Poet Osip Mandelstam on Music, and Beyond

I thoroughly enjoyed preparing the last two blog posts on Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient and Modern (Parts One and Two), and I’ve had some positive responses to that work. Thanks! I’d like, now, to stay with the general subject—the “marriage” of poetry and music—for one more post: this time with an emphasis on the thoughts of my favorite 20th century poet, Osip Mandelstam, on the topic–and attempts on the part of composers to set his poems to music.

In the best book I’ve read on Mandelstam, An Essay on the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam: God’s Grateful Guest, author Ryszard Przybylski writes, “Opinions of professional musicians about a poet’s attitude towards music should be considered authoritative,” and he goes on to cite composer Artur Sergeevich Luriye saying that Mandelstam “loved music passionately, but he never talked about this love. He kept it deeply concealed.” Przybylski concludes that Mandelstam “listened to music and said nothing about it. He said nothing and he wrote. And thanks to that writing he entered the history of Russian music.”

Here’s the cover of Przybylski’s excellent book—and two photos of Mandelstam as a young poet: (photo credits: Gregory Freidin, from his fine book, A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and His Mythologies of Self-Presentation, which I’ll also show here; and ralphmag.org).

Book on Mandelstam    Mandelstam

Mandelstam 6     osip-mandelstam5

We’ll take a look at what Mandelstam wrote in the way of poetry in just a moment, but first: an observation of his in prose that I found interesting: “Musical notation caresses the eye no less than music itself soothes the ear … Each measure is a little boat loaded with raisins and grapes.” Mandelstam appears to have loved everything about music—including the sight of it and even the suggested taste!

In a poem written in 1931, “Self-Portrait,” in which he makes fun of his own peculiar (verified by nearly everyone who knew him, including his wife) appearance, he says (translation by James Greene):

Here is a creature that can fly and sing, / The word malleable and flaming, /And congenital awkwardness is overcome / by inborn rhythm!

Przybylski writes, “He treated everything he did as flight and song … a poet who heard existence … who felt he was filled with rhythm, the fundamental form-creating element. He was incapable of separating poetry from music because he was incapable of separating form from content. For him art was music, which, as Boethius explained, “sometimes makes use of instruments and sometimes creates poetry.”

Here’s a series of drawings and woodcut prints I did myself—in homage to the various stages of Mandelstam’s   life (and more about the last “stage” later):

Mandelstam 1 Mandelstam 2Mandelstam4

Osip 10Mandelstam5  Mandelstam 3

In a poem written in 1908, the first poem in his first collection Kamen (or Stone), Mandelstam hears (Przybylski’s own translation) “The cautious and deaf sound / Of the first fruit, torn from the tree! / Amidst the resounding sound / Of the deep forest silence”; and Przybylski responds: “In the beginning there was silence. Nothingness is silence … All things arose through sound, and without sound nothing which exists would have come into being … Thus, sound is born from silence’s singing. Silence is music. This seeming paradox haunted Mandelstam throughout his life [in 1910, he wrote about a “soundless chorus of birds” that flies through “silence at midnight”] … Music, then, incorporates both silence and sound. Singing man is a form of God. The interruption of silence means the appearance of form.”

Przybylski spends considerable time on alternate theories regarding this “birth”– theories Mandelstam eventually rejected—such as Theophile Gautier’s concept of the birth of Aphrodite from ocean foam as “the birth of love,” Russian Symbolist Sergey Solovyov’s notion that she initiated a “paradise of love,” and neo-Parnassian Alexander Kondratev’ s view that Aphrodite became an emblem for “the joys of life.” Mandelstam broke with these Neo-Platonic traditions, for his Aphrodite is Anadyomede, or the one who simply “swims out of water,” and Aphrogeneia, the one “born of the ocean foam.” The Greeks believed that all births required motion and moisture (as they do )–two things “that the sea has in excess.” In another poem, “Silentium,” one of my favorites, Mandelstam sees Aphrodite as both the soul and original foundation of life, simultaneously. Here’s my own translation of “Silentium”:

It is the unborn, still— / She and the music and the word / Sustaining, unbroken /The living coherence.

Here are two classic interpretations of this moment, one the famous painting by Botticelli (“The Birth of Venus”); the other a 2nd century Roman sculpted piece: (Photo credits: waymarking.com; wikipedia.org)

Aphrodite 1  Aphrodite 2

Przybylski quotes musicologist Paolo Carapezza: “In ancient times music and the living logos [phonic organization of words as language] were an inseparable unit, and what is more, the former was considered to be the conscious and deliberate perfecting and refining of the latter, the revelation of it internal essence; the living logos was music in raw form, like gold in the form of ore.” Carapezza also cites a time of “esthetic transformation” when music stopped being “an extract of logos” and became “that in which the logos swims and by which it is surrounded.” Music was no longer structured on a plane equal with the word, “not according to the word,” but “appropriately according to its own patterns.” Music began to be constituted “independently of the word.”

Mandelstam, according to Przybylski, understood the meaning of this process well. In his essay “Pushkin and Scriabin,” the poet wrote: “The Hellenes did not allow music any independence: the word served them as the requisite antidote, the faithful sentinel, and the constant companion of music. Pure music was unknown to the Hellenes; it belongs completely to Christianity. The mountain lake of Christian music grew calm only after the profound transformation which turned Hellas into Europe.” And Przybylski adds, “The symbol of this unity of music and logos was, for Mandelstam, Aphrodite, but … before she swam out of the ocean foam, when she was still living in the foam or, better yet, when she was foam. For among the Greeks love was an initial movement and very quickly it became a unifying force. Thus, it fused meaning with song, intellect with rhythm, communication with expression. Thanks to love, music was born of the natural prosodic melody of the word. Each thought arose out of music, all music gave birth to thought.”

Mandelstam rejected Vladimir Solovyov’s Goethean “Eternal Feminine.” For him Aphrodite was the “primal Aphrodite, mythical, cosmogonical.”

Let my lips discover / What they cannot say: / Some crystal note / In pure birth!

For Mandelstam, ocean foam symbolized primal chaos, but not as a “negative value, an evil, or a threat.” Chaos, like silence, was “a collection of all possibilities, a prenatal anxiety, a formless proto-unity.” It was precisely this proto-unity that made it possible for the word to be “united with music.”

Again, by way of contrast, Przybylski separates Mandelstam’s beliefs regarding the marriage of music and word from those of his contemporaries and predecessors. Andrey Bely had accepted German musicologist Hanclick’s thesis that “music is a more elevated language than speech,” and Bely approved of Schopenhauer’s concept that “the esthetic priority of symphonic music, which is a ‘product of reflection,’ is completely separated from the world of phenomena, and cleansed of all contact with the word.” The Russian Symbolists praised the emancipation of “pure music,” but, according to Przybylski, a paradox existed at the foundation of their “linguistic Utopia”: the despised word had to take on the function of pure, instrumental music, which became “the highest value only because it had separated itself from the word.” Mandelstam resolved this paradox. For him, the conscious sense of the word, the Logos, was “just as magnificent a form as music is for the Symbolists.” He endorsed the wisdom of “origins.” He did not seek the essence of musicality “in an instrument, but in the word.”

Mandelstam rejected the era’s “beloved paradox” (“Yearning for wordlessness is in essence yearning for music”). He turned away from Tyutchev’s “silence as the music of the soul, deprived of the possibility of authentic communication” and even Homer (“the soul itself is a form of music, a harmonious chord”), and, unconcerned with the music of the soul, he saw “silence” existing “only in order to change formless possibility into sounding form.” Again, silence was the “expectation of sound,” “the collection of possibilities.”

O Aphrodite, remain foam! / Let words return to music, / Heart, stay heart, ashamed /If not coupled, always / With where and how you began.

Although Stravinsky never set Mandelstam to music (that I know of), Przybylski  couples the two, citing the former’s “Le Sacred du Printemps,” in which he interpreted the myth  “as it suited his music,” and sought primal musical material in the ancient world–a “vision of a ritual rite of the rebirth of life” in the ballet, “thanks to which man, steeped in the primitive sound of primal musical material, makes contact with the biocosmic unity.” The piece, “thanks to its ‘barbaric’ rhythms,” is transformed into “an apotheosis of sacred eroticism.” Both Stravinsky and Mandelstam sought the “same value” in primordial chaos: “Freudian Eros, the instinct of love, which supports the current of life, continually renewing the cosmos and building culture.”

Here’s a collage with Stravinsky imposed upon Henri Matisse’s painting “The Dance” (I didn’t realize how large, how monumental, this painting was, and when I first saw it, “live,” in the Hermitage, I told my wife Betty she should come back in a month or so and “rescue” me from viewing it!); scenes from “Le Sacred du Printemps,” the original production and a contemporary performance  (Joffrey Ballet performance at Los Angeles Music Center); and a portion of Stravinsky’s score (Notice all those small dancing “raisins and grapes”!): (Photo credits: NPR Today; theguardian.com; huffingtonpost.com; YouTube).


Rite of Spring  Rite of Spring 2

score for Rite of SpringIn his poem “Silentium,” Mandelstam’s “silence” has a “musical character.” In his invocation to Aphrodite, if she will remain foam, the word will return to music, because “every renewal takes place only after the return to beginnings.” Mandelstam’ s “silence” was not a “criticism of language as a means of communication … primal silence was a phenomena in which form, Aprodite, is concealed.” Like Mozart, Mandelstam saw silence optimistically. Mozart “insisted” that silence was more essential than sound in music, because only in silence, “filled by mental effort, is a decisive grasping of form possible.” The “Prince of Silence,” Miles Davis, is known to have said “In music, silence is more important than sound.”

Przybylski concludes this portion of his book by asserting that Mandelstam’s “silence” is not a “modernistic Nirvana, but the source of creation. Creation, in turn, is affirmation of life, the acceptance of the material world, the joyous sensing of things.” Mandelstam “linked his art with life, with the earth.”

Przybylski then turns his attention to a “primal abyss” that some people feel as a threat. He says “we should not be surprised that Mandelstam expressed the thought that music is unable to save us from the primal abyss. Music itself, after all, belongs to a certain extent to the abyss, because it was born out of silence … but a sound can interrupt the terror silence, it can charm the abyss. That is why the soul signifies a bursting into song. One must summon rhythm, even though it appears only rarely, like grace. Only a singing soul can create form. The poet, then, is a man in whom molino vivo, the creaking mill of life … has not destroyed his ability to sing. Creativity is a kind of song. That is why Mandelstam did not just recite his poems and did not try to force the meaning of the lines into meter. If a sentence in a poem does not fit the melody, it has no meaning. The meaning of a poem is in the music. So that Mandelstam sang his poems.”

Przybylski reminds us of a single phonograph recording of the poet “singing” a poem of his [and more about this poem at the end of this blog post], and the testimony of his contemporaries bear this out. “The wandering aoidos probably sang Homer’s epics like Mandelstam”–which reminds me of what I’ve said elsewhere about Homer as the first “anchor person,” but singing the evening news: “There was a fierce battle in Troy today,” et cetera.

“The musician is depicted in Mandelstam’s poetry as a priest entreating the abyss,” Prybylski writes, and once again, he asserts: “To create, then, means above all to create music. For the wave comes out of the sea to a measured beat … rhythm is the source of shape. A poet is a creator only when he creates musical shape. The musician is the archetype of the creator.”

Przybylski offers Mandelstam’s thoughts on Bach and Beethoven, for the poet has written a poem about each. For the poet, Przybylski claims, Bach was an artist who understood music as “the organized resistance of the spirit against the elements … Above the dust of time, above the disharmony of sounds swirling in taverns and churches, [Bach] triumphs like a new Isaiah, because Isaiah is continually proving the obvious: that God exists, that A = A.” Mandelstam himself has written, “Logic is the kingdom of the unexpected. To think logically is to be perpetually astonished. We have come to love the music of proof.” And he found such music in Bach.

The introduction of the words “logic” and “proof” after “Isaiah” and “God” made me think of an interesting book I am reading just now: physicist/saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and The Structure of the Universe. In the Introduction, the author writes: “Contrary to the logical structure innate in physical law, in our attempts to reveal new vistas in our understanding, we often must embrace an irrational, illogical process, sometimes fraught with mistakes and improvisational thinking … The intricate way that the fundamental laws of physics work together to create and sustain the overarching structure of the universe, responsible for our very existence, seems like magic—not unlike the bare bones of music theory have given rise to everything from ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ [the “bare bones” or underpinings of the song “It’s a Wonderful World”] to Coltrane’s Intersteller Space. By using an interdisciplinary focus, inspired by three great minds (John Coltrane, Albert Einstein, and Pythagoras), we can begin to see that the ‘magical’ behavior of the blossoming cosmos is based in music.”

Here are: cover of The Jazz of Physics; Stephon Alexander at work; the cycle of fifths, and cosmic conclusions John Coltrane (literally) drew based on the cycle of fifths (a diagram he entrusted to saxophonist Yusef Latif): (photo credits: sourcesnpr.org; Miles Okazaki).

The Jazz of Physics   The Jazz of Physics 2

circle-of-fifths-3     John Coltrane drawing

Throw in a little Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Richard Feynman for good measure. And within Osip Mandelstam’s inclusiveness (the “sum of opposites”: his unique blend of religion, mythology, and pagan ritual), he maintained a healthy respect for empiricism. He once wrote: “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 crystal enjoys.” And he included the following two lines in a poem: “… here on earth, not in heaven, / as in a house filled with music.”

Mandelstam also believed the “abyss” could be controlled by an artist who was the opposite of the reasonable logical Bach: a mad, Dionysian artist like Beethoven, whose music was “a modern orgy, a holy intoxication, a momentary deification of man”–madness which allowed Beethoven, for a time, “to achieve the fullness of existence.” Przybylski adds, “On this is based Beethoven’s joy … Like an epic poet, an artist in the full sense of that word, [Beethoven] transformed his ‘I,’ that Dionysian arch-pain, into the subject of art, and sang it in Apollonian measure.” Przybylski believes that “to prove or to drive mad” is the function of art: “to lift man above his terror.” He mentions the word “panmusicality,” for he feels the world itself “has a musical character.”

So much of what Przybylski says is said in the name of Mandelstam: thoughts that derive from him or which would have met his approval. For Mandelstam, music was “divine fullness, the sum of opposites, silence and sound, primal formlessness and form, barbariousness and culture, fear and joy, terror and liberation … Mandelstam loved the logic of forms in music, but he was also fascinated by screams of pain … as a sum of antinomies, music has a divine nature. Musical form is the product of wonder, and its function is proof.”

Robert Tracy, who has translated Mandelstam’s first book, Stone, points out that the poet “only rarely” had a room of his own in which to work and write–that he usually composed his poems in his mind “while walking the streets and wrote or dictated them only at the end of the poetic process.” He cites a question Mandelstam asked regarding Dante: “How many sandals did Alighieri wear out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy?” Mandelstam imagined his “admired Dante sharing his own work habits”–that The Inferno and especially The Purgatorio “glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking.” And Przybylski reminds us that “that is why Beethoven also fascinated him as a walker measuring the fields and woods in the environs of Vienna.”

Here are: Dante’s first encounter with Beatrice on one of his walks (painting by Henry Holiday); and, coming up next, Terpander with his lyre (looks as if he’s playing a game of tennis!): (Photos credits: Wikipedia.org; findagrave.com)

Henry_Holiday_-_Dante_meets_Beatrice     Terpander

Przybylski’s book on “God’s Grateful Guest,” contains some final thoughts on, a summary of, Mandelstam’s love of music in a chapter called “Terpander’s Lyre,” focused on a stanza from a poem, “Cherepakha” (“Turtle”), dedicated to that poet’s “Turtle lyre,” the stanza itself dedicated to musicality, that is, to “that element of poetry which Parnassus had completely forgotten” (Przybylski’s own translation):

Unhurried is the turtle-lyre / Fingerless, she just barely crawls out./ Lies about in the sunshine of Epirus / Silently warming her golden stomach. / Well, who will fondle such a one, /  Who will turn over the sleeper? / She is awaiting Terpander in her sleep. / Anticipating descent of the dry fingers.

