Monday, January 15, 2018

For M.L.K. (and for all of us)

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. day.  I’m not sure how I feel about the implication one might infer from the idea that there is a particular day that might suffice for the purpose of reminding us of…

What? What does this day offer us?  

I can’t answer that for you.  But I feel as though it might be a good time for me to remind myself of some things.  Perhaps writing them down is a good way of clarifying.  And as I’m writing this, I’m not sure I’m really going to post this.  It feels like a risk.  Is it self indulgent?  Perhaps I’ll be misunderstood.  Maybe that’s ultimately harmful.  Or maybe it’s more harmful not to.  Putting this on line risks losing context.  Next to any other thing you just saw before finding this, and the next unrelated thing you’ll see after leaving, what is it?  More words.  Sometimes silence is louder.  And certainly actions are the real deal.  But in the end, something feels as if it’s rising up in me and needs to be said.  If for no other reason than for my own benefit in living in this world.  A world that I’m not sure I really understand.  But here we are.

I do feel some innate intuition about a few things.  Music taps into something that feels deeper than my limited sense of self.  I play music, and I like to talk about the process, and to teach.  But do I really understand music?  Is there truly any way to understand music (or anything else) at a remove, at an analytical distance?  At a certain point you simply have to give up, and listen.  Deeply.  So deeply as to lose yourself.  Interesting, that in investing ourselves fully, we can lose ourselves fully.  How does that work?  I can’t really say, except that a sense of separateness in the first place may not be a complete picture.  I think we actually know this as being fairly obvious but it’s so easy to carve the world up into pieces that we lose sight of or take for granted our connectedness.  And so how wonderful is it that we have music to remind us of what’s true?  It doesn’t just remind us.  When musicians fully invest themselves, and fully lose themselves, it is true.  And of course music is just one thing, one form.  Of liberation.

Maybe that sounds great to you.  Positive, inspirational, aspirational.  But it’s words.  So if it resonates, it must be resonating as something in you already.  And that’s great.  But I can’t say that I’m quite satisfied with it.  There’s something missing.  Something I’m not seeing.  I’m not sure what it is, I just feel it.  Maybe it’s too lofty.  Not untrue, but if it’s that easy, why so many problems down here on the ground?  I suppose it’s good to move towards the positive and away from the negative.  But just as positive words might resonate, so do negative ones.  And so really, how can I possibly move towards or away from something that is already “in me”?  And this is the tricky part, because in saying “in me” I’m talking about the innate truth that we all sense, that we are in fact not separate from each other.  And yet we separate in ways every day.  That’s why this discussion is potentially painful.  The pain is the separation, the separation is the pain.  So this is where the discussion becomes real.  Maybe you don’t feel it.  Maybe you’re already comfortable.  Maybe you already understand.  Sometimes I feel that way.  I want resolution.  I want peace.  I don’t want to be uncomfortable.  I don’t want to experience pain.  And yet I’m often uncomfortable, I often feel pain that I can’t identify.

And then there is this reminder, from Martin Luther King, Jr. written from a jail cell in 1963:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

As I get older and this discomfort and pain remains, less responsive to distraction, I am forced to realize some truths.  And even though there are certainly political ramifications I really see this as a central moral and ethical issue in American life, for everyone.  There’s no way to avoid being conditioned by our shared history, no matter what we think of it, even if we think we see through it.  But rather than take the lofty approach, I’m going to walk towards the unresolved, the potentially painful.  And I’ll use the only tools I have, which are based in my own experience.  Yes, I am a musician, but specifically one who plays a form of African American music that is seemingly based outside of my experience as a white person.  I grew up in Baltimore and had many opportunities to learn directly from some master musicians.  Micky Fields, Gary Bartz, just to name two.  And to play for audiences who often came together, black and white.  And in some situations in which I was the only white person in the club.  I miss those days.  So it’s certainly a central issue in my life as a musician, even if I’m not always forced to look at it deeply enough.

But I feel as if I was afforded an opportunity to see life from a perspective that I would not have had if not for music.  That was amazingly positive, that music could be a form of medicine, addressing the conditions I saw, the pain I saw around me.  But what might I have missed?  It’s difficult to say.  You don’t see what you don’t see.  So I have to look at my perspective and how it was formed.  Over time, as a musician, I began to see myself as separate from the larger society.  I thought I saw through the superficial romanticized version of the bohemian ideal, and that I was somehow living a “real” version. I thought I saw into certain truths about hypocrisy, greed, materialism and injustice.  That because I saw it, I was somehow apart from it.  But to think that I am apart from any of those things is an illusion.  And it’s an illusion that is compounded by being unwilling to deeply look at what it is to be white.  Ultimately I can say that “white” or “race” is also an illusion.  But for that to be true, I need to deeply understand.  And I do not, because I have not yet seen all of the ways in which I am connected.  I might say that race is an illusion but if I’m not willing to see my role in maintaining this illusion then I’m trapped.  And more importantly I’m causing harm in ways that I don’t see.  Other people see it though.  You can rest assured of that.  So what to do?  How to move?  Is this a trap?  A neurosis?  What keeps this from ultimately being an exercise in narcissism?  Let me throw a few things out there…

1. It’s not about me.  It doesn’t exclude me, but it’s not about me.
2. Nobody signed up for this, none of us choose this situation for ourselves.
3. I can recognize how race functions as a social construct in the United States and yet in a very positive sense I can take responsibility to do the work of addressing it without the need for guilt, shame, anger or defensiveness.  It requires sincerity and humility.  A sense that the situation is in fact intolerable.  And yet there is no need for or benefit from self righteousness and anger on my part.   Just compassion.  Love for others, love for self.
4. It’s not easy.  There is fear.  And yet we are each perfectly able to meet the situation as it affects us and others around us.
5. We will fail.  And try again.  Over and over.  If I can learn, there is freedom in this.

So I apologize.  To everyone.  And vow to operate less selfishly.  It feels transgressive to write that, because I know that there is so much that I continue not to see.  It’s hypocritical.  Preaching ethics and morality can be dangerous.  Just words.  I might just say that I’m completely bullshit.  Which is certainly true if it were just about me.  So I’ll remind myself again, this day and every day.  It’s not about me.

I still don’t fully understand the reasons my life has lead me to this music.  It simply feels like a larger truth, unseen but felt.  I make no claims.  It’s too humbling.  And the truth is annihilating.  Because it destroys the limited perspective that I use to live by.   And liberating, if I can truly embrace it.

Enough with the words…

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Chess and Music, Meeting Levon Aronian

Back in July of 2016 fellow saxophonist Ned Rothenburg set up an informal get together at his apartment one evening for a number of his chess playing musician friends.  Ned had become friends with the Armenian chess master Levon Aronian, who was in town and on his way to a tournament. Levon is a big music fan and especially loves jazz so Ned thought it would be fun to have a chess party, with Levon taking on a bunch of musician chess enthusiasts.  It was a small affair, about a half dozen of us, and needless to say, an immense opportunity to meet and play with a legendary chess champion, the fourth highest rated player in history.  

Of course this was going to be a complete blowout for us.  So in order to make it more sporting for Levon, he played three of us at a time.  Simultaneously.  While not looking at any of the boards.  And having what sounded like a delightful conversation on many other topics with other invited guests in the room.  And drinking a cognac.  We would call out, “Board one, E4!”  and he would give his reply, using the letter and numeral coordinates involved for us to move the pieces.  While one board is awaiting a reply another board might also call out a move.  Levon might make a couple of moves in one game before getting back to another.  So it was seemingly all out of order, and yet he kept track of all of this without even breaking a sweat or stumbling in his conversations.  

