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I Die (A Little)

I was standing on the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 145th Street listening to Sonny Rollins play “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” (The Sound of Sonny, 1957) when a hearse drove by. True story. Cross my heart &c. It was leading a two-car funeral procession, lights on, curtains drawn. On my headphones, Rollins was dying a little.

Or was he? The problem here is that when Rollins plays “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” it’s just so goddamn upbeat. He swings the hell out of it, stutters the first note of each part of the melody regardless of whether friend or lover is saying hello or goodbye, and then really opens up the horn for the last two bars—so much for that famous “change from major to minor.” I ask you: Is this man really dying a little? Even just a little? I think not. This is the bon voyage of broken champagne bottles and ships’ horns; that stutter is the bit of palpitation anticipating freedom, not return. With Rollins on the bandstand, that hearse was practically bouncing on its rims.

The man turned eighty the other day, you know. You have to wonder if he’d play it the same way—if he’d swing it even harder, say, or be moody about it, or contemplative, or rage against the dying of the light. Or all of the above.

A friend of mine used to have this song on his answering machine, a woman’s voice singing the first two famous lines with a shrill, wavering lugubriousness; then the beep—this back when you used to be able to mix your own answering machine messages on those micro-cassettes, in what I have elsewhere called the endlessly malleable analog world. Then came ring tones; long live magnetic tape. Waiting to cross, I watched that mini-procession wend up St. Nicholas Avenue, Rollins bouncing notes like tennis balls off my eardrums. I almost waved.

Modern American

Two notes, which I hope to braid into a discussion of the great stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith.

First—in case it isn’t obvious from previous posts—I’m kind of a piano snob. In jazz, many of the bebop giants—Bobby Timmons, Kenny Drew, Cedar Walton, even Wynton Kelly and Tommy Flanagan at times—leave me cold. Heresy, but I can’t connect with solo Monk either, though there’s hardly a pianist I prefer in a group context, whether comping or soloing. Latin pianists mostly makes me cringe—all that flamboyant pounding—this though I get the virtuosity of Latin jazzers like Chucho Valdez and Michel Camilo. And the less said about rock keyboards, the better. I try not to make a habit of shooting fish in barrels, and anyway, it might just be the metal in me talking.

With jazz, I gravitate toward pianists in whose playing I can recognize something of the classical tradition. In terms of technique, this pretty much boils down to a more active left hand, a more precise articulation with the right, a greater facility with the pedal, and a greater feel for the piano’s dynamic potential, all of which serve to expand the range of the instrument’s expressive possibilities. That a pianist has to be able do that and swing, too, is sort of a given. And yet—to borrow the old logical formula—swing is necessary, but (heresy again!) not sufficient. That is: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, but swing ain’t everything. Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Brad Meldhau, Stephen Scott, and Joey Calderazzo are a few of the names that pop into my head.

If the names above are weighted toward contemporary players, that may be because jazz pianists today are more likely to have had conservatory training, and a fair number of my favorite young pianists seem to be refugees from classical music programs. This is suggested in part by the number of wonderful young Asian women who have fled a future in the recital hall for the bandstand. Some of them gig regularly around New York: Helen Sung, Eri Yamamoto. (Is it only in America that we think of classically-trained jazz musicians as refugees? And if so, why?) By the way, for the rest of this post, every time you think, “But what about Monk?” just imagine me saying, “Monk excepted.” I’ll get back to him at some length in a later post.

Now, there was a period a while back when I was borrowing a lot of discs from the public library and copying them onto my computer. To avoid racking up fines, I tended to copy them without listening to them, and would not get around to hearing them until turning over the music on my little 4-gig iPod about every four to five months.

This is why the first time my snobbish pianistic ears heard Willie “The Lion” Smith, I was walking across the 149th Street bridge on my way to work. I stopped walking—or I must have stopped walking. At least, I performed the mental equivalent of stopping walking, whether I actually stopped or not. But enough of the Beckett pastiche. My first thought was: I pushed the wrong button. This isn’t … jazz. What was this gorgeous little slice of American modernism I had stumbled upon? Had I inadvertently put on Samuel Barber’s “Souvenirs”? Edward MacDowell’s “Woodland Sketches,” or some other spliff of homegrown Debussy? No: the screen said I was listening to Willie “The Lion” Smith: 1938-1940. I actually had a moment’s crisis of faith in my iPod. Maybe it was broken, or possessed, displaying one title while playing another, laughing …

And then all at once I became reconciled to my ignorance, and realized that it was time to start listening to stride.

Because (as I quickly realized) it wasn’t just Smith. It was the great undiscovered country of pre-bop piano: Fats Waller and Jelly-Roll Morton and James P. Johnson and Earl Hines, and those geniuses we tend to associate only with big-band music, Mary Lou Williams and Duke Ellington. God, Ellington; I imagine a globe with his name ranged across a blank continent the size of Eurasia:                    E L L I N G T O N. I actually have to turn the globe slightly to see the whole word, or project it onto a flat space … which, as we all know, causes distortions.

So I went back to the library and borrowed a couple of discs by Waller and a couple by Morton. But neither impressed me quite like Smith. Granted, with all three I’m making judgments based on an extremely limited sample. I’ve since come to understand that the 1938-40 Smith recordings actually encompass what critics consider to be his finest work. As for Morton, the discs covered recordings made between 1923 and 1926—my original, unrealized intention had been to go forward from there—and mixed solo piano with “Dixieland” band; the Waller recordings, though apparently made when he was at his peak (1927-9), were all with his band, or “Buddies.” It may be the case that Smith struck me the way he did simply because I heard him first, or that the 1938-40 recordings reflect refinements of the previous decade. Regardless, I should probably save the comparisons for some future revision and instead just try to close-read what it was that struck me about Smith.

Listening to Smith, my first thought was that he was doing with the parlor music of his day what Debussy and Ravel had done with theirs: playing it at an angle, as García Márquez once described magic realism’s relationship to conventional realism. Familiar melodic structures, rhythms, and harmonic changes are tweaked, flipped, toyed with, decomposed. The tunes remain, like leaves frozen in ice; but what we’re really listening to is the pianist skating over the top of them, his dazzling pirouettes and measured stumbles. Conversely, compared to many later bebop players, Smith sounds harmonically more advanced; and this makes me wonder whether the stride pianists serve a similar role to contemporary jazz musicians that baroque did to some modern classical composers: someone bothered to climb over the mountain (of bebop on the one hand, the nineteenth century on the other) and discovered a wealth of musical ideas that had been abandoned during intervening evolution. That said, I don’t mean to suggest that Smith and Debussy belong to separate kingdoms. Quite the opposite: ragtime players influenced the French (and other) moderns, while some of Smith’s pieces sound like syncopated Chopin.