What a set of wild, sexy images; what graceful lust for an instrument made from a turtle’s shell in order to make music come alive–with the assistance of a poet’s “dry fingers” of course! Once again, Przybylski hammers home the “exceptionally high value” [highest?] that Mandelstam placed on musicality in poetry. “He was pleased that Verlaine placed “De la musique avant toute chose” [“You must have music first of all,” Verlaine adding, in the seventh and eighth lines: “Nothing more dear than the tipsy song/Where the undefined and Exact combine.”] at the beginning of his Poetic Art. Convinced that poetry’s origins are in song and that the phonetic element is more essential than the pictorial in poetry, the author of Tristia [the book in which “Turtle” appears] could not follow the path of the Parnassians, “who did not understand that admirers of Hellas cannot ignore and reject musicality … Despite the set opinions of several scholars who were fascinated by the plastic arts, it was music that occupied the central position in Greek esthetics. Among the Greeks a true creator was a poet or a musician: a sculptor was only a craftsman … according to legend, the lyre fell from heaven. It was a gift of the gods. The seven planets were compared to its seven strings. The canon of beauty was based on the numbers which the harmony of tones dictated.”

Przybylski claims that Mandelstam rose above any “artificial division” or distinction between the “Classical” and “Romantic,” that he had reached back to a tradition that was earlier than the “French error,” and arrived on his own at the genuine tradition of Classical poetry: molpe–song and dance. “The ancient Greeks’ bard was at one and the same time a leader of the dance and a director of the chorus. His poetry was not performed in isolation. Words were always tied to music and the rhythm of the dance. ‘Dance’ and ‘music’ also had a different meaning in those days, and were certainly not specialized. The ancient Greeks’ poetry was created, then, by the musically inspiration of the bard.”

Przybylski concludes: “Mandelstam linked musicality with inspiration. In his conception, music liberates in the poet thought which has been prepared by intellect … he placed a high value on … incantation, without which he could not imagine intensity of experience. The element of incantation, remaining forever in a poem, could evoke in the reader a movement of his soul, or ecstasy, which allows him to understand the poet’s thought: to recreate the creative process.”

The greatest gift that Google has ever given me is the actual voice of Osip Mandelstam. I made this discovery inadvertently, by accident, searching for something else: any and all musical settings of his poems by composers–a number of which I did find. The surprise that came up was a 1924 recording of Mandelstam himself reading his poem “No, I was never anyone’s contemporary,” this and “Tsyganka” (“Gypsy Girl”) on a Northwestern University site called “From the End to the Beginning: A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse,” a site that also contains several of his poems in print.

I was only partially prepared for what I heard. Here was Mandelstam himself–actually standing, reciting, no, singing, in my studio! I had previously run across various accounts of, testimonials regarding what it was like to hear him read when he was alive: his body “slightly rocking to the rhythm of the verse,” his entire face “so transformed by inspiration and self-abandonment” that, ordinarily “unassuming,” it had become “the face of a visionary and prophet.” Those attending such performances claimed they could feel “the presence of the spirit possessing the poet”; they could hear the poet’s “oracle” and experience “that which is sacred but remained concealed in ordinary life.” At one reading, Mandelstam presided as “a shaman for two and a half hours,” as if in trance. Boris Pasternak was present and was overcome by “the terrifying exorcism.”

What I heard–in spite of the heavy pops and blips and crackling that accompanied this nearly prehistoric recording–more than verified what witnesses had described: that Mandelstam did not just recite but sang his poems. He did not do so in the somewhat “singsong,” wistful, studied, somewhat theatrical style of Yeats reading “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” but in the highly urgent, instantly affecting manner of that Russian tradition that Vladimir Mayakovsky made familiar, “at the top of his voice,” and Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko perpetuated throughout the era–the 1960s–in which they made their public readings available to listeners like me. The closest American equivalent may be our own tradition of public oratory, but Mandelstam’s purpose was never overt or all-too-obviously political or religious persuasion (the two so often combined in our culture), but the art of poetry itself. Mandelstam enunciates each syllable as if it were as round and real as his beloved stone, a phenomena sacred in and of itself–and the total result is an aria as memorable as any you might know from opera by heart (but free of the schmaltz occasionally associated with opera). Mandelstam sings the pure joy of language that embodies all that human music can contain.

After being stunned by this experience, and having played the recording over and over and over again (I didn’t want him to leave the room!), I turned my attention to composers who had attempted to set his poems within their own music: Elena Firsova (who has provided chamber cantata for solo voice and ensemble settings from the poems in Tristia through the Voronezh Notebooks–“the most tragic poems,” in her estimate by her “favorite poet,” as he is mine). Firsova comments, “From his poetry I learnt that we can speak very quietly about the most important things, and that we can see the most tragic occurrences in the light of beauty.”

Here are Mandelstam and Elena Firsova: (Photo credit: YouTube)

Mandelstam by Firsova

I also listened to Yelena Frolova’s “Russian Silver Age” settings (which includes poets Blok, Bely, Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova, and Yesenin as well as Mandelstam); Gordon Beeferman’s Now no one will listen to songs, which features “With vaguely-breathing leaves,” the last stanza of Mandelstam’s “Why is there so little music/And such silence?”; Vladimir Dukelsky’s (otherwise known as Vernon Duke) Ode Epitaphe 1931; a song cycle by Michael Zev Gordon; Giya Kanchel’s  Don’t Grieve (presented by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, featuring Dmitri Hvorostovsky as vocalist soloist); Valentin Silvestoir’s Silent Song (six poems by Mandelstam); and a Dances for Petersburg program presented by the University of Michigan Dance Company, which offered Jessica Fogel’s “We Will Meet Again in Petersburg” (a cycle that includes that poem, “The Admiralty” and “At a terrible height”).

Some of what I’ve heard seems to carry too much self-conscious “weight” for what would be appropriate for or equal to Mandelstam’s work–an attempt on the part of the singers to out-Chaliapin Chaliapin perhaps, bypassing nuance for the sake of overlarge boulders that do not, to my mind, possess the fine resilience of the poet’s beloved stone.

A well-meaning effort that, unfortunately, suffers from this fault is Steve Lacy’s (and he’s one of my favorite jazz soprano saxophonists) Rushes, 10 Songs from Russia, which pays homage to Marina Tsvetayeva and Anna Akhmatova, as well as Mandelstam.

Here are poets Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva: (Photo credits: wikipedia.org; silveragepoetry.com)

altman-akhmatova         TsvetaevaM

One of Mandelstam’s poems represented is “I say this as a sketch and in a whisper,” other favorite of mine (here in David McDuff’s excellent translation):

I say this as a sketch and in a whisper / For it is not yet time: / The game of unaccountable heaven / Is achieved with experience and sweat … / And under purgatory’s temporary sky / We often forget / That the happy repository of heaven / Is a lifelong house that you can carry everywhere.

Stacy’s stated purpose was to make the poet’s words “better known,” to set the poems “without betraying their spirit, into jazz art-songs,” but my disappointment was immense when I heard what he and vocalist Irene Aebi had done with this poem–its “spirit” betrayed from the very start, to my ears: Aebi shouting, nearly screaming “I say it … in a whisper.” The conception struck me as totally contrary, at odds with the intention and tone of Mandelstam’s fine, subtle poem.

A poem previously cited (“The cautious and deaf sound / Of the first fruit, torn from the tree / Amidst the resounding sound / Of the deep forest silence”) provokes, after a handsome subtle Tracy instrumental introduction, the same sense of over-kill–of being at odds with Mandelstam’s concept of music “emerging from silence.” Another of my favorite poems  (“I have the present of a body–what shall I do with it / so unique it is and so much mine.”) is rendered in French (this after Lacy, in the liner notes, has stated as a disclaimer of sorts: “The Russian language is already music”); and a very moving poem about the  Terror–“Into the distance –go the mounds of people’s heads / I am growing smaller here–no one notices me anymore”–is rendered redundant through over-dramatization.

As composer, Lacy may have been too preoccupied with Mandelstam’s ultimate fate (those who know of it can’t help but feel considerable compassion), for he states, “Real jazz is dissident music. In Russia, poetry can be fatal” (which is true enough), but he goes on to say that Mandelstam was “crushed like an insect, after having brought forth a carefully preserved, full life’s work, of timeless literature.” Mandelstam’s fate was cruel (more about that in a moment), but this was a man who stood up to the regime in his poetry, who refused to succumb to “official” jargon, the trite slogans of the era (publicly pressed at a reading as to what he “believed in,” he bravely replied that he believed in “world culture,” not Soviet)—a man who believed there was nothing tougher than a human being. Osip Mandelstam was decidedly not someone “crushed like an insect.”

I’ve spent some time on what I feel is a misrepresentation of his poetry in music because it’s something one does encounter, on occasion, on the part of well-meaning composers and singers not fully “in tune” with the work itself. When that happens, I almost wish they’d just left the poem alone, and stuck with a strictly Schopenhauer “’product of pure reflection’ … cleansed of all contact with the word.”

That was not at all the case with another discovery I made, again, by way of a most fortunate  “accident”– another gift that made Mandelstam truly come alive for me through a marriage of poetry and music. In the summer of 1990, my wife Betty and I traveled 9,000 kilometers throughout the former Soviet Union, gathering information on and interviewing musicians for a book subsequently published: Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union. We met and spent time with a host of fascinating folks–both musicians and jazz fans–but two of the most interesting and engaging musical artists were composer Igor Egikov and his wife, singer Irina Vorontsova.

Here are: the cover of my book; a poster for a “Dvoe i Pecnia” (“Two in Song”) concert by Igor and Irina, and the Novospasky Monastery (to which they took Betty and me): (Photo credit: Moscow.info)

Unzipped Souls    Vorontsova and Egikov

Novospassky-Monastery 2

I fell in love with the delightful Vorontsova the instant I laid eyes on her. Her face is round above Tatar cheekbones (an ancestry of which she is proud), a face framed by long hair, unzipped dark eyes beneath handsomely arched eyebrows, a small pug nose, and a generous mouth. Meeting her and Igor came about by chance. I had shown a Professor of American Literature at the University of Moscow, Irene Norikova (who was helping me translate), a booklet of photographs our son Stephen took of my own woodblock prints and paintings of Russian poems, the text included in each work. Irene was interested in my having chosen poems by Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, for she had a friend who’d set their work to music she said, adding, “He is an excellent composer, and his wife is a famous singer.” Irene arranged for us to meet them.

Neither Irina Vorontsova nor her husband, Igor Egikov, spoke English, so we relied mostly on Irina’s cheerful disposition and devastating smile to convey the meaning of her brilliant chatter as we set out, packed into their small car; on a grand excursion to a Moscow we would otherwise never have known, ending at the Novospasky Monastery (New Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Savior) on Krutitsy Hill just above the curl of the Moscow River leading out of town (the first monastery to be founded in Moscow in the early 14th century). In spite of a slight drizzle, we strolled the grounds, Irina singing Bulat Okudzhava (my favorite Russian “troubadour” of the 1960s) songs at my request. Igor Egikov was cheerfully reticent. A pupil of Aram Khachaturian, he specializes in writing music for his wife. According to a review in the Boston Globe, when the couple performed in this country, Igor was interested “in finding a new direction for music, a third stream, that would reconcile serious classical music with popular idioms.” The Globe referred to “the vibrant Vorontsova, a world class cabaret singer,” as a woman who “talks with her eyes.” She does, so I listened.

Outside the monastery we sat in their car and drank fine Georgian wine they had given us as a gift along with a large poster announcing a concert “Dvoe i Pecnia” (“Two in Song”—the name of an album they also gave me), an evening of songs, romances, ballads and poems by Akhmatova, Okudzhava, and Marina Tsvetaeva set to music. We had insisted on sharing the wine there and then, Igor acquiring a glass, our loving cup, from one of those vile gazirovannaia voda vending machines (mineral water dispensed in cups that everyone shares, a highly suspicious rinsing device also provided). We chatted and joked, exchanging pictures of respective families, discussed art and music and life and all things under the sun as best we could with what we had by way of mutual language.

It was time for Betty and I to return to the Variety Theater for the final concert at the jazz festival we were attending. Here’s a flyer I saw posted on a wooden wall in Moscow—the event the “First International Moscow Jazz Festival”:

First Moscow Jazz Festival

As another parting gift, Igor and Irina gave me a cassette tape with a single poem by OsipMandelstam on it, a poem entitled “Where Are They Taking Me?”, written in 1911, but a poem too prophetic, for Mandelstam would die, as a political prisoner, in a transit camp in Vladivostok in 1938 at the age of 47, initially arrested in 1934 after reciting, at a party, within earshot of a few close friends, a sixteen line poem highly unfavorable to Stalin (calling him a murderer in fact). Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, in her miraculous book Hope Against Hope. suggests, in a chapter called “Who is to Blame?”, that no one person was responsible (even though they knew who turned him in), that everybody was culpable: mutual complicity, the outrageous compromise of, at that time, an entire society.

Here are: a photo of Mandelstam as a political prisoner, and another quote from his wife, Nadezhda: (Photo credit: poetrysociety,org; azquotes.com) The translation following is mine:

Mandelstam 4  Mandelstam 7

How slowly the horses step, / How dimly the lanterns glow. /  These strangers surely know /Just where they are taking me.

And I entrust myself to them, / For I am cold. I wish only to sleep. / Suddenly, at the turning, sharp / I am thrown out among stars.

Jolted, my head swims feverously, / But icy fingers sooth me. / The dark shape of a fir tree / Lingers, out of focus.

The Russian, the language alone—as Steve Lacy recognized—is  beautiful:  Kak malo v fonaryakh ognya / Chuzhie lyudi, verno, znayut, / kuda vezut oni menya / A ya vreryayus ikh zabote … / Goryachey golovy kachane / nezhnyy led ruki chuzoi–and Igor and Irina transform and transmit that language with full respect. The piece opens with Igor’s solo piano vamp (in F minor), one that matches or imitates the pace of the horses perfectly–and softly, slowly, like a “dimly” lit lantern herself, Irina’s voice enters, rich with troublesome irony (“These strangers surely know / Just where they are taking me.”), fitting in light of Mandelstam’s subsequent experience, but not exploiting it. The only “content” not in the poem is her subtle and moving “ejaculations” at the end of each stanza: a single syllable, “ah,” repeated, and, before the last stanza, “oi yoi yoi yoi yo oi,” which perhaps I could have done without, but which again are fitting (“earned”) and not overly dramatic (in excess of tone and circumstance)–offered so “delicately” and inobtrusively that I feel Mandelstam himself would approve, would not object.

The couple’s interpretation of this poem is so handsomely self-contained (just like the poem itself), consistent in tone (like the poem again), the dynamics so fitting, subtle, everything so “well placed,” the economy so in keeping with Mandelstam’s intent and style (Irina’s voice disclosing maximum effect with regard to the words without impeding them in anyway), I cannot imagine their version being improved in any way. Bravo! Thank you (spasibo bolshoi), Igor Egikov and Irina Vorontsova, for showing just what can happen to a poem, emotionally, when the word, logos, is truly married to music—that balancing act Mandelstam managed so well in his work: a blend of romanticism and equilibrium, logic and a touch of madness: poetry all the more powerful for its depth expressed through economy and restraint.

I wish I could close this blog post with an example of my own attempt to set a poem by Osip Mandelstam to music, but, whereas I have set a few of my own poems that way, I have yet to find music for one of his. I do have a reading I did (on YouTube) of “No, I was never anyone’s contemporary,” which I translated. My friend, the amazing Bob Danziger, a gifted musician, composer, sound sculptor, inventor, author, entrepreneur, and a key player in the alternative energy industry for over thirty years, undertook the video project, and he asked me to participate directly. First he had me select a piece from his exceptional music project, Brandenburg 300; then, in his studio, he asked that I read Mandelstam’s poem over (and “within”) this music–to which he would add visual material (I gave him the names of Russian artists from Mandelstam’s era: Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall, Nathan Altman’s “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova,” Levitan, Vrubel; and also, at his request, some of my own art work, a series of drawings and woodcut prints I’d done of Mandelstam and other pieces, and some photos from my own life).

Bob located excellent photos of Mandelstam (and the art work from his era)–his intent to make this video a genuine “Mandelstam and Minor” (the title of the piece) collaboration: to honor the poet and also, as he put it, the fact that I have “survived.” Bob submitted “Mandelstam and Minor: I Am No One’s Contemporary” to the 2015 International Monarch Film Festival: films to be shown at an award ceremony at the Lighthouse Cinema in Pacific Grove, California, and the film was accepted. Our homage to Mandelstam can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxliLhcnyAY.

