DC


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?

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!

Sitting here at Tryst in AdMo, which according to my target demographic new roommate is the place for DC hipsters to be hip. Which I knew five years ago, but it’s always nice to have a reminder. Gotta say there’s something about being in a room full of noisy strangers, all busy being, accompanied by the music of clanging dishes and warm, bass-driven techno grooves. My head bobs as I dig for words. Oddly I feel much further in a creative zone than I would feel at home, that these sounds which might seem distractions only push me further into a state of wanting to work and imagine. I have no idea what this blog post wants to be, but I’m well aware I’ve been a sporadic writer along the birthing period of this blog and it feels good to ramble.

Mmm, Coldplay. “Look at the stars, see how they shine for you.” I forget how much I love this song.

Jazz and politics, right? Tonight, politics.

As I blog, just a couple miles from where I sit, lawmakers are casting votes on the healthcare bill that could affect so many of our lives. (Unless of course we get another postponement, which is a very real possibility that only speaks to the urgency of acting now, IMHO.) In the process of making around 30 phone calls yesterday on behalf of MoveOn, I had a conversation on the phone with a woman in California and thought it might be good to write about that for a bit. Her name was Edwina and she was 61, a small business owner. We spoke in mostly heated tones for close to 30 minutes; I could hear in her voice a sense of desperation, a strangely confident confusion, but mostly an urgent need to be heard, to speak her peace and feel like someone was listening. Which I tried to do. Didn’t make me agree with her, in her mistrust of the government and easy scapegoating of “the illegals” who clog her local emergency room, asking for free government handouts and not playing by the rules, but it was still an exercise in trying to reason with “the other side.” She came back many times to the point that unless I had read the entirety of the health care bill currently up for vote, then I had no business throwing in my support for it. She claimed to have read one of the previous incarnations of the bill, something like 1,100 pages worth, and was really upset about the so-called “pork” projects (she mentioned school playgrounds) that she thought was weighing down the bill. I countered that I’m sure there had been policies she had supported in the past which had been based upon bills she hadn’t actually read. This point, like many of her arguments, seems Fox-inspired; it’s understandable that people might be upset by a fear that the government writes complex, bloated, deliberately confusing bills, and in the midst are trying to get away with some sort of bureaucratic triumph on the march toward Socialism. But I guess like many of the left, I don’t see government as a big bad wolf who can’t do anything right. I do think many government projects can be excessively bureaucratic and often are mishandled, but also this has more to do with their being improperly funded, rather than innately misguided.

To her credit, I did find her personal investiture and passion on the issues fairly remarkable. It made me question my factual knowledge about the Democratic plan for healthcare; at this stage, like just about everyone I know, my feelings about it have more to do with an innate “trust” of Obama and the new wave of change and liberal pride, with lots of the leftover positive vibes from this time last year, rather than concrete knowledge regarding the inner workings of the bill. And I’m not going to fault myself for this – providing universal health care is probably the most convoluted issue facing America today, and I think I’m probably more well read than the average man on the street. I know that I’m willing to make a change for the sake of change, that clearly the inequities in our current system, along with the absolutely obscene profits the insurance companies are pulling in, profiting off of sickness and disease, necessitate a new approach. Which I believe the Democrats are trying to craft; while the Republicans, 100% in the pockets of insurance companies, are much more in interested in the status quo; it seems they do just say “no” to whatever plans the Democrats come up with. (The plan they submitted a few weeks ago had NO financial data whatsoever! Can you imagine?) Edwina had no answer when I asked how someone who doesn’t have insurance and also can’t afford its exorbitant cost might be able to avoid catastrophic loss in case of a medical emergency. She agreed that change was needed, but was so vehemently against anything resembling government intervention, that I don’t think she’d be happy unless the insurance companies themselves were crafting the bills. Which obviously isn’t going to get us anywhere.

Could write lots more but let’s call it an evening for now. Off to see a play by one of my favorite writers, David Ives. No relation to Charles, as far as I know. Although they absolutely share a similar irreverence and cheeky approach to creation. Which is something to aspire to in my own work, for sure.

PS – As I post this the following afternoon, am so happy that the House did the right thing and barely… barely passed the healthcare bill. I wonder if within the pool of Democrats who voted for the bill were any reps whose offices were called by any of the folks I called the other day. Probably not, but it’s nice to imagine I’ve participated in this wonderful democracy.

Also, a quick plug for the terrific show I saw last night, A Flea in Her Ear, put up by DC’s hot young company Constellation Theatre. I’ve never driven a Lamborghini, but I imagine I might fell something like what it felt like to sit in that audience; the pitch-perfect ensemble executed some incredibly technically difficult stuff and really knocked the piece out of the park! Now someone needs to privately fund them so they can replace the canned 30s-era jazz music with some real live jazz players!