Real recognize real, or in this case, community-minded artists recognize backroom musical alchemists. Coming together over a shared love of crate digging, DJing, hip-hop and 1960s and ’70s orchestral funk, Bobbie-Jane Gardner and Brian Cross aka B+ created Music of the Unseen to celebrate the music and legacy of two iconic arranger/conductors: Charles Stepney and David Axelrod. “For both composers, it was about being behind the scenes and helping other people sparkle,” Gardner explains over video chat from Birmingham, U.K.
While Axelrod’s legacy is well known (at least amongst music heads), Charles Stepney is only now getting his flowers some forty-six years after his premature passing in 1976 with the release of a collection of his demos as Step on Step on International Anthem earlier in September of this year. The release collects Stepney’s home demos, some of which were sketches intended for a planned solo record that was never completed. A cosmic coincidence of wonderful serendipity, both Music of the Unseen and International Anthem were unaware of the other’s plans until recently, despite both collaborating directly with Stepney’s daughters.
Wedding Gardner’s talents for arranging with B+’s expertise in visual storytelling, Music of the Unseen is an interdisciplinary project (in the truest sense of the word) combining live, orchestral performance with video, photographic, and online content. With three concerts scheduled for November in the U.K. and more on the horizon, Music of the Unseen is a continuation of the tradition of his production company Mochilla’s work, especially with the iconic Timeless series (2009), which showcased three legendary maestros, two living (Mulatu Astake and Arthur Verocai) and one recently deceased (J Dilla) with innovative and electric orchestral support. Bobbie-Jane Gardner brings conservatory-performing and arranging chops, a generous collaborative spirit resulting from years of leading music workshops for underserved communities, not to mention mentorship from Patrice Rushen. “As an artist, my own practice has kind of taken a bit of a back seat,” says Gardner, “But through this project, I feel like it’s a kind of catalyst for Bobbie-Jane Gardner, the composer, to come out, and it’s a bit scary!”
For Gardner, as a practitioner of orchestral music, and B+ as a documentarian and evangelist, the calling to appreciate, cannonize, and spread the dying tradition of the arranger/composer within the popular music tradition is the driving force behind Music of the Unseen. “Finding new ways to explore and celebrate these kind of people is the best way to continue to preserve their legacy,” B+ explains over a video chat from Los Angeles, while Gardner says, “A lot of what Brian and I do is in service of communities, the unseen, the unsung, and raising awareness about those who have been overlooked.”
Before the Birmingham-based Bobbie-Jane Gardner departed for L.A. in April 2019 to study under jazz luminary and educator Patrice Rushen, a mutual friend connected her with Cross, a veteran photographer of musical communities, most notably the hip-hop diaspora of the ’90s and aughts for outlets such as Urb, Rappages, and, later, Wax Poetics, where he was the original photo editor. Recognizing that L.A. can be a difficult place to navigate, literally and socially, B+ offered a room in his house (with his partner’s blessing) as a home base for Gardner during her mentorship with Rushen at the University of Southern California. Vibing over records and music nerdery back at the crib, Cross and Gardner found common ground in their mutual appreciation for the lost art of orchestral arranging at the intersection of pop, soul, funk, and jazz from the late ’60s through the mid-’70s.
While in Los Angeles, Gardner experienced two epiphanies that eventually led to this collaboration with Cross. First, she learned that her mentor Patrice Rushen’s favorite record is Minnie Riperton’s Come to My Garden (which was arranged, produced, and cowritten by Charles Stepney), planting a seed that bloomed into a vision for combining her academic interests with her musical ambitions to bring orchestral music to more accessible and popular forms of expression. The second revelation, much to her embarrassment for not having done deeper research about her host, was that B+ was that guy behind an incredibly influential record that trailblazed a musical vision that she’d been dreaming for years, Timeless: Suite for Ma Dukes (2009).
For Cross, who most recently published his second book and first featuring his photographs, Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed (2017), the opportunity to revisit themes and subjects originally explored as part of the Timeless series was compelling. In fact, there were plans to do a Timeless 2 that never came to fruition, which would have featured the music of George Duke, David Axelrod, the Mizell Brothers, and Patrice Rushen. With Gardner as his roommate, they started concocting a plan that initially started as a grant proposal as part of Gardner’s post-doctoral studies, but when that proposal was rejected, she edited it down to a series of performances for which she successfully secured funding. Gardner liked the subtitle Cross had penciled-in for a documentary companion to Ghostnotes: “Music of the Unseen,” which seemed a fitting expression for the output of two backroom maestros.
