As Time Goes By: Kurt Elling, Lynne Arriale, and Philip Levine and The Poetry of Jazz, Vol. 2

I have been fortunate to know, interview, and write about three extraordinary artists: jazz singer/songwriter Kurt Elling, jazz pianist Lynne Arriale, and poet Philip Levine—the voice of the latter, who died in 2015 at age 87, celebrated by saxophonist Benjamin Boone on two CDs: The Poetry Of Jazz, Volumes One and Two. For this Bill’s Blog post, I’d like to express—with “examples”–the admiration and respect I feel for their work.

First: Kurt Elling. I have been corresponding with his publicist, Trudy Johnson-Lenz. Back in September, 2018, she let me know about a livestreamed broadcast from Dizzy’s Club in Lincoln Center of “Kurt Elling and Friends Celebrate Jon Hendricks,” featuring special guests Aria and Michele Hendricks (Jon’s daughters), Kevin Fitzgerald Burke, and vocalist Sheila Jordan.

The program was special because of Kurt’s solid friendship with Hendricks. He wrote about that friendship in a JazzTimes piece: “The first thing—always—was the smile. Immediate-upon-recognition, and wholly spontaneous. Bona fide. Beatific. And big? I’m talking little-kid-on-Christmas joyful, light-up-the-world big. Generous, in a way that would always be entirely beyond your deserving … Then the gesture would come: the arms thrown wide open to welcome you home. It was an indication that revealed an invitation—to embrace, and to admire … Here, my friends, was a self-made man. Here was a man who started out just another kid among 15 in one family. Except he wasn’t ‘just’ anything. He was the seventh son. As such, he would choose his own fate, standing out for the rest of his life … As a boy he sang for nickels and dimes in the bars: ‘Hey, mister, don’t waste that nickel on the jukebox! Give me that nickel and I’ll sing you any song that’s there. I know ’em all!’ As an adult he sang, by invitation, for the crowned heads of Europe. What’s more, he would write his own songs and lyrics—lyrics like none that had ever been heard before. This was a man whose ingenuity and artistry propelled him to combine Shakespearean-level lyrics with mother wit and acrobatic, atomic, urbane 20th-century swing and bop.”

The September 8 live-streamed show was great—a handsome tribute to Jon Hendricks in every way. On February 28 of this year, I heard from Trudy Johnson-Lenz again, letting me know of the world premiere of “Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind,” his “noir radio-style drama with live Foley sound effects and a 23-piece orchestra, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.” Again, two performance (March 1 and March 2) would be livestreamed. The theme of this show was “What happens to a person who’s been given an artistic gift and has the temperament, but the avenue of expression is obliterated?”

Trudy Johnson-Lenz gave me a complete run-down on the performance: “Kurt co-wrote the book, eight new songs, and the lyrics to four more with Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer Phil Galdston. The Big Blind’s stellar cast: Kurt Elling, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ben Vereen, Allison Semmes, and Ian Shaw. Guy Barker conducts the ‘Jack Lewis Orchestra,’ which is actually drummer Ulysses Owens’ New Century Big Band. Ulysses is the musical director.  Terry Kinney is directing. The Foley artist is Jeff Ward.”

Here are photos of D.D. Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, and Allison Semmes (Photo credits: http://english.cri.cn; http://www.tdf.org; http://www.broadway.com/buzz):

D.D. Brigewater 5    Kurt Elling for Blog

Allison Semmes 4

I had to miss the first offering because of a gig of my own (playing piano for an event in Cannery Row), but I saw the second complete performance, and it was grand—again, a special consideration adding to my appreciation. Back in 2009, I had written an article for Jazz West on “Kurt Elling and the Beat Generation,” and Kurt had told me then of his plans to write and produce the work I’d just seen. Here’s what he said, then: “I’ve had an idea that for a few years has been gestating. It will be somewhat autobiographical, but it will also be based on Joe E. Lewis and The Jokers Wild: just using that as a very basic skeleton, but doing it in a very contemporary context and in that way sort of embracing history, because I have all these deep parallel experiences to Joe E. Lewis. The Green Mill was the club he was working in when they [mobsters] cut his throat. I know the tunnels. I know the ghosts of that place, and that it’s still a functioning club and it still has all this energy and it’s living. I’m not that interested in the old-time gangster thing. That seems real corny to me, and I want to present contemporary music as a heavy part of this, so we’re talking about a contemporary setting of an artistic tragedy—one that features a live and semi-spontaneous score.”

Me: “Will it work that way: as a legit ‘Greek’ tragedy, hubris, denouement and all?”

Kurt: “I’m working on the form. I’m not sure how its going to end, whether he pulls himself out or what the thing is, but I’m sure you can well imagine what an intensely mental game … well, I don’t know if ‘mental game’ is the right way to put it, but it’s something for me to contemplate: his life and the lives of people who have an artistic gift in a very special frequency and for whatever reason have that gift taken away from them. And then, what do you do with the rest of your time? If you can’t have your work in the Smithsonian and play music … if you don’t have a diversity where you’ve got back up things—then what?”

Me: “When people ask me if I ever get ‘writer’s block,’ I say, ’No, I just go someplace else,’ [to play and compose music] which is a fortunate option I think.”

Kurt: “Yeah! I think this kind of idea goes to not only the questions that would specifically haunt us, but questions of regeneration, questions of self. The choice of one’s identity, and the creation of identity. I want to say that’s an American thing. It’s not just that of an individual artist. This is not just a genre-wide phenomenon. Here are all these musicians who are creating themselves by creating music. They’ve done discipline, they’ve learned history; they’ve learned about music and now they are declaring themselves. And that’s an American thing.”

The March 2 performance of Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind jumped off to a very “cool” start. We’re back in Chicago, 1957, with Kurt as band leader/vocalist Jack Lewis (who loves to shout out to his audience, in appreciation for their applause, “Without you, I’m nothin!”). He is in conference with Ian Shaw as Tony Mongoose,” a “wanna-be” manager. Jack already has one: D.D. Bridgewater as Veronica, who “owns” him in ways and means beyond their contract, but Mongoose (who says of Veronica: “She’s a colored woman, at that.”) asserts, “You been stuck in neutral, goin’ nowhere fast! You got to be ready to jump, to jazz, to jive the world, get yourself in the groove; what’s that sound? That sound, my son, is opportunity knocking!”–and he then claims, “I’ll dig you up as a real singer … Star billing, get you your own room, you open in one week … in Vegas! Everybody wins!”

The classic 50’s Show Biz jargon and fake (Mongoose) or self-conscious (Jack Lewis) “hep talk” (jive talk) is a kick, and reminded me of something else Kurt Elling talked about in our 2008 interview. I had mentioned young MFA in creative writing candidates I met at a writers conference who, when I talked about living in San Francisco in 1958, said, “You were a Beatnik! To us that was the Golden Age!”—and I told them I was not fully aware, at the time, that I was a “Beatnik,” and that my wife and I and one-year old child were dirt poor to boot and it was no “Golden Age.”

Kurt: “Yeah, it’s all the Golden Age, and none of it’s the Golden Age. You know, frankly, musicians on the jazz scene in Chicago, certainly the people I was hanging out with, well, I gravitated toward the older musicians because I wanted jazz father figures, and I wanted to have their blessing and their encouragement and their love and their acceptance. I wanted to touch the past through them, and that’s how they talk! [laughs] So I wanted to be like them. It’s a little bit like what Gary Grant said: he became Cary Grant by pretending to be him long enough so that he did! He became him! So, now it’s just part of the thing, and I think it’s cool. It’s become an organic part of me, and even here at the [Monterey Jazz] Festival, I’m not the only one, man. Talk to Joe Lovano for a couple of minutes. Some of us just want to be a part of that. We want to continue to manifest that energy, because it’s good to be a slick, you know? It’s chic! It’s not ordinary.”

I quoted another portion of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, previously mentioned, for which Mezzrow even provides a glossary, and a translation, at the back of his book: “All I got left is a roach no longer than a pretty chick’s memory. I’m gonna breeze to my personal snatchpad and switch my dry goods while they’re [his lady friend is plural!] out on the turf,” etc. I told Kurt that, as I kid, these words became embedded in my head (and are still there, indelible), even before I learned the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence.

 Kurt: [laughing] “There you go!”

In the The Big Blind performance, Ben Vereen–as tenor saxophonist Eddie Freeman–functions as narrator (setting the frame for Jack’s life), and D.D. Bridgewater is spectacular as manager Veronica—coming on like “gangbusters,” calling Mongoose a “oil street pimp, tryin’ to impress all the boys … he learned whatever songs he knows in a prison shower,” whereas she, who loves to spend time (on an expense account) in Paris, is “building a continental  identity” for Jack, hobnobbing with French stars like Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf—which leads her into a song about Paris, the “city of eternal love”—a song which includes some catchy lyrics (“What if forever is never … Never enough time is there—for forever.”) and a message: “Don’t matter who you love, or the color of your skin.”

Jack has reservations regarding his role as “lover,” and when Eddie enters, saying “What’s that all about?”, Jack says, “Play along will you Eddie”—the latter saying, as an aside, “Lady V found him when he was a singing waiter.”

Here are photos of the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago (outside and in); Joe E. Brown; and two photos of Kurt Elling singing at the Green Mill (Photo credits: www.choosechicago.com;  http://uplup.com/music/green-mill-chicago; www.doctormacro.com/; Wikepedia;  www.facebook.com/kurtelling/)

Green Mill Cocktail Lounge 3

Green Mill Cocktail Lounge 2  Joe E. Brown 2 Kurt Elling at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge  Kurt Elling at the Green Mill 2

All of the acting in Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind was solid, the story line unfolding as somewhat familiar (solid 1950s “stuff”), enticing, accurate—and good fun. And the unity of it all (the big band backing very effective—in terms of mood and forward motion) reminded me of one more set of statements Kurt Elling made back in 2008:

Kurt: “Well, again, if as an individual artist you could do anything from ranting to soliloquy to vocalese to straight up extemporaneous communication, I think that one already probably has a natural consciousness that is syncretic, one that wants to pull things together and see how they  combine. The most interesting thing is not to try to combine everything with everything; it’s to combine this interesting thing with this very disparate interesting thing, and to have a new viewpoint on everything else because you never would have thought of those two things together. So when the commissions started, who am I to say no? I gave it my best shot. They were always on a shoestring budget and they were only meant to run one or two nights at a time, but I’d give it my best shot because it was just a great creative challenge to try to figure out how these things would work together. I’m really proud of the results. I feel like I have a good organic sense of the way that dance and music and spoken word would go together, especially if I’m familiar enough with the choreographer’s work. Because a lot of times, if I’m seeing someone who has a great choreographic gift, and insight, that often inspires stories in me, so I’m adapting my thing to something that goes with this. It’s that kind of call and response, if you will.”

He held to these principles in the work I was watching. The scenes that followed were somewhat predictable, but handled with originally within each context. Jack meets a “young chick,” Jill (Allison Semmes, who took over as Diana Ross in Motown and led the 1st and 2nd Broadway national tours of that musical—and she’s adorable!)—taking photos for “a negro paper.” At the club he’s working, she asks Jack, “You a waiter?” “No, I’m a musician.” She’s impressed by, and takes photos of his performance, while he’s thinking (in Show Biz terms): “Hmmm, Jack and Jill … we may have to work on that.” She sings: “The faces I find … if I can stop the wheels of time and freeze the frame … the picture that never lies … In old age, every wrinkle’s a page …I can see so deep in you.”

The lyrics, the dialogue—everything was so cool in the overall performance, I’m tempted to try to quote each line (I took copious notes I hope are accurate!), but I haven’t space in this Blog, unfortunately, to do that, so … I’ll lightly touch on some lines that carried the performance to a very dramatic first-act conclusion: the scene having shifted to Chicago’s legendary cocktail lounge, The Green Mill, “The Pearl of Uptown … islands of love awaiting.” Jill is there, and saxophonist Eddie is “diggin’ on the light-skinned sister in the room,” saying, ironically, to the Shutter Bug (when she asks to take his picture), “They say it’ a free country,” telling her when she claims his saxophone “preaches” that he “plays the sounds that’s me,” and, when she asks, “Is it always like that for Jack—the autographs and attention?”: “Jack’s the front man, and front men are stars … stars get the honies,” adding, in a song, that other players on the stand are  “professional unsung heroes … you’re married to the music, for the music understands.”

After the show, Jack, promising “no complications,” cries, “Let’s go dancing!” Jill claims she’ll stick with “doing what she knows is right,” he claims “I’ll show you that I’m worth the risk”; and they do dance, both feel “sudden sensation,” and, in the midst of what Eddie labels “Jack’s Golden Hour” … the phone rings. It’s Veronica, of course, an “overseas call” in which she, again, promises him a gig in Paris, in “that little club over by Sacré-Cœur, Piaf’s favorite café”—then breaks off: “Jack, who’s that?” She screams accusations (D. D. Bridgewater is perfect, powerful in this role), “And in our bed!” Shouts, “I know what’s best for us,” and when Jack asks, “What’s that?”, responds, “ME!” Her jealousy drives her to song: “Be mine. Be careful! You are mine. Hear me, and you should fear me!”

But Jack has been anything but careful. At the close of his show, having asked (to her dismay) Jillie (not Mongoose) to be his new manager in Vegas, he cries out, “Special night here, Green Mill. Love!”—singing (a la Frank Sinatra), “All the Way,” and adding, “Without you, Baby, I’m nothing!” And that’s when we learn that Veronica did not call from Paris, “overseas,” but she’s there, in the Green Mill, and she’s heard everything. The radio announcer proclaims, “Take five, ladies and gentlemen.” Intermission.

Part Two of the noir radio-style drama resumes with a brazen Big Band burst, totally fit for the reentry, which is restless. Kurt (as Jack) appears in a while shirt and loose tie, phone in hand. Eddie also appears, with Mongoose. Eddie reminds Jack that Veronica “has an eight-inch blade in her boot,” and Mongoose tells Jack (who feels he’s “gotta find Jillie”), he’s “better off” (“ridding ourselves of all complications”). The next scene discloses Jack alone at the Green Mill, after hours, and Veronica shows up—on the warpath. “And now Las Vegas,” she says with a hiss; and when Jack protests, saying “Vegas is good business for me,” she snarls, “Mama’s talking! You don’t tell me, I tell you!” She slaps him, hard—saying, “You singing waiter!” She calls Jillie “a little whore.” A traumatic experience from their past slips out (“Our baby was born dead”) and when she attacks, slaps him again, it’s with a swipe of the blade she carries in her boot. Jack falls, choking. We hear a door slam, and the next scene takes place …

In hospital. Jillie is there. Jack’s throat has been cut and he can’t breathe. Jillie sings: “Let me sit beside you for a minute … Why can’t we just break free?” Nearly voiceless, Jack mutters, “Get Tony [Mongoose]!”—who appears as if on command, but turns cynical, saying, “Nothing left to manage … a lame horse … when the going gets tough … I’ve seen ‘em come and go …if he wants to stay in Show Biz, he can get a job as a drummer’s ventriloquist”—arrogantly adding “I’m the real star of the show!”

Eddie assumes a more prominent role as narrator from this point on. “Tony split town, leaving Jillie and me. And what’s left of Jack’s … voice.” Eddie tells us that the doctors say they don’t know if Jack will ever sing again. Jack “won’t rat on Veronica.” The two women, the rivalsfor what’s left of Jack, literally bump into each other on a visit to the hospital. Veronica asks Jillie if she’s there to see her “father”—then, “What is he … your sugar daddy?”

Jack’s voice gone, he takes to drink—and turns on Jillie: “You and your bloody street pictures.” He claims that Tony (Mongoose) was his “ticket to everything.” Jillie says, “I believed in you, not just your singing.” Jack strikes her, breaking a bottle of booze. Mournful music follows. Eddie shows up at Jillie’s place, saying he hasn’t heard a word from Jack, but has heard that he’s become “a running bum at the end of the bar”—and we shift to that scene, Jack singing (surprisingly well!) a song about “memories like old movies … moaning, slurring over words unspoken.” And then attempts the classic “Angel Eyes” (“I Try to think that loves not around / But it’s uncomfortably near / My old heart ain’t gaining no ground /Because my angel eyes ain’t here … So drink up all you people / Order anything you see / Have fun you happy people /The laughs and the jokes on me.”).

Eddie’s narration continues as Jack’s deterioration does: “Jack went on a real bender … library stairs, staring at strangers.” The wicked witch Veronica appears “somewhere in the fog, in the shadows,” in a “blur,” and sings: “I know your desperate wish, I know your darkest fear. Why am I still here? Survival!” And thinking of rival Jillie: “I’ll show her how a woman fights back when she’s black and blue … This is not the end … he’ll come back to me again, and we’ll laugh … I’ll laugh … Love: it’s never fair!” But it’s her “survival.”

Here are two photos of Kurt Elling in his role as Jack in The Big Blind (Photo credits www.pastemagazine.com/;  /www.southbankcentre.co.uk ):

Kurt Elling in Radio Drama The Big Blind  Kurt Elling in The Big Blind (2)

Eddie finally gets caught up with Jack, “passed out in a park.” Eddie attempts to lure him “back,” saying, “I believe the boys are gonna raise the roof tonight.” And not just “three chords” stuff (“ain’t gonna find me playing that shit”). He reminds Jack of Jillie, “The one gal who would have loved you”—and when Jack responds “It’s all gone … How am I supposed to live, Eddie?”, the latter sings a plaintive refrain on “love”: “You just have to feel it … when the world seems suddenly still … that soft-spoken melody will find its way to you … when hope is lost, give your words up to the great unknown … the sounds of the street and the voice of your soul.” And Eddie offers Jack a gentle sermon on rehabilitation: “Practice till you find something worth playing … Show up! Show up! When love is lost, or only exists in a dream … the melody remains in your heart, when pain fills you up again.”

The immediate result is good. Eddie tells us that “Jack came to stay with me for a while,” and Eddie “kept tabs on Miss Jillie,” who, returning to art school, has found success in NYC, a show of her photographs “opening Sunday afternoon at the Two Deuces.” Jack returns, momentarily, to “the joy box,” asking to sit in (“Could you loan me the piano for a minute?”) and tells his audience, “I haven’t been doing much singing, folks … This is new.” He sings, “They say dreams never die; I think that’s a lie … How can a dream live on, after the night is gone? … What becomes of the soul when the story is said and done … the music we hear will all disappear … on swallow wings.”

When he finishes the song, he sees Jillie—but walks out, just giving her a “little wave.” He tells Eddie: “See ya back at the crib,” but Eddie knows he’s just witnessed Jack’s “swan song … He just walked out into the night and disappeared.” Years go by. Eddie receives postcards depicting mountains and pine trees and the only words are: “It’s a good life up here.” Word comes he’s worked as a deck hand … he still listens to the radio—broadcasts from New York and Chicago. He signs off all contact: “Take care of yourself, Jack.”

At the close of the radio-drama, Eddie reflects: “We were two swinging cats at the opposite ends of our prime … Jack Lewis was my friend … he was the voice of Chicago: the sound!”

The voice of the announcer introduces the full cast, to rousing Big Band music and raucous applause from the audience. Kurt Elling is alive and well! He has added another “chapter” to his own story, his exceptional multi-faceted career. Congratulations, Kurt and friends on an excellent production: brilliant music, meaningful lyrics, a perfect balance between music and words, accessible story line, fully engaging drama, exceptional acting—the works! And thanks, again, Trudy Johnson-Lenz, for letting me know in advance about this important event.

 

Pianist Lynne Arriale recently sent me her latest CD, Give Us These Days, featuring her trio with Jasper Somsen on bass, and Jasper Van Hulten on drums. Going through previous recordings I have of hers, I realized we “go back” a long long way. I have: The Eyes Have It (1994), When You Listen (1995), With Words Unspoken (1996), A Long Road Home (1997), The Pleasure Of Your Company (with Richard “Cookie” Thomas: 1998), Melody (1999), Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1999), Inspiration (2000), Arise (2002), Come Together (2004). Other recordings by this prolific artist I do not have are: Lynne Arriale Trio: Live In Burghausen (2006), Lynne Arriale Trio Live (2011), Convergence (2011), Live at B’ Jazz (2014), Nuance:The Bennett Studio Sessions (2017), Solo (2017).

If I remember correctly, I first met Lynne Arriale, and heard her play, at the Jazz Bakery in Santa Monica—perhaps as far back as the mid-1990s. Fellow jazz writer Scott Yanow took me there, and introduced me to Lynne (whom he’d written about). In 2002, an article I wrote about her (based on an interview I had with her after she performed at the Jazz & Blues Company in Carmel) appeared in the March/ April issue of Coda. When Marian McPartland played at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2004, she did so, in piano duets, with Jason Moran, Bill Charlop, and Lynne Arriale—and I contributed an article, “Piano Abundance: Marian McPartland, the matriarch of jazz piano, highlights a constellation of keyboard stars,” to that year’s Festival program. Lynne was one of the “keyboard stars” I wrote about. I also recall a concert she gave at a walkdown venue I don’t remember the name of in Pacific Grove, CA, where I live—Lynne performing solo on a white grand piano.

I wrote the following in the Coda piece: “[Lynne Arriale] opened her second set at the Jazz & Blues Company in Carmel, California with “Bemsha Swing”–Monk with a vengeance, amply demonstrating that she’s at home with all forms of jazz and can richly interpret anybody’s tunes. No easy task in the case of Monk, given the individuation that giant himself possessed, and the host of genres (from stride to blues to bop) he too had absorbed and transformed … Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge prized the sort of individual artistry that could ‘dissolve, diffuse, dissipate in order to re-create.’ Coleridge, and Monk, would have been pleased with what Arriale did with “Bemsha Swing.” With unabated force and skill, she broke up the rhythms in a manner that might have surprised Monk, adding some cutting-edge cragginess of her own–wild clusters, sudden glisses, insinuating phrases and pauses that might have made Cecil Taylor smile, had he been in the house! The audience was kept alert, alive, and appreciative by it all until, the tune–the avalanche–resolved, Lynne Arriale sat back and smiled herself, saying, “It’s great to feel the presence of listening.” … She then exchanged the appropriate power (and joy) of Monkish “attitude” for the deceptive ease and serenity of William Walton’s “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part,” a tune that contained classical elegance.”

The first tune on the Give Us These Days CD is Joni Mitchell’s classic “Woodstock.” A somewhat solemn vamp leads into the theme, and the solely instrumental respectful rendering more than suggests the words (getting the soul “free,” and “back to the garden”); deft, direct, clean, carefully selected notes capturing the mood (along with Jasper Van Hulten’s accents and cymbal washes); a keyboard sweep followed by a percussive mode reassessing the event (bombers turned into butterflies—or “camping out” turned muddy?); a measure of frenzy in the celebration—chordal variation on the theme, and then back to it, mixed with an anthem (a touch of Jimi Hendrix?) “feel” and out, sweeping the keys again.

The next tune, “Appassionata,” features Van Hulten with a host of drum effects (all over the kit percussion), side by side with Lynne Arriale’s passionate but spare (subtle!) Flamingo melodic touch, handsome interplay, a lively yet over all lightsome conversation, dialogue, exchange … piano and drums back off for an subtle, agile bass solo by Jasper Somsen. Lynne’s ingenious rhythmic comping transforms itself into alert, alive melodicism for the close—followed by the lyric refrain of “welcome” in her composition (all but three tunes on the CD are her own), “Finding Home”; handsome lower register  chords beneath a lovely “no place like home” melody, offered as if cherished, caressed (her masterful touch!).

In his liner notes to Give Us These Days, Lawrence Abrams writes: “Above all, Lynne remains unfailingly a melodist. Her improvised musical sentences, or lines, are strong, lean, and lyrical. But whether they are rhythmic or motivic, as in Over and Out, or as in Finding Home, luxuriously long and complex, they fairly glow with her passion for melody.”

Here’s a photo of Lynne Arriale and the cover of the “Give Us These Days” CD (Photo credit: https://twitter.com):

Lynne Arriale 3  Lynne Arriale Give Us These Days

When, in the 2002 interview, I talked with her about her penchant for unadorned melody, Lynne Arriale offered a fitting analogy to speech. “‘Just because you know more words [substitute “notes”?], does that mean your speech is going to be more profound, or your writing? And the answer is ‘No,’ of course not. We all know that, yet it’s funny that, in music sometimes, doing more to something is considered hip, or whatever. But if we dress it up, we won’t be able to see the forest from the trees’ … Elsewhere, in the liner notes to Lynne Arriale Trio Live at Montreux, she’d said she wants an audience ‘to experience the widest range of human emotions,’ absorbing ‘many different colors, many different moods, many different directions.’ It works. Such generosity of spirit endeared her to the audience in Switzerland, and they loved her for it in Carmel too.”

Lynne Arriale generally works in a trio format. On that night in Carmel, I interviewed her with miracle-working drummer Steve Davis, who had provided percussive support for the past eight years and seemed to anticipate the pianist’s every musical move (for example, in their rapport on “Seven Steps to Heaven” with its stuttered Satie-like close). On the night I saw, heard, and interviewed her, Lynne Arriale’s plane had been delayed in Chicago, and she arrived at The Jazz & Blues Company just ten minutes before the trio’s gig began. Nevertheless, a slender, beautiful woman with auburn hair (which, tossing it in time to “Steven Steps to Heaven,” flared red) and stunning blue eyes, she carried a black “pillow” or cushion to the white piano bench (a cushion that looked as if it might be used for displaying jewels at Tiffany’s), and she performed without a trace of haste–or hunger (after her sets, when she, Steve Davis, and I retired to the Rio Grill, I would learn that she hadn’t had time to eat–an activity she undertook with zeal). I wrote, “Lynne Arriale’s appearance matches the range of her music, for it also suggests a completely winning, slightly waif-like quality that quickly converts to a tough, no-nonsense and fully articulate manner. All of these aspects turn up in her music.”

