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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

More About Music

At the close of my last blog post (“Apology for Sabbatical Leave—and Resumption of Bill’s Blog”), I wrote that “Next time: More jazz, and maybe a look (a listen) to some other ways of making music—music-making one of the better activities, I feel, a human being can pursue.” A better phrase might have been “engage in.”

At the time, and that was in early May (too much time between posts, I know, but once again I will attempt to explain why), I had resumed work on another writing project: what began (over-ambitiously) as a book, but turned into a series of individual articles on Poetry and Song. I contemplated posting a portion of a piece called “Renaissance Song,” which focused on Elizabethan era composers such as Thomas Campion (a first-rate poet who could also provide first-rate musical settings for the words: a rare, and fortunate, combination)—and also included some thoughts on W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s excellent, insightful introductions to their An Elizabethan Song Book.

However—as happened throughout the long delay that occasioned “An Apology for Sabbatical Leave,” I somehow found myself buried in alternate projects (and even actually work, getting hired to do some writing no less!), and that activity would occupy me for three months, building up to a performance I gave (on July 15) with two exceptional musicians at Old Capitol Books in Monterey, California: a “launch” for a book of mine just published, Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958.

The participants were Richard Rosen (harmonicas), Manuel Macucho Bonilla (cajon: a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru—as is Macucho himself), and I: piano, vocals, and reading short passages from the book we “fleshed out” with songs from the era the book is about–songs such as “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Nature Boy.”

I’ll present here: the front and back covers of Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958 (and access to the book on amazon.com, if you’d like to have a copy, at: https://www.amazon.com/Going-Solo-1953-1958-William-Minor/dp/1943887500/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503603573&sr=1-1&keywords=going+solo+by+william+minor ; and some photos my wife Betty and a good friend (and former student) David “Catfish” Hall took on the afternoon of July 15—plus access to a video David filmed of the trio doing a song my idol Nat “King” Cole recorded with his trio: “What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry?”: https://www.facebook.com/william.minor.56/videos/pcb.1945171992414191/1945166269081430/?type=3&theater

The photos are: one Betty took amidst the standing room only audience; the band: Macucho, Richard Rosen, and I set for the “show,” focused, ready to go; three shots of the miraculous hands of Macucho at work and play; a close up of Richard going solo; the “author” signing a book for Michael Fields (himself a fine musician) after the reading/musical program; and signing a book and chatting with Cynthia Beach Guthrie (who was there with her husband Dick, both fine writers, and Dick known to sing a song or two himself on occasion).

Going Solo Cover  Going Solo Back Cover

July 15 Book Launch 2   Old Capitol Books Music 9 (2)

Old Capitol Books Music 6  Old Capitol Books Music 2  Old Capitol Books Music 7

Old Capitol Books Music 4 (2)  July 15 Book Launch 3 (2)

July 15 Book Launch 4 (2)

I feel a good time was had by all; entertaining (I hope) stories got told (from Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958); and engaging music was made (songs with which people could connect; our friend Jane Haines wrote on Facebook: “The presentation was wonderful. I was floating after the opening lines. I stayed aloft, lifted by the words, the melodies, the beat. Thank you for a marvelous afternoon.”). And I even sold some books!

The Monterey Jazz Festival will celebrate its 60th anniversary soon (September 15-17) and, since the turn of the year, I have been involved in three projects leading up to that occasion. I was rehired to provide copy for 26 more JAZZBUS shelters–with only a month to complete my portion of the project: 100-word “histories” for each year, 1991-2017; but we got the job done and the new material is now up “around town.” I am pleased to have been a part of this great project (thanks again, Phil Wellman!)—each JAZZBUS and each stop, or shelter (with histories, classic photos, and a provision to listen to the music of a particular year), providing daily reminders to folks throughout the community that such a thing as “jazz” exists as a vital part of our lives.

Next: a good friend of mine (with whom I’ve been playing music and making videos; you can find one at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyGYDv67ToI), Bob Danziger, was asked to create videos that will introduce individual sets on the main stage throughout the weekend of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (The 60th anniversary celebration), and Bob asked me to assist as an “historical” consultant–which I did. Bob’s considerable talent—and his respect for the artists represented–will be displayed by way of six excellent, fully engaging videos. And THEN: Artistic Director Tim Jackson phoned and asked if I would write copy for two exhibits of 60 years of MJF posters and program covers (“Monterey at 60! A Visual Feast”), which I also did. One exhibit, at the Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, is on display now (Betty and I went to a reception Friday night, and that “show” looks good); the other will be up in what used to be the Coffee House Gallery, but is now the California Jazz Café.

Here are some photos from the JAZZBUS project I’ve posted before: yours truly beside one of the shelters, a shelter (1978) by itself, and one of Pablo Lobato’s brightly colored and handsomely designed buses. After those photos, a sampling of posters: from the Monterey Jazz Festival’s first year, 1958; Earl Newman’s scandalous 1964 poster (a bit of Festival folklore: in the book Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, I wrote: “Newman’s official poster featuring a stylized drawing of a saxophone player drew an X-rating from the mayor of Monterey, who asked shopkeepers to withdraw it from their windows. The three hundred posters that were printed immediately became collector’s items and the mayor was deemed by many to be a prude.”); Earl’s first trumpet on a chair (which would become a Festival icon) poster, 1967 (Earl’s hand-printed posters, of which he would provide a total of ten in the 1958-1979 era, would become synonymous with the Festival itself, defining these placards as works of art); Jerry Takagawa’s poster for the 50th anniversary in 1967; Pablo Lobato’s 2009 poster; a very striking 2013 poster (Phil Wellman/Maria Corte); and this year’s poster, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Jazz Bus Line  Jazz Bus Line 3

Jazz Bus Line 2

MJF Poster 1958  MJF Poster 1964  MJF Posters Newman First Chair

MJF Poster 50thMJF Posters 2009  MJF Poster

MJF-17-Poster_small4

The lineup of artists who will perform at the 60th anniversary event is extraordinary. To cite all of them would take pages, so I’m just going to put together a gallery of portraits (photos) of those I hope to see and hear. On Friday night, September 17: Herbie Hancock—who will open the Festival, and close out the weekend on Sunday night in a “Two Master/Two Pianos” performance with Chick Corea—which should be sensational (I have a copy of their 1978 Columbia acoustic piano double LP, recorded in San Francisco and San Diego, An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea in Concert) and to see and hear them–live!–together, now, should be a rare treat!

On Friday night, the great Kenny Barron (with Roy Hargrove, Sean Jones, and Perdito Martinez) will offer a “Tribute to Dizzy Gillespie at 100″ (I’ve had the blessing of hearing Kenny Barron play piano at MJF with artists such as Stan Getz and Regina Carter)—and, Regina Carter will perform in a “Simply Ella” homage (a tribute to you-know-who). (Photo Credits: NNDB, Radio Serenidad, The Mercury News, NPR)

Herbie Hancock  Chick-Corea

Kenny Barron  Regina Carter

Unfortunately, the weekend’s overall fare is so abundant, I am going to have to make some quick moves (not so easy at this age!) to take it all in—to also “catch,” on Friday evening: vocalist Roberta Gambarini and drummer Matt Wilson with his group Honey & Salt, out on the grounds. Saturday afternoon offers Monsieur Perine (“Global Fusion—South American style”) with Catalino Garcia’s “Sugar-sweet, sunshiny vocals at the center of their signature ‘swing a la Columbia’ style”; and Mr. Sipp (“The Mississippi Blues Child”). Pianist Joanne Brackeen performs out on the grounds—and my journalist buddy Dan Ouellette conducts a DownBeat Blindfold Test with saxophonist Tia Fuller. (Photo Credits: AllMusic, The Seattle Times, NBC News, Nashville Public Library, DR Jazz Festival, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola).

Roberta Gambarini

The "7-Piece Sextet" performs on the Mainstage to wrap up the 2011 Centrum Jazz Port Townsend Festival.

Monsieur Perine

Mr. Sipp  Joanne Brackeen

Dan    Tia Fuller

Because of the amount of writing I’ve been doing for the 60th anniversary celebration coming up (just a week away now!), I did not attempt a full account (as I usually post on this blog each year) for the 2016 MJF—although I did post an account of sets by Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter. I had hoped to write about two exceptional vocalists I heard that year: Claudia Villela and Somi, but before I could get around to that, I received another “call” (this in the form of an email letter) asking me to contact Leonard Nelson (a Video Production Manager), who was at work on a “Festival Fun Facts” project that would acknowledge people (such as Bob Danziger) who’d created the previously mentioned videos to be shown (introducing individual artists)—and include, at the suggestion of Managing Director Colleen Bailey: slides related to festival trivia or amusing incidents.

I did call Leonard and we discussed what might be included, and I agreed to provide two sentence anecdotes, or verbal vignettes (incidents that have become part of MJF folklore)—and I had no trouble coming up with twenty-two such items. Leonard Nelson has already responded with three handsome samples of what will be shown at this year’s event. I will not “unveil” his fine work here, but I can post a few of my favorite “fun facts,” as I rendered them in words. They do represent another side of this great event—“behind the scene” stories folks may not be as familiar with as they are the music itself. Here are a few:

1. The MJF had acquired a fleet of Oldsmobiles as transportation for performers. When popular Sarah Vaughan, known as “Sassy,” came out of her hotel and saw one of these cars awaiting her, she said, “We do not ride in Oldsmobiles,” and officials had to search all over town for a stretch limo to take her to the fairgrounds.

2. 1967: The Festival audience was dancing in the aisles to Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin, who finishing her set, blew her nose on the Main Stage curtain, climbed into her blue Hillman Minx stuffed with junk food wrappers, and drove off to ultimate fame. [Thanks again, Rick Carroll, for that story.]

3. 1971: Herbie Hancock made his first solo appearance, but after 45 minutes of what he considered “noodling avant-garde,” Jimmy Lyons told stage manager Paul Vieregge to close the curtain—and when Hancock, well into his solo, opened his eyes, his audience was gone.

4. 1979: “The Night The Lights Went Out”: a major power failure on opening night left Dizzy Gillespie stranded on stage in the dark, until the audience lit matches and lighters, and Stan Getz strolled out to lend his mellow sound to “’Round Midnight.”

5. 1995: Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval was scheduled to play at the MJF, but took the wrong plane, to Monterey, Mexico—not California. He would make it safely in 1997, as part of Dave Grusin’s orchestra for West Side Story.

6. 2008: Jamie Cullum joined Kurt Elling on stage in Dizzy’s Den, and after singing “Say It (Over and Over Again)” together, they engaged in some playful banter, Cullum, who is quite short, alluding to a woman offering the phrase “Tall, dark, and handsome,” Elling responding, “I don’t believe she was talking of you.” Cullum: “I have a very high opinion of myself”: Elling: “That’s not something visible to the naked eye”; Cullum: “Small things come with big packages.”

