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Kibble

An abecedarium of unfinished posts, fledgling thoughts, broadsides, aphorisms, quotations, addenda, notes, interludes, promenades, speculations, vignettes, & other kitchen sinks; 32 in all, all newly revised & edited into easily-digestible, individually-wrapped tidbits; artfully arrang’d & illuminated by yrs. truely, HELLDRIVER.

A

Analogies. Musical models have always guided and inspired the way I think about form in fiction and creative nonfiction. Codas, for example: short, closing sections, generally following a line break, that serve as an oblique comment, sometimes in gesture, sometimes in image, on what came before. (A mentor of mine: “End on an image and don’t explain it.” He was quoting a mentor of his.) I think about the climax of Strauss’s Don Quixote: contending, shouting horns; sudden silence; and then a series of quiet, descending trills from the violins. The abrupt about-face in mood signals the hero’s approaching death. The closing move of my story “The Stability of Floating Bodies,” for example, is indebted to this. And that story’s final image, of geese crossing the sky, has an even more specific source: it was an attempt to do in language what Rush does in the closing seconds of “The Fountain of Lamneth”: a few-second crescendo-diminuendo with a light “whump” at the peak. Of course, these musical models are themselves stories; the circuit goes in both directions. But it matters, I think, that the narrative has been filtered through music, perhaps because it serves to highlight form, strain out the muck of substance.

Sometimes it’s the oeuvre of a composer I admire that inspires an analogy, such as that between two stories I wrote back-to-back several years ago and Bartók’s fourth and fifth string quartets: one a tweaked romance, the other strident and abrasive (though they were written in the opposite order, the older of the two being my quartet #5). Or perhaps this is an attempt to inflate them well beyond their actual worth, and so inspire myself to fail again, fail better.

B

Birdsongs & cadences. Musicologist Peter Manuel’s article “From Scarlatti to Guantanamera” (see “Domenico in the Heart,” 3.28.21, note G), argues that what people hear as a satisfactory ending is at least partly culturally determined, so that, for example, the Spanish/Latin American practice of ending on IV, which a listener whose ear is conditioned to Western music may hear as somewhat irresolute, sounds perfectly fine to someone raised listening to flamenco, or to some Caribbean musics. Cultures, that is, produce their own sense of an ending. Now, is it possible there is a deeper conditioning, something we might look for in nature? I’m thinking of the animal noises in the locations where different cultures emerged, and above all, of birdsongs.

Birdsongs don’t sound like they resolve at all. Rather, they cycle; Messiaen captured this so beautifully in the fragmented, repeating texture of his Small Sketches of Birds, one of my very favorite pieces of music. In birdsongs, movement pitchwise is hard to parse, if it’s present at all. Perhaps they resolve rhythmically? What if rhythmic cadences originally underlay melodic ones, quanta where pitches naturally fit, not because of frequency ratios, because of the ratios in temporal “spacing”? What Rosetta-stone algorithm might match these ratios?

One day, maybe we’ll understand that, when composers imitate birdsongs, be it Rameau, Dolphy, or Messiaen, they are simply paying the birds back a debt owed. I can even imagine the migratory paths of birds linking the musics found along their trajectories. And maybe it’s even deeper than this, with the soundmarks of inanimate, always animated nature shaping a particular community’s sense of form. (For more on soundmarks, see “Archaeology of Noise,” 1.8.22, note D.)

C

Cheese. When I teach the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, I like to mention Michael Pollan’s comments about the role of food in cultural identity. As the reader may remember, Rowlandson starts out calling the Indians’ food “filthy trash.” That is, until she starts starving; then it becomes “sweet” (thanks, of course, to the Lord). By the end she’s pulling boiled hooves out of little kids’ hands and gobbling them down herself. Anyway, Pollan uses cheese and the French as a shorthand example for the way food speaks cultural identity: the stinkier and rankier the cheese—that is, the less palatable to anyone who isn’t French—the better. In other words: cultural identity depends as much, and perhaps more, on unpalatability for those it excludes as the palatability for those it includes. This is how cultures develop an inedible rind, as it were, as well as protecting their native pungency from bleeding out. The concept works as well for music, of course: the music most unpalatable to others is what most clearly demarcates your identity; the bond of adherents to a particular genre is at least as much a product of the unpalatability of said genre’s music to those outside the circle. The distaste of the uninitiated may even be one source of aesthetic pleasure. What free-jazz lover hasn’t enjoyed the crinkled nose, the expression of incomprehension and patronizing disbelief, of some more straitlaced audience member who somehow managed to stumble into a free-jazz set—who was perhaps invited there for that very reason: to become a pillar, a sacrifice, an emblem of the outside around whose immolation we revel? (See “Torch Songs for LES,” 12.7.12.)

When we call something an acquired taste, we’re calling attention to the labor involved in retraining our receptors (and our minds) to engage with, rather than reject, an unfamiliar stimulus, as well as signaling a particular pleasure that is gained by making that effort—an effort, I should say, that is an act of free choice, not Rowlandsonian desperation. (If I were stuck on a desert island and all I had was NSYNC, would I start to like it? I want to say no, but like Rowlandson, I think after a few weeks I’d start to find it sweet, and I’d thank the Lord, too. Hell, I’d probably eat the kid along with the hoof, and thank the Lord for that, too.) As with cheese, so with cheesy: one person’s cheese is another’s fine fare. Tolstoy thought Wagner was cheesy, and many find the histrionics of flamenco (or metal) cheesy as well. Of course, genre is an imperfect boundary. I find Iced Earth unpalatable, for example—the Limburger of metal—but I have friends who absolutely wallow in the stuff.

Nothing risked, nothing gained, I always say. A certain amount of bombast, or sentiment, and you’re going to risk stinking a little. Not enough, and you’re dead boring. Me, I’ll take the cave-aged, and work backwards from there.

D

Damned by faint praise. Metallica: best cover band ever.

*

Deviance: a screed. The relationship between heavy metal and the broader culture—academic, elite, and mainstream—has always been pretty fucking weird. Take the academic: as I mentioned in “T-shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13), in the ‘80s heavy metal wasn’t a style of music; it was a case study in social deviance. Academics—generally social scientists—approached the genre through so-called content analysis, i.e. “interpretation” of lyrics for clues as to the connection between metal and antisocial/sociopathic behavior. If you wanted to read anything peer-reviewed about metal in a CUNY library, you had to go to John Jay, the College of Criminal Justice. (The exception to this might be some early work on gender play in hair metal, stressing the subgenre’s indebtedness to glam rock.) Of course, the study of pop music more generally was firmly locked in content analysis, too; metal was just a particularly aggrieved version of this. Rap seems to have suffered the same indignity. Maybe it was their joint pariah status that drove the genres into each other’s arms in the late ‘80s? At least, that is, until hip hop became the darling of academy and critics alike—it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference—and metal blew itself to pieces, and the pieces were buried in a warm place to germinate while a debauched frat-metal surfed the airwaves for a mercifully brief moment. But I’m getting sidetracked. The first full-length academic studies of the early ‘90s started to do more complex justice to to the music (Walser) and the scene (Weinstein). A decade later, thrash was revived; retro culture, which had started by gobbling up the sixties and seveties, finally made it to the eighties; monsters became misunderstood victims with whom it was cool to identify, and theorized to the point that one truly couldn’t help but pity them; metal found a new home in Brooklyn neighborhoods you couldn’t see or even train to from L’amour’s; and the genre was soon as fetishized as tattoos and black nailpolish and the X-treme Ballsiness of Facial Hair, together with a veganism more lifestyle choice than commitment to end the untold, endless suffering of our animal brethren.

I could go on—so many cultural factors help explain the mutations that have allowed metal to flourish in odd new forms in the tidal pools of the twenty-first century. But what most interests me here is metal’s acceptance by a broader mainstream culture. This seems to be recent enough, and so contrary to where we were in the eighties, as to merit special comment. (Well. Ahem. I should acknowledge that even People magazine had come around to thrash by the late eighties. I remember reading this in a doctor’s waiting room and feeling all warm & fuzzy. With one exception, of course. Can you guess? Slayer, of course. There should be a Slayer shirt that says something like “People magazine always hated us.” Maybe the roots of the genre’s downfall should be sought, not in the Black album or the death of Cliff Burton, but People’s endorsement of Master of Puppets.) Thirty-five years later, the buzzword isn’t deviance anymore. It’s empowerment. Everyone, it seems, wants to jump on the bandwagon of this once-discredited genre, to come out of some fantastical closet and reveal that, you know, they always did like metal, appearances and habits and comments to the contrary notwithstanding.

Why are people falling all over themselves to associate themselves with a genre that was once the province of pimply math nerds and shop kids, and the shop kids’ black-eyeshadowed girlfriends the pimply nerds fantasized about? Possibly because this genre, over the last decade and a half or so, has come to be recognized as a language of the disenfranchised. There is a longstanding appreciation for heavy metal in the Islamic world, as Mark LeVine documented in Heavy Metal Islam more than ten years ago. Slayer grafitti befouls billboards in Iran as much as the Bible belt. And there are micro-scenes all over the globe, as contributors to the anthology Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011) explored and analyzed. Iron Maiden’s rabid worldwide fanbase is the envy of none other than Lady Gaga. I keep getting emails in my school inbox from some educational documentary film company advertising a movie about the Navajo metal scene and a band there that ended up recording with Flemming Rasmussen. The Sundance Film Festival this year featured a documentary, Sirens, about an all-female thrash metal band from Beirut called Slave to Sirens. In the after-film convo, one of the producers claimed that they were all metalheads there. I mean, she was wearing black, so, yeah, anything’s possible. But I admit I was a teensy bit skeptical. The filmmakers also went out of their way to stress the incredible musical talent of the young women, who are, after all, playing the sort thing that was once labeled caveman music. And so metal is no longer the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal genre of yesteryear. Today, it is the very contemporary music of vanguardist freedom-fighters, a common vocabulary of riffs, growls, shrieks and ostinatos through which they articulate their disenchantment with the status quo and their desire for liberation. The one-time dinosaurs have become velociraptors.

Well, that sounds pretty cool, right? So why the fuck am I so annoyed? I mean, empowerment beats the shit out of delinquency, doesn’t it?

I’ll tell you why the fuck I’m so annoyed. In a word: it’s patronizing, it’s hypocritical, and it once again runs roughshod over the music that, for most of the people I know who listen to it, is the only thing that matters. It’s clearly what matters to the young women in Slave for Sirens, whatever other interests the filmmakers might have.

I wonder if this shift says something about America’s inability to countenance the congenital injustice of capitalism. Lebanese fighting corruption and gender oppression is all well and good, and that young women in Beirut, for example, have found in thrash metal a voice for their anger is patronizingly endearing (i.e., their choice of means for vocalizing their anger is accepted because of their distance from American culture, rather like the way we laugh when non-English speakers swear). Navajo metalheads can be safely infantilized, too. But the idea that white working-class and rural Americans have a bone to pick is a lot harder for the (white) dominant capitalist culture to swallow, because it points to an ongoing economic violence which, while deeply inflected by and entangled with race, is not in itself racial. (To note that anger is misplaced onto scapegoats and manipulated by jingoistic politicians is not the same as saying it’s unjustified. Not for nothing King paired racism and capitalism in his later speeches.) If white working-class anger is unjustifiable, its musical expression must therefore be aesthetically flawed. But the same musical vocabulary, taken up by marginalized others, confers on the music dignity, and critics hear it differently. Funny, it still sounds like metal to me. (N.B. Sorry to ignore the middle-class metalheads here. Shit’s complicated enough; I’m just scratching the surface, and am fully aware the noise I’m making is uncomfortably grating. Anyway, this is a screed. Want nuance? Move on to letter E, and/or check out “Dr. Heidegger’s Punks” (4.16.16), which has a bit more about class and metal.)

