Tag Archives: concert review

Left Unsaid

What to do when, returning from the restroom after the early set of Dave Holland’s quartet at Birdland, you find Mr. Holland himself occupying the bar stool next to yours? Sit there and fidget, of course. Allow the window of opportunity to close, and the guy sitting on his other side to grab his ear. Then, sulk into your coffee, thinking about all the things you could have been saying to Dave Holland.

There sat I, preparing those few, perfect, penetrating words, those well-sifted nuggets of wit, those giant squids of wisdom—things that would reveal me as neither nerdy starfucker nor blithering idiot. Things that, upon hearing them, Holland would grab my shoulder, and look deep into my eyes, and say: “Helldriver. You get it. Of all the pathetic rabble here, typified by this guy on the other side of me yabbing my ear off, you’re the only one who understands my music. And not just understands: you’re able to articulate it in such a pithy, tuneful way. The Bard could do no better.”

And so, writing and erasing phrases and sentences in my head, my time, my historic opportunity to actually speak to Dave Holland, slipped away.

Bars are for raconteurs. And blogs? One can always aspire. Which is why, rather than talking to Holland at Birdland, I find myself sitting at my computer, talking to the Holland in my head.

There he is, in his black leather vest and magnetic blue buttondown, elbows resting on the bar, shoulders hunched. His white beard is trimmed to the length of his hair, his energy bespeaks a man well younger than his years. The bartender, miraculously nimble, shakes and mixes. Ice tinkles; the maitre d’ stalks by. A couple of men rise and tug on their still-wet rain jackets. Holland’s drink arrives. Staring deep into my coffee, I wait for the right moment to elbow him softly in the ribs.

*

“Dave? Dave Holland?”

“…”

“Man, that was a hell of a set! You weren’t kidding when you said you guys’ve been having fun!”

“…”

“You know, there’s two things I associate with Thanksgiving: turkey, and you. No relation, obviously. You’re what Broadway Danny Rose called a perennial.”

“…”

“Well, I beg to differ. Turkey may be better or worse from one year to the next, but you, you just get better. You know what, though. This year? I think you might’ve painted yourself into a corner. Seriously. But then all those cats you bring back with you—Potter, and at least one of the Eubanks brothers, and anybody near as good as Eric Harland—they get better every year, too. [Sotto voce] Hey, just FYI: you’re almost the only reason I drag my ass to Birdland. Their programming sort of sucks, if you’ll pardon moi. What can you do, with all these Broadway theaters around.”

“…”

“Doubtless. You gotta feel the love, though, if people are coming out to hear you in this weather. Of course, you’re originally from England, this is probably dry for you …”

“…”

“They do look like cats in the rain! Speaking of cats, I see you traded Robin for Kevin, and mixed Chris back in. You know that Extended Play: Live at Birdland disc you put out maybe a dozen years back, with Robin and Chris on it? The title is spot-on. If you could wear out a CD like a record, just by playing it over and over, I swear, that thing would be trashed. It would sound like a car driving on rims! Sometimes I feel like running that disc up and down a cheese grater, just to make it show how many times I’ve listened to it. Crazy, right? If only discs would wear properly!”

“???”

“Yeah, but I like the musical artifact, and frankly, I like buying ’em at shows, right off the artists, if I can swing it. Listen, Dave. How does this sound: joyous noise. I mean, to describe the sound of this band. Joyous noise! Eh? And this … wait, let me look at what else I scribbled on the back page of my little book here …”

“…”

“I know, remember this? It was huge in the ‘60s. Just a few years before you started playing with Miles. Miles going electric was probably as much a part of the Zeitgeist as McLuhan was.”

“…”

“Well, he’s basically saying that new technology, by changing the patterns and pace of life, changes the way people process the world. The electronic age, particularly television, marked this radical change in consciousness. People stopped thinking serially—words across a page—and started thinking simultaneously. And collectively. He’s sort of guru-y, tends to rely more on repetition than making a logical argument. Maybe he’s trying to dramatize his own thesis, justify it a priori? Still, I’ve started to wonder if he was right, if that’s why nobody reads anymore …”

“…”

“I guess it is sort of like jazz. Everyone in the band linked to everyone else, thinking together. Except he’s imagining of a whole society like that, ‘wired’ together by TV. He’d probably see the changes in music post-World War II and make a similar argument. Like the stuff you were playing tonight: it was definitely more static than other stuff of yours I’ve heard—more like electric Miles in some ways. And the band feels leaderless, in a good way. Like everyone’s contribution is on the same level. Potter’s is the only ostensibly ‘lead’ instrument, and Eubanks’s, to a degree, but they’re not any more prominent than you, or Obed for that matter—he certainly didn’t wait to step into the spotlight! Guy’s a freight train. Makes Tain look tame.”

“…”

“Sorry, you’re right, the whole jazz-as-democracy thing has been done to death. Hey: do you remember saying once, on this very stage, that you hoped people were going to support Obama? Were you early that year? I was wondering … is that why you only said a few words at the beginning of the set? You were afraid you were going to let loose about the election?”

“@#$%&!!”

“Easy, Dave! Don’t make me say Brexit! Brexit Brexit Brexit! There, I said it!”

“…”

“Man, they’re going to throw us out of this place! And you still have another set to play! …. Seriously, though—I love that you guys played straight through like that, with only a few pauses, no words. I’m sure the Birdlanders appreciated it, too—you know, us Amer’cans want to make sure we get our money’s worth! More bang for the buck! No, really, it felt very organic. That’s part of what made it seem so totally cooperative. Well, maybe not entirely …”

“???”

“I’m thinking of that blues lick Kevin came up with. He didn’t have to move his left hand at all to play it. But you, you had to leap halfway across the neck! Which you did effortlessly, by the way, or it seemed that way. Do guitarists just not think about that sort of thing, or do they do it on purpose? You must’ve played with enough of ’em to know.”

“…”

“That’s funny, I didn’t think of him at all. You know who I did think of, listening to you tonight? Jaco. I’ve never thought of Jaco before, listening to you. Maybe it was all the harmonics—you know, ‘Portrait of Tracy,’ ‘Onkonkole y Trompa,’ that stuff on his first solo record. Beautiful. But it wasn’t just you; Kevin, he sounded like Hiram Bullock! Maybe partly because this band, like you said, sans Potter, was originally a power trio, I thought of those ‘punk jazz’ recordings from the late ‘80s, N.Y.C., with Jaco and Bullock, and Kenwood Denner on drums. Man, I really love Eubanks’s sound: hyper-distorted, breathy, lots of noise; and then, out of this ambient cloud of distortion, he’ll just strangle out these runs that cut you. I like how he’ll shift between sludgy power chords and funk progressions. The tunes are all really open, too, so they gave him plenty of room to wail.”

“…”

“Oh, c’mon, what’s wrong with ‘power trio’? It’s a compliment. I’m a power-trio junkie. I could live on nothing but power trios. Well, power trios and Nanaimo bars. I already wrote it down, anyway, so there. Hey, what about this: Holland’s band plays a rambunctious world music. (It’s good I read this shit back to myself—half the time I can’t read my own handwriting later on. Club’s too dark to be writing in anyway. Pencil’s dull, too. And look at how shitty the paper is, you can’t even dog-ear a page without breaking it.)”

“…”

“Okay, okay, ‘world music’ is sort of a cop-out term. But there was something so … primal about it. I mean, some of what Potter was playing? They weren’t runs; they were calls. I could almost believe he was gonna make it stop raining. And Obed …!”

“…”

“I guess I’m trying to capture what seems different about this band’s sound. Usually, your compositions sound like—now don’t take this the wrong way—sound like really sophisticated cop-show music …”

“…”

“Yeah, I like Streets of San Francisco, too, but I was thinking more The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3. The original, obviously, with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Like, if Pelham was directed by Michael Haneke. No, wait: scratch that. I hate when arts writers do that shit—‘it’s like so-and-so baking a cake with so-and-so in an oven made by so-and-so, and then running it over with so-and-so’s SUV’ … man, I hate that shit.”

“…”

“Oh, I’m glad you hate that shit too!”

“…”

“You know, for a figment of my imagination, you can be remarkably uncooperative. And I resent the suggestion that I’m throwing out names as a smokescreen for my own critical inadequacies.”

“…”

“[Sigh] You’re right, I did say ‘show.’ Some people in the U.S. say ‘show’ when they mean ‘movie.’ I usually don’t, it’s sort of a Rocky Mountain thing. But to get back to the, ahem, rambunctious world? Obed. I loved the vocalizing—mouth and drum. He makes his toms sound like talking drums. Or does he have one back there? Look, you can’t see the drums hardly at all from this side of the bar, at least where they’re set up tonight. This one night, though, I timed it right, got a seat on the other side of the bar, and the drums were set up so that I could watch Rudy Royston from behind the kit. It was like taking a master class. Unbelievable. From here, though, you have to sit up just to see the cymbals over the bottles. And Kevin, I could only see the back of his left hand—see him not move it on that lick. You know, the one time I got to see John McLaughlin, he was playing electric, Dennis Chambers was on drums—you can just imagine what those two sounded like going head-to-head—at The Bottom Line. The Bottom Line was kind of a shitty place to see music—historic, but shitty—historically shitty, maybe—I don’t know if you ever got a chance to play there. No? Bully for you. Anyway, I was sitting way over on the right. My one chance to see McLaughlin, and he played half turned away from me the whole night. I couldn’t see his hands at all!”

“…”

“Yes! What a band that was! Did you ever see the movie they made about the Isle of Wight festival?”

“…”

“Well, don’t bother. At least, if you want to see yourself. They gave maybe thirty seconds to Miles’s band. I think you appear for like two seconds, and John for two, and Chick, and Jack, and then the camera swoops out, and that’s it. The Hendrix footage is decent—better than Woodstock’s. You know what, though. These cats you’re playing with tonight? I think they could hold their own against any band Miles put together.”

“…”

“I know I’m digressing. I’m making a valiant effort to bring this back on point. But I didn’t have that much to say in the first place, and this is a mock-up of a bar conversation. Besides, I have to fill all this white space, and I have all these little black marks to use.”

“…”

“No, I don’t really know why. I just have to. Why do you have to make all those notes?”

“…”

“Well, you better drink up, then, I’ll get the next round. No? Next Thanksgiving, then? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to stay for the second set. But I live in a land far, far away. Besides, I have start writing, before you and everything else disappears.”

 

This post is dedicated to Rupert Pupkin.

Un/coiffed

1

“Where the future is present.”

So reads the banner hanging above the bandstand at New York’s venerable, vital Jazz Gallery. A place where talented young musicians can be mentored to carry forward the jazz tradition? Or a place where cutting-edge new music can be fearlessly presented to the public? Actually, both interpretations fit the Gallery well, though the two do not always sit easily with each other.

Alto saxophonist Patrick Bartley, whose Dreamweaver Society sextet played the Gallery a few Thursdays ago, also fits nicely with either interpretation. On the one hand, he is the founder of the J-music ensemble, a cross of jazz with Japanese pop and the ur-popular (among younger folk) aesthetics of anime and video games. On the other hand, he boasts an impressive resume of sidework with jazz veterans like Mulgrew Miller and Wynton Marsalis, on the latter of whose HBO YoungArts Masterclass he appeared, to much acclaim. Recording by seventeen, a Grammy nomination already under his belt, Bartley is a poster-boy for the young lions. He even looks a bit lion-like in his photo on the J-music website, with a wide, flat, handsome face and neatly-arranged beard and dreadlocks; a serious young man, staring meaningfully off at some horizon.

The Jazz Gallery is currently located in midtown, on the fifth floor of a crotchety old office building, entered solely by way of a crotchety old elevator. (I’m sure they were priced out of their original second-floor, stairwell-accessible Hudson Street digs. At least they didn’t move to Brooklyn.) The elevator is festooned with warning signs: no more than five people at a time; do not jump, or the elevator will come to an emergency stop; if it does, here is a list of procedures to get yourself rescued before having to resort to eating your fellow passengers/your own foot/etc. It is also—almost needless to add—dreadfully slow.

So imagine my consternation a few Thursdays ago when, just as the elevator was arriving, a group of dapper, laughing young gentlemen breezed into the entranceway and proceeded to fill the car well past the capacity enjoined by the signs. No matter how edible they looked, I didn’t want to get stuck in the elevator with them: I ducked out and waited for the next car.

It was only on reaching the fifth floor that I realized they were the band. And it was only some fifteen minutes later, when they got up to perform, that I realized just how goddamn young they all were. Not a one older than 25, some maybe still in school, at least some of whom (including tenor player Xavier del Castillo and drummer Evan Sherman) had attended the Manhattan School of Music with Bartley. An ensemble, that is, of roommies.

The set was clearly intended to introduce Bartley as a composer and bandleader, and to this effect the pieces seemed chosen to demonstrate his range, from the Coltrane-inspired E-flat blues that led off the set (I thought particularly of “Chasin’ the Trane”), to the Mingusy, color-accented follow-up, the trio-only interlude that gave Bartley a chance to burn on tenor, and the couple of more pop-sounding ballads that closed the set. Bartley is a charismatic bandleader who plays his alto with an almost eerie effortlessness. His tone on that instrument is strong, almost biting, his solos nervy and technically dazzling. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Dolphyisms that squeaked out of his horn, particularly on the blues—enough, one might think, to make Wynton nervous. By and large, the sextet was well-utilized throughout—showcasing the fine band was as much a part of the evening as showcasing Bartley; only the guitar felt a bit vestigial. With a band this big, the de rigeur merry-go-round of solos could have turned into a lead balloon … so I was relieved that, after the blues—that is, after each of the musicians had a chance to introduce himself—the tunes became more economical in their arrangements; while the trio around the set’s midpoint made a nice palate-cleanser for the second half. There was much apparent chemistry and comfort between the two saxes, too, though their combination was sometimes flummoxed by a mellifluous, Lawrence Welk-sounding harmony.*

There’s a level of energy a young jazz band can reach that outstrips even the most inspired veteran, and that makes up for whatever failings you might identify with some critical distance, or just sourness of temper. The word that best describes it is exuberance; it arises, I would guess, from a sort of heedlessness about … well, about basically everything. The opening blues that evening was just such a nitro-burst of energy, partly propelled forward by nerves, I would guess, and partly by the familiar terrain offered by the blues themselves. Del Castillo was practically headbanging during Bartley’s solo, and Bartley himself wasn’t far behind when del Castillo, after an introduction of thoughtful, tentative pokes, like he was on a first date with his reed, found his voice and really started to blow. Watching them, I thought, Man, these guys could go all night. The thought had a tinge of (vicarious, nostalgic) eroticism. I mean, I couldn’t help thinking how cute they all were, del Castillo in particular, in his grey suit, with his hair not-quite-tidily pulled back; when he hit the sweet notes on his tenor, his eyebrows would do this funny thing, turn up and straighten out, so they looked penciled in.

