Saturday, May 28, 2022

The aesthetics of losing control

I once had an aesthetics professor in college, an older man with a long white beard, I wish I could recall his name.  He seemed a bit eccentric and I found him intriguing.  I recall little about the course except for two things.  Once during a class discussion, seemingly unrelated to whatever topic we were on, he started talking about drug use saying that whatever length of time one were to have been involved with drugs would require an equal amount of time going back through whatever it was you went through just in order to undo the damage and regain your sensibilities.  No one said anything after that and to this day I really don’t know what to make of it.  I appreciate the cautionary stance but that’s not the subject of this post. 

The second thing I remember was the assignments.  Once a week we were instructed to go out into the city to look at different buildings of his choosing and write down what we saw. That was it, he was very clear that all he wanted was a description in clear, basic terms, nothing at all subjective. This always felt unsatisfying as well as being remarkably difficult. I recall the Unitarian Church as being one of these assignments.  Dedicated in 1818 it is a large white building in the shape of a cube with a dome on top, conspicuously standing out from it’s surroundings on a busy street corner in downtown Baltimore.  It has a very strong vibe that feels impossible not to comment on.  But what was most strange about all this was that I don’t recall there ever being any discussion of these papers in class nor any explanation as to why he assigned them.  We handed them in and that was it, I don’t even think they were graded.  If he had a point to make he sure didn’t share it.  The entire course was kind of an enigma in that way.

I’m reminded of this given the desire to express my experience of having attended nine different chamber music concerts in the last six weeks.  This after having heard no live music at all in the previous two years.  At home I’ve listened to very little music preferring instead to investigate silence, to the extent that is achievable in NYC.  As you might imagine, returning to the concert hall as a listener after all of this time was a bit of a shock.  It is certainly a very familiar experience and yet there were times in which I had the the sensation that it was all completely out of control.  Not that the music was unfocused, quite the opposite. But it’s live, people are in the room together, anything could happen.  This was always true but the feeling has been even more visceral of late.  The musicians are giving themselves up entirely for you, the listener, and for the music itself, the boundaries of which are indefinable at that moment, hence the realization that this is truly not a matter of controlling anything.  What takes place is not a matter of description.

Just thinking out loud…might it be that we often assume or even assert some subtle sense of control in the act of listening?  Or in seeing?  As in, "my" experience?  Maybe that’s what the aesthetics assignment was about, relinquishing that control and the filter it creates on our perception of events.  On a tangent, years ago I had a conversation with a highly opinionated fellow musician who to his credit demonstrated excellent taste and aesthetic discernment in both music and cuisine.  I recall we went to a Chinese restaurant with a mutual friend, he ordered for all three of us and I couldn’t help but notice that the waiter seemed sincerely impressed with how he put the order together.  Anyway, we got into a discussion about a concert we had just heard, I found his criticism to be a bit much and pressed him on certain issues to a point at which he theatrically mocked the whole notion of “just letting the music wash over you”.  Those weren’t the words I had used but that’s exactly where I was coming from, the critical response can come later, and when it does we should know the purpose for which we are using it and not confuse it with the experience of the music itself.  But at that point I let the conversation go and enjoyed the rest of the meal.

In considering an essay on those concerts, I toyed with the idea of attempting the type of reportáge that my aesthetics professor prescribed but I doubt I could pull that off.  I want too much to express the exhilaration of hearing Carol McGonnell’s tour de force rendition of Brian Ferneyhough’s ”La Chute d’Icare” for solo clarinet and ensemble with the Argento New Music Project.  Or being moved to tears at “Sechs Lieder” by Edvard Grieg performed on an operatic recital at Manhattan School of Music.  I would want to convey the mind boggling precision of the Abeo String Quartet performing Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8 at Juilliard.  I would need to mention how when listening to the Manhattan School of Music Saxophone Orchestra (thirteen saxophones ranging from sopranino to contrabass) I actually forgot I was listening to saxophones, they sounded every bit like an orchestra.  There was the otherworldly sound of music I thought I knew in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and there was the universal power of Bach channeled by a full choir and baroque orchestra at Trinity Church.  This may sound like a purely emotional response as compared with the requirements of those early assignments yet emotionalism does not capture the experience either.  At that moment the music is your entire being. 

So I really don’t know what to say about any of it.  It’s healing, I can say that, particularly given all recent events.  And I don’t quite know what to say about recent events either except to say that we do need to be healed.  And I think we can only do that ourselves, for each other, accepting the presence of hope as well as despair, not needing to become dependent upon either.  To feel that lack of control may lead to seeing with a clearer eye and feeling with a fullness of heart in order to just do what we need to do.  There will of course not be enough time, therefore it will require the unconditional timelessness of this moment and all of the compassion that brings. 

