homogenization for the masses transformed what was originally a spirited, edgy genre into largely toothless, formulaic elevator music. And in picking up that tag it has now been all but eliminated from consideration for exposure on a national scale. Jazz radio stations are few and far between on the radio dial in most areas of the country. I had to subscribe to XM Radio just so I could hear it here in Nashville, where only a single weak college radio station plays any kind of Jazz as part of its regular format.

It’s a damn shame, because it was my favorite music by far, and still is. How ironic that I would be completely cut off from it by moving to “Music City.” This place is an absolute Jazz desert. There is some of it here in obscure, often expensive dinner clubs, but it’s neither as accessible as I would like, or am willing to hassle with.

My absolute fave artist is Pat Metheny. He is one of the pioneers of Fusion and he never sold out. He’s still making awesome music (and is touring at the beginning of next year — I can’t wait!). So where does Brian Hughes come in? He’s a Metheny clone.

Now I don’t say that to cast any aspersions on Hughes’ talent or originality, because the guy is an ace. But his style is rife with unmistakable Metheny influences, and although the purists don’t like it, that’s what I love the most about him.

Brian Hughes is a Canadian native. When I worked for the record company, we signed a license agreement with his original Canadian record label to promote and market his only previous album in the US, which I worked on and immediately fell in love with. Unfortunately I left the company and moved to Nashville just before his second release, which also included a US tour. I never got to meet him but apparently he knew who I was, as I would learn several years later. In 2001 I discovered his web site and e-mailed him telling him how much I enjoyed his work. He responded saying that he did indeed remember my name in association with the work I had done on that first release.

It was during those exchanges that I discovered that he had moved from Toronto to SoCal, and did a monthly gig in Seal Beach, about five miles from where I used to live. I was determined that some day when I was in California, I would go hear him play and finally get a chance to meet him.

I really wanted to do it on the first trip Michelle and I made this past May, but he wasn’t playing during the time of the month we were there. So I thought I’d get the opportunity to “catch him on the flip-flop” when I returned in August. I saw from his web site that he was indeed going to be playing locally while I was there. But of course, as my luck would have it, it was the same night as my reunion.

So I determined that I would set aside the desire I had to see Brian Hughes. There could be other opportunities to see him in the future. There would only be one 30-Year Reunion. But I decided that I would leave the door open to maybe sneak out a little early and catch the tail end of his set, which was scheduled to run until midnight Saturday night.

As I said at the beginning of the Reunion story, I really wasn’t going back to see particular people. If Timmy and Laurie hadn’t been there, I’m sure I would have been disappointed, but the evening certainly wouldn’t have been a total loss. I was going back to recapture a feeling; the feeling I had walking across the grassy “quad” on a bright autumn day. The feeling of seeing passersby recognize me and smile; the feeling of belonging that my high school experience gave me. All I really needed was the crowd. What I got was actually much more. I can’t say that I’ve ever really “owned” a room before — that’s just not my personality (nor would I want it to be) — but that night I think I was close.

As things were already starting to wind down after 11:00, I knew I could stay another hour or two and still have people to talk to, but I decided I’d done what I wanted to do. The only people I wanted to see but didn’t, were a few who didn’t show up at all. I figured I still had an opportunity to make this night of personal joy and satisfaction complete. So I headed off to Seal Beach, to try and catch the end of Brian’s show at the Italian restaurant where he was playing.

I don’t think I hit more than two red lights the entire way.

As I got out of my car, I could hear that unmistakable sound wafting out to greet me in the parking lot. I walked into the restaurant’s bar area and on the far side of the room, on a small stage set up in the corner, Brian and his other four band members were jamming. The room was packed. I scanned around I couldn’t believe when I spotted a solitary, vacant table in the corner. It was about five feet from the stage. I briskly side-stepped through the room and seized my prize perch. There might as well have been a placard on it that said, “Reserved for AJ” — that’s how perfect it was.

