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Big Ditty

john-scofield     John Scofield has recorded so much and so eclectically over the last few decades that making grand claims about his sound based on the music of a single album might seem suspect. And it would be, were that sound, that musical personality, that Sco-accent, not so immediately recognizable, whether he’s playing funk, roots, fusion or bop. If I choose 1993’s What We Do as my microcosm, it is not because I think it particularly representative, or even particularly transparent. It is simply the Scofield album I know best: the first one I owned—one of the first jazz records I ever bought, in fact—and an album I have listened to with a relentlessness almost worthy of the canonical rock records of my teenage years.

As a composer, Scofield is a master of creating a feeling of spontaneous gravity, of deep but momentary commitment. On first listening, the tunes on What We Do likely seem slight. Even many of the titles announce them as barely-sketched springboards for improvisation: “Little Walk,” “Camp Out,” “Why Nogales?” I’m just going out for a minute. Let’s sing around the fire. Why NOT Nogales? Somehow, these ditties tossed out for the musicians to bobble hint at bigger, weightier things, suggest much more than they say. At once playful and serious, they dance along a surface, dipping a toe in here and there. By meditating on trivial things, they hang on the cusp of revelations. It is hard to think of many jazz composers who have been so successful at wedding the flippant and profound. Monk was another.

This feeling is created partly by Scofield’s approach to melody: sometimes they seem to grow organically under the listener’s ear, notes accreting on notes, as though they were records of the composing process, of the stumbles and turns and cul-de-sacs of the composing imagination. But it is partly the way he plays his melodies, too—or rather, the way he plays, period. These are not paper melodies, sequences of pitches abstractly imagined. Rather, they are a by-product of his approach to the guitar—his touch, his phrasing, his physical relationship to the instrument—in a word, his sound: the almost-timid palpating of notes as he feels his way forward; the sudden, strong accents; the phrasing that keeps him always a little behind, smelling the flowers, while the rhythm section tugs him forward; the discreet use of flange and gain. Simply put, if Scofield didn’t play the guitar the way he does, he would not write the sort of music he does. And if this is pretty much true of all musician-composers, it is profoundly, uncommonly, confessionally true of John Scofield. So many of the melodic kernels on What We Do sound like what comes out of the guitar when he straps it on, when he’s not thinking of anything particularly important, when he’s just passing the time, when his mind is wandering one way and his hands another. The art is in the capture: when those paths cross, unexpectedly—there is the moment of composition. (“Hey, man,” Hendrix mocks the blues, “it’s rainin’ outside, man.” Like Jimi, Scofield watches those raindrops scooting down his window and turns them into music.)

Listen, for example, to the melody of “Little Walk,” the three-note motive that introduces both song and album, transposed down a step, repeated, and then varied more in rhythm and phrasing than in the notes used to form a bare-bones resolution. The melody doesn’t fully appear until the second time through, when the rest of the quartet joins in, with Joe Lovano out ahead on alto.* The first time, guitar alone, each of the notes that form the outline of the melody is shadowed by a low note on the off-beat: brushed, barely audible, coloring the main line with that hint of gain, creating a deep, easy swing that paces the rest of the song. These subtle accents are a hallmark of Scofield’s sound: whispered parentheticals, half-formed thoughts flitting on the margins, ghostly choruses floating around the melody. Or think of them as the consonants or syllables swallowed in spoken language that we hear more with our minds than our ears. There is just such an oral quality to Scofield’s playing, of someone speaking with you—not to you, but with you—about matters apparently insignificant—how to mow the grass, the shape of a dragonfly’s wing—but so intimately and with such subtle emphasis as to touch on things unreckoned. There is a breathiness, too, almost a bowed quality to the dynamics of his playing—again, in “Little Walk,” the unhurried rise and fall of the wedges of melody. It is not cantabile we hear, but conversation: interjections, asides, laughter.

“Little Walk” can serve as a template for the other medium-to-slow cuts on the record. Scofield generally precedes Lovano; when the latter enters, the brunt of the melody is ceded to the alto, the guitar harmonizing with and commenting on the melody rather than simply doubling it, something between a second horn and the traditional comping of a rhythm-section guitar. The gain is always there, shadowing the notes rather than throttling them; but harmonizing like this really brings it out, coloring each moment with the distinct resonances of different intervals, making gain a tool for expression rather than a mere element of the overall sound. Examples abound, but perhaps the most spectacular is when Scofield allows a dissonant, four-note arpeggio to ring together at the climax of the melody of “Easy for You.” (There is more than a little of the blues in this, except that Scofield’s harmonies are more rarified and equivocal than those preferred by blues players.) The melody of “Why Nogales?” is played freely around rather than with the leisurely corrido rhythm (ride-hihat-hihat, 1-2-3), Lovano shadowing Scofield, Scofield Lovano, giving it an almost tipsy feel, as if the two players were each expecting the other to lead through the steps of a slightly unfamiliar dance. It is not a difficult song to narrativize: the slightly drunken haze through which the girl on the other side of the room is cautiously approached; the two inebriated dancers left alone on the floor after everyone else has passed out or gone on home. But like so many of the tunes on this record, there is a triumphant moment when that hesitation (almost) melts away: here a sort of fanfare, elsewhere a boogie, some fiercer than others, some saucier, sometimes with a wink at the listener. While the other slow tunes keep an easy strut through the solos, in “Why Nogales?” the corrido falls in and out; the rhythmic freedom giving Scofield an even bigger sky than usual under which to improvise, and bassist Dennis Irwin after him. When the melody finally finds its way back into the song, it is on less stable footing, at least in its first iteration: the bass plays a new rhythm in seven, drumer Bill Stewart following on bells and rims while Lovano and Scofield stubbornly weave the old melody over the top. Of all the songs on the record, “Why Nogales?” is the most thrown-open, unstoppered; and in its tone of reluctant festiveness, it perhaps best expresses that quotidian through which larger things—beauty, truth—are unexpectedly, unbelievingly glimpsed. Its position one track from the end of the album makes of it a suitably understated climax.

What We Do does have several more assertive songs played at a faster clip: good-natured, straight-ahead, long-lined romps like “Call 911” and “Say the Word” and “What They Did.” But tempo aside, the “Nogales” feel remains. The burner “Camp Out” extrapolates on “Hello Mother, Hello Father (A Letter from Camp)”: inches upward, fails … then tries again, with a bit more decoration, before arriving at a sort of bugle call, harmonized in major thirds, and then plummeting octave-five-one to begin the climb anew. It is all here, again: the hesitant step; the unanticipated, perhaps mock-epic triumph; the unassuming (even goofy) fragments that add up to more than their sum; the wide open sky for improvisation. In other tunes, it is the variability of the length of the pieces of the melody that creates this feeling, each bit pushing a little further or stopping a little shorter, and in the oddest places, making them difficult to follow or play along to.

All these hallmarks of Scofield the composer translate into his soloing as well. The songs on What We Do all have traditional two-part heads and traded solos, but the way he riffs on the melodies, parodying or worrying them, changing one note out of three or phrasing them differently, furthers the improvised feel of the whole. The preponderance of short phrases, and the gaps between, make the extended runs that much more satisfying when he gets to them: you want to see how long he can surf the wave before he runs out of ideas, or frets. And then he’ll tie off these long, often very symmetrical but harmonically screwy runs with a bluesy tail, or a pinky trill—a sort of punch line to bring himself back into the harmonic fold. There are coloring notes aplenty here, too, with a penchant for seconds and sevenths, Scofield savoring the way his mild distortion resonates in these dissonant intervals. Sometimes, he will build from smaller to larger intervals with descending and ascending lines on adjacent strings, another example of gain serving an expressive moment. Nor is gain the only effect employed with artful infrequency. The flange rears up now and again as well: the disintegrating clang (amp coils?) while he comps Lovano’s solo in “Little Walk”; the trailing off at the conclusion of “Easy for You”; the Hammond B3 sound as he hoists a chord up the neck while trading fours with Stewart on “What They Did.”

*

In hindsight, I wonder if there’s something a little selfish in my attraction to John Scofield. He is one of a handful of guitarists who play in a style I aspire to, who make something lasting out of the sort of noodling I do whenever I pick up the guitar. Not the melodies I sing in my head but cannot quite realize, the sort of thing Hendrix cherished. No: my hands. This is an important distinction. My connection to Scofield is more physical, muscular; a sense of touch and phrasing unites our sensibilities. Those major sevenths with all that beautiful gain, pointer and ringfinger, strumming with the intervening string muted; the simultaneous descending and ascending lines on adjacent strings; the scoops upon scoops—did I play them first, and then hear Sco do it better? or was it him who started me on that trail? I can’t remember. And it doesn’t really matter. Scofield is the groove I’ve always wanted to fall into. His hands speak something about me I can’t; listening to him sets me more clearly on the path to myself.

 

* Lovano has a similarly light touch, scudding over notes on the slower tracks—listen to the way he enters on “Little Walk” or “Big Sky,” the way his notes mist in over the ground Scofield has ceded—or, on the more ribald “Camp Out,” how he comes tripping in over a ricocheting snare, as though a door were flung open at the top of a stairwell inside a listing vessel, and here comes Lovano, stumbling opposite Scofield’s exit, wearing his tap shoes. I probably shouldn’t bring in Monk so gratuitously, but in Lovano Scofield finds his Charlie Rouse, his perfect complement.

The Apotheosis of Blitz

blitz      How did little Blitz grow so tall?

I’d been busy watching the slow striptease of that black satin shirt, a button here, a button there—normally he’d be as topless as a go go girl by the set’s end, this small, gamey man with the boxer’s nose smashed onto his face and the glowering blue eyes. Tonight, though, he only has forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes!We’re runnin’ out of motherfuckin’ time here,” he cries, in a voice that distills twenty-five years of Turnpike grit and Jersey mockery, the voice of an old boardwalk barker or casino whore: wheezy, grating, peppered with expletives, and pierced now and again by hoarse, squealing laughter. He’s trying to get himself off, you see, and he hasn’t yet, and he’s runnin’ out of motherfuckin’ time. When he stands hunched in front of the mic, his head stutters more than bangs, somebody pull the clutch out, Bobby’s stuck. And those big entrances: sprinting for the edge of the stage, catching the mic stand along the way, tilting it over one knee; he has to time them just right to pick up the first words of the verse post-bridge. But with all the head-stuttering and sprinting, with “Rotten to the Core” and “Electric Rattlesnake” and “Wrecking Crew,” with the shirt that comes off in dribs and drabs, he’s still not convinced. And so neither are we. And though we try to give him the energy with our own violent movement and adoring expletives, we know Blitz isn’t there.

And then, during “Elimination,” it happens: Suddenly he is atop the monitors, balancing on one foot, splayed, enormous, chest heaving, driven there by the fury of the music, by the jackhammer in his voice, by the cut-tin edges of his breath driving through that scream, eliminate eliminate eliminate ELIMINATE!—newly tall, this electric man with the boxer’s nose and eyes that dare you to be tall, too. Now the whole band is ready for “Fuck you,” they needed “Elimination” to get them to the brashness of “Fuck you.” And here again, as the song nears its end, Blitz climbs atop the monitors—but slowly this time, squeezes his legs together, holds out his arms, middle fingers raised. A self-crucifixion in blasphemy, or at least vulgarity; the stiffly-raised fingers are the nails from which he hangs. Fully unbuttoned, the shirt clings to either shoulder; the belted pants ride low on his hips, exposing the join of thigh and belly, just shy of decent; his body is a braid of muscle, and entirely hairless, jerked, it seems, by sun, tar and rage. A mirror-Christ. In that moment I am sure he will ascend, hover a few feet over the drum riser in a halo of noise and power, the thin raiment of his shirt still clinging to him, and then disappear up through the lights, his body but the husk and the echo of that voice, its flesh totem.

Somewhere between the becalmed pose of inverted worship and the fragging on the grenade of his own rage—somewhere in that cross of sky-daring rebellion and sneering martyrdom, the soul of metal.

Year of the Oh

linda oh      I came out to hear somebody else, I can’t remember who. This was November of 2011, at Smalls. There were two bands on deck, two sets apiece. Somebody must’ve called in sick, or maybe the second band just asked the bassist to stick around, because she ended up playing all four sets. The old jazzhead sitting next to me wondered aloud if she was the house bass player. That’s all I remember—that, and the last-set bass solo. When it was over, and we got done clapping, we looked at each other as if to say, OK, and where the hell did she come from?

*

Where indeed? Born in Malaysia to parents of Chinese descent, raised in Perth, but that’s hardly an answer. In a global era, for a global music, Perth may just be the new Kansas City, Kuala Lumpur the West Coast. Still and all, rivers always reach New York. And so did she.

I think the pianist Vijay Iyer put it best: “I love the way she just blew into town and took over.” A year and a half ago I’d never heard of her; now, Linda Oh is hard to miss.

*

As so often happens, I lost touch with Oh for a few months after the Smalls show. She became just that amazing female Asian bass player, not to be confused with the other great female Asian bass player who gigs at Pisticci on Sunday nights (really, how many can there be?). And then, twice in March of ‘12, two very different trios: Fabian Almazan’s at the Vanguard, and Oh’s own  at the Rubin museum. Almazan is easily my favorite of the four young pianists spotlighted by Ben Ratliff in his Times article last year. Here, though, I wanted to focus on the Rubin set, and Oh’s first record, Entry, both of which feature Ambrose Akinmusare on trumpet.

