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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.

 

Spring Peoples’ Symphony Roundup

This post was intended to be a collection of thumbnail reviews of the spring Peoples’ Symphony Town Hall concerts. During the colder months, these Sunday matinée performances provided the perfect excuse to hop over to the beautiful main reading room of the research library and jot down a few thoughts. But I didn’t feel like writing about all the Sunday concerts … particularly after I spotted The New Yorker’s Alex Ross (I’m pretty sure it was him!) in the lobby during the intermission of the Ebène Quartet’s performance; and rather than put him in a verbal headlock with my own clearly superior review, I figured I’d let him and his struggling little weekly take a crack at it. Then there were a few Saturday shows (held evenings at Washington Irving High School, on 17th Street) that I did feel like writing about. Then I thought, well, I’ll just stick to piano … but that didn’t work either. What follows, then, is a collection of thumbnail reviews without any overarching program. Even “thumbnail” is probably a bad description, unless you have (1) very large thumbs or (2) very long nails.

*

On January 30th, Hélène Grimaud attacked Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s piano sonata K310 as if it were the work of a high romantic. The sonata defended itself reasonably well, certainly better than many a Mozart sonata might under similar circumstances. Not that I’m one to complain; I often find myself seeking out what is proto-romantic in Mozart; the tempestuous K310 is case in point (the fantasie in C minor, K475 is another). Except that there was something muddled about Grimaud’s execution, too—a combination, I think, of too much pedal and an overemphasis on the left hand. (I felt similarly about her performance of the Liszt B minor sonata, different as that piece is: much of it went by in a blur, like near woods from the window of a speeding train.) That noted, there was a dynamic intensity to her playing I rather admired; she brought something out of that Mozart sonata I hadn’t heard before.

I ended up gravitating toward the modern pieces, one entirely unfamiliar to me (the opus 1 sonata by Alban Berg, a wonderful seething ocean of notes), the other the six Romanian folk dances (BB 68) by Béla Bartók. Grimaud played these dances with a crispness and luminosity that nothing else in the day’s program matched. It made me want to hear whatever recordings she might have of Bartók. (Just one thing: I counted only five. Maybe she was tired from all that Liszt? Indeed, she played no encore.)

Something else refreshing about this concert: the Bartók was last, rather than squished innocuously into the middle of the program. Most concerts would have flipped the order, put the Bartók next to the Berg and ended with the Liszt. Modern music is just too bitter a taste for an audience to leave with. We have to have dessert. I guess this is the reason why—to mix my culinary metaphors—we’re so often offered 20th-century sandwiches on 19th-century bread. I’m reminded of the famous diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, the one where Jack Nicholson can’t get plain wheat toast, and so orders a chicken sandwich and then asks the waitress to hold everything—including the chicken. “You want me to hold the chicken, huh?” she says, arms going akimbo. “I want you to hold it between your knees!” Nicholson spits back.

So it is with the 20th century: many patrons, it seems, would have performers hold the Berg, Bartók and most of what followed between their knees.

*

Pianist Inon Barnatan appeared at Washington Irving High School’s auditorium on the evening of February 26th with a program unified under the theme “Darkness Visible.” According to the program notes, “All the pieces reflect an awareness of what lies beneath.”

This theme was perhaps most clearly articulated in the Thomas Adès piece of the same name, and in the Schubert sonata with which the program concluded. The former was really revelatory, built around metastasizing trills pierced by stunned notes, single tones that the young pianist put his whole body behind, as if a current had run through him, Kristallnacht phrases giving way to barely-audible rumblings. “Darkness Visible” is only the most recent of several Adès pieces for piano I’ve heard in performance over the previous year or two; they have been consistently impressive.

