Thursday, November 1, 2012

Knockin' on Heaven's Door

When I imagine Grateful Dead music I see its core being drafted by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. At heart it seems to be rooted in their biased search -- for sublime joy, informed by open curiosity. Joy and curiosity are essential aspects of the soul, and they have their own colors and fragrances, and it's hard to imagine anyone better than Garcia and Hunter at tapping and expressing them.

I imagine Bob Dylan's music coming from a different essential aspect -- strength -- and not just drawing on creative energy to come into being, but actually manifesting as creativity itself. Raw strength seems to tumble from Dylan's songs with a relentless ferocity. Think of the songs Hurricane, Desolation Row, and Ballad of a Thin Man.

Most Wednesday nights I can be found at Ashkenaz in Berkeley for Stu Allen and Mars Hotel, a Dead/Jerry cover band with a rotating cast. Mostly I'm there for dancing, and mostly I get moved by joy and curiosity. That's to be expected. Most of the songs are Grateful Dead songs. The dancing around me is loopy, or crescendoing, or trippy.

Stu's in another band called Ghosts of Electricity. It's not really another band. Most of its musicians take turns in Mars Hotel. But it might as well be another band. Instead of playing Grateful Dead music, they only play Bob Dylan songs. The arrangements may be similar. The approach may be similar. But there's no denying the ferocity of Dylan. In anybody's hands, a Dylan song returns the band and audience to the very source of creativity. Last night at Sweetwater Music Hall, the dancing around me was energetic, relentless, and powerful.

I make sure to see Dylan himself live every couple of years. Usually his voice is impossible for me to decipher, and he reworks his lyrics into new melodic settings, so the songs themselves can be unrecognizable. But I go anyway. I'm in Stratford-on-Avon at the Globe Theatre watching Shakespeare onstage, or in Greece listening to Homer recite, or in Vienna with Mozart holding the baton. Like those others, Dylan has direct access to the fierce, red creative pulse -- the eros side of love, the leap into the unknowing -- and his songs remind me that courage and strength have a deep source and are available.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Giving credit

What is it that gives extra credit to artists who make it seem easy? Maria Callas didn't just have an unusually clear voice, or better timbre, or enough range. She had all those. But the ineffable distinction between her brilliance and another's not-quite-there seems to my ear to be associated with ease. The technical difficulty of opera singing amplifies the importance of seeming at ease or in the flow, doesn't it? Ease isn't the same as fluidity or the sense of being well-practiced or comfortable with the material. It looks like it incorporates those things, but it expresses a feeling of being at one or in direct contact with the muse, the feeling that the artist is being moved rather than that the artist is actively moving air.

I'm not a musician, and I'm especially not a singer. My 10,000 hours of practice are with writing. The Malcolm Gladwell-distributed theory is that fluidity in any vocation starts appearing at around 10,000 hours. When I started to write without thinking about it, I became ashamed of my writing. Sounds perverse, right? I could find nothing to take pride in. Before, while I was learning the tools and ridding myself of the first round of cliches, I took great pride in my writing, especially as it seemed to improve. But one day, I was done. Writing just happened. I started to think of it as a parlor trick. It always worked, and seldom was far from me. When a dear friend expressed admiration for something I had written, and I responded that it was my parlor trick, she became alarmed. To her, "parlor trick" meant insincerity. I think she was wise to be alarmed, and now I think I was wrong to have used the term. At the time, I truly didn't believe I had done anything, or written anything particularly eloquent. I didn't feel I had done anything much at all. Taking credit for it seemed crazy. Insincere even.

With work and discipline, anyone meets his or her capacity to leap onto the back of the winged muse and take off. I imagine it feels the same for just about everyone who experiences it. No? A venture capitalist feels it when she starts the dance. An opera singer when she hears the overture. An athlete when the gun goes off. A plumber when he reaches for a wrench.

Last night watching Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues, I couldn't help think about Maria Callas singing Norma. Her seemingly effortless "Casta diva," the aria she opens with, floats into the divine while staying painfully human and worldly. She is meeting the muse on both its terms and hers. There were moments last night like that. And that was enough. It didn't need to be sustained to be welcomed and to last and last. Here's another performance by the mezzo-soprano I enjoyed last night, Joyce DiDonato, playing Romeo, and a different Juliet:

So what is it to meet the muse and stop taking credit for mastery, and at the same time feel the sincerity of something flowing through me that is not necessarily just me? It's as if by calling it a parlor trick I wasn't giving credit to the mix of history, discipline, and conscious acceptance of the divine that allows the flow to emerge as a timeless aria, or just a note to a friend.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Heaven is within

My mind is good at sensing fault, honing in on the cause, labeling it, and gleefully passing judgment. We're miraculous self-improvement machines, every one of our 100 trillion cells checking its own health all the time, and passing along any warning signs so repair cells can scurry in and get things fixed.

Last night during live music I noticed myself withdrawing into judgment two big times. The first was during Moby-Dick, a modern work performed by the San Francisco Opera. As I sensed fault -- uh, where are the melodies, and why does everything feel like a transition, and it's pretty warm up here in the balcony, and these lyrics are pushing me too fast -- I battled to stay in touch with what was actually going on on stage. I lost the battle and left. I'll probably never listen to Moby-Dick again, and so I'll go to my death ignorant about whether it was me -- the Flipper burger I had, the two drinks at Absinthe, the heat, my own restlessness -- or the choice of singers, or the hall, or the composition itself. I say I didn't like it, but in truth I didn't give it a chance. I just reacted negatively and got myself out of there. That's how my ego works on me. It's as if culture is analogous to my cellular structure, and needs fear and caution to motivate repair and strength.

