audience building

Good lord. I need to write about the Esperanza win before it gets passed over for other distractions. Generally I have little use for the annual music-industry-suits-patting-themselves-on-the-back-for-making-themselves-millions-of-dollars-while-limiting-the-scope-of-our-culture festival which is the Grammy Awards, but to deny what happened last night as a major public event within our relatively tiny jazz community would be an gigantic missed opportunity, and this was an upset exceeding even Hancockian proportions. All of us who love jazz understand and begrudgingly accept that we’re backing an art form which isn’t ever going to garner the kind of mainstream affection enjoyed by the Britneys and Kanyes. Yet I imagine that for many of us, that acceptance comes along with a fervent wish that we could share this dynamic, soul-enriching music with the masses, or at least pull that 2% of the American population who “gets” jazz up to, say, 10%? 30%? 90%? (I love this excerpt from conductor Ben Zander’s brilliant TED Talk, who works from the assumption that ALL people love classical music… they just don’t know it yet! The full version is well worth your time, arts advocates.)

All of us who are passionate about jazz LOVE that feeling when acquaintances come to us for music recommendations – a few of us obsess over yearly lists – and we want people to understand and get hooked by these sounds. And in a very real sense, Esperanza winning “Best New Artist” last night over the tween-phenomenon, multi-million selling, music industry-funded, now-starring-in-his-very-own-movie-so-apparently-he-can-act-too, Justin Bieber, gives me a glimmer of hope that artistically challenging music forms like jazz might have a slightly better shot at reaching people today than it did yesterday. It’s all about incremental progress, right? And it’s also, importantly, about not making this unfamiliar music come off as elitist or unapproachable, or gloating about Bieber’s loss (even though his fans vandalized our girl’s Wikipedia page within minutes after her upset, which if nothing else, points to the absolutely dictatorial vice grip of loyalty the music industry has managed to manufacture within their creation’s “fans.”) And I’m guilty of a bit gloating myself – it seems the most instinctive reaction is to make fun of the tweens (in the great post-Grammy Twitter-fallout last night, I called them “sheep”), rather than figure out a way to leverage a legitimate jazz artist’s newfound cred and name recognition into a greater awareness of this music we believe in. When you believe in something, you want to share it, and though we might not reach the angry Beliebers (yikes, can’t take credit), convinced that an eternal injustice has been perpetuated upon the universe, we could get quite a lot of the folks in the middle who might be curious about jazz but find the whole enterprise intimidating. And FWIW, for all of the hype placed on Bieber’s hair, I think we win that battle too.

And I think Esperanza’s music is positioned at the perfect nexus for this – it’s hip and funky enough to grab the people who “need a beat,” but challenging and complex enough to pull hardcore listeners up out of their chairs.

I mean, for Chrissake… on her debut record, this woman sings and scats over a pulsating, smooth-as-silk version of Body and Soul. In Spanish. While playing the bass. In freaking 5/4 time. If we can’t get behind this woman, jazz fans, there’s no hope and we should resign ourselves to decoding Anthony Braxton’s geometrical compositions amongst our dusty, out-of-print LPs down in the basement. Look, as much as I wish Keith Jarrett’s wishes would magically come true – that American audiences might simply wake up one day with high artistic expectations – I also know that’s not (and won’t ever be) realistic, and that if jazz is ever going to gain any traction in the mainstream, it’s almost certainly going to happen by way of a gateway figure.

In that light, a quick story. Over the course of a few semesters, I’ve played this video of Esperanza covering, no transforming, Stevie Wonder’s Overjoyed, recorded in front of the First Family (they’re big fans of her music) for my audio production classes, in front of kids who’s knowledge of music extended mostly to Top 40 and the “boxes” that the music industry had put them in based on race and socio-economic factors. (Meaning: for the most part, the white kids liked punk and metal, the black kids R&B and rap. The very rare mention of jazz as a “like” usually came from the influence of a parent who played it in the house.)

But everybody dug Esperanza (just like they dig Bach, incidentally); after I played the video, most students reached for pen and paper and wrote down her name. But why, I asked, why doesn’t this music receive airplay on mainstream commercial radio? I mean, clearly, everyone was into it! Most seemed to think that though they liked it, it was either too complex for the masses (as if somehow they weren’t an accurate sample?), or, importantly, it didn’t sell sex and image in the way that popular black female artists are expected to. (Love ya, Beyonce, but it ain’t just your voice selling those records.) Esperanza has stated outright that she wants her music to speak for itself; although she presents a fashionable and distinctive “look,” it’s ultimately her musical voice which makes her such a compelling figure.

So as advocates for this music, how do we leverage this rare mainstream recognition into a safe space where the other infinite varieties of jazz might be explored by more people? Cuz if you can hook people up with Esperanza, then other fascinating jazz-based modern singers are a very short step away: Gretchen Parlato, Jo Lawry, Madeleine Peyroux, Melody Gardot, Diana Krall, local gems on-the-rise like Lena Seikaly, and many, many more. And another thing: it’s been my experience that after proper exposure, most college students absolutely adore Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong; after our section on Billie (and Ella too!), I often hear students sound annoyed and confused that no one has ever taken the time to introduce them to this music. My response is that the industry has absolutely zero interest in exposing them to anything outside of what the latest hit record is, and sadly because the industry has such unchecked, unprecedented control over American culture, these are the only messages they’re receiving. (The industry’s entire musical philosophy might be summarized in the following two words: KEEP CONSUMING!) Though perhaps our community is guilty of missed opportunities in other areas? I mean, does anyone know what the hell goes on in high school music classes? I took an informal poll of 60 students last week, asking how many people could tell me what instrument either Miles Davis or John Coltrane played. (Not tell me about their style, or what their best album is… just what instrument did they play?) Miles and Coltrane are unarguably two of the most important musicians in American history. Out of 60, exactly one person knew. Exactly one person had even heard of them. So, my friends, this is what we’re up against. And though my heart sank, I wasn’t terribly surprised; young people today are absolutely drowning in advertising and corporate-sponsored pop culture, but my experience tells me that many long for something richer. And I understand that arts classes are shamefully being slashed in every direction, but if the teachers we do have aren’t teaching the basic figures of American art music, it’s no wonder there’s such a lack of awareness and appreciation.

But I digress. Perhaps there’s unrealized synchronicity in the fact that “esperanza” means “hope” in Spanish. So I’m happy this morning, and yes, hopeful: hopeful for our community, happy for the listeners who will now get turned on to these exciting, new sounds, and maybe most of all excited for a girl who has worked her tail off not on her image, but on creating and developing a very original, very fun musical voice. What a thrill to see that rewarded in the mainstream. (And y’all know, by the way, that the jazz savvy Q-Tip is producing her next record, right? I thought you did.) Obviously, I’d love to hear what readers think about any of this dynamic, or about how we can help jazz reach more ears, so comment away. Cheers and congrats to Esperanza, to whom I wish all the esperanza I can muster!


These thoughts developed as a response to a great post by Robyn Linden of 11:11 Theatre Company in Boston, dealing with engaging audiences. I’ll be home in October and am looking forward to catching their upcoming Poe project!

