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!