Friday, March 26, 2021

10:30 on the Eleventh / ZAH

 

ZAH is a new jazz group pursuing a specific goal: the complete three hundred sixty degree expression of modern musical sensibility.  It is a music tending toward a larger articulation, drawing on the unlimited resources of tradition as well as sudden, raw inspiration.  All creative elements are carefully shaped, or left unshaped, with the expressive ideal in mind.  Saxophone, bass and percussion are the components; they combine in a straight-forward way, producing an uncluttered environment in which each instrument is featured with chamber-music clarity.  If it serves it’s purpose, ZAH will meld Buddhist cantillation with insane fortissimo ring-modulated clusters, post-Coltrane sax lines with Neolithic ritual, florid Classical cadenzas with crippled disco rhythms.  And, of course, them blues, them changes.  ZAH is a continually evolving music concerned with growth, not market-place expediency.  

Jazz Echo, Publication of the International Jazz Federation, Inc Vol. 9, no. 42 October 1979


In 1979 saxophonist Mel Ellison, bassist Michael Willens and percussionist Michael Levenson went into Downtown Sound recording studio in New York City to create an album of music under the band name ZAH.  It was never released.  The studio went out of business a year later and the master tapes are almost certainly lost.  It’s not the first such story in the music business but it’s one that crosses my own trajectory albeit tangentially.  

I wrote about Mel Ellison ten years ago in the second post of this blog.  Mel and I met in 1979 when he was playing with trumpeter Ted Curson in my hometown of Baltimore at a club called the Bandstand.  The owner of the club, Mike Binsky, had produced a three day festival presenting a host of musicians including Sonny Stitt and Ted Curson.  During the afternoons there was a jam session with the rhythm section of Ted Curson’s group, pianist Armen Donelian, bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Tom Rainey.  I came by to play and got my first lesson in New York attitude from Armen when he rolled his eyes at the fact that I couldn’t play the tune I had called in the proper key, asking him to transpose.  But things went well enough and I had a chance to talk with each of them about New York.  Sonny Stitt came in that afternoon and saxophonist David Schnitter was hanging with him, almost literally.  Everywhere Sonny went David was right there asking a question, “Sonny, what about this? Sonny, what about that”?  Sonny couldn’t move his arm without David trying to get a little closer, to see what Sonny was doing.  It was a beautiful thing to see David’s admiration for Sonny, trying to pick up anything he could for the music.  The photograph posted here was part of Mike Binsky’s promotional effort, driving Sonny Stitt and company around the city in a convertible limo with the festival poster (where you can see the Ted Curson Sextet listed) draped prominently on the side.  Sonny Stitt is in the back seat and David Schnitter is seated next to him.  In the front is the late great Baltimore saxophonist Arnold Sterling.

That evening Ted Curson’s band played.   In addition to the aforementioned rhythm section was Mel Ellison on saxophones and Montego Joe on percussion.  Ted Curson had once played in bassist Charles Mingus’s group and the energy crackled in much the same way.  The music swirled in a million directions but my attention was largely on Mel, playing like I’d never quite heard anyone play the horn before.  A very dark sound with all kinds of oblique intervals.  I went back again the second night and asked Mel for a saxophone lesson.  We met the next morning and I had a chance to speak with him at length during the half hour drive each way through city traffic from his hotel to my place.  I was nineteen and my head was in the clouds as I became increasingly engrossed in the conversation only to have Mel calmly inform me that we were stopped behind a parked car.  I don’t quite remember everything that took place in the lesson but there was a good amount of tried and true advice given around issues of musicality.  The main thing was his vibe, the way he spoke and handled himself.  He was gentle and caring, even somewhat self effacing.  At the same time it was like, you knew he knew.  It wasn’t so much what he said but you just felt it.  

One weekend about a month later I decided to take the train to NYC for a visit to see for myself what it was all about.  I didn’t know one borough from another, had no place lined up to stay and didn’t know anyone in the city except Mel, whose number I had with me.  I figured I’d take my horn, a little cash, find a cheap hotel for a couple of nights and just look around.  The train conductor announced New York City and everyone disembarked, slowly working their way upstairs.  I was hungry so I ordered something at the station deli, took it to go and was immediately overwhelmed upon hitting the street.  People were MOVING, endless lines of folks all winding their way around each other.  I just wanted to eat and there was nowhere to be so I found a piece of wall to lean up against and grab a few bites.  Within seconds an enormous guy smiling a big huge grin come right up to me and demanded “Gimme your sandwich!”  I moved and kept moving for blocks, looking for a suitable hotel, finding everything to be way over the money I had.  Eventually I found myself in midtown and saw a sign for the Fulton Hotel.  Rooms were only $12 bucks a night.  Relieved I walked up the stairs and encountered a man sitting behind a plexiglass barrier, the manager I assumed.  The place was old, dark and dank, the wood floors creaky.  There was a sign that ran down the cost of the rooms.  Hourly rates were also available.  The clientele seemed furtive, nobody smiled, hardly anything was said.  I paid for a night, went to the room, looked out the window and stared for a long time.  Innumerable yellow taxi cabs lined the avenue. 

I took out the piece of paper with Mel’s number on it, went to the payphone and dialed having no idea if he was in town or not.  Mel picked up and I announced myself as the guy who took a lesson a month or so back.  “Sounds like someone’s in the Big Apple” he said.  After a brief conversation Mel invited me over to his place.  “I’m just a few blocks from your suite at the Fulton” he said.  Mel lived on West 46th street in a walkup.  One room is all I remember and a pretty spartan one at that.  There was nothing except a bed, a television set, a stereo and a huge cappuccino maker, the kind you might see in an Italian restaurant.  Mel had his horns out and was practicing.  Standing in the middle of the room with his saxophone, bare floors and walls, minimal accoutrements, combined with his calm presence he gave off a monk-like aura.  Maybe it was his Bay Area roots, but he was rather laid back, not at all anxious or up tight about things but at the same time I could tell that he took it all seriously, just not too seriously.  

As he was playing I became so inspired that I decided to take my horn out, unasked, and tried playing with him. This was much more forward than I would be in any other situation and I couldn't believe I was actually doing this but it felt almost magical, as if these were the best notes I'd ever played before.  Mel stopped playing and didn't say anything.  I was a bit uncertain as to why he didn't acknowledge my playing but at the same time it was all cool, he wasn't ruffled nor did he convey any kind of attitude.  We kept talking and at a certain point he decided to play some music he’d recently recorded.  All I remember was that I liked it but couldn’t really say what it sounded like, it was elusive to my ears, I couldn’t grab it.  In retrospect I’m pretty certain this was a recording by a group he was in called ZAH.  Mel said "I've played every kind of music and gig there is and at this point I only want to play the music that I want to do”.  I could tell that this was not a selfish statement given that he backed it up by driving a taxi and later a limousine to make ends meet.  He's certainly not the first person with such a story but he was the first such person that I had met and he lived in NYC, the place I wanted to be, intimidating as it was especially at that time.  All in all he was enjoyable to hang out with, laughed easily and had a positive vibe even as he did not shy away from the urban realities he was immersed in.  After all, this was Times Square in the ‘70s, not at all a playground. 