Baroque notwithstanding, one of the main things that attracted me to Smith (and stride more generally) was the prevalence of the left hand. It’s something I miss in a lot of bebop. Even a post-bopper like McCoy Tyner, so often cited for his left hand, uses it more as an anchor than as an independent voice. It’s an anchor in stride too, of course, but it carries much more expressive weight; it vies for our attention with the right, and we are more likely to conciliate it. As a result, stride has a much more polyphonic texture than bebop. There is often a marvelous independence of one hand from the other: the left can oompah or boogie-woogie away while the right remains free to ornament the melody … or perhaps lose the melody in whole or in part to its competitor, bounding back and forth at the other end of the keyboard with its dukes up, always poised to take a swing (“Sneakaway Willie”). I can’t think of another pianist who can play three against two so effortlessly as Smith does on “Echoes of Spring,” his right hand waltzing while the left twiddles, each as carefree as the other. Think of a horse cantering while its rider upper-body-dances with an invisible partner. The left hand can suddenly take on a life of its own, too, break stride, and descend the piano in syncopated octaves, sometimes twice or three times in just a few measures, the righthand chords tumbling after, before we’re comfortably back in the rag again (“Rippling Waters,” “Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”). Or it can follow a call-and-response between the two hands by climbing up to meet the right, or hang the melody on high chords (“Morning Air”). Or it can darkly busy itself beneath the melodic surface with Beethovenian foreboding.

As for those right-hand flourishes, they are lovely, seemingly inexhaustible, and give the impression of having been discovered at the moment(s) of their execution. The trills-with-tails, for example, on “Squeeze Me” and “Echoes of Spring” (3-4-3-1 in the minor pentatonic scale, and variations on that theme) with which he seeds the whole upper range of the keyboard, his left keeping time like a planter walking a row, body swaying like the pendulum in a grandfather clock. And then those tinkling 6-3 trills on “Squeeze Me”; the unobtrusive ornamenting of de rigeur chromatic descents; the myriad scoops (at least, that’s what jazz guitarists call them), like minor banana-peel slips; and the limpid split octaves on “Echoes,” so reminiscent of Chopin (although the most Chopinesque touches about this piece are the chromaticism in the melody and the modulation in the left hand).

I have a recurring image of Smith waiting at a bus stop. He paces, looking now and again up the road. He hums a tune, lights his cigar. And then he’ll do something amazing—if you wait around long enough he’ll have to. Not self-consciously; he’s trying to keep himself entertained. A glassy chord. A weird little dissonance. An oddball ending, like “Sneakaway Willie”’s skitter up to the top of the keyboard (the song ends not because it resolves harmonically, but because he runs out of keys). The saltpeter little unswung righthand figure in “Doggin’ the Dog,” just before that dark ladder of fourths that calls Big Joe Turner back in: “And I ain’t gonna be a low-down dog no more …” (Turner sings on the last two tracks of the disc.) Smith does that little figure twice, and then just as quickly abandons it, seemingly bored with it, a kid throwing jacks, moves on to something else. And rest assured he’ll find something else, too, the left hand measuring, whiling time away, always ready to spring.

The mistitled “Rippling Waters” is maybe the standout piece on the disc, the other side of the coin to “Echoes”’s serenity. Maybe I feel it’s mistitled because Marcus Roberts’ song of the same name sounds like … well, like rippling waters. It’s a tune deeply infused with a gospel feel, even as it is ornamented like a romantic piano fantasy. But Smith’s waters do anything but ripple, they splash and bounce and whirl; trills and chords circle treacherously around each other; resolutions jar, opening the way to the hardest-stomping of bridges, or to a sudden end. So much, it seems, for MacDowell-style impressionism. There is not a busier, more uptempo tune on the disc, or one that better showcases the pianist at his most exciting.

*

I scanned around a bit in my jazz books and on line to see if anyone had made a case for Smith’s classical inflections or relationship to American modernism. Indeed, Smith’s interest in classical music is widely acknowledged, with “Echoes of Spring” the most cited. And critic Martin Williams called Smith the most musically interesting of the Harlem school (although he prefers New Orleans’s Morton), and compares him to MacDowell. That said, there is remarkably little written about Smith, at least compared to Waller and Morton.

Now, Gary Giddins’ curt dismissal of Smith (in his piece on Fats Waller, in Visions of Jazz) is worth discussing. Smith is used briefly as a foil for Waller, whom Giddins seems to consider the greater artist; Smith, Giddins claims, had a tendency toward sentimentality. Reading through many of the densely brilliant little monographs and duo-graphs toward the beginning of Visions of Jazz, one can’t help but come to see sentimentality as the arch-villain of the grand narrative of early jazz; it’s a kind of smothering mother-figure (for mother-love and mother-lovers also take a whuppin’ here) out of which the music struggled toward maturity, mentored by figures like Armstrong, Oliver, and Ellington. You can almost hear Giddins crying out, “Clowning, minstrelsy, grotesque parody … anything but sentimentality!” Notably, when classical music is mentioned with respect to, say, Waller, it seems that jazz can only approach it via parody or pastiche. To do otherwise, perhaps, is to risk sentiment—or to become, as Miles Davis so memorably put it (according to the liner notes to Sketches of Spain), “a hip cornball.”

I’ve watched loads of silent movies over the past year, slaking myself on MOMA’s ongoing “Auteurist History of Film” series, and now on the “Weimar Cinema” series as well. Some of the greatest of them seem pretty sentimental to me, at least from a century’s distance. And yet, what power many of them still have! I suppose I’ll be told that, well, then, it’s not sentimental … that, or I’m a maudlin fool. I guess I find sentimentality difficult to gauge when watching films or listening to music so far removed from my own time. A zoologist can probably tell me to a reasonable degree of certainty whether I’m looking at the finger-bone of an ape or a rat’s femur. But how can a cultural historian claim with a similar degree of certainty that a movie or a song is or is not sentimental? Reception studies? Sentimental, that is, for whom? I can’t imagine being moved by a silent film—or, for that matter, by a Romantic symphony, or an Elizabethan play—without some imaginative effort to see beyond my contemporary prejudices and expectations, and to inhabit the conventions of another age. And then the longer I live, the more I start to feel like there are worse things than a little sentimentality. At least in literature, I’ve found more sustenance in writers who are willing to risk sentiment than in those who make careers out of studiously avoiding it.

