Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Speed matters

Music is presence itself. Playing or listening, each note exists in its own bit of time, and until a note is appreciated and felt, it can't go on to the next note. But link the notes together, and presence may or may not survive the transitions.

I learned a little more about that from Joe Lovano's sheets of sound the other night at SFJazz, where Lovano played tenor with Jack DeJohnette's Spring Quartet. "Sheets of sound" was journalist Ira Gitler's term for John Coltrane's cascading eruptions of hundreds of blistery notes. Coltrane's wails started as harmonic inventions -- overlaying three different chord progressions in a single, dense arpeggio flurry -- and were reinforced by his belief that speed would enhance his quest for God.

For many years I didn't get it. Coltrane sounded cold to me, analytic and cerebral. Where was the heart and soul? Virtuosity for the sake of human accomplishment? I dropped him down the same hole I dug for Pink Floyd. Engineered music. Music for me was an escape from super-rationality, the hell I lived in. Music was a place to feel overt emotion, right?

But I noticed something as Lovano reprised Coltrane's effects. I imagined for once that I was inside the soloist, playing fast and using the heavily rehearsed structures of chords, harmonics, scales, and arpeggios as vehicles for freedom. By playing so much so fast, I felt, Lovano was forced to surrender to the moment completely. He never had breathing space to take control himself. He had to trust that God would fill his horn with breath and move his fingers with music. Surrender.

I can't find any video of the Spring Quartet. Too bad, because the soul resonance that emerged from Lovano and DeJohnette was palpable all night. I'm sure DeJohnette was playing figures at times, but I didn't once notice them. It was as if he was in every note with curiosity and energetic creativity that seemed to float above his drum kit. The two kids in the group, Esperanza Spalding on bass and Leo Genovese on piano, comped and supported the older men as they soared. It was a kick to see Spalding in awe of the music; the one time I saw her fronting her own group it seemed like so much ego and not much else.

Here's Coltrane flying through A Love Supreme:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

On the shoulders of giants

When genius arises, it seems to eclipse its own past. Beethoven lays down the mature musical structures of his time and superimposes a seemingly indeterminate stream of consciousness. Duke Ellington opens the locked-in unison of the swing band to soloists who are as personal and idiosyncratic as a coyote howl cutting through the winds sweeping the pines. The New Grass Revival lifts the tight-ass virtuosity of bluegrass into frantic hymns of psychedelic joy.

In his fourth year traveling the chitlin' circuit with R&B acts -- the Isleys, Little Richard, Curtis Knight -- Jimi Hendrix would not have been mistaken for a musical genius. Here's a serviceable blues of his from 1965.

A little more than a year later he turned rock and roll upside down with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, bending time, adding feedback and other noises unheard in prior notes, and like the geniuses before him stretching forms and boundaries. Here he is in 1970:

One approach to genius says it requires honesty, character and courage. I heard this model from one of my kids, who was studying Wittgenstein. There's the tripartite soul: mind (honesty), body (character), and heart (courage).  Or truth (honesty), joy (character), and love (courage).

I'm struck by how much we demand innovation. Genius seems to require standing on the shoulders of others, and adding something new. Picasso was an ordinary juvenile painter, the Beatles an everyday rave-up band in Germany, and Hendrix a typical journeyman r&b guy. Until. While they were all still in their 20s when they broke free, all had spent years intensively studying the traditions of their day. Freedom seems to come to the young more easily than the middle-aged. Mozart, Ornette Coleman, Monk, Dizzy and Bird -- all barely out of their teens when each of them first elaborated their new sound. But Coltrane was 30 before he found his sheets-of-sound way. 

And why did they break free and others don't? They had honesty. Beatles vs. Stones? Easy. The Beatles were extraordinarily honest, and the Stones posed. John and Paul had a nose for bullshit, and George and Ringo were humble as the day is long. Character? Hendrix was a man's man, releasing a libidinous creativity from his body whenever he played. Courage? Picasso, the Beatles and Hendrix were inveterate explorers, in their prime refusing to retreat to what was easy for them. 