That evening Mel had a gig with pianist Jaki Byard’s big band, the Apollo Stompers.  I tagged along, riding the subway with him and one of the trombone players who struck me as tremendously underdressed for the occasion, raggedy jeans, sneakers and a rumply t-shirt.  He didn’t look like he was on the way to a gig at all, more like he’d just got up out of bed.  Everyone struck me as being pretty relaxed about everything.

The gig took place at a loft space downtown called Ali’s Alley, drummer Rashid Ali’s club.  There were tables, the place was fairly full and the band set up against the wall.  My first reaction was that the music was loose, very loose.  It almost sounded like a rehearsal in some ways although there was spirit in the soloing.  It all seemed a bit odd and perhaps combined with the fact that I was finally sitting down everything seemed to hit me all at once and I began feeling very uncomfortable.  The feeling built until I began to get worried that I wasn’t going to be OK.  I needed to move, I needed not to be where I was but there was nowhere to go.  I got up anyway, walked around the back and saw a curtain behind which was a small room.  It looked like it may have been someone’s living space but no one was there so I laid down on the floor and curled up.  The band continued playing for awhile and then took a break.  I was still kind of freaked so I remained there hoping no one would come in and say anything.  After about five minutes the curtain opens up and Jaki sticks his head in asking “Is this your room”?  I don’t know what I might have said but he was completely cool about it and left.  That kind of jolted me back to getting my shit together and I got up and walked back out feeling a little better.  This would seem to fit the description of a panic attack, something I knew nothing about.  The saving grace was that relaxed, laissez faire attitude that everyone seemed to have.  It was all cool, do what you need to do, nobody cared!  I think I let go of a lot that evening, for the better.  

By the time I’d moved to NYC in 1983 Mel had left town and relocated to the Bay Area where he was originally from, having left the music business entirely I was to discover.  Before the internet it was not so easy tracking folks down but by 1998 I managed to connect with Mel on a visit to the Bay Area for a gig I was doing with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black at New Langton Arts in San Fransisco.  Mel came to the gig and we had a chance to chat a bit afterwards.  Mel mentioned that certain things he heard us doing reminded him of what ZAH was doing back in the day.  It wasn’t until 2010 that we met again, this time in NYC on a visit Mel made with his wife.  I organized a session with bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Tom Rainey, Mel’s bandmates in the Ted Curson band.  They hadn’t seen each other since.  It felt great to bring that experience full circle.  Mel sounded wonderful.

We’ve continued to stay in touch and at numerous times along the years I’d remind Mel of that elusive music that he played me at his apartment in 1979.  I really wanted to know who and what it was, I just knew it had never been released commercially.  The mystery remained and I assumed I would never know.  To my surprise I got a package in the mail some months later from Mel with several cassettes, one of which was the ZAH recording session.  I didn’t know it at the time but it was his only copy.  It was a thrill to receive this and while I was able to parse things out better than when I first heard it, it retained it’s unique sound.  I was surprised that I had not heard of the other musicians.  Mel didn’t know what had happened to them after he left NYC and I eventually filed the cassette along with the many other tapes I’ve amassed over the years, some number approaching four hundred, going back to 1974.

Some months ago I began the process of digitizing all of them.  I posted about that project here.  In coming across the ZAH tape I was struck all over again by the music.  I still don’t know quite what to say about it.  I brought this up to Mel and began pestering him all over again about the music and any recollections he might have from that time.  At a certain point I asked “have you done any formal interviews in which this has all been laid out?  If not, I think that should happen.”  Mel replied “We were invited to do an interview on a well-known, at the time, NYC jazz radio station just before a gig back around 1981 or so. The other guys did the interview while I and my, at the time girlfriend, sorta walked around the studio. For some reason I didn’t want to participate.  Otherwise I haven’t done any formal interviews about this, I’m not sure anyone cares really!”  I told Mel, “I care!  And I know there are many folks out there who also care about this music and it’s history.”  And with that I realized I had just signed up for the job.  I also wanted to get a better sounding copy of the recording since my cassette was not all that great and my transfer was questionable at best, it needed a professional job.  I  was already in the process of discarding tapes that had been transferred and catalogued when Mel said he didn’t think he had a copy any longer.  My heart nearly stopped.  Did I just throw away the last remaining copy of this music?  

At this point a search began in earnest.  Mel managed to locate bassist Michael Willens.  Turns out Michael left the city in 1996 and relocated to Cologne, Germany where he is the founder and director of Die Kölner Akademie, a period instrument orchestra and choir.  Michael didn’t think he had a copy either but he did remember the name of the producer of the session, Chris Whent.  Chris had produced many sessions for Polydor, was a lawyer and also hosted a music program on WBAI radio.  I managed to get Chris on the phone and while he remembered the session he was pretty adamant that the tapes were lost when the studio went out of business in 1980.  For reasons still unclear the session was never released.   He mentioned the name of the studio as Downtown Sound and with that I was able to find the name of the studio owner, Hank O'Neal, and got him on the phone.  Hank seemed to enjoy these kinds of calls and before long was regaling me with stories from back in the day.  When the studio went out of business he put out a call to everyone who still had tapes stored there to come and get them.  When the final day arrived there were still some tapes left behind and he wasn’t entirely sure what happened to them.  They may have found their way to Williamsburg for storage but that lasted only a couple of years and after that the trail ends.  The chances are slim we’ll ever locate them but it’s been good to follow this out and put at least part of this story to rest.  At the same time, I was beginning to despair that this music would never see the light of day.  So I made one more push with Mel and Michael to give another go at searching their archives.  After a few days Michael got back to us and said “we’re in luck!”.  He had located some files that he had once made of his copy of the recording and they sounded much better than what I had.  I convinced Mel and Michael that this music deserved to be heard and offered to present it here on my blog.  Engineer Jon Rosenberg did fantastic work in cleaning it up and both Mel and Michael were thrilled with the results.  

My original intention was to simply interview Mel and post a transcript but he seemed to feel that Michael Willens would be best able to answer my questions about ZAH as he was more the impetus of the group’s formation.  Michael’s first statement was “that whole period is kind of a blank for me at this point” so I wasn’t sure we were going to get very far but as we proceeded things began to fall into place.  

Michael described the group as being a synthesis as far as his playing experiences (which were quite varied) and his listening to groups like Circle (with Chick Corea and Anthony Braxton), Cecil Taylor, and Charlie Haden with Ornette Coleman.  One of the distinguishing features of ZAH was it’s instrumentation.  Percussionist Michael Levenson played an array of mallet instruments including vibraphone, marimba and glockenspiel as well as cymbals and various other instruments.  On the recording he would often play in time on a cymbal with his right hand while playing chords on the vibes with his left.  Additionally he employed a ring modulator on the vibraphone creating some other-worldly sonic effects.  It often sounds like more than one person but the recording was done all live.

Michael Willens: “We played a lot together, each of us contributed some music and we worked on these tunes, each of us had a concept of a piece and we would play it and play it and play it until it came together the way we felt it was saying what we wanted to say.  The chemistry worked, like chamber music.  It’s what everybody does, it’s not unusual but it brought us to a different space.”  I pointed out that there was some screaming at a certain point on the recording.  “It was very cathartic that particular track.  The music still speaks today, it’s out of en era but it still has validity”.  