My two cents, or twenty-five cents, starts here: I think artists of the future will have to wear multiple hats in order to remain successful and relevant – the art of promoting art is a tricky one, and generally isn’t something taught in art, theater, or music school. Yet let’s consider the possibility that confronting these issues is in itself a fundamental part of what it means to be an artist in the world, ca. 2010! Where I went to school (Eastman), this notion that we might actually have to worry that audiences wouldn’t automatically fall into our laps was just starting to catch steam when I graduated, and thankfully art schools seem to be tackling this problem more and more within curricula. Due in part to the pervasiveness of mass-mediated culture, it now seems there’s a full-on crisis in terms of reaching out to audiences – especially younger folks – and getting them involved and engaged. So how must an artist operate within that system?

I’m of the mindset that if we want our audiences to come in and stay engaged, we first and foremost MUST be making relevant work. Apart from producing rather bland art, the old paradigm of “appreciate art because it’s good for you” isn’t cutting it in the marketplace anymore – we have to be able to demonstrate and articulate to audiences WHY our work is relevant to their lives. Many young people don’t attend theatre because they don’t feel connected to the world of artists and the creative process – I think that “cliquey-ness” can be a big turnoff – so we need to find new ways to MAKE them feel welcome and involved in the process. So I don’t think a passive audience who just sits and “receives” art – the paradigm of the past – is the way to go. Shouldn’t being in the theatre feel like a truer, richer experience than lining up for the latest Hollywood blockbuster? Sadly, often times it just isn’t, and we can’t blame audiences for that. Mass-mediated culture succeeds partially due to mega-advertising budgets, certainly, yet it also provide a sense of shared community and currency that I think we lust for in the theater. How do we create that within our local communities? We want our work and our ideas to be discussed at that proverbial water cooler, and I think presentational ideas which challenge standard forms (flashmobs come to mind, even if they can get gimmicky) might open some of these avenues.

Ultimately we need to be willing to ask ourselves the tough questions about what it means to make art amidst what might appear to be an unconcerned citizenry. Yet as artists we must believe we’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to tell the stories and weave the myths of our generation. It’s a tough position, yet therein lies the challenge.

Some fairly random thoughts, sure. Anyone have further ideas they’d like to share?

One challenge of being a fledgling wordsmith writing about an ephemeral art like jazz seems the near-impossibility of the task. No combination of words and keyclicks, however artful, can put you, gentle reader, in the lion’s den where the music is taking place. Yet this desire remains to transcribe, translate and transmit experience, quite literally, for the morning after – to reconcile that imprint of felt energy and push it out further and deeper into the world. Amidst a sea of empty trends and half-assed cultural mediocrity, I want to advocate for things that are genuinely fresh and real and dare-I-say essential, and hopefully to carry some of the flavor and attitude gleaned from one artistic plane (music) into another (writing). So let’s get to it, already.

Now let me do what I can to spread the good word on the thrillingly hip and vital, LA-based (really?) jazz-funk-new music aggregate Kneebody, collectively dropping unprecedented sounds and exciting audiences in a way I’ve rarely witnessed. Dust off the Encyclopedia Jazztanica and find Kneebody listed under “Future of jazz, hope for the…” As part of a 4-night booking at the new and impossibly cool NYC music venue 45 Bleecker, presented by finger-on-the-pulse, please-let’s-show-them-some-follow-love new jazz series Search & Restore, Kneebody presented two sets last Saturday night: the first featuring vocalist Theo Bleckmann singing unorthodox, jarringly gorgeous avant-jazz renditions of songs by that often-namechecked-but-rarely-understood, Spiritual-Forefather-of-American-Iconoclasticism, Charles Ives, all from a recent Grammy-nominated album; the second, a remarkably heated, intense-yet-loose, set of Kneebody originals. If music is, as Keith Jarrett claims, like nutrition, I feasted in New York. (And not only on Mahmoun’s Falafel.)

In fact, I drove up to NYC from DC with the sole purpose of hearing this show. Having also graduated from that ballyhooed (and much-discussed on this blog, go figure) late 1990s Eastman School of Music jazz program, I remembered the Eastman-bred Kneebodiers well (80% of them, at least – drummer Nate Wood’s playing was a new revelation), and the chance to hear Ives (probably my favorite composer) in a jazz context sold the deal. Neither set disappointed, and the fact that the energy from the two sets felt radically dissimilar is a testament to Kneebody’s musical flexibility.

Y’all know I’ve been trying to write about this “new current” in jazz, about the direction certain modern players are taking in an attempt to keep this music fresh and relevant, and not, as most schools would have it, a mere copy of something that sounded better 50 years ago. I’ve described this as “that Brooklyn sound” – but as discussed with Jason Parker previously, as well as old friend Brian Drye on the phone the other night – this new flava is not geographically bound to NYC – it’s springing up all around the country and even the world. (So who wants to come up with a catchy new name? Jazz needs new branding! Incidentally, the fantastic Rachel Maddow recently ran a fun competition to rebrand the boring “filibuster,” and decided on “The Tarantino” – as in the maneuver that “kills a bill.” Not sure if I buy it, frankly. And “Tarantino jazz” seems a non-starter.)

The new jazz (whatever we call it) Kneebody plays seems to have little to do with academic, textbook approaches (or at least, transcends mere technical matters) and lots to do with tapping into a dual trajectory of unstoppable innovation and contemporary relevance. In the context of jazz history, the ability to touch both of these poles stands as perhaps the sole, consistently unifying characteristic of all of jazz’s major voices; at least up until the 1980s “media darling” phase, the cobwebs of which mainstream jazz seems just beginning to shake off. (The ascendance of Dave Douglas comes to mind.) Kneebody presents one of the most concrete, distilled representations of this new energy, and their whopping artistic and even commercial success (how many avant-jazz groups have been nominated for a Grammy?) proves that this new thing is connecting with listeners. Let’s talk numbers for a second here, not generally something we get to do in jazz circles: over a four-night residency collaborating with a remarkably diverse array of improvising artists, Kneebody packed in close to 200 PER NIGHT. For a music whose harmonic and rhythmic complexity quite simply has no business attracting those sorts of numbers, not to mention young hipsters with cultural cache (and cash) to burn. Take this photo as my Exhibit A.

So what’s going on? We’ve discussed the idea that people want to feel included in the art of their day, and similar to a few daring and commercially successful classical ensembles, this is where the new jazz stands a chance to compete in the cultural marketplace. That said, I can’t imagine 200 people a night coming out to hear someone regurgitating Bird licks, which remains the primary pedagogical approach toward jazz within the academy. (OK, OK, I’ll stop harping on the schools, I swear. It’s just that I think there could be so much potential in well-funded institutions lighting a fire under this music, while in reality I’ve witnessed attitudes that actually extinguish musical innovation and exuberance.)