Because the second time I noticed my withdrawal into judgment was more compartmentalized and definable, I was able to overcome it and stay with the music. After I walked out on the opera, I headed to Phil Lesh's joint in San Rafael, Terrapin Crossroads. He was playing a bluegrass set with his sons and other friends. Just the idea of that touches me. Bluegrass players start as living room musicians, and so there's a family tradition: the Carter Family, its spinoff Cashes, the Whites, Osbornes, the other Whites called the Kentucky Colonels, the Stanley Brothers, the Monroe brothers, the Scruggs family, Red Allen and his sons Neal and Harley, the Dillards, and on and on, and in Marin, the Leshes.

What I walked into couldn't have felt more surprising and lovely. The lovely part was the song being played well, Early Morning Rain. I remember talking up Gordon Lightfoot to my friends in the early Seventies, and getting reluctance. Isn't he too sappy? Too Old Folk? Too commercial? Folk, bluegrass, country and rock were crossing over each other, and sometimes it was jarring in unexpected ways. The mind likes what it likes, and doesn't want to let in the new without being sure. I've seen a lot of bluegrass bands do Early Morning Rain, and Lightfoot himself, and the Leshes' version was pure commitment to a place and a feel and a harmony. The surprise was Phil's own contribution. His bass tone was characteristically subtle, staying low, resonant and cleared of bright spots so that it could unobtrusively take care of the bottom. But my mind was telling me to watch out. It sensed something different going on, and it went to work to label it either danger or delight. What I then heard was that Phil was playing the melody, the absolute lead line of the song, without changing his instrument's posture as a humble contrapuntal contributor. He was alone out there, and the band was following his melody. I wondered how often I had heard a bass sing an aria like a soprano, and it's probably not often. Sure, in a solo. But this was the very structure of the song itself being led by the bass. It was as if he took the song's introspection and amplified it by moving it into an instrument that by nature is largely introspective.

Here's a clip from another Lesh and sons show:

So what did I get judgmental about? It didn't happen during Early Morning Rain. It was later, when guitarist Ross James started playing the hell out of his Telecaster. It took me a while to figure out what was wrong, or at least seemed wrong to my ego threat machine. It wasn't that he was overplaying or had picked the wrong genre to fit, or anything about his technique, which seemed flawless enough and inspired enough. It was the licks themselves, which sounded like straight country licks adjusted to allow a knowing wink that this was only barely updated stuff that every Nashville sideman has to learn. It was when I heard "barely updated" cross my mind that I could label what seemed to be in need of repair. He wasn't playing these licks to learn them and challenge them. He was playing them to show that he knew them. It was like he was mugging. That's OK at times, but not right then. The rest of the band seemed to be deep into the difficulty of exploration in the tightass speed and complex harmonic requirements of bluegrass. He seemed outside that context, as if he was playing to the audience -- the one that I was part of, and the one that was on stage with him -- while the others were playing for themselves and each other and the constant search for divine sound.

I don't want to be on Ross James' case. It's one sample. Maybe he was just in his cups last night, enjoying his extroversion. Maybe he was clowning around because it was the right time for him to clown around. That, too is a problem with the whole judgment apparatus. It sure likes to universalize and make things absolute and sealed shut. If I had been in a clowning mood, Ross James might have delighted my self-centered ego.

Here's a funny thing I noticed one day about Phil Lesh. In the Skull and Roses version of Bertha, through the whole song Phil is mostly playing the riff from the song Judy in Disguise. He shows how a simple riff can be worked and reworked and explored in the context of a single song, and still humbly support a band and create a feel. It's introspective work, even if the riff is danceably extro.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Three centers, one being

I've been wondering what it means to say that the three components of music -- rhythm, harmony, melody -- conform to the three centers of self -- body, heart, mind. Do we enter into a relationship with a piece of music that is an analogue to a relationship with another person?

Everyone gets it that tribal rhythms attach to sexuality, and move the body before they move the mind or heart. Exuberance -- the body's tension and release captured and known -- is the drill, and ecstasy the desire. The other night I saw a wonderfully exuberant Afrobeat band, Lagos Roots. Here's a video:

I'm clumsy these days, and while I like to move my body to the rhythms of live music -- always have -- I don't relate it to the dance of two people, the call and response of dancing with someone. In fact, when that is asked of me, I'm clumsier than usual. Confused. I was talking to a stranger at the Lagos Roots show at the New Parish and because we were naturally moving to the beat it suddenly became a dance. I was embarrassed and didn't know what to do when she became even more embarrassed. Now the physicality, the exuberance, was being transposed into a call and response, and it stopped being simple, selfless and contained. Drama appeared. How peculiar. But no question: there's a link between the body, musical rhythms, and the sexual component of relationships.

Melody for me is heard almost totally by the mind. I start with Paul McCartney and those big, leaping intervals that are sweet, friendly and stripped of ambivalence. These are unfiltered thoughts being transmitted directly from one mind to another. While Paul is pretty good at attaching labels to the thoughts -- Michelle is a person, Yesterday a time -- the melody exists as its own idea, created by a mind for other minds. There's something absolutely brilliant about a beautiful melody. When we sing along, it's out of memory and head and a kind of truth that the mind wishes it had all the time, undistorted and unified.