Here’s a “still” from the video of me reading “No, never was I anyone’s contemporary”:(Photo credit: Bob Danziger and the 2015 International Monarch Film Festival).

Mandelstam and Minor photo

I’ll close with a poem of Mandelstam’s I did a painting of (“Insomnia”), the painting I stood in front of for the film–a poem I’ve also translated (and appeared in the literary journal  Hanging Loose 49).

Mandelstam Helen2

Mandelstam's InsomniaI love the line “The sea, Homer–everything is moved by love”; and that seems a perfect “note” on which to close.





Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient & Modern

I have been working for some time (more than a few years now!) on a book-length manuscript: a study of the history of poetry “married” to music, or “song,” from the Singing Neanderthals (see Steven Mithen’s excellent book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body) to the present day. Mine is a “book” grown so copious (I’m only at English Renaissance poet/composers such as Thomas Campion now), I may not be able to finish it within my lifetime. And I know there are other fine books on the subject (James Anderson Winn’s Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music; Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History); yet I have a friend who is interested in ancient Greek poetry set to music, and he asked if I knew anything about it—which I do. Both Ancient and Modern Greek poetry set to music in fact (there’s a definite continuum there)—so I’d like to “share” what I know by posting it on Bill’s Blog.

In Chapter Four of what I ‘ve written so far, I had the audacity to call the Greeks (both Ancient and Modern!) “my friends,” and that’s because they were, or became so, when my wife Betty and I lived in Greece (on Crete and Paros, with many side trips to other islands) for nearly a year in 1979/1980–and also because I have enjoyed reading both classical and Modern Greek poetry (in the original) and hearing it combined with music, since 1959, when I began to make a serious effort to be able to do so. In this post, I’d like to start with the near present (1979) and work my way back to “antiquity,” because this marriage of poetry and music displays amazing continuity, and longevity, and–to my mind and ears–has provided one of the most fortunate “blends” of the two forms.

When Betty and I left Greece in 1980, we gave all of the warm clothing we’d brought (wool sweaters and lumberjack shirts) to our landlord and landlady on the island of Paros, where we were living at the time, and I filled the suitcase with phonograph records: LPs that ranged from Vitzenzos Comaros’ epic poem from Crete, Erotokritos; Tragouthia tou Gamos (wedding songs from Crete, as well as Greece at large); instrumental music from Crete (tambouras [small bouzouki], laouto [lute], lyra [three-string bowed instrument]); vocal music from Crete (mostly mantinades: two fifteen syllable lines which rhyme, set to music); and Mikis Theodorakis’ handsome settings for the poetry of Giorgos Seferis (Mithistorima), Yannis Ritsos (Epitaphios), and Odysseus Elytis (Axion Esti).

Here are: the cover of a recording of Ancient Greek music (Musique de la Grece Antique: Atrium Musicae de Madrid) and a poster for a performance of To Axion Esti:

Ancient Greek Music Album Cover     Performance poster Axion Esti

When we first arrived in Greece, we took–after a short stay in Athens–a boat from Pereus, landing in the town of Chania in Crete. We thought we might find a house or apartment there; but Chania–in spite of its interesting history (the town built on the site of Cydonia, which dates back to just after the Minoan period) and an appealing waterfront–seemed too large (38,467 inhabitants at the time) and intractable. Also, we couldn’t find any music! So we got on a bus and headed east along the north coast, to the town of Rethymnon, which we fell in love with immediately–and which, throughout our four month stay there, would provide us with “live” music nearly every night. There is a saying in Crete: “Chanians for arms [at the time we were there, Souda Bay was not only the largest most secure bay in Crete, but in the entire Mediterranean]; Rethymnians for arts”–and that proved to be true. Here’s the harbor in Rethymnon, with its Fortetsa on the headland in the distance: (Photo credit: galaxie.gr)

rethimno harbor from air

While the Turkish occupation may have compromised the town’s famed artistic “flowering” (which took place during Venetian times), Rethymmon is still decidedly picturesque, with its two snowcapped mountains (Psiloritis or Mt. Ida, one of several birthplaces of baby Zeus in Greece, and Lefka Ori), red tiled roofs, narrow Venetian streets, old Venetian mansions, its Fortetsa on the headland (which harbors an abandoned mosque); three minarets (one the high point of the town, at its center), and a small, intimate, compatible harbor–even though I discovered the words “Exos Americanos” inscribed in large letters on one of its walls (“Americans, leave!”), and did not tell Betty, nor our son Steve (who was traveling with us after having just graduated from high school) this until much later. Here are: Mount Psiloritis and the Fortetsa in Rethymon (Photo credits: Fysimera.com and destinationcrete.gr)

Greece Mt. Ida         Fortetsa in Rethymnon 2

A spanking new tourist office was run, proudly, by a short, balding man named Kostos Palierakis, for whom I would soon be doing clerical work, helping to translate letters he received and responding to them. Kostos immediately found us a small house just a block from the beach, one with a heater that had to predate the Minoan civilization, a heater we would share (a blanket cast over our six knees beneath a table, to retain the heat) and a shower with a timer–hot water lasting all of about three minutes; the drain set on the high side of the floor not low, so the flood of water would rise above your ankles.

Here are: the view outside the window of the house Kostos found for us, and Kostos Palierakis himself with Betty:

Greece Crete WindowGreece Kostos and Betty

The small yard contained citron and olive trees, a grape arbor, trumpet vines, roses, Bird of Paradise, geraniums, and mandrake. We also fell in love with the town’s market area: its shops and periptera (kiosks), gypsy visitors leading a baboon through town, along with a huge bear with a ring in his nose. We found fresh fish daily (barbouni [red mullet], maritha [smelt], lithrini [sea bream], mourouna [cod], and fresh hot psomi [bread] we tucked beneath our arms for warmth (the Biblical name for “shop,” Astorieon, appropriate: “Give us this day our daily bread”). We found elies (olives) galore; giaourti (yogourt); meli (honey); turi (cheese: kasseri, kafaloteri, Cretan graviera)and britzoles from the butcher just beneath our house (when I asked for this, a lamb chop, he simply reached behind him and grabbed any piece of meat available, chopped it, and handed it to me!). We were provided with wine from the woman who ran the pool hall beneath the post office: wondrous Cretan kokkino krasi–red wine–for fifty drachmas (about $1.35) for a 1 ½ kilos jug. When I first went there I purchased the same amount of ouzo for 60 drachmas, but deciding I did not wish to die within a week, I never bought ouzo there again. Here are some streets scenes from Rethymnon: (Photo credits: synergise.com; tour-smart.co.uk; Jasmin Spiridaki)

Street scene in Rethymnon 2   Street scene in Retymnon 3Street scene in Rethymnon 3

So what does any of this have to do with the marriage of poetry and music in Greece? Well, everything! To my mind, the Greeks–in antiquity and down to the present day–were/are the first people to realize that such a union could never come about without acknowledging the full range of human experience: a complete social context in which song might evolve, even from seemingly trivial “daily round” or “day in the life” stuff, or subject matter, all of the commonplace richness of the human condition: food and drink and shelter (complete with imperfect toilet facilities) and sleep and a full palette of human aspiration that included every form of sensory activity, including sex–and then being willing and able to celebrate it all, both joyously and sadly on occasion, in song.

This came home to me, vividly, one night, lying in bed after midnight, fully content before falling asleep, having returned “home” after helping Kostos write some letters. No matter how elaborate the demands of potential American or European visitors (frequently professors, on sabbatical, like myself, but these seemed to require a plethora of rooms, toilet facilities, maid service, etc.), Kostos would command, “Vasilis [my Greek name], please, take letters; write, ‘Come to Crete!’” And that was it. He’d rewarded my efforts that evening with a couple shots of what he called “good Cretan water”: soul-bracing, throat-scouring raki. At home, attempting to fall asleep, I heard a group of university students (from a university located on the outskirts of town) coming up the hill by our house after a night at the local disco. Saturday Night Fever had come out in 1977, and John Travolta’s charismatic oscillations were still very much in vogue (not yet pronounced dead by Staying Alive), but these young men, having danced to such music all night, were not singing disco tunes. They were singing a poem from Odysseus Elitis’ epic work Axion Esti, set to music by Mikis Theodarakis:

“Tis agapis aimata me porphirosan/ Kai chares aneithotes me okiasane/ Ocheithothika mes sti votia/ ton anthropon/ Makrini Mitera, Rotho mou Amaranto.”  

“The blood of love has robed me in purple / And joys never seen before have coveredin shade. / I’ve become corroded in the south wind of humankind / Mother far away, my Everlasting Rose.” (Translation: Edmund Keely and George Savdis: The Axion Esti, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974)

I couldn’t believe my ears! These kids were singing, in fine chorus if a tad inebriate, the words of a Nobel prize laureate set to music by one of the finest composers in Greece–and doing so by choice, after an evening of ordinary fun, not coercion. It was the first time I’d heard this amazing cultural phenomenon in Greece, but it would not be the last.

Betty, our son Steve, and I began to explore the harbor area and found a small, casual, cozy restaurant (“Taverna Adelphia”) owned by a family named Koumiotis. Together, the youngest son, Tony (Andonios, who was the same age as Steve) and the oldest son, Thomas, proved to be a force when it came to attracting people of diverse national backgrounds to the place. I’d brought my guitar along on the trip (it proved to be an invaluable “passport”) and even on nights when we’d taken a stroll, sans guitar, and stopped off at the restaurant, Papa Koumiotis would reeve up his motor scooter, stash me on the back, and off we’d go to our house to fetch the instrument. Thus commenced a series of full-fledged hootenannies in which the common denominator of the French, Australians, Germans, Welsh, and Scandinavians present would be the tune “Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” or, after Thomas sang a Greek song that included animals, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” with each nationality providing its own linguistic equivalent for the “critters” called off. Another popular tune at the Koumiotis was the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

Here are photos of: the entire Kumiotis family with Betty (Mama, Tony, Papa, Thomas); Tony holding the sign I painted for the restaurant (not all that pleased, because “First born” brother, Thomas, insisted I put his own name alone on the bottom):

Greece Kumiotis Family

Greece My Sign for Kumiotis

Even better than these sessions at the restaurant were nights at the Agrelia, a tavern run by a man named Nikko, located in a whitewashed former Venetian stable with vaulted walls (the troughs lodged in the walls now held candles), the place buried amidst the narrow, winding Venetian streets. The Agrelia featured the owner on bouzoukia and an excellent guitarist named Paskalis, assisted by another guitarist named Dotheros. I began to take my guitar there, and on one occasion, that trio playing a Cretan tune with heavy Middle-Eastern overtones, I was told, “You can’t hear our rhythms,” but later, when they tried to play jazz, I got revenge—just short of saying, “You can’t hear our rhythms.” And we all got along beautifully from that point on.

I never heard Nikko speak a word of English, until, much later, on a day in March, the winter chill not having abated but he walking with a Danish girl who’d returned to Crete, I said, “Kanee kreeo” (“It’s cold out.”). Nikko replied, in perfect English, “No longer; I am quite warm now.” Up to that point, the talk and the music had been strictly Greek, which was good enough for me. Especially with regard to the music, although Paskalis refused to write down any lyrics of the songs he’d sung.

Here are: Nikko (bazoukia-player and owner of Agrelia) with Betty; Paskalis; and  Yannis Theodarakis who, following the national ban on shattered crockery occasioned by the movie Never on Sunday, was allowed by the Kumiotis to smash a single plate–just one!–over his head each night. The harbor wall behind him is the one that bore the words “Exos Americanos” (“Americans: Leave!”) when we arrived:

Greece Taverna owner and Betty in Crete            Greece Ponos Guitarist in Crete             Greece Plate Smasher in Crete

“You know that song you sang about ponos (pain) last night?” I would ask; “Would you write down the words for me, parakalo (please)?”

All of our songs are about pain,” he replied, a bit short. “And I’ve heard you speak Greek, good, so all you should need to do is listen. ”

None of the Greeks ever used “charts,” or written words and music, no matter what they played (I had “cheat sheets,” lyrics with the chords, for Leonard Cohen songs, which they seemed to love, Cohen having once lived in Greece). They felt, working strictly from oral tradition as they were, that I should be able to do the same. I began to excuse myself from the taverna, as soon as I heard a song I liked–such as “To Pallikari echei kai ‘mo,” a Theodorakis setting for a poem by Manou Eleutheriou, translated as “the Young Man Is Sad,” but the context of which is really “tonight, the brave young bachelor shall find more grief, because of women”–“kai’mo” being one of those wondrous Greek words which implies a grief so terrible, so unbearable, so full of unamendable sadness, it cannot even be named. I would walk up and down the beach until I had both words and tune down by heart, at which time I would return, proudly, to the taverna. The process required lots of (mental, and emotional) effort on my part, but I filled two notebooks with songs I’d learned by the time we left Greece.

After he had collected names and addresses from foreign tourists his age whom he met at the Koumiotis restaurant, our son Steve left Crete to travel to thirteen different countries on his own (from Egypt to Sweden), and I became a regular at Nikko’s (Betty’s journal began to include entries such as, “Bill took guitar to taverna again last night, and retuned at 3:30 am”). There was music at all hours, night and day. When Betty went to the greengrocer just below our house for eggs, the owner played the lira for her. At the time of Epiphania (Epiphany), children came to the house to sing “Kalanda.” One of these kids, who sported the remarkable name Robogianomis Phragmismos, repeated the words of a song to me in Greek so I might copy them down to translate:

” … I am given/ the pearl, the key/ to open Paradise, to drink cool water,/ to pass into sleep/ beneath an apple tree–/ apples falling at my feet,/ roses upon my head.”

Mama Koumiotis, who had worn black from head to toe following the death of her father, years ago, never left the kitchen of the restaurant (except to shop, I suppose), but she would–from within her “station” there–sing mantinades (popular Cretan couplets, even inscribed on calendars), and I would frantically jot down the words, for she, too, thought I should just listen, and she wouldn’t repeat them:

“Departed, far away,/ the rose that I love,/ yet the fragrance is strong/and still burns me.” Or: “To Psiloritis peak/ the birds cannot go,/ but my love flies there/ and returns, freely.” To which Papa Koumiotis would respond: “Four crosses hang/ upon the neck of the priest;/ the faithful kiss them, but I would rather kiss your cheek.”

Itinerant musicians–bouzoukia, lira players–would arrive in Rethymnon, and word got around quickly (grigora) that they’d be playing at one of the taverns or restaurants. After one of these spontaneous performances at a place called Yannis, I remember watching “Charlie’s Angels” with Thomas and Tony (a very popular program with the pallikaris: “brave young bachelors”), the sentence “You’all can go ta hell in a breadbasket!” translated as “Fige parakalo” (“Please leave”) in the subtitles. While Steve had been in Crete, he and I heard vocalist Viky Moskoliou live at a local theater on which a billboard for an American film, Super Vixens, was translated into Greek as Girls Who Are Dynamite in Bed.

I had once, in my teens, worked as a real estate sign painter, so the Koumiotis asked me to paint a new sign for their restaurant, which I did. It attracted so much attention that fishermen, who were repairing and repainting their boats for spring launching, asked me to re-paint the names on the sides of their boats. I received so many requests that we decided it was time to leave Rethymnon (on sabbatical, the last thing I wanted to do there was work!), and we did, heading north to Paros, in the Cyclades Islands. We would miss the music–and other small stuff, like a guy named Yannis Theodarakis who, following the national ban on shattered crockery occasioned by the movie Never on Sunday, was allowed by the Kumiotis to smash a single plate–just one!–over his head each night: a privilege he took full advantage of. I also had the privilege of meeting a legendary local poet, Andreas Spanouthakis, who recited his poems for university students while he prepared souvlakia (shish-kabob) for them at the grill of the stand he owned.

He also recited–or sang!–his poems for me, and played tapes of rizitika (folk songs from the eastern mountains of Crete). Here he is—and while I’m at it, I might as well toss in a photo of a man playing a goatskin bagpipe (τσαμπούνα: tsambouna). Lots of interesting music in Crete!