I’ll stop here, but not before giving a shout-out to Lewis Nash, who played a disc of the Lester Young trio (feat. Nat Cole and Buddy Rich) for a small crowd gathered at the Jazz Museum of Harlem some months back, and suggested that listeners and musicians alike had much to gain by digging into pre-bop jazz. He’s hardly the first to have suggested it … but then the others didn’t have “Prez” standing behind them, helping them make their case.

On Bands, Very Large and Very Small

In the Joshua Redman chapter of his lovely recent book The Jazz Ear, Ben Ratliff—apparently paraphrasing Redman—writes, “Great bands, more than great individuals, make jazz matter in the larger culture” (135). Redman argues that Coltrane’s quartet functioned as a unit and a whole, rather than as a platform for the leader (Sonny Rollins is the foil here). “I think the most interesting jazz these days doesn’t take the form of a soloist backed by accompanists,” he says; “it takes the form of a group interacting, improvising together” (136). Ratliff believes this attitude extends beyond Redman, to “many musicians of Redman’s generation … [whose] Rosetta stones are bands, not individuals.” Interestingly, the bands Ratliff goes on to list are Miles Davis’s, Bill Evans’s, and Ornette Coleman’s from the ‘60s, and Keith Jarrett’s from the ‘70s—this though Redman’s original list included Tortoise and Led Zeppelin. (That’s the gambit of The Jazz Ear, by the way: Ratliff asked a bunch of musicians to pick pieces of music they wanted to talk about, and then interviewed them while and after listening.)

Born in 1968, Redman is just a year older than me; I am “the broader culture” for which the Coltrane quartet “matters.” So Redman’s comment, and Ratliff’s gloss, got me thinking about the special resonance bands have, not just for musicians, but for listeners of my generation.

There are a couple of contemporary jazz bands (Masada and The Vandermark 5) that I love unreasonably. I think this is so because they act as surrogates for those rock bands I once loved unreasonably, their logos etched across my cortex. If you were to take one of those porcelain phrenology heads and substitute ANGER and CREATIVITY with IRON MAIDEN and PINK FLOYD, you’d have a pretty good representation of my one-time mental life. There is an element of nostalgia at work here, of course: my taste may have matured in fits and starts, but I still carry along the residue of a desire; and, since it seems harder and harder to cathect rock bands with anything like the same intensity I used to (though with a few I’ve come close), the old energy, which I imagine must be conserved, is transferred to other genres.

I don’t say this to disparage the music or musicianship of either Masada or the V5. Both bands beautifully embody Redman’s concept of “a group interacting, improvising together.” I’m trying to identify something in excess of the music—a supplement, an aura; an ethos that coheres as a sound. In this respect, it’s not just the gestalt idea that the sum of the playing is more than its parts. That is true of any successful ensemble. Rather, the charisma of the band radiates at once from a persona or identity created by its distinctive, collective voice, and from the contributions of each of its members, in whose individual identities the persona remains intact and present. This persona is eminently marketable, and circulates as much in images, concepts, narratives, etc. as in sounds. It is most marketable, for reasons suggested above, to listeners of my generation; and above all, to male listeners. I’m not sure why; all that shared sweat and camaraderie, I guess. Life as one long Howard Hawks war picture.

It’s not just jazz bands. I came to string quartets on my own, in my twenties, my parents’ taste being focused around piano, orchestra, and combinations thereof. Can I discount the impact of my generation’s popular music on my gravitating toward the chamber ensemble? Do I really need the Kronos Quartet to play Metallica and Meshuggah for me to figure this out? Why else would I be able to name every member of the Emerson Quartet? Do you think they’d hire me to do their logo?

As the cult of the soloist gives way to the dynamic of the group—at least at this point on the helix of cultural history—I can’t help but wonder if the big band, with its greater focus on composition and arrangement, and its often tightly-controlled and thoughtfully-ornamented circumstances for improvisation (I am thinking of Maria Schneider’s comments here, in another chapter of The Jazz Ear), is also experiencing a resurgence.

And then can the orchestra, that nineteenth-century musical equivalent of the jumbo jet, be far behind?

For my part, I can’t imagine it. Excepting the orchestral works with which I bonded in my teens—the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the tone poems of Richard Strauss, a number of piano concertos, a handful of other pieces—I find it harder and harder to suspend my disbelief before the orchestra. I said something in a previous post about a culture of distrust, and I can’t claim to be immune from it. Why belabor with a string section what can be said by a single violin? The orchestra’s size and grandeur seem unsuited to audiences today. Spectacle has moved to the arena and the cinema—and the orchestra with it, to the limbo of film scores and playing backup for heavy-rock ballads. If I ever get around to exploring the symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner, and Shostakovitch, it will be for my own edification … which is another way of saying that I don’t expect to fall in love. (But I’m happy to be surprised.)

Undiscovered string quartets, on the other hand, retain the potential to move me greatly, both intellectually and emotionally. Again, there is an element of emotional memory at work here that can’t be discounted. To my ear, though, quartets and similar-sized groups (octets are pushing it) work with a manageable number of voices, timbres and rhythms for my ear to parse. As with the band, I can simultaneously appreciate both the discrete threads and the fabric. And to the whole can be assigned an identity that is neither individual (soloist, conductor, or bandleader) nor a faceless mass (the collective of the orchestra).

Maybe it’s an issue of the performance ethic, too. Interaction among members of an orchestra is always filtered through the conductor, many of whom have reputations for being disciplinarians. (The same is true of big band leaders.) My impression is that the history of the orchestra is as rife with mutinies and desertions as naval history. According to a trombonist friend, orchestra positions have a job satisfaction rating on a par with working at a toll booth. Last year when I was in Houston visiting family, the orchestra was out on strike. True, both an orchestra and a quartet have their first violin, but their jobs aren’t really comparable. An orchestra’s first violin seems like a bureaucratic post. Meanwhile, if you’re the Emerson quartet, you can always trade first fiddle down the middle: three Bartok quartets for Drucker, three for Selzer.

Then again, maybe it’s just that my ear has been ruined by digital recording. The warm distortions of vinyl always helped the orchestra’s sound cohere into a mass; and it was the mass, not the individual voices, that made the orchestra compelling.

