Saturday, April 25, 2015

Spring 2015...

Meredith Monk and Friends at Carnegie Hall

Composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker, and choreographer (and maybe more, I’m not sure) Meredith Monk has been creating work in New York City for fifty years.  To my mind she has created an entire artistic world of her own and yet it is a world that speaks beyond stylistic or aesthetic conventions and connects to the world at large in a very direct engagement with our senses and emotions. When I was first confronted with her music (WNYC radio played her music often in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s) I did not understand it nor did I connect well with it. That’s embarrassing for me to say but it’s the truth. Her music utilized the voice in ways that I had never heard in any musical context before, sometimes sounding silly and childlike other times exaggerated and humorous and other times startling and nearly frightening. Her music also made heavy use of repetition, something I was not used to and in fact rather resistant to. But every time I heard her music it took possession of my entire attention.  I could not ignore it.  On one level I wanted to reject it and tried to justify thinking that it was somehow not valid. But the problem that it presented was too big to dismiss.  I couldn’t rationalize it away.  But I still couldn’t figure it out and it remained a somewhat frustrating experience whenever it came on the radio.  I listened to WNYC almost daily at that time and her music was being played regularly so this went on for some months.  Then one day, for what reason I’ll never be able to say, the whole thing changed.  Her music came on unexpectedly just as it had many times before.  But this time it made total sense.  Not only that, it spoke to me on a direct and emotional level that cut through any questions or intellectualizations. It wasn’t necessary to figure any thing out, it was OBVIOUS! How could I have missed it? What was my problem? From that point on her music made total sense and opened up a whole world of new issues with which to work through in my own music. Reexamining the role of memory, perception, time and proportion (things I had previously taken for granted) have led to a deeper appreciation for and awareness of the potential for music to resonate in ways I had not known possible. It’s even influenced my own compositional process.

This kind of musical awakening does not happen frequently. I think of myself as open minded and accepting of possibilities even if they do not particularly resonate with me. So it’s rare that I hear something and react with strong aversion.  Before that it was probably my first encounter with John Coltrane’s recording “Interstellar Space”. I was probably 14 years old and had been playing the horn for three or four years. I had already heard “Giant Steps” and loved that. But I had never heard music like he and Rashid Ali were making and more to the point, I couldn’t imagine why he was making a lot of the same kinds of sounds that I was trying to avoid making on the saxophone. I couldn’t understand how that was intentional. So I put the record away for a few years and kept practicing. At some point in high school I decided to revisit this record and gave it a spin. This time I heard the music. And it was a musical experience unlike anything I had experienced before. I realized he was making use of every potential sound he could get out of the instrument, maybe even trying for some that didn’t quite come out but you could feel what he was feeling. That level of communicative power was astonishing and revelatory.  It was as if he was confronting the big questions of life right there in the moment of playing the saxophone.

Likewise, in Meredith Monk’s music the use of the voice was deceptive at first, due to my expectations. In retrospect I think it was a recognition that the voice was being used like an instrument that changed my perspective that day. Not that she uses the voice to imitate instruments, in fact quite the opposite.  She embraces the most fundamental and essential qualities of the voice and yet organizes the sounds and events in ways that reflect abstract processes often used in instrumental music. Because vocal sounds in general are so personal we often regard them differently than instrumental sounds (which ironically often strive for a vocal quality). And in Meredith’s case, the way she structures her music seems to distill these personal essences, heightening their potency.

These kinds of moments are powerful and memorable. Sometimes we tend to equate a certain greatness to the music because of the power of these experiences. But that would be a bit of a trap. The music is what it it is. What changed was my relationship to it. And over time my feelings for Meredith Monk’s music and John Coltrane’s music has deepened such that it helps me connect with that thing that we all have in common even as we express it it different ways, though different cultural experiences and different traditions. Our shared humanity. It would be tempting to associate these unnamable qualities with particular sounds or approaches but the beauty of music is often encountering the unexpected. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out someone or something comes along and turns it all on it’s head. Then again, not all music does that and it would be a mistake to place a certain value (or lack of value) on the fact that you got your world rocked or not.  So I appreciate these moments even as I do not want to be trapped by chasing them. I may never have another experience like those, which is fine. To expect that would be an imposition on music and on myself.  These moments were simply sudden openings, personal to me at the time. Yours will be different. The fact that they were dramatic should not influence my expectations on other music heard at other times.  To do so would be to miss the opportunity to open in those moments. So the lesson is not to attach to the opening, but to continue to be open and continue to learn. And so for that continued opportunity I say, thank you Meredith!

