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"Other way around," he corrects. "We felt we could light it better than [the Moody Blues] did. We brought in three times as many lights. We built the stage in the middle of the audience. And we figured people would be comfortable with the venue. The Moody Blues audience is 40-plus, as well, but the music is vastly different because those are songs everyone recognizes and mine are songs people may recognize, but nothing like 'Nights in White Satin.'"
One of the problems the general public has always had dealing with instrumental music is not knowing how to ask for a piece by name. Unless somebody yells "Tequila!"
"I like the fact that there are no words," says Tesh. "That way you don't have to go in any certain direction or be led. You can go your own way. It's also difficult to name instrumentals when you're writing them."
For instance, Red Rocks' closing track, "PS 491," isn't about a grade school but Tesh's meeting of his wife, actress Connie Sellecca. "PS stands for Palm Springs, 4 is the month of April and 91 is the year," he reveals. Unless Tesh told you this, you'd have to be Kreskin to figure that out. But, hey, for all intents and purposes, you can feel this misty and romantic about the schoolyard you used to get beat up in and no one need know about it.
Tesh regularly gets beat up by critics, and one reason may be that writers seem to have an especially difficult time dealing with instrumental music. There's only a certain amount of adjectives you can use to describe an instrumental passage before it starts to sound as if you're describing a soft drink: "bubbly, effervescent, invigorating." With no lyrics to latch onto, most writers choose to focus on Tesh's celebrated marriage or the shape of his celebrated head. It's this kind of shorthand approach to reviewing that has labeled his music new age. Unless you consider sounding like John Williams and Bill Conti "new age," it's an inappropriate tag. Equally vexing to Tesh is when people compare him to his friend and musical mentor, Yanni, then they start pummeling Yanni.
"People who make fun of him are idiots," the mild-mannered Tesh says, fuming. "This is a guy who can play up to 40,000 people a night and has sold ten million records. It's difficult to compare me to him because I'm far behind him [in sales]. I'm not in his league.
"Reviewers are no longer allowed at my concerts unless they pay, because they feel they have to take a new-age shot or do the whole TV thing," he continues. "It doesn't mean something that a guy making ten grand at a newspaper takes a shot at me. A lot of reviewers hated Die Hard, and it did $20 million this weekend. Not that it's about money. It's about doing something people are going to react to."
How do you like that? He hasn't even sat down in his anchor chair once today and he's already rattling off box-office receipts. Talking to Tesh, you get the feeling that it is about money, whether it's how much his critics are making or how much he's making. It's as if no art exists if millions of people haven't heard or seen it, that the marketplace must validate it with dollars for it to have merit. Since Tesh has gotten little respect from his critics, he is quick to remind you of his impressive numbers. Two albums of sax music by the John Tesh Project, Sax by the Fire and Sax on the Beach, have been in Billboard's Top 5 jazz album chart for two years. "These things are monsters," says Tesh. "They have companies like Warners, Columbia and PolyGram fighting over them. It was my wife's idea to put these things out. She's a real sax fan. We're prepared for another one, for sure."
Sax on the Roof, anyone? Sax in Airports?
Tesh was less than amused at these suggestions for future titles, as he was when it was suggested that Connie's collaborative relationship with him mirrored that of Yoko and her John. "I take that as a complete slam," he huffs back. "I'm not a big Yoko Ono fan. Why would I be? I did a long interview with her once and I thought she was boring and self-absorbed. I also credit her with breaking up the Beatles." Glad we didn't say Paul and Linda!
Know this, people: When you underestimate Tesh, you doubly sell Sellecca short. "Connie is more important than you or I in what records should sound like because she is the person who goes out there and buys the records. Women 35 to 55 show up at our concerts and later buy albums. If there's a song I'm playing and she doesn't dig it, chances are I won't put it on an album. Or else I'll rework it. It's like having a good marketing consultant who lives in the house."
Tesh politely excuses himself from the phone because, as he puts it, "They're screaming at me to do voice-overs." The following day, it is reported in USA Today that Tesh is locked in a legal battle with Paramount, the parent company that produces ET, over Tesh's desire to take three months off to tour and write new music. A spokesman for Paramount says, "We are fully supportive of John Tesh's dual career in broadcasting and music. However, his first obligation is to Entertainment Tonight."