The third member of ZAH, percussionist Michael Levenson, has proven to be the most elusive.  As with bassist Michael Willens, Michael Levenson was involved in the contemporary classical music scene in NYC.  This is an interesting aspect of the story given that in the ‘70s there was not yet the full confluence or exchange between musical traditions that we might take for granted as existing now.  It seems that both Michael Willens (who graduated from Juilliard), and Michael Levenson (who graduated from Mannes School of Music) were fortunate in finding themselves at a musical nexus that has blossomed since then.  Their work, along with Mel Ellison, foreshadowed much of what has come afterward.  In any event, I could only trace Michael Levenson’s activities up until the early eighties and then he seemed to have dropped off the radar.  There was one interesting citation appearing in the Village Voice written by Tom Johnson in 1972 as part of a larger review of  performances taking place at The Kitchen when it was located at the Broadway Central Hotel.

October 19, 1972

Opening the Kitchen Season: Laurie Spiegel, Jim Burton, Judy Sherman, Garrett List

Michael Levenson’s “Coke on the Rocks” begins as a militant snare drum solo.  Then he pours lighter fluid over a large, economy-size Coke bottle and sets it on fire. As the bottle burns, he returns to his snare drum and plays jazz riffs with brushes. His excellent drumming sustains the short piece well, and the simple stark image of the burning Coke bottle, in context with the drumming, makes an arresting statement.

Levenson’s other theatre piece, “Professor Throwback Presents”, conveys much less through much more. Wearing a gorilla mask, he burns classical sheet music, does a bad magic act, induces a member of the audience to suck her thumb, draws meaningless symbols, etc., etc. It is more or less impossible to relate the many events, and the piece as a whole is pretty confused.

Both Mel and Michael had fond memories of their friend and his sometimes off the wall comments.  One time Mel suggested to the guys “maybe we should dress up like Art Ensemble and wear some kind of costumes”.  Levenson fired back, “what are you gonna do, dress as a surfer?”  I was intrigued but prepared to think I’d never locate him as my searches were going nowhere.  But then one evening a rather obvious clue came to mind that I had overlooked and shortly before my self-imposed deadline for this post we made contact.  In an e-mail exchange he graciously answered a dozen questions, his brief but witty responses matching his bandmates recollections of his personality.  And before I mislead anyone about the aforementioned anecdote, here is what he told me about his former bandmate: “I had great respect for Mr. Ellison as a human being and as a jazz saxophone player.”

A few other comments from Michael Levenson…

On his choice of ZAH as a band-name:

“ZAH  comes from the dictionary although you will not find it in every dictionary. It is a prefix to other words and it is used as an intensifier.”

On his composition titles:

“‘What You Need to Hear’ is a lighthearted take on the voice of a father talking no nonsense to his child. ‘Christmas 1954’ is based upon a photograph taken at Christmas of me at age 3.  ’10:30 on the 11th’ is a sardonic comment on the timelines of modern life. ‘Park Avenue Mothers’ derives from watching a beautiful, wealthy woman on upper Park Avenue walking her infant child in a baby stroller.”

On playing multiple instruments at the same time:

“I did play multiple and this was managed through very exact placement of the instruments, along with knowledge of my personal foibles.”

On his electronic effects:

“The modulator was an add-on accessory which plugged into the amplifier bar on the vibraphone. Vibraphone amplifiers were not widely used. They consisted of 2 long bars, each bar attaching to the horizontal support, front and back, which held the metal "keys" of the vibraphone, and were output to a small guitar amplifier.”

On being asked about his feelings on the music:

“The only thing I would say is that my intention was to demonstrate the stunning variety and depth that could be achieved with talented people utilizing minimal resources and available technology.”

On later activities:

“After emerging from graduate school in 1983 I left the music industry permanently.”

Anything else?

“You deserve a medal. Or at least a dry crust of bread.”


This all brings us back to Mel.  I've since spoken to a few other folks who knew Mel from that time and they all convey a deep respect for his artistry and dedication as well as an admiration for him as a person.  Apparently Mel was considered the new young rebel in San Fransisco during the mid seventies and had already achieved legendary status in the circle of musicians who were aware of him. Tom Alexander (founder of Alexander Reeds International) was a young saxophonist in the Bay Area at that time.  When I told him I was working on this article he said “Fantastic that you're writing something about Mel, a true original, under-appreciated and brilliant.  Man, Mel was baaaaad, we young saxophone players couldn't believe it, we never heard anyone play like him.  He graciously took me under his wing and helped me immensely.   He was such a great cat to learn from and not just about saxophone playing.  I have never heard anybody then or later play with the same approach he used, it was quite unique from his tone to his execution to his ideas.  A very spiritual cat and it came out in his playing and just talking with him.”

Two other musicians who knew Mel well were bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tom Rainey.  Michael Formanek knew Mel from the Bay Area before moving to NYC himself in the summer of 1978.  Mike was staying with saxophonist Dave Liebman when he contacted Mel by phone.  Mel was living on Delancey street, at the foot of the Williamsburg bridge and helped Mike get his own apartment in the building.  In telling Dave that he’d found his own place in that neighborhood Dave said “You’re going to have to get a gun!”.  When Mike demurred on that idea Dave simply said “well then make sure you look mad whenever you’re going in and out of that place”.  Mel later moved to midtown and Mike recalls many jam sessions there.  “Mel straddled the line between open/free and tunes/structure, a magnificent change player and great free player.  He played all the time when he wasn’t driving.  Super peaceful, he would have an espresso and zone into the music, a kind of stream of consciousness.  I always felt a strong inner drive, a bit of aggressive energy underneath but his demeanor was like breathing, not forced, naturally but with a strong edge to it.”  When I asked Mike about Mel’s spiritual vibe Mike said Mel was like a Zen master in which it’s all very practical, no hero worship involved at all.  Mike summed it up well by saying “it’s hard to put your finger on it because it’s real”, to which I concur.

I followed up with Tom Rainey on that theme and he agreed, remarking on the power and intensity of Mel’s playing, the likes of which Tom had never experienced before.  “Mel was the first guy I really improvised with, we would just go!  The feeling was so strong.  Twice in my life I’ve had the experience of levitating when playing.   Once with Mel and once with guitarist Bill DeArango.  I felt I was literally lifted off the ground while sitting at the drums.“  Tom lived for a time in Long Island City and organized regular sessions with a group including Mel, bassist Ratzo Harris, guitarist Bill Frisell and flutist Norma LaTuchie  “The sessions served as a release and became almost theatrical at times.  The feeling was that there were no gigs, there was no dream of a gig.”  

Asking Mel questions over the years has been interesting.  He would say things like “Music was more therapy for me if anything.  I always felt like there had to be an area in one's life that was untouched by the forces of the market place, so to speak, something that is done just for the sheer fun of it.  In my case it was my music. I often felt compelled to make it work economically and it never seemed to happen, the quality suffered and I wasn't enjoying it.”

His brevity belies a deeper, unspoken understanding of things and maybe that’s part of why I’ve continued to press him on certain points. I should say he has always been open and done his best to accommodate me.   I recently asked Mel about his influences.  

“As far as how I arrived at my approach it’s a little harder to put into words.  When I won a scholarship from Downbeat Magazine to Berklee School of Music in 1965 I, like many other white boys, just wanted to play bebop. I eventually got sick of it and quit music for a time. When I picked my horn up again around 1969-ish I had been reading J. Krishnamurti extensively and meditating a lot. I decided to play only what sounded good to me, and instead of fighting the horn to overcome it I tried to let the sax tell me what works best. I explored and pushed the limits more and more, always playing rhythmically and only what really sounded good to ME and what seemed to lay well on the horn. Instead of approaching the sax as a problem to overcome it became my friend and collaborator, we worked together.  There is more to it, especially when I decided to quit again and why.  I will say it’s the same approach I now take with the piano and I’m loving it!”

