Monday, December 18, 2023

Solo Concert 12/15/2023

This past Friday evening I performed a solo concert in Brooklyn.

It was my second concert in about four years, the previous one also being solo which took place in 2021.  

This particular concert took place at a Zen temple.  More about that in a moment.

The Set Up…

Preparing for any concert requires concentrated practice but a solo concert is perhaps the most demanding.  I began focusing my daily practice a couple of months in advance, gradually ramping things up in earnest about a month out only to encounter a bad bout of “reed neurosis”, something that does not happen often but is quite the pain in the ass when it does.  I like to think I’ve developed a good degree of flexibility with respect to reeds but occasionally the whole lot of them seem to go south all at once, for reasons I’ve never been able to determine with any certainty.  Saxophonists are notoriously dissatisfied with their reeds and everyone has a theory but I don’t really subscribe to any of them, the saxophone is mysterious that way.  I do know that when preparing for a concert I do tend to get more picky.  And I had been experimenting with overtones at around this time and it’s possible that adjustments to my embouchure may have thrown things out of alignment.  Or maybe it was a sudden change in the barometric pressure or whatever else we saxophonists like to blame for the vagaries our instrument.  As you can see, this is the neurosis part.  

So I did what every saxophonist does in such a situation, I tried a new brand of reeds, in this case the reeds currently being offered from the Boston Sax Shop which it turns out I like quite a bit.  That combined with spending a couple of weeks really working on the physicality of getting the horn to speak from every note to every other note to an extent I had not done in awhile.  However, in concentrating so heavily on sound and notes I began to feel a bit stiff musically which became something else to wonder about.  So I took time to remember some of the things I mention to my students, orienting myself to the physical gesture, shaping the sound and phrasing, the physical movement being the generative element which determines the phrasing, which determines the color of the sound, which determines the notes, all of which rides on the breath.  That got everything realigned pretty quickly but in order to remind myself, I wrote down on a piece of paper “the breath dances…” and took it with me to the concert.

The Setting…

Many musicians speak about their creative process in spiritual terms, often self-styled or sometimes aligned with a particular tradition, which is all fine and cool.  But when folks find out you may be a bit more serious about that tradition things can get a little quiet all the sudden.  That’s completely understandable given the complexity of religious practice in America as it intertwines with our personal histories filtered through the cultural, economic and political landscape that make up our collective experience.  The word fraught springs to mind to the point that spiritual becomes a loaded term.  For years, even as it was obvious to me deep down that music was spiritual, I didn’t want anything to do with the word.  This being a blog about music I feel pretty strongly the importance of keeping on-topic.  You have your own thoughts and feelings on life and it’s probably best if we all find ways of honoring that about each other.

In this case, given that I played at the Zen center that I have been attending as a practitioner for many years, I’m faced with honoring my own sensibilities, some of which seemed a bit contrary to the whole endeavor.  For example, I was apprehensive about playing a saxophone, or any kind of music actually, in a Zen temple. After all, it’s a place in which we practice silence.  Not that there isn’t a precedent for doing so, there is the tradition of the shakuhachi flute for one.  But the saxophone and the musical traditions that inform how I play it may appear antithetical to the image one may have of the shakuhachi or even Zen itself.  But in spite of any reservations, I couldn’t really come up with a convincing reason to refuse the invitation.  Having played in concert halls and dive bars and everything in between, this was a new experience and yet it turned out to be a natural fit.  I saw quite a few folks I hadn’t seen in awhile (which is most folks come to think of it) and while most of those in attendance were not Zen practitioners it was perhaps the most concentrated listening experience I’ve been a part of, allowing me to go a bit deeper into musical areas that I might not have trusted so firmly in the past.  Given the disruption of the music business in recent years and the effect it’s had on musicians, venues and audiences this invitation turned out to be quite welcome.  It also provided a means for me to encounter some of my own blind spots around what I think it means to be a musician.  I played three extended improvisations and in retrospect, while the experience was very positive, I have almost no sense of what I actually played.  I’m not sure what to think about that.  This makes me realize how heavily we rely on recording to inform ourselves of the progress of our work and yet in this case I chose not to record the event, thinking about the Tibetan monks who create mandalas made of sand only to wipe them away after finishing.  Where does music come from and where does it go?

The Takeaway...