The title tune on the Give Us These Days CD (introduced by mallets on cymbal, establishing at the start a very comfortable “setting’) is again a piece that delivers sublime melody, again featuring Lynne’s brilliant bright touch, this time the mood arising from gratitude. The piece was inspired by Jim Schley’s poem, “Devotional,” which pays homage to every human cycle from marriage and inception (“confiding as never before /with body-sundering confidence;/ the sealed secrecy of youth”) to aging and treasured simple senses: “Hear one plea / when I say, let each of us three / live to be old … the sense of smell is ravenous / as you know, for these / blessed scents of kin: / the cotton jersey you work in, / or stockings for nights of singing / translucent as fragrance, / jade dress and cream-colored blouse, / mine to hold as I fold them … If I might be /so bold … if I may —Give us these days.”

Lynne Arriale “translates,” embodies such feelings into an instrumental prayer, reference for “the things of this world,” faith: the dialogue this time taking place between her left (chordal) and right (melody line) hands, totally at peace, at ease with one another, delicate at times to the point of appropriate silence (“stillness”), heartfelt devotion enhanced, again, by her melodic poise.

Here’s another photo of Lynne Arriale, surrounded by a few of her other recordings (Photo credit: http://www.wuwm.com):

Lynne Arriale Inspiration Lynne Arriale Milwaukee

Lynne Arriale Convergence 2

The tune “Slightly Off Center” is just that! It’s “Free up!” time, and the trio does, with ease—prancing, proud, uncompromised expression, extension—and another fetching melody: sprightly, playful, leaning to the left, leaning to the right, but keeping, always, its difficult balance—truly swinging! Dexterous, mellow hard bop—with a sudden stop! “Another Sky” offers a beautiful panorama established by the first few notes: soft spacious reflection, restraint, taste, and a grand “view” of the world. As is the “acceptance” (in the Zen sense of “mindfulness”) of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” (“There will be an answer … Let it be.”): not a trace of competition or cynicism (with or about the original) in Lynne’s improvisation, but her own “space” taken possession of; her lyricism, laced with her gracious “touch” always, present without strain … Let it be.

“Over and Out” is a perfect instrumental close out piece, which displays each artist in the trio at “the best” (just as the bass and drum solos have been throughout the recording), “Gospel funky” here (as the liner notes say); a joyful noise served with gladness; Jasper Somsen soloing handsomely, subtly; Jasper Van Hulten quick and clean (Lynne churning it up in the background, frisky, free play) and all three back into a unison funky close out.

“Take It With Me” is my favorite Tom Waits song—and it was a delight to hear Kate McGarry sing it so beautifully here, with Lynne providing perfect (exquisite, tasteful, imaginative) backing. “It’s got to be more than flesh and bone / All that you’ve loved is all you own … I’m gonna take it with me when I go.” Human promise, hope, experience—transmuted, transcended … Congratulations, and thanks, Lynne Arriale and friends!

 

The third artist I would like to celebrate is Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award (twice!) winner and Poet Laureate of the United States  (2011-1012) Philip Levine—and by “extension,” saxophonist Benjamin Boone. I was fortunate to become friends with Phil, under unusual  circumstance. We discovered we had attended the same Art Tatum/Erroll Garner concert in Detroit the mid-1950s, and we discovered we shared the same disease (vestibular: vertigo)—but the collaboration between Philip Levine and Benjamin Boone came about in a more “natural” manner. Both teaching at Fresno State University (Phil Creative Writing, Benjamin Music), they paired off for a recording, The Poetry of Jazz, which featured Levine reading his own poems (many related to music), Boone providing musical backing (as composer, arranger, performer). The first CD includes further musical assistance on the part of “super star” instrumentalists Chris Potter, Tom Harrell, Branford Marsalis, and Greg Osby—whereas for a second CD, The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two (recorded between August 2012 and October 2018), Boone assembled a first-rate ensemble of local talent. Philip Levine reads poems that are favorites of mine, because they focus on the lives (the sort of existence Levine shared) of working-class Detroiters–and the readings resonate with my own experience of that city.

The first piece, “Let Me Begin Again,” opens (musically) with a cymbal wash, piano flourish, subtle alto saxophone, and Philip Levine steps in: “ … begin again as a speck / of dust caught in the night winds … Let /me go back to land after a lifetime of going nowhere.”; and it ends “Tonight I shall enter my life / after being at sea for ages, quietly, / in a hospital named for an automobile [Henry Ford Hospital, where Levine was born, and at which my own grandmother was once Head of Nurses!] … A tiny wise child who this time will love / his life because it is like no other.” Benjamin Boone matches or complements each shift in mood, tone, and time passing handsomely.

The second piece, “An Ordinary Morning,” is introduced by a soft acoustic bass pattern, then Philip Levine: “A man is singing on the bus / coming in from Toledo,” his “hoarse, quiet voice” … “tells / of love that is true, of love /that endures a whole weekend.” [Music: melodic sax in background]: The entire bus joins in song, even the driver: “One by one my new neighbors … accept / this bright sung conversation … We are / the living newly arrived / in Detroit, city of dreams … each on his own black throne.” Once again, Benjamin Boone “comps” each shift in mood or to another character adroitly (an apt sax fade at the end)—and assists in establishing the irony as well (“Detroit, city of dreams”).

Here are photos of the covers of the two The Poetry of Jazz CDs:

Phil Levine The Poetry of Jazz Vol 2  Phil Levine The Poetry of Jazz

I met Philip Levine when a teaching colleague of mine at Monterey Peninsula College, George Lober (who had Levine as a teacher at Fresno State University), invited him to give a reading at MPC. George told me that Phil was having vertigo “issues,” and would like to talk with me about the condition, which we did—at some length at a party after the reading, and thereafter in letters. We would correspond from April 2003 through August 2005, and not only discussed our mutual vestibular “affliction,” but jazz, the poetry scene in general, and living in New York City (where Phil was also teaching at the time).

I’ve had a vertigo condition for twenty-seven years now (brought on by a viral infection that did permanent damage to my inner ear), and when I met Phil in 2003, I had collected a stack of articles on the condition as thick as the Bible (both Testaments), much of which I passed on to him. Here’s a portion of a letter I would receive not long after his reading in Monterey: “Thanks for all the advice re the vertigo. I went off to Nashville last week prepared for trouble & got almost none … I’ll try most anything. I have had several episodes of loss of balance but no vertigo since I saw you. During my last reading I caught myself about to make a rather large gesture which would have evolved looking up–which is what I did in Monterey–, & I did not make said gesture. I’ll see how things go, & and if NYC is OK I’ll stick with what I have. If not I’ll try to locate someone as good as your Dr. Schindler [a San Francisco otolaryngologist who realized I had an inner ear problem, not Meniere’s Disease, with which I had been mistakenly diagnosed elsewhere for three years!]. I’ve been going to a gym most days; I use an exercise bike.”

I’m pleased to report that by the time of our final correspondence in 2005, Phil had done something I’ve never been able to do: he beat the vertigo “rap,” telling me, “We made a trip to Pragu, & I managed to get a low-salt menu anywhere I went … It’s now more than a year since I’ve had any loss of balance & almost two years since I had vertigo. I stick to the diet & try to avoid stress, which isn’t always possible.”

Phil Levine was the same candid, upfront, open, forthright presence in person (or in his letters) that he is in his poems (and that, unfortunately, has not always been the case with poets I’ve known). I treasure each of the letters he wrote to me, and what he had to say about poetry has proven invaluable. “I can’t stand people who think they are owed an audience of thousands & untold wealth because they write poetry. I went into this shit with my eyes open; I knew the chances of any success, commercial or otherwise, were about zero; I did it because I loved writing, I simply wanted to do this & nothing else. Well, life has given me the opportunity to write. And on top of that I lucked in & got a good publisher, a great editor, & some prizes, all more than I expected. If I’d never won a prize would I still be writing? Yes, If I’d never published would I still be writing? I don’t know. Thank God my character never had to face that test … The poetry thing is so intense here [NYC] you have to get away. Too many people on the make … It reminds me of Nathanial West on Hollywood. He’s got a character who can only think of everything in terms of: Will it film? Here it’s, would this make an anthology & who would publish it? Horseshit.”

I was thrilled when I sent him a book of my own poems, he responded favorably: “Thanks also for Some Grand Dust [We had talked about this book the night I met him]. Several of the Moker poems are special. He’s not Kees’ Robinson or Berryman’s Henry. He’s really your own Moker with a fuller inner life from either of those two. He’s also much more accepting of life as it is than they are. It’s a collection that deserves much more attention than it’s probably had, but the poetry world is like the rest of the American worlds: a mess … Good luck, & thanks again for your help & your gifts … ps. I’m still astonished that we were both at that Tatum night. I saw him two days later talking baseball & got a poem out of it about 30 years later.”

His Tatum poem is a gem (I was surprised it was not on either of the The Poetry of Jazz CDs. It’s called “On the Corner,” and the great blind pianist is presented as passing by “blind as the sea, /heavy, tottering /on the arm of the young / bass player, and they /both talking / Jackie Robinson.” The bass player say, “Wait’ll / you see Mays,” how fast he is too first, like Jackie Robinson—and the last line has Tatum speaking, “I can’t hardly wait.” In another letter, I mentioned Tatum and blind vocalist Al Hibbler having “driving” [an automobile!] contests, and Phil replied, “Art Tatum & Hibbler driving! My mother was almost as bad. When she was in her eighties her sight began to go–macular degeneration–but she didn’t let that stop her from driving, though she did stay off the freeways–by this time she lived in LA. Finally she couldn’t get a renewal on her license, couldn’t pass the vision test, couldn’t get insurance, & sold her car. She never seemed to take into account the fact she might kill a dozen kids–she lived only two blocks from a big high school.”

Here are photos of Philip Levine, with Benjamin Boone, and solo (Photo credits: www.nytimes.com; jazzdagama.com; The Fresno Bee; artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com):

Phillip Levine 3

ben-and-phil

Phillip Levine with Benjamin Boone 2  Phil Levine NY Times

We talked lots of jazz in our correspondence, and I’ll give one more sample here—and then provide a couple more examples of tracks from the The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two CD. I’d mentioned serving on a panel at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Charles Mingus’s wife, Sue—and Phil wrote: “Have you read the book by Sue Mingus about Charles the maniac? It has a name like ‘Today at Midnight’? [Tonight at Noon: A Love Story].The parts that are good are so good that everyone who cares about jazz or human behavior ought to read it. How she stuck with Mingus is beyond me, except he was fascinating as well as monstrous … You mentioned combining music & poetry. I did several concerts with a great percussionist named Steve Schick; I once rehearsed with two of the cats from the Paul Winter consort, the cellist & the pianist, but their playing was far too soft for what I was reading–Garcia Lorca’s toughest stuff from POET IN NEW YORK, “Offices & Denunciations.” And the cellist said flat out, You need a percussionist, & within a day we had this guy Schick, & he was superb. This was for a Christmas thing in a cathedral, & working with these guys was fun. They were real pros.”

And now we have recordings of Phillip Levine reading his poems within a totally compatible musical setting created by Benjamin Boone. Two more of my favorite tracks on The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two are “Belle Isle, 1949” and “The Conductor of Nothing.” The first, after a synthesized “spring” atmosphere is established musically, describes a adolescent “swim” in the Detroit River (the “voice” of the poem and “a Polish highschool girl / I’d never seen before” run down, “in this first warm spring night” to “baptize ourselves in the brine / of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles, / melted snow.” The ending is classic: “ Back panting / to the gray coarse beach we didn’t dare / fall on, the damp piles of clothes, / and dressing side by side in silence / to go back where we came from.”  Alternating piano notes and soft melodic alto sax refrain close out the piece, and I couldn’t help but think (or feel), O Yes, memories of those Michigan “first warm spring nights”!

The second poem, “The Conductor of Nothing,” opens with delicate wire brush drum work and soft saxophone trills, a wavering mood; then Phil with a complaint in the voice of the narrator himself: “If you were to stop and ask me / how long I have been as I am, / a man who hates nothing / and rides old trains for the sake / of riding. I could only answer / with that soft moan I’ve come / to love. It seems a lifetime I’ve / been silently crossing and recrossing / this huge land of broken rivers / and fouled lakes, and no one has cared enough even to ask for a ticket / or question this dingy parody of a uniform.” We get a considerable portion of the conductor’s existence, and the poem ends: “Thus / I come back to life each day /miraculously among the dead, / a sort of moving monument / to what a man can never be– / someone who can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ / kindly and with a real meaning, and bending to hear you out, place / a hand upon your shoulder, open / my eyes fully to your eyes, lift / your burden down, and point the way.” The musical close out consists of gentle piano accents, and a wavering saxophone, to point that way.

If you feel the need (and in our present era, that’s a very legitimate need, I feel) for poetry with real meaning–poetry filled with genuine care, insight, and compassion–accompanied by a musical setting that contains the same, The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two (and the first volume!) awaits you.

And what a joy for me: to have known this truly great poet and human being, Philip Levine—just as it’s been genuine joy to have known and written about Kurt Elling and Lynne Arriale. I hope you have taken pleasure in this blog devoted to their latest accomplishments.

 

 

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Poetry and Disinterestedness, John Keats, William Hazlitt, Bianca Stone, and Gothic Grief

I’m back (from blogs on jazz) to thinking lots about poetry lately (and writing some): thinking focused on what makes poetry worth writing (and reading): what makes the act of writing poetry truly meaningful, truly necessary (required to be achieved, needed; essential, imperative, indispensable, incumbent). In 1955, sixty-four years ago, I began to read contemporary poetry with the serious attention it deserves. I attended “live” readings in New York City, and I spent a considerable amount of time listening to the then available Caedmon recordings: Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Robert Graves, Stephen Spender, et cetera.

I spent considerable time attempting to determine just what made poetry “truly meaningful,” essential, true–rather than a gratuitous (“not called for by the circumstances not necessary, appropriate, or justified UNWARRANTED”) act—and over the past sixty-four  years, I have read, heard and more than likely written work that might be regarded as spurious “creativity”: just showing off, displaying well-schooled (too often workshop well-schooled?) verbal finesse (or what one has been taught as finesse—playing “the game,” clever, “cute”); mistaking therapy (getting “stuff” off one’s mind, or chest–unloading) for The Real Thing; a martyrdom that sacrifices original thought and feeling for overt political purpose or persuasion (adopting a stance or “position”—a specific party platform the language of which is not one’s own); self-aggrandizement (overestimating one’s own importance or power—an attitude that might be present, and detrimental, no matter what activity one is engaged in); or the worst offense against genuine poetry perhaps: outright fakery—deceit, dissimulation, dissembling, enjoying being thought of as a “Poet” (capital “P”), pretending one is a Poet, but not necessarily producing much that resembles the art form itself.

I’ve never had the courage of conviction of the totally committed, uncompromising Osip Mandelstam, who, when an aspiring young poet read his poems to him (“everything that I could”), listened attentively (“his face showing neither approval nor disapproval”), and finally said, “It doesn’t matter how gutta-percha [rigid natural latex produced from the sap of a Malaysian tree] a voice you read those poems in—they are still bad.”—and on another occasion, when the wannabe poet V. Kaverin read his work to Mandelstam, the poet spoke to him “sternly, with passion and conviction”: “There was no room for irony. It was important to him that I stop writing verses, and what he was saying was a defense of poetry against me and against those tens and hundreds of young men and women who were amusing themselves with the game of words.” (from Mandelstam, by Clarence Brown). Kaverin gained his first “intimation of the fact that poetry does not exist for itself alone, and that if it does not strive to express life, to give it lasting form, no one has any use for even the cleverest gathering of rhymed lines.”

I’ve read and heard some open to doubt, debatable “poetry” over the years, but I’ve never had the nerve to respond as Mandelstam did, although … on occasion, I’ve wished I had.

So … What IS The Real Thing? Whenever, now, I feel a bit uncertain, I go back to what I recognized, experienced as “The Real Thing” when I first read it—this a few years before I got serious about the art form in NYC: when I discovered the work of John Keats. As Andrew Motion writes in his excellent Keats: A Biography: “Keats confirms his ambition (his appeal to posterity became increasingly emphatic as he failed to find short-term success), and asserts his necessary independence. If he is to make his name as a poet, he says, it will be because he develops his individual gifts, rather than adapting them to suit the expectations of a ‘fierce miscreed.’ He pledges his loyalty to an aesthetic which is highly personal, rather than one which is determined by conventional readers or specific social forces … It is only by resisting the temptation to tease ‘the world for grace’ that poets can achieve their ambitions. Identity depends on calm self-possession.”

Here are four portraits of John Keats—the first a painting by William Hilton; second a sketch by Benjamin Haydon; a life mask by Haydon, and a piece by Joseph Severn (the artist who accompanied Keats to Rome, where the poet died at age twenty-five). (Photo credits: Wikipedia; The Thanatos Archive; keatslettersproject.com; amazon.com)

john_keats_by_william_hilton  john-keats-sketch

john keats life mask by benjamin haydon  john keats sketch sleeping by joseph severen

And here are words from the man himself, from The Selected Letters of John Keats: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 Feb. 1818: “Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself … We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing that enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject—How beautiful are the retired flowers! How would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, “Admire me I am a violet!—dote upon me I am a primrose! … I don’t mean to deny Wordsworth’s grandeur and Hunt’s merit, but I mean to say we need not be teased with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.”

Here are a few more insights from Keats: A Biography, by Andrew Motion: “Inevitably, some aspects of the age influenced him more than others, and some hardly affected him at all. This means that distinctions have to be made, as well as associations emphasized, in placing his story within its context. But even when his poems struggled to overrule time, they reflected his particular circumstances. He was born with the City at his back, among clamorous commercial interests, Volunteers training, radicals protesting, hospitals expanding, and suburbs spilling into open country. He spent his adult life paying very deliberate attention to these things, and to other national and international issues as well. In some respects they persuaded him that he was an outsider. In others they gave him confidence. He could insist on independence because he knew that he belonged nowhere precisely. He looked beyond everyday events because he understood how they might confine and disappoint him. And he realized that in striving to achieve various sorts of cohesion in his work, he could never ignore the stubborn facts of paradox and contradiction.”

Reading Shakespeare “religiously” provided John Keats a sense that “the most powerful poetry does not make its effects by hectoring, or even candidly expressing the author’s personal opinion, but by creating a self-sufficient imaginative universe—a universe in which readers are invited to make independent critical decisions and moral judgements.” Poet/critic Matthew Arnold understood that Keats’ work was ‘not imitative, indeed, of Shakespeare, but Shakespearean because its expression has that rounded perfection and felicity of loveliness of which Shakespeare is the great master’ … Keats’ affinity with Shakespeare depends on thoughts about poetic identity; about the overriding need for it to remain fluid, to have no trace of the egotistical sublime, to have in its extreme suppleness and empathy ‘no character at all.’”

This paragraph anticipates Keats’ theory of impersonality or Negative Capability. Contemplating his own craft and the art of others, especially William Shakespeare, writing to his brothers in 1817, Keats proposed that a great thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A poet, then, has the power to bury self-consciousness, dwell in a state of openness to all experience, and identify with the object contemplated. The inspirational power of beauty, according to Keats, is more important than the quest for objective fact; as he writes in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:”‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Writing to his friend Benjamin Bailey in the same year, Keats said: “Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect – but they have not any individuality, any determined Character … I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty … The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth.”

The approach, or philosophy, is one John Keats shared with (and was perhaps inspired by) another friend: the older, more “well-established” (highly respected lecturer, critic) William Hazlitt, whose core or major principle was disinterestedness in all its modes: detachment, equity, evenhandedness, fairness, impartiality, justice, neutrality, nonpartianship, objectivity (the autonyms for which are: bias, favoritism, nonobjectivity, onesidedness, partisanship, and prejudice).

Here’s a self-portrait by William Hazlitt, and the cover of his Selected Writings: (Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org)

william hazlitt self-portrait wikipedia    william hazlett selected works

[The] ability to respond to imaginative and rhetorical power, “even in those cases where one might disagree with the ideas so movingly expressed,” was evidence of the disinterestedness which Hazlitt prized.—or as David Bromwich [in Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic] emphasizes: “Hazlitt’s concept of disinterestedness did not mean lack of interest or strict judicial impartiality, but rather, the capacity to enter sympathetically into interests or positions other than one’s own. Disinterestedness did not preclude partisanship, or Hazlitt would not have been able to achieve it!” … In his early foray into philosophy, ‘’An Essay on the Principles of Human Action’”(1805), Hazlitt argued that “the imagination was essentially disinterested – as capable of responding to the predicament of a friend, neighbor, or stranger as to one’s own predicament. Habit, of course, would in time render us more self-centered, but innately, our imaginative capacities were boundless … The imagination required to appreciate the plight of this yet-nonexistent self, he argued, was akin to the imagination that appreciated the plight of all other selves – mine, thine, his, and hers. Hazlitt’s theory directly challenged the prevailing Hobbesian idea of man’s innate selfishness, a belief which was often used to justify social repression (society must limit individual selfishness), or, in more Malthusian fashion, to justify a laissez faire attitude in which the selfishness of each person was presumed to be balanced by the selfishness of everyone else.”

Here’s William Hazlitt in his own early-19th century words (from “An Essay on the Principles of Human Action”): “Would it not be strange if this constant fellowship [of a child, in school] of joys and sorrows did not produce in him some sensibility to the good or ill fortune of his companions, and some real good-will towards them? The greatest part of our pleasures depend upon habit: and those which arise from acts of kindness and disinterested [italics mine] attachment to others are the most common, the most lasting, the least mixed with evil of all others, as a man devoid of all attachment to others, whose heart was thoroughly hard and insensible to every thing but his own interest would scarcely be able to support his existence, (for in him the spring and active principle of life would be gone), it follows that we ought to cultivate sentiments of generosity and kindness for others … The advantages of virtue are however to be derived, like those of any liberal art, from the immediate gratification attending it, from it’s necessary effect on the mind, and not from a gross calculation of self-interest. This effect must be the greatest, where there is the most love of virtue for its own sake, as we become truly disinterested, and generous.”

On Keats’ “authenticity,” David Bromwich writes: “The sumptuous details, Classical references and painterly gestures would all become trademarks. And there is something else too—something that again anticipates his mature work. The ‘beauties’ of the ‘Imitation’ are not merely a lovely escape from the world; they enact a form of engagement with it. By setting his ‘emerald’ island ‘in the silver sheen / Of the bright waters’, Keats describes a miniature England that belongs in a specific historical context. Its seclusion is an emblem of peacefulness in general, and the result of a particular Peace—the Peace between England and France, which was signed in Paris at the time it was written.”

I’ve carried The Real Thing, the poetry of John Keats with me throughout eighty-three years of existence now, and a single poem of his, “Bright Star,” came in quite handy, stood me in good stead, with a few old girl friends and even with my wife of sixty-two years, Betty (whom I’ve known for seventy-two years!). I still love this (to my ears, eyes, heart, and soul) perfect poem, and here it is:

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

I return, frequently, to the work of poets I have relished in my lifetime, and regard as The Real Thing: the Russian poets Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Ahkmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak; the Greek poets Georgos Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, and Odysseus Elytis; Americans Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Jack Spicer, Elizabeth Bishop, James Scheville, Richard Wilbur, Carolyn Kizer, John Logan, Philip Levine, Paul Zimmer, Li-Young Lee, Amy Gerstler, Mary Ruefle, Robert Sward, Sandra McPherson—and a recent “discovery,” the multi-talented Bianca Stone.

Since “finding” her, I have acquired four books by Bianca Stone (an accomplished visual artist as well as poet): Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, The Mobius Strip Club of Grief, Antigonick (a collaboration with translator Anne Carson), and Poetry Comics from The Book of Hours. She is also the chair of the Ruth Stone Foundation, an organization that honors the work of her grandmother, poet Ruth Stone–whose 1999 book Ordinary Words won the National Book Critics Circle Award, soon followed by other award-winning collections, including In the Next Galaxy (2002), winner of the National Book Award; In the Dark (2004); and What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (2008), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The first book by Bianca Stone I read was Someone Else’s Wedding Vows—and a single poem there, “Reading a Science Article on the Airplane to JFK,” nearly stopped my heart (and brought empathic tears) because my sister Emily, six years younger than I (active, joyous, loving, a soul-mate at whose bedside I would sit, when she was a teenager, to play “quiet chords from my guitar,” and sing her favorite folk-songs), had just died of pancreatic cancer. Here’s a portion of Bianca Stone’s poem:

“… You have experienced profound grief—

how do you react to this?

Down on the ground your family

writhes. Down on the ground

you are surrounded at Starbucks

with a terrible glow.

And you have seen someone you love,

with a colossal

complex vehemence, die.

And it is pinned under glass

in perfect condition.

It is wrapped around you

like old fur. You’ve looked at the sky

until your eyes touched

zodiacal fantasies—right there in the void.