Who will stand on the shoulders of past geniuses next? It's so hard to predict. In writing, arranging and playing, Mick Ronson was the equal of his two great partners, David Bowie and Ian Hunter. But when he was freed to play his own music, like with the New York Yaquis, the sound reduced to sentimentality. Similarly, the extraordinary fiddler Jason Crosby, who plays frequently with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh and others in the jamband scene, is locked in a less-revelatory sweetness when left to his own devices. Ronson was always worth seeing, and I catch Crosby frequently. But while they can break down what others have to say, they have more trouble finding a personal truth that transmits as genius. Here's Jason Crosby playing Bertha with Lesh and friends. What you can't tell from one song is how deeply Crosby tunes into the aesthetic and band he is playing with. He plays his solos from the inside of the song:

I have my hopes still for Derek Trucks. Burdened by the Allman Brothers legacy -- nephew of an original Allman and inheritor of the Duane Allman slide guitar seat -- most of his music is exceptionally well played Southern rock, jazz, r&b and blues. But he also has a more-contemplative (and to my way of thinking, more honest) sound that is unusual and inspiring. Listen to him blend his slide guitar with traditional Indian music:

So far, Trucks is weighed down by two traditional mentors -- the Allman Brothers and Ali Akbar Khan. He plays rock too close to the Allman Brothers for me, and eastern music too close to classical Indian for me. But one day, when he chooses to be himself, he may find a way to synthesize the two. Like how Carlos Santana blended Cuban, Mexican and psychedelic music. Or how Duane and Gregg mixed jazz, hard rock and blues to create Southern jamband music in the first place. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

To nature, not nation

Rock and roll blossomed in the 1960s at the same time that nationalism and imperialism were under relentless attack. The flag was burned, mom and apple pie were mocked, and students around the world demanded a new order. Who says Johnny should go to war? Who says the tradition of Jim Crow is OK? Who's protecting an individual conscience?

The counterculture helped spawn the great recording artists of the day, and vice versa. The message in the lyrics was not "I'm proud to be an American." Anything but. Hendrix deconstructed the violence in the Star Spangled Banner. World War II had exposed the connection between nationalism and genocide. Vietnam exposed the connection between nationalism and the similar bloodiness of legal, mechanized war.

But by 1984, record buyers embraced "Born in the USA" with delight and hardly a passing nod to its ironic message. Reagan was a pale enemy compared to Nixon. What gives? What gave?

This troubling swing of culture -- nationalism is bad when things are going bad, good when things are going good -- seems adept only at showing what is already obvious. The ambivalent voices that expose multiple views of the truth are drowned out as if they're pussyfooting.

For the last couple of years, the music of the long-defunct band The Band has enjoyed a subtle crescendo of popularity that inevitably will raise Robbie Robertson to the same reverence shown to Bill Monroe, or Woody Guthrie, or Louis Armstrong. They're game-changers in the identification of an American music. What are The Band's successors called? Americana. I recently spent a lovely night at Phil Lesh's place, Terrapin Crossroads, listening to his sons and friends cover song after song by The Band. I love these songs. I love the fact that so many bands nowadays play The Weight as an encore. I tell my friends proudly that in my Woodstock, New York days I was an acquaintance of The Band's brilliant singer and bass player Rick Danko.

Here's a great cover of The Weight. Watch as they rehearse it how the energy and confidence builds. At first only Mavis Staples is fully comfortable (it's been a standard part of her set for years) but by the end they're all tuned into the song's joy.

But I'm worried a little about my own love for this nostalgic music. These are songs written by a Canadian that honor and embellish the rural frontier of America as a romantic and unique time. No doubt The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down has one of the great anti-war lyrics of all time: "You take what you need/ And you leave the rest/ But they should never/ Have taken the very best." At the same time, it's a song of nostalgia for a time of war. It reverently conjures Robert E. Lee, the great American symbol of honoring the enemy, despite the fact that this elegant Southerner sat atop a hierarchy designed to wage a despicably bloody defense of the horrorshow of slavery.

