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)

1 comment:

  1. Great writing, especially in this age of texting! I love your succinct analyses of several fellow artists and their music. Also, thanks for the memories of Edmondson Heights days when I felt having fun while learning music was as good as it gets. Ken