That’s a great answer but I was intrigued by something Tom Rainey told me about a conversation many years ago with Mel about John Coltrane.  Tom was surprised when Mel said “Everybody talks about Coltrane but I think Sonny Rollins is the cat”.  I asked Mel about this and he confirmed saying “God, I love Sonny Rollins!  Coltrane was a singular voice but when Sonny plays it’s a history of everything that’s ever been done on a saxophone”.  

On leaving the music business:

“Funny, that whole period of time is frozen in my memory, like those photos. I completely turned my back on it and went another way as you know. The reasons were complex and not fully understood by me at the time, if even now. There was an inevitability to it, a sort of a death if you will. In a nutshell, I wanted to see if I could 'be' without being ‘Mel the jazz sax player’, or ‘Mel the anything else’ for that matter. It was, and is, a very humbling yet edifying experience. I've been fortunate to have met some wonderful people (and some not so wonderful people) along the way.  People who I would not have met nor would have learned so much from had I continued the way I was going.  I still have to wonder sometimes what might have been. I think I was a lot closer to breaking through than I thought at the time. Thomas Edison is quoted as saying: ‘Most people who are failures in life have no idea how close they came to success’. In one perspective I was a failure: I didn't live up to my musical potential. But ultimately, the universe will be the judge of that. One of my early saxophone heroes, Flip Philips, said once: ‘When it stops being fun, I'll quit’. That always stuck with me.  I loved the playing and the exploring part of the music.  It was the political, social and cultural part that I found difficult, nor was I very good at it even if I wanted to be.“

Tom Rainey has spoken to me of Mel’s “calm containment” from which emerged a “laser focus”.  We both felt this quality to be similar to John Coltrane and Mel has certainly absorbed much of Coltrane’s approach.   But Mel doesn’t sound like Coltrane, he sounds like Mel.  And so I finally asked Mel point-blank about intensity.  

“It comes from confidence.  I don’t care if people like it or not, I play what sounds good to me.  It’s a feeling that I’m good, I can do this.  Not in an ego way, trying to put something over, just, I got this.  I mean it and that’s all there is to it.”  I hadn’t heard Mel speak this way before and so we continued in this vein on intensity until he offered “I think it emerges out of deep, dark sadness.  It’s a sad world although we try to be happy.  A saxophone is your heart and soul, a voice.”  Relating back to influences he cited Charlie Parker.  “His tone went right to my heart, there was a sadness and a poignancy.”

That resonates quite strongly with me and I think it’s something all musicians feel even as it’a addressed in countless different ways.  Perhaps one of the most concise ways of putting all of this came from Kathryn King who was acting as the PR representative for ZAH in 1979.  She has been active in the music business ever since, creating her own company, Kathryn King Media.  Upon reaching her by phone she said “You could have knocked me over with a feather when I received your e-mail!”  She also recalled a number of details that were missing including the fact that the album was to be titled after one of it’s tunes, “10:30 on the 11th”.  But it was this comment that I think says it best:

 "Mel was a man of few words but what came out of his horn was an explosion of feeling.”


post script:  

I want to express my deep appreciation to Mel Ellison, Michael Willens and Michael Levenson for their music and for allowing me to tell something of it’s story.  Thank you gentlemen.  

Since his departure from the music scene Mel has followed a passion for sailing and photography.  You can get a sense of his many seafaring journeys on his website, Mel Ellison Photography.

Listen:

This is the music of ZAH.  We’ve done our best to restore what was an old analogue recording that was digitized at an unknown time under less than certain circumstances, now given a twenty-first century digital clean up.  Some of the musical electronic effects used during the original recording may not strike your ears with the same kind of pristine sound we’re used to today but it’s not at all difficult to immerse yourself and surrender to the sounds.  With a good set of speakers and about forty minutes of uninterrupted time this music will do wonders for one’s soul.  





                        

Sunday, January 31, 2021

On the matter of Criticism

Occasionally, either by collision or perhaps in the act of navel gazing, I’ve endeavored to resolve my feelings around criticism, something every artist faces and something that no one likes.  It never works, the best I could ever come up with was that critics should offer insight over opinion.  Sounds good sort of, but mostly I don’t like to think about it so I write it off as unimportant.  But that doesn’t work either so it sits there unresolved, perhaps to be grappled with another day.  

This week I’ve had occasion to appreciate that there may be some good in criticism after all and I’m tempted again to ask, what if this tension could be resolved?  I’m reminded of what a friend of mine would say in this situation, “if you ever thought that you came to the end of that road it might be time to check your pulse, you may be dead”.  At this point, after having deceived myself numerous times in the past I’m starting to feel that this kind of tension is simply built into life.  Perhaps what is required is to resolve oneself within that tension, to cease externalizing it.  Something does want to be resolved, to be at rest.  But not dead.  

Last week we had a family conversation about reading habits.  My son and I  started by discussing what constitutes a polemic, a form of writing with a long history that has taken on renewed energy, morphed into 280 character twitter-bursts and burned into our daily cyber-consciousness.  By the way, there is no way this does not affect our collective mental health.  In recent weeks there has emerged the clearest evidence yet of some of the worst effects, a mutating internet cult making it’s way into political life.  I have to think of it as a form of brainwashing made all the more effective by technology.  But I digress.

My wife is an enthusiastic reader, very open to entering literary terrain.  I’m inspired by her because I’m the opposite, sorry to say.  Somewhere along the line I became aware that there is a tacit world view or set of assumptions in anything anyone writes.  There is always a degree of self interest that would seem to infect what may otherwise be a sincere reach towards some kind of truth.  Attention to this fact on the part of the reader (me) often requires arduous work to counter the threat.  Sounds paranoid, right?  “Infect” and “threat” are exaggerations but it’s difficult to articulate the more subtle and hidden operations that take place under the surface when reading.  I asked the question “is it possible to read something without having any personal vested interest in what is being read”?  My wife immediately responded in the affirmative saying that fiction takes her somewhere, she is open to learning about another person, other people, other cultures.  This set the stage for a good conversation that has been resonating since then.  

I’m pretty deficient in the amount of literature I’ve read.  What I do enjoy reading are essays, interviews and news.  This morning I read an interview between jazz pianist Ethan Iverson and classical music critic Alex Ross (of the New Yorker).  I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, at first glance it seemed to be potentially dry, involving a somewhat detailed exploration of the academic tradition of criticism and classical music.  But I have enjoyed the writing of Alex Ross (whom I cited in a previous post on Passion and Etymology) and decided to go for it.  I’m very glad I did.  After pushing my way in, the interview gradually became more personal and alive.  By the end Alex Ross wound up fleshing out this tradition (by way of his recent book “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music”) by illuminating connections between music, art and literature that I never fully appreciated, with Wagner being central and vastly more influential than I’d realized.  An investigation of Wagner is also problematic but you can read the interview for a better analysis than I can provide. In the final few exchanges Alex Ross offered some surprising connections from the late nineteenth century to aspects of popular American culture today.  Most importantly I am appreciating that the role of criticism has been an integral part of the western tradition, not just on the part of critics but on the part of composers, writers and artists, as evidenced from their correspondence with each other and even in the way they may teach. To know literature and academic study is to know something about criticism. I had been vaguely aware of this phenomenon and to be honest I never liked it, it seems contrary to the process of making art.  I recall years ago reading a book (I wish I could recall the title) which was a series of articles or interviews with contemporary composers in which they all trashed each other.  It really turned me off of the idea of criticism and I dismissed the whole thing entirely.  But perhaps I was not being quite honest with myself. 