And while it may seem silly to talk about sweating during a chess game, I can tell you from experience that it’s real.  Years ago I played in a tournament here in NYC in which I had a make or break game that I was losing.  I could afford no further mistakes and it took six hours until I somehow managed to pull off a win.  The concentration and intensity made my heart pound like I had run a footrace.  But back to Ned’s place.  At a certain point, Levon said to us, “You’re playing like improvisors, you need to think more like a composer”.  Meaning that we were moving too quickly, not carrying out any kind of real plan.  I appreciated this comment, and in terms of music, this idea is actually close to my heart.  I often tell my students to improvise like composers.  As it happened, “Chess Life” (official magazine of the United States Chess Federation) found out about our little get-together and interviewed me for an article on “Chess and Music” in their December 2017 issue.  Have a look.

So what about this idea of planning in the context of improvising?  Isn’t improvising about spontaneity?  How can we plan anything when it’s the “non-thinking” mind that we use when improvising?  Isn’t it some kind of contradiction to say that we strive to make meaningful statements, create form, express depth…and at the same time keep this a simple, natural, unencumbered process?  This is of course the reason we practice.  This simple, natural, spontaneous, non-thinking process is not haphazard and reactive.  Rather, it’s deeply informed.

In practice, information is constantly being acquired and skills honed and developed.  Learning, assimilation, and embodiment take place.  And then we forget it all in the moment of putting air into the instrument, or touching a key, pulling a string, hitting a drum.  Yet somehow in forgetting it all, we have access to it all. This simple act is informed by what you know. And if you keep going, you’ll soon discover that it’s also informed by what you don’t know.  Sometimes I tell students to meet the instrument fifty-fifty.  Bring full intent to everything you do and meet the moment with openness and flexibility.  Your instrument is telling you something.  The other musicians are telling you something.  Sometimes I find myself saying to students “your instrument is your teacher”.  I kind of wince at language like this but it’s actually true.  Your instrument does the only thing it can do within the circumstances that you create.  It does not fail to register exactly what you put into it.  It’s completely consistent that way.  And no, I don’t want to hear about saxophone reeds being inconsistent.  You can work with your reeds.  But you have to be flexible there as well.  They are telling you how to play them.  You just have to listen.  

So what of the idea of planning?  How does that fit in?  How to we improvise like composers?  I think it boils down to intent.  We start with a definite impulse, a physical gesture, a sense of movement.  The content of that gesture does not get fully filled in until it’s actually played.  But it must be deliberate.  We must “know” what we’re doing, what we’re carrying out.  And yet there is no way that we can fully know what will happen once the music has started.  There are other people playing as well.  Just as in chess there is your opponent.  This “opposition” is actually an agreed upon form of cooperation.  In music we don’t talk too much about opposition, although if you think about it, counterpoint is a means to accommodate multiple, independent voices within an overall form or structure.  In chess, even though I have a plan I must also take into account my opponent’s moves.  So to improvise like a composer means to see this relationship as the music itself.  Not just paying attention to your own moves, your own part.  We bring something to the music and are prepared to change and adapt all along the way.  Fluid might be a good word here, as in water.  With water, when it’s at rest it conforms to the shape of whatever holds it.  When it’s moving it can carry tremendous force.  And there’s everything in between.  All shapes, forms, directions.  Everything.  So it’s about this interaction with others, right?  But if that’s the case, what about solo playing, one person alone, improvising?  Well, you’ll recall that I mentioned being informed by what you don’t know.  Our personal expression does not exist in a vacuum, apart from everything else.  Because we ourselves are not apart from everything else.  Even the composer, alone with pen and paper, is unleashing forces, accessing what they don’t yet know.  

In other news, just got back from Europe with Christian Weber and Michael Griener (all acoustic, no amps, no PA systems!) as well as dates with Stephan Crump. Earlier in the season I played at the Middelheim Festival in Belgium with Jozef Dumoulin and Dan Weiss (Dan was at that chess party!).  Saw Charles Lloyd there.  Met Billy Harper as well.  Thinking of this, I recommend the Lee Morgan documentary, "I Called Him Morgan" in which Billy Harper is one of the voices.  And speaking of voices, I loved the fact that we heard directly in that film from those involved, first hand.  And speaking of documentaries, I also recommend the John Coltrane documentary “Chasing Trane” although I wish that it had not taken 50 years for us to be sharing his story in this form.  It was especially moving to see Coltrane in Nagasaki, at the site of the dropping of the atomic bomb.  Which also reminds me…while in Europe this past tour, I had a day off in Dachau, Germany.  I took advantage of the time to visit the memorial at the site of the World War Two concentration camp of the same name.  Words fail.  

I’ve also been thinking about the passing of Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the music’s most important leaders and composers.  As it happened, he also lived on my block here in midtown Manhattan.  I would see him pretty often but we never had the opportunity to play together.  It got to feeling kind of awkward passing him by and not acknowledging or expressing in some way my admiration.  So one day I introduced myself and mentioned some folks we knew in common.  Having made a connection in this way I later decided to share some music with him.  I had some copies of a new CD with me and while chatting I took one out and offered it to him.  He declined.  I realized that the offer was unsolicited and that this could be taken as an imposition.  He explained that he did not want to be obliged to have to tell me what he thought of the music.  I understand that.  In fact, I kind of feel the same way myself.  Music is bigger than that.  Bigger than what I think of it.  I think he may have been pointing to that.  And of course, he was certainly busy enough with many things let alone seeing me again and possibly being asked about it.  But I explained that he was under no obligation whatsoever and that I simply wanted to give him that music as a gift, a way of saying thank you for all that he had done for so many people, myself included.  At that he accepted.

I live in a building with a lot of musicians and actors.  Muhal Richard Abrams’ passing also reminds me of the passing of some other inspiring musicians who were also my neighbors.  Saxophonist Harold Ashby (1925 - 2003) once played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra and would periodically lead dates at the Village Vanguard and release recordings of his own.  I would see him almost every day, sitting outside with a group of folks (writers, musicians, neighborhood people).  I’d join them from time to time.  He was gruffly good natured and usually replied to my inquiries about events back in the day with “nobody want’s to hear about that old stuff”!   And there was bassist Fred Hopkins (1947 — 1999), a great musician from Chicago perhaps best known for his work with Henry Threadgill.  Some years back my wife and I invited a bunch of folks to our new apartment and Fred came.  Life of the party!  And then there was saxophonist Frank Lowe (1943 — 2003) who got his start with Alice Coltrane.  I fondly recall many chats with him about the music and the tradition.  He took it seriously!  And he loved Lester Young.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Some Perspective on Time

with Drew Gress, NYC.
I don’t like for too much time to pass without maintaining the blog in some way.  And yet it seems to be averaging once every six months.  So my perspective on time itself may be an issue worth exploring.  At any given time there is a lot to respond to, comment upon or advocate for.  And for this saxophonist, living in NYC (a place that seems to exemplify over-stimulation as a virtue) writing here serves as a means to try and clarify a single perspective and perhaps look towards a larger view. On the other hand I’m writing at the computer and so it actually bothers me to some degree that in posting this I’m essentially asking you to stop what you are doing and look at your phone. So if you’re reading this I’d like to humbly suggest that it not interrupt any activity that you might otherwise be involved in.  Or that it not take the place of time spent doing nothing.  That’s very important as well.  In fact, if you chose not to read this post and instead did something else entirely, you’d probably be better off.

But if you’re still with me, back to the question of time.  I’m thinking about time especially in the context of a recent performance involving long-time friend and bassist Drew Gress.  This gig was organized by drummer Devin Gray and took place at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.  As we were getting set up Drew and I mentioned to Devin that we’d known each other since 1977, starting our first year of college together in Baltimore.  We played countless gigs in those early years and continued on as we each eventually moved to New York.  Many more gigs, tours and recordings followed. Drew observed that this year marks 40 years that we’ve known each other.  That’s a formidable number to contend with.  And yet it feels almost like nothing.