But then this was their debut and night on the town. Bartley surely has experience dressing up for Wynton & Co., and at least two of his sidemen, drummer Sherman and guitarist Gabe Schnider, have built similarly impressive resumes. They have all already achieved remarkable things. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that they had come to the Gallery this evening dressed up as the professionals they were still in the throes of becoming—dressed up as men. (If the suit fits—and it clearly does—wear it.) In the presence of so much talent, to augur bright futures is easy. But if I was going to vote one Most Likely to Succeed, it would be pianist Mathis Jaona Jolan Picard. What a touch, and what a presence. A series of trilling figures down the keys on the blues was as perfect as anything I’ve heard of any pianist, of any age: a model of space and light; and his percussive, Jaki Byard-style comping on the high end of the keyboard was equally on target.

Now, I know a band can’t really sustain that sort of millennial exuberance for a whole evening; as a writer friend I have surely quoted before would put it, the “lights” can’t always be “on.” But there were aspects of the performance that unnecessarily turned the lights off. For example, Bartley’s propensity to chatter between songs. It’s natural enough for the music an artist writes to be inspired by something in his or her personal/musical life; the monicker for the sextet, “Original music inspired by dreams, fantasies, stories and images from childhood to present,” suggested as much. So why belabor the obvious? One imagines—at least I do—that there was a time when musical mentors told the younger players, “Son, nobody cares. Just play the music.” It’s different, of course, if one has been in the business for a long time and has a knack for storytelling (like Max Roach did), or one’s storytelling becomes a performance in itself (like Roy Haynes’s does, not always for the better), or one is just fabulously articulate (e.g., Joshua Redman). True, Miles himself was taken to task for never saying anything at all. And the parameters for how much to say may have shifted vis-a-vis the pathology of sharing endemic to the internet. With Bartley, though, I got the uneasy impression that he was practicing the sort of between-song banter that might be expected of him in his artistically well-heeled future. Maybe it shouldn’t have made me uneasy; after all, cultivating a public persona, finding one’s comfort zone for engaging with the audience, is part of maturing as an artist.

But then this might have struck me only in retrospect, after the penultimate tune, “The Heart of the Beholder.” During his solo, Bartley began some very practiced head-swinging: the very antithesis of that headbanging on the blues, such that no dread threatened to escape from within his becomingly beige rasta cap. No ecstacy, performed or otherwise; no sonic payoff (like the fade-in-and-out effect Branford Marsalis gets when he starts rocking in front of a mic, or the Hammond-like sound John Zorn gets when he turns side to side, blowing like a foghorn). Not even much in the way of spectacle. It actually reminded me of a live recording I heard once on BGO, of Joshua Redman. Every time he hit a high note, a cheer would go up from the crowd, like for a victorious gladiator. Tonight, the cheers were off somewhere in the future; I felt like I was watching a dress rehearsal for fame-to-be.

But then I’m happy to blame it on that Grammy gig with the Dave Matthews Band.

Maybe I wasn’t the only one feeling that the bandstand had somehow been drained of its earlier vitality. On that penultimate number, during the guitar solo, Bartley made a point of looking at his watch. Twice, in fact. Looking at your watch during someone else’s solo suggests … well, a lack of enthusiasm. I didn’t entirely disagree with Bartley; of the sextet, I was least enthused by the guitar’s contribution, which sounded long on effects and somewhat short on ideas—my own prejudice, perhaps; never much cared for Frisell, either. But then I’m not the bandleader, with all the responsibilities that entails, like making sure the band looks good (check), and keeping time—that is, if the club doesn’t do it for you—which, it must be admitted, can be to the music’s detriment, as sets are sometimes cut short to get the crowds in and out. Not that I can imagine the Jazz Gallery ever doing this; they’re not that kind of venue. Now, if a bandleader wants to express dissatisfaction with a particular member, looking at his watch seems like a viable way to do it. One step away from a pink slip. But for all his going-places demeanor, Bartley doesn’t seem like the sacking type. So what do bandleaders do when members solo? Close their eyes, nod (or bang) their heads, smile (check, check, check) … and maybe stand off to the side, even a little offstage, to check the time. Of course, Miles was also taken to task for leaving the stage when his sidemen soloed … so six of one, etc.

Though I appreciated the opportunity to hear the diversity of Bartley’s compositional palette as much as his prowess as a soloist, such a carefully-ordered parade might also have contributed to the deflating: like a graduating performance or competition, intended to please judges, faculty. Like them, it was a little too coiffed. The best thing about listening to these musicians over the next couple of decades will be hearing them steadily un-coiff themselves: as they stop thinking about their blindingly bright futures, and those first hairs fall out, and their beards get that touch of grey, and their bellies can’t quite be secured behind their coat-buttons. Of course, you can dress like a motherfucker and still let it all hang out musically; but first you’ve got to be comfortable with the pull under your arms and the tightness in your collar, the unreachable itch in the middle of your back. Then and only then can the music find a way out of your clothes.

2

About an hour after listening to Bartley’s sextet at the Gallery, I walked in on a quiet little pow-wow at The Stone. It might have been a sobremesa in some old artist’s parlor that I suddenly found myself semi-eavesdropping on. Marty Ehrlich was among them, as I realized a little later on—unlike with Bartley’s band, there was no sartorial riser separating musicians from audience. I recognized him when he went over to his bass clarinet and played a scale, perhaps an illustration of something he was saying. It’s enough just to hear the rich, still unjustly rare tone of the bass clarinet in a space as small as The Stone to be entranced.

It was Ehrlich’s sextet on the bill that night, just the latest in a remarkably fecund last few months at The Stone. I can’t remember a time since The Stone opened that I’ve been there as continuously. Week-long residencies by Joe Morris and Nels Cline (who managed to get Dave Rempis’s ass out to New York) and Susie Ibarra (so nice to see her again; I think the last time was at the Noguchi, more than a decade ago); and that month-long celebration of Steve Coleman’s sixtieth, yowza. This week belonged to Ehrlich, and this night, to the music of Andrew Hill, with whom Ehrlich and one of his sidemen, trumpeter Ron Horton, had worked in the late ‘90s/ early ‘00s. (Hence the presence of the bass clarinet: Eric Dolphy was also a Hill collaborator, and one of the personnel on Point of Departure.)

When set-time came the band didn’t march up in a bunch to the clearing that serves as The Stone’s stage, as they do in places like the Vanguard (or, for that matter, the Jazz Gallery), so much as bleed into it, man by man. The announcement was little more than a reminder to turn off cell phones and not take pictures without permission. Ehrlich called down to the basement (where the musicians usually lounge between sets) to tell someone to “take his time”; and this person, who turned out to be the drummer, clearly took him at his word: the band played the first couple of tunes as a percussionless quintet. A relaxed attitude toward the music, to be sure—which is in no way to say an unprofessional one. It came through, too, in the lack of a dress code, and in the informal, easy manner among the musicians, and between the musicians and audience.

The quintet-cum-sextet played a mostly relaxed and rather sweet set, too, with gorgeous, thick harmonies carried on by the horn trio on the front line, ravishing, once again, in a club The Stone’s size, and perhaps most redolent in the opening number, an elegy for Ornette Coleman that Ehrlich composed shortly after the great altoist’s death, the only piece of his own that evening. Though Ehrlich tended to let the whole band say their piece on every Hill tune, the solos were brief enough—never more than a few choruses—that they went by with Bird-like swiftness, and, interestingly, with less display, both harmonic and technical, than those of their younger counterparts at the Gallery. Bassist Dean Johnson might be the exception here; the sliding figures he used to knit together his wonderful solos brought into relief a certain understatement in the playing of Marty Jaffe, the very adept bassist of Bartley’s sextet, though this might be a matter of compositional temperament, i.e., where in an ensemble the bandleader “hears” the bass.

Who were these un-coiffed men? Don’t take this the wrong way, but: a bunch of old white guys, the youngest of whom was my age, the rest in their late fifties and early sixties. The contrast with the diversity of Bartley’s young band was striking, at least in hindsight. As for the generation gap, it is perhaps best expressed by their web presences: Bartley’s sidemen have a mix of websites (two), SoundClouds, and, most prominently, Facebook pages. Ehrlich’s all have websites. Not surprising: they are all widely-recorded area musicians and composers; three hold academic posts, a fourth routinely teaches at jazz workshops. In other words, they are the very sorts of people who the members of Bartley’s sextet were or are taking their classes from. In this regard, the question of race becomes particularly intriguing. It isn’t as though Ehrlich hasn’t played with a diverse who’s-who throughout his long career, Hill among them; or that African Americans are unrepresented in jazz academia (although perhaps under-represented, if other disciplines are any indication); or that New York’s “creative music” scene is not and has not always been diverse (although, again, one wonders whether crossovers with the academically-ensconced schools of contemporary classical and electronic music changes the complexion of this music community … but perhaps only to buttress its diversity, as the number of Asians would attest). The photographs blanketing the north wall of The Stone might be enough to lay to rest questions about diversity. In a country that is anything but post-racial, as the recent election so aptly reminded us, perhaps jazz, in the globe-trotting, genre- and culture-mixing transformations of its last few decades … perhaps jazz is?

I wouldn’t venture to say that anyone in Ehrlich’s band doesn’t “see” color (which always seems like the first clause in a racially-charged statement), or, for that matter, ethnicity, or culture. Ehrlich himself has made some brilliant recordings for Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series. But I don’t think anyone asks anymore whether a “white” player (who is unlikely today to have an uncomplicated belief in or relationship to “whiteness,” to riff on Ta-Nahesi Coates) is “qualified” to play or teach jazz. That said, it is an interesting, ongoing historical wrinkle that “white” instructors train a diverse cadre of young musicians in what is in essence an African American tradition. Have we moved beyond questions of theft and ownership, beyond the mirror-image diatribes of Miles Davis and Art Pepper? Perhaps never entirely; but for a niche audience like this one, where connection to the music happens through tiny labels and intimate live performances, probably more here than anywhere else. (Tradition cannot “belong” to anyone, true … but alas, record companies and venues can. (N.B.: I’m done with the scare quotes now.))

I’m also intrigued by something else: that the older cats gathered at The Stone to perform music in a more radical, less traditional (albeit mellower) vein than the younger cats at the Jazz Gallery. If the latter are perhaps still steeped in the canon—including the early avant garde one Ehrlich paid tribute to—and a bit blinded by their own bright futures, the Associate Professors in Ehrlich’s band don’t need to ponder their futures much, at least beyond the next project, and maybe a last promotion, an emeritus title. Comfortable in their professionalism, they can afford to be rumpled. This generalization can’t be too neatly mapped onto generations, let alone “races” (oops); but I do think it points to something funny about the state of so-called creative music more than a half-century after those first mavericks started to play so-called free jazz. To what extent do spaces like The Stone (and even more, events like the Vision Festival) exist to memorialize an earlier radicalism, the rupture of the once-unpalatably new, in a more conservative/ neoliberal age? To what extent do they exist to present the newest music? To what extent, that is, does The Stone play museum to the Jazz Gallery’s gallery? (The role of the artist as curator of a week’s exhibit at The Stone is particularly suggestive.) To what extent is the Gallery’s calendar a better indicator of “the future of music” than The Stone’s? Or are both niches equally unrepresentative of “the future of music,” as the oxymoronically tiny crowds for both gigs would seem to attest? (At this rate, it won’t be the future for long.) It seems logical that the situation of such music today would mirror a similar predicament in radical politics—the reason, perhaps, one feels like an exhibit at every protest, framed by police barricades, watched like a reality show by the inhabitants of a strange, disheartening America I can no longer even attempt to fathom. Some days, I feel caught between an older generation mired in ‘60s nostalgia and a younger one bereft of the cultural preparation to think beyond the terms dictated by the prevailing ideology: the essence of Gen X middle-agedom.

So. Ehrlich, the grey-haired academic, gathered with his begowned colleagues to play a set that began with an elegy, and then went on to memorialize the music of another dead man: a dinosaur exhibiting arriere garde museum-pieces inside a museum. What, you say, could be more thoroughly dead? Explain to me, then, why the music, like so much of Ehrlich’s recent work, sounded fresh and vital, at once reflective and spontaneous; why this place called The Stone continues, despite its name, to re-engage with the spirit of music’s present, wherever its future and past might be.

Toward the end of the set, Ehrlich looked at his watch to see if they had time for one more. They did, a short one. He said little else, besides the names of his bandmates, the dedicatee of the first tune. Certainly nothing personal—nothing, that is, except with his horn, which said everything that needed to be said.

 

* I don’t know if it was the particular harmony, or the combination of instruments, or something about the players’ approach. But this seems to require an explanation, a … justification. It’s often the case that people studying for their doctoral exams fall into some weird obsession or other to mitigate the day-in day-out mental strain of study. One friend, for example, got completely obsessed with Scandinavian black metal—unironically, he assured me. Another became an aficionado of European soccer. For me, it was The Lawrence Welk show. Utah being what it is, Lawrence Welk aired weekly, I think on the BYU station, right around my bedtime. I cannot claim, like my Scandinavian death metal-listening friend, that my appreciation for Lawrence Welk was unironic, or in any way deeply felt, as the other’s surely was for Real Madrid. But I would call it mesmerizing, and eye-opening as well. It’s a good way to take yourself out of your contemporary context, and confront a facet of the once(-and-future?) America, or rather the America that some wish(ed) for, with eyes tightly closed and heels clicking, and everything else as repressed as it can possibly be.

Wintry Mix

As we hightail it out of the coldest February since the Hudson Valley started keeping records in ’49, and I stare out my window at a landscape still knee-deep in snow, it may be a good time to look back on those precious few moments of warmth, viz., the periodic injections of molten METAL which, like oil drums full of cortisone pumped into my every hinge and cranny, kept my spine limber and horns high.

*

The Chance theater in Poughkeepsie (Pug-KIP-see) was not the place to be on a single-digit night in mid-January. It’s a cardboard box, with flaps on four sides, and people kept opening and closing them for one reason or another, letting in all that cold, cold air. Almost everyone kept their jacket on. The re-entering smokers looked like Kurt Russell in The Thing:

kurt-thing_fe

Now, anything I can possibly say about High On Fire, that cold, cold night’s headliner, can be summed up in one detail: Matt Pike walked in out of the night and, before the door even shut behind him, pulled off his shirt. There we were, all of us huddled together in our coats, looking at the shirtless wonder that was Matt Pike. That’s commitment. That’s metal.