To its benefit, there’s something in the new jazz which encourages collaboration across multiple artistic platforms. (I recall learning Indian ragas in improvisation classes with Ralph Alessi, and listening to rapper Ice Cube in the first day of Michael Cain’s graduate jazz history class at Eastman.) Kneebody has tapped into this and embraced it as part of their aesthetic. Each evening of their four-night residency at 45 Bleecker featured a different collaboration with a wide range of artists. I saw the Ives show, but was informed about their Friday night show (featuring skullslappingly virtuosic rapper Busdriver) by a former student of mine who had driven up from Virginia solely to see one of his rapping heroes, who, accordingly to Endsley, “cordially meets us more than halfway on our jazz-nerd turf.” Notably, the exposure to new jazz came to my student as an unexpected bonus, and jazz gained a new fan in that transaction. How many modern jazz groups are collaborating with such a wide and diverse array of creative musicians, regardless of whether their music comes from the so-called “jazz” world? Too often today, jazz musicians play within a cocoon of familiarity, seemingly uninterested in expanding their music beyond the safety of their swing and bebop models, yet jazz, historically the ultimate pluralistic music, must compete within a pluralistic society, and I think modern jazz which draws upon non-jazz sources is a very good thing for all involved. And from a historical perspective, if Charlie Parker can play alongside Stravinky’s Firebird, and Coltrane can fall hard for Indian raga, why would jazz musicians NOT be expanding the parameters of their art beyond the limited scope of bebop and hard bop? Regardless of the milieu, collaboration is (or should be) the very purpose of the artistic transaction – connection, community, co-existence. As an actor and director, I experience this in theater all the time, yet all too often, jazz musicians insist on a stultifyingly insular, navel-gazing musical world for themselves.

Enough jazz politics. What of the music?

What struck me during the Charles Ives set was the ways improvised music might mirror that great universal cacophony which Ives loved, perhaps, to a more precise degree that classical musicians forced to play “the notes on the page” could approach. Apart from its blistering polytonal soundscapes, Ives’s musical aesthetic plays most poignantly with psychological memory and the passage of time. (For Ives uninitiates, a good place to start is “The Unanswered Question,” which superimposes musical statements of “the Silences of the Druids—who Know, See and Hear Nothing” with “The Perennial Question of Existence” and “The Invisible Answer.” Obviously, deeply conceptual stuff, and way ahead of its time in terms of innovation.) Forward-thinking classical musicians and musicologists like myself are drawn to Ives – as Kyle Gann offered, “Like flies to roadkill are the musicologists to Ives” – yet notwithstanding an excellent, largely unheralded recording by the NYC-based, avant-jazz group Sideshow a few years back, instances of jazz musicians covering Ives are rare. Thus, forgive my over-spilling of words on this portion of the evening – hearing Ives alongside the creative music of college friends presented a sort of overload of musical interests for me. If Ives was, as his excellent biographer Jan Swafford contends, “the Walt Whitman of sound,” then certainly his aesthetic could be a natural fit for the free-ranging, Whitman-esque sampling found in modern jazz. But how does it sound?

Bleckman’s set opened with the Ives song “Serenity,” featuring glacially moving, repetitive chordal accompaniment from pianist Adam Benjamin, hewing close to Ives’s original arrangement. Sort of a bold choice to begin the set with such a lugubrious song, but I think it helped the audience to become immediately immersed into Ives’s strange, winter-like sonic landscape. “The Cage” quickly turned funky, transforming Ives’s already serpentine melody into a pseudo Middle-Eastern sounding repetitive groove, assisted by Bleckmann’s use of a filter which doubled his voice a 4th above. Though they never got around to playing the gorgeous early Ives song “Feldeinsamkeit” (it’s on the CD!), they did play “Weil’ auf mir.” This song, written by Ives as a student exercise, allowed Bleckmann to display his mastery of German, one of many indications that this singer’s aesthetics borrow as much from classical training as from jazz. Accompanying Ives’s sinewy melody were the bulbous electric bass tones of Kaveh Rastegar, polytonal insinuations from Shane Endsley’s muted trumpet, and light mallet fills from Wood. Perhaps most “Ives-ian” of any of the pieces was Kneebody’s arrangement of Ives’s hymn-based “Shall We Gather At the River,” where Bleckmann’s use of a processing sampler enabled a stunning reflection of Ives’s fascination with non-linear dreamscapes of memory. Beginning the piece by recording himself singing wordless open vowels, Bleckmann deftly blended the tones through his processor into a polyphonic stew, then continued with the strangely disembodied hymn melody, stark in its simplicity. The musicians picked up with portions of the original Ives accompaniment behind the hymn, and the piece ended with Bleckmann reprising the initial loop (-soup?). Hearing this non-linear, inescapable “playing with memory” within the timeframe of one song in a way allowed the audience to experience time tumbling back upon itself – a perfectly modern microcosm of Ives-ian re-interpretation. Similar to the snakey funk treatment of “The Cage,” Kneebody’s madcap version of “The New River” took advantage of the already modern harmonic implications of Ives’s original piano accompaniment, turning the piece into an exploratory free-jazz romp. (Do take in my shoddy camera work on this one.) Nate Wood’s arrangement of “In the Mornin’” (the only Ives song of the set not included in his infamous 114 Songs) began with Endsley’s imaginative off-stage trumpet soloing, then dropped into a slow, fairly standard pop groove, the ease of which allowed the old “Give Me Jesus” hymn to shine through via Bleckmann’s stellar singing. “The See’r” presented a fun, metrically off-kilter exploration of the range of Bleckmann’s “bag of tricks.” Although a lesser singer might easily allow this to easily slip into gimmickry, Bleckmann’s performance aesthetic is always buttressed by a great musical sensitivity and flexibility. “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” (or, “Who’s a Tonic?” in Bleckmann’s jokey dog voice?!) pushed the boundaries of polytonality in a way the cranky Yankee Ives, who once said “You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds!,” might have approved of. (Though the jury’s still out on how much Ives actually fancied the jazz contemporaneous to his own time; musicologist Charles Hiroshi Garrett recently wrote a fascinating study of how Ives borrowed elements of ragtime, while at the same time denigrating the genre in published comments.) Ben Wendel’s arrangement of “Songs My Mother Taught Me” began by superimposing Bleckmann randomly tuning the dial on a small transistor radio to various FM stations (perhaps consciously inviting Ives’s great conceptual heir John Cage to the musical seance?), set over Adam Benjamin’s lullaby-inspired waltz accompaniment. The piece built in intensity by Nate Wood’s propulsive, martial snare drum work in ¾, reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero (anyone remember this great performance?), later assisted contrapuntally by Shane Endsley on cymbals, and sounding for all the world like a march to the gallows. Bleckmann continued to fiddle with the random sounds of the radio while singing the melody, creating a Ives-ian mélange of R&B wailing, Top 40, talk radio, and I swear at one point a man speaking “the planets are with us.” As an encore, the group played Ives’s “Waltz,” which splattered each and every musical technique we’d heard so far into a grand Charles Ives meets Jackson Pollack, Franz Schubert, Stephen Foster, and Ornette Coleman promenade.