If you're nationalist, it's easy to be uplifted by God Bless America. If you're anti-nationalist, the counterweight is This Land is Your Land. Woody Guthrie wrote his anthem -- This land is your land/ This land is my land -- in anger at the message that Kate Smith was sending. (Guthrie's original lyrics twisted Irving Berlin's words to say "God blessed America for me." It's a hymn to nature, not nation.)

There's a direct lineage from Woody Guthrie through Bob Dylan to Robbie Robertson. But isn't there as much danger from nostalgia -- drawing more from the jaunty, white-only prosperity of Stephen Foster than the soulful weariness of spirituals -- as there is from flag-cloaked, fascistic modern country songs of nationalism?

One thing that isn't nationalistic about Robbie Robertson's music is his rhythmic and melodic invention. The Band releases my body in happiness with buoyant rhythms and touches my heart with poignant, intimate tunes. The music is personal. Robertson connects directly with individuals. It's music that fits into a ballroom. I like the Stones and Who as much as anybody. But they have a legacy to answer for. They introduced arena rock -- anthemic songs that support thousands of fist-pumping disaffected youth in a collective, shared energy -- a pattern of music that coopts the same species-trumps-individual message as the military spectacles organized by Hitler  [selection from Triumph of the Will] or the self-congratulatory cheers of a Mary Kay convention. It's why I keep my distance from U2 and The Killers. They bond their live audience into a gran faloon, Kurt Vonnegut's term for a group that unites as if for common cause, but whose association is actually quite purposeless.

My distrust of nationalism isn't exactly political. Voices like Bakunin and Kropotkin, Proudhon and Ron Paul seem whistlers in the wind. They recognize the repression of the individual that is an unwelcome byproduct of any institution.  But they ignore the paradox that any effective response to institutional repression, from the inside or outside, requires the formation of a counter-institution and an identity as an anti-nationalist or anti-institutionalist.

Instead I find myself touched by the words of J. Krishnamurti [selection from U.N. speech], the Indian-born occultist who embodied the Jesus who angrily overturned the money-lenders' tables. Distrust all identification with institutions, all patriotism. Honor every capacity for personal freedom as a path to reuniting with the bigger consciousness that is available. And I translate that as finding music that allows me to be intimate with a personal joy, love and truth that might be universal but doesn't need anyone except myself in the room to be energized.

Can't resist including The Last Waltz version of The Weight. There's Mavis again igniting the heart, and Rick emoting his way through the "Crazy Chester" stanza. Rick was a goofy guy, and he might as well have been named Crazy Chester.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Bewitched, Bewildered and Bothered

Once in a blue moon a band appears to me as something so completely new that everything I heard before seems pale. The mid-career Beatles. The Tony Williams/Wayne Shorter Miles Davis sextet. As the world's body of music progresses through time, it synthesizes and either adds a new form or recombines old forms in newly revealing ways. If a brand new form shows up, it's a revelatory addition -- the halving of the eighth note's speed to form bebop, Miles Davis' modal form, or his fusion form, Buddy Holly's unadulterated rock beat, Cuban beat, the acceptance of chaos in free jazz. Those are exciting shifts, but they're additive and I feel no impulse to diminish what came before. They exist side by side with past forms: swing, blues, gospel, whatever.

So what is it when I hear something that sounds like it is not just adding, but reorganizing things so profoundly that for a moment at least other bands that I've appreciated suddenly seem pale?

Last night at SFJazz singer/pianist Patricia Barber introduced me to the erotic as a fundamental source of creativity, like tantra, more completely than I would have thought possible. At times it was as if she was fucking the piano. Her relationship with her harem of young male accompanists was gobbling up eros and trapping it in an intensely physical music.

This was big eros, encompassing creativity as a singular delight, opening one unexpected universe after another. I'm used to loving small eros -- sexuality -- in music. It's no surprise that she had a Nat Adderley composition in her repertoire. Cannonball and Nat's group was a funky, sexual enterprise. Get up and swing your hips.

Here's Cannonball Adderley's quintet playing Sack O' Woe:

And Hendrix. In last night's encore, guitarist John Kregor was hearing the raw sexual explosion of Hendrix. Sex and music. So what could be pale about Cannonball Adderly or Jimi Hendrix? How did Barber impale them?

