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All That Is Solid

      It’s a Sunday afternoon in August, and I’m at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York, to hear the Kazzrie Jaxen quartet. I’m here because Kazzrie is here, and because my neighbor, a pianist and friend of Kazzrie’s, invited me. In a broader sense, I’m here because I am new to the peaceable kingdoms of the Hudson Valley, and I am still trying to find my moorings amid the upstate exiles. In the City you get used to the weight of people, smog, and noise. It settles on you, over time. Here, I’m like a man walking on the moon: every step threatens to catapult me into space, and I look around in vain for someone or something to hold me down.

The Howland Center is a tall, airy space with a churchy feel. It used to be the town library, until 1976, when the collection outgrew its confines, the books were (re)moved, and the building joined the National Historical Registry. The shelves have been taken down, but the cabinets remain, the numbers still stenciled on them, and black and white pictures of the town-as-it-was hang above the spaces where the books used to be. Instead of rectangular reading tables and card catalogs, there are round folding four-tops covered with plastic. There is fruit, cheese, wine, brownies, kids. A metal balcony encircles the room ten feet above, with more empty numbered cabinets along the walls and four lights suspended from the grillwork. A big grandfather clock, its brass, lute-shaped pendulum stilled, fails to measure the time.

The musicians put their things on top of the cabinets: instrument cases, a red fabric cooler, a few bottles of water. Jaxen, who plays piano, stops by our table to say a brief, warm hello. She is blond, nimble, radiant. Sinewy, though there is something wispy about her, too. Charlie Krachy, standing a few feet behind her with his tenor already hanging from his neck, is grey, plodding, down to earth—her complement in every way. Together with the rest of the band—Don Messina on bass, Bill Chattin on drums—Charlie will spend the next hour holding on to the sleeves of Kazzrie’s blouse and the hem of Kazzrie’s skirt, as she refuses to let that great ballast of the instrument world hold her down, and threatens to float up and away, like one of those newlyweds in a Chagall painting.

*

I had the chance to hear Kazzrie only once before, in an apartment in Morningside, on a Sunday afternoon not so different from this one. The musicians who played that day, and the vast majority of those in the audience, were part of a musical collective that seems to have grown up around the pianist and educator Connie Crothers. It was a trio of violin, piano and clarinet, playing freely improvised music. In such a setting, there is no agreement about structure or melody beforehand, and there are no standards, at least in the jazz sense of that term. Somebody starts to blow, or strum, or pluck, or whatever, and the musicians go wherever the spirit of the moment takes them, and the jam lasts as long as that spirit inhabits them. Then they pause, and start again. It is remarkably beautiful to watch as well as to listen to.

When the “set” was over, there was a break to eat and drink and chat. Then the real jam began, real because it was yet more free. Different people got up to play as the mood struck them, like Quakers moved to speak. Maybe what was most beautiful was the humility with which playing was approached. There was not that sense you sometimes gets at late-night jams, where one player after another wants to muscle in, take the limelight for a few bars, be heard. Here, everybody knew everybody else, or almost, and pretty much everybody had played together at one time or another. There was much hesitation and politeness; a smile and nod across the room, like you might ask a stranger to dance; the sudden leaping out of a chair, because nobody else had; the desire to share something. Of course, almost everybody there was a musician, they had all brought their instruments with them, or just themselves. It was even a little eerie to find that everyone else in the room was touched with the capacity to create ex nihilo, as much as it would be to find that they could bend spoons without touching them, or read each other’s minds. And there was the feeling that they all know each other on a level more intimate than I could ever know them, or perhaps anyone; and this produced a combination of admiration, envy, and unease. If this were a Polanski movie, I thought, they would be a coven. I even began to suspect that the reason each of them could improvise in this way must have something to do with the rest of them being present; that they create a sort of magic circle in which such things can happen. That they were all holding the edge of an invisible net, which they cast collectively into the air, to catch the bits of melodies floating around like pollen. As for the music, it is as ephemeral as the dappled bit of sunlight I noticed falling on the carpet when I glanced toward the window late that afternoon; it is music of that Sunday, and no other. One is not leaving a legacy, but living a moment. And so it is all the more necessary just to play. Maybe the feeling of humility comes partly from this.

