My career with the Schnapps band began some 35 years ago. I didn’t run the band then but was brought in as the singer when the wedding was Frum. In those days the lineup and style was different. Norman Czarny ז׳ל was the accordionist and his particular sound was distinct. When Schnapps back then began to wind up, I took over the band and remodelled it, bringing in a more regular line up. Whilst Norman could read music, Schnapps in the old days used to ‘know the songs’ and play from memory. I didn’t have that luxury and needed to find musicians that were both excellent readers, and able to adapt to the genre. I encouraged re-interpretation, spontaneity and soloing. Alas, whilst I wasn’t a good fiddle player, I was blessed with a good ear and could not tolerate a musician unless they were absolutely top shelf.
My trumpet player suggested that the best person to anchor the band on keyboards was Peter McCutcheon. Peter was known visually and personally to those who watched the well-regarded Hey Hey it’s Saturday live show and especially its Red Faces segment. I spent lots of time preparing for my first transition Gig, trying to better organise the existing repertoire. I recalled how Schnapps would sometimes struggle to find the right tune amongst a heap of one or two page scores. After coming up with my system, the stage was set.
I was nervous and although I don’t remember the reason, I felt I needed to call Peter before the gig. So, one morning, about 10am I called Peter’s house. The phone call was some 5 minutes duration. At first Peter seemed stilted, but I attributed this to musicians tending to be late risers. Some years later (perhaps 8 years), when Peter was ensconced as the pianist and Schnapps was getting regular work, he casually mentioned to me at a Wedding we were doing, that I had called him on Xmas morning! Of course, for me it was just the next day, and I wasn’t duly sensitised to consider not ringing on that morning! He noted, gently and using his dry wit, that it was a bit of a strange encounter for him. He was such a giant of spirit though, that he was sensitised (despite not having yet done a gig) to realise that I practiced another religion and was simply clueless as opposed to bulldozing through sensitivities. Suffice it to say that I was mortified when he brought this to my attention years later. With a smile on his face, those band members within ear shot had a healthy chuckle. By now, Peter knew my character and was sure that I had not intended anything.
Peter was like a musical computer. Some musicians are jazz oriented; others are Rock oriented, and others are great classical pianists who have marvellous reading skills. I used to marvel at the interpretation of songs that Peter would create. He mentioned that he always intended to have a most diverse musical experience, and as I recall he had worked in a Bavarian restaurant for a several years. As I settled into my role as band leader and singer, I allowed myself to bring, through my voice and fiddle, my own overlays onto songs. I used to stress to the band members that though many of the tunes we played were rather simple, and had simple Concert Melody/Chord charts, I wanted them to “let go” and wander through the tapestry of the progressions.
Peter was a great reader of music. I was most jealous. He was literally like a computer. Sometimes a ‘must play’ song materialised in the middle of a wedding. The band members were gentiles, except for me. They didn’t know the song. I turned to Peter to write the song out. Little did I realise that as I sang the tune into his ear, while he was perched over his keyboard with a pencil and blank score, he would translate my voice into a perfectly formed chart. On the odd occasion where he would need to rub something out, that was mostly due to me not intonating properly or not remembering the song routine well enough. His skill in this regard, in real-time, was mind-blowing. Other musicians would sometimes watch on from the side, and when I shook my head in amazement, they would shake theirs as well, mumbling “he’s a monster”.
Musicians are a strange lot. They range from the bohemic to the fastidiously rigid. They mostly wear their hearts on their sleeves, and are notorious for being “too precious” over what I thought were the most trivial of matters. Sure, it’s a right royal pain to come to a venue with your heavy gear, only to be told by some over officious attendant that you had to park your car further away and could not park near the loading bay. I got used to frustrated musicians, with furrowed brows mumbling inanities and hurling invective because of a logistic problem. It was in my interest to calm the musicians down. A happy musician is a well-performing musician. Incredibly, irrespective of what the logistic or other issue was which may have interfered with a smooth set up on stage, Peter never showed the slightest inkling that he was annoyed, let alone affected. In early days one took this for granted. After a while, it was plain that his great nature as a human being meant that he rose above these impediments. He appreciated that the band leader had much stress at this time and was professional enough not to add to that pressure. The most I ever heard from him was after a few decades. One venue was notoriously difficult. They seemed to delight in placing more and more ridiculous impediments in front of professional musicians. I was fed up myself. One day, Peter mentioned that he could not play at that venue unless his gear was delivered earlier on stage. In fact all musicians felt this way, only Peter was one of the last to say so, and he never did this bombastically.