While powerful, I think there's a one-dimensionality in Cannonball's or Jimi's sexuality. Cannonball's is the sexuality of dancing, and he knows it, and he's intent on getting that response from the audience. Come on guys and gals! Let's dance. Jimi's is the sexuality of raw, meaty copulation, and he's showing off his manliness. (I get the feeling that Hendrix never said "Let's just cuddle tonight.")

What Barber was doing was far more complex and personal, and hardly needed an audience. S he wasn't showing sex. She was being eros. Big eros. Creativity and bursting universes. The original Greek Eros wasn't a cherubic cupid, but the formidable God who created order out of what had always been chaos. He created. Last night there was sexuality, no doubt. It was so strong that her harem couldn't return her constant, amazed gaze at them while they played. Each of them gave her what she wanted, in spades, but eyes downcast or sideways it was as if they were hanging on for dear life in fear of being overwhelmed. What she was advancing -- her mouth was wide open at times -- was too much for them to grok. She squawked and snorted, and lost herself in her intellect, and emerged in glee and surprise. It was like she was letting go into a stream of creative moments ordering a new universe one after another, uncontrolled by ego.

How did she do it? Her own talents weren't the point. Her voice and piano playing were well-tuned and certainly capable of virtuosity, but it was clear that she had let go of much sense of being in service to virtuosity. What she seemed to care about was using musical forms to embody all music, as a form of creativity, as a way to open her soul spontaneously, moment by moment.

I think it's a generational thing. From at least the Forties, leaders in the jazz idiom have been intently aware of music as a path to enlightenment. They mean to open space to bigger consciousness. But they were held down, I think, by the demands of virtuosity. Coltrane famously thought that virtuosity was the central key to unlock pure creativity. Being brilliant at an instrument required analytic, mind-based study. A jazz musician's first entry into professionalism typically came through virtuosity. They found heart and body only after they had first thoroughly explored mind. Ear training. Scales. Double-tonguing. There's an empty-soul feeling to an immature virtuoso, probably because he or she doesn't have much access yet to heart or body as a source for playing. Some virtuosos never get past the technical. But the point is that mind is overwhelmingly the entry point for virtuosic music.

Barber has a different memory of the beginnings of her fascination with music. Her father was a sax player for Glenn Miller. She remembers touching the horn as he practiced, to feel the vibration move through her. So body might have already been there. And she grew up in a generation when all women of a certain income practice yoga and Oprah promotes Eckhart Tolle. The integration of body, heart and mind as a practice toward enlightenment is everyday, not esoteric.

Isn't that what Barber was engaged in last night?

Here with different accompanists she does a Beatle tune:

So what felt new was her personalization of the body, heart and mind in music. This is the opposite of new age music, which while steeped in the rhetoric of enlightenment often feels like it's holding a mistaken belief that the transcendent is a place that primarily soothes the soul. I like being soothed, but not so much by music. Her band took me to a place that felt her body, heart and mind impress my soul with creative energy, delight, glee, spontaneity, and individual, human consciousness. There was nothing nondual about it, nothing transcendent about it. It was like being with the root of the creative fire.

One kind of sad thing was that the audience last night wasn't the generation that most might welcome it. It was nearly all a bunch of greyhairs like me. But the experience was much closer to jamband music than post-Miles jazz. With a tweak here or there, this band would blow away all the other bands at High Sierra. This is music to dance to.

Here they do Black Magic Woman:

And let's not leave out Jimi humping his guitar:

Monday, February 11, 2013

Just a minute

In fiction writing, a scene typically lasts a half page to a page and a half -- in reading time, 30 to 90 seconds. Even if the setting remains for longer than that, it's broken into sub-scenes -- each a complete figure of conflict, action, and resolution -- that fit the 30-to-90 boundary.

The bugaboo that arises if the scene extends too long most often is defined as the sagging middle. The action isn't active enough. It sags into redundancies or loiters aimlessly.

Music's the same. A pop song might have a verse, a bridge, a chorus, a verse, a middle eight, a verse and a chorus. Six or seven movements in two to four minutes. Each has to stand on its own, within the rise-and-fall arc of the overall song.

