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Two Free Jazz Epitaphs

Fall is generally the time of year when I depend on finding some older piece to revise in order to keep the Pit Stop going. These two “epitaphs” are from 2003 or 2004. The evocation of the City in the first of the two is very much of that time. The second has been somewhat more updated. HD

1. CBGB’s 313 Gallery

Free jazz! Creative music! Avant-garde music! Liberation music! Et cetera!

In New York, once upon a time, it was called downtown music.

Downtown at CBGB’s 313 Gallery, they called it “freestyle,” and their Sunday night free jazz concerts “freestyle events.”

That word—freestyle—had a special resonance for me. I used to be a competitive swimmer. Everyone who swam knows what freestyle means. It means you wouldn’t get disqualified for doing something different. And that would have been fine, except the point was to win.

The 313 Gallery was not the place you would drag your out-of-town guests to, unless they shared your perversity—though I seemed to have a perverse predilection for trying to pervert the straight ones, once they’d tired of the museums, parks, and tall buildings. The next thing you knew, there we were, at CBGB’s, or Tonic, or Roulette, and they were enduring, like Bush’s freedom, squirming or angry or just plain bored.

There’s a reason these freestyle events were stuck into the cellar of CBGB’s, already music’s cellar, in the Lower East Side, one-time cellar of the City of New York. Like the Weather, the musical revolution, too, went underground. That club smelled like a cellar, goddammit. Must and damp, and behind that, and behind that

The skid mark in Dali’s underwear. Stop your ears, Wynton. We’re 20,000 leagues under Lincoln Center.

Otherwise, the basement of the 313 Gallery shared the found-object aesthetic of many contemporary art spaces, trying hard to appear as discovered and unreconstructed as the music. The ads in the Voice called the seating comfortable, though many of the chairs were of the plastic lawn variety, and the sofas were past exhaustion. Pillars stood fickly between the audience and the space for the band, like at the old Iridium, though here they were so obviously functional that they stopped being in the way. On each, a plain white sheet of paper listed bands, members, set times.

What drew my attention most, though, was a red curtain hung carelessly behind the space where the band played, sagging at its middle, exposing the broken brick behind it, a strip of tin foil, maybe the space for the boiler.

I said found-object; I could have said ascetic. It was a space of denial, as if we were gathered inside a hair shirt. Maybe the club used to be a mission, and its spirit lived on in us. Self-abnegation had driven us into each others’ arms. In a city of this size, there is a kind of immediate intimacy formed in groups this small, as if the pressure of all the millions outside were brought to bear upon us. Strangers, we were suddenly of one blood, revolutions plotted in our ears.

In a city this size, any gathering this small must be transgressive.

*

Early one Sunday evening, March of 2003. The band of the moment was called Test. A fourpiece: two multireedists, bass and drums. Daniel Carter, that downtown workhorse, was blowing long and dizzy into his tenor; tonsured, reed-thin, he swept and looped in figure-eights from squat to tiptoe. Sabir Mateen, on alto, also had his eyes closed, though his face was less placid than Carter’s, his body rigid; with each burst of sound his waist-length dreads swung. I got stuck on the bassist, Matt Heyner: the expression on his face, the reiterated thrust of his right hand across the strings. I’d seen that face, that hand, maybe, in a porn movie. Yet, in this context, it remained chaste. And it’s remarkable that this should be so. They were playing a sort of music you might have been burned for, once upon a time.

On that red curtain, the shadows of musicians leapt like the shadows of flames, the shadows of devils dancing around a fire.

Test of endurance. Test of faith. Weapons tests, and tests of emergency response systems. Experiment, rehearsal, trial-run for something yet to come, something on the verge of coming, the moment before the moment, always delayed—test-imony to the ultimate goal of free jazz, which is, which must be, presence. Writers envy music for being a language that can say “now” and mean it. Free jazz shouts it through a megaphone. Free jazz throws a tantrum over it. Free jazz wants it NOW.

If jazz is (as we’re so often told) a music hewn from the living present, then why is so much of it mesmerized by tradition to the point of turning itself to stone? Free jazz lets us imagine, if only for a moment, what it would be like to get out from under that stone, to float unmoored. The moment is a fiction, of course—not least because the avant-garde has its own well-developed tradition, “the shape of jazz to come,” long since come. But the moment is only artificial in retrospect. Experience has no memory; its faith is raw, primitive, total. What better way to understand that moment of exhilaration, of connection free jazz affords us, than that moment when doubt escapes us?

Test ended their set with a coda and yielded the stage to an all-brown band called Chocolate Nemesis, anchored by the bass of William Parker. In whatever context Parker’s bass appears, it creates an undertow, is more felt than heard, and so helps close the gap between listening and experiencing. This night was no exception. Parker likes to flirt with rhythm: as soon as he’s settled into a groove, one we can dig our toes into, he undercuts it; the groove fractures into a prolonged stumble. But there is no pratfall, no cymbal crash, no punch line. That moment before the comic’s butt hits the boards and the audience bursts out laughing is prolonged—not repeated, like in slapstick, but prolonged. Because once the comic falls, all he can do is do it over again. But in Parker, in freestyle, the music stays on the cusp of an endlessly-deferred, ever-arriving climax, until any sense of structure—verse, chorus, bridge, coda, A, B, climax, origin, end—is lost. Land hasn’t just disappeared from sight; land has just disappeared. And since there is no place to return to, there is no time we can imagine ourselves saved.