Reading the Alex Ross interview put a light on my skepticism and intimidation around academic tradition while at the same time eliciting an undeniable attraction to it.  Critical thinking, while being essential to our survival and to our sense of meaning is also an essential skill for any artist in being able to gain a perspective (a form of distance) on their own work.  But in artistic practice (the creative act) it is often very limiting, distance being a liability.  I emphasize instead the virtues of intuition and direct experience.  Above all I’m an improvisor, but hopefully not a dumb one.  It’s easy to romanticize a degree of willful ignorance in the name of authenticity.  And it is equally easy to throw stones at the citadel but I still very much want to know what’s in there.  

Many years ago when I was still rather new on the scene I did a radio interview here in NYC.  Afterwards the DJ and I rode the subway together and chatted more about music, he also being a jazz critic and a sharp scholar of the music.  At one point I expressed my enthusiasm for Albert Ayler only to be told in no uncertain terms that Albert Ayler was “not part of the canon”, which floored me.  It had never even occurred to me that there was such a thing as a jazz canon (I was pretty naive) but I immediately knew I wanted no part of it.  It sounded too much like gatekeeping and exclusion by folks who were not musicians.  

What was most impressive about Alex Ross was that he was actually embodying the academic and critical path, coming to terms with it’s complexities and contradictions by coming to terms with himself in it.  In other words, it was personal and that is compelling.  I’m in no way drawn to that path myself but I begin to understand something of my attraction to it.  Still, it seems unavoidable that there is a conflict and an adversarial process at work, but what is it and where does it operate?

We all have a critical inner voice that we live with every day.  Reading news seems a good way to feed that critical voice but without some discipline and discernment there is risk of creating distress and outrage.  Who wants to live with that?  That’s just painful and whether you direct that distress outwards or inwards, either way it is you who will feel it.  This is not always easy to stop once it gets rolling and may require an antidote, deliberately practicing gratitude for example.  At the same time we can ask ourselves if our habitualized negative assumptions are true.  Critical thinking actually works well when it examines itself rather than feeding on itself.  You don't have to be an academic to do this.

I come from a working class background and was raised to an ideal that it didn't matter what you did in life as long as you did it the best you can. If you were a ditch digger, be the best ditch digger you can be.  That gave me the sense that it was possible to attain the fullness of one’s potential using just what you have.  A good education is important, no doubt, and the world is often unjust.  My parents instilled positive values and I was told to stay in school.  I was fortunate in that way.

I followed up the Alex Ross interview with another set of articles that I had also put aside for later reading.  The New York Times recently published an article titled “When James Baldwin and Langston Hughes Reviewed Each Other”   It recounts the discovery of a pair of overlooked reviews in the archives by Langston Hughes and James Baldwin from 1959.  I found them to be revealing.  If you subscribe to the Times you can access the original articles on their Times Machine

Coincidentally, one of the first books I remember loving was a children’s book by Langston Hughes called “The First Book of Jazz”, published in 1955.  He engendered a sense of respect and dignity for the music and it’s culture by not speaking down to his reader.  He was able to tap into a child’s natural creative ability to grasp how the music sometimes expresses sadness and other times happiness and yet it is the same music.  I still have this book.

Langston Hughes began his review of Baldwin by saying, “I think that one definition of the great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person”, reaching millions with something they can understand.  He goes on to praise aspects of James Baldwin’s writing while detecting a quality of irresolution as needing to be resolved in order to qualify as great art.  

James Baldwin seems to endorse this irresolution or is at least willing to nearly sacrifice himself explicitly in addressing it.  That is my feeling having read some of his work, his pain is laid bare.  In his review of Hughes he speaks of a war between “social and artistic responsibilities” that are “all but irreconcilable.”  He’s speaking of Langston Hughes but also more broadly as well, perhaps including himself, I’m not sure.  But it may not be the indictment that it first appears to be.   Baldwin says “the poetic trick, so to speak, is to be within the experience and outside it at the same time…”.

What impressed me greatly was the fact that the pieces were rigorous but not adversarial or destructive.  There is empathy, each man seems to sincerely wish for the other to succeed and yet each are unafraid to put themselves on the line. It is a form of strength and vulnerability tied together.  Their topic is racism and they are speaking in deeply humanitarian tones.  The conflict, between artistic aims and with respect to the artist’s relationship to society, while handled differently by each, is not being externalized, rather it is lived.  The essays are specific to their experiences and the writers are acutely aware of the cultural dynamic that threatens to co-opt their language, style and more.  At the same time, I feel that they are by necessity speaking to everyone.  

Personally, writing about this feels fraught but it also feels like a responsibility.  I was born the same year these words were written.  The words do not belong to me and yet externalizing them puts the truth at a remove, just out of reach. But perhaps it’s not as difficult as it first seems. There are clearly differences between each writer, as well as differences between them and me, which need to be honored.  To honor these differences requires honoring our shared humanity, and to honor our shared humanity requires honoring every difference seen and felt in this life.  

The idea of “great art” has taken somewhat of a beating in intellectual circles since those articles were written.  I don’t know that I fully endorse the concept myself, it seems an interference to the artistic process as well as in fully understanding ourselves.  But that’s not the problem of art, it’s the problem of how we deal with it, ourselves and each other.  I don’t wish to play games of avoidance either, I’m perfectly willing to give it up when I encounter deep truths in art and I deeply respect the dedication that is required to achieve that.  But as an artist I can’t really concern myself too much with it, in a way it’s none of my business.  

I still don’t know what the role of criticism is, especially now when so much discourse is incendiary.  And I’m still unsure of my relationship to fiction.  I was heartened however when my wife pointed out that there are a much wider range of voices in the literature that is available today as compared to thirty years ago.  In addition to new writers there are also newly unearthed revelations of historical voices from outside the western canon.  Perhaps it’s time to catch up a bit.

Still, I’ve not resolved anything, but that would seem to be exactly the point.  Sometimes I really do worry that the pace of current events have overtaken culture.  But I am encouraged by what James Baldwin said about being inside the experience and outside at the same time.  And the ability and example of Langston Hughes to find a way to include everyone.  

I am not outside of either one of those investigations, nor can they be done alone.  To embrace this contradiction (which is itself a contradiction to be embraced) is to accept who we are.  






Friday, January 8, 2021

Tape is rolling…take one…




The cassette tape.
  A technology from the 70s.
  One in a long line of sound carriers with it’s own admirable and idiosyncratic qualities.  My parents gave me a portable radio and cassette recorder for my 16th birthday.  One of the things you could do with it was record the radio broadcast right onto the tape.  At the time, that was very new and very cool.  I tuned in that evening to WBJC, a local Baltimore station that hosted a show called “Helen’s Explorations in Jazz”.  I wish I knew who Helen was, her delivery was quintessentially 1970s.  “Vibrations beautiful people” was how she opened the proceedings.  She began with  Charles Mingus’ “Prayer for Passive Resistance” including a gut wrenching sermon on tenor saxophone from Yusef Lateef.  I recorded the entire program.  I still have this tape and every time I’ve listened to it it’s as if I’m transported right back to that night, enraptured with music that spoke to me simultaneously of the past, present and future.  