Whatever a melody is, it is unmistakable. In college I was a Charlie Chaplin fan, and owned several versions of the song Smile that he wrote for his movie Modern Times. I ran the school Film Society, and that meant I was the projectionist, so I got to preview the movie and show it twice and then show it to myself or friends again later. That melody became part of me for a while. Nat King Cole's version is the gold standard. Imagine my surprise a couple of years later in grad school in New York, going to the Met for Puccini and hearing the melody of Smile -- all of it except the last down note -- tucked into the middle of an opera. I'm pretty sure it was Madama Butterfly, but it could have been La Boheme. We remember melody well, because it can be more easily stored in mind than rhythm or harmony. It's from there, after all.

The melody is the bright parts of a relationship, or the low points. It carries the drama with it, and the stories and memories and ideas that accompany friendship or love.

Which leaves us with harmony, the heart. Oh dear. Here are textures of grief and joy, cold spells and the warmth of vulnerability and exposure. A few years ago I saw the quietest concert, an hour and a half of spellbinding harmony by Joao Gilberto. Here's another performance of his:

This, to me, is all heart. Something happens between the guitar and his voice that has little to do with musical notation and melody, that is beyond the chords. Maybe it's in the achievement of a blended bunch of sounds and projected feelings. It tells me that his heart is tender and unguarded, but reluctant to join the shiny, loud world.

Friday, October 12, 2012

For the beauty of the earth

The divine can express itself by implication. Not reacting, not being triggered into judgment: these are ways to be present, too. They're oddly noticed in retrospect; they don't shout out "presence" while they're happening. When listening to music, this is the feeling I get when everything is played seamlessly and at the same time with little need for emotion. The notes themselves are enough, like when the sun on my face and sand in my toes are good enough, or a ham on rye, or walking past my neighbors' houses.

Andras Schiff has the attitude to find the divine in the everyday and ordinary. As a conductor he is courtly and pulls seamlessness out of the orchestra. As a pianist he is inside the geometry and plain sense of Bach. I didn't lose myself in emotion last night at the San Francisco Symphony. I lost myself in an appreciation of the orderliness of life.

Sometimes I think that since Blood on the Tracks, Dylan's love songs have been dissecting a single past love over and over, more delicately and narrowly as he descends deeper into it. Bach is like that for me. It's as if he found a single leaf, and started looking at the perfect geometry in its structure and near-infinite variability in that geometry as it fractaled under a microscope, and he transcribed the ways of the leaf in one composition after another.

Here's part of one of the pieces Schiff played last night, in a recording with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra:

Music is my primary companion now. I'm uneasy about that, but getting used to it. Orchestral music allows me to feel the humanity of dozens of players finding agreement on what is true, what is now, what is present. Sitting in the cheap seats overlooking the orchestra from behind, I have a beautiful window into the players' intense work. The Rolling Stones wrote a simple tune of gratitude called We Love You. I feel that love from the orchestra. I saw Furthur play it once; here's a recording of another time they played it:

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Do it again

When a soloist steps forward, the threat machine in my head starts up. I may have a sense of anticipatory thrill, but it shares space in my body with my ever-present platform of dread. More than anything, I dread the repeater -- the solo that settles into what isn't a groove or an exploration, but a repetition of the one thing the soloist is thinking about. Three out of four blues solos get stuck in a repetition. It has something to do with the acceptance of showboating in the blues; when you're playing for the audience, I think, your mind is at work, not your soul.

There is a place for repetition. Jobim's one-note samba, Neil Young's one-note guitar wails, rising choruses in songs like Steven Stills' Love the One You're With. But mostly, repetition indicates a failure of imagination, which means a failure to let go and let something or someone else take charge of the instrument. Whether the performer calls it a muse, or God, or a fugue state, or inspiration, it's a release of thought and it's an ability to perform without effort.

Last night the aged bebop pianist Barry Harris told how his friend and roommate Thelonious Monk taught him his tune My Ideal by playing it all the way through, then having Harris play it all the way through, then Monk, then Harris. "I wish I had recorded it," Harris told the Herbst Theater audience. "We must have played it fifty times." He paused, in the presence of the divine. "It's too bad there's no recording of that day."

What to say about Monk? By stripping chords to their smallest necessary elements and then collapsing those elements into narrow intervals, Monk found a way to trap the silence of God within the gratitude of music. And once he had done that, it became playtime for him. He was a highly repetitive pianist, making tiny subtle changes, and sometimes big abrupt ones, while over and over finding the core, the place where nothingness could emerge, again and again. That's an important kind of repetition, one that rarely involves an audience.

Last night the young Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez showed the same kind of appreciation of silence and repetition. He had been asked to intentionally honor Monk in a three-generation piano show that SFJazz put on for its annual celebration of Monk's birthday. (Jacky Terrasson was the middle generation.) For his centerpiece improvisation, Rodriguez played a simple, tight and dissonant, figure in the middle of the keyboard, hinted at a stride bassline like Monk would, and then explored the central figure over and over. It was intense, sweet, and strong and sent shivers through me. Here's Rodriguez playing a Monk-inspired tune of his own called Cu-bop. It doesn't have the simple repetitive strain, but it's a powerful evocation of Monk:

When I was 15 I saw Monk. He was the warm-up act for Blood, Sweat and Tears at the old D.C. Coliseum, pretty much an airplane hangar. It's hard to know what I actually remember of Monk. I was there for BS&T; I played in a BS&T cover band at school, and presumably I carried a sense of privilege and tribute more than a desire to open my ears to something new. But I have an inkling, a tiny sense of memory, that Monk seemed a marvel, and that his pling-pling attack -- unlike anyone else's (except Chico Marx) in its childlike acceptance of the brightness of hammer on string -- got into me.

