Thomas Cunniffe, Jazz History Online

With a highly acclaimed documentary now playing in theaters, and several noteworthy television retrospectives in broadcast rotation, the world is re-discovering the work of Mister (Fred) Rogers. Since the gentle friend of children passed away in 2003, several recordings have attempted to place Rogers’ original songs into an adult context. I can’t say with certainty that Rogers ever intended his songs to be interpreted in this fashion, and none of the cast members or production staff I interviewed could confirm or deny it, but the strength of these songs allow them to work in this manner.  Chicago vocalist Keri Johnsrud and pianist Kevin Bales have collaborated on a new recording, “Beyond the Neighborhood” which explores the adult themes of Rogers’ lyrics to a deeper degree than ever before. The album opens with a highly abstract instrumental figure which leads into a up-tempo arrangement of “It’s You I Like”. Johnsrud treats the melody like it was a jazz standard, as she takes great chances with her melodic variations. The abstract figure returns to usher in Bales’s dynamic piano solo and a swinging bass chorus by Billy Thornton. And while drummer Marlon Patton does not solo, he follows the quick changes of the arrangement with unerring precision and swing. “Just for Once” becomes a seductive call to a new lover to find a quiet place for a rendezvous. It sounds like a far cry from Rogers’ story of two children longing to escape their meddling parents, but not a word of the original lyric is changed. Moreover, it reinforces the idea that the need for escape does not disappear when children become adults. Johnsrud and Bales have not betrayed these songs; indeed, they have enriched them. “I Like to Take My Time” works especially well in their deliberate but propulsive slow tempo; this tempo would have been too slow for the TV show, but grown-ups will appreciate the connection between tempo and lyrics. Depending on when listeners watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, some of the songs presented here may not be familiar. As a viewer of the earliest years of the show (1968-70) I didn’t know “Find a Star”, “When the Day Turns into Night” or “Troll Talk”. With an album like this, such ignorance may be a benefit as it leaves us without preconceived notions. We can appreciate the musicianship of this fine ensemble in the same way as if they were performing their own original compositions. Throughout the album, Johnsrud sings the lyrics with great conviction, and she displays a deep knowledge of jazz interpretation. This rhythm section is a highly cohesive unit, performing exceptionally well as a group, and all three members are exceptional soloists. After seeing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” at a local theater, my friend commented that she wanted to check out the Mister Rogers Songbook. This album might be the hippest way to explore that treasure trove.

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