In recent years we seem to cross paths less than either of us would like and yet the music always feels fresh and immediate each time we get together.  I heard so many new things in Drew’s playing that evening, yet all delivered in his own recognizable voice and with an astonishing depth.  It made playing together seem the simplest thing in the world, requiring almost nothing, 40 years of time condensed in a single musical moment.  In the way Drew pulls the string.  The sound he gets.  His own personal timing.  It’s all right there.

I wonder about this kind of experience in the context of the kinds of conversations I see/hear on improvising, jazz (assuming that’s a word you relate to) and being an artist that take place in the community at large.  Conversations that often emphasize methodologies, approaches, techniques.  Or concern validity.  Or commodification.  What is it that I’m offering here, towards any of these conversations, that you might take away for your benefit?  Turns out, not much actually.  What I’m talking about is revealed in the music itself.  You have to be there.  And enter into it not knowing.  Of course we need to bring clear intent.  And it does pay to think about these things and be aware of the multitude of perspectives each of us bring to this activity.  But when it comes down to it, I got nothing.  Zip.  I don’t know.  And that somehow feels right.

One thing I will say.  While I don’t like seeing musical training reduced to “information” I also see the danger in reducing musical experiences into…”experiences”, that can too easily be  compartmentalized, compared and rated.  Peak experiences are one thing, but this quality of completeness that I’m talking about is more subtle than that.  It was there in Drew’s playing that night.  And maybe because I’ve known him for so long I was able to recognize it in such a clear, matter of fact, yet profound way.  I really don’t know how to talk about it except to say that it was as if the past, present and future were all going on at the same time.  I don’t even like to say stuff like that because it seems to privilege “this” moment over “that” moment, as if one thing were starting and another stopping.  What if we saw our awareness as more continuous, not so broken up, not so compartmentalized?  How would that affect our perception of time?

with Adam O'Farrill and Tyshawn Sorey, Philadelphia.
I’ll tell you about another deceptively simple musical moment.  A few months back I was on the road with bassist Stephan Crump in a quartet with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.  In the van one afternoon, on the last day of the tour, I was relating a story to Tyshawn that came from Pops Foster’s autobiography.  In it Pops Foster talks about what it was like to play music in New Orleans in the early 1900’s.  He spoke about a group led by a violinist, containing horns and drums, playing for dancers.  Because the violinist needed to be heard over the ensemble they all needed to play quite softly.  And because they were playing for dancers they needed to swing with some real energy.  Foster says that most of the time the music was so soft you could hear the sound of the dancer’s feet sliding along the floor.  I don’t know if this story had anything to do with the music we played that evening but I think Tyshawn may have taken some inspiration since at the end of the evening he announced, “I played the entire gig without using sticks”!  Perhaps a first for him, I’m not sure. What was most surprising was that I hadn’t actually noticed.  I did notice that it happened to be a particularly great gig.  In using brushes (and those thin rods bundled together, called rutes I think) Tyshawn managed to open up sonic territory and infuse great energy and intensity in this space without actually filling it with sound.  What am I saying here?  It’s not a comment on drum implements or relative volume levels.  It really raises two questions, what is silence and what is sound? Tyshawn understands.

I’ll sign off with a stray thought…some years ago I was chatting with dear departed friends Stephanie and Irving Stone (who had heard a LOT of live music in their time) about the scene in the 50’s and 60’s as they experienced it.  Seems the bottom line criteria in evaluating a musician was “does he/she have something to say?”  That stuck with me.  So what do you think that might mean? And where might that come from? And how would you access that?

Till next time…

P.S. I want to especially thank Devin Gray, Stephan Crump and Adam O’Farrill for their total involvement.  Also thanks to Devin for the photo with Drew and thanks to Stephan for his photo depicting the glamour of road life, with Adam and Tyshawn.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Sensations of Tone...

I’ve just returned from Zürich, Switzerland having performed at the Unerhöert Festival with bassist Christian Weber and drummer Michael Griener.  We have a new recording scheduled for a January 2017 release on the Intakt label titled “Sensations of Tone”.  This title is taken from a nineteenth century text by Hermann von Helmholtz on acoustics and perception of sound.  The program consists of a series of improvised pieces in alternation with a number of early jazz compositions.  What’s of most interest to me is they way in which basic raw materials, “tones”, can elicit very different “sensations” with the juxtaposition of both approaches heightening perception of the similarities and the differences.

“Sensations of Tone” is currently available as a pre-release CD from my website.  Cost is $15.  I’m continuing the website sale (3 for $30) so please have a look at the list of available titles and consider filling out your collection with items you may not already have.  This sale is especially beneficial for international orders.  The shipping cost outside of the US is the same for 1 CD as it is for 3 CDs.  Take advantage of this opportunity!

Order your copy of “Sensations of Tone”

“Sensations of Tone” was recorded in New York City earlier this year and the improvisations are titled based upon some of the locations involved in the development of the music.

1. Orchard and Broom (Eskelin, Weber Griener)
2. Shreveport Stomp (Jelly Roll Morton)
3. Cornelia Street (Eskelin, Weber Griener)
4. China Boy (Boutelje/Winfree)
5. Ditmas Avenue (Eskelin, Weber Griener)
6. Moten Swing (Bennie Moten)
7. Dumbo (Eskelin, Weber Griener)
8. Ain't Misbehavin’ (Fats Waller / Harry Brooks)

Listen to excerpts from "Sensations of Tone".

The Political Sphere

This past October I did a very nice tour of the UK with Chris Sharkey and Matthew Bourne which was organized by the Orpheus Project.  There is to be a BBC radio broadcast of one of our concerts in December.  I’ll keep you posted.

It was great to spend a couple of weeks getting to know folks and get a little deeper into the scene, comparing cultural notes.  Of course, the recent Brexit vote was a topic of conversation.  What was not widely expected to happen, happened.  Or perhaps we should say, it was much closer than many of us would like to have thought possible.  This was before our U.S. presidential election and so I certainly didn't want a similar "not widely expected" result to occur here. Which leads me to the following…

I think that most people who are deeply into music would agree that this “playing / listening” thing often feels like a freeing of the spirit, if you will. Seeing and feeling a bigger picture, bigger than our sense of self, bigger than time and events. At this fundamental level, there are no divisions. And yet music exists on a very functional level as well, in this very world of divisions, distinctions and conflicts. In times of crisis we tend to revisit the discussion of art and it’s role in society. Whether you, the reader, feel this past election represents a crisis may well depend upon how you voted. But given the fundamental issues at play and the very real risks involved I hope that we can agree on the need to see this bigger picture. No divisions means that we are not as separate from each other as we may sometimes feel. It’s realizing that this very feeling of separateness creates so many of our problems.  At the same time, we do need to see and respect the very real dynamics of difference (based upon politics, culture, race, religion, gender, sexuality) that we experience in this life in order to fully experience that bigger picture of no divisions.

So how (and why) do we make music in this problematic and often violent world? Do we keep our heads down and hope that the healing power of music does it’s job?  Or do we become activists, connecting our art to the causes we believe in and taking concrete steps to address real issues? Both approaches contain truths, both carry risks.  Too “hands off” and we risk being aloof and ineffectual, in essence denying the suffering going on all around us. Too “hands on” and we risk generating self righteousness and anger, an intoxicating combination especially when we think we are “right”. We can be “right” and still fuck up.  It’s important to acknowledge these feelings but in action I want to be careful.  Careful not to disengage out of anxiety and helplessness. And careful not to create further division and harm out of self-righteousness and aggression. Personally I find that acting from these feelings can become a form of self-violence if I don’t recognize that what I do to myself I do to others and what I do to others I do to myself. So rather than pose any answers I think it best to keep asking the questions (over and over) all the while trying to see more clearly and act more compassionately.  I sense that it’s never going to be “enough” but I don’t want that to stop me either.