After the concert we had a chance for folks to ask questions or offer comments.  One person said that at times it sounded as if I was playing backwards and asked if that was intentional.  It wasn’t, although the thought has crossed my mind in the past.  Another person, with experience in improvisational theater, asked whether improvising musicians also come up against habitual tendencies and wanted to know how we handled that.  I offered that we do and that it doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it’s actually something we need and something we can use, seeing it might simply move you in another direction.  Years ago I might have answered differently, given that in earlier stages of development it may feel necessary to focus on particular ways to meet challenging conditions that come up when improvising.  We may even feel the necessity of taking a particular stand artistically and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.  But when seeing that our agendas have become weighty over time we can drop them, not out of negation but out of trust, there being no real need to make an ideology out of creative practice.  Personally I find that all of the same basic kinds of thoughts and feelings come up as was always the case, just that now I don’t feel the need to manage it all to such a degree.  Someone came up afterwards and said that she experienced a wide range of feelings throughout the music and wondered if I was guiding the music emotionally in some way.  I wasn’t, although I’m certainly aware of everything I’m feeling.  It’s just that the concentration is such that I can’t get distracted by those feelings.  In some way that I don’t quite understand it seems that this process allows for those feelings to be even more true in that they can move, as they must.  

This makes me think of a quality that musicians often speak of in terms of idealized states for playing and that is the word effortless.  It’s the quality of the music seeming to play itself.  I would not negate that but I think it can be misleading if taken at face value.  It might imply that our involvement, intention or effort is misplaced, even an obstacle to achieving a desired state.  In my experience “effortless” does not negate our involvement, it requires it.  Personally I like the feeling of working a bit when I play.  It’s a very physical and directed energy in which the horn offers its resistance and thereby the sound is created.  In putting in this effort there is a kind of equilibrium that takes place in which it can well seem like the whole thing is going by itself.  But it does require an investment.  We put our energy into the process and are met with…well, that’s up to you to experience in whatever way you feel it.  Sometimes musicians might say that the music doesn't come "from" them but rather "through" them.  I would not negate this either except to say that I would not want to imply that there is music “out there” that comes through me “in here”.  In fact, I was having this discussion recently with my first saxophone teacher, Mr. Reinhardt, who rephrased my statement as “the music that comes ‘through’ you is not separate ‘from’ you.”   I think that’s very nicely put.  

This is all just my take on what I’m feeling, something that defies putting into words although I can’t resist trying.  There really is no end to the ways in which we might think and feel about playing.  I love to read interviews with artists in which they speak about their process.  Sometimes I don’t relate so much to a particular approach or even disagree with it strongly.  Once I read someone advocating mastery before creativity in a way that seemed dictatorial.  On the other end of the spectrum are folks who express an aversion to conventional skills or even anything determinative, wanting instead to surrender to whatever is happening.  But I know that we are all essentially doing the same thing, in our own way.  It’s a good practice to take something that rubs me the wrong way and try and enlarge my view of what’s being said in order to see that.  

In closing, there was one other question that came up, a rather obvious one that nonetheless caught me off guard.  “How does it feel to play for people again?”  I should have been prepared for that one but I really didn’t know what to say except that having just done so I should probably do more.  And in fact, I do want to play for folks but I have my concerns about the form that takes, at least here in NYC.  It’s a challenging environment and a challenging time for creative work.  In acknowledging this I’m greatly appreciative of the effort it takes from folks who know how to make things happen on the ground and I do want to extend my appreciation for all of their efforts.  In particular to Hojin Sensei, the abbot of  Fire Lotus Temple, a creative artist herself who helped me to see a bit more clearly that yes, it is OK to play the saxophone in a Zen temple.   


For the benefit of us saxophone nerds, given all of the pre-game drama, upon warming up in the performance room for the concert I opted for my regular brand of reed, Rico Grand Concert Select.  They are a classical cut reed which works very well for a solo performance.  I suspect I will be using Boston Sax Shop reeds for ensemble work although I understand that they will also be offering a classical cut reed in the future.  And out of curiosity I just went back and played through that bad batch of reeds only to find out that they are pretty much fine.  So…I remain clueless about the whole thing…

The group photo is by photographer Todd Weinstein.  You can find out more about his work at

Saturday, November 11, 2023

What's the Story?

 If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you know that…

1. I’m an improvisor.

2. I’m an advocate for acoustic music.

3. I have my concerns as to the ways technology affects our experience of music.

Perhaps more than any of these things I am a listener.  These days it feels just as gratifying to listen to someone play music as it does to play it myself.  As such I’m beginning to realize that beyond my love for jazz, improvisation and the saxophone the real artistic medium to be spoken of is the concert experience itself.  