So, yeah, all this acceptance, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I console myself with the idea that the fawning over metal will pass like all fads; critics will find something else once disparaged to fawn over, and they and the documentary filmmakers &c. will just leave us the fuck alone with our music. I’ll be able to find those old thrash records I missed out on collecting in the used bins again, and buy them for a reasonable price, no less valuable for having passed through the hands hipsters—hell, they probably took better care of them than the plumber who listened to them in the eighties. And then I’ll be able to listen to Slave to Sirens and all these other bands not as inspiring examples of struggles against oppression, but simply because they play good fucking metal.

O, to let deviance be deviance again!

[Addendum: I recommend Sirens, by the way. It’s a very good doc. I just felt like putting on my asshole cap for a minute. The problem with the cap is it fits so good that, after a while, it’s hard to get off.]

E

Essence. When a band or artist achieves their essence it’s always a beautiful thing. They become allegory, a transparent thing flooded with light. They achieve the form of whatever they were intended to be, which only comes into being at the moment of its achievement, but then casts a retroactive glow over their career, which we are now invited to view teleologically. As though perfection of form were so incandescent as to blind us to substance, or to make it transparent, reveal it as (mere) form itself. As though substance were no more than a frame through which perfection of form was meant to be apprehended. While these moments seem stable and permanent, this is an illusion brought about by their perfection. They are inherently unstable, like a skateboarder poised at the edge of a ramp, or those acrobatic families who form themselves into muscular houses of cards.

All this is true even for the most wretched bands.

Application: I’ve never cared for Van Halen. I’ve recently somewhat reconciled myself to David Lee Roth, but that’s between me and my conscience. I also had to distance myself from growing up in the era of Eddie Van Halen to really take stock of his genius. Anyway, if I ask, “At what moment, in what song, did Van Halen transcend their own crass misogyny and achieve the perfection of Vanhalenness?” that moment, that song, would have to be “Hot for Teacher”: the most perfect expression of the Van Halen essence. The paradox is that they do this—and it might be the only way to do this—by going full-throttle into what makes them what they are; as though identity flipped into overdrive rattled off everything that was ephemeral and contingent, like shaking dirt through a sieve to find, not nuggets of gold, but that the sieve itself is a golden mesh. The very excess of Van Halen’s puerility and narcissism and vulgarity in this song is what enables them to pull past it (N.B.: theory-heads, I’m thinking of George Bataille here). DLR was never more gross—he was on the cusp of making self-parody a career, if he hadn’t already—and Alex never more rote. But then listen again to that opening drum riff, doubled up like Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks”; listen to Roth actually acting out his pubescent mental and emotional age; listen to the boogie-woogie rhythm the band had fiddled with before but never otherwise adequately brought to the fore; listen, listen above all to Eddie, on the intro, and the way he phrases and accents the main chord progression, both clean and full-on distorted, and that main solo, of course, a master who plays with his whole body, the way Jimi did. In the video, EVH struts down a bar like I once saw the great blues guitarist Bill Wolf do at the Red Belle Saloon in Salt Lake City. But all this is just rationalization larded with nostalgia. You can’t analyze essence into its constituent parts any more that you can parse God. It’s the way the parts fit together, the way they coalesce in those four minutes, the way they capture the unselfconscious exuberance of being Van Halen, the band, that matters.

I swear, when that song comes on the radio I can almost smell it.

I remember a colleague of mine once commenting that when you watch AC/DC you see a band that believes utterly in what they’re doing, and that makes all the difference. Think “Dirty Deeds.” Think “TNT.” Think “Girls Got Rhythm.” Brainless to boot; all the clumsy bravado of toddlers. And so, so perfect. Maybe that’s all it is: an absolute, unwavering belief in one’s genius, or sexiness, or whatever, that spills over the edges of its container. And why not? They’re rock stars.

F

Fecundity. One thing that has always attracted me in art is the sense—call it an illusion—of inexhaustible fecundity of the creator. The number of gorgeous melodies Brahms crowds into a symphony; the feeling of absolute newness Sonny Rollins imparts to a solo with every chorus; the number of quirky, perfectly-drawn minor characters who populate a Dickens novel. It can provoke laughter, a sort of giddinness, like the gag with clowns getting out of a car: Where are they pulling this shit from? It’s like being tickled. It must be related to the sublime; only our consciousness of it as art, or here, the figure of the artist, provokes delight rather than terror.

G

Gravy. Metallica didn’t evolve; they congealed.

 H

Hooks. Over the decade of blogging I’ve grown attached to the idea that writing about music should inhabit something of the style of the music it speaks/about; that it should attempt to be at once mimetic and critical; that, to be adequate to the task of writing about music, there should be something in the language that embodies it, however that is imagined; and that the difficulty of doing this might help articulate something of the difficulty of music criticism. (See, for example, the first endnote of “Flesh and Steel,” 4.12.17.) It’s an oblique answer to the Burnham epigraph on the main page of this blog: a vision of criticism that rubs shoulders with the form, that attempts to occupy a fruitful border without falling into either the arid objectivity of the specialist or the besotted ecstacy of the fan (or what Burnham calls “be-here-now laziness” and “emotional groping”).

A corollary to the above is that criticism should develop discourses commensurate to the styles of music it seeks to articulate. The genre should determine the discourse, not the other way around. To presume otherwise is to miss its essence, to impoverish rather than enrich the reader’s perception.

Part of my beef with the latter-day acceptance of metal by rock critics et al. (see “Deviance” above) is that the old critical language, intended to find a way to valorize three-chord pop songs, simply can’t do justice to this genre. As rock critics have attempted to describe their strange and possibly guilty new infatuation, the critical vocabulary has not been updated to register that shift. Example: in the pop-critical lexicon, “hook” means an ear-catching melody, a word of great praise, ensuring as it does lots of clicks and sing-alongs. (I’ve probably used it myself.) But is this term of critical endearment really applicable to metal? Does metal give a fuck about hooks? Only, I assume, insofar as it bows to the dictates of pop. Which, of course, some metal does, quite effectively. But then a whole lot doesn’t.

Worst-case scenario: I fear a music that is subjected to and therefore tamed by a discourse that evolved to exclude it. To judge a genre by an inappropriate standard is to be deaf to that genre’s ethos and objectives, its unique contribution to music. It’s like saying Carl Dreyer’s films have problems with pacing and could learn something from watching Fast & Furious. Or Cronenberg movies are fine, except for all the latex critters. Or Moby-Dick shows that Melville could have used an editor. At what point do you clap someone on the shoulder and say, “You know? Maybe this just isn’t for you.”

Using a word like “hooks” to describe a metal song is like trying to eat a T-bone steak with a plastic spoon. No, metal needs a critical discourse analogous to its sound. That’s what so many amateur reviewers have done with their penchant for metaphor piled on metaphor: try to capture metal’s excess through an analogous excess of language, often through mixed, clashing, and Gongoristic metaphors. (See my article“Heavy Melville” for a fuller discussion.)

More broadly, if you like metal and want to write about it, here’s my advice: fuck rock criticism. Write against the grain by consciously undermining its shibboleths. Undermine the mainstream discourse of music criticism by coloring at its edges until the edges, not the picture, are all the reader sees. Write at great length, and then yet-greater length; become the behemoth you hear. Purge the critical vocabulary about metal of all but what can really speak it. Fill it again with a vocabulary consistent to the genre, a language of metal as much as for metal. A metallic language. You want hooks? Fine. Make them bloody, dripping meathooks. Coat them in tattered flesh. Grappling hooks for pulling carcasses down a slaughterhouse chute. The creak of the chains from the half-dismembered bodies swinging from them. The whine of Leatherface’s saw. Can you hear the music yet? Can you?

I

Instrumental. In one of his New York Notes, the great jazz critic Whitney Balliett wrote this about Charlie Christian: “In the manner of all great jazz musicians, what he played became more important than the instrument itself.” A doubly contentious point, given (a) Christian’s synonymousness with the foundation of jazz guitar as a lead instrument, and (b) the guitar’s status as an instrument where devotion to the idea of virtuosity is cross-generic; for many guitarists, the instrument has acted as a sort of wedge for expanding their taste into other genres that use the guitar, and dabbling in a number of styles (as I have, with astonishing lack of aptitude). My point is that the guitar, perhaps more than any other instrument, inverts Balliett’s formula: what Christian played—the handware in his hands—has been, for many a guitarist, more important than his contribution to that genre called jazz.

From the standpoint of composition, spontaneous or otherwise, I think Balliett underemphasizes the role instruments play in shaping what comes out of them. Great music doesn’t necessarily transcend the instrument or instruments on/for which it was conceived; it may, in fact, make the instrument glaringly present in the listener’s mind. Leo Brouwer’s sonata for guitar, for example: I can’t imagine it being composed on any another instrument; the guitar itself, its droning open strings, the arrangement of its fretboard, clearly shaped the notes on the page. And what a wonderful piece of music it is! Sometimes, what sounds like harmonically-advanced composition may simply be a path of least resistance. Like: are those transposed sustained-second chords really an example of quartal harmony … or just what came out from noodling with sus-2 chords up and down the neck?

I was thinking about all this one day while watching the great fusion guitarist Wayne Krantz at one of his (what used to be) semi-regular Thursday-night gigs at the 55 Bar. His style is so guitar-focused that it’s difficult to imagine on any other instrument; like Brouwer’s sonata, one gets the impression that it could not have come into being on anything but a guitar, nor could it be successfully reproduced one another instrument—and none of this diminishes its brilliance in any way. It’s a style partly dictated by sheer economy: he stakes out one part of the neck, often beginning with just one string, four or five notes in a line, exploiting half-steps and half-bends—his left hand stays put; his fingers seem to barely move—while his right explores rhythmic possibilities and different phrasings. He builds outwards from there: notes are added atop notes in half-bars, half steps above half steps, augmented with fuller bends and note clusters, each expansion itself augmented by increasing volume and tempo as his solos wend toward a climax. The guitar does have the advantage of having more than two full octaves within easy reach, and is particularly comfortable for this sort of minimalist exploration between the seventh and twelfth frets, where Krantz bears down. (There might even be something about an instrument that complements a venue and audience: I think of patrons, myself included, ducking under the neck of Krantz’s Stratocaster on our way to and from the 55’s bathroom.)

In a broader sense, I think we should take more care to consider the role of the evolution of instruments—that once-primary technology in the creation of musical sounds—in the evolution of music, and re-imagine “greatness” not as something abstract floating above the technology of musical production, but intimately connected with it, the god in the machine. The instrument—its shape and sonority, and the relationship between it and the body that plays it, hands feet lips tongue fingers—both inspires and delimits creation. Composition is never fully divided from performance, but part of a musician’s relationship to their instrument; improvisation isn’t something that happens in the brain prior to the note, but something that flows dialectically between mind and wandering muscles, which ideally collapse into a single entity.

Does the clear bifurcation of Prokofiev’s string quartet no. 1, revealing of the pianist’s two-handed mindset, weaken or invigorate that composition? Was Bartók able to push the string quartet in new directions because, as a pianist, he heard the quartet differently, and was less familiar with the limitations of the instruments at hand? (I think of him working with the great violinists of his day to expand the possibilities of the quartet; I think, too, of the sonorities, rhythms, and melodies of the gypsy violins he recorded that also shaped those quartets … and all his music, piano included.) What happens when musicians compose at the piano, and then take those melodic sketches to their own instruments, and begin to expand them in new directions, as, say, Coltrane describes doing with Giant Steps? The currents run in multiple directions: between instruments, between cultures, cross-composing and transcription, collaborative composition and virtuoso performance, all pushing instrumental music in new directions, and the possibilities of instruments into new ranges, which, for the following generations, simply become part of that instrument’s expressive palette. No instrument is ever “pure”; it exists within a matrix of other instruments, and composers and audiences write and listen in that context: the orchestra in a Beethoven piano sonata, the cello in Sam Newsome’s horn.

