My friend the clown, actor and musical comedian Glen Heroy earns part of his cobbled entertainer’s living from his uncanny ability to “do” Elton John and especially the tremulous, disoriented-but-ever-willing-to-be-Ozzy, late-period Ozzy Osbourne. Glen’s art is no mere mastery of wardrobe and a finely observed set of signature manners; he inhabits the roles fluidly, interacting with audiences in character and with a big fluttering wink. To see it live, it’s a nervy tightrope of double identity.
And it is from Glen that I have learned not to call such performers “impersonators” any more. They are now to be known as “tribute artists.” I can hear the PC-phobes scoffing as they get off the bus, but deal with it already. These salutatory linguistic tweaks that we make, these fine calibrations of connotation and subtext, are never for the benefit of the first users, the early adopters, to whom they may always feel unnatural. They are our little gift to the next generation: a proper biasing of the language that we pass along in hopes that it might rewire future brains to be a little less dull and piggish than ours, that our own sluggish and partial awakenings to each other might be the start of something cumulative and lasting.
Does it work? Hell, I am not smart enough to know that; but “tribute artist” is a modest win/win adjustment in any case. It dignifies the craft of the performer and the worth of the subject.
My friend the pianist, composer, bandleader, synth master, dance accompanist and Stravinsky interpreter Neil Alexander earns part of his cobbled musician’s living from acts of musical tribute. Some of this has been high-profile roleplaying, such as his years of touring with the famous Pink Floyd cover band the Machine. But most of Alexander’s tribute work has been of the labor-of-love, keeper-of-the-flame kind. For the lavishly talented Alexander, musical tribute means duty, service and humility at the feet of his personal masters, and it is the opposite – the exact opposite – of an easy buck.
If, for example, you have any appreciation at all of that first generation of jazz/rock fusion – the wild, groovy fusion of early Weather Report and Herbie Hancock, in which the spirit of Miles was still so strong – run, don’t walk to see Alexander’s extravagantly hot Weather Report tribute band Mr. Gone. Like his Mahavishnu band before it, Mr. Gone masters some extremely demanding music and honors artists for whom no one is clamoring anymore. You know that this particular tribute is a hard road to hoe when Shorter himself can hardly make a buck being Shorter.
So it is labor and it is love, period, and those values alone can explain what Alexander is up to this week. Early in his career – long before it was a career – Alexander was, in his own words, just fooling around with music. In 1979, he crossed paths with a more serious dude: a bassist and budding prog/fusion composer named Jim Decrescenzo. They formed a promising band, along with drummer Louis Magliente. Decrescenzo’s passion and skills pushed the other guys, accelerating their growth.
A mere year into the endeavor, Jim found out that his girlfriend was pregnant, and he decided to “do the right thing” by getting married and giving up music. Before disappearing from Alexander’s life as magically as he had appeared, he turned over to Alexander a folder of scores that he had written – serious, complex stuff – and a cassette of recordings that he had made with multiple bass parts on a four-track deck.
Alexander lost track of Decrescenzo, but kept the folder and the tape to honor his peer/mentor. Many years later, and well into his own validated musical career, Alexander ran into Decrescenzo and learned that “Deke” had relocated to Woodstock, where he earned his living as a master woodworker. Jim was surprised to hear that Alexander had kept the folder of scores – even more surprised that Neil had recorded one of his tunes, “Box 555,” in 2001. Alexander tried unsuccessfully to cajole Decrescenzo back into music, but they rekindled an old friendship in the process.
When Jim Decrescenzo died last September, Neil Alexander began to envision ways to honor his old friend and mentor, the talent and the dream of music that he had abandoned so young. Never one to take tribute lightly, Alexander assembled a cast of capable and sympathetic players, pored over the scores and recordings, editing and arranging Decrescenzo’s basscentric prog/fusion epics for a full ensemble.
Neil made Decrescenzo’s recordings available to me for the purposes of this article. Other than attesting to the talent of a chopsy, imaginative player with a very detailed compositional vision, this music speaks to the paradox of fusion. Routinely considered to be a variant of jazz, fusion of this kind had little to do with improvisation and less to do with swing; it is all about the strenuous execution of difficult passages, frenetic counterpoint, breakneck tempos: the animal joys of youth and talent colliding. The sad part, of course, is what the music says about what might have been.
Some acts of tribute, let’s face it, are parasitic and opportunistic feedings off the superfluous fame of others; other acts of tribute are deeply personal, humble, demanding and noble. This one’s that.
Harmony Music of Woodstock hosts “Jim Decrescenzo: A Celebration of His Life & Work” on Wednesday, November 19 at 7 p.m. The tribute band includes Alexander, Brian Mooney, Chad McLoughlin and Jason Furman, with special guests Ted Orr, Steve Rust and Peter Buettner. Legendary Woodstock guitarist/songwriter and 3 frontman Joey Eppard and his band will open.
Jim Decrescenzo: A Celebration of His Life & Work, Wednesday November 19, 7 p.m., free, Harmony Music Woodstock, 52 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock.