Sunday, December 18, 2022

An Extended Appreciation (of a somewhat confused nature)

2022/23...

We are fast approaching 2023, an old year out, a new year in.  It was in March of 1983 that I made the move to New York City, as in forty years ago, kind of a large number.  Maybe I’ll have some thoughts about that down the road but at the moment it feels compelling to note the passing of this year in the traditional way, an assessment in consideration of the way forward as we enter into the coming new one.  

On a note of gratitude I might begin by sharing an appreciation of music.  

“There's nothing like being in the presence of great musical artistry…as an example of the very best we are as human beings; the music, the performing, the whole shebang.”

That was written to me by a friend.  I was surprised because this person operates in a different field, one in which they don’t have the opportunity to hear very much music.  It was in response to mentioning that I’d attended many chamber music concerts this year and how healing that felt after such a long absence.  

I’ve already written about some of these concerts and have perhaps risked over-romanticizing them as a type of rarefied experience.  I should probably point out that reintegrating myself back into public life was actually a bit jarring even as I was happy to be out of the house.  Just getting to the concert often felt like an ordeal, the streets of Manhattan can be quite harsh these days.  Arriving at the hall was blessed relief but then I wasn’t sure I liked the feel of the seat or whether it’s placement offered the best sound and sight-lines.  The conversation emanating from the seats behind me was a bit too much information.  And the phones!  So many phones.  

Then in the midst of all of this I remembered, wasn’t it always this way?  Maybe not the phones, that’s a whole new thing.  But listening to music always involved being around other people in situations that were often less than perfect.  At first glance my friend’s comment seems to be glorifying the ideals of music but in looking again, it’s actually a statement about humanity.  His appreciation of music is an appreciation of people, actual folks doing actual things.

I’ll mention at this point that I recently played music with another person for the first time in almost three years.  I used the word sabbatical in my previous post, one of a number of possible euphemisms that I remain uncertain about.  But before getting to that please allow me to wax effusive about some recent listening experiences around the city.


A Brief Reportage upon Recent Concert-going


Axiom, a new music ensemble at Juilliard, gave a concert at Alice Tully Hall in October including music by Elliot Carter and George Crumb.  My favorite was a composition by composer Unsuk Chin titled Akrostichon-Wortspiel creating a lush sonic tapestry using quarter-tone sonorities orchestrated in the lower registers of the ensemble.  The voice of soprano soloist Marisa Karchin was clear and precise while retaining a warmth and roundness throughout her impressive range.  In a subsequent performance this season they featured a piece by composer Tōru Takemitsu from 1987 titled Nostalghia for violin and string orchestra.  The harmonies employed throughout this piece were subtle yet evocative, exquisitely sustaining a delicate construction for the entire duration. 

Also at Juilliard was a presentation of works for piano by Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, a dozen pieces performed by eleven student pianists in chronological order, alternating between the two composers.  On paper it sounded a bit heavy and I almost opted not to attend although I’m glad I did.  Each of the pianists played the same instrument yet the differences in sound between them was astonishing.  Things started off on solid footing even as I wondered about the clarity of certain passages and their timing.  These works are notoriously difficult with multiple independent melodic lines weaving throughout the registers of the piano and between the right and left hands of the pianist.  But by the end of the first half things had gone from from good to great.  Each pianist sat in the audience listening to the others, so I can’t imagine the mounting pressure they must have felt after hearing an especially invigorating rendition by one of their peers.  At the top of the second half the performances were sounding so good I assumed we had reached a plateau, but no, the evening continued it’s upward trajectory and we were now hearing musical gestures full of mind-boggling complexity rendered whole, compositions coming fully alive with an effortless and breathtaking command.  The works by Scriabin were of particular interest given that he was working with dissonance in a unique way for his time, this being particularly evident in the Three Etudes Opus 65 (1912).  You can see the program and performers names here.

While contemporary music is my focus I also encountered works from Bartok and Beethoven, hearing them anew by way of the Orion String Quartet at the CUNY graduate center as part of their monthly series.  Also presented on the series was Hayden’s String Quartet in D minor Opus 76, No 2 performed by a quartet of graduate students.  Essentially I felt very little difference between this work from 1797 and much of the contemporary music I’ve heard this season.  Of course the language is different yet so many of the formal devices are quite similar.


The Art of Hot Air

Going back even further was a Juilliard Historical Performance Faculty Recital by a trio calling themselves “Les Basses Réunies” comprised of bassoonist Dominic Teresi, cellist Phoebe Carrai and harpsichordist Béatrice Martin offering music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on period instruments.  Here’s a question, have you ever seen a bassoon from the Baroque era?  It’s got no keys on it, just open holes arranged along a piece of wood about four and a half feet in length.  Sitting in the front row of a small performance space I was struck by the physicality involved in their playing of these early instruments.  I don’t want to say that it looked like hard work but my sense is that these instruments do require a bit more effort in bringing out their essential sonic qualities, which are in fact different than modern instruments.  As a result you get the sense that the ensemble interprets the music in a different way than might be expected.  The concert was fabulous, one could easily sense the unity between composer, performers, instruments, room and listeners.  It was the sheer physicality of this concert which made me realize it was time to play again with other musicians.  

After three years of playing the saxophone alone, playing with another person (in this case an informal get-together with drummer Devin Gray) was to be an occasion of some anticipation and some degree of uncertainty.  Instead it felt very much like picking back up from wherever it was I might have left off, except that I’ve been practicing religiously during all of this time, resulting in some notable differences.  Foremost was my surprise in just how far into the physicality of playing I could go and still have the music function.  After about a half hour of playing I noticed that all of my attention was centered in the sensation of shaping the air column and how that felt in my entire body.  The sound of the horn and the sound of the drums were of course present but I didn’t need to track them in quite the usual way.  This coincided with noticeably better note choices, better phrasing, better interaction and better music as a result.  A lesson in how much you can let go of and still account for everything.  My thanks to Les Basses Réunies for the inspiration.


The Telegraph as Virtual Reality

Those of you who read this blog know that I have increasingly been an advocate for acoustic music over the years.  There is nothing new to say here except that I continue to be enthralled in it’s virtues.  Readers of this blog also know that I speak often about the effects of technology on our experience of music.  Here again comes the risk of repeating one’s self except for the fact that we do seem to be at an inflection point that needs to be understood.  

I am in no sense a scholar on social issues but certain questions have always seemed important.  As a kid I didn’t particularly like to be in cars.  I recall my mother once driving me home after a music lesson, stopping for fast-food take-out which I ate in the back seat of the car as we continued driving.  There was something deeply incongruent, if not depressing, about eating a meal while moving, watching strangers in their individual metal boxes passing by, each staring straight ahead.  Later, in my teens, I decided to give up watching television, a youthful snobbishness about it all covering up that same uncomfortable feeling of watching people stare blankly into the tube.

At a certain point in my twenties I began to wonder how much of my experience of life had been actual and how much had been an experience of media.  Meaning how much of what I knew about the world had come from television, movies, radio and recordings?  And how easy was it to take that for granted, imagining events that I was never a part of as if I had somehow experienced them.

We’ve come a long distance.  We now have the internet and the mobile phone.  In this day and age a discussion about music is usually a discussion about technology.  This also seems to be true with respect to any topic we might discuss; politics, environment, medicine, science, art, social issues, philosophy and even religion, continuing to use the language of time and place even when so many activities that we once did in person have become digitized.  The New York Times ran a piece not too long ago about the importance of checking-in with friends for the benefit of our well being.  I finished reading the entire article before realizing that every example given was a use of technology, like sending a text.  While these things might lead to getting together face-to-face, more often they function as a delaying mechanism for doing so.

There are times in thinking about this when I am tempted to view the entire trajectory of media technology, beginning with the telegraph, as leading inevitably to virtual reality.  Of course that is a jaundiced view but it does cross my mind.  Less dystopian but still somewhat unsettling is the idea that for most folks living today, the majority of the music they have heard in their lives has been of the recorded variety.  And when live, almost always amplified. 

Is that good, bad or does it really matter?  It also occurs to me that the history of jazz largely coincides with the history of recorded music.  A music that so values the spontaneity of the moment has also been shaped by the recording process acting as an accelerant to it’s very development.  The received wisdom throughout most of that time was always that live was best.  I’m genuinely uncertain about how that plays out today.


Socially Distanced Jazz

In his book “Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth”, author John Szwed offers a vivid portrayal of what music was like in the famed clubs along New York’s fifty-second street:

“They were small, maybe fifteen feet by sixty feet, and were located in the basements of brownstone residences.  They featured miniature tables for a few dozen people, little space for dancing, and no air-conditioning.  Small-band jazz was born and raised here: music without amplification, with sonic qualities that suited the spaces in which it emerged.  Sitting so close to a band and a singer, one could hear the sizzle and rattle of cymbals, the deep thump of a bass drum, the mix of air and sound coming from the horns, the depth and resonance of the piano, the breathing of a singer, all features that recordings never manage to capture.  It was the musical equivalent of the deep blacks and silvery whites of 1950s photography, an acoustic reality lost to us as musicians and listeners, dependent as we all are on amplification, mixing, filtering, recording, the dry ice of digitization, and monster video screens.”

Musical values have changed since that time in ways having a great deal to do with technology.  Over time, live concerts have increasingly come to resemble their recorded counterparts.  Suddenly we’ve arrived at a point in which credible sounding jazz music is being made at a distance, band members adding their individual parts to a recording at different times and from different locations, never actually seeing or hearing each other.  While this may be an extreme example (one clearly birthed out of the pandemic) the fact that I can not always tell the difference makes me uneasy in that it points out just how artificial recordings have become over time even as we espoused the virtues of live interaction all along.  

Have we been deceiving ourselves a bit?  Maybe, but the recorded history of this music has undoubtedly been a tremendous gift.  It is the live experience that I am more concerned about.  How might we reconcile the virtues of the concert hall in it’s most basic unmediated form with the world at large, in which our lives are increasingly intertwined with digital devices?

We musicians are just as dependent on technology as most other folks, perhaps a bit more, and I sense that we are each trying to find our way in this.  Combining the need for self-promotion with social awareness can be awkward in a capitalist culture, especially one in which the effects of social media cast a performative gloss over everything that passes through it.  I do question how sustainable it all is.


Stranded on the Island of Manhattan (with Ralph Kramden)

I live near Times Square, an utterly insane landscape with respect to the amount of electrical wattage devoted to robbing you of your attention.  After decades of living in this neighborhood (quaintly known as Hell’s Kitchen) you might think one would become inured to the cacophony.  Certainly many people seem to be, casually carrying on cell-phone conversations oblivious to everything around them, not the least of which might be the fire truck they are standing next to, stuck in traffic, sirens blaring at an obscene decibel level.  

People always ask me “how do you deal, do you ever get used to it?”  No one should never get used to this.  And I should never get used to seeing people on the streets talking to themselves even when I know they are hooked in to a phone through wireless earbuds.  Even more so when they are in the throws of an argument, all by themselves.  One evening while walking by the Port Authority bus station I heard a woman yelling loudly and gesticulating wildly at a statue.  It’s the one of Ralph Kramden (of television fame) on Eighth Avenue and 40th street.  Actually, she was standing behind old Ralphie boy, screaming straight into his backside.  Apparently she had her cell phone propped up on the lunchbox Ralph was carrying and was  having it out with someone unseen, big time.  I was relieved to see that she was actually in a conversation but it was just about as distressing as if she had not been.  As strange as the whole thing was, she was clearly in the throws of real emotional pain.  And yet even as she was surrounded by people and connected to someone she knew via her phone, she seemed completely isolated and cut off from any kind of human contact that might have helped.  

This is a rather extreme example of the socially distorting effects of technology but this kind of thing is becoming a daily occurrence.  Clearly there are many advantages afforded in the digital realm but reconciling all of this too often becomes a tedious exercise involving all of the pro and con arguments we already know too well.  


Forty-One Questions without an Answer

A new year being an opportunity to take up resolutions, I’d like to pass along something I read.  It’s an interview done by journalist Ezra Klein with media critic L.M. Sacasas who has created a list of questions to ask about one’s use of technology, forty-one of them to be precise. 

I invite you to read the full list, it’s included in his own essay.  

It starts with this question: “What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?”  