We can feel this in music.  Anything can happen.



programs:

Argento New Music Project
April 11, 2022
National Opera Center, NYC

Tania León (USA/Cuba) Parajota delaté (1988)
Ludmila Yurina (Ukraine) Shadows and Ghosts (1999) for solo piano
Brian Ferneyhough (UK) La Chute d’Icare (1988) for solo clarinet and ensemble
Alvin Lucier (USA) In Memoriam Jon Higgins (1987) for solo clarinet and Pure Wave Oscillator
Yotam Haber (USA/Israel) Bloodsnow – (World Premiere)
 

Operatic Recital
April 16, 2022
Mikowsky Recital Hall, Manhattan School of Music
Abigail Dutler, soprano
Nobuko Amemiya, piano

Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
In solitaria stanza
La seduzione

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
“Dove sono” from Le nozze di Figaro

Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)
Sechs Lieder, Op. 48
Gruss
Dereinst, Gedanke mein
Lauf der Welt
Die verschwiegene Nachtigall
Zur Rosenzeit
Ein Traum

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Dein blaues Auge, Op. 59, no. 8
Botschaft, Op. 47, no. 1

Pauline Viardot (1821–1910)
6 Mélodies: IV. Hai Luli, III. J’en mourrai
Evocation

Mary Howe (1882–1964)
Old English Lullaby
There has Fallen a Splendid Tear

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
“How beautiful it is” from The Turn of the Screw

Argento New Music Project
April 20, 2022
Dimenna Center, NYC

Semi-staged songs by Alma Mahler arranged for narrator, voice and piano interspersed with texts from letters written by Gustav Mahler:
Laue Sommernacht
Ansturm
Ich wandle unter Blumen
Ekstase
Ariadne Greif, voice & Piers Playfair, narrator

Patricia Alessandrini - Canto d’Alma (2018/2020)
for soprano, chamber ensemble, and electronics (inspired by Alma Mahler’s fünf Lieder)
Ariadne Greif, soprano

Gustav Mahler - Purgatorio and Scherzo: Nicht zu schnell from Symphony no. 10 (1964)
Completed by Michel Galante (2022) for 15 musicians

Sang Song - Gretel (2021) for ensemble
I. To the Little House - New York premiere
II. Vein of Shame - World premiere
III. Kindertotenmusik - New York premiere
(inspired by Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder)

MSM Lab Chorus
April 23, 2022
Gordon K. and Harriet Greenfield Hall, Manhattan School of Music

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Der Tanz

Trad. Spiritual - Steal Away (arr. Patrick Dupré Quigley)
Alexandra Cirile, mezzo-soprano

Trad. Spiritual - Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord (arr. Undine S. Moore)
Brandon Pencheff-Martin, Fernando Watts, soloists

Don MacDonald (b. 1966)
When the Earth Stands Still

Jacob Leibowitz (b. 2000)
Hush (World Premiere)
Hush, Little Baby
Hush-a-bye, Baby

William Byrd (1539/40–1623)
Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich

Trad. South African Song (arr. Michael Barrett)
Ndikhokhele Bawo
Jennifer Robinson, Sara Zerilli, Evan Katsefes, Henry Griffin, soloists
Kabelo Boy Mokhatla, djembe

MSM Saxophone Orchestra
Paul Cohen - conductor
April 24th, 2022 Greenfield Hall, Manhattan School of Music

Kurt Weill - Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Suite from The Threepenny Opera) (arr. Michael Brinzer)
I. Ouveture
II. Die Moritat von Mackie Messer
III. Anstatt dab - Song
IV. Die Ballade von angenehmen Leben
V. Polly's Lied Va. Tango-Ballade
VI. Kanonen-Song
VII. Dreigrochen-Finale

Eric Whitacre - October (2000) (arr. Michael Brinzer)

Johann Sebastien Bach - Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 537 (arr. Tyler Sakow)

William Latham - Concerto Grosso (1962) (arr. Trey Shore)
Guy Dellacave - soprano saxophone Steve Ling - alto saxophone
I. Allegro Giusto
II. Andante
III. Gavotte
IV. Siciliano
V. Allegro non troppo

William Schuman - Be Glad Then America (1975) (arr. Ben Harris)

MSM Saxophones
May 2, 2022
Pforzheimer Hall, Manhattan School of Music

Robert Aldridge - Quartet for Outdoor Festival (1989)
(for soprano saxophone, cello, violin and piano)

Barbara York - Conversations (2008)
(for alto saxophone, tuba and piano)
I Allegretto
II Lento

Esteban Eitler - Congoja (1943)
(for baritone saxophone)

Johann Sebastian Bach (arr Tyler Sakow) - Flute Sonata in E minor BWV 1034
(for soprano saxophone, cello and harpsichord)
I Adagio ma non tanto
II.Allegro
IV. Allegro

Johann Sebastian Bach (arr Tyler Sakow) - Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537
(for soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxophones)

Calvin Hampton - Fugue (1984)
(for saxophone quartet)

Jean Absil - Suite sur des themes populaires Roumains (1956)
(for saxophone quartet)
I Allegro vivace
II Andante con moto
Ill Scherzo leggiero
IV Andante cantabile
V. Rude et tres rhythme

MSM Opera Theater
May 7, 2022
The Riverside Theater, Riverside Church, NYC

Die Zauberflöte
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
A. Scott Parry, Director

String Quartet Seminar Recital
May 20th, 2022
Pall Hall, The Juilliard School

Cincinnatus String Quartet
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421/417b

Abeo String Quartet
Ludwig Van Beethoven - String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2
Felix Mendelssohn - String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 13

Ascendit
The Choir of Trinity Church Wall Street & Trinity Baroque Orchestra
May 25, 2022
Trinity Church, NYC

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
Singet den Herrn ein nues Lied, BMV 225
Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, BWV 11 “Ascension Oratorio”
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BMV 1048
Magnificat, BMV 243
Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227 (Ninth movement, Gute Nacht, o Wesen)

(I’m providing a link to the archived live-stream of this concert.  Of course it is no longer “live” nonetheless it may be a useful reference to the music and the work of these musicians.)