Greece Souvlaki Singing Poet            Greece Man playing goatskin bagpipe

The presence of the university (the young people I met spoke pretty good English) had preventing me from using and adding to my mostly (aside from reading) “functional” Greek in Crete as often as I’d wished, so on Paros we deliberately found a place to live about two miles from the town of Pariokia, in a valley, and I had to use the language on a daily basis because our landlord, Tasos, and landlady, Helena, did not speak any English. The taverns in town had all gone strictly “disco,” so there was little cause to go to town at night anyway (no more Agrelia, and Nikko and Paskalis!)–so I settled into a pleasant routine of sitting on our comfortable small porch, which faced a field of barley and other fields being cultivated by our landlord, plus the Aegean Sea, and played and sang the songs I’d learned on Crete.

Here is the house we found on Paros (in the Valley of the “Petaloudes”: Butterflies), as seen from the fields of barley in front of it (with a small chapel just across the path that led to the house); Betty on our front porch—my guitar (a tenor guitar: four strings, tuned like a mandolin) to her left; me with our landlady Helena (right) and her daughter and her child; and our son Steve (who returned eventually from his travels and joined us on Paros), our landlords (Tasos and Helena), a neighbor and her mother.

Greece Our house on Paros

Greece Betty our porch on Paros with guitar     Greece Me with landlady and her daughter on Paros

Greece Steve and Betty with family on Paros


Paros–and it was not by accident that we had chosen to go there–was the birthplace of my favorite Greek poet of antiquity: Archilochus, born in the first half of the 7th century BCE: inventor of the iambus and a professional soldier. A mercenary with a mind of his own, he was driven out of Sparta because he wrote a poem about abandoning his shield, “beside a bush,” in favor of saving his own life; a poem mocking, in Guy Davenport’s words, “uncritical bravery” (the shield would bring “joy to some Saian,” a soldier from Thrace), and Archilochus felt he could find another just as good elsewhere. The poet was a satirist with a “nettle tongue” so effective that, when a man named Lycambes retracted his daughter’s hand after having promised it to the poet in marriage, the latter’s abusive verses were said to have driven Lycambes to suicide. The influence of Archilochus was so persuasive that both poets Sappho and Alcaeus were said to base their “measures” on his. Plutarch credited Archilochus with the invention of trimester: unique combinations of “unlike measures.” He was also the first poet to employ stanzas of long and short lines, or “epodes,” recitative or rhythmical recitation of poetry to music (and the style of music to which recitative was set); and he has been credited with reciting iambic lines to music and singing the others, a technique afterwards employed by the tragic poets (and opera: recitative!). Archilochus was thought to be the first poet to set the music of an accompanying instrument an octave higher than the voices, instead of in the same register as had been the custom of his day.

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian thought Archilochus had acquired “the highest degree of facility” as a poet, possessing the “greatest force of expression,” with phrasing “not only telling but terse and vigorous,” the “abundance of blood and muscle.” Contemporary scholar/poet Guy Davenport names him “the second poet of the West. Before him the arch-poet Homer had written the two poems of Europe,” but Archilochus, both poet and mercenary, was the first poet flexible enough to combine a host of original ingredients that range from satire (his tomb was said to read “Hasten on, Wayfarer, lest you stir up the hornets”) to pure lyricism (The Greek poet Meleager called him “a thistle with graceful leaves”—like 20th century Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who described himself as “a cloud in trousers”?).  And Archilochus could be bawdy! A long poem said to be by him (not just a fragment as too many available are) turned up in 1974. Raucous, comic, British poet Peter Green called it “The Last Tango in Paros.” The tone is that of Francois Villon (another favorite poet of mine!) and the concluding lines, as translated by Davenport, read: “I caressed the beauty of all her body/And came in a sudden white spurt/While I was stroking her hair.” On a more delicate note, he defined “music” as “My song/And a flute/Together.” Another fragment states: “Myself the choir-master/ On the chant to Apollo/ Sung to the flute in Lesbos.” Here are two sculpted homages to Archilochus: (Photo credits: aboutparos.gr)

archilochus statue 2    Archilochus statue

Unfortunately, there are no extant phonograph recordings (ho ho) of Archilochus set to  or accompanied by music, but one of my favorite poems of his is so inherently musical that it’s difficult for me to recite it without singing it (I can hear the music!).

Echousa thallon mursines eterpeto/ rodes te kalon anthos, e de oi kome/ omous katestiadze kai metaphrena.

Here’s my own translation (not half as musical, I know!): “She held a myrtle shoot: delight in this and in the rose; her hair shadowed her bare shoulder, and her back.”

Archilochus is said to have been killed by a man named “Crow,” who claimed it was “a fair fight” but was banished from temples for having slain a man “sacred to the muses.” Indeed, when the poet’s father inquired about his son’s birth, Apollo himself foretold that he would beget a son who should be immortal. And Archilochus is, through his poetry. I just wish I’d been there to have heard it sung! I did manage to get as close to him, the poet ranked “second only to Homer,” as I could. Betty and I hiked to the cave, located behind Cape Aghios Fokas on a sheer rock cliff, where he was supposed to have sought inspiration. I’m not sure how he ever got down there, unless he invented rappelling by rope as well as the iamb, although the terrain may have changed (considerably) since the seventh century BCE.

Here’s the view from inside the cave where Archilochus wrote his poems–and here I am (that’s not another sculpted homage to Archilochus, ho ho) at the cove (across from a beach in Paros) where Betty and I went each day–and where I wrote my own poems and translated both Classical and Modern Greek poetry: (Photo credit: paros.gr)

Archilochus cave

Greece Bill at our cove in Paros

An interesting article by poet/composer Alan Shaw, “Some Questions on Ancient Greek Poetry and Music” (online, 1997), is set up as a sort of debate, the author responding both “pro” and “con” to questions related to specific issues, such as, “Was ancient Greek a musical language?” Shaw states, right off the bat, that arguments for the “intrinsic musicality of a language are apt to be rather circular” (he provides the example that people may talk of Italian as being musical simply because a number of operas have been written in it–and vice versa!). The prevalence of “open vowels” is cited in favor of Italian as a musical language, but Shaw points out that one could “just as well say that English is more musical than Italian because it has a much greater variety of vowel sounds.”

In favor of the musicality of ancient Greek, he provides evidence of the “intimate relation–indeed the theoretical identity–between Greek music and poetry,” and the fact that the two most basic elements of music–“the duration of sounds and their pitch”–form two “clear and distinct systems” in Greek (whereas they tend to get “confused” in English). In Greek, poetic meter was based on “the relative duration of syllables, which permitted a fairly direct translation into musical terms.” Word accent was based solely on pitch, and “hence has often been called a ‘musical’ accent.”

Here’s a copy of the “original” of a poem by Archilochus–alongside a woodcut print I made of another poem previously cited as I translated it: “She held a myrtle shoot: delight in this and in the rose; her hair shadowed her bare shoulder, and her back”:

Text of a poem by Archilochusarchilochus myrtle shoot

On the “con” side, Alan Shaw finds the notion that “ordinary spoken Greek was naturally closer to music than other languages” misleading (doing actual damage to understanding ancient poetry and its relation to music). “It may be true that certain qualities of the language made it easier for the Greek poet-musician to set words to music,” but the fact that something is done easily “does not necessarily guarantee a superior artistic result.” He refers to English, saying the language falls easily into verse measures of four beats, “which is the ‘common time’ of most Western music,” but this has rarely been used as an argument for the inherent musicality of English, and can actually serve as a “hindrance” as much as an aid for some composers (the four beat pattern is too obvious and has to be evaded–or “transcended”–somehow, I suppose).

Shaw asks if the melodies of ancient Greek music actually followed the accent of a text, and once again, he finds the evidence “confusing,” and the answer is at first “no,” then “yes.” The few available fragments (and there are just a few) from the classical era would suggest that “they did not necessarily do so” (most lyrics were in “strophic form, and a melody designed for one strophe would rarely fit the accentuation of the other”), yet Shaw cites jazz singing as an example of a form, or nomos (a “tune-making formula or family of tunes”) that allows “great freedom in this regard, mostly for purely musical reasons, but often to better express the words of different verses as well.” If there were no requirements at all that different strophes have the same melody, it “may be that the metrical identity–the identical pattern of long and short–between strophes was enough for the Greek ear to recognize them as the same” (“a particularly subtle form of strophic song, of which modem examples could be found as well”).

Here are some samples of Ancient Greek musicians playing instruments that might have accompanied such poetry: (Photo credit: iconicmusicacademy.com; Wikepedia; danaspah.top)

Ancient Greek double flute and lyre

Delphi: Apoll     Ancient Greek double flute

Ancient Greek Music

Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suggested that the similar accent may sometimes have been indicated by a downward rather than an upward “jump in pitch,” and if this happened in ordinary speech, it would make a “correct” observance of accents much easier in singing, especially if “different verses were really required to follow the same melody.” Shaw states that pitch in a musical context is quite different from pitch in ordinary speech (“strange things, akin to optical illusions in painting, can happen”) and that, as song composers know, “the same sequence of pitches can accentuate a syllable in one context, and leave it unaccented in another.”

Did ancient Greek poetry have a beat? “Beat” is quite different in English poetry (the word used as a synonym for “stress” or “accent”) than it is in Greek. “Stress” has no part in classical Greek prosody. The ancient term for “beat” is ictus, which “the testimony of the ancients said clearly existed, at least in poetry associated with the dance,” but its nature was controversial. Again, Shaw finds the issue “relative.” In one sense all music, or at least any music that involves more than one performer, has a “beat” (“otherwise the players or singers couldn’t stay in time”), but we do distinguish music that has a definite beat (such as rock n’ roll) and that which does not (such as Gregorian Chant). “The ethereal rhythms of chant have attracted many as a model for what Greek choral music must have been like.” Like Greek music, chant was monodic, and “drew its rhythms directly from the text”–yet chant was “not danced to, as Greek choral music was.”

Shaw considers other aspects of Greek poetry and music: such as tempo (What happens when you slow it down? Poems recited at a “plodding taste”–T.S. Eliot reading “Prufrock” anyone?–lose the “beat”); duple and triple meter (“Greek verse, scanning by the rule that one long syllable equals two short ones, is often neither clearly in one nor the other”); and Greek musical notation, which consisted “only of marks to indicate pitch; time values, being given by the verse itself, were not needed.” Shaw uses the jazz analogy again: music that “swings” in the sense that “adjacent notes notated with identical time values are made unequal” (my old friend “rubato” again!).

Here’s a range or “collection” of Ancient Greek instruments (Credit: Nikolaos Ioannidis):

Greek musical instruments

In conclusion, Shaw says Greek poetry, when sung, “probably did have a beat,and when it was danced as well,” in which case, “The beat could have been fairly kinetic.” Greek dance figures were identified with certain rhythms, and many steps were performed in time with the music–just as they are today. Shaw does mention another old friend, Archilochus, saying this unique, inventive poet grew weary of the “melodic mythologizing” of his colleagues and wanted “something more down to earth,” for which he devised a meter that, “apart from being regular, had little in it that was suggestive of song,” but was more akin to the dialogue in plays, which was written in iambic trimester–a type of verse “closest to ordinary speech.”

Archilochus preferred “quick iambs, for which slower spondees are unpredictably substituted,” providing a more subtle beat that would find “a successful equivalent in English” as one of the models for the blank verse of Elizabethan dramatists. Archilochus (as he was for so much else) a forerunner of both Shakespeare and William Carlos Williams? It’s quite possible; he was that flexible. I think the good doctor, if not Shakespeare, would be pleased.

One final point within our context of poetry set to music is important: describing the “amateur” or “professional” status of Greek music, Shaw claims that the Greeks made a distinction between musicians exclusively devoted to “the art of sound” (instrumentalists) and “the poet-composer who put noble words to music,” and that in their culture, “the latter had far greater prestige.” “Mere pipers and such might be virtuosos [professionals] but knew nothing of rational music, which always began with words.” Were these poet/composors the sole creators, and the rest [performers] mere interpreters, as in the recent classical tradition? Were the poets simply songwriters, like those of the thirties in America, surrounded by a crowd of creative performers who knew how to flesh out their tunes? Shaw adds, “Certainly by the classical era the poet’s words … were sacrosanct; no one would have thought of changing those. But were the poet’s tunes treated with the same reverence?” His answer is: “The invention of musical notation at about this time would seem to argue that they were, while its relative crudity, and the rarity with which it has been preserved, might lead us to think that the reverence was no greater than, say, a jazzman’s reverence for a Cole Porter tune.” Which, I might add, can by considerable on occasion: witness the highly imaginative pianist Bill Charlap’s respect for, “reverence” of, Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein tunes–and the American Songbook tradition in general.

This seems a good spot to close out on this, the first, of a two “post” look at Greek music and Poetry (both Ancient and Modern). I’ll end with another pilgrimage we made while living in Crete: to Heracleion (capitol and largest city in Crete) to see the grave site of Nikos Kazanzakis (author of Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, Report to Greco, and many other fine works). The text on a stone placed next to the wooden cross on his grave reads: “I hope for nothing; I fear nothing; I am free.”

Grave of Kazantzakis2   kazantzakis grave inscription 3

Next Post: Part Two of “Greek Music and Poetry: Ancient and Modern.”


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.

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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.”

MJF 2015 1   MJF 2015 3

“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.

Piano Parade        Piano Parade 2

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!


MJF57: 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival–Part Two

I’ve had to take a nearly three month hiatus from much writing, reading and even playing the piano (reading charts) in order to get my eyes “fixed”—but here, finally, is the second portion of what I intended to post on the 57th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival. Back in October (not long after that event, at which I took copious notes, but was having some trouble seeing them, and also the various stages on which the music took place!), I was diagnosed with Macular Degeneration (“We can’t stop it,” my ophthalmologist said, “but we can slow it down”), this while I was being set up for cataract surgery, an extraordinary procedure I underwent on December 11 (right eye) and 18 (left), at the skilled hands, heart, and mind of Dr. Holmes. I had been “at risk” for Detached Retina in 2005, so we had to make sure that important piece of property was firmly, securely in place–and the return of a vertigo condition (inner ear viral infection) I’ve had for 27 years (but kept under control until now) provided another source of “adventure.” The surgeries themselves came off without a “hitch,” thanks to Dr. Holmes–and I am ready now to post Part Two on the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival.

I’ve already provided a fairly extensive (13 pages! This is Bill’s Blog Baroque—remember?) account of five favorite MJF57 performances: Billy Child’s Saturday night premiere of Map to the Treasure, his tribute to singer/songwriter/pianist Laura Nyro; Child’s quartet’s appearance just after in Dizzy’s Den; saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s group Sangan (with percussionists Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland) and Lloyd’s Sunday night set with his quartet (Jason Moran on piano;Reuben Rogers, bass; and Harland again on drums); and Brian Blade’s The Fellowship Band performing on the Garden Stage on Sunday afternoon. Now, I’d like to pay homage to a number of other “acts” that fleshed out what I felt was an extraordinary weekend of music—Tim Jackson’s inspired programming at work (and play) again.

On Saturday afternoon, our houseguest for the weekend (along with Oakland photographer Stu Brinin), Dan Ouellette, conducted the DownBeat Blindfold Test (which Dan has done for 20 years) with guitarist Lionel Loueke, in which the latter was asked to recognize (if possible) and comment on the performance of a given artist, after hearing “the take” (a recording of a piece played). When, at first, no sound was forthcoming when requested by Dan, jazz writer Paul de Barros, who was sitting in front of me, identified the artist as “John Cage”: an “in joke,” because Cage once performed a piece called 4′33″, pronounced “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds” or just “Four thirty-three,” a composition the score of which instructs the performers not to play their instrument throughout the entire piece, throughout its three movements. Cage did leave the widows open so that “ateliotic” or environmental sounds (such as auto horns honking or ambulance sirens blazing) might “intrude” upon the musical silence—or “perform” themselves.