I mention all of this in order to provide some background regarding a recent concert that I participated in at Carnegie Hall.  First off, it was my first time performing there so there’s that. And I live close enough so that I could walk to the gig, that’s always cool. But the real thrill was to be able to participate in a large scale presentation of the music of Meredith Monk along with a broad cross section of New York’s musical community, all of whom are deeply inspired by her work over these many years. Participants included Bang on a Can All-Stars (Ashley Bathgate, Cello - Robert Black, Bass - Vicky Chow, Piano - David Cossin, Percussion - Mark Stewart, Guitars - Ken Thomson, Clarinets), Don Byron, Future Quest (Theo Bleckmann, Vocals - Ellery Eskelin, Saxophone - John Hollenbeck, Percussion - Tony Malaby, Saxophone - Erik Deutsch, Organ), Ha-Yang Kim, Lukas Ligeti, The M6, Missy Mazzoli and Victoire, Courtney Orlando, Cynthia Powell, Lee Ranoldo, Todd Reynolds, Nadia Sirota, DJ Spooky, Young People's Chorus of New York City (Francisco J. Núñez, Artistic Director), John Zorn, Cyro Baptista and was hosted by John Schaefer of WNYC radio. And of course Meredith Monk performed as well.

The project I participated in is called “Future Quest” and was put together by percussionist John Hollenbeck and vocalist Theo Bleckmann, both of whom have been members of Meredith’s ensemble for many years.  Erik Deutsch played organ and Tony Malaby and myself played saxophones. This is a group of improvisors at heart and yet there is little improvisation involved in the music. Improvisors usually want to take existing material and work with it, often dramatically changing the material in the process. But in this case we wanted to stay as close to the essence of the music as possible. The lesson for the improvisor in a situation like this is to learn how to inhabit the material, how to inhabit a melody, how to deliver it simply as what it is, not with additional commentary or ornamentation. Future Quest first performed at the Whitney Museum in 2009 as part of a similar presentation and has performed a number of times since then and I’m always reminded of this important lesson.  It’s consistently been one of the most rewarding musical experiences I’ve been a part of.

(Photograph of Future Quest by Steven Pisano)

Down Under...Australia 

In a previous post I mentioned a new project led by pianist Marc Hannaford that we recorded here in New York City.  This group will soon be heading to Australia for a two week tour of concerts and teaching engagements.  Here’s the rundown, mate…

Marc Hannaford - piano, compositions
Scott Tinkler - trumpet
Ellery Eskelin - saxophone
Tom Rainey - drums

Wednesday, May 27th - Hobart Conservatorium - Concert and Workshops
Thursday, May 28th - Sydney Conservatorium - Workshops (day)
Friday, May 29th  - Sydney Conservatorium - Workshops (day) + Sydney Improvised Music Association performance at Foundry 616 (evening)
Tuesday, June 2nd - Melbourne International Jazz Festival - Artist Workshop
Wednesday, June 3rd - Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Bennetts Lane Jazz Club
Thursday, June 4th - Melbourne International Jazz Festival - Artist Workshop, Monash University Music Auditorium
Friday, June 5th - The Street Theater - Canberra

Here’s a track from the recording, “Framed”.  Available at BandCamp.