Sometimes I imagine the string quartet like the first mammals in those Charles Knight paintings of prehistoric life, when the paradigm that dinosaurs died of their own lumbering ineptitude still held sway. Small, supple, adaptable little critters, emerging from behind the stumps and grasses, ready to lay claim to their evolutionary title. Maybe Disney got it right, in Fantasia, when they made of The Rite of Spring the dinosaurs’ death-march. It was an image of the age of the orchestra coming to a close.

“Footprints”

Jazz music thrives on the tension between composition and improvisation, the planned and the spontaneous. As a listener, depending on the song, or on my mood, or on just about anything, really, I might find myself listing away from the latter and toward the former, impatient with whomever happens to be soloing, anticipating the ever-prodigal melody. There are a few albums that stand out in this regard—albums where the tunes are so strong, or their arrangements are so interesting, that the solos become an extended tease. Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag immediately jumps to mind; so does Wayne Shorter’s Adam’s Apple.

Shorter is a well-recognized composer, and “Footprints” is among his best-known compositions, so I’m hardly going out on a limb by singling it out. But I want to focus here not on the song as a whole, but on the way each section of the melody resolves, or rather fails to resolve, and attempt to analyze how this feeling of suspension is achieved.

The key word here is attempt. Because, honey, I don’t do this sort of thing very often. But “Footprints” is low-hanging fruit, and as Shorter’s album title suggests, I am a victim of temptation. True, I don’t approach the Tree of Shorter entirely naked … but nearly so, armed only with my Harry Dexter’s Harmony-Theory Pocket Book (in which I never made it to the harmony section), and the tatters of know-how that still cling to me from my years of guitar lessons.

In an effort to commit as few glaring errors as possible, I also did some cursory internet research and read the album liner notes. Was that a muffled scream I heard from the librarians? Well, some of the finest writing about music can still be found on the fungusy backs of records, and in those little booklets you get with the now-vanishing media called compact discs. This time, though, the notes didn’t help much. They label “Footprints” a blues in 6:8; one of my internet sources calls it 3:4; to me, that’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other. (Actually, I agree with the liner notes.) They also note that the version Shorter recorded with Miles a year later (on Miles Smiles), actually the first version I heard, “recast the rhythmic terrain.” Then they compare Herbie Hancock’s playing on Adam’s Apple to the John Coltrane quartet. But nothing about that beautiful, tantalizing, troubling cluster of notes and times that haunts me on each listen, and that I am desperate to understand. So let me do what I can, stepping as carefully as I can, making sure to overcomplicate matters wherever I can, as all academics have a duty to do, particularly when one is outside one’s field, or when one doesn’t have a field, as is my case, creative writing being less a discipline than an excuse.

*

“Footprints” begins with four bars for the rhythm section, in each of which the bass and left hand of the piano (that is, Reggie Workman’s two hands and Herbie Hancock’s left one) play an ascending C minor arpeggio: four evenly-spaced notes ending on the minor third (C-G-C-E flat). After holding the E flat for two beats, the piano repeats the tonic on the last beat of the measure, although higher up on the keyboard. The fact that the third (the E flat) lands on the accented fourth beat brings it into relief, as does the time lavished upon it. In this regard, the tonic feels almost like an afterthought, or a foretaste of the next go-round: that clipped high C is really the first note in a skip down to the opening low C of the arpeggio (C-G-C). In addition, Hancock anticipates the E flat by half a beat with a chord, which, although not entirely penetrable to my ear, seems to include a B flat and a D. It is the D which most interests me: a half-step from that heavily-accented E flat, and arriving a half-beat before it, lodged between the tonic and third of the C minor, the D sets up a sort of oscillation in pitch and rhythm that Shorter’s horn will shortly (sorry) recapitulate, and extrapolate upon. Drummer Joe Chambers also has a role in creating this tension: he sometimes accents the fourth beat, sometimes the half-beat before it, with a strike to the high hat or a cymbal.

Shorter comes in at the beginning of the fifth bar. The A natural in the melody flavors the C minor with a major sixth (which, if I remember correctly, is a legit note in the so-called “jazz minor” scale, and according to Mr Dexter, in the ascending melodic minor … which may be the same thing). Or, if you prefer the relative major, the A natural is a sharped fourth—surely what lends the melody its air of loafing intrigue. The rather insistent A natural, however, suggests that the tune is not in C minor (or E flat major), but rather G minor (or B flat major). Again, what strikes me here is the D, which is where the horn pauses, like Hancock’s chord, before coming to rest on another clipped C. The D-C figure is repeated three times in the first part of the melody, twice in the more extended (and A natural-heavy) second, always with the accent on the sustained D. Rhythmically, Shorter also fiddles with the half-beat discrepancy. The first time he plays the figure, he tends to reach the D at the same time as the bass reaches the E flat, and then anticipates the beat on each repetition. And he loiters there, as if to idly threaten the harmonic terrain around the bass’s E flat. Perhaps the combined tension-resolution I hear is a war of thirds: the D is the third of B flat major, the key of the melody, and the E flat is the third of C minor (the second chord in the harmonized B flat major scale), where the bass remains for six of the opening eight bars of the melody. Interestingly, had Shorter chosen an E flat instead of a D, the melody would sound much more like a traditional blues, clearly walking down a well-trodden C minor pentatonic. But the A natural throws a wrench into this; the D becomes a natural pausing place.

The third part of the melody is interesting for the way it flirts with a new key (although I guess no moreso than the bridge of “Rhythm” changes): a G major triad precedes the reintroduction of the B flat; and, after an exhilirating perfect-fourth leap, the melody slinks down chromatically to an F, which fades from the horn without returning to the D … at least, until the head is played through a second time.

Things get a lot weirder this second time around. First, Shorter adds a trill—one YouTube guitarist who demonstrates the tune nicely calls it a “flutter”—at the end of each of the three parts of the melody. The horn, then, takes up that oscillation between the E flat and D, between bass and piano, between Hancock’s left and right hands, reinforcing the half-step quiver in the melody. Second, and even more thrilling, is the appearance of another trill at the same moment, but lower, quieter. It can only be the piano, but sounds more like a phantom string section. It creates a sort of aura around Shorter’s trill. But it is too entangled with the concurrent sounds for me to fully distinguish it; to the best of my ability, it sounds like a trill between B flat and B natural. Whatever it is, it reinforces and multiplies the overall feeling of hazy suspension.

Finally, in the second time through the third part of the melody, Shorter does not let the F fade, but returns, as if compulsively, to the D-C figure.