Friday, April 8, 2022

Music from last century…

Work on the archive slowed these past months as I searched for someone who owned a working DAT machine.  Interesting how a new audio format hits the scene with great excitement only to be rendered obsolete within a relatively short amount of time.  Fortunately my friend Mikel Rouse (composer and subject of the previous post) came to the rescue and transferred a slew of tapes, a select number of which I’ve added to the Band Camp archive.  These recordings are of an earlier vintage than the rest, starting in 1992 with my first solo concert, recorded live at the old Knitting Factory.  That’s thirty years ago to the month I dare say, not sure how I feel about that.  The years 1994 and 1995 are also represented with the very first performances of “EE w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black”, also from the Knitting Factory.  These early recordings by the band reveal a somewhat different sound and conception than our later work.  Additionally there is a live recording of the ensemble that recorded the release “Ramifications” in which cellist Erik Friedlander and tubist Joseph Daley were added to the mix.  Beyond these DAT finds I have added a couple more recordings made from the same portable recorder that was used on much of the previous batch and to which I’ve applied some sonic improvement.  One is a duo with drummer Gerry Hemingway from The Stone and the other is a trio with pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn and bassist Michael Formanek from the Cornelia Street Cafe.  Here are the links:

From the Archives: Ellery Eskelin - Solo Live in NYC, 1992
From the Archives: Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black - Live in NYC, 1994 & 1995 (early years compilation)
From the Archives: Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, Erik Friedlander, Joseph Daley, Jim Black - Live at The New School in NYC, 2000
From the Archives: Ellery Eskelin and Gerry Hemingway - Live at The Stone in NYC, 2010
From the Archives: Ellery Eskelin, Susan Alcorn, Michael Formanek - Live at Cornelia Street Cafe in NYC, 2013

Whether or not the Band Camp archive will ever feature any recordings from the’70s or ‘80s remains to be seen.  At the very least, going through this material has afforded the opportunity to try and piece together a timeline of events, many of which remain elusive and are perhaps lost to the years.  Yet it has been possible with the help of a few friends to determine and plot out a few things and it does feel compelling to want to share them.  I’ve noticed that some of my friends are now beginning to work on their memoirs, I guess we are getting to that age.  I’ve always felt it was important to retain and pass along our stories and yet I have no idea what form that might take should I ever feel moved to do that.  It’s already become clear that not all of the stories I’ve been telling myself over the years ring completely true.   The reality of events do not always coincide with our experience of them, yet our subjective experience is important as well.  

 Just thinking out loud at this point.  In all of this looking back there is also a strong energy to look more clearly at the present moment and consider what it is in and of itself, without telling a story about it.  Playing music has always been a great way in which to do that.  

By all means, let’s all play some more music…







Monday, March 14, 2022

MRBC 1987

Sometime in 1985, two years into my NYC tenure doing any kind of musical work whatsoever to break into the scene, I got a call for my first recording date.  This was somewhat happenstance. My girlfriend at the time, a cellist doing classical music gigs in the city, was working with a bassist named James Bergman who was part of some kind of “new music” group.  They were looking for a saxophonist to play on their new recording project and she recommended me.  They of course needed to hear me play and sent some music in advance of a first meeting with the composer, Mikel Rouse.  Upon seeing the parts I was struck by their simplicity.  I played through a few sections and put it away without finishing, thinking I’d just read it at the audition.  

At this point in time I don’t recall much about that first get-together except that Mikel Rouse looked every bit the serious composer, wearing an impeccably clean and perfectly pressed white shirt, sitting at a table, pencil behind his ear, a large set of scores in front of him and not smiling.  He was about my age but I knew very few people of our generation who presented themselves in such a way.  I wasn’t sure what to think but I was intrigued and knew enough to simply try and be professional.  Having already experienced some of the storied cynicism of the music business in the form of old-school fly-by-night contractors and jaded musicians, this was refreshing.  Plus the music seemed to present no real challenges so I wasn’t nervous.  I probably should have been.  

We began playing and within a few measures I was completely lost. 
The simple musical line I was seeing on the page represented just one of many independent rhythmic patterns unfolding through a long series of permutations resolving with the other parts at select moments before moving on again in a constant and unrelenting stream of interlocking motion.  I was holding on for dear life but fortunately the concentration required did not allow the luxury of worrying about it.  Mikel was patient yet steady and it occurred to me that this situation was almost to be expected.  I guess I must have done alright and was offered the gig.  

