The Iridium is the sort of place that makes you feel like a tourist in your own city. It’s the Caesars Palace of jazz clubs, a place where you resign yourself to shelling out fifty bucks to hear the legends of yesteryear, talk to out-of-towners in third-grade English, and sip overpriced drinks. I have a vague recollection it wasn’t always like this, that it was less mercenary before moving from its Dali-inspired digs across from Lincoln Center to the basement of the Stardust Diner at the north end of Times Square. Today, if you’re not careful, you’ll wander right past the club entrance and into the diner, among the bright lights and singing waitstaff and people from Iowa. You’ll vainly look for the door at the back of the diner that says “Iridium” instead of “Restrooms,” until some busboy takes pity on you, spins you around, and gives you a shove; and then, skirting the waitress belting out something from Show Boat, and to frivolous applause, you’ll find yourself back at the front door, where, if you’re extraordinarily lucky, some other good samaritan might just point you to the staircase leading down.
The basement is all murmur and dim rather than loud and bright, club versus diner, but don’t be fooled: the Iridium and the Stardust are very much of a piece. Times Square hammers everything into the same matrix, ensures consistency as much as any brand. Last year I came here to see Alan Holdsworth, that rumpled gentleman of the electric guitar, and the events calendar on my table big-named an upcoming performance by David Coverdale. Of Whitesnake! it said, in case the name of that justly-forgotten supergroup had escaped you. I just can’t imagine Birdland or even the Blue Note doing the same.
For the Holdsworth gig—and probably for the Coverdale gig, too—the club filled up with men my age, come to watch their elderly hero or mentor with the same rapt attention that the patrons of the gentlemen’s club a block up Broadway watch women take off their clothes. I confess that I learn more about myself at such shows than about, say, playing the guitar. For one, Holdsworth wasn’t revealing any secrets, and so made his achievements on that instrument seem all the more astonishing—in fact, I got the impression that he was flabbergasted by his own technique. And then I see other versions of myself in the audience, and wonder, for example, why my beard doesn’t look that way, or why I’m not taking pictures of Holdsworth’s effects rack, or whether I’ve become too curmudgeonly in my early forties—I generally don’t think to bring earplugs to jazz clubs, but a lot of other people obviously had, and that Holdsworth guy, Jesus, he was too loud.
But then David Coverdale was playing here next week. What was I thinking?
I was eighteen the first time I heard Alex Skolnick, and so was he. This was 1987, and Testament had just put out their first album, The Legacy, one of a handful of truly great metal albums to come out of the exploding Bay Area scene in the late ‘80s. Even in a genre that defines itself partly by guitar virtuosity—and sometimes, alas, by little else—Alex was a bright bright star. That he was “our” age made him that much more a hero.
Five years and as many albums later, Alex quit Testament, and a few years after that entered the New School to study jazz. There, he put together a trio with the idea of treating classic metal tunes as jazz standards. Instead of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, it would be Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest and the Scorpions—the so-called “new standard” taken to its logical extreme. So far as I know, he’s been working on and off with that trio since the early ‘00s, dividing his time between them and other projects … including a 2008 reunion album and tour with Testament (huzzah!).
I had tried to see the Skolnick trio when they were gigging semi-regularly at the Knitting Factory some years ago, but stuff had always gotten in the way. When I saw him scheduled to play the Iridium—on Memorial Day, no less—something clicked. Here was Alex, old friend, blood brother, who had followed the same musical trajectory as I had, albeit as a performer instead of listener. We were finally going to get the chance to catch up.
The show was listed as “Les Paul Mondays with the Alex Skolnick Trio,” so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Nor did the guy on the other end of the reservations line have a clue. As it turned out, the Les Paul Trio (sans Paul, since his death a couple of years ago) played for about a half hour; then they invited Alex out to jam with them on “Caravan” and “How High the Moon”; then the Les Paul players fled the stage, and Alex brought his guys out to play their renditions of Metallica’s “Fade to Black” and Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye,” together with three or four originals.
He seemed nervous jamming with the Les Paul players, and a little sketchy, too. And he looked … old. I mean, older than me. I couldn’t help but think of “Sonny’s Blues”: I was the safe brother, the narrator, the one who became a teacher (math in Baldwin’s story, English in mine), and Alex was Sonny, the “searching” brother who had given himself to music, the one with whom I had just been reunited, and who now looked like he’d aged past his years, past mine. But then he had always looked older, even when we were both eighteen. He was a rock star, larger than life; he was in pictures on my wall.
And yet … he acted like such a kid. The nerves, like he’d been called up to solo in high school band. He gave a shout out to his dad, who was sitting at the bar, and who had brought him here, he said, to see Les Paul. He showed off his signed box set of Les Paul CDs to the audience. He said the Les Paul trio was the epitome of something called “class,” and asked, “What the hell are we [the Skolnick trio] doing here?” (He might have asked the same about David Coverdale.) He seemed unable to catch up with himself, always a step behind his own excitement. He had seen Les Paul at the Iridium! And John Scofield, too! And tonight he had brought along his own Les Paul, to play part of the gig on!