The Schubert was remarkable in part for the somewhat affectless way Barnatan played the first movement. Once I became accustomed, it allowed me to hear connections to earlier Schubert sonatas that I had not noticed before. I say this in part because, despite its cannibalized final movement—its main theme is a reworking of the second movement of the D 537 sonata, which was never published in Schubert’s lifetime—the last sonatas (the D 958 through 960) have always seemed to me a breed apart, and very much on a par with the better-known late sonatas of Beethoven. What makes the D 959 stand out even from this elect group, however, is the stunning “what lies beneath” moment in the middle of the second movement. The movement begins with two turns through a funereal waltz … when, instead of a new variation, a long, gloaming figure gives way to an eight-note platform for a trill; the left hand mirrors it—and all at once the veil is rent, the score flung about the room, and you’re looking, I don’t know, fifty, a hundred years into music’s future, a death’s head staring back at you from the other side. The only way to restore “equilibrium” is through a series of closed-fist strikes, reminiscent (in this program, together with some of the figures directly preceding it) of the Adés … but as in any narrative, this new equilibrium is of a totally different order than the one with which the movement began, the difference signaled by the interjection of echoing notes, mournful looks backward. Barnatan handled both elements of the movement beautifully, all measured but menaced lyricism at the beginning and end, in the middle all attack and fury.

The rest of the program was similarly striking: the exuberant Ravel valse, Britten and Debussy. I don’t want to end, though, without mentioning the second encore. Did my ear deceive me, or was that a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti? In his biography of Scarlatti (post pending), Ralph Kirkpatrick disparages the (mis)use of Scarlatti’s music as an empty vessel into which a pianist could pour his virtuosity. But for someone who grew up well after Kirkpatrick’s time, when one is much more likely to hear Schubert for an encore than Scarlatti, this was both a pleasant surprise and an unmitigated pleasure.

My one complaint: the auditorium. Understandable that some patrons might have to leave before the end of the Schubert, but they turned it into a sonata for piano and squeaking door. Oy. Then again, what with the “darkness visible” theme, it wasn’t hard to imagine the door as the entrance to a crypt; and all the white heads I could see looking toward the stage turned from a cast for I, Claudius into so many memento mori.

*

I went to see pianist Garrick Ohlsson a number of years back on the campus of the University of Utah, while I was a graduate student there. I’ve sort of avoided him ever since. My recollection is that his playing was pretty wooden—and this from the first American pianist to win the International Chopin competition (in 1970), and who played an all-Chopin program at the Utah concert, if memory serves. That concert was at the newly-renovated Libby Gardner Concert Hall, in the music building of the university campus. I remember Billy Taylor (R.I.P.), whom I also had the privilege to see there, looking the hall up and down from the stage, saying, almost to himself, “Nice hall, nice hall, nice hall …” And so it is. Ever since hearing Ohlsson there, though, I’ve wondered if the acoustics were to blame, something like that infamous concrete slab under the stage at Carnegie Hall, only removed after nine years of musicians’ complaints.

Ohlsson’s March 6th performance at the (so far as I know) acoustically-unchallenged Town Hall was a chance to re-assess the pianist … and likely my own taste as well. I have to admit that I stayed for only for the first half, though not for anything having to do with Ohlsson. The second half was all Granados, and I’ve been so spoiled by guitar transciptions of this composer’s music that I have a hard time appreciating him on piano. Anyway, given that this was a re-assessment, the all-Chopin first half seemed more than adequate.

The opening nocturne in F was not promising, but Ohlsson loosened up for some of the selections from Opus 25 etudes that followed, particularly the limpidly-executed #1 (“The Wind Harp”), and in the odd, loping, thoroughly enjoyable way he took the #2 for a walk. Overall, he played the etudes more slowly than I am accustomed to hearing them; and between this and his restraint with the pedal, I sometimes got the impression that he was dissecting Chopin rather than interpreting him. The etude #7, for example, depends so much on a dialogue between the hands, as the melodic line, carried by the left, dances around, meets, and sometimes barrels right through the gently persistent chords in the right. In Ohlsson’s hands, however, the piece seemed to lose its way: the two elements never coalesced into a single focus of expression. In the end, the etude sounded ponderous instead of profound.

