An Infectious Case of Jazz Fanaticism

by Will Layman

13 April 2011


Watching People Listen

We grabbed three seats at a table adjacent to the stage, pulling ourselves within inches of the drum kit and close to what would be Joe McPhee’s saxophone mic.  Neil and I chose to share a 750ml bottle of Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale from North Coast Brewing (hereby recommended, and not just because of Monk), while JoAnne chose a glass of wine.  McPhee ambled out looking like he’s just come from cleaning out his garage, and Hughes set up the farthest away from us, stage left.  Hebert and Waits joined them.

And they started playing.  Or were they tuning up? “Oh, crap,” I thought, “I think they are just tuning up.  But this could be the show.  I mean, free jazz sounds like this sometimes, right?  Is this it?  What are my friends thinking?:  It actually sounded pretty interesting, but also mighty disorganized.  And it was the sound of relief when they stopped and Adam Schatz got on the stage.

Schatz, true to his reputation, was quick and loose.  He introduced the series and the show, plugged Search & Restore in the way that you might plug an outfit that’s reaching for a ragtag DIY vibe, and then the musicians dug in for real.

And this was no rehearsal or some batch of tuning up.  Waits was fleet and agile on the drums—not loud, but certainly assertive in both getting to a groove and in rattling free from anything regular.  Hebert wasn’t shy about either his rich tone or playing clear patterns.  At any moment, you could simply choose to listen to what the bass was playing and know that you were in strong, remarkably tonal hands.  And Joe McPhee had a delicacy about his reed work from the start.  Not that he wouldn’t get around to some eek-ing and even some onk-ing, but from the beginning it was clear that he had melody in mind.  McPhee would search for it, start chasing it, catch a hold of something lovely, and then it was his.  And ours.

When I wasn’t hypnotized by the music, I was letting my self-consciousness get the better of me.  I was glancing over at Neil and JoAnne, trying to get a read on what they were hearing.  Were my friends enjoying this slow-morphing collage of sound?  Was it reasonable of me to expect, as jazz novices, that they would dig it?  Was it elitist of me to imagine that, for some reason, they couldn’t?

Here’s what I saw.  Neil was enveloped by Waits’ drumming, following the cascades of patterns even though they didn’t regularly coalesce into a driving beat.  His favorite music might be rich in pocket, but that just made him more attuned to the importance of rhythm generally, and he plainly could hear the pull of different rhythmic ideas as they worked themselves through Waits’ fingers and wrists.

JoAnne was following melody like it was a long story being told, even if it wasn’t some repetitive pop song.  She was moved by the arcing lines of Hebert’s bass, which was sometimes swinging and other times rooted to the ground.  And she was also focused on McPhee’s penchant for simple statements, particularly a gleaming gospel line that he formulated at the end of one of the spontaneous statements.  The whole band came together on it, even if it wasn’t rehearsed, and McPhee and the band all chuckled a bit in the break, surprised themselves at how lovely it was.  JoAnne thought it was lovely, too.

What had me marveling were the textures.  Hughes’ cello was almost never the lead, but she was the special sauce of the meal for me.  She found a middle voice between Hebert and McPhee no matter what was going on, and on most of the journeys of the night she and Hebert would eventually lock into little area of “string section playing”, harmonizing in parallel layers like they were part of a Gregorian Chant for the new age.  Waits was the sand on the bottom and McPhee was riding like a surfer on top, but the cello and bass became the sea itself, undulating in foamy waves.

When the set ended and our Brother Thelonious Ale was gone, I knew that the night had gone well.  “Wow,” my companions said in near unison.

New Jazz Fans
It was 2am in lower Manhattan, but we weren’t tired.  What followed was a long conversation as the club emptied out.  I suggested that avant-garde jazz was kind of like modern art, and JoAnne brightened to the thought of Pollack and Rothko.  Neil prefers the surrealists, we learned, and wonders whether Rothko is really worth his time.  But the music we’d heard that night turned out not to be forbidding at all.  For Neil, it wasn’t so different from newer forms of rock: urgent and pulsing and not so concerned with being “pretty”.  For JoAnne there seemed to be connections to other kinds of expression and art—stuff she’d learned to love and take seriously.  Jazz was proving itself to her not as “fun”, perhaps, but as worthy.

And so maybe Adam Schatz had it right after all.  And maybe I had it wrong and should have urged all my colleagues to come out late for a taste of the eek-onk music.  Maybe if you can simply strip away the pretense of jazz, the slicked-out “jazziness” of jazz, perhaps then the music gets to speak more directly and plainly.

Maybe what could make jazz more popular is not a saxophone-rich version of “F*#% You” or a swinging treatment of some Lady Gaga song.  People might simply need to be asked to listen to real musicians playing with unabashed spontaneity—no cleverness or condescension anywhere to be found.

We cabbed it back uptown to our hotel, but our ears and hearts were still buzzing.  JoAnne suggested that the night wasn’t over yet, and we ultimately found ourselves having breakfast in a diner on Ninth Avenue.  The city was layered with melodies, and our feet on the cold sidewalk provided percussion.  The whole day seemed like it had been a prelude, and The Blue Note had just been the first movement.

We played on until morning light started to creep over the city’s edge.

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