Johnny Costa: Plays Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Jazz impressions of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

By the time that Pittsburgh pianist Johnny Costa met Fred Rogers, he was an accomplished jazz musician who’d led albums released by Coral, Savoy and Dot, was featured on Manny Albam’s A Gallery of Gershwin (a theme Costa revisited on 1994’s A Portrait of George Gershwin) and served as music director for television’s Mike Douglas. Costa returned to Pittsburgh in the mid-60s where he met and partnered with Fred Rogers in creating the music for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Costa’s college background in both music and education matched that of Rogers, and his fluid musical style (one that Art Tatum likened to his own) and imaginative arrangements were a perfect match for the emotional insights that Rogers illuminated with his song concepts and lyrics. Costa was a charter resident of the neighborhood, joining in 1968, playing live, adding improvisational continuity, appearing on camera on occasion, and serving as Rogers’ musical director until the pianist’s passing in 1996.

This 1984 release features Costa’s piano in a trio setting with Carl McVicker on bass and Bobby Rawsthorne on drums. As an instrumental jazz outing on the short-lived Mister Rogers Neighborhood label, but not featuring Mister Rogers himself, it likely didn’t sell well to either the television show’s preschool viewership or jazz hounds, and so the original vinyl release has become quite rare. Omnivore’s reissue includes the album’s original thirteen tracks, all written by Fred Rogers. Fans of the television show will immediately recognize the warm welcome of the opening “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” but as you would expect from a talented jazz musician, Costa uses the theme as a launching point for spirited improvisation. The same is true for the closing “Tomorrow,” which is given a heavier dose of optimistic melancholy than in its television incarnations.

Costa’s playing is florid, dramatic, inquisitive, frenetic, humorous and contemplative, mirroring the themes and emotional lessons of Rogers’ lyrical compositions. The yearning for reassurance that Rogers wrote into the lyrics of “Please Don’t Think It’s Funny” is equally well expressed in Costa’s introspective soloing. “Everybody’s Fancy” includes fancy runs, “I Like to Take My Time” proceeds at a jaunty stroll, and “Something to Do While We’re Waiting” is filled with irrepressible childhood energy. Costa is fleet-fingered and lyrical as he expresses through his piano the emotional core of each song. This collection of  instrumental treatments provides a terrific complement to Fred Rogers’ originals, twenty-three of which are collected in Omnivore’s companion volume, It’s Such A Good Feeling: The Best Of Mister Rogers. Taken together, the two releases highlight the musical and emotional resonances between Rogers, Costa and their audience. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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