You may also have noticed that I’m writing more about classical music, a subject I have little knowledge of or insight into.  Some of what excites me may seem close to trivial, like my surprise at discovering new (to me) instruments from the medieval era presented by the Gotham Early Music Scene at a local church in my neighborhood.  In researching some of these I came across an amazing (to me) instrument from the sixteenth century called a rackett.  It’s basically a wooden cylinder, not much bigger than a beer bottle, utilizing a double reed in which nine parallel internal bores have been carved giving it an astonishing range for its size.  Have a listen.  Perhaps not the most profound thing you’ll encounter today, but somehow I feel better about the world knowing this even exists.


Some of my listening has in fact been more profound.  I was one of about a dozen folks in attendance on a recent Sunday afternoon to hear Finnish organist Kalle Toivio give a recital.  I took a seat in the first row just to the left of the organist where I could see everything including the music he was reading.  After playing two written works (one by Vivaldi and another by McNeil Robinson) he ended by improvising a piece based on two short melodic themes given to him at that moment.  After playing each of them verbatim he paused in concentration for some moments before launching into ten minutes of impassioned expression and compositional inventiveness; variation, transposition, reharmonization, fugues and sonic transformations all delivered with a virtuosic creativity that left me speechless.  Upon leaving I wanted to thank him yet only managed to babble something to the effect that it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.

Certainly the surprise had something to do with it.  I wondered, if that had been a composed piece would it have had the same effect?  To be honest, I think his improvised piece was the strongest work on the program. Which as it happens, I didn’t look at before or during the performance, in fact I never do.  A few months ago I was chatting with a concert director before a performance who asked if I had a program. I said yes but told him that I’d read it afterwards.  “How will you know what you’re listening to?” he asked incredulously.  As you might imagine, I have a lot to say on the subject of not knowing what you’re listening to but I’m probably in the minority on this.  Often these days there is some commentary offered on the part of the performers and composers prefacing their work and no doubt many folks welcome this as a way to feel connected to the music.  That’s great but personally, I don’t want to know.  Afterwards I’ll read but in the moment of listening I want to know what it is about the music itself that works, without the need for any kind of narrative.  Not that narrative is a bad thing but I do consider its effects on our perceptions of music.

Just this week I attended a concert of Bach performed by Cynthia Roberts on violin and Peter Sykes on harpsichord.  At a certain point in the proceedings Cynthia Roberts mentioned that her violin had been made in 1620 and she wondered aloud how many places it’s been and how many times it had played the very pieces she was playing that afternoon.  That certainly added real emotional dimension to our appreciation of her performance but as I was walking home afterwards I began to wonder, what if she had not been telling the truth about her instrument?  I wasn’t skeptical at all, nor was I being cynical about the sincerity of what she said and what we all felt.  But I don’t think her story would have meant as much if her performance had not been so compelling.  It was the music itself that was true.

So if the concert experience is the artistic medium (more than the instruments, styles and stories) a recent presentation at the Juilliard School raised some questions in my mind.  Under the heading  “New Series” the concert was titled “Vox Celli” with music by Arvo Pärt, Giti Ratz, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Julius Eastman performed by a cello choir.  “Cello choir” was all I needed to hear and I entered the date into my calendar.  Of course I did not read the program upon arriving, however the director did make an announcement, referring to a “mandate” from the school to foster interdisciplinary collaboration between its departments.  On stage were assembled a dozen or so cellists, the sheer sound of which (despite some intonation problems in the opening) was lush and detailed.  In addition there were some light projections on the back wall of the stage, morphing almost imperceptibly.  And then there was the more apparent and sometimes dramatic effect of the lighting on the stage itself, which was coordinated with the movement of the compositions, all of which bordered on becoming a light show with classical music.

Ending the presentation was music by composer Julius Eastman.  I was thrilled to have the chance to hear his music performed live as I’d been hearing about him for years, the first time probably during my tenure as a shipping clerk at New World Records (a classical music label) in the mid eighties. In addition to my regular duties I occasionally got to turn pages on recording sessions and had the chance to meet composers like Milton Babbitt and Ned Rorem.  Incidentally, I also once played with Gerry Eastman, a jazz guitarist and brother of Julius, although I didn’t know that at the time.  Vocalist Shavon Lloyd opened the proceedings with an unaccompanied vocal piece titled “Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc” that completely transfixed the room.  No light show or any frills whatsoever, just a slowly developing plaint boldly delivered (one repeated fragment of the lyric was “Speak boldly, Joan!”) off stage from the side of the room that lasted over ten minutes.  With almost no means of support other than his sheer willpower it was emotionally gripping.  While listening I could not help but wonder how that might be achieved on the saxophone, to strip away almost everything and be left with so much power, unadorned.

