Fruity Fruitman

Everyone should get to know a jazz pianist. They’re awesome.

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Mitch “Fruitman” improvising for my camcorder. (1991)

When I was moving out of my fantastic rental on Creston in 1988, and into the “Spanish Prison” on the other side of the canyon, my musical friends told me that another friend of theirs, a jazz pianist from New York, was moving to Los Angeles and was looking for a place.

And so I was introduced to Mitchel Forman.

Mitchel moved in with his grand piano and room of electronic gear. I didn’t know much about the contemporary jazz world — there were only a few names that came to mind if I was pressed — Chick Correa, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Stan Getz, Weather Report… anyone I could think of in jazz he knew or had performed with. He was the real deal.

Mitch had the nickname “Fruitman” but I had heard conflicting reasons for this. There was the fact that he was a fruititarian — he only ate fruits and berries. And someone told me his grandfather had a fruitcart in Brooklyn. But mostly I think it was that the dude at Victor’s Deli referred to Grant and Mitch as “fruity” because they had ponytails. So we called him Fruity or Fruitman. Some of us had nicknames. Everyone called me “Rube, the photo dude.”

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When Fruity was taking my place, I offered him ownership of a key piece of furniture from our circle of friends: the Fetish Couch. This was a custom leather chaise with silver studs along the edges — it was made for our mutual pal Thomas Dolby, and I adopted it when I moved into the empty house on Creston, and now it seemed fitting to leave it with the house and with Fruitman and his piano.

— — —

The Video Experiment

A few years later, in 1991, I was trying an experiment with home video — both shooting it and editing it at home. Nothing was fully digital — yet — but I had access to experimental pro tools and I could use my old regular s-VHS camcorder as source material. After messing around with some short documentary-type projects, I wanted to try something more complicated — a music video.

The main way music videos were executed was to have a master track of the audio laid down, and then use playback of that for the performer to lipsync (or air play) along with. Every time they go again, they’re always trying to be in sync with the playback track. This makes it reasonably straightforward to cut it together.

Without a playback and timecode system, I wondered if I could just shoot a real performance of a musician, and then shoot them again from another angle, but since they’re playing the same thing it should be relatively in sync with the other performance, which I could tweak. I just needed to find a musician who would be willing to play something over and over for me to shoot with my giant camcorder. I called Mitchel.

The Shoot

I showed up to Creston and scoped out the big room where I used to live. It felt totally different with a piano and Phoebe the dog here, but it was fun to see the Fetish Couch in vivo. He said he had a new piece he was working on that he could play, and he put some sheet music on the stand and I moved to shoot him wide, from across the room. I loved the song he played. I liked watching his face as he read the music. I was instantly enrolled.

I moved around for a closer shot, and he played it again. I marveled at his hands, they seemed hyper human, and adapted for this effort.

But while I was shooting I was noticing that the song had changed. It was subtle, but I was certain of it. I was so grateful he was doing this for me, I was reluctant to bring it up, but I knew that his playing it differently was going to make the editing harder. I circled behind him to shoot over his shoulders and to the sheet music. And he played it for a third time.

And now it was radically different. The chorus even felt different. While I was shooting I started actually looking at the page that he was staring at so intently. It had a single line of penciled notes on the staff. He played for 4 minutes and the music he was looking at had about 20 notes on it.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at the sheet music.

“It’s what I’m playing,” he said.

“I thought you were reading sheet music.”

He thought for a second. “It’s clues.”

Every time he played the song he played it differently. He was improvising. I shot it eight times and he played eight different songs, with only a general kind of a similarity. I had no idea how I would cut it together. Or even which version I liked best. But I did. In 1991. Just for fun.

The Wedding Song

In 1994, when I was getting married, I asked him if he’d play the song at our wedding, as another present. Jen and I had come to love it and we played the video and music periodically. But Fruity had no idea what song he had played three years prior, so he suggested I send him a recording. For our wedding he didn’t play it, but he gave us the hand-drawn sheet music; it was now titled “Mike and Jen’s Wedding Song.”

Four years later — I was showing him the video and he decided he actually liked the song and wanted to record it on his next CD. How exciting!! Again, he had forgotten how it went, and so I sent him a copy of his sheet music. And soon his seventh album,“Harvest Song,” came out and the piece was now re-titled “A Deeper Dream,” about 8 years after he first made it up. I’ve never had anyone write me a song, it’s probably as close as I’ll ever get.

When “A Deeper Dream” came out and Fruity and I were back in contact, I asked him to help with one more song — 30 seconds of anything he was willing to do for me — something upbeat I could use for a local TV commercial I wanted to make for Petroglyph. Ever the mensch, he delivered a CD with a hip little composition on it. But we never produced a commercial and the CD sat in my box of stuff for 20 more years. But I rediscovered it in 2018 and his riff is today the theme song for my podcast “Everyday Photography, Every Day.” It’s perfect.

If you ever get a chance, go hear Mitchy play. He’s pretty amazing. Bring him fruit.

Post Script: Why does the video look so lousy?

In 2000 I transferred the 1991 s-VHS cut video to MiniDV. It’s a good example of two bad degradations of media: the source tape was pretty badly riddled with drop-outs and magnetic anomalies. The color had shifted so badly that it looked better to drop the chroma entirely and just make it old-timey black-and-white. Eight years later (2008), this particular MiniDV tape had developed breaks in its timecode and control-type tracks, which make it very hard to pull back into the computer. Note to self: digital media is not permanent. If you don’t keep it up, it will go away.

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Living a creative life, a student of high magic, and hopefully growing wiser as I age. • Ex-Lucasfilm, Netflix, Adobe. • Here are my stories and photos.

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