I love continuity, continuance, unbroken and consistent existence, endurance, longevity—and the Monterey Jazz Festival has certainly provided that over the years. As I wrote in the Introduction to the two exhibits of posters: “Alongside sixty years of some of the greatest jazz the world has ever known, the Monterey Jazz Festival, on its 60th anniversary, intends to honor the posters which embody the spirit of the Festival as a whole: posters which represent all the great music and the complementary ‘scene’ that exists just outside the venues hosting the music.”

Continuity can be found by surprise on occasion. I recently heard from an excellent jazz pianist I wrote about in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within (University of Michigan Press, 2004): 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.” Akagi himself is a Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine.

Here are: Kei Akagi at the piano, and the cover of the book Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within (Photo Credit: UCI Music Department):

Kei Agaki           JJJ Cover

In my next blog post, I’d like to continue the theme of “More About Music,” and write about this recording, and three other CDs I have by Kei Akagi: Sound Circle: The Asian American Trio (with drummer Akira Tana and bassist Rufus Reid), Mirror Puzzle, and Playroom.

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!

Apology for Sabbatical Leave–and Resumption of Bill’s Blog

“But nothing promised that is not performed” is the last line of Robert Graves’ fine poem, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice.” It’s a line I have more than likely quoted too often, by way of apology (for promises I’d made myself, but failed to make good on, failed to “perform”) in this blog—but, here I am in that position again.

I find it hard to believe I have not offered a blog post since February (!!), yet I also find it not so difficult to believe that’s true, when I look at what was marked on the calendar for the past three months—can’t believe just how perpetually busy I’ve been (and at age eighty-one, when I should be sitting in a full lotus–which I can no longer manage–on some mountain top, just saying ”Om” or humming favored melodies from the movie La La Land). I have managed to stay busy, both as an actual working stiff (more about that in a moment) or doing lots of what I love, but in areas other than this blog.

Back in February, when I did last post a piece (“The Worlds of Poetry Part Two”), I wrote that I would soon get back to writing about jazz (with an emphasis on the Monterey Jazz Festival, which I’d witnessed as far back as September 2016); and then I believe I did the same with regard to some fine music I heard on an October trip to Connecticut. However, between September and February, I got sidetracked on other subjects (“Imagination and Hard Science”; “Mikhail Bakhtin: Another Powerful Influence”; “The Worlds of Poetry: Part One”: and “The Worlds of Poetry: Part Two.”)—and I am grateful to those of you who follow this blog–the many Faithful–for sustaining ongoing “traffic” over the past three months: Bill’s Blog visits from folks in the USA (253), UK (29), Greece (24), France (19), Germany (15), Brazil (9), Canada (8), and MANY more countries. Thanks!

Most persistent throughout that time, as both a distraction and as a task that took on major proportions, has been completing a four year book project: just now done, finished (the last stage reading proof), a four year project soon to appear as a book in print: Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958. Here (just to exhibit the fact that I’m not merely “making up” excuses for such a long delay for this blog post) are: the front and back cover of Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958. The work should be available as a book at amazon.com fairly soon. I’ll let you know when!

Going Solo Cover      Going Solo Back Cover

Alongside all that work came a very pleasant surprise: another project, but one unanticipated. If there’s been a long delay on a blog report on last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, another contributing factor–ironically–was getting re-hired to contribute copy (100-word histories) for twenty-six new MST/MJF JAZZBUS shelters. We (MJF graphic designer Phil Wellman and I) had just a month to complete our share of work on these. Four years ago, I contributed copy for the initial stage of this project, and wrote the following about that activity on Bill’s Blog: “The Monterey Jazz Festival/Monterey-Salinas Transit JAZZ BUS lines … feature bright orange vehicles decorated with lively designs, each shelter providing historical photos, my copy (on Festival highlights), and music (when you make a smart phone connection with a bar code) from the year represented —all while you wait for your bus!” To see how all this works, check out Phil Wellman’s national award winning TV ad for the JAZZBUS lines at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk9IhA9g7Ek.

Here are some photos of the project. I’m standing beside one of the shelters for which I provided copy (1963: the year Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk made their first appearances at the Monterey Jazz Festival):

Jazz Bus Line  Jazz Bus Line 2

MST MJF JAZZBUS pavilion 2Jazz Bus Line 3   

I posted photos from and an account of our trip to Connecticut on Facebook, not long after it occurred, but for our purposes here (all that jazz I’ve been promising), here’s an abbreviated account that focuses on what my wife Betty and I heard by way of music, while there. In Old Saybrook, we commenced nearly every morning at Carol Adams’ Ashlawn Farms Coffee House (with her exceptional double espresso for me, accompanied by tasteful—mostly jazz standards by top artists—background music selected by Carol), and we ended nearly every evening with live music: listening to the Tuxedo Junction Big Band at Bill’s Seafood in Westbrook; enjoying the genial ambiance at the Griswold Inn in Essex (where they offer a wide range of music every night; we heard the Shiny Lapels band there, and returned for a “Psychedelic 60s” night); attended an exceptional production of “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz,” at The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam: a musical that featured Ruby Rakos as a young Judy Garland; and thoroughly enjoyed one last evening of music, at the Copper Barn in Somers, where we practically sat on top of the Java Groove quartet (Check out their presence on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/javagroovemusic/). I had a good talk with guitarist James Alio: this group my favorite of all those we heard: tight, swinging, fine ensemble and solo work—and lots of the best Sinatra tunes.

Here’s the quartet at work (and play), and a poster for one of their gigs (Photo Credits: facebook.com/javagroovemusic and beeandthistleinn.com)

Java Groove Quartet

  Java Groove Quartet Poster    Java-Groove 2

When we returned from Connecticut, I not only resumed work on the book project (Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958) and undertook the resuscitation of the JAZZBUS shelters, but commenced a series of musical projects: recording songs I had written myself (four of them) with Bob Danziger (on synthesize-sampled “cello”), Heath Proskin (bass) and yours truly on piano. There was a sense of urgency, necessity on these sessions, for—having worked (played music) with Heath for fourteen years, he was leaving the Monterey Bay area to live in Sacramento, where his wife Celina, having graduated with a medical degree, has undertaken a new job.

Here are the results of two of those musical projects: the first an audio version (Bandcamp) of an original poem called “Genesis” set to music I composed (the poem itself, which, at poetry readings, I recite over the musical accompaniment–included on the Bandcamp site), and  a YouTube video of a poem called “Kindness: A Song for Betty” (Betty is my wife of sixty years), the words of which are shown alongside photos of Betty–the film a result of the musical, visual story telling and production skills of the amazing Bob Danziger. 

“Genesis”: https://billminor.bandcamp.com/track/genesis

“Kindness: A Song for Betty” (You Tube) can be located at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyGYDv67ToI

As if all this didn’t keep me preoccupied enough (Be patient: the disclaimers are almost over, although I hope you’re enjoying them as much as I am recalling the immense amount of positive, productive activity they occasioned–and the results), I gave a reading at Old Capitol Books in Monterey, CA, with an excellent poet named Cathleen Calbert. Here she is, the cover of her book The Afflicted Girls, a flyer for the event itself (at which I did read “Genesis” and another poem, a translation of a poem by Osip Mandelstam, “This Constant Wish,” available in audio on Bandcamp also: https://billminor.bandcamp.com/track/osip-mandelstams-constant-wish), and two shots of me: playing the CD I would read over, and … well, just lost in thought perhaps.

CalbertHeadshot-200x300   Afflicted_Girls_Front-210   Flyer for February 12 Old Capitol Books Reading

Old Cap Books Reading Feb 12 1  Old Cap Books Reading Feb 12 2

In March, soprano Norma Mayer and her husband, Richard Mayer (flute and arrangements) and I presented an in-house concert (at their home): “An Afternoon with William Blake,” which featured Norma and Richard performing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ song settings of Blake’s poems—and I read other poems by Blake and talked about the genius of this poet/artist and his life in general. We had given two previous performances of this “show” at the Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, CA—and this past March we drew a “full house,” and the musical performance by Norma and Richard was … well, sublime. Here’s a photo of the three of us:Richard, Norma, and Me

I’ll toss in one more activity or project undertaken recently—another YouTube video. Patricia Hamilton, of Park Place Publications (which is responsible for the book I have coming out soon: Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958), is also publishing a book about the town my wife and I (and formerly our sons) have lived in for forty-six years: Pacific Grove. The book will be called Life in Pacific Grove, and Patricia is collecting stories from “all the people who are enjoying life in our special corner of the world”—hoping “to create a snapshot in time … a tapestry woven of the many threads that make up our community.” She suggested I might write a song about the town, in connection with the book project—so having lots of free time on my hands (ho ho), I did so. Here are the results, on You Tube (the lyrics to the song included in the video). I did offer a disclaimer with regard to the vocal when I posted the song on Facebook (I’m no Nat “King” Cole—whose sense of pitch, and poise, made him my idol among singers), but I refrain from any extensive apologies for what you hear. I’ll only say the video was made in good fun, and hope it’s received that way. You can find it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-8Nvjn_sUo&feature=youtu.be.

In the midst of all this artistic activity, we somehow managed to squeeze in a trip to San Francisco Giants Spring Training Camp (and saw two games) in Phoenix, Arizona—where Betty’s two sisters, Wendy and Nora live. Back home, at night, I watched a lot of Golden State Warriors basketball (nearly every game). I’d made another promise not to discuss medical matters on either Facebook or this blog, but I’ll slip in a quick confession that, alongside visual and vestibular “issues” I’ve been dealing with for some time, my blood pressure took a sudden unhealthy climb or rise–but that situation is under control now, …so this, Folks, is how I have spent my sabbatical leave from blog production from February until now; and it’s time now, I feel, to write something about my favorite  “acts” at the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival–but maybe not as much as I’d hoped to, because of ALL I’ve offered  here (of one nature or another) already (I’ll save the leftovers for the next Blog, so I can make sure I give you the relatively complete story I promised back in February).

At the 59th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival (2016), I was eager to see and hear tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, Showcase Artist of the year and scheduled to play three sets: with his group Still Dreaming (in the Night Club), with The Bad Plus (in the Arena), and with another quartet of his own (in Dizzy’s Den), to close out Sunday night. In effect, he was slated to both open and wrap up last year’s Festival

I was especially keen to see him with the two different groups of his own, for I have been following his career since 1997, when I wrote about him in Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, in a chapter called “Sunday’s All-Stars,” devoted to the Festival’s Jazz Education Program, of which Josh had been a part, emerging–as I wrote—“as one of the most illustrious graduates of the Festival’s High School All-Star Big Band program” (Redman graduated from Berkeley High School, class of 1986, after having been a part of the award-winning Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble for all four of his high school years.). I had also served as script writer for a film documentary produced by Clint Eastwood (same title as the book: Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years), a film in which Josh served as a host, alongside another All-Star Big Band graduate, Patrice Rushen.