In 1978 living in New York City for the first time, I sat on my bed thumbing through the giant telephone book, and something stopped me on a page. I looked, and then I looked twice. There, listed in the phone book, was Thelonious Sphere Monk. He had two telephone numbers and a Harlem address. I guess he was actually living in Jersey at the time, but still, it was so cool to think that Monk had a listed number and that I could just pick up the phone and talk to him.

Here's a video of Monk with Dizzy the same year I saw him at the Coliseum:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Because the world is round

I'm not sure why my ear is particularly out of tune with the combination of contemporary classical and electronics. I once sat right behind Milton Babbitt in a recital hall, and shook his hand when a mutual friend introduced us, and I had to lie through my teeth saying I enjoyed his piece.

I've always admired how tastefully the Beatles used a synthesizer on Abbey Road. The Beatles knew as much about sound as a thing as anyone ever has. When they got famous, they used their money and access well. Paul became close friends with John Cage. George started circling the globe with Philip Glass, looking for music on other continents. Yoko had been Cage's assistant. These were people interested in the truth of sound and music.When you hear a Moog synthesizer on Because and elsewhere on Abbey Road, it blends with the familiar instruments that we think of as more human somehow, or is played intentionally to stay close to what is known to charm and move us. I can't think of anything that makes traditional instruments intrinsically more natural. But we think of them that way, probably because we're so familiar with them.

Maybe it's because electronic music comes without built-in structures and history that it seems to encourage experimentation at the fringe of comfort. I'm not talking about dance music -- electronica and its descendants -- which retain a highly familiar structure. What did Ezra Pound say? "Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music." For a modernist, Pound was not just inconsistent, but awfully conservative.

Along comes Edmund Campion, who professes to build hybrid compositions -- electronics mixed with familiar instruments -- that find a way to blend the two. By being frugal with the electronics, the Beatles succeeded in doing that. I'm not sure Campion does.  While the Kronos Quartet and Santa Rosa Symphony sounded heartfelt, energetic and kept my interest, the more electronics in the piece Sunday night in Sonoma, the less my ears heard. I think that's my fault, though. I do like much of Campion's work. But I think I don't know how to listen to modern electronics well. Ambient music, sure. Electronica, sure. But without that rooting in 4/4 dance and a pentatonic scale, I find the electronics start going random.

Here's a selection from another piece by Campion; the one performed Sunday, The Last Internal Combustion Engine, isn't online:

Here's the Beatles using a Moog synthesizer:

And here's a lovely live version of Because I heard once:

Some of the most moving music has come to me through choirs. There's something about the human voice -- its resonance with my own body, I think is a lot of the movement -- that can bring rapture faster than other instruments, even the most traditional ones.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Oldest/youngest in the audience

My younger daughter, Marina, complained a few years ago about how hard it was to keep up with all the music. All the hip music, I think she meant. As far as I can tell, she's pretty good at it. Just about every new band I get excited about, and mention to her, she's already bored with.

It's hard not to be nostalgic about the late '60s and early '70s, when rock and roll was expanding at the speed of sound. One other thing to be nostalgic about was that just about everything worthwhile could be discovered in one chronicle: Rolling Stone. It wasn't just an arbiter of taste. It was the source for everything new. A handful of labels controlled the rock and roll market. Every rock critic tried to listen to everything new coming out, and to an extent unfathomable today, they could. I would read Rolling Stone cover to cover, supplement it with Crawdaddy, and I knew as much as anyone about what was happening. And everything was happening. Another thing hard to believe: We all listened to the same music. My friends listened to the Dead, the Beatles, Hendrix, Who, everyone who played at Woodstock, everyone who played at Monterey, the Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Dylan, Emmylou, Earl and Doc, Little Feat, Zappa ... Get it? This was the music on every progressive radio station in America. Sound hadn't splintered into personal taste; it was all explosively new and still expanding, and shared by everyone.

Now you're into electronica, or dub, or rap, or American Idol belting, or whatever, and even if there's some crossover, it's clear from the dress and behavior of an audience that each of the styles has its own full-fledged identity. Hippies were their own tribe, to a certain extent. Now there are many, smaller, quicker-changing tribes.

But it's all music. It's not necessarily all good music, but in each genre and subgenre there's stuff worth hearing. So far I've found that.

As Marina says, "The more music you hear, the more you hear music."

One evening she and I were in Yoshi's on Fillmore seeing Madeleine Peyroux, the jazz singer.

We had seen Peyroux a few months earlier, and after the first set I had an idea. We left Yoshi's, walked three blocks and bought tickets to see Yo La Tengo at the Fillmore. We made it into the hallowed hall five minutes before the band took the stage. She had been the youngest person at the Peyroux concert. I was the oldest at the Yo La Tengo concert. The last time I had seen Yo La Tengo I was in my 30s, when the guitarist Ira Kaplan was the sound guy at Maxwell's in Hoboken, and his wife Georgia Hubler hadn't yet learned to play the drums well. Now she's one of the best.

On the Madeleine Peyroux clip, the second song she sings is from Randy Newman in 1966. Marina learned it from a Dusty Springfield album. Here's Marina's version: Marina sings I Think It's Gonna Rain Today

Monday, October 8, 2012

I was so much older then ...

When I was 16, bluegrass was storming through D.C. If you were a hippie, it was the local music. Zeitgeist. Like being a punk in New York in the late '70s, or a folkie in Boston in the mid-'60s. You didn't really have a choice if you wanted to be hip to what was going on. This was 1972, and right on the heels of the most explosively inventive period for one popular genre -- rock and roll -- bluegrass was opening up to its own new worlds of sound.

