“The question is who has access to understanding
and explaining a people, and to what use?”
Byron to Shelley: “What makes you write?”
Shelley: “My inability to prevent it.”
It’s been said that Bernstein was music and Karajan made music. And to quote Johnny Depp as the Libertine, “That any experiment of interest in life will be carried out at your own expense.” To both ends I add the ideas that crystallized through my recent experiences in Paris:
Is there a difference between doing and being your instrument? Is there a difference between making and creating music? I answer unequivocally, yes.
While in Paris I experienced all manner of improvised as well as structured “sound.” In some cases this consisted of what is now called “spontaneous composition”; in others it was just playing for playing’s sake, which in its purest and (to my mind) weakest form changes sound into noise and noise into a kind of free-for-all chaos that robs it of any tolerable structure. I did, however, meet those who derived pleasure from it, finding it equally as exciting and stimulating as the “real thing,” since I know for a fact that they have experienced every type of music imaginable. It gathered the emotions into a fever of ecstatic frenzy—or in my case headache-inducing nausea—and never stimulated the three major centers needed to have a pure listening experience: intellect, spirit, and emotion. But what is the real thing? To me, it is complete communion with your instrument, which when used to its fullest, is you, your voice, your language, what you speak to me from. You and it become one.
Examples: one week I heard a trio that banged and honked and bowed and plucked their ever-loving brains out with no connection to what they were doing save the act of making a racket. The next week I heard a trio comprised of the same instruments in which all the components were there and the making became creating. Problem was, the two veterans in the group were completely at one with their instruments, whereas the newcomer—who, don’t get me wrong, played great—was still very conscious of himself and his new limb and thereby was still doing it, trying it out, rather than absorbing it and having it be a part of him.
The third week I saw another trio that was so organically in tune that at their apex they were at times indistinguishable from one another and their instruments; despite some of the bassist’s one-note idiosyncrasies, they had become complete extensions of their bodies and psyches, resulting in opposition and synchronicity at the same time, a very gestural music, not for gesture’s sake but what has now become part of a natural process. In other words they had achieved what Shelley predicated, and were unable to do anything else but create. Be. But again I ask, what is the real thing? Being natural rather than acting natural? The climber, the dancer, the fighter, all twisted together? Do I have the right to judge? Do I have the right to say what’s bad because I know what’s good? Yes. We all do if we believe in the thing 100 percent. Duke Ellington said the only kinds of music are good music and bad music. But like anything else, and sadly so, this is a purely subjective analysis in the long run.
At any rate, speaking of believing, the final example was a musician who, after his gig, in an audience Q-and-A, was asked what he heard and what colors he saw when he played. His answer was that he didn’t want to burst anyone’s bubble but that while he played he was trying not to think about the laundry that needed doing or the supper he would eat after the gig. This showed in his playing. He seemed so damned conscious of every stroke he made, but in my mind, due to this self-consciousness, did only that: made, neither creating nor being the world he set out to be. Nice thing was, he paid for all of our dinners afterward in a pretty upscale café.
And on that note, I’ll report some doings that have occurred and will occur since last we spoke. January 7 and 8 the Winter Jazz Festival in Greenwich Village kicked off its seventh year with a lineup that included close to 60 bands in five venues. Some of the participants were: Matana Roberts, Nels Cline, Talibam, Vernon Reid, Jen Shyu, Anat Cohen, Jason Lindner, Steve Coleman, Jacky Terrasson, and my two favorite sets of the 20 or more bands I experienced: the Charles Gayle Trio and an 11-piece band with tenor saxophonist J. D. Allen conducted by Butch Morris (with Butch stopping the band a couple of times to educate the audience on the finer points of conduction). Keep your eyes out for a new film about Morris.
As always, the festival was a resounding success, but here’s the rub: too many venues. Too many people. Too chaotic. Too much commercial stuff. And in line with my above ideas of subjectivism: too much bad music. And the audience of at least a thousand—who are they? Example: During a terrible gig by Charlie Hunter (a way-overrated musician) that included a tap dancer, who was obviously a being who was being what he was, the couple behind me was continually trying to analyze the music, not an uncommon occurrence at these industry-driven events. When he saw me writing, he asked, “Are you a music critic?” “No,” I answered, “just writing a letter to a friend,” which I actually was. When I stood on my chair she asked, referring to the tap dancer, “Can you see his feet?” “No,” I replied, “but he sure can move.” The dancer’s energy and that big hollow sound of his taps, an always joyous sound, virtually saved me and a boring, pseudo-funky-what-kinda-genre-will-fit-the-bill-best set.
Tony Malaby played his heart out throughout January at the Stone, as did Angie Sanchez, who co-curated the month with him. Jemeel Moondoc’s Jus Grew Orchestra did a Monday-night residency all January at the University of the Streets, curated that month by trombonist Steve Swell. Michael Bisio did a virtuoso solo bass gig at Local 269, followed by a powerful quartet set. At the end of 2010, Connie Crothers did what was for me one of the best sets of the year, a sadly ill-attended solo gig at Tribes Gallery.
In February, the Tullyscope at Alice Tully Hall will present Feldman’s Rothko Chapel as part of its eclectic program, which continues through March. Lou and Laurie curate the Stone all February, presenting such folk as Frith, Anne Carson, Hal Willner, and Geri Allen (who I also caught in Paris as part of the Sons d’Hiver fest mentioned in my last report).
Bassist Hill Greene curates the University of the Streets in February. Roscoe Mitchell celebrates his 70th birthday at Roulette in February. Then, like almost everything else, Roulette will move to a new gigantic space in—you guessed it—Brooklyn.
Patti Smith did a week of sold-out shows in Paris, none of which I could get tickets to.
Tom Surgal and Lin Culbertson curate the Stone in March. Among the many greats will be Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, Dave Burrell, the Magic Markers, Chris Corsano, Thurston Moore, Dave Liebman, and Eugene Chadbourne. Also in March, the New York City Opera will present a week of short operas by Zorn, Feldman, and Schoenberg, along with an entire night celebrating Zorn on March 30.
I dedicate this article to Billy Taylor, who passed in December at age 89: foremost an educator, a formidable pianist, and the founder of the Jazz Mobile. At his memorial, which was a bit tame, the Reverend Calvin Butts kicked butt.
I left Paris after many snowstorms and a day before De Gaulle was shut down, and returned to New York a day before the sixth-worst blizzard in its history. WKCR, bless their souls, was having their annual Bach festival, so there wasn’t much need to go out in that crazy weather. This was followed in the new year by the Max Roach birthday broadcast. I flew back and forth a second time to Paris to find that artistic standards and politics are pretty much the same on both sides of the globe, and discovered, as Shelley so succinctly intoned, that “this world must fade in…frost” and that “remembrance and repentance are not free from the music.” So come “feel the blood run through the veins” and “hear thy chosen own.”