It behooves me to say something more about The Chance, this being my first time at the venue. What most stood out to me was the stark contrast between it and any of the City venues I’m accustomed to catching shows at—places as different as St. Vitus, Gramercy, and Best Buy. The Chance is probably more like the slogged-between rock clubs in Topeka and Flagstaff than anything sixty miles downriver, gritty and grungy Gramercy included. In fact, watching roadies’ legs pass back and forth beneath the two-thirds-dropped curtain branded with call letters of local radio stations, I couldn’t help thinking of The Blues Brothers playing “Rawhide.” It’s as different from the City as soap opera from primetime: a combination of the quality of light—a harsh, bathroomy light, the sort where nothing can be hidden, no band canonized by haze—and the quality of silence, noticeable between sets, is as unforgiving as the light. And so there is a raw, unfiltered quality to all sight and sound at The Chance.

When the bands play, the whole Chance throbs and buzzes like a Camaro.

In New York, clubs tend to feel bigger than they really are; The Chance feels smaller. Maybe that’s why what I took to be the door to the bathroom was actually the side door to the stage, and I almost joined openers Windhand there. And maybe that’s why High On Fire let the feedback ring between songs: to have a blanket of sound in this place where nothing can hide. Of course, anything smacking of blanketry was much to be welcomed on a night like this. But then there’s something about HOF’s sound that courts it anyway. Their hour-plus-long set was—quite literally—a seamless wall of noise.

They opened with “Madness of an Architect,” a perfect specimen of their giant, sludgy sound, a song built on a droning tonic scooped over and over up the neck; they closed with the by-now-anthemic “Snakes for the Divine”; they played “Rumors of War” and “Surrounded by Thieves” along the way. But the highlight of the set was the five (count ‘em) brand new songs: HOF were about to go back into the studio, and Pike said that, though they weren’t quite ready with the new material, he thought they were “pretty goddamn tight.” I would have to agree. And not just tight: you could tell they were jazzed about playing this stuff. Live, there’s always a tradeoff with brand-new material, for what is lost in the pleasure of anticipation—the sing-along, the this is my favorite part—has to be made up for in the excitement of being the first kid on your block to hear it. When it works, as it did here, it opens up a powerful hole in the set: a feeling of risk, a detour into the unknown, a vaudeville intermission—something Pike himself acknowledged with the words he used to seal off that part of the evening: “Now back to the regular program.”

Matt Pike, photograph by Liz Ramanand

Matt Pike, photograph by Liz Ramanand

HOF is the sort of band that makes you believe the road really can whittle and sand you down to the essence of rock-‘n’-roll. Pike played with one foot on and off the monitor like a gas pedal, all speed, sweat and tattoos. He’s got a new handlebar mustache, too, a la Hetfield or Lemmy. And while I’m on the subject of the rise and fall of facial hair: bassist Jeff Matz has grown an Ozarky beard to go with the practiced Melungeon stare. Beards do seem to be in with the metal crowd these days; not even drummer Des Kensel has managed to buck the trend.

There are few bands that can match HOF for raw power live, and that power—marvelously on display at The Chance that night—is as attributable to rumbling Matz and thundering Kensel as to Pike. But Pike is still the pointy end of this band; and, watching and listening to him that night, I realized something about his sound that is perhaps more broadly applicable to the sludgier and doomier metal bands of the last decade or so … although, as with so much, HOF does it better than most. His guitar has a timbre like a trombone. It’s not just the sound, but the way he uses the instrument, and the licks he writes. His left hand works like the trombonist’s on the plunger, all slides and slurs; the guitar might as well be fretless. His right hand gives the initial impetus, like a bellows-breath, and then the left hand, locked in 1-5 power-chord position, works up and down the fretboard. Meanwhile, the looseness of the strings—a combination of down-tuning and the fact that much of the sliding happens around mid-neck—means the notes balloon outside of their fretted little jails. The end product is that bloated, roughshod sound that characterizes High On Fire, a sound like deep brass.

*

I was back at The Chance two weeks later for the Napalm Death/Voivod et al. show. The temperature had eased up toward freezing, but a sleety snow started coming down around dusk, forcing The Chance to move the starting time up an hour, and leaving me hemming and hawing about whether to go out at all. It was one of those intergenerational love-in bills, six bands, a combination of elderly, middle-aged and retro-, equal parts alluring and quease-inducing. If there was an onball on this bill, it was definitely Voivod. And if there was any band I had to see, it was Voivod. And so Voivod it would be, even if it meant my Corolla piercing ice and snow like a veritable Princess of the Night.

exhumedI missed the first three bands, including (most sadly) the perfectly-named Iron Reagan, fronted by the redoubtable Tony (Municipal Waste) Foresta, and made it just in time to hear what remains of Exhumed—Matt Harvey, basically, the rest of the band a stitched-together corpse—celebrate the re-recording of their 1998 debut Gore Metal. Exhumed dates from a time when I wasn’t listening to new metal, so I didn’t know what sort of a treat I was in for: Harvey’s perfect “Hetfield hunch” (think Nosferatu’s shadow) over his low-hanging mic; newbie Bud Burke (second guitar, an Explorer) rolling his eyes back to the whites while he headbanged, like my dog does when she’s dreaming. But by far the most attractive thing about Exhumed’s set was the unnamed mascot in scrubs, surgical mask, and bloody apron who periodically ran out onto and around the stage swinging a chainsaw over his head, pointing it now and again at the audience, a little like Maiden’s Eddie used to do. (Perhaps he, too, had mistaken the side stage door for the bathroom?) As a grand finale—more than shades of Alice Cooper here—said Eddie decapitated Monsieur Burke in a subcompact guillotine he rolled out onto the stage for that very purpose. But as he prepared the beheading—Sacrebleu!—the prop head fell onto the stage, and he was forced to retrieve it, and mime the whole thing over again, like a budget magician at a six-year-old’s birthday party. Then, as if enraged by the faulty prop or bungling executioner, Harvey gave a death-shriek so long and blood-curdling it would have made Death Angel’s Mark Osegueda jealous. The bouncers never even cracked a smile.

Okay. How do you reconcile the intensity of the music with the childishness of the spectacle—the guillotine with the shriek? It’s a disconnect inherent in the genre; it may even be genre-defining: between total commitment on the one hand and a refusal to take oneself seriously on the other; that invests itself and simultaneously stands outside and ironizes that investment. How can it be otherwise, in a genre that has managed to draw on both the spectacle of glam, Cooper, King Diamond, Gwar, and the (sometimes preachy) authenticity of thrash, grindcore and garage rock? One must take one’s laughter seriously. One must find a way to laugh seriously. I might think the spectacle silly, even distasteful, but I fear that, without it, our vaunted authenticity would disappear, too. And I don’t think the subgeneric drift of the last twenty-five years has troubled this contradiction at the heart of metal. It’s possible that the genre’s combination of vitality and longevity derives from the constant oscillation between these two poles.

Some twenty minutes after that climactic execution, Voivod took the stage with a polka version of “Ripping Headaches.” Who’d’ve thunk “Ripping Headaches” was a polka in disguise? Who broke out the Gogol Bordello? But what better way to celebrate an execution? Snake could have brought out his accordion. It was a measure of how far this band has come since the days of RRROOOAAARRR!!! … and it made me wonder why they bother to play this material at all anymore, except, perhaps, to give it such an unintentional stylistic makeover. The eponymous anthem “Voivod” I can understand; aging rock bands must constantly hail themselves in order to survive. But one price of being a band as eclectic and changeable as Voivod is deciding what part of your catalog you choose to hold onto thirty years down the road. Do you focus on what you’ve become, or how you got there? If you’re a butterfly now, why play larva? (No offense to War and Pain, one of the great debut albums—fuck it, one of the great metal albums of all time.)

The Chance set was pretty nearly what they played at Best Buy a few years back. “Voivod” went from opener to closer; “Overreaction” was substituted for “Tornado”; the wonderful “Prow” was added from the somewhat-underrated and little-heard Angel Rat. There was “Mechanical Mind” from Target Earth, and a brand new number called (pace Killing Technology) “We Are Connected,” which sounded very good indeed. But what with Target Earth making 20-best lists and ‘zines talking about Voivod’s return to their Voivodishness, it does make me wonder—as I have so often on this blog—why. Why only a couple of new songs? Why always that darn Floyd cover “Astronomy Domine” for an encore? Why go on tour at all? At the urinals after the set, Mark “Barney” Greenway from Napalm Death waiting his turn behind us, the guy peeing next to me raved about how seeing Voivod was just like being in college again; the only thing missing was a big, fat joint. He said this twice—big, fat, joint. And all I could think was that seeing Voivod in 2015 is precisely NOT like being in college again. In fact, seeing Voivod in 2015 reminds me that more than half a lifetime separates me from college. Outside, The Chance was smoothing over the between-set silence with side 1 of Moving Pictures. After Exhumed, it was Sin After Sin (with a bonus live version of “Starbreaker”). Seriously, how old did they think we were?

It may be that everyone else was more honest with themselves than I was, about being there for the nostalgia trip and the big, fat, joint. I admit that “Astronomy Domine” sounded good**, this despite the cheap interlude where Snake got people to clap for Piggy. Piggy who? Miss Piggy? I’m all for memorializing one of metal’s greatest guitarists (e.g., “Deulogy,” 1.4.11). Yet, Voivod are half a tribute band to themselves already. And while it might be too schematic to judge a band’s vitality by the ratio of new to old material they play, there’s a reason why “We Are Connected” was the unexpected peak of Voivod’s set, just like that string of brand-new songs High on Fire played a couple of weeks earlier.

Away; photograph from The Brooklyn Vegan

Away; photograph from The Brooklyn Vegan

If there was a saving grace to seeing Voivod in 2015, it was Away. Stage name of Michel Langevin, Away is the driving force of this band—one of two remaining original members, and the only one besides Piggy (R.I.P.) who never even took a break. Conceptualist, cover-and-sleeve artist, calligrapher, drummer … with Piggy dead, Blacky not touring, and Snake’s clownishness become almost too Vegas to watch—the little paunch, the bozo hair, the putty nose—how could I help but focus my attention on Away? But then that was easy: unlike any other drummer that night—any other drummer I can think of—he sat high atop his kit, and this had the effect of foregrounding him, and making of him a sort of cupola. Hair streaked with white, he looked not a little like the elder David Byrne. He was so effusive, so clearly transported by his role in making music; and this when there’s so much posturing in metal, and the older the band, the more transparent that posturing tends to be. Away sounded so fresh, he might have started drumming yesterday. There is a certain irony in this, for me. Though the perfect complement to the band’s sound, considered by himself, there’s always been something missing in his drumming: a little too flat a sound, a little too clubfooted a step to groove. Maybe it was the slower tempos, what with Exhumed and Napalm Death on either side; but at The Chance I found myself grooving to every little fill on his ride, every tricky hit and quirky syncopation.* Away is as imaginative, as original, and as full of flair on the drumkit as in his artwork; it just took thirty years and the loss of Piggy and Blacky for me to hear this.

If with the exception of Away Voivod are a shadow of their former selves, Napalm Death cast no shadow. There are no lights beyond blinding white, and God forbid there should be any props. They speak in the present tense; they know no other conjugation. The music is a blur, a throb, almost enough to buckle The Chance’s ornamental red columns and send the whole dev’lish club a-topple, Samson-style, on our heads. The way they approach their instruments, voice included, is … I’ll use the word impressionistic—; it reminded me of a set I saw at some Vision Festival late last century, where an electric harpist spent forty-five minutes throwing her body against her instrument from a variety of angles. No wonder—beyond the frenetic tempos—John Zorn would seek them out to jam with. Bass player Shane Embury, fat as a friar and sporting a frizzy near-tonsure, paws alternately at body and fretboard, creating no small part of that subsonic, club-shuddering roar. Drummer Danny Herrera holds his lefthand stick at midpoint for those blast-beats, dribbling more than striking. The result is a wall of noise, but a very different wall from High on Fire’s. As for Greenway, he roils before attacking with the business end of that angry caveman voice; between songs, he delivers political commentary in a polite Birmingham drawl. Five minutes in, his knee-high socks had rolled down to his ankles, revealing much-tattooed calves—the Brit equivalent of Pike’s discarded shirt.

Napalm-Death-thumb-560x373All told, Napalm Death had a there-ness no other band that evening approached—this though I freely admit I’ve always been a bigger fan of their politics than the full frontal assault of their sound, however of a piece they may be. Maybe it’s because the language of grindcore is still alive and well, or because its vocabulary is narrower, or because it’s a music you can play poorly, but just can’t phone in.

Snake thanked people for coming out on a Sunday. Greenway seemed to assume it. Snake wondered about the crowd’s energy, a little out of breath, though the crowd was at least as involved as with Napalm Death, who, once again, assumed it. Snake said he thought they’d been at The Chance like 20 years ago, while Greenway talked about the number of times they’d played there, and how it looked exactly the same as it ever did. Needless to say there’s a big difference between “I think I remember you” and “You haven’t changed a bit.” And there’s something not just vital, but moving about Greenway’s comment. With the exception of the Wackens and Eindhovens and perhaps the preposterous 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, Napalm Death will never play a place bigger than this, they will never have a local following much wider than this room. And knowing Napalm Death is still at it, that noise is (in) their blood, was, together with Away—and maybe Chewy, too—dare I actually say this?—the most—wait for it—life-affirming (ugh!) thing about that evening.

Something to carry me home through the thickening snow. She was the Princess of the Night …

*

On the night of February 23rd, the temperature in New York plunged into the single digits (again), with a wind-chill in the negatives; and there I was, longjohnless and eating my scarf against the cold, trying to get out to Greenpoint, to be among the lost souls at St. Vitus. Smarter people—or perhaps more pious ones; there’s only so many times your desire to hear metal can be damned by the weather before you begin to wonder about the state of your immortal soul—would’ve stayed home; and smarter people clearly had: the cafes and restaurants I passed and ducked into were pretty barren. But then it’s not every day you get to hear legendary Slayer drummer (and once again, Zorn collaborator) Dave Lombardo live, now with his newish combo, Philm.philm

John Sayles’s Eight Men Out ends with the image of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the White Sox’s disgraced heavy-hitter, playing for a bush-league team. He’s the one we pity the most: the most reluctant or clueless about the bribe, the one who really played for the love of the game, honest as a dog. He pegs a homer; one of the men in the crowd swears he recognizes that swing; Buck Weaver (John Cusack), one of the old White Sox teammates, also in cognito, assures him he’s confused. Cue ending credits.

I couldn’t help but think of that Sayles movie, watching Lombardo drum away at St. Vitus. Going from one of the best-known and most durable thrash bands in the history of the genre to a band that depends on his name to garner attention … and certainly to get people like me out on a night like this. Four folks back, I could hardly see him for the sheer number of phones and camcorders held up by the metal paparazzi. Really, people—how many vids of Dave posted on YouTube do we need?

