Jazz covers of progressive rock: Wave Mechanics Union 

Putting a jazz spin on songs by greats such as The Who, Led Zeppelin and Queen, the musicians behind Wave Mechanics Union argue by example that a song is a song, whether played by a jazz, rock, blues or flamenco band.

"A song is a fairly durable, adaptable artifact - if it's a good song, you can mess with it quite a bit before it's no longer recognizable," said drummer and arranger Ralph Johnson. "We went in the jazz direction."

The Project released the fruit of three years' labor in October 2008: Second Season, a collection of 11 tracks that mostly draw from progressive rock (Queen's "Killer Queen"; Led Zeppelin's "The Rain Song"; Rush's "Available Light") with some outliers from other traditions (The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby"; and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," first recorded by the Four Lads in the '50s and revived by They Might Be Giants in the '90s).

The project took shape two years ago when then-Muncie resident Johnson began to collaborate with two musicians he had previously worked with in the Indianapolis Jazz Orchestra: Avon-based arranger and trombonist Ryan Fraley and Muncie-based singer Lydia McAdams. Each individual in the trio chose rock songs that they wanted to arrange for a big band. Johnson and Fraley took on the difficult task of arranging pieces that can't be found in any jazz fake book.

"The task was certainly made easier by our decades of familiarity with source material, but still, a lot of time and effort was invested before a single note was recorded," Fraley commented. "Just because the song was written by Freddie Mercury instead of Cole Porter, it doesn't change the basic work flow."

Once arranged, the trio began to reach out to a group of musicians, accumulating 28 overall, including local bandleaders Cathy Morris (violinist) and Shawn Plonski (clarinetist). Recorded in Fraley's personal studio in Avon, the trio relied upon friends and colleagues throughout the nation for musical support.

"The primary players are scattered all over -- from Indianapolis; Bay City, Mich.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Los Angeles, Calif.," Fraley said.

Scheduling all of these musicians proved to be the biggest stumbling block in the recording process. Johnson moved to Bay City, Mich., during the recording, forcing the musicians to collaborate over the Internet or by mailing hard drives back and forth via snail mail.

"With so many players living in so many different locations, it was tough to get everything scheduled in the right order, and in a timely fashion," Fraley said. "Our piano player, Justin Kessler, drove up from Nashville twice to record various parts, even lugging a vintage (and heavy) Rhodes Piano with him."

While Johnson is an experienced drummer - indeed, he was nominated in 1990 as one of the 10 best drummers in Chicago by the editorial staff of The Illinois Entertainer - he found recording some of the drum parts challenging, particularly because the album came together in such a piecemeal fashion.

"The biggest challenge was playing the drum parts first, before any of the other parts existed, but that's not altogether unusual in the recording business," Johnson said.

Because the band is comprised of a group of scattered musicians, the Wave Mechanics Union won't perform as a full group in the near future.

"Performances would be great, but just aren't realistic in the short term. At least not with all of the same players, scattered around the country as they are. It's something we'd love to do, but we might have to scale down some of the arrangements first," Fraley said.

Wave Mechanics Union recorded in some unlikely places and attracted some big-name listeners, according to Johnson.

"There's ... recording a string quartet in my living room for 'Eleanor Rigby' ... Being surprised when Brian May (from Queen) stumbled onto our site and wrote a nice blurb on his own blog ... Likewise when someone from King Crimson heard a clip and then posted a news item on their site - they dubbed us 'Swing Crimson' ... Sending [Yes singer] Jon Anderson an MP3 of our version of 'Heart of the Sunrise' - he loved it," Fraley listed. "Recording the acoustic piano parts in the middle of the night at a very gracious piano showroom here in Indy ... Listening in amazement as Lydia crafted those wonderful performances ... and countless more. It was such a rewarding project."

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