Tag Archives: concert review


The year is 1986. James Hetfield of Metallica is passed out in the band’s tour bus, head lolling, an empty bottle of Heineken in his left hand. Enter a roadie. He peels one scraggly blond hair from around the bottle, carries it to the man in the trenchcoat waiting in the shadows outside. “You’re sure it’s his?” The roadie nods, takes his cut, stalks away. The man puts the hair in a baggie. Cut to: a plane landing at Heathrow airport. Cut to: a lab, as echoes of the plane’s turbines fade on the soundtrack. A dozen petri dishes growing new Hetfields. Each embryo is implanted in a different womb, in a different family, in a different town in northern England: Manchester. Liverpool. Nottingham. And while the Hetfield we all know grows into the “monster” of the ‘90s, the new Hetfields grow up in obscurity—at least, to everyone but him. Their upbringings are closely monitored, carefully molded. A steady diet of old metal is piped into their cribs. Black Sabbath. Motörhead. Diamond Head. And of course, early Metallica. Their mothers taunt them with devil’s-horns-shaped rattles, spike their milk with Newcastle, goad them to scream until their vocal cords grow as calloused as their foster fathers’ hands. Flash forward to: 2004. Three of the Hetfields decide to form their own bands; the one planted in Huddersfield, under the name Drake, is perhaps the most promising. His band is a Metallica tribute called Metal Militia; the foster brother plays guitar—a perk from nurture—and is already quite the virtuoso. He encourages them from a distance, secretly exulting. For, as you have probably guessed, the hair-culprit has spent the better part of two decades consumed with bitterness about the sun setting on Britain’s metal empire, ever since the thrash and glam tsunamis crested over the British New Wave; and the Plan is nothing short of recapturing Britain’s World Domination of Heavy Metal. It isn’t long before Metal Militia begin writing their own material, and change their name to … Evile.


     In case you haven’t heard, we’re in the middle—or maybe toward the end—of a thrash metal revival. Open your windows one night this summer—that’s right, turn off the AC—and you might hear strains of Slayer’s “At Dawn They Sleep” wafting across your city. You might be walking down the street when some kid drives by cranking, not Kanye West, not even Avenged Sevenfold, but old Exodus … or something that sounds like old Exodus, but is not a track you can remember ever hearing. And then one day you walk into your local record store, and the incredibly hip clerk, pierced everywhere but his elbows and young enough to be your son, is playing Death Angel’s The Ultraviolence (1987). That’s when you finally put two and two together, ask yourself: What the hell is going on?

In 2007 the Village Voice did an interesting piece about a surge of unabashedly backwards-looking metal bands with names like Fueled by Fire, Violator, and Death Hunter. The Voice was less interested in the surge per se than in the idea that the majority of these bands were either Latino (Fueled by Fire) or from Latin America (Violator is from Brazil, Death Hunter from Colombia). Lest you think this is an isolated Latin American phenomenon, though, “thrash is back” (to quote Fueled by Fire) not just in the so-called periphery, but in the core as well. The website Rateyourmusic.com lists 150 neo-thrash bands worldwide—probably a fraction of the total—and the net seems to have exploded with fans’ lists of their top ten.

Nor is this metallic Great Awakening confined to the young and spry. Several bands that had been inactive since the mid-nineties, like Death Angel and Forbidden, have taken the opportunity to regroup with as many founding members as they could muster, record new albums, and pull the spiked leather bracelets down off the wall over the mantle to head out on tour. (Think of them as the old cowboys in The Wild Bunch, about to get mowed down.) And then the “big four” (Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth) are in the middle of a worldwide stadium-to-stadium tour, promoted by (gasp) Rolling Stone. (They’ll be at Yankee Stadium on the 14th of September, by the way—in case any of you Bronxites run into traffic and think you’re seeing an odd number of long-haired baseball fans.) As the term “big four” is not one I can remember hearing until last year, I’m guessing that this little marketing miracle is also attributable to the revival.

While the Voice article provides a nice rundown of the new Latin/o thrash scene, they are at a loss to explain why. Nor are the bands they interview much help. Defuse anger over the generally rotten state of Latin American society? Latin America has been rife with problems for a lot longer than five years; and although I’m perfectly happy to credit the continental spike against neoliberalism for the rise of neo-thrash—or conversely, to blame neo-thrash on the continental spike in evangelical Christianity—it doesn’t much help explain similar movements in the US and Europe. The recession? Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Price of cigarettes? Voice notwithstanding, Municipal Waste (US) and Gama Bomb (Ireland) seem to precede Fueled by Fire and Violator by a couple of years, and Evile (UK) released their first full-length LP the same year the Voice was touting neo-thrash as a largely Latin American phenomenon. (As long as we’re here, why are we always so anxious to pin the genesis of any form of loud, angry music on social dis-ease? Mightn’t it make more sense to talk about the thrash revival in terms of a cultural moment when the most successful popular music is composed of the cut-up and re-wedded samples of other people’s music?)

If there’s something ideologically satisfying about the idea of a Latin American neo-thrash movement, I guess it would be that the global “periphery” had come back to influence the “core.” And yet, whoever happened to come first, I don’t hear much in the way of influence going on here. Flamenco has a great name for its musical forms that were forged through colonization: “canciónes de ida y vuelta,” or round-trip songs. But the guajira and rumba grew from the cultural crossovers of the New World, and then were grafted back onto the music of the Old. In metal, the only analogy that comes to mind is Sepultura, who made a clear move in the ‘90s to think about the genre in terms of indigenous music and the legacies of colonization; one can already hear the berimbau in the main riff of “Refuse/Resist,” the first track on Chaos A.D. (1993), this two years before the band released their consciously-indigenous Roots. Whether this had any influence on later Latin American metal, or on metal in the US and Europe, I don’t know. But as far as the thrash revival goes, it sounds just like the name says. The master’s tools …

The alternating gales and tradewinds between the US and UK are another story, and probably strain even the most liberal application of the core-periphery metaphor to breaking. It was pretty much Kiss and some of the other heavy stadium rock acts, and maybe Alice Cooper, carrying the standard on this side of the Atlantic through the ‘70s. But we seem to have needed the Saxon invasion of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and its consolidating effect on the genre to spur a real native American metal movement. When Metallica parodied “Run to the Hills” on the fadeout of their “Last Caress/Green Hell” Misfits cover on Garage Days Re-revisited (1987), it was more than an inside joke: they were striking at the heart of the beast, asserting the primacy of this punky new American style of metal. This is pretty ironic, given that the rest of that album and the previous Garage Days EP are largely dedicated to covering the unsung heroes of the British New Wave—covering them so well, in fact, that they rival Metallica’s best material; there is still probably a large contingent of the fan community who believe “Am I Evil?” and “Helpless” and “The Prince” are originals. Okay, maybe it was just a good-natured poke at Maiden’s popularity, as against the relative obscurity of bands like Diamond Head, Blitzkrieg and Budgie. Anyway, it’s worth remembering that the Garage Days Re-revisited EP appeared one year after Ozzy passed the torch, likening Metallica’s energy during their opening sets on the Ultimate Sin tour to the early days of Black Sabbath.

