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Noel Paul Stookey takes us back and forth with Fazz, Now and Then

Paul of Peter and Mary fame returns with an eclectic, and excellent, collection of old and new.
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Ask Noel Paul Stookey - the Paul in Peter, Paul and Mary - what “Fazz” means, and initially he’ll tell you it’s the title of his new album. And more than that, for Fazz: Now & Then, released through his own NeWorld Multimedia label, is a genuinely remarkable record, a collection that not only refuses to sit still for a moment, it’s adamant that listeners won’t want to, either.

Press a little harder, however, and the whole tale comes out. How, once upon a long time ago, Peter, Paul and Mary were sent out on tour with the Dave Brubeck Quartet (and you thought Jimi Hendrix opening for the Monkees was a mismatch!). During the course of which, nightly, it fell to the headliners’ saxophonist, Paul Desmond, to introduce the three folkies to his audience.

It was not a task he took lightly. Stookey reflects, “I think Paul felt rather uncomfortable sharing the stage with people who he assumed knew only three chords on the guitar, so he said ‘I don’t know whether to call their music ‘Fazz’ or ‘Jolk.’ We all knew which he preferred.”

Stookey, on the other hand, took the other one to his heart. “Fazz. It’s such a great word.” It’s also a very appropriate one, not only for the new record, but for his career in general.

Growing up, Stookey explains, “I listened to a lot of doo-wop and black music. When I was in high school, I had a rock group called the Birds of Paradise.” And when he was one-third of one of the biggest folk bands in history, “I was going to Randalls Island to hear the jazz festival, because my favorite musicians at the time were Charlie Byrd, who played classical jazz guitar, and the Brubeck Quartet, who had a sense of propriety when it came to improvisation because they could work in counterpoint.

“They could work with all the same devices that Bach and Handl had used, and that was genius music to me.” Indeed, he still declares “the most pivotal album for me was Dave Digs Disney [1957]. Sure I liked Time Out [1959], but Dave Digs Disney was taking common themes from Disney movies and translating them into this give-and-take that Brubeck and Desmond had, that was particularly lovely.”

And what does this have to do with either Peter, Paul and Mary or his new album? Because… “and not to wax too much about give-and-take, but I was asked the other day when I knew that Peter, Paul and Mary were magic and I realized that it was the way we approached singing.

“There was a sensitivity to each other’s voice. Now, I recognize that’s difficult for someone who’s not done part singing before, a soloist at an opera, say. But Peter, Mary and I almost immediately understood this was a give and take process, so we sang sensitively with each other, and that translated to our personal interaction on stage as well. In fact, I think that’s to a large extent what the audience ultimately came to see and hear; three people who were willing to concede to each other a portion of their ownership of the moment.

“Many of the arrangements demonstrated that. Every decision we made was in service to the lyric, and I liked that about what we did. If only one of us had a solo line and the others were singing background, we made sure the background didn’t obscure the solo line, and would in fact enhance the meaning and the message.

“That application lives with you even when you’re doing your solo work, or at least it has with me, especially with Fazz. I was very judicious about deciding where to bring in other instruments.”

Fazz: Now & Then is of course a solo project, but it was by no means a solo undertaking. Across twenty songs, a variety of guests drop in, among them gospel great Theresa Thomason, of whom Stookey marvels, “She knocked it out of the park. The greatest challenge for me singing with Theresa was to restrain myself because it’s one thing to provide counterpoint with her, it’s another thing to try and match her. Some of the licks that she sang… quite honestly she could have sung the song [‘In Reverence’] herself, but hey, it’s my album.”

It was also his arrangement. “I adored having the opportunity to take David Mann’s tune and taking it from the big band song that he had, into basically a gospel tune.

The album itself is a purposefully mixed bag. “I was looking for new songs that were moving, and then realized that part of the reason I was an odd folkie even when I toured with Peter, Paul & Mary was because I was always bringing these alternate chords to the musical framework. And it’s about time I exposed them for being what they are, which is my attempt to give the songs some emotional depth through the choice of the backing chords. Folk music is not always known for its backing chords!”

Fazz: Now & Then is purposefully divided into two parts, the Now and Then of the title. Beginning with the Now, the dozen songs that open the show certainly highlight this eclecticism, ranging as they do from half a dozen Stookey originals, including the Bossa Nova-styled ”This Song (Bahai Skies),” and onto Willie Nile’s “Under This Roof” and James Dana Beloff’s “Charles Ives,” achingly and, of course, appropriately, string-driven. Ives was one of the finest American classical composers of the early 20th century.

There's also the hilarious "Fun Police," which comes complete with a video that Stookey describes as being at least partly influenced by old Monty Python episodes. Watch it yourself and you'll see what he means.

Another favorite is Stookey’s own “Love with a Capital L.” “We all have our little sense of what ‘love’ means, because we see it reflected in the people around us who care for us, and in opportunities to do good for other people. But I think quite often its considerably larger than just our attempt to duplicate it.”

Also intriguing is the link between that song, and one of those that make up the Then part of the album, eight songs dedicated to the archives. “When I first thought about doing ‘The Water Is Wide,” I was ‘oh, I’m not going to include that, it’s such an old folk tune.” But I love the additional verse that I wrote, and I can hear in the timbre of my voice that I was missing my wife when I sang it.

“It comes out of my spiritual reawakening in the 70s and the searching, as I think we all do when we have a moving experience like that, for the language that translates it to other people without putting them off. And that’s what ‘Love with a Capital L’ is all about.”

He dug back into his personal past for “Long Lonely Night,” recorded back in 1961 when Stookey was searching for a publishing deal - and one listen to the guitar playing confirms everything he says about his love of odd chords and the like. “Wonderwhy”is an instrumental recorded during a Peter, Paul & Mary tour of Japan, and features Stookey’s koto playing; “God Bless the Child” is a bluesy strum through Billie Holiday; and the closing “The Lady Says” is a joyful showcase for his scat singing abilities, recorded live on concert.

“The album is a bit of a reach for me,” he admits, “but at my age, I’m glad I have that length of reach. We had tremendous fun doing it, even though we had to overcome distances, obviously. And I have to say, I was very thankful for the opportunity to do my guitar parts and the basis of most of these arrnagements without anybody else in the room, because I hate to waste good musicians’ time.

“At the age of 84 my brain and my fingers are not always as coordinated as they used to be, so there were some pieced-together takes from tunes that I was very pleased to have already recorded by the time these other. musicians had a chance to add their parts.”

Don’t worry, Noel. It doesn’t show.

So, where to get this remarkable CD? The bad news is, it’s not officially released until March 22. The good news is, personally autographed copies of Fazz: Now & Then are now available directly from Stookey’s website (www.noelpaulstookey.com) until that same date. Even better, purchasers will also receive a unique link for access to Stookey’s ever-expanding online NPS audio/visual archive. Now and then in sound and vision!