It’s like everything else in life.
You make friends in elementary school, start a band, go off to different high schools and then to different lives in different places.
But for Jeff Alan Ross and Joseph Martin Waters, who separately found relative fame and fortune respectively as Badfinger band member/Peter Asher bandleader and music composer/professor at San Diego State University, fate brought them back together after 45 years.
Actually, they “reconnected through a fluke,” according to Ross, who served in Badfinger in the 1980s and sings that band’s classic “Day After Day” in Asher’s acclaimed show Peter Asher: A Musical Memoir Of The ‘60s And Beyond, Featuring The Music Of Peter and Gordon.
It turns out that a New York fan of Asher fortuitously discovered that both he and Ross hailed from Madison, Wis., and that Ross had been in a band with then mutual 14-year-old pal Waters—now professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State, in addition to being founder/composer/conductor/programmer of avant-garde classical ensemble Swarmius. Re-establishing contact, Waters invited guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Ross--who now lives in Los Angeles—to participate in his annual NWEAMO (Nurture Wonder Evolving Arts & Music Organization) Festival in March in San Diego as part of Swarmius.
“We tried to remember the last time we played together, and 1968 or ‘69 was as close as we could come,” said Ross, at a restaurant near Carnegie Hall the day of Asher’s Wednesday night show at New York's Cutting Room.
“But we couldn’t remember the name of the band!”
Ross played bass and guitar at the Swarmius show, and since he also vocalized, he chose the band name of Voxiamus (Waters goes by Jozefius Rattus in the whimsically Latinized-named band). Besides playing Waters’ compositions, he worked up a Swarmius version of “Day After Day” and sang his own new song, “The Crossing.”
“It was so easy sitting with him and exchanging ideas--truly one of the best collaborative experiences I've ever had,” said Ross. “The festival was also eye opening. The musicians that come to work with him are world class. But as I said at the show, their virtuosity is exceeded only by their generosity of spirit.”
“What was also interesting about the whole thing was that the concert was at First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, where one of the teen members had died in a car accident a few days before,” marveled Ross. “I wrote ‘The Crossing’ about when my dog passed away and moved into the next level, and even though it’s happy music, ‘Day After Day’ is kind of depressing. So they were perfect songs for the congregation, especially as we did two Sunday shows for them in order to use the church for the main Saturday night festival concert."
As for Waters’ music, it was a far cry from what Ross usually plays.
“One of his songs was kind of new age or classical electronic, and then he did ‘Raccoons in the Pool,’ which was a total avant-garde instrumental, scored for xylophone, violin, melodica, panpipes, and electronic instruments—and was all created from sounds recorded underwater! I don’t know what to call it, but there’s a whole world just blocks from here [at Carnegie Hall] where that’s what people do: All these composers writing avant-garde orchestral pieces, and what Joe is doing was completely invigorating and opened me up to thinking differently about what I might want to do musically—that there are whole other ways of doing music than what I’m used to.”
While Ross had thought of doing an acoustic act to supplement his work with Asher, his exposure to Waters’ inventiveness has given him new ideas.
“Back in Madison we were always experimenting, and talking about having a pop music band or unusual ensembles featuring instruments like cello, oboe and French horn--and that’s what Joe’s actually doing, again, with world-class musicians. Now I’m thinking it’s something I’d really like to do, maybe something not unlike Elvis Costello did with the Brodsky Quartet.”
As for his actual reunion with Waters, “it was like no time had passed,” said Ross, “and a very transformative experience.”
“We’re 60-year-old men but it was like we were 14 again!” he said. “There is that essence of what makes us who we are, and it hasn’t really changed. We realized that the reason we stopped hanging out together was that we went to different high schools and that there was never any angry breakup. All the things we used to like about hanging out together, it was all there--every bit of it. He’s still such a passionate artist and human being, with the same passion for everything he’s involved with.”
Contacted in San Diego, Waters recalled how he had been preparing for NWEAMO, and when one of the Swarmius artists dropped out at the last moment, “it hit me like a bolt of lightning to ask Jeff if he would consider having a couple of his pieces performed by Swarmius at the festival.”
“To my delight, Jeff was as thrilled about the idea as I was, and came down to San Diego and spent a couple of days with me and we did a basic arrangement of ‘Day After Day,’ and then I spent the next week day and night transcribing and arranging ‘The Crossing’ for Swarmius. When Voxiamus made the trip down from L.A. for the concert, it was just like we were 14-year-olds still in the rock band--with this utterly strange and wonderful Rip Van Winkle-like sensibility that we had been continuously doing this, but somehow 45 years had passed between band rehearsals! It's unlike anything else I have ever experienced--such a joyous and loving trip--in the oldest and most uncliched sense of the word.”
Recalling the gig itself, Ross noted, “I can get extremely emotional if I’m touched deeply, and when we were playing on stage and Joe was in front conducting and triggering stuff on his computer, I remembered that it was exactly what he used to do way back then. He was so into it, and it was so touching that it was hard to fight back the tears.”
And to top it all off, Ross was treated as one of the Swarmii.
“Working with Peter changed my life, not only musically, but I realized that there was someone in the music business who does everything straightforward and above board, and treats everybody with respect,” concluded Ross. “And with Swarmius, I was treated as an artist on the same level as these highly-educated, world-class players—and made some lifelong friends besides reuniting with an old one.”
[The Examiner went to high school with Joseph Martin Waters.]
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