Rather than causes, maybe it’s more useful to talk about motives: why this desire to resuscitate a music that spiked and died a generation ago? According to the vocalist for Colombia’s Death Hunter, interviewed by the Voice, it is “to make the scene revive to the old days, to try and maintain the scene and strengthen it so that it doesn’t die with time.” Ah, nostalgia for a lost Eden, before the splinterings of the genre over the last two decades, when sound, scene and identity formed a coherent whole. (These bands even make fun of “net metal” fans who listen to the music online but don’t go to shows; the word “poseur” seems to be making a comeback, Fueled by Fire leading the charge.) It begs the question of whether such a scene ever existed, except in hindsight. But then revivals are always characterized by their emotional intensity about the thing revived, anger at the trespasses of the generation immediately prior, and a desire to “restore” something perceived as fallen: a religion, a society, a genre of music. Their zeal is only exacerbated by the sense of having missed the heyday, the time before the City on the Hill became a den of iniquity. That the thrash revival has been somewhat contentious among older fans is case in point: a certain distrust about those meddling kids raiding the tombs of their fathers’ fathers. Who knows to what sorts of travesties their misguided zeal might lead them?

In this light, the thrash revival appears not as an anomaly, but a necessity: a labor of reverence, a drama of devotion. At its core metal is still tribal, deeply beholden to begats, and as genealogically obsessed as the Mormon church. There are multiple ironies here—for one, that a genre that prizes itself so much on rebellion is so deeply bound by its own tradition—bound, in fact, by its very own tight-knit allegiance to a certain, specific rebellion. But it’s just these sorts of weirdnesses that led me to want to write something, however incomplete and overwrought, about this curious phenomenon called the thrash revival; and to focus on Evile for the very particular role they seem to be playing in it. How long can a genre revival last before it spirals into pure self-parody (assuming it neither started nor has already ended there) or bores itself to a dead end, even in a genre so enamored of its own past? How does a younger generation playing an older music both appease older fans and attract younger ones? And how much can a band pay tribute before they become just a tribute band?


Last fall a Jerseyite friend of mine suggested we go see Overkill at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville (or “Slayerville,” as he calls it), New Jersey. Overkill are one of those genre stalwarts that have been going like a rabid Energizer bunny since the early ‘80s, as consistent and loyal to the scene as Slayer, if nowhere near as well-known or influential. Overkill are metal as blue-collar punk. Their early material managed to walk the crooked line between hardcore and classic sword-and-sorcery metal; there was even a bit of hair-metal hedonism thrown in for good measure. They capture everything that is lowbrow and in-your-face about working class N.J., epitomized in their 1987 re-casting of the punk anthem “We Don’t Care What You Say (Fuck You).” Not surprisingly, they played it for an encore, the crowd turning their devil’s horns into middle fingers to deliver the “New Jersey salute” (as wizened frontman Bobby Blitz termed it), a visual echo of the larger-than-life middle finger on the cover of the “Fuck You” EP. (Larger than life on vinyl, at least. What happened to the “actual size” head on the cover of Devo’s Are We Not Men? when it was shrunken for CD, and then became the “album artwork” on your phone?)

The “Slayerville” show was the last stop on the band’s silver anniversary tour. You could actually buy a T-shirt with a fluorescent green “Overkill bat” (a skull with bat wings, the band’s mascot, like Iron Maiden’s “Eddie”) hovering over a similarly day-glo outline of the great state of New Jersey. Seldom have music and cultural geography been more perfectly matched.

My Overkill roots go pretty deep. If you’re from North Jersey and listened to metal in the ‘80s, Overkill are at least your second cousins, like Jews and Italians. Original drummer “Rat Skates” and founding and continuing bassist D.D. Verni are from the town next to the one where I grew up. Friends of friends took lessons with Skates. Overkill were the first club show I ever saw, in 1987, on a double bill with Testament, at the now-defunct Satellite Lounge. That said, I was actually more eager to see the second band on the bill that night, Forbidden, one of several great acts that percolated up out of San Francisco Bay toward the end of the watershed, just long enough to put out a couple of records before going back to mowing lawns in Berkeley. They were maybe the most successful band of that era in uniting an operatic prog-metal with thrash’s speed and aggression. Anyway, I hadn’t seen either band since the mid ‘90s, so this show was as much a homecoming for me as for Overkill.

The third band on the bill that night (of five) was Evile. I hadn’t heard of them, and what with doors opening at 6 and first band going on at 7, I didn’t expect I’d get a chance to hear them. But then my friend insisted—and since this is the same friend who routinely ensconses himself at some nearby bar and drinks his way through half the headliner, never mind the opening acts, I eagerly consented. After all, I didn’t want to miss Forbidden; who knew but that it was my last opportunity—who knew how long thrash’s Indian summer would last?

I couldn’t have known at the time that this was the perfect context in which to see Evile: warming up for the sorts of bands they had built their career paying tribute to. Truth be told, I hadn’t been paying much attention to the whole thrash revival. I had read the Voice article when it came out, bookmarked the relevant MySpace pages; I was thrilled to see some of the old bands working again; I had watched and enjoyed YouTube clips my friends had sent me of Gama Bomb and Municipal Waste. But I walked into the Starland Ballroom not knowing that Evile was even a participant, let alone the revival’s “flagship.”

The 6 p.m. doors made sense. This was almost a matinee performance; the only thing missing were the picnic blankets. There were several guys my age there with their young sons. There were actually quite a few fans in the 16-to-24 age bracket, too, including one who works at the Mailboxes store my friend manages, and who has a band of his own. Here it was, metal as a rite of passage, as much in the audience as on-stage. It was as if, by incantation, by repetition, Evile could resurrect the past, “revive the scene,” as Death Hunter put it. Sabbracadrabra … and out of the smoke stumbles Forbidden, asking what the fuck year it is, and why their heads hurt so bad.