Some of the other questions are:

“How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?”
“What feelings does the use of this technology generate in me toward others?”
“What does my use of this technology require of others who would (or must) interact with me?”
“What assumptions about the world does the use of this technology tacitly encourage?”


Here’s a good one:

 “Does my use of this technology encourage me to view others as a means to an end?”

These questions are all oriented on an appreciation of other people.  I think it’s that very shift in focus that allows for progress.  Makes me wonder about what kinds questions we might ask as musicians and artists given that technology has always been a factor in music making, embedded in the history of the very instruments we play.


Failed Innovations that Changed the World

All of the concerts I have attended this year have been of classical chamber music and many of them have taken place in music schools such as Juilliard.  It’s rare to hear a saxophone played in a chamber music setting and Juilliard does not even have a classical saxophone department.  And why is that I wonder?  Fortunately the Manhattan School of Music does, and it’s an impressive one, led by performer, teacher, historian and collector of rare saxophones, Paul Cohen.  

Within this tradition there are a number of schools of playing (French school, American school, the German “Rascher" school) and I once asked Paul which one he aligned with.  He replied that his approach comes from the "orchestral school" of saxophone playing, one that I had not heard of.  In fact, the saxophone was invented in the 1840s and envisioned as an orchestral instrument even as the composition of the orchestra was well established by that time.  While the saxophone has never gained a permanent role in the orchestra there is a tradition of wind pedagogy that applies very well to the instrument, which is where Paul’s approach comes from.  In a newsgroup posting he elaborated:  

“The biggest influence on sound came from my college teacher, Galan Krall (also Pat Meighan's teacher) who is an oboist by trade. He schooled us in the nuance and subtlety of sound from his orchestra experiences. This was a seminal experience in understanding the meaning and effect of an artistic tone quality.”


In an interview from 2019 Paul extends the idea of an “artistic tone quality” past technique to include his audience stating:

“It’s about how we take these things and create a much greater artistic listener for that.”

I’ve been to a number of performances by Paul’s students presenting a wide array of music written for saxophone, far more than I was aware of.  While musicality is stressed above sheer virtuosity there is little shortage of technical acumen among his students.  This is admirable given that I sometimes suspect that within the world of classical saxophone the push towards ever increasing virtuosity may stem from a feeling of having something to prove.  Fortunately I am hearing more young players who are using their formidable skills towards expanding the music rather than just the instrument.  

The saxophone has made it’s mark across almost all musical genres but when played in accord with it’s original conception, unique qualities are revealed, this being an instrument of some mystery.  As such, I was impressed by a composition written by Shuwen Liao, a student at the Manhattan School of Music.  Her composition Feather of Fantasy, for saxophone quartet, juxtaposes fast moving, softly played utterances from two of the players while the other two create barely audible harmonies against this.  The effect was moving and almost subliminal (I sensed it before I actually heard it) taking full advantage of the saxophone’s inherent ambiguity and diffuse tonal nature

In a fitting close to the semester Paul presented a faculty concert of his own, playing soprano and alto saxophones in various settings, offering up one of the warmest sounds on the saxophone that I have yet heard.  One of the pieces Paul presented involved an exceedingly rare and obscure instrument made in 1928 by the Conn instrument company called the conn-o-sax.  In his program notes he describes just how innovative an instrument this was, remarking that “it succeeded brilliantly as a new instrument but failed in the marketplace”Speaking about it’s “visionary design and tonal qualities” he describes it as being the most coveted of rare vintage saxophones, it’s “haunting, brooding tone” continuing to captivate woodwind players over the generations.  He finishes with some passion, stating “the conn-o-sax has found a new voice in the 21st century” I find that to be a lovely and inspiring idea, wedding notions of physicality with the function of technology and innovation in our lives.  

You should understand that there are only twenty-five of these instruments still known to exist in the world.  The number of people in the audience was even less than that.  (It is not my intention to sound critical, I once played to an audience of three people, one of whom left half-way through.)  But despite the impracticality of his statement, it somehow feels completely true.

It’s probably best not to analyze this any further.  Sometimes when something feels true that you can’t otherwise explain, you just follow it.  