So how do jam bands or jazz combos pull off 12-minute excursions that prolong each verse, chorus, or bridge? Not well usually. Often, story-telling sags into vague noodling. But over the weekend, I saw two examples of tight groups adhering to the rules even while expanding well past the four-minute mark.

On Sunday night at SFJazz, bassist Dave Holland led his Prism fusion quartet through six compositions that averaged 12 minutes. I don't know, but I would guess they followed typical 32-bar segmenting, or in some cases doubled 12-bar blues breaks. Think one second per bar, so the idea is to chop things into 32-second or 24-second segments, which fits the low end of the fiction-scene scheme. The first complication that arises in extended pieces is that a 32-bar verse might be repeated twice or three times in a row. Now you're at the high end of a fiction scene, where the sagging middle starts to be prevalent. And there's a further complication in the rules of fusion established forty-plus years ago by Miles Davis: chord changes don't push the story every one to four bars, but can be delayed for eight bars, or 16, or the chord can remain for all 32.

So how did these long, minimalist compositions hold my interest like a 3-minute pop song? They did. I think a key was guitarist Kevin Eubanks' 15-year apprenticeship as the house band leader for the Tonight Show. From 1995 to 2010 Eubanks interrupted a jazz career that had established him as a master of serious jazz with lightning chops and deep composition credits. Twelve-minute songs. But for five nights a week, he zinged out four- or eight- or at most 16-bar flurries of recognizable melodies and flashy pyrotechnics.  His improvisational work with Prism was the melodic centerpiece last night, and much of his storytelling urgency seemed to be supported by his capacity for finding rock-star riffs to punctuate his extended stories with mini-stories -- which part was the counterpoint? -- that boosted the tension and helped it rise and fall.

Prism's encore was a relatively brisk seven minutes, but to my mind it might have been two minutes, it felt so economical and simply resolved.

In the clip below, notice at the beginning how Eubanks duets with Holland as if his guitar is a bass, glissing and letting plucked strings extend. Then in the last third, Eubanks adds the world of Jimmy Page and riff blues. Prism was in a fiery, celebratory mood last night, and the piece sounded less abstract than this version. But maybe that was just the intensity of being there live.

The night before, I danced at Brick and Mortar to the rock jam band New Monsoon. Like Eubanks, lead guitarist Jeff Miller can be pyrotechnical and dazzling. Like Eubanks, he keeps his ear to great riff rock that grounds and accentuates his storytelling. And like Eubanks, he finds himself telling a new story every 30 to 90 seconds.

New Monsoon surfaced 15 years ago as eclectics who added tablas, raga harmonics, a didgeridoo, timbales, and Cuban rhythms to the Grateful Dead ancestry that all jam bands descend from. Saturday night, they kept it stripped down to the rock and roll that they were steeped in growing up. They closed their first set with a nearly note-by-note reconstruction of Hendrix's Fire.

Hearing Eubanks hearken Led Zeppelin, it made me think that it was no accident that Hendrix exploded onto the scene in London. The simple, thudding, hormonal riffs in British Blues -- Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Stones, Who, Cream, and Hendrix, too -- were their own thing. Charlie Parker reached into his youth and curved himself around I Got Rhythm. When Dave Holland was a kid in England, British Blues was on the radio. No wonder it returns to ground his new music. And it wasn't hard to find the Neil Young and Led Zeppelin and Allman Brothers of their youth in New Monsoon's driving, riff-loving soliloquies.

Here's New Monsoon a few years back, when raga themes served the same grounding purpose.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

What if Jerry Garcia had been a Beatle?

Stu Allen, who leads Mars Hotel, the best Grateful Dead cover band around, switched gears and with Deadophile David Gans played a night of Beatle songs. While it was a rank failure in terms of providing an adequate platform for Dead-style ecstatic dancing -- the only point I can see to a GD cover band -- it's never unsatisfying to spend time in new passages through the doors opened by the Beatles.

