A little over a decade ago it was my extreme good fortune to be hired to perform in a tribute to Ira Gershwin. Crafted by the very brilliant Rex Reed, produced by the equally brilliant Deborah Grace Winer, our merry band was to sing a roster of songs penned by Ira. A fellow named Tedd Firth was to be our Music Director. I’d not heard of him, nor I’m sure he me…little did I know the day I turned up for my first rehearsal with Tedd that my life was about to change…for the better. Nice guy, cheery, young enough to be my son and I’m going to say a bit bashful was also amongst my first impressions. Bashful that is until he set his hands to the piano keys. What unfolded was stunning. He moved through the music like no pianist I’d heard. Facile, swift, surprising, smart…he didn’t just play a tune well, he electrified, illuminated and elevated it.
Over the course of that production I got to see him take each singer on, molding the arrangements to each of our keys, styles, likes and quirks. The result was an evening of musical dips and turns, heft and delights. The result was also that all of us wanted to be glued to his musical talents going forward. Fortunately for me I wormed my way into his busy schedule and since then I’ve had the life privilege of working with him on several concerts a year and (unabashed plug here), three CD’s.
He’s an extremely disciplined person. Rehearsals are always jovial, always focused. He arrives ready. He moves with ease between solo performances and conducting multiple musicians. On rare occasion after a show he’ll linger for one beer and one beer only. More often than not he retires immediately and rises early for a run…no matter the weather….December in Michigan in a subzero blizzard/in an August Colorado swelter at 6000 feet above sea level. With a punishing work and travel schedule, this is how he keeps body, soul and family together. He lives his priorities and is universally admired for doing so.
There is not a time, be it rehearsal or performance but what I do not learn from him. Such is his standard. He invites the music out of the singers he works with by following, by leading and always by inspiring. He shows us what we are capable of. He has no ego…always has another take, another choice or nuance. I’ve never, not ever seen him just start to play. There’s a moment, a breath before he dives into a song…as if aligning his heart, his intuition with the tune to come. Most times just before a mid tune solo he quickly shifts position on the piano bench putting himself squarely enface with the keys as if starved and about to tuck into a meal, as if a high diver on the plank, as if a sprinter in the blocks…pick your metaphor. What follows is always true, always astonishing and never the same twice.
I asked him once how it is he decides to play what he plays when accompanying one of the many, many singers with whom he works? I wanted to know what drove those split second decisions to lift, back phrase, repeat or introduce the next musical phrase, play the hint of another tune that has a thematically connected lyric….and one of the many things he does, to play the subtext of the lyric? He said he follows the singer’s breath. So he folds into, not so much accompanies but compliments, folds into the negative space a singer leaves when s/he is breathing. Creates a platform on which s/he can re-enter.
Here’s point in case… my girlfriend’s daughter unexpectedly died last week. God rest the departed’s good soul. Saints preserve us. My bereaved girlfriend wanted played at the Covid restricted funeral the poignant song, I’ll Be Seeing You. Within thirty minutes of my asking, Tedd sent an MP3 accompaniment. Just at the debut of describing the places where the singer will be seeing the departed…”the small cafe, the park across the way”…Tedd parted his hands to play cords that encompassed both the ethereal joy of seeing on the upper keys, as well as a devastating single note way down at in the bass clef that carried the gravity and loss both…leaving the singer standing in the middle, suspended between these two emotional states. Who does that??
I’ve stood on stage when colleague and fabulous singer Tom Wopat has been doing a solo with Tedd and been brought to tears for their bro-mance. They have 19 years together and their patina of mutual respect is powerful to witness. Theirs is a musical marriage at its very best. I’ve sat in the audience as he musically thrust and parried with prodigy Michael Feinstein, electrifying the rarified air of New York’s finest venues.
I have many fond memories of performing with Tedd but a favorite was when we were in a particular town for two back to back concerts. Three local musicians had been hired to play with us…bass, drums and percussion. As Tedd took them through his arrangements of our tunes in rehearsal, their heads shook in admiration. Two hours later it was showtime. The first show went well enough but as we launched into our second night it was clear that the boys were performing with greater ease than they had the night before. All was rolling along well until the penultimate number which included a huge Latin drum/percussion solo. It didn’t exactly fall flat but I knew these young bucks had more to offer. As we were about to launch into the final number, something came over me and I asked the audience if we could do the former number again? I guess drinks had been free flowing enough that they gave us permission. Thank heavens my son wasn’t in the audience because I then turned to the drummer and percussionist and said, “Take your shirts off, give me everything you’ve got. I can take it.” I turned to Tedd who was looking at me bug eyed. He asked in his sedate tone of innocence if I wanted it a bit faster? I said, “No, just give me MORE.” Be careful what you ask for. Tedd quietly stood up. Took off his jacket, folded it neatly and placed it on the piano bench. He calmly took the stack of music off the piano and having placed that on the floor, lay flat the music stand and in one of the sexiest moves I’ve ever seen, slid it up under the grand’s raised lid as if raising the skirt on his woman, to reveal the hammers and keys. One deep breath and his hands dove into the strings which he began to play, pluck and then bang on with his wedding ring. Now it was my turn to be bug eyed. I whipped around to the percussionist who was now laser focused on the Maestro and jumped in to follow our fearless leader. Once their grove was established Tedd nodded in the drummer. It was at that point I think I entered into the music of the spheres. Uncharted territory made real only by the harmony it was producing. It was on that magic carpet that I got to reprieve the tune. This, I thought is where Bach and Mozart spent their lives…this is the beauty the gifted, the touched hear, the celestial beats they live by, that place where everything translates into music, its flow, its movement and limitless possibilities. Where thought and heartbeat are one, pulse and emotion one, that existential place ever unfolding, excruciating beauty. Where love is articulated, it is that land beyond the point of word’s efficacy to express thought.
A much lauded concert pianist pal from Texas says it best: “He can play the shit out of any piano.” I hope dear reader that if you have not yet, you have in this lifetime the opportunity to hear Tedd Firth play the piano. He works with a plethora of artists, he also on rare occasion choses to do a solo concert. Seek him out. I promise you will not be disappointed. You will be astonished.