There were the obligatory expressions of excitement and homage of a young band getting to play with some of their heroes. But then they were so down to earth, and so gracious to be there, saying “cheers” in their very British way to a bunch of Jersey metalheads. I have to admit, I preferred that “cheers” to the New Jersey salute; but then I grew up on a different side of Jersey. And maybe just hearing that accent, in that context, pushed my Maiden-Priest nostalgia and blind allegiance buttons. Here were these young Brits, playing old American thrash metal with a “new” accent … as if metal had clicked its heels three times and found its way back to Oz, away from Kansas, and from Caracas. I enjoyed them so much that I forgot to ask why they weren’t doing to Metallica what Metallica had done to Maiden back in 1987.


Infected Nations (2009), Evile’s second album, maybe best illuminates some of the big questions facing the thrash revival as the subgenre crests its first half-decade. With 2007’s Enter the Grave, the band was credited with “carrying the genre’s whole ‘revival’ on their shoulders.” (That they were credited thus by British rock mag Kerrang! seems significant; perhaps my fictitious hair-culprit has a shade of truth about him.) Singer Matt Drake was likened (more than he deserved to be) to Slayer’s Tom Araya, and the music to early Metallica—surely helped along by the fact that Grave was produced by Metallica’s old engineer Flemming Rasmussen. But there were some notable differences between Grave and many of the revival’s other burnt offerings. The band logo and album cover art didn’t have that cartoonish, DIY style. Nor did the music have the same self-conscious over-the-topness of, say, Fueled by Fire, which screams pastiche. For many neo-thrashers, having a band seemed like an excuse to play dress-up Exodus, like some sort of postmodern glam-rockers. Could it be that these young Brits were taking themselves and the whole revival thing seriously?

It’s common wisdom that second albums are difficult, particularly after a much-lauded first one, and the “revival” thing adds a whole other degree of difficulty. Most reviews of Infected Nations suggest the band chose to move beyond Enter the Grave and begin to establish their own sound. This narrative of maturation is echoed in the bio on the band’s website—or probably the reverse is true—which, tellingly, does not mention that Evile began as a Metallica tribute. Fan reviews take pains to either praise or damn the changes; there seems to be no middle ground. Some go so far as to suggest that it would have been better for this great quasi-tribute band to keep tribute-ing than to evolve toward original mediocrity.

I think this misses the point. Evile is certainly changing; whether they are coming into their own sound is another story. And here is where the ironies come on fast and thick. The fact that the band has produced a more ambitious, progressive, slower second album is hailed as a step forward in their self-making. Until, that is, you consider that Metallica did just that, expanding their song lengths, and varying times, tempo, and dynamics through And Justice for All (1988). And not just Metallica; many thrash acts moved toward a proggier style as the ‘80s drew on, increasing song lengths, playing with time signatures, writing multi-movement suites, and slowing down that raging tempo. More than one fan review points to Justice as a viable analogy for Nations; others compare the change to Slayer’s between Reign in Blood and South of Heaven. Evile, then, seems to be recapitulating Metallica’s career, and the trajectory of the genre as a whole (as befits the look backwards: life is lived at the pace of time, but flashbacks can condense mercilessly). The price of being part of a genre revival appears to be that every attempt to “move forward” only binds one more closely to the genre revived. What’s maybe even more interesting to consider is whether the fan community, too, is recapitulating the reception of Metallica’s music, from exaltation to contention and feelings of betrayal.

It’s hard to get past playing riffspotting with Infected Nations. “Oh, that sounds like new Metallica/ middle-period Metallica/ old Metallica/ Slayer/ Testament/ Sepultura/ Queensryche/ etc.” Which is a bit of a shame, really, because it’s more fun to listen to than pick apart. Not that there aren’t weaknesses. The choruses in particular can be pretty drab, built around the title word/phrase groaned with either a half-step drop (Demoli-tion; Infected … Na-tions) or, in moments of near-inspiration, a full step up followed by a half-step drop (Devoid of … devoid of), buttressed by riot vocals (“Na-tions!”; “Now!”; “Thought!”; etc.) that sound like a packed football stadium. (I like a little less riot in my riot vocals; four or five guys shouting together is enough.) The funny thing is, it doesn’t take much to save a chorus—I know, I sound like one of those penny-for-the-homeless hawkers, but it’s true. “Plague to End All Plagues” is catchy because it monkey-wrenches the de rigueur half-step (Plague … to end) with a flat-fifth jump up (“ALL”), reinforcing the theme (for a regular plague, the regulation half-step in the chorus would be enough; but, goddammit, this is the plague to end ALL plagues). “Genocide” does it one better: again built on half-steps, the third line of the chorus kicks the half-step up a major third (“Visions of a future denied”), putting it squarely in the much-abused and -exalted Freygish scale. I’m actually being a little unfair with “Now Demolition,” which features a funky little key change and arpeggiated chords in the pre-chorus. In fact, were this not thrash metal, it would be totally unfair to suggest the vocalist need do anything but fart for the duration of the record.*

Where Nations excels, though, is in its sheer quantity of interesting riffage—derivative or no—and tight playing … and in the lead guitar work of Ol Drake, who turns out some of the most inspired, flamboyant and technically-sophisticated guitar solos since Dimebag went down in a hail of bullets. It makes me positively nostalgic for the days when a certain amount of self-indulgence was perceived as a virtue (he says, at word three thousand eight hundred of this post). For this reason—and contrary to what even some positive reviews of Nations suggest—the more interesting tracks here are the ones where the band give themselves space to stretch out and riff around: the aforementioned “Genocide”; “Metamorphosis”; and the 11-minute instrumental “Hundred Wrathful Deities.” Granted, “Deities” is not the masterpiece its length cries out for, and maybe because it sets the bar highest in terms of the ostensible move toward a new, more complex sound, it is the song most disparaged in reviews. But for the purpose of considering Nations in terms of the thrash revival, it’s the most remarkable track on the record: a sort of serial homage to Metallica’s three big instrumentals: “The Call of Ktulu” (1984), “Orion” (1986), and “To Live Is To Die” (1988) … with bits of Testament, Seasons-era Slayer, and even early Judas Priest thrown into the mix (see: riffspotting). A “Ktulu” opening gives way to two slow, heavy, “To Live”-like movements; the song then breaks into an “Orion”-like mid/up-tempo solo section, and then cycles back through variations on the three-movement introduction before concluding with an even stronger echo of “Ktulu”—not surprising, as this is the instrumental that closed Metallica’s own second album. And yet, I don’t want to give the impression that “Deities” is just a medley, or suffers from the rather typical metal-instrumental problem of sounding like a patchwork of unused riffs, even unused Metallica riffs. It actually has a structural integrity that many instrumentals lack. In fact, it’s more tightly welded together than “To Live Is To Die,” the Metallica instrumental to which it is probably closest in spirit, right down to the dull spots and the transcendent, full-on dirge in the middle, complete with harmonies that sound like they were laid on with a palette knife.