And so Christian: it may be that what he played—the guitar—had a strong influence on what he played—the notes—and that it was his outre (at the time) choice of instruments—a rhythm instrument he was dragging into the front line—more than any abstract thoughtfulness about notes and chords that exerted the pressure on advancing jazz as a style of expression.

J

Jazz inversion. Listening to Mastodon’s “Mother Puncher” the other day (Remission, 2002), it occurred to me that some extreme metal music inverts the traditional rock instrumental hierarchy dividing the rhythm section (drums and bass) from the lead (guitar, voice). It’s a code writ larger than rock, though which instrument occupies what position will depend on the genre and its development. But the repetitiveness of riff-based rock, and the ostinatos of metal, have morphed the guitars into the chief vehicles of a song’s rhythmic drive. Melody is pared back to the essentials; the listener’s attention is displaced onto timbre. And then, in much the way the walking bass in jazz frees the drums to participate more fully in the constantly-changing surface of improvisation, punctuating and emphasizing rather than carrying the backbeat, so the drums in some of these early Mastodon songs are liberated to become a solo instrument that stands over and above the rest of the music: the riffs and ostinatos become a backbeat against which the drums improvise. (Of course, you need a drummer like Brann Dailor to make it work … and make it work he does. See also Gunther Schuller’s point about Duke Ellington’s orchestration in “Pressure Begets Grace,” 9.13.20.)

K

Kiev’s Gate & Old Castle. In 2009 I was present for the finals of the Van Cliburn piano competition (held in Fort Worth, Texas) when the blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii (or “Nobu,” as he came to be known) shared the gold medal with Haochen Zhang. When he sat to play, he would measure from both ends of the keyboard back to its middle. Then he would begin. It’s not that he never missed a note; it’s how quickly he recuperated himself in the rare instances that he did. I was fortunate to be able to hear him again a year or so later, when he played Carnegie Hall—not Zankel or the Met, where other Cliburn medalists had performed, but Stern. At that time, maybe a decade ago, he had become something of a celebrity freak, as well as a national icon. Stern was filled that night with Japanese fans, a large number of whom, I would guess, had never been to Carnegie Hall.

Nobu’s gold-medal recital at the Cliburn culminated in a powerful rendition of Beethoven’s sonata Op. 57 (“Appassionata”). The climax of the Carnegie Hall recital was Mussorgsky’s great, underperformed piano suite “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

The irony, which the Times et al. likely considered too obvious to point out, leaving it to vulgates like me to ponder: that a blind man should play a piece whose purpose is to make us see things he himself has never seen. He occupies one part of a circuit: Mussorgsky, the composer, transformed the old castle, the hut on fowl’s legs, and the great gate at Kiev, into music, apparently from paintings, some of which have been discovered; the music, when it is performed, “reconstructs” these images in the listener’s mind; the performer’s ears and fingers become the prisms through which the images are re-integrated as sound.

This is all well and good. And yet, as I listened, I couldn’t help (silently) protesting: He has never seen the castle! He has never seen any castle at all! He has never seen, will never see, the Great Gate at Kiev! (Idiot. Have you? He’s never seen a keyboard, either.) What does he see when he plays these things? What appears in his mind? What spatial clues? Does he need to, to play them magnificently? Have they been described to him? Has he run his fingers over pictures in relief, as he did the keyboard? Has he been guided to the walls of gates and castles, touched them, walked through and under them? Is it better that he not know them as image, in order to become the emotional conduit of the notes, of pure sound, with the imagistic labor meant to be performed, never by the musician, but by the listener, and perhaps not even by them? The composer, after all, is “describing” an emotion arising from the picture, not the picture itself: the grandeur of the gate; the melancholy of the castle.

Anyway, he made the great gate present. A miracle, indeed.

A series of other things occurred to me, after listening to Nobu that night. Was imagism a Trojan horse for modernism? Some parts of the “Pictures,” like “Gnomus,” and even parts of “Kiev,” sound quite tonally advanced to my ear. Like the late Romantics grasping for the nuances and ambiguities of emotion, and twisting the rules of harmony to achieve them: might the same be true for those composers attempting to musically grasp a visual text? To what extent did the lure of the image serve as an excuse for breaking traditional tonal and structural boundaries—as though running music through the circuit of another artistic medium, or by the sheer force of attraction to some other medium, bends the rules of the original medium, forces it to rethink some of its assumptions? (Not, that is, by some internal pressure—i.e., the composer feeling that the compositional rules of the time are exhausted/overly restrictive—but outside: the composer trying to “adequate” music to the pressures of another medium.) And then, once this has happened, the program element becomes vestigial, is sloughed like old skin, and this new tonal or structural thing becomes enshrined as abstract music. I think of the way some of the most bizarre experiments in music happening toward the end of the nineteenth century—not Mussorgsky, but Richard Strauss—and then Debussy, of course—were programmatic in intent. Rather than say, “I broke the rules because I wanted to”—as Debussy happily did—the composer can say, “I broke the rules because the object I was describing demanded it.” (I could probably add Wagner here: the psychological state of a character becomes the “object” whose description demands an updated harmonic language.)

Some years after jotting down the notes for the above in a journal, I encountered this passage in Lewis Rowell’s Thinking About Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music (Massachusetts UP, 1983): “The episode of the herd of sheep in Strauss’s Don Quixote, which was originally criticized for being blatantly overpictorial, now takes on a new significance because of the manner in which Strauss anticipates some of the trends in musical style since the 1950s” (156).

This also seems pertinent: the avant-jazz saxophonist and composer John Zorn has remarked on the way growing up with TV—particularly cartoons—reshaped his (and other composers’) sense of continuity and compositional integrity. (The comment is from Put Blood in the Music; I probably encountered it in the book Jazzing; see “Vasudeva on the Hudson,” 11.11.18.) Music used incidentally, to express something in the action, in a disjointed, perhaps episodic form, influenced the way composers of his generation conceived of musical structure (amply on display in Naked City, for example: Zorn music for a cartoon yet to be drawn). I discussed this briefly in the post “Silent Movie” (3.25.11), where the music of silent cinema, like cartoon music, “mimes” (the word I used there) the action on screen, following and amplifying the emotional character of the moment, punctuating or highlighting bits of action, even attempting to onomatopoeaically imitate non-present diegetic noise.

Today, the logic of narrative and the image have shredded old concepts of organic unity in music. Indeed, we seem to have come full circle: image and narrative have so overtaken music as to create a new constraint; what was once an impetus for transgression (if the causal argument above holds any water) has become the stultifying norm. Here’s hoping that some maverick of abstract music finds a way out for us … some blind savior of the future …

L

Light poles & paint cans. God bless New York, right? So many musicians, in the parks, on the street corners, in the subway stations. So poorly compensated. But this one, a drummer from a little more than a decade ago, clearly knocked me out, because I jotted down some notes in my journal. (You might even remember him; you might have encountered him elsewhere, or a handful of others like him.) He set up around the corner from MOMA, a block up 6th Ave. A portly middle-aged black man with a short grey beard and wearing—the day I recorded—a green shirt. He used thick, sawed-off wooden dowels for sticks. With his left hand he played the equivalents of bass and snare: the bass was the traditional overturned plastic paint can; the snare was a metal grate trapped under his stocking foot. He also played rolls against the edge of the bucket’s bottom. His other sneaker sat on the sidewalk, his socked foot hidden inside an aluminum cannister, with the sides dented, partly so that it would lay flat, partly to have clear surfaces to beat on, like a Jamaican steel drum. He played it inside as well as out; inside, he would produce a roll by fluttering his stick, bouncing it between the sides. There was a smaller grate on the sidewalk that he played with his right hand, and an empty propane cannister, also dented in places, for flourishes. A kit as baroque as any prog rock drummer’s, and the sort of thing that must have inspired avant-jazz drummers like Mark Giuliana when they started putting together their own DIY kits. And that’s not even all: he was set up next to a lightpost, which he would occasionally use as a ride cymbal; whacking his stick against it gave out a clattering ring-tone; the whole pole hummed. And he would just as readily play the sidewalk, the cement of which gave a dry, almost woodblock sound. There were only two things he didn’t play: the shopping cart in which he carried his equipment, and the plastic tub, just out of his reach, the bottom full of crumpled bills, like dried flowers in a wastebasket. I figured that, if I stood close enough, he would try to play me, too.

There are so many. In the parks, on the street corners, in the subway stations. You’d think the city would offer some sort of dedicated housing, just for itinerant percussionists like this. You wouldn’t want to live there, maybe. But you dream about what visiting would sound like.

*

Living. The jazz composer Maria Schneider, in conversation with Ben Ratliff: “Flamenco—it makes living possible. Blues and early jazz—it made living possible.” It makes living possible. Just keep saying that to yourself about music.

M

Metal w/o metal. VH1 once did a special on the most non-metal metal moments: moments, that is, where the cock rock codpiece dropped off, and the most beloved practitioners of the genre reveal themselves as the divas, whiners, and poseurs they really are. I wonder: What about the opposite: where ostensibly non-metal artists—and non-artists—suddenly reveal themselves to be, like, so fucking metal? I’m thinking about a moment from The Enigma, a documentary about the pianist Svatoslav Richter, where he is performing with a Russian singer in some isolated cabin. Watching that singer, my first thought was: Holy shit. That dude is SO fucking metal! But what exactly did I mean by that? What is metal, if it can be identified in moments that have nothing to do with the genre of music it purports to name? The sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris asked this question a number of years ago: can there can be metal without metal? (See “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein,” 5.24.13.) Is Robert Eggers’s new movie The Northman, like, totally fucking metal? (Indeed! (Is it good? An open question!)) Is it, then, more than just a genre, a culture that has grown up around the genre, which the music fed, and feeds, and sustains? Or perhaps just an attitude toward life and living? A full-throttle way of being present in and to the world? A presence that is the opposite of mindfulness? A marrow-sucking that never keeps us at peace? Moments of transport and sublimity, where one is at one and the same time Lovecraft’s blind, idiot god and the puny being cowering under him, threatened with his own annihilation?

*

Morning concerts: a resolution. Whereas, not all music lovers are night owls; and / Whereas, listening to music in the morning, even to jazz or metal, is neither lurid nor indulgent; and / Whereas, the metal breakfast, like the jazz breakfast, should be no more a thing of shame than the 6 a.m. Brandenburg concerto; and / Whereas, lunchtime concerts have found appreciative audiences around the city, and in no way equate to midday cocktails or pints, and are indeed often held in churches, possibly to make the patrons feel better about indulging themselves, and to give churches something to do on weekdays; and / Whereas, currently the earliest concerts seem to be at 11 a.m., and these generally on Sundays, as though they were surrogate services; and / Whereas, people have long used music, usually the radio, thas an alarm for waking, like farmers use roosters, like platoons use bugle-players; and / Whereas, a significant minority of jazz fans are so-called morning people; and / Whereas, many of us take our music as seriously as our coffee, which is to say, very seriously indeed; therefore be it / Resolved, that cities and towns around the country will make an earnest effort to offer concerts in the mornings, particularly on weekdays, between 6 and 9 a.m.; and be it futher / Resolved, that said cities and towns will revise zoning and noise-ordinance laws to accommodate said concerts; and be it finally / Resolved, that said cities and towns will foster a culture of morning musical appreciation and of combating prejudices against enjoying live music, particularly that of certain genres, before noon.