The Skill of Not Knowing

When I think about the fact that I’ll soon attempt writing on the subject of being in New York for forty years, notions of practicality and rationalization tend to fade in importance.  One thing I can say is that when things are clicking, New York City is an amazing place to be.  And when things are not going well, New York City is one of the most difficult environments you could find yourself in.  Just this morning as my wife and I went out for coffee we saw a long line of people cued up on 42nd Street.  When we finally passed the front of the line we discovered that they were there to receive food from Holy Cross Church, this on a thirty degree day.  While some of these folks were homeless, the majority were not.

Human beings are amazingly resilient and adaptable, we compartmentalize our experiences very well, out of necessity.  New York City will grind you to a pulp if you can’t manage to do that.  But all of the seemingly disparate events I’ve described, and struggled to present with any degree of coherency, are all part of one experience.  If we compartmentalize too well, taking for granted the incremental changes taking place around us, we may one day find ourselves shocked when we look up and see the number of folks standing in a food line.  

Does our use of technology help us to see this or does it tend to alienate us from our physical experience of life?  That’s an active question and I think we should ask it often.  I was encouraged in reading about a group of young people responding to the effects of technology in their lives by forming a club in which they put their phones away and just spent time together once a week. It’s a small thing, not that practical, easy to dismiss and at the same time it rings true.  

The best questions we can ask in life do not invite answers as much as they invite us to develop skills.   As we enter this new year, do take good care…









Sunday, October 9, 2022

It occurs to me…

Now that things have opened up to a great extent compared with conditions two and a half years ago I’m getting out more and running into folks I haven’t seen in awhile.  A common question I'm asked is “so, have you been traveling?”  “No”, which I usually say matter-of-factly, giving pause afterwards for effect.  And I’m not even sure what it is I’m wanting to convey by that.

It happened just this afternoon in fact.  My wife and I were biking in Central Park and came across a jazz group led by trumpeter Ryo Sasaki in which a friend of mine, saxophonist Chris Bacas, often plays.  We chatted for a few moments before they started, Chris asked me the question and I gave him the answer, recognizing that it’s now become a thing.  But he gave me a good look in the eye by which I could tell he understood.  There’s just a thing among musicians, a knowing acceptance of circumstances and of each other that I’ve always appreciated.  The music invites it in fact, as clearly demonstrated during their performance for passers by of all ages and walks of life.  Folks often stop for awhile and take in a few tunes.  The weather being perfectly crisp, sun shining without a cloud in sight, we found ourselves absorbed in the scene and the music for a good hour, taking it all in as a much needed form of nourishment.  The band does standard jazz repertoire, everyone played beautifully and it was great to see the effect this music had on people, a genuinely good and positive feeling, plain and simple.  It might have been easy to overlook them as one of the many things happening in the park but their understated and relaxed energy subtly reaches out and touches folks who become transformed before they even realize it.  Acoustic music often has this effect, it draws people in rather than hitting them over the head.

I might mention at this point that Chris Bacas is also a gifted writer and has posted a good many essays concerning his experiences in the music business going back some decades.  Please visit his sites at 3quarksdaily and at Tumblr.  The first piece by Chris that I read was about a mutual friend from our hometown of Baltimore, a fellow saxophonist named Mike Carrick.  Mike was older than us and something of a mentor given his old-school, working-class persona combined with an intense focus on modern jazz.  There was one night at The Bandstand I recall with particular vibrancy.  It was a jam session with the house rhythm section and Mike, who had just come back from visiting NYC, was energized well above his usual level.  Apparently he had taken a cassette recorder with him and recorded some gigs he heard, which he was now playing for us off the side of the stage.  I could be wrong but I somehow remember him saying it was Doug Carn’s group with his wife Jean Carn and a saxophonist who’s name I didn’t recognize or can’t recall.  Whatever it was, the music was full-burn and Mike was getting increasingly amped up as we took to the stand, telling us “in New York, if you don’t 'take it out' within the first minute they look at you funny”.  This means to depart from traditional melodic language and expound upon the tune by going away from the tonal centers that underlie the song.  When it came time to play a solo I closed my eyes and began to blow only to hear Mike’s voice bellowing loudly from behind me, “take it out man!” Not knowing exactly how to do that I simply let my fingers go off the rails and tried stringing together some larger, more oblique intervals.  Mike shouted his approval which made the whole thing seem magical somehow.  Afterwards he said. “yea, you got that Baltimore honkin’ thing”, which still pleases me to think about.  Many years later, I ran into Mike outside the Cafe Park Plaza where I had been playing with pianist Marc Copland.  Marc, having known Mike for years, complimented him on his vitality and physical demeanor which Mike attributed to having absorbed from the “young cats”.  “Ya gotta steal their youth man.”  In the process, he gave us ours.  Mike passed in 2011.  Chris’ renderings of Mike are in a class of their own, to which I recommend starting with these three: Tough Tenor: Balmer Beginnings, Tough Tenor: Chekov’s First Act & Tough Tenor: On the Waterfront.