From the opening bass strums and trumpet mewls of “Morning Sunset” to the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover for a closer, it’s hard not to hear echoes of the bass-led power trios I whetted my young ears on before coming to jazz. Today, it’s as easy to hear Roy Campbell’s Pyramid Trio, or the early electric Miles. Entry is a raw, heavy, tough, spare record, riff-based and rhythmically-driven, with a feel of bleak avenues and endless rooftops: music for a traveling cityscape, mournful but not without humor, homeless but never rootless, graspingly beautiful. Oh plays with a calculated heaviness, bellyflopping on low notes, slapping those fat strings, letting them hum and buzz. She doesn’t do much walking; when she finally does, at the end of “201,” just a track shy of the end, it’s more swagger than swing. There’s a gangly quality about the playing, too, a rough-and-tumbleness, as if we were waiting for the musicians all to collapse together in a heap.

The songs offer a pretty open terrain to improvise on, and at the Rubin set, as on the record, Akinmusire took full advantage, playing against the grain of the bass, missing high-note climbs by a note before careening back down, skittering into a solo and then backing off with a whine. He liked to fiddle with dynamics—bright, sharp cries and bugle calls followed by long, breathy interludes—his horn less an extension than a purer embodiment of his voice. As for Oh, it’s hard to know where to begin. Watching her play is half the fun; she’s so physically in tune with the music she’s creating that the instrument transforms her. Such a wealth of ideas, such a mastery of the bass’s rich vocabulary of harmonics, taps, strums and slides, and such a happy gift for melody and phrasing—each is rare enough in itself; to find them all together, and in a player so young, seems almost unjust.

Like the album, the set ended with “Soul to Squeeze,” the Chili Peppers ballad, actually a B-side from Blood Sugar Sex Magic. A friend of mine, a great writer, once said that the most affecting moments in fiction are the sort that take the reader by surprise—and very often, the writer as well. Something like this happened at the Rubin set with the Chili Peppers song. I’m not accustomed to being moved in this way by jazz. Exalted, excited, intellectually stimulated, sure. Once, though, I saw George Benson sit in as a vocalist during a Ron Affif set at the Zinc bar, this back in the ‘90s when the Zinc was on Houston and those Monday night jams had become a magnet for New York’s jazz Illuminati. He sang just one song, “All of Me,” and before I knew it there were tears in my eyes. It had nothing to do with the words, or the melody, or emotion per se, as it would with, say, a pop ballad, or a folk song, or a Chopin nocturne. It was rather a sense of presence, of contact, or the momentary revelation of the ideal in the guise of the real, like an avatar. True, “Soul to Squeeze” is a pop ballad; but I think the feeling on this night arose from something closer to the Benson experience. Oh started out with a pensive solo, really embellished statements of the melody, although this only became clear as the solo drew to a close. Then the horn, gently rising. It was like Oh’s bass had opened a door, and Akinmusire’s horn stepped through. An ease of walking, a lightness of step, as if answering some unheard call in the opening couple of bars of bass. They could have stopped there; nothing else needed to be said. You hear this, and the title of Akinmusire’s Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, seems anything but corny. You want every band to do what they did.

When the set ended, someone from the museum came up and hung white stoles around each of the musicians’ necks, which was itself weirdly moving, and so fitting after the last song, blessing them for the blessing they’d brought us.

While I was waiting to pick up a copy of Oh’s new album Initial Here, a couple of music students, probably high school age, were noting to each other (in tones of disapproval) that all the tunes were modal, with none of those tricky bop changes to keep the musicians on their toes, and dissuade amateurs from the bandstand. They were wondering aloud whether she could really play changes—dare I say “keep up with the boys”? I wanted to turn to them and say they should have heard her at Smalls. (In Miles Davis’s gruff whisper: “She can play those changes like a motherfucker.”) A decade from now, after she’s won a Grammy and has a dozen albums under her belt, they’ll be talking about how they saw her when they were eighteen, when they used to have that Friday night music series at the Rubin, before anyone really knew who she was, and with Akinmusire, too, no, dude, I’m not shitting you, really, they used to play together, I’ll burn you her first album. And the younger musicians will regard them with awe and reverence.

It turned out she was hawking her own records. I had to ask her three times what the title of that ending song was; I’d only listened to Entry once at that point, and would only make the connection between the tune and the record later on. Either I couldn’t hear her, or it was the Perth accent; but the third time I asked, she signed it for me: “Soul,” she said, and made some sort of gesture I can’t remember—maybe put her hand on her heart?—“to squeeze”—and she hugged herself, briefly. Now, I have spoken to a fair number of musicians, and the majority have warm personalities, and seem like the sort of people you’d have over for dinner, open a bottle of wine with, maybe even let the conversation wander into politics. They might squeeze your shoulder, as Bob Stewart did mine the other day, big hands of a tuba player, if not your soul. But this exchange was special. She could have said it louder the third time, with that edge of annoyance that greets the tourist who doesn’t know when to stop asking and just smile. Instead, she treated me with the cheerful patience due an elderly ward. I’m not sure what this says, but I know it’s the opposite of bad.

*

By the time I caught Oh again, with her quartet at the Jazz Standard in June, I’d had a few chances to listen to Entry, a few less to Initial Here, the record she was supporting this night. They are as different as the show at the Standard would prove to be from the Rubin, and as both were from Smalls. If Entry is a fledgling, fusiony romp, weighty and starkly beautiful, Initial Here is remarkable at once for the deftness with which it captures the contemporary jazz idiom—Dave Douglas’s quintet comes to mind, as does Dafnis Prieto’s—and for the breadth of styles, rhythms and cadences it exhibits—from the bluesy Ellington spiritual “Come Sunday” to the Sturm-und-Drang drama of “Deeper Than Sad,” the jaunty Caribbeanisms of “Desert Island Dream” and the seemingly cadenceless and deeply moving “Thicker Than Water,” featuring the preternatural vocals of Jen Shyu. In fact, Shyu serves to remind us how much this record, as much as Entry, bears the mark of all the players in the band—and the collective musicianship here is pretty phenomenal. Each track is a surprise; the riches stretch end to end, like pearls on a string.*

What was most remarkable about the Standard set, though, was not just the opportunity to hear Oh in yet another creative format, but to hear the growth of one tune in particular. Called “Ten Minutes to Closing,” the title reflects the commission that comes as part of the invitation to perform at the Rubin: the musician composes one tune about a piece of art at the museum. As Oh told it at the Rubin, she only found one at the eleventh hour, so to speak—necessity being the mother of invention; and so the tune is less about the piece itself than about the artist’s struggle to create on demand. Perhaps the tune was trying capture that feeling of contingency and indecision. If so, it tried too hard; the changes felt forced, the structure ungainly. It was the only tune in the Rubin set that fell flat, leaving me wondering if it was still under construction, an inspiration arrived at too late.

At the Standard set, “Ten Minutes” came second, right after the hoppy opener “No. 1 Hit.” It had obviously been worked over since the Rubin: very recognizably the same tune, with the same flippant tone and quirky changes … but in every other way, different. Somehow, the arrangement for quartet had welded it into a whole. I’m looking forward to hearing how it sounds recorded.

It was nice to see the electric bass come out for an extended cooker, certainly the jam of the evening, a side of Oh that appears on Initial Here, but which I had not had a chance to witness live: that elixir of Riot Grrrl, Jaco and Flea that couldn’t but push the already-bursting energy of the night another notch higher. And yet, “10 Minutes” was the tune I remember best, because it presented the opportunity to watch the music grow, and the musicians with it. I’ve somehow gotten to the age—it’s definitely snuck up on me, like those tears—where a lot of the musicians I go hear are younger than I am. They’ve become like the kids in some fantastic musical neighborhood, all moved out and making good, and my seat at the club, or maybe the virtual one in the Pit, the porch swing from which I watch history go by. Remember Linda from down the street? Yeah, she’s all grown up and playing music in New York. Making quite a name for herself, too. And Ambrose! Remember Ambrose? Well …

*

I guess I’ve been writing a jazz Horatio Alger story of sorts, or maybe a David Levinsky (remember, he’s the one who wanted to be Irving Berlin), tracing this young immigrant musician’s rise from the good company of her similarly-emerging peers to Soundprints, the supergroup featuring Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano and Joey Baron, at the Vanguard almost exactly a year from that night I first caught Oh at Smalls. By now I was a certified Oh junkie, waiting out in the cold an hour for my fix, for the proverbial man. I stood in front of that red door so long people started thinking I worked there, and I even came to enjoy playing the part, holding the door, answering questions—why I wasn’t taking money is anyone’s guess. About twenty minutes into the queue, a couple of music students from NYU joined me—they always seem to come in pairs, like missionaries—good people to shoot the breeze with while the wind cut through our coats and all those who’d thought far enough ahead to make reservations glided past. At 9 o’clock, the VV staff grudgingly found us seats, me at the absolute and utter rear of the club, back against the wall, band visible over a sea of heads, waiters milling in and out of my vision, assholes at the table next to me unable to shut up, even after being asked politely, and then asked again. But the music: the music that night could have cut through an acre of lead, like neutrinos from a star gone nova, so what could a few assholes, waiters and extra feet of space do? Afterwards I ran into the music students again, their faces all alight, and they asked me if I was staying for the second set, all I had to do was buy a drink, how could I think of leaving? Ah, I had to go upstate tonight, there was no hope for me; but wasn’t it nice to see their faces, hear their voices again. It confirmed to me what I was feeling.

It’s always great to hear Douglas and Lovano together—it had been too long—and Douglas and Baron, of course, half of Masada in a club where Masada maybe never played. (You can cut Masada six ways and you’re always left with the better half, how’s that for a paradox?) The pianist, one Lawrence Fields, was the find of the evening; in a year he’ll be the hub of yet another wheel, just like Oh, just like Douglas and Lovano and Baron before her. And Oh? What does it say that, on a bandstand with Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano and Joey Baron and yet some other genius in the making, you proceed to play a bass solo that puts in the phone call to God, throws everyone else in shadow, and becomes, like at that gig a year ago at Smalls, the thing I remember best? And what does it matter if the words I might have used to describe it to you have long since disappeared, if they were ever there at all? I can still hear the gasp and sigh that came up from the audience when the rest of the band started back in—how could I not, sitting where I was, with all that audience between us. It was a register of the collective emotion, there on the cusp of the sound, sound made a moment of exalted flesh, which is always easier to describe. I can tell you about that gasp and sigh, and I can swear to what I remember; the solo itself goads me with its unspeakability, an unspeakability that fills me with the urgency of words.

*

Initial Here made one of the three top ten lists in the New York City Jazz Record for 2012—not bad for a sophomore album. It’s on Greenleaf, Douglas’s label; he just tapped Oh for his last album, Be Still. Douglas is like a trampoline for fresh talent—look at Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin. Meanwhile, Fabian Almazan’s trio is back at the Vanguard this month, Oh still on bass. I’ll be there, on my porch swing. Have I told you about Fabian? Well, I will say, with a bit of old Miss Havisham and a bit of John Jarndyce, let me tell you about Fabian …

 

* While it’s true they’re very different records, I’m loathe to construct them as absolute opposites, which language and logic sometimes compel me to do. Entry has its fair share of rhythmic and other playfulness, its Jaco inflections even without the electric bass (check out “Fourth Hand”), its moments of textured harmony (the intro to “Numero Uno”), and the full range of the bass’s vocabulary on display. Still, Initial Here is nimbler, works with a broader palette, and is consistently richer and more surprising in its arrangements and compositions.

Master/Class

      The first thing I heard was laughter.

At The Stone, John Zorn’s Dieter-jazz follow-up to defunct Tonic, this is no mean feat. If Tonic had all the earnest scruffiness of a mid-90s Williamsburg squat—the garage with bedsheets for walls and a dirty skylight for a window—The Stone’s aim seems the opposite: to create a high-cult, gallery-like ambience for “creative” music. Even the name strains under the weight of its own symbolism: cornerstone of a new downtown, laid at the southeasternmost corner of the East Village/Alphabet City. Heavy stuff, this.

But laughter has a way of transfiguring spaces, making windows out of walls, turning stones into feathers. A child laughing in a museum always sounds insouciant. Laughter in a church turns the pulpit into a sandbox and the censer into a swing.

It was Steve Coleman doing the laughing. I might have guessed; I don’t think I’ve ever gone to see Coleman and not heard him laugh. This was at last year’s Pi Recordings festival, and Coleman, the resident heavyweight, was busy lightening the mood. He was sitting in an empty row of chairs at the far corner of our Spartan little auditorium, joined by the other musicians in that night’s trio, the trumpeter John Finlayson and pianist David Bryant. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves. But it was Coleman whose laughter rang out for The Stone to hear.

A well-known educator as well as composer and improviser, Coleman clearly enjoys working with younger musicians, and one can easily see why younger musicians like working with him—and why artists like Finlayson, a ten-year veteran of Coleman’s Five Elements band, would stick around. In his backwards baseball cap, chamois shirt and loose-fitting jeans, Coleman looked hardly older than his mentees, many of whom were appearing in other Pi festival sets, on other nights, in combinations and permutations that seemed to mirror the music’s complex logic of chord substitutions.

As a 2010 piece in the Wall Street Journal noted about his ongoing workshops at the Jazz Gallery, for Coleman “performance and instruction are often indistinguishable.”* The bandstand is a classroom, and vice-versa; a workshop is a set by another name. This was certainly borne out at The Stone, where Coleman spent the hour leading Finlayson and Bryant around the wormhole alleys of his harmonic imagination, restating lines, breaking them into bits, cycling through the bits until the other two musicians could patch the whole together. More than once he stopped playing and sang a melody, accenting the rhythm by clapping his hands. And just when they thought they had it, he would find some unexpected way out—the trapdoor, the corkscrew ladder, the skeleton key. No surprise that Coleman has compared his role to that of a Griot … or that he counts among his influences a visit to the Dagbon people of Ghana, who have—according to his rich, recondite website M-Base—“a tradition of speaking through their music, using a drum language that still survives today.”

