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The Queen's Cartoonists: Where jazz meets animation and hints of musical circus

The Queen's Cartoonists perform at the Miller Symphony Hall in Allentown, PA on November 22, 2019.
Lindsey Theong
The Queen's Cartoonist
The Queen's Cartoonists perform at the Miller Symphony Hall in Allentown, PA on November 22, 2019.

Watching the Queen's Cartoonists perform live is a spectacle. There are cartoons, alongside jazz, a wide range of musical instruments, noise-making props and on-stage shenanigans. The band performs the soundtrack to old classic cartoons and contemporary animated films, while the audience watches the films.

Playing music to visual media is not a novel concept. In fact, whole symphony orchestras tour the world performing to blockbuster movies like "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings." What the Queen's Cartoonists offer is a more unpredictable experience. The audience has no idea what music they will hear or even what cartoons they will watch, and what elements of comedy may be added. There are costumes, party whistles, clackers, tambourines, paper cups being tossed around, all adding to creating various sound effects.

"I get a lot of people that come up to me after shows and say, I didn't really know what to expect from this concert and now I saw it and I still don't know what to expect," says Joel Pierson, the composer and pianist of the band, "We really like that...the concert goer is engaged, because they don't really know what's coming up next."

In 2014, Pierson was looking for a new project. He had an idea - trying to find an intersection between the golden age of animation and the golden age of jazz. But he needed a band to make it all work. So, he started asking around, looking for jazz musicians with a sense of humor. "Then we had our first rehearsal, and it's the same exact people in the band today that were at the first rehearsal," Pierson explains.

The band consists of five permanent members and a rotating cast of three bass players. In addition to Pierson on piano, Rossen Nedelchev plays drums, Drew Pitcher on woodwinds, including tenor sax, bass clarinet and flute; Mark Phillips on clarinet, soprano sax, piccolo and flute, and Greg Hammontree on brass, including trumpet, trombone, and tuba. "I want it to look like there's 30 people that are going to come out and then there's only six," Pierson says. Just between Pitcher, Phillips, and Hammontree, he says, they play about 20 different instruments on stage.

Behind every arrangement are hours and hours of work. Adding instruments, sound effects, vocalization, writing new music. "It's sort of like a magician where they pull a trick off and it seems so natural, but maybe the magician worked on it for years, you know, to get there," Pierson says.

Right now the band is working on a new project that draws inspiration not from jazz, but classical music. The band is recomposing Mozart's Requiem for a jazz ensemble. "Mozart had a very interesting sense of humor," Pierson says, "So, we are sort of trying to use maybe some things that he would have thought were funny as a jumping off point to bringing his requiem into a jazz idiom." They are calling the project - "Mozart's Cartoon Requiem", out May 15th.

Pierson says the main goal of the band is to get people into the concert hall that wouldn't usually go. "A lot of people would hear the term jazz band or jazz concert and say, oh, that's not really for me. I don't like that music," Pierson explains, "But we're using the angle of cartoons and animated films to kind of bridge that gap...that's a way to get people in."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Monika Evstatieva is a Senior Producer on Investigations.
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