Fred Rogers’ warm presence on television helped scores of viewers get hooked on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and learn valuable life lessons. But there were other things that made it easy to latch on to his messages. For one thing, Rogers was a pretty ingenious tunesmith. Even when his lyrics were simple and direct, the chord changes beneath them were extremely sophisticated. It also helped that Rogers had a swinging pianist accompanying him on the show, putting all those harmonic possibilities into play.
Johnny Costa was the pianist, improvising behind the show’s dialogue, providing the immortal entrance music for the Neighborhood Trolley and making “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” sound fresh for 28 years. In 1984, he recorded Johnny Costa Plays Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Jazz, stretching out a bit on the songs he played five days a week on the show. Originally released by his boss’ independent record label, the album has become a coveted collector’s item—and now makes its CD debut.
Dubbed “the white Art Tatum” by no less than Art Tatum himself, Costa excelled at out-of-tempo introductions that shifted into rapid glissandos. The left hand stride he exercises in “Many Ways to Say I Love You” takes a tender ballad and puts some fire behind it. “Children Can” and “I Like to Take My Time” might have begun life as lighter fare, but Rogers had a way with a middle eight, and Costa bears down on them. His range over his entire instrument doesn’t necessarily need accompaniment, but bassist Carl McVicker provides some solid walking lines to several tracks and drummer Bobby Rawsthorne adds some urgency to the set as needed.
Fred Rogers never dumbed things down for his “television friends.” In fact, this album proves that he and Costa were pretty deep.
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