Quiet as it’s kept, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson might be the biggest Prince nerd on the planet.
On Saturday, the acclaimed drummer of The Roots will demonstrate his years’ worth of studying, following and playing with Prince to metro Atlanta with “4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince.”
Questlove, as he is commonly known, will not play at the show, but he curated the concert tour, which will be performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at the Verizon Amphitheatre. It features a live band and guest singers, so expect the concert to be a mix of classic songs and deep cuts, as well as rare photos and videos.
“People know that I am such a natural Prince fan,” Questlove told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “When he died, I was teaching at New York University, including some courses on Prince. My job now is basically to explain to people why he was such a genius on the level of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.”
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Taking a break from rehearsal for “The Tonight Show,” where The Roots are the house band, Questlove explained the curation process and shared some gems.
Who does Prince belong to?
Questlove said when he was approached by the Prince estate to curate the concert series, he was initially reluctant.
“Prince is one of those artists who is guarded by his estate and fanbase, everyone likes to claim him, so for me, I was slow to come to the altar to sort of involve myself in any manner. For me, I wanted to still enjoy being a fan of Prince. When this project came along, it piqued my interested because I wanted to see it done right and creatively.”
Prince: A cult artist with an A-list sensibility
Since Prince’s death in 2016, there have been countless tributes, usually following his own performance blueprint of rock, funk and soul. Playing Prince’s music with an orchestra brings it to a new level, Questlove said.
“As a fan and person who curates and does shows, I thought that the most important thing is to show that Prince’s music was very intellectual and that it had a ripple effect,” Questlove said. “His cord structures and his compositions are deeper than anyone else. You can take his entire catalog and catalog it in any genre. To hear the lushness of his music in orchestration is important. It is a very interesting way to showcase his music. … With Prince’s music, there are a lot of things that the average musician misses in just listening to it.”
You won’t hear ‘Batdance’
At the beginning of the process of curating the show, Questlove was presented a list of songs for consideration. You know, “Little Red Corvette,” “Purple Rain,” “1999,” and yes, “Batdance,” Prince’s fourth No. 1 single, following “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Kiss.”
“It was just the hits,” Questlove said. “I was like, guys, I don’t know about ‘Batdance.’”
Instead, the performance will blend the hits with deep album cuts and B-sides. There will also be a lot of inside references to rare concerts and performances that only die-hards will pick up on.
“I want people to hear the hits we all know and love,” Questlove said, “but I want people to say, ‘Wow! They included that?’”
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Who was Clare Fischer?
Clare Fischer was an American composer and arranger who worked with everybody from Donald Byrd to Dizzy Gillespie. As early as 1982, the two started collaborating, with Fischer most notably writing and arranging the orchestrations for Prince’s 1986 film, “Under the Cherry Moon,” and the accompanying soundtrack, “Parade.”
Curiously, the two never actually met, as Prince would send Fischer songs and Fischer would add strings and send them back.
“As a die-hard, I want to make sure his work with Clare Fischer wasn’t overlooked,” Questlove said. “We had to include the work of Clare.”
While not giving any specifics away, Questlove said the concert will feature a heavy dose of Fischer’s work from “Parade,” as well as from the Prince group The Family.
Fischer’s son, Grammy winner Brent Fischer, was enlisted to arrange selected music titles into an orchestral setting. Additionally, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, a multi-instrumentalist, session musician, composer, producer, conductor and DJ, will handle instrumentation for the concert.
‘Cloreen Bacon Skin’ and a $200 cab ride
Before the days of ride-sharing, Questlove was chilling at his place in New Jersey one November night at around midnight when he got a strange call from Prince’s assistant, who was always ambiguous with pronouns.
Caller: He wants to know if you are free to play with him.
Questlove: It’s 12:30. Where is he?
Caller: He is in New York City. He wants you to be there. He really wants you to be there.
Questlove: That is a $200 cab ride.
Caller: So what time can you get here?
“Prince knows you know it is an honor to work for him. So, my dumb ass gets up, dead freezing and go. I get there at quarter to two,” Questlove recalled, adding that Prince picked the venue because he liked the macaroni and cheese.
For at least three hours, Questlove watches.
“I was like, am I playing or watching? Then at around 5 a.m., he started playing the baseline and looked at me and I knew. He started playing ‘Cloreen Bacon Skin.’ We played ‘Cloreen Bacon Skin’ for a half-hour. It was the best. I knew he did that just for me.
“Now, I am doing this for him.”
“4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince” with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15. $29-$99. Verizon Amphitheatre, 2200 Encore Parkway, Alpharetta. vzwamp.com.