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photo: Chris Shields

All About Music
By Shawn Stone

Performer, arranger, session man, educator: Lincoln Mayorga has had a rich and varied career crossing musical boundaries, and he’s not about to stop

‘I don’t know if the Bee Gees would be insulted, or Brahms would.” The audience in Schenectady County Community College’s Carl B. Taylor Auditorium last week (March 15) laughed heartily at pianist Lincoln Mayorga’s comment. They had laughed even harder a few moments before, when Mayorga played a passage of a Johannes Brahms piece: first, as originally written in all its 19th-century glory; then, as if it were a ragtime number; and, finally, in a form appropriate for disco- dancing circa 1978.

It was a good joke, and, at the same time, made a useful point about similarities in form among—and easy adaptability between—different genres of Western music. Just before the “disco Brahms,” Mayorga played a dance piece by Franz Schubert twice—once straight, and then as it might have been influenced by American music.

“What keeps it from being an American dance,” he explains, “is syncopation.” (In other words, what keeps it from being “American” is the absence of the African-American contribution.) The second time through, he ragged the Schubert up into something “a hop, skip and jump from something American.”

And it didn’t sound funny; it sounded like a perfectly lovely ragtime number.

For Lincoln Mayorga, the connections between different kinds of music are more interesting than the differences.

The concert was presented as part of a weeklong artist-in-residence program sponsored by the Schenectady County Community College music department, and initiated by SCCC piano instructor Mark Evans. The concert, and an earlier lecture-performance in a classroom setting, were the public part of Mayorga’s time at SCCC; mostly, however, Mayorga worked with the music students in a variety of settings, from private and small-group sessions to a more formal, master-class setting.

“I was able to coach kids in everything from Bach, Schumann and Chopin, to original jazz compositions they had written, to standards and bebop tunes, to the Claude Bolling Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio.”

Asked about the residency, and how the SCCC students measured up, Mayorga is enthusiastic: “The level [of playing] was quite high and the students were very bright, involved and appreciative.”

It was, he explains, a heartening experience, and put the lie to the idea that the contemporary pop world has somehow “poisoned” young musicians’ interest in classical or jazz music.

“I loved it, and would do it again in a heartbeat,” he explains, adding that “Schenectady County Community College is a very nice school.”

If you’re wondering what he had to offer the students, this is probably a good time to review the particulars of Mayorga’s distinguished career.

As he remembered in his public lecture, “There was an industry to step into when I started.” The opportunities available to a professional musician, he explained, included pop and classical session work, commercial jingles, and movie music. The Los Angeles-born and -raised (he graduated from Hollywood High School) pianist-composer has been a professional musician since the late 1950s. Before he turned 20, he had, as pianist-arranger for the Four Preps, been a part of a top-10 group and received a large enough royalty check—the princely sum of $5,000, a nice chunk of change in 1959 dollars—that his mother, who preferred he pursue a career in classical music, decided that playing pop tunes wasn’t such a terrible thing.

He went to work for Walt Disney Studios in 1966 at age 29 (just after Walt died, in fact), and was staff pianist for 15 years. At Disney, he performed on the soundtracks of such animated or partially animated classics as Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Robin Hood and Pete’s Dragon; and on the less than classic—but fondly remembered, if you were a kid in the 1970s—Kurt Russell live-action series. (Remember The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes?) And Splash.

At the same time, he had the opportunity to work with some of the best-known (and greatest) composers of film music, including John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and David Raksin; he also played on the soundtracks of such non-Disney films as Harold & Maude, Chinatown and The Competition, and accompanied Bette Midler on her recording of the theme from The Rose.

No, he didn’t actually meet the Divine Miss M; in a sign of the then-changing times, Mayorga recorded his track separately—a far cry from the formerly live-in-the-studio nature of recording in the 1950s and early ’60s.