Kazzrie was not part of the original trio that day. She flitted up to the piano during the jam two or three times, once dragging my neighbor along with her for a duet at the same keyboard. I remember the immense sound she got out of that piano, for such a wisp of person. But then there was a special radiance about her, an energy far greater than her size. Walking home with my neighbor after the gig, I was reluctant to single out any one performance, the whole afternoon had been so enjoyable, the collective musicianship so impressive. We have a running joke between us, my neighbor and I. Both of us have had the experience of sharing music we love with friends, only to be disappointed by a lukewarm or patronizing response. So now, when we talk about music, no matter how much we like something, all we will ever commit to saying is that it is interesting. “Was it interesting?” “Oh, yes. Definitely interesting. I have something you might find interesting as well.” “Great, I’d love to hear it. I like interesting music.” In this sort of exchange, you depend on the off smile or wrinkle of an eye to say more than words.

But when we talked about Kazzrie that afternoon, it was in tones of reverent, gushing appreciation. We were suddenly comfortable dropping our masks; something about the music demanded it. It only lasted a few moments. Then we returned to our more generally laconic, dispassionate discussion of music, and then we moved on to other subjects.

*

In a way, the Beacon set was the antithesis of that intimate gathering in Morningside. Before the quartet began, Kazzrie told the audience they were going to evoke the days of Young and Holiday, as well as play some more free improvisation. The set that afternoon was definitely tilted toward the former. The nine or ten songs were all standards, with the free excursions relegated to digressions at the ends of tunes. With the exception of two ballads, and to a lesser extent the songs Kazzrie sang in her pleasant, Holiday-inflected voice (“All of Me” and “I Ain’t Foolin’”), the selections were identically imagined and approached: the same forward momentum, hippity-hop bounce, arrangement, and order of solos. “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” which appeared early in the set, is such a delicate, haunting tune; I’ve always thought it carried faint suggestions of conspiracy, of betrayal. But the band played it with the same foot-tapping energy as they did everything else. This wasn’t so much sunup as high noon; the melody lost all shadow.

Was it the audience? I wondered. From the Q&A after the set, it was clear that at least a few people there were new to jazz. Maybe the quartet was afraid of alienating them.

I don’t think so.* While Charlie and the rest of the band did indeed evoke the days of Holiday and Young—and Young is not a bad touchstone for Charlie’s warm, sumptuous tone and wonderful sense of melody, both of which really shone on the ballads, and which the Howland space served to amplify—Kazzrie, singing excepted, did not. Something I learned from one of my jazz guitar teachers many years ago: you can swing your way through just about anything. (He demonstrated this by playing an uptempo solo with as many “wrong” notes as he could squeeze in.) In the middle of a heavy swing, an excursion into dissonance or even sheer noise is passed over almost unnoticed by many listeners—even by educated listeners who have not had much exposure to jazz. A steady rhythm allows us to box in and measure such transgressions; it reinforces the sense that they are temporary, regulated. A good beat can square even the most crooked line. The early free jazz players knew this—compare early Dolphy records to Out to Lunch, or Cecil Taylor’s Love for Sale and Conquistador!, or Coleman’s Free Jazz to AACM records from the mid ‘60s. For the average listener, there is something much more transgressive about the bassist and drummer dismounting and tramping off into the meadows to screw around than in even the most outlandish melodies or harmonies. It is the difference between walking into a room and frowning at the décor, and having the rug pulled out from under you.

It wasn’t just Holiday and Young, then, but early Cecil Taylor, that was evoked in me: that time in Taylor’s career when the piano worked like so many IEDs, blasting the rest of the band, and the whole musical experience, off kilter—“Excursion on a Wobbly Rail,” indeed. Like my jazz guitar teacher, Kazzrie could swing when she wanted to, but delighted in getting the notes all wrong; and, like Taylor, comping or soloing, she delighted in throwing rhythmic and harmonic curve balls while the rest of the band swung away, balls that (I have the feeling) whizzed right by many of the foot-tappers in the audience.