*

I didn’t take my school’s equivalent of Philosophy 101 until my senior year, and when I remember this I can’t help but sympathize with those students of mine who manage to avoid taking Expository Writing until their graduating semester. In my case it was partly because I spent two years as a physics major, and after making the switch to the humanities, I found myself with all sorts of new requirements to fulfill. In philosophy we read Plato, and Spinoza, and Hume, and William James’s Pragmatism. I remember running into the professor on the upper quad one day and walking with him, telling him that had I taken his class in my first year rather than my last, I might have ended up a philosophy major. He took this in good humor, though I doubt he believed me.

In one class, the professor said something to the effect that, while neurochemists could tell us that “love” is what happens when neuron A is excited, and in turn excites neuron B, etc., from a philosopher’s standpoint they would have told us absolutely nothing about love. In hindsight it seems like a somewhat facile point. But it is also a point I probably needed to hear, and hear when I did. And not just me: Here was a university stuffed full of proto-scientists and engineers. We were besotted with the scientific worldview; I doubt that many of us ever raised our heads from our textbooks to consider the ramifications of what we were studying, or the alternatives. By my senior year, my humanistic consciousness, that radically different armature for coming to terms with the world, was just beginning to develop. Probably this is why the idea stayed with me, why I chewed it over for years after that lecture, resisted it, came to terms with it, repressed it, resisted it anew, and on and on.

The connection to this post is probably obvious. I can analyze the music, or attempt to analyze it. Quite possibly what is happening at this moment of “Footprints” is not so theoretically marvelous as I take it to be. But were I to be enlightened, I doubt it would change the way my ear perceives that cluster of notes, timbres and rhythms, all of them slightly off from each other, vibrating in ecstatic equipoise. The transcribed notes, and the card-house of intervals they momentarily erect, cannot reproduce the act of listening (although I am aware that many trained musicians can “hear” a piece by reading a score), any more than these ridiculous little grey marks on the screen in front of you can resurrect that experience.

A colleague of mine likes to goad me by saying that writing about music is impossible. Impossible it’s not, but pointless it may well be. One feels that “about” very keenly: the words circle the music, never landing. By the time I finish a post, the music has receded, the words have risen like a tide to swallow it, and all I can do is close the lid of my computer and go put on a record.

Paying the Rent, Now and Then

The first time I went to the 55 Bar (on Christopher Street just off Seventh Avenue) was probably late 1992 or early 1993. A friend of mine living in Weehawken and working in the City took me to see Mike Stern, whose trio played at the 55 every Monday and Wednesday. It was eight dollars a set, and although it seems ludicrous today, I’m pretty sure that included two drinks.

Stern was my initiation into the New York jazz scene, and I could hardly have asked for a better one. A one-time Miles Davis sideman, Stern plays a sophisticated fusion, a cross between the Al DiMeola “more notes!” school, which my guitar teacher, trying to get me to sublimate my heavy-metal urges, had guided me toward as a teen, and the bebop and post-bebop jazz that I had only begun listening to the previous year, while living in Madrid. I had bought my first jazz discs only months before, to supplement the Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk I had taped off an Australian friend in Spain. It was a fittingly cosmopolitan introduction to the music. Now I was back in the States, and for the moment in the New York area, and I was eager to start digging into jazz at its source and mecca.

Stern generally opened his sets at the 55 with a long, driving standard that built slowly from shuffling, chorus-infused lines to a blues-rock-funk climax. At some point along the way the drummer would trade his brushes for sticks, the bass would stop walking and start stomping, and Stern’s pick, which he’d been using like the drummer had his brushes, would begin to bite. During this rising action you could pick out the guitar-heads on their 55 pilgrimmage from the drool on their chins. They were all sitting on their hands, waiting for Stern to hit the overdrive and start wailing.

The slow movement of the set Stern would begin and end solo, fingerpicking, accenting the rounder tones he could get from his Telecaster, a guitar more often associated with country music. The “Tele” probably helped him to split the difference between the overdriven twang of his rock soloing (a Telecaster, after all, is just a one-horned Stratocaster) and his quicksilver bop … as well as to avoid the bulbous sound that players using similar effects often get from their big hollowbody Gibsons.

As for the last movement, it would return to something like the original allegro, though a bit louder, a bit funkier, and featuring an extended cadenza for the drums.

Of all the many tricks Stern smuggled in his deep pockets and up his ample sleeves, my favorite was when he would pick a single note on the high “E” string in swung triplets and interpolate chords on the upbeats. It’s an effective technique for crescendo: the chords zigzag up the neck; after a few bars, the repeated note will move up a third, say—higher ground on which to build another set of relentlessly-climbing triads. The effect is almost pianistic, with the contrast between the insistent high note and the shifting chords generating tension. When the passage was over, Stern would be someplace other than where he began—further up the neck, certainly, but on a new emotional plateau as well, although maybe not quite ready to hit that overdrive pedal. It’s a technique that fellow New York guitarist Ron Affif would take to its logical conclusion, quadrupling the speed of the high note to a mandolin-like tremolo, while reducing the accompaniment from a chord progression to a melodic line. In both cases, technique acts as a signature: it announces the musician’s identity as surely as a composer’s name coded into a score.

I remember how Stern used to look when he came in: hair unkempt, face unshaven, wearing a nondescript grey shirt and jeans and holding a diner coffee. He looked like he’d just gotten out of bed, which he might have; and truth be told on some nights he played like he was still asleep, or had woken up on the far wrong side. The waitress would rip our tickets in half (I say “our” because I’ve tried to repay the favor done me and take as many friends as possible to see Stern), and while we drank our first drink we would watch the musicians filter in, greet the people they knew, and chat while they set up their gear. I appreciated the lack of pretension, and the lack of distance between the audience and musicians. In itself this was nothing new: I’d been catching rock acts at small to mid-size clubs for a good five years, and more than once I’d stuck around to chat with bandmembers, whom I generally found to be down-to-earth and eager to discuss their music. But this was something more: a fantasy of being in the musician’s workshop, like one of those all-night jam sessions at the old Minton’s, although for what I knew at the time the comparison is anachronistic.

I always figured the 55 barflies hated those Monday and Wednesday nights, when the tourists and so-called bridge-and-tunnel crowd would pack that little bar to the gills, the acolytes crowding a foot away from the head of Stern’s Tele and jamming up the doorway to the bathroom behind him. The waitresses had to do pirouettes to get drinks to the tables. In this respect Stern’s appearance was apropos: the 55 was a dive, and proud of it. I’m sure they welcomed Stern for the same reason The Tower art theater in Salt Lake City held over the hit sports documentary Hoop Dreams for months on end: even at eight dollars a head, he paid the rent.