Here’s Lionel Loueke (photo by Craig Lovell) and Dan Ourellette, Blindfold Test host:

MJF14 8   Dan

Sound forthcoming at MJF was a 1958 piece by John Coltrane, “Freight Trane” (with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Kenny Burrell on guitar). Loueke confessed he’d never heard Burrell on record before “in that style,” but loved “the tune and the way the changes are played,” and found the guitarist “very fluent in bebop vocabulary.” He did recognize the next artist, guitarist George Benson, with his “clean, perfect technique” (the root “and fifths together”) and said that he himself “started to learn to play jazz because of him,” that he loved “not just the technique but the total musicality.” A friend had given Loueke an LP of Benson’s Weekend in L.A., and when his parents went off to church, Loueke would “crank up” their record player, set his own cassette player as close to the speakers as possible, and would “try to play” with Benson, who played so fast that Loueke found he “did better” when he could slow down the recording by letting the cassette’s batteries “get worn out.” The tune Dan had played was “Body Talk,” recorded in 1973, with Harold Mabern on piano, who–ironically–would play three sets at MJF57 in the CoffeeHouse Gallery on Friday night (and more about him in a moment!).

 Dan admitted that he was going to “throw a curve ball” on the next piece: a vibrato-heavy, deep-toned, slightly rough sounding guitar piece, but Loueke got it, saying, “This has to be Kurt Rosenwinkel,” because of his “very strong guitar personality that comes through his sound.” The tune was “Mr. Hope,” which Loueke said he didn’t know firsthand, “but I love it.” He felt Rosenwinkel “takes the guitar to another level, harmonically and melodically speaking … a one-of-a-kind player who brings something new to the table … it swings so hard, and I can still feel the melody after the recording stops.”

Lionel Loueke’s responses remained insightful, astute throughout the entire Blindfold Test: “guessing” Ali Farka Toure right away (“I could hear him from the sound of his guitar … there were also two ngonis [ngoni, a traditional lute from Mali that dates back hundreds of years] so I wasn’t sure. But when he started singing. I knew it was him”). Loueke admires the way Toure “makes his guitar sound like he’s playing a kora” [a 21string lute-bridge harp used extensively in West Africa] … The first time I heard him I thought he sounded like John Lee Hooker, but in a different language. It’s the blues, the African type of blues.” Loueke didn’t “catch” Ralph Towner, originally with the group Oregon, playing solo (“I think it’s a Brazilian guitar player with that style and the nylon-string guitar.”), but he had insightful things to say about the “warmer sound” provided by nylon strings and playing with your fingers rather than a pick, because you get “a little closer to the instrument … I play with my fingers on the electric for the same reason.”

A piece by Django Reinhardt (“Dream of You,” 1950 ) brought the response, “I like this a lot. If this isn’t Django, then I have no idea … I love Django because of the way he was so melodic but at the same time so virtuosic”; and Bill Frisell (“Armarillo Barbados,” 1994), instantly recognized, also brought forth compliments: “The sound behind each note is so strong that it’s hard not to recognize him. He’s another one-of-a-kind.”

The previous evening, at 9:30, I made a fortunate discovery on the Garden Stage, when a Berklee College of Music grad (I saw my friend Rob Hayes, Assistant Vice President for External Affairs standing at the mixing board, in admiration), pianist/vocalist Sarah McKenzie appeared with her quartet. She not only possesses a handsome voice, but genuine “chops” as well on piano, and I thoroughly enjoyed, and admired, her set—so much so that, after she played a stunning, truly original version of one of my favorite songs, “Dindi,” I went directly to the Amoeba Music Store booth to see if the tune appeared on her latest CD, Close Your Eyes. It didn’t! But I got Close Your Eyes anyway, which is loaded with first-rate tunes, all well performed. Later, I would run into Rob (whom I interviewed just before I went to Japan in 1996, working on Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within, University of Michigan Press, 2004, because, at the time, 333 musicians from Japan had graduated from Berklee.) When I talked with Rob now, he said that a McKenzie CD with “Dindi” on it was forthcoming.

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Sarah McKenzie attended Berklee on a full scholarship, and her second album, Close Your Eyes won the ARIA (Australian GRAMMY) award as Best Jazz Album in 2012. Her quartet—a group that ranges in place of origin from Israel to Canada to Virgin Islands to Florida and Australia—is made up of Berklee classmates Daniel Rotem (tenor sax), Andrew Marzotto (guitar), Tabari Lake (bass) and Rodney Rocgues (drums). The set kicked off with “Bye Bye Blackbird.” While it may have taken the group a small stretch of time to get their truly international chops in sync, the Sarah McKenzie Quartet featured a large open style with a spirited, ingenious, tasteful dignity I love; and Sarah herself tried a number of different approaches on for size, including scat singing. I was most impressed by her piano playing. “The Way You Look Tonight” (which is on Close Your Eyes) evolved as a fully engaging piece that truly swung, with elegant phrasing, a fine svelte touch, and solid comping behind the others–Sarah McKenzie somewhat “sassy” with her scat, but showing much poise: an easeful, comfortable manner—comping her own vocals seamlessly.

The last time I heard and saw Harold Mabern was in 1994, when he appeared as a portion of the  James Williams Contemporary Piano Ensemble, a group that featured the sumptuous talents (and additional forty fingers) of Mabern, Geoff Keezer, Donald Brown, and Mulgrew Miller—along with James Williams himself. That year, they kicked off the Festival in high gear: a piano ensemble only matched, to my mind, by the appearance of Bill Charlop, Lynne Arriale, and Jason Moran with Marian McPartland in 2004. The 1994 Contemporary Piano Ensemble closed out its set with a Williams’ original, “That Church Thing,” a piece that found the five pianists circling four pianos they’d shared chores at, all five clapping hands and leading a rousing gospel parade.

Harold Mabern is a talker as well as a player, and that was just fine, because the incidental talk that preceded the playing—and sometimes accompanied it—was good. He mentioned Nat “King” Cole, and then launched into “Baby, Baby, Baby, What is Wrong with You?”—offering words of encouragement to himself in an aside: “Let’s see if I can do this one,” and then commentary on the blues in general: “You can’t teach the blues.” All this was laced, or enhanced, with scat singing intended (I think) to show that if the blues don’t come naturally, it best not arrive at all (to borrow, or steal, an observation by John Keats regarding poetry: “If Poetry comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.”). Mabern even tossed in a playful “I used to get $2000 to do this … don’t I wish,” and finally completed the tune itself, just good ole funky fun: “You packed your bags and left me;/I didn’t know what to do;/ Baby, baby, baby, what is wrong with you?”—the instrumental portions flavored with pronounced barrelhouse trills to emphasize the fact that she (“Baby, baby, baby”) had been gone far too long, et cetera.

This piece (or production) was followed by a song Mabern had written for trumpeter Lee Morgan, who recorded prolifically from 1956 until the day before his death in February 1972, when Morgan was shot and killed by his common-law wife Helen More (a.k.a. Morgan), following a between sets altercation at Slug’s Saloon, an East Village (NYC) jazz club. Mabern’s piece is called “Edward Lee,” and was rendered in a funky Trad Jazz style so percussive it sounded a bit muddy to me, but that may have been the intended effect. Whatever, Harold Mabern swings, no doubt about it, and his rhythm section (Michael Zisman, bass; Peppe Merolla, drums), if not exactly shading the piece, definitely did propel it—the overall “feel” good, all the tricks of the trade (from double time to trading fours) employed.

After, Mabern returned to “talk,” telling tales of serving time at Manassas High School, taking up the piano “late” (age 15), but making his first professional appearances, in Chicago, at that same age. He offered asides on John Coltrane’s persistence and incessant practice as an artist (“Trane laid with it till he solved his problems”), which led into a smooth, playful “But Not for Me” (part of the playfulness consisted of a quote from “Pop Goes the Weasel”), a refreshing, original interpretation of the Gershwin tune, with deep steady assistance on bass by Zisman (1/2,  ½, ½), a strong bass solo by the same while Mabern sat things out, appreciatively, before returning with a formal flourish worthy of Chopin (albeit parody)—the pianist an entertainer of the old-school as well as a first-rate instrumentalist. I enjoyed all that he had to offer.

Here’s the cover of the Contemporary Piano Ensemble CD The Key Players on which Harold Mabern appears, and the man himself at the piano:

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The same was true on Saturday afternoon, when Booker T. Jones (of “Green Onions” and Booker T. and the MGs fame) performed, sans MGs, but with a fresh group. This one-time prodigy named after the great educator Booker T. Washington and now a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, offered familiar fare played with flair on the Jimmy Lyons (Main) Stage: a cover version of “Purple Rain” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Hoochy Koochy Man.” All this was taken in by a somewhat sedate but fully appreciative Saturday Afternoon Blues audience, not at all like the Festival’s 1960’s wild-with-abandon Saturday afternoon crowds (topless women and lovers who abandoned the privacy of sleeping bags to disclose other moves dancing in the aisles–and stands). Then, an annual parade was led by The Rainbow Lady (De Dee Rainbow of Seattle), dressed in effusively colorful garb, her face flecked with gold dust, her substantial body decked out in silver boas and rings ranging from turquoise Navaho to cast silver Chinese dragons, carrying her full-spectrum parasol and a globe-topped wand, a giant badge perched atop one breast that read “Enjoy life; this is not a dress rehearsal.”

Some of what Booker T. (who has retained both charm and good looks) offered was greeted with church-like reverence or solemnity—the man sitting next to me attempting to simulate the rhythms by way of both hands and head and only partially succeeding—but the spirit was there. Booker T. played “Time Is Time” (written while he was still in high school, and employed as sound track for the film Up Tight)—this as the set’s “last song,” himself on Hammond B-3 organ: a brooding start, left hand drone, and a shift to hand-clapping recognizable melody and rhythms that more than suggested anthem proportions, Booker T.’s eyes shut tight as if he were in a trance, building until the sound ceased abruptly and he cried out, “That’s our show … see you again!” And his faithful followers would—for he performed once more that evening in Dizzy’s Den, as special guest with The Philadelphia Experiment, a group featuring Uri Caine (another of my favorite pianists), bassist Christian McBride, and Questlove from the group The Roots which had stirred up its own audience (and set them dancing at midnight) on opening night.

I enjoyed so much of what I heard all weekend long at MJF57, but I was disappointed by two sets offered—expecting grand things from the second of them. The first was the Becca Stevens Band (the same vocalist who provided such a memorable performance as part of Billy Childs’ Map to the Treasure premiere, singing Laura Nyro’s “Confession” and “To a Child”). On Saturday afternoon, in Dizzy’s Den, Becca offered her own songs, accompanying herself on guitar and ukulele—the first tune, which contained the solemn line “everything must go soon” was quite handsome, suggesting echoes of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season),” the lyrics of which (excluding the title) and final verse of which Seeger adapted word-for-word from Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes—a song that would go on to become an international hit in 1965, covered by the American folk rock band The Byrds. However, when Becca switched from guitar to ukulele, the music seemed to get as “cute” as that instrument sometimes becomes in hands (and minds) less creative than those of Jake Shimabukuro (Arthur Godfrey anyone?). Lines such as “each day that spring is in full bloom,” “look inside your heart and look inside mine,” and “bring me your higher love” struck me with less force than the lessons of Ecclesiastes, so I bowed out on Becca, who does have a lovely voice.

The second disappointing set was Jason Moran’s “Fats Waller Dance Party,” for which I had been prepared, in a very positive way, by an article Dan Ouellette wrote for DownBeat (my October issue arriving, fortunately, just before the September Festival), “Jason Moran: Other Ways of Operating.” I’ve already commented on the extraordinary work Moran does in both duos with and the quartet of Charles Lloyd, alongside his 2004 MJF appearance with Marian McPartland. And Thomas “Fats” Waller was one of the first pianists who, by way of his RCA recordings, awakened a desire in me to play piano. Consequently, this alliance (Waller/Moran) and Dan’s piece aroused high hopes.

Jason Moran was the recipient of a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship, and, in 2011, received a commission from the Harlem Stage Gatehouse to prepare and present a homage to former Harlem resident Thomas “Fats” Waller. In his article, Dan Ouellette wrote, as an aside, “It’s been said that when he died, [Waller’s] ashes were spread around the neighborhood.” For the project he’d been assigned, Moran engaged the services of vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello, who has ten GRAMMY nominations to her credit, and is best known on the hip-hop and neo-soul scene. She assisted Moran, in Ouellette’s words, “translating the jazz tradition into contemporary expression as a dance party”—and the two collaborated again on the recording All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller for Blue Note Records.

“I want to know other ways of operating,” Moran told Ouellette, drawing “dance into music,” projecting what Ndegeocello calls “the party feel … Party was the focus to celebrate and praise Fats, who was a hit-maker in his time.” Moran’s task was “coming to philosophical grips about delving into the Waller songbook,” and he was concerned that the music might perhaps prove “too personal to the icon.” He did not wish to tread on Waller’s “narrative,” so he asked, “Why play his music the way that it’s always been? My goal was: Does it sound good?” Much discussion, and many different conversations ensued: with Ndegeocello, with drummer Charles Hayes (Ndegeocello on him: “His Pop groove is formidable. You can’t stand still when Charles plays.”), and with engineer Bob Power, who was impressed by the willingness of Moran and Ndegeocello to follow “an oddly otherworldly bent that carries with it a deep emotional level … They were unfettered by the originals.”

Jason Moran as Fats Waller   Jason Moran as Fats Waller 2

All this struck me as “good stuff.” With so much solid thought and preparation behind this ambitious venture–one that sought to combine solid musicianship with good time fun, hoping to entice an audience to not just listen, but (nearly automatically) get up and dance–I was eager to be a part of that audience in front of the Garden Stage on Saturday night at the MJF. But I’m sorry to say that, for me (and for a number of other folks I talked to), the “show” fell flat, in spite of so many good intentions. Moran, wearing a large papier-mache mask of Waller’s head, initiated the set as if he were his own cheerleader (or conducting a football rally pep-talk): “Keep it goin’ for as long as you can … keep it up for Fats Waller … he’s been dead for a long time, but give it up as if he were here!” This sounded a bit too much like a disclaimer to me, and the attempt to resurrect or re-interpret or re-invent Waller that followed did not take me in the direction intended (a re-appreciation of the pianist/entertainer I have loved for years), but close to the opposite: “What on earth are they doing with or to him?!”

Jason Moran (above as Fats; photo credit John Rogers for pic with microphone) offered an odd blend of endless vamps and solid stride on “Lulu’s Back in Town” (with fine support from Tarus Mateen on bass), and then vocalist Lisa Harris danced on stage—the vamp mode continuing, the title of the next tune, “Honeysuckle Rose,” a fatiguing loop embellished by Leron Thomas’ trumpet, Harris converting Waller’s clever, memorable bridge (“Don’t buy sugar/You just have to touch my cup/You’re my sugar/It’s sweeter when you stir it up”) to a static “Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh,” Moran backing this up with synthesizer chords and some more acoustic piano, the piece closing out with a five note Basie (“plink plink plink plink plink”) ending.

My favorite Waller tune “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was introduced by information that the composer “wrote it while he was in alimony jail,” Lisa Harris chanting the lyrics rather than singing them, the phrase “for you” (which follows “savin’ my love …”) stuck in the loop groove again, some trumpet relief provided, then more “for yous,” a seemingly endless nonsense syllable refrain, hands over her head, suggesting a dance. She did call out, “We want to see you dance”—but no one took her up on the invitation except Jason Moran himself, wearing the papier-mache mask, prancing about the stage, removing his sport coat, stripped down to his T-shirt, Harris madly shaking a tambourine; but all I could feel at the time (thinking back to the “best laid plans” projected in Dan Ourellette’s article in DownBeat) was: “They’ve somehow mistaken motion for action.”

On Sunday afternoon, I returned to the Garden Stage stands for a performance by a vocalist I’d never heard (or heard of) before, Youn Sun Nah, from Korea—making her first Monterey Jazz Festival appearance. She was accompanied by Ulf Wakenius, advertised as the “last guitarist of Oscar Peterson.” Youn Sun Nah provided a piece with a soft “Asian” blues flavor, a song of her own with lyrics about friendship and memory I had no trouble getting into: “I wear this crown of thorns … full of broken thoughts I cannot repair … everyone I know goes away at the end … that old familiar sting.”

Gifted with a voice with which she can create just about any vocal effect a human being can imagine, she reminded me of Sainkho Namtchylak (known for her Tuvan throat singing, or Khoomei–a singer I much admire), Youn Sun Nah employing dynamics that ranged from a whisper to sudden overt shouts: percussive phrases such as “not ready to play and not ready to fight” mixed with what the Japanese call “yugen” (suggestion in preference to outright statement), staging a love drama (and she has incorporated “theater” within her music seamlessly), “Stay … go,” which made  enjoyable use of scat and appropriate hand gestures that resembled the subtle maneuvers of hula. An attractive presence on stage, Youn San Nah employed a full range of effects—auditory and visual—to enhance her performance, and Ulf Wakenius was very much there at her side to match them.