The saxophonist’s opening set in the Night club featured himself, Ron Miles on pocket trumpet, Scott Colley on bass, and my favorite drummer, Brian Blade (I had once written–without too much exaggeration–that I could spend an entire Festival weekend just listening to Brian Blade play drums, solo—he’s that good!). The Still Dreaming group would pay homage to a predecessor, Old and New Dreams, which had featured Josh’s father, Dewey Redman, on tenor sax; Don Cherry on pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden on bass; and Ed Blackwell on drums—all Ornette Coleman alumni who shared his revolutionary musical vision “in their own uniquely personal ways throughout their careers” (to quote the Festival program notes), so that “when the four of them came together at various points from 1976-1987, the results were never short of magical.”

And the same would prove true of the set I witnessed featuring Still Dreaming. Here are photos of that group, alongside Old and New Dreams (Photo Credits: mercurynews.com and sfjazz.org/onthecorner):

Josh Redman Still Dreaming 2
Still Dreamin’ musicians are Brian Blade, left, Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Joshua Redman. (Jon Brown)

Old and New Dreams 2

A popular Los Angeles DJ named Leroy introduced the members of Still Dreaming as “some of the more beautiful personalities in the business … Give ‘em a hand”—and the group commenced with a cool, fairly straight ahead “groove” that stressed Ron Miles’ pocket trumpet subtlety, Scott Colley’s steady accents, and Brian Blade’s truly exquisite brush work—this inception flavored with an engaging dissonance occasioned by overlapping sound, echoes of one another, call and response; then mutual free play, its wild turn followed by a lyrical lull, a gentle drone, and then back to the solid main theme—the close further enhanced by the Billy Higgins smile Brian had maintained throughout. The tune–announced a bit later–was “Blues for Charlie.” About the opening tunes (and the set in general), Andy Gilbert wrote: “Still Dreaming helped to open the 59th Monterey Jazz Festival with loose-limbed grit and capering grace, as Blade made every tune feel like it was designed for dancing. Joshua joked at one point that the project “is a tribute to a tribute band, which is kind of postmodern,” but there wasn’t a jot of air-quote irony in the performance, whether the quartet was playing Cherry’s seductively sinuous ‘Guinea’ and Dewey’s scorching ‘Rush Hour,’ or originals like Joshua’s spaciously lowdown ‘Blues for Charlie’ and Colley’s buoyantly bouncing ‘New Year’ (which sounded like kissing kin to Ornette’s ‘Una Muy Bonita).”

When Joshua, who contributed his own handsome solo offerings on these tunes, took the microphone and named them, he began, “It’s been a few … I’d love to say we’ve been coming here for 59 years, but … not quite!” He added, with regard to Old and New Dreams: “I’m not sure they played here” (I checked and they didn’t), but he mentioned “my father Dewey Redman” and the rest of the group, “All gone, as for their physical presence here”—implying what I felt: that the two groups were somehow playing alongside each other; that a larger presence was somehow on hand within the music. This Still Dreaming set turned out to be one of the most perfect (in terms of meaningful content and mutual musical accord) I have ever attended—honestly!

I felt as if I’d discovered–in the very first set I witnessed–a standard of excellence I would be impelled to hold up to whatever other sets I attended throughout the weekend—which seems grossly unfair to the others, I know, for I felt what I’d heard “right off the bat” (as they say) was perfection: total rapport among four musicians, and miraculous invention. I would not hear Joshua Redman play with The Bad Plus, but I made attending his last set, featuring a group of his own with entirely different “personnel,” a priority. That group, which played in Dizzy’s Den, was made up of Josh on tenor, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and another of my favorite drummers, Gregory Hutchinson. Of this aggregate, its leader would say, “We first formed, I guess, in ’98, so we’re going on 20 years. They’re three of my closest collaborators and they’re three of my best friends … they’re just that level of empathy and trust.” I suspected I might be finding myself in for another round of perfection!

I was familiar with pianist Aaron Goldberg, whose CD, The Now (which also featured Reuben Rogers on bass), I’d admired—and he did not disappoint on Sunday night in Dizzy’s Den: providing tasteful comping (both repetition and excursive configuration) behind (and within) Joshua Redman’s gorgeous tenor sax tone, which included everything from lush lyricism to crusty growls—offset by apt precision by Greg Hutchison on three ride cymbals. The group offered a different context than that of Still Dreaming: less precise, “tight,” simultaneous perhaps; more capricious, variable, unpredictable—passionate. The tunes were not announced, and the group moved so swiftly from one to another (at a variety of tempos) the set took on the shape of a suite, rather than just a sequence of individual tunes. They included pieces with sharp edges and harsh accents: the texture of Joshua’s signature sound constant and engaging, no matter what tempo he played at, or how wild a solo became (and some got delightfully wild), the rest of the group fully supportive, offering counter rhythms or melodic lines that revealed the respect they have for him, and also themselves—trusting their own individual instincts and inclinations.

The group played originals, exclusively (aside from a unique treatment of Hoagy Carmichael’s familiar “Stardust”)—tunes with titles such as “Emerald Eyes” (a beautiful ballad, rising to an anthem close), “Wish,” and “DGEAF” (employing those five notes in that sequence), an up tempo romp that evolved into good old-fashioned ( a la Jazz at the Philharmonic) tenor sax honk and stomp, assisted by teasing rhythms on piano (vamp/stop/six single notes/vamp/stop)—all the tricks of the trade displayed. On other tunes, Aaron Goldberg offered handsome bop chops, rounded off with a precise single note Basie-like “plink”; and Greg Hutchinson disclosed deft left hand accents throughout a wire brush solo. And Josh revealed just about all that can be done on a saxophone, by way of clicks and glocks and squeals and squawks, falsetto leaps, the full range of joyous musical flatulence, teasing pyrotechnics matched with straight ahead eloquent serious statement. And the audience loved it! Rueben Rogers contributed a first-rate solo of his own while Joshua replaced a worn reed with a fresh one, and came back in, right on time, for a smooth totally in sync fitting close to a fully enjoyable set for which the group was rewarded with a standing ovation. I felt as if I had witnessed perfection (each of its own kind, different, distinct) twice within the weekend: on opening night and at the very end.

Here are photos of Gregory Hutchinson in action, Aaron Goldberg in friendly repose at the piano, and Joshua Redman working his considerable magic, on soprano saxophone, not tenor (Photo Credits: dummerworld.com; news.allaboutjazz.com; experiencenomad.com):

Greg Hutchinson

© hansspeekenbrink.nl
All rights reserved

Johnua Redman 1

I’m exhausted—just thinking about (and feeling, experiencing again) what I heard at those two Joshua Redman sets, and because I’ve attempted to describe both in some detail, I’ll only cover another splendid quartet I heard at the 59th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and then call it quits for this (renewed) blog and save the rest of what I witnessed for the next post.

The other quartet I’d like to tell you about is that of quintessential Wayne Shorter (tenor and soprano saxophone), with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and–once again, and what a blessing!–the ever brilliant Brain Blade on drums. This group offered a “Festival Commission & Premiere Performance” of Wayne’s “The Unfolding,” which also featured the Monterey Jazz Festival Wind Ensemble, conducted by Nicole Paiement. I’ve heard Danilo Perez at the Festival before, with Wayne and with his own group, The Motherland Project. He is another wonder, an exciting pianist who, like Brian Blade, could well be isolated and listened to just for his own  exceptional skill alone. As a member of this group he was valuable not just as a sort of “glue” that held it together, but as a rare sort of “Velcro” that bound it tight and free at the same time. This Main Arena set, which started at 7:00 on Saturday evening, was enhanced by a sunset that prompted, in my journal, a “Wow! My God, what a beautiful, comfortable evening–a rosy glow in the distance” (which, unfortunately, may have been partially occasioned by the severe fire surrounding Big Sur at this time—as I realized later).

Wayne’s quartet is characterized by exceptional dynamics—every element (such as Brian’s smallest loving, skillful hi-hat stroke) essential. Perez provides delicious chordal comping, a nest for Wayne Shorter’s melodic lines, the synchronicity extended by way of Patitucci’s large strong resonate bass presence. The group is so comfortable, so compatible together, and that fellow feeling, empathy was not at all compromised when the string ensemble entered the game—the composition “fleshed out”; the piece acquiring a sumptuous, symphonic sound I liked, made even more opulent through Perez’ well-placed subtle notes. Brian maintained the level of genius one has come to count on from him, and Wayne was … well, Wayne: very moving, although he remained seated throughout much of the set.

I love music this well constructed and executed (and “conducted” by Nicole Paiement): music that combines lush melodicism with orchestral force: not just another attempt to find a “Third Stream” (a marriage of classical music and jazz), but a collaboration in which the customarily separate genres “drop out” in the name of genuine union, become “one” as best they can, enjoying more than just an “acquaintance,” truly embracing one another, with assurance the “marriage” will work out.

Here are photos of: Wayne Shorter and the group I heard at the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival, both performing and “still”; and the miracle-working ever-smiling drummer, Brian Blade (wayneshorter.com; kalamu.com; jambase.com; sfjazz.og):

Wayne Shorter by Robert Ascroft  Wayne Shorter Quartet Barbicon

Wayne Shorter Quartet 2  Brian Blade

Toward the end of the set, the piece grew predictably “loose” (a fairly recent CD by the 83-year old saxophonist is called Without a Net), Perez providing his stabilizing influence—as did the soothing presence of an oboe and bassoon, the combined voicings, and the dynamics I mentioned. The ending, too, was suitably “epic.” I felt pleased and impressed: “The Unfolding” having unfurled, uncoiled, extended to a large measure, as I hoped it would.

I hope the same has proved true, for you, with regard to this blog post—which grew predictably long (given my “Baroque” nature), but I hope enjoyable. Next time: More jazz, and maybe a look (a listen) to some other ways of making music—music-making one of the better activities, I feel, a human being can pursue.

 

The Puppet Theatre, Duos, and the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival

When I started this blog (in July 2013), I had two “goals” or intentions in mind: (1) to let people know I had a book out I’d been at work on for six years (The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir), and (2) to make use of the somewhat casual or even “chatty” opportunities a blog affords: a new “road” or means of conversation in writing that would allow me to “experiment” with different prose styles and unusual approaches to exploring subject matter—a process similar to practice sessions at the piano or “playing” with an arrangement for a new song of my own. In this way of working (writing), I wouldn’t have to filter out the large and little eccentricities I might have to if I had an “external” editor looking over my shoulder.