N

Nostalgias. As a child of the eighties—by which I mean my teenage years, those crucial years for the formation of musical taste—I get tired of hearing about the previous generation’s disappointment with post-sixties music. I’ve started to wonder if it’s not misdirected bitterness at that generation’s sense of their own failure. The revolution fizzled; the purported inferiority of the next generation’s music becomes a vehicle for feeling good about one’s own. I’m with Jello here: I loathe sixties nostalgia. I also hate this sort of editorializing periodization, and the vulgar Marxism and flawed isomorphism that assumes periods of conservative ascendancy couldn’t possibly produce anything of cultural value. As though the Zeitgeist was margarine, evenly spread throughout society, and hence either uniformly oppressive or uniformly liberating. Great music has always been around; genius, as somebody once said, is common as dirt. Scratch a little and you’ll find it.

The annoyance goes both ways: I get just as tired hearing my friends talk about how the eighties were the greatest period of rock bar none. I tell them how bad a drug nostalgia is, how they need to expand their horizons, buy some new records, go to a club, drink a glass of milk for fuck’s sake. Then I’ll sit down with some geriatric flower child telling me about how everything after the ‘60s sucked and how the ‘80s were the worst period ever, and I find myself defending the ‘80s tooth and nail—I mean, not hair metal or The Thompson Twins or anything, but you know. Ideally, I shouldn’t have to do either. Ideally, everybody would just shut the fuck up and listen to everybody else’s music.

But here’s a caveat in favor of the geriatric flower child. There’s something to be said for the way a greater or lesser degree of liberation in a society as a whole enables an across-the-board flourishing in the arts. A cultural rift like the one the U.S. saw in the ‘60s allows certain things to percolate up into consciousness that couldn’t otherwise. It has to. I get that. I could point to a lot of things from that era, but for some reason the text that always jumps to mind is Marat/Sade.

It has a transgressively weird quality that feels like a litmus test for an era. Could anyone make a Marat/Sade today? I sort of doubt it. As those weird-city bumper stickers suggest, we might be a bit too self-conscious, a bit too desperate, about our desire to be weird.

I’m still wary of writing off any period, or, for that matter, equating the art of any one period with the dominant culture. There’s always too much variation, too much going on. Anyway, as artists, we can’t sit around wringing our hands because asshole #143 is in the White House, and we can’t be looking around waiting for someone to start the revolution. The revolution starts one word, one note at a time. Grab the typewriter and go, man.

O

Overheard at Overkill. Circa 2014: “I was a hundred pounds lighter the last time I saw Overkill.”

P

Praised by faint blame. Megadeth: worst cover band ever.

*

Purloined clave. The clave, or key, in Latin music can refer to one of two things: a basic rhythm undergirding the music, its backbeat; or the percussion instrument (generally two thick wooden sticks) on which that rhythm is carried. If I remember my conga teachers correctly, different cultures have different claves—the clave in Brazilian music, for example, is not the same as in Puerto Rico. The clave in Puerto Rican music also comes in different times, 6:8 and 4:4. Same basic pattern—5 notes spread 2-3 over two measures—very different feel. When we think clave, though, we usually think of the 4:4 version of a basic salsa tune; anyone familiar with zydeco music, or its popularization in songs like George Thoroughgood’s “Who Do You Love,” knows the rhythm I’m talking about: BAM, BAM, BAM: BAM BAM! (N.B. If you want to hear the 6:8 clave at its awesomest, listen to Jerry Gonzalez’s Obatalá.)

But the Thoroughgood example also calls our attention to just how ubiquitous this rhythm is. It pops up in places where you least expect it, places much further afield than zydeco-infused rock. Once I learned the clave, I’d put on songs I’d been listening to for years, decades even, and it would suddenly occur to me: “Oh, wait, that’s clave rhythm!” A beat might be dropped in one of the two measures, but the rhythm was unmistakable. It’s particularly interesting when the clave appears in songs that are not making an obvious nod to Caribbean or “island” rhythms, the way The Who’s “Magic Bus” does, for example, or the beach-punk vibe of a song like “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow. Primus’s “John the Fisherman,” The Beastie Boys’s “Paul Revere,” NWA’s “Gangsta Gangsta,” Carcass’s “Captive Bolt Pistol,” are all clave-based. From death metal to alt rock to gangsta rap, once you hear that clave, you can’t unhear it. Hence my choice of the word “purloined,” recalling Poe’s great detective story about a letter hidden in plain sight: the clave will often be there, staring us right in the face, but we won’t see it, because the genre in which it appears, so far flung from the clave’s natural environment, has rendered it inaudible.

(A fun experiment: try clapping the clave over songs where it absolutely does not fit!)

Q

Quiet. It’s easy enough to count rock songs that are paeans to the loudness that, at least once upon a time, was a defining trait of the genre. I remember the great violinist and worldwide musical ambassador Yehudi Menuhin noting that a Rolling Stones concert was the first live musical experience that had actually caused him pain. Stones aside, AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is my go-to loudness-themed anthem. (AC/DC may have more loudness-themed songs than any other band.) The slogan of WSOU, Seton Hall University’s metal-dedicated college station: the loudest rock. There was even a Japanese hair-metal band from the ‘80s called Loudness. Remember them?

That acknowledged, I’d like to put in a word for those rock songs that retain—and perhaps even gain—power when they are played softly. Judas Priest’s “Headin’ Out to the Highway,” for example: the lower the volume, the more power it has. I’m not sure why; maybe something to do with the song’s feeling of restraint, of anticipation. I’m reminded of what Miles once said about Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which he recorded a version of (arranged by Gil Evans) on Sketches of Spain, that anomalously-perfect meshing of Spanish music and jazz: “That melody is so strong that the softer you play it, the stronger it gets, and the stronger you play it, the weaker it gets.”

R

Reciprocity. One day when I was visiting my parents, my mother told me that the Prokofiev piano sonatas I’d burned for her and my father hadn’t left the boombox in the kitchen. They were on heavy rotation, so to speak. I was moved by her comment; I owe so much of my musical education to my parents, and giving some of that back was a small way to repay them. (And it wasn’t easy. They’re picky as hell.) It’s just one example of the circulation of musical gifts that has occupied so many of us throughout our lives, cementing friendships, creating bonds between and among generations, inside and outside families. The Charles Mingus and Steve Bernstein I mailed to Annapolis, and the Radiohead and Minutemen I got in return. The Anthology of Tom Waits, the title written in purple cursive by an old crush, on the flipside of a cassette label where her Japanese students had written the names of the Vanilla Ice songs they’d gifted her. I first heard Domeniconi’s “Koyunbaba” because a woman I went to grad school with who also played classical guitar taped it for me; I think I replied with Barrios; I’m no longer sure. And it’s not always music, is it. When my crazy Russian punk-rock comp student whose father taught physics at the University of Utah and whose punk rock boyfriend was a brick shithouse gave me Never Mind the Bollocks, I gifted her my library first edition of Brighton Rock (as I learned from her, Johnny Rotten’s persona was based on the thug in that book). I think of the mixes my partner made for me when I went abroad, and that my oldest friend made for me while we were all away at college, and even a tape the guitarist from my high school metal band and I sent back and forth, recording bits of songs we were working on; at the end of each recorded but we would say, “Your turn, [name]”—we recorded after, not over. Music to measure and ease and shorten distance. Handholds for long-distance relationships. I have so many cassettes with other people’s handwriting on them, and doodles, too. They’re as good as old letters, maybe better.

It’s not the same today, whatever people say. Old emails saved to a file aren’t letters. Circulation without objects isn’t circulation. The financialization of music is complete; the value of music itself has depreciated.

*

Rondo. I love the complete abandon of early thrash records to what might be called the logic of the riff. Listening to “Voracious Souls” the other day (Death Angel, The Ultraviolence), I thought about the musical form called a rondo. Instead of traditional verse-chorus-bridge structure, “Voracious Souls” uses every chorus as an excuse to strike out into new musical territory: not one but a slew of bridges, each of them landing us back at a verse, and reinvigorating the song’s basic material by doing so. I’m not making a case for conscious modeling here; I think there’s just something perennially attractive about this as a structure. It’s more coherent than the kitchen-sink approach of many a metal instrumental—including the 10-minute album-titler “The Ultraviolence”—which often seem to be agglomerations of awesome riffs that could not find a home elsewhere (see “Burnt-over,” 8.3.11). That excursion-and-return, les-adieux model undergirds allmusic, however we figure home—tonic, main riff, chorus—and the rondo, in both the multiplicity of allowable excursions and the mounting power of each return, makes it transparent. (Listen to pretty much any classical concerto third movement for an example; the third movement of Beethoven’s first piano concerto is running through my head as I write this.) It’s never, as they say, the same river twice. Each excursion finds a changed home; each journey brings the traveler back to shore with new eyes and ears.

S

Slayer, Hitchens, Sade. Slayer is to metal what the Marquis de Sade is to literature: a limit case in transgression (Slayer : metal :: Sade : literature). Other bands have taken this or that element—tempo, lyrical grotesqueness, abrasiveness of timbre—and pushed it to one or another extreme. But in no other band has the overall ethos been one of transgression in its simplest, rawest form. An awfulness that radiates out from the music and seems to infect everything around it. No other band is so at home in their vileness, and so willing to wallow in it. They have no peers, few aspirants, and millions of acolytes. Is there any other band that so convincingly revels in hatred, mayhem, and death? There should be a recognized musical condition. Slayerism: disease as style.

In Christopher Hitchens’s anti-religious screed God Is Not Great there is a wonderful moment where Hitchens describes the power of Mozart’s music. (I’m sympathetic to Hitchens’s argument, don’t get me wrong; I just found the tone of the book to be overly strident, as was true of Hitchens’s later columns for The Nation, really all of his writing after 9-11.) You don’t need God, Hitchens writes, to explain great art; but—with a wink—Mozart does make you wonder. It’s not a moment of doubt, but rather a nod to the seemingly superhuman beauty of Mozart’s music, intended to reinforce our wonder at human creativity. Certainly, many of us have felt this, listening to music, staring at a painting, or reading a great novel: that there are some artists so volcanic in their imaginations, so perfect in their productions, that we are at a loss to explain them without resorting to an argument for divine intervention.

A simple substitution, a revision of Hitchens’s formula: exchange the word “Slayer” for “Mozart,” and “Devil” for “God,” and you have as good an appraisal of the force and power of Slayer’s music as I’ve ever read anywhere. I mean, you don’t need the Devil to explain Slayer … but they do make you wonder! (We might call this a theological argument for the existence of Slayer.) Perhaps Slayer forces us to contemplate a troubling possibilty: that, far from evil being the absence of God, the deity (It)self might be malign. (This pace a comment at an ALA panel on Blood Meridian I heard a number of years ago; you can see the way this book keeps coming back.) In which case, why not call it the Devil and be done with it? Slayer, an argument for the absence of God.

I’ve never found the crackpot theater of black metal particularly affecting, though I like some of the music well enough. I mean, if you need to run around burning churches and shooting your fellow band members to make me hear the darkness in your music, then your music probably sucks. I should be able to hear those churches burning in your music. Really, if your music isn’t making going to church vestigial, try again. Try harder.

*

Subdiculous. If the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step, as Napoleon or someone close to him or maybe just someone somewhat like him famously said, then the reverse must also be true; and the way we imagine art will determine which step we believe to be higher, i.e., which direction goes against the force of gravity. Unless, that is, we imagine Napoleon’s step—surely a little step; he was a little man—to be along even pavement, perhaps without even a crack in it, let alone the abyss Armstrong spanned, bouncing along the lunar surface, holding the Earth between his thumb and forefinger, humans at last able to put our puny existence in something like a true perspective.