Now, every good teacher knows that teaching is part performance. It’s not so much that Coleman exploits this crossover as that he seems most at home as a performer when he is teaching. At the same time, it’s possible to overstate Coleman’s role as leader. Some of the most enjoyable moments in the set had him laughing at, and then musically responding to, Bryant’s noodling diversions and interventions. The laughing teacher is the one who enjoys what his students have to contribute, who expects to learn as well as teach, to inspire and be inspired. Coleman, that is, never stepped back to play teacher—he was as fully present, as fully integrated in the music-making as the other two. It’s a difficult line to walk, between self-indulgence and self-effacement. Coleman made it look easy. Then again, if you like to teach, the classroom is often just a more structured, measured extension of whatever else you do.

Of course, teaching and learning are still work. Coleman may not be a harsh taskmaster, but his is a labor-intensive music, with a certain agony of force behind it. Finlayson had beads of sweat shining in his cropped afro, and not just because it was August. For a while, a moth circled around and around in the light above him, like some errant melody he couldn’t quite catch, hovering just out of reach of his spiraling drones.

Here is a thought: perhaps the set must be a lesson, because the lesson so conceived, and the teacher-student relationship so understood, embodies an ideal that allows egos to fuse, and the collaborative product of music-making to rise above the artificial strictures of clubs, sets, times, fees, and all the other elements of our culture that work to divide music from life, experience, spirit.

For this, finally, is Coleman’s project. In his wildly abstract musical imagination, jazz is code, a complex series of algorithms, but employed for the purpose of rising above mere intellectual play. Listening to a jam build over the course of eight or ten minutes (as one can do on Coleman’s most recent albums, like The Mancy of Sound) is like watching crystals grow in solution. Those clumped crystals, you may remember from your high school chemistry lab, always looked eerily organic, as if the submerged metal rods had grown hair. And this is precisely what happens in a Coleman jam: the austere, unforgiving beauty of pattern and code slowly takes on a palpable life. Math grows hair.

When the house lights came up, maybe because they’d played overtime, Finlayson and Coleman kept blowing as they exited (which, at The Stone, means either walking back over to the folding chairs, where everyone pretends they can’t see you anymore, or down to the basement). Had I stuck around a few more minutes, I have a feeling the conversation would have picked up right where the music left off.

 

* Unfortunately, Coleman has never been present the few times I attended these Monday night workshops. What I saw was a venue for up-and-coming musicians (the sort the Jazz Gallery exists to support and promote) to test out new compositions with each other, and with an audience. Apparently, Coleman’s absence from many of these “Steve Coleman Presents” events resulted in complaints—or so the guy working the door himself complained, on one of those nights when I was there and Coleman wasn’t. True, curator and organizer does not mean bandleader … but it is a little questionable to put the words “Steve Coleman Presents” in big letters on the ad, and then wonder why people—particularly visitors to Gotham—might be a teensy-weensy bit disappointed. Anyway, for a good idea what Mondays look like when Coleman is present, see the aforementioned Wall Street Journal article.

Glee Metal

In the summer of 1994 my girlfriend and I went to see Metallica at Wolf Mountain, a ski resort-cum-concert venue near Park City, Utah. The Suicidal Tendencies were on the bill as well, along with overnight grunge superstars Candlebox; our plan was to catch the former and miss the latter. Would that we had read the tea leaves, or at least looked at Billboard, because we ended up doing the reverse—missing the venerable Tendencies, that is, and suffering through a Candlebox set that slouched its livelong way to the one-hit vanishing point “You.”

I was still smarting from being denied the “How Will I Laugh Tomorrow” pit—there’s nothing like an outdoor mosh pit on a hot summer day—when Metallica came on a little after dusk. By the time the sound of machine gun fire rippled over the PA, signaling the beginning of the Johnny Got His Gun-inspired ballad/suite “One,” it was full dark. The lighters came out, the crowd held its breath. Then, high up on a riser, James Hetfield appeared and played the opening minor arpeggio: ding-ding-ding-dang. A collective exhale.

Well … “appeared” isn’t quite the right word. He sort of swung around like he was mounting an invisible horse, assumed a cock-legged pose, backlit and frozen. And my girlfriend and I, we just burst out laughing. How could we help it? That pose—it didn’t signify Metallica anymore, or even metal; it signified rock star. Mind you, at that point I was still going to the mat for the so-called Black Album, and if you give me more than thirty seconds I’ll regale you with what I believe to be that album’s many merits. But this? Load, Some Kind of Monster, “Nothing Else Matters” with strings—in that moment, I saw it all, the whole ugly coast into ignominy.

Could we have been the only ones who laughed? I doubt it. Maybe the crowd roared with laughter.

Almost twenty years later, I’ve stopped blaming Metallica. I’m blaming Anthrax instead. That’s right—Anthrax! I blame Anthrax. Why, you ask, would I blame such a fun-loving bunch of guys, the band that epitomized the warm-and-fuzzy machismo of thrash metal in its heyday? A willful contentiousness? Partly, yes. But you see, I fell out with Anthrax back in ‘88, years before Metallica’s apostasy, at the very noon of thrash’s day. In hindsight, I think my quarrel with Anthrax—a premature quarrel, I admit, but a quarrel nonetheless—sheds more light on thrash’s then-incipient demise than the oft-cited narrative of Metallica’s starstruck fall on the one hand, and the rise of grunge, hip hop, and other heavy alternatives on the other. But don’t despair: my counternarrative has a happy ending. It’s called Worship Music, and it’s really what brought me to want to write something about Anthrax in the first place.

*

     1987 was a banner year for Anthrax. It was the year of their seminal Among the Living, the band’s second album with singer Joey Belladonna, their third overall, and the gold-selling metal-rap crossover “I’m the Man.” With Living, Anthrax’s sound had crystallized into something immediately recognizable: “buzzsaw” guitars, furiously-pedaled double bass licks, groovy mosh parts, and catchy, melodic choruses. The lyrics, which Belladonna delivered with a mix of opera aria and Bronx sneer, were as likely to adapt Stephen King as to address social issues—“Star Wars,” racism, drugs. And yet, despite their penchant for horror and social commentary, Anthrax were a good deal less bleak than their thrash counterparts. You could hear it in those chipper choruses, so unusual for the genre, and in the words that tended to look past problems, to solutions: flags of many colors, fighting for peace.

“Imitation of Life,” the last song on Living, is a genre-appropriate paean to authenticity, a great “be yourself” underground anthem against the “plastic” world of media-driven image-making that Anthrax was likely just beginning to encounter. The chorus is indicative of the tenor of the song: “There’s nothing I hate more than all these plastic people/ With all their plastic promises, and all their plastic deals/ They just can’t be themselves, and live their own lives out/ They’re just an imitation of what life’s all about.” Once it revs up, “Life” is easily the fastest cut on the album, as if the breakneck tempo were necessary to assure both band and listener of each other’s authenticity, their underground pedigree.

If you can see past the homophobia*—I won’t blame you if you can’t, but I’m going to—one verse is a nutshell response to the more lucrative, radio-friendly glam or “hair” metal that dominated the charts during the same era: “Bands dress like women, with hairspray and lace/ I’d pass an image law, stick it in their face/ Let’s see how long they keep dressing this way/ Wearing their image twenty-four hours a day.” Image versus reality; pop versus underground; poseurs versus “true metal.” One can’t help but wonder whether these lines are directed at the “friend” mentioned in the first verse: “Whatever happened to the guy I knew?/ A media creation, a monster grew.”

Now, replace “guy” with “band,” and by 1988 you could have asked Anthrax the same question.

“Monster” is maybe too strong a word, but “media creation” nonetheless … and one that the band, the whole scene, participated in creating: instead of “hairspray and lace,” high-top sneakers, jock socks, baseball jerseys or concert T’s, Bermuda shorts or cut-off jeans.** And here’s the really insidious part: the band that wears hairspray and lace might, if they so choose, remove it after a performance. But by ‘88, I have the impression that Anthrax was wearing their image 24 hours a day, trapped in the mirror they held up to themselves, and to the scene. Anthrax, that is, became “Anthrax,” a parody of themselves, an image they fell in love with and, like Narcissus, died trying to embrace (well … almost).

Is that your fist I hear, beating on the computer screen? You’re saying, They didn’t sell out. Metallica did—put on the eyeshadow and the furry vests, grew the Beatnik goatees and started listening to indie rock, went all Billboard on our asses. Anthrax always dressed that way. Yes, yes, all true … but isn’t this precisely how it happened? Anthrax were so preoccupied with authenticity—with the idea of thrash (“true”) metal being no-image music, and the scene a big family—that as they achieved greater success, they had no choice but to create an image of authenticity to project for their fans.

Look at the photo on the sleeve of 1988’s State of Euphoria: the band members shine like wax effigies of themselves, cutouts against a postcard New York. Quite a switch from the leather-clad Anthrax in the 34th Street subway station on the back of Living: from the underground to the top of the world. But it’s not the backdrop that really matters here, or the clothes. As for the music, what’s notable about Euphoria is not how different it sounds from Living—the sort of about-face we would expect from a “sell-out”—but how similar. It sounds, properly enough, like the zombie- or pod-version of Living (as in the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

I’m pinning a year on it, but in hindsight it’s clear the tendency was there all along: the progressive ossification of their sound between ‘85’s Spreading the Disease and Euphoria; the line-drawn caricatures of the band on the sleeve of Disease; the proliferation of their little Mario Bros.-style mascot; the increasingly tedious use of “mosh” and “not,” which by ‘87 had begun to creep their way into titles, choruses, and verses. This is how it happens: Anthrax lingo, Anthrax gear, Anthrax themes. The music becomes the logo, the image grows legs; the songwriting gets stilted, the lyrics predictable. At the time, though, it seemed to happen almost overnight, a crash landing off the peak of Living into the stale slough of Euphoria. (“His meridian is at once the darkening and evening of his day,” says the Judge about the human species in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Would that Anthrax had put down the King for a while and picked up McCarthy. Not that I dislike Stephen King, but I’m still waiting for the metal band that will tackle Blood Meridian with the combination of aplomb and naïve faith Mastodon did Moby-Dick.)

You’ll say I’m not giving them enough credit. There’s not a metal band with a better sense of humor, or one more adept at self-parody, and this should imply a certain level of consciousness about image-making: the tongue-in-cheek side project S.O.D. (Stormtroopers of Death), with their LP Speak English or Die; the tracksuit-and-Anthrax-bling cover photo on the puerile but well-intentioned “I’m the Man.” And yet, like the very “un-thrash” upbeat optimism of much of the music, humor was just part of who they were—part, that is, of the fun-loving bunch of down-to-earth Bronxites that coalesced into the master-image “Anthrax.”

In fact, it’s hard to think of a band that better embodied the goofy camaraderie of the scene: punk with the edges sanded off; a sort of feel-good hardcore, if such a thing is possible. Maybe this is why it was so easy for them to become an image not just of themselves, but of the scene. After Anthrax became “Anthrax,” it wasn’t long before thrash became “thrash.” Images live forever, but the scenes (and bands) that produce them, like the hapless characters in Adolfo Bioy Casares’s La invención de Morel, rot to death.

I have the feeling that if any devout thrasher were going to blame Anthrax for killing the scene, it would be for a reason opposite the one I’m arguing. Anthrax were one of the few bands—thrash metal so incestuously devoted to maintaining the bulwark of its authenticity against the dreaded pop Other—audacious enough to reach outside the genre for inspiration: into rap (“I’m the Man,” and later the cover of Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise”) and British pop (Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time”).*** Anthrax, my imaginary devotee might argue, were too open to rival musics, so that, even as they remained one of the lead proponents of genre, they were simultaneously breaking down the very musical barriers that defined it. They let the wrong ones in. (It should be noted that this openness to musical innovation was of a piece with their politics—a schmaltzy one-world liberalism they espoused when they weren’t singing about Judge Dredd, Randall Flagg, or poseurs. The band’s anti-racist tracks on 1990’s Persistence of Time could be read as responses to thrash’s genre jingoism.)

I don’t disagree with this argument, just with the sentiment that often accompanies it (i.e., “letting the wrong ones in”). I think the scene needed to die. The music needed to move on; the death-in-life of Euphoria needed to be transcended. I think that if you did a survey of metal albums in 1988, you’d find a lot of bands either stalling out or beginning to move in new directions. Anyway, that Metallica did what they did, as they did it, is hardly Anthrax’s fault; they just happened to arrive first, or maybe just most transparently, at that combination of ossification and innovation that happens in all scenes once they begin to become successful. Anthrax had to kill the scene in order to escape it; Anthrax had to help create the ‘90s in order to escape themselves.

There are some fine moments on Euphoria, of course, and even more on 1990’s Time, an album that was just beginning to break free of what had become Anthrax clichés (e.g., “Misery Loves Company” and “Who Cares Wins”), in part by digging in a more organic way into hip hop (listen to “Blood” and “Discharge”), helping forge a style that would explode as groove metal. By 1993, everything had changed: music had moved on; Sound of White Noise, with new frontman John Bush has little in it to identify the old Anthrax; it sounds more like Alice in Chains. The album would turn out to be their last hurrah, and the fact that it went gold probably allowed Anthrax to store up their proverbial acorns for the long, bitter winter to come. For the next eighteen years would be a limbo of delayed and squelched releases, remixes, remasters, reunions, best-ofs, rotating singers and lead guitarists, and guest appearances—a time, for all but the most observant and least jaded, of white noise and silence.

