The roots of Road Work Ahead stretch all the way back to the simpler days of 1980. Bob Magnusson was living and gigging in Los Angeles and had a record deal with Albert Marx’s Discovery Records label. Bob had already done one album as a leader and was leaning into his second project. He rounded up pianist Bill Mays, San Diego drummer Jim Plank, and myself and we rehearsed through some of his tunes. The next stop was a Hollywood recording studio where we laid down the tracks and Bob titled the album Road Work Ahead featuring the Bob Magnusson Quartet. The music chosen for the recording were four of Bob’s originals plus a Bill Mays tune and an early Russell Ferrante composition. The direction of the group had some inherent electricity and because of not only the musical ESP that took place but also the human interactive ESP, we decided to continue on, form a band, and call ourselves Road Work Ahead. The idea was free advertising courtesy of Caltrans and the hopes of taking the band out on the road.
We were four friends, all fully engaged in music, all composing tunes for the group, and all dealing with extensive freeway drive time. Bob and Bill lived in L.A. and Jim and I lived in San Diego. We’d do a hit in Hollywood, Jim and I would sleep under Bill’s piano in his house in Studio City, and then after the following evenings gig we’d drive back in the middle of the night, struggling the whole way to stay awake. There are parts of that equation that I’m happy to leave behind. But the music itself was priceless.
We went on to record as a group on two of my Xanadu album projects (The Path and Bird Raga), two more Road Work Ahead records (Night and Day and Two Generations of Music), a KCET TV show called Road Work Ahead Performs Four by Four with Shelly Manne as the host, and many concerts throughout the United States. Leonard Feather wrote about us in the L.A. Times “Another splendid set… this music, halfway between be-bop and the Avante Garde, bears extended listening…”
In the late 1980’s Bill Mays moved to New York City and this marked a big change for the band. Bill had been immersed in the L.A. recording studio scene and really wanted to break away from that world of tense details and morph into the reality of a jazz pianist playing music in real time. New York is the center for this direction and Bill eased right in. The huge distance between Bill’s East Coast home and our San Diego contingent pretty much halted our Road Work Ahead exploits for awhile. We resurfaced as a group in 1997 and did an inspired show at the Bella Via in Cardiff and garnered a great review in the San Diego Union.
Six more years passed by and in January of 2003 Bill was circling through San Diego (his folks live here) and had a couple of days free. I called up the rest of the gang, booked a Sunday afternoon hit at Dizzy’s (they had just scored a good acoustic piano), and broke out the book of tunes that we used to play to plan what musical vistas we might visit this time around. The concert was a wonderful success and Bill, Jim, Bob, and I vowed to make an effort to do more Road Working ahead. The telepathy and pathos that was generated served as our inspiration and guide.
Our next event was a July, 2003 show at the La Jolla Athenaeum complete with a standing room only audience in attendance. We had a great show, got another glowing review, and on the days following the concert we went into my recording studio and laid down some tracks. Each band member wrote and arranged some tunes and after a joyous and intense time we emerged with our latest recording On The Road Again.
On The Road Again is a collection of eleven compositions, each one unique in it’s direction and color, each one exploring a different facet of the bands wide musical vision.
Bill’s contributions include:
“I was taking a college literature course years ago and ran across this name. Euterpe was one of the muses in the late Roman times characterized as the muse of the flute. Lew Tabackin recorded this song a while back on the flute.”
“Bird’s Blues” (“Cheryl” / “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” / “Perhaps”)
arranged by Bill Mays
“Gotta have some blues on every recording. These three separate tunes by Charlie Parker, all in the key of C, work well in a contrapuntal way.”
“In The Garden”
arranged by Bill Mays
“This is a hymn that I heard as a young boy, and I have always loved the melody. In addition to the church-related meaning of the piece, I also think of my wife Judy and myself out working in the garden when I play it! It lends itself very naturally to a “gospel” feeling in 3/4.”
“A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square”
arranged by Bill Mays
“This has always been one of my favorite ballads, but this time around I decided to give it a more up-tempo and straight-8th feeling. Once while visiting London I went to the Mayfair neighborhood to check out the square. It was pretty noisy and polluted and I couldn’t find the nightingale anywhere, but we summon her up on this version!”
Bob Magnusson wrote these tunes:
“Throughout the twenty-two years of her young life, I have experienced the special joy of my daughter, Thea. Among her other talents, she possesses an infectious laugh. I attempted to capture her irrepressible nature in Thea’s Laughter.”
“I wrote this piece after our eldest daughter left home and I was disheartened over her departure. The abrupt measure of silence and sudden ending represent her breaking away from our home and her childhood. Addendum – happy ending! Gillian is happily married and the mother of three beautiful children.”
Jim Plank brought these songs to the project:
“Samba for Shelly”
“This is dedicated to the great musician Shelly Manne, a major influence in my musical development. It is also the AKC name of our Golden Retriever Lilly.”
“Just A Little Nine Eight”
“Unlike most songs, the middle section of this piece has no melody, just a rhythm in 9/8 played on top of a chord progression.”
“Having Golden Retrievers gives a certain rhythm to life. I tried to capture the spirit of the breed with this piece.”
and my ideas for the recording came through on these pieces:
“As It Is, As You Are”
“One of the styles of music that I seem to bring to the group is the Brazilian samba groove. I’ve been interested in South American music for a long time and its combination of complex harmony working with a strong rhythmic foundation is what continues to inspire me. For this tune I’ve written a bunch of notes with some big intervals and delivered them to the guys and they, with all their musicality and proficiency on their instruments, bring magic to the song. The title comes from a phrase that I once read – “be with the world as it is, be with yourself as you are”.
arranged by Peter Sprague
“I discovered this tune a year or so ago and have been playing it ever since. To me it conveys a wonderful feeling of both loneliness and beauty. For our version here, Bob plays the melody on arco bass and I take a solo over the tune which morphs it’s way into a Coltrane like groove.”
And that friends pretty much brings us up to date. We’re now circulating the new CD into the real world and I know we’re looking forward to a lot more music, more long drives during the daylight hours with some good stories and laughs, and most certainly some more road work ahead. Happily we’re On The Road Again…