Afterwards the cellists re-assembled on the stage in order to perform Eastman’s composition “The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc” this time in a different configuration, seated in rows, now amplified.  Each musician was also wearing an earpiece for reasons that were not apparent.  On the back wall of the stage was projected the 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (directed by Carl Theodor Dryer) albeit cut up and reassembled so as to coordinate with the music.  Whatever anyone may think about these choices (and without knowing exactly who made them) I was most struck by the fact that the musicians seemed not to have much of a role in this “collaboration” beyond being relegated as an element in someone else’s stagecraft.  Despite any of this, I must be honest in pointing out that the most potent moment of the evening by far was delivered by Mr. Lloyd, one person with one voice.  And I hope to have a future opportunity to hear this composition in a more straightforward presentation.

Two nights later, also at Juilliard was the Axiom ensemble which I’ve heard a number of times and have always come away from feeling very positive and energized.  Just a straight up concert of contemporary repertoire, everyone’s attention going straight into the music.  I must admit that I sometimes worry that this kind of experience is becoming less the norm given the increasing mention of “immersive” presentations in the promotional materials I read.  I understand that artists will do what artists will do but I hope that the classical concert world does not feel the need to follow the music world at large on whatever trip it is on.  I understand that it is possible to make too much of these things and I understand that I am pretty much out of step with everything these days. But I do pay attention to what’s going on.  Just the other day the Times published an article about folks attending mega-concerts by stars like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé and becoming live-streaming internet heroes themselves in their fandom, “amateur camerapersons who show up with phones taped to their heads and backup batteries at the ready, eager to help hundreds — or hundreds of thousands — view the concert from home” as a means to “stick it to the man”, ostensibly because tickets might cost $549 and hey, it’s something we can do now.  Being that that’s a “thing” maybe you shouldn’t even listen to me.  Seriously, I really don’t know what’s going on.

So what might be the point of all of this?  I’ve mentioned narrative, which is not a subject I’ve devoted much time to, but I’m becoming more curious about the role it plays in the creative process.  Stories and music have gone together for as long as there have been people with stories to tell.  What we call narrative could be something as simple as the contents of one’s press kit or the promotion for one’s concert.  On a personal level it may be the stories we tell ourselves every day about who we think we are.  It can be our opinions, ideologies and histories, how we think music and the world ought to be.  It is our literature, helping us in understanding the conflicts, contradictions and complexities of life.  On another level, perhaps technology can be seen as a kind of narrative given the adage that “the medium is the message”.  But the power of our stories is essential to our lives.  Joan of Arc is a compelling narrative.  And the story of Julius Eastman’s life (he passed in 1990 at the age of 49) is a compelling narrative.  Words are powerful, especially when made alive by those who embody the spirit of their expression, not by means of describing an emotion but by knowing it from the inside.

And yet I wonder how music speaks to someone who may know nothing about it.  On some level we want to relate, find ourselves in it, even when we don’t know what’s going on.  Any tensions in that process are probably the result of reconciling one’s sense of narrative (who, what, where, when) with the simultaneous quality of the actual experience (everything at the same time, all at once).  The narrative is pretty much in the realm of the discriminating mind (what you know, complete with likes and dislikes) while the the discerning mind includes everything you don’t know, but find yourself right in the middle of at that moment.  It’s able to take in the larger picture, so long as the tension doesn’t create a short circuit sending you running out of the room.  Keep in mind, you don’t have to like it.  I might take a moment to point out that this will never be the case with respect to watching a video because it simulates to a large degree some of the emotional and intellectual triggers without presenting you with the real dilemma of reconciling your own physical presence (and all that it entails) with the reality of what you are experiencing.  Your presence has everything to do with it. 

This tension is spoken of very concisely by writer and art historian Teju Cole in the New York Times.  “Any work of art is evidence of the material circumstances in which it was produced. The very best works of art are more than evidence. Inside a single frame, within a single great painting, complicity and transcendence coexist.”  The complicity he speaks of extends into everything that made the painting possible, both good and bad.  That’s a truthful narrative, and it has great value.  I also see complicity more broadly, not as in wrongdoing but as in involvement itself.  To be born into this world is to be already involved in it.   On the part of the viewer, you bring everything to it whether you know what you’re seeing or not.  I don’t mean ignorance, but I am saying that you make it alive in a very direct way that is difficult to express in words because it’s dynamic, it goes in both directions.

With our stories we investigate what is true, what is believed, what is embraced and what is discarded.  As an artist I might ask…

Does this narrative illuminate, focus and intensify?  Or does it simplify and reduce?