Out West...Denver, Colorado

This past February I spent some time in Denver, Colorado doing workshops and teaching at Metro State University and University of Denver. Saxophonist Mark Harris is professor of saxophone and improvised studies at Metro State, trumpeter Ron Miles is the coordinator of Jazz Studies.  At University of Denver saxophonist Art Bouton is professor of saxophone and chair of the woodwind department.  Art and I attended Towson University in Baltimore together when Hank Levy ran the band.  Hank was a great writer with a signature sound and the band played his music exclusively. In fact, it was one of Hank Levy’s compositions, “Whiplash” that was used in the recent film of the same name. I hesitate to even mention that since the film portrayed a bizarre kind of boot camp - music school that in no way resembled anything that I could personally relate to in terms of learning and playing music.  Athletic, quasi militaristic and devoid of any joy or humanity and I’m not particularly sure what the point of the film was.  In any event, our time at Towson was rigorous but rewarding and joyful and there was a lot of love for Hank on the part of a great many people. He brought out the best in his bands in all of the most positive ways. I can only hope to bring some of that positive spirit with me when I visit music programs as a guest artist. Music has changed a bit since we were in school but music making is the same. I enjoyed the time in Denver, the students were very much engaged and enthusiastic.  Very easy to relate to and work with.  I’m also encouraged to see an awareness on the part of these programs that the needs of students today is also a bit different than in years past. As music changes, as the business of music changes, music programs need to serve these realities and offer solid foundational study with opportunities for creative and eclectic activity.  So kudos to both of these programs.

I also had the great fortune to connect with pianist Art Lande for two concerts in Denver, one at Dazzle Jazz Club and one at Metro State.  I’ve been aware of Art’s reputation for many years and so it was great to have this opportunity to make some music. Having never played together before I was hoping to have a chance to get together before the first concert and see how things felt, decide how we wanted to structure things.  But given the schedule we only had a brief amount of time at the club to do this before the actual concert.  Our plan was to improvise freely utilizing standards, something that I’ve been also doing with my group “Trio New York”.  Once the piano was set up and the stage cleared and ready to go Art played a few notes and I joined in.  Within five seconds I was completely assured.  It was as if we had been playing together for years.  Art and I both try and play with very clear phrasing and clarity of intent, mixing and matching ideas off of each other and never falling into default roles of solo and accompaniment. There were some almost telepathic moments that surprised us both. All in all a wonderful experience.  Thanks to everyone in Denver for making this happen!

And while I'm thinking of it, here is a rendition of Hank Levy’s composition “Whiplash” as performed by the Don Ellis band in 1973 (that’s more than forty years ago!)

Spirits Rejoice

Jason Bivins, musician, writer and professor of religious studies at North Carolina State University, has written a new book on the subject of jazz and American religion called “Spirits Rejoice” (named after the Albert Ayler recording).  The relationship between secular and sacred musical traditions in the United States runs deep and yet it’s generally not directly addressed in most musical criticism or discussion.  Given the potential complications it’s perhaps easy to see why that is.  Yet this is a deep part of our history no matter where you may see yourself in relation to the subject.  As such, I think a fuller understanding of this music requires that we look at this history in order to better understand where we are and how we got here.  Jason has done some considerable research and has reached out to the community of musicians (of which he is a part) for some fascinating insights into the many differences and commonalities of approach among musicians.  In the process we gain some insight into the music as well as the many traditions of religious practice taking place in America through the lens of improvisation.  I’m only half way through it but I can already sense that this is a necessary book.

I should mention that Jason and I got together one afternoon a few years ago for a discussion, which is referred to in the book. As much as I see and feel the connections between music and what we generally refer to as spirituality I’ve never been quite comfortable in compartmentalizing some experiences or activities as spiritual and others not. I get hung up on words and intellectualization. One of the beauties of playing music is that it’s non-verbal and even if there are lyrics involved there is a complexity of ideas and emotions that resists a completely literal interpretation. Jazz music in particular is one of the only things that made real sense to me in the world, something I recognized early on in life. As such my identity has been completely enmeshed with being a musician. If I had a religion it was jazz music. I’ve been playing long enough now that I can begin to entertain the idea of asking "who" it is that is playing. But I still don’t like to name things. At it’s best music is experiential and unnamable.  Same with life. I’ve sometimes struggled in order to create a music that integrates my perspectives and experiences, experiences that sometimes seemed at odds. But over time things seem to come together. You realize the continuity and reality of your life and you write your own story. To do that in the context of American music is to also be connected to a deep and powerful tradition, born out of the African American experience and yet speaking to our shared humanity as Americans and as world citizens around the globe. To talk about that story and that history invokes a great deal of pain.  But it also demonstrates the strength of the human spirit in both suffering and in joy. Given that American music and American religion have an inextricable and complex relationship it seems impossible to talk about the music without addressing or at least being aware of the relationships. Jason’s book should move this conversation forward in a positive, productive and meaningful way.