Not that there’s any scandal about Slayer (or any more than usual). Nor is it the first time Lombardo’s stepped out—he’s been more out than in since 1990. Nor, by the way, is Philm bush-league; I’ll get back to this. Nor—to trot out every reason why this is a thoroughly flawed (though seductive) analogy—has Lombardo disguised his identity. He couldn’t if he tried. He’s not trying. It sounded like him. And it wasn’t just the playful rhythmic quotations from Slayer. It was the reality and energy of his drumming, the shape of his fills, the sound of his ride, the athletic snare-hit, that batter’s swing—maybe this, more than anything, was what brought the Sayles movie to mind. Maybe, as happened with Away, it takes a new team to hear what makes Lombardo Lombardo.

Now that I’ve beaten one bad analogy to death, let me try a second. About halfway through the set, I started thinking of Hendrix, and whether Philm is Lombardo’s Band of Gypsys, Hendrix’s last, pared-back trio, more blues-oriented than the pop-rock of the Experience (although of course the Experience played its share of the blues). Because there’s something pared back and bluesy about Philm, too. More, there’s a new tightness that Lombardo can exploit the way Hendrix did the much more solid foundation of Cox-Miles (or at least Cox; the thing with Mitchell wasn’t a lack of musicianship, but the opposite: the (often exhilirating) desire to go head-to-head with Jimi). Greater precision in the whole means greater individual freedom to play.

Like the band’s music, Lombardo’s kit is pared back, too. No “Live Undead” rototoms, no double bass; this is drumming that gravitates around snare and toms, and, as so often happens when one limits one’s creative choices, it seems to have re-kindled his imagination. Philm is a more rhythmically colorful band than Slayer—a given, but it bears mentioning—and Lombardo’s beats tend to heavier syncopation and surf-punkiness. And then those perfect flourishes on the hi-hat and ride, the rim shots, and … wait: did I say “flourishes” to describe Lombardo’s playing? The king of speed, Slayer’s camshaft? Yes, I did. In case you’ve never heard him out of Slayer, Lombardo unbound is both finesse and smoking energy, a real joy to listen to and watch drum. I don’t mean flashy; this isn’t M. Crue or Q. Riot, he doesn’t hit himself in the head with one hand while he beats a tom with the other, none of that shit. It’s all in the swing: the way those drums need to get hit, just so, to make just that just-so sound. It goes back to Bad Analogy No. 1: the star athlete … perhaps even one just a little past his prime, who has no choice but to depend on grace as much as energy. Music has always been more forgiving this way than athletics, though never entirely, and metal least of all.

Given Bad Analogy No. 2, I was more than a little gratified when the band broke into “Purple Haze” for a not-quite encore—they huddled but never left the stage. The Hendrix turned into a medley with Beatles-cum-Aerosmith and Zeppelin. Classic rock! Medleys! Who plays medleys anymore? Philm does! Irony breathes new life into the deadest rock traditions. And yet, though Lombardo occasionally plays knowingly with Slayer, and though his very presence makes Philm a self-conscious band, they’re not a band that trades on irony. Medleys or no, I like this band. Quite a lot, actually. I like the way singer-guitarist Gerry Nestler’s dissonant, sometimes open-string arpeggios complement and color Lombardo’s heavy, dry hits. His soloing is strong and clear; his voice can do a nice Vedderish shriek; his stage presence meets Lombardo’s head-on; he even has hair like Jimi’s. Bassist Pancho Tomaselli is growly and tight. Together, they make Lombardo a great new pair of shoes. In them, he walks tall. They’ve got him pegging homers again, for a dazzled new crowd, and for the love of the game.

 

* I had a similar revelation some years ago with Al DiMeola’s Land of the Midnight Sun. DiMeola was my guitar hero in the ‘80s, and Land of the Midnight Sun is a guitar-hero album. After a long hiatus and a lot of jazz, I put on that record and realized I’d forgotten to listen to Lenny White on drums. And all of a sudden that became a whole new record.

** It’s clearly not about playing covers per se. Napalm Death played a balls-out version of the Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off”; Exhumed played Madball’s (?) “Ready to Fight.” Of course, a cover has many functions, not the least of which is to declare affiliation with a certain tradition; it says much that Voivod’s cover is psychedelic/art rock, while the other two are punk/hardcore, to which underground metal has always looked to authenticate itself. Placement also matters, i.e., playing a cover as an encore or ender versus anywhere else in a set. That said, there’s something ironic and depressing about the fact that, for a band as utterly original as Voivod, their best-remembered song is a cover. (Remembering that the band tried to resuscitate their flagging career in ’93 by covering “The Nile Song” is yet more depressing; it’s a track that weighs like a stone on the otherwise bubbly Outer Limits.) It brings to mind Harvey’s (of Exhumed) little the-metal-chuch-accepts-many-faiths speech, calling Voivod and Napalm Death their “heroes,” saints in different nooks. The Chance’s balcony that night was cluttered with equipment, and I can only imagine the accommodations were similar, everybody piled on each other like cats, their take-out orders all mixed up, Foresta’s Taco Bell with Greenway’s organic kale salad. And as long as piling is the theme of this footnote: although I really focus on Away above, Chewy (Dan Mongrain), who replaced Piggy on guitar in 2008, deserves a special mention. He isn’t just a wonderful Piggy impersonator, necessary and difficult as that is. He’s found his own stride, and helped revive a largely moribund band after two mostly forgettable, necrophilic (no matter how welcome) efforts by Jason Newsted to do the same. Kudos, Chewy. Give my love to Han.

About Screaming

It is the late ‘90s, and I am at Don Hill’s, watching a band I wouldn’t normally go out to hear, except that two of the members are friends of my girlfriend. A mixed-gender power trio, good musicians, good people. Just not my scene. Anyway, at what may or may not be a pivotal moment in their set, the lead singer/guitarist starts screaming. And then the bass player, who also has a mic, starts screaming. And then some members of the crowd start screaming along with them. Listening to all this screaming, I think: “This isn’t really screaming. It’s screaming about screaming. They’re listening to themselves scream and getting off on it.”

Now, this sort of thing creates some pretty complex negotiations between band and audience. For example: when the crowd at such a show screams for more, are they really screaming for more? Or are they screaming about screaming for more? If the crowd unselfconsciously screams for a band that only screams about screaming, are they having the wool pulled over their eyes? One or the other might mistake a scream for a scream about a scream, or vice-versa. Clearly at Don Hill’s people weren’t enjoying the spectacle of a band screaming, but rather the spectacle of a band enjoying listening to themselves screaming. In fact, they were probably enjoying listening to themselves screaming at a band who were enjoying listening to themselves screaming, and were hence thrice removed from the experience, whatever that was. But isn’t this partly the fault of going to shows in the first place, of putting oneself in the position of art consumer, at best quasi-participant? If we really wanted to scream, we’d stay home with the kids or dog, get out the vodka and the drums, crank up the amps. I blame: live music, something else, society, capitalism, in ascending order of responsibility.

Metal has reached an interesting point in its evolution. Like any living genre, it is in flux, nourishing itself on a variety of musics: ambient, noise, punk, prog, etc. And yet that label, that omnivorous signifier, perhaps because of an imagined historical or cultural coherence, is consistently invoked to patch over a trainwreck of influences and styles, and to create an aura of musical coherence and continuity. Bands and fans position themselves at varying distances from an impregnable, ideal generic center, always close enough to point to, but never close enough to touch.*

Among other things, this means that lots of different kinds of people end up stopping by the same clubs to hear the same bands, or different bands on the same bill. This is at least as old as the subgeneric explosion of the ‘90s. But I think that something about the attitude has changed. I have a vivid recollection of a Halford show at B.B. King’s in 2003, for example: a sea-change in the crowd between Immortal and Testament, the two supporting bands; one wave receded to the bar (at least those old enough to drink) or out of the club as the other washed up to the stage. Whether they joined at the wellspring that is Halford I can’t remember. Today, I think it is less common—much more difficult, for a genre propelled forward by a combination of absorption, mutation, revival, and kitsch—to define one’s allegiance or heritage quite so narrowly. This heterogeneity, this instability, means that you can never quite tell how band and crowd are hearing each other. The same listener might position him or herself differently with different bands, and a single bill might require him or her to cross over two or three times in a night, toggling between facets of a bric-a-brac musical identity. That I find this sort of thing exhausting hardly matters; for a generation raised on internet multitasking and a dehistoricized mishmash of music, it is the order of things.

*

What got me thinking about these fan-band negotiations was last week’s Whores/American Sharks show, at the ecumenically metal St. Vitus.**

american sharksThe Sharks are a party band from Austin. They take a page out of Municipal Waste’s book—that I-was-a-shop-burnout/high-school-fuckup persona—although they’re too much a muddle of styles to worry themselves about reviving anything in particular. Actually, their music sounds like The Ramones wearing a metal skirt. Singer/bassist Mike Hardin, a big goofy teddy-bear of a guy, spins cock-and-bull yarns between songs about being the too-old loser living in his mom’s basement, meant to inspire moments of ironic reverie. Guitarist Will Ellis looks like a cross between the father from the original Hills Have Eyes family and Rudolf Schenker: blond, mustachioed, wearing short-shorts, and headbanging to the Scorpions records spinning away in that basement room in his head. He plays an upsidedown Gibson Explorer (at least the neck is), Hardin an upsidedown Fender Jazz—which, I guess, is a comment on how I’m supposed to take the Sharks: not seriously.

But then that’s the problem: they are so self-consciously trying to be not serious, are so intense about their irony, that it all ends up feeling a bit tired. Self-deprecating humor can become as masturbatory as an Yngwie Malmsteen solo. You get the sense the Sharks outgrew themselves before they even got started. (I’ve never felt this about the Waste, although I admit that with The Fatal Feast they’ve started to show signs of wear.)

Then again, you can’t not like the Sharks, or rather, you can’t claim to not like them, because to claim not to like them automatically opens you to the charge of taking yourself too seriously. If this blog proves anything, it is that I take myself too seriously. So draw your own conclusion.

whoresAfter American Sharks, how can any band, let alone one called Whores, appear as anything but Serious Music? They certainly looked more serious; singer/guitarist Christian Lembach (middle) is damn near clean-cut, in a punkish sort of way. Who knows but that they brought the Sharks along for sheer contrast, although more likely the two got really drunk together after their 2014 SXSW performances. It was certainly a Serious Comment Mr Lembach made partway through their set—unlike the Sharks’ truncated rambles, his were rather softspoken, and I missed a good half of what he said; but I did gather that they were happy to have good-time folks like the Sharks along with them on tour, that they were pleased to be back at Vitus, and that they didn’t sing about dragons and wizards—not that he had a problem with that—to each his own, it takes a rainbow, etc.—just not his scene. I wondered who this comment was directed at, if there was an errant Amon Amarth fan in the crowd looking at a subway map. Anyway, said Serious Comment disposed me to change my attitude, and Listen Seriously.

Not that Whores are devoid of humor; they did start and abort “Sweet Home Alabama” (they’re actually from Atlanta). But I appreciated the lack of desire to impress me with being funny, and that they instead poured all the sweat and energy into their music for a brief, pleasurably intense set. Whether they meant it or not, they sure played it like they meant it, which is a whole lot better than playing it like they really meant they didn’t mean it. Even the serious Mr Lembach ended up with his bangs stuck wetly to his forehead and his face all ruddy. His tonsorial trials, however, were nothing compared to bassist Jake Schultz’s, who had to push his hair up over his forehead after every song—I swear, I haven’t seen anyone push up their hair so much since the last time I went to hear Frances Fox Piven give a talk. But Mr Schultz, even more than Mr Lembach, was in constant motion. A study in ecstacy, he was; he does with his bass what Keith Moon used to do with his drums. He must have been doing this very thing for years alone in his room, the very room the Sharks are still ironically locked in. Somebody just pulled down the walls. In my mind, he joins that trinity of joyful lunatics and human tops: Gould, Monk, and Moon.

As for Whores’ songs, they’re infectious, grabby despite that dynamics-happy, basement-pitched monotony the subgenre demands.§ It was their sound, though, that most held me. Like the Sharks, Whores are a power trio, but theirs was by far the bigger sound. Not the sound I expected to hear out of Lembach’s Telecaster; maybe it was the Tele’s twanginess (or the prevalence of Schultz’s bass?) that gave those power drones their unexpected, all-enveloping richness. It’s like what happens when you’re hiking, and you’ve reached what you think is the view (Sharks), but when you get to the actual view (Whores), you realize how partial was the previous one.

I could say more about Whores—they never judge you, after all—but I’ll end with this: they made me miss my train. One song, one dip in that warm ocean of distortion, and I knew I wasn’t leaving until the set was over. And that’s saying a lot, when Greenpoint might as well be Key West to an upstater, and surprise, the G wasn’t fucking running, which made me ironically nostalgic for living in Bushwick. We got out just as the lofts were washing around our ankles, a Williamsburg hurricane reportedly heading toward our coast. But the important thing was to be able to tell my partner, Whores made me miss my train. I was late because of Whores. Tee, hee. Oh. But seriously.

 

* For a somewhat fuller (or maybe just different) discussion of this phenomenon, see “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13).

** I ignore opener No Way because I only caught the last song and a half, which isn’t much to go on. Their sound made me think of the ‘90s band Filter (remember them? their big song was “Hey Man, Nice Shot”). I liked their frontman’s presence, that shirtless bodybuilder pose he struck while he serenaded somebody just a few feet over our heads. His voice made me think of a spoken-word John Bush (Armored Saint, Anthrax).

§ That is, noise rock, or sludge punk. As I have suggested, this is more than ever a matter of perspective—Spin, for example, listed 2013’s Clean among its top 20 metal albums of 2013. As Mr Lembach’s comment suggests, he might be a bit wary of the label. Of course, Metallica said the exact the same thing about their own music back in the mid-‘80s. Plus ça change? Or does the historical repetition (one Lembach has himself repeated in interviews) mean I am supposed to take this, too, as farce?

Arcless; or, Pure Dirt

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Really Like High On Fire

Fandom is the stuff of high drama. It demands a certain emotional immaturity, or a short-lived but full-throttle regression. We bond most closely with those bands and artists we discovered in our teens, follow them until the scales fall from our eyes, or they die, or break up, sometimes in the full noon of our love. If they don’t move on, we do. In either case, they become a yardstick for our development, allowing us to think of our lives in clearly-demarcated stages (“I used to be into x, now I like y”) and providing fodder for nostalgia (“Remember how great z was?”). Sometimes we move on because we think they’ve betrayed us, sold out. Growth is supposed to be organic, authentic, and artist-driven; selling out is artificial and market-driven. In fact, a band’s or artist’s growth is often figured as a sort of pilgrimage to authenticity, to the discovery of their “voice”; and this teleology allows us, the loyal fans, to map onto our own lives a similar sense of direction, purpose, and meaning under the aegis of art consumed. That said, the line between these two ostensible opposites can be blurry: one fan’s evolving artist is another’s sellout, and the latter fan may measure his or her own integrity by refusing the change. For those of us who stick with a band through their changes—and who, in that miracle of marketing, feel that a band has “stuck with us,” too—there are the purported rewards of growing old together.

