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:

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