Kneebody continued the second set with original compositions, all impressively memorized and internalized by each member of the group. Packed with dissonances, horns smacking around like snare drums, snare drums smacking around like gunfire, drop-on-a-dime changes of feel, meter, and tempo, all abounding. (More shoddy camera work here.) This ain’t your Grandma’s swing music. Yet again, there’s that connection to modern sensibilities – I might offer that rhythm is jazz’s most outwardly underdeveloped component (notwithstanding innovations in swing feel, etc.) – but modern players like Steve Coleman (certainly a major influence on this group) have stretched the boundaries of the ways music can flow over time, and in this sense, the new jazz shares much with hip hop, arguably the most compelling and dynamic pop music around today from a rhythmic perspective. What’s more, the fresh, easy virtuosity of the sort of improvisation practiced by the Kneebodiers draws listeners in via its very newness; although these players most likely grew up on 1950s-60s era jazz, they’ve transcended those influences to create what is very much music of today, and I think that’s a very appealing characteristic for potential listeners.

Each musician within Kneebody brings a highly distinctive voice to the music, and I’m reminded of the ways musicians trained within the Eastman jazz program were encouraged, above all else, to develop an individual perspective and sound. Shane Endsley’s focused, precise trumpet sound, crinkling and snapping like a rattlesnake opening a bag of chips. Comparisons might be made with the intervallic prowess of fellow trumpeters Booker Little or Woody Shaw, but perhaps even more fruitfully, outside of the realm of trumpet players; the polyrhythmic percussiveness of a drummer like Elvin Jones, translated to the horn, comes to mind. (Endsley also switched off to play some fierce drums during the set.) Birthday boy Ben Wendel’s tenor saxophone shrieks with passion and commitment, sharing much with modern players (Bennie Maupin, perhaps?), his rich harmonic vocabulary extending throughout all ranges of the horn. Nate Wood bringing the thunder on the drums, dropping metronomic landmines, rhythmic complexity like dropping a bag of marbles on a porcelain counter. Adam Benjamin’s keyboard playing, groovy and supple, in-the-pocket bursts of smooth energy, extending the vocabulary of Herbie Hancock’s 1970s-era funk. And blogging. (Do check out his legendary, hilarious, tongue-in-cheek standards record, a bullet aimed directly at the hearts of anyone who would dare take this music too seriously.) And finally, Kaveh Rastegar’s unusually prominent electric bass, providing a rudder to the ship, kinetic authority and a deeply felt presence throughout all phases of the music.

As should be expected, the new jazz makes new demands on listeners, yet a distinct, perhaps richer way of hearing and experiencing music is beneficial for both the future of the music and for audiences who (whether consciously or not) actually do want to be challenged. One friend of the acquaintance I brought to the show said that initially she hadn’t wanted to come to the show, which had been billed to her as “experimental” jazz, yet she enthusiastically mentioned she wasn’t finding any of the music “experimental” – which, of course, it unquestionably was! Cloaking this experimentalism amidst forward propelling grooves, rock-solid ensemble lines, and virtuosic, daring improvisation seems to provide an anchor which allows non-specialists to groove right along. Dig?

Phew, long entry. But lots to say. We’re almost done.

Finally, kudos to Nate Chinen of the New York Times for coming out to hear some of this music, and writing about it. And to TimeOut NY. If this music is to prosper, it will need not only institutional support (which if major outlets like Lincoln Center are any indication, tend to be years behind the artistic curve) but mainstream media coverage as well. Kudos to Kneebody for helping to point the way toward an unlimited, thrilling future for this music we all love so dearly. And finally, kudos to you, gentle reader, for reading this far. I imagine you might be the only one?

It’s probably a good sign that my immediate impulse for an opening line to this post are the three words “Caught the excellent…” With the exception that I’m fairly sure I used this same killer opening (ha) in my recent post on Erik Deutsche at Velvet Lounge! The second week of January must be killing-jazz-piano-players-in-DC week, as this wayward blogger in fact did catch the very cool (hmm, enough variety?) Baptiste Trotignon Trio at the French Embassy in DC (natch) this past Tuesday night. Still can’t believe this one was free – and if you live in the DC area do check out some of their other upcoming (free!) offerings; it’s really a gorgeous acoustical space and they program neat things (like the Suspicious Cheeselords singing Renaissance music of French composer Jean Mouton in 2008.)

In front of a packed house, Trotignon’s trio (feat. two highly melodic, virtuosic players in New Zealand-born, NYC-based, big-fan-of-Burgundy-wines Matthew Penman on bass, and groovelicious veteran Gregory Hutchinson on drums) swung effortlessly and joyfully through a set of mostly Trotignon originals. I was struck by the strong emphasis on melody inherent in Trotignon’s writing. (Dare I say catchy?) And although there was a really terrific piece in 7/8 (Trotignon had the luxury of speaking exclusively in French, but YouTube tells me it’s titled Grey), most pieces stayed within a dependable metric groove and things never went too far out in terms of form. (Although amidst the overwhelmingly positive post-show buzz in the lobby, I think I overheard a few society ladies who had just witnessed the outest music of their lives.) Outside of the originals, the trio offered up a smashing rendition of Thelonious Monk’s classic off-kilter “Trinkle, Tinkle,” and as an encore, played their only standard of the evening, the gorgeous “I Fall In Love Too Easily.”

I hadn’t heard of Baptiste Trotignon prior to seeing the post on this event, so wasn’t quite sure what to expect – but I think the only thing I needed to sell me (outside of the coolness of the venue and afore-mentioned freeness!) was reading an Amazon review of one of his albums which compares him to Keith Jarrett. And having written on Jarrett (have I plugged my thesis enough? yeesh) I’m obviously interested in pianists who filter forward Jarrett’s rather dominating, if perhaps unconscious influence – so it’s personally fascinating for me to try to pick up traces of Jarrett in young musicians.

Sidenote: I spoke briefly with Trotignon after the concert and he seemed to not have much use for my Jarrett comparison. Certainly, listeners make free associations which might not always have a basis in terms of real-life influence, at least on a conscious level, and also I understand how young musicians looking to break out with their own thing probably get tired of being told that they “sound like” whomever. That said, Jarrett is the pianist who comes to mind in terms of offering a performance comparison to Trotignon – which obviously, is high praise – and further solidifying the connection is Trotignon’s relationship with great Italian drummer Aldo Romano, who the young Jarrett worked with in the late 60s. I’ll try to depart from comparisons henceforth, but ultimately I heard this trio reaching for an improvisational freedom similar to the one Jarrett’s trio mastered long ago, even more so with regard to their frequent use of vamps to end or segue between tunes.

One thing that good jazz can offer is the excitement (and implied danger of failure!) of hearing top-skilled players manufacture chemistry on the spot – and although this trio hasn’t been playing together all that long, their interactions felt easy and truly integrated into a compelling musical whole. That jazz as “international language” thing – usually I blanch at easy metaphors like this, but in this case it’s true – among modern musical forms, it seems jazz best offers a context within which musicians from three unrelated parts of the globe (Trotignon, from the Loire region of France, Penman from New Zealand, and Brooklyn-born Hutchinson) can “dialogue” within a common language without having to use words. American-born, but embraced by the world. Nice to know we’re known for more than just starting wars, right?