When it’s all over—”Deities” ends the album—the question nags: how can it be the masterpiece it wants to be when it’s still so indebted to the master? How can Evile restore the phallus and the purity of British metal when they’re as prone as Latin America to kowtowing to the US?

Maybe the better question is, Can it be a masterpiece of the revival without being indebted to the master? And maybe that’s what makes Infected Nations enjoyable, and sometimes downright good. It’s not that Evile sound most like themselves when they sound most like Metallica. It’s not even the earlier point, that by trying to grow out of being a tribute band they more firmly grow into one. It’s that the line between pastiche and inspiration is a fine one; and though Evile fall more than once, they also manage to perform some pretty amazing feats of balance. By flattering an older listener’s knowledge of the genre while managing, through sympathetic magic, to turn the stuff of rote tribute into something vital; and by refusing the security blanket of irony, and shooting so big as to try to gobble up the whole history of the subgenre, pace Metallica, in their sound. And why shouldn’t they? The City on the Hill was supposed to start the purifying fire, to be seen across the Atlantic. Even thrash metal was about restoring something, burning away the icons and brambles to find that mutable, fleeting essence underneath, maybe just called rock-n-roll.

A word about lyrics before concluding: In a genre that expends so much energy making monsters, and capitalizing on the monsters created by the more reactionary elements in our culture, it’s refreshing to hear a band that reminds us that the “demons” who commit monstrous evils “are only men”—that “they” are no different from “us” (“Genocide”). It’s particularly nice to hear this in a post-9/11 era, where a band like Testament, not unknown for occasionally spouting progressive-tilting lyrics back in the day (as was in fact intermittently true of many thrash bands), returned to the scene in 2008 with an apocalyptic “holy war” album. I don’t know what Evile’s politics are—where metal is concerned, most bands’ politics don’t bear much looking into; I’d as soon ask the Hell’s Angels to sign petitions for marriage equality. But is it too much to ask British neo-thrashers to re-import a bit of political sanity into the lyrics of post-9/11 metal? As long as they’re riffing on ‘80s thrash metal, they might as well channel that punk-inspired anger, or at minimum, apathy.


Evile’s third album is slated for release at the end of September. In interviews the band has suggested that they are seeking a middle ground between their first and second efforts—seeking, it seems, a compromise between “early” and “late” revival, between a much-lauded straight-ahead sound and a more contentious “progressive” one. I’m not sure how to take this. They’re a talented young band with, one hopes, a bright future. They weathered the sudden, tragic death of their bass player, Mike Alexander, in 2009. (Talk about recapitulating Metallica’s career, Jesus. At least Cliff Burton lasted three albums. Couldn’t Alexander tell his days were numbered?) It would be a shame if the very exuberance about an older style of metal that brought them into the spotlight were to become their Achilles’ heel. I’d really like to see at least a few of these neo-thrash bands chart their own course, wherever they might go, before their vessels are dashed to pieces on the rocks of a revival set to expire—history repeating or rhyming or whatever it does—before the next big evangelical apocalypse.

This all might be asking too much; the dead hand of the past may simply weigh too heavy, and the balancing acts of inspired tribute might be the best I can expect. In the meantime, I’ll keep listening,  and raising my glass to them, as they did to me in Jersey.

* Matt Drake’s voice has been a focus of ire for several reviewers, who argue that he was a good Araya impersonator, but now that the band is writing slower, more nuanced material, he’s trying to “do something” with his voice … and it’s about as effective as a comb-over. Drake belts in the gruff midrange of thrash metal, a mix of Puppets-era Hetfield—even to the vocal harmonies—and Sepultura’s Max Cavalera, though without the dopey punch of the latter at his best. But I’ll take Drake any day over the “scream the verse, croon the chorus” (probably the best 6 words of music criticism the Voice ever wrote) emo-death crap that dominates the genre today.

Gentlemen’s Club

The Iridium is the sort of place that makes you feel like a tourist in your own city. It’s the Caesars Palace of jazz clubs, a place where you resign yourself to shelling out fifty bucks to hear the legends of yesteryear, talk to out-of-towners in third-grade English, and sip overpriced drinks. I have a vague recollection it wasn’t always like this, that it was less mercenary before moving from its Dali-inspired digs across from Lincoln Center to the basement of the Stardust Diner at the north end of Times Square. Today, if you’re not careful, you’ll wander right past the club entrance and into the diner, among the bright lights and singing waitstaff and people from Iowa. You’ll vainly look for the door at the back of the diner that says “Iridium” instead of “Restrooms,” until some busboy takes pity on you, spins you around, and gives you a shove; and then, skirting the waitress belting out something from Show Boat, and to frivolous applause, you’ll find yourself back at the front door, where, if you’re extraordinarily lucky, some other good samaritan might just point you to the staircase leading down.

The basement is all murmur and dim rather than loud and bright, club versus diner, but don’t be fooled: the Iridium and the Stardust are very much of a piece. Times Square hammers everything into the same matrix, ensures consistency as much as any brand. Last year I came here to see Alan Holdsworth, that rumpled gentleman of the electric guitar, and the events calendar on my table big-named an upcoming performance by David Coverdale. Of Whitesnake! it said, in case the name of that justly-forgotten supergroup had escaped you. I just can’t imagine Birdland or even the Blue Note doing the same.

For the Holdsworth gig—and probably for the Coverdale gig, too—the club filled up with men my age, come to watch their elderly hero or mentor with the same rapt attention that the patrons of the gentlemen’s club a block up Broadway watch women take off their clothes. I confess that I learn more about myself at such shows than about, say, playing the guitar. For one, Holdsworth wasn’t revealing any secrets, and so made his achievements on that instrument seem all the more astonishing—in fact, I got the impression that he was flabbergasted by his own technique. And then I see other versions of myself in the audience, and wonder, for example, why my beard doesn’t look that way, or why I’m not taking pictures of Holdsworth’s effects rack, or whether I’ve become too curmudgeonly in my early forties—I generally don’t think to bring earplugs to jazz clubs, but a lot of other people obviously had, and that Holdsworth guy, Jesus, he was too loud.

