[14 April 2011]
Oh, the joy of being a fanatic. There’s nothing quite so delicious as loving something utterly and then indulging in that thing—scratching your itch, satisfying a craving, surrendering yourself to an obsession.
That’s why I hear some music whenever I make a trip to New York. If you love jazz, then New York is where it’s at: your Mecca, your promised land, your final frontier. (Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, a good chunk of Europe—you are all acknowledged, but only New York has world-class, adventurous jazz, seven nights per week, every week, always.)
The problem with being an over-the-top fanatic, however, is in the sharing.
So when I found myself in New York with a group of teaching colleagues last month, I fretted. I made my plans to head to the late Friday night “Spontaneous Construction” show at The Blue Note, no doubt about that. But I also invited anyone to come with me. I couldn’t very well leave this group of wonderful people for a world famous jazz club and make it known that I didn’t want any company, could I?
Like most folks, I like company. If there’s something better than indulging in a fanatical obsession, then it’s doing the indulging with others who are as passionate as you.
But if there’s one way to ruin such an indulgence, then it’s to sit rapt and mesmerized at a show, only to realize that the friend who came along with you is hating it: checking his watch every two minutes, fidgeting, even visibly irritated by the very thing that is pulsing wonderfully in your own pleasure-center.
We’ve all been there, I assume. A Woody Allen fan can sit in the theater delighted and tickled by what seems inane and indulgent to a non-fan. A baseball nut can find unabashed joy in witnessing a 1-0 shut-out on a cloudy April day while a friend wonders whether the team earns runs by being boring. Opera lovers, fans of modern dance, and advocates of certain exotic cuisines, surely you know of what I write.
So, in inviting my colleagues to the show, I was careful. “After our meal on Friday,” I wrote in an email, “I plan to hear some jazz. Let me know if you’d like to come. It’ll be a late set featuring some wild music. Not exactly Sinatra or Kenny G—but it should be a great!”
Was that exclamation mark a mistake? Did the email sound jerky and patronizing? Will no one come? Or, uh… will everyone come? My quandary just grew.
The show I was intent on seeing that Friday featured drummer Nasheet Waits and tenor saxophonist Joe McPhee. The premise of the “Spontaneous Construction” series is simple: musicians play together for the first time with, one presumes, little rehearsal. The premium is on improvisation. Waits and McPhee were to be joined by the redoubtable bassist John Hebert and a cellist I had never heard of, Marika Hughes. My expectation was that we would hear no composed music at all, just group improvisation. Lullaby music I did not expect.
The series is run by a guy named Adam Schatz who got a sweet write-up by Ben Ratliff in the New York Times last December. Schatz is in his early-20s, a saxophonist but now mainly a guerilla concert promoter who is trying to bring the energy and style of small rock shows to the world of jazz. His non-profit organization, Search & Restore, runs a website that promotes what he considers to be he best jazz shows in New York. His goal for 2011 is to film hundreds of bands so that potential jazz fans can see the music first and then be inspired to check it out live.
Schatz is trying to create a new audience for jazz. He told Ratliff, “Jazz has been so tainted by a pretty self-righteous attitude. It kills any desire for people to go out and discover it.” It’s an intriguing premise, and I one have some sympathy for. While Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center program have done a great deal to institutionalize jazz and give it a cultural center in its most vital city, it is undeniable that all those JALC tuxedos and Wynton’s pronouncements on what is and isn’t jazz have made this gloriously fresh music seem as stale as your grandma’s taste in blue jeans.
On the other hand, will completely free improvisation—what my friend Colleen calls “Eek-Onk Music”—lure in new listeners, folks who might be used to hearing a good verse-chorus pop song? I was about to find out.
Two colleagues take me up on my offer of a trip to The Blue Note. One is a good friend whose taste in music is broad but, in jazz, only includes the kind of soulful, classic sounds that you might associate with Cannonball Adderley. He’s heard some Bad Plus and some Medeski, Martin and Wood, but his musical center of gravity sits somewhere between Sam Cooke and Arcade Fire—a cool place to be, but how comfortable would I be lending him Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, Again?
Photo of John Hebert by Will Layman
My other companion is a woman I don’t know as well. She’s smart, and I’ve never known her to be less than open-minded. But whether it was because she is a suburban mom (making me a little sexist) or whether it was because she is neat-as-a-pin and from the Midwest (making me some kind of East Coast hipster jerk), I felt like I should warn her again. “JoAnne, so, this music, it’s not going to be ‘jazzy’ and smooth. It’ll prob’ly be on the avant-garde side.”
“But you think it will be good?” she asked me right back. And I had to face my own doubts. I really had no idea how good it would be.
“Here’s hoping,” I said. And so at 12:15 the three of us hopped in a cab and sped downtown to The Blue Note.
I hadn’t been to The Blue Note in some time. It’s a famous club with a long history, now franchised in Tokyo and Nagano, Japan, and Milan, Italy. Headliners at The Blue Note are huge names in jazz—either jazz royalty from the past (McCoy Tyner), shiny stars of the present (Joshua Redman, James Carter) or crossover artists like Al Jarreau or, this April, the reunion of The Crusaders.
But for all that glitz, the New York Blue Note is in line for a renovation. As we entered the quiet club at half-past-midnight, it was obvious that the carpet was aching and the walls needed something done. My companions preferred it that way, I think. This was supposed to be a classic jazz club, not an Applebees.
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.