In my last blog post, I attempted to combine an account of what I heard and saw at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival with an account of how I heard and saw it, given some vision and vestibular medical issues I’ve been dealing with; and I included an account of research I’d undertaken related to understanding such issues. I promised that, in my next blog (this one), I would simply provide a report on more 2015 MJF performances, without including the “side effects”; however …

I’ve had a subsequent experience that served to sustain my interest in extra-musical effects that make, I feel, music even more interesting and meaningful than it might be “on its own” (so to speak), and by way of diversion ( a habit of mine, I know, but one I see as an integral part of my approach to writing a blog, or a genre I seem to have invented: Blog Baroque), I would like to make a short “pit stop” at a subject allied to music … and then we shall travel back to the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival again (I obviously never intended an “on the spot” report of the event, but have finally, eight months hence, found the “larger” frame I hoped to find for it.).

My wife Betty and I attended a Live in HD Transmission of the Metropolitan Opera performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly that featured Kristine Opelais (as Cio-Cio-San) and Roberto Alagna (as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton). The principles, and the production itself (Anthony Minghella’s, first offered in 2006), were superb, first-rate—but I was fascinated by a feature I’d never witnessed before (as part of this opera, which I’ve seen several times), and that was a means of presenting Cio-Cio-San’s infant son in the “Humming Chorus” scene in which  Butterfly and her ever faithful servant Suzuki spend their “long vigil through the night” awaiting Pinkerton’s return to Nagasaki after an absence of three years.

Butterfly has given birth to her faithless husband’s son, and by my math (elementary, to say the least), the kid would be about two years old, a role it’s always bothered me to see portrayed by a child actor too far beyond his “terrible twos” to bring it off. Minghella came up with a brilliant solution to this problem: he did not employ an actual human child, but a puppet! This two-year-old came alive, literally, in the hands of three puppeteers (Kevin Augustine, Tom Lee, and Marc Petrosino: members of a trope called Blind Summit Theatre). Dressed from head to toe in black, seemingly “not there,” anonymous, they manipulated Cio-Cio-San’s son’s every gesture and expression—the amazing part of which was the head, which is separated from the body, but has static features (no blinking eyes, no gaping mouth, no twitching nostrils), yet displayed the most poignant regard (love!) for its mother, just by the position of the head in one puppeteer’s black gloved hand, while the other two “worked” the feet and body respectively. It’s an amazing art form, carried out throughout the opera in other ways: black clad figures twirling constellations of stars, and even a love scene featuring a “live” Pinkerton (a dancer, or “motion artist”) and a puppet Cio-Cio-San.

Here are: a scene from the Met production: Butterfly and her son; curtain call (which included the puppet son); in Japanese Bunraku: main puppeteer unhooded (National Bunraku Theater, a style of performance known as dezukai); and three hooded puppeteers manipulating two characters in a play.

Bunraku in Butterfly 2  SONY DSC

bunraku-puppet-maiden   Bunraku Puppet Theatre

Japanese puppet theatre is called Bunraku, or Ningyo joruri—the black clad puppeteers Ningyotsukai. The playwright known as the “Japanese Shakespeare,” Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), often worked in this form because, in the words of scholar/historian Donald Keene, dissatisfied with the “liberties taken with his texts,” he preferred “obedient puppets” to “temperamental actors.” Keene finds the comparison to Shakespeare “an unfortunate identification,” feeling that Chikamatsu’s plays offer instead “a vivid picture of a unique age in Japan, and have a special importance among the dramas of the world in that they constitute the first mature tragedies written about the common man.” One of Chikamatsu’s most popular plays, Sonezaki Shinju (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”) does not focus on star-crossed Montagues and Capulets, but a 25-year-old “employee of a dealer in soy sauce” and a 19-year-old courtesan: a clerk and a prostitute—the playwright having lifted his account of the love suicides of such people “from the gossip of a scandal sheet to the level of tragedy.” Keene feels, as I did about Cio-Cio-San’s puppet son, that “the stylization of puppets touches springs of pity and terror forbidden to actors.”

Thinking of the unique mix of this perfect performance on the part of a puppet and the brilliant vocal performances of Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna in Madama Butterfly, and getting closer now to the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival (in case you’re getting impatient), I thought of another miraculous combination of art forms I’ve encountered lately. In 2012, my wife Betty and I were fortunate to attend not just two full sets at the MJF that year by an amazing pianist from Armenia, Tigran Hamasyan, but his rehearsal session as well. I have his latest CD, Luys I Luso: a unique combination, a “marriage,” of his own brilliant improvisation and the Yerevan State Chamber Choir performing Armenian sacred music from the 5th to the 20th century—or, in Hamasyan’s own words: “a challenge to explore the mystery of Armenian sacred music and to create polyphonic arrangements for melodies by tradition monadic.” I won’t attempt to describe the result in detail, but it’s wonderful: soothing and exciting–a music that can both touch and sting, arrest attention and transcend it. (photo credits: Vahan Stepanyan):

Tigran Hanasian    Tigran Hamasyan 3

Which brings me to the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, and two performers who provided an extraordinary experience there. We all have our favorite duos: Adam & Eve, Batman & Robin, Tom & Jerry, Bonnie & Clyde, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Anthony & Cleopatra, Cheech & Chong, macaroni & cheese, Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt, Jekyll & Hyde, Watson & Holmes, Lewis & Clark, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Kirk & Spock, F. Scott Fitzgerald & Zelda, Beavis & Butt-head, Samson & Delilah, Napoleon & Josephine., Mickey Mantle & Roger Maris, The Hardy Boys (Frank & Joe), Nick & Nora Charles—on and on and on …

But now, after the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, I have a new favorite pairing up, a duo supreme: pianist Chick Corea & banjoist Bela Fleck.

Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea’s first major professional gig was with Cab Calloway; he went on to play in trumpeter Blue Mitchell’s quintet; recorded his first album as a leader(Tones for Joan’s Bones) in 1966; replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis’ band in 1968 (landmark albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew); experimented with Fender Rhodes electric piano, processing its output with a ring modulator; formed the group Circle with bassist Dave Holland in 1970; played with the crossover jazz fusion band Return to Forever; his composition “Spain” appeared on the group’s Light as a Feather album in 1972; issued My Spanish Heart in 1976 (jazz and flamenco); formed the Chick Corea Elektric Band (1986) and the Akoustic Band; composed his first piano concerto and performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1999; duet projects with vibraphonist Gary Burton, pianists Herbie Hancock and Hiromi, and recorded the duet album The Enchantment with Bela Fleck in 2007. Chick Corea has been nominated for 63 Grammy Awards, and has won 22.

New York City born Bela Anton Leos Flack (Bela for Bartok, Anton for Webern, Leos for Janacek) first heard Flatt and Scruggs’ theme for The Beverly Hillbillies when he was five or six years old, and the sound of the banjo, in his words, “just blew me away … like sparks going off in my head.” At age nineteen, he spent a summer playing on the streets of Boston, formed a band called Spectrum with bassist Mark Schatz, and was invited to join the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival in 1981. He formed the group Flecktones with bassist Victor Wooten in 1988; a self-titled CD, a “blubop” mix of jazz and bluegrass, attracted attention at Warner Bros. Records and was released in 1990; in 2003, Bela and the Flecktones released a three-disk set, Little Worlds, and then The Hidden Land, which won the GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2007. Having mastered bluegrass, jazz, pop, rock and world music, in 2001, Bela won the GRAMMY Best Classical Crossover album award with Perpetual Motion–a venture into classical music with longtime friend Edgar Meyer, with whom he set out on a banjo/bass duo concert tour. Next stop: Chick Corea. Bela Fleck has garnered 30 nominations for GRAMMY awards, and received 14 (nominated in more different categories than anyone in GRAMMY history).

Here’s Chick Corea (Photo credit: Roberto Serra) and Bela Fleck (Photo credit: Waltons New School of Music Workshop):

MJF Chick and Bela  MJF Chick and Bela 2

Before they began their set together on the Monterey Jazz Festival main stage at 7:00 Sunday night, I was eating a pulled pork and sauerkraut sandwich from one of the Festival food booths, and Chick Corea strolled by, inconspicuously, and I thought, “Wow! He’s just a guy, like me” (although he wasn’t eating a pulled pork and sauerkraut sandwich), and it struck me later, when he and Bela were performing together on stage: “Wow! They’re just a couple of guys,” for extraordinary improvisation, for them, seemed to come about as naturally, freely, spontaneously as if they were just two guys conversing on a porch in Appalachia, enjoying the mild night air there, and each other’s musical presence. They artlessly produced exquisite art: so thoroughly acquainted with the technical vocabulary that’s become commonplace in jazz, yet so fully steeped in the music’s history (its origin in supple sex and dance), they seemed to transcend all pretense in favor of a level of higher understanding—such as that advocated by the philosopher Spinoza in Rebecca Goldstein’s words: “The world is the all-embracing web of necessary truths intelligible through and through—and our own individual salvation rests in our knowing this. Our own personal salvation … consists in achieving the most impersonal of worldviews … the peace of unity of purpose”; or, in Spinoza’s own words: “the contentment of spirit.”

I’m fascinated that just two people, a duo, can do this, musically or otherwise (no symphony orchestral backing required, or a million-voiced choir). MJF Creative Director Tim Jackson introduced Bela Fleck as “my great banjo musical hero, and this is his first time here with Chick Corea.” In a similar situation, on their recording Two, introduced, Bela waxes modest and tells the audience, “I know Chick Corea is a real hero of you guys, and he sure is to me. It’s frightening at times just to be up here playing with him.” Chick responds, “Likewise,” and Bela says, “You too? Well, because we are so frightened of each other, we’ll use this next tune to recover our nerves.” But there was no sign of nerves at all (just a host of neurons–200 billion: 100 billion each–masterfully employed in making music) the night I heard them at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival.

The first tune they played, one composed by Chick, was “Children’s Song No. 6,” a playfully scattered, free form piece that matched an inquisitive child’s mind searching for answers to who knows what, percussive yet containing a precise roving, all Chick (solo piano) at the start, brooding, teasing, circular swirls, nothing stationary—and Bela’s banjo enters in absolute unison, as if he’d somehow snuck into Chick’s (childlike) mind, the unison dissolving into a playground skirmish, complaints, a kinetic challenge (“It’s mine!” No, it’s mine!”), Bela taking off on a prancing Baroque line above Chick’s chomping comping, handsome interaction between the two. They produced every effect that can be acquired on a keyboard or fretboard: Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “Pied Beauty” (“All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim … ); taking turns to sit out for the other’s “fours”: a joyous encounter, an exchange of attention and response, even retaliation—with a sweet respectful close.

They played a tune that Bela wrote for his wife, Abigail, “Waltse for Abby” (Bela mentioned that their son Juno had been born while he, the father, was performing on stage): this piece opening with Chick offering whole chords, handsomely spaced out, chime-like, then settling into a melody with playful intervals, a theme Bela entered smoothly, a rich exchange captured in both call and response and counterpoint: the overall tone one of domestic joy, a sort of kitchen dance, Chick picking up a phrase  by Bela, repeating it a split second after it occurred: a common conversation taking place between the two, Chick to the forefront with some blues licks, tasty jazz—then back into the lighthearted, jubilant, domestic waltz dance, and out.