Is the work strong enough to support this narrative?  At what point might the work become overshadowed?

Is this narrative political? If so, whose politics?

What of the commodification of this narrative?

Does this narrative free one’s spirit or cage it?

Of course any notions of “my” narrative may be completely illusory in that any good story needs to accommodate the rest of the world.  That connection may not always seem clear.  I suppose this blog functions as narrative, I’ve spoken a lot about my mother and father and my hometown of Baltimore but I’ve always felt that the stories of people around me were much more interesting than my own.  Above all I was more interested in the music itself, what it could tell me, and so my method was to simply put everything into the horn.  That may sound noble but in retrospect I can see that there might also have been some shortcomings in doing that.  I can say with some confidence that music probably kept me alive.  I had more of a protective feeling about the music than I did about my own sense of self preservation.  The narrative legacy of my own father who passed at the age of 37 (a musical mentor in spite of the fact that I have no memory of him) was not one that I wished to replicate.

In spite of a certain amount of introspection as evidenced here I do pay great attention to what’s happening in the world.  I have strong opinions and I have my politics which have not essentially changed much over time (although I am increasingly disenchanted with partisanship). I’d like to feel that my political passions are based in humanitarian ideals. Most folks probably like to think that yet it would seem that we are very good at boxing ourselves into particular roles and relationships based on our perceptions of ourselves and each other, which plays itself out on every level. Fortunately, art can function as an antidote to the ills of politics, not by avoidance but by putting those energies into our creative process, explicitly or implicitly, to be transformed, thereby humanizing our experience.

Beyond that I’ve always been stubbornly averse to being told what to do, not least of which by the chatter in my own head, some of which I should probably listen to, most of which seems repetitious and annoying, none of which probably has nearly the importance it seems to demand.  In spite of all my excess verbiage on the subject, I want to be careful not to be telling things to the music, rather I want music to tell me things.  That’s why I emphasize process to the point of embracing the idea of pure music or music for its own sake.  That idea is sometimes misunderstood to be exclusionary in some way, negating the circumstances of our lives for the sake of an ideal.  But to me, a pure process, one in which we follow its natural course, invites direct experience of the truth we look for, in all of its complexity.  It is a simple, but informed, process.

As for narratives, we need our stories but they ultimately need to fold back in on themselves, to be renewed, to connect with and dissolve into all of the other narratives.  It’s easy to carve up our perception of life into a billion different parts and then feel confused about why things are the way they are.  Given our present state of affairs it can sometimes be overwhelming when we really allow ourselves to be “in the moment”.  At some point that ceases to be a cliché when we are faced with all of our feelings and realize there is nowhere else to go.  Music cuts right through this, it can shatter our world and comfort us at the same time until there is no longer any moment to speak of.  I think this is what it means to listen.

P.S.  As a reminder, I will be doing a solo concert on December 15th at 7pm taking place at the Zen Center of New York City.  Please note that seating is limited and registration is required.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Times Have Changed...

Earlier this week I attended a workshop at Manhattan School of Music, as an observer of sorts.  I may be doing one of these next year and I like to see how other folks approach teaching and get a sense of what the students are about these days.  Pianist Jason Moran, who is an alumnus of that institution, spoke powerfully to a packed room, touching on a range of history, people and events, most poignantly his relationship with master pianist Jaki Byard, his teacher at that time.  The students were receptive and their performances impressive.  I couldn’t help but think about my own experience coming to NYC in 1983, which was quite a different environment than the one these students find themselves in.

I had been standing in the back by the door when at a certain point during the proceedings trombonist Frank Lacy walked over and stood next to me.  Frank is on the faculty at MSM.  We had played together a number of times in the late 80’s but for whatever reasons had not crossed paths again until that moment. As I wondered whether he even recognized me he leaned in close and whispered, “times have changed”.  I looked up and smiled as he gave a knowing glance and walked out the door.  Those words could not have been more fitting at that moment even as they could have meant so many things.  It’s certainly a common refrain and one that is always true, but at this point in my life I no longer take the sentiment for granted.  I don’t think Frank does either.

