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Reflections of Orrin

Photo by Howard Pitkow

Photo by Howard Pitkow

Among the many small things I have to be thankful for (amid the many large things that I curse) is having had the opportunity to listen to Orrin Evans’s Flip the Script (2012) before the hearing loss in my left ear migrated to my right and absconded with my beloved piano. The album was a best-of-the-year pick in the New York City Jazz Record that a few-minute YouTube clip was enough to sell me on; I picked it up at Chicago’s envy-inspiring Jazz Record Mart, on a perfect too-cold June afternoon, on stopover between overnight legs on Amtrak. (Lake Michigan was restless as the ocean; the Blackhawks scored when I stopped for a beer: perfect.) I wouldn’t get around to hearing it until a couple of weeks later, driving around upstate New York, each successive track convincing me that there isn’t a better jazz pianist working today, certainly no one who can do as much with taking classic forms and turning them, as the title suggests, on their heads. I’m thankful, too, that I got to hear Evans once live when I could still more or less hear the actual notes he was playing, rather than the neighboring tones my brain decides to substitute, in its desperation to make sense of the data; and that I got to see Evans again, at least, even though pretty much everything he played sounded out of tune to me.

1

At the Vanguard, early August. The Steve Wilson quartet—Wilson on alto and soprano, Bill Stewart on drums, Ugonna Okegwo on bass. I’d caught the train down from the gardens of the Union Settlement Association, East Harlem, where the ever-impressive Sam Newsome had done a spot-on impression of Coltrane—split tones, circular breathing, “sheets of sound,” the whole nine yards—and things with Monk and to Monk that would have made Monk stop spinning. Between milking the short, edifying set in Harlem and grabbing a coffee on my way to the Vanguard, I barely made the first set. The lights went down just as I reached the bottom of the stairs. The club was packed. The hostess asked me softly if I’d prefer to sit right up next to the piano or in the back. My hesitation must have expressed that neither option was particularly desirable. I was actually contemplating bumming around the Village for a while and coming back for the 10:30.

Then she said, “Follow me. I have a nice seat for you upstairs.”

How could I not? The lights had just gone down, and the hostess’s voice had all the seduction of servile authority. I followed her up the stairs on the right side of the bandstand, to the corridor of tables that leads smack into the drum kit. Maybe she was in touch with some higher being who knew what was in store for me, who had said to her, “Give him a good seat. After tonight, he’s fucked.” Or maybe she’d mistaken me for some critic or other; I have a friend who always gets free food at the Standard, and he thinks that’s why. (I did pull out my notebook after the set and write down some observations, just to reinforce the potential misimpression—not that I wouldn’t have done so anyway, just under a streetlamp in Abingdon Square instead of at the club.) Whatever the reason, she sent some poor tourist back to the masses huddled on the couches across the aisle, and sat me alone at the first table on the left.

It was indeed a good seat. It wasn’t just the clear visibility of all the band members, piano, sax and bass to the left of the pillar rising up from the bannister at the end of the landing, drums to the right. For you see, on the wall to Evans’s left was a black-and-white photo of Tommy Flanagan. In the photo, Flanagan sits in profile, facing the same direction as Evans. It’s a very dark photo, and Flanagan wears black, so that the only things you can really see are his face, head tilted back, glasses lit, and the long necklace he is wearing, and his hands on the keys of the keyboard. It’s dark like those Roy DeCarava pictures, where black musicians half-dissolve into the shadows of the music’s mythological urbanness: the deep chiaroscuro of the city, the underworlds of speakeasies, that whole hazy Brassai aesthetic. They are pictures that seem to rewrite the very idea of blackness. Flanagan, after all, is the whitest thing in this photograph.