It’s the early-nineties décor I remember best of all. One painting in pastels showed a woman doubled over the back of an armchair. At the top was the injunction to “practice safe sex”; at the bottom, much larger: “FUCK A CHAIR.” Next to it was a mural-sized painting of a group of American presidents at a sort of Last Supper, with Reagan in the place of Jesus, a miniature mushroom cloud rising from his plate.

*

Besides the price, the pictures are about the only thing that’s changed at the 55. I miss them. Today, the walls are covered with the clichéd jazz-and-blues memorabilia you can find in any club: smoky, heavy-chiaroscuro portraits, iconic photos of Miles and Robert Johnson, “A Great Day in Harlem,” Blue Note album cover reproductions. It’s a small but significant difference: the 55 has gone from being a bar where jazz was played to a jazz bar. Maybe noplace can withstand a regular gig by an internationally-known musician for long without changing in some fundamental ways. But in a broader sense, what’s happened to the 55 is indicative of what’s happened to New York City as a whole, which for the last couple of decades has been busy draining itself of all its wonderfully garish “local” color, and repackaging itself as one more franchise in a global urban chain store, drawing liberally on its own myths to manufacture a brand identity.

I still go to the 55 a few times a year, though it’s been a while since I saw Stern, who still plays there Mondays and Wednesdays, just less regularly than he used to. Wayne Krantz was my surrogate Stern for a time, but his invigorating Thursday-night sets have (sadly) come to an end. Of all the other great music I’ve caught there recently, I wanted to single out the last time I saw Chris Potter, in part (but only in part) because it makes for an interesting counterpoint with the 55 of yore (at least my yore).

Like Stern, Potter is a rent-payer, and the crowd was the typical mix of music students, locals and tourists. By the time I arrived, there wasn’t a seat in the house, although several people were being instructed to sit in places where there seemed to be no available chairs. The waitresses were engaged in their usual calisthenics, and drinks were being passed like buckets in a fire brigade. The bar itself—I mean the wooden thing you lean against and set drinks on—was packed two deep all the way down, with the biggest crowd, as always, next to the band, making it well-nigh impossible to get to the bathroom before the set’s end.

I took a spot against the back wall, right by the door, standing with my feet slightly parted and my backpack clamped between my shins—there wasn’t even room for it on the floor next to me. It was actually the first of several elements that conspired to make the night’s set one of those quasi-religious experiences that recorded music simply can’t reproduce. There’s nothing like a little pain to get you in the mood for spiritual uplift: ten minutes of standing with my backpack between my knees, and I was ready to sink down on them and beg the God of Music for a speedy deliverance.

Add to this that it was one of those school nights when I shouldn’t have been out at all, had snuck down to the Village in spite of my conscience and better judgment, reading papers on the train in both directions. In this sense, Music was not only my god, but my mistress as well, and I was at once martyr and sinner. Who knew what my partner would find on my collar when I got home?

As for Potter, he stood facing me at the other end of the pub, as if he were my mirror image, or I his. He seemed to stare at a spot directly over my head while he played. And I couldn’t rid myself of the idea that he was playing for me, and only for me—this despite the acolyte who stood almost directly behind him, also facing me, whose face I watched from time to time, and whose changing expressions I began to mirror, as if I could make his emotions (surprise, wonder, pleasure) my own.

And as for the music Potter played … well, this was almost a year ago; I couldn’t name you a single tune. I couldn’t even tell you who his band was. But that tone … that tone! For Potter was channeling Rollins that night, his big sound poured, and poured, and poured, until the bar ran over with it. It pinned me to the wall more than any crowd could. And it swallowed me, as sure as Jonah was by the whale. Except that unlike Jonah, I wasn’t fleeing the Lord; I’d boarded that boat hunting Leviathan as much as any Ahab, had stayed on deck through the gale, waiting for Him to find me. And when He did, and opened His mouth, I held my nose and jumped in.

*

A closing observation on the Potter set: Depending on the tune, the bartender would turn the AC on or off. A ballad, and the AC would go off; a burner, and the AC would come back on. I just can’t imagine this being the case twenty years ago, before the music was put on an altar. In fact, I can’t imagine the 55 had AC at all, though I’m sure it did.

Then again, clicking the AC off for a ballad is really only a stone’s throw from FUCK A CHAIR, isn’t it? This little pub-that-could has worked hard to brand itself as a cross between Dizzy’s and dive bar, a place to slum with the anointed. The altar is made of plastic.

And then again, who cares? Altar or no altar, plastic or solid gold, old New York or new, the music has stuck it out, even thrived. The wood paneling may smell like cigarettes, but there’s music there, too. Put your ear to the wall and you’ll hear it, like the sea in a shell.

No Tie-Picker He

 

Photo/ Daniel Sheehan/ EyeShotJazz

I took a chance on Jacky Terrasson’s trio at the Jazz Standard the other night and I haven’t stopped smiling since. I don’t always take such chances at the City’s higher-end jazz clubs, forty-plus dollars (between the music charge, “tax,” drinks and tip) being a lot to pay for potential disappointment. But something told me to take a chance on Jacky. Maybe it was the fact that I’d be leaving New York a few days later to visit family for a month; that always puts me in the mood for one last live-music fix. Terrasson’s was the name that loomed largest in the assortment of guides and internet bookmarks I use to keep tabs on the local music scene, this though I knew him only from a single recording with Cassandra Wilson, called Rendezvous.

So I listened to the available samples from his most recent album, Push. What I heard (and granted, it wasn’t much) made me nervous. Push has that contemporary mainstream jazz feel that rubs me all the wrong ways: melodious to a fault, hyperconscious about making nifty harmonic turns, glossy and flat and just a little dull. It’s sort of a thinking man’s smooth jazz, a jazz without corners. I suppose I could blame Pat Metheny for this, but that would be rude, particularly after Question and Answer had so recently reminded me of what a great player Metheny is when he lets his hair down.

I thumbed my nose at Push and went anyway.