Similar to Jarrett, Trotignon carries lots of American gospel influences heaped in with his Bill Evans-inspired harmonic shading, obvious traces of bebop, and a palpable, driving sense of swing, displayed on a few brisk uptempo pieces. Technically, he seems the equal of any of the current reigning champs of the mainstream jazz piano world – outside of Jarrett there are obvious affinities to Brad Mehldau, and perhaps even more accurately, Trotignon’s sort-of-countryman Jacky Terrasson, who I remember watching from the front row of the Village Vanguard with my entranced, non-musical father a few years back. I imagine Trotignon, already a young star and award-winner in Europe, will continue to break through the American jazz market.

On a different level, continuing my recent fascination with audience “behavior” and the presentation of art music, and notwithstanding the high calibre of the music, I must say the crowd struck me as subdued, especially after the enthusiasm of the young crowd at the Erik Deutsch show. Obviously a concert at the French Embassy is going to attract a different crowd than Velvet Lounge, but the difference in tone couldn’t have been more striking, seeing these shows in close proximity to each other. There’s this habit I picked up at Eastman – for lack of a better word I’ll call it “wooing” – a high-pitched call which musicians would frequently shout out both during improvised solos and during post-tune applause. I hear it all the time at concerts attended by young-ish jazz players and fans and practically speaking, it seems a neat way for listeners to let musicians know they’re actually listening and engaging with the sounds. Shouldn’t surprise me, but somehow it did – out of hundreds of people at the Embassy, no “wooing.” (Except from me. And I think I urged some on during the final bows.) I’m not sure if this is significant, but for me it underscored this dynamic of presenting jazz (or any other improvised music) at the concert hall, in front of how-shall-we-say less “hip” (is that what I mean?) audiences. Again, there’s that very clear dividing line again between performer and audience, perhaps set in bolder relief in this environment – I know in theater circles this is a hot topic, but I wonder if in jazz we have any way of breaking down this barrier? I think it’s one of the things that keeps audiences intimidated, and ultimately, away from our music. Thoughts? Anyone? Bueller?

Here are comments I posted in response to a recent post on on Washington Post writer Anne Midgette’s excellent blog, The Classical Beat.

Interesting metaphor you present here, Anne.

Allow me to toss in the idea, however, that there’s a lot more going on in this dynamic than mere musical preferences, and that this has loads to do with culture and social status. In following your metaphorical lead, do forgive my being a bit of a blanket generalizer!

Your “red staters” of classical music probably consist of a high % of highly educated, culturally elite, inordinately wealthy patrons (and matrons) of the refined concert hall, but more often than not without musical training, and importantly, without a real stake in the future (i.e. continued relevancy) of the music. I bet we’ve all seen people who storm off with their minks in a huff any time new music is performed because “un-pretty sounds” don’t adhere to their vision of what respectable music should look and sound like. The historical record shows that Beethoven himself had very little use for these people, regardless of how important their role as funders might be. Even if this operates on an subconscious level, audiences like this might see classical music as a appendage of culture, as an experiential designer handbag. Thus, “being challenged” – artistically, intellectually, spiritually – is patently NOT part of the appeal. Generalizations, sure – I’m well aware there are many people who just love the “3 B’s” who don’t fit my straw matroning here – but in my past life working in marketing at Lincoln Center I responded to lots of letters from conservative audience members who needed to be coddled primarily due to their important roles as donors.

Meanwhile, your “blue staters” tend to be musically trained, more integrated within the musical community, and importantly, they understand that for any art to remain relevant, it MUST continue have something to say to the general culture at large.

Blue staters are invested in the past, present, and future of the music. The academicization (and elitist posturing) of new music occurring post-1945 obviously dealt a devastating blow to capturing the imaginations of audiences – and to the notion that modern classical music should have relevancy – and it’s become difficult to undo this damage. Part of the challenge is presentation and packaging, and I feel the future of classical music will reflect a more catholic approach to music-making, which at present moment the sterile concert hall experience is far too rigid to allow. However, venues like Le Poisson Rouge in NYC are presenting new classical music to young, hip audiences who are eager to feel included in the art of their time. (Catch the interchange with Jason Parker and I on this dynamic in jazz here.) And I imagine these venues won’t shy away from programming groups who play Beethoven (I see Hilary Hahn is about to perform Bach at LPR!) – but their concept more accurately reflects the true diversity of classical music, rather than the exclusive glorification of the Romantic Era which appeals to society types. If you don’t know him, check out what pianist Uri Caine is doing with canonical classical works – his Mozart, Bach, and Mahler discs are revelatory both in their stylistic accuracy and musical exploration!

Incidentally, it’s interesting that DC doesn’t have anything (yet) like a LPR: perhaps because DC tends to be an inordinately old-guard, “red-state” city, from a cultural and institutional perspective?

Anyway, great blog and fodder for discussion. I think that new media and the blogosphere makes “we happy few” who are passionate about art music all the more connected and strong!

I caught the excellent Erik Deutsch Quintet Friday night at DC’s Velvet Lounge. And I was really pleased to see so many (40-50?) young folks there to hear this music (standing, no less) – certainly more than any other jazz concert I’ve attended in DC – even more surprising given that the musicians weren’t local. (Although pianist/leader Deutsch is originally from Potomac, I believe.) Probably a testament to good local press and a steady Friday night crowd at Velvet.

Some observations. I think young crowds aren’t always sure to how to receive purely instrumental music. This American Idol culture has made us so dependent on lyrics and the power of emotive (or over-emotive, IMHO) voices to ground us and provide “meaning,” and I think without words listeners get confused. Could there be a greater challenge for jazz – historically, a predominantly instrumental music – to overcome? What’s more, we don’t live in a particularly “listening-friendly” culture, at least not from a purely musical perspective. (Opinion, sure.) Anyone know the best-selling purely instrumental band in pop music history? (Here you go.) The fact that this is such an obscurity (their fairly tame hit song notwithstanding) is an indicator of how tough it is to get by on instruments alone. It’s almost shocking to consider how exclusively “vocal” popular music has been over the course of American history.

So in that context, it was interesting to gauge audience reaction. I first sensed a touch of hostility, as if it was going to be a drag to have to “pay attention” – which might distract from the actual focus of the evening – which for 20 or 30-somethings is of course having fun, chatting with friends, being social. Et cetera. But the easy virtuosity of this group – Deutsch is really a sick player – won folks over quick, and I observed lots of murmurs running along the lines of “oh man, they’re great!” Outside of jazz, the major colorative element in his compositions is probably funk, which during the 1970s brought layers of rhythmic complexity American pop music hasn’t seen before (or since, frankly). I hope I’m not coming off as elitist now, but the problem with funk (in addition to its primarily non-vocal focus) is that is tends to demand really well-trained musicians – a level which most pop musicians generally, for whatever reason, aren’t inspired to pursue. Don’t hate me for being biased-full, but jazz players tend to be the most well-rounded musicians from the perspective of music theory, ear training, and obviously improvisation. (Deutsch studied for over 10 years with legendary-within-the-community, Boulder, CO-based jazz piano guru Art Lande, who I’ve had a few lessons with as well. Art’s music is HIGHLY recommended for those interested in the Keith Jarrett/ECM/Brad Mehldau school of harmonically rich, exploratory piano work.)

