If baseball were a musical instrument, what would it be?

When I was starting the film, I knew music was going to be very important to fuel the personality of the film and a key component to story-telling. Settling for “needle drop” stock music wasn’t an option from a creative perspective.  Then it hit me.

A few years ago, my friend Phil Bloch, a man who makes his living as a drummer, percussionist, and music producer, was forming a unique group with a dynamic pianist, Rick Solem.  The two were steeped in American Roots music with a bent toward Louisiana/New Orleans-style blues. I ended up producing and directing a series of music videos of them playing together at “The Alley”, a storied Los Angeles rehearsal studio dripping with history and vibe.  They ended up calling their group, “Shakedown Mambo”.

One of my interests outside of baseball is music, and I play guitar and sing in a local blues band, The Bluez Express.  The more I thought about the musical score for the film, one instrument emerged as the voice of baseball: piano.  The piano and Shakedown Mambo’s roots vibe seemed a perfect fit for the film.

Phil and Rick liked the idea of scoring music for the film. We commenced with a series of real-time composing sessions, where I would tell them what the music was supposed to convey in a variety of contexts. Rick sat at an old upright with beautiful tone, while Phil provided a beat on his djembe to produce temp tracks for editing. The film ended up with 45 music cues, comprised of a gorgeous main title theme, chapter music, underscoring, and a smokin’ end title piece. The music worked magnificently from the first moment I dropped it into the film.

We spent about a year conceiving the score for the film.  I loved that piano was the featured instrument, and Rick’s playing was so evocative. But there was a hitch. Typically, one doesn’t record the musical score until the picture editing is locked and finished.  Phil needed to have surgery on his shoulder that couldn’t wait, and I was three months from locking picture.  The project had been pretty unorthodox from the get-go, so this development was par for the course.  We hunched over a crystal ball and put together a game plan that was practical and minimized risk.

Enter: Grandma’s Warehouse.  Phil had done a lot of work there with it’s owner/operator, Andrew Bush, and they’d developed a shorthand working together on a number of projects, notably Shakedown Mambo’s first record.  Andrew climbed aboard, and we started recording the score in late April.  Grandma’s Warehouse is located in Echo Park, containing a studio and control booth where Andrew spins the dials to great effect. The room had a fantastic sound and was filled with sexy high-end microphones, a huge grand piano, and tons of vibe. Only one piece was missing: baseball mojo. I remedied this by bringing three vintage baseball cards to the session: Rick got Jim “Mudcat” Grant (the first African-American to notch 20 wins in a season in the American League) and put it on his piano, Phil got Detroit slugger Willie Horton in the drum room, and Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner adorned the mixing table. Now we’re ready!

Shakedown invited a guest musician to the party: guitarist TJ “Thelonius James” Sullivan.  TJ played mandolin on a cue involving Tommy Lasorda, electric guitar for a rock and roll piece, and a beautifully warm nylon string guitar for one of the film’s chapter titles. I was invited to play some guitar on the tracks, but wisely declined, leaving matters to those with greater proficiency.

One of the most amazing pieces of music they created was the “End Title” score. I told them I wanted this piece to be a big, festive party celebrating all that had come before it.  Phil started it with a military-style march on his snare drum, and Rick jumped in for a thrilling three-minute workout on the 88s.  These guys had contributed so much to the film, I wanted to do something special for them. Long ago, I had seen Lindsay Anderson’s film, “O Lucky Man”, whose score was produced by the Animals’ keyboardist, Alan Price.  At the end of the film, Anderson showed Price and the band playing the score on screen, which I thought was pretty hip.  Taking that cue, I set up two cameras in the recording studio to capture Phil and Rick performing the cue so I could show them playing in sync to the track as their credits rolled. It worked like a charm.

I finally got my chance to be part of the recording when Phil needed to do a big cymbal shimmer as part of the main title theme.  Problem was, he didn’t have this cymbal stand with him, and I was pressed into service as an inanimate object. I was given a drum stick, a set of headphones and told to do my best imitation of a statue.  Phil placed the cymbal on the stick and we did a few takes.  I’m proud to state my debut as a studio musician went flawlessly.

Phil and Andrew waved their magic wands over the music mix and mastering and delivered it in time for me to place it into the final locked picture cut.  The end result is a rich, evocative score that helps to tell the story. I cannot thank Rick, Phil, Andrew and TJ enough for the tremendous contribution they made to Not Exactly Cooperstown.

Visit Shakedown Mambo’s website at: http://www.shakedownmambo.com

Check out the music videos I did with them at: http://www.shakedownmambo.com/2012/01/older-videos-posted-to-youtube/

Grandma’s Warehouse: http://grandmaswarehouse.com/

TJ Sullivan: http://www.tjsullivanmusic.com/ImageImageImage