Twenty-five years ago, Evan Lurie was a Lounge Lizard who haunted New York City night spots and European jazz festivals. Today he's the musical tour guide for Pablo the penguin, Tasha the hippo, Tyrone the moose and the other stars of Nickelodeon's hit animated skein "The Backyardigans."
Yes, it's been a long, strange musical journey for Lurie in his evolution from pianist for the Lounge Lizards, the jazz fusion outfit led by his older brother, John Lurie (better known in showbiz circles as the lanky, enigmatic star of such Jim Jarmusch pics as "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Down by Law") to becoming one of Nickelodeon's resident tunesmiths.
(To get a sense of the Lounge Lizards' strange and beautiful music, think Eric Dolphy meets Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa at an after-hours jam session with Little Walter, George Gershwin, Nino Rota and King Sunny Ade. If that sounds good to you, check out the vid clips posted below.)
But the music he pens for "Backyardigans" is no less satisfying than the work he did with the Lizards or the scores he periodically composes for grown-up movies. Given the unusual conceit of "Backyardigans" -- each episode is built around a different style of music -- Lurie sits down to work each day secure in the knowledge that he's doing his part to expose his listeners to the aural wonders of the world.
"Backyardigans" has done episodes around everything from calypso to cumbia themes, from juju to zydeco to Irish jigs and Southern gospel. The show has become one of Nick Jr.'s hottest properties, and it's getting a big push with this week's preem of its first hourlong primetime spesh, "Super Secret Super Spy." It's a 007 spy-thriller intrigue, Nickelodeon-style, anchored by a jazzy-pop number, "The Lady in Pink," warbled by Cyndi Lauper. (Click here for a vid clip, and check out the behind-the-scenes featurette on "Backyardigans" on the same page for a soundbite from Lurie.)
"It really feels like an accomplishment. I hope I'm expanding the musical vocabulary of a generation," says Lurie. "We go for styles of music they may never hear anywhere else."
Most of the regular half-hour episodes require Lurie and his collaborator, Douglas Wieselman, to deliver four original tunes, plus an overarching theme and incidental music. To Nickelodeon's credit, Lurie says they've never pushed producers to forgo the esoteric fare for more popular styles, a la rap and hip-hop.
"Backyardigans'" other big focus is to encourage kids to get kids off the couch and in touch with their inner Alvin Ailey. The characters perform dance routines to Lurie's tunes that are carefully choreographed for by Alvin Ailey Dance School alum Beth Bogush. They don't take the cheap route just because it's kidvid, Lurie says.
"Nickelodeon understands that if I'm going to do a Rossini piece, I'm going to need 25 musicians. They've always been pretty good about letting us have the money required to do what we want to do," Lurie says.
Even for someone who's lived a life steeped in music, the challenge of creating original works in a wide range of genres has been an education unto itself.
"We're constantly switching gears, we're and listening to hours of stuff you'd never imagine you'd be listening to," he says, citing a palette ranging from samba to Italian pop to Bollywood to Sly and the Family Stone.
"We've got a Motown episode" coming up, Lurie says. "I've been listening to that stuff for so many years but without really hearing everything that was going on on those tracks. Going back and pulling it apart was really fascinating."
Lurie (pictured at right) and Wieselman are involved in the production of each episode from the get-go, starting with the story outline and through the final-final edits. Between meshing the music with the lyrics penned by the show's writers, the choreography, the animation and recording the vocal tracks for the tunes from the kids who provide the character voices, the production process on each half-hour seg takes about a month.
Lurie's entree into the kidvid biz, after scoring a number of indie and foreign pics, came through his brother, who worked with artist Dan Yaccarino on an animated TV commercial. When Yaccarino was setting up the animated series "Oswald" with Nick Jr., he mentioned John Lurie as someone he'd like to recruit to handle the music. John recommended Yaccarino try his brother, and it was a good tip.
Evan Lurie delivered to "Oswald" segs scores and original tunes that made a good show that much better. Even by Nickelodeon's high standards, the soundtrack of "Oswald" stands out for its originality and exquisite craftsmanship. Lurie's chamber music riffs and jaunty-jazzy original song compositions added warmth and depth to the sweet-natured story of an earnest blue octopus, his hot-dog shaped dog Weenie and their moral adventures in Big City.
"Backyardigans" was coming together at Nick around the time "Oswald" was wrapping. As it happened, Lurie was a longtime friend of "Backyardigans" creator/exec producer Janice Burgess. After his impressive work on "Oswald," it was a no-brainer for Lurie to be tasked with keeping up with the "Backyardigans."
The demands of the show hasn't left Lurie much time for film scoring in the past few years, though he is at present working on the Stanley Tucci-helmed indie "Blind Date."
"In certain ways scoring a movie is surprisingly similar to (kidvid); in others it's completely different," Lurie says. He did a movie for Steve Buscemi a few years ago, 2005's "Lonesome Jim," and had to resist the urge to put in a musical "sting" every time a character delivered a corny line or mentioned a particular food product.
"You don't have to help the audience understand what has happened as much," he says. "Unless it's cute. Then I always hit it."
As a coda, just because we can (thank you YouTube), here's two glimpses of Evan Lurie in action with the Lounge Lizards in their prime.
First, a 1988 rendition of "Voice of Chunk" from the memorable NBC latenight series "Night Music," hosted by musician David Sanborn.
Second, a clip of "Bob the Bob" from what appears to be a jazz festival perf in Germany in 1989.
For further enlightenment, click here to check out John Lurie's website.