MJF Youn Sun Nah    MJF Youn Sun Nah 3

I was sitting next to Mitsuru Mendenhall, wife of first-rate local pianist Eddie Mendenhall, and she introduced me to her mother, who was visiting from Japan. Intent on Youn Sun Nah, I couldn’t help but lean over and say “utsukushii” (“beautiful,” for a work of art, in Japanese), and they both nodded in agreement. Now playing kalimba (African thumb piano), the singer would offer a barely audible “Thank you” at the end of each tune—much in contrast to some of the truly powerful, even overwhelming sounds that had emerged from her lips. The single totally familiar song she sang was “My Favorite Things,” which she offered at a slow, leisurely tempo, a joyful dirge, a delicate chant—and she closed her set with an English folk song, “A Sailor’s Life,” delivered with strong emotion, building from plaintive to puissant, creating the eerie effect that she was singing in two parts, singing harmony with herself: “We can row our oars … we can be lovers without tears.” I felt the overall performance had been strong, enjoyable—a unique blend of solid musicianship and enhancing theater.

I devoted the Festival’s last night, Sunday, to the Charles Lloyd Quartet: first its appearance on the Jimmy Lyons Stage as reported in the previous post, which meant that I missed what I was told was an outstanding set by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire at the Night Club, but I did arrive there in time to hear Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone) with his special guest, family patriarch Ellis Marsalis on piano. I first heard Delfeayo Marsalis play at the Rampart Street Funky Butt in New Orleans, when my wife Betty and I attended a AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference there in 2002, so I wanted to get “caught up,” to see just what he was up to now—which was pretty much the same (and enjoyable): the Trad Jazz that is the fundamental format or source for the Marsalis family legacy.

I don’t take photos at the Monterey Jazz Festival (I’m too busy writing it all down!), so I’m going to have some fun here and post a photo of Delfeayo Marsalis (singing) that I took at the Funky Butt in 2002—and to “catch” that New Orleans flavor: a photo I took of the Preservation Hall sign, and two of street musician Doreen Ketchens (dubbed “Queen Clarinet,” whom those in the know told me was the “best trumpet player in New Orleans,” but refused to play in the clubs), seen here playing in Jackson Square, in front of St. Louis Cathedral (I was also told that musicians came from all over the world just to perform with her).

MJF14 3   MJF14 6

MJF14 4  MJF14 5

At MJF, Delfeayo’s group was holding forth with “On the Sunny Side of the Street” when I entered the Night Club, the leader contributing a joyous solo laced with trad slurs and growls, the rhythm section assisted by a hand-clapping standing room only (I was lucky to find a recently vacated seat) audience Delfeayo had engaged at the start with plugs for his birthplace: “If you go to New Orleans, you got to go to that Mardi Gras … and when you’re down there, my Daddy’s gonna tell you what it’s all about … we’re gonna jump and shout; we gonna turn the party out!” If the chat up and licks were familiar, they were still good fun—and “Daddy,” of course, is Delfeayo’s father (and Winton’s, and Branford’s and Jason’s), the pianist whom I felt (and he’s been doing it for years) “stole the show” with his truly tasteful style, which he provided on “Autumn Leaves” and then again on “Nancy,” a handsome close-to-the-melody paraphrase right down to the last “laughing face” grace note on the latter.

The group played “Speak Low” (that fine Kurt Weill tune with lyrics by Ogden Nash), up tempo—but the drummer (whom I hadn’t checked out) struck me as a tad heavy handed, so I was surprised to discover it was Marvin “Smitty” Smith, one of my favorite drummers and whose excellent articles on drum technique I’ve found invaluable (up to the point, that is, of my ongoing shortcomings when it comes to percussion)—but throughout the set, the audience did get “taken down to New Orleans” and the trip was good.

I’d run into guitarist Bruce Forman, about whom I’ve written in the past on a number of occasions (his many fine performances) and whom I hadn’t seen for a while, and we had a good catching up “chat.” I had another of those “conflict of interests” occasions, for I learned that Bruce would be playing with the Tony Monaco Trio in Dizzy’s Den at 7:30, but–because of the many excellent simultaneous offerings at MJF–I’d missed out on hearing pianist Donald Brown play with his trio at the Coffee House Gallery on Saturday night, along with a Saturday afternoon “Conversation” there, “Remembering Two Piano Masters: Mulgrew Miller & James Williams,” featuring Brown, Harold Mabern, and Geoff Keezer. I had to forego Bruce if I was to catch Keezer’s set—and that amazing  pianist offered his customary first-rate fare: clean, well-conceived, fully imaginative lightning-quick runs and engaging dynamics, on tunes written by James Williams (“In the Open Court”) and Mulgrew Miller (“From Day to Day”). Thank you, Geoff, for the homage paid to those two greats in your own performance. After his set, the last line I entered in my notebook was: “God, he’s fast!” Fast and good.

The last set I witnessed on Sunday night was by Eric Harland’s group Voyager. I’d been so impressed by this 2014 Artist-in-Residence’s appearances with Charles Lloyd (twice), but I may have been a bit burnt out by a full weekend of superlative offerings, for while Harland, as a drummer, is a delight to listen to in and of himself (similar in this sense to Brian Blade), and while he had Taylor Eigsti on hand (another fine pianist), I found Chris Turner’s heavily-cliched vocals lacking … something (“Can we sing together?” followed by a nursery rime refrain: “la la la la la la la la,”etc.). I found myself jotting down some uncomplimentary notes throughout this set regarding a phenomenon which, along with all the riches (the top notch performances), I’d experienced that weekend.

I found myself writing about unrelated “increments” of music offered in lieu of meaningful sequence; an OVERKILL of “information” (notes) in place of focused innate feeling vividly expressed; forethoughts and afterthoughts but that significant leap across the synapses, the connecting tissue, the fortunate “in between” (that can be ALL) somehow ignored or left out—so that the attempt to tie things together too often fell back on endless vamps, treading water, stalling for time, repetitious becoming with no end in sight, still searching for a significant story to tell rather than telling it outright or having that story fall in place of its own accord—these efforts so unlike the truly stirring, meaningful music I’d heard from Charles Lloyd (that gorgeous tone of his alone!), Billy Childs, and Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band (fellowship indeed!).

Once again, because of “overlap” in offerings, and my own inability to be in two (or three!) places at the same time (unlike the gifted critic Scott Yanow, who still somehow manages—after all these years–to “take it ALL in”), I missed out on: excellent vocalist Claudia Villela and saxophonist Harvey Wainapel’s “Getz/Gilberto” set; drummer John Hanrahan’s quintet featuring tenor-saxophonist Brian Gephart doing, as Scott would write, “a superior job of performing all of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’” (“earning a standing ovation”); “The remarkable Lisa Fischer [whom I did hear with Billy Childs] perform a soul/R&B set for a packed house”; pianist Aaron Diehl and his quartet paying homage to John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet with the commissioned piece “Three Streams of Expression” (“fully capturing the sound of the MJQ”); pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa (“a passionate player with very impressive technique, a future giant from Cuba who was dazzling with his trio.”). And thanks, Scott, for the quotes!

Thus ended what I felt was one of the most well-rounded, fully engaging weekends of music the Monterey Jazz Festival has offered—and the fare each year is consistently high, thanks to the competent staff and Tim Jackson’s well-proven genius for exceptional programming.

Another jazz fest is coming up soon: the March 6-8 JAM (JazzAge Monterey) 35th Anniversary “Jazz Bash by the Bay” at the Monterey Conference Center. I was fortunate in being asked to be on the Advisory Board for this event (originally known as Dixieland Monterey—now offering a full range of trad jazz, ragtime, swing, zydeco, gypsy jazz, and blues, with more than a taste of truly current licks along the way), and I would like to offer, by way of Bill’s Blog, a three part series of pieces–the first of which will cover the event’s first six years–telling the story of how its remarkable and much welcomed evolution has taken place. So … see you then!

MJF57: The 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival

In anticipation of what may prove to be one of the more memorable offerings, ever, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, I ordered Billy Childs’ Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro CD, advertised, promoted for several months before the September MJF event. My copy arrived a few days before the Saturday night performance in Monterey, and by the time I witnessed that occasion, I think I had fallen in love with and memorized much of the exceptional score. Billy Childs has long been one of my favorite pianists/composers/arrangers, and I have been fortunate to have been present at his 1994 MJF “Concerto for Piano & Jazz Chamber Orchestra”; the original compositions he arranged for vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson in 1998; and his 2010 commission piece “Music for Two Quartets,” with the Kronos Quartet.

The original Map to the Treasure CD features no less than ten top vocalists interpreting Childs’ interpretation of Laura Nyro’s songs: Renee Fleming, Becca Stevens, Lisa Fisher, Esperanza Spalding, Rickie Lee Jones, Ledisi, Susan Tedeschi, Shawn Colvin, Dianne Reeves, and Alison Krauss—with instrumentalists Yo-Yo Ma, Brian Blade (drums), Scott Colley (bass), Carl Robbins (harp), Wayne Shorter (soprano saxophone), Chris Potter (tenor sax), Steve Wilson (tenor sax), Chris Botti (trumpet), three violins (Mark Robertson, Jen Chou Fischer, Alyesa Park)), a viola (Luke Maurer) and an extra cello (Vanessa Freebaium-Smith) to flesh out the arrangements Childs and lifelong friend Larry Klum put together. It’s an All-Star cast (to say the least), and Childs brought singers Stevens, Colvin, and Fisher with him to Monterey—each of whom provided a stunning performance, along with Robbins, Colley, and Blade, also on hand, as was trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and the Quartet San Francisco.

Billy Childs altered the original order, the sequence of songs for the Saturday night MJF set, and the overall effect of the music seemed seamless to me, one of the most “together,” coherently comprehensive performances I’ve seen and heard at the Monterey Jazz Festival. The first Nyro song, “Confession,” is focused on sexual strife: the paradox of overt sexuality (“Love my lovething … superride inside …”) combined with a confession of innocence retained, the plight of a “virgin” attached to a new “winsome lover.” This blend is embodied in the fine line: “love is surely gospel,” mixed feelings that Becca Stevens portrayed handsomely (poet W.H. Auden said poetry “might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”). In “To a Child,” Sevens offered passion alongside vulnerability: the reciprocity of mother and child; Nyro’s homage to her own son, “an elf on speed.”

Next up: “And When I Die” was the first song Laura Nyro wrote (placed last on the CD, midway in the MJF set): the plaintive irony of this minor key piece about beginnings and ends beautifully projected by Shawn Colvin. “Save the Country” was introduced, splendidly, by Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet solo, followed by Colvin’s astutely phrased anthem-rendering (the song originally inspired by the murder of four major American political and civil rights advocates and the Vietnam War): a simple string arrangement backing Colvin’s poignant plea for better days.

On the CD, Renee Fleming renders the opening tune, “New York Tendaberry,” but in her absence at MJF, Billy Childs provided a brilliant solo piano interpretation: clear, clean, very moving lines unfolding with classical precision—an amazing, superb “substitute” for Fleming. Vocalist Lisa Fisher, a crowd favorite, sang “Map to the Treasure” with highly emotional, gospel-laced repeated lines, her phrasing fleshed out with piano/harp fusion and a jazz/chamber ensemble. The set ended with a joyous “Stone Soul Picnic”: free love friendship on a surrey saunter ride to open-field delight. The MJF audience responded to this spontaneous romp with spontaneity of its own: a well-deserved standing ovation. I found the MJF performance as spellbinding as that on the CD: a complete, truly TOTAL enactment on everyone’s part, vocal and instrumental—everything in place and held together by the taste and fine touch of Billy Childs himself.

Here he is; the Map to the Treasure CD; Laura Nyro (from the cover of an LP I have, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession; and a photo from the performance on stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Billy Childs   Billy Childs Laura Nyro CD

Laura Nyro from CD   Billy Childs at MJF

Critic Scott Yanow would later write: “Laura Nyro would have loved what Billy Childs did to her music,” and when people asked me what I thought of the presentation after, I had five words: “Billy Childs is a genius.” I’ll go so far as to say I feel this piece deserves to be placed “up there” with such legendary MJF offerings as Dave and Iola Brubeck’s “The Real Ambassadors,” Charles Mingus’ “Mediations on Integration,” Jon Hendrick’s “Evolution of the Blues,” Lalo Schfrin’s “Gillespiana,” Gerald Wilson’s “Theme for Monterey,” Terence Blanchard’s “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina),” and more recent commissioned pieces by Maria Schneider (“Scenes from Childhood” and “Willow Lake”), Bill Frisell’s “The Music of Glen Deven Ranch,” and the pieces by Billy Childs previously cited.

Childs is one of the more “poetic” pianists/composers/arrangersI know of, given his interest in and inclusion of poetry. His I Have Known Rivers CD (1995) pays homage to poets ranging from Langston Hughes (the title poem recited by Wren Brom), Walt Whitman, Rilke, to e.e. cummings—Childs offering an instrumental (solo piano) “reading” of the latter’s “Somewhere I have never traveled,” handsomely, perceptively interpreted right down to its tender last line: “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” This performance may well have augured his brilliant solo interpretation of Nyro’s “New York Tendaberry.”

The Billy Childs’ Quartet performed just after the Map to the Treasure triumph, at 10:45 in Dizzy’s Den. They were ready, “up,” for more of the same, and so was I. Consequently, I did not remain in the main arena for a set by the hip-hop/rap group Roots (house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon), although I was curious, enticed by the names of its members alone: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tarig “Black Thought” Trotter, Frank “Knuckles” Walker, “Captain” Kirk Douglas, etc. Critic Scott Yanow called the decision to book Roots “the biggest misfire of the weekend,” citing its “lack of jazz content,” and the group’s appearance did occasion a rush of complaint at the Patron’s Booth, although I talked to a few folks who felt the experience of hearing Roots was a Festival highlight. I suspect this set may have been a “test case” (similar to the  1994 appearance of Ornette Coleman with Prime Time, which set Festival old-timers scurrying to the nearest arena exit, even though Coleman had made his first appearance at the MJF in 1959, just a  year after the event started!)—the Roots’ appearance may have been a “statement” to show that, a gesture to a younger audience, nearly “anything goes” at the MJF. Also, apparently Roots had folks of whatever age up and dancing (at midnight!) and that does not always happen now even on a Saturday afternoon once devoted to the Blues.

Whatever, I had a grand time listening to another set by Childs, more than ably assisted by Brian Blade on drums (a miracle worker whose performance at the previous set was superb—a drummer so good, so inclusive, I feel I just might be able to listen to him play solo for three days, or in the company of another miracle worker I heard on Friday night with Carles Lloyd, Zakir Hussein on tablas); Scott Colley was on bass, and Steve Wilson on alto and soprano saxophone. The group provided a set so tasteful, filled with such a range of forms and sounds that I felt I might be experiencing a blend of Beethhoven’s sonatas and late string quartets (which I love) and any one of my favorite jazz aggregates (too numerous to name, although Wayne Shorter’s term of service with Miles Davis (1964-70), the saxophonist providing half the compositions to some albums, comes to mind, or Shorter’s own quartet of 2000 that featured Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and … who else but Brian blade on drums?!).

Listening, I couldn’t help but think of two lines from the poem “Art Poetique” by Paul Verlain: “Car nous voulons la Nuance encore,/Pas la Couleur, rien ca la nuance!” (“Never the Color, always the Shade,/always the nuance is supreme!”)—for that was the case with this music, incessant nuance coupled with rich meaning and full power, as in Childs’ “Hope, In the Face of Despair,” on which Colley provides his huge sound, Childs his finespun classicism, Wilson handsome lines of invention, and … well, Blade everything he does (from subtle shading to sudden explosion–and always with that Billy Higgins-inherited smile on his face!). Yet the group can turn around and offer another Childs’ composition, “Backward Bop,” filled with hard edge drive—and close with a beautiful “Stay,” a few people rising to go before the tune commenced, prompting Childs to say, “Perhaps you could call it, ‘Go!’”—those couples never to know what they missed by missing this love song that epitomizes “la Nuance encore.”