“Mountain,” another tune by Bela, had a decidedly Appalachian flavor (I was there, breathing in that mountain air, and music!): a fine folk melody carried by Bela, Chick paraphrasing it—both embodied in a fully relaxed, down home manner–perfect! Chick came across with some quick glisses, a left hand vamp, and both indulged in some good time dissonance that took them back to the theme, which they landed on with a unison smile, a romp broken wide open again and concluding with a swift stop. (photo credit: C. Charles Crothers):

MJF Chick and Bela 3  MJF Chick and Bela 4

For the sake of contrast (and a display of absolute versatility), they played a piece by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), an Italian Baroque composer famous for his operas and chamber cantatas. The performance was “a little bit of an experiment” (in Chick Corea’s words), and they brought it off brilliantly. Writing in his book Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music, James Anderson Winn shows how composers of madrigals made use of the 14th century Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch’s “rhetorical strategy of alternating and suspending contrarieties within his own ethos … joy and lament, hope and despair, certitude and doubt,” allowing a dialectical unity to evolve out of multiplicity through patterns of shading and contrast, challenge and fulfillment, assertion and negation”—expressive value emerging alongside constructive technique. Winn also mentions Carlo Gesueldo da Venosa (1566-1613), a musician best known for writing intensely expressive madrigals that employed a wide harmonic vocabulary and chromatic language not heard again until Wagner (Stravinsky’s fondness for Gesualdo “was a recognition of kinship.”).

I’ve thrown in this aside on musical history because, on the night I heard Chick Corea and Bela Fleck together, I was in awe of the large sweep of musical history they offered, the vast repertoire they included in their performance together. They ended what I witnessed with an encore: Chick’s tune “Armando’s Rhumba,” a perfect denouement with its fully engaging rhythm, exotic flavor, and absolutely tight unison work. They were two Masters at play—a duo in the best sense of the word (Steven Pinker, in his book The Blank Slate: “The world presents us with non-zero-sum games in which it is better for both parties to act unselfishly than for both to act selfishly (better not to shove and not be shoved than to shove and be shoved.”)). Bela Fleck plays banjo with the deft ease, the light dexterity of a master musician on a harpsichord (and not just on the Scarlatti piece!), and Chick Corea plays piano with the graceful intentionality of someone enjoying … infinity! It was an impeccable performance.

I said I could have spent the entire weekend listening to the two of them work their magic, but obviously there was a feast of other fine performances going on. Before we part from “duos,” let me mention a set that featured two musicians listening to music and then talking about what they heard: Latin jazz great Pete Escovedo and his daughter virtuoso drummer Sheila E. (both of whom performed in Pete’s 80th birthday celebration on the main stage on Sunday afternoon). The first occasion (the “listening” session) was Dan Ouellette’s DownBeat Blindfold Test set on Saturday. (Photo credit: Mars Breslow):

MJF Pete and Sheila E   MJF Pete and Sheila E 3

DownBeat Publisher Frank Alkyer announced that this would be another anniversary: the 20th for which Dan (“a leading voice in contemporary jazz journalism”) has been host. My wife Betty and I are pleased to have had Dan stay at our home, along with Oakland photographer Stu Brinin, for the past seventeen of those twenty years—a ritual, or tradition, we hope to sustain in the future (Dan, Stu, and I enjoying Three Musketeers comradery throughout the weekend). As for the afternoon of the 20th, Frank Alkyer introduced Pete Escovedo and Sheila E. as “the most famous father and daughter team in music, without a doubt.”

This duo came through handsomely, and with considerable humor, throughout the Blindfold session: Pete identifying the artist immediately when Dan played Tito Puente’s “3-D Mambo,” and Sheila E. responding, “This [tune] was in my dad’s expansive collection when I was growing up. He played it a thousand times. I was only 6 or 8, but if he says Tito, then it must be him.” When she guessed “Machito” correctly as the artist (her father confessed he couldn’t name the orchestra on the next tune), Sheila E. rose from her chair and performed a zestful dance downstage—and when a member of the audience identified the alto saxophonist on the recording as Cannonball Adderley, she cried, “This guy deserves a hug,” and she gave him one!

Sheila E. found guitarist Marc Ribot’s “Como Se Goza En El Barrio” a “tough one” to identify, saying, “It sounds like my dad when he’d been out drinking all night” (adding that, later in her life, she enjoyed doing the same with her dad). A final piece Dan played again brought an immediate correct response from Pete Escovedo: “That’s the great Carmen McRae and Cal Tjader. I’ve always loved her singing. You don’t hear people like that anymore.” Sheila E. responded, “The style and the sound takes me back to when I was young. It reminds me of the Bay area—my dad, my family having fun, the food, the dancing all the time. When it was playing, it makes you want to stand up and do the cha-cha. In fact, I could see people in the back doing that.”

Dan Ouellette’s DownBeat Blindfold Tests bring out the best in everyone!

This wasn’t a duo (unless you want to multiply two by four and add one), but the John Santos Sextet, with guests Oristis Vilato, Jose Roberto Hernandez, and Ernesto Oviedo, offered a fully engaging set in Dizzy’s Den on Saturday night. Master percussionist Santos is, as a presence on stage, my idea of a “class act,” wearing a sport coat and tie and a white hat with a dark band (one of many such hats, I suspect, in his possession). He is an inspiring gentleman who takes time to provide an exegesis of the music itself, nothing extraneous, serving to enhance that music through understanding of it: paying homage to a Cuban Golden Era, “the roots of our music, with its rainbow range of colors … jazz is a clave born art form … the most natural thing.” At the start, flutist John Calloway and tenor saxophonist Melecio Magdaluyo provided a handsome exchange above Saul Sierra’s bass vamp, and the full infectious rhythm took hold, offset by pianist Marco Diaz’s fine clave configurations and John Santos’ own substantial nimble-fingered congas offerings. (Photo credits’ # 1 & 4: Tom Ehrlich; #2: SF Jazz; #3: John Santos and Ernesto Oviedo at Mini Amoeba Tent at MJF):

MJF John Santos 2   MJF John Santos

MJF Santos and Oviedo    MJF Santos and Oviedo 2

Oristis Vilato was introduced, playing bongos and timbale, and then Jose Roberto Henandez on guitar, and just when it seemed there could be no further way to flesh out such a first-rate group, Santos introduced Ernesto Oriedo, Havana’s 77-year-old (in writer Andy Gilbert’s words) “preeminent interpreter of romantic boleros, the heart-on-sleeve ballads honed to poetic perfection in Havana and Mexico City and beloved across Latin America.” Santos met Oviedo on a trip to Cuba in 1990, and says, “He’s like my Cuban father.” Santos has recorded and hopes to release an album featuring Oriedo, saying, “Like a lot of the musicians in the Buena Vista Social Club, Ernesto has been on the quiet side. He’s worked all these years, but always as one of the singers in a group and never led his band. I think it’s time that changed.” On Saturday night, the presence of Ernesto Oriedo matched that of Santos himself in dignity and emotive performance skill—his elegant voice at one with the group, yet rising, handsomely, aloft.

I had been looking forward to the long-form commissioned piece, The Forgotten Places, by exceptional trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, presented on the main stage on Saturday night—a work that turned out to be extremely “atmospheric” (and ambivalent) for me: wisps of synthesized wind mixed with what, at first, seemed vocalise but turned out to be words that suggested syntactical semblance but not much symantic accessibility. When I could comprehend them, they seemed overtly obvious (“ … the way it used to be … my hope is where my heart is …”): an odd combination of effects which, along with stark contrast in the music, produced the ambivalence I mentioned. Whereas Hideaki Aomori provided fine work on clarinet and Sam House on piano, sudden gratuitous orchestral surges were mixed with Maeve Gilchrist interludes on a harp, and Okkyung Lee’s cello solo evolved into dissonant passages that resembled a prolonged scream (“dreamlike” in the sense that Carl Yung meant when he said we go crazy at night so that we may remain sane by day?). The strangest “omission,” for me, was that of Akinmusire himself: his tasteful, skillful tone so little in evidence anywhere in the piece.

The composer spent a weeklong retreat at the rustic Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur, and “realized that this piece has to be about [his] experience there … reminded that solitude not only lives within us, it can also be a luxury,” and while the results did reveal the contrast between north Oakland and Glen Deven Ranch, “the forgotten places within yourself,” I couldn’t help but crave more direct involvement (performance) on the part of Ambrose himself. Later that night, Dan Ouellette would take me to task for splitting in the middle of the commissioned work, and would write, himself, in DownBeat: “From the tranquil mysterious beginning … to its surprising rhythmic conclusion, the band [a “chamber nonet”] took the crowd on a journey that was part reflection, part awakening. While the individual sections of the composition lacked the powerful, dramatic surges that often flow through a new commissioned work, Akinmusire sustained an energy throughout the piece that kept the audience mesmerized”—so, while I was by no means mesmerized, perhaps (“faith and patience”: a mantra I ordinarily attempt to put into practice) I should have stuck it out for the “surprising rhythmic conclusion,” or “awakening.”

I may have made up for my mistake at 10:30 on Saturday night, when I attended Ambrose Akinmusire’s set with his quartet in the nightclub, and walked in on a handsome ballad on which he fully displayed the rich combination of expressive value and constructive technique he’s known for—and followed that up with a full set of artful music.

Other sets I enjoyed: opening night’s “Jaco’s World: A Celebration of the Music of Jaco Pastorius,” with a very tight orchestra conducted by Vince Mendoza—excellent arrangements fleshed out by solos by top flight saxophonists Bob Mintzer and Bob Sheppard in that section,  Peter Erskine on drums, Chistian McBride on bass, with Will Lee and Jaco’s son Felix providing solos front and center on electric bass. Vocalist Tierney Sutton sang Jaco’s “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines,” and the set closed out with a rousing Afro-Cuban, R & B rendering of “Come On, Come Over” (“We’ll sing the tune”)—the musical homage accompanied by videos with clips from Jaco Pastorius’ life shown overhead.

On a blisteringly hot Sunday afternoon that drove most of the Jimmy Lyons main arena audience to a narrow zone of comfort, just six seats in each row in the shade of the left hand side (I thought I’d stick this situation out and occupy my assigned seat, at which heroic task I lasted no more than a few minutes), Snarky Puppy put on a good show, the young big band aggregate formed at the University of North Texas (“famed for its jazz studies program”), now based in Brooklyn, a “infectiously fun and seriously musical jazz/funk/R&B collective … For years, the underdog band played house parties and slept in people’s basements, but now enjoying the kind of success most musicians dream of” (as described in the MJF program). Snarky Puppy proved to be the crowd-pleasing “hip, soulful, energetic” and “explosive” aggregate they are advertised as. (Photo credit: Christi La Violette).

