Joe Fiedler: Swinging Down Sesame Street

Joe Fiedler knows better than anyone that there’s more than one way to get to Sesame Street. The trombonist began his career playing in Cecil Taylor’s large ensemble, and has since worked with everyone from Andrew Hill and Charles Tolliver to Eddie Palmieri and Celia Cruz. He’s created his own out-of-the-box sounds with the Joe Fiedler Trio as well as with the low-brass quartet Big Sackbut (three trombones and tuba). But for the last decade he’s also served as a music director and arranger for the iconic children’s TV show Sesame Street. Fiedler’s worlds collide on his new album, Open Sesame (Multiphonics Music), on which he delivers irreverent jazz interpretations of some of the show’s most beloved songs, including “People in Your Neighborhood” and “Rubber Duckie.” —Shaun Brady

What led you to combine your day job with your creative life to come up with this album?

Over the years of being there at Sesame Street, I’ve talked to various puppeteers and stagehands and people who have literally been working on the show since day one — and we’re about to start our 50th season. So the lore of the show was fascinating to me, and then I was able to dig into the archives and see the depth of the Sesame catalogue. There are tens of thousands of tunes, some of which are basically American standards, but many of them are completely unknown but should be standards. It’s also a personal rebellion against the seriousness of New York jazz. One of my objectives was to keep things fun and playful without being corny.

Was the show important to you growing up?

Sesame Street came on the air in 1969, and I was born in ’65, so I was right in the wheelhouse. I remember watching it as a little kid, but I never had any aspirations to be in television at all, let alone children’s television. I actually had more of a connection to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which was filmed in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Fred Rogers actually lived in my neighborhood; I would see him at the grocery store. The opening theme was written by a local jazz piano player named Johnny Costa, who was a master, and Handyman Negri was a local jazz guitar player who’s still alive and playing. So I was more influenced by Mr. Rogers than Sesame Street, though they share a similar sweetness and kindness.

How have audiences reacted to your takes on these iconic songs?

One of my hero bands is the World Saxophone Quartet, who taught me that if you give the audience enough of what they know, you can totally take it left and they’re going to love it. That’s the part that’s amazing. We do a crazy heavy-metal, free-jazz version of “Rubber Duckie,” and old ladies come up and tell me how cool it was. It’s kind of bittersweet; you put your heart and soul into original material and hope everyone likes it, but everybody really loves the furry puppets.

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