The Tall Men Group makes music to soothe your ailing soul.
BY: Cuyler Gibbons Photos by Christopher Broughton
For many of us, our first live concert stands out as a rite of passage and subsequent shows like signposts of the times throughout our past. At some point however, most of us, as a result of competing interests and responsibilities, age out of road trips and regular concert attendance, and begin to spend less if any time at the clubs we once frequented to hear music performed live. Especially in times of discord like these however, where the sounds of our present day and our politics in particular, have become so dissonant and out of tune with the reality beyond Washington DC, real music, when created and performed with true heart and soul can be exactly the balm we need.
If you want to make music real enough to touch people and provide some solace in troubled times it helps if you’ve lived a bit yourself. We are fortunate enough to live in an area rich with musical talent, but in the venues where it can be found, relative youth rules across much of the landscape. Jimmy Yessian, a former music industry professional and lifelong performer now of a certain age, was not immune to that reality. “There seems to be no real market for guys my age to get out there and do it,” He says, “I was frustrated by that.” That’s where the Tall Men Group comes in.
Songwriting, as much as any art form, relies on a mysterious alchemy to produce truly inspired examples of the craft. Words that lay flat and uninspiring on the page, are borne aloft on the wings of melody. A merely pleasant tune, elevated by the appropriate words, becomes an emotional firehose…or scalpel, capable of eliciting laughter or tears and sometimes both. Properly interpreted a song is far more than the sum of its words and tune.
Friendship is a lot like that. The chemistry that defines real friendship is as rare and mysterious as it is powerful. And the larger the group, the more powerful and mysterious the dynamics. So when 6 friends, successful songwriters all, get together to make music you can expect some real magic to result. Either that, or the end of some old friendships. Fortunately, in the case of the Tall Men Group, the friendships and the magic endure, and the sense of camaraderie and connection they project, is front and center, and exactly the point. That and some songwriting you won’t soon forget.
Recently I met with Jimmy Yessian and Marty Axelrod, two members of the Tall Men Group, at Axelrod’s Mount Washington home, over a plate of Yessian’s pasta. Jimmy Yessian’s food it turns out is both excellent, and integral to the formation and ongoing success of the collective creative efforts of these six old friends.
Technology, in the form of the internet, rolled over art, culture and commerce of all kinds like a tidal wave, disrupting entrenched and long practiced business models. Few industries, however, saw the status quo obliterated the way it was in the music industry. Back in the fall of 2011, Jimmy Yessian looked around at the industry carnage and chaos and “wanted to know…what my song writing friends were doing with the music business in such disarray…how they’re getting gigs and promoting themselves.”
Yessian is a former music industry Creative Development VP. Originally from the Bronx, he’s also a long time So. California songwriter, performer and record producer, but despite his psychotherapist wife’s encouragement—“Stop putting rocks in the road!” she told him—Yessian wasn’t sure his idea had legs. So when he reached out to a group of guys who’d all originally met playing the monthly songwriter night—Western Beat—at a coffee house called Highland Grounds, he thought he might need to sweeten the pot. So when he suggested they start getting together for a regular monthly conversation on all things music, he promised to cook for everyone as well. Whether it was the promise of a fruitful discussion, or Yessian’s food that sealed the deal, everyone replied that they were in. They got together the second Tuesday of January 2012, and after a spirited night of conversation, as everyone prepared to leave, Axelrod brought up a tried and true workshop prompt with the question “So what’s the challenge?”
This method of stimulating creativity is not new, but as Yessian says “I hadn’t planned that far. I didn’t think these guys would say yes!” But they had said yes and, this being the start of a new year, they determined the first challenge would be to write a song about new beginnings. The challenge turned out to be as prescient as it was apropos. Now some five years on, Axelrod, along with Severin Browne, John Stowers, Ed Tree, and Jeff Kossack have continued to meet the second Tuesday of each month at Yessian’s home. All continue to perform separately or in smaller groups, but together perform as the Tall Men Group, and have recently released their third CD, aptly named Feast.
Amazingly these are the only five guys Yessian sent his original pitch to. As he says “I know many talented songwriters in town, but I just had a feeling that we would all click.” Though none were born here all are longtime Southland residents. And all have been regular features of the local singer/songwriter scene. Marty Axelrod, a movie industry executive when not wearing his musical cape, plays keys and is a well known local performer. Ed Tree, in addition to performing, is best known as a record producer, who’s ubiquity is evident in the “One Degree to Ed Tree” concerts held in his name. Severin Browne began recording for Motown at the age of 20 and has been making music for over 40 years. Jeff Kossack bailed on his corner office in the design world in 2005 to do what he loved and has produced over 100 artists since then in his Otherhand Recording studio, in addition to performing with Yessian as From Different Mothers, and John Stowers, another local live music fixture, and the recipient of a 2004 Billboard World Song Contest award, who’s CD, Everything You Do, was released in 2006. And yes, all are over six feet tall. Though as Yessian says, the name is not as much about their personal stature, as it is about their commitment to standing tall in support of each other.
Whatever the insight, intuition, or serendipity of Yessian’s original choice of co-conspirators – Alexrod laughingly calls it “genius”—the appeal of the Tall Men Group is not just, or even mostly, in the abundant talent of its individual members, but it the collective warmth, respect, and good humor they display amongst themselves and to their audience. In a world that often seems like it’s gone mad, the Tall Men Group can provide some big medicine that will go down easy and leave you smiling and feeling better…long after the music is over.