The Billy Childs Quartet rounded off its Saturday night set in Dizzy’s Den with the addition of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, a former Oakland teen who was a member of the Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, now a full-fledged pro at age 32 who toured with the Monterey Jazz All-stars in 2013, and was featured earlier in the Map to the Treasure performance. It would be hard to top that set, but I felt this second appearance, of the quartet alone, ranks right “up there’ as well, as a highlight of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival.

And now I must backtrack from Saturday night performances that stand out to Friday night, opening night. Festival offerings are now so rewardingly “dense” (in that word’s original Latin sense, densus, compact, or “arranged neatly in a small space”), that I seem to spend more time on the grounds (which now sport six venues in all) than I do in the main arena, but I always make it a point to hear Tim Jackson’s opening remarks, and stay to taste the “opening act” on the Jimmy Lyons Stage, whatever that may be—this year, the much touted vocalist Cecile McClorin Salvant.

At 7:30 pm, Tim kept it short and sweet, saying “Welcome! I see you out there and I feel the energy … We have a beautiful weekend of music ahead of us”—heartfelt words, I feel, and once again, as “Artistic Director,” he’d come up with a superb range of performers when it came to programming, variety and surprise—something for everybody! I’ll confess I had a “conflict of interest” with regard to Salvant, because just as she commenced her set, Charles Lloyd and his group Sangam (with percussionists Zakir Hussein, who I’ve already mentioned as a miracle worker alongside Brian Blade, and Eric Harland, 2014 Artist-in-Residence) had commenced their own set down in Dizzy’s Den  (the Festival’s simultaneous “embarrassment of riches” presenting its customary quandary), but I enjoyed what I heard from Cecile McClorin Salvant, a 24-year-old “phenom” at risk of being touted too fiercely prematurely, perhaps, but whose opening tune, “Yesterdays” (a Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach song first sung by Irene Dunne in a show called Roberta in 1933—three years before I was born!—and destined to become a jazz standard), was richly rendered. Salvant drew out (dragged?) the phrasing, as if those yesterdays have gone by quite slowly, in slow-motion perhaps (as they may have, for some), but her range is impressive, from deep cellar notes comfortably rendered to falsetto, the same.

Cecile McClorin Salvant paid homage to predecessors such as Judy Garland (“The Trolley Song”) and Carmen McRae (“Guess Who I Saw Today”), and there-in resided a reservation I do have: I’m not sure she, as competently as the standards have been absorbed and assimilated, has yet, at age 24, decided just who or what she is herself as a singer. She teased the meaning out of each note, testing each, but the approach struck me as mannered, somewhat indecisive, technique not always at one with the “story” at hand, struggling (or still searching) for appropriate effects, theatrical but too close, at times, to parody (the “hiiiigggh starched collar” in “The Trolley Song”), although “Guess Who I Saw Today” (Salvant has a keen sense of drama) came across beautifully, right down to its “surprise” last line: “I saw you!” (that person seen with someone he should not have been seen with).

Not wishing to miss seeing (and hearing) Sangam, I hastened (as much as a somewhat elderly gentleman with a cane can “hasten,” ho ho) down to Dizzy’s Den, took advantage of my Press Pass (although I do know the “crew” there fairly well by now), and went backstage (the Den itself packed) and stood against a wall behind Zakir Hussain, who was seated, lotus style, before  a host of tabla that ranged from a small drum with the circumference of a bagel to a large drum before his lap on which he could alter pitch from resonant basso upward, this drum flanked by medium-sized “squeeze drum” tabla, a total of seven drums embracing and embraced by him in a semi-circle, all of which he maneuvered as if he had the four arms of ego-destroying Shiva, or the six to ten arms of Lord Ganesh, as if Zakir Hussain were several drummers at work and play rather than just one. Across the stage, another drummer just as proficient, Eric Harland, let Zakir show his stuff, and then commenced to show his own on his own terms, on bass drum, toms, snare and cymbals: the two percussionists trading solo time, “team” time, and intermittent response time—this universe of drum talk offered in the service of saxophonist Charles Lloyd, 2014 Showcase Artist, whom I would see in three different settings before the weekend ran out.

Zakir Hussain     Sangam CD

Hussain, Lloyd, Harland

Pictured above are: Zakir Hussain, the Sangam CD cover, and Hussain, Eric Harland and Charles Lloyd taking bows.

Lloyd, a former resident of Big Sur whose playing still bears the tone and overall “flavor” of that generous sequestered place, and displays its range of mood (from sedately meditative to blatantly majestic), made a bed or nest for himself within the ongoing percussive landscape provided by Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many different shades of sound (an extended family of sounds) as those that emerged from Hussain’s assortment of tabla: everything from bashful bonks, metallic plonks and hollow gurgles and growls to quicksilver slaps and pats; slicing, belching, burping; sustained purring, melodic sanding and shading, hiccups, stepladder ascents in pitch and sudden or drawn-out declines, bottomless boiling to mountain top squeaks.

Harland would provide his own magic within or alongside that of Hussain: steady wire brush finesse, soccer-skillful bass drum footwork, setting and holding the pace on his ride cymbal, or going all out on the complete kit. Charles Lloyd might sit out and just listen, appreciatively, for a bit, then jump back in, “return” as if emerging from some prolonged mental journey (to, literally, God only know where), return on tenor sax or tarogato (a bright red Hungarian folk instrument with “deep Arata-Magyar origins,” shaped like a wooden soprano sax), or even piano (at which he is also adept): the reunion appropriately sublime or fierce, a celebration, buoyant, liquid, earthy, a joyous reciprocity—inspirational mutual accord. The group’s name, Sangam, suggests confluence, a meeting point or place, a gathering or coming together; triveni sangam in their case: a junction of three rivers that merge and flow as one—a totally free and unimpeded flow—and that is exactly what one hears.

In Steve Lake’s excellent liner note for the CD Sangam, Hussain refers to Lloyd’s “stadium-sized heart,” one that allows both Harland and himself to “canter and gallop,” rather than be restrained or “reined in” like obedient colts. Asking what key he should tune his tabla to (they have pitch) for a particular piece, Lloyd responded, “Oh, just tune to the key of the universe” (which, Hussain claims, is Bb—which is interesting, for that’s the key of the tinnitus I’ve had for twenty-seven years, an “affliction” I shall now look upon with favor, being “in tune” with the universe at large as I am).

The opening night Sangam set in Dizzy’s Den was another very special “right up there” (when it comes to highlight offerings at the Monterey Jazz Festival) event for me, and the last word I was to jot down about it in my notebook was “stupendous.” I have several CDs at home by Charles Lloyd, but was delighted to discover much of Zakir Hussain on YouTube, including an impressive six video documentary called The Speaking Hand, which tells the story of his life from his birth in Mumbai, India; being introduced to tabla by his father, Usted (which means “Master”) Alla Rakha; already touring (a child prodigy) at age eleven; to Hussain’s own present state as an “Usted” himself.

I did manage to catch a portion of Charles Lloyd’s set with excellent pianist Gerald Clayton (this just before the Billy Childs Quartet Saturday night in Dizzy’s Den), and enjoyed their tasteful melodic excursions; and then I heard and saw, on the main arena Jimmy Lyons Stage (as the opening act on Sunday night) a complete set by the Charles Lloyd Quartet, with Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland (again) on drums. Our weekend house guest, Dan Ouellette—who writes for DownBeat and conducts the magazine’s Blindfold Test at the Festival) has high regard for this group—and they proved all he said by way of praise true.

Their set started with a standard, “What’s New?”, and they played it new and short and sweet. Once again, critic Scott Yanow would get the words just right when he later wrote that the group provided a “wide-ranging set that would show that the 76-year old saxophonist is still at the peak of his power.” It was immediately apparent why critics such as Dan Ouellette and Scott Yanow find Lloyd worthy of continued respect and the group itself one of the more admirable (and exciting) aggregates on the scene today. As a pianist myself (of sorts), I could not help but notice, or “hear” right away (as a separate “item,” but perfectly in place with the whole) Jason Moran’s “comping”: tasteful offsetting melodic lines; right hand repetition both heightened and relieved by left hand invention; trills, sudden glisses, full fulgent chords, a percussive approach mixed with abundant nuance; dynamics galore—the whole bag of tricks, a genuine artist’s standard musical “vocabulary” seasoned with a “flavor” strictly his own: one that acts as the perfect complement to Charles Lloyd’s own unique tone composed of soft, meditative passages, overt plaintive wails, and original riffs.

Here’s Charles Lloyd on flute; the cover for the original 1966 Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey; the quartet together; and Jason Moran alone.

Charles Lloyd at MJF Robert Wade photo    Charles Lloyd at Monterey 1966

Charles Lloyd Quartet   Jason Moran

Jason Moran is “weird” in that I don’t know of all that many pianists who can take the fully comprehensive, inclusive approach he does, who can mix such an eclectic outlook or so many disparate “means” so successfully, and yet retain his own singular voice. And the Lloyd/Moran matchup is, in turn, fully agreeable with Reuben Roger’s large-handed sturdy full-bodied bass work (yet he, too, can play “sweet” and soft on solos) and the remarkable drumming (those soccer-agile bass drum kicks at work again) of Eric Harland.

It’s a class act all the way, right down to Charles Lloyd’s seemingly casual, comfortable presence on any stage, large or small—the saxophonist living room “cozy” in his peaked knit hat and loose open-throat shirt, strolling about (when not playing) as Theolonious Monk did, but not intrusively, just offering encouragement “behind the scenes,” granting his sidemen maximum space of their own—then providing variety and surprise because, when he “returns,” comes front stage again (the audience never quite sure just what instrument he may have in hand: tenor sax, red taragato, flute, or maybe just an egg shaker filled with seeds or beads), the reentry will make full use of, “exploit” if you will (in his own serene manner), all of its ingredients—the group’s music so continuous that, no matter what instruments are employed, or even the tunes enacted themselves, the effect will be that of one continuous tune, a “suite,” a celebration of the spirit we all possess but may find ourselves, as audience, too shy or reticent, too hesitant to acknowledge in public—which is not the case at all with Charles Lloyd—and the audience loves it!

Lloyd may suddenly offer an occasional saxophone growl, but it’s as if he were merely clearing his throat in order to continue in the same sweet groove he was entertaining a moment before. Some of the songs offered were identifiable—such as “Forest Flower,” the piece with which Lloyd first established his reputation, or legend, at the MJF in 1966; and “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go),” the familiar spiritual; but if not, they carried Lloyd’s unique instrumental voice, or in the words of writer Andy Gilbert, a sound that soars “into the either, embracing the universe … incandescent.” And then there is the small shuffle dance of joy he may employ, pleased with what his sidemen have just come up with, or perhaps himself. At the close of their set, the Charles Lloyd Quartet (like Billy Childs’ groups before them) was rewarded with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Rather than attempt a full survey of the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival’s weekend of music in this single post, I am going to save other favorite performances for the next verbal outing. I made new discoveries, such as pianist/vocalist Sarah McKenzie and her quintet, and vocalist Youn Sun Nan, along with excellent artists I’ve heard before, such as vocalist Claudia Villela and Harvey Wainapel (tenor sax), Booker T. Jones, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalas and his pianist father, Ellis Marsalas (the Patriarch!), fine pianists Harold Mabern and Geoffry Keezer, and also my buddy Dan Ouellette with his DownBeat Blindfold Test with guitarist Lionel Loueke.

Before I “leave,” I would like, here and now, to focus on one last group which I was eager to hear, live (I had their CDs), and that is drummer Brian Blade (about whom I’ve already raved) and The Fellowship Band, which appeared on the Garden Stage Sunday afternoon. Just as I had been “prepared” to appreciate Billy Childs’ Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro through CD listening sessions, so I was more than “ready” to appreciate The Fellowship Band by way of the CDs of theirs I have, and also an excellent article by Paul de Barros that appeared in the June issue of DownBeat, “Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band: Seeking the Greater Good.” De Barros makes it clear, from the start, that whereas The Fellowship Band “has not been prolific,” they are “a profoundly important band”—one for whom “fellowship” isn’t just a word, but “a creed.” Blades’ father was a minister in Shreveport, Louisiana, “an imposing man with a stentorian voice” (writes de Barros), a man who “preached at Zion Baptist Church and had a radio ministry.” Brian Blade told the writer: “I’m sure the first voice I heard in the womb was my father’s.” Brian’s mother was a kindergarten teacher, and that vocation provided first-rate nurturing as well.

The difficult arts of truly listening and giving back came naturally to Brian Blade, of whom saxophonist Wayne Shorter (Blade appears on Shorter’s multi-award winning CD Without A Net) says, “He’s like a tailor. He makes the clothes fit the person he’s playing and interacting with.” Blade has returned to his roots in Shreveport in several ways, having moved back to his hometown with his high school sweetheart (and wife) and seven of the ten compositions on The Fellowships Band’s CD Landmarks were recorded there. Blade attended Loyola University in New Orleans with the band’s pianist Jon Cowherd in 1988, playing “duo all the time,” and Cowherd is the main reason the drummer took up composing. The group is fleshed out with Myron Wilson on alto sax and bass clarinet; Melvin Butler on soprano and tenor saxophones, and Chris Thomas on bass. The tunes composed by Blade reveal his interest in word-songs  (an interest similar to that of Billy Childs; Blade himself has performed with Joni Mitchel, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan).

Here’s Brian at the drums, smiling of course; The Fellowship Band together; the cover for the CD Landmarks; and the group on stage.

Brian Blade  Brain Blade and The Fellowship Band

Brian Blade Landmarks  Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band2

I have a strong feeling (which seems in danger of becoming solid belief) that at this time in our peculiar history, this era (no more peculiar, perhaps, than that of any time or era—but it’s ours to experience), the music needs (craves?) meaning, extra-musical meaning or purpose; and I was pleased to find Paul de Barros (responding to a quote from a longtime friend of Brian Blade, pianist Darrell Grant, “I think it is not a coincidence that Brain played the drums in his dad’s church; because music was spirit. That was its function. If you come at music that way, how can you not make it spiritual?”), write: “Blade’s beliefs also drive his urge to make a difference. He holds high ideals for what music can do, calling it ‘a cosmic, healing chemical’ that can ‘fortify our lives.’”

There was fellowship galore within the group on Sunday afternoon at the MJF. You could tell, immediately, just how much they love making music together: a “joyful noise,” both secular and sacred. Their set commenced in a comfortable vein, with tasty piano chords and just a hint of melody, bass clarinet and soprano sax emerging in perfect synchronicity: a handsome entry introduction of a handsome theme, laced with Blade’s subtle drum fill, this performance making it seem as though he were merely taking up where he’d left off the previous evening in the company of Billy Childs’ quartet, trading that tight unison for being perfectly in tune, in touch, with Myron Wilson’s delicious bass clarinet deep timbre and mood. Cowherd offered a fine extended piano solo, his introspective interlude giving way to a smooth ensemble close out.

Brian Blade did not announce the names of the tunes until the close of the set itself (moving directly from one piece into another, the whole presenting itself as a suite, a single song of celebration, as had that of Charles Lloyd’s quartet), but I think this first piece may have been “Landmarks,” title tune on the group’s most recent CD, a tune about which Blade has said, “The word ‘landmark’ seemed to have an arrow attached to it. The idea is that we’re here right now, and we’re passing signs along the way that mark where we are. I like the journey aspect of Landmarks, the trip the songs seem to comprise.”

The next piece, “Return of the Prodigal Son,” is from another CD, Season of Changes, and it has an enriching (not demeaning) mournful quality to it, is a sort of sophisticated blues, and it provided the joy of watching Brian Blade at work, seated behind a set of white pearl (vanilla-silver?) drums, cross hand action, switching arms from east to west, a single deft move executed with ease (it seems—but try it!)—along with his solemn smiling concentration on hi hat. Cowherd switched to a synthesized organ sound for a Gospel-flavored “Shenandoah” (also on the Landmarks CD), bass clarinet and tenor sax meeting in the center of a generous fuzz—the  set’s music blending religious outreach with bebop-flavored finesse to introspective or impressionistic melody: an instrumental conversation containing both solemn and playful import, heartfelt yearning and urging; and then: church was over, seemingly too soon, the set ending with Brian’s adaption of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s tune ‘Highway One” rendered as Blade’s own “King’s Highway.”