I’ve digressed from the premise of this post but as long as I’m already off course, I want to mention another Baltimore saxophonist currently on the scene, Derrick Michaels,  who has a new recording out with a collective group called Trio Xolo with bassist Zachary Swanson and drummer Dalius Naujo, exemplifying a true group aesthetic.  It occurred to me that Derrick’s playing demonstrates an important musical truth, that one can only develop their individual voice within a group music.  That may seem to be an obvious statement but I have gotten the sense that oftentimes younger musicians go through a phase of trying to develop “their thing” outside of the music only to confront the necessity of trying to reconcile that on the gig.  This is a generalization of course, and not meant to be a criticism as much as an observation.  It is not a particularly easy thing to develop the necessary skills to address this music only to then be confronted with the often more challenging skill of how to forget it all in order to actually play the music.  In my estimation, the way to do that is to follow a musical process for it’s own sake.  What you are actually forgetting is yourself, so as to find yourself in a place you might not have anticipated.  This requires a great deal of sensitivity to the moving musical moment, but the more you focus the easier it is to forget.  You can listen to Trio Xolo on their Band Camp site.

Speaking of forgetting, I’ve completely lost the thread of this post but now I want to mention some other noteworthy musical experiences of late.  In my continuing pursuit of live performances of acoustic music I’ve discovered a number of chamber music series here in NYC that have been greatly inspiring.  Back at the beginning of the pandemic I wrote a post about the bewildering nature of suddenly finding one’s self (along with the rest of the musical world) without a gig to play.  In it, I mentioned an e-mail announcement from the American Classical Orchestra that expressed the situation in a poignant and moving way.  At the time I vowed to take in a performance by the orchestra as soon as that became possible.  This finally happened last month on the opening concert of their fall season at Alice Tully Hall and was well worth the wait.  The American Classical Orchestra performs on period instruments focusing on the music of 17th, 18th and 19th century composers.  On this evening they featured pianoforte soloist Petra Somlai, who brilliantly played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor.  I invite you to watch this video of her playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.  It’s shockingly impressive. 

Another notable concert took place at the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan, a performance of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” by a group of alumni, this representing another instance of hearing a piece I thought I was familiar with only to feel like I was hearing it for the first time.  The following week the Juilliard School presented a concert by the Momenta String Quartet, whose musicality and musicianship were superb.  Some days later Juilliard students presented an afternoon of early Italian music at Trinity Lutheran Church.  The level of these students was simply astonishing.  All of this and the arts season is just getting revved up in New York City.  

And so now it occurs to me, what I meant to say in the first paragraph.  In this context of all of this increased musical activity, what it is that I’m meaning to convey when someone asks “so, have you been traveling?”

“No.”  Meaning, it’s OK.    

What started out as a collective, non-voluntary pause gradually turned into an indeterminate, adjective-resistant period of extended time, then into what I am now recognizing as a conscious if not intentional sabbatical from concertizing on my part.  And it’s OK.

Most simply put, I consider this current period of daily musical practice apart from the concert scene a beneficial, necessary and positive part of the creative process.  I have no designs on how long this period lasts.  I’m prepared for something to happen at any time and yet I am equally prepared to continue this practice, addressing aspects of the saxophone that somehow got set aside or missed in the long trajectory of travel and performance these last forty plus years.  Plus, listening to all of this amazing music going on around town is having it’s own effects.   