Okay, so this post feels way overdue.  I mentioned previously that 2023 marks forty years of living in New York City, a milestone that I wanted to address in some way.  This turns out to be something of a daunting task and I’m realizing that we only have a few more months remaining before we’re into 2024.  If nothing else, New York City is the city that never lets you forget that you’re in New York City…so, keep it moving!  As it happens, my sister Stacey Eskelin is a writer who has been living in a small medieval village in Italy (which she eloquently describes here) and after ten years has returned to the states, NYC to be exact, and is coming to terms with a kind of culture shock, or “re-entry burns” as she calls them.  Her perspective on the city is more vividly rendered than my own and she has a lot to say on the current state of affairs, so I’m going to defer to her and refer you to her substack, which she calls “Cappuccino”. Fair warning, Stacey’s rhetorical skills are formidable and her critique can often be ruthless but for all of the right reasons.  I might call it compassionate provocation.  She calls it “thoughtful entertainment”.  Her latest installment is titled, “Why You Might Be Going Crazy”.

With that off my chest there were a number of things I considered writing about this past year, such as the passing of saxophonist Wayne Shorter.  That felt big and it may just take more time to absorb the impact of his contribution to music.  Saxophonist Peter Brötzmann also passed.  Two quite different musicians, each claimed their own sonic territory, both possessed of a tonal richness and complexity that strikes me as having a particular quality that is difficult to put to words, sort of like if the word umami had a sonic equivalent.  I’ve been cooking a bit lately and trying to figure out just what umami is, but it seems an apt comparison.  

As for current musical inspiration I continue devoting much of my energy to attending chamber music concerts around town, probably the last bastion of acoustic music performance we have.  There were any number of stellar performances to write about, but briefly…

French classical saxophonist Nicolas Prost gave a commanding performance at Manhattan School of Music last February, achieving what I would not have thought possible on the instrument, delivered with a depth of musicality.  

A dozen students from the organ department at Juilliard elevated the roof of St. Mary’s church in midtown Manhattan with an array of pieces spanning time and stylistic approach.  Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major, first published in 1739 and based upon Christian numerology, was a physical and spatial experience of sound, the interlocking parts rotating upwards at various speeds, seemingly into infinity, taking any notions of antiquity and modernity with it.

Messiaen’s “Les oiseaux et les sources from Messe de la Pentecôte” is an organ mass based upon twenty years of his improvising at the instrument during his time at Église de la Sainte-Trinité, in Paris.  Perhaps due to his use of bird songs, at times I felt I was in the middle of a rain forest.

Prelude "Vision in Flames" by Akira Nishimura was a particularly intense piece of music.  Parts of it would have made my hair stand on end (if I had any).  Rather than attempt to describe it I’ll provide this link to another performance of it.

In June the Prism Quartet (Timothy McAllister, Zachary Shemon, Matthew Levy and Taimur Sullivan on saxophones) gave an energized recital of premiers by six composers (Renee Baker, Marcos Balter, Alfredo Cabrera, Flannery Cunningham, Helen Feng and Adam Silverman) each with contrasting approaches yet rendered whole by the consummate skills of this long running, first-rate quartet.  As with the aforementioned performance by Nicolas Prost, some of these pieces contained elements associated with jazz and improvised music.  The history of blending classical and jazz elements in concert music has often been less than convincing to me as a listener but I’m encouraged of late in that this is becoming a less self conscious endeavor and more a matter of finding the natural musical affinities that exist.  As for the saxophone in particular, there still remain some open issues with respect to sound and timbral variety on the part of classically trained saxophonists.  I can’t help but think for example of Roscoe Mitchell’s 1976 solo concert from the Willisau Festival in Switzerland (released on the Nessa records label titled “Nonaah”) in which he repeats a single phrase for more than five minutes with a sound so insistent and unrelenting as to transport himself and his listeners to some other plane of existence.  The sound of the classical saxophone, while completely different, is equally mysterious to me and so I wonder about this range and how it might be encompassed.  Given that improvisation is more frequently being taken on by classically trained musicians I look forward to the continued development of an improvising language that is informed by both traditions.