As I remember it, a single pivot encouraged, validated and through the force of his impeccable cred allowed the full breadth of this merging of rock, jazz, folk and blues into bluegrass. Earl Scruggs. The crucible of the civil rights movement brought Scruggs in close touch with people like Dylan, the Byrds and Mahalia Jackson. It opened his ears, too. Scruggs got a lot of flack as the first outspoken champion of civil rights in a bluegrass world deeply embedded in redneck tradition. It stands to reason that the mutual respect that arises under that kind of pressure would spread from politics and morals to the music itself, and that a spirit of inclusion would, too.

By 1972, bluegrass festivals were wild and rangy things, with Sam Bush and the New Grass Revival going atonal, David Grisman and John Herald going Eastern European, John Hartford going nutty, and Earl Scruggs and the Dillards going fully electric. I remember the afternoon when Doc Watson persuaded a shy Vassar Clements to duet with him on hardcore mountain blues songs. Vassar shook his head no for a good two minutes of cajoling before Doc got his way. As he crossed the stage to join Doc, Vassar bent down and whispered something to him. Doc burst out laughing, and related to the audience: "Vassar says he's never played pure blues before." When it was over, you'd have thought Vassar was a sideman for Muddy Waters.

The Scruggs version of You Ain't Goin' Nowhere was our anthem. Here's a video that includes Scruggs playing it with the Byrds, from whom he learned it. This was the version of the Byrds that included Clarence White, who had established his virtuosic legend first as a guitarist with the bluegrass Kentucky Colonels:

It was weird when I returned to bluegrass ten years later to learn that the young upstart Ricky Skaggs and other traditionalists had virtually done away with the blending of genres and forms. Thirty years younger than Scruggs, twenty years younger than Dylan, Skaggs should have known better. But he got his way. Bluegrass festivals in the '80s were whitewashed of Dylan and blues, and barely supported the visions of Grisman and Bush and Hartford. Under the Skaggs rule there was a trust in pure virtuosity -- perfect harmonies and speedy instrumental work -- which in any music limits the range of expression. Some things of beauty have everything to do with what is not played. Monk and Miles Davis and the Band were particularly fine at expressing silence and depth without showing off their chops.

I missed the free-for-all of early '70s bluegrass. In high school, we spent Friday nights at the Childe Harold club in D.C. with the raveup blues of Liz Meyer. That was bluegrass. And returning the next night, Saturdays were when Emmylou Harris stilled us with dreary, soulful Hank Williams songs, one after another after another. That was bluegrass, too.

Warren Hellman's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival has always had that '70s feel. When Patti Smith and Dry Branch Fire Squad can share the same festival, magic can happen. For the traditionalists, here's some Dry Branch:

A couple of years ago, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs were onstage at Hardly Strictly with Ricky Skaggs. Earl's son Gary emceed. He said something like this: "I want to introduce my father Earl, who's 85, and Doc Watson, who's 86, and Ricky Skaggs, the oldest one of the bunch."

Saturday, October 6, 2012

That's what makes us strong

In the Republic, Socrates reasons that popular culture is subversive to the state's interests and might be banned except when designed to marshal patriotism. Taken literally, that's a pretty awful statement. Letting go of something as personal as musical taste is puzzling to the fashionable projections of freedom.

Now take the Republic as a spiritual work, in which the state is a metaphor for the soul. What if Socrates is arguing that the popular, ordinary songs are stuck in the shadows of human emotion, and that it's worthwhile to reject them in favor of songs that encourage the soul to reach a place of light?

So much of popular song roots into "woe is me" and "somebody done me wrong" and "I wish things were different." Most lyrics in most songs are doggerel that validate everyday emotional experiences. But the spiritual masters -- Socrates, Buddha, Jesus -- seem to agree that everyday emotional experiences are illusion, and that the trick is to work through their distortions to find the truth underneath, or beside, or above.

I'm not convinced that it's time to throw out most of the songbook, but I am pleased that increasingly there are songwriters who convey a spiritual path in the midst of popular music. Yesterday, two of them hit home live. At Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band opened with We Are Nowhere and It's Now from his most overtly spiritual album, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning.

Then later in the evening, Jesse Winchester was supposed to play at Great American Music Hall, but was sick. So instead Guy Clark sang a couple of his songs and then Elvis Costello, with Buddy Miller and a beautifully restrained and resonant Jerry Douglas, moved the audience through four more. Here's Winchester himself in a song that is its own dialogue on the point that Socrates was making:

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Slow-cooked soul food

If time is a human invention, which I think (and feel) is true, then why does slower or faster matter in terms of feeling the divine? Sure, some musicians like Coltrane felt faster and faster might get them there. But sacred music tends to be slower and simpler. Think hymns.

Witnessing Bartok's 3rd Piano Concerto today, I fell into an expansive series of moments at the outset of the second movement, which is not-coincidentally tempo-marked adagio religioso. In the clip below it starts around the eighth minute. The part I'm talking about starts there and lasts two minutes or so. It seemed like much more during the concert.

No matter where you are in music, if you're truly in it, as a player or listener, you are nowhere other than that moment. In hymns like this, the moment is allowed to persist long enough to be explored. And there's no concern about the dissonance or consonance of the next moment. That's the oddest part. Yes, slow movements have melodies that are built like song melodies. But at times, like in the Bartok selection, I have the experience of total surprise with each change. I've settled in, explored, maybe discovered something, maybe joined with something, and then it changes and the feeling starts all over again, only different.

Slow can approximate timelessness, I guess, in a way that fast doesn't. I can be transported by fast, and I can be swallowed by it, and I can feel joy and divinity. With slow, in addition I have no purpose or direction.