If Charlie’s big, huggable sound was all about pleasure, Kazzrie’s was bliss. There was something almost haughty about her, sitting sidesaddle at the piano, her shoulders hunching and relaxing, her mouth occasionally moving. She is almost too big a presence; she is swept away from the moment she sits down. And the way she smiled at that keyboard! Yet, I never got the sense, as is sometimes the case when such different musicians sit in together, that she was off in her own world. Her desire to float did not mean she was leaving the band, but rather that she was finding her own ways to approach them, and the music (cf. her bizarre substitutions on “All the Things You Are”). Comping, she was always listening, prompting, teasing the other players—particularly Charlie, whom she spent the hour scampering after while he soloed, chasing up and down scales and throwing pie-in-the-face chords at. And didn’t Charlie take it all not only in good humor, but with more than a little love and respect? For he never knew, when she went to the top of the keyboard, whether she was going to splash around in the shallow pool of those high keys, or turn them into harp-strings, purling around his tenor. And if she went to the bottom, he didn’t know if those octave runs up from the rumbling depths of the keyboard were going to sound like a Chopin etude or a boogie-woogie … with a dash of Richard Strauss’s bass strings thrown in. She might start a chorus with a single note, and slowly build outwards into a thicket of chord, modifying the rhythm as she went, until Charlie’s tenor, caught up in that beautiful dream, had to hack its way out of the morass of harmony. And then she might climb the keyboard with that same idea, maybe using it to thread her way into a solo, holding onto the tatters of the original idea to create seams. For there was always continuity, the remarkable sense that the concepts on this wide, weird palette come to her fully-formed. There is little, I imagine, she can’t do with a piano, little to which she can’t make it bend, like those spoons, back in that apartment in Morningside.

Did Kazzrie lie to us? Maybe a little. Maybe unintentionally. Maybe just not the whole truth. There was that bit of Holiday in her voice, and Young in Charlie’s horn. And she did say they were going to go a bit … out. Only she was never in. And so there was a subversive air to the whole performance, as if she wanted to plant bad seeds in this green audience by smuggling all that fabulous chaos and dissonance into a straight, sincere, swinging jazz set, smiling the whole way through, as if to say, “Who, me? I didn’t do it!” My guitar teacher warned me about people like you, lady. She was, finally, impossible to resist: she is so sunny and untroubled, so goddamn sure of herself, so certain that whatever she plays is going to win you over, so poised, and so clearly transported by the joy of making music, that if you were to tell her that her playing was, well, a little unorthodox, she would look at you like you were crazy.

*

It’s the same story as everywhere else. They used to make things here. Things you could touch. Hats, apparently. Lots of hats. The factories closed down in the ‘70s, right when they were moving all those books. Now they’re lofts, and the library is a façade. It’s all widgets and MacGuffins. When this sort of thing happened in SoHo, and Williamsburg, at least there was the rest of the City to ground them, like stones around a hot-air balloon. I mean, some neighborhoods still have metal trash cans, and people live in the buildings where they were born and raised. Or they come from faraway lands to squat, old new people without a pot to piss in, as they say. But here? They’re building a hotel and conference center on the river. Same as everywhere. Beacon just did it better, stronger, faster. Dia. Noche.

In the bathroom of this library without books, there is a picture of a chicken. Music, echoing in the spaces where books used to be. Presence, filling the space left behind by representation, twice removed. This is what I am thinking, staring at that picture of the chicken hanging over the toilet.

Maybe it was the rest of the band who were living a dream: the quaint beauty of the old country, the last century, jazz as it used to be, when the men worked on the waterfront or in the factories, and many of the women, too, and they met on dancefloors or smoky pubs, when the boom was taking off and the bomb was so real it made every moment precious. Maybe it was Kazzrie, with her big piano and her big sound, and her sound, and her sound that was nothing like theirs, nothing like anything but itself, no matter how much I try to find musical stones to pin it, who was holding the rest of them down; Kazzrie they depended on to stop them from floating away into some dream of a former time that wasn’t coming back. Kazzrie who kept the whole thing anchored in the present, who said, simply, You are here, like those maps in malls and museums. I didn’t have to worry about pictures of chickens or libraries without books, or even the fact that I’d moved so far out that the City was a faint glimmer and tug in space, a picture from Voyager, because I was a satellite of other, nearer bodies, and Kazzrie was here with her big piano to ground me in the living present.

 

* Another reason I don’t think so: I’ve attended other concerts by musicians in the same collective (perhaps not the right word; “New Artists” will do, I guess, because many of them have recorded for the small, independent label of this name) just as standards-driven as this one, and others made up entirely of originals, and yet others tending toward the free improv of that afternoon in Morningside. They are an impressively ecumenical bunch; I never got the impression anyone would get called a fascist for playing the tonic triad. For these musicians, “free improv” does not necessarily mean painting on an exploding canvas. From what I have witnessed, they often seem more interested in finding consonances and erecting structures, however temporary or strange, with dissonance reserved for shade and ornament, like vines over a trestle, than in creating the esctatic maelstroms associated (a little too facilely) with free jazz.

Two Free Jazz Epitaphs

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

1. CBGB’s 313 Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

 

2. Tonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

John Zorn: musical freedom-fighter or musical terrorist?