This was decicedly not the case, though, with his spirited rendition of the awesome polonaise in F sharp minor. Perhaps this piece is simply a more adequate vehicle for his power. The scherzo #1 was similarly exciting—those brazen chords in the finale still clang in my ear’s memory. Overall, I found more to admire in this performance than in the one I heard some ten years ago. Maybe I’m just mature (!) and cosmopolitan (?!) enough now to hear out alternative interpretations.

*

It was a night of flying hair, horse and human, when the ATOS Trio took the stage at Washington Irving High on April 9th. Nor could this be blamed on the modern music that string players tend to malign for ruining their bows: this was a program firmly in the 18th and 19th century idioms. It was rather the passion and intensity of the performance, the two string players bowing ferociously through Beethoven’s “Ghost” and Dvorák’s third, leaving halos of tugged-out horsehair on the stage around their chairs, string players’ snow angels. I focused much of my attention on the cellist, Stefan Heinemeyer. He appeared to me the essence of the romantic spirit: stocky, fierce, with long black hair and a full beard, and (why not?) “eyes that flashed with fire.” Cellists are often my favorite players to watch in trios and quartets, and this Hoffmannesque fire-spirit and latter-day Samson was at once anchor and mainmast, only resting to comb those great black locks back from his forehead.

All in all an inspired and inspiring performance, matched only by the Jupiter Quartet’s rendition of Beethoven’s Opus 59 No. 1 at the end of the season. As for the ATOS: I wondered if their proximity to the audience made a difference in terms of the amount of energy they were able to communicate. They were forced to play in front of the curtain; the stage itself was occupied by the set of Washington Irving High’s upcoming production of Hair.

And yes, they did oil that goddamned door.

*

I was pleasantly surprised by pianist Anna Polonsky of the Schumann Trio (Town Hall, April 17th). My experience with trios has been that the piano tends to be the weak link. I’ve often wondered whether there is something generic about this, the piano asked to play a relatively subordinate role. Polonsky showed me that this is not the case: her playing was vigorous enough that I longed to hear her in solo recital. And yet, at no point did I get the sense that she was overstepping her role. Quite the opposite: her playing was dutiful (forgive the domestic metaphor), attentive to Mr Tree’s and McGill’s cues (viola and clarinet, respectively). To each composer she brought the requisite stamp and color: clarity and grace to the Mozart trio, like a good five-paragraph essay; pomp and grandeur to Schumann’s “Märchenerzählungen.”

I only wished they had played Bartók’s “Contrasts”—after all, the Schumann Trio was formed to “explore the rich, and somewhat under-represented, repertoire for clarinet, piano, and viola or violin,” as the program notes said. Just a few nights before, over at Weill Recital Hall (part of Carnegie’s complex of halls, it is an elegant and intimate little chamber venue), I had heard “Contrasts” performed by the Ensemble ACJW, the first time in 15 years I’d heard it live. It would have been a nice opportunity for comparison, particularly since this performance reminded me of how close to cacophony modern music can come. My impression was that these young players slowly brought the piece under control, feeling their way through the second movement and finding their stride in the third.

And as long as I’m writing about the ACJW concert, I might as well come full-circle and say something about Mozart’s K375 serenade for winds that followed it. It’s the sort of charmingly inoffensive dross a Mozart or Haydn could pick out from between his toes whenever the need presented itself. It is aptly named a serenade … though maybe what was most refreshing was coming to it without expectations—one advantage of hearing music you have no purchase on or familiarity with. I enjoyed the symmetry of the instrumentation—two each of clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and horn—and even more, the symmetry of exchange across the semicircle of musicians. Oddly, it reminded me of nothing so much as watching Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.

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.

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.

Leviathans

An hour or so before dusk last Friday I walked out of the Upper West Side and into Central Park, started north following the dirt riding trail along the embankment of the reservoir. This was the first real day of fall; the park had the feel of a location shoot for Wuthering Heights, sky all overcast and wind gusting leaves off the trees. The trail climbed slowly, meeting the top of the embankment at the reservoir’s northwest corner. From there the water looked like the pate of a great tonsure, and the fountain in the distance like the spout of a whale. Maybe the whole island was leviathan, I mused, and that its blowhole. Walking north again, I glanced back now and then, until all I could see was the top of the spout and the mist. The illusion was complete.