I have other tapes as well.  Hundreds actually.  Tapes of myself practicing the saxophone.  Tapes of jam sessions with friends.  Tapes of rehearsals, recitals and gigs.  And somehow miraculously, they’ve made it this far.  They are not well organized or labeled and I’ve been tempted to part with them many times knowing that they are slowly disintegrating the longer they sit on the shelf.  But I have some kind of archivist bug that won’t allow me to do that.  Or maybe the whole thing is simply a matter of obsessiveness meets housecleaning.  In either event I’ve decided to face reality and have taken up the charge to digitize each one.  It’s a weird psychological journey to take, being suddenly confronted with some long lost episode from the past.  The first few weeks were all day and night affairs just getting things set up and trying to find a flow, dealing with glitches and sudden problems.  That and questioning my sanity several times each day.  More than once I almost bailed, just wanting to heave the whole lot out the door.  

And in the end I really don’t know how much will be worth saving.  Even less will be worth sharing, we’ll see.  Some have great sentimental value, such as the recordings of my mother and I from 1974 playing tunes together like “Just in Time”, “Take the A Train” and “Here’s that Rainy Day”.  There is one of us playing “Night Train” (my favorite tune at the time) with the drummer and trumpet player from the band she had in Baltimore that worked in the early sixties.  Her organ playing had immense drive.  My wife heard me playing this recording from the other room and asked what it was.  What she could hear of it sounded good to her, she thought it might have been some early jazz.  That made me feel good but I told her that in spite of that I would never share it due to my embarrassment over my playing at the time.  Incredulous, she pointed out, “you were fourteen, people will understand that.”  “Embarrassment doesn’t have any rules”, I replied.  “So you’re still fourteen then?”  “Yes, and I don’t sound any better now than I did then!”.  That was my closing remark on the subject.  I don’t know what’s more embarrassing, my playing, my reaction to it or writing about it.  Things did get a little better though.  Of potential interest to jazz fans might be some of the sessions from The Closet in Baltimore, mid-eighties, where I played with the late saxophonist Arnold Sterling and another with fellow saxophonist Gary Thomas.  Whether any of this ever gets shared it will at least have to wait until everything is loaded into the computer and I can begin the process of cleaning up the sound which in the case of the earliest tapes is rather rough.  

A friend asked me if at the time I ever had any intention of using these tapes for anything or were they just for posterity.  Neither actually.  It was all done pretty casually just to listen to in the short term, as a means of assessment.  I recall a gig I did at Sweet Basil here in NYC (a club long since gone) with trumpeter Terumasa Hino’s band in ’84 or ’85.  Larry Willis was on piano, Ron McClure on bass and Billy Hart on drums.  Ron had a small tape recorder with him on stage recording the gig and during the break was playing it for the other guys trying to nail down something about a tempo.  At one point he says “the tape doesn’t lie!”  I remember thinking, actually it does lie, that’s exactly what it does.  It’s an approximation at best, especially when it’s some hand-held deal, recording from the floor of the stage.  

Now that this recording technology, sketchy as it was, was available to musicians it seemed to accelerate a certain process of idealization.  This went along with commercial recordings, radio and even PA systems in which the ideal of good sound changed from what was possible and natural acoustically to what was achievable through electronic means.  I recall a gig that saxophonist Jan Garbarek did at Fat Tuesday’s with bassist Eberhard Weber in a quartet.  What was amazing was that the sound coming from the PA system in this small club sounded exactly like their records on ECM, huge and expansive with that trademark reverb that ECM is associated with.  It was the first time I had encountered that and I was very impressed.  Having experienced everything that has transpired since then, I’m no longer so sure.  No fault of theirs, it’s simply the fact that the way we think of sound has changed and something always gets lost in such a process.  Incidentally I have a cassette in my collection of Jan Garbarek playing at Blues Alley in Washington DC from 1981.  Guitarist Bill Frisell was in the band.  I don’t think anyone had heard of Bill yet, certainly not my roommate and fellow saxophonist from Baltimore, Tom McCormick, who attended the show.  I remember him telling me about it when he got back.  We loved Jan Garbarek but Tom was equally enthused and effusive about “this guitar player, he didn’t play a single lick all night!”  I was trying to imagine what that would even have sounded like.  It was intriguing the way he said it and I think it actually had a formative effect on me even though I wasn’t at the concert.  It’s just as intriguing to realize that before recordings were widespread this word of mouth description of music and events must have played a much larger role in the development of the music.  It’s as if your imagination kicks in and the sky’s the limit.  Once we actually hear someone we tend to classify and qualify right away, even if we like it.  Ironically, while the role of recordings has been integral to the development of the music they can also be limiting.  However, Tom knew the sound person at Blues Alley and got a cassette of that gig directly from the sound board, and it sounds great!  I was probably supposed to give it back to Tom, maybe it’s not too late.

Fast forward (no pun intended) to today when owning or handling physical media of any kind has almost become an oddity.  But more than ever we still have this technologically induced set of sonic ideals.  The received wisdom I got from listeners back in the day was that “live” was always better, that recordings were never as good as being there.  They are certainly different experiences, that is for sure.  But I was also a bit uneasy about that declaration of superiority.  Certainly recordings do not replace live performance but they are their own mode of expression with enough differences to make the comparison a bit misleading.  I’ve greatly enjoyed making recordings over these many years as well as my experiences playing live.  But those live experiences have also changed due to technology and not in every case for the better.  Playing music without a PA system, without recording or video streaming is very rare and increasingly difficult to do.  It should be the easiest thing in the world, just show up and play but “live” is not so live anymore.  I’ve spoken about this at length and often wish that I could find something better to talk about.  It remains an unresolved and important aspect of how we go forward but in the past year that has all become moot.  The act of making music for one another in person has also become a rarity.

I’ve not done any live streaming during this time and have preferred instead to avoid as much as possible the simulation of personal interaction on line.  This blog and my e-mail correspondence are about it.  It feels good but I’ll have to make some decisions when things begin to open back up again.  I’m curious to see how folks will readjust to being together.  I know I don’t want to do things the same way I was doing them before but the social environment will certainly be a determining factor.  Streaming and interactive video don’t speak to me as a social medium let alone an artistic one.  Recordings I understand, I’ve always regarded them as documentation of a process born out of live performance and I think that’s as far as it goes for me.  I expect that coming out of this period artists and venues will begin to see these new technologies as a new normal, if we haven’t already.  I am hopeful that there may be others like me who are moved by interactions that do not require electricity, speakers and screens.  After a year without having played a single concert I’m beginning to understand a bit better what patience requires and what it may mean to create the conditions that invite the kind of experience I’m speaking about.  I’ve been quite content with playing the horn at home every day and feeling in no rush whatsoever to “make things happen”.  Lest I mislead anyone, there is no lack of inspiration or motivation in this and it all feels quite natural at this stage.  

I’ve also been thinking about the commitment that comes with being together in person.  I don’t know if I ever thought so consciously about it before but what it really amounts to is our willingness and need to take care of each other, something we might only think about in an emergency.  But beyond that, if someone is hungry you offer them something to eat.  If someone is lonely you spend some time with them.  If someone wants to talk, you listen.  Even the smallest things, such as a passing smile are truly a matter of life and death.  It’s our time, which we measure by a physical lifespan.  Spending time with someone is your very own life.  This is also how I hear music.  