It’s an endless and rewarding pursuit in whatever form it takes but there is nothing like being on the stage and bringing it to life with all of you.  I’m certain that will happen before much longer, and of course I’ll post any upcoming dates as they may occur.



Friday, August 5, 2022

The 55 (and others...)

We’ve lost a number of important venues in the city recently.  Cornelia Street Cafe, The Jazz Standard and just a few months ago the 55 Bar.  This might be seen as part of an ongoing process, I could easily list a dozen or more clubs that have closed their doors since I came to New York in 1983 but there were new ones to take their place.  However, conditions these past couple of years have been exceptionally hard on businesses and while we’ve had to accept these realities I’m finding the loss of the 55 to be hitting emotionally close to home given my proximity to events in the early years of it’s music policy.

It wasn’t long after I arrived in NYC that bassist Jeff Andrews (friend and roommate) got a call to do a duo gig with a guitarist at a bar on Christopher Street.  Jeff didn’t know the guitarist and neither of us knew anything about the club, apparently a dark, dank dive bar that had been around since 1919 and looked as if it hadn’t received much attention in the way of interior decor since that time.  It was inhabited by a half dozen or so ex-writers and painters who spent most of their time hugging the bar seemingly disinterested in any kind of social interaction.  But Jeff felt there was potential, ironically, since no one there seemed to care much one way or the other.  The club owner, a rather laid back fellow who was a bit hard to read, invited him back and Jeff responded by asking for six months to book the place so as to turn it into a music scene.  Being new to town perhaps it was a cocky move but the owner just said, “sure, go ahead”.  There wasn’t much money involved but Jeff started inviting musicians to play with him and at a certain point made a connection with guitarist Mike Stern and invited him to play.  The timing was somehow right and Mike accepted, just wanting to have a place to work out musically at the time without a lot of attention being drawn.  I was hanging around during all of this and would sit in often, watching in surprise over time as more and more musicians began dropping in, some of them quite well known.  

The bar’s regulars continued to maintain their vigil through all of this which created an odd but benign dynamic.  I recall one of the first gigs I got hired to lead, in the middle of which someone from the street burst through the front door and yelled “there’s a fire, everyone get out!”  We quickly made our way to the street and saw a fire company putting out a blaze just a few doors down.  It could have easily spread but the crew got a handle on it and within twenty minutes or so we filed back in only to find the stalwarts still in their fixed positions at the bar, having not even bothered to look over their shoulders to see what the fuss was all about.  The place was certainly conducive to a particular kind of hermetic experience.  I recall once speaking with saxophonist Dewey Redman at some length on the topic of sound and mouthpieces only to become very confused upon leaving to find that the sun was already up and early-bird New Yorkers were actively starting their day.  There were a number of other lasting impressions from those days, some of which I’ve written about; George Coleman’s glare, the epiphany of playing with Paul Motian, Cecil Taylor hanging out at the bar for an entire gig.

At a certain point I began hanging out less at the 55 as I found myself in other musical currents.  But I began playing there again after ownership changed and the bar began taking on a more positive feel.  I still didn’t play there quite as often as at other venues but I always felt at home, marveling at the fact that it remained essentially unchanged while a very robust musical scene was now thriving.  It seemed a strong contender for continued longevity but unfortunately that's no longer the case.  Jeff Andrews passed a few years ago which makes the whole thing much more personal. 

Talking about the 55 puts me in the mind to share a few thoughts on some early Baltimore clubs, some promotional posters from which turned up in the archives recently.  Here are a few that I played, between 1979 and 1981...

The Cafe Park Plaza was centrally located downtown near the Washington Monument a bit north of the Peabody Conservatory and a bit south of the Famous Ballroom, home of the Left Bank Jazz Society.  


The 20 Grand, a neighborhood club in northeast Baltimore, I believe it went under a number of names over the years.

The Bandstand was situated in Fells Point, very near the water back at a time when that neighborhood felt a little deserted after dark.  The Bandstand often hosted national artists in multi-night runs.  