The Mikel Rouse Broken Concert resembled more of a jazz band in it’s instrumentation and something of a rock band in conception; keyboard, soprano saxophone, electric bass and drums.  And yet the music was completely notated, no improvisation whatsoever.  Adding to this somewhat disorienting situation there was actually no drummer, the score being composed entirely for drum machine.  That seemed pretty daring at the time but Mikel told me he had actually done an entire LP for drum machine alone called “Quorum”.  I couldn’t imagine what that would have sounded like and I wasn’t sure I would have liked it but at the same time, given that this was all new to me, I respected the fact that he actually did it. 

The recording session turned out to be an overdubbing session in that everything was already recorded except for the saxophone part.  This took place at BC Studios in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, run by Martin Bisi who established it with Bill Laswell and Brian Eno.  One good thing about this approach was that it afforded the opportunity to record the music in sections, which was a relief because it required stamina and offered few places to breathe.  We worked piecemeal in this fashion and within a few hours the session was done.  It was stimulating but I still didn’t know quite what to think about the whole thing.  

It would take about two years before the recording was finally released on Cuneiform Records, a new company at the time that has since developed an extensive catalogue of all kinds of new and adventurous music.  In the time leading up to this Mikel wanted to do some live work with the ensemble.  But rather than use the drum machine Mikel decided to look for someone who could play the drum machine parts on a full drum kit, no small feat.  Mikel’s music is constructed such that the keyboard plays the role of timekeeper allowing the drum part freer range.  In the process the drum part became much less idiomatic of what real drummers find natural to play.  I don’t know how he went about it but the person he found, Bill Tesar, wound up doing an amazing job.  Bill also ran a musical instrument rental company in the city which had a recording studio where we sometimes rehearsed.  I recall one afternoon in which guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Joey Baron came by to check out the studio.  We didn’t get to say hello but I could see them up in the control booth while we rehearsed.  When I joined Joey’s trio “Baron Down” some years later he told me that seeing that rehearsal stuck in his mind because it was so different than what anyone else was doing.  That was fortuitous since most of my musician friends either hated the music or at best were perplexed. I had invited a couple of my drummer friends to attended one of our live gigs thinking they’d be impressed that Bill managed to figure out how to play Mikel’s drum parts.  While they did seem vaguely impressed they were more like, “but, why?”  To be honest, I was often ambivalent myself.  During the performances I always put myself into the music completely and found it very compelling.  Afterwards in thinking about it I wasn’t always so sure.  Basically each piece began with no warning, maintaining a steady pulse and dynamic throughout and then stopped as suddenly as it had started.  I recall mentioning to Jim Bergman the fact that the music didn’t seem to go anywhere. He said that criticism had been made by others as well but he didn’t seem fazed by it at all.  Fact is, that was never the point.  Compositionally, a process was set in motion that simply played itself out and if you immersed yourself in it you might begin to experience it’s internal machinations as something more expansive. No need for introductions or endings but I could think of no other examples of music that operated in that way.  

At the time Mikel’s music was tenuously compared to minimalism.  Composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich had been writing rhythmic music based on repetition and this was certainly not unrelated.  But there were probably more differences than similarities, such that music writer Kyle Gann began referring to it as totalism for being more eclectic and having less concern with stylistic consistency.  There were other composers under this umbrella but to my ear they all sounded rather different from one another in approach.  And in listening back today Mikel’s music remains unique.  You can hear that on the recording we made titled “A Lincoln Portrait”, the title inspired by a series of allegorical paintings by artist Tim Steele that spoke to Mikel’s artistic and political sensibilities.  As for live performances, there were a handful in New York City at places like the Alternative Museum, Roulette and Dance Theater Workshop as well as a radio broadcast gig for WNYC called the Americathon and an appearance on the Transonic New Music Festival in Philadelphia, all spread out over a period of about a year.  At a certain point Mikel decided to take the group in a more electric direction and began using guitar instead of saxophone for reasons that make sense, one being that guitarists don’t need to breathe in order to play.  Well, we all need to breathe in order to do anything but you get the point.

Since that time Mikel and I have continued to stay in touch.  We both live in midtown and occasionally run into each other on the street, keeping each other informed and attending each others concerts over the years.  I began expressing to Mikel how my appreciation for his music had grown since those early, somewhat uncertain days.  Back then we would rehearse regularly for many weeks prior to a gig as it took time to learn the music and even more time for it to gel.  I remember well the first time that happened, somehow everything clicked and I experienced what I can only call the long-form groove in his music.  Those resolution points that were stretched out over great lengths began to connect and speak to each other and it all snuck up on me in a visceral way.  This longer form awareness within a music of such heightened rhythmic independence proved to have a powerful effect in the realm of free improvisation, which I was taking up in earnest at around that same time.  This was unexpected given that these musical worlds could not have seemed more distant from each other.  I’ve had a few musical experiences over the years that really turned my head around, Joey Baron’s group “Baron Down” being one of them.  The Broken Consort was certainly another one but it took some years for me to realize it. 