I had just watched King Kong for the umpteenth time, and for the second in recent memory on the Big Screen, so I had leviathans on the brain. What struck me this time around was that all the movie’s beauty is in its stop-motion behemoths. The name of the craft is actually misleading: the creatures are in constant motion from the moment they appear: tails and necks writhe, wings flap, mouths roar or hiss; when they square off, they feint and jab, pounce, snap, and pummel. There is a great ka-boom every time their bodies hit the ground. Watching them dance, I felt like I was not at a horror movie, but at one of the first great musicals of that genre’s golden age: Busby Berkeley and Willis O’Brien collapsed into each other.

A few days earlier I had gotten an email from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, where I briefly volunteered some years back, about the carcass of a blue whale that had washed up on the California coast. The email was encouraging people to go see the animal for themselves, and to touch it—a rare opportunity, it said, to touch the largest mammal that ever lived (the carcass measured 80 feet). There was a link to Facebook pictures of its body, with people climbing along and around it. I thought of the “Bower in the Arcasides” chapter of Moby-Dick, one of my dozen or so favorite chapters in the book, where a sperm whale’s beached skeleton, “woven over with vines,” has become an object of worship and a chapel, “the skull an altar,” incense-smoke rising from its bony blowhole.

As I walked and pondered I was listening to Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, a piece to which I find myself returning with the sort of routine urgency that one returns to a place of prayer. The Preludes and Fugues document the composer’s struggle with the leviathan of Bach, and particularly with the Well-Tempered Clavier—leviathans wrestling leviathans. Like Kong and the Tyrannosaur, though, it’s less a fight than a carefully-staged dance. Perhaps Bach was as ambiguous a god to Shostakovich as the whale’s vine-skinned skeleton is to Ishmael: it “seemed the cunning weaver,” the “busy,” “unseen weaver-god,” “himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful life, and begat him curly-headed glories.” A moment later, Ishmael will break through the ribs and almost lose himself in the labyrinthine chapel; “naught was there but bones,” he declares, before daring, against the outcries of the priests (“That’s for us!”), to measure it.

Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues run the gamut from the meditative and the never-quite-mournful—there is always a kernel of assertiveness lurking inside them—to the agitated and kaleidoscopic. I love the meticulous attention to structure in building his sonic cathedral, necessarily so different from Bach’s, but just as different, I think, from any modern church or skyscraper. I love its domes and buttresses, its cornices and spires, the whole clear architecture of it, and only wish I could stand back from it far enough to see it all at once, like one can from the carcass of a whale, and to measure it, like Ishmael with his switch. To my ears, it is as little Solzhenitsyn’s cathedral as Stalin’s, probably because one can hear Shostakovich raising the stones himself, rather than finding a ready-made home in God’s, or the State’s. (And if you were looking for a Tyrannosaur here, take your pick: God, the State … though we should perhaps add Capital to the list, and not forget the image of Kong astride the cupola of the Empire State Building. It is in those intensely affecting moments right before he falls that his movements most clearly resemble a dance.)

The lamplight was scattered in the turtlepond. The willows were ransacked by the new cold gales. And if I happened to reach the twelfth fugue, one of several regularly-spaced spires, as I climbed the Great Hill, then no doubt I intended to, or someone intended for me to. I had modified the pace of my walk; I had come across a propitiously downed tree. At the top of the Hill I cut across the grass to the flat schist outcrop at its center, another peak among many. Only to me, this evening, it was the crest of leviathan; I could sit on its rocky brow like a leviathanic thought, and say, Here is where the music has brought me; no further. For the Shostakovich—or maybe the Shostakovich post-Kong and dead blue whales—makes me think about what music can and cannot do, what its limitations are, where its natural boundaries lie, to what heights it can climb in its desire for the infinite. Anyway, it was a nice place to finish listening to the wild peasant leaps and washboard chromaticisms of twentieth-century Russia, and to intuit for a moment that there is order, maybe inexplicable, but not necessarily oppressive, that emanates like a light from within.