*

Before Worship Music finally arrived in record stores (metaphorically speaking) last September, turning the hometown tour-ending “Big Four” show at Yankee Stadium into a giant release party, Anthrax were probably the only of the better-known thrash bands that hadn’t yet put out a new album. Not for want of trying—I won’t go into the reasons for all the delays—or for lack of new material. Or, for that matter, for lack of energy: they had already been on the road with the Big 4 for a year, and were about to jump into another tour, supporting the new album, with Testament and Death Angel sharing the bill. But then a band with a day named after them (last year, Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. declared September 14th “Anthrax Day in the Bronx”) has certain responsibilities—ribbon cuttings, ship christenings, and relentless touring being just a few of them.

The tour wrapped up early last month at Times Square’s Best Buy Theater—the Venue Formerly Known As Nokia, and before that, something else; its “original” name, if it ever had one, has been buried under the rubble of a thousand brands. Part celebration, part history lesson, part nostalgia trip, the Best Buy show presented a perfect opportunity to gauge the health of a music enjoying a sort of second teen-hood … or, perhaps, suffering a mid-life crisis.

The Best Buy crowd was the typical mix of geriatric metal fans from the ‘80s and high school- and college-aged kids, and the bands’ song selections tended to mirror that generation gap, straddling old and new material and mostly ignoring anything in between. Death Angel’s set was an extreme example: they only played stuff off their debut The Ultraviolence and the new record, Relentless Retribution. It reflects both the arc of their career—at this point, DA’s revival has lasted twice as long as their first run, and has been equally prolific—and, I guess, the limitations of a thirty-minute set. Testament’s choices were a bit more varied, albeit very much first-songs-and-title-tracks fare. There were a few pleasant surprises—opening the set with “The Preacher” (from 1988’s The New Order) was a nice touch, and I was happy to see them still pushing full-throttle renditions of “D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)” and “Three Days in Darkness” from their middle-years masterpiece The Gathering (1998).

While all the bands were clearly old hands at playing on the expectations of a mixed-age audience, Anthrax had it down to a science. “How many of you here are seeing Anthrax for the first time?” (Cheer!) “How many of you crazy fuckers have seen us before?” (ROAR!!!) You know, that sort of thing. They certainly hit the peaks of their early career, spending the most time on the Everest of Living, and ignoring the ‘90s completely (if there was a token song from White Noise, I missed it). Somehow, the fact that they only played the covers off Euphoria and Time—regardless of the fact that these were singles—felt like an even bigger post-‘87 smackdown. No “In My World”? No “Now It’s Dark”?

All of the above suggests that the Worship Music tour was something of a continuation of the Big 4: after all, Testament and Death Angel are children of 1987, both born at the watershed moment the Big 4 was meant to commemorate. And yet, the fact that both these bands chose to close their sets with new material should not be lost on us—or on Anthrax, who went for the old, safe standbys “I’m the Man,” “Madhouse,” and “I Am the Law.”‡ I know they’re the quintessential NYC metal band—the blue-and-white jerseys, Joey’s Yankees cap pulled low on his head, Frankie and Charlie playing their first (and last) show after attending somebody’s grandmother’s funeral. This is metal concert as sporting event: you come to root for Anthrax like they’re the home team, and they give back that tough New York love (and buckets of popcorn nostalgia). But then I think of Testament playing “D.N.R.” Maybe that should be the injunction to all these comeback bands: We love to hear your old shit, sure. But 1987 is dead and gone, never to be revived. What have you done lately?

For what else can you say to a band that releases one of the finest metal albums of the last who-knows-how-many years, and then only plays four songs off it live—the same number they played off Living? Not that the choices weren’t good: the opener “Earth Is On Hell,” the pump-you-up zombie-killing anthem “Fight ‘Em Til You Can’t,” the Dio-worthy “Devil You Know,” and the metal mass “In the End.” But with an hour and a half to burn, I expected at least a couple more. There’s more than enough depth on the record to warrant it. Proportionally, Anthrax played less new material than either of their warm-ups, and Testament wasn’t even pushing a new album. Even before their set had ended, the shadow of the Big 4 growing ever longer, I started to wonder whether the band fully understood what a gem they had in Worship Music: not so much an album as an exercise in imitative magic, perhaps the only thing capable of breaking the thrall of the image of 1987 that threatens to pull the genre back under.

*

Death Angel’s frontman Mark Osegueda has always struck me as a bit of a prophet. He has the godlike ability to go from a growl to a shriek and back to a growl again in a breath, a hyperpitch jump across five octaves. (Eat your heart out, Captain Beefheart!) And the things the man says. No matter how tough you think you are, you’re never too tough to let yourself go. Yes. Despite his claims to have never quite fit thrash’s vibe—a little too flamboyant, a little too interested in Tom Waits and The Velvet Underground—I think his combination of waist-length dreads and tight black jeans/leather vest for the Best Buy show beautifully articulated the divided ethos of the Bay Area scene: part ganja-smoking hippie, part brassknuckled Hell’s Angel. Anyway, he didn’t let his reservations get in the way of being the genre’s oracle that night, with a pronouncement that disciples like myself would spend the next hour pondering for ever-deeper layers of meaning: We’re Death Angel from San Francisco, and we play thrash metal.

Inspirational, no? Rather sums the whole thing up. Very much the sound of the new Death Angel, too. In fact, the new Death Angel sounds more like they did in ’87 than in ’90, when, like Anthrax, they had begun to chafe at the boundaries of the genre. (The result was their masterpiece, Act III; there never was a IV or V.) The stuff they played live, at least—that endless gritty chugga-chugga-chugga on the low E string—suggests they have made it their mission to epitomize the genre-as-it-was.

This desire to thaw the frozen image of 1987 and breathe life into it, or at least nuke it, is sadly typical. The back-to-back nostalgia tours and reunion with Belladonna would suggest that Anthrax, too, have embraced the revivalist spirit. But Worship Music suggests something different, or at least something more vital and interesting. For even as that record looks backwards, reaching all the way down into the choral-melodic elements of the band’s power metal roots and the heavy riffage of their thrash metal coming-of-age, it manages to draw these sounds together with ‘90s grunge into an impressively syncretic whole. It is free of the late-‘80s clichés that hamstrung so much of Euphoria, and to a lesser extent, Time—yet it is still recognizably, inimitably Anthrax. In looking back neither from a desire to “relive” the ‘80s, nor to show they have “outgrown” the ‘80s—to cheapen it with an ironic sneer—but rather to work with and attempt to reinvigorate that musical tradition, Worship Music evinces a rare maturity of vision. This isn’t maturity in the sense that people said Anthrax “matured” after Euphoria—the meaner, darker Anthrax of Time and White Noise. They’re as full of humor and hope as they ever were, and as melodic, too—even moreso.

In some ways, the album seems to want to be heard as what the band would have put out after Persistence of Time had Belladonna stuck around. The ticking clock on the breaks in “Earth is on Hell” recalls the opening of Time; the solo cello of “Hymn 1,” which is really the introduction to “In the End,” is an instrumental quote from “Be All End All” on Euphoria. But in a transformation that is characteristic of the new record, following “End”’s break for chimes, as Belladonna comes back in to chant the hymn, he is accompanied by the guitars, which, buzzing with sustain and sweeping up and down the low strings, themselves sound bowed. Rather than a follow-up, then, Worship Music sounds like it’s having a conversation with the Anthrax of 1988-90 … but a conversation that could only be had at two decades’ distance.

As I noted earlier, Anthrax’s music was always more cantabile than that of their riff-centric comrades, and on Worship Music this element of their songwriting definitely comes into its own. Call it glee metal: upbeat, chorus-driven, effortlessly melodic. I can’t think of a metal band that writes choruses like this anymore, and it’s not like nobody’s trying: all those dreadful emo-death bands put a lot of stock in melodic choruses, the obligatory counterpart the growled verses. These desperate attempts to sound both heavy and emotional … as if they were mutually exclusive! I sound mean, but I’m really just hurt. Ugh. Anthrax could teach these bands a thing or two, and not just about attitude (metal! no wallowing!), but about composition: the call-and-response formats, the clear melodic climaxes, the canny uses of repetition in rhythm and phrasing.

I could go on about the unreasonably good songwriting here—pretty much everything on Worship Music is lean and harmonically seamless—but I’d rather focus for a moment on the use of breaks, of silence, to create a sense of space—always a gamble in a style of music defined by relentless noise. “The Devil You Know” is the most obvious in this respect: the two-measure-long riff is followed by two measures of silence, as if the band had stopped to listen to their own echo. With each break the sense of expectation grows; the breaks changes the way we hear the verse when the spaces have been filled and the song settles into a groove. This use of silence in the intro is mirrored later by the way the riff disappears at the choruses, then edges its way in at the ends of the choruses, and then finally overwhelms them, before a coda of (almost) fully-silent breaks in the “false endings” outro. “Devil” isn’t the only song that uses silence to build and release tension and to create space and contrast. There are well-placed (if briefer) pauses before the choruses of “Fight ‘Em,” dividing the pre-chorus football-squad riot vocals from the rise-up singalong that follows; the bridges of “Earth is on Hell,” “I’m Alive,” and “In the End” use pauses and silence to similar effect. I wonder if it’s this sense of space that allows Charlie Benante, always ranked among the genre’s top  drummers, to shine even more than usual, from the opening blast-beat of “Earth is on Hell,” through the tight, straightahead groove of “Devil,” all the way to the brick-throwing storm at the end of “Revolution Screams.”

     Which brings me, somehow, to “Fight ‘Em Til You Can’t.” It’s not just the soundtrack for a zombie movie-to-be (a few people have already made zombie-killing videos for the song; rhythm guitarist and founding member Scott Ian has posted one of them on his Facebook page). It’s also the Rocky theme of the band’s comeback … though the title’s reference to defeat suggests, once again, a more mature perspective. On the CD gatefold, together with all those photoshopped action-shots of the band in mid-shout or mid-leap, there is a cartoon (of course!) of the bandmembers fighting zombies. It takes a moment to notice that the zombies are actually deathly versions of themselves—that is, Scott Ian fights a skull-Ian, Frank Bello a decomposing Bello, and so on. A loaded image for sure, and one that speaks very much to the themes of this post. Is it the dark side of themselves the band is fighting, a spiritual message to accompany the praying hands on the cover? Is it the Anthrax of middle age, fighting back the image of their own death, recognizing that life is short, health not a given, time precious? Or is it not the future, but the past, the 1987 that refuses to die, that the band cannot quite manage to shoot in the head, even as they try to make themselves anew?

Like the cartoon, both the beauty and the problem of “Fight ‘Em” is that it can be taken so many different ways. Who are the zombies? Well, that’s just it: we don’t know. But it doesn’t matter—just fight ‘em. That’s the key; the vaguer the signifier, the more people who can sing along. The zombies are your parents, your teachers, the bully down the street, your two-year-old, your mother-in-law, the cops, the criminals, the government, the corporation, the terrorists, The Man. This is the strength and weakness of the comic-book approach, at once clear-sighted and myopic, deeply felt and shallowly conceived. The two lyrical faces of Anthrax have always posed this problem: they shift so easily between comic strip and protest that the one tends to bleed into the other: Marx (or at least Mill) is neutered by Judge Dredd; Reagan is still and always the Hollywood cowboy, just wearing a black hat instead of a white one; Indians become Injuns. Of course, it was just this ease at crossing over that made a peacenik protest song like “One World” palatable to the metal crowd. But at least there, when they sang “America, stop singing hail to the chief/ Instead of thinking SDI he should be thinking of peace” back in ‘87, their target was clear. Worship Music’s target, if it has one, is muddled. The lyrics are chock full of lines suggesting something more radical than the safely liberal Anthrax of the late ‘80s: “If you look for a monster you’ll find one”; “Find the monster, start the war”; “Heaven lives in every gun”; “One nation under me”; etc. It seems to be an album that celebrates the “beautiful violence” of revolution (cf. the major key chorus of “Revolution Screams”); we’re just not sure whose revolution it is—whose empire is falling, for what cause. All that matters is action: you have your back to the wall. Are you ready to fight? That’s cartoon politics: whatever you’re saying, just make sure you say it emphatically. Maybe that’s the problem of revolution itself.

Then again, this sort of ambiguity has always been part and parcel of metal, a genre perennially caught between fetishizing the power of authority and the glamour of rebellion. Hence the love for the righteous outlaw: Judge Dredd, Dirty Harry, The Gunslinger on “Lone Justice.” To be punk because it’s the only way to be straight; to choose, with Huck Finn, to go to hell; to embrace the noble monster and the outlaw with the heart of gold—these are the myths of America as much as metal. It’s just these tensions that make the music so fascinating, and certainly the reason it has lasted: metal might have swallowed punk’s rage, but it was never able to stomach its nihilism.

All this leaves me wondering where Anthrax’s politics are today.‡‡ Honestly, though, I’m not wondering too hard. There’s more than a little Phil Ochs in me (“I’d rather listen to a good song on the side of segregation than a bad song on the side of integration”). And so, with Worship Music, I’m content to worship, to marvel at the musical achievement, at the unlikely and contradictory rebirth of one of the better metal bands on the planet. On “The Giant,” they sing, “Drowning in an ocean to find my soul.” And so they have—not drowned (note the gerund), but dipped deep into the water to take hold of an image that has been rotting since State of Euphoria—their image, the genre’s image—wrestled with it, and come back with something worthy of the fight. It’s not an about-face, or a pastiche, or a nostalgia trip. It’s an unapologetic affirmation of who they are: melodic, comic, hopeful, and heavy as hell. And if I’ve been happy to point the finger at Anthrax for mercy-killing thrash, I’m more than happy to credit them for ushering in a new, tradition-savvy, roots-conscious way forward. I just wonder if there are any new bands out there with the ears to listen.