The process of change over the course of a band’s career is often referred to as their arc. Career as fired projectile: trajectory and singularity, purpose and identity. Fractures and cobbles are smoothed into a seamless history. There is an implied normativity, too: the projectile is full of energy as it leaves the cannon’s mouth, reaches a peak—a state of equipoise between its native energy and the pull of the world against which it strives—and then falls. Bands run out of ideas, sell out. That sucking sound you hear is gravity.

But must the falling side of the arc be imagined as decay, as the projectile analogy implies? Let’s consider another career narrative, the traditional evolutionary model; perhaps it will give our projectile a little more life. Artists and bands—at least, first bands—often do begin full of naïve energy and unreflective passion, and follow with a period of expansion and experimentation, an adolescence full of straining and angst. The music becomes more and more complex, convoluted, self-conscious. In time, this reaches a breaking point, and from the break a new, simpler sound emerges: a sound, a voice that declares, finally, who this artist or band is. Simple, but no longer naïve or unreflective; the dynamic of complexity, gained from that period of experimentation, that journey to the self, is folded up inside it, like those extra dimensions in the string-theory universe. What appears simple is, for the careful—loyal, initiated?—listener, profound.

It’s probably no surprise to a habitual reader of this blog (?) that Rush is my template here. Consider the first decade or so of their 40-year career: from their beginning in the early ‘70s as a “Canadian Zeppelin” or Bad Company, to the Genesis/Yes-influenced period of 1975-78, to the British electro-pop/“world” music period between 1979 and the early ‘80s, at which point they (as the band tells it) “found their voice” and “became Rush.” For the purpose of illustration, the period from 1978 to 1981 is key. 1978’s Hemispheres was the most complex and Yes-ish in the band’s oeuvre. The first side is a six-part sci-fi rock-opera that actually continues a story begun on the previous album, A Farewell to Kings. There, the protagonist flew his rocket ship the Rocinante into the black hole Cygnus X-1. Here, he discovers the city of Olympus, and a society divided between mind (represented by the god Apollo) and heart (Dionysus). In the story’s climax, he brings balance to the world, figured in the sphere, and is re-christened Cygnus, god of balance. Now, a lot of people see Rush’s music as a whole as too much Apollo and too little Dionysus; Hemispheres is certainly their most Apollonian record, the peak of their Apollonian phase. It was, in fact, a breaking point, an odyssey of underworldly recording sessions. The Apollo-Dionysus conflict is a nice image for the band’s trajectory, and it might be said that their task post-1978 was to find that “perfect sphere” where the two impulses would be held in balance. Hemispheres is thus a prophetic record, charting a course for Permanent Waves (1980) and “The Spirit of Radio,” as these overly-regenerate Who fans found a way to bring the unregenerate three-chord brilliance of “Baba O’Riley” back into what was, after all, only rock ‘n’ roll.

One difficulty with using Rush as a template is separating pattern from history. Rush have always been a most protean and omnivorous band, and the shrinking and re-packaging of their sound at the turn of the ‘80s has as much to do with a response to the currents of the time as to their own maturing artistry. Other major progressive bands, like Yes and Pink Floyd and Genesis, similarly attempted to re-create themselves. But with the possible exception of Genesis, these bands’ heydays had come and gone—and Genesis did such an about-face by consolidating a poppier sound under the leadership of soon-to-be pop superstar Phil Collins that they seem only nominally equivalent, like Gilmour’s Floyd to Waters’. Yes split in two, one half combining with ELP to create something called Asia, a mildly embarrassing superproject, and very much the embalmed corpse of ‘70s prog rock. Then there was 90215: genial, radio-friendly, and about as much the Yes of Relayer as Asia. Only Waters’ Floyd succeeded in marrying the art-rock concept record to the radio single … then put out one more fraught record and promptly blew themselves to pieces. In sum, voices long-since discovered, these bands were on the falling sides of their arcs, pulled hither and thither by changing lineups, and working out of the crucible of punk reactionism. Rush, hidden away in the Great White North, listening to the signals of distant revolutions over their radios, the younger band by a little under a decade, were still on the restless upper climb when the ‘80s landed.

If we look after 1983 or so, to the parallel progressivism of underground ‘80s metal, for whom the classic and progressive rock bands of the ‘70s were as influential as NWOBHM, I think the evolutionary arc emerges more clearly from its historical circumstances. It is as though, once woven by history, a pattern becomes detachable, and able to be worn as a garment by future artists.* When Metallica moved from their magnum opus … And Justice for All (1988) to the more pared-back metal of the suggestively eponymous Metallica (1991), Lars Ulrich justified the change—which enraged so many loyal fans—with the words, “More than any other band, we are like Rush.” In fact, Ulrich described a breaking point not so different from the one Rush described with Hemispheres, in his case after playing the nine-minute title track live for the umpteenth time, and, if I remember correctly, stabbing his drumstick into one of the “lady justice” props on his way offstage (how symbolic!). This sort of piggybacking has more than a bit of self-promotion about it—we’re talking Ulrich here, after all. But then it wasn’t only Metallica. Many of the prog-metal bands I most admired from the ‘80s (Voivod, Queensryche; to a lesser extent, Iron Maiden) went through a similar evolutionary process, from a straight-ahead sound to a more experimental one, to a distilled, popular form.

This is all well and good for peaks. But the falling projectile still troubles me. The preceding discussion leads me to wonder whether a band’s achieving their voice really leaves them anywhere to go—whether the meridian isn’t also the onset of night, whether there is something vital and sustainable in that achievement, and whether other voices are possible, or at least other registers. Finding one’s voice might simply spell the end of something essential about a band’s life-cycle. This is precisely the case many have made about Rush: after the aesthetic and popular peak of Moving Pictures (1981), the band began a long downward slide, with a big dip at the end of the ‘80s and a spotty record since. Perhaps Floyd, or at least Roger Waters, did well to move on; perhaps Yes was right to continue re-configuring line-ups. Perhaps marriages, at least in rock ‘n’ roll, were never meant to last.

And yet, Rush has kept on changin’, whatever we might think of the quality of their output, and has managed to sustain and even expand their fanbase of 30 years ago. Clearly, a voice is a sound, not a style—Rush keeps dabbling in the latter despite the stability of the former.** If we imagine the peak as full maturity, or the achievement of identity, or self-understanding, is there something approaching wisdom, at least for some bands, when we look later in their careers? Perhaps we should ask a different question, one I suggested earlier: Does the listener have to be a fan, even a lapsed one, to really hear the later work? A year or two ago, a friend of mine who is a big Dylan fan floated me one of the bard’s more recent albums—I don’t remember which one—because he felt it had crystallized elements of Dylan’s art in a way that many weaker recent albums had not. I confess I couldn’t hear it; it sounded like bad Dylan to me. But my knowledge of Dylan ends with the major albums of the mid-‘60s and a few other well-known songs; my favorite of his records is still The Times They Are A-Changin’, for God’s sake. So how could I hope to understand what made this recent Dylan album different, special? In this way, consciousness of evolution—a sense of history—allows certain canons of knowledge to revolve around fan identities: what appears trite to the outsider is, in the context of an ouevre well-studied, profound; fidelity is rewarded by (presumed) insight, as the later works become runes interpretable only by the initiate.

It’s true that the evolutionary arc is a bit like Monty Python’s theory of dinosaurs: thin on both ends, thick at the middle. And from the emotional and intellectual gratification I receive, and from my vaunted academic training, it follows that I want to squeeze anything and everything I can into such a model … and when I can’t, to use the model to explain away anomalies. Even more, as the projectile implied, I want to use the model normatively, so I can judge the success or failure, authenticity or artificiality, completeness or incompleteness of a band’s career. It’s just so neat: the vulgar Hegelianism of it, simple-complex-“simple,” innocence-experience-wisdom, life-death-rebirth. And yet, for me, the neurotic fan, the reluctant follower, it begs the question of whether alternative models of evolution are possible, or desirable, and what it means as a listener to throw the template aside and embrace something completely different. And it begs the question whether it’s possible for a band not to evolve … and still remain vital.

*

HOF       I first read about High on Fire in the Village Voice, of all places. This was back in 2005 or so, shortly after I’d discovered Mastodon, and HOF was listed along with them and Shadows Fall and Lamb of God as bands that were remaking contemporary metal. Now, HOF had long been paired with Mastodon; the bands had some joint early releases and tours, and their big, lumbering sounds had yoked them together in the “stoner rock” or “doom metal” sub-genre.§ In 2006, when Relapse bundled new versions of the songs on Mastodon’s “Lifesblood” (2001) and “Mastodon” (2000) EPs with material from their original demo, they bundled that with a sampler that included two tracks from HOF’s Blessed Black Wings. Based on these tunes, my first impression was of warmed-over Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica, with some reconstituted Sabbath and Motorhead dumped in. And so, for the following several years, I wrote them off.

In hindsight at least, Mastodon and High on Fire make an odd pair. Like Metallica, Mastodon might claim they are “like Rush,” or maybe just “like Metallica”: from the punk-length, solo-less miniatures of the early work, through the crushing Remission, the proggy Leviathan and Blood Mountain and, to a certain extent, Crack the Skye, a title suggestive of that pinnacle/breaking point, and an album on which one can already hear the paring back to a more popular, anthemic, vocal-melodic style of The Hunter. Mastodon have clearly made the arc part of their identity, and, like the progressive rock bands of yore, expend a good part of their artistic energy in the self-reflective mapping of their career.

But High on Fire? They’ve been mired in a sound, the sound of sounds, since Matt Pike was roused from Sleep. They are the Neanderthals to Mastodon’s Homo sapiens. Evolution has never been the point. As with their career, so with their individual albums—two-speed bikes all of them—and songs, which work less through development than bludgeoning repetition. There’s no hiding here, either the band in their music or the listener from it. It has a single dimension, and it demands surrender.

Said surrender was never more apparent than at the Bowery Ballroom last winter, my sadly belated introduction to HOF live. I started out in the back, by the bar, a little skeptical, mildly disappointed. But the longer the show went on, the closer I got, wending my way song by song through the crowd; and the closer I got, the more my critical and rational faculties were beaten out of me, until, by the time the band ended with “Hung, Drawn and Quartered” and encored with “Snakes for the Divine,” I had no resistance left. The “stoner rock” and “doom” labels thus fit nicely, even mesh: music as inescapable as Fate, as the potsmoke-haze of distortion that envelops everything. At the Bowery, you could hear that distortion humming between songs; the amps sounded restless, twitchy, as if the music were a tiger hidden inside them, waiting to pounce.

Like his music, Pike is all of a piece—what you see is most certainly what you get. And what you get is ugly. It’s important, no, it’s essential that Pike be ugly. Pale, sweaty, bloated, tattooed, shirtless, snaggletoothed, strings of hair sticking to his face, guitar strapped to his body: he is metal’s answer to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and that dirty, sweaty, snaggletoothed sound he gets owes as much to his one-time Gibson Les Paul as SRV’s did to his Strat. (The other two, bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel, are not bad stand-ins for Double Trouble; Matz even looks a little like a younger Tommy Shannon.) As for his voice, what would you expect it to sound like, coming out of that jagged hole of a mouth? It has that heart of a heart of a Gibson crunch, too, as if, by following each other so often, guitar and voice had come to be parts of a single instrument.

Pike. Even his name is a weapon.

The Bowery stage didn’t transform Matt Pike, or anyone in High On Fire. Or anyone in the crowd. At the Bowery, no one, nothing becomes beautiful. But then this is a music, a band, that tries with might and main to make a virtue of an aggressive ugliness. What’s amazing is how often it succeeds.

*

It was Snakes for the Divine (2010) that turned my ear to High on Fire, that made me want to turn back to the earlier records. There’s some sense in this. With the opening riff of the opening and title track, the album announces itself as more riff-oriented, more traditionally power-metal, than what I had heard previously. The songs as a whole are less chorus-averse, and sometimes even downright chorus-friendly, more invested in structure than droning repetition. The production on Snakes (and 2012’s De Vermis Mysteriis) is a little cleaner, too; the chord progressions are a tad less jagged and time-screwy than those on, say, Surrounded by Thieves (2002). These differences are probably what enabled Snakes to serve as a way “in” to the bands oeuvre. And yet, the idea that Snakes marks some new stage of growth, some new incarnation of High on Fire that more closely mirrors my taste, is impossible to sustain, since these differences are overwhelmed by the general sameness of a decade’s music. The pummeling, bludgeoning feel is as much in evidence on Vermis as on the debut Art of Self-Defense (2000) … to the point that any music critic who would grapple with writing about HOF has to dig deep into the Thesaurus to find new words meaning “to be hit with a blunt instrument.” The sound is still hugely oversaturated, with a humming layer of hyperdistorted bass, although, as noted, it has pulled back a little from the edges. Songs still regularly wander into the six-to-eight minute range, trading on a certain amount of droning monotony to get there, if (again) a little less relentlessly than a decade ago. Nor did the heavy riffing really start or stop at any particular moment; I can point to Snakes as having more of them, and “Snakes” as having the sort of über-riff that is worthy of video-game immortality; but Self-Defense is hardly riffless (cf. “Blood from Zion”). Even Death Is This Communion (2007), the band’s most “experimental” album (according to Pike), keeps experimentation firmly on the margins, as preludes, postludes, and interludes, hardly troubling either the typical bent of the songs or the overall sound. Thus, small differences of degree submerge occasional, tantalizing differences of kind.

I mentioned before that HOF is a two-speed band, either full ramming mode or smoke-clearing-after-the-battle rumination, menace, and self-regard. Of the two, I go for the lower gear, and a cross-section of such songs demonstrates both the essentally static nature of the band’s career and the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, changes between records. “Thraft of Caanan” (2002) could be “Death is This Communion” (2007) could be “Through All Dark We Pray” (2010) could be “King of Days” (2012). All exhibit the doom sound in full regalia: the heaviness of Fate; the certainty of Death in the slow, tidelike motion of Time; or some other such statement ending with a capitalized, abstract Noun. It’s music that sounds smelted; you can hear iron and sweat, smoke and blood. Fuck, you can almost taste it. But within this essential continuity, differences: the jaggedness of “Thraft,” pared back to a near-hypnotic groove on “Communion”; the latter’s minimal riff extended on “Through All Dark” into something more Sabbath-flavored; while “King of Days” has the vibe of a heroin anthem from an old Alice in Chains record. Differences, yes; but never any sense that the band is building toward anything, that this series forms part of a growing edifice, where each album is a stone lain atop the last. With HOF, the edifice was there from the start; the band have just been exploring chambers within it, some a little more classical, some more modern.