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.

Encore

If I had to hazard a guess as to what was the musician, ensemble, or band I’d seen live more than any other, it would probably be Maurizio Pollini. The first time I saw him I was in my early teens, and I’ve repeated the experience maybe thirty times since. I know this is a number more commonly associated with rock bands, like The Dead and The Who, but it does make some sense: reunion tours notwithstanding, most rock bands don’t have this sort of longevity; classical and jazz musicians are more likely to age with you (plus the jazz musicians, when they’re local, are playing around town all the time). I saw Pollini play the complete Beethoven cycle in the late ‘80s, and got stage seats in the late ‘90s when the regular auditorium was sold out. There are some pieces by Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy I’ve probably seen him play a dozen times. If for whatever reason a year goes by without his coming to Carnegie Hall, I feel like I’ve skipped a season.

This year promised to be a treat: a series of three recitals, all of them all-Chopin. I bought tickets for all three, and then promptly missed the first during a blizzard of grading. It made me that much more eager for the second, which was last weekend, and the third, which, as I post this, is later today.

Among Pollini’s many gifts, perhaps the chief one—particularly for a pianist who specializes in that instrument’s romantic literature—is his ability to play commandingly at both ends of the dynamic range, from quiet passages of great expressive subtlety to tempestuous, often technically brilliant outbursts. It may just be my aesthetic, but the second seems the rarer gift. Playing the climactic moments of the great Beethoven sonatas (for example) convincingly, in such a way that the listener (at least this one, at least occasionally) is transported by the sublimity of the music, seems to me the true test of romantic pianism. It is in just such moments that many of even the greatest pianists fall short. Maybe it’s the dread of sentiment, or ridicule. (Emmanuel Ax to a student in a master’s class, regarding Brahms: “I want you to play faster and louder.” Chuckles from the audience, but hell, that’s the way I want my Brahms, too; and if you don’t give it to me that way, you might as well go play Haydn.) In fact, one of the things that has most impressed me about Leif Ove Andsnes (of the younger generation of top-notch pianists) is just this confidence at the all-guns-blazing end of the dynamic range.

One other thing about Pollini: he is as close to technically flawless as seems humanly possible. One can’t help but get used to such perfection … and to come to expect it.

Last weekend’s was a lovely program: two nocturnes, two polonaises, four mazurkas, the second ballad, the second sonata, and the opus 49 fantasy. But with the exception of the ballad and parts of the sonata, the execution fell well short of my expectations. Had it been only the fantasy (a piece I’ve always had trouble with, and hence am perfectly willing to blame Chopin for …!) and the occasional missed note, I might not have been bothered enough to write. But my disappointment was general, and seemed to arise from every facet of his playing. A nocturne, for example, should be easy to fall in love with. Just last year he played one as an encore, after a program of breathlessly-executed Beethoven, and my partner and I agreed that it was the finest thing he played that whole evening. So delicate. But on this night the nocturnes did not seduce me; the high notes in particular sounded strident. As for the sonata, the bells of the funeral march were muted—hardly bells at all—while the last movement, which on Pollini’s recording is barely audible, eerily affectless, and blisteringly fast, an undertow of notes, notes, notes, like some dark thought tormenting you, was muddled by dynamics that diminished the overall effect. The encore—the second scherzo—only sedimented my feelings about the whole recital. That technically daunting passage bridging back into the piece’s “A” section was almost painful to listen to.

Pollini, off? Surely it was a sign the end is nigh. I remembered the recent spate of earthquakes, the volcanic eruption in Iceland, the oil spill in the Gulf. Faiths would crumble, relationships end, distraught listeners leap from the balconies …

Or perhaps not. Nobody seemed to notice; the applause was general, thunderous; apparently the heavens don’t fall for such a trifle, as Conrad so aptly put it.