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

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

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

Master/Class

      The first thing I heard was laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Closer Than They Appear

     If the most recent World Piano Competition is any indication, there is nothing graceful about adjusting the height of a piano bench. Like the steering wheel of a Cadillac, the knob hardly moves the bench at all; the poor pianist might spend half a minute ratcheting, crouched in tux or evening dress, while the audience coughs and the judges fidget. Once he or she sits down, further adjustment will almost certainly be necessary; and this will mean squatting over the bench like over a scuzzy bar toilet, fiddling with the knob some more; and then sliding it forwards or backwards, bench and pianist tilting perilously as uncooperative legs catch on the stageboards. Tuning a piano may be an art, but this is more like changing a tire—an incongruity of the highest order, given the interpretative magic these pianists will be expected to perform just moments later. And yet, one has a tendency to forget that this magic is also, to a greater or lesser degree, mechanical. Anyway, watching all this squatting and fiddling, I started to wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense to arrange pianists in order of height, or relative length of leg to torso, rather than alphabetically.

Consider the other impressions these young competitors (aged 18 to 34 years) make before they have even played a note. For instance: to look or not to look at the judges? A few glanced up at them before bowing, maybe inadvertently. One young man went so far as to bow to judges and audience separately.

And then the handkerchiefs. About half the pianists wiped down the keyboard before beginning, as though it were an exercise machine at the gym. One did so zealously enough to produce a short glissando.

When it was all done—the bowing, the glancing, the piano-bench adjusting, the wiping—there was a long moment of silence, of focus, sometimes with the hands already poised over the keyboard, sometimes with the hands in the lap, before beginning to play.

*

So began, in one way or another, the trial of each of the 11 pianists I had a chance to hear at this year’s Artist Division of the 56th World Piano Competition, held every summer in Cincinnati. Pianists aside, my first impression of the competition left something to be desired. My parents and I drove up from Louisville, about a hundred miles, for the Monday afternoon preliminaries, only to find that some of the judges had been stranded at airports, and the one-thirty start time pushed back to three. At two-thirty we were admitted with four or five others to the small Jarson-Kaplan Theater of Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center for the Arts. (Had we realized the size of the venue, we wouldn’t have bothered with binoculars. Trying to focus on the keyboard reminded me of that Gary Larson cartoon of a side view mirror with one enormous eyeball in it, the caption “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”)

At quarter to four there was still no word on the judges. The audience had not grown in size. Then a woman appeared on stage, unannounced, and played the funeral march from Chopin’s second sonata.

What next? I thought. Buzzards circling above the Aronoff Center?

When she had finished, an elderly woman, apparently a matriarch of the competition, announced what we had already learned from the staff, about stranded judges. The competition, she said, would begin at ten the next morning. The box office grudgingly refunded our tickets. We took a few pictures of the whimsical porcine effigies festooning downtown, and drove home.

Happily, if gruelingly, Tuesday more than made up for Monday’s fiasco, if not for its poor handling by the competition’s organizers. The morning block turned out to be two hours (10-12). Each pianist was still given about half an hour; to the six scheduled to play in the three-hour Tuesday afternoon block, a seventh was added. Thus, in a little over five hours, we got to hear just under half of the 24 competitors, playing music ranging from Bach to Ligeti.

One thing that struck me listening to Tuesday’s cross-section of pianists was that you could never tell which composer was going to expose a chink in the armor. There is a tendency to believe that, if one can play, say, the Mephisto Waltz, or a Rachmaninoff concerto, one can play pretty much anything. Hierarchies of difficulty notwithstanding, this is simply not true. One pianist’s flair for the Bartok sonata did not extend to the tricky trills-in-thirds that open the Beethoven Opus 2, No. 3. Another, who played Chopin’s study in octaves as thunderously as I’ve ever heard, and finished her premilinary recital by taking a sledgehammer to Liszt, made several obvious missteps in the first movement of the Beethoven Opus 2, No. 2. These early Beethoven sonatas are no walk in the park—they were written at a time when Beethoven would have been known as a keyboard virtuoso rather than as a composer—but they are hardly benchmarks of transcendental virtuosity. A third pianist, on the other hand, played a lovely Beethoven Opus 90, and brilliant renditions of Ligeti’s “Arc-en-ciel” and “Fanfares” studies … but played the last Chopin etude (the Opus 25 No. 12) by rote. This is the reason, of course, that competitors choose a range of pieces—sometimes, as with the Opus 2 Beethoven sonatas, a single movement from a longer piece: to demonstrate their proficiency at interpreting music of different periods. Chinese-born, Cincinnati College of Music-schooled Hai Jin’s  program was case in point: she played a Mozart sonata, a Chopin etude, a novelette by Schumann, and a prelude by Debussy. What was remarkable about her performance was her chameleonic ability to match her playing to each composer, be it the charm of Mozart or the stateliness of Schumann (something I noted, in an earlier post, about Anna Polonsky).