I glanced at my watch, it said 11:48. I figured I’d arrived in time to take in two more songs, maybe three. From several feet away, a waitress smiled in my direction, I nodded. She came over and leaned in as I ordered a beer. Before I knew it she was back, and I just sat back and let the music have its way with me. Brian was jamming, his band, all of whom were extremely tight, were doing their thing, and I was in paradise. All I would have needed at that point were beaded cornrows and a pair of wrap-around shades to pass myself off as a white Stevie Wonder. I was smiling, with my eyes closed, swaying to the sound. Man, I can’t even describe how good I felt at that very moment.

The ride to paradise was a relatively short one, but it sure was sweet.

Following Brian’s final song and fittingly, my favorite of all his tunes, “…And Dreaming,” I went up and introduced myself to him. We talked for about a minute and then I shook his hand and headed for the door. Before leaving the building I decided it appropriate to answer’s nature’s call, with the restrooms just adjacent to the bar’s entrance, which was also right off the restaurant’s main foyer.

When I came out I noticed that right next to the door, Brian had a table set up offering his CDs and other merchandise for sale. Standing behind the table was a very pretty petite blonde woman. It suddenly dawned on me who she was. It was Pamela, Brian’s wife and promotions manager. I had corresponded via e-mail with both she and Brian off and on since discovering their web site back in 2001. I extended my hand and said, “Are you the lovely Pamela?” Her eyes grew wide as, looking a little embarrassed she responded, “Yes I am! Hi! And you are…?”
“AJ…from Nashville. I used to work for the Record Company. I had e-mailed you guys about my coming out for my class reunion, and I was hoping to get the chance to come see Brian. Unfortunately it was tonight as well, but at least I got here in time to catch the end of his set.”

OH, AJ!” Pamela said excitedly as she made the connection. “I remember you e-mailing Brian! Did you want to buy a CD so he can sign it for you?”

I let out a mild groan as I glanced down at the hand-written card that read, “All CDs, $15.00,” and said, “I only have a ten.”
“Hey, I tell ya what,” she said in a friendly tone. “The guy who just walked out the door gave me a twenty, and he didn’t want his change. That'll do!”
“Great,” I said. “…Are you sure?”
“Absolutely!” Pamela smiled as I happily forked over the bill.

She handed me a silver metallic paint pen, and pointed to her left. “He’s standing right over there,” a fact to which I had been completely oblivious.
“Thanks so much!” I smiled.

Another fan was just finishing his conversation with Brian as I walked up. “Man I just want to say how great it is to finally meet you,” I said.
“Same here, AJ,” he smiled as he looked down to autograph his new CD for me. It was then that I received another in the already generous helping of sugarplums for the psyche that evening. I realized that as we were standing there talking, I was looking at him eye-to-eye.

Whoa! Dude’s a shorty just like me! Now THAT’S serendipity, bay-bee!

We talked about his recurring schedule of dates there at the restaurant in Seal Beach. “It’s not set in cement, but I don’t expect it to change anytime soon. This is a real good venue for us. Like playing here,” he said.
“Then I definitely will see you again sometime soon,” I said, smiling.
I shook his hand, waved to Pamela and headed out the door. Only now, I was certainly taller than Brian Hughes by at least a couple inches…

What a fitting end to a spectacular night. The fusion of a night of good friends, and great music had solidified this day in my mind forever.

This has been a lengthy, but extremely fun series for me. I’ve taken the liberty to allow myself diversions in between these parts to really search through the events of my recent weeklong trip to California, and hold up even seemingly insignificant things to the light of personal scrutiny. That, as if you hadn’t guessed, is my bent. Thanks to all of you who endure and even enjoy that about my blog.

And again, the questions I mentioned at the beginning? Those are easy to answer now.
Who am I really? A really happy guy.
Where do I stand amongst my peers? In a position high enough to be recognized, but low enough to keep the pressure from robbing me of my joy.
What does that standing mean, and why? Only that I’m free to be the one person I’ve always wanted to be…ME. Why? Because that’s all that really matters.

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