To be honest, by the end I wanted the audience to stop applauding. They’d never seemed so sadistic, or the pianist so much a gladiator, helpless but to engage in combat, now not with the music, but with his own body. I’d seen him play that scherzo before as an encore, obviously exhausted. But this seemed like more than mere exhaustion. And to think he could have come out and played a nocturne. I’ve seen him shrug before sitting down to play an encore, too, as if to say, What the hell. But there was no shrugging last weekend. It was as though he realized that he had no choice, that he was chained to that piano, slave to whipping-post.

*

During the concert, as my disappointment grew, my mind wandered from the music, and I started thinking about the piano’s role in our culture, and about what the public expects of its classical pianists generally, and Pollini specifically. Robert Walser traces the piano’s role as “music’s central vehicle for heroic individualism” back to Franz Lizst’s “invention” of the solo recital in 1839. Little seems to have changed since then, at least in terms of what we desire from our pianists: the incarnation of that heroic ideal, a musical athleticism that we don’t expect even from other classical performers. Not for nothing Chopin was portrayed by a barrel-chested Cornel Wilde in 1945’s A Song to Remember: the thirtysomething dandy already dying of tuberculosis must be dashing and exuberant, and built like Michael Phelps, at least for Hollywood. Today, the classical music industry seems to churn out hot young pianists as fast as supermodels, all bemedaled from this or that international competition. What happens to them as they grow old, or obese, or infirm—that is, as the body interposes itself between the music and the heroic spirit? Do they really age with us, as I said earlier, or are they turned out to pasture?

The above is not true of all pianists. Alfred Brendel, for example, crafted a very different persona for himself, a sort of living New Yorker caricature: bashful, introspective, erudite. (None of this is meant as a criticism of his playing, which I admire.) But Pollini has always seemed to be the poster-boy for romantic pianism. And he has retained this persona as his hair has grown whiter with each passing year.

I’m wondering, then, if what I witnessed last weekend was the passing on of the younger pianist, and if it is a transition that Pollini has not yet fully embraced, or does not quite yet know how to make, or, perhaps, is as yet unwilling to. I’m wondering, that is, if Pollini still wants to be the great athlete of the piano, even as his overwhelming technical facility begins to fail him. Because only an athlete could play the second scherzo for an encore. And last weekend, the athlete stumbled. Thinking back, I’m wondering if the desperate speed at which he played the Beethoven sonatas last year, his near-Puritanical distaste for rests, was a harbinger of this year’s recitals. And I can’t help but remember tubercular Tristram’s desperate, sentimental journey through France in Book VII of Tristram Shandy, fleeing Death and dancing mad circles with peasant girls; and the aging protagonist of John Cheever’s story “O Youth and Beauty!” assembling the furniture around the living room to run the hurdles one last time, about to be shot dead by his long-suffering wife.

All this is not to say that Pollini is a virtuouso without the depth of spirit to interpret these works. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pollini is a brilliant, even generous, interpreter. Today, we tend to be suspicious of virtuosity, as if any such display were necessarily emotionally bankrupt. It’s a combined product, I would guess, of the cult of authenticity and the culture of distrust. But like anything, great technique is as full or empty as the uses the artist puts it to. Virtuosity and affect aren’t so easily extricable from one another as seems to be imagined. Anyway, what was remarkable about this Pollini recital was the way in which a slight shift in the pianist’s ability to phrase and articulate and ornament pulled the curtain aside on the wizard, and all the gorgeous effects on which our emotional engagement with the music depends, and which themselves depend so much on coloring and sustain and a jumbling of musical phrases into a warm, distorted whole, suddenly vanish before our ears.

Finally, an irony to ponder. What does it mean for the music of a terminally ill thirty-five-year-old to be routinely performed by robust men and women of twice that age? Do the inverted ratios of health and age lead performers to perennially miss something in Chopin’s music?

Addendum. While I was in line for the bathroom at today’s third and final recital, I overheard an older gentleman commenting on the previous recital. He was disappointed, too, and when he saw me nodding vigorously, we fell to talking. It turns out that Pollini had been ill, though I’m not sure how he found this out. He thought they should have canceled or postponed that concert, and I agreed. Anyway, I’m just pleased that the infirmity was only temporary. The berceuse today was a gem—how can anyone’s right hand can get those sounds out of a piano? It was also great to hear him back in form for the Bm sonata, a piece which, like Pollini, grows with me. May he continue to run those hurdles for many years to come, Death nipping at his heels the whole way.