So I hold no judgements about what you or anyone else may feel the need to do with respect to art and politics.  These are challenging circumstances. Do what you need to do. I simply share this as a way to articulate and clarify my own intent.  During the lead up towards the Iraq War I actively engaged in protests and wrote strongly worded opinion pieces about what I saw happening. It felt very necessary. As a result I was invited to play at a political gathering and found myself asking some very difficult questions about the role of music in this arena.  There seemed a dilemma in associating my music with a particular political stance. I don’t like the idea that this music that has served to reveal greater truths throughout my life could be used to limit or distance myself from other people who may hold differing political views. So I drew a line and decided not to accept that invitation.  I don’t hold this as a “rule” and maybe I’ll change that stance, I don’t know. I certainly do support and love many musicians who make political music or otherwise contribute their art towards political expression.  But there is no argument that I can make with respect to politics and music, one way or the other.  I’m not trying to defend a position or to negate one.  It’s just that if I am to honor the music in the ways I often espouse in this blog I must especially honor the humanity of all people in doing so.  Especially when it’s difficult.  And I do realize that this does not negate being political with music. So when speaking out I want to constantly strive to be aware of the need to speak from the same place of humanity and compassion that the music comes from.  Not to divide, but to hopefully bring together all people, including those with whom I may disagree or feel challenged by.  I used to bristle at the idea that music and art are inherently political.  But we do pursue this spiritual quest (above politics) within the very circumstances of our daily lives as we create them. Both of those realities are true.  And they are not necessarily in conflict unless we make them to be so.

One thing I am already doing after this election is spending less time on-line.  And more time face to face with you all…see you out there…

Two Items of Interest...

A couple of projects I'm involved with...Bassist Stephan Crump’s new recording "Rhombal" also featuring trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and drummer Tyshawn Sorey is now available from Stephan’s website.  I have a special fondness for this group and will be announcing some upcoming dates soon.

And catching up on an earlier tour (May 2016) with The Red Hill Orchestra (Jozef Dumoulin leading, and featuring drummer Dan Weiss), there’s a nice video taken from one of our concerts in France.

Roberta “Bobbie” Lee (1940 - 2016)

I wrote about my mother some time back on the blog.  About her musical upbringing and how it affected my own trajectory.  I want to publicly announce that “Bobbie Lee” passed away on September 16th, 2016.  She was 76 years of age.  Too young to go in my opinion.  But I feel her everywhere. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Summer 2016...

Gonna keep this post short and simply wish everyone a rewarding summer on whatever level you want to approach that.  I will be taking a bit of a break from traveling until this fall, when I will be touring the UK for the first time in some years.  I’m looking forward to that and will share more details as we get closer.

So that means I will be in NYC all of July and August, available for private lessons to saxophonists in particular although musicians on any instrument are welcome for improvisation lessons.  Please contact me via e-mail for more information.

In other news, I recently tried the new Selmer saxophone reeds and was very impressed.  I personally find many so called “jazz” style reeds to color the sound somewhat artificially towards something louder and brighter.  So I appreciate that these reeds, which are not made towards any particular style of playing, seem to allow the natural sound of the instrument to emerge, balanced and well proportioned, naturally vibrant but with a dark, focused core that has a bit more density than many other brands I’ve tried.  I was impressed enough to accept the Selmer company’s offer to become an official endorser of these reeds. Thank you Selmer!

Also, I’d like to remind you not to let the summer pass without picking up a copy of “Trio Willisau Live”.  If you don’t know what that is please read all about it here.

I kind of feel that posting on the blog should require something a bit more substantial than any of this.  But after that lengthy interview I did for Point of Departure last month I have the feeling there’s going to be little to say for awhile.  Kind of emptied my head on that one.  So I’ll simply offer something short and obvious, not original to me, but something that I remind myself of from time to time, as an improvisor. And that is…just start from where you are.

Enjoy your summer…

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Point of Departure Interview…

The online music journal “Point of Departure” has just published a rather extensive interview that I’m happy to share with you. I appreciate POD for offering a space in which to get a bit deeper into this whole music/life thing. Areas of focus: comfort zones, jazz as “the truth”, established practices, repertoire, studio versus live, state of the industry, technology, creativity and simply being human. Read the interview HERE.

And a reminder that:

The CD sale commemorating the release of the new recording TRIO WILLISAU LIVE continues with the addition of a few back catalogue titles that have previously been unavailable. Have a look at the discography page for specific information on these titles.  You can order them here.

ARCANUM MODERNE Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, Jim Black
VANISHING POINT Ellery Eskelin, Mat Maneri, Erik Friedlander, Mark Dresser, Matt Moran
TEN Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, Jim Black, Jessica Constable, Marc Ribot, Melvin Gibbs


TRIO NEW YORK Ellery Eskelin, Gary Versace, Gerald Cleaver
is nearly sold out…there are less than 10 copies available!

And Finally...

A one time only special offer…I do have a very limited number of “out of print” titles that are not listed on the ordering page. Occasionally I put together packages of 30+ titles for folks who want the entire catalogue. I’m down to my last such “package offer”. It’s a very discounted deal for anyone interested but is sold only as a collection. Have a look at the ordering page for more information…

Monday, June 6, 2016

Paul Smoker

The first time I met and played with Paul Smoker must have been in 1987, just prior to Joint Venture’s first recording project.  Joint Venture was formed out of a series of regular sessions at drummer Phil Haynes’ Corner Store loft in Brooklyn.  We had a trio with bassist Drew Gress and Phil suggested we invite Paul to come in from Iowa (where he had been living and teaching) to make a recording with us.  Paul was Phil’s teacher at Coe College and Phil became part of Paul’s speed / power trio with bassist Ron Rohovit.  They had made an LP or two, one of them featuring Anthony Braxton as guest artist.  Phil told me all about Paul, we listened to the recordings and somehow it seemed right to do this even as it was something of a risk, agreeing to make a studio recording with someone I’d never played with.  Paul was also a good twenty years older than us so it wasn’t quite like inviting one of your peers to go along with a speculative deal.  I wasn’t even completely sure about the “do it yourself” thing myself but Phil was thinking big and talking persuasively.  We agree, Phil makes the call. Paul agrees and books his flight, joining us a couple of weeks later to rehearse and get acquainted.

The night arrives and in comes Paul, tall guy, cowboy hat, cigarette. And of course his trumpet. His image would seem to match his reputation for candor and directness.  You could be forgiven for feeling a bit intimidated although he was also very relaxed and genuine, no games.  This is our first meeting.  A little small talk and now we’re gonna play.  I suggested we try “Just in Time”.  Paul kind of scoffed, in a good natured way, but still, tinged with a bit of incredulity and probably deeper down, a sense of WTF!?!  I think he may have wanted to give me a hard time but was giving me the benefit of the doubt instead.  So after a bit of hemming and hawing, subtle posturing and a couple of well placed sighs he reached back into the memory banks as we counted off the tune.  What came out of his horn could not have been more at odds with the attitude expressed just moments before. Total commitment, unabashed, emotionally engaged and dealing with the tune on multiple levels at once.