We’re intended—I think—to imagine a step down: the embarrassing failure when what is meant to be sublime falls short; the rocket, once proudly on course, drops flaccidly back to Earth; the moon remains intact, the stars vestal virgins. Things great are balanced precariously on their greatness; their pedestals come to a point; there are no wires; the equinox happens only two days a year; one easy push, and all the apparent grandeur disappears. Time can do this, of course; Time is merciless with Art. Falling short of the sublime, a work of art reveals itself as ostentatious, desperate to impress, and the experience of aesthetic rapture is deflated. The sublime is aloof to its audience; it does not ask for our rapture; it is self-sufficient; appreciation is unnecessary. The sublime, what makes us feel tiny, ephemeral, a speck in the cosmos, against the vastness and longevity of the thing contemplated; the ridiculous, what we belittle, what we pity, what we annihilate with our derisive laughter.

I wonder if we might hang Napoleon, or at least his idea, by the boots. The point, after all, is that these two aesthetic responses are really more kindred than they appear. If we consider, not direction, a tendency to fall from a higher to a lower state, but rather a matter of simple proximity, why can’t the circuit can run both ways, oscillate, alternate, one always on the point of shading into the other? Instead of a step, why not a switch, or a coin, or a mirror? (Isn’t the figure of Napoleon himself a good indication? Was he thinking of himself when he said this? Was Marx, when tragedy became farce? Can we run Marx’s teleological class-struggle engine in reverse? Has history already done so?) An experience that provokes laughter suddenly takes on an impressive clarity: our laughter becomes giddy, we open ourselves, and suddenly we are fully present to the aesthetic experience. Or something happens in the sublime experience that suddenly pushes us away, and make us see the representation from the outside, as in a miniature diorama, and we even see ourselves, tiny, staring at the diorama, through the wrong end of the telescope.

Can a failure to be ridiculous turn sublime? Or perhaps an exceedingly successful ridiculous? (Think of Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” routine in Singin’ in the Rain.)

We have all had these experiences, where music we love—as an insider—appears ridiculous to an outsider—or to ourselves, trying to re-engage with an aesthetic experience that had so impressed us, so moved us when we were younger. What was it, about the time, the crowd we hung with, the people we were in love with, that made it seem so? And then we can’t help but feel sorry for ourselves as we are now, resistant, unable to succumb. All the pleasure is inside; the ones outside are always unhappy, desperate. Outside is a deflated, ironized, dead world. A fallen, a disenchanted world. A moonscape.

The step is a matter of perspective. As in outer space, there is no privileged position from which one can actually tell up from down. Like an Escher engraving, the steps go in both directions. Art is always a gesture toward ridicule redeemed by faith. Surprise matters, too. The shock of the new. Again, time. We strive to lose the double consciousness of the knowing listener. (I was trying to get at something of this with my comments on a performance by Exhumed; see “Wintry Mix,” 3.20.15. And clearly, I still am.)

*

Sweat lodge. Remember The Stone? Son of Tonic. Remember Tonic? Son of The Knitting Factory. Remember the Knit? (Wait. I think it’s still there.) But about The Stone. I always admired its asceticism: devotion in brick and mortar. Like bullfights before stadiums, where the contest was carried on inside a circle of onlookers that shifted, expanded or contracted according to the movements of the spectacle it purported to contain. The Stone always felt shaped in this way by the music, by the people gathered to listen. You’ll hear other stories about how it got its name, but it was really to give it the illusion of some fixed existence beyond the essence of the music. (See “Master/class,” 11.23.12.)

The problem with a space so dedicated to listening was that they did things like turn off the AC when the music started, so that the sound of the fan wouldn’t interfere. By the end of a set—particularly when the place was full—you felt like you’d been abandoned in a container truck. Fanning yourself didn’t help much—and be careful not to crinkle your magazine when you do! Wiping yourself with your sleeve only made things worse; your shirt was soaked; you could feel the sweat trickled down your spine. You felt bad for the person who was going to take your chair for the next set; you should have brought a towel, like for an exercise bike at the gym. One night, I could clearly see the beads of sweat reflected on the arms and face of a guy leaning against the wall, who was no doubt leaving an enormous stain on the photo of Henry Grimes. (It was a Matthew Shipp set, in case that matters; he was toying with standards: “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Take the A Train,” etc.) Needless to say there weren’t any windows.

Indeed, the great trombonist Ray Anderson once called The Stone a sweat lodge, and it was considerably better the night I saw him there than some others I experienced. The term is really perfect for the sort of vision-questy feeling so many of us (adherents) have for this music. And Anderson did comment, appropriately enough, about all of us being martyrs for the music, about achieving transcendence through purification. He was playing with Bob Stewart (tuba) that night, the so-called Heavy Metal Duo. How could I let the heat hold me back?

Some years later, I saw Stewart again in the basement of the Cornelia Street Café (R.I.P., another great music space gone), and was he ever sweating—you’ve never seen a musician sweat till you’ve seen a tuba player playing New Orleans-style jazz in a hot NYC club in July. During the set, a woman threw her scarf to him to wipe the perspiration off his face. Like it was a bouquet. Stewart refused to wipe his face with it. It was all quite lovely—the scarf, the gesture, his demurring. (She told him it could be washed; he said something to the effect that they all say that.) Anyway, in the break he got a napkin from the bar instead, and he hung it on an unused music stand, right where he’d hung the scarf during the remainder of the previous set.

Just try seeing something like that at the Blue Note, or even the Vanguard. Try seeing it in the new New York. The Stone has since moved operations to the Glass Box theater at the New School, a beautiful little space, with a wall of windows looking out on 13th Street. Climate-controlled. Outside and around it, the ghosts of so many clubs. You can’t help but feel their presence when you walk around the Village. (See “Torch Songs for LES,” 12.7.12.)

T

Tabano. Every Coltrane should have his Dolphy. Consider those Vanguard recordings from 1961: whenever Coltrane’s playing gets lackluster, Dolphy’s on him like a horsefly. In one standout moment, Dolphy ends his solo with a series of cartwheeling trills on the bass clarinet—and then Coltrane enters on the soprano, trilling for what must be a good half-minute, all over the register, until Dolphy is absolutely annihilated. The imprint of Dolphy’s idea is still there, though, the raw material for Coltrane to worry.

You could call it cutting or one-upmanship, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels more like two explorers taking turns goading each other up a mountain they’d never dare scale alone.

*

Todo tiene su final. When most people think of salsa they think of uptempo, brash, joyous dance music. This is not wrong per se, but it is limiting and somewhat patronizing, and suggestive of a legacy of racism and colonialism. Salsa is “fun” music; island people are perennially happy; they still live in the Edenic gardens Columbus described half a millennium ago; they know not the Germanic depths of tragedy, the heights of the sublime, etc.

And yet, salsa—itself a contested name—was music created by Puerto Rican immigrants during times of great hardship. If some of the upbeat joy of the music was meant as a way to escape, or, perhaps better, transmute that hardship, then something of the pain must be deeply inscribed in the music; the heights of its pleasure may simply be the negative impression of the pain it attempts to exorcise. As much as the blues, it seems to be a public working-out of a culture’s pain and angst. Wiggling your hips is not a bad way to transcend pain, and happily there’s a lot of salsa about wiggling your hips. There is also, in good pop fashion, a lot of broken hearts and sentiment. I always find myself returning to the quote from “Sonny’s Blues,” when Sonny looks out the window at a woman joyously singing at a revival meeting and tells his brother that it’s “disgusting” to think how much she must have suffered to be able to sing that way. I think, too, of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, where the Hollywood director of popular comedies, in an effort to make a “meaningful” film, goes undercover as a hobo, winds up in prison … and eventually comes to realize the power of comedy to transcend pain, in this case of the Great Depression. Comedy is simply another form of catharsis, laughter no less dignified than tears. There is, in fact, something more deeply human about it: rather than kowtow to Fate and the gods, we disarm them, belittle them.

That tragedy is a more elevated genre than comedy; that, in order to make salsa “serious” music, I have to reveal some hint of tragedy about it; that this requires me, the ersatz (at best avocational) music critic, to dignify it: these are longstanding prejudices, pitfalls to be avoided. So when I say that there’s a fair amount of salsa about political oppression, about the trials of being an immigrant, and about death, I don’t want to be misunderstood as somehow arguing this grants the genre a dignity it otherwise lacks. Sometimes, these themes are addressed with a sneering humor meant to balk at their power. Sometimes, what comes through is an eerie fatalism that elements of salsa as a form seem to emphasize.

Consider the classic Willie Colón record Lo mato. It appeared at a time when, as Will Hermes reminds us, “Salsa wanted to travel beyond the barrio—to be seen, and to see itself, as more than just a ghetto dancehall soundtrack. It was a virtuoso music with deep history and international pedigree; it wanted respect” (24)—this with regard to Larry Harlow’s Hommy, a salsa remake of Tommy that premiered at Carnegie Hall the same year as Lo mato. Colón was salsa’s bad boy, whose album titles and covers (e.g., his debut El Malo; Cosa Nuestra, where Colón is pictured “holding his trombone like a tommy gun” (Hermes 35); on the cover of Lo mato it’s an actual pistol he holds to an old man’s head—an image, perhaps, of the assassination of the Cruz-Puente era?) figure him as el barrio’s capo de tutti capi. After Hector Lavoe’s death, in ‘77 Colón would team up with Ruben Blades, whose socially-conscious lyrics were rooted in Nueva Cancion, and he himself produce records that seemed to scream for respect and artistic recognition (Hermes: “It was not usual ‘Baile!’ business” (223)).

But—much as I love Blades, with and without Colón—one hardly needs so-called symphonic salsa to hear the so-called Germanic darkness, tragedy and fatalism undergirding Colón’s phenomenal work with Lavoe on Lo mato. The album is about the harsh realities of el barrio, about toughs and street crime, machismo and bravado and stolen lovers, grim, sassy, and sometimes very funny (e.g., “Lola, please advise your boyfriend that, while he may have a machete … I have a machine gun.”). For me, though, “El dia de suerte” is the standout track for demonstrating how this upbeat dance music can tilt into something darker. The story of a hard-luck case who can’t seem to give up hope, its message is rendered all the more persistent both by the song’s stepladder melody and by its cycling over and over through the chorus: “Pronto llegará/ El día de mi suerte/ Se que antes de mi muerte/Seguro que my suerte cambiará” (Soon my lucky day will come; I’m sure that, before I die, my luck is going to change”) The chorus opens the song, and punctuates the six verses used to tell our hero’s life. Is this grit and perseverence, or just plain delusion? But then this is the reality of el barrio: if you don’t think things are going to get better, no matter how slim your chances—if you stop fighting—you won’t survive. It’s the chorus—the voice of the community—that reminds him of this, that bucks him up. But our hero remains uncertain; while Lavoe leads into two choruses with affirmation (e.g., “Y ya lo verá”: you’ll see), four times he asks the question that lingers over the chorus’s certainty: “Pero cuándo será?” (But when?) Even Lavoe’s teletype-style delivery suggests the broader, implacable engine of a malign fate that “betrays” him, over and over and over. This tension between hope and despair, will and fatalism, is inscribed in the form of salsa itself: the trading between chorus and sonero, chorós and tragic hero (though their roles in classical tragedy are inverted), community and striving individual trying to make it in America. Taken together with songs like “Todo tiene su final” and “Calle luna calle sol,” the tension rises above el barrio itself to become a broader statement of the human predicament, something closer to Ruben Dario’s great poem “El fatalismo.” (I know, I’m not supposed to say shit is universal anymore. But there it is.) No surprise that “Suerte” ends without resolving, the horns cut off in mid-phrase; the record absolutely needs the seven-minute “Junio ‘73” descarga at the end to bring about true catharsis.

