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.