* For a good discussion of homophobia in metal, see Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City (Scribner, 2001), pages 79-81. For a more theoretical take on the same, see Robert Walser’s Running With the Devil. (You find the pages; it’s got an index.)

** Scott Ian, who has always been quite the genre spokesman, seems fully aware of thrash’s own fashion-consciousness, at least in hindsight. In his liner notes to the remastered Megadeth debut Killing Is My Business … and Business is Good, he describes the mid-‘80s metal underground, with a nostalgic sigh, as a time of “long hair, tight jeans, and big sneakers.” (That’s actually a paraphrase from memory; I don’t own the disc.)

*** By 1990 the strictures on what thrash bands could cover had begun to loosen, and anyway, those bands would soon have the choice of clinging to the life rafts of hip hop and grunge, or going (back) under. (Megadeth’s wonderfully vulgar “These Boots” cover (1985) isn’t really an exception.) Still, as late as 1994 Pantera was putting a ridiculous disclaimer next to their cover of “Planet Caravan,” assuring fans (probably still rending their garments over the Black album) that they were not “selling out” … by covering Black Sabbath!? Today it’s almost de rigeur to metalize something non-metal: Christmas songs, jazz standards, etc.

‡ Belladonna actually dedicated “I Am The Law” to the NYPD. (In fact, on my way in I had to wait for a convoy of beefy middle-aged guys holding printout tickets, one of whom I could swear was wearing a blue NYPD jacket.) All I could think was that it was a little tacky to dedicate a song to the NYPD only a week or so after officers had chased 18-year old Ramarley Graham into his home and shot him in his bathroom. I know, I know: a few bad apples. But then there’s the ticket-fixing, the spying on Muslims, the pepper-spraying of OWS protestors, Sean Bell … I’m still waiting for someone to convince me the barrel’s not spoiled. Is this the band that dared cross over back in ’87, and toured with Public Enemy in ’91? Does Chuck D still have a radio show? Chuck, can you hear me? Maybe it’s time to give Scottie a call and have a little on-air heart-to-heart.

‡‡ The one concrete reference I could find to activism on Worship Music appears on Scott Ian’s thank-you list: a call to support the PPA, Poker Players of America. The organization is apparently in a tizz about legal restrictions to online gaming. On the other hand, when I consider Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine’s recent endorsement of Rick Santorum, maybe I should be thankful for silence … those beautiful breaks again. Compared to Santorum, the PMRC—Mustaine’s favorite anti-censorship piñata—looks like a branch of the ACLU. And then I can’t help but remember Mustaine worked on MTV’s Rock the Vote drive back when he was still a junkie. (N.B.: When I lived in Utah, the state government listed “interest in politics” as one of ten warning signs your child might have a drug habit.)

The Interrupted Nocturne

     If Roberto Benigni’s name has become synonymous with the Holocaust comedy, perhaps Roman Polanski should get credit for making the first real Holocaust musical—Springtime for Hitler notwithstanding.

But if The Pianist (2002) is indeed a musical—and let us imagine for the sake of argument that it is—then it is a queer sort of musical: a musical of suspended performances, of music displaced and deferred; a musical where the absence of music is as significant as its presence.

The Pianist opens with a partial rendition of Chopin’s C# minor Nocturne (opus posthumous). We hear it over grainy images of Warsaw in 1939, the eve of the Nazi invasion. The music soon reveals itself to be a radio performance by renowned Chopin interpreter and Polish State Radio house pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whose memoir the film is based. As the bombing begins, Szpilman, though a little shaken, refuses to stop playing. But after the frightened sound engineers flee, an explosion blows out the windows of the studio, and he is forced to follow them. We will wait more than two hours—six years of narrative time—for that nocturne to resume.

The interrupted nocturne forms one template for the way diegetic music is used in the film. After the Jews are herded into the ghetto, Szpilman turns to playing piano in the ghetto café. At one point, a well-dressed man at a nearby table asks him to pause in order to better hear the coins he tosses onto the tabletop, listening for which are counterfeit. The request is graciously made, but Szpilman is clearly exasperated. In a later scene, street musicians are forced to perform for Nazi soldiers, and the bystanders, many of them famished and exhausted, are forced to dance—until the traffic they have been waiting on finishes passing, the gates open, and the grotesque carnival is abruptly halted.

By the time Szpilman escapes the ghetto, his family has been sent to the camps, and the only remaining piano—the one in the café—stands silent, abandoned. Playing it is out of the question; instead, he will hide beneath the riser on which it stands until the immediate threat of Nazi violence has passed.

Once Szpilman’s Warsaw city odyssey begins, the trope of interrupted music is replaced by a slightly different one, of music displaced, deferred in space rather than in time. Wherever Szpilman is, music isn’t—or, if music is, it is imaginary. The Bach cello prelude, performed by Dorota, the woman Wladyslaw still loves but who is now married, unattainable, overheard from another room, and then glimpsed through a half-open door. The piano he hears tinkling away in the apartment next door to his first safehouse. The music he hears in his head, that ideal space where the Nazis can’t go, when he opens the lid of the piano in the second safehouse, positions his hands over the keyboard … and then the sweeping Grand Polonaise swells on the soundtrack, audible only to Szpilman and to us as he moves his fingers above the keys, his face beaming. After this second apartment is destroyed in the Warsaw uprising, Szpilman hides in the bombed-out hospital across the street. Starving, freezing, he plays an imaginary keyboard, humming his music quietly to himself. No more Grand Polonaise, and no more soundtrack. The man is almost defeated; the music is almost gone.

As for nondiegetic music, its infrequency—the occasional, restrained use of orchestral music; the lonely clarinet melody that punctuates some of the most tragic moments in the film (such as when Szpilman escapes the trains to the camps to find the ghetto deserted and pillaged)—makes it that much more poignant when it does appear, and the silences between that much more significant. (In the documentary included on the DVD, the set designer describes the filmmakers’ efforts to wash out the color as the story gets bleaker. This “visual silence” is analogous to the disappearance of music, as well as suggesting the moral silence of the Holocaust.)

So what happens to music deferred? It explodes, of course—in this case, in the climactic (if abridged) performance of Chopin’s G minor Ballade for Hosenfeld, the German officer who discovers Szpilman scrounging for food in a ruined home after the Nazis have leveled the city.* It’s a moment of catharsis hardly equaled in cinema, a spiritual homecoming that signals the film’s approaching resolution more clearly than either the German defeat or Szpilman’s rescue by Soviet troops. At that moment, we know the nocturne will resume, closing the six-year wound of the Holocaust, ending the long night suspended between broken night-songs.

It is difficult to imagine a Chopin composition more suited to the moment than the G minor Ballade. It has just the right mix of searching angst and triumphant answer, of defiance and melancholy, and the sort of bold, emphatic finale that Chopin only matched in a couple of his scherzos. The C# minor Nocturne, the piece Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld, would have been far too ruminative for such a moment—the music of a man reminiscing about loss, not one holding on desperately to his humanity. Of course, as long as he was going to deviate from the memoir, Polanski could have chosen the “Revolutionary” etude—that grandiose, martial volley of notes about an older attack on Warsaw, and about the heroic Polish resistance. It would be hard to think of a worse choice. This is not a moment of patriotic resistance and nationalism, but of individual human resilience. (How Polanski to use a cracked version of the etude instead, in The Tenant!) Even the appearance of the “Moonlight” sonata late in the film—played, one supposes, by German officers—sounds weirdly lugubrious measured against the incessant cruelty of the previous two hours. In contrast, the Ballade chafes at the margins of the narrative and the cinematic frame, threatening to spill out of the diegetic world.

*

I will be chided for calling The Pianist a musical at the beginning of this post, and I admit this was an exaggeration meant to catch your attention—you know, the sorts of shoddy tricks we teach our writing students. But I think there is an element of truth in this assertion, one that, even if we don’t put The Pianist in the same genre as, say, Singin’ in the Rain, does allow us to think about the film differently. When it begins, with the staticky Nocturne, what should be (non-diegetic) title music reveals itself to be a radio transmission of Szpilman’s soon-to-be-interrupted performance. (There are no titles, anyway. They appear at the end, during a live performance of the Grand Polonaise: here, the “walk out of the theater” music is actually the end of the story.) Other times, we are unsure whether the music is “on” or “off” stage—the “Moonlight” sonata, for example—or we hear music on the soundtrack which only Szpilman hears. The displaced music is another example: it is happening in the story, but outside the frame. I think it is partly this blurring of diegetic and non-diegetic music that energizes the Ballade. As in a musical, the performance is at once inside and outside the diegesis: it draws its power from both deferred narrative resolution (the horizontal), and from its status as a musical event independent of the surrounding narrative (the vertical). In fact, these two sources seem to feed each other: the performance is energized by its function as catharsis, while the narrative is energized by the ekphrastic brilliance of the performance.

In this light, the questions, “Could Szpilman really have played that Ballade after all he had endured, and after so long without touching a keyboard?” and “Wouldn’t it make sense for the piano to be out of tune?” are moot. Here we have this hobbling, hollow-eyed tramp licking out dirty pots, a sliver of a human being, a ragdoll, Molloy lost in bombed-out Warsaw. But the moment he sits down at the piano bench and claws out the first climbing octaves of the Ballade, all of this ceases to matter. As in Dreyer’s Ordet, reality is superseded by cinema; the violation of the possible only confirms a new order of (cinematic) reality which does not cancel the reality before it, but rather transforms it, raising it to a higher level.

Maybe it’s that, since by this point in the film there is nothing so terrible we can’t believe it—a child beaten to death trying to crawl under the wall back into the ghetto, an old man thrown from a window in his wheelchair, a young woman shot in the forehead for asking a question—so there is no act of heroism that can seem out of place. In such circumstances, everything about humanity is magnified, the potential for generosity and heroism as much as cruelty.

*

The Pianist’s use of music and silence should be considered not only in terms of genre, but in terms of Polanski’s oeuvre. About halfway through, the film shifts radically away from the standard visual rhetoric of German cruelty and Jewish suffering (albeit taken to new heights by Polanski’s visceral style), and toward an apartment horror story very much in the vein of Polanski’s trio of great horror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s: Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976). In each case, the overarching atmosphere of dread is underscored through the sounds (and occasionally sights) of other lives impinging on the central character’s: through walls thin enough to see shadows behind, old doors hidden behind bureaus, and the grotesquely-distorting glass of peepholes. Piano music haunts the buildings where each of these three films is set: “Für Elyse” in Rosemary’s Baby; the descending major scale with one dreadfully wrong note played over and over in Repulsion; and the similarly repeated failure to play the opening figure of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” etude in The Tenant. (N.B.: I was tempted to call this post “Other Pianos, Other Rooms.”) In two of these films, the piano contributes not just to the ambience, but to our appreciation of the protagonists’ increasingly disturbed minds: in Repulsion, the cracked mirror of tonality reflects the oppressive monotony of life for Carole (Catherine Deneuve), a catatonically-repressed hairdresser; in The Tenant, a mangled Chopin etude suggests the Polish emigree’s inability to find place and identity, and his subsequent morbid fascination with the identity of his apartment’s previous tenant. And Rosemary’s Baby? Heard through a wall, even a lullaby can sound sinister … just as a phone conversation, glimpsed through a doorway, the half-seen body the visual analog of a conversation only half-heard, half-understood, becomes, in Polanski’s universe, suspicious.

Unlike its horror-film progenitors, the music in The Pianist is neither the reflection of a fractured consciousness nor the sign of an actual, threatening Other (even, I would argue, when the music is played by a likely enemy). It is rather the only solace the protagonist knows in the suffocating terror of occupied Warsaw. The trajectory of the film is not the slow dissolution of the walls of consciousness which keep the threatening Other (real or imagined) at bay, but the struggle to survive in silence—the physical, emotional, even moral silence which one internalizes as a survival mechanism—until those walls can be broken down, and Szpilman can be reunited with his beloved Chopin. Watching The Pianist reminds us just how sparing Polanski’s use of music often is. Many of his films seem to prefer silence; some positively crave it. In Repulsion, for instance, noise, musical or other, is always a violation: buzzers, incessantly ticking clocks, crashing cymbals, and the frenetic jazz that follows Carole around London.

With The Pianist, it’s as though Polanski had finally revealed his childhood experience as a Holocaust survivor to be the trauma underlying so much of his cinema. For forty years it had been displaced onto the apartment buildings of New York, London and Paris … as well as onto the fatalistic narratives set in Los Angeles and Cornwall. In this regard, perhaps the chief irony of the film is that, while the phantom pianist of Polanski’s horror movies has finally stepped out from behind the wall, he finds that he has not brought his music with him.

The Pianist is not the only one of Polanski’s films framed by performances. Death and the Maiden begins with a snippet of the Amadeus Quartet performing the title piece, and closes with a complete performance of the quartet’s first movement. Like The Pianist, the rest of the film is almost entirely music-less. Death and the Maiden and The Pianist are narratives about silence—the ethical silence of sanctioned atrocity; the historical silence of active forgetting; the silence of the victim in the face of state terror. But if Death and the Maiden is a manual for the misappropriation of art in the service of evil, The Pianist never allows music to be so sullied. (But then it’s not a movie about Wagner.)

