Irving Fields still enjoying happy hour in his golden years
Is there irony in booking a 90-year-old cocktail lounge act alongside Socalled, the poster boy for klezmer hip-hop fusion, and Gonzales, hip-hop’s answer to Keith Jarrett? Not one bit. Irving Fields may be the only one of the three with a weekly house gig at a chichi Italian eatery, but his place on the bill is no joke.
Best known for his ability to turn almost any topic into ivory-tickled cocktail kitsch, Fields also claims status as a genuine jazz-fusion pioneer. His 1959 album Bagels & Bongos started not only a furor for Jewish-inflected Latin jazz (the album sold two million units), but launched a trend in popular music that opened the field to all manner of fusion experiments. Fields himself followed up his classic disc with Pizzas & Bongos, Champagne & Bongos and Bikinis & Bongos, the swaying lilt of Hawaiian music in the latter colliding with the propulsive rhythms of Latin.
Fields got the bug for Latin beat doing the cruise line circuit when he was only 15; stops in Havana and San Juan introduced the young pianist to the infectious sound. He was an instant convert. His career, however, was not a foregone conclusion.
"I took my first piano lesson at 8 and I didn’t like it," Fields says. "I wanted to be playing punch ball or box ball with the other kids. My folks wanted to keep us kids off the street and get some culture in our lives. But it wasn’t something I was thankful for, not until I composed my first little song. That gave me a sense of responsibility. From there, I never looked back."
Seven decades later, Irving Fields is still hammering the eighty-eight. He’s been a favourite of the bright and beautiful from Miami Beach to the Catskills, from Las Vegas to Tokyo, from the high seas to Carnegie Hall. He’s a Letterman regular and just wrapped a private audience for the First Lady. Reboot Stereophonic, a non-profit company dedicated to preserving Jewish music classics, has just re-released Bagels & Bongos. Fields is on the comeback.
For all that he’s been called the godfather of schmaltz, we shouldn’t be duped by the title. Fields is a technical player of astounding prowess and style.
"I used to love those big orchestras that blended jazz and classical orchestrations," he explains. "I found that I could arrange the piano to sound like an orchestra. When I play, I like the top of the piano to sound like flutes or clarinets and the bottom part like a trombone. I fiddle with the tempos, the keys and the chord constructions. I can pack a lot of instruments into one piano."
Irving Fields (9 p.m.) with Gonzales (10 p.m.) and Socalled (11:30 p.m.) at Théâtre National (1220 Ste-Catherine E.), Oct. 3