You know this. That the body lays down

while the mind bloats

on intellectual chaos …”

Here’s a portion of a review of The Mobius Strip Club of Grief  (the second book by Bianca Stone I read, and admired, extravagantly) by Jaime Zuckerman (It appeared in The Kenyon Review): “The Möbius Strip Club of Grief builds on the intellectual work of its feminist forebears and offers a vision of womanhood that is raw, raging, sad, and beautiful. The women in Stone’s poems don’t fit any of the definitions of woman that society has neatly provided; her poems blur, challenge, and outright erase those definitions completely. In their place, Stone offers a womanhood in which we can find some sort of personal freedom from all the grief of simply living. A womanhood that will last long after the current trends have lost their shine and we still need to be heard … Stone’s first collection of poems, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows—as well as her collection of poetry, comics, and several chapbooks—are full of falling in love, being lost and found, sometimes desperate, sometimes joyful abandon … The Möbius Strip Club of Grief begins as an elegy for Bianca Stone’s grandmother, the poet Ruth Stone, and becomes an elegy for America … [Bianca Stone] asks herself about the collection, ‘Why am I writing this psychosexual opus to the mind of my women?’ Because, Bianca, we need to hear it. We need all the inspiration we can get right now … It is through the ‘genius’ or the creativity of women—grandmas, mothers, daughters—that we can find some salvation or solace. It’s poetry itself that gives us our agency and helps us overcome our multitude of grief.”

Here’s a photo of Bianca Stone, of Ruth Stone, a sample of Bianca Stone’s art work, and the cover of her book Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours: (Photo credits: Facebook; poetryfoundation.org/poets/ruth-stonewww.essaydaily.org: Visual Essayists: Bianca Stone)

bianca stone 11  ruth-stone poetry foundation

bianca stone art work bed and upside down lovers      bianca stone poetry comics cover

I let John Keats and William Hazlett speak for themselves, and their work; here’s Bianca Stone on being a poet/artist (interview by Ariel Kahn in The Ilanot Review): “There’s so much that can be expressed with visual images that just can’t be in words. And what’s powerful about words alone is that the reader can create the visual in their mind. This of course is a well-known fact about the power of poetry. And why so many people get it wrong trying to ‘understand’ it. But in any case, I try in my poetry comics to not take away that negative capability [John Keats!]that mystery in the words, and instead think of the images as I would a line of a poem … I’m more apt to allow for irony in the juxtaposition between playful and dramatic. I like to counteract the tones; they come from the same place, but translate differently once out in the open. Writing poetry requires a certain amount of something–not necessarily work, but something– in the head; even two words coming together, that power when they are beside one another–it’s a very specific mode of the brain that’s turning on. Whereas with images I feel I can let my mind wander while I do it. There’s a totally different area sparking when I’m doing this. Different demands of mindfulness …  like the forms of poetry that make it poetry, it’s a necessary confine … that white space (gutter) between panels. The blank space creates meaning. That space where we don’t see what’s happening is where the magic is. It’s just like Keats’ negative capability. It’s just like a line break. Like the poetic form, or just the form the poem makes on the page: stanzas, etc. So I know that space, and the confined space, is important … Letting imagination cross the border of what you want to convey to the reader—what is perhaps appropriate or literal—and the unknown, the enigmatic. That is what I am most interested in.. I encourage readers to smile in curiosity! But also to surrender themselves to The Not Knowing. There’s a power in not asking what something means, the irony being that the question becomes relevant only once you stop asking it. And also perhaps, in some ways, answered … Giving something a term, however undefined, can be life-altering … And there’s so much imperfection in labels, but that too is what’s so fun about it … So after I heard this term [“poetry comics”] I began to combine poetry and art with great intention. And calling it something gave me permission to bring my art into my (let’s call it) ‘professional’ life as a writer. I mean, here were these two arts I’d loved doing ever since I could hold a pen, and now I could experiment with what it really meant to combine them; how to do both justice; how to complicate and further the power of each medium.”

When I think of Bianca Stone’s work, I find the rightful “grief” that Jaime Zuckerman recognized and commented on, but I also find an appropriate, unique, original, witty, a bit ghoulish, disturbing “stance” that I think of as “Gothic”—thus the phrase “Gothic Grief” in my title for this Bill’s Blog post. I’ll take a little time, here, to establish a definition of what I see as a tradition I feel she “carries on,” and represents well. The phrase “Gothic art” arrived on the cultural scene in the 12th century AD, a style of medieval art developed in Northern France, inspired by the development of Gothic architecture. The Gothic period included sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and illuminated manuscripts. Here are some examples:

gothic sculpture 1    gothic sculpture 2

From Wikipedia: “The earliest Gothic art was monumental sculpture, on the walls of Cathedrals and abbeys–illustrating stories of the New Testament and the Old Testament side by side. Saints’ lives were often depicted. Images of the Virgin Mary changed from the Byzantine iconic form to a more human and affectionate mother, cuddling her infant, swaying from her hip, and showing the refined manners of a well-born aristocratic courtly lady.”

From Wikipedia again: “In literature, Gothic fiction (largely known by the subgenre Gothic horror) would come about in 1764 (at the hands of English author Horace Walpole, with his novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled in its second edition ‘A Gothic Story’)–a genre that combines fiction, horror, death, and at times romance. The genre had much success in the 19th century, as witnessed in prose by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron.” Another novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

From architecture to literature—quite a journey! As is: from the 12th century to Bianca Stone. Here are some more lines from one of her poems, “Emily Dickinson”—lines I feel express “Gothic Grief”:

“She applied her passion like a hot iron sword.

And no one can take off her clothes, ever—she comes

and her language takes them off of us,

not piece by piece, not fumbling buttons,

but all at once in a single shot,

her tiny poems like grenades that fit in the hand.

And we here bask in the debris,

stripped down to our private parts,

the snow white of the bone, the authentic corpse in heat.

The absolute original.”

To my mind (and heart, and soul), Bianca Stone is an “absolute original,” The Real Thing. I rarely, if ever, attempt to contact poets I admire or have just “discovered,” but I was so impressed with Bianca’s brilliant mix of poetry and visual art that I sent her the following (and received a gracious “Thank you, William!” on Facebook): “I am relatively ancient and relished an exciting era (mid-50s: abstract expressionism) at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (and playing jazz piano there). Because I loved both art forms, I attempted to combine (and do justice to both) poetry and graphic art: woodcut prints of Classical and Modern Greek and Russian poems—but I did not possess the imagination, originality, and “great intention” you offer in your poetry comics, Book of Hours, Antigonick—and all you do with visual art and words. Thanks for advancing, so handsomely, a tradition that began for me with appreciation of the work of William Blake, Kenneth Patchen, and Shiko Munakata.”

Gratitude for disinterestedness, John Keats, William Hazlitt, Bianca Stone, Gothic grief, and poets who enrich and sustain our lives with The Real Thing seems a reasonable way to close out this blog post. Yes, Thanks!

 

 

 

The 61st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival–Continued

At the close of my last blog post (which I devoted largely to the appearance of Norah Jones at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival–and the state of jazz as an art form just now), I said I did plan, in my next post, to do justice to much of the excellent music I witnessed at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival—and  I mentioned two  performances I much admired on the first (Friday, September 21) night: the Hristo Vitchev Quartet (Hristo Vitchev, guitar; Jasnam Daya Singh, piano; Dan Robbins, bass; Mike Shannon, drums) and the Jan Ira Bloom Quartet (the leader on soprano sax; Dawn Clement, piano; Mark Hellas, bass; Bobby Previte, drums).

The Hristo Vitchev Quarter opened the Festival that first night, performing on The Garden Stage at 6:30. I was not all that familiar with 37-year-old Bulgaria-born (but now based in San Francisco) Hristo Vitchev (“one of the newest and most innovative voices in modern jazz guitar,” an artist who “combines elements of classical, modern jazz, folk, and avant-garde sonic hues in his music”), but I have known Brazilian-born Jasnam Daya Singh for some time, for he performed for years in Monterey as Weber Iago—and we had a chance at this year’s Festival to renew our friendship (by way of a good “catching up” chat just before the group performed—during which I was reminded of the time he told me that, given the host of his Bossa Nova “hits” I am acquainted with, only a portion of the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim ever made it out of Brazil). I have written about Dan Robbins and Mike Shannon (both highly respected Monterey Bay Area musicians) in the past, and I’d previewed the group’s excellent recent CD Of Light and Shadows—so I was eager to hear them together, “live.”

Their set met all of my expectations. They played the title tune from the CD, “Of Light and Shadows,” which begins with a three note vamp, Jasnam Daya Singh’s unique fluid piano configurations in the backgound, then foreground in unison with Hristo Vitchev’ s equally circumfluent guitar. A characteristic of the group’s music is the seeming ease with which the individual voices blend (emerge and submerge), united, the whole unfolding  handsomely, each voice taking a turn “on top,” then gracefully bowing out. Mike Shannon offers accelerated but subtle drum-breaks, followed by deft guitar lines, and these in turn by Jasnam Daya Singh’s consistently original, inventive improvisations (a mix of fresh bop configuration and classical restraint). A four note guitar/bass in unison theme takes us “out.”

“The Shortest Wave Length,” also found on the CD, opens with lush, beautiful piano, off which Vitchev builds the theme (Mike Shannon urging the piece on with his customary taste and skill). Dan Robbins provides a handsome bass solo, followed by a piano interlude (similar to the opening), gracious right hand runs and glorious two-handed piano, Hristo Vitchev easing his way into this frame, melodic, maintaining his warm tone, yet offering playful, prancing notes—all four musicians expanding, enhancing the theme, an ascent, and anthem march forward—then back to the original piano opening: (graceful, “classical” design and disposition), with Mike Shannon’s subtle “tympani” effects at the close.

A third tune from Of Light and Shadow offered was a beautiful ballad, “A Portrait of a Love Forgotten”—a simple repetitious two chord opening giving way to subtle guitar modulations, tender, melodic: guitar and piano “married,” as one, a warm gentle texture sustained; stillness yet a gracious “glide” forward, extended guitar runs, chromatic journeys; then piano with the same touch, caress (not an anxious trace anywhere: just persistent affection)—and back to the alternating two chord pattern, with subtle enhancement by all four musicians: Dan Robbins in unison on the theme with Mike Shannon’s wash of cymbals at the end. This is a superb fully together combo to watch for—again and again!

Here are photos of Hristo Vitchev, Jasnan Daya Singh, and the Quartet in a row: Dan Robbins, Vitchev, Singh, and Mike Shannon (Photo credits: The Mercury News; zw.linkedin.com; jazzguitarsociety.com)

hristo vitchev 1 the mercury news jasnan daya singh 2hristo vitchev quartet

I was familiar with the work of soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, but had only recently been introduced to her pianist, Dawn Clement, through their CD Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson. Wild Lines is a superb, reverent homage to one of my “top ten” favorite poets, Emily D., and at Monterey, whereas Jane Ira Bloom improvised beautifully on the pieces her group offered, much of credit has to go to Dawn Clement, who not only offered first-rate piano, but recited portions of the poems with elegance and maximum respect.

“Excuse Emily and Her Atoms” began with those words, followed by a soft piano vamp, the words “The North Star is of small fabric but it implies much  yet presides,” and exquisite give and take between Bloom and Clement, building to deft sprightly piano runs, the echo of Jane Ira Bloom’s themes and configurations, “wild lines,” a fade to Mark Helias’ first-rate bass solo, soprano sax minimalism (melodic repetition), and ending with a soaring, “uplifting” (“Leave me ecstasy”) ending.

Next came “Alone and In A circumstance,” piano intro, vamp, and recitation: “Alone and in a circumstance / Reluctant to be told / A spider on my reticence / Assiduously crawled.” (“And so much more at home than I / Immediately grew / I felt myself a visitor / And hurriedly withdrew.”). Jane Ira Bloom (“All compositions” but one are attributed to her in the CD liner notes) provided a handsome melody here (reminiscent of “I Can’t Get Started”), floating, flowing, enhanced by Bobby Previte’s tom tom and brittle cymbal work—the theme offset by Clement’s piano vamp and exchanged melodically, supported by the expert rhythm section of Helias and Previte, the latter’s full kit accompaniment, with emphasis on ride cymbal: the playfulness melting to a smooth melodic “withdrawal.”

“One Note” began with a portion of Emily D’s poem: “One note from / One Bird / is better than / a million words,” excerpted from The Gorgeous Nothings: skipping, ornithological gestures on piano, replicated on soprano sax, then both together above smooth wire brush drumming, a bop riff, and impressive improvisation by Dawn Clement. The set ended with mournful melody, shuffling drum work (and hi hat clarity), bowed bass, soaring sax, unison accents, and everybody comin’ home on “I Lived on Dread”—an extraordinary performance by all:

I lived on Dread—
To Those who know
The Stimulus there is
In Danger—Other impetus
Is numb—and Vitalless—

As ’twere a Spur—upon the Soul—
A Fear will urge it where
To go without the Sceptre’s aid
Were Challenging Despair.

Jane Ira Bloom emerged as one of the Festival weekend’s “super stars,” I feel: this Friday night set with her quartet—and her superb set on Saturday night with pianist Fred Hersch (their duo on “Time After Time” sent writer Andy Gilbert into an ecstatic trance, and me too! Followed by a memorable “There’s a Place for Us.”). I am going to pause for a moment and insert an account of a personal “condition” I carried with me throughout the weekend—one which proved “beneficial” for all of Jan Ira Bloom’s sets, but not necessarily for access to other venues than the Pacific Jazz Café (which has a unique policy) and witnessing the work of artists I would love to have heard and seen but found inaccessible.

First: Here are photos of Jan Ira Bloom, Dawn Clement, Dawn with Jan Ira Bloom leading her quartet, and drummer Bobby Previte (Photo credits: nply.org; All About Jazz; Stuart Brinin; Eye Shot Jazz: Daniel Sheehan)

jane ira bloom  dawn clement all about jazz (2)

dawn clement and jane ira bloom san francisco classical voice  bobby previte eyeshotjazz

Briefly: I have a vestibular system (vertigo) condition I’ve experienced (off and on) for twenty-seven years, along with a visual condition (macular degeneration), and, back in December of 1017, I spent ten days in Community Hospital (and seventeen physical therapy sessions just after) attempting to regain the use of a left leg that, mysteriously, had ceased to function (no sensation whatsoever)—and while I had little trouble manipulating (traversing) the Fairgrounds during the day (in sunlight), I discovered, once the sun went down, that darkness presented numerous obstacles, and considerable risk, when it came to mobility (maintaining my balance), going from one venue to the next. Events in the main arena (Jimmy Lyons Stage) take place at one end of the Fairgrounds—and the other far end nests a North Coast Brewing Company open pavilion where I hoped to meet my friend Stu Brinin on occasion for liquid refreshment and good conversation (Stu is a photographer who lives in Oakland, and he “rooms” at the home of my wife Betty and me throughout the Festival weekend. He’s a very gregarious, genial fellow, a Master of extraversion, and we have decided, in our minds, to change the name of the North Coast Brewing Company sanctuary to Stu’s Place).

The “policy” the Pacific Jazz Café provided was a raised section or “nook” (seating area) for members of the audience with “physical or mental impairments that substantially limit ‘major life’ activities.” (“Major life activities include walking, sitting, reading, seeing, and communicating”– as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals so defined)—and when I walked in for Jane Ira Bloom’s first set on Friday night, an usher spotted my cane (and tentative mobility) and directed me to the elevated isolated (off to the left) section (best view in the house!) and provided a seat I returned to on Saturday night—for Fred Hersch’s “Solo Piano” set, and his set with Jane Ira Bloom which followed (I would also hear the trio of guitarist Julian Lage and Bill Frisell’s Trio there on Sunday night).

The Hersch solo piano set at 7:30 on Sunday night was splendid—exceptional in the way his performances always are: original, elegant, winsome, masterful. He dug into his past, playing “a little gem” he first discovered in high school, “something by Antonio Carlo Jobim,” Hersch a master of dynamics, applying his exquisite touch to the tune, which (I’m sorry to say) I can’t recall the name of (although it was a piece I’ve played myself—and I was reminded of my talk with Jasnam Daya Singh, with which I began this Blog, and his commentary on the host of songs by the prolific Jobim that never made it out of Brazil). Fred Hersch played it tender, each note a caress; and he played it prancing, even “cute,” a demonstration of richly considered, and fully coordinated, two-hand piano.

George Gerswin’s “Embraceable You” followed: an ingenious transformation of the original melody taking place, once that melody had been established in mind—left and right hands offering what seemed different tunes (inventive lower register, deep bass, and dancing tasteful treble (high-pitched) lines—both together a beautiful blend as “one.” He played “My Old Man” (from Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue), referring to his own “misspent youth” beforehand—and he added a range of tunes to his graceful, cheerful, classically precise rendering of that tune with “Doxy,” (and he can play the blues!), Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” (strictly instrumental, but the rich words—”In every heart there is a room / A sanctuary safe and strong / To heal the wounds from lovers past / Until a new one comes along”—implied in every note; and he offered a beautiful, subtle (left hand only at the start) treatment of a song I associate with Chet Baker: “This Is Always.”

Just when you felt no other set could equate or surpass what you’d just heard—Fred Hersch’s set with Jane Ira Bloom did! As I’ve already said, I feel Jane Ira Bloom emerged as one of the Festival weekend’s “super stars,” and this superb set on Saturday night with Fred Hersch secured the opinion (as well as his super star status). They offered two of my favorite songs from their Jane Ira Bloom & Fred Hersch/As One CD (both composed by the pianist): “A Child’s Song [for Charlie Haden]” and “Janeology.” The former begins with a soft loving solo improv opening by Hersch, then a rich engaging soprano sax theme, accompanied by faultless, tasteful piano comping (the two are perfectly paired! Respectful of, empathic with, each other). Jane Ira Bloom is one of the most animated instrumentalists I’ve ever seen “in action,” arching, swaying, undulating, executing gestures absolutely in time, in keeping with the music—and when she “fades,” Hersch enters as if only the perspective, the point of view of an improvisation had shifted, not the personnel.

Here is a photo of Fred Hersch at the piano—and with Jane Ira Bloom (Photo credits: https://williamscenter.lafayette.edu; Stuart Brinin)

fred hersch jazz pianist 2

fred hersch and jane ira bloom by stuart brinin

Their “Time After Time,” as I remarked earlier, was superb—this duet sending writer Andy Gilbert, who was standing just outside of my “nook,” into an ecstatic trance–and me too! I’d heard this song on her The Red Quartets CD (which not only includes Fred Hersch, but Mark Dresser and Bobby Previte as well), as she and Hersch together played it as gently, tenderly, movingly (again: a wordless phrasing of “the one you run to see” and “you’ve kept my love so young, so new” embodied the sentiments perfectly) as they performed on the recording—and Fred Hersch’s solo was “relaxed” love incarnate—as comfortable, natural, yet grand as a creative act can be. And their joint close out with (and again wordless, but implied) “so lucky to be … loving … you” was perfection.

“Janeology” was a delightful mix of lithesome spats and splashes, good fun—Jane Ira Bloom bobbing and weaving like Sugar Ray Robinson throughout—piano and sax playing games with one another (good games), almost a “chase scene,” the mobility enhanced by Hersch’s “plink plinks,” and booming bass chords that she danced atop of—counterpoint at its crazy best, and then they just quit, suddenly, delightfully. After, she said, “We’ll leave you with something by Leonard Bernstein … I think you will recognize this.” With mutual delicacy and a powerful ending, they close out the set with “There’s a Place for Us.” Beautiful!

Leaving the Pacific Jazz Café, somewhat reluctantly (for I’d had the best seat in the house for the remarkable performances I’d witnessed), I had hoped to catch the tale end portion of “Celebrating a MJF Legend: Remembering Ray Brown” (featuring Christian McBride, Benny Green, and Gregory Hutchinson—with John Clayton, John Patitucci, and Diane Reeves as “Special Guests”)—but this set was held in the main arena, a considerable distance away, and the difficulty I was having walking successfully (with regard to my vestibular system—and I wouldn’t make use of available, and convenient, shuttle transportation until the next day) discouraged me from taking the “hike.” Also convenient, was a building close by the Pacific Jazz Café which offered a large screen version of whatever took place on the Jimmy Lyons Stage main arena), so I went “next door”—to check out the result of a project I’d worked on for this year’s Festival.

On the basis of some short video pieces for which I had provided copy for the 60th anniversary MJF (humorous quips from Festival history, such as Miles Davis response to being asked to “go first” in 1964: “Sure, I like them fresh ears.”–short videos shown throughout the weekend), I had been asked to provide copy for an extended video on Ray Brown—words to be used as voice overs in the film. I’d come up with what I felt was “good stuff” (my acquaintance with bassist Ray Brown extending back to the early 50s, when I saw him with Jazz at the Philharmonic in Detroit). The person who asked for this material said he “loved” what I sent him, and I was curious to see how it had been used—although I was somewhat concerned, because I’d not heard from him again, and I was to be paid on the basis of how much of what I’d written was actually used in the finished project.

Sitting in the Jazz Theater, I learned that none of what I’d written had been used in the final film—which consisted solely of interviews (“testimonial”) by artists such as Christian McBride and Diane Reeves. Disappointed (disgusted? Betrayed?), I decided to “skip” whatever might be left of the Ray Brown tribute set, and go sip a quiet glass of wine outside, waiting for Jon Batiste’s set at 10:10.

Here are two pictures of Ray Brown at the Monterey Jazz Festival (with Christen McBride, and with Christen and with Benny Green). (Photos credits: montereyjazzfestival.org)

ray brown and christian mcbride at mjf  ray brown, christian mcbride, benny green, milt jackson at mjf (elde stewart) (2)

And here, for posterity (Definition: “If you save something ‘for posterity,’ you’re hoping that years later people will appreciate it, like a time capsule you bury in the yard.”) is what I had written in tribute to Ray Brown:

Raymond Matthews Brown was a highly respected, constantly sought-after masterful double-bassist—an innovator, a mentor, educator, exceptional talent scout, and iconic ambassador for the art form of jazz.

He shaped his own set of aesthetic principles and stood by them all of his life: “The most important thing about the bass as an instrument is not playing it fast, not playing solos, but getting a good sound”—which Ray Brown had from the start: a large, solid, original sound that made him much sought after as an accompanist.

Yet the end result of considerable discipline was, as those he performed with acknowledged, “how much he loved to play … he kept on playing when everyone else took a break.” Asked toward the end of his life, “Do you still love it?”, he replied, “Why play if you don’t?” Pittsburg, PA-born Ray Brown started out on piano at age 8, hoped to switch to trombone (but couldn’t afford one) and filled, in high school, an empty orchestra space on bass. He served an apprenticeship (listening to Duke Ellington’s orchestra by way of the city’s beer garden jukeboxes) learning the licks of jazz legend Jimmy Blanton, and answered the call of 52nd Street just after he graduated from high school–purchasing a one-way-ticket to NYC. A friend, pianist Hank Jones, introduced him to Dizzy Gillespie, who hired Ray on the spot. From this time on, Ray Brown helped define the role of the modern jazz rhythm section with his “unique dynamic and innate sense of swing.”

Ray met, and married, Ella Fitzgerald (and introduced “the first lady of song” to bebop) and they performed together (with Oscar Peterson) om tours with JATP (Jazz at the Philharmonic, with whom Ray would remain for 18 years, but only 4 with Ella). A lean, tall, handsome Ray, a genuine gentleman, responded, when someone in the audience at a Detroit concert shouted out suggestive comments regarding the vocalist, by setting down his bass, coming to the front of the stage, and telling the heckler that, if he didn’t stop the offense, Ray would take him outside and teach him some manners.

Ray Brown made his first appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1959, with the Oscar Peterson Trio (with which he would play for 15 years, Peterson saying the group formed a “breathe together bond.”). Brown would return to the MJF seven more times, serving in a number of capacities (rehearsing the Gil Evans big band in 1966; in a Salute to JATP in 1971; in a 1973 Charlie Parker Tribute, and with Dizzy Gillespie and Friends in 1978.)

He acted as MJF Musical Director in 1966: “A wild time [Janis Joplin performed],” in Ray’s words: “Fans were carrying on so bad the neighbors complained to the police.” Ray was chatting with General Manager Jimmy Lyons when, in Ray’s words again: “This guy walks up with all these medals on his chest.” He was Monterey’s Chief of Police, and he asked, “Who’s running this thing?” Lyons pointed to Ray, and the Chief told Ray, “I want this show shut down by midnight, and if it isn’t, I’m going to put you in jail.” Ray contacted Count Basie, who agreed to shorten his set, as did Carmen McRae (Ray: “You know how evil she could be!”), but saxophonist Gerry Mulligan accused Ray Brown of “Crow Jim tactics,” his show cut because he was white. “Man,” Ray Brown summarized his term as Musical Director, “Gerry had a complete conniption, and Jimmy just stood by and smiled.”

Ray Brown would settle in LA—in high demand to accompany singers such as Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett, and Sarah Vaughan; and, as a talent scout of young pianists, such as Benny Green (who first performed at MJF with the California High School All-Star Band at age 15), Geoff Kiezer, and Larry Fuller. Ray performed at MJF with a young Christian McBride (alongside old pros Milt Jackson and J.J. Johnson—and Benny Green) in 1994. Ray was 68 at the time, McBride 22. It was Ray’s last MJF appearance. He recalls: “Tim Jackson just asked me, ‘Why don’t you do something alone with Christian?’ And I said, ‘Okay but you know this crowd.” The crowd loved it; the bass duet was stunning.

A golf fanatic (a friend joked that Ray might have “made more money playing golf than playing bass.”), having performed and recorded with everyone from Andre Previn, opera stars Kiri Te Kanawa and Leontyne Price, having received an Honorary Degree (1995, Doctor of Music) from Berklee College of Music, and inducted, in 2003, in the Down Beat Hall of Fame, Ray Brown played golf all morning before a gig in Indianapolis in 2002, went back to his hotel room to take a nap, and passed away.