If there’s a watchword for the Terrasson set I saw, it would have to be communication. There was a freshness and openness about the playing that really moved me, and that only happens when the players are really speaking with one another. Sometimes the success of a jazz shows rests on how much one or another soloist is able to impress you, and if he misses the mark, well, there’s always the next solo, or the guy with the other horn. In most bands, too, there’s either an implicit or explicit hierarchy, and even if we imagine that hierarchy rotates according to which soloist is in the spotlight, some version of the hierarchy remains from one moment to the next. But Terrasson’s trio was very much engaged in a dialogue from the moment the players took up their instruments, and it was so open and obvious a dialogue that the listener, the audience, couldn’t help but feel invited to participate. This constant contact between band members was underscored by shouts and calls and a lot of eye contact. Again, in many jazz bands (and for that matter, chamber ensembles) the musicians furtively eye each other for the next cue from whomever is equivalent of first fiddle. But the cues in this band seemed to emanate from all points. It was a participatory aesthetic, and I think the great sense of joy in the music and performance arose from this.

For example: often when musicians are trading eights or fours they end up playing “over” each other. The sense is that the soloist hasn’t quite finished his or her musical thought, and so treads into the second soloist’s space (usually the drummer’s) with a guilty air. The phrase will conclude at diminished volume, or simply trail off. This is participatory, I suppose, but in the sort of private-ownership way where everyone owns their appropriate share. With Terrasson’s trio, however, there were several instances of Jacky and drummer Jamire Williams “trading,” but each continuing to play with the other in a way that supported or promoted the current musical idea. I didn’t get the sense, that is, that these players were competing with each other, so often regarded as the motive force of the music. Instead, I got a sense of musicians working collectively toward some greater goal … and enjoying themselves immensely in doing so.

I don’t mean this to sound like a paean to authenticity. Terrasson is quite the showman; he does the sorts of flashy things with his hands I associate with early videos of Duke Ellington, and which Ellington himself (if I remember correctly) adapted from the great stride pianists. Terrasson has been compared with Monk, and one can hear and see why in performance—hear it in the fractured and complex rhythms, see it in the swaying and dancing and standing at the keyboard. He’s at home in both a pop and more experimental milieu, and alternates swiftly and randomly between them, or collapses one into the other. Nor is he afraid to play dirty with the keyboard, throwing in an elbow here and there, or reaching out to take hold of the instrument’s guts. He’ll collapse genres just as easily, making a choir piece out of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” then swing the melody in octaves to give it a Latin feel, bring it to a pitch and ease it back to near-silence, all without losing the groove. (Apparently, Terrasson’s version also incorporates “Body and Soul,” at least on the record, but I didn’t recognize it.) In fact, all the tunes that evening had this quirky, blended feel, maybe best exemplified by the last number, which superimposed the bass line from Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” with the melody from a standard I couldn’t place. All told, it wasn’t so much daring (the word most often associated with showmen) as play. Daring is the wire-walker who takes a risk the audience marvels at. Play is much less outwardly directed, and even though it demands a similarly great assertion of ego, it is more careless. There are no risks properly understood, because there is nothing at stake. That he can do this and yet remain utterly conscious of his audience is Terrasson’s great gift. And it is his great gift as a “leader” that he enables, even encourages, his bandmates to do the same.

The blending of cultures so much in evidence in Jacky’s music is evident in his features as well. He looks younger than his forty-four years, too. Terrasson’s lantern-jawed face radiates a boyish charm. Retains a boyish charm? Yeesh, forget it. Only in moments of intense concentration do lines appear around his eyes, and the flesh around his mouth sags, and one is reminded that he is not so young as he looks … or sounds. But then maybe it’s his band that keeps young: the sum of their ages might be less than Jacky’s. I was shocked when they first appeared, bassist Ben Williams with his dreads tied up in a bandanna, his surnamesake sporting a quasi-mohawk and hipster glasses. I dug their ties, too. Jacky’s was skinny lavender against a dressy blue shirt. (Toward the beginning of the set he had to keep rolling his shirt sleeves up over his elbows—all that dancing—while drummer Jamire had to keep pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.) Ben wore a huge tie hung loosely around his neck and down the front of a baggy, un-tucked-in shirt. I liked Jamire’s best: it was tucked into his breast pocket; you could just see it sneaking out over the top.

Several years ago I went to see Ron Carter’s quartet at one of those free sets they used to have on Friday nights at the Rose Space Center (of the American Museum of Natural History). During a break, Carter commented in his urbane, nasal drawl on the responsibilities of a bandleader. There were three, but I only clearly remember one: to pick the band’s ties. That’s maybe the easiest way for me to make my point about Terrasson’s trio: I can’t imagine he picked those ties. Everyone seems to wear whatever the hell they want, but somehow they all match.

Underground Man

One dusk not so long ago I was walking around the tract housing development (or “semi-custom,” as some of the locals call it, except that there are no locals there, and no such thing, when you come right down to it, as semi-custom) north of Houston where my parents live, listening to Out to Lunch. I should begin by saying that this is the sort of neighborhood that makes marijuana pointless. The combination of curving streets, dead ends, and nearly identical houses make me want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Everywhere I look are the haunted traces of suburban bliss: overturned bicycles on lawns, abandoned playgrounds with empty swings slightly rocking, single-car garages awaiting their occupants. Some days it all reminds me of a façade built on a testing range in the Nevada desert.

That evening, passing house after house in the near-dark, I was struck by a counterintuitive aesthetic kinship. For my typical feelings of disorientation were heightened almost to dizziness by the wonderfully disorienting compositions and improvisations that make up Out to Lunch … so much so that, after walking for a while, I was forced to retrace my steps in order to get back to my parents’ house, even though, as I realized later, I had made almost a complete circle. I could only blame Eric Dolphy for this: for pretzling the insipid curves of the suburban beautiful; for making me believe a man in a bowler hat stood poised with a net behind every door.

I think what Dolphy’s music did was expose the neighborhood’s essential weirdness, dis-integrating it, disassociating every element—every lonely pine tree, every shutter, every glass door—from every other, and making all of them seem like the products of an alien culture. In “Aminadab,” Sartre defines the fantastic this way: you order a coffee; the waiter brings you an inkwell; you say, “But I ordered a coffee”; the waiter says, “That’s right.” In fact, Sartre’s conception of the fantastic as “the revolt of means against ends” is a not a bad formula for describing Dolphy’s music.

Unlike in the suburbs, though, there is no retracing your steps with Dolphy, no equivalent of a trail of breadcrumbs. There is only a staggering forward motion, as of a man riddled with bullets, leading only to the most unexpected places, or to nowhere.