After this ended we kind of took a few minutes to let it all sink in.  A pretty intense performance for a first time meeting.  Almost a bit of a shock. Nothing much to say afterwards. Paul gradually catches his breath and comes back to that attitude he was working on before, saying, in a somewhat confrontational tone, “Man, you know how long it’s been since I played Just in Time”?  Pause. “Yea, about five minutes ago”, I shot back. At that point Paul’s face lit up with a beautiful smile and we all laughed at the fact that in spite of all the protestations to the contrary, we still could not have imagined Paul Smoker (or anyone else for that matter) making “Just in Time” any more “real” than we had just witnessed.  At that moment I think we all realized that this “Joint Venture” might work pretty well.  The music and the connection was palpable and just cut through everything.

We kept the band going for three recordings on the enja records label, which helped us all get a start in the recording and touring business branching out as individual leaders over the years. Joint Venture had a unique chemistry, four musicians each with individual and strongly felt approaches to the music, exploring common ground while allowing ourselves to be pulled in other directions at the same time.  As a result of this healthy tension I think we were able to touch on that “whole is larger than the sum of the parts” kind of thing.  It’s really beautiful when something like that can happen.

So thanks Paul for sharing such a wonderful spirit in your life and music.  Many people loved you deeply and you live on through them and through their music.

Paul Smoker passed on May 14, 2016 at the age of 75.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Trio New York LIVE - Now Available!

It’s here now!  Order from the web site...

Trio New York LIVE…or in this case Trio Willisau LIVE

Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Gary Versace - Hammond B3 organ
Gerry Hemingway - drums

Recorded live at the Jazz Festival Willisau, Switzerland, August, 2015

This new CD recording is from a live performance at the Willisau Festival in Switzerland last August.  I wrote a bit about the gig in a previous post and am very happy to report that hatOLOGY records has just released the project in their inimitable style and packaging, including a full color photograph of the band on an enclosed postcard. Hear our extended improvisations on "My Melancholy Baby", "Blue and Sentimental", "East of the Sun", "We See", and "I Don't Stand A Ghost of A Chance With You".

So, get your hands on a copy and wrap your ears around the latest sounds from the New York / Willisau axis. Take this link to my official web page and have a look at all of the titles available for immediate world wide mail order.  To further commemorate this release I will be instituting a special sale, for a limited time only.  The standard price per CD is $15.  Choose any two discs for $25. Choose any three discs for $30. Very simple.

Please note that I have added a couple of additional titles to the CD ordering page:

TEN (from 2004, a series of improvisations from duos to sextet)
Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, Jim Black, Jessica Constable, Marc Ribot, Melvin Gibbs
hatOLOGY 611 CD

LES INDIGNES (recorded in Amsterdam after a tour in 2011.  Very nice compositions from Celano and Baggiani plus improvisations)
Guillermo Celano - guitar
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Clemens Van Der Feen - double bass
Marcos Baggiani - drums

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Spring 2016 update...

This post can serve as a momentary place maker for the transition from winter into spring.  Let’s see…

In January, bassist Stephan Crump’s “Rhombal” was in the recording studio.  Stephan Crump, bass and compositions; Adam O'Farrill, trumpet; Ellery Eskelin, tenor saxophone; Tyshawn Sorey, drums. The results of this session, “Brothers”, will be released in a couple of months.  Next NYC appearance by the group will be on April 22nd at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.  Here’s video from a live performance by the group, Stephan’s composition "Loose Bay”.

In February I had the chance to reconnect with bassist Christian Weber and drummer Michael Griener and follow up on a project that we began in Zürich in 2011.  This group had a very particular sound from the very first time we played together.  Partly it’s to do with the fact that Christian plays the bass without an amplifier and that Michael played a set of drums that were a bit smaller than the standard sizes used in most groups.  This allowed me a bit more freedom to explore some other timbral possibilities on my instrument.  We also performed at the Willisau Festival in Switzerland later that same year which you can see a video clip of here. We played exclusively improvised concerts at that time but in hanging out together we discovered a mutual love of early jazz.  I kept that in mind over the years hoping that we might address that musically at some point.  As it happened, Christian recently spent six months in New York City which allowed us the luxury of getting together regularly to play some of this early material and think about how we might incorporate it into our sets.  Michael came to NYC for a few weeks in February and so we rehearsed extensively, did a concert in town and went into the recording studio soon after in order to document our work together.  Included are renditions of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp”, a Fat’s Waller composition and a couple of early jazz standards.  These are alternated with free improvisations so as to highlight aspects of both approaches to the music from a somewhat different perspective.  We hope this project will be released by year’s end.  The group will be performing in Europe in November of 2016.

Looking ahead at the performance schedule, I’ll be in Europe for two weeks in May with Jozef Dumoulin and the Red Hill Orchestra.  That’s Jozef on Fender Rhodes piano & compositions, myself on tenor saxophone and Dan Weiss on drums.  Really nice combination of textural elements and multi-directional rhythmic propulsion.  Here is a track called "The Gate" from Jozef’s recording “Trust”. This is where we'll be in May 2016:

May 4th, De Werf, Brugge BELGIUM. May 5th, Le Bocal, Apt FRANCE. May 6th, Festival Koa, Montpellier FRANCE. May 8th, Le Périscope, Lyon FRANCE. May 9th, De Singer, Rijkevorsel BELGIUM. May 10th, Bravo, Brussels BELGIUM. May 11th, Le Petit Faucheux, Tours FRANCE. May 12, Jamboree, Barcelona SPAIN. May 13th, Valencia SPAIN. May 14th, Bogui Jazz Club, Madrid SPAIN. And for all of you folks in the Big Apple...May 25th, (le) poisson rouge, NYC

When not traveling I enjoy taking advantage of the many offerings of contemporary chamber music that are available in New York City.  One of my very favorite ensembles is the Argento Chamber Ensemble.  Very often after their concerts there is a question and answer period in which the audience can speak with the composers and performers.  I always enjoy these although they do present some potential challenges to the participants.  One such occurrence took place after the ensemble’s performance at the Brooklyn Library last month.  The program featured works by Tristan Murail, Huck Hodge, Oliver Schneller, Bert Van Herck and Oliver Schneller. I had the impression that a significant portion of the audience may not have been accustomed to modern chamber music and some of the questions reflected that.  This is an excellent opportunity for the ensemble to get feedback from listeners and for listeners to gain insight into the processes involved in creating this music.  One of the great things about New York audiences is that you are liable to get some very forthright opinions, especially if folks feel challenged.  I was encouraged by the feeling that while some may have struggled with what they were hearing, overall, seeing the musicians on stage and hearing a series of different pieces allowed for a more intuitive sense of what is going on.  I’m a firm believer that we do not need to understand the music we hear on an intellectual level in order to “hear” it.  Of course, some knowledge about the traditions involved and the intent of the composers may well enhance the experience.  I could also point out that our knowledge of what we are hearing may also be a kind of filter than can actually diminish our perceptions of what we are hearing if we are not careful. Toward the end of this session, after about twenty minutes of discussion, a woman in the back stood up and shared her experiences of the concert in some of the most starkly negative terms I could imagine.  It was not as if she was criticizing the proceedings, it was clear that she was sincere in what she was saying and how she felt.  After describing the desolate and bleak landscape conjured by the sounds she heard she wrapped it all up by asking, imploring even, “where is the love?”  That really got everyone’s attention.  After a momentarily uncomfortable pause each person on the panel offered an equally sincere and compassionate take on what their personal experiences and intentions were with regard to music making.  This got to the crux of everything really, in a way that we do not often encounter in public settings like this.  The emphasis on intellectualization and technical terminology was set aside for a very heartfelt and affirming exploration of why we make music.  In spite of any differences in approach between the panelists there was clearly a deep commonality shared among them. And it is  this commonality that points to the essence of what makes music such a powerful force in our lives.  It can go by many names but past the conditioned and superficial associations we may have with certain sounds, music generally speaks to something beyond or larger than our sense of self.  Something we may not even fully understand.  We may feel it quite strongly and yet how we respond to it can be varied and unpredictable, deeply positive or deeply negative or anywhere in between.  But it is reaching us.  So walking home after the concert with friends we discussed the issue and came away feeling that in fact asking “where is the love” does not mean that this audience member didn’t "get" the music.  I think she did, and quite strongly, in spite of the fact that I did not relate to her reaction.  And as we know, there is no correct reaction.  It was affirming to have been witness to that conversation.  I might also point out that there is sometimes a kind of trite attitude concerning the idea of provoking an audience into having a strong reaction and then associating some kind of merit to such work on the basis of that.  Personally I find controversy and provocation to be highly overrated without something deeper underneath it.  But a genuine challenge, one that does in fact come from love, is a rare thing to encounter and be open to.  I commend that listener for bringing up the question.  There was one final question after that one, actually more of a testimonial, on the part of a very elderly woman who was sitting in the front row.  I could tell that she also was not a devotee of modern music but her response was highly energized and very positive toward what she had heard.  She continued speaking for some minutes on the importance of this kind of forward looking activity in our culture and she related the experience to a number of topics although we could not always clearly understand what she was saying.  But she was excited.  After some time her husband put his hand on her back in order to signal that maybe she should finish but she kept right on going.  At a certain point one of the staff from the library who was leading the event kindly stepped over to motion for the microphone but she just waved him away.  All in all a wonderful affirmation that this music is not restricted to experts or aficionados.  It speaks to anyone who will listen.