Here are more photos of Ray–from back in the era in which I first saw him “live”—photos I also sent with what I had written (Photo credits: rjt4.tumbir.com; Pittsburgh Music History)

ray brown and hank jones with ella 1948 (2)  ray_brown_and_ella_fitzgerald_at_birdland_with ray brown marcel_fleiss (2)

At 10:10 on Saturday night at the 61st MJF, I heard and saw Jon Batiste (with the Dap-Kings in a “New Orleans to Brooklyn” set which took place in the main arena, but I witnessed it in the Jazz Theater). I’ll say of Jon Batiste what I claimed for Jane Ira Bloom: I felt he was one of the Festival weekend’s “super stars.” He played three of my favorite tunes: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (“The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting / This land was made for you and me.”); “St. James Infirmary”; and Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight” (perhaps even more roguish, ludic, spry than the composer offered it.).

Talking with NPR’s Terry Gross, Batiste said, “One of the first songs I had ever learned was ‘Straight, No Chaser,’ so I had known of [Monk’s] music, but I had never checked his playing out, and wow! It was like, and this is the power of music and why I think everything is everything, we’re all connected: This artist had cultivated a sound that I intuitively was reaching for 50 years before I existed. And I didn’t even know that what I was reaching for had already been developed … So at that point, you say ‘absorbed,’ I kid you not, it must’ve been at least for nine months to a year exclusively listening to Thelonious Monk.”

Whatever Jon Batiste “absorbs,” he also makes his own. One of the first jazz pieces I loved, and learned to sing (even recorded, on a very primitive device at age 13) was “St. James Infirmary” (Jack Teagarden’s version)—but Batiste’s “take” made me rethink (and feel) the song completely. About it, he has said (in a PopMatters interview with Christian John Wikane): “The song means a lot to me because it’s a song I learned early in my development. It’s something that you learn if you’re 11 years old and playing music in New Orleans … What I was doing was trying to create an outlet for the band to express the climax of angst and despair that you would feel if you were in the situation of the song, just completely crestfallen … The scene that I was creating on ‘Saint James Infirmary Blues’ was a funeral procession. The person who’s in the song can sense that something bad is on the horizon, but doesn’t know it happened yet. It takes this elegant melody, this graceful melody, and puts the blues through it. It’s like the love has gone to this place of despair. The song continues on to where you have the procession when you hear the horns and the drums come in, which is what happens in New Orleans. You have a dirge that brings people to home.”

Jon Batiste has not only mastered the music of New Orlean, past and present, but the city’s food supply as well, and where to find it–such as his favorite local meal, the humble poboy sandwich. “You can find the best poboys in unexpected locations, like grocery stores and gas stations,” he says in a video, and even provides unique directions: “You take Chartres to Natchez, down to Tchoupitoulas,” he says, instructing viewers to “hang a right on Smith Street,” with a doctored street sign reading “Bjonlignounolas” appearing on the screen as he lets his audience know how to correctly answer a wizard named Dennis’ riddle to earn the best poboy in town.

As for New Orleans jazz, Batiste says, “Music has always been a way for people to endure hardship and figure out how to really connect to their humanity or affirm their humanity when everything around them is trying to squash their humanity … Its importance goes beyond entertainment … In any situation, music can be used as a reprieve or a balm.” Which is exactly what he offered in Monterey on Saturday night—with a range of tunes from the three I’ve cited to “Kenner Boogie” (“It’s the way I interpret the feeling and the scene of being back home. The left hand is like a whole band, and the right hand is like a party. In the way it comes together, it’s the whole community.”) and “Don’t Stop”: “When it comes to loving me, don’t stop / I know there ain’t no guarantee, but don’t stop / Let’s keep it shaking while we can … Don’t stop dreaming, don’t stop believing / ’Cause you know our time is coming up / So with all you’ve got, don’t stop.”

Here are two photos of Jon Batiste (Photo credits: www.facebook.com/JonBatisteMusic/; http://www.thedailybeast.com)

jon batiste 3 jambands  jon baiste the daily beast

In his article “Women Run the Show at Monterey Jazz Fest” (in San Francisco Classical Voice), my friend Andy Gilbert wrote: “When a music festival’s mojo is working, every set seems to bump up against each other as if part of an expansive conversation about form, expression, collaboration, and the state of the art form itself … In an eagerly awaited and overdue breakthrough, the world’s longest continuously running jazz festival made a concerted effort this year to present women-led ensembles, and the results were both jaw-droppingly revelatory and utterly quotidian … What’s the Monterey Jazz Fest like when all five major stages feature a significant female presence? … Monterey delivered something truly new, and it was glorious to behold. It wasn’t so much the profusion of stellar women players as the fecund diversity in visions of bandleaders, composers, and arrangers.”

My Oakland photographer buddy Stu Brinin told me not to miss saxophonist Kristen Strom, who performed at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon in Dizzy’s Den. She led a group made up of herself on alto and soprano saxes, two trumpets, guitar, bass, and drums—the results providing a tight, unified, but also free and easy swing, not fancy or indulgent, but accessible melody, solid harmony, her own tone or “attack” strong—especially on a tune called “The Vikings” (The word a historical revival, from Old Norse vikingr “freebooter, sea-rover, pirate, viking ” which usually is explained as “one who came from the fjords”). Andy Gilbert would write of her, “San Jose saxophonist Kristen Strom’s Moving Day [set] summoned the sly but open-hearted spirit of the late, beloved bassist John Shifflett, bringing to life his little-heard compositions as a window into the generous soul of a musician’s musician.”

Another friend, drummer Akira Tana (who was of much help when I wrote Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), told me he would be playing in trumpeter Aya Takazawa’s quintet at 12:30 on Sunday afternoon. Another fine “tight” group: her playing spirited, mid-range, a bit self-conscious on her solos at the start, but strong. Engaging—and excellent unison work with saxophonist Lyle Link. Pianist Matt Clark offered a tasteful solo (variety: solid chords, nimble right-hand runs)—the format mostly the Hard Bop so popular, still, in Japan (and my man Akira providing steady, hard-driving rhythm). Good blues, and Aya throughout an attractive stage presence, very much “in the moment”—a definite crowd-pleaser, accomplished artist.

I’ll briefly mention three more artists I enjoyed: Anastassiya Petrova’s organ quartet (rich Russian two-handed, and two-footed! Hammond B3 conservatory-trained technique, and then Berklee College of Music, and she swings)! The entire group “radiates nuance, power, and a down-home, soul kitchen vibe”–granting refreshing youthful energy, and gratitude (“Thanks a lot for coming; it means a lot to all of us: from Kazakhstan, to you!”). On Saturday afternoon, having discovered a shuttle that would take ne from venue to venue, in the main arena, I enjoyed “Detroit’s Queen of the Blues,” Thornetta Davis (“You been gone so long, I thought you were dead … Here you come knockin’ on my door / But I don’t need you anymore … I’d rather be alone, than lonely with you … All you gave me was the Blues.”), and Blue Notes’ Jose James, called a “fearless musical omnivore,” thrilling his audience with  Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” and “Just the Two of Us.”

Here are photos of Kristen Strom, Aya Takazawa, Anastassiya Petrova, Thornetta Davis, and Jose James (Photo credits: Stuart Brinin; www.nautiljon.com; https://insta-stalker.com/profile/anastassiya_petrova_music/; Detroit Metro Times; http://www.soulbounce.com)

kristen strom by stuart brinin  aya takazawa nautilijon  anastassiya petrova insta stalker

thornetta davis detroit metro times  jose-james-soul bounce

While the 61st MJF offered  abundant, prolific representation of “The Year of the Woman in Monterey,” it also hosted a generous sampling of World Music. Two of my favorite groups were Bakante (“From the Delta to the Desert, a World Music Supergroup”) and Ladama. The former featured members from four continents (“Multicultural, multigenerational, multilingual”). They presented their first piece, simply called “Song,” “for all the women of the world, sung by Malika Tirolien, accompanied by lap steel guitar, three guitars, bass, and three percussionists—infectious universal rhythms! Malika also offered “The Day Will Rise,” a song or stirring chant she wrote for her grandfather—and the set was rounded off with “Ego Chamber” (“Social media connects us, but also divides us.”) and “Air,” a song Malika Tirolien wrote for her daughter: about “mistakes I made and my parents made, in the hope she will do better.”).

Ladama–according to the program notes I acquired before I heard the group—consists of “four women, virtuosic musicians, and educators — Lara Klaus, Daniela Serna, Mafer Bandola and Sara Lucas — each from a different country and culture of the Americas, who are sisters in song, rhythm and spirit. Harnessing music from their respective countries of origin — Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and the United States, the group utilizes traditional and non-traditional instruments from across the Americas, but with a modern twist, to produce Latin Alternative music.” And that’s exactly what they provided: delightful, rousing yet subtle, florid music—played on instruments that ranged from a large hand drum to the Bandola Ilanera: one of many varieties of small pear-shape chordophones found in Venezuela and Columbia (“traditionally built with only seven frets and four gut strings and played with a pick; many [being made] nowadays with up to 21 frets“)–this played, masterfully, by Mafer Bandola, who also offered spirited vocals, with a beautiful upper register “float.” All four women shared vocal chores, and instrumental finesse. Ladama gave us a delightful set, fully expressing, divulging, in their own words, “how we feel making this music.”

I had large hopes for, but was disappointment by a set that was supposed to feature Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams: a fascinating match-up. I had been playing their excellent Blue Note CD Vanished Gardens over and over again, and looked forward to hearing and seeing it “reproduced” in Monterey. Charles Lloyd didn’t disappoint, at all: in fact his brilliant improvisations (which range from far “out” to sweetly restrained—his, in Herbie Hancock’s word, “huge heart that’s brimming with love”) provided persistent delight that kept raising the question: Where’s Lucinda? Jazz writer friend Scott Yanow passed by and said, “Let me know if she ever comes out”—which she eventually did, acting (I’ll have to confess) a little the worse for wear—offering some songs from the CD, but one of them, “Ventura,” contained the lyrics “But I can’t pretend, I wish I was somewhere else”–and that nearly seemed to be the truth of it.

In pre-preparation for “Tia Fuller & Ingrid Jensen Present Tribute to Geri Allen The Fierce Nurturer: Life of a Song Through Spirit,” at home, I had listened to the many inspiring CDs I have  by Geri Allen: one of my favorite pianists, composers, educators, human beings. The tribute set featured tap dancer Maurice Chestnut (“The fourth member of our band”), who resuscitated his original 2011 performance with Geri Allen of her festival-commissioned piece, “The Dazzler,” dedicated to showman Sammy Davis Jr. Now, as then, Chestnut (in the words of Paul de Barros) “contributed not just the usual clickety virtuoso turns on a tap platform, but graceful, interpretive moves integrated smartly into the trio’s flow.” And Terri Lyne Carrington provided her customary vital drumming. Portions of a video on Geri Allen (The Nurturer), the presence of spoken “Facebook”-style slogans that contained words and phrases such as “energy” and “our wisdom,” and even a moving “Amazing Grace” couldn’t for me (I’m sorry to say) offset what seemed to be a somewhat uninspired routine performance on actual tunes—so to make amends for my own not so positive response to this well-intended Festival opening night set, I’ll quote what Andy Gilbert wrote: “The festival’s artists-in-residence Tia Fuller (alto sax) and Ingrid Jensen (trumpet) presented a thoughtful and deeply felt tribute to the late pianist Geri Allen on Friday in the Arena that keyed on her enigmatic harmonic vocabulary and cagey sense of time.”

I had a fortunate surprise experience while listening to the Anat Cohen Tenet in the Jazz Theater. Vocalist Barbara Paris, whom I came to know at IAJE conferences I attended over the years, did not perform at the Festival, but was there, and she came up to me and said it was good to see me again, “out and about.” We went outside and sat at a table for a grand reunion conversation. She gave me her latest CD, Nine Decades of Jazz, which features her pianist Billy Wallace (who passed away in 2017 and had begun recording in 1955 with Clifford Brown and Max Roach). Barbara Paris and I got “caught up” on our lives and how we felt about the state of jazz in 2019—and it was great to see her again.

Here are photos of Ladama, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Barbara Paris (Photo credits:  http://www.ladamaproject.org; http://www.londonjazznews.com)

ladama ladama site  terri lyne carington london jazz news

barbara paris cd (2)

I’ll close this second portion blog on the 51st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival with something I was, again, asked to write (for voice overs) about 2018 Showcase Artist Dianne Reeves—but which, alas, again (like what I provided the MJF on Ray Brown) was neglected, did not appear in the video devoted to her. I did hear her sing a soulful “The Nearness of You” (one of my all-time favorite tunes)—and I have admired her performances at the Festival, for years. Here, for “posterity,” again, is what I wrote about her.

The voice of Dianne Reeves has been described using a host of adjectives: “warm,” “lush,” “very personal,” and phrases such as “breathtaking virtuosity,” “improvisational prowess,” “unique jazz and R&B stylings,” “astonishing skill”, “always capable of greatness.” In a 1996 performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival–a recreation of Jon Hendrick’s “Evolution of the Blues Song”–she symbolized (wearing the plain dress of a slave and holding a baby in her arms) The Mother of the Blues; and later, wearing colorful choir garb, she joined a chorus of singers and dancers in a joyously harmonized and choreographed “Everything started in the house of the Lord.”

Jon Hendrick’s original 1960 production took place in a setting with children seated on the floor, learning how the blues came about from a man who was still creating the score as he had ascended the stairs to the stage. This spontaneous performance left the audience in tears (Hendricks himself said an aftermath of reverent silence was “the most spiritual thing that has ever happened to me in my life.”). The 1996 recreation was a powerful carefully worked out production, and Dianne Reeves, as an established vocal master, was the ideal person to play a major role in it.

Dianne has been called “the pre-eminent jazz vocalist in the world,” and has been recognized and honored in just about every way possible, from honorary doctorates from Berklee College of Music and the Julliard School, to appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic, to an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship Award.

This year, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, she is the Showcase Artist. She will perform multiple times at the Festival–to display the various aspects of her artistry (such as her most recent release, Beautiful Life, which won the 2015 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance)–and she will participate in a one-on-one Conversation, discussing her career.

Dianne Reeves first appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1990, with pianist Billy Childs’ group Night Flight, which had launched her career. She was Artist in Residence in 2010 (presenting “Strings Attached” with Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo).

Dianne Reeves has established herself as an all-time MJF favorite.

Here are photos of her at the 30th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and her appearance in the 1996 recreation of Jon Hendrick’s “Evolution of the Blues Song” (Photo credit: http://www2.montereyjazzfestival.org/blog/jon-hendricks-1921-2017))

dianne reeves at mjf 30  jon hendricks_dianne reeves_joe williams_mjf_1996_(c)bill wishner (1)

 

 

David Friesen, His My Faith, My Life CD, Jazz Beyond, and More Thoughts on the Art Form of Jazz Itself

At the close of my last blog post (which I devoted largely to the appearance of Norah Jones at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival–and the state of jazz as an art form just now), I said I did plan, in my next post, to do justice to much of the excellent music I witnessed at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival—and I shall do that, although, because I would like to take advantage, now, of immediate enthusiasm and gratitude felt having recently received a remarkable double CD from bassist David Friesen (one for which I was asked to write liner notes, and did so—and I will include those notes here), I would like to hold off on a more extensive post on the Monterey Jazz Festival in order to post word on the amazing work David has just completed.

Jazz bassist/pianist/composer David Friesen’s My Faith, My Life contains work that sums up and amplifies an exceptional career. In many ways, my response to David Friesen’s lifetime consecration to jazz–a career throughout which, given his inclusive, supernal (surpassing the ordinary), transcendent nature, he has taken jazz beyond its temporal, terrestrial boundaries, or borders–my response invites further reflection on the current state of the art form of jazz itself..

Here’s the cover of the My Faith, My Life CD, and a photo of David Friesen himself (Photo credit: 13thfloor.co.nz)

David Friesen CD My Faith My Life    David-Friesen The 13th Floor

And here is access to a YouTube video by David Friesen on the release of the CD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0ELqxpe5Zs&feature=share

At the close of my last blog, I cited statements Nate Chinen offered in his recent book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century: “As long as people have been talking about jazz, they’ve been talking about where it’s going. The conversation rests on presumptions of forward progress and collective striving. But while some musicians have embraced the premise, others refused to play along. A well-meaning interviewer once asked Thelonious Monk where he thought jazz was going, and the pianist replied, ‘I don’t know where it’s doing. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.’”

I agree with Nate Chinen. Looking back on a claim I made when, just before the Monterey Jazz Festival took place this year, I was invited to give a Skype interview regarding the event for a  program called Showcase on TV news channel TRT in Istanbul, Turkey: when asked “Why is jazz still cool?”, I responded, “Because that’s its nature. Jazz is cool in and of itself—no matter what ‘history’ may attempt to claim (‘Jazz is dead’; ‘The audience for it is getting too old, or dead’; et cetera). Those who are faithful to the art form don’t just like it, they love it, with a passion.” I agree with Chenin that “There is no way of prognosticating jazz’s future. Or even its precise trajectory, because the art form doesn’t adhere to a linear axis.” It just IS. Given the “spirit of multiplicity that now prevails,” I agree with Chenin when he says of “the present moment and its endless possibilities … Progress is almost beside the point. The music will flow and fluctuate, keep going. And where to? Anywhere. It just happens.”

A complete, accurate definition of the word “jazz” has proven difficult to pin down—from the day (or night) ragtime turned into “jass.” The word “jazz” didn’t appear in print until 1912, and applied to baseball, not music. Ben Henderson, a right-handed pitcher for the Portland Beavers in the Pacific Coast League reported in the Los Angeles Times: “I got a new curve this year . . .  I call it the jazz ball because it wobbles [a knuckle ball?] and you simply can’t do anything with it.” Circumstantial evidence is strong that the word was used for a long time in the American South to refer to sexual intercourse. Among other theories (or guesses) we have: the word derives from “jism or jasm, nineteenth-century terms that referred to spirit or vitality as well as to semen; from Jezebel, a nineteenth-century term for a prostitute, or from jasmine, a perfume supposedly favored by Jezebels.”

Standard dictionary definitions are less colorful (or offensive). Jazz is American music that stemmed from ragtime and blues, “characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre”; or “popular dance music influenced by jazz and played in a loud rhythmic manner.” Standard text book definitions are just as cut and dry (or dull: nowhere near as lively as the music itself): “Music might be jazz if it has a bluesy flavor, or uses jazz associated music instruments such as saxophones and drums, or has jazzy rhythms.”

This may be a case where scholarly “experts” are not of much assistance, and it’s best to go to a source that knows the music best: jazz musicians themselves. One of the most articulate of these (both musically and verbally) was Duke Ellington who, asked to define the art form, said, “I think the music situation today has reached the point where it isn’t necessary for categories. I think what people hear in music is either agreeable to the ear or not. And if this is so, if music is agreeable to my ear, why does it have to have a category? … There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”

That final sentence has also been attributed to Richard Strauss, and numerous other musical figures, but it may not matter who got there first. The observation seems true. And Ellington was known to come up with other insights just as lively, and enjoyable, as the art form itself—such as: “By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.” … “Music is my mistress and she plays second fiddle to no one.” … I never had much interest in the piano until I realized that every time I played, a girl would appear on the piano bench to my left and another to my right” … “Roaming through the jungle of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs,’ searching for a more agreeable noise, I live a life of primitivity with the mind of a child and an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats.” (from Music Is My Mistress).

Here are two photos of Duke Ellington–solo and with his orchestra (Photo credits: battleofthebands.com; musicrising.tulane.edu)

Duke Ellington Battle of the Big Bands    Duke Ellington and Orchestra jazz in motion Russia

I mentioned David Friesen’s own career throughout which, given his inclusive and transcendent nature, he has taken jazz beyond its terrestrial boundaries, or borders, and I believe he would agree with Duke Ellington on the following point: “Jazz is a good barometer of freedom… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”

I know, from the interviews I’ve done with David, that he would agree with Ellington that “The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen.” And I believe David Friesen might answer the following question as Duke Ellington did: “What would you be without music? Music is everything. Nature is music (cicadas in the tropical night). The sea is music, the wind is music. The rain drumming on the roof and the storm raging in the sky are music. Music is the oldest entity. The scope of music is immense and infinite. It is the ‘esperanto’ of the world.”

I’ll turn back full time to David Friesen and his copious contributions to jazz (now that we may have a better understanding of what jazz IS, or can BE), but I’d like to include, as a means of wrapping up this discussion of where the art form is today, the thoughts of one its more articulate contemporary practitioners, pianist Brad Mehldau: thoughts on what it was like to collaborate, in improvisation, with bassist Charlie Haden on their CD Long Ago and Far Away.

“Charlie [Haden] and I are walking along a path side by side, with no one in front. The path is wide enough for that … It’s like the path itself is being laid with every step we take together. Just beyond each last step, there’s nothing but a precipice of wide open space—pure potential … In order to attain that ‘higher’ kind of freedom, you had to have absorbed  some fundamental aesthetic guidelines in a deep nuanced way—so you could have your way with them … If the resolution is suspended, there is a design—the sweet pleasure of deferred finality. Tension and resolution—the hallmarks of harmony, are always at play… he was not particularly interested in freedom for its own sake. He cherished order and formal integrity in music just as much, and what he cherished most was beauty … he had this very respectful, often delicate and reverent approach to playing.”

Here are photos of Charlie Haden and Brad Mehldau ((Photo credits: https://www.discogs.com; https://twitter.com/bradmehldau)

Charlie Haden    Brad Mehdau Facebook

And those words echo what I find in the music of David Friesen: design, tension (passion) and resolution, order and formal integrity—and above all: beauty, a “very respectful, often delicate and reverent approach to playing.” Jazz Beyond—above and beyond, higher, transcendent, both of this world and not of this world (boundless, “otherworldly”), or as I said in my liner notes to the double CD My Faith, My Life: music informed by the faith that has shaped David’s life: a life synonymous with music: a dynamic, ongoing commitment—continuity enacted at an optimal level, always.

Here are my liner notes:

At the peak of their careers, great artists often turn to autobiography: a full account or summary of all they have given us over the years, a fully mature (fully-realized) re-creation of or reflection on the work of a lifetime. Gandhi, St. Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Mark Twain, Henry Adams, Helen Keller, William Butler Yeats, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Mary McCarthy, and Harpo Marx all did so in words—but a great musical artist is more likely to offer this gift in the medium known best: such as the miraculous two CD recording My Faith, My Life by jazz bassist/pianist/composer David Friesen—a work that sums up and amplifies an exceptional career.

David Friesen’s faith is that of Saint Anselm of Canterbury (“I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand.”) and that faith has shaped his life: a life synonymous with music: a dynamic, ongoing commitment—continuity enacted at an optimal level, always. I first heard and wrote about a performance by David Friesen (in Monterey, California) in 1988; have been fortunate to write written liner notes for seven of his CDs (Departures, Three To Get Ready, Four to Go, The Name of a Woman, Five and Three, Triple Exposure, and Structures), and have maintained 30 years of admiration and respect for David and his work.

The first CD in the autobiographical My Faith, My Life consists of recent solo performance on bass. A few of the pieces first appeared on LPs I have in my collection: “Ancient Kings” on Through the Listening Glass (1978, with John Stowell); “Children of the Kingdom” (Star Dance, 1976, with John Stowell, Paul McCandless, and Steve Gadd); “Sitka in the Woods” (Amber Skies, 1983, with Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, and Paul Horn); “Martin’s Balcony” and “Long Trip Home” (Departures, CD, 1990, with Uwe Kropinski), and “Lament for the Lost/ Procession” (on Long Trip Home, CD, 1992). On My Faith, My Life, David Friesen goes it alone, which calls all the more attention to the intimacy and immediacy of his compositions, and the extent to which David has become at One with these pieces over the years.

“Ancient Kings” opens with a familiar Friesen underpinning fluid vamp, then a drone that turns into a fully engaging melodic contour, the mood one of the passionate meditation (a paradox, yes!) David has become a master of; “Children of the Kingdom” offers a merciful mood, patient, forebearing, free of the “cast out into outer darkness” weeping and gnashing of teeth of Matthew 8: 12, from which the title comes; “Sitka in the Woods” suggests immense space, anticipation, drama, homage to the largest conifer of the spruce species (growing 200 feet tall, 17 feet in diameter in David’s native Oregon); “Martin’s Balcony” (along with “Roof Tops”) is panoramic, an expansive “here and now,” with inviting echoes, percussive clicks, counter rhythms; “Long Trip Home” is a journey, reflective, lyrical; and “Lament for the Lost/Procession” is just that: a deep grieving “cello” sound, a wide range of voices, turning into a pilgrimage, a reverent procession that soars with praise and prayer—a perfect close to the solo bass “My Faith, My Life” CD—each track laced to another by a shakuhachi interlude or transition: the whole a bounteous suite, a lifetime of music.

Here are two more photos of David Friesen: a solo performance of “Children of the Kingdom” at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1977, and now (Photo credits: The Hudson Collection;  https://jazzdagama.com)

David Friesen and Glenn Moore7  David-Friesen Jazz da Gama photo

As early as 1976, Nat Hentoff wrote: “Once in a great while, a musician emerges with such authority and such seemingly effortless originality that his place in the front ranks of his instrument is unquestioned.” Hentoff was not speaking of promise or potential, but actual performance, and forty-two years later, with My Faith, My Life, David Friesen has added immeasurably to his stature. The adjectives Hentoff provided stand, immensely expanded: “Prodigious technique … compelling story telling … mood-exploring … spaciousness of spirit … one of those musicians who can never get enough of music.”