So there you are, brother Alex, all grown up and ever-older than me, still a big kid. It was heavy metal fan culture transposed onto jazz, yes; but I also wondered if I was glimpsing something larger, about the nature of celebrity, or at least rock-n-roll celebrity: all these aging children, warped that way, like Carlos Fuentes’s “Doll Queen” (I won’t give the ending away, in case you haven’t read it), not in this case by the unnatural desire of parents, but by the similarly unnatural desires of mass culture.
I don’t know about class, but combining the Skolnick and Les Paul trios was definitely an exercise in incongruity. The latter played to the theater crowd: nothing over three minutes, everything standard as standard could be, and most of it with vocal accompaniment. I hadn’t seen the trio since the late ‘90s, when Paul was still the leader: the original Johnny Carson of the guitar, though a bit randier in his humor, all looking up girls’ skirts and tricking his bandmates into sitting on whoopee cushions. It was nice to see Lou Pallo still holding down the fort on rhythm guitar, comping with the relaxed aplomb of a gondolier pushing down a Venetian canal. He can’t solo or play a melody to save his life, but that had been Les’s job, after all … and one gets the impression that this dour soul was happier being Ed McMahon. As for the rest of the band—Nicki Parrott on bass, John Colianni on piano—they have more talent than I can possibly do justice to in a few sentences. But let me try with Ms Parrott, who so embodies the essence of performance that she transcends the Times Square aesthetic, perhaps by most fully embracing it. Beautiful, blessed with a sultry voice and a great feel for her instrument. There was a point in the set that I was about to start beating my glass on the table and chanting Skol-nick, Skol-nick; but I swear, if all I had heard that night was her rendition of “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” I would have gone home content. They said the tune had been one of Les’s favorites, but she very much made it her own.
Surely the most memorable moment of the evening, though, happened a tune or so later, when Pallo invited Alex out to play. “We’re going to bring out now a very talented young man” (don’t you love it? Goddamn, I am YOUNG!) “… he’s some sort of heavy … rock … heavy rocker … what is that? Heavy metal, that’s it!” (laughter from the band; applause from the audience at the back tables) “… but now he decided that he wanted to play jazz” (uproarious laughter from the rest of the band, I mean, baby, this is just a GAS, a HEAVY ROCKER who wants to play JAZZ? baby, can you dig it?) “and he’s an absolutely fabulous player … please welcome to the stage Mr Alex Slotnick!” (close enough … maybe cue cards next time?)
Out loped Alex in that tight-jeans metal way, as hobbled as if he’d worked those five years on a chain gang, head bobbing, long foofy hair with a skunky streak in it. He cut a pose with the trio for the paparazzi, playing along with them, face all metal-serious, the devil horns in his left hand.
I couldn’t make this shit up, but somebody’s got to write it down.
As for the “Slotnick” trio and their music: some of it was austere, some of it bluesy, and some of it enjoyably kitsch, and consciously so. You can’t write a tune called “Bollywood Jam” without a pretty deep appreciation of the traditions you’re pulling together. Once the “Jam” got going, it reminded me of nothing so much as early Al DiMeola. This makes sense: I imagine that Alex and I both discovered Land of the Midnight Sun and Elegant Gypsy right around the same impressionable time in our lives, probably through our respective guitar teachers (though I can’t claim to have studied with Joe Satriani). Probably we had both sat with our ears close to our stereo speakers, trying to pick up those badass riffs from “Race with the Devil on a Spanish Highway” and working on our right hand speed picking patterns, heads nodding … yes, of course, metal and jazz, it makes sense, as much sense as anything, and there we all were, the guys at the front tables, all these superannuated headbangers bobbing our heads in unison.
But it’s not like the New School would have let him get away with just DiMeola, likely among the baggage he brought along with him. Alex had obviously had the Wes Montgomery on heavy rotation, as he shaped those solos from notes to octaves. And there was at least one other classic bop influence whose name was on the tip of my tongue … and will likely remain there until I have a chance to pick up one of the trio’s records and myself put it on heavy rotation.
In terms of the metal tunes, “Fade to Black” was the more interesting of the two, smartly arranged, from the use of effects loops to record and carry on the opening chord progression under Kirk Hammett’s original solo, to an extended jam on the “Stairway”/ “Watchtower”/ etc. finale. Maybe “Fade to Black” is just a more interesting tune to re-imagine than “Electric Eye,” which came across sort of flat. Or, since the Metallica is a more recent “cover” than the Priest, maybe it’s the case that Skolnick is seeing the music with enough distance now that he can really play with it. Or maybe it was the Paulite influence—those inventive loops. (As Alex put it, “He [Paul] was doing loops before there were loops.”)
The question, it seems to me, is not “Can metal be played as jazz?”—anything can be played as jazz—but rather, “Should metal be played as jazz?” On this I think the jury’s still out. Not that I don’t admire Alex for trying. But then I’ve always admired him—his prodigious technique, his verve and imagination as a soloist, his contribution to those heavy harmonies that defined Testament’s sound, and his thirst to keep expanding himself as a musician.
As for whether one should play metal as jazz, I will end with this, an observation-cum-aphorism: Holdsworth was louder.