But then David Coverdale was playing here next week. What was I thinking?


I was eighteen the first time I heard Alex Skolnick, and so was he. This was 1987, and Testament had just put out their first album, The Legacy, one of a handful of truly great metal albums to come out of the exploding Bay Area scene in the late ‘80s. Even in a genre that defines itself partly by guitar virtuosity—and sometimes, alas, by little else—Alex was a bright bright star. That he was “our” age made him that much more a hero.

Five years and as many albums later, Alex quit Testament, and a few years after that entered the New School to study jazz. There, he put together a trio with the idea of treating classic metal tunes as jazz standards. Instead of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, it would be Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest and the Scorpions—the so-called “new standard” taken to its logical extreme. So far as I know, he’s been working on and off with that trio since the early ‘00s, dividing his time between them and other projects … including a 2008 reunion album and tour with Testament (huzzah!).

I had tried to see the Skolnick trio when they were gigging semi-regularly at the Knitting Factory some years ago, but stuff had always gotten in the way. When I saw him scheduled to play the Iridium—on Memorial Day, no less—something clicked. Here was Alex, old friend, blood brother, who had followed the same musical trajectory as I had, albeit as a performer instead of listener. We were finally going to get the chance to catch up.

The show was listed as “Les Paul Mondays with the Alex Skolnick Trio,” so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Nor did the guy on the other end of the reservations line have a clue. As it turned out, the Les Paul Trio (sans Paul, since his death a couple of years ago) played for about a half hour; then they invited Alex out to jam with them on “Caravan” and “How High the Moon”; then the Les Paul players fled the stage, and Alex brought his guys out to play their renditions of Metallica’s “Fade to Black” and Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye,” together with three or four originals.

He seemed nervous jamming with the Les Paul players, and a little sketchy, too. And he looked … old. I mean, older than me. I couldn’t help but think of “Sonny’s Blues”: I was the safe brother, the narrator, the one who became a teacher (math in Baldwin’s story, English in mine), and Alex was Sonny, the “searching” brother who had given himself to music, the one with whom I had just been reunited, and who now looked like he’d aged past his years, past mine. But then he had always looked older, even when we were both eighteen. He was a rock star, larger than life; he was in pictures on my wall.

And yet … he acted like such a kid. The nerves, like he’d been called up to solo in high school band. He gave a shout out to his dad, who was sitting at the bar, and who had brought him here, he said, to see Les Paul. He showed off his signed box set of Les Paul CDs to the audience. He said the Les Paul trio was the epitome of something called “class,” and asked, “What the hell are we [the Skolnick trio] doing here?” (He might have asked the same about David Coverdale.) He seemed unable to catch up with himself, always a step behind his own excitement. He had seen Les Paul at the Iridium! And John Scofield, too! And tonight he had brought along his own Les Paul, to play part of the gig on!

So there you are, brother Alex, all grown up and ever-older than me, still a big kid. It was heavy metal fan culture transposed onto jazz, yes; but I also wondered if I was glimpsing something larger, about the nature of celebrity, or at least rock-n-roll celebrity: all these aging children, warped that way, like Carlos Fuentes’s “Doll Queen” (I won’t give the ending away, in case you haven’t read it), not in this case by the unnatural desire of parents, but by the similarly unnatural desires of mass culture.

I don’t know about class, but combining the Skolnick and Les Paul trios was definitely an exercise in incongruity. The latter played to the theater crowd: nothing over three minutes, everything standard as standard could be, and most of it with vocal accompaniment. I hadn’t seen the trio since the late ‘90s, when Paul was still the leader: the original Johnny Carson of the guitar, though a bit randier in his humor, all looking up girls’ skirts and tricking his bandmates into sitting on whoopee cushions. It was nice to see Lou Pallo still holding down the fort on rhythm guitar, comping with the relaxed aplomb of a gondolier pushing down a Venetian canal. He can’t solo or play a melody to save his life, but that had been Les’s job, after all … and one gets the impression that this dour soul was happier being Ed McMahon. As for the rest of the band—Nicki Parrott on bass, John Colianni on piano—they have more talent than I can possibly do justice to in a few sentences. But let me try with Ms Parrott, who so embodies the essence of performance that she transcends the Times Square aesthetic, perhaps by most fully embracing it. Beautiful, blessed with a sultry voice and a great feel for her instrument. There was a point in the set that I was about to start beating my glass on the table and chanting Skol-nick, Skol-nick; but I swear, if all I had heard that night was her rendition of “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” I would have gone home content. They said the tune had been one of Les’s favorites, but she very much made it her own.

Surely the most memorable moment of the evening, though, happened a tune or so later, when Pallo invited Alex out to play. “We’re going to bring out now a very talented young man” (don’t you love it? Goddamn, I am YOUNG!) “… he’s some sort of heavy … rock … heavy rocker … what is that? Heavy metal, that’s it!” (laughter from the band; applause from the audience at the back tables) “… but now he decided that he wanted to play jazz” (uproarious laughter from the rest of the band, I mean, baby, this is just a GAS, a HEAVY ROCKER who wants to play JAZZ? baby, can you dig it?) “and he’s an absolutely fabulous player … please welcome to the stage Mr Alex Slotnick!” (close enough … maybe cue cards next time?)

Out loped Alex in that tight-jeans metal way, as hobbled as if he’d worked those five years on a chain gang, head bobbing, long foofy hair with a skunky streak in it. He cut a pose with the trio for the paparazzi, playing along with them, face all metal-serious, the devil horns in his left hand.

I couldn’t make this shit up, but somebody’s got to write it down.

As for the “Slotnick” trio and their music: some of it was austere, some of it bluesy, and some of it enjoyably kitsch, and consciously so. You can’t write a tune called “Bollywood Jam” without a pretty deep appreciation of the traditions you’re pulling together. Once the “Jam” got going, it reminded me of nothing so much as early Al DiMeola. This makes sense: I imagine that Alex and I both discovered Land of the Midnight Sun and Elegant Gypsy right around the same impressionable time in our lives, probably through our respective guitar teachers (though I can’t claim to have studied with Joe Satriani). Probably we had both sat with our ears close to our stereo speakers, trying to pick up those badass riffs from “Race with the Devil on a Spanish Highway” and working on our right hand speed picking patterns, heads nodding … yes, of course, metal and jazz, it makes sense, as much sense as anything, and there we all were, the guys at the front tables, all these superannuated headbangers bobbing our heads in unison.