This brings me to a second point, something I realized listening to the Romanian (and Mannes graduate) Bogdan Dulu play a Bach prelude and fugue during the morning session. His touch and articulation were superb: an absence of legato that was in no way choppy, and an evenness of delivery which, somehow, sounded anything but mechanical. There was clearly a person playing this music, tall figure bent over the keyboard, pants not quite long enough to cover the top of the sock on his damper-pedal foot. And yet, what I felt I was witnessing was an emptying of the self, a making of oneself a conduit—as Emerson famously put it, “a transparent eyeball.” There was no sense of the player thrusting his personality into the music—and very little, by extension, of the sort of affected gesturing and emoting which some of the other pianists indulged in—no more than an occasional raised eyebrow, as though Dulu were surprised at some of the composer’s choices. Mind you, he did not play his second selection, Martinu’s preludes “in form of blues, fox-trot” etc. in this way.* The same almost mechanical precision and perfection of articulation, yes; but with an entirely changed demeanor, and one, once again, perfectly suited to the tenor of these pieces. He was not afraid to swing when swing was due, to let his right arm hang loose by his side while his left hand strode up the keyboard. In terms of the Bach, though, no one else played the composer quite like this the rest of the day. Lovely as the others’ Bachs were, they were not the sort that made me sit up and take notice—the sort that achieves that combination of poetry and geometrical purity one associates with the raptures of the Newtonian universe.

The other particularly memorable recital that Tuesday was by Korea’s Woori Kim. She played three preludes by Debussy, including the spectacular (!) “Fireworks,” and the fourth scherzo by Chopin. This performance was more contentious among the three-judge panel made up of my parents and I, my mother feeling that she Debussy-ized the Chopin, my father arguing that her “Fireworks” was not technically up to scratch. I wouldn’t dream of contesting the latter point, though it may mark a difference between the way listeners and players hear the same music. Then again, there may have been something partly visual about my enthusiasm. Some pianists more dance than play, the instrument becoming another extremity through which they communicate. Not that Kim needed to move much; it wasn’t how much she moved, but the grace with which she executed these movements. The “Fireworks” prelude, for example, demands so many different attitudes and positions from the pianist, that there is a sort of acrobatics in its execution. Under Kim’s touch, I couldn’t help but imagine the piano as a giant cat, its fur stroked first one way, then the other, now with the flat of the hand, now with the tips of the fingers.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the visual appeal of this recital at the expense of the sound, which was similarly remarkable, refreshing, personable. I was surprised—and then surprised to be pleasantly surprised—that she didn’t rely too much on the pedal in her Chopin. Surprised, because I am a listener who likes to be transported by romantic wash. Her Chopin had an uncommon clarity; she didn’t seem to mind allowing the seams and joints to show, so that we were invited to admire Chopin’s workmanship rather than be transported by the Gestalt. As with Dulu, there was a sort of admission here that the music was not a beauty of her own making, but one that she was scaffolding for us, to allow us to hear it more clearly. And yet, “for us” is a bit extravagant. Sometimes I got the feeling—and I think, in some of the best interpretations, the audience should—of being a third party, eavesdropping on an intimate dialogue she was having with the composer. More than note clarity, there was an emotional clarity, a sure-footedness about how she wanted to handle the Chopin. Suffice to say it was not the Chopin I am accustomed to hearing, but one that I feel richer for having heard.

And my bête noire, Liszt? To think one could escape Liszt at a piano competition would be ridiculous. But we were ridiculous; we believed that, by adequately studying the program, and scouring the week’s horoscopes, and making all the proper offerings, we could at least encounter as little Liszt as possible. You know what happened next: judges got stranded, Monday night’s pianists ended up playing on Tuesday morning. And then the pianists themselves, the ungrateful so-and-so’s, pulled pieces from their quarter- and semi-final programs to play in the prelims. And so we ended up hearing a good deal more Liszt than we had bargained for. (Not that my father minded; it was my mother and I who suffered, patiently.) I suppose this is a deserved comeuppance for my anti-Liszt equinox post. Anyway, listening to Liszt after writing my harangue proved instructive. I came to understand that a little Liszt is not a terrible thing; there are always a few passages so brilliant that they transcend their own gaudiness. If only the man had known when to stop. By the end of a piece, whatever good there was has been sluiced from memory, and whatever goodwill I might have felt toward the composer twenty measures in has turned to annoyance, or outright anger. I never thought I would say this about classical music, but … clearly what we need are pianists who will play highlights from Liszt. A medley, like geriatric rock bands do with their older material. And maybe an announcer, to help keep track of where we are.