I’ve spoken often about embodiment and have recently posted about meaning in music.  They are one and the same to my mind.  This embodiment is profound and yet simple, involving the simplest of means, the simplest of movements.  In talking about musical ideas we might understand that there is a physical basis for every idea we have.  Our bodies being the model of thought, this physicality is embedded in language, manifest in everything we do, make and see.  The sounds and movements we see and make are primary, the basis for everything in our world, our experience.  The fact that they can be arranged according to the imagination is fantastic.  And of course we have many forms of mediation, many ways in which to convey, amplify and disseminate our ideas.

Having said all of this I am well aware of the fact that artistic expression has found some measure of vitality in digital form even as I find my spirit largely moving the other way.  So I’m happy to share something with you that ideally might have happened in person but instead came about as a result of necessary physical distancing.  A few months ago dancer clyde fusei forth did a live streamed presentation as part of Zen Mountain Monastery’s 40th year anniversary using some music that I had written.  We had spoken some years back about a possible collaboration and this seemed like a potential first step towards making that happen one day.  She chose two short pieces from “Non Sequiturs” a suite I wrote in 2011 as a commission from Chamber Music America.  These pieces are very sparse and allow a great deal of space in which to work.  Later on she made a video version for me and I asked her if I could share it on the blog.  In seeing what she’s done I begin to wonder where the boundaries are between sound and movement.  I don’t think there are any.  


I've asked clyde to write something about the project.  These are her words, which I find to be as palpable as her dance...

Main North and Vertical Prose (or Enter Before Ready)
a project with Ellery Eskelin
October and December, 2020

At this distance
between signals and pixels,
Within bandwidth of variable strength
and dependability,
While yearning for that sweet living vibration
we may not hear until summer

Enter before ready.

I have listened to this music
Just enough to forget it
until this moment
So it arrives new as I arrive

to my self, one tiny awareness at a time
Awarenesses like microscopic birds accumulating within
my hollow form, whatever form enters I accept
Until I am fully present with all the things:
sounds
floor
light
sensations
Then I let the flock move me.
I move the flock, moving
beside and within and at a distance
from the music also entering and arriving
and moving.

Enter before ready.
Every moment an opportunity to trust
that the moment will survive my entrance
and whatever comes after. 

In practice, what I did was enter into the work before any sense of preparation had set in. No time to feel confident or unconfident or have even a definitive pathway in mind. No time to try and hook up with the music. I did not know which part of the floor I headed for or what I would do there. I only entered and saw my entering one moment at a time until the entrance was complete. Then I arrived. The way I practice arrival these days is to close my eyes and feel the shape of my form in as much detail as possible. I visualize the shape of my form as hollow then see it filling with the accumulation of sensations and awarenesses that may take the shape of cells, or birds, or waves of light, etc. I never really know. I accept whatever comes but often it is crows. Go figure. Sometimes this takes a longer time, sometimes very quick. Doesn’t matter. I let myself arrive in this way until I experience my form completely full of the accumulated awarenesses moving in unison. Sometimes the flock moves the form, sometimes the form moves the flock. Sometimes the music and I enter and arrive simultaneously, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s too porous to separate one from the other. But every movement I enact as a body-form visible to a viewer I am experiencing as an internal flock in unison. This naturally breaks down and comes back, like a murmuration of starlings, somewhat leaderless. The image itself usually gives way to a physical experience within a few minutes, but when it’s useful I call it back up. Within this somatic process, I am composing and attuning to numerous influences (which in this case included Ellery’s musical composition). There are choices being made within the awareness; there are entrances into each “now” constantly happening and then raveling (or unraveling) out as they will. When I enter the exit, an ending develops. The ‘piece’ ends, and then (if all goes well) continues as the rest of the day.

- clyde fusei forth



clyde fusei forth, Artistic Director of Lokasparśa Dance Projects is on Instagram and also maintains her own blog.  I especially enjoyed her most recent post “Do It Anyway”.  The video was done during her recent residency at Mount Tremper Arts on December 20, 2020.




Given all current events...

Given the events of this week I find it impossible to post any further without a certain acknowledgment.  There is much I could have said on many matters during these past four years.  While I find it necessary to speak, the overall commentary has been deafening, amplified and distorted as it is by social media. I’ve also been grappling with the tension and overlap between moral/ethical concerns and political action.  On this blog I’ve tended to emphasize universal values in music which have distinct parallels in everyday life.  There is always the risk however that without addressing the facts on the ground these universal truths could be seen as wishful thinking.  They are not.  To me they are more real than the things I see with my eyes.  Meaning that interpretation of what is seen allows for both understanding and misunderstanding.  That’s why I have largely chosen not to offer too many unsolicited opinions, of which I seem to have an endless supply and which inflame my own passions.

I was speaking with a friend recently about intensity in music.  I said that it’s almost more a matter of receiving that intensity rather than creating it.  We aren’t passive about it, when it’s time to raise the roof don’t hesitate.  But in truth it’s more the case that we create the conditions for this intensity to come about. It’s more an act of accommodation than force.  As applied to day-to-day life in these particular days, raw and explicit as they are, I wonder how it might apply.  It’s very tempting to want to tell other people what to do, proclaim what is right and what is wrong.  Substitute the word truth for intensity in this case.  We are all struggling to find the truth in our own way, distracted by our personal desires and too often willing to cause harm in the process, in large ways and in small.  I can only trust that what is true is true and that there is in fact no need for me to try and impose my view of the truth on anyone else.  At the same time I cannot hesitate to act.  Rather than an act of force the best thing I could possibly do is to try my best to cultivate the conditions by which someone else can see that truth.  In doing so perhaps it will be reflected back to me, so that I can see more clearly myself.

Wishing you all peace and sanity as we move forward.











Thursday, December 31, 2020

20/21


It’s almost midnight here in NYC.  I’ve wanted to post something before the end of the year and for whatever reasons that hasn’t yet happened.  There are a few things I’ve considered writing about and many more that I wish not to.  We’re almost at the end of 2020.  You were there, you experienced it.  And now we’re moving into 2021.  Rather than write an essay, I’m going to offer a simple set of words from Buddhist teachings often used for meditation practice, known as The Four Immeasurables.  As musicians we know something of these qualities.  But no matter what your orientation may be, I think these are worthy to concentrate on and expand upon for the coming new year…

The Four Immeasurables
Immeasurable Love 
Immeasurable Compassion 
Immeasurable Joy
Immeasurable Equanimity

As a recitation:
May all beings be free from suffering 
and the root of suffering

May all beings know happiness 
and the root of happiness

May all beings live in sympathetic joy, 
rejoicing in the happiness of others

May all beings live in equanimity, free from passion, 
aggression and delusion.

There is also a text many centuries old that touches on these, this exchange taken from the Vimalakirti Sutra.  