Again, the contrast with Mastodon is illuminating. Mastodon build songs out of smaller parts, adding them together, and then trying to create bridges between parts, or just letting them jangle against each other, in either case hoping that they add up to something greater. This is seldom the case with High on Fire. They don’t build up and out; they dig down, mining the guts out of a single riff, burying themselves and us in their groove. With Mastodon, at least as late as Crack the Skye, you’re just getting a taste of a riff when they change it on you. HOF cram it down your throat until you choke on it. There are no sudden shifts, and sometimes no feeling that a chorus or bridge (insofar as they exist) is climaxing a song. Instead, what you feel is a vein exhausting itself: walls collapsing, oxygen giving out, tissue beginning to die. You can’t really like or dislike part of a HOF song—you either take it whole or don’t take it at all. It’s carved out of a single stone; its success or failure is integral, not additive.

That stone isn’t only the monotony of a single power-chord progression, or riff disguised as such, but of a sound: one that depends on voice and instruments all saturated and downbeat-pounding on that riff together. Listening in particular to the earlier albums, you sometimes get the feeling that the musicians have all found the same frequency, and that the recording is in the process of shaking itself to pieces. (Remember that movie we all had to watch in science class, of the suspension bridge coming apart, the roadway twisting like a sheet of cardboard, the cables snapping, the towers crumbling? Like that.) These are unfinished, half-emerged carvings in noise—noise feeding on itself, muddling everything into a hivelike, motoric drone.§§ Pike’s endearingly sloppy guitar playing only multiplies that overall noisiness: double-tracked solos a la Tony Iommi, big bends with a wavering semitone to grate against, speedy runs that feature a wildly-picking right hand.

Maybe one’s whole listening life isn’t about coming to terms with noise. Hell, maybe music is a way back to noise, and not the reverse …

Mastodon, then, are building a cathedral, crafting a legacy with a self-consciousness about and worshipfulness toward rock tradition befitting a prog-metal band. The idea of the quest, which has been with them through all their albums since 2004’s Leviathan, folds into the broader quest for a sound, a voice, and nicely into the Rushian arc. With Mastodon, one can’t really predict the next record from the last. Nothing could be less true for HOF. I’d as soon ask a record store clerk what the new High on Fire sounds like as ask a druggist how their latest shipment of aspirin is. Their career is a flat line, slope 0, with bumps and divots, hillocks and gullies. If we want to imagine anything like directional change—and I’m always looking for it, and making it up when I don’t find it—I would think not arc, but straight line with a negative slope. Let’s borrow a word from the band, redefined for our purposes: devilution. Here, perhaps, is the Cartesian equivalent of that mining I described earlier: a distilling, a purifying, an attempt to become yet more themselves, to dig down to the essence of something that has been present from the beginning, only in mixed form.*** That they seek this purity in dirt, in noise, is, I think, what makes them so interesting, and what keeps me listening.

 

* I don’t mean to imply that this template begins with Rush, or progressive rock more generally; it is clearly part of the way an artist’s career is measured against his or her life. But since a rather interesting idea has emerged, I’m going to let the discussion stand.

** It’s different for a band that reach their meridian and then stall, or for the band that achieve something toward the beginning of their career and then find they have nowhere else to go, no way to really build on that sound. In such cases, after a few iterations, we start to get the feeling that the band are performing themselves. Rage Against the Machine, Tool, maybe Living Color. Consider Tool: after they had fully achieved their sound with the brilliant Aenima, less by transformation than by organic expansion, the few subsequent albums—each longer-awaited and more elaborately packaged—added nothing to what they had done before. A few great tracks on Lateralus, and a couple of quite good ones on 10,000 Days. But those albums sound a little forced; the psychedelic, faux-Eastern, fractally-multiplying minimalist sound had already been perfectly realized; all they could do now was lard it. Of course, such an assessment is much influenced by the first album one hears by a particular band, as well as by the listening background that brings one to them. (By the way, that Rush were considering what it meant to be a band on the other side of a megahit like Moving Pictures (and their resilience in the face of this) is suggested by the chorus (and title) of “Marathon,” from Power Windows (1986): “From first to last/ The peak is never passed/ Something always fires the light that gets in your eyes/ One moment’s high/ And glory rolls on by/ Like a streak of lightning that flashes and fades in the summer sky.”)

§ For me, the pairing goes deeper. The Bowery Ballroom, the first place I saw High on Fire, is the same venue where I first saw Mastodon back in 2005, after waiting a very good hour in front of the sold-out club for the bouncer to grace me with a point and curl of the index finger.

§§ I may have parodied the idea of metal being a drug in “Vermis Odium” (02.11.13), but only because I am intrigued by metal’s (like all music’s) potentially therapeutic use; I’m actually still waiting to receive a scientific paper to this effect from a presenter at April’s Heavy Metal and Pop Culture conference. Seriously, there’s a reason I listen to Miles Davis on the way into work and Napalm Death on the way home. Distortion, noise itself, has to be therapy. Writing this post called to mind an experience my partner and I had while working in Spain as WWOOFers back in 2002. At one of the fincas, the proprietors informed us of a technique where one person lay relaxing belly up on the ground while another blows into a didgeridoo, moving the end of the instrument all around the person on the floor, about a foot away from their body. I don’t remember what the outcome was supposed to be, or whether I felt anything when it was done to me; but it was clearly intended to be therapeutic (relaxing? exciting?), and it strikes me that the sort of all-consuming distortion HOF trades in might have a similar effect on the listener. A vibrational purging, like those tractors with a vise on the front, that shake the ripe olives out of a tree at harvest.

*** Or perhaps I have stopped writing about High on Fire here, and started writing about Meshuggah?

Attacking the Big Screens

At the Tokyo String Quartet’s farewell performance last May, I picked up the Winter 2012 issue of the classical music magazine Listen, which I had just begun to receive gratis for my occasional concert attendance at the 92nd Street Y. It would be mid-summer before I cracked it, and found a short article about the rise of multimedia presentations in classical music venues. Reading it convinced me that I should clarify my own position on the matter by posting an addendum to “The Last Waltzes” (07.01.13), which ended with a kvetch about screens at the Van Cliburn competition. Then, after seeing Lamb of God the other night at the soon-to-be-defunct Roseland Ballroom, it occurred to me that these thoughts might warrant a separate post.

Called “Attack of the Big Screens,” the article (by Colin Eatock) describes the different ways video has been employed in symphony halls around the country—from the naturally spectacular (e.g., NASA images of the solar system to accompany Holst’s The Planets) to more interactive and involved productions, such as those by the CSO’s Gerard McBurney. Reception has been largely positive, at least according to the promoters quoted, while producers and critics alike herald a bright new age. McBurney, for example, sees the screen as a way to help free the symphony hall from the shackles of convention, and audiences of their ossified expectations, “wean[ing them] off one of the great destructive influences of our culture—which is to treat art like something you consume, like a burger and a plate of fries”; and Alex Ross’s claim that the New World Symphony’s production of Thomas Ades’ Polaris convinced him that he was “witnessing the birth of a new artistic genre” suggests the potential of multimedia to transform the contemporary concert experience.

Let me begin by saying that I do privilege “abstract” music, music that is “only about itself” (!?), that eschews visual and narrative programs, and the concert hall as a space to experience music qua music. We don’t need the image of Napoleon on his horse or Obama at his podium to feel our hearts swell, particularly after Waterloo or the ACA. We don’t need NASA images of Jupiter, either, though I’m sure they’re lovely. (No, I’m not going to rehearse the arguments or rebuttals about music deriving its greater power from the absence of such programmatic fixity.)

That said, I have no intention of presenting myself here as another version of the “angry man screaming from the balcony” cited in Eaton’s article—although, it must be said, balconies are fine places to scream from. Marx’s aside, I’ve never been one for manifestos. I can think of nothing more pernicious than an artistic manifesto. Visual media present wonderful possibilities for creating other dimensions in our appreciation of music, and vice-versa, and new aesthetic experiences when combined; the concert hall is a perfect venue for exploring these possibilities; and the music-going public should welcome such productions as they would the opportunity to hear any new work, or new take on a classic work. I would argue that the visual should strive to be an equal partner with the music, as in Ross’s “new genre”: to be more than an embellishment, or a literalizing of the program, if one exists.

Now, the Holst-NASA production may simply make obvious the thinness of the score, and there are certainly pieces like it that beg to be aided by some sort of visual prosthetic.* But the Holst example, unthreatening and dollars-and-cents savvy as it may be, is troubling when considered in the context of a broader, creeping visual parasitism—is troubling precisely because it is unthreatening and easily rationalizable. For such “enhancements” suggest that the musical concert experience is no longer adequate for an audience raised on and mired in visual media; and that this is particularly the case when the music is from another time.

What I object to (as I did at the Cliburn, and might, apparently, in places elsewhere, as smaller, nimbler cities race ahead of my own beloved grey dinosaur) is the injection of the TV aesthetic, its flattening/narrowing of the world, of perception and understanding, into every possible place of assembly. In the ostensibly public spaces of the city, it is obnoxious enough; in concert halls, where people go to physically interact with art and with each other, it is even more disheartening. Lap-space, phone space, iSpace, your space, my space: all are one and equal. Or perhaps not: as every place is re-imagined to accommodate the latest iShit, physical space seems increasingly an adjunct of virtual-cellular space. At a time when I can barely get my students to go hear live music—and who are by and large thankful for the experience when they finally do—articulating the concert hall as another version of the phone/home theater seems like an enormous loss.

I understand that the concert hall is not eternal and immutable, that it is a product of historical forces, that it may soon be another quaint object of nostalgia, like the classroom with the chalkboard and my vaunted public square. And I understand, and don’t regret, that the art-entertainment binary has been paradox’d out of existence over the last half-century. But none of this is an excuse to suspend reflection or judgment. Poetry is still different from advertising; corporations still aren’t people. The composer or visual artist who is inspired to think about how nineteeth- and twentieth-century music or painting responds to and intersects with contemporary culture, and to produce work that, pleasantly or unpleasantly, troubles an audience’s relationship to its culture and its canons, whether by transforming the space of the concert hall or by seeking out some alternative, genre-blending arrangement, is not the same as the bean-counter trying to get more twentysomethings’ butts into seats at Carnegie Hall. Go ahead, tell me about how it was always a business, how Beethoven was a “scheming careerist,” as Virgil Thomson wrote, or how the beboppers wanted not to create a new art form, but get their due as professional musicians, as Scott DeVeaux argued. It’s not purity I want, or its loss I mourn. I’d welcome a bit of dirt in a world where everything is distilled to profit.

Music is one way, maybe the best way, to get outside that. Not to escape it necessarily, but to have a space to reflect, to stand back for a long moment from the hive and the chattering tide, to meet the stranger on the other side of you. And so either there is a sad irony in McBurney’s comment about the screen being a way to wean the public off the idea of art as something to be consumed, or that comment was made in bad faith. Rather than defying expectations, the screen, at least from what I’ve seen, seems like the latest way of giving the people what they want—it’s just different people, with different expectations … the ones who have grown up in the culture of art-as-consumption, and consumption-as-art, and who could most use to have their burgers and fries spilled on them.

*

I don’t have a huge soft spot for the Roseland; it’s always felt more like a wannabe stadium than a big club. That stadium-ness was never more apparent than during the recent Lamb of God show, and it was the screens, the screens, that made it so.

One on either side of the stage, they served two purposes. The first was to give those in the back close-ups of the musicians—just the band’s highly-regarded drummer, Chris Adler, and the occasional shot of guitarist Mark Morton shredding. They were stationary cams with a bit of fisheye distortion, and were not, as a whole, all that intrusive. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something even more dispiriting about this kind of video at a “club” show, Roseland-size or no. Metal shows are—should be?—about an ethic of participation and a total absence of personal space. The sort of contact you loathe on the subway is the reason you go to a metal show. Unless the sweaty, shirtless guy pushes past you and leaves a slug-trail across your arm-hairs; unless someone comes flying out of the pit and topples the people around them, so that you at least feel the ripple; unless somebody trying to get closer to the stage shoulders you out of the way, dragging his girlfriend behind him like a harrow; unless you push back; unless you yourself are touching the people around you and constantly being touched, can you really claim to have attended a metal show? And unless you enter the circle, or push past its madly spiraling currents to that dangerous reef between circle and stage, where the surfers roll over you in the waves of noise, and you feel the soles of their boots or sneakers against your scalp; unless you dare such a Hellespont, can you claim to have gained contact with the music?

It’s difficult to express the difference in power between the back and the front of a club like the Roseland. Each step toward the stage is like a step up the trail toward an erupting volcano. The sound rattles your ribs and pummels your heart; the angle of vision tilts up, so that the band crests over you like a wave. But then this was the precise angle of vision granted of Morton, the cameras hidden somewhere in the monitors. And so the video lulls, says, Don’t bother coming any closer. Don’t move. I am your limbs as well as your senses. Don’t desire; I have prepared a far more interesting spectacle for you that you can achieve for yourself. Why touch, or feel, when you can SEE so well? When I looked out on this sea of Lamb of Godders, they didn’t need the screens; there must have been forty or fifty watching the concert through their phones, martyring themselves, I suppose, so that everyone else in the world could bear witness on YouTube.

So many fans in the cave, taking the shadows for reality, and every wild-eyed, sweaty, bleeding S.O.B. who stumbles past him, a philosopher. But fuck Socrates, I’m talking about the orgies of Dionysus here. Hell, I’ve gone full-frontal Nietzsche …

I did say that LOG used the screens for two purposes, and before closing I should say something about the second. In fact, the first might have been more palatable if the second—which occupied the majority of the video-time—hadn’t been a textbook case in how NOT to use vids. Trite, context-less images of world chaos—you know, Vietnam carpetbombings, Saddam Hussein being arrested, darkskinned people weeping, etc. For other songs, creepy-looking Catholic icons, carpetbombings. For the chest-thumping patriotic song, U.S. soldiers giving the peace sign, carpetbombings. Every cliché of “political” turmoil, every cheapjack religious symbol, every fig of sentimental patriotism, all thrown together into the hopper. It was the sort of bad that revealed the danger of vids per se: that flattening and homogenizing of history until it becomes a reflection of the present, yours. Seriously, if I’d wanted to channel surf between cable news stations, I could have stayed home.