Collectively, intimately, chastely, band and audience participate in this voyage whose destination is loss. With a music that promises so much, perhaps it can’t be otherwise.

That sagging red curtain, drawing our attention to what it’s supposed to hide!

*

A couple of months later I was walking through the Lower East Side with a friend of a friend. He was lamenting the disappearance of the “dark underbelly” of New York. Maybe he had never experienced desperate poverty, as I had not. Maybe, like other people of our class and age (middle, thirtysomething), he’d fed off the spectacle of poverty to remind himself of his own reality in the fantastic surroundings of “new economy,” or doctrinally free market, New York—ever more fantastic as the economy thumped back to reality. Suffering built this city’s character, but not my suffering. So we lamented the death of a tragedy that had used to be performed nightly on these dark stoops, on Stanton or Rivington or Ludlow.

Could we be consoled? Hadn’t we attended these freestyle events, in these cellars, in this last ungentrified outpost on the Bowery?

And yet, could I really believe that these freestyle events didn’t depend on the Bowery’s gentrification? Now through January first, at the Museum of Urban Grit’s new I-MAX theater, I, too, could experience The Dark Underbelly. (In 3D, of course.) Skid row, skid mark—we have to believe it exists, that we can reach over the rope and touch it. And if that’s what the music was really about, then maybe the mystical evocation of the present was just what I wanted from it: a hold against my own slipping reality: my own freestyle, the way my body used to feel hitting the freezing cold water on summer mornings. Maybe the music was really a torch song for the Lower East Side, an invocation of past suffering, the ghosts of the penniless immigrants, homeless people, junkies, freaks. An injunction to remember.

 

2. Tonic

      Among the many criticisms leveled at free jazz, one of the most common is that it forgets its audience. It wears its esoterism as a badge; its adherents believe themselves the elect.

The assumption seems to be that, before we can expect an audience to decode “difficult” music, they require a palliative. After all, the people must be given what they want, music must delight first, instruct second. Free jazz, perennially unsweetened, bitter at the root, and real hard to understand, is thus relegated to music’s cellar—at least until some apparently ever-deferred revolution of consciousness overtakes the general populace.

If John Zorn is the best-known avant-garde musician to have emerged from New York’s “downtown” scene, maybe it’s because he believes neither that a music’s “avant” status exempts it from seeking an audience, nor that finding an audience requires sweetening the music. As a label mogul and club entrepreneur—not to mention working musician—to believe the former would be suicide. Zorn has gone out of his way to promote what he calls “creative music.” It’s a silly label, and particularly bizarre coming from somebody whose contempt for generic boundaries has been his music’s best promotion. Then again, given that Tonic, his first venture, buckled under New York’s tectonic real estate shifts back in 2007 (cf. the Himalayan condo that rose up just across its Norfolk Street home), it does make you wonder whether the branding of the avant-garde presents the only hope of a mitigated salvation.

The latter idea, though—sweetening—would be suicide of a different sort. “Sweet” is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Zorn’s music. Take, for example, the first time I saw him, at 1999’s Vision Festival. He still wore his hair long then, and had on baggy pants, and he put one foot up on the monitor like Steve Harris (the bass player for Iron Maiden), and, head buried, horn braced against one thigh, and held at an angle less reminiscent of Pres than of the way those Tarantino gangsters fire their pistols, he proceeded to sonically violate me in a way that, once upon a very long time, believing my suburban white heavy metal the most transgressive music imaginable, I couldn’t have begun to fathom. And wasn’t I pleased to find out later that Zorn had recorded with Slayer’s original and only true drummer, that cocaine-infused dynamo Dave Lombardo? Didn’t I say then, “See, I told you he was a metalhead”?

Of course, Zorn’s no metalhead. Still, I like to imagine hundreds of such recognition scenes: “See, I told you he was a punk!” “See, I told he you he listened to [Stockhausen, Messiaen … fill in the blank]!” Suffice it to say Zorn’s musical universe is too elemental and too chaotic to adhere to the boundaries of any one genre for very long.

Were he to stop there, though, Zorn would fit neatly into the genre-bending that has characterized jazz for the last half-century. Nor is it enough to simply say that Zorn is at once an uncompromising musician and highly conscious of himself as a performer and promoter, or even that he knows how to market his uncompromising artistry. It’s rather how he handles—explodes, really—the “contradiction” between artist and performer that sets him apart. He wallows in it. He recognizes that only by actively invoking and manipulating the artist-entertainer binary can its conventionality be exposed, and the construct held up to ridicule.

*

       After the ’99 Vision Festival, I didn’t see Zorn again for almost four years. This was partly because I left the City half a year later to finish my doctorate, and didn’t return until the summer of 2002. In hindsight, though, I wonder if it wasn’t also to keep that Vision night’s cosmic mindfuck enshrined in my memory. There had been something so right about the church basement setting, the metal folding chairs in lieu of pews. Zorn’s partner that night was the percussion guru Milford Graves, a man for whom the word “grandstand” might have been invented. Between that set and the Anderson-Parker-Drake one that ended the night, I left feeling like some newly-minted evangelist, all ready to rush out into the wilderness and found a religion.

I guess four years was long enough, because when I saw Zorn billed with Brazilian singer-guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria for a set at Tonic, I decided the time was right measure, as Melville reckoned it, the size of god.