Certainly none of this exists in a vacuum and it’s worth considering the role that concert presentation plays in this.  Concerns about audience share and cultural relevance have resulted in a healthy opening towards other traditions but at the same time I’m concerned that the music can sometimes suffer when the presentation is too beholden to a more casual aesthetic.  Case in point, I recently attended a concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, as part of their free series of “Pop Up Concerts”.  I admire the intent behind the series and was impressed with the number of folks in attendance at one of their recent events.  Dismaying however, was the presence of a bar and PA system playing generic groove music right up until the opening announcements and picked back up again immediately as the performers exited the stage afterwards.  Part of the audience was seated on the stage with the performers (in front of an illuminated backdrop) and the rest of us in the hall itself.  With the audience members on stage audibly clinking beer bottles and visibly taking video on their cell phones the audience seated in the hall seemed to lose their focus and began checking email, texting or whatever.  I had been looking forward to hearing the ensemble, who called themselves “Longleash”, as one of the members, pianist Julia Den Boer, has an impressive solo performance archived on the Roulette website. Unfortunately, the program was overshadowed by the enforced informality, the potentially fascinating subtleties embedded in the music being reduced to pleasant sounds.  Other presentations I’ve attended around town have also made efforts to engage the audience in various ways, for example the use of video, which in one case was ostensibly used so that the audience could see the pianist’s hands but instead amounted to a purely unnecessary distraction.  There has also been a disconcerting use of amplification at times, which may well be germane to the music but sometimes feels like a concession to the times, as if audiences need to be made to feel as comfortable with their surroundings in the concert hall as they might be at home in their living room.  Personally, I would advise concert producers to have more faith in their audience.  While challenging music does require something of the listener there are ways to invite people in, empowering them to rise to the occasion.  In fact, I think it’s a quality that folks are hungry for and when given that opportunity in a spirit of positive uplift, the music can take on even more power.  I should emphasize however that all of the presentations I’ve gone to are run by dedicated folks who are genuinely concerned about the future of this music, my opinions about specific events notwithstanding.  Kudos to all involved.  And before I forget, there is a new series I’ve discovered called “Midtown Concerts” presented by the Gotham Early Music Scene at St. Malachy’s church here in midtown Manhattan. New to me that is, since they’ve been going for twenty five years now.  I’ve only been to two concerts so far but it’s wonderful to have a weekly series just minutes away by foot.  

In speaking of concert music and composers I want to acknowledge the recent passing of Gloria Coates, an American composer who spent most of her time in Europe.  Gloria was also a dear friend and neighbor during the years she spent in NYC.  She was incredibly prolific having written seventeen symphonies and countless chamber works of all kinds.  I have no idea where she found the time.  Always wonderful to spend an afternoon with, she would often bounce from one subject to another with the same exuberance whether describing something wonderful or something challenging.  Gloria had been residing in Munich for some time and I hadn’t seen her in years when in 2019 she suddenly appeared at our door unannounced and proceeded to regale us with the dizzying events of the previous forty-eight hours around a performance of her music at Carnegie Hall which included her becoming stranded in an unfamiliar neighborhood when accommodation plans went awry.  Things might have gotten dire but I have to think she was blessed in some way.  The New York Times wrote this about her.

While I’ve not been devoting as much time to organizing my archives as was the case last year there are still a good many stray items that may or may not fit into the larger scheme of things.  Lately I’ve begun looking through letters and other items that my mother, organist Bobbie Lee, saved over the years, making me wish I had asked more questions about the formative years of her life.  She didn’t think of her musical upbringing and career as being all that special but in retrospect I think that’s far from the case.  A friend of hers from their teenage years named Myrna McSwain Alford visited me some time after my mother passed and filled me in on their time together playing music.  Myrna also played keyboards and the two of them often played as a duo.  Myrna's father, being a regional leader of Pentecostal churches in the Maryland, Virginia and Delaware region, took them to many different churches during the 1950’s including African American congregations where they could listen, learn and play.  Any formal lessons seemed to be a matter of the teacher playing something and asking you to play it back.  It sounds to me like a very direct experience of embodying music within a community, for the benefit of other people, and at a time in which mainstream American culture had intensely mixed and conflicted feelings about race and gender, much of which was repressed.  While the country is still in the throes of this it’s good to be reminded that folks have always found ways around these obstacles and that art and music have been so conducive to connecting with what is most true about human nature, those larger and often elusive qualities that we all aspire to in our own way.

In the process of going through her effects and researching events I come across a couple of incidental items from my earliest days spent on the road as my parents traveled across the country doing gigs and looking for a place to settle.  My father, Rodd Keith Eskelin, came from a musical and religious family that provided music for revivals and church services throughout the midwest.  After getting married in Baltimore (having met at the church where her father was in charge of the music, leading the congregation with his pedal steel guitar) they set out for Wichita Kansas where Rodd’s father, an amateur violinist, was beginning a new career as a minister.  They didn’t stay there very long but I found what amounts to my first press mention from an appearance they did in 1960, published in the Iola Register (click to enlarge).  After leaving Kansas and heading west doing gigs in various towns along the way, a photo was taken of me each time they crossed a state line, only one of which remains, this being our entry into Oklahoma.  They got as far as Los Angeles before things took a turn and my mother returned with me to Baltimore.