Another really impressive element of Deutsch’s group is musical flexibility – which I intuited, and old friend/incredibly versatile reed player Michael McGinnis later verified – the idea that this group will play “to the crowd” depending on the performance context. (A phenomenon which occurs most dramatically in improvised music.) Listening to a few cuts from Deutsch’s excellent new CD really gave very little indication of the music the group played live – for one, Deutsch played an amplified electric Wurlitzer with control over loops, which filled the space much more than an acoustic piano might have. He has also toured in the trio of “jam-band”-influenced jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter. But listening to some further tracks online reveals a sensibility deeply rooted in delicately scored, exploratory jazz, yet at times touching the realm of the avant-garde. Deutsch recently referred to this as “cinematic chamber pop” – I’ll also call it “that Brooklyn Sound,” if you will.

And I hope to write more on this later, but there is absolutely something going on in Brooklyn which bears attention. Although I’m not an active musician on the NYC scene, I do feel I come at this from a sort-of-insider’s perspective. On the way to a post-gig party, I had a long, edifying recollective conversation with McGiniss, who I played with in a group called “Hee Hee She” at the Eastman School of Music, ca. 1997, initially formed to play the compositions heard on this brilliant recording. (HHS also featured the terrific Anna Dagmar on piano, now tearing it up as a NYC-based singer-songwriter. I really wish we’d recorded more, as these guys provided what still stands as one of the musical highlights of my life.) Mike touched on an awareness which, according to him, many NYC-based jazz musicians have about the goings-on at Eastman during the very years we happened to be there. An enormous amount of individualistic, technically-complex-in-a-vital way (damn Shane!), hysterically irreverent, commercially successful (even recently Grammy-nominated!), stunningly virtuosic and brilliant music continues to come out of musicians (a few of whom blog too!), who were involved (OK, who did I miss?) in the ESM jazz program during that fairly brief time period (roughly 1995-2000), yet the politics of the academy ultimately proved a completely overwhelming stumbling block – all of the most directly inspirational faculty members were summarily dismissed (or left of their own free will), and the program returned to its conservative, safe origins. (At least from what I’ve heard.) I remember certain old-guard instructors, cozy and cocooned in their academic careers (but from an artistic perspective, numbingly safe), offering stern admonitions that “no one will ever pay you to play like that!” (Cue ominous low piano drone.) But ultimately I think the music moves where it needs to move, and jazz doesn’t grow (or matter, frankly) when it’s more about developing the skills to dutifully play a lifetime of wedding gigs then about having something vital and urgent to say. Wasn’t it Charles Ives himself who said if you always had to depend on your “art” for your source of income, your expression will always suffer at the whims of the marketplace?

So I think what’s happening in Brooklyn – musicians including Erik Deutsch, but many others as well – poses a potential “way out” for jazz. A creative approach to music-making which I honestly don’t sense an awareness of in the extremely prevalent academic, textbook approaches to jazz – something having to do with living and sharing with a dedicated community, struggling, yet somehow maintaining a joy for making music – traits which the most vital jazz has always held. And yet importantly, not feeling bound up to “re-create” stuff that sounded better when it was first played in 1959. And I think this is true of new classical music as well – not surprisingly, many of the most forward-thinking jazz players I know are also well-versed in modern classical music. I think that what many modern classical chamber groups (e.g. Bang On A Can, eighthblackbird, the ESM-based Alarm Will Sound, and certainly Kronos Quartet, the spiritual forefather of ’em all), playing to packed houses in sleek, hip venues like NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge, stand as a more useful comparative model for the future of jazz than does the concert hall, which reeks of classicism, elitism, all those -isms that (for good reason) turn off potential audiences.

And you’ll hear me say this many times, but I don’t believe an approach to jazz which privileges a predominantly historical approach – the well-funded, corporate-sponsored “museum jazz” heard most prominently at Lincoln Center – does very much for the creative sustenance of the art. (Regardless of what a great job they do with marketing or how many tickets are sold.) The art – ever-changing, never predictable – will always move wherever it wants to. Jazz history unquestionably bears this out. But to maintain its vitality and relevance in a public sphere, to keep its heart/beat alive (metaphorically and figuratively), jazz needs to court new, young audiences eager to be reached with art that springs from their times, and in strict musical terms, also get them turned on by rhythmic density, fresh, challenging harmonies, and the thrill of improvisation which only jazz can offer. Without question Deutsch’s approach – and music made by others like him – offers a sustaining charge for that heartbeat. So czech it, peephole!

1. Keith Jarrett at Carnegie Hall (New York, NY, 2005/2009)
Keith is my musical hero, so this one’s a bit of a no-brainer. And here I go messing up my clean 10-part series already – in fact I attended two sold-out concerts (2005 and 2009) of Jarrett playing completely improvised solo pieces for piano. I had radically different experiences with respect to seat location (after the view from the nosebleeds in ’05 I learned the lesson that it’s OK to splurge on some things), but both concerts were revelatory and featured a similar sense of daring and musical ecstasy. A disclaimer here: IMHO Jarrett is the greatest musician in the world – or at least in the Western world. No one else makes music at such a consistently virtuosic, exploratory, and spiritually rich level. He’s probably overall the greatest improviser of modern jazz piano and I consider him (NOT Wynton) the true heir of Miles Davis (who he played with during the 1970s), but his contributions go far beyond the realm of jazz. Apart from his legend, there’s just something so magical about the way he plays the instrument: his chords just seem to ring and travel, he has a “sound.” Anyone who wanted to could prowl around the web and find my master’s thesis on Jarrett. But I digress.

I remember instances during both concerts – though the second is more vivid because I sat close to the stage – where the ecstasy of the moment and the passage of time felt otherworldly. Or perhaps it was actually that Jarrett was able to suck more beauty out of this world than any other music I know? I think it’s these moments that keep me coming back to music – the ineffability, the opportunity for transcendence, weightlessness and the sensation of suspended time. And I think this happens most potently in improvised music: everything is so present and precarious. The 2005 concert is available as a 2-CD set through ECM Records, and I’m hoping the 2008 concert will be released someday. For highlights of Carnegie ’05, go straight to the encores – the first notes of his classic composition “My Song” elicits giddy applause from half the crowd (i.e. me) who recognizes the piece, and Jarrett plays the living begeezus out of it. All of this said, I remember in ’09 Jarrett played about 6 encores, and left the stage (to thunderous applause) each time, really milking the crowd, which came off as self-indulgent. This tends to be one of the knocks on him. All in all, it matters not. People who ask “why are there no Mozarts today?” just don’t know where to look.