I got there late, but Zorn was later. The Goth-Tinkerbells who worked the door said he was having dinner, that he’d had a busy day and was running behind schedule.

The club was almost silent. Inside that halo of red Christmas lights, on the crotch-high altar Tonic called a stage, for the early-birds in the few chairs and the hipsters sitting crosslegged on the floor and the dozens shifting from one foot to the other behind them, Cantuaria thumbed bossas on his plump hollowbody, half-whispering in Portuguese. Erik Friedlander accompanied him on cello, filling the sonic near-vacuum with a restrained lyricism. After a few songs, a drummer sat in. He treated his kit like it was made of glass. Maybe it was the sound of bottles at the bar behind me.

Forty-five minutes later, Zorn trucked in, sat down on stage, and said, “That was the candy, this is the medicine.” There was no slow build into the cacophony, no time for the musicians or audience to adjust. It was like an evil clown had wandered onto a movie set right when the glamorous couple, lying on the beach in Rio, were about to kiss.

John Zorn: musical freedom-fighter or musical terrorist?

Wasn’t it just possible, I wondered later, that he’d planned the whole thing? It was of course so very very Zorn, just the kind of jump-cuts out of which albums like Naked City are built. And then the first piece Zorn drove into was longer, more dissonant and more wildly malevolent than anything that followed. When he finally let up (and Friedlander, too, and the drummer, both of whom had caught the wave without blinking), Cantuaria was still thumbing his bossas and whispering in Portuguese, a subdued act of resistance … or a state of shock. And Zorn lay his horn across his lap and looked wryly at the crowd, as if this Brazilian singer-guitarist had shipwrecked on a free-jazz set, and was playing the unwitting straight man in a musical comedy.

If music often finds its most nuanced accents in a blend of sweet and sour, Zorn, like some demented chemist, had separated the two—let Cantuaria give us the sugar until we choked on it, and then himself gave us the medicine until we choked on it. But far from demonstrating that each element couldn’t exist on its own, whether serendipity or plotted coup, the partitioning worked. It worked maybe because free jazz is finally not interested in musical instruction, but destruction—another kind of sugar, the kind that monkey-wrenches the culture industry, rotting the teeth of its gears, dissolving binaries—sweet-sour, instruct-delight, artist-entertainer. The show didn’t “work” in the sense of musicians playing together like good little boys and girls; according to that definition, it was a trainwreck. Later on, sure, sort of. But the minutes following Zorn’s entry were the performance’s jagged peak. There, in the unexpected moment where the performance “fails,” it finds its center as live experience. And how could that peak, or that abyss, when every expectation about the performance is torn away from us, appear, unless we had been fattened, sweetened, and kissed goodnight by Cantuaria?

It’s one thing to bend generic boundaries by bringing the free reeds of avant jazz to metal and punk—other musicians have done this, and clubs like Tonic and CBGB’s used to be around to capitalize on it. It’s quite another to descend like a roaring lion upon well-intentioned Brazilian singer-guitarists. The former marks a daring openness that has done much to expand the language of contemporary music, and to turn younger music fans onto new styles and sounds. The latter is a calculated effort to break down the perceived barrier between two conceptions of music’s role in culture—to mess with our heads at the very root of thought. It’s in the latter that Zorn really distinguishes himself. A serious and thoughtful musician, always ready with the blue note, the honk and squeal, this joker, macaw, one hand behind his back, always smiling at himself and at us. Shaman and showman, circus clown and medicine man, he is as much at home playing the ringmaster as with his head in the lion’s mouth, or swinging a hundred feet above the startled crowd without a net.

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.

Dreaming American

Independence Day is next week, and the venue—a bar-restaurant with a piano-shaped stage built into one corner, jazz seven nights a week—is done up in stars-and-bars bunting. The food is ethnic, some kind of Mediterranean fusion. A giant clock, the kind you would see in a train station, hangs on one wall, and a giant TV, silent as the clock, hangs over the bar. The Yankees are playing the national pastime-that-was. A third wall is decorated with a rather lurid painting of jazz legends in a jam session, and, on a shelf high above, foot-tall porcelain clowns, each playing a different instrument.

The musicians take turns eating at the single bar seat reserved for staff. The pianist, a young woman of Asian descent, is occupying it when I arrive; the bass player, young, male, African-American, follows her. Scampi. Comped? How much? Half, maybe, the rest paid for out of the tip jar: a fishbowl on a pedestal beside the piano, a few dollar bills floating in it. Too big to carry around soliciting, like they would at Arthur’s Tavern, like they used to at the St. Nick’s Pub.

When the bass player finishes eating, someone on staff is dispatched to find the pianist. Like she’s an errant busboy, smoking weed in the basement. It’s the sort of indignity musicians have suffered since antiquity, beginning with their exile from the Republic.

Why the rush? I’m happy to drink my wine and read about Ed Poe until she’s good and ready. The guy next to me, in the only other occupied seat on the stage-side of the bar, seems content to watch the Yankees. A couple on the other side chats away under the porcelain clowns, and someone else reads the paper. The bartenders, skinny and dark, stand around like coin-operated automatons.

Appear she does, looking slightly flustered, and the other two follow her up onto the stage: the rhythm section, although in a piano trio the distinction is probably meaningless. If there’s any applause, I don’t hear it. No one introduces them, and they don’t introduce themselves. She looks over her shoulder a couple of times while drums and bass fumble with sheet music. The music rack is down, the lid up, the piano turned away from the bar, so that we, the patrons, can see her face, but not her hands.

