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?