The second CD in this set features David Friesen performing more of his own compositions on piano—an instrument for which he may not be as well know as on Homage bass (although he soon should be!): an instrument he embraces with the same taste, touch, and skill as he does the bass. Again, a few of the pieces have a worthy history: “Only Just Yesterday” appeared on the CD Five and Three (2010); “Playground” and “Song for Ben” on Where the Light Falls (2014); “Right from Wrong” and “Another Time, Another Place” on Triple Exposure (2016); and “New Hope” on Structures (2017). Each piece is rendered in the spirit each title suggests: “Only Just Yesterday” recognition, realization, the recent past made present; “Playground” lighthearted, sportive, a refreshing recess; “Another Time, Another Place” suitably nostalgic, a simultaneous sense of lost and found; “New Hope” is stately, soaring, laced with goodness and mercy all the days of your life. As with the first CD, these reinterpretations offer the intimacy and conviction that arrive with age: wisdom as David has come to wear it.

The last two pieces on this CD provide perfect closure: “Time Changes” easefully evolves, with both anticipation and solid steps forward; and “My Faith, My Life” sums it all up: a credo, affirmation, reverence—lower register continuity laced with sublime melody: a hymn to the Source of all song, with a fitting A-men at the close. With its two CD suites complementing each other so fully, My Faith, My Life is an epochal achievement: a testament to all that faith matched with a meaningful, purposeful life can create.

Congratulations, David, on this achievement—your lifetime of exceptional creativity.

In my next blog post, I will make good on the promise to do justice to much of the excellent music I witnessed at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival. I’ll close now with an overview of what I’ve tried to say about jazz in general: the wise words of a writer I much admire, Ernest Becker: “How a person solves the natural yearning for self-expression and significance determines the quality of [a] life … Human beings are the only things that mediate meaning, which is to say that they give the only human meaning we can know”; and he quotes Carl Jung saying that the “relationship to the self is at once relationship to our fellow beings”—and also theologian Martin Buber on “seeing in the other person the self-transcending life process that gives to one’s self the larger nourishment it needs.”

And I’d like to toss in some words of the Chinese 369-298 B.C.E. Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu): “The artisan Shui made things round and square more exactly than if he had used instruments of measure. The operation of his fingers required no application of his mind; his intelligence was entire and encountered no resistance.” And on Confucius looking at a Cataract near the gorge of Lu, which fell a height of two hundred and forty cubits, “producing a turbulence in which no tortoise, crocodile, or fish could play. He saw, however, an old man swimming about in it,” and he asked his disciples to rescue the man—but by the time they got there, the old man was “walking along singing, with his hair disheveled, and enjoying himself at the foot of the embankment.”

Confucius asked the old man if he had some miraculous “way of treading the water,” and the gentleman responded, “No. I began to learn the art at the very earliest time. I enter and go down with the water in the very center if its whirl and come up with it when it whirls the other way. I follow the way of the water and do nothing contrary to it … I know not how I do it and yet I do it. That is why I say my success is as sure as fate.”

That’s all for now, Folks. May whatever (merciful and meaningful) “success” you desire eventually become as sure as fate. See you next blog.

Kurt Elling and The Beat Generation

Jazz vocalist/lyricist Kurt Elling is gifted–along with a great voice–with an inclusive mind (and heart) that can look forward, in terms of “making progress,” to perpetual development (“The point is to keep making progress, to outdo yourself, and to keep, as much as you can, scoring a personal best.”) at the same time he remains fully “informed” by the past, by previous attainment—both his own and that of those who made (in Kurt’s words) “the greatest music that came before us.” He states: “It’s not just respect; it’s a desire to appreciate the greatest ideas. Because how else are you gonna play them? The wealth that’s come before us is such a treasure.”

Two articles on Kurt Elling have appeared recently: one in JazzTimes by Lee Mergner, another in DownBeat by Allen Morrison. Both writers focus on Elling’s latest album, The Questions. Morrison calls it “a thoughtfully curated and wide-ranging collection of songs”; Mergner directs attention to the vocalist/lyricist’s finding “in poetry, the challenge of being compassionate in a troubled world and the importance of asking unanswerable questions.” Morrison addresses the latter situation by saying, “In the current age of anxiety, Elling might not have all the answers, but his baritone voice has a reassuring quality that makes the listener feel less alone in the quest.”

Both writers cite Elling’s collaboration with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who co-produced The Questions; the “tuneful and melodic” nature of the album; the fact that it opens with Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”; and the fortunate assistance, on piano, of Stu Minditon as a “secret weapon,” who says, “Kurt and I have a mutual interest in the connection between poetry and music, and he takes a poet’s approach to setting his lyrics to music.” And each writer conducts an interview that’s loaded with Elling’s customary fully articulate and insightful responses.

Here is the cover of  The Questions, and Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling side  by side—co-producers of the new CD. (Photo credit: The Mercury News)

Kurt Elling The Questions CD  Kurt Elling and Branford Marsalis

Asked by Morrison about struggling “a bit” with “stage presence” earlier in his career, and how he “came out of that phase,” Kurt Elling replied: “Keep living. That’s why I keep thinking about [age] 70. There were so many things I wanted to be. I was in love with [jazz] history, the recordings, and I wanted to be that. At a certain point you realize you’re not going to be that, you’re going to be you. But informed by all that.” And on working with Branford Marsalis: “We’re here to play great melodies and express authentic emotions—to be the real deal as much as we can … [which] means continually investigating the greatest music that came before us.” Marsalis introduced Kurt Elling to another source of inspiration: “Der Rosenkavalier,” by Richard Strauss (which happens to be just about my favorite opera) and at first, the vocalist found the music “tough listening,” but decided “If you want to understand the sound of something, then you’ve got to listen to it until you understand it.”

Kurt Elling’s passion for such discoveries, or influences, has not subsided, but increased incrementally, whereas many of his basic attitudes toward the music in general (and early influences) remain the same, rewardingly persistent, continuous (especially in an era such as ours, when so many people seem willing to try just about any old thing “on for size,” then toss it aside). The continuity, the fidelity, of his approach couldn’t help but remind me of an extensive interview I had with him back in 2009, when we focused, at the start, on his interest in the Beat Generation—a cultural phenomenon of which I was fortunate (arriving in San Francisco from Hawaii in 1958) to be a small part.

I would like, in this blog post, to reproduce the article that resulted from a five part blog I offered from 2009 to 2010 on JazzWest.com—the complete article composed over time and consisting of the following parts: Posted on July 28, 2010:Kurt Elling and the Beat Generation, Part 5: The Ballads”; March 24, 2010:Kurt Elling and the Beat Generation, Part 4: The Interview, Concluded”; Posted on November 17, 2009:Kurt Elling and the Beat Generation, Part 3: The Interview”; Posted on September 16, 2009:Kurt Elling, the Beat Generation & the Monterey Jazz Festival, Part 2”; Posted on September 8, 2009:Kurt Elling, the Beat Generation & the Monterey Jazz Festival.”

And so, without further ado, here’s the complete essay:

When I first heard jazz vocalist Kurt Elling on two early CDs–Close Your Eyes (1995) and The Messenger (1997)–several tracks prompted an immediate “shock of recognition,” as if they were unique re-enactments of themes and preoccupations I was familiar with. I then came across articles that mentioned Elling’s fondness for and indebtedness to the Beat Generation, but I couldn’t find an article that fully explored this interesting “collaboration.” (Elling is age forty-four; the Beats considerably older.) Having arrived in San Francisco in 1958 and–thanks to the “accident” of having landed in the right place at the right time–being a part of that era, I decided to explore Elling’s connection. I don’t think you need to have once been a “Beatnik” to appreciate the full effect of Kurt Elling’s vocal style and its content, but it doesn’t hurt.

Here are the covers of Close Your Eyes and The Messenger.

Kurt Elling Close Your Eyes      Kurt Elling The Messenger

On “Dolores Dream” (on Close Your Eyes), he provided lyrics to a Wayne Shorter solo intro that reminded me–albeit this Chicago-based, not San Francisco–of poetry I had once absorbed: “The white electric skillet of a day threatened to sear us all away—fat frying. Spluttering, rank Chicago smeltering along. Smothered in heavy wooly sweat, the city knew a sad regret.” Unaccompanied, Elling said/sang these lines, then introduced a set groove on the words “jump in my car, Uptown to scram. Popped in a great Von Freeman jam—and the coffee hit. Bam!”—the music replete with pulsing Laurence Hobgood piano and fast on his feet (or tongue) Elling scat. The piece ended, “If there’s one girl I’ve got to remember, it’s … it’s … it’s [aspirated] … her.”  Wow, I thought: very bright, hip (“Beat”) storytelling in song—which is something, a legacy, I happen to love.

Fran Landesman’s 1950s collaboration with composer Tommy Wolf, “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” could, as sung by Kurt Elling, be a Beat Generation early anthem: “All the news is bad again … kiss your dreams goodbye … drinking up the night, trying not to drown … choking on their youth.” “Those Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig?” combines the Brubeck/Desmond take on “Balcony Rock” with words based on the work of another familiar figure (albeit Czech-German, not “Beat”), Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a fable turned hip by Kurt, a “little cloud” searching for God (parents are only interested in “possessing things,” and offer useless advice, “You’ll grow out of it soon and start singing a grownup tune”); whereas “Now It Is Time That Gods Came Walking Out,” a poem by Rilke, is recited by Kurt, reflecting his concerns as a former divinity student: “Once again let it be your morning, gods …You alone are source.”

When I first listened to The Messenger, I recognized the inspiration of Thomas Merton, another mid-50s–The Seven Storey Mountain and The Sign of Jonas–influence on my life. At the time, I seriously considered becoming a Trappist monk, until a young woman named Mary Jane McLaughlin saved me from that fate. “The Beauty of All Things” is serenely, handsomely rendered with a loving piano backdrop: “There is something within you … don’t be shocked or surprised if I lift your disguise.” Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy” (I remember seeing a photo spread on this first “Beatnik” in Life magazine!) is enlivened, after its Nat “King” Cole tempered start, by wild scat on Kurt’s part—overt risk-taking and innovation an early hallmark of his approach.

I enjoyed all ten minutes and seventeen seconds of “Tanya Jean,” a swinging vamp piece of epic extension, a track that moved from “Dig with me this chick lording every clique” (a “royal queen” who stops every clock and keeps a “flock” of men) to familiar lingo–“Dig what I’m saying”—and syntax: “unnameable surgings of lust into what must always be,” “inner vision crying into the vortex of night,” “everything always is,” “screaming across the open plains of nothingness”—Herman Hesse, another cultural icon of that time, getting in the act along with  Tanya Jean, the music itself based on an extended Dexter Gordon solo.

And finally: the great good fun of “It’s Just a Thing,” with its homage to Lord Buckley of  “The Naz” notoriety (“Look at all you Cats and Kittens out there!”), Kurt Elling telling a Hammett/Chandler–with perhaps a sniff of the wild raw humor of Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues?–tale, in the vernacular again: “hip to the scene,” “solid gone,” “indelibly groovevatude.”

I’d like, if I may, to extend our common cause by offering my own Beat Generation credentials, in the hope of providing that link to Elling’s accomplishments. My wife Betty and I arrived in San Francisco in 1958. We’d been married, “Bohemian” style, in Hawaii, and spent a honeymoon summer living on the only open spot on the Wailua River in Kauai, pre-statehood (the island having retained its 19th century plantation life ambiance). Just twenty-one years of age, we lived in a shack (wooden, not grass), surrounded by mangoes, papaya, bananas, and an abundance of crawfish in the river. City kids by way of background, we really didn’t have a clue as to what to do with it all. I’d known a touch of  “Zen” in Brooklyn (where I’d attended Pratt Institute) by way of J.D. Salinger and the appropriately small Peter Pauper Press book Japanese Haiku, with its delicate “icons” set beside each poem by Issa, Basho and Buson. On Kauai, my interest in the culture of Japan grew by way of a movie theater that showed Japanese samurai films– without subtitles.

Here’s a photo of my wife Betty and our host that summer in Kauai, Mr. Isenberg—both eating pineapple in front of our “shack” (Betty calls it a “cabin”) on the Wailua River—and a photo of my beautiful smiling 21-year-old bride at that time.

Betty and Mr. Eisenberg Eating Pineapple

Betty in Hawaii

Arriving back on the Mainland (as it was then called), we took a third floor apartment on Hayes Street in San Francisco, for $60 a month rent (jobless, I told the landlord I was a clerk in a law office, and ended up working as an elevator operator at the White House Department Store). Poet and Beat Generation pater familias (although somewhat ambivalent about his role as “guru and ringleader”) Kenneth Rexroth lived just around the corner, on Scott Street. In the liner notes to Flirting with Twilight, speaking of the lyrics he wrote to Fred Simon’s “While You Are Mine,” Kurt Elling told writer Zan Stewart, “At the time I wrote the lyric, I was reading a lot of Kenneth Rexroth, so it’s          kind of a Rexroth homage. He was always aware of the passing of time, how much is irreplaceable when it’s gone, how much of life you have to get now. Now, today, baby, make it real now, especially with romance. That makes everything so sweet and bittersweet, even at the moment of the most profound togetherness.” On his first CD, Close Your Eyes, Kurt recited, surrounded by wild improvisation provided by Laurence Hobgood, Rexroth’s poem “Married Blues” (“I didn’t want it, you wanted it. Now you’ve got it you don’t like it. You can’t get out of it now … too poor for the movies, too tired to love.”)

Kurt Elling “says” this poem in a deliberately squeaky, nasal, hectored, nearly hen-pecked, all too “married” voice. The liner notes to Close Your Eyes cite Rexroth as “one of the great American intellects of the 20th Century,” playing “a pivotal role in the San Francisco literary revival”—which is true. When I first tried my hand at poetry, I was strongly influenced by the spare, straightforward strength and brittle beauty of his book The Signature of All Things and his splendid One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. Yet, ironically, Rexroth’s own voice does not come across as all that impressive. I recall being enthralled by the content (and daring) of his performance at the Cellar, reading (to jazz) “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (in memory of Dylan Thomas: “You killed him/In your God damned Brooks Brothers Suit”), but I will confess that, in spite of the sublime nature of much of his poetry, his own pre-“Howl” rant against 1950s unhip  bourgeois America—Timor mortis conturbat me (“the fear of death disturbs me”) indeed!—strikes me, today, as comical, pretentious. Rexroth sounds a bit squeaky, nasal, hectored himself, although his was one of the early, experimental efforts to merge, or marry, spoken word and jazz.

Here is a photo of Kenneth Rexroth reading, or “jammin,’” with musicians—and Kurt doing his thing with a mic before an audience. (Photo credit: http://www.foundsf.org and http://www.minnpost.com)

Kenneth Rexroth Reading  KurtElling at Mic 2

Kurt Elling is one of the more expansive, inclusive, flexible jazz artists I’ve ever run across, and I would like to pay homage to what’s been said, and written–and what he’s said himself–about that versatility, his wide range of musical activity (“A man of enough parts to be a faculty unto himself”), activity made up of consummate showmanship (“continually taking chances and coming up with fresh approaches”), a solid work ethic (“nonstop weekend for him at the Monterey Jazz Festival”—when he was Artist-in-Residence there in 2006); creativity (from himself: “The daily discipline it takes to see the world with fresh eyes and to try to approach everything that’s coming to you as a potential gift, there’s poetry in that.”); experimenting with vocalese (“a chance-taking improviser who often makes up lyrics as he goes along”), his having been a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School (“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands … and come before his presence with a song;” well, he didn’t write that: that’s Psalm 100, but he has said, “Jazz had the Spirit from its birth. Gospel music is in its genes”); the importance to him of the birth of his daughter, Luiza (“The baby is the big thing … a new outlook; everything that came before was valuable training for what will come next”); having faith in himself (“It just doesn’t hurt like it did before … I used to be revved up, having something to prove … Now, it’s more like I believe in what I do”); and the ability to think “big”–being involved in projects such as the splendid Fred Hersch settings for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a concert with Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, and his 2010 Grammy Award winning Coltrane/Johnny Hartman tribute Dedicated to You CD.

I first heard Kurt Elling “live” at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2003. I was present, backstage, when he finished a set in Dizzy’s Den. He was nattily dressed (very hip threads or dry goods!), and carting “a ton of attitude” (as someone else has written). He even seemed pissed off when he came off stage (over something that had gone wrong during the set? The sort of thing perfectionist performers are aware of, not the audience?), or else he was just pumped, like a boxer who’s won a unanimous decision after fifteen rounds of work. I thought, “Hmmm, another Sinatra? Right down to temperament?” Kurt himself has commented on this influence: “People think of me as outre, bizarre. Yet Frank is one of the guys that I spent a lot of time checking out and learning from.”

Elling can be intense, but the next time I got near him was at an IAJE conference in Long Beach, and my Jazz Journalists Association buddies Dan Ouellette and Stu Brinin and I ended up drinking with not just Kurt, but Kitty Margolis (and her husband Monty), Karrin Allyson, Jenna Maminna and Nancy King. I thought, “Wow, I’m sitting here drinking with five of the finest jazz vocalists in the universe at large, at least as we know it!” In this setting, Kurt was decidedly relaxed.

The next time I saw him was when he served as Artist-in-Residence at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2006. He gave a performance at an intimate downtown venue called Monterey Live, and my wife Betty and I sat just a few feet away from him as he sang: the setting reminding me of small clubs I used to play piano in myself in New York in the mid-Fifties: cozy and compatible. After the show, I had a short conversation with him. He was open, cordial, witty—a “good guy,” accessible  (a thing sometimes rare in top performers). In 2008, Kurt showed up at our MJF Sunday Jazz Journalists Association brunch, walked right up, jauntily, and said, “I’m hobnobbing with the fourth estate.”

One more note on Kurt Elling’s range before I turn attention back to Beat Generation “roots” or influence. The “Beats” were not often noted for this (Rexroth’s unintentional comic severely serious “Thou Shalt Not Kill”; in another poem, he writes, “I take/myself too seriously”), but Elling has a sense of humor. One of the finest (funest) moments of the 2008 Monterey Jazz Festival, I felt, came when singer Jamie Cullum joined Kurt on stage in Dizzy’s Den, for one of the Festival’s last (Sunday night) sets. I was sitting stageside, in the dark, back against the wall, enjoying Kurt, Ernie Watts, and the Laurence Hobgood Trio, when a very small person (who would turn out to have a large voice and huge heart) sat down next to me. When Elling sang “Say It (Over and Over Again),” this person began to sing to himself, softly but slightly off pitch, so I wasn’t sure it was Cullum, even though I’d heard a rumor that he might appear. It was Jamie Cullum, however, and next thing I knew he was up on stage, very much on pitch, and the two vocalists exchanged classic playful banter—much of it related to “size.” When Cullum spoke of a woman claiming someone was “tall, dark, and handsome,” Kurt said, “I don’t believe she was talking of you.”

Jamie Cullum: “I have a very high opinion of myself.”

Kurt Elling: “That’s not something visible to the naked eye.”

Cullum: “Small things come with big packages.”

It was a joyous, earthy exchange, filled with respect, with camaraderie. When I left, Cullum was standing alone backstage and I said, “You two guys were great!” He smiled and said, “Thanks.”

Here are Jamie Cullum (leisurely sitting on top of a piano!) and Kurt Elling at work alone—a great “team” when they got together at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2006. (Photo credits: http://www.fanpop.com and http://www.criticsatlarge.ca)

Jamie Cullum sitting on piano Kurt Elling at Hollywood Bowl

Up until the time my wife Betty and I arrived in “The City” in 1958, the only “literature” I’d read regarding jazz was either liner notes on LPs or largely academic works such as Barry Ulanov’s A History of Jazz in America. I dug Mezz Mezzrow’s loose Really the Blues (with its glossary so you could translate the hip talk: “Well tell a green man somethin’, Jack. I know they’re briny ‘cause they dug me with a brace of browns the other fish-black, coppin’ a squat in my boy’s rubber, and we sold out. They been raisin’ sand ever since.”), but it was difficult to rely upon Really the Blues  as “history.” What Mezzrow provided was legend or myth. Robert Graves defined mythology as “the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student’s experience that he cannot believe them to be true,” and it was hard to believe Mezz Mezzrow.

Not long after we’d settled in San Francisco, on my first visit to City Lights (the universal navel of North Beach, along with Vesuvio bar, next door), I saw Allen Ginsburg, Peter Orlovsky, and I believe it was Gary Snyder emerge and hop in their O-honest-to-God Volkswagon bus and take off for—where? The Sierras, I like to think. In the bookstore that day, in the basement, I discovered the Evergreen Review “San Francisco Scene” issue—and bought it for $1.00. It featured an open letter (and a poem) by Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Dog” (which Bob Dorough would make fine music of: the first piece combining jazz and poetry that, to my mind, really worked well—too often, otherwise, the practitioners of these two separate “genres” just didn’t seem to be truly listening to one another!), Henry Miller’s “Big Sur and the Good Life,” Jack Kerouac’s “October in the Railroad Earth,” Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and poems by Brother Antoninus, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, and Jack Spicer.

What really threw me for a loop was reading Ralph J. Gleason describing the San Francisco jazz scene. Here, at last, was writing that matched the music—was truly worthy of it, was as vital and engaging as jazz itself! The piece began: “San Francisco has always been a good-time town. For periods it has been a wide-open town. And no matter how tight they close the lid and no matter the 2 A.M. closing mandatory in California, it is still a pretty wide-open town …A high-price call girl, flush from the Republican conven­tion and an automobile dealers conclave and happily looking forward to the influx of 20,000 doctors, 8,000 furniture deal­ers and divers other convention delegates, put it simply. ‘San Francisco is the town where everyone comes to ball, baby,’ she said … This spirit of abandon goes hand in hand with a liking for jazz, because jazz is, no matter how serious you get about it, romantic music by and for romantics. What could be a better place for it to flourish than a town where everybody comes to ball, baby?”

Wow! You could DO that?! You could write that freely, that openly, that wildly, that intimately, personally, that much like jazz itself when writing about this serious art form—what some writers would later call (not all that accurately perhaps; Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, and William Grant Still, yes, but jazz in and of itself?) “America’s Classical Music”? I was thrilled by what Gleason was doing—his overall approach. I’m not sure enthusiasts, ardent “fans” but non-musicians such as Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac understood the full nature of jazz, its complexity and demands beyond “freedom,” but they liked the stuff well enough and formed aesthetic theories regarding “spontaneous bop prosody” which they applied to their own work. In his Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey, William Least Heat Moon (a fine writer himself), says, “I was eighteen when On the Road came out,” and he goes on to mention Beat literature as work “my teachers considered worthless it not trash.” Remember Truman Capote saying, “That’s not writing, that’s typing”? Moon wrote, “To the teenage brain, of course, there is no higher commendation,” but goes on to say that his “sense of language was then too innocent and uninformed … to see the undigested ideas and hurried assemblage in so much Beat writing,” and if he did see “an occasional solecism (rife in Kerouac’s novels), I defended it as proof of spontaneous creation—a howling artistic challenge to the rigidities and conformities dulling the ‘50s.”

Here is a photo of jazz columnist Ralph J. Gleason–and a copy of the special San Francisco scene issue of Evergreen Review ($1!), which I still have (Photo credit: http://www.retrovideo.com)

Ralph Gleason  Evergreen Review

Which Beat writing was. I recall what now seems a somewhat ridiculous Civil War going on between “closed form” and “open form,” “cooked” and “uncooked,” “clothed” and “naked,” “traditional” and “post-modern,” “establishment” and “underground,” “academic” and “free,” “formalistic” and “organic,” “inherited” and “forward-looking” poetry. Moon adds, “I would argue half-heartedly that the Beats were important for what they said rather than how they said it”—but he divests readers of the illusion that Kerouac spent a mere nineteen days painting words, a la Jackson Pollack, on his endless roll of “Teletype”: “If only we’d known the truth: Kerouac worked at the book for more than a decade and executed several drafts of On the Road, both short ones and long, including a version in French. The more notorious Kerouac’s four manuscript scrolls became, the more fables about them increased.”

In this manner, perhaps, the legends of “angel headed hipsters” are born.

At the time of the 2009 Monterey Jazz Festival, I finally had an opportunity to sit down with Kurt Elling and discuss his Beat “roots.” We first chatted about Beat Generation writers over breakfast at the Hyatt hotel, and then went outside for a forty-five minute interview. Inside, we had been talking about Kenneth Rexroth, the Beat Generation “paterfamilias” whose poetry had such an influence on both Kurt and myself—so we started in again there:

Kurt Elling: “You mentioned the breadth of his interests and his abilities, such as teaching himself to be able to translate Japanese. We talked a bit about his awareness of the destruction that human beings at that time were waging on the earth, and his reverence and his humility before nature comes through in so many of his poems. It’s striking to me how successfully and organically he was able–in the same poem–to refer to the splendors of the earth and refer to the quick passage of time, and how small we are in comparison to the earth, and a sense of reverence and romance: real romance, the romance of sentient beings and not just people walking around who are brain dead, but real sentient beings. That’s what makes his poems diamonds. It’s because there’s so much refraction of light and intelligence and desire all compacted.”

Me: “It’s amazing, and not an easy thing to do.”

Kurt: “Yeah! I have real respect for his abilities. It’s the kind of thing that I strive for, to even be aware of walking around, let alone to have the kind of poetic gifts to be able to articulate them to other people in such a way that would be meaningful.”

I mentioned a 2002 Cadence magazine interview in which, referring to Beat Generation writers, Kurt had spoken of their “dark side,” and the paradox that they were “some pretty self-satisfied, self-righteous cats, who were trying to tell everybody what to do, in their attempt to have everybody stop telling them what to do.” “I loved that,” I said, and he laughed. I then asked how, born in 1967 as he was, he’d ever got into what the Cadence interviewer called “Beat texts.”