MJF SnarkyPuppy

Because of commitments elsewhere, I missed hearing Kurt Rosenwinkel and Lizz Wright (I did hear the latter when she first appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival several years ago)—two performers who provided excellent sets I was told. Such a wide fine range of music to take in over a weekend! Creative Director Tim Jackson’s genius for programming came through once again—and I only have one mild complaint that I and my journalist colleagues shared with regard to a “user friendly” facility we once enjoyed. This year the last portion of the Turf Club we could retire to for a glass of beer or wine and grand shop talk, had been converted to a “District 7 Premier Club” far beyond our humble price range (perhaps anyone’s, for we hardly saw a soul partaking of the comforts there all weekend).

However, the ever resourceful Stu Brinin discovered a comfortable venue at a far end of the Fairgrounds serving Guinness that allowed us to escape the heat—and we enjoyed a conversation with the members of the vocal group Duchess (Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, Melissa Stylianou), who’d taken refuge at a table adjacent to ours before their Sunday evening Garden Stage set. I’d heard Amy presenting a thoroughly enjoyable, and productive, “Jazz for Kids Concert” at the Jazz Education Stage that afternoon: introducing tunes to kids by asking, “Have you been anywhere interesting on your travels with your parents?”—their avid responses leading into “Route 66”; or, “Do you ever have an argument with one your siblings?” leading into “Let’s Get Away from It All” (“You say ‘either,’ I say ‘ei-ther,’ et cetera.). Very cool.

And one last final “plug” for the two exceptional musical artists I wrote about in my last blog: vocalist Cyrille Aimee (I wrote about her CD It’s a Good Day, but I highly recommend her Cyrille Aimee + Friends Live at Smalls and Let’s Get Lost as well; and pianist Justin Kauflin (listen to what he does with “A Day in the Life” on his first CD Introducing Justin Kauflin). The documentary focused on his remarkable friendship with Clark Terry, Keep on Keepin’ On, is one of the most moving jazz-oriented documentaries I have ever seen!

Here’s Duchess (Photo credit: Mini Amoeba tent at MJF); Cyrille Aimee (Photo credit: mackavenue); and Justin Kauflin (Photo credit: YouTube: “Mom’s Song” (Live at the Edye Broad Stage)}:

MJF Duchess        MJF Cyrille Aimee 3

MJF Justin Kauflin 2

And that, folks, is it for the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival (eight months after the event—but “remembered in tranquility”—and with a few of those extra-musical elements which can add so much to the music itself. Next post coming up (and soon, for I’ve already written it!) will be on Greek music, ancient and modern. Stay tuned.

Oliver Sacks, Consciousness, and the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival

I have long been a fan, a devotee, when it comes to the work of the late great Oliver Sacks. I assigned his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat each semester I taught Humanities at the local college; I’ve relished Musicophilia as a pianist; and now, as someone who recently turned eighty years of age, and learning to accept and accommodate vestibular and vision-related medical “issues,’ I have gained much by reading Migraine and The Mind’s Eye.

What I like most about Sacks’ work is his “upbeat” attitude: the many hopeful, sanguine stories he told, working as a neurologist with patients who find ingenious ways to compensate for deprivation, with what they’ve lost, and thus turn loss into gain—possibly even finding their lives more meaningful than before, responding to their existence with increased creativity and imagination, rather than a sense of defeat or despair.

Oliver Sacks    Oliver Sacks 2

Oliver Sacks 6         Oliver Sacks 3

To start anew, always! The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam said, “Yesterday has not been born … it hasn’t even taken place yet.” Commenting on Mandelstam’s sense of renewal, of “transcendence” (finding life a great “gift” even in the midst of personal oppression inflicted on him at the time of The Terror), Kevin M. F. Platt has written, “Past epochs had become available in a new way for reinterpretation and reinscription with truer and more valid meaning”– “uncharted territory” for the future.

For the purpose of this essay, I do not intend to name or dwell specifically on the nature of my own “impairment” when it comes to sight and my balance system, but to focus on a rich awakening that has taken place with regard to the future, to what neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandrun, in his book The Tell-Tale Brain, has called “the conceptual twists and technical turns we are in for,” discoveries that are going to be “at least as mind bending, at least as intuition shaking, and as simultaneously humbling and exalting to the human spirit as the conceptual revolutions that upended classical physics a century ago”—what neuroscientist David Eagleman, in his book, The Secret Lives of the Brain, calls the “vastness of inner space” (“The cosmos is larger than we ever imagined, and so are we.”): the human brain as a “perplexing masterpiece … the most wondrous thing we have discovered in the universe, and it is us.”

Out of what I consider equal portions of healthy curiosity and “dire necessity,” I have undertaken a sort of “campaign” to understand, as much as I can, the nature of the “mind-brain mystery,” just how those three pounds of jello at the top of our heads function and why (and how) they may fail to. In the process, beginning with “vision” (every book I could get my hands on, from R.L. Gregory’s early Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, to Brain and Visual Perception by David H. Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel–tracing their pioneering Nobel Prize winning discoveries–to Oliver Sack’s The Mind’s Eye), I have acquired a host of new words and phrases in my vocabulary which allow me to trace the amazing pathway of vision from retina to visual cortex: “fovea,” “vitreous humor,” “rhodopsin,” “hyperpolarization,” “ganglion cells,” “optic chiasma,” “thalamus,” “lateral geniculate nuclei,” and “superior colliclus.” It’s a great trip when it works, and a fascinating excursion even when compromised—the miracle, the gift, of sight.

By now, in light of the title of this essay, my musician/musical friends and blog followers may more than likely wonder just what the hell any of this has to do with this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, but I will ask you to bear with me a bit longer, for what I’ve discovered about the visual system (how it works and when it doesn’t—and “consciousness” in general) has everything to do with the manner in which I saw, heard, and felt this year’s musical offerings. I hope to make the amazing blend, the mix of what was offered (externally) with what I was perceiving (internally) as interesting and engaging as I can (it certainly was for me!)–and I will get to a first example—the nature of the “teamwork” that can take place in the “global neuronal workspace” of the brain itself and within a jazz combo in which the constituent parts or performers interact by truly “listening” to one another—as soon (given my “Baroque” nature) as I can.

In the past, because I have a Press Pass, I would roam the Festival grounds at will, bouncing from venue to venue in synch with whatever overall plan I had of what I hoped to witness. Often, having used the back entrance of a venue such as Dizzy’s Den, I’d find my niche close to the stage and, squatting there (full lotus Zen style), take notes on the music being played—but, now, that is no longer possible, my mobility also restricted by a vertigo condition kept under control for twenty-seven years yet recently (with the advent of faulty vision) returned with a vengeance. For the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, I was curious as to just how well I might manipulate the throng of joyous jazz fans cruising the fairway that runs alongside the host of venders and colorful displays offering everything from food to jazz “artifacts” of considerable variety. I realized that I would have to be extremely careful taking my place among that crowd, even with the cane I now employ as the third leg of the riddle Oedipus was asked to solve.

Consequently, when I showed up Friday night for the 58th Monterey Jazz Festival, I had a very specific list of times and settings for the performances I wished to see and hear, knowing I would remain for a full set of each, rather than spend time attempting to “sprint” to a suitable portion of several sets, as I had in the past. “Think small,” “Think continuity,” was my new mantra (of necessity) , and I also–attempting to keep my difficult balance–carried with me another host of bright and brilliant terms (another favorite book from my reading on consciousness is Bright Air, Brilliant Fire by Gerald Edleman, whose important work was introduced to me by Oliver Sacks)–ingredients related to the vestibular system:  “superior, posterior, and lateral semicircular canals”; “utricle and saccule,” “endolymph fluid,” “cristae and ampullar nerves,” “calcium carbonate crystals.” Again, it’s a great trip when it all works, and a fascinating excursion even when compromised—the miracle, the gift, of possessing a balance system.

Vestibular System    Vestibular System3

The Festival program advertised vocalist Cyrille Aimee as “rapidly rising,” a “widely acclaimed young jazz singer” who’d won both the Montreux Jazz Festival’s Vocal Competition and the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition, her musical outlook international in scope, the vocalist having grown up in Samois-Sur-Seine, sneaking out (as a teenager) to “gypsy encampments,” mesmerized by the music of “those who followed the spirit of Django Reinhardt.” She added Paris, Cameroon, Singapore, and the Dominican Republic to places of residence before finally arriving in Brooklyn, where she lives now.

Having performed at a Jazz Legends Gala Honoring Chick Corea the previous evening, Cyrille Aimee brought a group featuring two guitarists—Olli Soikkeli and Michael Valeanu—with Shawn Conley on bass and Dani Danor on drums to the Night Club on Friday night. When I walked in, my first impression (I could only find a seat at the far end of the room, where I could hear but not see so well) was of a highly animated mime dressed in black, similar to her countryman Jean-Louis Barrault, whose every gesture I’d relished in the film Les Enfants du Paradise (“Children of Paradise”): Aimee herself a delightful blur of well-formed motion: vital, vibrant, sexy. Her voice, capable of a wide range of intonation, of nuance, had a girlish edge to it, a fey quality, but coy, not mannered or “cute,” allied emotionally with a fully mature approach to the mood and tone of whatever she chose to sing—as was the case of the tune I walked in on, or the tail end of it: the title song from her debut CD: It’s a Good Day.

The next song, which I heard all of, one devoid of any “girlish” inflection, took me  by surprise. It was Jim Morrison’s “People Are Strange.” The first thing I noticed, once the group was into this tune, was just how smoothly, how tightly together—in spite of whatever attention she called to herself (her gestures, the quality of her voice)—they were. Cyrille Aimee became a part of a unique blend, a unique matchup of her “sidemen” and herself, the equally young and vibrant guitars (one with an immediately engaging “gypsy” flair or tone, the other providing a smooth bop “feel” that offset the Reinhardt mode perfectly) paired with bass and drums. The five “units” or components of this group acted as one—a single, totally compatible “family,” with no degree of separation, even though Cyrille Aimee stood (or moved) in the forefront—the whole melting, as Teilhard de Chardin said of a religious experience, “into a single vibrant surface wherein all demarcation ceased.”

The interplay between the two guitars was first-rate: the rapid fire driving Reinhardt sound offset by the smooth cool—in the tradition of Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Tal Farlow—inflection. “People Are Strange,” a gutsy song (“Faces look ugly when you’re alone …”), was represented as a throaty, bluesy ballad, the effect enhanced by the tight interactive guitar work. Aimee emphasized the isolation, the alienation of the “voice” in her own unique, flexible manner (she did wonderfully strange things with the word “strange”), and I couldn’t help but think of some of my recent reading on “consciousness”: Antonio Damasio writing on emotion occurring in an autobiographical setting in which “feelings generate a concern for the individual experiencing them. The past, the now, and the anticipated future are given the appropriate saliences … concern for the individual self.”