Reading through the names is like a snapshot of a particular point in time that can take one in any number of directions…

Drummer Harold White was originally from Baltimore and had moved to New York, playing for a time in Horace Silver’s band.  I met Harold at the Sportsman’s Lounge in 1980 when he came back to Baltimore temporarily to take care of his mother.  During that time Harold invited me to play in a quintet he’d organized doing Horace Silver arrangements for a regular gig at the 20 Grand Club.  It was Harold who put me in touch with saxophonist George Coleman for lessons (ostensibly because in Harold's words I played "too many pentatonics").  Years later, riding the subway on my first day in NYC in 1983, I was surprised to see Harold sitting across from me.  I tried a few times to get his attention, after which he informed me that one should not be in the habit of making eye contact on the subway.  I guess that was lesson one.  Second was that he needed a tenor player to fill in at a rehearsal at the Star Cafe that very afternoon and asked if I could do it.  Turns out it was a group led by saxophonist Bobby Watson.  I took this to be an auspicious sign for one’s first day in the city. 

Harold passed a few years ago.  You can listen to him on a recently released live date with George Coleman from the Famous Ballroom recorded in 1971, "The George Coleman Quintet in Baltimore".

Pianist Bob Butta was one of the first jazz musicians I met in Baltimore, probably around 1978 and I learned a lot from him over the years.  He had a band called “Inside Out” which featured Jeff Andrews on bass, Kirk Driscoll on drums and Tom McCormick on saxophone.  There was a stretch of time in the mid eighties during which Bob would come up to NYC to work the Star Cafe, staying at my place and jamming with Jeff and I all day before hitting the club.  The Star Cafe was another of the city’s longtime neighborhood dive bars with a jazz music policy.  Harold White led the quintet and saxophonist Junior Cook would often be on hand to run the jam sessions.  Bob once told me that Junior joked that I had a “(w)hole lot of soul” given the fact that one of my shoes was coming apart and he could see my toes sticking out, tapping in time to the music as I was playing.  I once recall that there was a line of seven tenor players in a row waiting to blow on whatever tune was going.  I felt sorry for bassist Ed Howard, but he never complained.  Other fond memories are of hearing the great drummer Billy Higgins and pianist Albert Daily (also from Baltimore) sitting in together, creating unbelievably swinging music.

Mickey Fields, Baltimore’s own legend of the tenor saxophone.  I’m sure Mickey played every joint in town at one time or another.

Tom Williams and Mark Russell were fellow students at Towson University.  Both continue to be mainstays on the scene.

Ruby Glover, one of Baltimore’s renowned singers.

Pianist Lee Hawthorne I've not been able to find any current information on.  Perhaps I'll hear from someone.

Charles Covington
, legendary Baltimore pianist whose talents extend well beyond music.

Tim Eyermann
.  Tim had a very popular fusion band called “East Coast Offering” in which he played saxophone and all manner of woodwinds.  I took some flute lessons with Tim at one point.

William Goffigan
.  I don’t know that I ever played with William but I was aware of him as someone who had a history in the music.  The link is to a clip of William playing with Horace Silver from 1974.

Dave Kane
, great Washington DC pianist.

Ronnie Dawson.  Ronnie played drums on many gigs around town, I would see him everywhere.  I have a cassette of the both of us sitting in with saxophonist Pepper Adams at The Bandstand.  Haven't heard about him in years, wish I knew more.

Sun Yata
.  I’m not quite sure who Sun Yata is except for the fact that pianist Matthew Shipp has mentioned him as being an early mentor in the Delaware area.  The link is to an interview with Matt in which he discusses this.

Carl Grubbs
.  Legendary saxophonist whose music I first heard on the radio in the mid seventies.  Happy to see that he continues to be a force on the music scene.

Bernard Sweetney
, I didn't know Bernard but he is one of many Baltimore musicians with a long history in the music.

Guitarist O'Donel Levy was a Baltimore favorite for many years. 


One more important mention...

Drummer Billy Kaye passed away just recently.  He was 89 and had played with just about anyone you might think of.  Lou Donaldson, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, Charlie Rouse, Eddie Jefferson, Ruth Brown, Gloria Lynne, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Smith and Sun Ra constitute a partial list.  Billy was a neighbor and we’d chat from time to time.  Before the pandemic he was still working multiple nights a week, carting his drums around the neighborhood, dressed to a tee.  He will be missed. 

Here is a nice photo series of Billy from the Washington Post a few years back.

 

 


 

 




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.