I’m reminded of all this because Mikel has been working on his archives of late and one of our live concerts has just been posted on his Band Camp page.  If you’re game, I invite you to have a listen to the MRBC live at Dance Theater Workshop from 1987 although you might begin with the studio recording “A Lincoln Portrait” for some context.  Additionally there is a live radio performance and interview for New Sounds with John Schaefer on WNYC, also from 1987, archived on John’s web site.   I should point out that Mikel was one of the first musicians I worked with who impressed me by being so articulate when speaking about music, something else I’ve taken inspiration from.

In retrospect, whether this particular incarnation of the group fully achieved its goals or potential remains a question. Listening back I can sense some of the struggles I had although those struggles diminish as compared to the fact that my overall experience in the group was entirely positive.  The dedication and musicianship that Mikel, Jim and Bill brought to the project helped me to become a better musician.  From this vantage point it seems clear that the effect of this music traveled well beyond the group and it’s time-frame, short lived though it was, contributing to that scene as well as informing the work we’ve each done since.  And for that I’m grateful for the experience.



Sunday, January 9, 2022

Content, Process and Barry Harris

Pianist Barry Harris recently passed, at the age of 91.  He was a true master of the music and one of the most generous teachers the music has ever had. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Harris but in the early eighties I lived right down the street from the Jazz Cultural Theater, a venue he established here in New York City. I recall playing there once or twice with Jaki Byard’s Apollo Stompers. I knew that Barry was offering classes there but for some reason I never availed myself of the opportunity. I might have had the idea that these classes were for pianists or perhaps I was intimidated, feeling I lacked sufficient knowledge of harmony to gain anything from his sessions. From the many videos of his teaching that have surfaced over the years, I can see that I would have benefited from just being in the same room with him, he was that charged.

This blog is dedicated to exploring the creative process in words, perhaps too many.  Barry Harris didn’t have to talk much about creativity or process, he himself was a creative process in motion.  I can’t help but think that underneath the content of his teaching, in spite of his strong opinions about music and his no nonsense approach to it all, his dynamism was intended to help you understand that you too are a creative process.

As much as I’ve written about process I don’t know that I’ve explored the tension between process and content.  The archival work I’ve been doing these past months, getting recordings out of my closet and into people’s ears, has involved reviewing decades worth of work.  In listening back to all of this, remembering what things were like at the time, what we thought of music then, what we might think of music now, it’s kind of fascinating.  And yet I’m struck by how little any of that actually matters.  Actually it does matter, just not in the quite the same way.  Over time, the relationship between content and process naturally shifts.

So how do we think about creativity today?  What informs our image of the artist?  For many years it was the movies, offering highly stylized and romanticized portrayals of the “tortured genius” (almost always a man) featuring their “very bad behavior”.  There is never any mention of the immense amount of hard work that goes into developing the skills required to be an artist.  In books, and especially in on-line blogs and journals, there has emerged a different yet equally misleading portrayal.  Phrases like “flow state” and “in the zone” have gained a certain currency, moving from new-age jargon into mainstream advertising.  These articles always strike me as being a little too easy, as if being in a certain enhanced state of mind is all that is needed in order to improve oneself, make better art or get more gigs.  Sometimes the phrase “just do the work” is thrown in but our cultural inheritance by way of the puritan work ethic makes this sound like a form of virtuous punishment.  Combined with the strange confluence in our society between self-help on the one hand and corporate productivity on the other, I reserve the right to be dubious of all this.  Besides, my own experience tells a different story.

Musicians and artists also speak about flow states and zones, which is fine although this often creates the impression of a rarified state that happens only occasionally.  There are certainly those kinds of moments on the bandstand but I’ve never been convinced that they necessarily equate with better music.  When I listen back to the recordings in the archive I’m reminded that some gigs felt great and others were hard work.  I’ve detected no correlation in quality between those categories nor do I see any reason to make music into a process of chasing after peak experiences.  What interests me more is how we manage to play through all kinds of conditions only to look back and wonder what the hell happened to the drama surrounding it all?  Clearly, making music does not require a particular state of mind.

Anyway, what about content?  I recall once taking part in a creativity seminar in which a bunch of us untrained folks picked up brushes and tried our hands at painting with black ink.  The skills involved were deemphasized to the extreme in order to get folks loosened up and free of their inhibitions.  Some degree of brush control is necessary so we took a few moments at the beginning to get a feel for that, just making different kinds of straight lines, thin, medium, heavy.  That was fun and I wished we could have done that the entire time.  As soon it came time to actually make a picture that’s when everyone, myself included, seized up under that very particular kind of anxiety known as embarrassment.  That and maybe some frustration over not having the skills needed to paint what I could imagine painting.  

So creating content requires some degree of skill, yes?  But I’m cautious here because of the tendency to consider a certain amount of skill to be a prerequisite for creativity to then flow forth.  At that seminar, I was completely happy to simply make lines and see what happens as I acclimated to the subtle sensations of moving the brush.  It was very simple and very clear, involving attention, responsiveness and making choices.  To me, that is a good definition of creativity.  I understand as a matter of practicality why we couldn’t paint lines all day as well as understanding that we needed an opportunity to work through our inhibitions when it came time to making “art”, which as it turns out can be made at any time.

