A recent project from local, Atlanta pianist Kevin Bales and a previously unknown vocalist to me, Keri Johnsrud, from Chicago, caught my attention. Titled Beyond the Neighborhood:The Music of Fred Rogers, the two artists came together two years ago when they discovered a mutual admiration for the music that was played on the children’s show Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.
The eleven songs on this heartfelt tribute are all Rogers originals with only one being a collaboration between Rogers and Josie Carey. Bales’ arrangements are careful constructions that pulse, swing, sometimes surprise and brilliantly support the lyrical content of Rogers music, all the while taking them into the age of musical modernity. His trio is made up of Atlanta veteran musicians, bassist Billy Thorton and percussionist Marlon Patton. These three cats create a singularity of sound that is quite impressive. Vocalist Keri Johnrud has a clear, earnest and pleasant voice. Her approach is more akin to musical theater and she can be heard at her best on songs “It’s You I Like” and “I like to Take My Time.”Bales recalls this music as being some of his very first exposure to the world of jazz. Rogers show, or variations thereof, ran from 1963 through 2001 and was watched by millions of children. The beloved, soft spoken Fred McFeely Rogers died in 2003 at the age of seventy-four.The music was all written by Fred Rogers and often sung by the gangly, good-natured show’s host accompanied his musical director the great pianist Johnny Costa, who was known in jazz circles as the “White” Art Tatum because of his musical facility.
The two Rogers fans have taken songs from the program’s repertoire. Bales is a master of probing deep into a melody, blazing multiple paths during his improvisational forays. His bandmates are equally adept at following his implied direction, oftentimes carving out their own creative detours. The result is a symbiotic trio that often surprises with the direction they take and the rhythmic diversity they display on this music.
Thorton’s bass is particularly joyful in its buoyant abandon and his scat accompaniment with Johnsrud on the be-bop inspired “Troll Talk” is a delight. Patton’s drums offer multiple layers of percussive wizardry throughout the program. Johnsrud, being stirred on by these adventurous musicians, should allow herself to loosen up a bit more and demonstrate some improvisational gusto of her own. Her voice was perhaps most unguarded when she improvised a bit at the end of “Look and Listen,” but for the most part she sings within the confines of the lyrics, rarely straying outside the lines of the music.
The music is sincere and honest and often brilliantly played. You can hear the heart and soul that Bales has poured into this project which was a labor of love for over two years. The cover artwork is a whimsical graphic from trumpeter and visual artist Darren English that captures the spirit of Rogers show.
Rogers lyrics were designed to communicate, love, friendship, overcoming doubt and exploring the sometimes-complex feelings that young children experience. He was very effective in that goal and in that context the often simple lyrics were cleverly embedded into some hip music that introduced a jazz sensibility to a youthful, unsuspecting audience. Some believe that Rogers lyrics could be interpreted as having more complex, more adult meanings; the double-entendre effect (a device often employed by his raceier counterpart Soupy Sales), but I don’t believe that was ever Rogers intent. Suffice to say that Fred Rogers music inspired people like Kevin Bales and Keri Johnsrud and for that we can be eternally grateful to the soft-spoken man in the sweater and sneakers.