[Editor's note: though the website puts my name on this article, in this case, that's only because I posted it. It was written by Jeff Babko, keyboardist on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live. Visit him at jeffbabko.com. -Stephen Fortner]
A MUSICAL ALOHA TO LOST
As readers may or may not know, my “day gig,”, or “steady gig” given that it happens at night, is as the keyboardist in the house band of ABC-TV’s Jimmy Kimmel Live talk and variety show. As musicians at all levels know, our “work” situations often vary: a jazz bar at a bistro one night, a gig with an R&B singer at an ultra-chic club the next, and a rock cover gig at a restaurant the next—maybe even a three-month run with a diva through Canada, or with a blues band in Europe. So, Jimmy Kimmel Live and its seven and a half year run thus far has been a godsend—a “regular gig” that has lasted far longer than most would have anticipated.
As you may have read from my late-night keyboard playing colleague Scott Healy in past Session Sensei columns in the pages of Keyboard, the challenges and surprises of a nightly comedy/variety show never cease to test our musical boundaries. As a keyboard player, the hot seat often becomes mine. We have these keyboards that can recreate virtually any sound imaginable these days, so when a comedy bit requires “Indiana Jones” type John Williams scoring, often I'm thos one who's called on to be the entire orchestra, or when there is a barbecue demonstration, I’m called upon to score with a banjo patch. Because of this variety, there is rarely anything “regular” about this gig!
Sunday, May 23 was the series finale of the hugely popular ABC program, Lost. Our host, Jimmy, has been a big fan of Lost since its debut in 2004. Therefore, we’ve had lotsof Lost tie-ins with our program over the years. For example, during Lost’s second season, we actually would have a “hatch” onstage, and each week, a surprise guest would pop out of it. Highlights included Charo and Emmanuel Lewis!
So when a special Sunday taping of Jimmy Kimmel Live was announced, and then it was explained this show would be a special “Aloha To ‘Lost’,” I wasn’t terribly surprised. The first surprise would arrive with the email that announced, “Some of the members of the Lost orchestra will be sitting in with the band, along with conductor Michael Giacchino.” Hmmm! We’ve had “sit-in” guests before—from Edgar Winter to Hank Williams Jr. to George Benson to Air Supply, but “orchestra members”?? How would our little “house band” integrate with members of a “legit” orchestra, we wondered.
When Cleto Escobedo III, our bandleader, began corresponding with Michael Giacchino (who is, in fact, the composer for Lost, as well as the Oscar- winning composer for the hit animated movie Up), we immediately learned how cool and down-to-earth he is. The correspondence and later meetings with Michael and his team proved that this would be a pleasant experience.
We began receiving MP3 files and Sibelius charts for this special show a few weeks ago from Mr. Giacchino’s remarkably helpful assistant, Andrea. Some of this stuff might be challenging! Also, we received a list of songs for bumper use. “Bumpers” are the songs heard in and out of commercial breaks, which the in-studio audience hears during those breaks. These came right from the well-known producers of Lost, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindeloff. These songs were somehow related to the show—my admittedly not following the show closely explains my lack of clarity with these connections; I know that some were based on Giachinno's cues, and others were songs in scenes where someone played music on a turntable in the actual show, but beyond that, I was “lost” for sure!
Soon, we learned of the orchestra members we’d be adding to the usual “Cletones” for this show. All of them were A-list Hollywood studio players, such as trombonists Bill Reichenbach, Alex Iles and Alan Kaplan, harpist Gayle Levant, and percussion legend Emil Richards. This would be fun!
I began looking at Mr. Giacchino’s charts last week, and was mortified to discover a cue called “Parting Words,” which was full of written-out classical passages throughout, with very busy runs in both hands. I spent a total of two and a half hours practicing the stuff before text-messaging Cleto with the plea, “r u sure we’re playing this song cos its gonna take a lot of work!! :(“ . Here’s the deal with that: we often spend a ton of time prepping for difficult music, only to learn the show is not going to use any of this music (for example, due to other things like video clips taking up the available show time), so I wanted to be clear! Sure enough, we skipped the busy classical piano intro and went directly to the “meat” of the tune, with the guitar melody. Whew! But the lesson is to be prepared either way. Had I not looked at the music ahead of time, I may have had a very, very unwelcome surprise.
We had an “orchestra” rehearsal on the Wednesday before the show. It went smoothly, and again, Michael G. was incredibly respectful, kind, fun, and talented. The guys (and gal) were all pro.
After rehearsal, I took it upon myself to utilize the expanded band/orchestra by arranging the requested “bumper” songs for the new, large Cletones orchestra. It was fun arranging Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and Mama Cass’ “Make Your Own Kind of Music” for a trombone section! (I do all of that copyist work on Sibelius, incidentally. Sure beats the days when I was mis-transposing alto sax parts myself!) I worked a couple of late nights to get the charts right.
Then it was Sunday, the day of the taping. The band had been fitted for our “Dharma Initiative” jumpsuits, and we were ready. We had a very truncated rehearsal (our hour of music rehearsal had morphed into a half-hour rehearsal which included the rehearsal in front of the cameras), where I did my best to balance keyboard and trombone duties myself (After all, three trombones aren’t enough! Bring on four!) My Korg M50 came in handy for some drone-y type sounds, and the “sad piano,” complete with reverb, came from the Korg SV-1. (Michael had explained that for anything sad, the music would be a mournfully played C major to E minor, so that I could handle!)
All of the new expanded bumper charts came out great! This big band really sounded amazing, and Michael and Andrea, as well as Cleto, seemed very happy.
The hard work was done. We all stomped through the sand and made some music! Mission accomplished!