The performance was by the San Francisco Symphony under guest director Vasily Petrenko. The first piece, also deeply spiritual, didn't work so well, and I think that's because Petrenko is too human and driven to grok Arvo Part. He conducted Fratres, a famously simple composition, with a lot of fierce emotion, as if its subtle tensions were a personal manifesto. I just don't think that's what's going on in the piece. It's about an orchestra holding moments and moods, and that was what I didn't hear. I heard it in the Bartok in spades, so much so that the virtuosity of the fast, technically demanding last movement was completely lost on me. I was still stuck in the slow moments of the second movement.

Boy I love live music. The second half of the show was Respighi's Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. Not the deepest stuff, but exuberant and beautifully delivered by Petrenko and the symphony. Petrenko's a young guy, and that means he can be in full command of breathless, fast, brassy, complex charts. All he has to do is project himself! And then, in the midst of this Disney stuff, principal clarinet Carey Bell delivered repeated egoless, sensitive, textured and exquisite solos, one after another. It was like I had never heard a clarinet before.

I can't find any video of Carey Bell, so here's a nice recording of Fratres:

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Getting on

I was a freshman in college in Santa Fe in 1972. On a lark we rumbled up to Albuquerque to catch Sha Na Na. An astonishing opening act called Steely Dan limped off the stage, scorned alike by the greasers and ironic hippies. My new college friend Anji grabbed my hand and pulled me under the stage risers. In a minute we were backstage in a circle sharing a bottle of -- catch this -- Jose Cuervo with the glum Fagen and Becker Skunk Baxter, I think, too. Pretty cool. Until I spoke up and said to Fagen, "Man, you guys are great. You must listen to Traffic." He looked at me like I had just vomited on his foot, or like I was a Sha Na Na fan. We gathered it had been a pretty dispiriting tour. "Traffic?" he sneered. "You kidding? We listen to Sonny Rollins."

I bought Saxophone Colossus. Oh my.

By 1978, Sonny Rollins was my favorite jazz guy. I was then a grad student living in New York City. One night I went to the Beacon Theater to see something called the Milestone Jazzstars, one of those odd things record labels used to do -- putting together a group of their signed musicians who normally didn't play together. It was Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter and Al Foster. Oh my. At the close of In A Sentimental Mood, I felt something wet on my face. I was coated in tears that I hadn't even known I was shedding.

There's a recording of the same program I saw, taped I think at the last concert on the tour, that goes in and out of print. Here's a link: Milestone Jazzstars. It's a masterpiece.

So now it's forty years since Donald Fagen turned Sonny Rollins on to me, and thirty-four since I first saw him live. At 82, he still produces some of the deepest explorations of the soul. I've read that he calls it a search for perfection that never gets there, like a frustrating itch, except one that lasts a lifetime.

Three of the more revelatory concerts I've experienced in the last few years were by octogenarians: Sonny Rollins (I try to see him whenever he's in town, like tonight; it's always worth it), Ornette Coleman (likewise), and Ravi Shankar (likewise). Four if you include Joao Gilberto, who is now 81, but was in his late 70s when I saw him. Quietest concert ever. His voice was a whisper, his guitar a breath. A very ornate breath. They all had the air that performing is something spiritual, and fun, and not a pursuit of more glory. They have plenty of that. Shankar was 89. I swear that his hands and mind moved at the peak of his powers. Usually there's something different, slightly diminished as musicians near the end. By the first time I saw Dizzy he was in his 60s and his timbre was less bright. (Ha! About as important as a few specks of dust on a Leonardo.) But I have no doubt that had I seen Shankar in his 40s, it would have been no more or less spectacular than what I heard from him at 89.

Dizzying brew

I wonder whether we would have had Miles Davis' genius if it weren't for Dizzy Gillespie? I don't mean in terms of influence. Exactly the opposite. Sometimes I imagine that it was Dizzy's extraordinary chops -- speed, intonation, sense of time, exuberance -- that forced Miles down a different path. Why compete with the virtuoso on his own terms?

Randy Brecker got me started on this with his Brecker Brothers Reunion Band on Friday night. The marks of Dizzy were all over him, from the exuberant joy that spilled out of brassy runs to the self-mocking elegance of his comments between songs. I had seen Brecker last year as a sideman for the great pianist Kenny Werner, and was beyond disappointed by him. He just didn't seem to be there. Always give a master musician a second chance!

Great band, especially ex-Miles Davis sideman Mike Stern on guitar, and control king Dave Weckl on drums. Stern plays with John McLaughlin's speed, but sentimentally. Weckl seems to channel tiny amounts of energy into huge, crashing elaborations, like it just takes concentration and not muscle. And because Sonny Rollins was in town, Brecker got his conga player Sammy Figueroa on stage, which gave the band a Dizzy-like Afro-Cuban edge.

Enough of the review. Great band, beautiful funk-drenched jazz, everyone cooking and the hall filling with joy.

I hope that with its new building, SFJazz won't have much need for Herbst Theatre anymore. It and 142 Throckmorton are the Bay Area's two high-school-gym echo chambers that masquerade as music venues.

The next night, a band that couldn't have been more similar and more different came on stage. This was a reunion band of Miles Davis sidemen from the '80s and '90s, called Miles Smiles. Same lineup -- trumpet, sax, keyboard, guitar, bass, drums -- and same era and genre -- fast, funk-based fusion.