Oh, and then there is his career as a session musician. From the 1960s through the ’80s, Mayorga recorded in just about every genre of pop music imaginable, working with such disparate luminaries as Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, Andy Williams, the Association, Johnny Mathis and Frank Zappa.

He even made a few albums with protest singer Phil Ochs in the mid-1960s. Ochs, it seems, was particularly fond of Mayorga’s piano style. At one point during Mayorga’s lecture-performance at SCCC, he played Ochs’ hit “A Small Circle of Friends”; when something went wrong with the playback, and the channel with his piano track dropped out, Mayorga sat down at the piano and played along with the record—almost perfectly. (It was a lot of fun watching the SCCC music students react to this.)

As previously suggested, he’s had quite a career.

The SCCC experience points at one direction Mayorga is moving toward: He is actively working to expand his educational activities.

With his wife, singer and folk-music scholar Sheri Bauer-Mayorga, and L’Ensemble artistic director Ida Faiella, Mayorga is developing the Living American Music Institute. Designed for music students, LAMI will be an orientation to American music.

“I have written a general proposal in broad strokes. The idea,” Mayorga says, “is to do an in-depth study of music from the American perspective.”

It would cover the full spectrum, from the earliest folk music, the earliest concert music of the 19th century, the popular songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the “high quality” pop standards of the 20th century, theatrical songs, jazz and spirituals, “in a way,” Mayorga explains, “that is not covered in most schools.”

“The idea would be to start it off with summer workshops,” he says. Ultimately, the goal is to expand it into a complete curriculum. “I’m looking for corporate sponsorship—we want to start small but think big with this project.”

New Mexico State University and Southern Vermont College both are interested in hosting LAMI programs. There is also interest at SCCC. Mayorga is eager to launch this effort as soon as possible.

“We have to educate—we have to keep the audiences growing, alive and young,” Mayorga says. “We have such a rich musical culture.”

Another of his active pursuits is getting his piano concerto, Angels’ Flight, recorded by a major American symphony orchestra. Preferably, he says, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Writing it, he explains, “was sort of my Hollywood catharsis,” after the lifelong Californian relocated to Columbia County. He played a recorded portion of it at his SCCC lecture—the music was both striking and haunting. It is, he says, a “tribute to the cinematic style” of music writing, with broad romantic themes and tense, discordant passages suggesting the problems that typify today’s Los Angeles.

Where did the title of the piece come from?

“Angels’ Flight was a funicular railroad in downtown Los Angeles,” he explains. Built in 1902, it connected the downtown shopping district with the residential area above it, and was dismantled in 1969 to make way for urban renewal. (In other words, they razed the neighborhood to build office towers.)

“I was with my wife in L.A., and I had just finished writing the piece,” he remembers. “We were walking around downtown, and I said it was right around here where the original Angels’ Flight was. . . . and Sheri pointed up and said, ‘look Lincoln.’ ”

There was, it seemed to them, a sort of an apparition in the air, as if we they had conjured a ghost train out of their imaginations. But no, it was real: The city had finally reconstructed the Angels’ Flight, and that night in 2001, he says, they were “having a trial run.”

“It was like a dream, the serendipity of it. It was like being 4 years old again.”

An accident closed the Angels’ Flight a couple of years later, but, according to a Web site dedicated to the railroad, it will reopen later this year. Hopefully, Mayorga’s Angels’ Flight will reach the public just as soon.

Mayorga still maintains an ambitious concert schedule. He will perform a mixed program of classical and film music with L’Ensemble at the Egg this Sunday (March 26), and another L’Ensemble concert on April 30, when he will debut a new work inspired by New Orleans and based on a memoir by Louis Armstrong. (“The text is really charming,” he says. “It’s all Louis Armstrong’s own words.”) On April 2, at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (at 73rd Street) in New York City, Mayorga will perform the original Paul Whiteman Orchestra version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Harmonie Ensemble, under the direction of conductor Steve Richman.

He’s having too much fun to slow down.


No Rough Mix this week

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