Every other year I do a week long teaching residency at my Alma Mater, Towson University in Baltimore.  Each time, we’ve taken up a particular theme or investigation.  The first year, I worked with the improvisation ensemble in developing a concert.  The second year I brought a batch of my own compositions from over the years and adapted them to a student ensemble for their concert.  The third year was devoted to the exploration of “swing” as a creative act in which the jazz ensemble presented a concert of early jazz works from Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington.  This year’s theme was chamber music containing improvisation and took place this past March.  In discussing the idea with Dave Ballou (who runs the program at Towson) I described for him my idea about commissioning a chamber music composition in a modern  classical idiom that would feature an improvising soloist.  (This is something I’d already set in motion and have been working towards for a couple of years now and hopefully in 2017 we may have the results.) Dave, being a wonderful composer in addition to a great instrumentalist (check out Dave’s new “Solo Trumpet” recording) offered to write a piece for student ensemble (actually, recent alumni as it turned out) for us to tackle on this residency.  I’ve been working with a so called “classical” set up on saxophone in my practice (Rascher mouthpiece, Vandoren reed and Buescher tenor, for my fellow saxophone geeks) and this was a great opportunity to give this idea some momentum.  Without writing a "jazz meets classical" piece Dave’s sensitivities as a fellow improvisor made for a work that allowed great flexibility in my approach.  Rather than working with highly restricted materials as prescribed by the composer (often the approach in chamber music that uses improvisation) I was allowed to have a compositional voice, meaning that my role might shift freely from being “inside” the ensemble to a more front a center “soloist” voice as I felt the need.  For this performance I stuck rather close to the material at hand but I can easily see many more possibilities of approach in future performances.  Maybe we’ll even get to record this.  Until then, here is some audio from the concert.  Recorded sound is not optimal but I think it’s worth offering.  It is an eight movement composition for two violins, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon, piano and tenor saxophone. The first is movement four.  The second is an excerpt from movement one leading into movement six.


It’s called “For 7 instruments and Ellery Eskelin” and is dedicated to pianist Reynaldo Reyes who taught at Towson from 1962 until just this year, passing away some months ago at the age of 82.  Mr. Reyes accompanied me on my very first recital at Towson, in 1978.  I wish I could recall the name of what we played but it was a rather thorny piece of modern classical music for saxophone and piano and he sight read it perfectly on the first rehearsal.  He was known for doing that.  A wonderful musician and teacher who will be dearly missed.

As part of my activities I’m asked to present a mid-week concert of my own music.  Being that the the focus was on chamber music I thought it only appropriate to invite pianist Sylvie Courvoisier to perform in duo.  We’ve been doing duo concerts (as well as trio concerts with Parisian cellist Vincent Courtois) since around 2000.  This was our first concert in about a year or so and it was great to catch up musically and see what we had each been up to in the interim.  Here’s an example, a bonus track “Number 19”,  from our recording “Every So Often”.

Other activities during the week involved working with students on how to learn the song “Cherokee” (in which at one point while listening to student performances of this tune involving questionable note choices I had to point out “your ear would never let you do that!”), a series of private lessons on a range of issues (probably my favorite thing to do) and coaching the improvisation ensemble (in which we explored each musician's natural tendencies and discovered what things made them uncomfortable).  Actually, being uncomfortable in these situations is not a bad thing.  We used uncomfortability (not a real word but for sure a real feeling) as a way to address strengths and weaknesses. This became a way of fine tuning the entire ensemble's sensitivities so as to best allow each musician the opportunity to fully contribute to the music. Some players are more naturally supportive while others more naturally assertive.  And of course you don’t want too many of one or the other. Both in being true to themselves and by having to carry the music at any time, often unexpectedly, showed us quite clearly that there is no place to hide, neither in being too passive nor in being too aggressive.

There were many discussions during the week and after each concert there was a question and answer period in which students and members of the listening public could discuss the performances.  As in the case of the question and answer session that I referred to above, there were folks in attendance that were not all that familiar with the kind of music being presented. I was told by someone in the audience that as the improvisation ensemble started playing a couple sitting behind them was heard to be discussing “what kind of music is this” and “maybe the second half will have some Charlie Parker jazz”.  They stuck around and seemed to enjoy Dave Ballou’s chamber music piece even though that would certainly not qualify as “Charlie Parker jazz”.  After the duo concert with Sylvie I sensed during the discussion that perhaps this was a challenging concert for some folks.  We do our very best to “tell a story” in our improvisations, to play structurally and compositionally.  But I had to ask “did anyone completely loose the thread of the music?”  Fortunately one person raised their hand and said as much. This lead to a fruitful discussion about how to communicate in music and what is being communicated. Personally I cannot second guess what I think will work in any given situation and so it reminded me (again) to trust the music completely.  And so I come away from this experience encouraged and asking myself, is there really a separation between listener and music?  It certainly doesn’t seem that way, no matter the myriad responses that we all have in any given situation.  Whether you thought it was good or bad, liked it or not, reached you or didn’t, all that seems less important than the knowledge that there is always something more.

I enjoy these residencies more with each one that I do.  Pianist Bill Murray (founder of the Bill and Helen Murray Jazz Residency) deserves our deep appreciation for setting this all in motion.  Plus everyone at Towson including Dave Ballou and Jim McFalls.  And each and every student and alumni who took part.  It was rewarding on so many levels.  Thank you.

There was also one off-campus event that I want to mention.  On Tuesday of that week I got to sub for Dave Ballou on his regular gig at Bertha’s with the Mike Kuhl Trio (Mike on drums along with Jeff Reed on bass).  Bertha’s has been around for I don’t know how long.  It’s situated in Fell’s Point in Baltimore, close to the harbor just east of downtown.  When I was living in Baltimore (I left in 1981) this area was a bit deserted at night and seemed to carry the heavy feeling of lost seafaring days along the old docks and bars that lined the low buildings and cobbled streets.  It’s more brightly lit these days and a center of nightlife but you can still get a sense of the ghosts of Fell’s Point, maybe even that of Edgar Allen Poe himself.  It’s great to see that some of these old joints have not changed all that much from what I remembered. Dark inside, old instruments hanging from the rafters, vintage furnishings. And speaking of vintage, in visiting the men’s room you’re confronted with the largest and possibly oldest urinal still in use in America.  Or at least that was my impression.  Rising up from the floor to the height of a grown man it’s like an enormous white porcelain coffin stood on it’s end.  Interacting with history is what that felt like.