Who would have thought Polanski would return to Warsaw, the site of the trauma, for a rare “happy” ending, the mighty resolution of the Grand Polonaise, complete with pornographic close-ups of the pianist’s hands? How different from the irresolution of the concluding performance in Death and the Maiden: the power relationships in the positions and the play of glances between torturer, victim, and attorney; the sense that nothing has changed except knowledge, and that knowledge changes nothing. “I want my Schubert back,” says Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) in Death and the Maiden. “My favorite composer.” Does she get him back? More broadly, can art ever be reclaimed from its appropriation by and for terror? I’m not sure. Most of Polanski’s great films end this way: without real cadences. But the The Pianist most certainly restores to Szpilman his Chopin. And ours.

 

* The Nocturne Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld is a far less technically demanding piece than the Ballade. Szpilman’s memoir also reveals that the piano was indeed out of tune. (My argument notwithstanding, I sincerely doubt Sony would release a soundtrack with either the Ballade or the Nocturne played on an out-of-tune piano.) The question of the historical accuracy of the film’s beginning is less clear, at least to me, sinceI haven’t read the memoir. According to the synopses I looked at (on szpilman.net and, of course, Wikipedia), the C# minor Nocturne was part of the program Szpilman played for the last Polish State Radio broadcast in 1939. However, it is not indicated that the performance was interrupted, or that the station itself was damaged. Rather, it was the power station on which the broadcast depended that was destroyed. Interestingly, in the Wikipedia entry on Szpilman, the film’s dramatization of the event—the station bombed, the performance abandoned in medias res—and Szpilman’s memoir seem to have been conflated.

Double Time

There were a lot of good excuses to go hear the Fred Hersch trio twice during their recent residency at the Village Vanguard. Here’s mine: I went to the late set on Wednesday, had one glass of wine, and after three tunes pretty much passed out. Even imagining Connie Crothers (whom I spotted sitting up in the VIP section) shrunk to the size of a garden gnome, straddling my neck and boxing my ears, shouting, “Wake up! Wake up!” did me no good.

I rationalized the whole thing beautifully: the oppressive heat, the early-morning workout, the late-afternoon gardening. The wine. I was a victim of circumstance; I deserved to go see Fred Hersch again. In fact, I owed it to Hersch to go again. My conduct at the Vanguard that night had been nothing short of despicable. I had disrespected the man. I mean, it’s not like I started snoring or anything (at least I don’t think so). But you don’t go hear an artist of Hersch’s caliber and spend half the set fighting to stay awake. When it was over, I had the odd feeling that I should go up to him and confess.

On Sunday, devout opportunist that I am, I made sure to do everything right. Light dinner. Early set. And unlike Wednesday, I didn’t make a reservation. In fact, until I walked out of the restaurant, and felt the weather starting to break, the light breeze, and looked up at the trestle of the red train at 125th Street, I wasn’t convinced that I was actually going to go.

It was the trio’s last night, though not their last set—it was the nine instead of the eleven, and only fifteen minutes before the hour by the time I arrived. I was surprised to find the place almost packed; Wednesday the reservation had been unnecessary, but tonight they were putting chairs where there were no tables, seating people in the spaces you usually use to cross your legs.

You’ll say it was just a self-deluded attempt at spontaneity, or the catharsis following expiation, or the sheer fact that I was alert, that made the Sunday-night set not only better than Wednesday’s, but one of those rare birds you only catch a few times a year, and that if you’re lucky.

You would be wrong.

Not to say that all of the above weren’t factors. We have a tendency to undervalue the role of the listener, and automatically attribute a great musical experience solely to the artist, rather than to the confluence of circumstances that drove the two together, musician and listener, down fog-dense alleys of memory and imagination, experience and culture, and into each other’s arms. (Writes the critic, “Rollins was uninspired that night.” Indeed, Mr Critic? Perhaps you were uninspired, and Rollins was just Rollins.)

It’s just that there were so many other indicators. Time, for example. Hersch played barely an hour on Wednesday, twenty minutes longer on Sunday. And when the lights came up, the trio received a standing ovation. I can’t remember the last time I saw a standing ovation at a jazz club. It was the best kind, too, where the crowd rises in a bunch to its feet, like released balloons. A sudden updraft of joy. Even Hersch seemed taken aback, and stayed to play an encore—another rarity at the big clubs, even at the Vanguard, which is still far and away the best of them.

And then I could see it on the faces of the musicians that night, particularly John Hebert on bass. Not that I needed to—like the applause, it was just a confirmation of what I was hearing. They nodded and smiled at each other across the bandstand, and we listened to a good marriage turn into a honeymoon, under the fickle tap of some fairy godmother’s wand.

Maybe it was because they’d been playing together all week, and we were hearing the fruits of this, a miraculous collusion of wills.

Maybe the song list was just better, though both sets started with a Cole Porter tune, and both ended with Hersch’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners.” The Sunday set followed the Porter with “Sad Poet,” a Hersch composition dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim; two brand-new originals; two ‘60s tunes by Wayne Shorter; and another ballad, before the Berlin. The encore was “Valentine,” another original, which Hersch played solo.

Maybe it was the weather. Before beginning, Hersch thanked the club for the AC, but we could tell the heat was lifting, and were giddy about going home to sleep with the windows open. The music was just a foretaste of that liberation.

Maybe they drew the energy from the full house. Maybe their stars were aligned.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

*

There are actually all sorts of good excuses to go see Fred Hersch twice that have nothing to do with me, or with the fact that he’s a genius. Here’s one: a few years ago, Hersch, who has been living with HIV since the mid-‘80s, suffered a particularly bad bout with the illness, became delusional as the virus migrated to his brain, and was in a coma for two months (see the excellent New York Times profile of January 28, 2010). It’s something of a miracle that he lived, and that he could learn to eat again, let alone play the piano. In fact, when I emailed a friend to tell him I was going to see Hersch, he cited health issues as a reason not to miss the opportunity.

Not that Hersch looks unhealthy per se. More toughened. He comes to a point, like a Giacometti sculpture. You can see the knotted wires of the muscles in his arms and the bones in his cheeks. One senses the same about his music: there is no waste. Not that the music is austere. It’s just not flashy. Play has an economy of its own, which isn’t (necessarily) one of excess.

It’s an eclectic and beautiful music, one filled with the echoes of a wide range of inspirations. I hear Debussy and Schumann (on Sunday, the last movement of the Opus 17 fantasy), Monk, Tommy Flanagan. Of course, the differences are just as important. Take Monk: an easiness with time about both pianists. But Monk flaunts it, dances around the beat, teases it, syncopates the syncopation—which is not at all the same thing as landing back on the beat. If Monk keeps his own time, keeps Monk-time, keeps winding that broken watch, there is something about Hersch’s playing that is without time, in both senses of that word. He’s careless about time, as if in his absorption with a particular phrase or trill he could forget it, at least momentarily. He says, “You go on ahead; I’ll catch up.”

It’s not just escaping time; it’s controlling it, although these are certainly related ideas. After Wednesday’s first ballad, a standard, Hersch chided other pianists for not playing it slowly enough. That is: they should take their time. Play it slowly, and soon the second-hand moves like the minute, the hour. And then not at all. And then all the emotion seeps into the piece between the notes, like water through cracks in wood.

Time isn’t the half of it. A left hand that is colorful but never solicitous, as Hersch’s ex-student Brad Mehldau’s can sometimes be (often, I admit, to my delight). The occasional use of octaves in his phrasing, the quirky trills. The density of his harmonic imagination, and the range of his compositional one—“Jackalope,” my favorite of the new tunes, features a funky 7:8 melody that somehow manages to settle, without changing the meter, into an incredible swing. The passing quote from “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” so much a part of the improvisation that it refused to call attention to itself, stalked off almost before I realized I’d heard it. The beginning of the Berlin arrangement, spidery phrases at the top of the keyboard I had to wrinkle my nose at. The sheer number of beautifully-pruned fingerpaths between two notes, all of them redolent and surprising.

But I don’t want to give the impression that the band is only a platform for Hersch. Hebert took some gorgeous, lengthy solos; I particularly appreciated his feeling for ornament, the fretless slides between notes sometimes recalling an electric bass, while his generous use of intervals reminded me that the instrument is, like the piano, rich with polyphonic possibilities. And Eric McPherson is a softspoken miracle at the drums. Even his outbursts are measured. His first solo, over the Jobim outro, was executed on brushes; it’s the sort of thing a lot of drummers would have beat the crap out of their kits to play. His sense of color, the variety of sounds he gets out of his kit, is also striking: from brushes to sticks to mallets, to letting his hi-hat ring like a Chinese gong … and after all that color, a big solo that eschewed the demolition derby (crashes and rolls) for a single, off-kilter beat that grew increasingly more frenetic and complex.

*

Maybe it was because this was the penultimate set, and this is a trio that burns brighter when it senses the end is near. For Hersch, of course, this is particularly apropos, and much has been made of the way the illness changed his attitude and approach toward his music, his turn toward heightened lyricism, and his fear that each new record might be his last.

But then before starting Sunday’s set, Hersch remarked that he couldn’t believe how quickly the time had gone. He asked the club for two weeks next time.

Two weeks! So maybe the opposite is true: not that every album might be his last, but rather that, like Scheherazade, as long as he keeps playing, the end will keep receding. Same thing, except the power balance is shifted. And maybe that’s the reason they never got the endings quite right, the ta-da chord always a little staggered from the cymbal crash. The story’s not over; there’s too much left to say. There’s a next time, a second chance, a second week, a second set.

If we didn’t believe him, all we had to do was listen to him play.

You go on ahead. I’ll catch up.

I didn’t stay for the eleven o’clock set. I guess I, too, refuse to believe in endings. And I fully expect to see him here next year, for two weeks—four sets, why not? I know I’m not the only one. I like to think that’s our little contribution to the equal parts grace and determination that have kept him going so far: a house full of faith.

 

Burned-over

The year is 1986. James Hetfield of Metallica is passed out in the band’s tour bus, head lolling, an empty bottle of Heineken in his left hand. Enter a roadie. He peels one scraggly blond hair from around the bottle, carries it to the man in the trenchcoat waiting in the shadows outside. “You’re sure it’s his?” The roadie nods, takes his cut, stalks away. The man puts the hair in a baggie. Cut to: a plane landing at Heathrow airport. Cut to: a lab, as echoes of the plane’s turbines fade on the soundtrack. A dozen petri dishes growing new Hetfields. Each embryo is implanted in a different womb, in a different family, in a different town in northern England: Manchester. Liverpool. Nottingham. And while the Hetfield we all know grows into the “monster” of the ‘90s, the new Hetfields grow up in obscurity—at least, to everyone but him. Their upbringings are closely monitored, carefully molded. A steady diet of old metal is piped into their cribs. Black Sabbath. Motörhead. Diamond Head. And of course, early Metallica. Their mothers taunt them with devil’s-horns-shaped rattles, spike their milk with Newcastle, goad them to scream until their vocal cords grow as calloused as their foster fathers’ hands. Flash forward to: 2004. Three of the Hetfields decide to form their own bands; the one planted in Huddersfield, under the name Drake, is perhaps the most promising. His band is a Metallica tribute called Metal Militia; the foster brother plays guitar—a perk from nurture—and is already quite the virtuoso. He encourages them from a distance, secretly exulting. For, as you have probably guessed, the hair-culprit has spent the better part of two decades consumed with bitterness about the sun setting on Britain’s metal empire, ever since the thrash and glam tsunamis crested over the British New Wave; and the Plan is nothing short of recapturing Britain’s World Domination of Heavy Metal. It isn’t long before Metal Militia begin writing their own material, and change their name to … Evile.

*

     In case you haven’t heard, we’re in the middle—or maybe toward the end—of a thrash metal revival. Open your windows one night this summer—that’s right, turn off the AC—and you might hear strains of Slayer’s “At Dawn They Sleep” wafting across your city. You might be walking down the street when some kid drives by cranking, not Kanye West, not even Avenged Sevenfold, but old Exodus … or something that sounds like old Exodus, but is not a track you can remember ever hearing. And then one day you walk into your local record store, and the incredibly hip clerk, pierced everywhere but his elbows and young enough to be your son, is playing Death Angel’s The Ultraviolence (1987). That’s when you finally put two and two together, ask yourself: What the hell is going on?

In 2007 the Village Voice did an interesting piece about a surge of unabashedly backwards-looking metal bands with names like Fueled by Fire, Violator, and Death Hunter. The Voice was less interested in the surge per se than in the idea that the majority of these bands were either Latino (Fueled by Fire) or from Latin America (Violator is from Brazil, Death Hunter from Colombia). Lest you think this is an isolated Latin American phenomenon, though, “thrash is back” (to quote Fueled by Fire) not just in the so-called periphery, but in the core as well. The website Rateyourmusic.com lists 150 neo-thrash bands worldwide—probably a fraction of the total—and the net seems to have exploded with fans’ lists of their top ten.

Nor is this metallic Great Awakening confined to the young and spry. Several bands that had been inactive since the mid-nineties, like Death Angel and Forbidden, have taken the opportunity to regroup with as many founding members as they could muster, record new albums, and pull the spiked leather bracelets down off the wall over the mantle to head out on tour. (Think of them as the old cowboys in The Wild Bunch, about to get mowed down.) And then the “big four” (Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth) are in the middle of a worldwide stadium-to-stadium tour, promoted by (gasp) Rolling Stone. (They’ll be at Yankee Stadium on the 14th of September, by the way—in case any of you Bronxites run into traffic and think you’re seeing an odd number of long-haired baseball fans.) As the term “big four” is not one I can remember hearing until last year, I’m guessing that this little marketing miracle is also attributable to the revival.

