Guitarist Harold Fethe makes his recording debut as a leader on Out Of Nowhere but he is no mere beginner. After starting his music career as a youth, he took 25 years off to work as an executive in the biotech industry. Since his return to music in the late 1990s, he has regained his playing abilities and built upon them, with the sensitivity of one who has experienced much in life and loves to play music more than ever.
"Originally I was only going to record a few tunes with Johnny Frigo and Joe Vito," remembers the guitarist, "but the band took on a personality of its own and we decided to have it be a full CD by itself. Those guys are so witty and such great human beings in addition to being such talented players. It is almost like inviting guests to a great dinner who all have something interesting to say." Recorded during two trips to Chicago, Harold Fethe teams up with 87-year old violinist Johnny Frigo, Joe Vito (who doubles on piano and accordion) and bassist Jim Cox who is best known for his association with Marian McPartland. Frigo and Vito played every Monday night as a duo at a Chicago restaurant for 17 years and Fethe had an opportunity to sit in with them. "Although I'm not exactly a kid, it was an honor to perform with players who already had 50-year careers as musicians. Joe Vito's solos are full of exuberance, and bristling with witty musical quotes and references. Johnny Frigo's natural way of living and playing combines seeming opposites - virtuosity and vulnerability - so that his playing has emotional immediacy, almost independently of the song or setting. And I purposely asked Jim Cox to solo frequently because he is such a fine player. Overall 'Out Of Nowhere' is a musical dialog in the tradition of classical small-ensemble jazz."
With one exception, all of the songs on Out Of Nowhere are veteran standards, but most of the performances contain a surprising twist or two. "We started off with 'Out Of Nowhere' so it could serve as a straightahead tune for us to get comfortable with each other. My producer Charles Steadham suggested that we call the CD 'Out Of Nowhere' since I was starting a new career." Each of the musicians has their opportunities to solo, with Fethe introducing the song and Frigo taking the closing chorus.
Fethe's one original of the set, "Cuenca Mercado," translates to mean a marketplace in Cuenca, a small town in Ecuador. The charming number, which utilizes the chord changes of "Autumn Leaves," has a Latin feel and some atmospheric accordion from Vito. "I wanted to play 'Take The 'A' Train' as a waltz but Johnny wasn't sure. I said I'd gotten the idea from a Duke Ellington, who late in his careerplayed 'A' Train in 3/4 time, we tried it and it worked." A swinging version of "There Is No Greater Love," which is highlighted by a witty piano solo, precedes a warm version of Johnny Frigo's most famous composition, "Detour Ahead." Joanie Pallatto's voice is tender and very expressive.
"It Might As Well Be Spring" begins as a guitar-piano duet and it retains the thoughtful and melodic mood during all of the mostly out-of-tempo performance. "You And The Night And The Music" is given an unusual and innovative interpretation, being performed as a tango with Vito on accordion and Jim Cox using his bow throughout. "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise" is taken at a relaxed medium-tempo pace and has fine solos all around. "For 'You Are My Sunshine,' I was thinking of guitarist Bill Frisell, who performs a lot of tunes that are not jazz standards but turns them into jazz. At the start of this piece, I wanted a free-form dialogue with Jim Cox where we have a conversation with each other." The dialogue both opens and closes the country-tinged version which has some haunting playing along the way.
"September In The Rain" is another solid swinger. "The structure of this song is so strong that we did not need to change anything." The funky "This Masquerade" features a return appearance by Joanie Pallatto and a soulful guitar solo from the leader. The closer is a highly infectious version of the ancient standard "Alexander's Ragtime Band."
Harold Fethe was born in the later years of World War II. and he remembers hearing his mother play records by sentimental big band vocalists. "I was trained on piano and learned to read music but it was the guitar that grabbed me and got me practicing two or three hours a day. Rock and roll came around when I was in junior high school." As a teenager, Fethe performed with musicians who went on to have careers in Roy Orbison's group and Classics IV, a pop-rock band. Although he mostly played rock during this period, Fethe discovered jazz when a copy of Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue got left in a car traded in at his father's car dealership. "I knew what the blues progression was but on that record it was so impressionistic that I had to listen and listen to it over and over again until I really understood and appreciated it. It inspired me to try to play jazz."
Harold Fethe majored in literature at the University Of Florida but spent his nights playing with rock bands at fraternities before settling into a four night a week engagement as the only white musician at a black club (Sarah's) in Gainesville. At Sarah's he had the opportunity to play both jazz and soul music.
However after moving to California, his career took a different turn. Fethe largely stopped playing music and instead worked for 30 years at the ALZA Corporation, becoming its Senior Vice President. "I was basically retired from music from the early 1970s until the mid-1990s. At that time I became a founding member of the swing revival band Indigo Swing. The band had so much early success that Johnny Boyd, the singer, had to recruit a full-time band, and went on to tour and play 200 dates a year. I liked my day job and did not want to leave it. However in 2002 when I retired, I became a fulltime musician."
Since that time, Harold Fethe has played both jazz and rock throughout the San Francisco Bay area, attended the Stanford Jazz Workshop annually, and studied privately with guitarists Rick Vandivier, Ed Johnson and John Stowell.
"I enjoy taking a tune that has a personality and re-interpreting it in a surprising way. An archetype of that was Ray Charles, who could take a famous song and make it his own, giving it his own flavor. I'm not trying to be a blistering chops monster guitar player. Instead, I'm after musicality, playing music tastefully with swing."
"Harold Fethe's long overdue debut succeeds on all levels and is a consistent delight, making one hope that his 'second career' is a lengthy one."
— Scott Yanow,
Author of nine books on jazz including Jazz On Film, Trumpet Kings