Strange Fellowe: The Bellowes

posted by Hitomi Oba, composer

Any artistic endeavor seems to inevitably face the challenge of balancing ambitious dreams with the blunt practicality. Shortly after embarking upon our collaborative venture with Jerome, Nick and I  experienced a production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Ahmanson Theater in LA. At the prompting of Jerome, we had been mulling over the idea of dual-role musician-actors, and this particular production excited us further. The cast was ultra-concise, with each character also playing a musical instrument as part of the band.

However, the demands required of a multiple-role figure became increasingly more apparent as we composed more music and Jerome developed the book. Where were we going to find musicians who could not only beautifully perform the music, but also sing and act? (No dancing requirements, at least…whew!)

So we gave up on this element of our work, and proceeded forward. Over the years,
the story has morphed and the characters taken shape. The instrumentation and band size has undergone changes and developed into the septet that will be presented in our upcoming staging of Act I. Once the staging in Los Angeles seemed like it would become a reality, Nick and I started to obsessively brainstorm ideas for whom to fill out our musicians’ roles.

During one particular drive up to the Bay Area along the I-5, Nick and I were enjoying such a brainstorm when it suddenly became clear that we could employ our original dual-role idea from years ago. The ‘Bellowes;’ the three, chorus-type, ghostly figures present throughout the opera; could be portrayed by three saxophonists; saxophonists whose playing we loved, who we knew could and would elegantly execute the the score, and could sing the single ‘Bellowes’ song in Act I.

It was a happy coincidence that this decision helped the financial practicality of the production, but more importantly, it strengthened the roles of the ‘Bellowes’ and in an undeniably unique fashion. That these three figures would be specifically saxophonists, served to tie into the core musical theme of the opera, originally played by a quartet of tenor saxophones.

The saxophonists making the realizing of this vision possible are outstanding musical colleagues and close friends of ours.

Remy Le Bouef’s friendship with Nick and I goes way back. If memory serves me correctly, Nick and I each met him independently when he was but a sophomore in high school through various jazz competitions and high school honor bands. Since then, he and his equally prolific brother, Pascal, have been collecting slews of awards for performance and composition, while regularly recording and touring internationally with their own group, the Le Bouef Brothers.  Much to our delight, Remy recently moved to Los Angeles after spending eight years out in New York, and we immediately lassoed him into our project as soon as we found out. His artistic integrity, professional skills, and focused enthusiasm make him a unique and invaluable asset.

Tim McKay and I were a part of the same Oakland jazz education scene growing up, so we have similar roots and our friendship spans years. Tim’s versatility and professionalism on saxophone and woodwinds have been earning him a huge amount of very diverse work in Los Angeles, including funk, jazz, indie rock, and salsa, to name only a few.  Tim is most notably an exceptional expert on the baritone saxophone, the saxophone that I (and many others) agree to be the trickiest of the lot. How Tim has grown together with his ‘bari’ to make it sound so effortlessly musical is beyond me. It’s no wonder he’s become such an in-demand musician since moving to L.A. a few years back. We are so fortunate that he is lending his professional talents and artistic energy to our music!

The role of the third ‘Bellowe’ will be played by myself (Hitomi). Throughout most of the
creative process, Nick, Jerome, and I were aiming towards abstaining from active roles
onstage, in order to observe, enjoy, and learn from the work from the perspective of the audience. But once the idea took hold in our minds during that brainstorm up the lovely I-5, it became very matter-of-fact that I should participate as a saxophonist/singer/’Bellowe’.

And so it came to be that practicality and artistic vision came to be tied up so
beautifully and concisely in the form of the ‘Bellowes’. Ta-ttada-daaaaa—- (closing
fanfare).

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