U

Unity. One summer day in Central Park I found myself staring at a particularly beautiful tree, perhaps forty feet tall; I was just far enough away from it to be able to take it in in one view, though close enough for it to still appear majestic. I thought about one of Aristotle’s requirements for drama: the action should not last longer than a day. I wondered what was the musical equivalent to this. A tree, a tragedy, a symphony, artworks whose aesthetic pleasure results in part from an ability to consider them in the comprehensible grandeur of their totality. (NB: I misremembered unity of time as being about the spectator’s attention, not the diegesis. This is my comeuppance for artfully minimizing drama over the years so’s to have more time to teach fiction and poetry. (Sometimes I teach film instead.) I clearly need to go back to the Poetics;I could have sworn there was something in there about audience. Anyway, my apologies to Aristotle.)

V

Valentine. Chuck Billy: “You either left your old lady at home, or you drug her out to a metal show, right?” (Testament show at B.B. King’s, Valentine’s Day, 2013.) Helldriver: “Guilty as charged. I left my old lady at home. After the show, I headed up to the Broadway Dive at 101st Street and drank cocktails with a record producer while folks took turns singing songs about heartbreak from that little balcony alcove over the bar. I can’t remember where I slept; probably Metro North.”

W

Wrong guy. Think about all those records you listened to for years and years before you realized you were listening to the wrong musician. For me, it was Lenny White on those early ‘70s Al DiMeola and Return to Forever records, like Land of the Midnight Sun and Romantic Warrior. As a guitarist—as a teen—I couldn’t help but gravitate toward DiMeola’s shameless exuberance. (Okay: I still do.) Even when the jazz drummer who lived down the hall from me in college pointed out his favorite fill on “Elegant Gypsy,” I could sympathize with his passion, but I couldn’t pull my ear away from DiMeola long enough to appreciate the glittering rails White was laying down underneath him. Maybe it was the years post-college I spent listening to Max Roach and “Philly” Joe Jones, Lewis Nash and Jeff Watts, and Tony Williams, Tony Williams above all, that would make White so startlingly present to me when I put those records on again later in life. The malleability of the ear, the way what we hear changes over the course of years, as the matrix of our taste and our musical experiences shift, causes us to hear even the most familiar music differently. I’ve written about that a lot on this blog. Wisdom, perhaps: keep nostalgia and novelty in balance; use the one as a check on the other; temper the mad dash for the new with cyclical return to the old. Remember, again: it’s never the same river.

X, Y, Z

You. Thought I was going to say something else snide about Metallica. C’est fini. Ils sont morts.

 

Two Saints

After the uncollected diptychs of Herman Melville.

I. Saint Nick’s

It lay not far from the northwest entrance to the 145th Street station of the A-B-C-D trains.

A nondescript brown door, open dusk to gloam, a few up from the fish-n-chips place, Devlin’s, I think it was called. You heard it before you saw it. Then the light coming from inside. A few steps down. Always down.

The whole place blinked like a jukebox. Smelled like a warmed-up tube amp. (I also smelled: gasoline, perfume, leather, piss, cigarettes.) People, rubbing against you like starving cats. Nobody could help it; the place was too small; there were too many of us; there was no fire code to speak of.

There was no no-talking policy. There was an anti-no-talking policy. The music had to fight its way into the here and now or it wasn’t heard at all. It was never given carte blanche, the way it is in the shrines to the south. The legendary toughness of the Harlem crowd: Show me. Prove it.

The tables between the bar and the band were mostly (though never entirely) occupied by tourists. The foremost tables were pushed right up against the musicians. There was no bandstand, of course.

Oh, hell, I give up. I have no coherent memory of this place anymore. Only bits and pieces. And I can’t go back. It must be almost a decade since they shut the door of the St. Nick’s Pub. Maybe I should abandon Melville and write more like Joe Brainerd, even if that means the memories are mixed up with other memories from the eight years I lived in Harlem. Like this:

I remember the talking drummer dancing while he played, one hand fluttering against the drumhead. The bass player had a small gap between his front teeth, and hair I envied.

I remember the paunchy geek dancing by the bar, all sharp elbows and sharp chin and Fabio hair. When the percussionist headed for the door between sets, the geek gave him such a good-natured whack on the arm you’d have thought they were old friends. I only heard the last words the percussionist said: “Just don’t hit me again.”

I remember the bandleader walking around with a collection plate, people talking into his ear.

I remember the harmonica player in the D.R. wifebeater pumping his arm like he was blowing a train whistle, the women shimmying at the table in front of him.

I remember the drunk airline pilot trying to pick up a woman by the door.

I remember the bartender made me a special whiskey sour one night. It took him a good five minutes, walking from one end of the bar to the other, for this and that. I have no idea what he put in there. Maybe he was taking me for a ride. It tasted good.

I remember the Japanese barmaid. And wondering what the connection was between the Japanese and Harlem. There was a Japanese sax player one night, too.

I remember my neighbor, telling me the dresser we were thinking of buying in one of the other apartments in our building had belonged to the Japanese woman seen cradling Malcolm X’s head in the famous photo from his assassination. Possible, but I wish my neighbor’s wife had been there; she was good at calling him on his bullshit.*

I remember standing at the bar hearing Greg Porter sing “1960what?” for the first time over the PA, and somebody saying he was a St. Nick’s regular made good.

I remember the jazz pictures tacked or taped up around the pipes and such. Bird next to the fire extinguisher. Lady Day over the payphone. There was a picture of Lionel Ritchie, too, and a painting, “The Man,” though I’ve forgotten who The Man was, or what He looked like. Just that He was present.

I remember the cutout H-A-P-P-Y  B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y on a string behind the bar. The bibs made of napkins they tied around the neck of your Sugar Hill beer. And Christmas lights, of course.

I remember the food, on a table just past the bar. Paper plates and a checkered plastic tablecloth. You can only really hear the music if you know there were paper plates and a checkered plastic tablecloth.

I remember a horn solo. A broken diva. And a keyboard player who moved his body like a marionette, rolling his shoulders, flattening his hands against the keys …

I have no coherent memory of this place. But I do have the distinct impression I heard better music here than anyplace else in the City. Maybe anyplace else period. That this place was closer to the spirit of music, closer to the essence of what music is. Even with Sugar Hill turning to salt, the bitter taste of highrises going up over bulldozed lots, the gut-renovated brownstones, the lives cast into dumpsters up and down 145th Street (“you can fit a whole neighborhood in a dumpster,/ if you really try”), all the real-estate bullshit that throttled and continues to throttle the spirit of music (and pretty much everything else) in the City, there was still this little unvanquishable mecca.

I’m know, I’m romanticizing. I don’t care.

It may be history now, but it was so adamantly not historical—not a place interested in preserving some PBS image of jazz, but present and vital, there in the African diaspora community that I have now been away from for as long as I lived there.

I was holding these notes for a celebration, a reopening. Instead, they have become a piecemeal elegy. I had to dig them out of old journals. Some of them were no longer legible. They’re not enough. They’re all I have. They don’t add up to anything. They ease my longing, a little.

 

* E.g.: “Jimmy Baldwin! Jimmy! Honey, remember when I introduced you to Jimmy?” “I remember you pointing him out to me from across the room.”

 

*****

 

II. Saint Vitus

It lies not far from Gowanus Canal. But that is immaterial.

“Meet Me at St. Vitus.” An anthem, & a bit of Satanic doggerel, in honor of St. Vitus Bar’s successful Kickstarter campaign and impending not-really-post-pandemic resurrection. Sung, obviously enough, to the tune of “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Music by Kerry Mills. Lyrics by Helldriver, who would like to acknowledge the assistance of Profs. Hafen S. Bergius and Baciyelmo in preparing this authoritative edition.

Ahem.

 

When Vitus got home from the pub

To dismember the corpse in his tub

He called Apollyon

But his wifey was gone

Without leaving him one shred of grub.

 

A note had been stuck by his wifey

To the door with an old butcher knifey

It ran, “Vitus, my dear, a demon growled in my ear,

Said he would buy me a shot and a beer,

So I’m off now to start my new lifey.”

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show

Don’t tell me there’s a darker place

A hundred miles below

 

“We’ll dance the selfsame Vitus

Till our feet swell with elephantitus

the blood runs from our eyes

and our flesh liquefies

If you meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show.”

 

Vitus grabbed his spikes and his leather

And an umbrella for the balmy weather

Abbath drove the train

Through the gaslit subterrane

Of the region referred to as nether.

 

Some hell-wench was working the door

her forearms all slathered with gore

She said, “What’s that? The show?

It’s as sold as my soul,

And don’t try that I’m-on-the-guest-list shit, either.”

 

So he showed her three sixes branded

To the top of his behornéd head

Said she with a grin,

“Why didn’tcha say so? C’mon in!

Elevator’s on the left. Push nine.”

 

He’d gone four, five, six circles down

When he cried, “What on earth is that sound?

Like a Cerebus-pound

Or some cursed Injun mound

Where the infants are ground

Where the demons are crowned

And the fire’s kept stoked all year round, all year round,

And the fire’s kept stoked all year round.

(And what’d she write on that note that I found?)”

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the pub

Don’t tell me there’s a finer partner

For drinking than ol’ Beelzebub

 

He’s got a hollow leg—or three—

And cheeks as red as a cherub

So meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the pub.”

 

Then opened the door on a scene

From a nightmare well-leavened with spleen

The sludge-stench of unguents

Crotchless-Todd-Rundgren pungent

And the nuts of Ted Nugent

Roasted more than was prudent

By enslaved, undead culinary students

Told the presence of all things unclean.

 

In a booth was his dear wifey pressed

In a bodice of leather was she dressed

Asmodeus to her left

His hoofage all cleft

With Jaeger her invertedly blessed.

 

Took Vitus his Jaeger sans chaser

When the music hit him like a Taser

The bartenders all carved

“SLAYER” into their arms

With the blade of a dull, rusty razor.

 

Said he, “Well, it’s not what I’d planned …

But can you beat that motherfucking band?

I’m shutting my Bible

For if I don’t, I’m liable

To wind up worse off than the damned.”

 

Now he’s stuck in this place all eternity

For the devil has proved his paternity

And the music’s sure fine

be it punk, thrash, or grind

Or sui generis a-reek with slatternity.

 

Soooooooooo … [everybody!!]

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus,

meet me at the show

Don’t tell me there’s a darker place

A hundred miles below

 

“We’ll dance the selfsame Vitus

till the angels all spite us

the demons be-(k)night us

to acts of violence incite us

like Andronicus Titus

to executions invite us

rabid mambas to bite us

pestilence to blight us

If you’ll meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show.”

 

[de rigeur blistering electric something-or-other solo; then, climactic reprise:]

 

“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus,

meet me for a beer

don’t tell me bangers are banging

thrashers are thrashing

moshers are moshing

eyeballs a-popping

bunnies a-hopping

Azathoth a-flopping

anyplace but here, but here,

anyplace but heeeeeeeeeere!”

 

[Clap. Clap. Clap.]

 

[follows a list of variants from previously published versions]

 

1-5] VX(+((0))): When Vitus awoke all hungover/ Looking like death unwarmedover/ He rolled over in bed/ Kissed a severed head/ And cried out, “Who bisected my lover?”

8-9] R!sq&i: Vitus, by goll,/ Quart’ring corpses is dull,

54-60] ^^^ugh^^^: Here be rituals dominated by victuals/ Unidentifiable meat-substitutes on the griddles/ While Norman Castavets/ Plays his bone castanets/ To a tune on thirteen out-of-tune fiddles.

92-95] sNogg?eeeeee: Call up the demons/ And theorems by Riemann/ Pour out our libations/ With baskets of crustaceans

 

[follows a comment box for suggested new verses, as per the original. don’t be shy, now. and don’t be f—-d, either, writing doggerel is d—-d hard!]