The remarkable thing was not that Evans played next to a photo of Flanagan, a kind of mise-en-abyme of the pianist, as though we might expect to see a picture of a pianist (Mary Lou Williams? Fats Waller? Flanagan himself?) in the picture, behind Flanagan. It was that, from this very good seat the hostess had secured for me, Evans was reflected in the Flanagan photo, so that I could see the ghostly image of his face, his newsboy’s cap, in the abyss of Flanagan’s turtleneck. Even more suggestive, the image was clearer when Wilson, who stood just to the right of the keyboard, stepped up to solo. Wilson wore a white shirt, and the white was clearly visible in the blackness of the turtleneck, framing Evans with a sort of halo, each musician nested inside the other, generation by receding generation, like Russian dolls. It wasn’t Evans, then, playing under the watchful eye of the spirit of Flanagan, gone from us so recently, present only as an image on the wall (or a disc), but rather the image of the living Evans that haunted Flanagan, head ducking and bobbing to the funkiness inside Flanagan, like an infant kicking in Flanagan’s belly. Like Evans was a space in Flanagan he filled. I suppose this means that Flanagan, like all great musicians, created a framework of ideas, and that all such frameworks create new spaces for other musicians to fill—make those spaces audible, because such spaces don’t exist until they have been given shape by someone’s music. And Evans is just that sort of player, not radically extending the vocabulary of the music, but rather finding those spaces inside blues and funk and bop to re-create idiomatically.

2

Smalls, around the corner, less than a month later. On any other night I’d have come here to see Donny McCaslin, the leader, but this night I came to see Evans. I can hear McCaslin; the tone gets dirty, doubled over part of the tenor’s range, but the actual notes still pierce through. Not so with piano, except at the extremes of its range. So I am here to listen to Donny, and to Billy Drummond, a Shandyesque name if ever there was one, but to watch Evans.

Smalls, as you may remember if you have ever been there, has a mirror hanging above and to the left of the keyboard, angled down, so that you can see the pianist’s hands from most of the ten rows of chairs, and a second mirror behind the drum kit, for an analogous reason. I have never asked for pink champagne on ice. Should I? A couple of times someone knocked the mirror inadvertently, once as they were bringing out an extra music stand out from the back, and the keyboard bobbed and rocked like a canoe slightly disturbed by another’s wake. In the mirror, the hands go the opposite way, high keys to the left of the phantom hands. It’s a bit like watching other dancers in the mirror of a studio, when you’re trying not to watch yourself.

When Evans found his groove, his neck would start to move, his hands to obey an interior rhythm, he would start to flash smiles across at Drummond. By watching those Sidney Poitier-beautiful hands in the mirror, and the pigeon-jut of the neck, the hop and roll of his shoulders as he began to fully inhabit the music, I guess I hoped that something of what I couldn’t hear would be translated to me directly, bodily. And maybe it was, and always is, when one is enveloped by such a presence. When McCaslin gets going, the ideas, those big rhythmic structures like the outlines of skyscrapers, flood and fill his horn; you feel the inspiration pouring out rather than just hearing it. The music is as much a personality as a series of pitches. And I think that as a player, Evans is enough like McCaslin—a similar love of pattern and repetition—that I could just imagine hearing Evans in the shadow of McCaslin’s tenor.

Drummond ended his last solo without his drums, waving his sticks across the edges of his cymbals, forehand and backhand, like a wizard with two wands. Thirty-two perfect chimes, and then the ending chorus.

Little things. Try to remember to be thankful for little things.

*

It used to be that the words were never quite enough to reach the music, and so I reveled in them, used them to cut out a sort of silhouette or stencil that would give shape to the music in the reader’s mind, but which was only ever the contours of a hole, an absence I could not fill. It was one way to adapt to the condition of being damned. But I did not truly understand the meaning of damned until, for some instruments, at certain pitches, even the notes were withheld from me. Now the words can no longer pretend to be anything other than what they are, to speak any reality or have any deep and actual connection to the notes they aspire to, like fish to the air, like the circle to the sphere. I cannot tap a wand on them and, presto, make them leap off the page. I can only dig deeper with them, which means into them, like a prisoner left to excavate his own pen.

I’ve written before, or at least suggested, that there is a moment in all music writing when the words have to leave the music behind, to acknowledge their separateness, the void in which they exist. This is the moment that some musicians seem to despise or resent: when the words no longer become “really about” the music, but only about themselves. (You know the criticisms: self-indulgent, pseudo-poetic, etc.) It is the point that every piece of writing about music must reach, if it is to be successful. I think it is despised and resented, too, because it is the moment when the writer sneaks around behind the music and, words like a flashlight, lifts up the music’s skirts. How could I not be punished for such a transgressive thought, and for such hubris? You say you can do without the music. Well, there you are. Words for you. Nothing but words.

When music becomes no more than words, then damned you are, damned, and damned utterly.

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