Playing at Bertha’s was a ton of fun.  I also got to see my friend and fellow tenor saxophonist from my Towson University days, Brad Collins.  We played together in Hank Levy’s ensemble and had not seen each other in thirty five years!  Brad plays around Baltimore a lot so check him out.  This was a straight up jazz gig, calling tunes as we went, of the kind I did frequently all around Baltimore at one time.  In fact, somewhere in the second set it occurred to me that I used to play John Coltrane’s “Some Other Blues” on every single jazz gig I ever did in town. My good friend and fellow tenor player Tom McCormick taught it to me back in the day.  So I called the tune and as we played I could feel just what it was like playing places like Bertha’s in the late ‘70s.  Tom and I had another good friend and tenorist named Mike Carrick who was older than us and instilled much in the way of the Baltimore tradition to our approach at that time.  Mike would say to me, “yea man, you got that Baltimore honkin’ thing!”  That made me feel good.  So I couldn’t help but let loose with Mike in mind.  Mike passed a few years ago but his spirit is still strong among those who remember him.

As I’m writing this, after being back home for a couple of weeks, I received some very sad news about the passing of another musician who was in Baltimore at that time, bassist and composer Terry Plumeri who was also a formative influence on us younger musicians.  I played a number of times with Terry, once in a trio with drummer Harold White (who had also played in Horace Silver’s band) and another memorable occasion at a Fell’s Point jazz club called The Bandstand, which was my first real opportunity in town to lead a group for a weekend at a club that also headlined New York artists. Terry had recorded in the early ‘70s making an LP called “He Who Lives in Many Places” with Herbie Hancock, John Abercrombie and Eric Gravatt.  Terry also toured for some years with Roberta Flack.  After leaving Baltimore Terry composed for film and symphony orchestras around the world. His signature sound on the bass was his arco playing.  This is a photo of Terry as I remember him from those days.  Here is a video of Terry in recent years doing a solo contrabass piece called “The Caves of Peacock Springs”. While we have access to no end of recordings and documentation of this musical tradition I’m convinced that it is the spirit of musicians playing together, learning from each other and sharing their lives with each other that makes this a living tradition.  Each one who passes has had an effect on those around them, and that is the real spirit of what keeps this alive.  Never take that for granted, not even for a moment.  Thanks Terry.

Monday, March 28, 2016

One of My Favorite Spots in NYC…

I had been out of town for a week so I was looking forward to resuming my daily morning routine at the local coffee place, Cupcake Cafe, on 9th Avenue and 40th Street in Manhattan.  An “old New York” type of establishment, of the kind that is becoming increasingly scarce, it’s on a street containing some of the the last remaining examples of old New York establishments in Hell’s Kitchen, such as the “Sea Breeze Fish Market” (one of the oldest fish markets in New York City) and the “International Grocery” which sells all kinds of spices and imported foods.

At the Cupcake I can sit for as long as I want, have a conversation with pretty much anyone there or more often just sit in silence.  This has been my ritual for some time now.  Order an espresso and sit with my small porcelain cup and saucer unapologetically doing nothing for twenty minutes, half an hour or sometimes more. No reading, no phone, no computer, no headphones.  That’s almost treasonous to admit in NYC.  But I think this may be the most important part of my day since once I get home and get to work I often have a certain difficulty establishing office hours and juggling tasks in a home setting.  On days without rehearsals or teaching, practicing is a constant, but there is always business to do.  The business of “independent artist” means there are a lot of “hats” to wear.  Fortunately I like hats but I tend not to change them every five minutes.  The “to do” list gets reprioritized, a half dozen things get done and a half dozen more get added.  I have until late afternoon until things shift into family mode.  So these potentially fractured days need some grounding and this morning ritual sets the stage nicely.

This particular day I approach the Cafe and see that the gate is down over the large window facing Ninth Avenue.  There is a brightly colored hand written sign posted about being “closed for renovations” with a series of cheery and clever reasons of just why that is.  All of which make the phrase “closed for renovations” seem ominous.  The gate to the door was open and someone I didn’t recognize came out, walking purposefully, talking on a cell phone.  Through the window of the closed door I looked in and saw Mike, the owner and ever present host standing in his usual position behind the counter.  He saw me and shook his head from side to side, waving his hands.  Then he gave me the cut-throat signal, hand sideways across the neck.

There we have it.  Closed on this day for sure.  As I walked to another place for coffee I ran into a couple of neighborhood folks who frequent the cafe.  They were both certain that the place had closed for good but I had to know for sure. Once I got home I called the cafe and Mike picked up.  “So it’s true?” I asked.  True and final as it turned out.  Mike explained that the situation was complicated, involving lawyers and other properties.  “And the sign saying renovations?”  “That’s bullshit” he said.  I told him how much I appreciated the place and we agreed that it was indeed unique.  He must have been in the midst of dealing with it all since he broke off the call rather suddenly.  Which was not unusual.  I’d heard Mike’s gruff demeanor speaking on the phone and with customers for many years.  Sometimes a new person would walk in and ask for tea and Mike would ask “what kind do you want?” in such a way as to frighten them so badly that they often left.  In fact, I think I went there regularly for at least six months before Mike did more than grunt at me.  But I could tell he was a good guy and over time he opened up.  He even became more relaxed with new customers, still gruff but in a charming way.  Often I would walk in and Mike would start talking to me as if in mid thought, on a subject that might take me a few minutes to discern. Sometimes I didn’t really know what he was talking about.  But over time it became clear that he knew pretty much everything about what was going on in the city. When Mike would engage in the occasional conversation with a group of regulars he could completely light up over some subject concerning sports or culture.

The place was decidedly rustic, furnished with many antique pieces of equipment, including an old style wooden ice box for the milk.  Chairs were sometimes in need of repair and wobbly.  There were a couple of old church pews along the wall and a huge marble table in the middle of the room.  A bakery was in the back.  Their pies were some of the best I’ve had.  The radio was often tuned to WKCR or WFUV (local independent stations for jazz or alternative music) or was off entirely which I loved even more. Sometimes business appeared to be slow but they seemed to get a steady flow of cake orders for parties and such.  Above all it was authentic. As was Mike.  The folks who came in regularly, writers, artists, musicians, actors, neighborhood workers and the occasional traveler killing time in between buses (it was across from the Port Authority Bus Station) gave the place a special ambiance that I always knew never to take for granted.

The Cupcake Cafe had been around for about thirty years although it started in another location down the block.  At one time it was very popular but somehow I never clicked with the place when it was so active. I’d only been coming in for the past four or five years and was often concerned about the health of the business given the little things I’d occasionally hear Mike say.  My feeling is that they had a good run but that the real estate game must have caught up with them finally.  I don’t really know.  But I'm going to have to take my morning rumination somewhere else.  I knew this day would come. These kinds of places are almost too good to be true any longer.  I will have to do my best to keep that state of mind with me.  Thanks for all the good years Mike.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Paul Bley…on the subject of playing forever…

Upon hearing the news of pianist Paul Bley’s passing on January 3rd, 2016...

I met Paul Bley at the Ravenna Jazz Festival in Italy sometime in the early ‘90s.  He was playing with Steve Swallow and Jimmy Giuffre.  I was there with Joey Baron’s group “Baron Down” and we were sharing the bill with them.  The concert took place at the Teatro Alighieri, a beautiful opera house built in the 1800’s.  It was great to hear them play and Paul was very complementary towards us.  After the concert I was walking back to the hotel, taking my time as the streets were active and it was nice to see what was going on.  Along the way I happened to glance into a coffee shop and to my surprise saw Paul standing alone in the back having a coffee.  I really wanted to talk to him about a musical issue that was on my mind so I went over and said hello and we began chatting.  I explained that for some years I had been investigating ways to play rhythmically free while retaining the harmonic form of a song in time, something that I hadn’t heard that many people do. I told him that I’d been trying to trace the impetus of this idea and that I had the feeling that he was the guy to ask.

