Musical Adventures in Estrella Places

Our newly formed musical ensemble does not have 76 trombones; heck, we don’t even have one, but despair not, music lovers, I’m working on it. The rhythm section (keyboard, bass, drums, guitar) is pretty good, and the horn section (alto sax, trumpet) is coming on strong. Our vocalists are working hard as well. I’m optimistic. Check back with me in two months. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The Estrella Mountains are located in Goodyear, Arizona about 30 miles west of Phoenix. After ascending into these so-called mountains, via Estrella Parkway, and driving to the very end, one discovers a gated community known as CantaMia. According to literature describing the community, the name translates to “my song” in Italian; although technically “my song” is “la mia canzone” or if we change to “my chant”, it is “il mio canto”. Canta mia literally means “sings mine”. Doesn’t make sense, does it? But okay, I can give such language indiscretion a pass. I mean, it’s common knowledge about how real estate developers in America play fast and loose with foreign words to make communities somehow sound exotic. To be fair, US developers are not exclusive e.g., in Paris a parking garage is referred to as Le Parking. Exotic? I think not.

The point is this: the community of CantaMia has a musical theme running throughout the compound including names of house styles such as crescendo, concerto, aria, etc. With that in mind, a neighbor, Nick Bogden, a former musician and retired Los Angeles major recording studio owner has been attempting for about five years to organize neighborhood musicians into a band. There have been periodic starts-and-stops; always with an inevitable end. However, a “from the flames of the Phoenix” tipping point occurred recently that jump-started the latest attempt, and one I believe, will be a successful. I mean, with Nick as the leader, and me as the pimp, what could go wrong?

Here’s the genesis of that tipping point:

The CantaMia Jazz Club arranged for Blair Clark, a charismatic, talented vocalist and entertainer, to appear for a one-night show. Nick and I were heavily involved in the effort, and the event was a huge success creating a demand for Clark to appear again. There was one problem with the first event, i.e.: the venue did not have enough capacity to make that affair, and/or any successive events economically viable. In short, without sponsors there weren’t enough seats to fill the demand for tickets, and pay performers. Ah ha, we thought, next time we’ll provide two shows, splitting Clark’s time, but provide an inexpensive (but talented) opening act. Budget friendly, right? The theory was sound, we thought, but that didn’t turn out to be the case—the down-in-flames part. Nevertheless, it did provide the springboard for restarting Nick’s vision—the Phoenix part.

Julie Christopher, a CantaMia yoga instructor originally from Marseilles, had (before emigrating) performed in Europe singing and playing classical guitar. She also did some studio work in Los Angeles. In her, we figured we had our opening act with Nick accompanying her on trumpet. I sat in on six-weeks of rehearsals with Julie and Nick, and felt positive they could pull it off. Both were enthusiastic about performing; and Julie asked me if I could find musicians after the gig so she could continue performing with a jazz combo. In a moment of euphoria, she pleaded, “Say, you’ll manage the band.” Since I fancy myself an effective pimp, I said I would.

However, from the onset, I was uncomfortable that we didn’t have a few more musicians, say, percussion and bass, to fill out the musical arrangements—Clark’s musicians were not an option. I did find two likely candidates, but they declined stating rehearsal time was too short. We had no option, but to press on. What a lousy pimp!

Juxtaposing a soft foreign language classical and jazz act with Clark’s high-energy act seemed like a good idea; however, the audience didn’t think so. I alone am responsible for that—not Nick, nor Julie nor Blair Clark. The paying customers wanted two-hours of Clark, not a half hour of Julie followed by an hour of Clark. Blair saved the night, but still, they felt cheated. Because of that, an alarming number of people vented to me that, in their opinion, Julie’s guitar playing was not in tune, and the vocals were flat. I happen to have an excellent ear, and those negative comments were not accurate; however, frustrated audience members will say about anything to justify their ire; and so even if untrue, perception to them is reality. I cannot argue the point. One lady went so far as to say while Clark sparkled (as usual) that the opening act “sucked”. On a positive note, I did ten minutes of stand-up before the first show, which earned raves. Also, before the second show, Nick opined to the organizers—the CantaMia staff—that they could have done a better job. Some audience members thought he was being critical of them. Uh-oh… Bottom line: since I was the brains behind both of Blair Clark’s appearances at CantaMia, much of the fallout rubbed off on me. First time: GOOD! Second time: BAD! Oh well, that’s show biz. Additional fallout was that Julie wouldn’t acknowledge me for a month afterward, and Blair thought the idea of a trumpet with a classical guitar was ill-advised. As for the former, I stay out of Julie’s yoga classes to give her space; and as for the latter, I could not disagree more. Here’s why: Julie’s first number was a fusion of Spanish guitar songs that Nick introduced with a Granada fanfare, and punctuated with a Spanish flair at perfectly timing. In Spain, duets between those instruments are commonplace. The next two numbers were classical guitar only with Julie vocalizing—no trumpet. The last two jazzy, up-tempo versions of “La Vie En Rose”, and “Lullaby of Birdland” featured Nick playing the intro and noodling throughout the songs. Julie sang, and did NOT play guitar. Without the trumpet, the numbers would have been totally A Capella. I thought it had a 1950s Paris nightclub vibe.

After that “mixed bag” evening, I continued to recruit musicians from the Estrella area to come together, under Nick’s leadership, and rehearse to determine if there was a common bond and shared interest. Julie informed me that she was “out”. No surprise there. After about six weeks, 15 musicians and singers are starting to fuse into a cohesive group. Our goals are twofold: 1) have fun, and 2) be inclusive. Five of the members are from outside CantaMia in nearby neighborhoods with others showing interest, which in my opinion, is exactly the type of cross pollinating we need to find success. We plan to be ready to play gigs by late summer.

Meanwhile, Blair Clark continues to flourish as an entertainer and vocal coach; and he will return to CantaMia on an annual basis to the delight of everyone in the area. A better, more suitable, venue is planned. He has also been helping Julie professionally. I can’t imagine a better coach. With his help maybe the Phoenix will rise from the ashes twice.