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“People Are Strange” was followed by “Love Me Or Leave Me,” Aimee—in her appealing French accent—acknowledging the Billie Holiday and Nina Simone legacy of this song—one taken at a breakneck tempo (“Nina did it very fast, but we do it faster”), the interaction of guitars a hallmark again: Django hot sizzle played off against a “cool” mood sustained even at the frantic pace. The two guitars traded off on a “chase scene” worthy of Nat “King” Cole and Les Paul with Jazz at the Philharmonic—no winner but much good fun and respect on both sides. The song closed with Cyrille Aimee’s breathless “no one … un … less … that some … one … is you!”—and a sudden stop.

With her gift for pantomime, for significant gesture, Aimee is a delight to watch (even from the far end of a hall and with failing eyesight!) as well as listen to, and she maintained the French-flavored (Paul Verlaine: “Car nous voulons la Nuance encor…”) eroticism, announcing, “Shawn and I are going to do it right now,” introducing a duet between her and bassist Shawn Conley on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” playful, tasteful “suggestion” present throughout the tune, along with good clean pitch, articulation, and invention—and the vocalist’s hair tossed and shoulders hunched in fine time with the music.

The set was filled with an interesting array of tunes: Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” (taken at a stuttering Calypso tempo—“Living crazy, that’s the only way … let the madness and the music get to you”—then a mix of tempos and textures, a percussive build up, the bright exchange of the two guitars—“There ain’t no rules, it’s up to you … it’s time to come alive”);  a song in French: “Nuit Blanche” (cheerful, skipping in the rain in Paris—“Mes levres tremblent au souvenir”—a tinkling feel, then hard scat to another breakneck tempo gypsy strum, the familiar rich mix of syllables and grooves, the group sliding smoothly from one to another); a song—“All Love”—a handsome  melody, written by Django Reinhardt’s son, the lyrics provided by Aimee herself, soft ballad nonintrusive guitar backing, tasteful, tender—“Birds flying high above you, and the smell of rain … memories you keep inside you”—handsome guitar coda ending; and an impressive original, autobiographical: “One Way Ticket”: “Smooth road, falling asleep on my baby’s shoulder … one way ticket to somewhere … I hope we never get there”: slow train ride rhythm at the start, bowl tapping drone sound in the background, her “little girl” voice on this one, giving way to scat in time with the trek, wide open rhythms at the end, and another sudden stop.

“One Way Ticket” was written about a trip Cyrille Aimee took to India (“I had some really crazy experiences.”). Hers, it appears, has been a well traveled road—as has that of her musicians: drummer Danny Danor from Israel, guitarist Olli Soikkeli from Finland , bassist Shawn Conley from Hawaii, guitarist Michail Valeanu from France and Sicily. By way of an introduction at the end, Aimee said, “These guys are not only great musicians, but they’re good looking as well”—and they are. Then, each of the musicians introduced another, a very fitting touch for such a tight as ”family” group, all boyishly agreeing that Cyrille Aimee “takes care of us like a mother”—a charming conclusion  to what I felt was an excellent, truly enjoyable set.

Taking that very “together” set with me in mind when I left, again I couldn’t help but think of what I’d read about one of the major breakthroughs in recent neurobiology. In his book, The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain, Israel Rosenfield devotes a section to previously mentioned  (Bright Air, Brilliant Fire) Gerald Edlemen’s Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, in order to show that brain function does not depend on “localized function and fixed memories,” but “large numbers of different neuronal groups” (units of “selection”): “a set of interconnected neurons that function together.” Various scientists and philosophers have given different names to such brain-wide information sharing or neuronal syncrony: Stanislas Dehaenes’ “global neuronal workspace,” Antonio Demasio’s global assembly or “converging zones,” the “neural coalition” of Francis Crick and Christof  Koch, even John Selfridge’s “pandemonium,” a term employed to describe the joyous spontaneous union that occurs within the overall music shaped and played by the brain’s Big Band.

Cyrille Aimee’s was not the first set I’d taken in on Friday night. A “traditionalist” by nature, I’d made certain to be present each year (since he’d become General Manager of the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1992) when Tim Jackson parted the main stage (now the Jimmy Lyons Stage, named after his predecessor) curtains and welcomed those in attendance to the event—so I was on hand for that ritual at 7:30 Friday night, but the figure that emerged to welcome us was not Tim Jackson. It was a gentleman named Clint Eastwood, who announced his name and the fact that he loves jazz—this by way of introducing the “Geri Allen Erroll Garner Project: Concert by the Sea”: a first “act” I had anticipated eagerly.

Detroit-born Geri Allen is one of my favorite jazz pianists and the set in which she participated, along with pianists Jason Moran and Christian Sands, with Russell Malone on guitar, Darek Oles on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums, was a celebration of the 60th anniversary of pianist Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea, a local (Carmel, California) jazz show produced by Lyons prior to the Monterey Jazz Festival itself. The program for this year’s Festival stated that there had been no plan to document the original concert, but “in one of the genius-level happy jazz accidents,” Garner’s manager, Martha Glaser, spotted a tape-recorder a “well-meaning local fan” had set up backstage, and Glaser acquired a recording from the owner that would eventually become a “runaway hit for Erroll Garner and Columbia Records”—regarded as one of the best-selling jazz records ever.

Here are: The original album, The Complete Concert by the Sea, Erroll Garner, Erroll Garner with Martha Glaser, Geri Allen, Jason Moran, and Christian Sands:

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A three CD set, The Complete Concert by the Sea, co-produced by Allen, Steve Rosenthal, and Jocelyn Allen, had been released prior to the 2015 MJF, with notes by Geri Allen in which she says, “ I became aware of Erroll Garner as a high school pianist learning about jazz and growing up in Detroit, Michigan in the ‘70s. I was moved and inspired by his innovative approach to playing and he opened up a world of possibilities … Garner embodied the very spirit of swing,  improvisation, and the blues.”

I became very much aware of Garner as a high school student and fledgling pianist myself (1950-1953), and not only collected every record of his I could get my hands on (including his 10” LP series of recordings for Savoy), but I heard him play live at an extraordinary concert at the Masonic Temple in Detroit on April12, 1952: a Piano Parade “world premiere” that featured Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson (boogie-woogie), Erroll Garner (with John Simmons on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums), and the legendary Art Tatum, with Slam Stewart on bass and Everert Barksdale guitar. Just to make that evening even more exceptional than its billing, Art Tatum’s plane was grounded in Chicago due to a snowstorm, and he had to be driven to Detroit by an automobile that consumed enough time to allow Erroll Garner to play a set that lasted for two and a half hours!

The woman who would become my wife (five years later) was with me that night (even though she had a date with someone else), and Betty remembers the sight, the glint, the flash of Art Tatum’s emerald ring, even though we had seats high in the balcony. He had arrived well after midnight and provided a full set himself. What an extraordinary evening that was!—and one that prepared me well for Geri Allen’s tribute: a set that found her seated at one of three grand pianos, flanked by Jason Moran (to her left) and (right) a pianist I’d not heard perform before: Christian Sands (billed as “an emerging jazz force”), each participant paying homage, in her or his own unique way (along with the contributions of guitarist Russell Malone), to the artistry of Erroll Garner.

The three pianists, with Geri Allen stationed at the matrix, offered both brilliant unison and equally bright solo work: fine very free interpretations which, at first, struck me as too free to serve as homage to Garner’s own style–as not very “Garnerish” at all–but when I got used to the extent of license involved, I realized that each of the pianists had truly absorbed and assimilated the Master in her or his own way, declining to go the route of strict imitation in preference to independent, individual homage, proving Geri Allen’s declaration that “jazz is such a timeless experience.” The three pianists did offer familiar Garner fare from the original Concert by the Sea LP (“April in Paris,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and ‘It’s All Right with Me”), with the addition of tunes not found on the LP but included in the concert itself. Eleven of these pieces can be found on the three CD set now out, The Complete Concert by the Sea.

The celebration allowed each pianist to not only pay respect to Garner’s gutsy, idiosyncratic, off beat (literally!) style, but their own individual contributions to the world of jazz. The result was what I jotted down as “concert eloquence,” a somewhat grandiose display of individual poise, pride, and purpose—a sort of “After Erroll Garner” or “Beyond Erroll Garner” Baroque homage. Familiar as I was with both Geri Allen and Jason Moran’s styles, I was impressed by the unique approach of Christian Sands, who did commence “It’s All Right with Me” in distinct “Garner” manner, and then showed the full range of the genuinely two-handed piano he is capable of (reminding me of another of my favorite pianists: Marcus Roberts), graced with a fine feel for dynamics, fulfilling the “promise” extended in the Festival program notes: “pianistic technique in abundance … a fresh look at the entire language of jazz: stride, swing, bebop, progressive, fusion, Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban … he possesses an extensive vocabulary of patterns, textures, and structures, which allow him to play in about any style.”

The Erroll Garner Project set closed with one of the Master’s own original tunes: “Gemini,” allowing all three pianists (and Russell Malone, who’d been masterful on “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”) and Victor Lewis (who provided a fine solo on “Gemini”) to jell on a fitting conclusion to a first-rate set: a homage not just to Erroll Garner but the history of jazz itself as an art form. This entire Jimmy Lyons Main Stage session was well documented, enhanced, visually (I had no trouble seeing it!) by way of a large screen that displayed the hands of each performer in action (grand hands: “It’s all anatomy,” pianist/composer/arranger Don Schamber once said to me, commenting on the fact that Oscar Peterson’s hands were so large he could play 14ths, whereas with my meager mitts I have to “roll” 10ths). Having just seen and heard what I did, I couldn’t help but “flash back” to what I’d witnessed that night in 1952 when Erroll Garner played for two and a half hours in Detroit—and that lead to thoughts on what I’d recently read about memory and, once again, consciousness.

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In previously mentioned Israel Rosenfield’s The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain, after showing that the brain is not a “repository” (in which images of the past have been fixed, “imprinted and permanently stored”) but a highly creative “generator” of memory, the author devotes, as I mentioned with regard to “teamwork,” Gerald Edleman’s theory of “neuronal group selection”: “maps” made of neuronal groups: information distributed among many such maps, with “incessant reference back and forth, or venting,” so that “categorization” may take place.

Rosenfield writes: “We recollect information in different contexts; this requires the activation of different maps interacting in different ways that differ from those of our initial encounter with the information”—a skill acquired “in the course of experience … We do not simply store images and bits but become more richly endowed with the capacity to categorize in connected ways.” In support, Rosenfield quotes Frederic C. Bartlett (Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology): “Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative [italics mine] reconstruction, or construction built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of original past reactions or experience … It is thus hardly ever really exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of rote recapitulation, and it is not at all important that it should be so.”