After a tune or two, I start to wonder what the music is doing here, seven nights a week. Why the stage, the track lighting? Why the baby grand? It’s not a noisy bar, where the music helps create that juke-joint atmosphere, maybe a few people dance, the noise on the bandstand mixing in and out of the noise of conversation, in turn feeding and feeding off the energy of the patrons. At the same time, the music is much too loud and prominent to be a digestif—although, since the main dining room appears to be in the back, the owners might have thought it could serve that function, from a distance. Nor is the place a club-shrine, where arty people go to just listen, silence their cell phones and keep conversation to a minimum. Shoved into a corner, yet thrust up onto a stage; playing against the Yankees, yet loud enough to dissuade conversation: the music seems to have no clearly-defined role.

Maybe enough that it’s here at all. But it does make me wonder what the musicians are playing for, besides tips and a scampi coupon.

Perhaps in response, the band doesn’t talk once during their set. They do no more than sift through sheet music, murmuring. It’s a bit like watching someone sort dirty laundry; I almost feel the need to look away. As for the pianist, the leader—it is her trio; her name is on the bill—she stares straight ahead while she plays, without seeming to look at anything, not even the keys or her own hands. Maybe she’s looking through the open windows and door behind me, at the makeshift terraza on the avenue, at the cars and pedestrians making their way through the breezy late-June evening. Making music out of their moving figures and the City night, dreaming about all these lives separate and distinct from her own, people she won’t ever see again, and how she fits into this inscrutable jigsaw; and when, if ever, she’ll be done paying her dues, make it, play for the tourists; and whether she’ll ever be able to call this place home, and what that will mean when she goes back to Tokyo, or Seoul, or Boston, or Los Angeles, or wherever it is she’s called home up to now.

The guy next to me never takes his eyes off the TV, but his body does rock a little when they play a burner. He applauds politely when the set is over, too; but then somebody has just hit a home run.

At last she does speak. In a thickly-accented English, she introduces her bandmates, herself, holds up her CD with her face on the cover. The drummer is texting. A moment later he goes out front to smoke a cigarette. She, too, disappears again, leaving the CD buried under the scores atop the piano.

I can’t tell you who she sounded like. She sounded like pretty much every dreamer who came to this town before her, and yet like nobody but herself, pitching those few pennies into the wishing-well of improvisation—there are plenty at the bottom of that fishbowl, and plenty more fishbowls like that one. I can’t remember what she played, either. A mix of originals and standards, again, like pretty much everybody else: something people can tap their feet to even if they’re watching the game, nothing too “out,” too corny, too anything.

As for her name, that doesn’t particularly matter either. There are dozens, maybe hundreds like her in this City: graduates of the Berklees, renegades from the Julliards, devotees of that other national pastime, cobbling together their lives on bandstand after bandstand, hawking their CDs wherever they go, playing an always-contemporary music itself cobbled together from a thousand accents, one foot planted firmly in the future, dreaming about a time when they’ll be done paying their dues, the flag will mean what it’s supposed to, and the clowns will climb down off those high shelves and file out the door.

Animistic

Photo by Garrett Bradley

From notes discovered on the last page of my copy of Jane Eyre. Any errors are errors of imagination, and hence not errors at all.

Last Memorial Day weekend I headed down to Alphabet City to hear a solo performance by Jason Moran at A Gathering of Tribes, a gallery-salon on East 3rd Street. A friend of mine in Texas had learned about the show from Moran’s Facebook page—this sort of thing happens more frequently than you might suppose—and forwarded me the link.

Walking down Avenue D that Sunday, with my treasure map cribbed from the internet, I wondered whether Tribes would have AC. It was more like July than May: temperature near a hundred, humidity through the roof. I felt bad for my cats. I felt bad for everybody’s cats.

A few minutes before three I stumbled into the small living room of a second-floor walkup, almost into Moran himself, dapper as ever, in white with his trademark Panama hat. He was chatting with a few people sitting on a big black couch, one an elderly African-American man who appeared to be blind.

So this was Tribes. Fifteen dollars. And would I care to make a donation? People milled in and out of the kitchen (right) and the gallery space (left) set up for the performance. Not an empty seat in this little house. A few of the attendees sat on the sills of the thrown-open windows, and one had even gone so far as to perch on the fire escape. The walls were covered with paintings of what looked like apocalyptic orgies. A decrepit upright piano stood against the gallery’s far wall.

It was hotter upstairs than on the street. The people, of course. Hot doesn’t quite capture it, actually. I had abandoned all pretense of civility, was wiping my face with the belly of my T-shirt, which had taken on a Rorschach-like sweat-blot. But then everyone here shone or dripped; we were collectively melting, like dropped popsicles. Maybe this was the meaning of the phantasmagoria on the walls: we were all melting together, and in better weather would solidify as One.

The smell? A mix of noxious volatiles (paint, crotchsweat) and cigarette smoke. I confess a certain nostalgia for the last of these. I wanted to smoke myself, now that every 7-11 was supposed to carry posters of evil-looking tumors while they pushed Nachos, slushees, hot dogs and other such shit on obese teens. At least, until some clever young soul finds a way to smoke them.

When I was sufficiently dehydrated to have lost hope of survival, Moran squeezed past me, heading for the piano. I imagined his passage was eased by my desiccation; I imagined the sweat pouring out of him like water off a mop put through a roller. He took a seat at the bench, swiveled around to thank the gallery’s owner, and then started to play.