I didn’t write that. I would never write such a thing. You didn’t read it here.

*

I hope both the pianists I highlighted moved forward, but unfortunately I have not been able to ascertain whether or not they did. The WPC website has not been updated since the competition. For some reason, the easiest-to-find results are from back in 2009. The crowd for the prelims never broke twenty, although, judging from the applause in the videos posted from 2011, the finals seem to be somewhat better attended. And to think that, according to the program, in 2003 they broadcasted the competition to tens of millions. I know the audience for classical music is supposed to be dying, but does it have to be euthanized? Given the crowds I have seen at the Van Cliburn competitions in Fort Worth—and given that the WPC bills itself as the country’s premiere competition, sports a star-studded advisory board, and has a list of sponsors and contributors that goes on for pages—I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t better known, better attended. Perhaps this is the reason: searching for the names of finalists, I found an undated job posting for Artistic Manager for the WPC. Maybe the position hasn’t been filled? If you’re reading this, happen to live in northern Kentucky or southern Indiana or Ohio, and you have any experience in nonprofit marketing (or website design?), you might try giving them a call. It’s too much good music and talent to be squandered on ten or fifteen gatos locos in the audience, and a half-dozen judges flown into Ohio from the ends of the earth.

 

* The Martinu was unknown to me, and I haven’t been this wowed by an unfamiliar piece since hearing Jeremy Denk play the Ligeti etudes a little more than a year ago. But then I’m a sucker for modern classical that twists folk and pop forms into bizarre and surprising new harmonic shapes—Bartok, Schulhoff, Barber, etc.

Of Liszt & Other Ghosts

In which the writer spends half the post damning Liszt, and the other half praising Beethoven; among other things.

     I spent a fair amount of energy over the last two concert seasons avoiding Liszt. 2011 was the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, so a lot of pianists took it upon themselves to load up their programs with Liszt. I wasn’t aware of the bicentennial until, walking by the Provincetown Playhouse one day last fall, my eye happened to catch on the all-Liszt program posted by the door. I remembered the Chopin and Schumann bicentennials of the year before, and a light bulb turned on over my head. Franz Liszt. Born 1811.

I was doomed.

Well, not really. Of the dozen or so piano recitals I caught over the last concert season, only a quarter featured Liszt … although this does not include concerts I avoided because they were predominantly or exclusively Liszt.

While it’s true that I’ve never cared for Liszt’s music, the bicentennial seems to have sedimented my feelings, making of Liszt an acquired distaste, and of me an inverted Lisztomaniac. Insipid melodies embellished to the hilt, as though through embellishment they would eventually come to say something. That old saw about Henry James—“he chews more than he can bite off”—actually applies better to Liszt. Hell, I can listen to James chew for hours. Nobody chews better than James. But there has to be something to chew—some inch, as James put it, from which to take that ell. And then the ell itself has to get us somewhere. In Liszt, the embellishment never seems to move the music in interesting directions. It is so much ornament around an empty center: a queen’s ruff on a playing card, a coiffed retinue genuflecting before an idiot king. A shimmering waste; music for magpies’ nests. The pianist Marguerite Long once compared the “fire of [Liszt’s] heart and genius illuminat[ing] the foam of his cascades” in Les Jeaux d’eau de la Villa d’Este to Debussy’s “prodigious love of nature” that “plunged him into that life-giving element, water,” in Reflets dans l’eau. Put differently, Liszt’s water is that of a decorative fountain: pretty, occasionally mesmerizing, but ultimately stagnant. Debussy’s are natural springs. I’d rather swim than watch.