[In fact, here is a little story perfect for a new verse, open to the first versifier who dares: “It was the frontispiece of an old, smoked, snuff-stained pamphlet, the property of an elderly lady (who had a fine collection of similar wonders wherewith she was kind enough to edify her young visitors), containing a solemn account of the fate of a wicked dancing party in New Jersey, whose irreverent declaration that they would have a fiddler even if they had to send to the lower regions for him, called up the fiend himself, who forthwith commenced playing, while the company danced to the music incessantly, without the power to suspend their exercise until their feet and legs were worn off to the knees! The rude woodcut represented the Demon Fiddler and his agonized companions literally stumping it up and down in ‘cotillions, jigs, strathspeys and reels.’” (John Greenleaf Whittier, The Supernaturalism of New England, 1847 (Oklahoma UP, 1969), p. 50; Whittier’s emphasis)]

Un/coiffed

1

“Where the future is present.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then this was their night on the town. Bartley surely has experience dressing up for Wynton & Co., and at least two of his sidemen, drummer Sherman and guitarist Gabe Schnider, have built similarly impressive resumes. I myself was particularly taken by pianist Mathis Jaona Jolan Picard. What a touch, and what a presence. A series of trilling figures down the keys on the blues was as perfect as anything I’ve heard of any pianist, of any age: a model of space and light; and his Jaki Byard-style comping on the high end of the keyboard was equally on-target. They have all already achieved remarkable things. Still, I couldn’t help feeling they had come to the Gallery this evening dressed up as the professionals, as the men, they were still in the throes of becoming.

Now, I know a band can’t really sustain the millennial exuberance of that blues for a whole evening; as a writer friend I have surely quoted before would put it, the “lights” can’t always be “on.” But there were aspects of the performance that unnecessarily turned the lights off. For example, Bartley’s propensity to chatter between songs. It’s natural enough for the music an artist writes to be sparked by something in his or her personal/musical life; the monicker for the sextet, “Original music inspired by dreams, fantasies, stories and images from childhood to present,” suggested as much. So why belabor the obvious? It’s different, of course, if one has been in the business for a long time and has a knack for storytelling (like Max Roach did), or one’s storytelling becomes a performance in itself (like Roy Haynes’s does, not always for the better), or one is just fabulously articulate (e.g., Joshua Redman). True, Miles himself was taken to task for never saying anything at all. And the parameters for how much to say may have shifted vis-a-vis the pathology of sharing endemic to the internet. With Bartley, though, I got the uneasy impression that he was practicing the sort of between-song banter that might be expected of him in his artistically well-heeled future. Maybe it shouldn’t have made me uneasy; after all, cultivating a public persona, finding one’s comfort zone for engaging with the audience, is part of maturing as an artist.

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Two Free Jazz Epitaphs

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

1. CBGB’s 313 Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

 

2. Tonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

John Zorn: musical freedom-fighter or musical terrorist?

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

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

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

Dreaming American

Independence Day is next week, and the venue—a bar-restaurant with a piano-shaped stage built into one corner, jazz seven nights a week—is done up in stars-and-bars bunting. The food is ethnic, some kind of Mediterranean fusion. A giant clock, the kind you would see in a train station, hangs on one wall, and a giant TV, silent as the clock, hangs over the bar. The Yankees are playing the national pastime-that-was. A third wall is decorated with a rather lurid painting of jazz legends in a jam session, and, on a shelf high above, foot-tall porcelain clowns, each playing a different instrument.

The musicians take turns eating at the single bar seat reserved for staff. The pianist, a young woman of Asian descent, is occupying it when I arrive; the bass player, young, male, African-American, follows her. Scampi. Comped? How much? Half, maybe, the rest paid for out of the tip jar: a fishbowl on a pedestal beside the piano, a few dollar bills floating in it. Too big to carry around soliciting, like they would at Arthur’s Tavern, like they used to at the St. Nick’s Pub.

When the bass player finishes eating, someone on staff is dispatched to find the pianist. Like she’s an errant busboy, smoking weed in the basement. It’s the sort of indignity musicians have suffered since antiquity, beginning with their exile from the Republic.

Why the rush? I’m happy to drink my wine and read about Ed Poe until she’s good and ready. The guy next to me, in the only other occupied seat on the stage-side of the bar, seems content to watch the Yankees. A couple on the other side chats away under the porcelain clowns, and someone else reads the paper. The bartenders, skinny and dark, stand around like coin-operated automatons.

Appear she does, looking slightly flustered, and the other two follow her up onto the stage: the rhythm section, although in a piano trio the distinction is probably meaningless. If there’s any applause, I don’t hear it. No one introduces them, and they don’t introduce themselves. She looks over her shoulder a couple of times while drums and bass fumble with sheet music. The music rack is down, the lid up, the piano turned away from the bar, so that we, the patrons, can see her face, but not her hands.

After a tune or two, I start to wonder what the music is doing here, seven nights a week. Why the stage, the track lighting? Why the baby grand? It’s not a noisy bar, where the music helps create that juke-joint atmosphere, maybe a few people dance, the noise on the bandstand mixing in and out of the noise of conversation, in turn feeding and feeding off the energy of the patrons. At the same time, the music is much too loud and prominent to be a digestif—although, since the main dining room appears to be in the back, the owners might have thought it could serve that function, from a distance. Nor is the place a club-shrine, where arty people go to just listen, silence their cell phones and keep conversation to a minimum. Shoved into a corner, yet thrust up onto a stage; playing against the Yankees, yet loud enough to dissuade conversation: the music seems to have no clearly-defined role.

Maybe enough that it’s here at all. But it does make me wonder what the musicians are playing for, besides tips and a scampi coupon.

Perhaps in response, the band doesn’t talk once during their set. They do no more than sift through sheet music, murmuring. It’s a bit like watching someone sort dirty laundry; I almost feel the need to look away. As for the pianist, the leader—it is her trio; her name is on the bill—she stares straight ahead while she plays, without seeming to look at anything, not even the keys or her own hands. Maybe she’s looking through the open windows and door behind me, at the makeshift terraza on the avenue, at the cars and pedestrians making their way through the breezy late-June evening. Making music out of their moving figures and the City night, dreaming about all these lives separate and distinct from her own, people she won’t ever see again, and how she fits into this inscrutable jigsaw; and when, if ever, she’ll be done paying her dues, make it, play for the tourists; and whether she’ll ever be able to call this place home, and what that will mean when she goes back to Tokyo, or Seoul, or Boston, or Los Angeles, or wherever it is she’s called home up to now.

The guy next to me never takes his eyes off the TV, but his body does rock a little when they play a burner. He applauds politely when the set is over, too; but then somebody has just hit a home run.

At last she does speak. In a thickly-accented English, she introduces her bandmates, herself, holds up her CD with her face on the cover. The drummer is texting. A moment later he goes out front to smoke a cigarette. She, too, disappears again, leaving the CD buried under the scores atop the piano.

I can’t tell you who she sounded like. She sounded like pretty much every dreamer who came to this town before her, and yet like nobody but herself, pitching those few pennies into the wishing-well of improvisation—there are plenty at the bottom of that fishbowl, and plenty more fishbowls like that one. I can’t remember what she played, either. A mix of originals and standards, again, like pretty much everybody else: something people can tap their feet to even if they’re watching the game, nothing too “out,” too corny, too anything.

As for her name, that doesn’t particularly matter either. There are dozens, maybe hundreds like her in this City: graduates of the Berklees, renegades from the Julliards, devotees of that other national pastime, cobbling together their lives on bandstand after bandstand, hawking their CDs wherever they go, playing an always-contemporary music itself cobbled together from a thousand accents, one foot planted firmly in the future, dreaming about a time when they’ll be done paying their dues, the flag will mean what it’s supposed to, and the clowns will climb down off those high shelves and file out the door.

Silent Movie

Over the last intersession I had a chance to read Robert Spadoni’s Uncanny Bodies (U California, 2007). The book examines, as its subtitle says, “the coming of sound film and the origins of the horror genre,” with particular attention to the reception of Dracula and Frankenstein in the context of Hollywood’s transition to sound (1927-31). For Spadoni, the uncanniness of Dracula—and by extension Dracula’s early popularity and prestige, which seem inexplicable today—was partly attributable to the uncanniness of the speaking figure itself in early sound film: “figures now [circa 1930] seemed more vivid and animated, and yet … [they] could seem distinctly less alive than before” (22). Conversely, Whale’s mute Monster was a throwback to silent film, which had already begun to seem alien to audiences habituating themselves to sound. The nascent horror film genre capitalized on this dialectic of spectatorship as its conventions began to solidify, “convert[ing] a fleeting reception phenomenon into the solid basis for an enduring genre practice” (7).

As interesting to me as the overall argument and imaginative close-readings, however, are some of the tidbits Spadoni includes about how the transition to sound was perceived. Here is one: in the early ‘30s, “nondiegetic music was not yet a norm of Hollywood sound cinema. There was disagreement as to how much, if any, nondiegetic music a film should contain. Some believed that music would annoy viewers who were trying to listen to dialogue; others worried that viewers would be wondering where the music was coming from. Still others feared that viewers would find incidental diegetic noises distracting, as well. As a result, dialogue scenes sometimes played out against inordinately quiet backgrounds” (22).

As I noted in an earlier post, I spent much of my last filmgoing year and a half watching silent movies shown in two series at the Museum of Modern Art: “An Auteurist History of Film” and “Daydreams and Nightmares: Weimar Cinema 1919-1932.” (The Weimar series just ended; the “auteur” series is ongoing, but finished the silent period several months back.) After reading the above passage, I found myself reflecting on some of the uncanny convergcnces between my own experiences watching silent films and those of the original audiences of early sound cinema.

MOMA is probably one of the few places in the world where you can sit in the midst of a near-silent public watching a silent film without accompaniment. Whispering spectators are violently shushed; snoring ones are cudgeled awake. When such a hard-fought silence reigns in the cinema theater, the image can indeed take on an uncanny, ghostly, quasi-theatrical power, akin to Spadoni’s Dracula or Monster. The images transfix us, like daguerreotypes of the newly deceased. And yet, in such a thuggishly quiet environment, where the proverbial dropped pin resonates like a church bell, the spell is easily broken by any noise from the theater: the rustling of those ubiquitous plastic bags; the swishing of latecomers’ hands along the railing as they descend the stairs in near-darkness looking for an open seat. (To this one would have had to add the ka-thunk of chairs every time a spectator left the theater, a dozen or so ka-thunks from every seat, like a spinning saucer coming to rest. Thankfully, when the museum was renovated several years ago, they replaced those seats—yet another annoyance become nostalgic memory.) Finally, during an unaccompanied silent film, one can hear the muted whir of the projector … and even, sometimes, the noise of the projectionist, that phantom figure behind the curtain, himself a sort of absent presence, like the images on the screen. My favorite moment here is when a friend and I went to see October without accompaniment, and we could hear something that we eventually identified as a TV program. It turned out that the projectionist was watching Wheel of Fortune in the booth. Was he aware of the irony?

For most silent films, however, MOMA provides piano accompaniment. Early sound film viewers would not have been unaccustomed to sound itself during a film, but rather (as Spadoni notes) to the question of the source of the sound without the living sound-makers present, just as they questioned where the voices were coming from when the technology was so primitive as to make it seem those voices were coming from anywhere but the actors’ mouths.* Today, the scheme is reversed: having a live pianist in the room is potentially as distracting to the modern viewer unaccustomed to seeing silent films in the theater as the presence of nondiegetic music or poor sound quality for dialogue was for early sound cinema viewers. We have become so accustomed to the “speaking effigies” that live presence/performance during a film has a certain uncanniness about it.