Oh, that piano. Brand Kurtzmann. “Upright” is pushing it. Corpses sit upright, I guess, if they’re shoved up against a wall like that. I expected it to go to pieces the moment he started, like a used car kicked by an overzealous vendor. The front panel was missing, so I could watch the hammers lift and drop with the music. Some of them would stick; I waited for them to bounce back. Some would create a split tone, or make the piano ring like a sitar, or dulcimer. Some were just dead. And so even though Moran played a “regular” piano, it sounded like a prepared one … but an inadvertently, randomly prepared one, the detritus of ages littering the cables, time and wear having done the work that a deliberate artist might do. As though passers-by had left trinkets inside, and taken pieces home as souvenirs. This is all the more wonderful when one considers that the piano is supposed to be the essence of a mathematical, regularized sonority.

There was something right about watching Moran from behind. You never, I realized, see pianists entirely from behind in a concert hall or jazz club. They are at most three-quarters turned. But then you never see pianists playing an “upright.” Here, you could watch his shoulders hunch up, his neck disappear, his hands sprout from his body as they crawled toward either end of the keyboard. He had to swivel on his butt every time he wanted to bow, or turn around entirely to introduce a number, which he did with his hands clasped in his lap.

At one point, Moran claimed to have a Kurtzmann just like this one at home, only in even worse shape, so he was comfortable with the instrument. I admit I found this hard to believe. But what he said directly after made me not particularly care. The piano, he said, was guiding him toward what it wanted him to play.

Anyone who has ever tried to play an instrument will understand this. Every instrument—I don’t mean this in the general but in the particular sense—has a character of its own. Every musician has to develop a relationship with his instrument—has to figure out, as Moran said, what it wants him to play, as much as what he wants from it. To conjure the spirit inhabiting those boards and knobs and strings. To steer it like a creaky ship toward some modicum of controlled expression. All musicianship partakes of this sort of animism; the piano at Tribes just dramatized it.

Moran’s comment changed the way I was listening. At the beginning I had been tempted to take the whole show for charity, or an exercise in postmodern pastiche, or a sort of death-match. It was, in fact, all of the above. A big-name jazz player slumming in the “old” East Village, helping raise funds for an ailing institution; a master pitting his technique against a recalcitrant instrument. Certainly there was no hiding in it. Forget about the warm pedaling that allows notes to melt into one another, the whole piano to seethe like an orchestra, that obscures missed notes or uneven trills in washes of sound. Every flaw was there on display. But what I came to hear, too, was a musician listening to the instrument he played, learning from it, until he started to recognize, for example, where those duds and split tones were—and then he might hit them hard, three, four times in a row, the way Monk will badger a minor second or tritone until we can’t help but admire its ugly beauty.

In this light, the performance started to sound like a belated response to Moran’s 2002 solo recording Modernistic; and the piano took on the decayed beauty of an abandoned factory, or ruined amusement park. Only a haunted one. For the mix of tunes, or rather the mixed-up tunes, came to seem selected by the piano, not the performer. Free jazz melted into stride—Butch Morris to Fats Waller—and then, via obsessive repetition, atomized into something closer to minimalism (cf. Irene Schweitzer). Another piece, reminiscent of one of Satie’s Gymnopédies, scrambled into a blues. Even “Body and Soul,” a Moran favorite, took on new dimensions as it was fractured here and there by notes that sounded alternately like glass, rubber balls, and wood blocks. By then I was thinking, That ballad, yeah, the piano definitely wanted that one. Or maybe my ears were just getting used to the endless clinkers and shimmerers, stickers and duds.

At the end of the first set I took a walk outside to cool off and decide if I had the endurance to go back for the second. The trees were all in blossom, misting me with petals as I walked by. The people had blossomed, too, here in the vegas of Alphabet City. A barbecue in every garden and a party on every streetcorner. Every once in a while a skinny white girl would pass me on a bike. Over on Avenue B, a college student was moving in, her parents helping. Everything she owned seemed to be wrapped in plastic. She looked too young for the neighborhood; she ought to be moving into a dorm somewhere, I thought. But then the entire Village is a dorm. Or a frat house.

Near the end of that first set, Moran had said that Tribes was one of the reasons he still lived in New York. I thought of the woman who had offered me a cup of water as I stood leaning on the doorjamb. Melting and listening. Listening and melting. Occasionally I would look over at the blind man on the couch, who did not move for the entire set. When it ended, he said, “Beautiful.” He said it three more times—beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. There was nothing else anybody could say.

I walked around the circle in Tompkins Square, past the street punks and skaters and the people walking their panting dogs—I felt bad for everybody’s dogs, too—and sat down for a minute on a bench. I scribbled some notes on the back page of my copy of Jane Eyre. Then I remembered the second set and started walking back to Tribes.

 

Addendum, 1.3.19: In the documentary film Richter: The Enigma, Sviatoslav Richter remarks that the worst thing a pianist can do is choose the piano he will play on—as he was invited to do when he played in the United States. “I don’t like pianos,” he says. “I like music.” Better, he says, to leave it up to Fate. Better, as for Jason Moran, to let the piano choose him.

 

 

Live Birds

     I get now why they called him Bird.