Kurt: “You know it’s tough to trace an exact lineage. I know that hearing Mark Murphy’s records, when he did the ‘Bop for Kerouac’ and he did the readings, those were very special records and I know that that pointed me to actually picking up the books if I hadn’t yet. Maybe a better way of saying it is: it gave me access to the books. And once you start down the path, then if you find something captivating, you want to encompass as much of it as you can. So that intent grew pretty naturally, and not only from an intellectual concern or curiosity, but also because some of the things that Kerouac and Ginsberg were going after, I have a strong … well, Kerouac opens my heart a little bit because he’s so … he’s just so sincere.”

Me: “In the Cadence interview, you said that the part that interested you the most was ‘the transcendental aspect … the yearning for the eternal’ and ‘the love that he had for people.’”

Kurt: “Yeah, he’s so vulnerable, he’s so sincere, he’s trying so hard and he’s such a goof. He’s so fragile, yet at the same time he’s really reaching out to what it means to be alive while he’s alive, and to glorify through his work as a writer just his life, his experiences and his friends’: the trials and tribulations and the victories of just being alive in that moment, in that era. And it’s his sincerity and his earnestness that was his greatest strength, but it was also his greatest vulnerability. I’m sure it’s what put him in the ground. Ideally what you have is an ego that has a flexible protective armor and when you write and when you consider and when you love, there is no armor and you are completely open and your consciousness receives and speaks with perfect unguarded honesty, but the world is an unforgiving place, and for somebody who can’t get their armor up when you need armor, you’re going to get crushed beneath the wheel, and it certainly came to him in a way–you know, fame–everything that went down. It seems to me he was never the kind of character that had any desire whatsoever to thrive in that public environment. He had desire, but it was the desire of a child who didn’t know he was playing with fire, so …”

Here is Jack Kerouac, alongside Kurt Elling—each providing the world a similar look; each with his own “flexible protective amor.” (Photo credits: www.gq.com and http://www.bluenote.com)

Jack Kerouac GQ  Kurt Elling Blue Note

I mentioned that my wife Betty and I had lived in Greece for a year and I was astounded when I heard university students coming home from the discos at night, singing “pop” songs composed by the great composer Mikis Theodarakis, with lyrics by Nobel Prize in Literature recipients Georgos Seferis and Odysseus Elitis, and I thought, This could never happen in America: this blend of outstanding music and first-rate poetry, not just standard song lyrics. “But you’re making that happen,” I said to Kurt, and asked about the risk involved.

Kurt: “It didn’t seem risky to me. It just seemed … What’s the right entrance for this? The possibility inherent in communicating as a singer, as a speaker in the jazz milieu is very broad at the outset: the number of avenues that you have just because you’re a singer and you speak in language and you sing with language. You can sing a standard, you can swing a standard, you can rearrange a standard, you can juxtapose a standard with another standard, you can scat—that’s just the baseline; but if one has studied the history of jazz singers: there’s Mark Murphy and his spoken word stuff; Sheila Jordan, the way she’s gone about things; Jon Hendricks and the way he makes a presentation and is so erudite and tells all these marvelous stories; Betty Carter and the intense and far-reaching scope of her just straight up musicianship and improvisational ability—and then like me, if you’re not just interested in the music, if you’re interested in an entire root system of the jazz culture we have, much of which grows out of the 1950s and 60s and the time that you are obviously more hugely familiar with … it’s impossible for me to have lived in that era, but because part of my job is to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the history of the sound, and because the influence of the poets and the painters and the sculptors and the politicians and the arguments of the times were so much of a piece with the way the musicians were playing and gave them a spur to keep exploring, to find new ways—‘Oh, we’re going to the moon,’ or ‘Oh, we’re in danger; Cuba’s got missiles,’ whatever it was—the fears and the energies and the aspirations of the urban life of America at that time was so tumultuous and trembling and expanding and obliterating the past and re-creating it, and that’s all in the best parts of the music that jazz was responding to and jazz was commanding, leading the way, hearing before the people heard how tumultuous it was going to be and playing it and shocking them with the news … I’ve been given a peculiar set of gifts. I’ve been given a voice that resonates and can move people. And I’ve got an intellect that’s interested in things beyond just the music. And I’ve been given opportunities to learn from some intensely intellectually very gifted people and to cop what I can cop, to understand what I can understand, and to know that there is a glorious possibility in every moment. If I was just quiet enough and writer enough every breath is a poem and every situation you are in–painful, beautiful, ugly–it’s just all poetry, all the time. You just have to be available to it.”

Me: “Somewhere else you talked about ‘the daily discipline that it takes to see the world with fresh eyes and to try to apprehend everything that’s coming to you as a potential gift: there’s poetry in that.’”

Kurt: “Yeah, so the [Beat Generation] books moved me, the books informed me, yet it was not just out of a kind of intellectual curiosity. It’s because I really want to know. My questions are the ultimate questions. There’s a reason I was in graduate school for three years, reading Haberman and Schleiermacher.”

Of the latter, theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, Mark Schorer (in William Blake: The Politics of Vision) has written that poet Blake “argued like Schleiermacher that religious intuition lifted the believer into a higher sphere, provided him with an enriched perception of the wholeness of experience,” and provided “an aesthetic experience of harmony that is potential in the world … a truly imaginative moral act, in which selfish isolation of human needs is transcended in the sense of a larger unity and a nobler universe”—all of which fits into Kurt Elling’s own aesthetics and sense of purpose very well.

Me: “I was going to ask you about the possible influence of your church background. The psalms. The love of language. The love of those sounds.”

Kurt: “A love of language, a love of sounds—an understanding of the emotional impact that a ritual environment can bring, and the importance that music plays in that ritual environment. That ritual environment has definitely informed the way that I approach a given concert. I want to take people right out of their seats right from jump if I can and alert them that something is going to happen to them beyond ‘Take the “A” Train.’ Then I try to take them there, or go with them, whatever the right way to say it is. And I think this is part of the task, the calling that I’ve been given. This is who I am. These are the roots I come from. I guess my first experience of music at all was in a theological environment: music in the service of  the emotional and spiritual growth of a group of people—and that’s not something that I have any desire to leave behind, just because I’m in a different genre now. But I’m not the only one. There’s a whole history of jazz musicians: Brubeck has written sacred concerts, Ellington has written sacred concerts, Mingus was no stranger to spiritual aspiration; Trane obviously, Art Blakey—Why did he call his band the Jazz Messengers? Right? I’m OK with fitting into that tradition as well. I try not to speak this explicitly about it, or I don’t speak this explicitly when I’m on the stage. And I usually don’t even speak about it this explicitly when I’m specifically being asked about it. I don’t want to lead with that. I want to lead with the music, lead with the joy, lead with the swinging experience, lead with the kick, and then when everybody’s relaxed and happy and they’re grooving, then you’ve already done 90% of your work; and then any specific message … only it isn’t a specific message other than something I think Kerouac would have identified with: we’re here, and it’s not about money or winning … it’s just about souls having a good time.”

Me: “The Japanese call it ‘kono-mama,’ or suchness—living the moment, the here and now.”

Kurt: “Yeah!”

Two more album covers: Flirting with Twilight and Nightmoves.

Kurt Elling Flirting with Twilight   Kurt Elling Nightmoves AllMusic

Me: “In the liner notes to your The Messenger CD, you said, ‘I am not “The Messenger,”’ but writer Neil Tesser added that your union of words and music ‘creates something provocative and yet serene; it leaves no doubt that the singer has quite a bit on his mind.’ He said your message ‘grows from the intersection of jazz and poetry, the place where the beat meets the Beats.’ You’ve also said, with regard to Kenneth Rexroth’s poems about impermanence: ‘love-time is brief.’ Is that the message, if there is one?”

Kurt: “You know it’s tough for me, because I do feel like I have a mission or a calling. I feel like I’m doing the thing that I’m here to do. But I don’t feel comfortable and never really have … I don’t have a specific theological agenda, other than peacefulness and joy. There’s a reason I’m not an actual priest. I don’t want to prescribe how it’s supposed to go for people. I just want to help them remember what it feels like sometimes.”

Me: “’I learn by going where I have to go’” [a line from Theodore Roethke’s poem ‘The Waking,’ which Kurt Elling recites/sings to Rob Amster’s bass accompaniment on his Nightmoves CD]

Kurt: “Yeah, I just want to help them remember what it feels like to be at peace and to be happy. One of the psychological definitions of happiness is self-forgetting, where you are no longer aware of yourself, because every time you are aware of yourself, then you have desire. Every time you are aware of yourself you have ‘Oh, my back hurts’ or ‘I’ve got to do this job.’ Or ‘What’s on TV?’ or ‘I want to buy that.’ Or ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘Look at that girl’—or whatever.  And the times when we are actually at peace and are happy, we’re not thinking about any of those things. We’ve been able to let all of those thoughts go and to simply be. Which is a Zen moment. It’s satori. [enlightenment]  Music is one of the primary ways that regular people experience this, without even knowing it. The music starts and they listen, and if the music connects with them, and if the performance is emotionally resonant, then for ninety minutes, they forget themselves and they are totally in the moment. They are experiencing a period of time in which they have no concerns, no doubts, no worries, no fears, no desires other than to continue having this experience. So that’s why I say there isn’t really a message. A message? It’s the experience that you are providing for people and then, if in the course of that I can take them to a place where they’re like, ‘Wow, what’s he singing? Huh!’ But I don’t want to take them any further than that, because then they start to follow their thoughts again. If I structure my set the right way, they’d follow my thoughts. And I’ll divert them through any experience that, at the end, they have joy and they have light and they’re happy that we were there—and then they want to come back for more. And then, from a French sense, if I’m really doing my job, then the surest proof that I’m a real artist is that, when the show is over, they all go out and have drinks together and have conversations that last into the night. That would be great!”

We left off talking about “the Message” in his music (or the music as message enough in itself) and continued talking about the difference between what Kurt had at one time called his “rants” and his “monologs” or pieces consciously composed or prepared, “worked out in advance.” I’d found a quote in the liner notes to his The Messenger CD in which he said he found the former, the “rants,” more “rewarding.” Still true?

Kurt Elling: “Well, I’m married now. [laughs, openly] Ranting is something a monk can do. Again, you really have to have enough solitude for these things to gestate, and to have enough of a solid kernel of something so that when you begin it explodes and you don’t know where it’s going to go. So the carefully constructed things tend to be something that I do more often now. But I’m still, with Mark Murphy or Sheila Jordan or getting with Von Freeman, any of these teacher figures of mine … they can kick me back into that space pretty quickly, if they just give me a look, and hook, and then I’ve got to be like, ‘OK, gantlet’s down, let’s go.’”

 Me: “The challenge is on. I found a review of a concert you gave in Michigan, and a reviewer for the Kalamazoo Gazette wrote that you were ‘thoroughly hip and groovy, this reincarnated poet from the Beat Generation—he said “man” and “cat” a lot and spoke with a great many flowery witticisms.’ The reviewer also said you ‘charmed the audience, which included several people celebrating Mother’s Day.’ But the slang term ‘Beat’ goes all the way back to 1860 and the Civil War, and the notion of hipness (I was “raised” on Slim Gaillard’s “voutie oroony” and Mezz Mezzrow’s book Really the Blues) had been around for some time before the Beat Generation. How do you feel about being type cast as ‘thoroughly hip and groovy’”?

Kurt: “It’s par for the course. They’re going to write about what they’ve going to write about. Spice that people don’t think exists anymore, or that it’s just in books or people’s memories—or even the guys that lived it don’t talk like that anymore.”

I mentioned young MFA in creative writing candidates I met at a writers conference in Gettysburg who, when I talked about living in San Francisco in 1958, said, “You were a Beatnik! To us that was the Golden Age!”—even when I said I was not fully aware, at the time, that I was a “Beatnik,” and that we were dirt poor to boot and it was no “Golden Age.”

Kurt: “Yeah, it’s all the Golden Age, and none of it’s the Golden Age. You know, frankly, musicians on the jazz scene in Chicago, certainly the people I was hanging out with, well, I gravitated toward the older musicians because I wanted jazz father figures, and I wanted to have their blessing and their encouragement and their love and their acceptance. I wanted to touch the past through them, and that’s how they talk! [laughs] So I wanted to be like them. It’s a little bit like what Gary Grant said: he became Cary Grant by pretending to be him long enough so that he did! He became him! So, now it’s just part of the thing, and I think it’s cool. It’s become an organic part of me, and even here at the Festival, I’m not the only one, man. Talk to Joe Lovano for a couple of minutes. Some of us just want to be a part of that. We want to continue to manifest that energy, because it’s good to be a slick, you know? It’s chic! It’s not ordinary.”

I quoted another portion of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, previously mentioned, for which Mezzrow even provides a glossary, and a translation, at the back of his book: “All I got left is a roach no longer than a pretty chick’s memory. I’m gonna breeze to my personal snatchpad and switch my dry goods while they’re [his lady friend is plural!] out on the turf,” etc. I told Kurt that, as I kid, these words became embedded in my head (and are still there, indelible), even before I learned the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence.

Kurt: [laughing] “There you go!”

Here is the cover of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, a book that became my jazz “Bible” at age fourteen (a book, often consulted, well-worn) I still possess–and Kurt Elling paying homage to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman in Dedicated to You.

Mezz Mezzrow Really the Blues     Kurt Elling Dedicated to You

Me: “Let’s talk about diversified experience or what you’ve described as ‘multi-disciplinary art events,’ full-blown performance pieces that encompass poetry, spoken word, dance and theater. I’ve been fascinated by the possibility of that sort of thing for a long time, and you’ve done so handsomely with it. An Italian reviewer praised you as ‘immensely versatile,’ commenting on the fact that you ‘keep changing from one moment to the next’—charming audiences with a traditional ballad, then scat-singing, ‘commanding [your] voice as an instrument, acting while singing,’ etc. Yet I grew up in an era of ‘specialization,’ when, if you tried to do many things, people thought you probably did not do any one of them very well. I had a year when I ended up in an anthology of best American short stories (with Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates), was exhibiting woodcut prints in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Smithsonian Institution, and was playing keyboards with a folk-rock group called the Salty Dogs. But I had to fight to convince people that all of this ‘stuff’ was coming from one source: my own soul! I was also teaching at a state university in Wisconsin and when the question of tenure came up, my chairperson called me into his office and, looking straight into my eyes, asked, ‘Bill, what is it you really do?’ That was the thinking of the time, the era, but today, things have changed, and ‘multi-tasking’ seems to be in.”

Kurt: “Well, again, if as an individual artist you could do anything from ranting to soliloquy to vocalese to straight up extemporaneous communication, I think that one already probably has a natural consciousness that is syncretic, one that wants to pull things together and see how they  combine. The most interesting thing is not to try to combine everything with everything; it’s to combine this interesting thing with this very disparate interesting thing, and to have a new viewpoint on everything else because you never would have thought of those two things together. So when the commissions started, who am I to say no? I gave it my best shot. They were always on a shoestring budget and they were only meant to run one or two nights at a time, but I’d give it my best shot because it was just a great creative challenge to try to figure out how these things would work together. I’m really proud of the results. I feel like I have a good organic sense of the way that dance and music and spoken word would go together, especially if I’m familiar enough with the choreographer’s work. Because a lot of times, if I’m seeing someone who has a great choreographic gift, and insight, that often inspires stories in me, so I’m adapting my thing to something that goes with this. It’s that kind of call and response, if you will.”

Me: “Is the ‘Encounter Without Prejudice: An Open Tribute to Allen Ginsberg’ project on film?”

Kurt: “No, it’s not really on film. There are audio recordings of it, and I’m actually having to have friends of mine back in Chicago dig through the Steppenwolf Theatre archives and the radio archives because it was pre-digital and just never had the budget  … well, it’s not like ‘let’s set up two digital cameras and have done with it.’ The reason I’m having to go through and get that stuff happening now anyway is that I’m applying for a grant for a new piece and they all want proof that you’ve actually done the things that you’ve said you are capable of doing.”

Me: “Can you talk about the new piece, or does discussing it beforehand jinx it?”

Kurt: “I’ve had an idea that for a few years has been gestating. It will be somewhat autobiographical, but it will also be based on Joe E. Lewis and The Jokers Wild: just using that as a very basic skeleton, but doing it in a very contemporary context and in that way sort of embracing history, because I have all these deep parallel experiences to Joe E. Lewis. The Green Mill was the club he was working in when they [mobsters] cut his throat. I know the tunnels. I know the ghosts of that place, and that it’s still a functioning club and it still has all this energy and it’s living. I’m not that interested in the old-time gangster thing. That seems real corny to me, and I want to present contemporary music as a heavy part of this, so we’re talking about a contemporary setting of an artistic tragedy—one that features a live and semi-spontaneous score.”

Me: “Will it work that way: as a legit ‘Greek’ tragedy, hubris, denouement and all?”

Kurt: “I’m working on the form. I’m not sure how its going to end, whether he pulls himself out or what the thing is, but I’m sure you can well imagine what an intensely mental game … well, I don’t know if ‘mental game’ is the right way to put it, but it’s something for me to contemplate: his life and the lives of people who have an artistic gift in a very special frequency and for whatever reason have that gift taken away from them. And then, what do you do with the rest of your time? If you can’t have your work in the Smithsonian and play music … if you don’t have a diversity where you’ve got back up things—then what?”

Me: “When people ask me if I ever get ‘writer’s block,’ I say,’No, I just go someplace else,’ which is a fortunate option I think.”

Kurt: “Yeah! I think this kind of idea goes to not only the questions that would specifically haunt us, but questions of regeneration, questions of self. The choice of one’s identity, and the creation of identity. I want to say that’s an American thing. It’s not just that of an individual artist. This is not just a genre-wide phenomenon. Here are all these musicians who are creating themselves by creating music. They’ve done discipline, they’ve learned history; they’ve learned about music and now they are declaring themselves. And that’s an American thing.”

Me: “Any last thoughts? Twenty-five words or less?”

Kurt: “Power to the people!”

Me: “Thanks for your time.”

Kurt: “Oh man, it’s nice. It’s nice to have a conversation about this stuff. And I appreciate your welcoming my efforts from my generation to connect.”

Here’s Kurt Elling making another essential connection–with an audience as he lodges lyrics in their minds and hearts forever. (Photo credit: http://www.the guardian.com)

Kurt Elling The Guardian

In a recent JazzTimes column, writer Nate Chinen states that, because of Kurt Elling, “the state of jazz singing will be different in the coming decade than it was when he arrived, and I dare say it will be better.” As evidence, he quotes David Thorne Scott, an associate professor in the voice department at Berklee College of Music, who claims, “Among my jazz students, [Elling] is the contemporary singer that I have cited the most as an influence. I always expect it from my guys, but it’s the women too.” And Dominique Eide, “an accomplished jazz singer and revered faculty member at the New England Conservatory,” adds, “Technically he’s so impressive, and I think students feel the weight of musicianship behind what he does, in his transcription and his writing of lyrics to other people’s solos.”

I’ll mention two impressive “techniques” that Elling employs when singing ballads—approaches that, I feel, owe something to the Beat Generation legacy of risk-taking and “artistic challenge.” The first is a relatively “straight” or straightforward, respectful (in terms of tradition or what has gone before) approach, but one to which he brings or lends his own unique—personal, original–sense of tempo and phrasing. He not only enhances, but transforms and transcends what we have become accustomed to hear, or are familiar with, within the standard ballad repertoire. A Russian literary theory called ostranenie, or “defamiliarization”–a theory much in line with the Beat Generation’s own aesthetics–was based on an incident in which Leo Tolstoy once spent twenty minutes dusting his room without having a single thought in his head. For Tolstoy, that was a crime. He was embarrassed: caught with the trousers of his consciousness down, so to speak, and equated the state to not existing, being dead. Critic Viktor Shklovsky picked up on this incident and described ostranenie as destroying the habitual logic of associations, a deliberate cultivation of the unexpected—the world of everyday reality becoming more perceptible in the process, objects restored from mere “recognition” to actual “seeing.” Or hearing. Of all the contemporary musical artists I know, Kurt Elling may come closest to putting “defamiliarization” into practice.

On his fourth CD, Flirting with Twilight (2001), and again on Dedicated to You, Kurt severely alters the customary tempo of “Say It (Over and Over Again).” He slows it down to a near halt (talk about “risk”!). There’s ritardando in music of course (holding back, gradually diminishing the speed), but when I tried to sing “Say It” at Kurt’s tempo, I just sounded mentally retarded, or aphasic. Kurt handles the tempo beautifully—as if he were swimming and singing, underwater. His slow motion phrasing gives you the eerie impression that time may well have swung to a halt, but the effect matches the special pleading (“never stop saying you’re mine”) perfectly—and not just pleading but praying this might be so. The slow motion approach, taking the tempo down to a near standstill, also occurs in “Every Time We Say Goodbye” (on his 1998 This Time It’s Love CD), and–as with “Say It”–it fits the song’s content just right. The existential dilemma—“Why the gods above me, who must be in the know, think so little of me … they’d allow you to go”—gets lodged in the mind and heart forever.

A second approach is strict vocalese, or what Dominique Eide described as Kurt’s “transcription and his writing of lyrics to other people’s solos.” On “A New Body and Soul” (Nightmoves, 2007), the content embodied in Dexter Gordon’s improvisation, the original  melody with its emphasis on a heart that’s “sad and lonely” and stuck fast in a  supplicating state is there at the start, but the emphasis is shifted to a head that’s “inept,” not a heart. Kurt’s own lyrics are loaded with “free” Beat Generation talk, or his “rant” phase (generous, expansive, meandering, here, to the point, perhaps, of overkill). The talk includes everything from allusions to “fear,” Orpheus, “the itsy-bitsy spider,” and a “cosmic freak show” that consumes mind, body, soul, and heart.

My favorite “vacalese” piece is “Freddie’s Yen for Jen” (on This Time It’s Love), which starts out with succinct lyrics worthy of Kenneth Rexroth:

“Love is wild in her; / I confuse her love with the sea. / She is a rare fantasy told to me …”

The single syllable word “rare” somehow ends up sounding like “mir-a-cle”—but the subtle effects erupt, the slow tempo changing to one that’s decidedly “up.”

“”But her kisses. / I dig her kisses / while washing the dishes / or feeding the fishes …

The loud Bob Dylanesque rhymes produce the effect of mockery or doggerel, and from that point on, it’s anything goes—and it does. The “poetry“ gets kinky, playing heavily on the “k” sound: “Kick-it, kig-it, kig-it kisses/kisses that will make you holler love/and that you’re glad enough to be a man!” In a wild middle “talk” section, his “chick” is flying all around him, with “a wiggle that will make a clock stop.” They “tether together,” the word play wide open, now, like the love, but not quite as indulgent as in “A New Body and Soul” (aside perhaps from those “chewy kisses”). It all converts to a grueling instrumental scat and ends on the word—guess what?—“kiss,” of course.

With regard to a fully successful “marriage” or union of words and jazz in Kurt Elling’s work, it might seem fair to ask the same question I did the first time I heard Kenneth Rexroth read to music, “But is it poetry?” I do feel we’ve come some distance since Rexroth’s “groundbreaking” efforts or what William Least Heat Moon recognized as “undigested ideas and hurried assemblage,” and I feel that Kurt Elling has found a more intigrated means to combine  highly original use of language with jazz in a way that is so thorough, so complete it’s not possible to appraise the words alone as “good poetry” or the music alone as “good music.” The two become one, as they should, and that is the basis on which we might say the work itself is “good” or “bad.” By this standard, what Kurt Elling does is very “good” indeed. For much of his audience, when Kurt sings, the words of a song–even those of the most familiar “standard”–finally come fully alive and mean something, and that would appear to be in the nature of poetry, if not the essence of poetry itself.

My favorite poet associated with the Beat Generation (although he did not like being “fixed” in that way) was Jack Spicer. I first found his brilliant Billy the Kid, the original Stinson Beach Enkidu Surrougate edition, in City Lights Bookstore, but at the time I could not afford whatever it cost (probably no more than a couple of dollars), and I still kick myself for having been a part of that Beatnik “Golden Era.” Spicer described poetry as both a “dance” and a “game”—but the game is a ball game in which you “play for more than your life.” The poet does not become a “master of words,” but is mastered by them; and the relation between reader and writer is “an amorous play for keeps. No tourists allowed.” The committed stance and high standards remind me of much that Kurt Elling said in our interview. A friend of Spicer’s, during a lecture that Jack gave, came up with a host of musical analogies he felt fit Spicer’s poetry. One compared the writer to a jazz musician improvising on a single tune so often that “he has patterns in his fingers and these patterns are so firmly in his fingers that he can allow them to take their own head and do what they want to.” Spicer responded, “I agree with that. But at the same time, you get the kind of thing which you’ve had in jazz since Parker died, with the exception of Monk, where at least I am not moved any more, where you are just showing what you can do with the things which are in your fingers or in your mouth or where the thing is … cool jazz becomes cold jazz.”

Here are Jack Spicer and Kurt Elling—each “mastered by words”—an “amorous play for keeps. No tourists allowed.” (Photo credits: mypoeticside.com and Wikipedia)

Jack Spicer    Kurt_Elling North Sea Wikepedia

While I certainly do not agree at all with Spicer’s appraisal of the state of jazz in general since Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, the point is well taken–and has been repeated often–that in any art form, there’s got to be more than technique for the sake of technique. And I would never accuse Kurt Elling of ever going “cold,” of mere finger (or “lip”) exercises. The “weight of his musicianship” may now seem nearly effortless, compatible, truly “cool,” but it has deep roots—not just in his fondness for and indebtedness to the Beat Generation, but in all the hard work and study he’s put in. He’s “learned history”; he’s “done discipline.”