I’m not a devotee of Lamb of God, but I do like the couple of albums I have, and it was sad to see good music spoiled by bad media. And I couldn’t help comparing it with the last time I saw videos used for the duration of a metal performance. For Mastodon’s Crack the Skye tour back in 2009 or ‘10, the band used stills and repeating clips from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, together with other images and color collages. The film was thus treated as a visual found-object poem; on a deep, intuitive level, a bridge was created between music and image, between the album and that most musical of directors’ film. The show was a model of multimedia being used to create a new aesthetic dimension for the concertgoer, and it has left a sort of trace beauty on the album. Not that we need his imprimatur, but it’s hard not to think that Eisenstein, that most open and curious and maverick and imaginative and all-embracing of directors, wouldn’t have been pleased … and Prokofiev, too, whose gift for melody so perfectly lent itself to telling images, and who is the only composer I can think of who raised narrative to the level of music, rather than forcing the latter to kneel before the former.

*

On the train on the way to Lamb of God I read Edith Wharton’s little essay about ghost stories, where she complains that “the cinema and the wireless” are ruining people’s imaginations. The wireless! How the terror of modernity haunts Wharton’s later stories. In “All Souls,” for example, the protagonist’s broken-footed hobble through her empty mansion leads her to … a radio. The disembodied voices invade the vault-like space; the servants have all disappeared. Who is the real ghost here? That was 1937, but ghostly Edith’s kvetches are hauntingly similar to mine. It’s funny to think of myself as a ghost, a curmudgeonly Edith hobbling behind the caboose of the times, waving my cane and shouting for the train to slow down, complaining about the kids today, their phones and other iThings, their short attention spans and abysmal reading skills. Maybe I have nothing to worry about. Maybe people just gather differently. But worry I do—about the degree and kind of mediation, and what that means for our selves, our egos, our bodies. Music will of course change as our conception of self and society do, as our technologies and modes of delivery do. But if the screen in the concert hall is another bow-shot from the future, I fear what it means for the ways we gather and interact on the one hand, and on the other, where, how, and whether we find space to reflect and meditate.

With apologies for these undertheorized thoughts, for their possibly shrill tone, and for using this blog as a balcony to shout from, the very fact of which undermines everything I have written. A good academic would be reading Habermas on this rather than blogging. My problem with theory is that you can sometimes theorize yourself out of a righteous passion, and what’s the fun of that?

 

* There are examples of visual art that helps us to understand or appreciate something about a piece of music, and which, although the purpose is perhaps partly didactic, has a beauty in its own right. A colleague recently shared with me the work of Stephen Malinowski, in which pattern and color is used to create real-time visual scores. Apparently, it was originally conceived of as a way to make complex scores more intelligible. Great stuff. Hope it’s projected soon at a concert hall near me …

Reflections of Orrin

Photo by Howard Pitkow

Photo by Howard Pitkow

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

The Last Waltzes

Three spring piano recitals and a note on the Cliburn.

What a treat to find Yevgeny Sudbin on the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts schedule for a late-March recital at Town Hall. I discovered him a few years ago via a disc of Scarlatti sonatas, his debut recording, and was doubly pleased that his program opened with a suite of four sonatas before moving on to the more traditional fare of Chopin, Debussy, Liszt and Scriabin.

While Sudbin’s Scarlatti takes full advantage of the piano’s dynamic capabilities, he keeps one foot firmly planted in the harpsichord tradition—that is, off-pedal. Like András Schiff, whose recording turned me on to Scarlatti more than two decades ago, Sudbin’s Scarlatti is lyrical without making of the composer an anachronistic Romantic—perhaps a greater danger with Sudbin, given the other composers in his repertoire. For me, it raised the question—again—of how the poetic side of Scarlatti could have been overlooked for so long. Of the four sonatas on the program, only the K. 455 featured the hustle, rhythmic bumpiness, and hair-raising tremolos of that better-known Scarlatti “ingenious[ly] jesting with art.” The K. 27 is rather a monument to gentle virtuosity—at a proper, cantering tempo, the hand-crossings are hardly ostentatious, and add great color to the sonata’s central, descending passage—while the K. 466, with which Sudbin started, and the opus-less G minor sonata display the composer at his most meditative.

If Sudbin emphasized the poetry in Scarlatti too often ignored, his Chopin felt a little dry. It’s as though he were seeking a meeting-place where Scarlatti and his great admirer, Chopin, might break bread. In the thoughtful liner notes to his recording of the Ballades et al., Sudbin writes about his quest for a “perfect Chopin interpretation,” one that balances naïve exuberance and mature reflection. To my ear, his Chopin was a bit too tempered … but then I’m a Judas Priest fan, and so probably not the best yardstick for appropriate levels of exuberance.

The second half featured two of Liszt’s more tolerable endeavors, the Funerailles and one of the Transcendental Etudes, played with the requisite mix of sentiment and pomp. But it was Sudbin’s approach to the two “colorists,” Debussy and Scriabin, that most drew my attention. Here, the Scarlatti was a portent: Sudbin clearly relishes those clanging, resolution-scuttling “unessential” notes that so troubled the sonatas’ early editors and appreciators. His L’Isle joyeuse verged on pure effect, as he compressed the already-attenuated melodic landscape yet further, until almost nothing remained but splashes of color and seething dynamics: those ever-shifting surfaces where the prancing, elvin little melody goes into solution. He worked similarly with the fifth Scriabin sonata, though this had an energy of a different sort, building to a full-tilt blitz that almost sent him hurtling off the piano bench at the end.

Reading Sudbin’s opinion about encores clarified much about how the concert ended. From an interview at pianistique.com: “Some people tell me I have to play more big encores … The audience usually likes it, but ideally, I wouldn’t play an encore. They often trivialize concerts as they are often flashy.” Perhaps. But Sudbin’s first choice of encores at Town Hall was inspired: he re-played the G minor Scarlatti sonata. It made the encore feel integral, and gave the program a cyclical quality, as if we had participated in a voyage to the further reaches of tonality and returned to the “safe” (if very quirky) harbor of Scarlatti, meditating at his keyboard in the gloomy vaults of El Escorial. As though Scriabin were the music Scarlatti heard in his dreams. It also told the audience a Scarlatti sonata is worth hearing more than once—that they are not jests, but solitaires whose workmanship bears loving scrutiny. (“One only needs to hear the same piece twice,” Sudbin has said, “and something might just happen.” Indeed.)

If only he had ended there. That damned sense of responsibility to his audience! He returned, and then again, thin frame dressed all in black, with a shock of black hair combed sideways, like the personification of a semiquaver. The third encore was a souped-up waltz. I thought I recognized it as Chopin. Or was it Johann Strauss? It hardly matters. In such an arrangement, one can’t tell the difference, and one is not supposed to. How daring those chromatic runs must have sounded in Chopin’s day; here, they were stereotypical embellishments to keep the fingers busy, the noise level up, and the audience’s attention fixed. Of course, waltzes are built for such liberties, and Sudbin is hardly the only pianist to add extra chrome, to make it flash and shine until the audience is hypnotized. I saw Marc-Andre Hamelin do a similar thing during an encore to a Chopin waltz just the month before; I think it was the minute, though it must have lasted five, and felt more like ten. How much I would have liked to leave hearing the Scarlatti in my head. For a moment, Sudbin found the perfect antidote to a trivializing encore. Then the demon of responsibility possessed him. Would it be too much to ask a bit more irresponsibility from such a young pianist?

*

On May 5th, Rafal Blechacz played the last PSC Town Hall concert and the only other piano recital there besides Sudbin’s. In 2005, when Sudbin was recording the Scarlatti disc, Blechacz became the first Pole to win the Warsaw Chopin International Piano Competition in 30 years, and was soon feted as a national hero. According to my program notes, his Deutsche Grammophon recording of Chopin’s preludes and piano concertos have both gone multiplatinum in Poland. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed such a phenomenon, even in my relatively short history of concertgoing. When Lang Lang became the sensation of the classical piano world some years ago, I remember remarking mentally on the number of young, hip-looking Asians at Carnegie Hall the evening of his recital. The same thing happened when “Nobu,” the blind co-gold medalist at the 2009 Van Cliburn competition, made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2011. Was Town Hall filled with Poles this Sunday afternoon? I doubt it. The audiences for that series are almost all subscribers, and only the few returned tickets are auctioned off just prior to a concert.

Not a bad reminder, this, of the deeply national roots of classical music, of how shallow is the soil of invented traditions, and of the tenaciousness of the idea of nation in a globalizing world. For such audiences, the virtuoso pianist seems to be imagined as an athlete who “medals” for his or her country. With Lang and Nobu—two recent fish in a large pool of phenomenal young Asian pianists—a few possible readings suggest themselves: the Eastern champions of Western music “prove” classical music’s universal appeal; or, the Eastern champions of Western music signify Asia’s arrival as a full citizen of the European high-art tradition (whether or not the parents send their kids to Julliard); or, the Eastern performers who dominate the most technically-sophisticated music of the Western canon, and win prestigious competitions in the U.S. and Europe, signal a shift in the balance of world power, towing along all the Western anxieties about a rising China/Chinese middle class (and back through the Asian Tigers, all the way, perhaps, to the roaring Japanese economy of the ‘80s). Blechacz’s golds and platinums can be understood as returning the grail to its “rightful” heir: a Pole brings Chopin back to Poland, and, perhaps, Poland back to Chopin. Here, it is the greatness of the national composer celebrated through the national interpreter, and the trope is one of restoration.

I know these formulations reduce classical music to a big game of Risk. But I wonder if the speculated anxieties and episodes of (to my mind) bizarre musical patriotism are recording the seismic shifts as traditionally European music becomes the music of a global elite, riding on the coattails of liberalized capital flows.

All this does me lead me to question why Blechacz cut the Karol Szymanowksi sonata from the second half of his program. Perhaps it was a bone for the expat Poles he expected would show up to the Town Hall show, and, upon being informed that the audience was made up almost entirely of subscribers over the age of sixty, he decided a few Chopin mazurkas were a safer bet. Chopin notwithstanding, I’m going to be a rogue and speak instead about Blechacz’s Beethoven: his beautiful rendition of the Sonata Opus 10 No. 3. (Hilariously, of a disc with sonatas by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the program notes say only that it was a “huge success”—nothing about Polish platinums.) Clearly a technical wizard, there was no desire to race up-tempo passages in the outer movements or shirk rests in the second. This steadiness, almost implacability, served Blechacz well to make the Largo e mesto deeply expressive without being self-indulgent, and the closing Rondo delicately playful. (And he plays the Largo appassionato of the Sonata Opus 2 No. 2, featured on that “hugely successful” CD, equally patiently. As Blechacz writes there, he “feel[s] that the middle movement is often the ‘heart’ of a work … the place where the composer, as well as the performer, takes the opportunity to reveal in sound everything lurking in the deepest reaches of his soul.” It certainly comes through both in concert and on CD.)

After the thunderous ending of Chopin’s third scherzo, perhaps his choice of encore speaks more about how he approached the Beethoven than words can: Chopin’s waltz Opus 34 No. 2 in A minor. Like Sudbin’s repetition of the G minor sonata, this melancholy song for a lone dancer dignified the program rather than trivializing it. May Blechacz’s sense of irresponsibility never waver.

*

Pop!

May also presented me with my second opportunity to hear the brilliant Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall. It would be hard to think of a more vital young pianist. For Wang, simply playing the piano isn’t enough; she subdues it, with the roaring enthusiasm of a laughing cowboy breaking a colt. She crackles from the moment she strides into the stadium: her enormous, unselfconscious bow; the way she flops down at the keyboard and just starts in—no hesitation, no dithering, and nothing dainty about any of it, thank God. All the energy of the walk and the bow and the sit is suddenly channeled into the hands, which start going like sewing-machine needles—one can see the energy in her fingers, which curl as if she were scaling the keyboard—and when they are finished she has to stand up and bow again—has to keep moving—march out on those sharp heels—she is nowhere near exhausted, she has places to go, things to see, other concerts to play! It was a well-chosen program to showcase that energy, from the second Rachmaninoff sonata to the dark, noodling vibrancy of the contemporary “Gargoyles,” and two sonatas by Scriabin.

In performance, Wang makes of herself a work to be consumed alongside the music. Her whole exuberant persona is on display, and expressed, too, in her penchant for dressing out of code. (For this recital, she even changed outfits during the intermission, from red to black, just in case we weren’t paying attention. I confess that, in the first half, as she played Scriabin in that red dress with one shoulder bare, it was difficult not to imagine her as an Amazon warrior, one breast sacrificed to better wield the bow.) True, celebrity culture is nothing new to classical music. But it does seem to have changed in character and emphasis with the music’s desperation to revitalize itself by capturing a younger audience. How can classical grasp its own moribundity, when its very self-conception, the only thing that really unites it as tradition, is the idea of permanence? And how to sell classical to an age group for whom it is already moribund, and for whom mortality is just a bad dream?

Well, do what all the corporations and foundations that underwrite the music do: re-brand. Classical music has long been part of a cluster of signifiers of taste and luxury to which consumers aspire, and concert programs have long been larded with ads for Gucci, Chanel and Lexus. But something has changed here, too. The ads used to be there to sell products to people who had the money to consume highbrow music, or who wanted to spend an evening imagining they did. Now, classical music is itself sold as one more product advertised in the program: the perfumes and wrist watches become suffused with its aura of high culture, just as these products suffuse the music with their auras of decadent luxury. Now, if hip hop can sell decadent luxury to youth of all races, creeds, and income levels, why not classical?

In those rotating risque dresses and ten-penny heels, Wang seems to understand the mechanics of celebrity culture as well as Warhol ever did, and she gets the whole branding thing on the level of the body. She makes of herself a sumptuous feast; hers is a consumable prestige. Not just luxury, but youth, beauty, energy—the only really desirable immortality—for the aged members of the audience to feast vampirically upon, and for the young to be able to see themselves in the (hip, daring, mystical, erotic, timeless) mirror of classical music.

The evening’s program was a long sprint, and she was back in the locker room by nine-thirty while we whooped and hollered for her to come out again. How could she not? Five encores—count ‘em—like the specials at one of those restaurants where the menu represents only a fraction of the available dishes. The first four didn’t differ much from the regular entrees. But the fifth: Chopin, and another waltz, like Blechacz’s, in a minor key: the Opus 64 No. 2. It’s the one where each chorus begins slowly, accelerates to whirling speed, and then repeats more quietly, easing to a halt on a hushed high note. In Wang’s hands, the choruses started tentatively, the music coming to an inaudible stop, like a ball thrown into the air, and then built into whispering runs before petering out in reverie. The dancer gains secret confidence, momentarily forgetting herself in the joy of movement, in the freedom of what she wishes to do rather than what she was always told she must; easing, the memories come back, childhood; the body whirls to a halt, stiffens, the smile fades … I had never heard the story of this waltz before hearing Wang play it—or rather, I had never heard this story of the waltz before hearing Wang play it. It was enough to make me wonder what sort of a pianist she would be if she couldn’t do absolutely anything she wanted.