And there the similarities ended. Where the Brecker band's sound is built on soloists, Miles Smiles is built on the mysteries of collective improvisation. Isn't that what's different about what Miles brought to music? That he discovered a path to the transcendent that was based on the musicians having just enough structure, and not so much that it would close the door on finding their way, together, to truth. Miles' music is head music, as if it was cerebral, but it moves right past thought and emotion, leaving them behind to find something more primal. Truth is complex and paradoxical. This kind of band is willing to look at everything that's there at once. Wallace Roney can be glissing along as if his truth on the trumpet is slick with honey, and at the same time, deeply appreciating what Roney is seeing, there's Ford comping with a squawk or some other rude utterance, while Omar Hakim joyfully fills the room with Usain Bolt's heartbeat, all of it at once and all of it part of something big.

Robben Ford isn't a McLaughlin type, and his blues-based soloing took getting used to. Where did it fit into the dissonant mystery that was being explored? It made me wonder whether Davis brought McLaughlin in as a memory of the fast trumpet voice of Dizzy. Mike Stern blended his guitar the night before with Randy Brecker's trumpet as if they both were playing the same lines on the same instrument at different times.

Joey DeFrancesco on B-3 with Miles Smiles was a trip. He's such a purist, so used to bifurcating his mind so that his left hand plays the bassline that, in a band with a bass player, he let his left hand go limp and produced his lush, complex, rising-gospel breakouts with just his right hand.

Two nights, two magnificent post-Tony Williams drummers. Why is rock and roll filled with such lame drumming? It wasn't always the case. Ringo, Charlie Watts, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon ... and then? Most of them seem to learn only so much, and then stop and play that little bit over and over and over. Why? More can be learned, and mixing up time and rhythm is part of the reality we live in, so why do we let in drummers who have stopped exploring and drag down most of the bands worth listening to?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Nearly Dead

It's Wednesday, so I'll probably head to Ashkenaz in Berkeley for Stu Allen and Mars Hotel. They retread old Grateful Dead shows. Most cover bands are about verisimilitude; the closer to the original notes, the better received. Grateful Dead cover bands are about the spirit and dancing related to a band that encouraged sweet, open expression -- even giddiness -- as worthy of release. A Dead cover band just has to be good enough, and swing enough, to take the audience through the emotional and hormonal changes that the original band inflected. And people have to go, "Wow. He really gets Jerry."

Maybe the wit in Jerry Garcia's playing lay in his conflict aversion. Where another good guitarist would play his way into the inevitable, Jerry seemed to sidestep the expected. He and Bach had a lot in common. They both loved the geometry of music -- Jerry's arpeggios and chromatics in general -- and Bach like Jerry relished avoiding resolution. Much of the beauty of the Brandenburg Concertos is his refusal to express the next obvious chord, instead diverting us over and over again. Isn't that what Jerry did, too?

Lots of rock and roll bands are popular because they help us release id movements that are fierce and urgent. Fascist-rock bands like U2 and AC/DC, or the Killers or Ramones, get that release through metronomic hopping and robotic fist-pumping and an orgiastic collective blast of testosterone or some other raw, sexual energy. It's got its place, although there's a Triumph of the Will chill to it, too. With the Dead and its cover progeny, it's more like I'm humming along with my id, amused to have it, happy to let it dance its way into the universe. I'm not necessarily mad at anything, although that's OK too as part of the bigger picture, and the world feels pretty seamless during a Dead break.

What did one Deadhead say to the other when they ran out of weed? "What's this shit we've been listening to?"

I'm sure Stu Allen is quite talented. But it's difficult for me to think about a musician who has narrowed his public persona to a single influence. I remember being hopping mad when Tom Petty showed up. He's just doing Roger McGuinn! Then I bought a Roger McGuinn album that had him singing a Tom Petty song, and I threw my hands up. What did I know?

One night a David Bowie cover band's entourage was a table over from me, and I noticed that the wives had the same behaviors and airs of a real band's wives. I mentioned it to a friend, and she coined the term "Cover Wives."

The least creepy cover band I've seen is The Minks. It's a Bay Area all-girl Kinks cover band. They stick to the early rave-up material, and funnel it through a New Wave sensibility. They remind us that the Beatles and Kinks, in their first orientation, were a hairsbreadth removed from punk. The Minks don't perform very often, but they have their own energy, their own aesthetic, and they feel original.


I have a rule: There's always something worthwhile happening on stage. If I'm stuck seeing the meretricious Eagles, I can find joy in Joe Walsh's self-deconstruction. Even Michael McDonald on solo piano got me going with his upper range. (Those were both corporate events that I felt compelled to attend.) There's always something worth listening to on stage. There is nothing logical or right about the expression "the exception that proves the rule," but if there were, it would be Esperanza Spalding.

No question she is a brilliantly trained musician, and her voice can do lots of things. She can hire great backing musicians, and she has ambitious tastes. She is charming, too. And yet it was peculiarly difficult to find a heart to her show the other night. I think part of it is the Berklee background; what once was a secret school for eccentrics who wanted to live in jazz instead of rock now is a factory that produces technically brilliant, commercially available studio musicians. She puts on a formulaic show that leaves little opening for mistake, which also means little opening for risk, which also means little opening for the serendipity, the stream of consciousness, the leap of faith that can reach the divine.