I know it’s sort of un-hip today to bash Liszt. We seem to be in a fawning-and-gushing phase, aggravated by the bicentennial, and spearheaded by pianists who like to play Liszt’s music. (I can understand why, and maybe it’s for the very same reasons I don’t enjoy listening. Monty Python, revised: If you’ve enjoyed listening to this piece by Liszt just half as much as I’ve enjoyed playing it, then I’ve enjoyed it twice as much as you have.) It may be trite to call Liszt out for shallow virtuosity. But then every other approach seems just as stale. First, critics point to twilight and/or lesser-known works in which the “real” composer is supposed to reside (e.g., “Yes, I know that’s awful; but have you heard the ‘Funérailles’?”). Next, these become a justification for re-evaluating the virtuoso pieces for the “real” depth everyone else was too unsophisticated to see. Finally, the empty spectacle of the virtuoso works themselves is valorized through play or irony or some other postmodern fetish. We’re all supposed to stop taking ourselves/art/life so goddamn seriously, admit that all pleasure is guilty, and surrender ourselves to Liszt.

Once we’ve come out the other end, where is there to go but back to the beginning, and call Liszt’s music for what it is: a generally uninteresting spectacle of excess? Isn’t it possible to acknowledge his historical contribution to piano performance—that I wouldn’t have had my dozen recitals to go to last year had there been no Liszt to invent such a thing—without also having to like his music?

Anyway, such were my thoughts—at least some of them—on hearing the brilliant young Chinese-born pianist Yuja Wang in recital at Carnegie Hall last October. She blazed her way through Prokofiev’s 6th sonata—Prokofiev’s piano music can never be played often enough, so say I—and then came back in the second half to play Liszt’s in B minor. It turned out to be a very long and painful second half. And the longer it went, the more painful it got. Don’t get me wrong, the rendition was technically perfect. But I still found myself squirming in my seat, wishing it were over. And when it was, even then I had not heard the last of Liszt: Wang played “Gretchen am Spinnrade” for one of her encores. (At least it’s a Schubert transcription.) Hearing the blind 2009 Van Cliburn competition gold medalist Nobuyuki Tsuji play “Un sospiro” and the concert paraphrase of Verdi’s Rigoletto in the same venue a few weeks later did not change my feelings. Nor did Peter Orth’s renditions of a Mephisto waltz and the Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude at Town Hall in late January. By this point I was starting to feel like a friend of mine who suffered through to the end of Ulysses just so he could say definitively that the book was crap, and no one could say to him, “Well, that’s because you never finished it.” And it was at the Yujo Pohjonen recital, somewhere in the midst of all that Liszt, listening to his beautifully balanced rendition of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” sonata—a sonata that, better than maybe any other, is characterized by a profound simplicity of thematic materials, developed so imaginatively, to reach such unexpected heights—that the difference between the two composers appeared most stark. Now, any time I hear Liszt, I can’t help thinking of the opening bars of the “Pastorale.”

*

     About a month ago, Fate once again threw a Liszt-shaped obstacle in my path. Maurizio Pollini had been scheduled to play two recitals this spring, one at the end of April, the other at the beginning of May. He canceled, and Carnegie Hall was forced to find substitutes. (It’s amazing how much text one can generate around the trials and tribulations of hearing/not hearing Maurizio Pollini; see “Encore,” 5.9.10.) I had tickets for the April show; unfortunately, they called in Garrick Ohlsson, a pianist about whom I have tepid feelings at best (see “Spring Peoples Symphony Roundup,” 6.15.11). And guess what he was he slated to play? That’s right: an all-Liszt program. Thankfully, I was able to change my ticket for May 6. I had never heard of the sub—a French Canadian pianist named Louis Lortie (that’s him in the picture)—but the program was worth the gamble: Beethoven’s “Waldstein” and “Lebewohl” sonatas, and a cocktail of ballades, nocturnes, and the barcarolle by Chopin. According to the gentleman in the seat beside mine, Pollini had been going to play one all-Chopin program and one all-Beethoven. Maybe Lortie chose the Beethoven and Chopin out of a sense of duty to what the audiences were expecting to hear, particularly after Ohlsson chose to play neither.* In any case, it was the specter of Pollini, rather than the ghost of Liszt, that hung over the afternoon’s performance.

If Lortie assembled his program out of a sense of duty, he did not play the Beethoven as though it were a duty, either to Pollini or to the audience. He played it … well, playfully, highlighting contrasts among ideas rather than continuity between them. This was particularly noticeable in the third movement of the “Waldstein”—the differences in tempo and dynamics between the climax of the principal theme (bars 55-61) and the digressions that follow—and in the “Wiedersehn” movement of “Das Lebewohl,” between the “variations” that erupt from the delightfully anxious see-saw main idea established in bar 11. Now, it’s rare that one will enjoy a sonata with which one is intimately familiar if it is performed too far outside the horizons of one’s expectations. That said, it’s always nice to hear the different accents an unknown pianist will put on the familiar. In Lortie’s performance, the ascending left-hand phrases played against the descending arpeggios at the end of the exposition of the “Waldstein” (bars 82 and 84) stood out in a way I don’t remember ever hearing before. It at once retarded the forward momentum of the passage and  imparted a sort of longing for the tonic just as the music was settling back into the bustling opening theme.