*

I shouldn’t single out Yuja Wang to bewail larger trends in the global entertainment marketplace. Classical seems to be between a rock (ha ha) and a hard place: embrace trends and try to grow a new audience, or perish in the history it pretends to bestride. Luckily or unluckily, classical, that numinous qualifier, may be yet more receptive to synergistic barnacling than other, more formally coherent musics.

Attending the Fourteenth Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth this June created a whole new opportunity to pursue these reflections. “The Cliburn” must be the world’s most fully-branded and fully-mediated piano competition. At the Cliburn shop, which spanned the width of the auditorium on the first floor of Bass Performance Hall, you can buy pretty much anything you can stamp the image of a piano onto—dog collars, shot glasses, coffee mugs, etc. And not just any piano: this is the elegant, austere logo of the Cliburn competition, cipher for the elegance and austerity of the event. (Yes, on a shot glass.) Upon entering the auditorium, if you happen to be sitting in the upper tiers, you will notice a large screen hanging above the stage, in which you can observe the projected movements of the performer appearing directly below. And not only up close, as through those binoculars you might have forgotten, but (much more important) from a variety of angles and distances, with a little bit of slow panning, a la Ken Burns or your PowerPoint slideshow. Much better to inhabit a series of fantastic, constructed perspectives than remain trapped in your own, subjectivity being the first, most exhausting, and most depressing fact of existence. And never mind the distraction caused by the lag between the sound and the image, or between the movements of the two pianists, the pocket one on stage and the behemoth on the screen. Perhaps the screen could be extended to cover the stage? Just a thought.

Sitting through an intermission rather than going out to the lobby, you will come to understand the true purpose of the screen: to flash the names of the foundations and corporations that sponsor the competition. The Cliburn has an official airline, an exclusive soft drink, an official this, an exclusive that.

Of course, the screen has long been the norm of arena rock/sports culture, and it’s about time classical music adopted it. One can’t get around the screen, not anymore; the very idea is preposterous. (First: There is an “around” the screen? Then: What screen?) The screen also helps ensure that stimulus is constant, for just as there is nothing more depressing than subjectivity, so there is nothing more terrifying than an informationless void. Across the street from Bass Performance Hall, you can watch the concerts livestreamed on a(nother) large screen—the same thing the upper-tier patrons in Bass Hall are seeing, though without the synching issues—for free. A wonderful addition to the competition, truly. The problem is that, during the intermissions, should you once again be unfortunate enough to stay in your chair, while those inside Bass are watching the names of sponsors discreetly flash by, you, freeloader, like the rest of your freeloading buddies watching the competition on line, will be strafed with human interest stories and (exclusive, official) interviews with anyone and everyone associated with the competition, including, now and then, the competitors themselves. These are the generic equivalents of the sort of thing you see during the Olympics—you know, behind-the-scenes with these young competitors, so you can find someone to “root for,” because it’s not enough just to listen to the music, that’s for the judges, you want to know whose father left them, and what they like to cook, and when was the first time they touched a piano, and blah blah blah. The format for commentary and interviews, too, seems pulled right off Sportscenter; I found myself waiting for the question, “How did you feel in that last movement, realizing the chips were down, that missed note in measure 34 still haunting you, and with those broken octaves at quarter-note-equals-two hundred coming at you?” (“Well, I just try to do my best, you know, give it a hundred percent, a hundred and ten percent, you know, we’ve trained really hard for this day,” etc.)

C’mon. Young pianists want to be on American Idol, too, follow the Cliburn on Twitter and friend the performers on Facebook. Everybody loves a good horse race, and everybody wants to be entertained 24-7. Most important: fill time, fill time, time must be filled. Time is money, and life is only so long, so do the math.

God, one begins pining for rests, toad-fat whole-note rests with big, angry fermatas hovering over them like bloated UFOs; for just a moment to clean the aural palette, to create that cushion of silence we can drop the music into, where it can fall without shattering, and without making a sound.

Last summer I lamented that the Cincinnati World Piano competition fails to attract a sustaining audience the way the Cliburn does, and recommended they get someone who can market. Now, I bitch about the Cliburn for its hyper-branding. Hypocrite me, as well as curmudgeon. And yet, this is my third time attending the Cliburn—it only happens once every four years—and I could swear the auditorium was fuller eight years ago, and the livestream room in 2009. I guess more people are choosing to stay home and watch the thing on line, and the money is coming from advertisers rather than ticket sales? The Huff Post reports twice as many Cliburn page hits as in 2009, and what with social media sites all abuzz and asqueal about the competition, there is much talk about the resurrection, at last, of classical music for Generation Z via the magic of the web. And so here we wait outside Lazarus’s tomb, cell phones poised.

Together with the Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Chopin, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Soler, Liszt, Debussy, and Scriabin, there was one piece that had been commissioned by the Cliburn foundation: “Birichino,” by the American composer (and Dallas native) Christopher Theofanidis. Every semifinalist had to play it, so I heard it nine times in three days. By turns foreboding and funny, dissonant, exotically modal and naïvely melodic, childish runs giving way to whacked note clusters, barrages of noise plunging into craters of silence, it was a perfect piece for each pianist to test him or herself against, a piece without a history of expectations, and with a wide canvas on which to dabble. “One only needs to hear the same piece twice, and something just might happen.” Yes, Yevgeny, and something did. Those silences! Some pianists took them more seriously than others. Some seemed a little put off by them. Some invited them to dinner. But the important thing is that you couldn’t get the cameras around them. You couldn’t edit them. You sure as hell couldn’t yabber through them. You had to wait for them to end, and see what came next: a lightly pecked note, perhaps, and then more waiting.

Four Quartets

The Takacs Quartet in 2012, photographed by Peter Smith

The Takacs Quartet in 2012, photographed by Peter Smith

Quartets seem to be in the cultural crosshairs of late, at least judging from two recent middlebrow movie releases, The Last Quartet and Quartet (both 2012). If the latter, a geriatric Brit comedy set in a home for retired musicians, isn’t about a string quartet per se, it’s perhaps that much more an indication that quartet-ness has come to be regarded as a figure for community, a ready-made dramatic framework for exploring the dialectic between individual and group, the converse perils and joys of intimacy and isolation, and the struggles and strains behind finding a coherent, collective voice.

Watching the Takács Quartet in action during their master class at Weill Recital Hall last week was an engrossing reminder of these dramas of collaboration. The subjects were two of Beethoven’s late quartets, the Opus 131 and 132; the participants, three young quartets, the Spruce, Linden, and Attacca. It also made for an interesting contrast with my own previous experiences of master classes, all of which had been piano. When the pianist’s clear, single voice of authority is split in four, the dynamic changes, revealing to what extent a quartet’s unified voice is the product of consent, compromise, negotiation, and argument. The tightly-braided rope that is the quartet in its final, public form unravels into its individual strands, exposing an amiable babel of semi-private voices.

It was in this spirit that Takács violist Geraldine Walther called out, “Don’t worry, Ji Hee, he’s been telling me that for years!” just as the younger violist (of the Spruce Quartet) was about to make a third attempt to appease Takács violinist Edward Dusinberre. Dusinberre was on stage, circling the Spruce, score open in one hand, asking them to pick up the Allegro at different measures, stopping them to comment, ordering them to repeat. Walther sat in the audience; her voice could have been any of ours. Her comment actually provoked a good deal of laughter, as she would several times over the course of the evening, a testimony to the easy atmosphere the class maintained despite the intensity of the undertaking and the grave beauty of the music, as the veterans prodded their younger counterparts to approach certain passages differently and experiment with new sound combinations.

As the exchange between Dusinberre and Walther suggests, the personalities of the Takács players fit neatly into their roles in the quartet, at least as they appear in performance. Dusinberre played first fiddle for much of the evening. The most outspoken and demanding, he also seemed to have the clearest sense of what he wanted, of the dramatic trajectory of the piece as a whole, and the language with which to express it. Cellist András Fejér was the second on stage, though he spent most of his time leaning against its left or right flanks, like Dusinberre’s goon. When he had something to say, he would approach all full of righteous fire, make his point, and then slink away, setting the tempo by snapping his fingers. Violinist Károly Schranz was less present, though he did lead part of the discussion of the first movement of the Opus 132, while Walther sat either in the audience or at the base of one of the columns along the rear of the stage, interjecting something to lighten the mood if the musicians seemed flustered, or taking their side if Dusinberre pushed a little too hard. (As Dusinberre was trying to get more lilt out of a phrase made up of rapid tradeoffs between cello and viola, she said, brightly, “It’s my fault, I told him [Linden violist Eric Wong] to play it that way.”) The prowling dominance of the first violin; the thoughtful if less prominent contributions of the second; the stabilizing role played by the viola; and the pantoum of the cello, who spent much of his time on the margins, but who would thrust himself into the foreground when he had something to say, and then retreat, holding down the tempo. Dialogues have just such a rhythm: characters who speak more, characters who speak less, and characters who hardly speak at all, but whose presence and occasional contributions are all the more necessary for pacing and rhythm, and without whom the drama, which only the others seem to be moving forward, would collapse of its own weight.

From the standpoint of music writing, the most fascinating thing about a master class is the opportunity to watch and listen as music is transformed into something else. It’s a setting where all the nuances of oral and gestural communication are called into play. The swinging conductor’s arm, demonstrating not just tempo, but rhythm, mood and line, often accompanying the singing of melodies. The proximity or distance of the teacher’s body, sometimes leaning in over the players, sometimes touching them—and sometimes far away, the disembodied voice in the room that eventually worms its way into the musicians’ heads, and then into their muscles and sinew. As for the words themselves, they can be brilliantly concrete (as when Fejér asked for a particular passage to display greater yearning, and then affectionate yearning, when he realized that an aspect of the personal was missing), or tumble and bleed into gesture and song; they are tugged this way and that, collected like pebbles to create greater emotional nuance, marshalled together into narrative arcs (sickness and convalescence, despair and hope), or appear as murky tickers along the measures in the score.

At one point, Dusinberre asked violinist Sarah McElravy of the Linden Quartet how she interpreted a particular phrase. When she replied, he answered, “I agree with you; but that’s not what I’m hearing.” He asked her to match her playing to the concept he had just pushed her to wrestle into language. And she did. Even Dusinberre commented on this: the incredible facility these players had for transforming opaque, knotty instructions cobbled together from a clumsy mass of words, gestures, half-sung melodies and snapped fingers into concrete musical expression. It may have been partly the effect of hearing the phrases again, set off from the rest of the movement, and thus framed anew, or even just hearing them more than once; but there was no question about the differences, sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, these changes created for the listener. It is something magical for the non-musician; one comes to appreciate the remarkable plasticity of the musical text that much more.

Another example was the debate about how to approach the different parts of the theme (the droning introduction and the chorale) of the Opus 132 Molto adagio: with or without vibrato? The Attacca Quartet was asked to try both, if only to hear the difference. The first thing one notices is that the lack of vibrato is part of what gives those big, perfect intervals and slowly-accreting harmonies of the introduction their sacred quality; too much voice, too much of the human, ruins the effect—the equivalent of inserting a figure into a Rothko painting. With the parallel introduction of the Opus 132, the Assai sostenuto, the Linden was asked to resist the temptation to play it crescendo. The addition of each instrument successively in the opening phrase did not necessarily mean the volume should increase. And then, for the third essay, another correction: that the sound was not growing did not mean the music should be played tentatively. So we listened to that introduction transform over three or four readings, into something yet more beautiful and more moving; the absence of crescendo had, somehow, an emotional payoff. The same thing happened with the droning of the Adagio: a side of the spirit of the piece hitherto hidden suddenly manifested itself, perhaps not only because we heard a difference, but because we were being taught how to listen.

I’ve noted elsewhere that younger quartets can play the romantic repertoire with an almost histrionic intensity, which can be sometimes exciting, sometimes alienating. The Linden Quartet brought just such an intensity to the Allegro of the Opus 132, stretching it almost to the point of snapping. Here Dusinberre provided a welcome counterweight, reminding the players that there is a limit to dynamic range: if you play all your fortes as fortissimos, there will simply be noplace else to go. (As a writer friend of mine likes to say, “The lights can’t always be on.”)

But Dusinberre and the Takács as a whole played an even more important role in this regard. “You need to lean into each other more,” he said at one point to the violin and cello; and they did, actually physically leaned into each other—producing, once again, audible results. It was a reminder that music making is deeply and essentially bodily, that there is no music without movement. This was clear enough from the nearness of the music-making bodies in the room—sweating, stamping, swaying bodies whose movement, sometimes slow, sometimes vigorous, was responsible for everything we heard. It’s the intimacy of the chamber in chamber music that Weill comes closest to reproducing: the chamber that is the body, its walls erected around that pious organ, itself a mass of chambers, a throne of meat busy flushing blood around the body’s plumbing; and the chamber-pot, the chamber as the place of voiding and excreting. Music has its share of this, is about this, much as we try to spiritualize it, sequester it in big, impersonal cultural temples with ceilings that mimic the heavens.

Of course, nobody knew this better than Beethoven, and nowhere is that struggle with physicality more fully expressed than in the Opus 132. It was, after all, his digestion that struck him down, as it had plagued him his whole life. He wrote the quartet as he recovered from a long illness he had presumed to be mortal, as a “sacred song of thanksgiving from the convalescent to the divinity”—a letter, so to speak, from the body to the spirit. But what does the young musician, the young man or woman, know about these things? This wasn’t just about playing or not playing your fortes as fortissimos. During the jauntier Andante interludes of that haunting slow movement, Dusinberre noted that the musicians were responding too forcefully to the “Neue kraft” instruction in the score. This was hardly the energy of an old man just recovering from a long illness; one could not play these passages with the almost harsh physicality due, say, a symphony or sonata of the composer’s heroic period. This was a late quartet, in the fullest sense of that word. Not to say that a younger artist can’t empathize with and imaginatively understand the aged, ill Beethoven, but rather that a younger artist would be unlikely to come to the piece with this knowledge, and even less with the emotional maturity necessary to embody it.

The last time I heard the Opus 132 played live was last fall at Fashion High School by the Pacifica Quartet. The whole concert was one of the finest quartet performances in recent memory, even, or perhaps especially, in its incompleteness. In the middle of the Molto adagio, the stage lights—true story—went off; a few minutes later the musicians, unable to see their scores, were forced to abandon the performance. (So much for Neue kraft.) Now, it’s hard to think of a piece of music where a sudden plunge into darkness is more appropriate … though a slow fade might have been preferable. I remember thinking, If only we could find a way for them to finish. I’m sure everybody else had the same wish, and the Pacifica, too. And Beethoven? He had such plans: a tenth symphony, another great choral work. That great mournful darkness of the spirit, the animating force of the music: maybe this, above all, was what the Takács Quartet was there to teach.

Year of the Oh

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

 

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