Diary of a Mad Composer

River-run, past ghosts and memories—that kind of feeling haunted me on a damp, chilly night in mid-January, stepping out of the premiere of Kamala Sankaram’s strong opera, Thumbprint, then rushing down to the NYU Law Library to check in for Winter JazzFest.

Henry Threadgill. Photo by Bart Babinski.

This is my second go-round in New York City, the first was back in the mid-1980s. One steamy August night almost 30 years ago, I had a meal at El Sombrero—is it still around?—went around the corner to a tiny theater for a performance of Genet’s The Balcony, then capped off the night at the Knitting Factory—the original one on Houston—with a show by the Sun Ra Arkestra. I was making nothing at the time, but had won tickets to hear the band (and see the dancers) by being something like the fourth caller in to WKCR. From a landline.

And because I’m wool-gathering, I remember another time at the Knitting Factory, out to see Steve Lacy give a solo concert. His wife Irene Aebi was looking for the way backstage. I knew it, because I had played there, and showed her. Still another time, even earlier, I was in Patelson’s, the sheet music store—which most definitely is not there anymore. It was the day after an evening of my annual pilgrimage to Sweet Basil’s—that’s gone too—to hear Lacy’s Sextet, and there was Aebi, browsing the bins. I congratulated her on how great the band sounded. She seemed surprised but smiled, thanked me, and went off to pay for a set of Hugo Wolf lieder.

The concert-going life is an odd thing. Listening to recordings is such a different experience from hearing music live. The package the recording is in is always there on the shelf, or now in the digital library, carted from home to home. Concerts are things that drift around the mind, and holding onto ticket stubs and playbills does little to connect you to the time, the place, the journey there and back, with company or alone.

JazzFest is dense with jazz—no concessions to pop headliners like you find at other jazz festivals; the range is from the mainstream to the avant-garde—and geographically compact. Heading to and from SubCulture, I found myself passing Bleecker and LaGuardia, where I used to go all the time to hear Lance Hayward play the piano at the Village Corner. It’s a generic Irish bar now. It was the only place where I could afford to both hear music and drink, and Hayward was a fine musician. Blind since birth, he had a watch with a face that flipped up, and he would feel where the hands were to check for his break time. He died shortly before I moved off to San Francisco.

At JazzFest: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society playing his Brooklyn Babylon music, the music now lived-in, with a fluid sound and rich expression; Mary Halvorson following up her great Illusionary Sea, the best jazz release of 2013, with exciting and as-yet-unnamed new material; a challenging, mysterious, and immersive set from Nate Wooley’s Seven Storey Mountain; the accomplished anarchy of Mostly Other People Do the Killing; a set from the violin/piano duo of Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier that was some of the finest blend of compositional thinking and improvisation that I have ever heard; and new music from Henry Threadgill—one last memory: Threadgill driving me home after I saw him play hard bop at the West End Café, because we both lived in Fort Greene.

The music was in remembrance of Butch Morris, “Old Locks and Irregular Verbs,” for a group Threadgill called Ensemble Double-Up: Roman Filiu and Curtis Macdonald, alto saxes; Jason Moran and David Virelles, pianos; Christopher Hoffman on cello; José Dávila playing tuba; and Craig Weinrib at the drum kit. Thread didn’t play but conducted a bit. There was some complaining in my Twitter feed about the music being nothing new, though it was new, with old roots, the sound and organization reaching back to his Very Very Circus bands. “Old Locks” synthesized that by fitting Double-Up to his current, blindingly brilliant way of organizing harmony and effectively stretching it into a long form. The notes aren’t new, it’s where they go. It was powerful, lovely, meditative, and bluesy. Virelles played some fantastic piano.

Keep your memories; kill your memories. Be loving and irreverent, the essentials for getting someplace new. Mats Gustafsson is going to piss off a lot of people with his excellent new disc from the Thing, BOOT!. The first track is Coltrane’s “India,” and he attacks it with aggressive bass saxophone playing, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love thrashing around on electric bass and drums. It’s exhilarating. Coltrane is responsible for Gustafsson, and the latter loves the former, but even Jesus said you’ve got to ditch your father if you want to believe.

I’m not sure if there’s as much love in Xiu Xiu. Maybe it’s hipster enthusiasm in place of self-effacing devotion. Nina Simone is one of the greats, but the new Xiu Xiu disc, Nina, loves itself, not her. Simone could sing a song; frontman Jamie Stewart can’t do much more than shudder—how is it anyone finds him intense? He makes everything, from “Don’t Explain” to “Pirate Jenny,” sound exactly, unpleasantly the same. It would be a joke, except he expects people to pay for it. Don’t.

Contributor

George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.

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