Rosenfield returns to Edelman’s hypothesis: “Each person, according to his theory, is unique; his or her perceptions are to some degree creations, and his or her memories are part of an ongoing process of imagination.” Reading this, I thought, “My God, the process of memory—and the work of the mind/brain–is no different from what a writer does making art, or a visual artist—or a jazz musician! I found the idea thrilling. Memory is just like the rest of living: each of us writing the novel, creating the story of our lives. So I was now in a very favorable position to fully enjoy the imaginative reconstruction of my experience of the majesty of Erroll Garner from my first encounter in 1952 through the homage paid to him in 2015!

If, so far at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, I’d had solid musical lessons in collaboration (or teamwork) and memory, a set I would have to wait until Sunday night to experience, the Festival’s final night, would impart a valuable lesson in what it might be like to produce exceptional art without possessing sight.

Festival program notes let me know that pianist Justin Kauflin, whose complete set I would attend that evening, began his musical journey at age four, with Suzuki violin lessons, “adding piano four years later.” He was, by age six, “performing in concerts, nursing homes and weddings, eventually becoming concert master for several orchestras.” During this time, he also “endured many trials, particularly losing total vision by a rare eye disorder.” Mastering five grades of Braille and cane mobility, Justin, after a decade of classical violin and piano, switched to jazz piano at the Governor’s School for Performing Arts in Virginia. He attended the Vail Jazz Workshop, Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Residency, received “top honors in jazz festivals across the U.S.,” and turned pro at age fifteen.

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In 2004, Justin Kauflin graduated, “alongside his sighted peers,” in the top 1% of Salem High School (Virginia), was Valedictorian at the Governor’s School, and received a Presidential Scholarship to attend William Paterson University in New Jersey, where he was “taken under the wings of legendary trumpeter Clark Terry, and took lessons from pianists Mulgrew Miller, Harold Mabern, and James Williams.” A documentary five years in the making, Keep on Keepin’ On, focused on Justin’s relationship with mentor Clark Terry, was “Oscar-shortlisted for best documentary at the 2015 Academy Awards.”

Sunday evening in Monterey, Justin Kauflin opened his set, assisted by Mike Cottone on trumpet, Katie Thiroux on bass, and Mike Witek on drums, with an up tempo “Brotherhood of Man,” with strong, straightahead, clear, deftly articulated bop lines, block chords (reminiscent of Red Garland), solid left hand comping matched with bright clean runs, synchronized two-octave-separated configuration—all the tricks of the trade offered with the focus and intentionality of an artist free of inhibition and distraction. “Brotherhood” was followed by a handsome solo piano intro to “Stardust,” the tune itself, once the trumpet stepped in, taken at an easy-going tempo, filled with subtle invention mixed with formal restraint that allowed the pianist to provide a “Stardust” (in spite of the song’s frequent use, and perhaps even abuse) all his own.

With an equally amiable voice, Justin announced (following “Stardust”), “All of the music is dedicated to Clark” [Terry], and he preceded to play tunes that can be found on his appropriately named second CD, Dedication. In 2008, having graduated Summa cum laude with an Honor’s degree in Music, having moved to New York, Justin Kauflin, age twenty-three, “produced, led, composed and performed on his first CD,” Introducing Justin Kauflin; and in 2013, having participated in Quincy Jones’ World Tours, he worked with Jones on the second full-length CD, Dedication, released in 2015: #6 on CMJ Jazz Chart and #10 on Billboard’s Traditional Jazz Chart.

Original compositions I heard from Dedication on Sunday night were “The Up and Up,” “Elusive,” and “The Professor.” The first commenced with a skipping Latin beat, the theme composed of the large block chords the pianist is fond of (and me too!), then settled into delightful fleet single note excursions, with steady left hand comping and resourceful, inventive emphasis—the entire group just swinging, the close out a strong melodic descent against the steady Latin vamp again, and a quick, joyous stop! “Elusive” begins with a slow chromatic ascent, then descent, injected into a rhythm set by the drums. Mike Cottone carried the theme on trumpet, and Justin Kauflin provided his clear, clean, concise comping: the tune “elusive” in the sense of a full range of effects offered, suggesting musical artists from Bach to Bud Powell (and Mulgrew Miller), but resisting any set or fixed “categorization”—the close a five note theme loaded with subtle minimalist repetition enhanced by a drum solo. “The Professor” honors Miller by way of another large chordal opening, concert “classical” flourishes, but tastefully simple and direct melodic lines, first-rate “principles of selection” adhered to throughout, each note a decision among options but seldom an accident–refreshingly spontaneous. As further honor to Mulgrew Miller, Justin Kauflin played his mentor’s own composition, “Return Trip,” a sonorous, joyous, anthem “open road” piece combining praise, prayer, and limitless respect.

Justin Kauflin learned some hard, tough non-musical lessons when he moved to New York City, discovering that “visionless independent mobility” was “painstakingly slow at best and life-threatening at worst.” To improve the situation, at the Seeing Eye clinic in Morristown, New Jersey, he was matched up with a black lab named Cindy, his service dog for three years in NYC (there’s a fine photo of Justin and Cindy out for a walk on the cover of the Dedication CD). He then returned to Virginia, where he would “headline regularly at the Havana Nights Jazz Club” before he won the VSA International Young Soloist Award, was voted “Jazz Artist of the Year” in VeerMagazine, was selected as a semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition (Gene Seymour writing that Justin possessed “more shape, heft, and narration rigor than most of his peers”), and was “discovered” by Quincy Jones, who co-produced the Dedication CD.

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Speaking of that album, Justin Kauflin has said, “When first conceptualizing this project, I realized there was so much for which I am extremely grateful. It was then that I decided to dedicate this album to all the people who gave of themselves selflessly in order to help me along this journey.” The list that followed included God (“center and the source of the music I create”), family and friends, and, feeling himself “a perpetual student,” many “wonderful teachers,” including Mulgrew Miller (“eternally grateful for every second” he was able to spend with him—“such a gentle and humble spirit”) and “CT” [Clark Terry]—“Thank you for sharing your beauty and joy with the world.”

In an interview conducted by Marta Ramon (JazzTimes), which she began by acknowledging the “perceptible spiritual energy that lights Kauflin’s compositions,” the pianist stated that “developing a career in jazz is not just perfecting one’s musical craft, but like most things in life, it’s more about people and community. Spending time with CT allowed me to see the human side of being a great performer/musician/educator … Now, I make it a point to cultivate relationships with all those with whom I come in contact. I will always strive to grow as a musician, but I now understand how much more important it is to develop and grow as a human being.”

Justin Kauflin’s fine “character” (as in a complex of mental and ethical traits that individualize a person) shows up in his music, along with his abundant skill and imagination (with regard to both “embracing” tradition and feeling totally comfortable with, as he puts it, “a lot of music outside of traditional jazz that I’ve been drawn to”), and also the capacity I admired (for my own personal reasons) of remaining totally focused, composed, not at all distracted in performance—for which I would like to add the word “crystallization,” thinking of something the poet previously mentioned, Osip Mandelstam, had to say about that state: “O poetry, envy crystallography, bite your nails in anger and impotence! For it is recognized that the mathematical formulas necessary for describing crystal formation are not derivable from three-dimensional space. You are denied even that element of respect which any piece of mineral enjoys.”

Yet, in spite of Mandelstam’s protest, he–in poetry–and Justin Kauflin, in music (what I was privileged to hear in what he played on the Garden Stage at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival) are able to take us to a dimension in which genuine crystallization takes place!

Returning to the man whose name initiated this essay (both in the title and opening paragraph), someone who knew more than a few things about crystallography (in both science and the art of writing), Oliver Sacks, in his book The Mind’s Eye, offers a fascinating account of the compensations of three people who lost their sight and actually feel they have gained by it. In his book, Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, John Hull describes experiencing (in Sack’s words or paraphrase) “a gradual aftermath of visual imagery and memory, and finally a virtual extinction of them (except in dreams) … a loss of the very idea of seeing … a prerequisite for the full development, the heightening, of his other senses,” finding “an authentic and autonomous world, a place of its own … shifting his attention, his center of gravity, to the other senses, and these senses assumed a new richness and power.”

In his book, Out of Darkness, Zoltan Torey provides a full account of (again in Sack’s words) “developing a remarkable power of generating, holding, and manipulating images in his mind,” constructing “a virtual visual world that seemed as real and intense, to him, as the perceptional one he had lost—indeed, sometimes more real, more intense.” “I replaced the entire roof guttering of my multi-gabled home single-handed,” Torey writes—and Sacks comments on “the great alarm of his neighbors at seeing a blind man alone on the roof of his house–at night (even though, of course, darkness made no difference to him).” Having gone blind, Dennis Shulman found “the heightening of his other senses had increased his sensitivity to the most delicate nuances in other people’s speech and self-presentation”—through smell and emotional states (“states of tension or anxiety they might not even be aware of”), Shulman “no longer taken in by visual appearances, which most people learn to camouflage.”

In The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks devotes a full chapter to his own experience of being diagnosed with an ocular melanoma in his right eye, and he takes us through the entire agonizing process: from radiation treatment to the loss of central vision, the scotoma then taking over his entire eye (”I had the sense that my visual cortex was now in a heightened or sensitized state, released to some extent from purely perceptual constraints”), hallucinations (“interesting in a way: they show me the background activity, the idling, of my visual system, generating and transforming patterns, never at rest”), losing stereoscopy (the “complete and sudden flattening of the visual world … crossing streets, dealing with steps, just walking around—things that required no conscious attention before—now required constant care and forethought.”), followed by another hemorrhage that cost him whatever peripheral vision remained in his right eye. He realized that “time will tell whether I am able to adapt to this new visual challenge.”

Being Oliver Sacks, he turns the entire “experience” into one that would transform his life “in a radical way,” finding that “questions of love and work, of what really matters most, have taken on a special intensity and urgency”—turning himself into a patient the account of whose “experience” would provide inspiration. Acknowledging his gratitude to the many patients and correspondents who had granted him their own case histories,” Sacks celebrates “the complex workings of the mind and its astounding ability to adapt and overcome disability—to say nothing of the courage and strength that individuals can show, and the inner resources they can bring to bear, in the face of neurological challenges that are almost impossible for the rest of us to imagine.”

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I find the words, and the life, of Oliver Sacks inspirational—and a sound way to end this essay. I will continue my account of the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival in the next blog (the extraordinary pairing off of Bella Fleck and Chick Corea; then Ambrose Akinmusire, John Santos, Snarky Puppy, Duchess, Dan Ouellette’s DownBeat Blindfold Test with Pete Escovedo and Shiela E., the Monty Alexander Trio, and more), but in a manner that focuses on the performances themselves, devoid of any asides on “consciousness.” I do want to thank you for allowing me to approach Cyrille Aimee, Geri Allen’s Erroll Garner Project, and Justin Kauflin as I have—as I, given the nature of my own “experience” at this time in my life, heard and saw them perform. Thanks!