But it’s not like the New School would have let him get away with just DiMeola, likely among the baggage he brought along with him. Alex had obviously had the Wes Montgomery on heavy rotation, as he shaped those solos from notes to octaves. And there was at least one other classic bop influence whose name was on the tip of my tongue … and will likely remain there until I have a chance to pick up one of the trio’s records and myself put it on heavy rotation.

In terms of the metal tunes, “Fade to Black” was the more interesting of the two, smartly arranged, from the use of effects loops to record and carry on the opening chord progression under Kirk Hammett’s original solo, to an extended jam on the “Stairway”/ “Watchtower”/ etc. finale. Maybe “Fade to Black” is just a more interesting tune to re-imagine than “Electric Eye,” which came across sort of flat. Or, since the Metallica is a more recent “cover” than the Priest, maybe it’s the case that Skolnick is seeing the music with enough distance now that he can really play with it. Or maybe it was the Paulite influence—those inventive loops. (As Alex put it, “He [Paul] was doing loops before there were loops.”)


The question, it seems to me, is not “Can metal be played as jazz?”—anything can be played as jazz—but rather, “Should metal be played as jazz?” On this I think the jury’s still out. Not that I don’t admire Alex for trying. But then I’ve always admired him—his prodigious technique, his verve and imagination as a soloist, his contribution to those heavy harmonies that defined Testament’s sound, and his thirst to keep expanding himself as a musician.

As for whether one should play metal as jazz, I will end with this, an observation-cum-aphorism: Holdsworth was louder.


Spring Peoples’ Symphony Roundup

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

And yes, they did oil that goddamned door.


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

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

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

Clap Much?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My first exposure to J.D. Allen was at last year’s Charlie Parker Festival, on the uptown Saturday, in the northeast corner of Marcus Garvey Park, where the concert had been relocated while the bandshell was under renovation. Allen’s trio was midway through their set by the time I showed up—which, at the Marcus Garvey half of the CP Festival, is defined by the threshold where the concert becomes louder than the drum circle always happening on its perimeter—and I regretted my lateness before I’d even found a spot to sit down. I love the raw power of a saxophone trio, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard anything quite so raw or so powerful as Allen’s. It wasn’t just the horn, either; the whole band was relentless. They seemed hardly to come up for air.

The trio had third billing that day; still to come was the always-impressive Jason Moran, followed by McCoy Tyner solo. But nothing came close to Allen. It was the thrill of discovery, that moment when a musician or band or composition becomes “ours,” a sort of foundling godchild.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the following April that I happened to be in a record store, picked up a New York City Jazz Record, and found that the trio would be at Smalls mid-month, on a Monday night. Happily, this would be during spring break.

I got to Smalls a bit early, unsure of how much of a crowd to expect—I figured Allen was a rising star, but I didn’t know how much of a name he’d made for himself yet—and anyway, it was a Monday, and it was Smalls. As it turned out, the previous set had not yet ended; there were a few dozen people in the club, a few empty chairs toward the back. I sat down in the last row, signaled the waitress, and commenced eavesdropping on my neighbors. The woman to my left was on stopover from London; the woman to my right was from Los Angeles; she and her husband were visiting their son, who had relocated to New York to work in real estate (surprise), and who had dragged his parents to Smalls for (one presumes) an authentic NYC experience.

I ended up speaking to the madre angelina, and offered the padre, who was standing with the son behind the last row, to take my seat. Graciously declined. The waitress was tied up at the door, so I went to the bar for my drink, looking for the holy ghost in the mirrors, watching the club hop and bustle, and all the men with mysterious black cases, like country doctors. The musicians mulled about in the back. A few minutes after I’d sat down again they were announced, and filed down the alley between the chairs and the bar to scattered applause, ducking the waitress’s drink tray. Then the barmaid turned off the stereo, the dim lights got dimmer, and the trio started to play.

If I had to make a comparison to what I heard this night—and to a lesser extent, what I’d been hearing on Shine!, the trio’s latest effort, for the previous month—it would be to Coltrane’s quartet at the dawn of the ‘60s. On uptempo cuts, Allen tends toward permutations of short phrases, sometimes harking back to Giant Steps; on slower, more searching tracks, toward something like the “Psalm” on A Love Supreme. He seems more at home in the latter, in extended gestures played against abstract, washed-out backgrounds, cut with occasional squirted-out birdcalls. Granted, at the Smalls set the rhythm section had a tendency to set tempos Allen couldn’t quite match, sending him running after the proverbial streetcar. But Shine! avoids those audacious tempos … and yet one still notices that neither speed nor sharp rhythmic phrasing are among his gifts. Where Allen excels is in the sound he gets out of his horn, and in his ability to shape his rather open-ended lines into luminous, deeply-felt musical statements. In his liner notes to Shine!, Ben Waltzer describes that sound as “incantatory” and “hypnotic.” It is sometimes reedy, sometimes sodden in vibrato, always weighty—the paradox of a heavy thing floating in air. I honestly can’t think of another player to whom I’d rather listen sit on one note for a good ten seconds. But if this is so, it isn’t only because of his tone, but the note as well, the choice of where to drop anchor. And the power of those endnotes has to derive in part from the shape and momentum of the melodic line that delivers them.

In terms of his sound, and to a certain degree his approach, Allen is actually closer to fellow Detroiter Kenny Garrett than to Coltrane, this though Garrett is an alto player, Allen a tenor. (One could also draw a line from Coltrane to Garrett, who recorded an entire album of Coltrane’s music, called Pursuance; but then one could draw such a line to almost any post-‘60s horn player.) I’m thinking above all of Garrett’s Songbook, “Sounds of the Flying Pygmies” and the anthemic “Sing a Song of Songs” in particular, from which Allen seems to have gleaned a trove of useful ideas. In this respect, I found it interesting that Waltzer mentions a litany of Detroit players with whom Allen has worked, including Geri Allen and James Carter, but does not mention Garrett. Maybe they put something in the water out there, a sort of jazz fluoride. Call it purity of essence.