That this wisdom should be granted to me at the end of my forty-second year, while watching the thirtysomething Nuyorican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón tear a hole in the world at Smalls a couple of Tuesdays ago, is perhaps not surprising. Except that he wasn’t trying to incarnate the spirit of Bird. Nor was he trying to imitate birdsongs, like Dolphy, or Messiaen. I didn’t hear Bird, or birds, but bird, the Platonic ideal of bird-ness. I saw it, too: he was hopping from foot to foot—then his body started to jut up and down in irregular pulses, bending at the knees and waist—then he went up on his toes, his back arched, face cinched up, eyebrows raised—wings thrown out—the moment’s levitation a few inches off the basement floor … It was only after that my brain leapt to the feathered vertebrates now believed to have descended from dinosaurs, and then made the association to Charlie Parker, and I thought, This is why they called him Bird.

*

As the titles of his albums suggest (Jibaro, Esta Plena, Alma Adentro), Zenón has built his career as a composer and bandleader drawing on and refiguring the music of his native Puerto Rico. Even the less emphatically Puerto Rican Awake (2008) features a cover photo of Zenón on a New York City rooftop, echoing the photos early Puerto Rican immigrants would send back to their families. These are the sorts of echoes one hears throughout Zenón’s music—not Latin jazz as it has traditionally been conceived, but a Latin-inflected contemporary jazz: Caribbean folk spoken through a tightly-honed, harmonically bold post-bop idiom.

At Smalls, Zenón took advantage of the intimate atmosphere fostered by family and friends (and aficionados, and tourists) to present a series of new compositions, which, he announced, reflect on the specifically Nuyorican experience.* It is some of the most exciting music the young composer has produced to date—a music which aggressively asserts its Puerto Rican-ness, while at the same time gracefully negotiating the pitfalls confronting the consciously “ethnic” jazz composer: on the one hand, of trying to be, as the Spanish say, “more Catholic than the Pope” about one’s identity; on the other, of the folk element becoming jazz’s window dressing rather than the music’s interior life, its beating heart. The liner notes to Esta Plena (2009), which Zenón penned himself, give a clear indication how consciously he approaches the composing and improvising process, a process at once rigorous and arbitrary—rigorous perhaps because it is arbitrary—that informs every aspect of the music: rhythm, melody, harmony, form, and instrumentation. At its best, the music’s Caribbean undergirding harmonizes with its jazz expression in a way that invigorates both traditions, while stopping short of fusing them into a single entity—that beautiful photo of the dancing couple on the cover of Alma Adentro.

Probably the first thing that strikes a listener new to Zenón’s music is its nimbleness about time. It is a music where odd meters (fives, sevens and nines) are played as freely as any Viennese waltz—or conversely, where an arrangement can dramatically call attention to a meter’s oddness: in the rhythmic Grand Guignol of the set-ender “First Language,” for example, drummer Henry Cole whacking out dry sevens on his snare while the bass and piano held fast to a stolid four against it, and Zenón weaved melodic lines around the three of them. Much of the rhythmic brilliance of these compositions derives from such well-placed counterweights, from the opening tune’s pecking single note on the piano to the violent schisms of “First Language.” Nor is it just odd time signatures that create these effects, but the rapid changes between them, and between the instruments that play in them. Just as quickly as we think we’ve grasped a Zenón melody, the time changes: the same phrase might be tested against two or three different meters, sometimes all at once, in a technique Zenón calls (according to Bob Blumenthal’s liner notes to Awake) “rhythmic dimensions.” A melody, it seems, isn’t there just to be played, but tinkered with, each tinkering revealing something new about the phrase and the notes that constitute it.

Zenón does the same as a soloist: one phrase, many rhythms, accenting different notes, giving the band time to tinker, too, until he’s played it out—then a sudden sprint, or a soaring high note, or a party-favor trill. I don’t mean to suggest a hesitancy about his soloing; there isn’t that sense of seeking one hears in later Coltrane (sorry, probably an overused signifier about Coltrane), or the sort of overdeliberate thoughtfulness of John Scofield’s guitar. A lot of players will stop, listen, regroup, try a phrase a few times in different directions before finding a new groove. It’s part of the grammar of improvisation. But there’s none of that in Zenón’s playing. The style is forthright, the ideas pour out of him. And if an alto can never have quite the muscle a tenor does, Zenón’s comes close, pushed along by the sheer volume of his ideas. There is real strength in his playing, the surprisingly firm grip of a small-boned hand.

That edge to his sound, coupled with the mercurial energy of his rhythms and the harmonic intricacies of his compositions (and, need it be said, his flabbergasting technique), comes in handy when it comes times for a ballad. One wrong turn in a ballad, and an alto player can wind up in the proverbial elevator with Kenny G. But Zenón’s ballads always have these crosscurrents that cut the saccharin. “Progreso,” from Esta Plena, is a good example. It begins with an über-nostalgic, almost Beatlesy melody, arranged as a sort of processional for the piano. Later, the melody is picked up and played solo by the horn. Then the whole rhythm section comes in behind him—playing not the processional, but a slow, teasing funk, giving a swagger to the sweetness, leaving nostalgia behind. At the Smalls set, the second tune worked in a similar way: a lovely melody, but played against chromatic-sounding changes. The melody alone would have been too sweet, the changes too directionless and abstract. They shouldn’t have worked together, but somewhat miraculously they did, the melody giving the changes needed direction, the changes reining in the melody’s excesses.