Which is a good place for me to end this blog post—with some thoughts on collaboration, musicians working (playing) together for a common purpose or end, an activity characteristic of the groups led by Billy Childs, Charles Lloyd, and Brian Blade which I have focused on, and which I thoroughly enjoyed (cooperation or collaboration not an activity I see much evidence of elsewhere in the world today). As a writer, I find myself spending too much time alone, perhaps, staring at a blank sheet of paper, wondering when the words might arrive, waiting for the right “notes” to fill that empty space with, locked into my own isolated world, overlarge with fragile more than likely “fake” ego (someone out there actually cares!)—and I envy groups such as those I’ve just written about and, hopefully, found the right words for: envy their genuine fellowship, “familyhood,” the love they have for what they are capable of, together, perpetually listening to what each has to say alone and the beauty made when they talk as one.

On occasion, as a sometime musician, I’ve known that togetherness—and there is little else in the world (aside from that of close family and friends) that can match it—and it was a privilege to witness this “phenomenon” (from the Greek “phainomenon”: appearance) in all its acquired meanings: “something impressive or extraordinary”; “a remarkable or exceptional person; prodigy; wonder”; an appearance or immediate object of awareness in experience; Kantianism. a thing as it appears to and is constructed by the mind, as distinguished from a noumenon, or thing-in-itself”—to have had that experience at the Monterey Jazz Festival on the weekend of September 19-21, 2014.

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is to return to Paul de Barros’ article in DownBeat, “Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band: Seeking the Greater Good,” in which he said: “As a composer, [Blade] insists the music is ‘not just notes,’ but carries important, even urgent messages. As a person, he prompts unconditional praise.” These two entities—art and a praise-worthy person—do not always coincide or arrive together, and it’s a rare and wonderful thing to behold when they do.

Next blog: more Monterey Jazz Festival.

On Writing Memoir–and the Art of Narration in General

Patricia Hamilton, who published my book The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir (Park Place Publications, 2013), has commenced a column in our local paper, Cedar Street Times (Pacific Grove, CA). Patricia’s column is called “The Importance of a Strong Family Narrative,” and it is focused on documenting one’s own life and passing what you’ve learned and known on to “future generations.”

Patricia contacted me and asked if I would respond to four questions posed by Dr. James Birren, “a pioneer in the field of gerontology,” questions which address the benefits of “writing our life stories and sharing them with others.” All too true to my nature (and “Blog Baroque” style), I responded to the questions in full, and answered them as completely as I could. In her first column appearance, Patricia only had room for brief quotation from my replies, so I would like, here and now (given the space that a blog provides), to present what I sent her in full—and even add some additional thoughts on narration in general. And I may slip in some photos at a couple of points, as  “illustrations” of what I’ve been talking about (I hope), or just to liven things up a bit, visually.

Here are my responses to the suggested benefits:

  1. Increased self-knowledge by telling your story and listening to the stories of others:

When I undertook the book project that took six years to complete—The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir—my major intent was to explore areas of my life I had deliberately avoided or ignored. I grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan: a boy who just wanted to be a boy who played ice hockey (goalie, no less), liked to box (a sport made popular by Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson), play jazz piano–and hopefully find a girlfriend. However, that boy was inundated with (imposed upon, to his mind) tales his parents told of “illustrious ancestors.” I tried my best not to pay much attention to them, swamped as I felt I was with tales of relatives who, as for their American history, went  back to 17th century New England and Middlesex County, Virginia; Civil War heroes on both sides (Confederate and “Yankee”); and notable 19th century authors who wrote praiseworthy memoir and hobnobbed with not just Mark Twain himself but Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. It would take this boy–me–a number of years to “reconcile discordant elements.” The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir told the story of that endeavor—and the extent of “increased self-knowledge” I would acquire was considerable.  Listening, at last, to so many “stories of others” and facing up to my own, I learned that we are everything that surrounds us—and I found myself part of an extended family I came to love.

(2) Awareness and appreciation of having lived through so much:

We all hope to get “better” somehow with age. Memoir is one way to make that happen. Aristotle called an act of improvement (rather than one that entails slowing down or falling short) “entelechy”: the fulfillment of potential. In theology, Thomas Aquinas applied Aristotle’s concept to pure being in a state of realization. Today, we can—by way of memoir and a thorough examination of family history—keep our individual worlds large and as complete and inclusive as possible. We can make what we have lived through ourselves and what others have lived through come alive again, on compatible terms—and the result is greater awareness of ourselves and of the gift of life which is the possession of everyone.

And here are photos of the good folks who helped put my book together–Patricia Hamilton of Park Place Publications and Christopher Hebert, editor–with the book itself in the middle. The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir is available at: http://www.amazon.com/Inherited-Heart-American-Memoir/dp/1935530712/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1415460740&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Inherited+Heart%3A+An+American+MePatricia Hamilton   Front Cover  Chris Hebert

(3) Greater comfort with other people by sharing experiences and struggles:

The lives I discovered—by way of books about my relatives and others written by them (I discovered that both my father’s and mother’s families were “filthy” with writers: good writers!); research at the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; visits to former “Minor” homes in Virginia, and taped conversations with my “Yankee” mother, learning the history of her family—did teach me that we are linked, through inheritance, by all that surrounds us. I discovered that many of these folks leapt off the pages of books and letters in which they had been buried for years, some to the point of becoming “close friends,” as if they were living contemporaries. I not only shared the experience of writing the book with them, but contemporaries: my immediate family and friends; Chris Hebert (the best editor I’ve ever had); and Patricia Hamilton of Park Place Publications, responsible for making the book available in print—for coming up with the innovative idea of the postage stamp-sized photos (with captions) in the opening pages, and for getting me started on a blog (this one: Bill’s Blog, with WordPress).

(4) Fewer regrets as to our life choices and “the road not traveled”:

When I finished The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir (an undertaking that came to 476 pages, “edited” down from more than 600), I did not have room left for regrets regarding life choices of my own (one of which had been waiting until somewhat advanced age to start this project). I no longer saw options in terms of Robert Frost’s “two roads,” but saw my life (and that of many others) as a very wide river, a veritable Mississippi of “roads” made up of endless options I was in a position to take advantage of. “Memoir” was originally distinguished from reminiscence writing in general in that it was an account written by someone of importance who had lived through a significant era—but what is that other than “finding oneself” in a particular era? We are ALL someone of importance, and every era is significant. And the way to make that fact known is to explore your own life and family history and write about it—“not for glory and least of all for profit,” as William Faulkner said (although perhaps a touch of both just may fall your way), but just to tell your “story” and that of all the others who helped make you what you are.

Time out for photos I used as “prompts” for The Inherited Heart—some of which I did include in the book itself, both “postage stamp-sized” at the start and in an eighteen page photo gallery–and I think I’ll contrast the “eras” in which they were taken, just for kicks. Here’s my great-grandfather’s first cousin’s son in 1861, Charles Minor Blackford, age 27, and me with his Civil War sword in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2008; my mother and father with their first born son, my brother Lance; my mother and father, at about 50 years of age, in the living room of the home I grew up in; and me feeding our two sons, Tim and Steve, when I was 24.

Charles Minor Blackford  CSA Cavalry Capt Bill Minor  3.  11  Bill as Dad with Tim and Baby Steve

When I’d finished with the responses Patricia requested, I realized that, at the time she asked me to shape them to Dr. Birren’s set of benefits, I was reading (and still am; it’s a very large book!) Thomas Mann’s major work, Joseph and His Brothers, sixteen years in construction, four “books” actually (The Stories of Jacob, Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, Joseph the Provider)–amassing 1492 pages (in the masterful John E. Woods translation). If a major task of memoir is making the past come alive again, as best you can, I can think of few writers who have done a better job than Thomas Mann, although he did so not with personal history but Biblical history in Joseph and His Brothers. For Mann this effort was an act of  imagination (and considerable research), not memory—or at least not memory in the sense of personal reminiscence; but he employs a narrative technique throughout that I find remarkable: one which, if I had the nerve to try it on for size, I would love to attempt to make use of in memoir. A paradox: Mann’s work reads like “memoir,” an account of one person’s experience throughout a particular era, although that era is devastatingly distant from ours and the overall point of view is not that of Joseph but the author himself.

Throughout Joseph and His Brothers, Mann takes his audience, the reader, into complete confidence, as if the reader were (for each moment of time in the book) participating in the process of re-telling the traditional story (or stories), is actually involved in the writing to the point of  assisting in and sharing decisions as to just how the tale should be told. The reader becomes a co-conspirator, as it were, when it comes to what to include, and what not, and also the approach to storytelling overall.

For example, when faced with depicting the ambivalence and intricacy of Joseph’s brothers’ feelings after they have deposited a beaten, bruised, and naked Joseph, shorn of his coat of many colors (the garment itself ripped to shreds), in the dry well, Mann writes: “Some instances are best served with only half-words,” previously explaining: “In the end, what they had done to their brother they had done out of jealousy—and everyone knows what emotion is wrenched and distorted into jealousy. To be sure, when one looked at Shimeon’s and Levi’s well-oiled brutality any reference to that emotion might seem quite inept, which is why we need to speak obliquely, in half-words.”

That “we” is not just the classic editorial journalistic “we.” Mann means “us”: you and him, reader and writer. He seems to be consorting with his readers, seeking their approval of what he intends to do, or not to do. After such consultation with the reader as to whether he should name “that emotion,” Mann makes the decision on his own to resort to “half-words.” On other occasions he’ll issue a “warning” as to possible conclusions (“Once again, let readers be warned that they ought not consider Jacob’s sons to be especially hardened louts and deny them every sympathy.”), or he will take the reader into full confidence (without providing a “no disclosure” clause in the “contract” between them!), stating, “Just between us,” when revealing why Ruben has left the brothers behind to pursue his own “very different activities.”

Mann grants useful information to the reader, so that both reader and author can decide what to make of it and just how much to reveal or “tell”; or he comes right out and asks the reader, “Would it be saying too much if one were to include in his story how even now his thoughts [Joseph’s] built an airy bridge between these meadows here and his clan at home, his father and little Benjamin?” Mann abdicates authorial privilege, allowing the reader to contemplate whether the writer may have gone too far–even though the author goes right ahead to include what he’s just asked if he should include!

Mann will also warn the reader against “playing favorites” when it comes to the characters brought to life (those both author and reader have brought to life?). He warns readers to keep their distance from, or maintain control of their sympathies (a warning to himself as well?), saying, “We are easily moved to call some situation unbearable—it is the protest of fiercely outraged humanity, well intended and even beneficial for the person suffering. Yet such protest may easily also seem a bit ridiculous to someone whose reality is ‘unbearable.’ Those who feel outraged sympathy find themselves in an emotionally impractical relationship with a reality that is not their own; they put themselves in the situation of someone else who is already in it—an error of imagination, for precisely because of his situation he is no longer like them. And what does “unbearable” mean when it must be borne and one has no choice but to bear it as long as one’s senses are intact?”

Mann is constantly reminding the reader to be on guard with regard to her or his overall attitude toward the characters in Joseph and His Brothers—again, as if both reader and author had to collaborate on just how to make the right decisions, mutual decisions, as to how the characters might best be represented or rendered lifelike.

At times, he comes right out and offers an apology, or a disclaimer: “We are greatly concerned to impress upon everyone’s imagination a lively and real sense of such all-embracing discomfort. And yet, precisely for the sake of life and reality, it is likewise our task to ameliorate things out of concern that imagination not gain the upper hand and lose itself in empty emotion. Reality is sober and unimaginative—that is its character as reality.” In other words: Please help me decide just how far–and in which direction–I should go, Dear Reader! And in a subtle manner, he’s also teaching us, the readers, how to write–the important choices involved!

I love it! What fun! He actually cares about his readers! What a different, unique “twist” on a writer’s “superior” stance—a stance Mann had every right to adopt, for he’s obviously a genius and his own authorial prestige was large and lofty. I can think of few writers who can match his majestic sentences, sentences prolonged but hypnotic (like music) in the manner in which they unfold—and he has extensive, extraordinary knowledge (hard won knowledge, I know) of human behavior, just what makes us “tick,” both on the surface of things and down in the depths (of the well, of “the pit,” so to speak) of both self and “this world” we think we know so well and another some folks may anticipate. Throughout much of Joseph and His Brothers, Mann’s own wisdom strikes me as being as overwhelming as that of Jacob, Abraham, or maybe even God.

Subtle observations such as “Sympathy with pain that we must admit we have caused is very much like repentance” put the reader in the brothers’ place, so the realization goes two ways: theirs and ours, if we “buy” the truth of it. These “truths” as one-liners pile up, and I love ‘em: “For nothing happens twice, and everything is forever only like itself.” Yet, equally true, because looking ahead (to situations that will repeat themselves in Joseph’s life): “He had to descend into the grave again, for a man’s life revolves several times, bringing the grave and birth with it once more. Man must become several times over, until he has fully become.”

Time out once more! Let’s take a break from reading to look at some more photos I used as prompts for the new memoir project, “Going Solo.” Here I am playing tenor guitar at age 15, then playing a different tenor guitar at age 37; me with a pipe while attending Pratt Institute as an art student, age 20, and then visiting friends in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) age 44; as a fledgling pianist age 14, then privileged to play with local greats Jackie Coon and “Fast Eddie” Erickson at age 61, and as a seasoned pro (ho ho) age 74 (and thanks again, Gerry Ginsburg, for that cool photo!).

Bill with tenor guitar age 15   Bill with Guitar

Bill with Pipe   Bill in San Miquel

 Bill as fledgling pianist Bill with Jackie Coon and Eddie Erickson    Bill at Piano at Wave Street

Returning to Thomas Mann: he constantly reminds the reader of the difficulty (the dangers, the risks, even though it may seem a convenience) in telling any tale just one way, especially a story with so many overlays of history, reinvention, and mythical fabrication as that of Joseph and His Brothers. Robert Graves’ “There is one story and one story only/That will prove worth your telling” is definitely not Mann’s way of working.  He constantly reminds us of “the welter of motives that make life so murky”—and the multiple choices, options, we will run into, as both writers and readers, if we wish to get the story (stories) right. It is as if, faced with genuine storytelling as the delightful yet demanding art that it is, we need all the help we can get—both audience and writer!

Mann is a master of truly getting beneath the surface of a character’s life, and he may even leave the reader out, not consult her or him if he feels there’s an important aspect of personality the reader may have overlooked or ignored. Joseph’s true thoughts, when he is initially left in the pit, the well, “were not with his automatic and superficial pleas and wails, but rather somewhere below them: and below these thoughts other truer still moved as their shadows, their ground bass, their deepest current, so that all together, arranged vertically, they resembled agitated music that his mind was occupied with directly—top, middle, and bottom—all at once.” Mann is a master of disclosing such “agitated” music—of going where so many writers (and angels too, I’ve been told) fear to tread. He is a master of mixing and balancing both angelic and agitated music—and he produces a music all his own. That music includes humor, abundant irony, gentle wisdom, intelligence, invention, imagination, wit, originality, and suggestions (not statements of advocacy or coercive slogans that threaten to dry up or parch the prose) as to what may constitute a good life (dare I say “morality”?)–but he keeps, always, to the “very natural story,” and let’s it do the work.

In his novel, Snow White (an hilarious retelling of that tale), Donald Barthelme halts the raucous narrative halfway through the book and provides a quiz—as if to catch the reader off guard and see if she or he is really paying attention, or even still awake. If I can work up the nerve, after I complete the sequel to The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir I am, at present, hard at work on (“Going Solo”), I just may, should I live so long, commence a third memoir (Wow! I’d have a trilogy!) with a brilliant first sentence (something in the nature of “Call me Ishmael” or “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed”), and may then turn directly to the reader and ask, “Please, will you kindly tell me just where, from this point on, we—you and I, Friend Reader–should go?” Or maybe I’ll  be brave (or foolish) enough to ask readers if they feel I got off to the best start (whatever that first sentence may be) and seek permission to continue on my own!

Thank you, Thomas Mann, for the options.

Next Blog out, I will present a full summary of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (soon I hope, but perhaps in two parts)—a description and appraisal long overdue (well, at least two months), but kept in mind (Dear Reader, just for you) as potential writing all that time!