While the Voice article provides a nice rundown of the new Latin/o thrash scene, they are at a loss to explain why. Nor are the bands they interview much help. Defuse anger over the generally rotten state of Latin American society? Latin America has been rife with problems for a lot longer than five years; and although I’m perfectly happy to credit the continental spike against neoliberalism for the rise of neo-thrash—or conversely, to blame neo-thrash on the continental spike in evangelical Christianity—it doesn’t much help explain similar movements in the US and Europe. The recession? Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Price of cigarettes? Voice notwithstanding, Municipal Waste (US) and Gama Bomb (Ireland) seem to precede Fueled by Fire and Violator by a couple of years, and Evile (UK) released their first full-length LP the same year the Voice was touting neo-thrash as a largely Latin American phenomenon. (As long as we’re here, why are we always so anxious to pin the genesis of any form of loud, angry music on social dis-ease? Mightn’t it make more sense to talk about the thrash revival in terms of a cultural moment when the most successful popular music is composed of the cut-up and re-wedded samples of other people’s music?)

If there’s something ideologically satisfying about the idea of a Latin American neo-thrash movement, I guess it would be that the global “periphery” had come back to influence the “core.” And yet, whoever happened to come first, I don’t hear much in the way of influence going on here. Flamenco has a great name for its musical forms that were forged through colonization: “canciónes de ida y vuelta,” or round-trip songs. But the guajira and rumba grew from the cultural crossovers of the New World, and then were grafted back onto the music of the Old. In metal, the only analogy that comes to mind is Sepultura, who made a clear move in the ‘90s to think about the genre in terms of indigenous music and the legacies of colonization; one can already hear the berimbau in the main riff of “Refuse/Resist,” the first track on Chaos A.D. (1993), this two years before the band released their consciously-indigenous Roots. Whether this had any influence on later Latin American metal, or on metal in the US and Europe, I don’t know. But as far as the thrash revival goes, it sounds just like the name says. The master’s tools …

The alternating gales and tradewinds between the US and UK are another story, and probably strain even the most liberal application of the core-periphery metaphor to breaking. It was pretty much Kiss and some of the other heavy stadium rock acts, and maybe Alice Cooper, carrying the standard on this side of the Atlantic through the ‘70s. But we seem to have needed the Saxon invasion of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and its consolidating effect on the genre to spur a real native American metal movement. When Metallica parodied “Run to the Hills” on the fadeout of their “Last Caress/Green Hell” Misfits cover on Garage Days Re-revisited (1987), it was more than an inside joke: they were striking at the heart of the beast, asserting the primacy of this punky new American style of metal. This is pretty ironic, given that the rest of that album and the previous Garage Days EP are largely dedicated to covering the unsung heroes of the British New Wave—covering them so well, in fact, that they rival Metallica’s best material; there is still probably a large contingent of the fan community who believe “Am I Evil?” and “Helpless” and “The Prince” are originals. Okay, maybe it was just a good-natured poke at Maiden’s popularity, as against the relative obscurity of bands like Diamond Head, Blitzkrieg and Budgie. Anyway, it’s worth remembering that the Garage Days Re-revisited EP appeared one year after Ozzy passed the torch, likening Metallica’s energy during their opening sets on the Ultimate Sin tour to the early days of Black Sabbath.

Rather than causes, maybe it’s more useful to talk about motives: why this desire to resuscitate a music that spiked and died a generation ago? According to the vocalist for Colombia’s Death Hunter, interviewed by the Voice, it is “to make the scene revive to the old days, to try and maintain the scene and strengthen it so that it doesn’t die with time.” Ah, nostalgia for a lost Eden, before the splinterings of the genre over the last two decades, when sound, scene and identity formed a coherent whole. (These bands even make fun of “net metal” fans who listen to the music online but don’t go to shows; the word “poseur” seems to be making a comeback, Fueled by Fire leading the charge.) It begs the question of whether such a scene ever existed, except in hindsight. But then revivals are always characterized by their emotional intensity about the thing revived, anger at the trespasses of the generation immediately prior, and a desire to “restore” something perceived as fallen: a religion, a society, a genre of music. Their zeal is only exacerbated by the sense of having missed the heyday, the time before the City on the Hill became a den of iniquity. That the thrash revival has been somewhat contentious among older fans is case in point: a certain distrust about those meddling kids raiding the tombs of their fathers’ fathers. Who knows to what sorts of travesties their misguided zeal might lead them?

In this light, the thrash revival appears not as an anomaly, but a necessity: a labor of reverence, a drama of devotion. At its core metal is still tribal, deeply beholden to begats, and as genealogically obsessed as the Mormon church. There are multiple ironies here—for one, that a genre that prizes itself so much on rebellion is so deeply bound by its own tradition—bound, in fact, by its very own tight-knit allegiance to a certain, specific rebellion. But it’s just these sorts of weirdnesses that led me to want to write something, however incomplete and overwrought, about this curious phenomenon called the thrash revival; and to focus on Evile for the very particular role they seem to be playing in it. How long can a genre revival last before it spirals into pure self-parody (assuming it neither started nor has already ended there) or bores itself to a dead end, even in a genre so enamored of its own past? How does a younger generation playing an older music both appease older fans and attract younger ones? And how much can a band pay tribute before they become just a tribute band?

*

Last fall a Jerseyite friend of mine suggested we go see Overkill at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville (or “Slayerville,” as he calls it), New Jersey. Overkill are one of those genre stalwarts that have been going like a rabid Energizer bunny since the early ‘80s, as consistent and loyal to the scene as Slayer, if nowhere near as well-known or influential. Overkill are metal as blue-collar punk. Their early material managed to walk the crooked line between hardcore and classic sword-and-sorcery metal; there was even a bit of hair-metal hedonism thrown in for good measure. They capture everything that is lowbrow and in-your-face about working class N.J., epitomized in their 1987 re-casting of the punk anthem “We Don’t Care What You Say (Fuck You).” Not surprisingly, they played it for an encore, the crowd turning their devil’s horns into middle fingers to deliver the “New Jersey salute” (as wizened frontman Bobby Blitz termed it), a visual echo of the larger-than-life middle finger on the cover of the “Fuck You” EP. (Larger than life on vinyl, at least. What happened to the “actual size” head on the cover of Devo’s Are We Not Men? when it was shrunken for CD, and then became the “album artwork” on your phone?)

The “Slayerville” show was the last stop on the band’s silver anniversary tour. You could actually buy a T-shirt with a fluorescent green “Overkill bat” (a skull with bat wings, the band’s mascot, like Iron Maiden’s “Eddie”) hovering over a similarly day-glo outline of the great state of New Jersey. Seldom have music and cultural geography been more perfectly matched.

My Overkill roots go pretty deep. If you’re from North Jersey and listened to metal in the ‘80s, Overkill are at least your second cousins, like Jews and Italians. Original drummer “Rat Skates” and founding and continuing bassist D.D. Verni are from the town next to the one where I grew up. Friends of friends took lessons with Skates. Overkill were the first club show I ever saw, in 1987, on a double bill with Testament, at the now-defunct Satellite Lounge. That said, I was actually more eager to see the second band on the bill that night, Forbidden, one of several great acts that percolated up out of San Francisco Bay toward the end of the watershed, just long enough to put out a couple of records before going back to mowing lawns in Berkeley. They were maybe the most successful band of that era in uniting an operatic prog-metal with thrash’s speed and aggression. Anyway, I hadn’t seen either band since the mid ‘90s, so this show was as much a homecoming for me as for Overkill.

The third band on the bill that night (of five) was Evile. I hadn’t heard of them, and what with doors opening at 6 and first band going on at 7, I didn’t expect I’d get a chance to hear them. But then my friend insisted—and since this is the same friend who routinely ensconses himself at some nearby bar and drinks his way through half the headliner, never mind the opening acts, I eagerly consented. After all, I didn’t want to miss Forbidden; who knew but that it was my last opportunity—who knew how long thrash’s Indian summer would last?

I couldn’t have known at the time that this was the perfect context in which to see Evile: warming up for the sorts of bands they had built their career paying tribute to. Truth be told, I hadn’t been paying much attention to the whole thrash revival. I had read the Voice article when it came out, bookmarked the relevant MySpace pages; I was thrilled to see some of the old bands working again; I had watched and enjoyed YouTube clips my friends had sent me of Gama Bomb and Municipal Waste. But I walked into the Starland Ballroom not knowing that Evile was even a participant, let alone the revival’s “flagship.”

The 6 p.m. doors made sense. This was almost a matinee performance; the only thing missing were the picnic blankets. There were several guys my age there with their young sons. There were actually quite a few fans in the 16-to-24 age bracket, too, including one who works at the Mailboxes store my friend manages, and who has a band of his own. Here it was, metal as a rite of passage, as much in the audience as on-stage. It was as if, by incantation, by repetition, Evile could resurrect the past, “revive the scene,” as Death Hunter put it. Sabbracadrabra … and out of the smoke stumbles Forbidden, asking what the fuck year it is, and why their heads hurt so bad.

There were the obligatory expressions of excitement and homage of a young band getting to play with some of their heroes. But then they were so down to earth, and so gracious to be there, saying “cheers” in their very British way to a bunch of Jersey metalheads. I have to admit, I preferred that “cheers” to the New Jersey salute; but then I grew up on a different side of Jersey. And maybe just hearing that accent, in that context, pushed my Maiden-Priest nostalgia and blind allegiance buttons. Here were these young Brits, playing old American thrash metal with a “new” accent … as if metal had clicked its heels three times and found its way back to Oz, away from Kansas, and from Caracas. I enjoyed them so much that I forgot to ask why they weren’t doing to Metallica what Metallica had done to Maiden back in 1987.

*

Infected Nations (2009), Evile’s second album, maybe best illuminates some of the big questions facing the thrash revival as the subgenre crests its first half-decade. With 2007’s Enter the Grave, the band was credited with “carrying the genre’s whole ‘revival’ on their shoulders.” (That they were credited thus by British rock mag Kerrang! seems significant; perhaps my fictitious hair-culprit has a shade of truth about him.) Singer Matt Drake was likened (more than he deserved to be) to Slayer’s Tom Araya, and the music to early Metallica—surely helped along by the fact that Grave was produced by Metallica’s old engineer Flemming Rasmussen. But there were some notable differences between Grave and many of the revival’s other burnt offerings. The band logo and album cover art didn’t have that cartoonish, DIY style. Nor did the music have the same self-conscious over-the-topness of, say, Fueled by Fire, which screams pastiche. For many neo-thrashers, having a band seemed like an excuse to play dress-up Exodus, like some sort of postmodern glam-rockers. Could it be that these young Brits were taking themselves and the whole revival thing seriously?

It’s common wisdom that second albums are difficult, particularly after a much-lauded first one, and the “revival” thing adds a whole other degree of difficulty. Most reviews of Infected Nations suggest the band chose to move beyond Enter the Grave and begin to establish their own sound. This narrative of maturation is echoed in the bio on the band’s website—or probably the reverse is true—which, tellingly, does not mention that Evile began as a Metallica tribute. Fan reviews take pains to either praise or damn the changes; there seems to be no middle ground. Some go so far as to suggest that it would have been better for this great quasi-tribute band to keep tribute-ing than to evolve toward original mediocrity.

I think this misses the point. Evile is certainly changing; whether they are coming into their own sound is another story. And here is where the ironies come on fast and thick. The fact that the band has produced a more ambitious, progressive, slower second album is hailed as a step forward in their self-making. Until, that is, you consider that Metallica did just that, expanding their song lengths, and varying times, tempo, and dynamics through And Justice for All (1988). And not just Metallica; many thrash acts moved toward a proggier style as the ‘80s drew on, increasing song lengths, playing with time signatures, writing multi-movement suites, and slowing down that raging tempo. More than one fan review points to Justice as a viable analogy for Nations; others compare the change to Slayer’s between Reign in Blood and South of Heaven. Evile, then, seems to be recapitulating Metallica’s career, and the trajectory of the genre as a whole (as befits the look backwards: life is lived at the pace of time, but flashbacks can condense mercilessly). The price of being part of a genre revival appears to be that every attempt to “move forward” only binds one more closely to the genre revived. What’s maybe even more interesting to consider is whether the fan community, too, is recapitulating the reception of Metallica’s music, from exaltation to contention and feelings of betrayal.