The affinity to the early ‘60s Coltrane, though, has as much to do with the function and interaction of the trio as with Allen himself. Waltzer notes that Detroit was ahead of the rest of the country in seeing no real difference between the (once-?)warring camps of mainstream and “free” jazz. Indeed, several times during the Smalls set, the music achieved and sustained a level of centrifugal beauty one is more apt to hear at venues like The Stone or Roulette. Not so much sheets of sound as walls of noise: deafening storms in the rhythm section—torrential rolls and crashes from Rudy Royston at the drum kit; bassist Gregg August strumming away at those fat strings—giving way to almost surreal moments of clarity from the horn. Rather than participating in the fray, Allen attempted to rise above it. The impression is of a powerful but human voice asserting itself against the din (of modernity, of mass culture … of what you like). Except that then you hear Allen’s voice calling out to his bandmates between breaths, and you come to realize that he, that human voice, is also orchestrating the chaos, driving it forward and holding it together, a ship’s captain calling forth and reveling in the storm.

I wondered whether the few people who scurried out mid-set were disappointed, daunted, or deafened, and whether audiences in the early ‘60s had done the same during Coltrane’s sets … particularly with that imp named Dolphy standing at Trane’s shoulder, prodding his squeaky pitchfork into Trane’s ever-bendable ear, trying to convince him that HE was the voice of God! And all this was particularly curious in a reputable little jazz venue like Smalls, where Wynton Marsalis might wander in at any moment, like the Hall Monitor demanding your pass. I felt sort of bad for having told the real estate salesman’s mom that Allen was “a revelation,” as I did in passing before the set began. But they were real stalwarts, stuck it out to the end. Hell, maybe they even liked it.

Compared to the prolixity of most newer jazz, one notices that the tracks on Shine! are brief, not a one over five minutes. But this belies the way the trio works live: rather than stopping and starting to name tunes and highlight band members’ contributions, each song blends into the next. (Shine! does this, at least with a few pairs or sets of songs.) They are similar enough in tone and style to give the impression of a single, hour-long composition—an approach that once again evokes the avant-garde. “Sonhouse”; “Teo (Ted’s Theme)”; “Se’Lah”: these are tunes with a sort of found-object beauty, like arrowheads. No wonder that the likes of Thoreau had an uncanny knack for finding them; they are just such barely-hewn stones, blurring the line between composition and improvisation, arising like forms of crystalline loveliness in tidal pools … only to be drowned again in the torrents of noise. The music only really stops when the trio is done—when they’ve run out of breath, I guess, or have crossed whatever collective mental or emotional finish line they have drawn for themselves.

I could go on with Coltrane-quartet affinities, Royston’s in particular: his demolitionist’s approach to the drum kit; those breakout rhythms, dead ringers for Jones’s. The flying sweat. But the chief affinity is broader than that, and as glaringly obvious. For the ultimate goal of this band, as it was for Coltrane’s, is grace, spirit, ascension. It is gospel enfolded into a jazz idiom. It hardly makes them derivative. On the contrary: a collective working toward spirit seems always renewable.

And yet … where would such spiritual exercises be without just the slightest hint of the charlatan? I couldn’t listen to Coltrane without distrusting him a little. Allen, too: the throwback fedora and number-runner’s suit. Just like I distrust the Bible-thumping preacher as he steps up to the pulpit, in that moment right before I take the first sip of my whiskey sour, close my eyes, and get swept up in the sermon.

Can I get a hallelujah?


Last December I attended a Sunday afternoon People’s Symphony Concert at Town Hall, the first of the 2010-11 season. I’ll have more to say about the idiosyncratic culture of this concert series in the future, and will take the opportunity now and again to review exceptional performances. In this post, however, I wanted to place the focus elsewhere.

The afternoon’s entertainment was a duo, cello and piano, playing a mix of Romantic and contemporary music: Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Gulda, Schnittke. According to the program notes, the cellist, one Friedrich Kleinhapl, has performed with several major European orchestras and around the world as a soloist, and has recorded 11 CDs.

What the program notes did not mention (and of course there is no reason why they should have) was that Mr Kleinhapl is almost certainly less than five feet tall, while his accompanist, a Mr Andreas Woyke, is seven feet if he is an inch.

As a result, Mr Kleinhapl was barely visible over the shoulder of his cello, and his left hand seemed phantasmagorically disembodied as it scurried around the fingerboard. Mr Woyke’s piano bench stood well back on a six-inch riser, probably so that his knees would not be cramped under the keyboard, and he could use the pedals comfortably.*

It did not help matters—or, depending on your perspective, perhaps it did—that Mr Kleinhapl has a bowl haircut and sparse mustache-beard, while Mr Woyke is bald as a stone.

Remarkably, when the petite Mr Kleinhapl was on stage alone, the impression of his smallness left me—he seemed adequately sized, even perfectly sized, for his instrument. In fact, when he stood to take a bow after the Gulda cadenza, I noticed that his cello was almost exactly as tall as he—or he was almost exactly as tall as his cello—I am honestly not sure which way to phrase it. But when Mr Woyke returned for the Rachmaninoff sonata, my impression of Mr Kleinhapl’s smallness returned: he seemed squeezed into a corner, dwarfed not just by the man behind him, but by the piano, which suddenly appeared an instrument fashioned for Titans. Even his proximity to the edge of the stage made him seem smaller, the giant looming in the background like a mountain.

Maybe the stage was an Ames room, I thought, and we (the members of the audience) were the victims of an optical illusion. But had this been the case, when the two musicians approached each other after each piece to take a bow, they would have arrived at some equilibrium middle stature. Instead, the reverse happened: when Mr Kleinhapl, animated by the music, took Mr Woyke’s right hand in his left, the former seemed to shrink, and the latter to grow, until I thought the pianist would slip the cellist into his coat pocket, and exit the stage with him.

And so an element of the carnivalesque was helpless but to enter Town Hall that afternoon, and soon I began imagining the performance this way: I thought Mr Kleinhapl should rightly be standing on Mr Woyke’s shoulder, or balanced on a chair held by one leg in the pianist’s right hand, the latter dressed like a strongman. They might have juggled torches and performed feats of acrobacy.

And yet, musically, was this not precisely what they were doing?

From a musical perspective, what was most curious is that the visual difference invited me to ponder the musical difference in timbre and sonority between the two instruments—to listen, that is, not just to two different melodies, or melody plus accompaniment, but to two different means of production of sound; to hear the cello as a cello and the piano as a piano, and to remark mentally on the contrast between them.

