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.


  1. I always enjoy reading these, and I greatly appreciate your kind words. Amazing feeling, to be mentioned alongside the great musicians you’re celebrating in this post. Thank you!


  2. Ellery, thanks so much for stopping by. Thanks also for recommending my writing.