Manjushri asks: What is the great compassion of a bodhisattva?
Vimalakirti: It is the giving of all accumulated virtues to all living beings.
Manjushri: What is the great joy of the bodhisattva?
Vimalakirti: It is to be joyful and without regret in giving.
Manjushri: What is the equanimity of the bodhisattva?
Vimalakirti: It’s what benefits both self and others.
Manjushri: What should we resort to when terrified by the fear of life?
Vimalikirti: A bodhisattva who is terrified by life should resort to the magnanimity of the Buddha.
Manjushri: Where should one who wishes to resort to the magnanimity of the Buddha take their stand? 
Vimalakirti: You should stand in equanimity. You should just live for the liberation of all living beings.  
Manjushri: What should one who wishes to liberate all living beings do?
Vimalakirti: Liberate them from their passions. 
Manjusri: How should one who wishes to eliminate passions apply themselves?
Vimalakirti: Appropriately. 
Manjushri: How do you apply yourself appropriately? 
Vimalakirti: Don’t produce anything and don’t destroy anything. 
Manjushri: What should I not produce? What should I not destroy?
Vimalakirti: Don’t produce anything harmful, and don’t destroy anything good.
Manjushri: What’s the root of good and evil?
Vimalakirti: Form.
Manjushri: What is the root of form?
Vimalakirti: Desire. 
Manjushri: What is the root of desire? 
Vimalakirti: Unreal mental constructions.
Manjushri: What’s the root of an unreal mental construction? 
Vimalakirti: A false concept, a false view. 
Manjushri: What’s the root of false views?
Vimalakirti: Baselessness.
Manjushri: What is the root of baselessness? 
Vimalakirti: Manjusri, when something is baseless, how can it have any root? Therefore, all things stand on the root which is baseless.  



Best wishes to all of you, looking forward to 2021 and all of the music it brings...







Thursday, September 24, 2020

Passion and Etymology


Have you ever come across a common word that suddenly seemed peculiar, in that it's actually two words put together or a word within a word that you never noticed or paid attention to before? Like “before”, as in "be" and “fore"? That happened one day I as I looked at the word resist and wondered, OK, I understand the prefix “re” but re-what? What is “sist"? In looking it up it turns out that “sist” is actually a word. It comes from Latin and means “remain, stand or stay”. There are a good many words that contain the word “sist”; Absist, Assist, Consist, Desist, Exist, Insist, Intersist, Obsist, Persist, Resist and Subsist. Being an etymologist might be fun but at the same time there seem to be too many potential rabbit holes to chase down. You might think there is some hidden meaning to be found just because a word was once used a certain way or that two words seem related when they are not. It's often hugely complex but it's still sometimes compelling to wonder.

For example, the word compassion. It contains the word passion.

Because they have such different meanings and connotations it got me to thinking (and googling) and I was surprised at what I found. Passion comes from the Latin word “patior” which means “suffer”. Compassion uses the prefix “com” meaning “with”, as in “to suffer with”.

This being a blog about music, how does making music relate to passion and compassion? I’ve said before that music is a compassionate act. But what does that actually mean? Saxophonist John Coltrane titled the second movement in his Meditations suite “Compassion”. There is very much a spiritual dimension to the suite, as was the case with his previous recording “A Love Supreme”. While there is precedent in considering the relationship between music and compassion it’s not often discussed overtly in musical circles. I guess because it’s not an overtly musically associative word. Or maybe because nobody wants to sound preachy.

As for passion, that seems easier. A passion for music is what drives us. It’s a good thing and we don’t think of it as suffering. We do sacrifice along the way, it’s not a particularly easy path in life even as it is deeply rewarding. So in considering what we are willing to endure in order to attain our goals perhaps suffering is not so far off the mark. It would seem to be a balancing act but what makes this work? It’s not as if anyone expects to one day wake up and realize that they are completely satisfied with their work, have done it all perfectly and that there are no longer any problems. No, the drive is insatiable and there is always something to be improved upon, something new to be discovered. In this way passion can also be understood as desire, which is a double edged sword. It's a great thing when it takes you out of yourself and into something bigger. It's not such a great thing when applied solely towards self satisfaction. We suffer when we don’t get what we want (it's not enough) and we also suffer when we do get what we want (it's never enough). At the same time, if you are unwilling to be dissatisfied you will likely not achieve very much in the way of true satisfaction in life or music. It would seem we have to be willing to suffer.

That may sound depressing, except for the other word, compassion. Trouble is, it's kind of a big fluffy word as it stands there all alone. In order for it to do it's thing, it needs to be precise, according to real events, real people and real suffering. To “suffer with” is an act of compassion, not an idea about compassion. And so again, in keeping with the fact that this is a blog about music, what does this mean?

Music critic Alex Ross wrote an article for the New Yorker recently which ended with the statement:

“The ultimate mistake is to look to music—or to any art form—as a zone of moral improvement, a refuge of sweetness and light.”

Taken out of context it’s an odd thing to say, perhaps. It sounds amoral. His article was addressing racism as exists in the classical music world, particularly in the United States. I think he was saying that it is the nature of music to contain all aspects of human nature and that any notion of transcendence or transformation needs to accommodate what happens when a modern and diverse group of musicians takes on a musical canon, the historical roots of which contain troubling aspects. At least that was my take on it. But in looking at it as a standalone quote I think there is something worth considering in that it seems to acknowledge that we need to feel our pain, individually and collectively, in order to heal and move forward.

Another way of saying it is that a true morality must be whole. It can’t exclude the parts we don’t want. If we exclude them they can never be transformed. Yet another way of saying it might be, let it be true first and foremost. We may not know what that truth is until it's revealed in a process, an act of compassion. It may require letting go of every idea we have about it going in, which may seem frightening until we realize that there is also a responsibility that follows from that. It implies that the big picture and the facts on the ground are never at odds with one another. What if we took the attitude that we are never at odds with one another? It’s hard to share someone’s suffering by being opposed to them. Disagreement is one thing, opposition is quite another.

Having mentioned John Coltrane in this context I can’t help but also think of Albert Ayler. Both deeply spiritual people, my sense is that they did not ignore events nor were they limited by events. As intense as the times and conditions were they seemed to put everything into music. Mutawaf A. Shaheed was a cellist with Albert Ayler. He stopped playing in 1970 and these days is an imam at a Cleveland mosque. He was interviewed by The Wire about his time with Albert Ayler and said:

Albert is his music. His music is everywhere, touches everything.

My feeling is that’s because he was relating to everything, he didn’t leave anything out. Whatever his powers as a musician were, they also are everywhere. For a human being, in allowing those powers to flow, it’s limitless. In trying to hold on to them it’s destructive.

I don't want to paint a dark picture with all of this, it's just that the etymology of those words invite a different, potentially helpful way to look at music and at difficult situations. I don't think it would be worth talking about suffering in this way if it did not point to joy.

I would also like to point out that there are many musicians and many musics in this worldwide tapestry. Not everything need be seen through the lens of this music nor any of this terminology. As much as I increasingly speak about these things I’m averse to moralizing.

About ten years ago, in an interview, I responded to the question “what is spiritual” by saying “I don’t know, I don’t have a clue.”

That sounds dismissive, probably it was. My reasons for saying that at the time had to do with frustration around compartmentalizing or conceptualizing the experience of music and not knowing how to move forward except to reject the question outright. Since that time I’ve become much less phobic about the word and yet I might still give the same answer although for a different reason. That being, I think it is a mistake to take an idea of what is spiritual, moral or compassionate and make it into a prescriptive act in music and art as opposed to a receptive one.

We can and do move forward. It's not for me to tell anyone else anything about that, really. So in your own way, in whatever form it takes, I hope you will follow and share your passion.