The Art of Arranging
Not that long ago, hip-hop and R&B production all flowed from the beatmaker or producer, but in an era when the biggest artists often have a dozen or more writing and production credits on their songs, the kitchen has gotten awfully crowded, and it’s not clear who to thank or blame for the final musical product. “From all the discussions with Axelrod back in the day,” Cross ponders, “there were just too many parallels between beat producers and composer/arrangers.” It’s no wonder beatmakers gravitated to the productions of Axelrod and Stepney, as they likely heard a common sensibility, an approach to combining rhythm and melody, especially with those two’s predicliction for hard-hitting drums. Like beatmakers, Cross says, arranger/producers “weren’t always great musicians, but they knew enough to play what they wanted to hear. They’re primarily concerned with arrangement, with voicings, with structure, rhythm…and it’s kind of a lost art.”
Reflecting on the decision to pair these two icons together for a sixty-minute suite of music, Cross says, initially, “it felt pretty fucking random, to be honest with you, but now I think it’s kind of a stroke of genius.” On the surface, these guys couldn’t be more different: Axe was white, Step was Black; Axe was from Los Angeles, Step was from Chicago; Axe learned to arrange from jazz pianist Gerald Wiggins, Step was an autodidact with a impressive library of books on music theory; Axe was a streetwise, ex-junkie, and semipro boxer, while Step was a church-going introvert. “Yet somehow in that moment [late ’60s/mid-’70s],” Cross posits, “they’re both bellwethers for a set of concerns that were very important for people around notions of spirituality, around notions of the environment, in terms of where jazz was going with the inclusion of electronic instruments—this notion of a new kind of music that could be both pop and very esoteric, you know, [in a] post–Brian Wilson, post–George Martin studio production [sensibility].”
While Cross gets to sit back and wax poetic about the similarities and differences between the two, Gardner has the intimidating task of interpreting their respective bodies of work. Much like a remixer or musician covering a classic song, Gardner explains that she strives to “enter into a dialogue with both composers, firstly, expressing gratitude, [and] secondly, being shit-scared—I can imagine both were very exacting, so I can imagine them saying, ‘Don’t touch that section unless you’ve got something to say!’” Thematically, Stepney and Axelrod might have been drinking from the same well, but musically, Gardner acknowledges some notable differences. “I hear a darkness that I really connect to in Axelrod’s music…and there’s a lot of space in his music.” While with Stepney, “there’s an intricacy and he’s always changing things up, he was really cutting-edge, always,” Gardner points out, before excitedly wondering aloud, “if he was around today, what would he be doing?”
The Art of the Tracklist
For all the sample fiends and Stepney and Axelrod fanatics out there curiously reading for hot takes or hell-yeses regarding the concert’s track list, know that like any DJ worth their cue-burns they are both experienced party-rockers, and Cross and Gardner agonized over the selections. “How do you select ten tracks when these two cats are [so] prolific in their output?” Gardner says. “You feel really mean and cruel, [and] everyone’s going to be mourning a piece that isn’t included.”
Both maestros were workaholics with decades-long résumés full of memorable moments still unknown or unappreciated by all but the completists. Cross revealed to Stepney’s daughters (to their surprise) that Billy Stewart’s hit song “Cross My Heart” featured their father’s imprimatur. Clearly, not every important musical moment could be captured in Music of the Unseen, leaving Gardner and Cross to get creative and ruthless.
“We wanted to show different sides of the composers,” Gardner explains. “We picked tracks that were meaningful to us but also [we were] considering the audience and what has to be there. Over late-night insomniac iMessages, the two committed to a set list, approaching it as DJs, who, as Gardner points out, are “of service. We want people to come on the dance floor, we want that nod of approval, we want people to go, ‘What the heck is that?!’ I think that’s come through in our selections.”
Sampling the Samplers
As the non-musician of the two, Cross marveled at hearing the selections as interpreted in the acquired-taste MIDI drafts Gardner sent his way for feedback. “It’s fantastic to see Bobbie’s take on other people’s songs, like what’s important about certain songs and why would you pick this one over that one.” Just as much a student of the boom-bap as the orchestra, Gardner’s arranging approach uses interpolations of the composers’ pieces at times, acknowledging her formative musical influences beyond classical music. “I’m interacting with the hip-hop producers as well because they were my introduction to this music, so I’m sampling the samplers as well.”
Presenting Charles Stepney and David Axelrod in a one-for-one format would be too obvious and formulaic, so they decided to give each equal billing across the sixty-minute concert. Performed by Project Instrumental, a string ensemble augmented with horns for a total of twenty-three musicians, the presentation will be accompanied by forty minutes of experimental film directed by B+. “It’s just fucking beautiful to listen to it,” Cross gushes, having attended an early public rehearsal. “To have the opportunity to be in the room and hear that music performed by people at a very, very high level, it really feels like a privilege that we all need to have.”
With performances on the books for Birmingham, Manchester, and London in late November, Cross and Gardner have plans to bring the multimedia experience to Europe and the homeland of both tributees. “It needs to come to the States,” Gardner insists. “That’s where this music is from. It needs to come to Chicago and L.A. where both of these composers are from. We’re ready!”