2. Suspicious Cheeselords at Cathedral of St. Matthew (Washington, DC, 2008?)
I’ve had the pleasure of singing (and drinking red wine on Wednesday nights) with this terribly fun, exquisitely musical bunch of guys in the past, but for the purposes of this list I recall hearing them sing one evening in the gorgeous acoustic space of St. Matthew’s. (Check out their website for the hilarious story of how they got their name.) Hearing Renaissance polyphony in its natural environs is a treat no human being should live a life without experiencing – class distinctions of classical music be damned. I bet if you bussed 20 kids in from Anacostia and plopped them down in the front row, once they settled in they’d be as transfixed as I was hearing those tones bounce off the cathedral walls. I hate how the entirety of classical music gets summarily dismissed as elitist puffery – music for wealthy white people – yet experiences like this could have so much to offer to young people looking for something more timeless than the latest corporate-funded pop celebrity. The marketing of music like this has to change – I know the great London-based ensemble Stile Antico actively uses social media – but I fear that even forward-thinking classical groups still cater to a self-selected, restricted audience who are already predisposed to such music. Assumptions borne of social construction – the “image” thing – is without question classical music’s worst enemy.

Anyway, if you live in the DC area, do make an effort to check out the Cheeselords live, and their handful of recordings are way better than they should be.

3. Radiohead at Great Woods/whatever shtupid corporate-sponsored name GW happens to be called now (Massachusetts, 2003)

I’ve tried to describe attending this concert as watching people watch a concert. This is how far my brother and I were from the stage. That said, I also remember feeling the only framework I could hang around hearing Radiohead live was that of a quasi-religious experience. Seeing Thom Yorke (or at least a miniature version of him) writhing onstage was like watching a shaman exorcising a demon. (Not that I’ve ever seen this, but Yorke matched my internal picture of what it might look like.) However, little of this performance aesthetic would matter to me (see: punk music) if the sounds themselves itself weren’t really interesting, complex, and vital. Yorke has a knack for writing music which feels like it couldn’t have come out of any traditional, learned approach to music-making. Sure, he bases lots of his sounds on modern classical composers (Messiaen, Ligeti, Reich, etc.), improvised jazz (allegedly Miles’s Bitches Brew was the major inspiration on OK Computer), and 70s prog & punk rock, but Radiohead seems the classic example of transcending influence – of a creative totality far greater than the sum of its parts. And unlike hearing improvised music, I admit there’s something about the energy of “knowing the song.” OK Computer and Kid A were life-changing records for me in the early years of the 2000s. I carried these sounds in my head through moments that spark self-definitions – most sharply, hearing The Tourist, the final cut from OK Computer, during my best friend’s wake in October 2000. I don’t think until that period I was aware of how completely we can lean on music to get through adversity. This is not ordinary stuff. If you don’t know Radiohead, you don’t know the ecstatic, thrilling potential of modern pop music.

Tangentially Related Honorable Mention (TRHM): Playing Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” with brilliant, way-too-good-to-be-a-lounge-pianist Scot Hawkins at Mimi’s American Bistro, ca. 2005-06. Scot possessed a musicality that could make Yanni sound compelling, and his approach to playing pop songs taught me lots about sensitivity and the ways classical training can influence playing and hearing any music. Late night sets (after the cheesy “play Freebird!” audiences had left) in that place were legendary. As we used to say, “You just won’t get that at Denny’s!”

4. Gillian Welch at Town Hall (New York City, 2001?)
If you’re a junkie for old-time country songs about bandits and ne’er-do-wells, tight harmonies soaked in some distant, remembered Americana, and the pure sound of acoustic instruments and real voices, you need to catch Gillian Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings. I’m taking a spin in the wayback machine to recall this early-in-the-decade concert, but a few things stick with me. The hall brimmed with hundreds of 20 and 30-somethings, most likely weaned on overamplified rock, yet deeply giving themselves over to this hushed, fragile music. In the thick of downtown Manhattan, bastion of commerce and cynicism, of all places. I think because we’re so unused to hearing unprocessed human voices in performance contexts, that when we do they really stick out. And there’s something about harmony singing that Americans connect to in their bones – that tight buzz good harmony singing makes thrills our ears – but obviously it’s really tough to pull off. [Jennifer Kimball has always been one of my favorites at this. Check her stuff out too!] I remember that as an encore, they came to the lip of the stage – Welch in barefeet – and sang an unamplified version of the classic country narrative ”The Long Black Veil” – and the silence and focus in that hall was unlike anything I’d thought was possible in so-called “popular” music. Mercy.

TRHM: Speaking of live, unaltered singing, I don’t know how I could’ve made this list without talking about hearing music in the pubs of Ireland. I recall a weekday night in Kilkenny, hearing patrons of the pub casually toss off songs like “The Dawning of the Day,” pints in hand. And another, in a bar in Galway, hearing local troubadour Gerry Shannon (I’m not making that name up) perform an 8-minute solo song about a man from Donegal about to be executed. We followed him out to his car (which he was maybe sleeping in), bought a CD, and were thoroughly entertained by this colorful rogue. Boy, did he have the ability to command a room with his voice. Gifted Irish singer/songwriter Declan O’Rourke did something similar during his brilliant set for Solas Nua in DC last month. Check out this video of his solo song “Marrying the Sea,” actually recorded in NYC within 24 hours after we were munching on Chinese food in Georgetown with him. The lesson? Put the studio toys away. Confidently sing solo and people will listen.

5. J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, Simone Dinnerstein, piano (An die Musik, Baltimore, MD, Sept. 2007)
Good lord, this was an incredible concert. I think it matched my idea of how classical music should look and act – a young, vibrant, attentive audience there to hear serious music played by a fresh talent with something to say. And with a reception sponsored by an excellent brewery! (Cooperstown, NY’s Ommegang, purveyor of fine Belgian-style beers.) Dinnerstein, fresh off of making waves in the classical world for her self-produced recording of Bach’s legendary, mammoth keyboard work, played the entire hour-plus-long work from memory, yet maintained a terrific sense of spontaneity and playfulness. Being in that resonant hall and breathing that charged air, coupled with the experience of introducing (and re-introducing) the work to the company I had brought – was extraordinary. We stuck around for the post-concert reception and had a beer with Simone (now a Facebook friend!); but I remember it felt challenging to make small talk after the intensity of the music-making.

I always make a point of mentioning to my students that even with all of our modern technologies, most of the music heard in our culture is infinitely less complex than music composed hundreds of years ago. Which seems a sort of backwards evolution. And I’m not saying complexity automatically translates to depth, but I do think that music made from a limited technical background (read: pop) will remain just that – limited. I hope the human race doesn’t mutate out of its ability to sit and appreciate collaborations like this one between a 30-something Brooklynite and a German church organist who died over 250 years ago.

6. Curtis Eller @ Riding the Bull, Capital Fringe Festival (Washington DC, July, 2009)
I’ll go short with this one as it feels a tad self-indulgent to include an event that I produced. That said, presenting a guy who I consider to be one of the most original, most important songwriters working in America today to DC audiences was such a personal thrill and I think that audiences responded to him as I knew they would. Curtis wrote two original songs (“Three More Minutes With Elvis” and “Maybe There’s Something Wrong With My Money”) for our production of Gus Schulenburg’s brilliant, wacky play “”Riding the Bull” – and as I prepped myself for my Act I entrance it was tough to not get caught up in the feeling that I – through a phone call and a promise that “the real Elvis will be involved” – had indirectly caused the birthing of these moving songs. Please check his stuff out, folks.

7. Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor (Strathmore Hall, Bethesda, MD, March, 2009)
This one was an unaccompanied date for one of my favorite pieces of music, period. (Regardless of how ubiquitous it is after “Amadeus!”) After the first half of the concert (Stravinsky’s “Apollo,” I believe), I abandoned my nosebleed section seat and snuck up to the front row of the first balcony, where I had a perfect, central view of the enormous orchestra and choir. I felt like a big dork following along with score, but it served to remind how intricate Mozart’s counterpoint was, especially in that incredible, world-shaking fugue of the Kyrie. There’s a big difference between studying this stuff on the flat page and hearing it performed live. Personally, I need to do both. I played the first two movements for my theory students in class the next day (with photocopies of the score) and it shocked them as well. We do what we can for advocacy, right?

TRHM: Mahler’s 1st Symphony, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor (Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD, early 2009?)
I’m a Mahler fanatic, and the BSO smoked the heck out of this tremendous symphony. Also the piece the Venezuelan wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel chose to open his LA Philharmonic debut with a few months back, broadcast live on PBS. Tremendous. Vital. Earth shaking. If you don’t know Mahler, you don’t know music!

8. Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish (Strathmore Hall, Bethesda, MD, November 2009)
I’ve been a dedicated Dawn Upshaw fan since her stunningly gorgeous singing in the acclaimed early 1990s recording of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, which probably as much as any other piece of music convinced me to follow music as a career path. Seeing her live was a real treat, and her accompanist Gilbert Kalish is also one of my favorite pianists. (Check out his great Ives recording with legendary Eastman soprano Jan DeGaetani.) Upshaw’s program was fascinating – the Ives songs were a sentimental favorite – but if I had to select one moment that grabbed me most dramatically, I’d say it was the song she chose to open the second half of the concert (by which point we had moved up to the front of the hall – notice a trend here?): Lúa Descolorida, by the young Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. So sensually compelling was Upshaw’s interpretation, I thought I was going to swoon out of my seat.

9. The Spring Standards @ The Purple Fiddle (Thomas, WV, January 2009)
I love the experience of rolling the dice with a band and finding gold. Off on a weekend ski trip in the middle of nowhere, celebrating a friend’s birthday, we ventured out into the vast darkness of West Virginia one night to find a good time. The kind of area where you drive for 45 minutes to get to “the next town over.” Yet there it was, stuck in the middle of what had appeared a deserted village, this hip, happening coffee & beer nook which featured live music. We certainly weren’t expecting the sort of show put on by these really cool kids from Brooklyn. Commence dancing the night away!

The Spring Standards define musical industriousness – somehow they thought to break apart a drum set and split it up amongst themselves –so that whoever was playing keyboard also was clicking out a hi-hat at the same time. Never seen anything like it, but it really worked and certainly amped the level of visual interest. After the show we ended up hanging out with them at a great local brewpub, playing “cornhole” – a local game based on tossing beanbags across the room. Such fun. Over the next few months I indulged in *almost* overdosing on their terrific 6-song EP. I still love it tremendously – just such a vibrant mix of harmony vocals, interesting melodies and fun, fun, fun. “Much love from the Cornhole Aces!”

10. The Concert for Dan (Brockton, MA, December 17, 2005)
I won’t go very deep into this one, as I wouldn’t stop until tomorrow, but the experience of producing and playing in this tribute concert for my best friend Dan Shea, a brilliant jazz saxophonist/composer who died unexpectedly, on Oct. 10, 2000, will certainly be one of the musical and spiritual highlights of my life. So many different memories sift back from that evening – which would have been his 30th birthday – personal musical tributes offered up from high school and college friends. Dan’s teacher George Garzone, one of the premiere saxophonists in the world, volunteered of his time and played a searing solo rendition of John Coltrane ballads, and played Dan’s feature solo in Stan Kenton’s “Time For a Change” with our reassembled high school jazz band, led by our old band director. My friend Tim Kiah and I wrote and performed a song called “Relax Jay” (a favorite saying of Dan’s to me) in honor of the time the three of us got in trouble (gulp) with some guys wearing blue up in NH. (Some day I’ll get links of the video of all this stuff up on YouTube.) That afternoon, amidst the tumult of pre-concert planning, I wrote a piece I called “Hymn for Dan,” and sight-read it at the concert with my dear friend Maria playing flute. In its simplicity and emotional purity, I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. And the concert closed with some breathtakingly emotional singing (Danny Boy, no surprises). Just an incredible tribute and more evidence than I would ever need that music is a gift that can heal.

That’s it. I know there are concerts I’m forgetting: Hearing (and meeting backstage) the great Jimmy Scott at Iridium last month. Jonatha Brooke at the Ram’s Head in Annapolis. Jennifer Kimball, Jeffrey Foucault and Peter Mulvey, also at the Ram’s Head. Andy Bey at the Blue Note. Susana Baca at UMD. Aimee Mann at the 9:30 Club. Slavic Soul Party at Barbes in Brooklyn. St. Vincent at the Black Cat. Indigo Girls at Wolf Trap. Brad Mehldau Trio, also at Wolf Trap. Gretchen Parlato, Melody Gardot, both free (?!) at the Kennedy Center Millenium Stage. Karan Casey at Jammin Java. Christopher O’Riley playing Radiohead and Elliott Smith at the Kennedy Center. Bang on a Can playing Brian Eno at UMD. My good friend Lena Seikaly in DC. Crooked Still, with my Eastman friend Corey on bass, at the Birchmere. Art Lande and Paul McCandless at Dazzle in Denver, CO. Rachel Brook singing the wordless soprano solo I wrote for my staging of “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread.” Paul Bley, Lee Konitz and Steve Swallow at the Regattabar in Boston – the last time I ever hung out with Dan.

Ah well. They’re all in my memory bank too.

This was interesting to write. (It’s too long for a blog post, IknowIknowIknow.) Trying to conjure up impressions from past experiences in a compelling way – more difficult than it seems. That writing about music being like dancing about architecture thing and all. We go to hear music and still there’s this question to answer afterward: “What was it like?” As if we could accurately convey the totality of being there – we’re dealing in translations of experience, so we use metaphor as a guide.

I also notice that quite a few of my favorite musical experiences have had something to do with musicians I know personally, or who were at least approachable. One of the cool things about being involved with non-popular music is that our heroes tend to be ordinary people, not driven by ego like many flavor-of-the-month pop stars. I remember in high school feeling so cool that because I was a jazz fan I got to go backstage and meet some of my idols – Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Shirley Horn, Keith Jarrett, etc. – which in the pop world obviously wouldn’t be the case. Plus the music is better (!) so it’s like a double-win. (I’m only partially kidding.)

Is it a bit disturbing (to me) that there’s only one full-on entry here that’s actually “jazz?” Hmm. Anyway, I’ll call it a day for now. What a decade. Joyful listening to all in the 2010s!

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