The afternoon’s contrasts did not end with the performers. Unlike the other PSC series at Washington Irving High School, where non-balcony seating is general admission, seats at Town Hall are assigned. My seat is broken; I usually sit one seat to the left, if it is unoccupied. Anyway, my seat is directly behind the seat of a gentleman who contorts his body according to the mood of the music, alternately crumpling and straightening like a puppet when its strings slacken and then are pulled taut, throwing his head back and his hands in the air one moment, fingers tensed, as if he were silently crying out, and then rocking forward until his head is almost between his knees. I don’t know whether his movements are a result of disease (they are vaguely Parkinsonian), or a constitutional lack of inhibition, or simply a deep connection to the music, which, on this particular afternoon, alternately captivated and alienated me.

After the first of three pieces by Alexander Zemlinsky with which the concert opened, and then again after the end of the three pieces together, the ushers admitted latecomers, at which point two young women entered and sat to my immediate left. One of them could not stop neurotically and metronomically picking at the corner of her program, and both of them fidgeted distractedly until the intermission, after which they did not return. By then I had already reached across the one nearer to get the one further to leave her program alone—this during the Schnittke, a moody piece punctuated by long silences, which had held me riveted until the program-picking and fidgeting started, and after which I found it impossible to regain my concentration.

Oh, I cursed these young women’s progeny to the seventh generation—I, who on this particular afternoon would have had the musicians juggling torches, and with a popcorn vendor walking up and down the aisles of my imagination!

* Interestingly, according to the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, in his biography of Domenico Scarlatti—about which and whom and I will be posting presently—“pedals … were rare in the eighteenth century … the dampers of most early pianos were lifted by knee levers” (p. 182 of the Apollo edition).

Paying the Rent, Now and Then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

No Tie-Picker He


Photo/ Daniel Sheehan/ EyeShotJazz

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

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

I thumbed my nose at Push and went anyway.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immortal, Beloved

Immortal_photoThat I am not a true fan of Immortal, the seminal Norwegian black metal band (black as in Satanic, not African-American), but went to their recent show at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple anyway, is a sin for which I am still repenting. What follows is the text of my confession.

I was lost in Clinton Hill looking for the place—I had forgotten to bring the address; all I could remember was the first letter of the street name; the subway station was without an area map—when out of the blue my guardian demon appeared. She was pale, gangly, maybe nineteen years old, with stringy blond hair, and dressed in black from boots to hoodie. I asked her if she knew where the Brooklyn Masonic Temple was; excited, she asked if I was going to the Immortal show; I confessed that I was, and so we started walking to the venue together.

About a block later I could sense that she was becoming suspicious. After all, I didn’t look like an Immortal fan. I was dressed in a blue windbreaker over a quilted chamois shirt that everyone says makes me look like a lumberjack. I had on new jeans, North Face shoes, and a New York City Parks & Recreation baseball cap. I should have been on my way to play tennis, not to a black metal show. In fact, I don’t think she believed I was going to the Immortal show at all. I was really some middle-aged creep in a blue windbreaker preying on nubile young black metal chicks in the middle of Brooklyn.

True, underneath the windbreaker and chamois I was wearing a Mastodon T-shirt: the open-mawed white shark with the legend “Megalodon” in electric red letters. But a prog-metal shirt would hardly convince her that I was anything but a poseur. (Probably better I didn’t engage in any unzipping or unbuttoning in an attempt to show her my shirt. God knows how that might have been interpreted.)

She said, “So, what’s your favorite Immortal album?”

The ultimate fan question! It was like she had peered into my soul. Everything came out then: how I didn’t really know Immortal; how a friend of mine had bought me a ticket; how, had I known the show was forty-five dollars, I probably wouldn’t have come at all; how I had listened to one of the songs from the new album on YouTube and “liked it”; how I had actually seen Immortal once before, a couple of years back, opening for Halford and Testament at B.B. King’s, and had “enjoyed them” (in reality, I hardly remembered them at all, except for their creepy corpse-paint and synchronized thrashing).

Why was I suddenly so defensive? I could justifiably have said that I’d been listening to metal since before she was born. And yet, what would I have been trying to justify? Would there be some sort of litmus test at the door? Would I have to drink the blood of a ritually-butchered goat and recite the Lord’s prayer backwards? Would they at least give me part of my forty-five dollars back if I didn’t make the cut?

She said, “Wow. I never met anybody who was indifferent about Immortal before.”

And with those words it was clear that she was done with me. I had been consigned to the dustbin of metal history, together with my heroes, who were yet older than me.


At the show my friend and I bought tickets for beers like we were at an amusement park and commented on the number of hipsters who were crashing the party. I was safely with someone nearer to my own age now, so I could claim old-guard status, and hence a certain degree of authority. After all, whether I loved Immortal or no, I was here because I loved metal; I wasn’t one of “those hipsters” who had come to stand in the back and sneer. I thought, “Thank God for hipsters,” and drank until I almost put that nineteen-year-old Immortal freak out of my mind.

I did end up enjoying the show, as I knew I would—the endless blast beats, the suffocating double bass, the sheer squandered volume of theatrical smoke, the generally eeeeeevil atmosphere they managed to create between the music, effects, and corpse-paint.

But there was something I enjoyed much more than Immortal, and that my non-love for Immortal allowed me to appreciate. It was watching those who did love Immortal. There were fans there as young as eighteen (and maybe younger, despite the age cutoff) and as old as fifty. They were there with their girlfriends or boyfriends or in same-sex groups. They absolutely exploded when the lights went down, and the shadow of the drummer appeared behind the kit, and then the other two members of the trio sprang from the wings in a miasma of noise and smoke. They banged their heads and made devil-horns. They knew all the words, and “sang” them, too, as surely as if the lead singer had said, “Now, boys and girls, aspirate along with me …”

There’s a gesture I’ve been thinking about a lot since that concert. Not the fist, and not the malocchio. The hand is open, palm turned three-quarters up. The fingers are slightly curled—the index finger should be the most extended, the pinky most curled—and taut, so that the hand looks like a claw (see photo). The arm is also rigid, bent slightly at the elbow, and raised over the head. Now, diaphragm tensed, spit the lyrics back at the singer-guitarist, word for word, mirroring his delivery. That was what I saw when I looked around the crowd: dozens of passionate individual performances, souls strung up and together by music, fans demonstrating their intensity to themselves and the rest of the crowd and the band. The arm really has to go up for the words to be broadcast with their full measure of vehemence (unless, that is, you’re also playing the guitar) … the metal version of that much-parodied gesture of singers worldwide, be it opera or flamenco or Irish ballad.

Ah, love for Immortal. What could possibly be Satanic about that?