The other problem with jazz like hers -- the updated Maynard Ferguson school -- is that funk drumming restricts emotional expression. It has its place, but when a band is rooted in funk it is not rooted in demanding improvisation. And what's jazz without demanding improvisation? Not pyrotechnically demanding, but emotionally demanding. Touching souls. The problem with the rock or funk beat is that it is relentless and quite orderly, and the emotions of the heart are not so much. One of the virtues of the swing beat is its ability to teach musicians how to stretch time. That isn't a dotted eighth and sixteenth note. It's two eighth notes, only one is a little longer and the other a little shorter. How much stretch is up to the band, and can vary within a single song. For Brazilian musicians, the samba works much the same way. Once musicians get used to that flexibility, they learn to stretch not just notes in the meter, but the very meter itself. Syncopation and hesitation work hand in hand. And what is hesitation but doubt -- doubt about what has just been said, about what comes next, about whether to linger or go on? The rock beat doesn't doubt. It drives.

Yes, she can sing like Flora Purim. Technically. But when Flora Purim sings to me and stretches time and hesitates and doubts, universes open.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Let there be songs to fill the air

Good live music requires musicians open to risk. Great live music requires musicians steeped in accepting what comes next. Transcendent live music requires musicians who can become vessels of God. Every year or two, the transcendent shows up in my life. Recently it was a cover of Ripple by a band called the American Beauty Project, a group of musicians determined to remind people about the folk-inspired joys that ring through the Dead albums American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. Robert Hunter wrote lyrical, thoughtful words to many of those songs, and the words to Ripple are as poetic and beautiful as any American song -- in the stratosphere with Dylan and Chuck Berry. Jerry's voice is fine on the album, but hearing Ripple anew through the blessed voice of Fiona McBride brought me into the land of God. I found a nearly full recording from the show I heard it at. This is the transcendent:
The chorus is a haiku, I think. And that's David Mansfield on mandolin in the foreground. I had last seen him 35 years earlier, when T-Bone Burnett was guiding the Alpha Band through rehearsals in a Tesuque, NM bar before going into the studio in LA to record their great first album. You don't remember the Alpha Band? They were a footnote to the Rolling Thunder Revue who deserved to be noticed more than they were. My summer friends Andy and Oriana and Catherine and I  -- some of us worked at the Bull Ring restaurant in Santa Fe -- caught the show night after night, calling out "You're so good, bass player" regularly once we found out that David Jackson was a hired hand and not a full band member. Embarrassed, he asked us to tone it down, which we agreed to do as long as he drank with us nightly. Dylan, of course, was supposed to show up but didn't. Fiona McBride normally sings with Ollabelle, who make up much of the American Beauty Project.

What would Husker Du?

Nostalgia's hard to figure. No matter the timeless beauty of Days, when Ray Davies leans into the microphone to sing it, I'm Marcel Proust flashing back to college, my now dead friends William and Aleta in the car laughing and singing, loving the sincerity in the midst of irony. It's creepy, too. The past creates such static, especially when it's idealized. Being transported back to an illusion of an illusion. Yikes.

The Fillmore has a habit of producing this nostalgia/artistry tension for me. Ray Davies slipped into the nostalgia side, I think because he is intentionally nostalgic, and idealizes past rapture, and so believes that it's OK to appear in his own context. His discomfort with his own living in the past adds emotion to his show. At least he doesn't go so far as Jonathan Richman, who won't let on which side of the joke he's telling -- the gloppy sincere one or the cruel ironic one.

Heading the other night to see Bob Mould, I was thinking about two prior concerts, one from 25 years ago, the other last year. When I saw Husker Du at what turned out to be a famous concert at Irving Plaza or the Ritz, they were on the verge of breaking up. I didn't know that. But I did know that I had seen the second coming of Lennon and McCartney. I could not figure out how Bob Mould could keep so many lines going at once on a single guitar, and for that matter I couldn't figure out how he was making any music with such motionless, clumsy looking fingers. That show shot to second place on my all-time concert list, which had been held for 15 years by the Jefferson Airplane the night that Jorma handed me a joint and Gracie stared at me through the entire concert. I was 16 and very impressionable.

The other show I was thinking about on the way to the Fillmore was last year's Dinosaur Jr. show there. I had braced for the possibility of post-punk nostalgia, and was amazed at the currency of D. Macsis' raging, impossibly loud and intricate guitar work. Now he had set the standard. Those two, Macsis and Mould, broke through the ban on musicality in punk, and set the stage for the watered-down grunge bands. Thrash, and specifically Dinosaur and Husker Du, reopened music from its most treacherous drift into fashion.
What I got with Bob Mould was a different kind of nostalgia. As the concert progressed, I hoped for the sublimity that I remembered from 25 years ago, and when that came in the last half, I felt both rewarded and confused by my own demands of an artist who clearly wants to change on his own terms, not mine. It was funny that he was featuring, in the first half, an early Sugar album that toned down his guitar work, while the brand-new album he featured in the second half met the rave-up thrash expectations of a diehard Husker Du fan like me.

Stacey Belson anyone?

Twice in the last month I was blown away by a singer because the singer never let go of a single note. The big surprise was Bob Weir, usually a big offender in the game of fade-away notes, huff-huffing to hit his target only to let the note die as he gears up for the next one. Oh, it's not so bad, I guess. Sure beats belting. But in comparison, when Weir was sitting in with Hot Tuna at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley, his cover of When I Paint My Masterpiece elaborated an intensity that drove my heart into my throat. Why? Because he held every note, hard and vibrating, until the precise instant that the next note appeared.

A few weeks later, again in Mill Valley but this time 142 Throckmorton, something similar happened. After a lot of rollicking soul-blues from the Blues Broads, it was Tracy Nelson's turn to solo. The hall shifted into another gear, leaning forward and gasping. Why? Because she didn't let go of a single note before its time.

The jazz singers know about this. Why do we expect less from rock and rollers?