The last two times I heard the “Waldstein” live, there was either a memorable flub (Emmanuel Ax on those stamping chords at the climax of the exposition (bars 62-5)) or something that clearly contradicted the score (Leif Ove Andsnes, who ignored the tremolo in the restatement of the opening theme (bars 14-15 & 18-19)—a whole expressive dimension of the opening idea reduced to mere repetition).** There were no such clear gaffes or liberties in Lortie’s performance (at least that I noticed). Quibbles, certainly—a tendency to be little too staccato in the “Waldstein”’s tempestuous moments, when the sonata demands more romantic wash. But then it’s out of just such quibbles that one’s relationship with a piece of music grows. And then there was much in Lortie’s detail-work to be admired. The slurred octaves (thumb-pinky glissandos?) toward the end of the third movement (bars 462-70)—such an odd, brief flourish, just when we think there can be nothing left in the composer’s bag of tricks—were executed with Debussian wispiness. Compare this to those clanging, chord-scaling octaves in the last movement of the “Lebewohl” (bars 37-44, etc.): a train crossing, right in the middle of a movement otherwise characterized by playful, joyous motion. I had just heard a disappointing performance of this sonata a couple of weeks before, so it was nice to hear these octaves restored to their full, disruptive charm.

It was also nice to hear Lortie really drag out the mere 28 bars of the second movement of the “Waldstein.” The story goes that Beethoven had planned a much more capacious second movement, but scrapped it for the “Introduzione” we now have, turning the original Andante into its own piece. But Lortie’s emphatically, almost Gouldianly slow execution made of this “Introduction” its own piece as well, highlighting its spare, straining beauty, its struggle to reach a climax—a restatement and expansion of the opening, the bass embellished, descending stepwise (mostly) to G as the right-hand figure climbs to full-octave leaps, to a series of harsh high Fs suspended over G and A flat. The G reappears in a different register as a pivot between the two movements: a non-ending that initiates the principal theme of the Rondo, from which the melody settles easily back to the tonic C. Lortie very much played that note subito forte, emphasizing its double role as both irresolution and introduction. (Or did he do so on account of the misplaced applause after the first movement?)

Interestingly, Lortie’s Chopin, the concert’s second half, sounded more dutiful than his Beethoven—a bit stiff, a bit plodding. (And this in the opinion of an ever-recovering prog rocker, who tends to like his Chopin a little stiff.) After the Beethoven, I didn’t imagine his Chopin would lack the rubato so essential to bringing the composer’s music to life. But the Chopin seemed to grow on him; he was better on third nocturne than on the first, better on the ballades than on the nocturnes, and best on the barcarolle, which ended the program.

I’ll leave the Chopin at that—good, better, best—in violation of all canons of good writing. As for the encores, they were Chopin, too, all three of them—or rather two; he ran the second and third together; but then they are adjacent etudes from the Opus 10. The first was another nocturne; it was the best Chopin he played the whole afternoon. Do nocturnes played as encores always sound more satisfying than nocturnes played during the regular program? Because I recall having a similar experience with a nocturne-encore at a Pollini concert. And then that Opus 10 No. 4 etude … could Lortie have known that was a perennial favorite Pollini encore for as well? When he was finished, I couldn’t help turning around to scan the rear of the auditorium. I half-expected to see the man in the flesh, standing in the very last row, applauding.

 

* Two notes. First, as I would learn from the review in the Times, Lortie had replaced Pollini once before, in 2003. Second, Lortie is no stranger to Liszt. He played the entire Années de pèlerinage in March 2011 at Alice Tully Hall. So maybe he felt he had already done his duty to the composer during the actual bicentennial year.

** No offense intended. Both their “Waldstein”s were otherwise lovely, as has been pretty much everything else I’ve had a chance to hear them perform.

Animistic

Photo by Garrett Bradley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glee Metal

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Live Birds

     I get now why they called him Bird.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

 

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

Land of the Midnight Stumble

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

Double Time

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

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

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

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

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

You would be wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

You go on ahead. I’ll catch up.

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