As usual I find myself speaking about the leader at the expense of the band, Zenón’s working quartet for his last three albums; each is an impressive player in his own right. Luis Perdomo’s piano solos were as extensive as any taken by Zenón, who sat at the end of the bar to dig them together with the rest of the crowd. They nicely complemented the bandleader’s style, alternating between the percussive and the fluid, uncanny echoes of McCoy Tyner and Maurice Ravel. As for Cole, I’ve never heard a drummer sound more like a timbale player, at least at the outset of his big solo … but then he built outwards to the rest of the kit, inviting the other drums in like dancers on the edge of a circle, as if to suggest the evolution of jazz from that mythical northward migration, beginning not in New Orleans, but all the way down in the Caribbean, the first African presence in the New World: a direct line joining Puerto Rico to New York.

When Cole was finished, Zenón stepped back into that pleasantly punishing seven-on-four. The club was already an hour late for the open mic, though I can’t imagine anyone was complaining, least of all the other musicians, huddled in the back like spies with their mysteriously-shaped attachés.

*

I left Smalls on a madrugada high, marveling at the sheer amount of energy of the human species. I had a whole cartoon looping in my head: sun heating the planet green, energy absorbed by these creative ambulatory plants, plants exploding into flower on a bandstand, in a club, in New York, on any given night.

But then maybe it was just that sort of night. At West 4th a couple of vagrants got on the train, pushing their bikes through the relentlessly closing doors. One of them announced to the other passengers that he was a serial killer, he had cut off his stepfather’s arms so he (his stepfather) would never hit him again, bragged that mental institutions were only ever able to lock him up for a few days at a time, and then started beating the poles with a chain. A mass exodus at 14th Street to the adjacent car, where three teens put on a breakdancing show starring an old, laceless tennis shoe. They threw it like a football, shot it like an arrow, caught it behind their heads and in their armpits, put it on and kicked it off, fêted it like it was Cinderella’s glass slipper. And all this while they danced and flipped and swung around the poles.

See? That’s what I’m talking about: energy. Now, I’m not silly enough to think they’d do it for free; but the dollar I gave them—that little bit of my own transmuted energy—hardly plumbs the miracle of their intent. On some nights the whole city seems to glow like a crack pipe, the very  buildings sweat light; and we, the poor folks who live here, are just vectors for all this helplessly accumulated energy, gnats inside a concrete matchbox, looking desperately for release.

 

* I’m guessing the Smalls sets were one more live working-through of the music Zenón would present with a 12-piece big band at Montclair State University a couple of weeks later, under the title “Puerto Rico Nacio en Mi: Tales from the Diaspora.” Regardless, it will be interesting to see what final form these compositions assume when they are recorded.

Land of the Midnight Stumble

       So you climb out of the vanguard and find there’s somehow still money in your pocket, or you stagger out of one of those latenight westvillage cafes after a grading binge, all blearyeyed & braincalloused, a coat of cold espresso on your tongue. it’s midnight. the shitstinking evercoming nevercoming subway stands like a wall between you & your bed. so you do that 7th ave shuffle down to 10th street, hang a right & stumble downstairs, hand the man with the cashbox your last twenty & tip your hat to the big zonked grey bombshelter cat in the corner. & lo & behold who should be on the non-bandstand but Wynton Marsalis, like THE Wynton Marsalis, here just because you didn’t know he would be, & he & the other cats are tearing through a “cherokee” the likes of which you haven’t heard since that zootsoot nineteenfiftytwo life you dream about now & then. not that the cats wouldn’t play beautifully without him, but you just know he’s taking them to another level, what with his jazzatlincolncenter halo & suit he looks like he was born in & kenburns PBS/BGO cachet. & then “you don’t know what love is,” nosir, you most certainly did NOT know what love is, not until you heard those long, breathy notes drippp from his horn like the spit you’ve watched bead & fall from another trumpet’s bell. leaky faucets. nights up. feels like every lonely man & woman in the city just turned over in their beds all at once. all you can think is thank GOD this cat still believes in slumming, because you just don’t imagine you forget he can still play like this & there’s a reason the powersthatbe picked him to wear that suit. & what better reminder than to watch him trade 2s with the rest of the cats on that closing blues, & then 1s, & then halves quarters eighths bang bang jockeying around each other while the crowd hooplas & jesus who knows probably the grey cat himself rolls over & yawns. & by the time the waitress with the impossibly red lipstick has worked her way through the people standing in the back with your drink & you’ve tipped her a dollar & she’s thanked you like you just rescued her from the Kraken you know it’s going to be a much longer night than you’d planned. because the set’s over & the night’s young & you’ve fallen in love all over again with this city of midnight fairylands that tramples on your plans & tears up your maps & throws all reason into the sea. & yet somehow manages to put everything just where it belongs. & you in it.

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.

 

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.

 

Clap Much?

As part of his tenure as the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer—the first jazz musician to hold this chair—Brad Mehldau presented three concerts between January and March at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. The first was a solo recital pairing original works with pieces of music that had inspired them (by Bach, Brahms, and Fauré), the pairs interspersed with brief lectures relating the two. In the third concert (I skipped the second), Mehldau shared the stage at different times with two other pianist-composers, Kevin Hays and Timothy Andres, and mixed his own compositions with those of his stagemates, together with a few standards. This show closed with two dances from a suite-in-progress, Rock ‘n’ Roll Dances, which featured Mehldau and Andres on piano, a 6-piece reed section, and a vocalist, Becca Stevens.