Indeed, a live pianist today can not only disrupt dialogue, but the whole cinematic experience … and to a far greater degree than a badly-scored film. During the recent showing of a restored version of the 1918 J’Accuse, I left the theater after the first hour. It wasn’t the film; it was the piano, which was so overbearing that I couldn’t focus my attention on the action. The same thing can happen, though to a lesser degree, when the pianist makes an obvious error, or seems to play out of synch or out of character with the images on the screen. (I would guess that the prevalence of recorded music, together with the growth of music as a profession, has made us less tolerant of mistakes than early silent film audiences were.) Conversely, like a good score, a good silent film pianist will blend into the movie, clarifying and emphasizing character and conflict, and helping to weld the visual elements together into a whole …  which is sort of ironic, given how much of such accompaniment seems to be a Frankenstein’s Monster of stitched-together pieces of popular songs and romantic melodies.

The presence of intertitles adds a whole other interesting wrinkle. A movie pianist has no reason to stop playing during an intertitle; in my experience, they generally play without stopping from the first frame to the last, although they may pause at moments of high tension, often with a staccato burst, to let the action play out unaccompanied. But MOMA also shows a lot of foreign silent films, many of which are without subtitles. Sometimes they will just show the film in its original language without translation. On other occasions, they will have a translator in the cinema with a microphone.**

This creates yet another sonic layer to the “silent” film experience, and a dilemma for the pianist that reminds me once again of those early concerns about sound film: the voice of the interpreter rendering the dialogue or narration of the intertitle competes with the music provided by the live piano. The piano may stop and start, or at least modulate its dynamics, according to whether the translator is reading. This creates an unattractive rhythm, disrupting the ambience of the film, while the wooden, often halting voice of the translator drains the intertitle of the inflections that the viewer’s mind provides upon reading the words. (That said, it is far worse to have an interpreter who tries to read the intertitles dramatically, as I have also experienced.) Once again, the concerns about the “talking” film at the dawn of the sound era are ironically recapitulated in the unsubtitled foreign silent film at the beginning of the twenty-first century: now, it is the dialogue (or narration) that interrupts the music, not the reverse.

* I wonder if this helps account for the seeming abundance of diegetic music in early sound film … and perhaps for the immediate introduction of the musical (apart, that is, from sheer novelty), despite the technological challenges of early sound. A piano accompanying a silent film often plays nondiegetic music and simulates diegetic events: staccato chords for slammed doors and hammer blows, a descending glissando for a collapsing tower, etc. The piano is a whole soundtrack unto itself, confusing and collapsing the diegetic and nondiegetic, “miming” as much as the actors do. Perhaps the diegetic music was there to help fill the void of the suddenly-obvious silence of sound film (e.g., the resident pianist in the Weimar film Farewell (1931), who plays while he converses with the other guests in the boardinghouse where the movie is set), or to provide a clear source for the music. In other words, if there was a fear that early audiences “would not know where the sound was coming from,” but filmmakers wanted to capitalize on “the power of music to make mobile and to vitalize” (Spadoni 23), the presence of the performer on-screen—whether a character who happens to play piano, or a full-fledged musical number—seems a viable way of resolving the problem. As for the early musical: like the piano, the musical seems to be a place where the diegetic and nondiegetic cross over: the music is at one and the same time performed on screen and transcends the narrative moment, enveloping the diegesis in a way that only nondiegetic music can.

** In my understanding, this is not the same as the role of the narrator in the early cinema, who would tell the story of a film without intertitles, whether in English or no. It would be interesting to find out to what degree this practice was used for early foreign silent films, rather than subtitles or replaced intertitles. For an idea of the possible sonic environments of silent cinema, see, for example, Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America (Vintage paperback, 1994), pages 16-19 and 86.

Life in the Upper Balcony

I wrote a version of this a couple of years ago on the occasion of Alfred Brendel’s final performance (Carnegie Hall, February 8th, 2008), but never had anyplace beyond a drawer to stick it. I’ll occasionally be revising and posting older pieces, particularly during these, the most relentless times of the semester, when I seem to be able to start things but not finish them. FYI, the posting hiatus is also partly due to my computer having gone kaput. A reminder to all ye who pass this way: have ye backed up your files recently? Well, have ye?

I was watching Alfred Brendel’s final performance when it occurred to me that, were we to cross paths on a busy sidewalk, there is a good chance I wouldn’t recognize him. In person, I’ve mostly only seen the top of his head, so that when I try to call him up to my mind’s eye, his face appears foreshortened, all wrinkled brow and wispy hair. For me to recognize Brendel, I thought, he would have to approach me with his head bowed and cocked to one side—a posture that might seem obsequious, or threatening, or just plain ridiculous, depending, I guess, on his speed.

Then it occurred to me that I would recognize none of the pianists I had seen at Carnegie Hall over the last thirty-odd years, except as imagined above. Like a helium balloon, I have always managed to stick as close to the ceiling as possible.

It’s a money thing, of course. Buying better seats would reduce the total number of concerts I could attend. This was always my father’s argument; I grew up, in a sense, in the Balcony. (An old joke, at least in my family: “Romeo, Romeo, where art thou, Romeo?” “In the Balcony—it’s cheaper!”) And though I may not have two kids or parking or tolls to pay, the ledger-book approach to classical concertgoing has remained my rule of thumb into adulthood. My standard line at the Carnegie Hall box office at the beginning of every season: “Balcony” (which, since I am not a subscriber, implies “Upper Balcony”); and, for piano, “Lefthand side.”

But the financial justification always carried with it an elaborate sustaining mythology: those of us who sit in the Upper Balcony know music in a way that those who sit below us do not. The inhabitants of the Orchestra are as spiritually and intellectually bereft as were their Gilded-Age forebears who occupied the boxes on the Hall’s opening night in 1891. Conversely, we poor saps in the Upper Balcony are martyrs. We are starving artists, academics, lay intellectuals, music students, devotees who carry scores around like evangelicals do the Bible and Senator Robert Byrd did the Constitution of the United States. Our lack of finery is proof of our disdain for material things. Thus, the top of the auditorium represents the top of the hierarchy—closer to God, one presumes—in music appreciation.

A second justifying myth is that the sound is better up here, like the air in the mountains is for consumptives. This is really a corollary to the first myth, since the purist comes to appreciate the music, not the spectacle of performance—a distinction arbiters of taste have sought to make absolute since at least the 19th century. Our distance from the performer thus equates to an ideal distance from the artwork itself.

I can’t testify to the sound being better or worse in the rarefied atmosphere of the Upper Balcony, since I’ve almost never had occasion to sit elsewhere. Once, I shelled out for stage seats when the concert was sold out and the opportunity presented itself; once, a kindly usher let me occupy an empty seat in Orchestra after intermission. A couple of times now I’ve sat in Dress Circle with my parents, who themselves forsook the Balcony a decade ago. Whether because after moving to Houston the original economic calculus for sitting in the Balcony changed, or because they’re exhausted of the martyr’s calvary up the stairs, I don’t know. My point is that I have very little data for comparison.

As for the wealthy philistine versus the humble devotee: I confess I’ve observed a goodly amount of philistine behavior in the Upper Balcony. It seems as likely that somebody has bought cheap tickets on a whim as that they’re rationing the season’s concerts. Nor are my Balcony comrades averse to wearing their Sunday best on Tuesday evening. Nor, for that matter, is the Balcony any safer from the terrorism of the cell phone. (Would that we were all as pedantic as Tibby Schlegel in Howards End: “profoundly versed in counterpoint,” he “holds the full score [of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony] open on his knee” and “implore[s] the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum” …)

In hindsight, I wonder to what extent these myths of the Upper Balcony are specific to my family, or can be attributed to my parents’ background. They might have been truer for the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, from which my parents carried their formative experiences in concert-going to the United States. The Buenos Aires of the 1950s seems to have been a place where class barriers were more keenly felt, the appreciation of classical music was more widespread, and the devout were content to pay a peso and stand in the back to get a chance to hear their favorite performer.

I suppose the easiest way to tell the educated from the un- would be to survey audience members about what those pesky encores were. But even that would be unfair to those of us in the back, who can never hear the titles when the performer deigns to announce them. Instead, we listen to the murmur of those in the lower tiers repeating the title to their companions, often during the encore’s opening bars. Then again, it does make for a nice conversation-opener with the stranger with whom we’ve spent the last two hours rubbing knees. If the way up is an exodus of the unwashed to the wilderness of the Balcony, at least the way down offers the possibility of community. It is necessarily a different kind of community from that which forms in the lobby. For this one blossoms in motion; it is the solidarity of fellow travelers, of pilgrims, and the strength of the bond emanates in part from recognizing something of the other’s circumstances in your own.

If there is any truth at all to the foregoing myths, then surely we in the Upper Balcony must appear as strange to the denizens of the Orchestra and Lower Tiers as fishes of the abyssal plain do to the average cod. I am one such beast, perfectly adapted to my low-pressure, low-oxygen environment. I suppose I’ve always looked more fit for hiking or bird-watching than for concertgoing. I arrive at the hall carrying my backpack with binoculars and a thermos cup of coffee, and maybe a book for the intermission. If it’s late spring or early fall, I may be in shorts—ready for the grueling hike up the stairs, yes, but also taking my parents’ disdain for the moneyed classes one step further: my attire says, Go ahead. Judge me. I dare you. (Once again, in deference to the Zeitgeist, I’ll blame my parents, who were (it must be said) lax when I was a child about how I dressed for concerts. I pitied the boys in suits, like I pitied my friends who had to go to Hobby Hall to dance with girls. I was eight years old when an usher asked me if I’d lost my pants. Where is the usher who will ask me that today?) I sit sipping coffee as I await the appearance of that rara avis, the pianist. The lights dim; the stragglers find their seats. I hastily screw the lid back on my thermos and stow it, take out the binoculars … there he is! Looking very much like a magpie! He finishes bowing before I can focus the lenses; he scoots the piano bench forward, flips back his coattails, and puts out his hands …

Remember when those redtail hawks first appeared in Central Park and built a nest next to Woody Allen’s apartment? People would sit in the park to watch them through their binoculars and telescopes and zooms. Weren’t the celebs jealous that week, to be upstaged by a bird!

Maybe binoculars are more indicative of life in the Upper Balcony than musical scores or starving artistry. I can still remember the first time I remarked mentally on the lag between watching a baseball hit a bat and hearing the crack. Had I been watching that batter through binoculars, the lag would have remained despite the illusion of proximity. So it is watching piano through binoculars from the Upper Balcony. Were my father not a pianist beside whom I have stood many a time watching the miracle of the fingers making music, I suppose this sight/sound disjuncture would seem like a product of the mechanism of the instrument itself, and not my perception of it. (It could be argued that this dislocation only reinforces the divide between the purity of the music and the spectacle of its production. And yet, where watching classical piano is concerned, the binoculars have only one real purpose: to marvel at the dexterity of the pianist’s hands. So much, again, for the Balcony’s vaunted purity!)

Maybe one day I, too, will get tired of the Upper Balcony, and begin my experiment in social mobility by buying tickets for Dress Circle. After all, my credentials have been compromised: I have a middle-class salary now. Time to stop slumming. It will be difficult at the box office; the ticket-seller will look at me funny; he might even call his manager and whisper something in his ear. But this will be nothing compared to how I’ll feel the night of the concert, when the usher rips my ticket and says, “Straight ahead, three flights up” (that’s the way I’ll hear it); when I stop before the last flight of stairs, on a floor that has never signified anything more than “Restroom”; when I confront the backward glances of those still climbing (their eyes will scream, “Traitor!”); and when I’m forced to find my seat in a hostile new wilderness, as strange to me as Gulliver’s islands, the natives huddled behind the flora, peering at me, readying their gilded spears. With my shorts and backpack and baseball cap, my thermos cup of coffee, and my binoculars, I will no doubt appear as alien to them as Mr. Brendel’s face will forever remain to me.

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.