Different But the Same

I’ve written before about “Different But the Same” (Dave Liebman - tenor saxophone, Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone, Tony Marino - bass, Jim Black - drums). We’ve been playing now for over ten years. We had such a great time on the last tour playing without any written music that we decided to go into the studio and do the same. Always good to document the growth of a band, we’ll see what happens with this. I’ve known Dave now since 1981 and so it’s been rewarding to see his continued artistic trajectory over these many tears, a true keeper of the flame. Dave was honored with a NEA Jazz Masters award in 2011 and recently there has been a book “What it Is - The Life of a Jazz Artist” that chronicles his life. It’s a rewarding read and offers a vivid portrait of New York City in the late 60’s and into the 70s.

More hatOLOGY on iTunes

I mentioned in a previous post that my catalogue of recordings done on the hatOLOGY label (over a period of more than ten years) will eventually be available in full on iTunes.  The first title “One Great Day…” (1996) has been up for some months and now there is also “One Great Night…Live” (2009).  Additionally two of the titles I’ve done in collaboration with fellow saxophonist David Liebman in the group “Different But the Same” are available.

One Great Night Live
Different But the Same - Renewal
Different But the Same - Non Sequiturs

The Art of Street Photography - Lee Friedlander

In one of my previous posts I mentioned seeing Lee Friedlander on the street here in town one morning. I’ve been a big fan of his work since seeing his retrospective at MOMA back in 2005. On that morning, passing him on Eighth avenue I wondered what he was seeing, what he was shooting. After all, he's been shooting urban portraits for fifty years. Given the almost romanticized filter through which we might see images from the 1960s the comparison to today's street scenes is jolting. In earlier photos of the city there was more of what we might call independent culture (shops and business) while today we see more of what we might call mass culture (chain stores, corporate advertising) such as we see all over the country and even abroad. Not to mention people on cell phones. Because of my attitude surrounding these things I sometimes recoil at the idea of taking photos in the city, especially in midtown. But there was Lee Friedlander with his camera doing just that. So I really wondered what he was shooting and would have loved to have seen whatever work he did that day.

This morning in the New York Times we got a chance to see what that might have been. In the Sunday magazine section there is an article on Friedlander (by Teju Cole) with about a dozen street shots, all centered on people and their cell phones. Here are a few quotes from the article that resonated:

“The Friedlander effect is properly encountered not in a single photo but in a group.”

This is something that struck me deeply when I saw the Friedlander retrospective. Sometimes the images seem chaotic or unintentional, dense with information and it may not be easy to make sense of what you are confronted with. But in seeing a group of his photos it becomes easier to see what is going on in common, his “voice” if you will.

“What makes Friedlander’s photos distinct is the scrupulous inclusiveness. He shows us the tangles, the interruptions, the mess, the disorder — all of it. His photographs should fall apart, but they don’t: The catholicity of optical description, and his wide-angle lens, large depth of field and subtle middle tones, hold them together. Everything is seen with a kind of ecstatic candor.”

But I disagree with the author on the following point: “But this time, out there on the street, he’s just another American glued to his gadget, thrilled by the passing scene. Like his subjects, Friedlander is not distracted but rather is deeply absorbed in the task at hand. He is a part of the flow that he records.”

In fact, there is a major difference in that Lee Friedlander is paying a great deal of attention to what’s going on around him. The people he is photographing on their phones are not. He is tuned in, they are tuned out. And that's something I find admirable beyond my respect for Lee Friedlander as an artist. How often do we really see what is in front of us, without interpretation and bias? Of course a great photograph does offer a point of view, an opinion. Maybe even a truth. But in order to find these things the photographer must be able to strip away their own attitudes and conditioning to see simply what is. In doing so they open the possibility of discovering something that they did not know was there. In seeing such work we are often astonished at what we miss in our everyday walks and travels. This is one of the reasons I love photography.

Getting close...

I’ve been mentioning the upcoming solo saxophone release “Solo Live at Snugs” for some months now.  We’re actually getting quite close to having the discs in hand.  I expect that to happen sometime in the first week of May.  Once I receive the shipment I’ll be making more noise about it and letting you know how to get your hands on a copy.