I had the good fortune to be seated next to Stevens’s working partner, and to strike up a conversation with him in that rather halting New York way. It turned out that he and the aeolian Stevens worked together through a Carnegie Hall extension program for area schools. He praised all the musicians, several of whom I didn’t know. What he found funny, he said, was the fact that these top-notch horn players, among them Joshua Redman and Chris Potter, were going to be treated like session musicians. It was the sort of thing they would have done when they’d first moved to New York, before making names for themselves. I’m not really well-versed enough in the pecking order of New York’s jazz scene to fully appreciate the irony, but I got the joke, and smiled by way of illustration.

It was a remarkable concert, as remarkable in its own way as the earlier recital. The opening standards (duets by Mehldau and Hays) were as much a surprise to one or the other pianist as to the audience, and as much a surprise in performance, too, so transformed were the original changes in these musicians’ imaginations. The new(er) compositions were consistently interesting, with the find of the evening being young Andres’s Shy and Mighty—an unpromising title concealing a world of riches, at least the three selections chosen from this ten-pounder, particularly the second, a postmodern dialogue titled “How can I live in your world of ideas?”

In the second half, after another hybridized and grafted perennial (“All the Things You Are”) and Hays’s “Elegia,” the pianos were rotated 45 degrees, and chairs and microphones were arranged for the horn-players and Ms Stevens, all of whom filed out onto the stage and assumed their respective positions and postures. Now that I was seeing it, it was sort of funny. I was used to these guys (at least Potter and Redman) as bandleaders, and almost by definition, unless instrument, age or infirmity leaves you no other choice, a bandleader stands.

For me, though, the real irony didn’t arrive until partway through the first dance, number 3. It’s built on a bouncy, chord-driven ostinato in 7:4, a rhythmically-fractured reworking of “Heart and Soul,” right hand echoing the left throughout. It’s also reminiscent of Radiohead’s “No Surprises” (on OK Computer) … but maybe this occurred to me only because of Mehldau’s own version of “Exit Music (for a Film),” of which he often delivers an extended treatment in performance (the January recital was no exception).

A ways into the piece, the reed section was required to clap. Now, this was some well-thought-out clapping: the first few times through the ostinato, the claps fell on the third beat and halfway between the sixth and seventh beats of each measure—evenly spaced, that is, to accent the stressed chords. Then the pattern changed, with the players clapping alternately. I can’t remember that pattern; I’m actually eager to hear a recorded version. My impression is that half the reed section clapped the original pattern, and the other half clapped something against it.

I should digress briefly to remind my reader that I’m a great admirer of flamenco music, which means, among other things, that I take my clapping pretty darn seriously.

When most people think about rhythmic clapping, they imagine audiences clapping along to music—‘80s Japanese rock fans, kids on Wonderama. They remember Steve Martin in The Jerk, adopted by an African-American family—was this joke old already in 1979?—enraptured when he finally learns to put his hands together on the beat. The message, or one of them: Anyone with rhythm can clap. Anyone who can’t has special needs.

But when I think about clapping, I think of straightbacked gypsies dressed like toreros and violently beautiful women, clapping as if their lives depended on it.

So, where’s the irony? The man promised irony three paragraphs ago, you’re saying, and now he’s off on some tangent about clapping. My point is that there’s clapping and there’s clapping. Flamenco gets the italics. So do funk and soul. Watch Sly Stone; the man can clap. You’d think jazz, jazz would be right up there, no matter how third-streamy. Alas.

It wasn’t that they were off time or anything. They knew when to clap. They’re professionals. But if they’d played their horns with the same verve that they clapped … let’s just say I’d have headed for the doors well before the piece was over. And I wouldn’t have been alone.

I mean, here they were, some of the most brilliant improvisers of their generation, phoning in the clapping. And their posture! Potter looked like he was about to slide out of his seat. I’m surprised Redman didn’t tilt his chair back and scowl, like Vic Morrow in Blackboard Jungle.

Ahem. Gentlemen. May I? Thank you. Sit up straight. That means you, Mr Potter. Mr Potter … thank you. Now, hands up. Elbows high, turned out slightly, and—Mr Cheek, please put the horn down. Yes, on the stand is fine. There we are. Hands up? Like that, yes. Everyone look at Mr Tardy. Don’t be shy, Mr Tardy. Very good. Put one foot forward, the other back. Put some weight on that back leg; let your front leg hang loose. Relax your wrists. Fingers, too. Rest the fingers of your left hand in the palm of your right. Or, if you prefer, palms together. Ready? Mr Redman, are you with us? You’re not texting, are you? Just checking. Go ahead, Mr Mehldau. But slowly. That’s good. Now: one and two and THREE and four and five and six AND seven and one and two and THREE and four and five and six AND seven and … keep going … keep going … keep … stop … Mr Mehldau … thank you. That’s better, but I can barely hear you over the piano. And—what did I say about that horn, Mr Cheek? Thank you. It will be all right where it is. You should clap as if … as if Mr Mehldau would lose his place without you. Your hands need to transport you as much as your horn does. Deep breaths: in … out … Let’s try it again, this time, as they say, with feeling. Mr Mehldau? A little faster this time. Now: oneandtwoandTHREEandfourandfiveandsixAND … much better … very nice … ¡ale, ale! ¡Así se hace!

Thank you, Mr Mehldau. I’ll go back to my seat now. And Mr Potter? Please sit up straight. Thank you.

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?