Out to Lunch is probably the pinnacle of Dolphy’s ensemble work. As has been noted, this is because it is the only Dolphy album where the walking rhythm section gives way to free-form improvisation by all the bandmembers. And what a band it is. Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes seem to fit most perfectly into Dolphy’s idiom, forcing us to ask where the vibes were before. (Mal Waldron’s piano occasionally has that vibelike timbre on the Five Spot sets and other albums; but it makes me wish Dolphy had recorded with Earl Griffith, whom I know only from the Cecil Taylor recording Looking Ahead!) The Richard Davis-Tony Williams rhythm section acts in perfect questioning counterpoint to the rest of the band, Williams’ resounding toms and bass drum in particular. In fact, the snare is almost vestigial. Only Freddie Hubbard seems a little out of his element here, as if he occasionally realizes he’s lost his way, and by doing so makes the listener aware of it, too (rather than simply being pleasantly lost with the rest of them, and us).

One thing that needs to be stressed about Dolphy is his gift for melody. It is a paradoxical gift. His melodies are at once catchy and unsingable, groovy and jagged. The heads of “Out to Lunch,” “Gazzelloni,” and other tunes will stay stuck in my head for days after I listen to them; and yet I’m sure my memory of them is corrupted, both in terms of time (for “Out to Lunch,” for example, it’s notoriously difficult to remember where each symmetrical part of the melody ends, as well as how long are the breaks between each part) and pitch (I hear a travestied version in my head, and woe is me if I try to hum them accurately, or figure them out on my guitar). There is something magical about this combination of the seemingly-accessible but perennially-out-of-reach. They’re a long tease; the alto sax, the flute, and the bass clarinet are all laughing at me, each in its appropriate register (whoop, giggle and guffaw, respectively).

Part of what makes the tunes so catchy is their infectious rhythm, which Dolphy carries over into his soloing. I remember listening to him on the Live at the Village Vanguard recordings with Coltrane’s quartet (this while driving a rental car into San Francisco via the Bay Bridge) and realizing that he swung like crazy, yet every note—every note!—was “wrong.” The rhythmic grammar of bebop was being co-opted to speak a new language. If Scott Deveaux is correct (in his awesome Birth of Bebop) that it was the rhythmic more than the harmonic advances that made bebop bebop, then perhaps it was with Dolphy (and the other musicians forging the avant-garde at that time) that bebop rhythm began to find an appropriately crooked harmonic language.

There are other fascinating elements to his soloing, on Out to Lunch and other albums. Dolphy can play a slow, whining blues like nobody else, with a plaintiveness that borders on self-mockery. And then those trills, always too high or too low. The huge leaps across the range of the instruments. The moment on “Out to Lunch” when, after all that empty space (the whole album absolutely revels in space), the alto irrupts back into the song in a long cascade of misplaced notes. On the other hand, I also like the way Dolphy has a standard line that he plays over and over and over again, that he must have played a million times over his short life. He plays it seemingly unthinkingly as he gears up for each next musical idea, returning to it obsessively, though with slight variations. It is the musical equivalent of “ummm …” As such it is the purest expession of his musical thinking, the background radiation of his personality. I imagine it was what he was thinking from the moment he forsook the nipple for the reed.

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man raged against the tyranny of 2 + 2 = 4. Why, oh why couldn’t 2 + 2 = 5? Well, Dolphy is that happy psychotic for whom 2 + 2 is 5. He was utterly, unshakeably convinced of this. It was his great leap of faith to believe so, the law of his particular universe, to which, of course, he was perfectly well-adjusted. It’s probably why he was (reputedly) such a sweet person. And it’s no wonder so many other musicians wanted to come along.

Convalescing With Miles

milesA few Fridays ago I was listening to Out to Lunch, WKCR’s weekday afternoon jazz program, as I try to do whenever I have the opportunity. Because Friday is the day I’m least likely to be listening, and because the DJs rotate from one day to the next, and some only work every other week, the voice on this Friday was unfamiliar to me. It was a female voice, a British voice; apparently, it was the voice that DJ’s every other Friday. I was at home, convalescing, or hoping I was convalescing, the process can be so slow, the body so unreliable. And this voice, it seemed better suited to a classical music program than to jazz … but of course it’s ridiculous to associate British accents with classical music, just as it would be to associate New York ones with jazz. The whole ethos of KCR would crucify me for such a prejudice—if, that is, one could be crucified by an ethos, and if it weren’t too ironic to be crucified for a prejudice.

Anyway: I want to thank this DJ, whatever her name is, for playing Miles Davis, and nothing but Miles Davis, on this day, day of hoped-for convalescence. For playing songs from Walkin’, and Seven Steps to Heaven, and Miles in the Sky. New Miles, old Miles, Miles known and un-: I could think of nothing I’d rather have listened to. In the best possible way, and as he has in the past, Miles settled on me. I remember many years ago listening to Kind of Blue and sensing that there was an effortless perfection about Miles’s playing, and a sense of inevitability about his choices. Each note spoke the next one, which looked back upon the last, and which, somehow, could have been no other. And I was convinced of this, even as I understood that, at each moment, he could have chosen any other. And so I walked along with Miles, carried by him, expecting and not expecting each next note, each next note making so much sense that I couldn’t imagine it otherwise; listening, I couldn’t help but say yes, of course, that’s right, as if Miles had just proved to me that this note necessarily follows that one, and the next the next, with all the beauty and certainty of the simplest proofs of geometry. Miles told me there was noplace else to go. And that, in its small way, was comforting.

Miles settles and rolls, never strains or trembles, hoeing that straight, simple line (for a hoe in the hands of an experienced farmer is as expressive a tool as a jazzman’s horn). Wherever he moves—and he never really stops moving—he’s always at home. Such grace and poise and confidence, even in those growled motherfuckers. The result doesn’t sound like improvisation; it has more the feeling of sculpture; even as it unfolds in time, it has a spatial, plastic quality, as if, after he were done, you could hold the entire solo in your hands, turning it; or as if, while listening, you were walking not with but around it. You appreciate it as a whole, even though you can never hear it all at once. Sonny Rollins has been credited with introducing this sort of structural unity to the jazz solo. But I can’t imagine Rollins without Miles; there is the same seeming inevitability of choice about both men’s playing.

I’ve listened to a lot of Miles since that moment many years ago when I realized the above, listening to Kind of Blue, realized but never tried to say it; but I hadn’t really felt it again until this day—felt it and remembered that feeling, remembered what Miles is (as opposed to who he was). And that made me want to go on, and go back, and keep listening. So again, Ms. DJ, with your fine British accent and good taste, and with those vast archives at your disposal, whose name, in this age of the internet, I have chosen to let remain a mystery: thank you. A lot of music is a salve when you’re ill, but some is more salve than others. And then there’s some you just can’t be healed without. Miles fits the last category.