When the Background Becomes the Foreground: An Evening With Lisa Fischer and Grand Baton

Years ago in art school, my photography teacher told me the brain takes in more than what we are aware of. He pointed to some children kicking a ball around in the background of one of my pictures. One of the kids was looking at me. The ball was rolling past him. My teacher asked if I had noticed that. Though I was aware of the game going on behind the child I had focused on, I had not noticed that child looking at me. My teacher told me it was that part of the picture that made the photograph, and he advised me to begin paying closer attention to what was going on in the background.

This was a moment in time I will always remember, the moment when I realized why I loved art and the creative process.

The evening of July 23rd was a similar moment. I had the privilege of being in the audience for legendary singer, Lisa Fischer. Ms. Fischer performed with Grand Baton in Boone, NC as part of Appalachian State University's summer arts festival.

Though I had heard her knock it out of the ballpark with the Rolling Stones in 2013, it was something she said in the film, '20 Feet from Stardom', that motivated me to see her on her own. She said, "I love melodies. I'm in love with the sound vibration and what it does with other people."

When I heard her say those words coupled with the way in which she spoke them, I realized her love of melodies extended beyond what we traditionally categorize as music or singing...that quite possibly, for her, melody is everywhere - even in a spoken sentence. In that moment, I knew I loved her as an artist.

Ms. Fischer's work as a background vocalist is what I am most familiar with. When I learned of her solo work, I was over the moon. To imagine her voice spotlighted, independent from other vocals and free to carry melodies and harmonize with other instruments and herself by creatively looping tracks was thrilling. I was literally ecstatic to know I could be with her voice for more than just a few measures.

As I listened, I could not help but think how two years prior I had no idea of Lisa Fischer's solo work - how this singer, known for carrying so many iconic musical masterpieces, had a deeply creative independent world of her own. Clearly she is a collaborative artist, able to take direction and breathe life into arrangements and compositions of other artists, and at the same time, she most certainly is an independent artist whose voice and artistic vision rise high above what I, and so many others might, primarily know her for.

What Ms. Fischer and the musicians of Grand Baton presented was an evening of beautifully and carefully crafted arrangements of originals and covers that conveyed a depth of emotion and scope of accomplishment that had me on my knees in utter amazement and awe. Not only did Ms. Fischer have the time to carry us away on her delicious melodies and intimate harmonies, the musicians of Grand Baton took generous leads and solos. With JC Maillard's mesmerizing vocals, strings, keyboards and arrangements, Aidan Carroll's complex and melodic bass lines, and Thierry Arpino's evocative tempos, rhythms and beats, the entire show - including the elegantly saturated lighting - was a transcendental experience.

The score of the evening created a wonderful courtship between the performers and audience. For those of us new to Ms. Fischer's solo work and the work of Grand Baton, we were invited into their world with open arms that simultaneously held us close and invited us to explore. My world music knowledge is limited so bare with me when I say I walked out of that auditorium feeling like I had just wept a Satie Gymnopedié, and at the same time, had just sang and played every part of Orff's 'O Fortuna!'

True I might never personally meet Lisa Fischer or any of the musicians that played that night but I know they are my tribe - people who have found their voices and dare to share them because quite simply, they love what they do.

If there is anything I love, it is art: painting, dancing, writing. I feel all of these things so intensely, and simply must be doing one when I cannot do another. To me, art is the active practice of exploring the spaces between what we know, what we think we know, and what we do not know. It is a form of devotion. It allows for and often necessitates the shift between front and center and off to the side, and acknowledges that each place has significance.

I left the concert remembering the only reason to do anything is because of love. For this reminder, I am deeply grateful, and am forever grateful for Lisa Fischer, Grand Baton, and knowing to pay attention to what is going on in the background.

Lisa Fischer and Grand Baton resume their summer tour this Saturday, August 1st, at the Newport Jazz Festival. Visit lisafischermusic.com and grandbaton.com for more information.