That’s one side of the equation. 
The other side is quite well exemplified in jazz education.  As it happens, I’ve received notices on a number of new jazz instruction books and blog posts this past couple of weeks. I always enjoy checking these out and usually wind up finding something in them to practice.  Still, there is a degree of ambivalence in this.  On the one hand, jazz education has come a long way and I wish I had books like this when I was starting out.  On the other, there is often a freeze-dried quality to the presentation of the material.  Perhaps more importantly, I’m concerned about the continued emphasis on chord-scales as being the source material and generator of one’s improvisation.  It is my conviction that voice-leading be at the heart of an investigation into harmony.  Barry Harris spoke a great deal about scales but he did so with a thorough understanding of voice leading as his basis.  He was explicit in stating that we should not think of chords but rather chord movements.  At the risk of over-simplifying things, if someone had shown me how to improvise smoothly, simply and melodically through I, IV and V chord movements when I was fourteen years old I might have had a much easier time of it.  Be that as it may, I relate these things in order to convey a sense of how content has come to be regarded and taught in jazz academia.  I might say it’s a bit backwards.  Or at the very least there is a sense that the creative process can only commence once the material has been thoroughly dissected, examined and only then stitched back together.  

Here’s the thing, I’m not saying we shouldn’t practice material in a particular order or that we should necessarily preference one approach to teaching over another.  There are a variety of opinions in play and this does not even include a discussion of the fact that there are scores of jazz musicians who have bypassed traditional instrumental pedagogy entirely and to great effect.  But it is easy for me to equate the painting of lines on paper with the practice of playing long tones on the saxophone.  We don’t usually think of playing long tones as a creative act, in fact it’s usually felt to be the opposite.  That’s unfortunate and I’ve devoted a good amount of energy in my teaching to disabusing students of that notion.  This is especially important given the fact that most of my students are not beginners.  I’ve modified the practice of long tones from the playing of one long note to the playing of one note to another, in other words a pair of connected long tones.  This is an excellent practice for flexibility on a physical level but at the same time it is perhaps the most elemental and fundamental creative action we can practice.  The advanced student will soon realize that this simple act contains and puts into action everything you will ever learn about music.  In a way, playing one note to another is everything you will ever know about music, not as a limiting factor but an unlimited one.  If that sounds a bit grandiose just think about it.  As a saxophonist no matter the profundity of your ideas, the only thing you actually do is put air into a metal tube.  And just where is the separation between those brilliant ideas and all of that repeated huffing and puffing?  This reminds me of something the great Japanese flute master Watazumi Doso is reported to have said, “He who blows Ro ten minutes every day can become a master.”  Ro is the lowest note on a bamboo flute.  I like to think of playing the saxophone as if it was all a low Bb (the lowest note on the horn), that note containing all the notes above it, the keys on the horn being there just as an assist.  

Watazumi also spoke about the “one sound”.  That makes me think of saxophonist Wayne Shorter.  There is something about his sound, especially in the last couple of decades, that strikes me as being complete in a rather profound way.  But it’s not some magical or esoteric thing, it’s clearly taken him a lot of practice.  Or perhaps practice is the magical thing, even when it doesn’t feel all that magical.  And so it occurs to me that the sound we make is already complete, it just requires some practice.  And that practice, no matter what it feels like, is not different from the peak experience you had on that gig one time.  There may be dividing lines in terms of the content but where are the dividing lines in the overall process, the experience that encompasses it all?

Process and content function as one thing.

I’m thinking of that stock phrase, “we must learn how to walk before we can run”.  Without negating that I might consider the implication that once we’ve learned how to walk that’s it, done deal, good to go.  But when do we stop learning how to walk?   Our bodies change over time requiring that we adjust the way we move, perhaps beginning a program of exercise or yoga in order to relearn how to use our bodies which are changing every day.  This learning and relearning continues for a lifetime.  Perhaps that’s an odd way to look at it but it’s easy to take walking for granted until perhaps you can’t do it any longer.  

In closing I might just say that as musicians everything we do with our instrument is already creative, we don’t have to make it so, whether we are doing it in the solitude of a practice room or on stage in front of an audience.  As for the issue of one’s personal artistic expression, that is of course formed by practice, knowledge and experience.  But it’s also there from the beginning as well.  Whether you care to think of it in that way or not I invite you to consider not postponing the day of it’s arrival and see the effect that may have on your daily practice.  

I hope to be able to resume teaching soon.  Until then, these occasional musings will have to suffice.  

Thanks for reading.








Sunday, January 2, 2022

One More Once…

Suddenly it’s 2022

Having been so absorbed in getting music out of my closet and into your ears I’m caught short with an appropriate introductory post for the new year.  This particular music being of the archival variety I’ve been looking back.  This retrospection has served to remind me of the social vibrancy that we’ve all shared in the past and will share again as conditions change.  So yes, happy new year to you and yours.

