Taking music seriously (this time)
The Beyman Bros
“Memories of Summer as a Child”
A funny thing happened on the way to this latest venture from master satirist Christopher Guest: He abandoned the punch line.
Guest’s work as a songwriter, musician, writer and director -- “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Waiting for Guffman” and “A Mighty Wind,” among other film and television projects -- has been so gloriously, hilariously straight-faced that fans will be forgiven if they go looking for the joke.
Despite such deadpan-ready song titles as “Tulong,” “Man of La Mantra” and “Hartland” and the whimsical pseudo-autobiographical liner notes, the Beyman Bros’ music is for real. Multi-instrumentalist Guest is joined by guitarist and longtime friend David Nichtern and their keyboard-wielding recruit CJ Vanston in exploratory, mostly acoustic instrumentals that are more New Age than Newgrass.
In those liner notes, Guest jokingly describes the music as “Celtic/Rodeo, or Tyrolean/Sephardic,” but in a recent interview, he said he prefers to think of it as “transportive. That’s maybe a better term than ‘a sleeping aid’. . . . The intention wasn’t to make people fall asleep, [and] it’s not supposed to be mystical.”
Guest handles mandolin, guitar, lap steel and clarinet; Nichtern acoustic, electric and slide guitars; and Vanston keyboards, synthesizers and accordion in relaxed give-and-take sessions full of democratic improvisational turns. There’s little in the way of instrumental fireworks, just free-ranging exchanges in which the players challenge one another imaginatively and melodically.
Guest says the music grew out of casual sessions he’s had for years in his kitchen whenever New York-based Nichtern came to visit.
“David has a couple of labels in New York City primarily doing things for yoga and meditation,” Guest said. “About two years ago, he had a piece on one of his albums and asked me to do a part on it . . . . That was kind of the beginning of what this would become.”
What began as something of an exercise in “acoustic meditation music” shifted “when I brought in CJ, who had been the keyboard player in Spinal Tap,” Guest said. “He took it in a different direction, a good direction. Then I started playing clarinet when he was playing guitar, and the voicings got more interesting for me.”
Most of the music was recorded in a matter of about a week, he said, much of it improvised in the studio.
“It’s difficult to articulate how that’s done, but it’s not unlike the films I direct,” he said. “The cast doesn’t have lines written down, but they know what the scene is, what the overall story is, and they don’t go off in a direction that isn’t pertinent.”
The Beyman Bros might or might not surface live -- Guest is waiting to see if there’s a real audience for the music.
“We wondered whether it would be viable to do some shows,” he said. “The way we put it together, we can’t emulate it with just the three of us. We did a couple of [the songs] live in David’s office and put together a band with Lee Sklar on bass and another percussionist. . . . It took a seven-person band to re-create what we had done.”