It so happens that I've resumed a project my kids and I faltered on a couple of years ago: moving CD by CD through a book titled 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die. Its polymath author, Tom Moon, assists in the exploration of virtually all genres, from blues to classical to Afrobeat to folk to free jazz, gospel, bluegrass, and obscurities like Moorish Music From Mauritania and chants of Benedictine monks. (Abba to ZZ Top doesn't quite give a sense of that breadth.) I'm still early in the Bs, which seem to go on forever. Bach took a week: the Branderburg Concertos, Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the Well-Tempered Clavier (at least it was only Book 1), and Mass in B Minor.

Serendipitously (or to GD types, synchronistically) I hit the Beatles the very day that Stu and Gans were to play. So I listened to A Hard Day's Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver and (even though it's not in the book) Magical Mystery Tour before heading to the dance. Sgt. Pepper, the White Album and Abbey Road are still to come. And then the Beau Brummels, Sidney Bechet, and hours and hours of Beethoven. You get the picture.

The Beatles. Why was it so hard to expand their songbook into Grateful Dead jamming? For the very same reason that the Beatles quit playing live. By Revolver, the studio had become their primary instrument. It's oft-told that Brian Wilson heard Rubber Soul and produced Pet Sounds and that the Beatles heard Pet Sounds and produced Sgt. Pepper. You can do that? Wow. It wasn't just that they were trying to top each other; they were instructing each other on the possibilities that a studio could bring to life. And they were similarly turned on by the huge catalog of voices and instruments and sounds -- traditional, electronic, found, distorted, clarified -- that could be brought in to perfect a moment of music. By Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles had stopped hearing and producing lines of music except in the voices that carried the melodies. The rest was a thought-out deconstruction of music into atoms of sound, assembled in collages that fooled the ear into thinking it was hearing movement and lines.

Here's the Beatles playing their last live concert (except the rooftop Let It Be performance), at Candlestick Park in 1966.

I'm astonished that Brian Wilson has made a second career of reproducing his studio-bound treasure boxes in live performances, first Pet Sounds and later the legendarily unfinished Smile. I suppose he craves the live experience, and wants to fit his greatest works into a concert hall setting. And I suppose there's something different about getting all those lovely sounds together inside the immediacy and risk of live music. But still, it seems weird. How could it possibly match the controlled brilliance of the originals?

Listening to Beatle albums is a lifelong project. They're the James Joyces of recorded music. My daughter and I once listened to Magical Mystery Tour three or four times through, just to hear and excitedly point out to each other all the changes that Ringo made within a single song. No chorus is played the same twice. He's adding and subtracting -- instruments, phrasings, volumes. And I've read that John and Paul told him exactly what to play. There was little improvisation going on at Abbey Road. Such minutiae. Such perfection.

The Dead were as opposite from that as you can imagine. They improvised all the time, and quit playing songs like St. Stephen that weren't open enough to jamming. They didn't have lovely voices that could carry the melody and free the instruments to do other things, like assemble pointillist symphonies. And they would always choose the groove over the leaping interval.

It's not that the Beatles aren't danceable. I can't remember a commons room dance in college that didn't kick into higher gear with Helter Skelter or Back in the U.S.S.R. or Revolution. The Beatles teethed on a punkish rave-up sound, and they could play with all the muscle in the world. And I'm sure you can jam to Beatle music; I've seen it done effectively for short periods of time. Even by them. They could play blues and they could play repetitively when they thought it was right.

But their ethos was a kind of perfectionism that is rarely tackled by anyone anywhere in any art form. The worldliness, and unflinching focus, attention and belief in themselves that they exhibited in Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's, and came back to briefly at the end for Abbey Road, is unmatched. I tend to think that it wasn't Yoko who broke up the Beatles. It was the sheer impossibility of sustaining that energy. They were exhausted at what, 28 years old?

Like I said, it's always worth it to hear Beatle songs, no matter the interpretation. At the worst they'll remind you that the originals are worth rehearing. At the best they'll remind you that the Beatles changed the world, all for the good, and they'll take you back to when it happened.

No video, but if you want to hear the GD/Beatle mashup of Stu and Gans et.al., go to the link below, find Hey Jude and starting at about 4:45 for a few moments you hear what Jerry might have sounded like if he had sat in with the Fabs.