It’s hard to get past playing riffspotting with Infected Nations. “Oh, that sounds like new Metallica/ middle-period Metallica/ old Metallica/ Slayer/ Testament/ Sepultura/ Queensryche/ etc.” Which is a bit of a shame, really, because it’s more fun to listen to than pick apart. Not that there aren’t weaknesses. The choruses in particular can be pretty drab, built around the title word/phrase groaned with either a half-step drop (Demoli-tion; Infected … Na-tions) or, in moments of near-inspiration, a full step up followed by a half-step drop (Devoid of … devoid of), buttressed by riot vocals (“Na-tions!”; “Now!”; “Thought!”; etc.) that sound like a packed football stadium. (I like a little less riot in my riot vocals; four or five guys shouting together is enough.) The funny thing is, it doesn’t take much to save a chorus—I know, I sound like one of those penny-for-the-homeless hawkers, but it’s true. “Plague to End All Plagues” is catchy because it monkey-wrenches the de rigueur half-step (Plague … to end) with a flat-fifth jump up (“ALL”), reinforcing the theme (for a regular plague, the regulation half-step in the chorus would be enough; but, goddammit, this is the plague to end ALL plagues). “Genocide” does it one better: again built on half-steps, the third line of the chorus kicks the half-step up a major third (“Visions of a future denied”), putting it squarely in the much-abused and -exalted Freygish scale. I’m actually being a little unfair with “Now Demolition,” which features a funky little key change and arpeggiated chords in the pre-chorus. In fact, were this not thrash metal, it would be totally unfair to suggest the vocalist need do anything but fart for the duration of the record.*

Where Nations excels, though, is in its sheer quantity of interesting riffage—derivative or no—and tight playing … and in the lead guitar work of Ol Drake, who turns out some of the most inspired, flamboyant and technically-sophisticated guitar solos since Dimebag went down in a hail of bullets. It makes me positively nostalgic for the days when a certain amount of self-indulgence was perceived as a virtue (he says, at word three thousand eight hundred of this post). For this reason—and contrary to what even some positive reviews of Nations suggest—the more interesting tracks here are the ones where the band give themselves space to stretch out and riff around: the aforementioned “Genocide”; “Metamorphosis”; and the 11-minute instrumental “Hundred Wrathful Deities.” Granted, “Deities” is not the masterpiece its length cries out for, and maybe because it sets the bar highest in terms of the ostensible move toward a new, more complex sound, it is the song most disparaged in reviews. But for the purpose of considering Nations in terms of the thrash revival, it’s the most remarkable track on the record: a sort of serial homage to Metallica’s three big instrumentals: “The Call of Ktulu” (1984), “Orion” (1986), and “To Live Is To Die” (1988) … with bits of Testament, Seasons-era Slayer, and even early Judas Priest thrown into the mix (see: riffspotting). A “Ktulu” opening gives way to two slow, heavy, “To Live”-like movements; the song then breaks into an “Orion”-like mid/up-tempo solo section, and then cycles back through variations on the three-movement introduction before concluding with an even stronger echo of “Ktulu”—not surprising, as this is the instrumental that closed Metallica’s own second album. And yet, I don’t want to give the impression that “Deities” is just a medley, or suffers from the rather typical metal-instrumental problem of sounding like a patchwork of unused riffs, even unused Metallica riffs. It actually has a structural integrity that many instrumentals lack. In fact, it’s more tightly welded together than “To Live Is To Die,” the Metallica instrumental to which it is probably closest in spirit, right down to the dull spots and the transcendent, full-on dirge in the middle, complete with harmonies that sound like they were laid on with a palette knife.

When it’s all over—”Deities” ends the album—the question nags: how can it be the masterpiece it wants to be when it’s still so indebted to the master? How can Evile restore the phallus and the purity of British metal when they’re as prone as Latin America to kowtowing to the US?

Maybe the better question is, Can it be a masterpiece of the revival without being indebted to the master? And maybe that’s what makes Infected Nations enjoyable, and sometimes downright good. It’s not that Evile sound most like themselves when they sound most like Metallica. It’s not even the earlier point, that by trying to grow out of being a tribute band they more firmly grow into one. It’s that the line between pastiche and inspiration is a fine one; and though Evile fall more than once, they also manage to perform some pretty amazing feats of balance. By flattering an older listener’s knowledge of the genre while managing, through sympathetic magic, to turn the stuff of rote tribute into something vital; and by refusing the security blanket of irony, and shooting so big as to try to gobble up the whole history of the subgenre, pace Metallica, in their sound. And why shouldn’t they? The City on the Hill was supposed to start the purifying fire, to be seen across the Atlantic. Even thrash metal was about restoring something, burning away the icons and brambles to find that mutable, fleeting essence underneath, maybe just called rock-n-roll.

A word about lyrics before concluding: In a genre that expends so much energy making monsters, and capitalizing on the monsters created by the more reactionary elements in our culture, it’s refreshing to hear a band that reminds us that the “demons” who commit monstrous evils “are only men”—that “they” are no different from “us” (“Genocide”). It’s particularly nice to hear this in a post-9/11 era, where a band like Testament, not unknown for occasionally spouting progressive-tilting lyrics back in the day (as was in fact intermittently true of many thrash bands), returned to the scene in 2008 with an apocalyptic “holy war” album. I don’t know what Evile’s politics are—where metal is concerned, most bands’ politics don’t bear much looking into; I’d as soon ask the Hell’s Angels to sign petitions for marriage equality. But is it too much to ask British neo-thrashers to re-import a bit of political sanity into the lyrics of post-9/11 metal? As long as they’re riffing on ‘80s thrash metal, they might as well channel that punk-inspired anger, or at minimum, apathy.

*

Evile’s third album is slated for release at the end of September. In interviews the band has suggested that they are seeking a middle ground between their first and second efforts—seeking, it seems, a compromise between “early” and “late” revival, between a much-lauded straight-ahead sound and a more contentious “progressive” one. I’m not sure how to take this. They’re a talented young band with, one hopes, a bright future. They weathered the sudden, tragic death of their bass player, Mike Alexander, in 2009. (Talk about recapitulating Metallica’s career, Jesus. At least Cliff Burton lasted three albums. Couldn’t Alexander tell his days were numbered?) It would be a shame if the very exuberance about an older style of metal that brought them into the spotlight were to become their Achilles’ heel. I’d really like to see at least a few of these neo-thrash bands chart their own course, wherever they might go, before their vessels are dashed to pieces on the rocks of a revival set to expire—history repeating or rhyming or whatever it does—before the next big evangelical apocalypse.

This all might be asking too much; the dead hand of the past may simply weigh too heavy, and the balancing acts of inspired tribute might be the best I can expect. In the meantime, I’ll keep listening,  and raising my glass to them, as they did to me in Jersey.

* Matt Drake’s voice has been a focus of ire for several reviewers, who argue that he was a good Araya impersonator, but now that the band is writing slower, more nuanced material, he’s trying to “do something” with his voice … and it’s about as effective as a comb-over. Drake belts in the gruff midrange of thrash metal, a mix of Puppets-era Hetfield—even to the vocal harmonies—and Sepultura’s Max Cavalera, though without the dopey punch of the latter at his best. But I’ll take Drake any day over the “scream the verse, croon the chorus” (probably the best 6 words of music criticism the Voice ever wrote) emo-death crap that dominates the genre today.

Gentlemen’s Club

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.

 

Breath

My first exposure to J.D. Allen was at last year’s Charlie Parker Festival, on the uptown Saturday, in the northeast corner of Marcus Garvey Park, where the concert had been relocated while the bandshell was under renovation. Allen’s trio was midway through their set by the time I showed up—which, at the Marcus Garvey half of the CP Festival, is defined by the threshold where the concert becomes louder than the drum circle always happening on its perimeter—and I regretted my lateness before I’d even found a spot to sit down. I love the raw power of a saxophone trio, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard anything quite so raw or so powerful as Allen’s. It wasn’t just the horn, either; the whole band was relentless. They seemed hardly to come up for air.

The trio had third billing that day; still to come was the always-impressive Jason Moran, followed by McCoy Tyner solo. But nothing came close to Allen. It was the thrill of discovery, that moment when a musician or band or composition becomes “ours,” a sort of foundling godchild.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the following April that I happened to be in a record store, picked up a New York City Jazz Record, and found that the trio would be at Smalls mid-month, on a Monday night. Happily, this would be during spring break.

I got to Smalls a bit early, unsure of how much of a crowd to expect—I figured Allen was a rising star, but I didn’t know how much of a name he’d made for himself yet—and anyway, it was a Monday, and it was Smalls. As it turned out, the previous set had not yet ended; there were a few dozen people in the club, a few empty chairs toward the back. I sat down in the last row, signaled the waitress, and commenced eavesdropping on my neighbors. The woman to my left was on stopover from London; the woman to my right was from Los Angeles; she and her husband were visiting their son, who had relocated to New York to work in real estate (surprise), and who had dragged his parents to Smalls for (one presumes) an authentic NYC experience.

I ended up speaking to the madre angelina, and offered the padre, who was standing with the son behind the last row, to take my seat. Graciously declined. The waitress was tied up at the door, so I went to the bar for my drink, looking for the holy ghost in the mirrors, watching the club hop and bustle, and all the men with mysterious black cases, like country doctors. The musicians mulled about in the back. A few minutes after I’d sat down again they were announced, and filed down the alley between the chairs and the bar to scattered applause, ducking the waitress’s drink tray. Then the barmaid turned off the stereo, the dim lights got dimmer, and the trio started to play.

If I had to make a comparison to what I heard this night—and to a lesser extent, what I’d been hearing on Shine!, the trio’s latest effort, for the previous month—it would be to Coltrane’s quartet at the dawn of the ‘60s. On uptempo cuts, Allen tends toward permutations of short phrases, sometimes harking back to Giant Steps; on slower, more searching tracks, toward something like the “Psalm” on A Love Supreme. He seems more at home in the latter, in extended gestures played against abstract, washed-out backgrounds, cut with occasional squirted-out birdcalls. Granted, at the Smalls set the rhythm section had a tendency to set tempos Allen couldn’t quite match, sending him running after the proverbial streetcar. But Shine! avoids those audacious tempos … and yet one still notices that neither speed nor sharp rhythmic phrasing are among his gifts. Where Allen excels is in the sound he gets out of his horn, and in his ability to shape his rather open-ended lines into luminous, deeply-felt musical statements. In his liner notes to Shine!, Ben Waltzer describes that sound as “incantatory” and “hypnotic.” It is sometimes reedy, sometimes sodden in vibrato, always weighty—the paradox of a heavy thing floating in air. I honestly can’t think of another player to whom I’d rather listen sit on one note for a good ten seconds. But if this is so, it isn’t only because of his tone, but the note as well, the choice of where to drop anchor. And the power of those endnotes has to derive in part from the shape and momentum of the melodic line that delivers them.

In terms of his sound, and to a certain degree his approach, Allen is actually closer to fellow Detroiter Kenny Garrett than to Coltrane, this though Garrett is an alto player, Allen a tenor. (One could also draw a line from Coltrane to Garrett, who recorded an entire album of Coltrane’s music, called Pursuance; but then one could draw such a line to almost any post-‘60s horn player.) I’m thinking above all of Garrett’s Songbook, “Sounds of the Flying Pygmies” and the anthemic “Sing a Song of Songs” in particular, from which Allen seems to have gleaned a trove of useful ideas. In this respect, I found it interesting that Waltzer mentions a litany of Detroit players with whom Allen has worked, including Geri Allen and James Carter, but does not mention Garrett. Maybe they put something in the water out there, a sort of jazz fluoride. Call it purity of essence.

The affinity to the early ‘60s Coltrane, though, has as much to do with the function and interaction of the trio as with Allen himself. Waltzer notes that Detroit was ahead of the rest of the country in seeing no real difference between the (once-?)warring camps of mainstream and “free” jazz. Indeed, several times during the Smalls set, the music achieved and sustained a level of centrifugal beauty one is more apt to hear at venues like The Stone or Roulette. Not so much sheets of sound as walls of noise: deafening storms in the rhythm section—torrential rolls and crashes from Rudy Royston at the drum kit; bassist Gregg August strumming away at those fat strings—giving way to almost surreal moments of clarity from the horn. Rather than participating in the fray, Allen attempted to rise above it. The impression is of a powerful but human voice asserting itself against the din (of modernity, of mass culture … of what you like). Except that then you hear Allen’s voice calling out to his bandmates between breaths, and you come to realize that he, that human voice, is also orchestrating the chaos, driving it forward and holding it together, a ship’s captain calling forth and reveling in the storm.

I wondered whether the few people who scurried out mid-set were disappointed, daunted, or deafened, and whether audiences in the early ‘60s had done the same during Coltrane’s sets … particularly with that imp named Dolphy standing at Trane’s shoulder, prodding his squeaky pitchfork into Trane’s ever-bendable ear, trying to convince him that HE was the voice of God! And all this was particularly curious in a reputable little jazz venue like Smalls, where Wynton Marsalis might wander in at any moment, like the Hall Monitor demanding your pass. I felt sort of bad for having told the real estate salesman’s mom that Allen was “a revelation,” as I did in passing before the set began. But they were real stalwarts, stuck it out to the end. Hell, maybe they even liked it.

Compared to the prolixity of most newer jazz, one notices that the tracks on Shine! are brief, not a one over five minutes. But this belies the way the trio works live: rather than stopping and starting to name tunes and highlight band members’ contributions, each song blends into the next. (Shine! does this, at least with a few pairs or sets of songs.) They are similar enough in tone and style to give the impression of a single, hour-long composition—an approach that once again evokes the avant-garde. “Sonhouse”; “Teo (Ted’s Theme)”; “Se’Lah”: these are tunes with a sort of found-object beauty, like arrowheads. No wonder that the likes of Thoreau had an uncanny knack for finding them; they are just such barely-hewn stones, blurring the line between composition and improvisation, arising like forms of crystalline loveliness in tidal pools … only to be drowned again in the torrents of noise. The music only really stops when the trio is done—when they’ve run out of breath, I guess, or have crossed whatever collective mental or emotional finish line they have drawn for themselves.

I could go on with Coltrane-quartet affinities, Royston’s in particular: his demolitionist’s approach to the drum kit; those breakout rhythms, dead ringers for Jones’s. The flying sweat. But the chief affinity is broader than that, and as glaringly obvious. For the ultimate goal of this band, as it was for Coltrane’s, is grace, spirit, ascension. It is gospel enfolded into a jazz idiom. It hardly makes them derivative. On the contrary: a collective working toward spirit seems always renewable.

And yet … where would such spiritual exercises be without just the slightest hint of the charlatan? I couldn’t listen to Coltrane without distrusting him a little. Allen, too: the throwback fedora and number-runner’s suit. Just like I distrust the Bible-thumping preacher as he steps up to the pulpit, in that moment right before I take the first sip of my whiskey sour, close my eyes, and get swept up in the sermon.

Can I get a hallelujah?