While it’s a bit problematic to single out one person I had always suspected that Paul was at least close to the source of this.  He had played with Ornette Coleman very early on in his career. Ornette Coleman’s phrasing was very organic to my ear, insinuating a freer sense of harmony by virtue of his melodies and how they were placed.  Paul also played with Sonny Rollins, who on the other hand was right on it with respect to the harmony but with an amazingly flexible time feel and use of phrasing that bordered on free.  I remember driving home late one night after a gig in Baltimore and hearing a long cut by Sonny on the radio, a twenty minute vamp on one chord.  His playing was powerful and his ideas were abundant, a fountain of imagination.  But his phrasing was loose to the point that it almost sounded drunk, except that the nuances were very detailed and his timing was incredibly precise.  I almost had to stop the car just to listen.  It made a big impression on me.

I’ve told the story a number of times about how this idea of loose and organic phrasing combined with an exact sense of time and harmony came together for me one afternoon at a jam session.  And how that same evening I had the opportunity to sit in on a gig with Paul Motian (a long time collaborator with Paul Bley) which catalyzed the whole thing in a “never look back” kind of way. You can read about this in more detail in a previous post that I wrote about Paul Motian.  And so in looking to find out where this all might have come from I began listening and tracing more deeply some of the musical currents that lead up to it.  In retrospect, I can hear this going all the way back to Louis Armstrong.  But somehow it seems to have gotten lost amid the mostly eighth note oriented approach to jazz playing that dominated when I was coming up (and in many ways still does).  But there was this one “modern” recording that particularly stood out, “Sonny Meets Hawk” from 1963.  I’d never heard Sonny Rollins play quite the way he does on this recording, rather startling, and I’ve always wondered what was going on there.  Did it have something to do with Coleman Hawkins’ presence? How could that not affect a person, especially another saxophonist? Paul Bley plays on this date and his solo on “All the Things You Are” was equally startling and multidimensional.

So I spelled all of this out for Paul Bley right there in the coffee shop. And I asked “what was the dynamic between Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins?  And “where did this way of playing come from that I heard in your solo?” I think these were the only questions I asked.  It was certainly all I said for the next hour or so.  Paul took my questions and spun an elaborate and somewhat confusing (though I didn’t dare interrupt) story that began with his time on the road with Sonny Rollins and gradually morphed, spilling into all kinds of other tangental areas finally ending with the proclamation that in six months time the CD will be dead and we’ll all be forced to create visual imagery to go along with our music, just to stay in business (this was 1994). It was a wild ride, hugely entertaining if not somewhat illogical and contradictory at many turns.  And I never got a straight answer to my question.  I’m not sure he even addressed it.  But I do remember very vividly his description of what it felt like playing in Sonny’s band.  He said they were playing every night plus these matinee gigs on Sunday afternoons.  He spoke about how over the period of some weeks Sonny kept upping the ante during his solos and how it made Paul feel in trying to keep up.  Sonny would play longer and longer solos in which the intensity went unabated.  It got to the point where Paul felt that the attitude became one of playing forever.  When Sonny was playing, he was simply going to play forever.  And when it was time for Paul to play he was in turn going to have to play forever as well.  Imagine that kind of commitment. Forever.  I’m going to play forever.  There are a lot of ways you could take that, both positively or negatively, seriously or not.  But it was almost as if he were reliving the experience in telling it to me.  I was kind of in awe of this even as I was also a little confused.

To be honest I’m still unsure what he really meant or what he may have been trying to get at.  But it’s a great thing to wonder about.  Now, in thinking about Paul Bley’s passing, twenty years later and moving through the imaginary barrier between one year and the next, is it time to reflect? Or time to look ahead?  To sum up the past or forecast the future doesn’t seem right somehow.  Lately I’m beginning to feel more and more as if it’s all right here, right now. Nothing’s missing.  In spending that bemused hour with Paul I could only make sense of what he was saying as a flow. But what was he getting at? Perhaps he was just being mischievous but I sensed more than that.  That’s why I didn’t want to interrupt him.  I knew there was something special in his story telling, something in between the lines, and I knew I might miss it if I wasn’t paying close attention. And here I am, still wondering.  Best not to try and sum it all up.  Being a little confused can be good.  Things are messy, agendas are many.  And yet there is truth all around us.  Learn from what’s right in front of you, an idea that I try and instill in my students.  Good to keep reminding myself as well.  Thanks Paul.

For those who read Italian there is a review of that evening’s concert.

Rodd Keith plays...Tenderly

Here’s a short excerpt of a recording of my father Rodd Keith, playing piano sometime in the mid 1950’s. He was around the age of twenty and largely self-taught.  I don’t have many examples of his music other than the song-poem material that’s drawn a certain amount of attention.  I’ve always been told there was much more to him and this early example perhaps points to that.  It would have only been a few years prior to the time my mother and he played music together.  They even did a television program in Kansas in the late 50’s.  I always wondered what that sounded like.  Maybe a little bit like this…

“The Soul of Baltimore”

I mention my hometown of Baltimore not infrequently.  The experience of growing up there has left an indelible impression in ways that I’m still working out, even after thirty-plus years in New York City.  I often speak of my mother, who played organ in nightclubs throughout the city in the early ‘60s. Not jazz clubs but lounges.  With lots of drinking. She was there strictly for the music and to make her living.  But there’s no getting around the fact that the reputation that many of these clubs had was not completely underserved. There was often a criminal element around the edges.  Or at least you didn’t have to go far to find it.  And yet the ways in which the musical and social culture interacted with every other walk of life…religious, workaday, political, educational, you name it…were much more fluid than not.  Boundaries were not always cleanly delineated.

Being a musician afforded me the opportunity to see life from a number of perspectives, sometimes contradictory and confusing, that I don’t think most folks get to experience.  If I was a writer I think I’d try and do a book on Baltimore, from the 50’s or so on up. I may have said this before somewhere, that while in Baltimore it’s hard to imagine anything outside of Baltimore.  And when outside of Baltimore it’s hard to imagine Baltimore as having been a real place, almost having been part of my imagination.  But it’s quite a real place.  And it’s quite unique in my estimation. In looking back there is much to value although while living there I often found a certain kind of frustration with limitations that I could not fully understand.  I sometimes do research on the musical and social fabric of the city. I’m fascinated with history as it was lived on the streets, the kind that does not always find expression in history books chronicling the main events and important figures of past generations.  There were many people who were integral to the culture of Baltimore who’s stories may never be properly told.

And so when I come across something that speaks from this place I like to share it.  Especially when the content resonates directly with what is still happening in Baltimore. The University of Baltimore hosts archival material on line including this WMAR-TV documentary from 1968 called “The Soul of Baltimore”.  It’s a time capsule of sorts in which civil rights activist Walter P. Carter speaks at length on conditions in the city from a number of perspectives. If you can get past some of the narration Mr. Carter goes into some depth in his own words on a range of subjects including the role of jazz in Baltimore.  In fact there are a couple of short excerpts of a live concert from the Left Bank Jazz Society by saxophonist Lee Konitz with Eddie Gomez on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums (at 5:25 - 6:26 and again at 14:36 - 16:01). He also speaks of Coltrane’s last concert having taken place at the Left Bank.

Here's the link:  “The Soul of Baltimore” 1968