Kurt Elling, in writer Nate Chinen’s estimate (“Let’s come right out and say it”) “is the most influential jazz vocalist of our time.” Kurt’s legacy may well prove to be the extraordinary manner in which he has combined the art form of jazz with his own strong sense of language, its imaginative power and its wealth of meaning. He is certainly one of the most original, most unique vocalists to explore that relationship.

When, back in 2010, I assembled the five pieces I wrote for my JazzWest blog, I immodestly felt I must have written THE definitive “study” of Kurt Elling’s music. I don’t know that he ever saw those pieces, so I don’t know what his opinion of that opinion might have been. Over the years, I did work to refine my original efforts until I had completed the essay–“Kurt Elling and The Beat Generation”–to satisfaction. And it’s been a pleasure to read the recent JazzTimes and Down Beat articles on him, and realize that Kurt is still going strong, still offering “great melodies” and “express[ing] authentic emotions”—still “the real deal.” I heard Kurt Elling and Branford Marsalis together at the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival, and they were definitely “the real deal.”

Thank you, Kurt, for all the pleasure you’ve provided by way of your inclusive, and continuous, talent and dedication to jazz—for your everlasting faith in what you do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neuroplasticity as Opposed to Materialist Reductionism; Quantum Theory and Jazz Improvisation; and John Beasley’s MONK’estra at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival

In preparation for this blog post, I have been taking notes on books by three very different authors, but each book leads to a compatible hypothesis (or conclusion) on their part. The authors are Jeffrey M. Schwartz (The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force), Henry P. Stapp (Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer), and Dean Radin (The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena).

I concluded my last blog post by saying that, when I wrote again, I would like to address “the ongoing debate (or ‘civil war’) in the world of science between (1) materialist reductionism (‘The idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movement of material particles’) and (2) neuroplasticity (‘rewiring’ of the brain), volition, free will, bidirectional ‘causality relating brain and mind’: two opposite sides in that ‘war’ that young Isaac Newton set in motion when he got conked on the head beneath an apple tree (although even that ‘fixed’ or too perfect setting has been called into question) and Newton discovered the law of gravity, regarding our world as a windup clock–empiricism as the only means by which it can be understood, or ‘measured.’

Here are visionary artist William Blake’s painting of Sir Isaac Newton, “measuring” (In a letter, Blake wrote, “Pray God us keep/From Single vision & Newton’s Sleep”; and in a poem: “Newton’s Particles of light/Are Sands upon the Red sea’s shore”; also: “Can wisdom be put in a silver rod?”)—the second print is Blake’s “Ancient of Days,” also with compass or calipers in hand, instruments “sinister” to the poet, both literally and figuratively. (Photo credits: www.wikiart.org; wikipedia)

William Blake's Newton

William Blake's Ancient of Days

I concluded that post with: “‘Newton in some sense largely eliminated the divine from the ongoing workings of the universe,’ states Jeffrey M. Schwartz in his excellent book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which, along with Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary’s The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul is of considerable interest, along with [Stapp’s book]. I will save an analogy, or congruence I find with jazz for the next post—so please ‘stay tuned,’ for I hope you will find the comparison, and an account of John Beasley’s amazing interpretation and arrangements of Thelonious Monk’s work engaging, and interesting.”

So here we are, now, with some thoughts on (and quotes from) three different views of the on-going Brain/Mind controversy (classical Newtonian physics versus neuroplasticity). Jeffrey Schwartz is a research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine; Henry P. Stapp “has spent his entire career working in frontier areas of theoretical physics”—pursuing “extensive work pertaining to the influence of our conscious thoughts on physical processes occurring in our brains”; and Dean Radin is a parapsychology researcher, Senior Scientist at the  Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), in Petaluma, California, and former President of the Parapsychological Association.

All three authors have focused their attention on the issue of “mind-brain” interaction, on how contemporary basic physical theory differs from classic physics, on the role of consciousness in human agents when they encounter the structure of empirical phenomena—and all three would seem to favor philosopher David J. Chalmers, when he writes about “the hard problem” of consciousness (“There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.”), and in his book The Character of Consciousness, Chalmers devotes 568 pages to an attempt to explain this all-too-human condition.

In cruel contrast, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author (The Selfish Gene) Richard Dawkins attempts to resolve the issue in four succinct sentences: “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA. That is exactly what we are here for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.”

Schwartz, Stapp, and Radin–whatever their differences–spend considerable space (and words) in their books attempting to show (and support with examples) the obsolescence of mainstream (“only the physical is real”) materialism, classic Newtonian physics, Hard Science, reductionism (as quoted before: “the idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movements of material particles”)—and openly (and courageously) espouse the merits of neuroplasticity: the “ability of neurons to forge new connections, to blaze new paths through the cortex, even to assume new roles … rewiring the brain.”—or, God forbid, Free Will!

Schwartz came to his position, or vision, by way of innovative therapy sessions he worked out for patients suffering from (or locked into) obsessive/compulsive behavior—alongside an extra-curricular interest in Buddhist “mindfulness.” Schwartz quotes the following from “one Buddhist scholar”: “You’re walking in the woods and your attention is drawn to a beautiful tree or a flower. The usual human reaction is to set the mind working, ‘What a beautiful tree. I wonder how long it’s been here. I wonder how often people notice it. I should really write a poem’ [or worse: ‘I should probably cut it down for firewood!’] … The way of mindfulness would be just to see the tree … as you gaze at the tree there is nothing between you and it.” Schwartz adds, “There is full awareness without running commentary. You are just watching, observing all facts, both inner and outer, very closely.” You are just living the tree?

Here are David J. Chalmers’ The Character of Consciousness; Jeffrey M. Schwartz’s The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force; and a photo of Schwartz himself. (Photo credit: Goodreads)

David Chalmers The CHaracter of Consciousness   Jeffery Schwartz The Mind and the Brain

Jeffrey Schwartz

Here are some other observations by Jeffrey Schwartz I appreciated: “Individuals choose what they will attend to [two of his favorite words are “awareness” and “attention” (“intended action!”)]… Science ceded the soul and the conscious mind to religion and kept the material world to itself … By choosing whether and/or how to focus on the various possible states, the mind influences which one of them comes into being … The triumphant idea can then make the body move, and through associated neuroplastic changes, alter the brain circuitry … Radical attempts to view the world as a merely material domain, devoid of mind as an active force, neglect the very powers that define humankind … The science emerging with the new century tells us that we are not the children of matter alone, nor its slaves.”

He also praises (for its far ahead of its time insight), the words of William James: “Nature in her unfathomable designs has mixed us of clay and fire, of brain and mind, that the two things hang indubitably together and determine each other’s being.”

Jeffrey Schwartz is also fond of quoting his friend (and eventual collaborator) Henry Stapp: “the replacement of the ideas of classical physics by the ideas of quantum physics completely changes the complexion of the mind-brain dichotomy, of the connection between mind and brain … In quantum theory, experience is an essential reality, and matter is viewed as a response then of the primary reality, which is experience.”

Henry P. Stapp’s prose style is, overall, more technical, demanding, and, although of considerable interest, perhaps less accessible at times (to someone like me, a definite “layman”), but he is dealing with the subject about which the renowned physicist Richard Feynman confessed (in his series of The Character of Physical Law lectures), “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Stapp would hope to convince you otherwise, commencing the Preface to Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer with these words: “The new theory departs from the old one in many important ways, but none is more significant in the realm of human affairs than the role it assigns to your conscious choices.”

Stapp cites a “tremendous burgeoning of interest in the problem of consciousness” now in progress, and quotes from an article by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio: “At the start of the new millennium, it is apparent that one question towers above all others in the life sciences: How does the set of processes we call mind emerge from the activity of the organ we call brain?” Damasio answers his own question: “I contend that the biological processes […] now presumed to correspond to mind in fact are mind processes and will be seen to be so when understood in sufficient detail”—and he hints that biological processes “understood in sufficient detail” are really “quantum understanding.”

Enter Henry P. Stapp with his “deep interest in the quantum measurement problem.” His own book is loaded with vital information on (and understanding of) every phase of quantum theory from the fundamental role of the observer; the wave/particle phenomena; placebos; the locality/nonlocality issue;  Einstein’s “Spooky Action at a Distance”; the Quantum Zero effect—a host of aspects of the two co-existing parallel mental realities; and even an extensive analysis of Alfred North Whitehead’s thoughts, one of the first mathematician/philosophers to comprehend quantum mechanics and incorporate its theories into his organic philosophy and Process Ontology.

Here is a photo of Henry P. Stapp, and the cover of his book, The Mindful Universe. (Photo credit: Alchetron.com)

Henry Stapp (2)   Henry Stapp The Mindful Universe

I won’t try to do justice to all I found of interest and value in those sections (Much!), but a chapter and material that followed is devoted to “The Impact of Quantum Mechanics on Human Values,” and Stapp states, “The quantum concept of man, being based on objective science equally available to all … has the potential to undergird a universal system of basic values suitable to all people, without regard to the accidents of their origins”—and would thus provide “material benefits,” in every area from ethics to medicine.

Among the advantages, Stapp lists: “consciously experienced intentional choices,” “a foundation for understanding the co-evolution of mind and brain,” “free will of the kind needed to undergird ethical theory,” and improved “self-image … with consciousness an active component of a deeply interconnected world process that is responsive to value-based human judgments … Behavior, insofar as it concerns ethics, is guided by conscious reflection and evaluation … one’s weighing of the welfare of the whole.”

If “attention” (“intended action”) was a favorite, a key word for Schwartz, “interconnection” is the choice of Henry Stapp. He has a Utopian vision. EVERYTHING is interconnected! Without being fully aware of it, we are ALL (people and particles alike!) intimately interconnected—always! We are truly the molecular, and otherwise, music of the spheres, uniting medieval cosmology and NOW. His vision of and for the future is not “systematic,” and the structure of his book is loose; the book—although divided up into “chapters,” seems to float, from section to section, agreeably, as inclusive as quantum theory itself, with ease and unpredictability (Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” at play), enjoying its own playful quantum “jumps.” Another frequently employed word is “dynamics”—and nothing is preserved in stone, set forever, or lasting (as Newton’s classic physics did) for three centuries; all is in flux (I once wrote a poem that began: “I flux, you flux, everybody flux flux.”).

Stapp states: “According to the new conception, the physically described world is built not out of bits of matter, as matter was understood in the nineteenth century, but out of objective tendencies—potentialities—for certain discrete, whole actual events to occur … This coordination of the aspects of the theory that are described in physical/mathematical terms with aspects that are described in psychological [subjective] terms is what makes the theory  practically useful. Some empirical predictions have been verified to the incredible accuracy of one part in a hundred million.”  

Here are photos of: quantum mechanics equations and the wave/particle double slot experiment. Photo credits: www.thoughtco.com; http://www.liquidgravity.nz)

Quantum mechanics equations

Wave particle experiment

“Mindfulness” (attention, interconnectedness) would seem to be the order of the day.

Although Dean Radin shares conclusions and convictions with Schwartz and Stapp, he comes at the mind-brain dilemma from a slightly different angle or perspective: defending his field of specialty (parapsychology) from constant attack or criticism on the part of hard science, which regards the study of the mental phenomena he has devoted his life to as inexplicable—or an illusion.

His book–The Conscious Universe: the Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomenais systematic: a carefully sequenced argument, or act of persuasion, from the Preface (“When we set out to prove the boundaries of consciousness and reality … it is essential to cultivate tolerance for the unexpected”) to the book’s “wrap up” on page 339: “Future generations will undoubtedly look back upon the twentieth century with a certain poignancy. Our progeny will shake their heads with disbelief over the arrogance we displayed in our misunderstanding of nature. It took three hundred years of hard-won scientific advances merely to verify the existence of something that people had been experiencing for millennia.”

Radin is devoted to noetic (from the Greek word “noesis” or “noetikos”: intuition or inner wisdom, direct knowing, subjective understanding) science: a branch that employs rigorous scientific methods with multidisciplinary scholarship in the study of what philosopher William James (far-seeing in 1902) referred to as “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.” Using this method Radin recognized (discussed under the heading “Belief Becomes Biology” in his book) that an external suggestion can become “an internal expectation” that can “manifest in the physical body”–the implication being that the body’s “hard physical reality can be significantly modified by the more evanescent reality of the mind.”

Radin offers sections of text that carefully, and clearly, define such phenomena as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, precognition, ESP, out-of-body experience, near-death experience, and reincarnation. He feels that, in spite of the fact that such states have been in existence (with much evidence of them) “for millennia,” science itself has evolved into the absurd position of “the mind denying its own existence” (“Science has effectively lost its mind.”), and he believes that underlying the world of ordinary objects and human experience “is another reality, an interconnected world of intermingling relationship and possibilities”—an underlying reality “more fundamental–in the sense of being the ground state from which everything originates—than the transient forms and dynamic relationships of familiar experience.”

Here is Dean Radin, and the cover of his book The Conscious Universe. (Photo credit: http://www.deanradin.com)

Dean_Radin_Photo    Dean Radin The Conscious Universe

I like a witticism Radin attributes to physicist Nick Herbert, who makes the claim (along with other writers we’ve encountered) that consciousness is our “biggest mystery,” but adds: “it is not that we possess bad or imperfect theories of human awareness, we simply have no sense of them at all. About all we know about consciousness is that it has something to do with the head, rather than the feet.”

Henry P. Stapp’s favored concept, “interconnection,” shows up again. In support for his case or stance, Radin quotes Teilhard de Chardin: “The farther and more deeply we penetrate into matter, by means of increasingly powerful methods, the more we are confounded by the interdependence of its parts … All around us, as far as the eye can see, the universe holds together, and only one way of considering it is really possible, that is, to take it as a whole, in one piece.” And Radin quotes Sogyal Rinpoche (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying): “Everything is inextricably interrelated. We come to realize that we are responsible for everything we do, say, or think, responsible in fact for ourselves, everyone and everything else, and the entire universe.”

Radin likes the word “uni-verse”: a connected world, “not a set of isolated fragments,” which suggests another responsibility (or creative challenge) entailed: “We all carry ideas about who we are, or who we have been taught to believe we are … not only is our perception of the world a construction, but also our sense of who we think we are.”

For all his idealism, Dean Radin’s book is not devoid of practical application. In a section dealing with such (with a heading, “Medicine”), he writes, “We envison that future experiments will continue to confirm that distant mental healing is not only real, but is clinically useful in treating certain physical and mental illnesses.” And he closes on a hopeful note: ‘A society that      consciously uses precognitive information to guide the future is one that is realizing true freedom … This would allow us to create the future as we wish, rather than blindly follow a predetermined course through our ignorance.”

Thus spake Jeffrey M. Schwartz, Henry P. Stapp, and Dean Radin. Before we move on to “jazz” (and applying some of these theories to the art of improvisation), I’d like to cite a final passage from another book I mentioned in passing: The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul—a book whose final vision for the future contains even larger aspiration than the others I’ve discussed: “Mystical experience from various spiritual traditions indicates that the nature of the mind, consciousness, and reality as well as the meaning of life can be apprehended through an intuitive, unitive, and experiential form of knowing … The proposed new scientific frame of reference may accelerate our understanding of this process of spiritualization and significantly contribute to the emergence of a planetary type of consciousness. The development of this type of consciousness is absolutely essential if humanity is to successfully solve the global crises that confront us … and wisely create a future that benefits all humans and all forms of life on planet earth.”

Here’s  my own “take” on the mind/brain drama: I tend to get frustrated, and feel quite helpless, when a “machine” I own (such as the laptop I am working on just now; or a blood pressure monitor, or even the kitchen toaster) doesn’t function as it should (James Thurber quipped, “Machines don’t like me!”), so if I am a machine myself (as classic Newtonian physics claims), and I don’t function well (which happens from time to time—maybe I should say often!), it’s no wonder I spend (precious, hopefully potentially productive) time being upset. On the other hand, Quantum theory allows us to live our lives in the moment as it is, whatever it is or may be (being and becoming), no matter what matter it’s made of (rim shot!), and we truly need to take this gift, this moment in time–and ourselves–just as we find it (and ourselves!), and make the best of it. The same holds true for the external world, not just our internal existence—for the two are One.

So what does any of this have to do with jazz improvisation? Well … everything! The best “ingredients” of quantum physics can be found in the best jazz—when both are moving, grooving as they should: interconnected, mindful, intuitive, unitive, and experiential. Which brings us to the wondrous world–or universe–of jazz itself (at last, you may quip, and I don’t blame  you!). I was ready, I was “up,” for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, because I was eager to see and hear a group I had heard (and read) “good things” about: John Beasley’s MONK’estra.

Journalist Willard Jenkins interviewed Beasley regarding his fresh, brilliant, innovative (all the things Thelonious Monk himself was!) arrangements of the music, and Willard quoted Beasley: “The germ of MONK’estra started with my desire to experiment with 21st century harmony for big band that swings and grooves … I started reimagining Monk’s “Epistrophy” and quickly realized that his music was the perfect match for this. The swing is already written in and since his music is very pliable, I found that I could stretch my imagination.”

Willard Jenkins adds, “John Beasley has done a marvelous job of contemporizing Thelonious Monk’s music”—and Beasley himself continues: “I compare Monk’s music to how the public must have felt upon its first view of Cubist art by Pablo Picasso, which revolutionized modern art.” I agree, because, whereas I was fascinated when I first heard Monk play, I couldn’t grasp what he was up to, and resisted it—the way that he was revolutionizing jazz. Beasley says, “On the eve of his centennial it is evident that we have finally caught up to where he was taking us.”

Here’s a photo of John Beasley and the full MONK’estra aggregate—and a photo in performance. (Photo credits: www.laweekly.com; http://www.montereyjazzfestival.org)

John Beasley and Monkestra

John Beasley's MONK'estra_(c)Eric Wolfinger_SFJAZZ_2015_0182_crop

At the Monterey Jazz Festival, MONK’estra performed on Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but took notes from the start on what I heard: a not just swinging, grooving big band, but one that rocked (fully inclusive, with a surprising backbeat)—an ultra-tight ensemble, with powerful section work to support (surround and enhance) soloists who offered their share of funky licks: a little bit of everything (trying all the options on for size, simultaneously, something for everyone, like Henry Stapp’s “universal system of basic values suitable to all people, without regard to the accidents of their origins”: Quantum Physics!); a host of Monk tunes, a medly seemingly undifferentiated, a continuous suite of Thelonious. I didn’t bother to write down the titles. I just dug the tunes as a truly handsome bunch, and the full range of interpretation and improvised ingenuity based on the originals: explosive dynamics (deep growling baritone sax: Adam Schroeder; wailing trombone: Francisco Torres; altruistic alto sax: Bob Sheppard); fulsome ensemble support or “fill”; luscious unison work; luminous orchestration (as if John Beasley, like Hector Berlioz, who wrote the book on it, knows the exact timbre, texture of each and every instrument—and the best combinations or match ups); each separate melody or “head” the genesis of the next—and the truly recognizable (some of my favorite Monk tunes, “Pannonica,” “I Mean You,” “Ugly Beauty,” “Gallop’s Gallop”) emerging with all their grace and style.

Few of the tunes were announced (if I remember correctly) throughout (Beasley slipped over to the keyboards himself, unobtrusively, for “Pannonica”): just a perfectly put together wild wonderful onslaught of Thelonious, with glimpses of counterpoint, blues vamp, more than just a little “Latin touch,” a wire brush percussive break, smooth liquid sequences building to a full force orchestral flourish, and close out.

Something I realized, writing those last two paragraphs now, is that I could supplement many phrases of description with Quantum Theory “fill”—as if John Beasley’s continuous suite had been composed on Quantum principles, for it was rift with the distinct flow of particles acting as waves, nonlocal “instantaneous action at a distance,” music fully grounded in itself (its own nature, its affinity with natural life: free of the tendency of free jazz straining, trying too hard, at times, to be “free,” yet free, also, of the tendency of big bands to get locked into mandatory, or obligatory concord or unity; this group was just MONK’estra, itself, having a grand Quantum Monk time!): its music a fully present “fact,” in the Alfred North Whitehead sense of the “preeminence of congruence” established “over the indefinite herd of other such relations”—music intimately interconnected, at one with itself: music, in Henry Stapp’s words, “guided by conscious reflection and evaluation … one’s weighing of the welfare of the whole”—abundantly laced with joyous “mindfulness,” John Beasley has fulfilled his desire, his intent “to stretch [his] imagination” and, on the eve of Thelonious Monk’s centennial, “to finally [get] caught up to where he was taking us.”

Here are two geniuses side by side: Thelonious Monk and Alfred North Whitehead (Photo credit: www.burtglinn.com)

Thelonious Monk 8     Alfred North Whitehead Process and Reality

I had two enjoyable encounters following the exceptional MONK’estra set. I stopped at a long table set up on the grounds, and had a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale (North Coast Brewing has donated over $1 million from proceeds of the sale of the beer and gear to support the Jazz education programs of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.). Standing next to me was a very short man dressed like Harlequin, an outrageous costume. I’d done some work for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival (copy for an exhibit of historical posters, “Monterey at 60: A Visual Feast,” and a series of humorous historical anecdotes included in a video shown at several venues that weekend), and I was wearing what prompted my just-made friend to say, “Your badge would suggest you are a person of some importance.” Ironically, at that moment, one of my anecdotal “slides” appeared on a large screen in a pavilion adjacent to us that had couches and chairs and served drinks—so I told my new friend and his companions about my work for the Festival, and said, “Look, that’s one of mine.” They seemed impressed and asked for my card, which I gave them, and they all promised, on the spot, to buy all three of my jazz books—claiming, “Why, you yourself are living history! And you look like a writer!”

Here’s an example of one of my anecdotal “slides” (on an appearance at the MJF by Miles Davis) and the poster for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival:

Leonard Nelson Miles Davis Quote   MJF-17-Poster_small4

The encounter was good fun, but the next one was even better. I set out for the North Coast Brewing pavilion, to meet a journalist friend, Dan Ouellette (who conducts the DownBeat Blindfold Test each year at the MJF), and who should he be talking to when I arrived but John Beasley himself, who’d retired there with nearly his entire orchestra after their set. Dan has written about John, so he introduced me, and we sat together for … a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale, of course!   

Fifty-eight year old Shreveport, Louisiana born John Beasley has a (Southern?) gentlemanly presence, well abetted by urban studio work savvy (He was lead arranger for American Idol for eleven years), and a genuine genial jazz musician’s “cool” manner. You might say he’s very quantum inclusive! I enjoyed talking with him, much! I told him about my own experience as fully undeserving house pianist at a place called the 456 Club in Brooklyn in 1956 (when I attended Pratt Institute), and meeting classical and jazz composer, arranger, and pianist Hal Overton there. It was Overton whom Thelonious Monk selected to score his piano works for orchestra; a performance of these compositions recorded live in 1959 (and released as The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall).In 1963, Monk recorded a second live album with orchestral arrangements by Overton at the New York Philharmonic Hall, released as Big Band and Quartet in Concert.

Here are the two Monk CDs for which Hall Overton provided arrangements:

Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall   Thelonious Monk Big Band and Concert CD

John Beasley seemed interested, and even asked if I would give him my card (“Living history,” and Wow, I’d now handed out two of my “business” cards in one hour!). I even told John that I’d had a cabaret card in New York City when Monk couldn’t get one (he’d ben arrested on an extremely questionable charge of “possession,” and not only confined for sixty days in prison, but the New York State Liquor Authority removed his cabaret card, without which you could not get hired for local club dates.) He was reinstated in 1957. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1964.

John Beasley’s own life, and career, is fascinating. He grew up in a musical family. His grandfather, Rule Oliver, played trombone in territory bands; his mother, Lida, taught music in public schools and colleges, as well as conducting operas (she earned a local Emmy for her work in Faust). John’s father, another Rule, is a pianist and bassoonist who played with the Fort Worth Symphony, and was a professor of music at two colleges. John Beasley learned to play trumpet, oboe, drums, saxophone, flute—and jazz piano, for which he is best known now, along with his arranging)—and he went on to record and perform with Miles Davis, Sergio Mendes, Steely Dan, Dianne Reeves, and James Brown. John became musical director for the Thelonious Monk Institute Tribute and International Jazz Day concerts, and has been nominated for an Emmy Award and three times for a Grammy for three different albums.

He claims he “always had a thing for Thelonious Monk,” and in 2012, he wrote a big-band chart for “Epistrophy,” then “Ask Me Now.” He formed a 15-piece band composed of top West Coast musicians, and has released two MONK’estra recordings. Here they are:

John Beasley's MONK'estra Vol. 1    John Beasley's MONK'estra Vol. 2

Thelonious Monk’s son T.S. has stated, “My father would have approved.” Writer Neil Tessler comments on Beasley’s “refreshing 21st century take on the ever new music” of Monk, and praises the arranger’s solid “link to the composer’s vision,” exceptional “orchestral writing,” and even Beasley’s willingness to “spark some controversy” (“using darkened harmonies and backbeat rhythms,” “a tonal pallet reminiscent of neo-soul,” on a familiar tune such as “’Round Midnight”). Tessler writes that the arranger “has deftly pulled [“Midnight”] into the orbit of modern listeners … has simply returned this song to its roots, with a conceptual twist that simultaneously makes it fresh.” Beasley has created “an entire collection of excitingly re-conceived and marvelously executed compositions.”