Also among her papers was an article I wrote for the high school newspaper titled “Will There Still Be Music in 1978?” I had completely forgotten about this and while I do recognize my “voice” this piece of writing will stay buried in the archive.  I do recall that the article upset my band director Mr. Kaufman, by quoting him that “there won’t be any more music left in two years”.  I thought the hyperbole was quite apparent but I suppose this is always a writer’s risk.  Mr. Kaufman was wonderful, an old school band director from the old country (Germany) who wore a suit and tie to school every day and who tolerated our often strange mid-seventies youth culture with a mixture of concern and dry humor.  We had a concert band and orchestra which he excelled at and a “stage band” that he had no real feel for.  To his credit he did not let that stand in the way of total devotion to making it work, for which I admired him.

I would often cut classes and hang out in the band room, messing around with different instruments. He knew I was not supposed to be there but covered for me and showed me the basics of getting around a string bass to the point that I could play it on orchestra concerts.  One afternoon I discovered a bunch of old sheet music in a closet, started digging through it and was astonished to find a few Dizzy Gillespie arrangements for big band.  I knew that music already, my mother had given me the record when I was eight years old and I listened to it over and over until it made sense to me.  I begged Mr. Kaufman to let us play through them and we did, very badly, but still it was thrilling to try.  So no, music didn’t stop in 1978 but I’m grateful to Mr. Kaufman for challenging us while also allowing us to do whatever we could manage to get away with, in a good way.  There was a certain freedom at that time even if we didn’t always know what to do with it.

And speaking of freedom I’m suddenly recalling an even earlier memory, involving the elementary school band director who got me started on the saxophone in 1969.  Mr. Reinhardt must have been around twenty-two at the time, the youngest teacher at the school, sporting a mustache and somewhat longer hair than any of the other teachers.  I had just received my first horn, one found in the basement of the music store where my grandfather taught guitar.  My mother helped me put it together and see if I could get a sound out of it, her knowledge of the saxophone limited to watching the horn player in her band put his together on the gig.  One thing she didn’t quite understand was that the keys had to be pressed down in sequence with each other in order to change notes, not individually as on a keyboard.  While I was thrilled with the instrument I was frustrated that we couldn't figure it out.  I would have to take it to the school and ask the band director if he would teach me.  The horn came in a big heavy case and I was invariably asked by folks in the neighborhood “is that a machine gun ya got in there?”  I guess they had seen too many gangster movies.  Upon hauling this thing down to the school I located the band director’s room, knocked on the door and waited, then knocked again to no answer.  With a palpable disappointment lodged in my chest like a rock I returned home only to try the same thing next day.  This time there was a voice from inside saying “come in.”  Pushing the door open I see Mr. Reinhardt sitting at a desk along the far wall facing me.  His head is down, looking at whatever it is he’s working on, probably a schedule that he'll post to the bulletin board which I see to my right.  Oddly he is holding one of the large sheets of paper-board card stock bowed tightly over his head like an umbrella.  Hunched over his desk he appears to be vexed with his task and has still not looked at me.  I state my intentions, he looks up and exclaims, “is that a tenor saxophone?”  Suddenly his demeanor changes, he is up and across the room, opens the case, assembles the horn and starts playing the Beatles tune “Michelle”, no neck-strap, just holding the horn up, head back, eyes closed, totally immersed in the song, a current hit at the time but rendered with the kind of vibrato you’d associate with music from the 1920’s.  He played the entire song, handed me the horn and said in a very laid back manner, “OK, you can be in the band.”  I wonder, does this kind of thing happen anymore?  I sure hope so.

Also on the subject of family, there will be a new release of my father’s music in the coming months.  Look for a vinyl compilation of Rodd Keith’s work concentrating on the Chamberlin, a precursor to the more well known Mellotron, a keyboard instrument from the sixties utilizing tape loops and functioning something like the modern sampler.  It’s being meticulously produced by musician Wally De Backer (aka Gotye) as part of his research into early electronic keyboards, on a series he calls “Forgotten Futures”.  I’ll be mentioning more about that upon its release.

So while this post does not necessarily offer anything new, nor does it address the unreasonable task of making sense out of an inordinately large swath of time, it does provide some breathing room as I try and keep my wits about me in the present.  Sometimes the act of trying to make sense is simply too much interference with experiencing what you’re trying to make sense of. 

One last thing…I will be doing a solo concert on December 15th, taking place at the Zen Center of New York City in Brooklyn.  It’s a place I have some history with and I’m looking forward.  Seating is limited and registration is required.

PS...Upon taking a break from writing this I went to the fridge and found that my wife had stuck a recent New Yorker cartoon on the door.  While it’s not necessarily an expression of her own feelings it does seem apropos…(click to enlarge)