Especially in the early days, there were some venues/caterers whose food may have been kosher, but the kitchen therein wouldn’t have survived a health and safety audit. One Sunday we had a midday gig. The Saxophone player had already crossed words with the caterer (who was notorious). The caterer had made the musician feel like a little boy and was ordering him around. When the food arrived, and it was always 2 minutes before we were due to go back on stage, it was an experience in crazed ׳wolfing׳ down the already frazzled foodstuff on the plate.
After the first course, some of the band members were feeling ill. By the time the main course had been consumed, the singer for the secular music was running from the stage to the toilets and back. The rest of the band had stories to tell about ‘the day after’. I vividly recall sitting down at the next gig with the musicians relating how their stomachs had been abused. Only one musician, Peter, had no problems. We called him ‘garbage guts’. He could eat anything. Indeed, he would go back for seconds of a dessert buffet with a plate that initiated engorgement by just looking!
Chuppas are a focus for musicians. We don’t have many instruments. It is usually very quiet and any mistake is certainly noticed (by those blessed with a degree of musical ear). We have certainly done our fair share of these, ranging from the grandiose Chuppa where we did have 5 Musicians or more serenading each separate entry, through to the more usual variety where it was just Peter on Keyboard and me on Violin (and sometimes Voice).
Sometimes there is a special request for an obtuse or not well-known tune as the Kallah circumnavigates the Chosson, or similar. I recall one event in a swish hotel with all the guests decked out in their evening wear. Peter arrived and we had zero time to look at the score. It was, as I recall some 4 pages long and had changes in tempo with brief 1 or 2 bar interludes to boot. I always relied on Peter to cover my less than wonderful Violin playing, and on this occasion, I didn’t know the tune off-hand and so I was reading as well. I had an advantage in that I knew the feel and the changes. To say I was nervous was an understatement, even if I had imbibed a couple of quick schnapps beforehand. As usual Peter was perfection personified. Every nuanced change, be it from me leading in a little early on my violin, or motioning with my head or indeed using other gesticulatory cues were picked up while at the same time Peter’s left and right hands glided across the keyboard.
When I did Jewish dinner music, I had a penchant for re-interpreting old, but beautiful songs. Even the decidedly aged “Amar Rabbi Akiva” became a Phrygian jazz experience. I only had to gently intimate a “feel” and Peter would be “onto it” immediately, adding his lavish chords and arpeggio runs. Just to mind: one crowd favourite for many years was “Al Kol Eleh” or
“Uncle Ayley” as my band called it. The ending was something that just came to be and was our unique blend. One evening, my voice was in fine form and we must have gone up a half a tone at least six times. Peter just smiled as I indicated “up” yet again, and accompanied me with his usual aplomb.
How many times did the great Schnapps band accompany visiting world stars, including Avraham Fried, the Chevrah and many more. We don’t forget the functions where there was also a youth choir. On the latter, Peter wrote some beautiful charts. I remember (at my suggestion) he converted the legendary Pirchei song, “Eleycho” into 6th Chords and the Asian feel was just magnificent (I’m sure some ears thought it was “wrong” though).
Chanuka in the Park. It was rarely easy to get into the venue, let alone get out. I just remember when we had to support Lipa Schmeltzer one time and the late Piamenta flautist. Let’s just say the charts were “challenging”. Peter never complained. He was the consummate professional.
It is easy to write about Peter. Just over two weeks ago I organised a lunch at Spot On for the immediate band members and Peter. Peter, who had a bout of prostate cancer several years ago, and recovered, suddenly found his body wracked with cancer. His rather emaciated figure emerged from the car and I found it terribly sad to see him in this situation. We had a wonderful meal, laced with GlenSomething and some great wine. When the time came for it all to end, Peter’s eyes welled up with tears. I don’t think I had ever seen him teary. I can’t repeat the collective noun he used for the members of the band, but he effectively said
It’s hard for me to imagine that I’m not going to see you guys again
I retorted that he should be positive (cheap words from me) and allow the new treatment to perform a miracle. Peter knew what was coming. I did have an opportunity 2 or 3 days before he passed away, a few short weeks after, but decided that I didn’t want to see him struggling for air, in and out of drug induced sleep.
Peter was not a religious man, but gave enormous respect to those who were sincerely religious. Melbourne has lost one of its finest musical figures and I have lost a wonderful friend and colleague.
PS. I will let you in on a secret. Peter had congenital deafness (no, nothing to do with the band volume). For approximately the last ten years, he played “deaf”. He could hear the bass and drums, and followed the charts as need be. That sort of challenge can only be overcome by Peter Ian McCutcheon, of blessed memory.
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