And still the nagging question: Why the second scherzo for an encore, if he was indeed sick? And so all the musings about sadism and aging romantic bodies and musical athleticism continue …

J.S. Bach: The English Suites

glenn-gould-canadian-pianistWhat struck me listening to the English Suites this time around (the Glenn Gould recording from 1977) is how different they are from each other. Each has its own personality. The second, for example, is expansive and refined, the first with such a long, imposing prelude, culminating in at once the most soaring and static (cathedral-like?) of gigues.* The third is the polar opposite of the second: it is hardly adorned, building patiently on its musical phrases, giving the performer time to settle them at his leisure. The fourth is expansive like the second, but of a romantic mood. The fifth sounds almost impossibly modern. I don’t know why it strikes me this way; Bach was hardly a stranger to chromaticism. As for the sixth, where to begin? At the end, maybe. The gigue is haunting. But here, I particularly appreciate the playful gavotte that directly precedes it: it sounds like children marching.

I first heard these suites, together with the French ones, on tapes a friend of my father’s made for him. I was probably 14 at the time and, an inveterate mixed-tape-maker of rock songs, I quickly copied my favorite sections from a variety of suites together on one side of a cassette; the other side had the first, fifth and sixth piano sonatas by Beethoven (performed by Wilhelm Backhaus), I think, which I had taped from my father’s records; and they, together with a couple of other cassettes of Chopin and Beethoven, and the pieces my father practiced nightly, constituted the core of my identification with classical music when I was a teenager. I made several other tapes, all from my parents’ records, but these first few pieces remain mine in a way nothing has since. The suites were thus all jumbled together and incomplete. So when I listen to them now, it is the suites themselves that seem all mixed up; and whenever I run into an old friend—the bourees of Suite #2, the gavottes of Suite #3—I ask, “What on earth is this doing here?” They still seem more natural where they appear on my old mixed tape than in their “proper” place in the middle of a suite. I like the rhythm and the tension this creates in listening to a suite as a whole, each section more or less familiar, more or less loved.

I should say something about Gould’s playing, for he is no doubt partly responsible for making each suite so distinct (and yet all of them together so distinctively Gould). I have another recording of the suites by Andras Schiff, another pianist I greatly admire, from about 10 years later. I have actually listened to the Schiff recording more, simply because I have so much Bach by Gould that I haven’t bothered to load Gould’s English suites onto my computer yet.** I was struck by the difference. Perhaps Schiff is a bit too high, a bit too serious, for Bach. (He certainly came across that way in the one master’s class I had a chance to see him teach.) Gould is so much more playful, intimate, even irreverent. He seems to dare to do with Bach what the composer might have done himself. I hope that doesn’t sound too theologically author-enamored. But no one else could play the children’s crusade of the sixth suite with those careless near-glissandos and pauses. Nor does he need to overemphasize the low trills and descending arpeggios of the gigue to make it truly haunting. I don’t think this is simply a matter of emotional memory or musical imprinting, either—that is, of the link between my discovery of classical music as a teenager (in the sense of finding a canon of pieces that spoke to me) and my association, surely a common one, of Bach with Gould.

* I can remember the first time I “heard” this gigue, really heard it, driving down old Route 24 through Chatham, New Jersey, onto an exit ramp by the Short Hills mall. Not the most propitious setting for a musical moment of being. But then I’m always unprepared for them; in fact, surprise seems to be an important factor, as a friend of mine, a fiction writer, noticed about similar moments in stories. My musical life is punctuated by listenings which, for whatever reason, transcend all previous and color all subsequent ones. I don’t imagine I’m alone in this.

** As a New Yorker, I do a lot of my listening while walking, and given the limited amount of space on my iPod, I rarely have more than a suite on there at a time, which means I rarely listen to them as a set … yet another example of the way the technology of reproduction affects how we appreciate and understand music.