Hey Jude by Strawberry Field Trip live at Ashkenaz

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Being in relationship

In the opening bars of La Mer the other night at the San Francisco Symphony my mind pushed the alarm button. Uh-oh, it said, someone lagged in an entrance. I heard a stutter where my mind sought a bang. My memory pulled up a recent disastrous performance by another orchestra that was marked by poorly shared entrances that stranded the sound in a murky swamp. But it turned out that the flaw at the beginning of the Debussy was a gift. The fear mechanism in my mind was now sharply attuned to the SFS's entrances and attacks. And I was rewarded with a visceral appreciation for conductor Michael Tilson Thomas's genius.

For me, it all goes back to rock and roll drumming. Most rock drummers lag the beat. It's a horrible thing. The stick or pedal hits the skin an instant too late. It's the plodding downfall of many bands. I wish it would stop. Having grown up mostly on rock and roll, my mind tunes to it. I was talking about it last night to a 100-year-old friend of mine who spent her working life as a concert cellist. She found it curious and even amusing that I focused so much on the precision of attack that it could quickly ruin a concert for me. It surely has reached the point of exaggerated importance to me, distorting my view as profoundly as the survival stories I invented as a kid continue to distort my relationships with people fifty years later.

But focusing on a distortion, letting it come to full consciousness and mind, can be a beautiful portal to things of truth, joy, bliss, consciousness and real presence. It's in knowing the suffering that we can come into contact with grace. And that's not just true in the ego conflicts of relationship. It can be true in watching live music.

Sitting above and behind the orchestra, looking down at the musicians as they went through the human motions of their job, watching Tilson Thomas emote and communicate with them, they became to me individuals in relationship to each other. Suddenly I heard myself marveling at how the percussionists pounded in absolute unison with the strings and brass and harps and woodwinds, and the beauty of that precision became a thing in itself. It was transformed into absolute beauty itself. There was nothing mechanical about the precision. These were individual human beings, with hearts and histories, and they weren't leaving those behind as they joined together. I divide the way of music sometimes into the Ellington band and the Basie band. The Ellington band is a bunch of individual geniuses who mainly solo and then meet up every once in a while to exuberantly expand on the solo. The Basie band is a swinging machine, the parts relatively unimportant to the overall groove, the feeling of unison. Tilson Thomas's orchestra was Ellington and Basie, joined.

La Mer is a standard for the SFS, and to a lesser orchestra could be called a warhorse. But the other night, the musicians' vast experience with the notes paid off. I couldn't find a video of the SFS playing it. The best I could find is a Berlin Philharmonic performance, which doesn't exhibit the precision I saw the other night. Still, you can get the picture of what it might be like for the musicians to reach the climax of the last movement and find themselves in a single loving embrace.

Why do drummers so often lag the beat? Strings don't. Woodwinds don't. Brass do sometimes, especially trumpets. I started to think it has to do with the kinetics of percussion and brass. It's worst in bombastic passages where for percussionists the attack doesn't start in the wrist but in the forearm. Pretend you're hitting a bass drum. The forearm tenses and releases before the wrist. The mind might feel it has finished the job with the release of tension in the forearm. Likewise with brass. Maybe the mind is finished when the tongue hits the palate, before the air carrying the note has made its way through the tubes and out the bell. I don't know. Just a guess.

My favorite drummers, many of them in jazz, seem to anticipate the beat all the time, and yet the band doesn't speed up. Jazz soloists notoriously listen to the bass to keep time rather than the drums. Maybe that's how they get around the fact that the drummer is playing just a little ahead of them. Here's a clip of four terrific jazz drummers accompanying a tap solo. Notice how they're always a little ahead of her, and yet she keeps perfect time. She knows drumming. They're playing Cute by Neal Hefti, which was one of my mom's favorite songs.

And here's my favorite drum piece of all time. At the end of the Bangladesh concert in 1971, everyone got on stage for the encore. Usually an all-star encore is a musical wasteland, muddy, meandering, and devoid of authentic energy and meaning. But Jim Keltner singlehandedly drives a momentous groove that stays ahead of the band and forces the music into ecstasy. Ringo's helping out. The video doesn't do it justice. On the soundtrack it's a juggernaut.