The archival series on Band Camp is currently up to twenty-eight.  Five titles went up just last evening. I keep thinking that I’ve turned up everything worth sharing and yet I always find that I’ve overlooked something.  Here’s what’s new:

Trio New York (Eskelin, Versace, Cleaver) - Live in Amsterdam, 2012
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black + Jessica Constable - Live in Amsterdam, 2004
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black + Jessica Constable - Live in Paris, 2010
Ellery Eskelin, Erik Deutsch, Allison Miller - Live in Philadelphia, 2009
Ellery Eskelin, Erik Deutsch, Allison Miller - Live in NYC, 2010

The two recordings from Amsterdam are each from The Bimhuis, a venue with a concert history going back to 1974.  The accumulated energy of the place always seems to lift the music right from the start.  The two concerts with Andrea Parkins , Jim Black and vocalist Jessica Constable are contrasting documents.  On “Live in Amsterdam” Jessica melds with us on existing repertoire that we had been doing previously as a trio.  But on “Live in Paris” I gave Jessica the musical reins for the evening.  She employed her own compositions in the form of voice, recordings and samples while Andrea, Jim and I improvised upon hearing them for the first time in the performance.   This was a special concert also in that it was the last performance by EEw/AP&JB.  I also discovered two recordings from what might be termed an alternative organ trio with organist Erik Deutsch and drummer Allison Miller.  It’s a very different sound than Trio New York.  Given that this group never released any recordings I was happy to find these.

In looking forward into the new year, having taken stock of years past, I’m thinking about the ways in which music and art change.  How our perspective on our own time changes with time.  And how not to take anything for granted.   It’s a good feeling.

 

 

Monday, December 27, 2021

More from the Archives

I’ve just added eleven more live recordings to the archival series at Band Camp.  It’s been rewarding to listen back to these and renew my appreciation of the many musicians, audience members and club owners who sustain the artistic life of New York City, seemingly against all odds.  

In the previous post I mentioned what a “hustle” it is to gig in NYC and how I once had to rattle the audience at the 55 Bar to get them ready for action.  While that is true there is also another side, of which I encountered a reminder in my parting comments to the audience at the Cornelia Street Cafe finishing the weekend with Kris Davis and Billy Mintz in 2012.  At the time, in saying of the club “we’ve really come to love it”, I may not have realized how true that was given that the cafe (which opened in 1977) was to close on new year’s day 2019.  That’s almost exactly three years ago and it is certainly missed.  The cafe was home to many musicians, artists, poets and writers.  I’m happy to have been a part of that tradition and was very grateful for the license to do whatever we wanted musically.  

Most of these recordings are from NYC improv gigs and required a bit more work on the sound as they were recorded more casually at the time, hence their later addition.  While imperfect they do seem to capture that elusive quality of “live”.  I have worked to enhance the sound yet they remain the sonic artifacts that they are, fittingly.  As such they have a very wide dynamic range.  You may find the need to adjust the volume accordingly at times.  

These are the new additions.  I hope you enjoy listening.

Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black - Live in Reims, 2010
Trio New York (Eskelin, Versace, Waits) - Live in NYC at the Cornelia Street Cafe, 2010
Ellery Eskelin, Mary Halvorson, Mark Helias, Tyshawn Sorey - Live in NYC at The Stone, 2010
Ellery Eskelin, John Hébert,  Tyshawn Sorey - Live in NYC at the 55 Bar, 2010
Ellery Eskelin, Kris Davis, Billy Mintz - Live in NYC, Cornelia Street Cafe, 2012
Ellery Eskelin, Jacob Sacks, John Hébert, Tyshawn Sorey - Live in NYC at the Cornelia Street Cafe, 2012
Ellery Eskelin, Chris Lightcap, Billy Mintz - Live in NYC at the Cornelia Street Cafe, 2012
Ellery Eskelin, Jacob Sacks, Brad Jones, Tyshawn Sorey - Live in NYC at the Cornelia Street Cafe, 2013
Trio New York (Eskelin, Versace, Cleaver) - Live in Antwerp, 2013
Ellery Eskelin, John Hébert, Billy Mintz - Live in NYC at the Cornelia Street Cafe, 2014
Ellery Eskelin, Drew Gress, Billy Mintz - Live in NYC at Jack, 2014

In order to keep abreast of future additions please consider following the Band Camp Archive by clicking this icon.  I have a list of potential recordings to be included but it will take time to get these organized and sonically polished up.  Do stay tuned...

 

 

 

 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

From the Archives...

Having finally worked my way through thirty years worth of cassette tapes I recently set upon a large bin of CDRs, another twenty years worth of recordings mostly live from tours by many different groups, so as to transfer them all to hard drives.  It’s taken countless hours to go through and organize them but it’s satisfying to transform the contents of two heavy bins into a single hard drive that can be carried in one hand.  It’s also satisfying to have something to show for one’s work and so I’m pleased to present some choice selections.  