Elsewhere, Tessler has written that Beasley possesses “a willingness to engage  these compositions with an ingenuity as audacious as the one that created them.” John Beasley’s “lifelong love of arranging” has made it possible for him to take Monk’s music, so open “to interpretation,” and enhance it with (in his own words) his own “architecture,” going well beyond “the idea of theme-solos-theme,” because, “like all great songs, Monk’s songs lend themselves to a more personal interpretation, especially when it comes to arranging.” Tessler adds, “Maybe Beasley’s affinity for Monk was simply meant to be. Monk was born October 10 in 1917; 43 years later to the day, Beasley showed up.”

I’m grateful that he did: not only in this life and for the sake of jazz, but, selfishly for my own sake, for that Sunday afternoon MONK’estra set at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and for the excellent conversation I had with him after, over Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale! Thank you, Dan Ouellette, for introducing us—and thank you, John Beasley, for all you have given us by way of music.

I love writing this blog—the quantum “freedom” of it (when I can find time and presence of mind to do so), and if you’d told me years ago that I would someday put together an “informal essay” that combined an examination of quantum theory with an account of a first-rate jazz performance, I would more than likely have thought you crazy. So thanks for being a bit crazy in a manner to inspire me now! I look forward to surprising you (again?) with my next blog post, whenever it happens and whatever it’s about (the “uncertainty principle” again).

 

A Ten-Day Hospital Stay (as Disclaimer); Jazz Pianist Kei Akagi; and the Premiere of John Clayton’s “Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration” at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival

I should, perhaps, rename this blog “Bill’s Collective Apologies for Not Posting a New Blog When He Says He Will,” but that’s not an appellation likely to attract and hold readers–although given the nature of our topsy-turvy times, it just might work. Once again, I find myself in the position of apologizing for not providing what I said would be my next blog post, which was: “I’d like to continue the theme of ‘More About Music,’ and write about this recording [a CD, Contrast & Form, I’d received from jazz pianist Kei Akagi, whom I’d written about in my book, Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within; University of Michigan Press, 2004]… Until then: if I do not see you at the 60th anniversary Monterey Jazz Festival celebration, I’m sure I’ll want to tell you about what I heard and saw there, as best I can—and more than likely in a still-excited state of recent exposure. Long live the Monterey Jazz Festival!”

I do intend, in this blog, to make good on all that I suggested there: Kei Akagi’s new CD Contrast & Form, his impressive body of work in general and his thoughts on improvisation–and two outstanding sets I heard at the 60th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival: The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra premiere of a commissioned piece: Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration (with special guests: pianist Gerald Clayton, John’s son, and his trio); and John Beasley’s MONK’estra, featuring John’s imaginative, solid arrangements of the music of Thelonious Monk.

Here’s a photo of the poster for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and a photo of yours truly standing beside some copy I wrote for a retrospective exhibit of posters called “Monterey at 60: A Visual Feast” (Photo credit: Stuart Brinin):

MJF-17-Poster_small4   MJF Poster Exhibit Stu Photo

But first … the inevitable disclaimer as to why it’s taken so long to get around to this blog. My last post was on September 8, just a few days before the Monterey Jazz Festival. At that time, knowing I would spend three nights and two days hiking the Fairgrounds in quest of all the fine music afforded at several venues, I was concerned about trouble I was having with my right knee (trouble that would occasion a trip to ER at Community Hospital–and X-rays that disclosed a sprain and torn meniscus), but there was no way I was going to miss attending the Festival, nor compromise an eight day trip to Kauai my wife Betty and I were looking forward to in October—nor two music gigs I had coming up in November (in connection with a book of mine that came out, Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958.)

I made it through all these events—occasions that proved so delightful, rewarding in themselves that I failed to acknowledge the pain I felt in my knee. In late November, I made an appointment with my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Peter Gerbino, who recommended an MRI, which disclosed a right knee sprain, three torn meniscus, and “severe bone marrow lesions.” Dr. Gerbino recommended a new minimally-invasive fluoroscopically-assisted procedure called Subchondroplasty that “targets and fills subchondral bone defects through the delivery of AccuFill® Bone Substitute Material (BSM), a nanocrystalline, highly porous injectable calcium phosphate (CaP).” We set up a date for surgery: December 5.

What began and was anticipated as a half-day stay (at most) at the Surgical Center on Cass Street in Monterey turned out to be a 10 day stay at Community Hospital up on Holman Highway. The 7:30 AM surgery itself took less than an hour, and by 10:00 I was on the verge of being discharged to go home, but when I stood up to do so, I fell over (fortunately on the gurney that bought me from surgery). I discovered I had no feeling whatsoever in my LEFT Leg–as if my left leg had somehow been amputated by mistake!

Over the next few hours, I attempted to stand three more times, but–in spite of some feeling returning to my toes (I could wiggle them just a bit) and calf—it was impossible to stand (my left leg was dead for the most part: it no longer existed). Doctor and staff decided it was too great a risk to attempt to move me to our car and have my wife Betty drive me home and somehow get me (even in a wheelchair) to our front door—so I was placed in an ambulance, where two paramedics would deliver me (an IV–a “drip”–was set up in route) to Community Hospital for “observation” (in attempt to find out just what the hell was going on–or rather not going on–with my left leg).

I was taken to the Emergency unit, and then assigned the “last room” in an overspill outpost area. I remember thinking, “I will never walk again,” and I’d even begun to imagine my future life confined to a wheelchair. A breakthrough came when, my left foot flat on the floor, a physical therapist had me shuffle my toes as far forward as possible, then back, sideways, and then try to lift them atop the lower frame of a tray (just off the floor). The next day she placed a handkerchief-sized cloth on the floor, and asked me to stand on it (with the assistance of a “walker,” of course). She then again had me “walk,” moving my foot as far forward as possible, back, sideways, slowly in increasing distances.

I was not officially “registered” at the hospital until Friday, December 8, when I was moved to the Main Pavilion, and another physical therapist escorted me (again, on a walker) down the length of a corridor and back, where I was cheered by a group of well-wishers: my family (Betty, sons Tim and Steve, who had arrived) and a host of nurses—a VERY moving experience; a major Minor victory indeed!

A neurologist (someone I knew of: a highly respected man) had been called in (everyone–doctors, nurses, staff, my family, and me!–remained totally puzzled by the “loss” of my leg), and I underwent a CT and five (!) MRIs in two days—on my head (brain), lumbar spine, head again (for “acute bleeding”), cervical spine, thoracic spine–a carotid Doppler, and Echocardiogram. The neurologist “suspected” (this did not show up on an MRI, but apparently that can happen about 6% of the time) “a small right hemispheric stroke, probably ischemic, related to small vessel disease”—and that (after considerable debate on everyone’s part) would go down as the final diagnoses.

Here are some photos of yours truly: shortly after being admitted for “observation” at Community Hospital; dressed, and with Betty, after I found out I would be discharged; sitting in a real chair when I arrived home; and standing with my new constant companion, my “walker,” after I’d been home for a while.

Bill in Hospital (2)   Bill in Hospital with Betts

Bill in Hospital Fincally at Home 5   Crab Christmas Braveheart 3

I was “discharged on aspirin and statin” (and the pain killer Norco) from the Main Pavilion, and given a room overlooking the hospital putting green (and a feast of trees that came up in the light each morning) in the IRU section of the hospital—for rehabilitation. Each day I was given a set schedule of sessions (three hours of intense workouts) with an extraordinary (beautifully competent and empathic) team of physical and occupational therapists, and after three days of strolling the hospital grounds (always with a walker), sessions in the gym: climbing stairs, standing alone (without a walker), even practicing rhythmic “dance” moves (extension and flexion), toe taps, standing balance progression (eyes closed—scary!); learning to bathe myself while seated in a chair in a shower; isometric finger exercises and even “putty” curls—I graduated, after spending an evening declared “Independent” (no more assistance to the bathroom, obtaining objects in my room on my own, etc. I was, now, truly “going solo”–like the title of my book). When Betty arrived on the morning of December 13, we were provided instruction on getting me in and out of our car—so I could depart and arrive, the next day (December 14), safely at home. Home! Which we did (arrive safely, with the assistance of our son Steve.

And that’s how I spent ten totally unanticipated days in the loving care of Community Hospital. I did make some fine friends, one of whom was Maria, a nurse from the Philippines, one of the most incessantly cheerful, buoyant persons I’ve ever met. She would come bouncing into my room singing, without words, beautifully, but claimed she couldn’t carry a tune at all. When my good friend Bob Danziger came to visit, he told Maria he’d traveled throughout the Philippines, and asked if she knew a particular song for children he’d heard. Maria did, and proceeded to sing that song (with words) beautifully—a performance she repeated, delightfully, when Betty and sons Tim and Steve arrived that afternoon.

I am pleased to report that, after completing my 7th physical therapy session on January 26 (with Chris Tinker, an exceptional therapist—and an avid jazz fan!), I took my first “walk” across the room with just a cane, rather than the sometimes cumbersome “walker” that’s been my constant companion since that ten-day hospital stay.

Which (Maria’s song) brings us, tangentially, to the subject I originally intended for this blog, back in September (!) “More About Music.” I had heard from an excellent jazz pianist I wrote about in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within: Kei Akagi. He contacted me, after thirteen years, to let me know about his new CD, Kei Akagi Trio: Contrast & Form, his 14th album release as a leader, recorded with a “permanent trio based in Tokyo.” What I heard on the CD intrigued, and pleased me—so I decided to write about the direction his music had taken.

A fortunate “extra,” or favor an artist can offer an audience (and herself or himself, and the music itself) is being an articulate human being willing to take time to provide an interesting (and enhancing) description of intentions, or aims, and the means by which they were fulfilled. Kei Akagi is such an artist (and human being): an educator as well as a consummate musician, for alongside his musical contributions (14 CDs as a solo artist and leader; over 60 CDs as a sideman and accompanist—including Miles Davis’ last recorded works) and 70 published compositions), he is a Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine.

He offered engaging, philosophically-inclined liner notes for Contrast & Form, writing: “We can’t have one without the other. Faced with the rich tapestry of greys that comprise life, we rely on contrast and form to make sense of it all. In the absence of perceptive contrast and form, we must somehow provide it. That is one of the things art can do. It is my hope that the music you hear on this recording will contribute in that way.”

He elaborates: “The world now is filled with wonderful jazz musicians, maybe more than at any other time. We dialogue with tradition, we negotiate with modernism, etc., but we ultimately confront music as a totality of past and present, all of which pushes us into the future as we speak. Within the kaleidoscope of musical possibilities we see ever-changing contrasts and forms, all within a continuum of perpetual sonic transformation, some lasting a moment of time and others lasting decades. We are free to embrace it all; I do so with gratitude.”

That “embrace” is what Kei Akagi’s Tokyo-based trio, (drummer Tamaya Honda and bassist Shunya Wakai) now in its fifteenth year of collaboration, attempts to do, and succeeds at doing, in this recording. The pianist states that the pieces themselves were composed over a three-year period, but “the performance methods of the Trio evolved over a much longer time.” Formed in 2000 as “an experimental performance collective,” Akagi finds their “point of departure in the rich history of jazz,” but feels the group also engages in “constant spontaneous deconstructions of the rhythmic and harmonic elements that define the music.” Eschewing the traditional roles “of the instruments associate with a piano trio format,” the Trio has chosen to emphasize “the equal role of each member within the ensemble.”

Here are photos of Kei Akagi; Kei at the piano; the cover of the CD Contrast & Form; and the Trio: bassist Shunya Wakai, Kei Akagi, and drummer Tamaya Honda (Photo credits: UCI Music Department; youtube.com; Masashi Kageyama):

Kei Agaki 3  Kei Agaki

Kei Agaki Trio Contrast & Form  Kei Agaki Trio Contrast & Form 2

That emphasis is apparent on the CD’s first track: “In the Fold,” on which the members of the trio “fold” into one another as tightly, and spontaneously, as origami; a minimalist framework–which Akagi often adopts–focused on internal process, stasis with gradual transformation, the reiteration of musical phrases, and persistent motif embodied in a simple six-note melodic line characteristic of Japanese songs for children (Gene Krupa’s very popular in Japan trio, with Charlie Ventura on tenor sax, recorded a children’s song, “Sho, Sho, Shojoji,” “Badger’s Party,” in 1952—and the piece can be heard and seen, performed live by them to this day, on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ro6CWhcYbs).

“In the Fold” displays the Bach-like precision, and clarity, of Kei Akagi’s trio, variety and surprise within the deceptive minimalism (you truly have to listen, with great care, for the nuance), and a range of mood from lyricism to sudden dramatic excursion, bright accents within the smooth flow—creative juxtaposition which is carried over into the second track, “Playground: The Dog and the Snake,” the minimalist repetition carried here to an extreme: the same theme persisting, over and over again, on piano, albeit abetted by subtle left hand riffs and drummer Tamaya Honda’s (in Akagi’s words) “incredible cross rhythms that occur in the middle of the track, purposely clashing with a regrouping of 21 beats into seven equal divisions of three.”

This is how the “equal role” of each member comes in, and pays off—with the variety and surprise I mentioned. A playful tension is set up between a nearly exasperatingly consistent (repetitious) again “simple” seven note theme (no let up relief on that, although that theme is—do I dare say it?—“charming” in and of itself); and the overall motion is one of ascent, the piece climbing, climbing, ending in a fade, the piano dropping out, with bass and drums carrying the melody, fully in sync, at the close.

Many of the tracks, such as this one, have engaging titles: “Ame to Kaeru (The Rain and the Frog)” and “Where You May Be”—the former, again in Akagi’s words, “a mini-suite of three sections,” although, in keeping with avant-garde minimalist “principles,” the piece remains non-narrative, non-representational—which just makes it all the more intriguing (You seem to be invited to invent a “story” of your own ). The piece provides a quick note (piano in sync with snare drum), stop, quick note, stop rhythm, repetition as prevalent as in “Playgouund.” Shunya Wakai’s bass steps in and takes over—then bass and drums interlaced, the exotic rhythm ongoing as Akagi’s piano work prevails with deft extended runs, three distinct personalities, worlds, functioning as “one,” and comfortable with one another just as they are—melodic or dissonant, the tempo never letting up, solid piano comping, STOP, piano in sync with bass and drums, STOP: a wild, good fun romp until the end, and then another sudden STOP, signifying The End.

The last track on the Contrast & Form CD, “Where You May Be” (another engaging title) is one of my favorites: melodic (a floating supple “undertoe” present with a dreamy liquid top)–reiterated, but with subtle modulations of intent. This gives way to staggered rhythm that ascends, and hesitation that suggests a quest of sorts, a seeking; then a stable reflective mood, lyrical, lovely (with handsome offsetting bass work by Shunya Wakai), an extended piano run, florid finger work matched with stabilizing solid block chords (and fine offsetting cymbal work by Tamaya Honda), this followed by an admirable bass solo (with fine sharp accents): the trio a tight group with active respect for one another—and back to liquid ascending piano, staggered rhythm again, and perfect piano/bass counterpoint that slows to a fade, with two unique harmonic configurations at the close. Beautiful!

The pianist/leader offers some more reflection on making music his way in a short video, “Kei Akagi: Master of Improvisation—UC Irvine,” talking (and providing examples on the piano) about “creation within the moment”; how he feels he must bring everything he feels to the creation of the music, because there is “no distinction between composition and improvisation; I am spontaneously composing … What are the elements, since I’m composing on the spot?  I can choose to play it [he offers a melody] very playfully … or, no, maybe it’s supposed to be interpreted [and here, he provides a somewhat solemn, no nonsense version of what he has just created on the spot] … a different mood … I’m constantly, as an improviser, providing information to myself, and the trick is to interpret that correctly; it’ s a really fun process.”

You can find this video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tES2SGU54N0.

When it comes to teaching at UC Irvine, he was going to set up a standard “program,” but settled for “allowing each student to express their own personality,” because jazz is “very personal … If you have five different musicians, even if they’re playing the same composition, they are all supposed to express five different world views,” adding at the video’s close, “For everything you learn, there’s a different way to do it!”

Here are the covers of three more CDs featuring Kei Akagi: The Asian American Trio (the album I wrote about fourteen years ago, in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within); Mirror Puzzle; Playroom; and another photo of him “in action” at the piano (Photo credit: WMKY).

Kei Agaki Asian American Jazz TrioKei Agaki Mirror Puzzle

Kei Agaki PlayroomKei Agaki 2

Kei Akagi is not the only contemporary musical artist with such an open, risk-taking approach to improvisation. Legendary jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter returned to Blue Note Records (after 43 years, and at age 79) with an album appropriately, accurately called Without a Net: music the New York Times described asspellbinding intuition, with an absolute commitment to the spirit of discovery”; the BBC, referring back to a statement Shorter made when he played with Miles Davis for six years, “We never had a rehearsal. How do you rehearse the unknown?”, praised Without a Net as “full of spontaneity … unhinged abandon”; and Mark F. Turner wrote in All About Jazz: “Wayne Shorter is still one of jazz’s most ardent provocateurs,” citing “the seemingly telepathic and subliminal messages that Shorter, drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci, and pianist Danilo Perez communicate in these recordings largely captured from the quartet’s European tour in late 2011.”

Alec Wilkinson, in an article on pianist Vijay Iyer (who majored in mathematics and physics at Yale) said, “He doesn’t care to have his music labeled at all, but he sometimes calls it ‘creative music,’ adding that improvisation involves “the ability to perceive, think, decide, and act in real time.” Iyer’s bassist, Stephen Crump claims, “Vijay is interested in the collective dynamic,” and drummer Marcus Gilmore approaches his instrument from “a harmonic and melodic base.” In a blog, Ted Pankin writes, “Three years an independent entity, the trio aggregates information from multiple streams, sculpting Iyer’s arrangements and compositions along equilateral triangle principles that make it unclear where melodic responsibilities lie at any given moment … at a moment’s notice, the flow morphs into [in bassist Crump’s words] “zones of building from pure vibration and resonance, with everyone constantly micro-adjusting the pitch, dealing with textures and colors … the trio instantly became a more organic beast.” Iver himself claims, “If music is the sound of bodies in action, then we’re hearing not just sound, but bodies making those sounds … It’s a source-based perception rather than a pure sound-based perception. It’s not just about making pretty sounds. It’s about those sounds somehow emerging from human activity. The beauty has a story behind it—how did it get there?”

Here are photos of Wayne Shorter’s quartet, and Vijay Iyer’s trio (Photo credits: college.unc.edu and NPR.org):

Wayne Shorter Quartet Barbicon

vijayiyer

As for another topic I suggested I’d include in this blog post, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra 60th Monterey Jazz Festival premiere of the commissioned piece, Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebrationjust about everyone I talked to, after its performance, said it was the best MJF commissioned piece ever. Writer Andy Gilbert felt the work was “the Festival’s centerpiece … [It] surpassed all expectations. The bassist [John Clayton, who composed and conducted the piece] offered a brief emotional roadmap to the eight-movement piece”—and I found this “road map,” the verbal “introduction,” equal to the music itself: eloquent, honest, inclusive. I just wish I could get my hands on a copy of it!

A review in Classical Voice North America announced, “A major work was born on the Lyons stage that evening, a 40-minute MJF-commissioned world premiere by John Clayton You didn’t have to read any specific political details into the piece in order to sense the passion in its marching party grooves or marvel how its complex, diverse structure held together.” Andy Gilbert, also, commented on the “timely” tone (directly addressing our own era) of the piece, citing specific sections: “Responding to the divisive political climate. A sense of anger and dismay came through clearly on ‘Tidal Wave’ and ‘Slow Burn Baby Burn,’ but what was most striking about the piece was the way he effectively melded the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and the Gerald Clayton Trio … With the orchestra’s Tamir Hendelman, on keyboards, playing unison lines with Gerald’s piano, and several drum duets between Jeff Hamilton and Obed Calvaire, the two ensembles worked as one, roaring and whispering into a spiritually charged duet for Gerald and his uncle, alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton.”

Looking back over my own notes, I realize these two writers were alert to much that I found meaningful and unique in the piece: how handsomely it all held together (and the work was epic in its diverse elements); the powerful presence of a Big Band committed to several themes, evolving (seamlessly) from conception to overt celebration, with gifts of well-earned righteous anger, discord, outrage matched with solemn concern along the way–from tidal wave to cleansing prayer, a critique of current conditions, yet a homage to the longevity of jazz itself as an art form, with a wondrous juxtaposition of appropriate riffs and motifs.

The “exchange” between Gerald’s trio and the orchestra–the ingenious call and response–was first-rate; as was the conversation, the dialogue that took place between the two drummers: Jeff Hamilton’s thoughtful, stoic grin ever-present throughout Obed Calvaire’s wild one-upmanship explosions (Hamilton’s simple subtle cymbal “sizzle” winning out after one such display), but no real “cutting contest,” here: just acts of respect and individual (and generational) identity, an encyclopedic array of percussive approaches, all in “good fun” to boot.

Here are photos of the full orchestra at work on Saturday night, a close up of John conducting, and Jeff Hamilton on drums (Photo credits: Jim Stone and hamiltonjazz.com):

John Clayton conducting entire Big Band

John Clayton conducting 2 Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Clayton’s solo was beautiful, within the “spiritually charged” duet with his nephew Gerald (and John Clayton’s bowed bass solo was a work of art in and of itself, as were Gerald’s nuance-filled indwelling solo excursions). These “family” moments were “gifts” I had anticipated, because my very talented good friend Bob Danziger was commissioned to prepare a series of videos on artists featured in the 60th anniversary celebration, and one of the videos was on John Clayton, filmed while he was composing : Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration. In that video, MJF Creative Director Tim Jackson says that John and Gerald are “part of a long tradition of great families that have performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival,” calls Gerald a “musical revelation of a son,” and comments on the stress they place on “musical honesty and vocabulary” with Next Generation artists, adding that father and son “live that advice … jazz is renewed in their hands, infusing influences from all over the globe … family, history … artistry and hard work make John Clayton’s commissioned piece … so special.” Gerald claims that piece is about “celebrating that feeling of freedom after overcoming something really hard to do”; and at the close of the video, John tells us his composition is going to be about “bringing our light to the darkness versus getting sucked into the darkness … We’re going to make it shine!”

And indeed they did! An All About Jazz review states, “One of the most inspiring programming features of the 2017 was a family affair and focus of the sweetest and deserving kind. Pianist Gerald Clayton, one of the festival’s artists-in-residence, appeared multiple times, and with just the right approach in each setting”; and Paul de Barros, in a Downbeat review, called the commissioned work “a majestic big-band epic … which spurred the swing-loving crowd to a standing ovation. As Clayton conducted the piece with brio and his son soloed, it was pleasant to recall how Gerald had blown the crowd away with his trio on the grounds several years before and to remember past performances by the CHJO. It was a treat to see the crowd so delighted by the warmth and relatability of this swinging, bluesy, welcoming piece.”

In another review by him in San Francisco Classical Voice, Andy Gilbert wrote, “Spiritual succor was the theme of bassist John Clayton’s festival commission … His third time getting the MJF assignment, he rose to the occasion and delivered one of the more memorable commissions since Tim Jackson reinstated the program in 1994. Pairing the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which he co-leads with his brother, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, and his best friend, drummer Jeff Hamilton, and his son, pianist Gerald Clayton, provided a vast array of tonal colors. And the fact that he was working with intimately familiar ensembles allowed him to write for specific voices. He introduced the eight-movement work by referencing our roiling political divide, and the cathartic piece moved through dismay, despair, and anger to healing and beatific joy with the trio and orchestra melding and separating throughout the set.”

The last words in my own notes were: “John Clayton was his absolutely commanding, charming self throughout the performance, exhibiting intentionality, dignity, grace under pressure, and the absolute joy of knowing (it seemed) what a magnificent work he had composed and his “family” (the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and Gerald’s Trio) had presented—his own presence dancing with delight at the close.

Here is the video I mentioned:

Here are photos of Gerald Clayton, Jeff Clayton, and again: the entire orchestra (Photo credits: Jazz at Lincoln Center; centrum.org; writeopinions.com):

Gerald Clayton  Jeff Clayton

John Clayton band 2

I had intended to include an account of the Sunday afternoon performance of John Beasley’s MONK’estra orchestra (“Celebrating the Thelonious Monk Centennial”) at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and a conversation I was fortunate to have with John Beasley just after that, but this blog has managed to accumulate 13 pages (my “Baroque” tendencies at work again!)—so I feel I should save MONK’estra for another–the next—post; along with some thoughts I have (and which I feel relate, in a somewhat ingenious manner, if I do say so myself) to the current “state” of the art of jazz.

Those thoughts center (and this may seem a BIG JUMP–giant steps–but I hope to show, to prove it’s not) on the ongoing debate (or “civil war”) in the world of science between (1) materialist reductionism (“The idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movement of material particles”) and (2) neuroplasticity (“rewiring” of the brain), volition, free will, bidirectional “causality relating brain and mind”—opposite sides in that “war” that young Isaac Newton set in motion when he got conked on the head beneath an apple tree (although even that “fixed” or too perfect setting has been called into question) and Newton discovered the law of gravity, regarding our world as a windup clock, and empiricism as the only means by which it can be understood, or “measured.”

“Newton in some sense largely eliminated the divine from the ongoing workings of the universe,” states Jeffrey M. Schwartz in his excellent book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which, along with Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary’s also of interest The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, and Henry P. Stapp’s Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer I am reading just now). I will save the analogy, or congruence I find with jazz for the next post—so please “stay tuned,” for I hope you will find the comparison, and an account of John Beasley’s amazing interpretation and arrangements of Thelonious Monk’s work engaging, and interesting.

As a final photo, here’s one of John Beasley and MONK’estra (Photo credit: Music Works International):

John Beasley and Monkestra