The majority of these recordings come from European concert tours.  While preparing them I had a chance to consider what it means to travel and play music for people around the world, particularly in Europe where the practicalities of touring are generally well managed by a network of experienced promoters across the continent.  There is a long tradition of cultural support for the arts and it’s reflected in the way that audiences turn out for concerts of all kinds of music, welcoming artists with warmth and appreciation.  I don’t like to make too much out of comparisons with the states as audiences are wonderful here as well.  But there is no way around the fact that in NYC, gigging is always a hustle.  A case in point was the Trio New York gig at the 55 Bar that is included here.  I don’t actually recall the particulars but it was amusing to hear my introductory comments when announcing the band.  New York audiences have a reputation for being jaded and in this case I made it clear from the start that I was in no mood for a lackluster response.  A little good-natured aggression got things off to a nice start and the gig went very well.  And for the record, this is in no way a complaint.  While it’s not always easy, I do love New York.

And on that note I’m hopeful that we can all come together again, more and more often.  But for now, I offer these recordings as a reminder of what that’s like.

“From the Archives” is a series of live recordings personally chosen from my personal collection and offered only on Band Camp.  

Have a Listen...

Included are:

Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black - Live in London 2003
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black - Live in Lille 2010
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black - Live in NYC, 2006 
Trio New York - Live in Montreal, 2012
Trio New York - Live in  Switzerland, 2012
Trio New York - Live in  New Haven, 2012
Trio New York - Live in  NYC, 2010
Ellery Eskelin, Antonin Rayon and Emmanuel Scarpa Live in Paris, 2010
Ellery Eskelin, Christian Weber and Michael Griener Live in Switzerland, 2011
Ellery Eskelin, Vincent Courtois, Sylvie Courvoisier - Live in NYC, 2007
Ellery Eskelin & Sylvie Courvoisier - Live in Ukiah, 2005
Different But The Same (Eskelin, Liebman, Marino, Black) Live in Switzerland, 2005

 

 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Across Breath, Voice, Silence...


Last month my wife and I traveled to Virginia where I had been invited by David Pope (the saxophone professor at James Madison University) to do a solo concert and teaching workshop at the school.  Afterwards we took a couple of days to explore the Shenandoah mountains, this being our first opportunity to get out of NYC together since early last year.  It was also the first opportunity I’ve had to perform publicly since the December 2019 European tour with Christian Weber and Michael Griener.

A solo saxophone concert seemed appropriate given that playing alone is essentially what I’ve been doing all of this time here at home.  In that sense I was well prepared and yet was reminded of the power of being on stage with a roomful of people in the audience.  The performance space was ideal, a two hundred seat recital hall in the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of the university.  The folks at JMU are finely attuned to creating and maintaining optimal conditions for their season of musical events.  It’s a vital cultural center not just for the school but for the entire area.  Most importantly, the folks in attendance gave themselves to the music as much as I did.  I could not have felt more welcomed. 

The concert was recorded and I feel it worth sharing.  I always strive to keep the process of improvising as simple and natural as possible given that what happens, especially in a more lengthy musical journey, can become quite detailed and developmentally complex.  After nearly two years of playing the horn alone there was much to say and yet there was also nothing to say, simply a matter of putting breath across a reed, shaping the sound as it goes out, amidst the silence.

If you’d like to have a listen, the recording is offered on bandcamp.

I want to especially thank David Pope, a wonderful musician and dedicated teacher.  We first met in 2003 when he extended an invitation to bring my group with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black to the school for a performance.  We’ve kept in touch since then and I’ve learned a lot from our exchanges on all things saxophone.  This time we got to spend an evening together listening to music as Dave shared with us stories of his time as a student at the University of Massachusetts where he studied with Yusef Lateef.  One of Dave’s cherished items is the mouthpiece that Yusef played for his entire career.  When he showed it to me I asked him to put on Charles Mingus’ “Prayer for Passive Resistance” which features an emotionally riveting performance by Yusef.  Listening to the music on a state-of-the-art sound system while holding that mouthpiece in my hands I wondered about the ordinariness of a piece of metal, hearing the reflection of a musical event from many years past and being alive here in this moment, knowing that in whatever seems missing, nothing is lost.

The teaching portion of the week was a blast, listening to each student perform, prodding them with questions and then giving them another go.  I could do that kind of thing all day long.  As a number of the performances were for solo saxophone I was impressed with how the students found themselves in the music, whether bringing to life someone else’s composition or one of their own as was the case for a student who composed her own solo piece. 

Bringing music alive from any time and place, in this time and place.  All in all, a very affirming experience…

Thursday, June 10, 2021

June 2021

I’m pleased to announce my first in-person appearance in many months to take place at James Madison University in Virginia this September.  This will take the form of a solo saxophone performance and masterclass.  

The challenges we’ve all faced this past year have only served to reinforce my long held feelings that music and education are social activities.  We’ve all done our best with technology in order to keep things going but I look forward to offering in-person music lessons in the coming months as things continue to open up again.  I do feel however that there is some value in using video conferencing as a form of consultation for folks who can not otherwise come to NYC.  This is not a replacement for a music lesson but simply a means to discuss musical concepts as well as issues concerning education, business and career.  If interested please feel free to contact me via e-mail.

In light of that I’m posting a recent video interview rather than the normal written essay.  

Looking forward to new music and new stories in the months ahead…







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 an 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’s 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.