Friday, November 20, 2009

Know Thyself

Noah had his NYC premiere of his autobiolytical jazz suite (which I keep typing as 'jazz sweet,' for some reason) Thursday night, and Yesenia and I caught the first of two performances that evening. Odd, the way language fails a little here - normally, when a band plays for an hour, takes a break, and plays another hour, I'd call those 'sets.' But since it's a single large piece they're playing, it seems more appropriate to use the term 'performance.'

Heck, it seems more appropriate to use the term 'ensemble' instead of 'band.' That's how authorial intent on the part of the artist colors the way the audience approaches a work. I'm also told that jazz musicians don't refer to cover versions as 'cover versions,' and that there probably isn't a term to use when Coltrane and company ripped up 'My Favorite Things.' Clearly, terminology is important in these areas, and one of the ways in which the merely interested are separated from the passionately involved. So Heaven help me as I try to write an analysis of the set/performance/suite/band/ensemble/septet - I promise that if I mess up a term that I'll make a donation to the Dizzy Gillespie Cancer Institute.*

Since authorial intent in this case was to present a suite of interlocking themes that (in his words), "...explores a journey through suffering, fear, determination, faith and, ultimately, transcendence and wholeness," a good part of listening was split left/right brain, trying to follow a narrative through wordless music while also trying to drink in the music in the moment. On the narrative front, the movements were titled in allegorical fashion, such as 'Warrior,' 'The Garden,' and 'The Path,' but in a piece this long and complex, it becomes difficult to keep track of just what movement you're in as a listener, so the overall journey becomes mostly emotional, untied from any specific meaning or image. Which meant that - with my emotions tied up in the composition, my intellect chose to be engaged by the act of performance, following the different musicians around and thinking about their choices and how they fit in with the overall piece.

The suite - named, as above, Know Thyself - ran about an hour, so I'm sure I misheard or misremembered some things. Plus, bear in mind that sometimes when you're listening in an abstract fashion, your brain will go where it wants. For starters, the stage at the club (the Jazz Gallery, located way downtown) was surrounded on three sides by crimson curtains, so half the time I expected to see Agent Cooper getting cryptic advice by a backwards-talking dwarf. So, anyway, that in mind, some...


- The suite began in a pleasantly random way - Noah had barely finished thanking the grant providers when the tenor sax player began to play some rolling lines. It segued so seamlessly out of the musicians little pre-show warming up gestures that for a few seconds, I thought it hadn't started officially. Like something caught out of the corner of the eye that you suddenly realize is what you'd been looking for.

- The septet was used as I'd hoped, effectively exploring the possibilities of smaller combos within the larger unit, and also allowing for instruments with varying coloration (such as the bowed section on the bass) to really give a very broad palette of sound with which to paint.

- Although the core band was Noah's trio, he didn't really treat it as a showcase for his own playing, with his one major piano solo (not counting section intros) coming fairly late in the suite but also not being the climactic moment. In fact, he took the risk of allowing himself to play parts on his melodica that deliberately clashed with the rest of the band, breaking up a lovely slow section (shades of Dolphy, complete with bowed bass, flute lead and the drummer moving over to xylophone) with harsh slashing lines in different tempo and key in unison with the vibes, to a pretty impressive effect. It takes a solid ego to be able to be the bandleader and be the one willing to make 'the bad sound' for the sake of the integrity of the piece.

- In fact, most of my favorite moments were the bits where things began to (deliberately) wobble off the axis. The first drum solo was one such case, where the drummer played awkward, stripped down patterns that pretty much found a new signature with each measure. Being the prog fool that I am, my other favorite moment was the movement that alternated measures of 7 and 8, which (I think) may have been the bed for the second vibe solo.

- A minor quibble with the Jazz Gallery's piano, which had a beautiful warm tone but less attack than I usually like - perhaps not 'attack,' but something that left a lot of Noah's playing sonically obscured behind the vibes and guitar, even where parts diverged. I definitely look forward to the album so I can dig apart the arrangement a little more.

- Speaking of unison playing: there's no denying that the tenor sax player was a great soloist, but a good part of the battle in acoustic music (any music) is the physical sound of the instrument, and tenor sax is the one that excites me the least among the assembled sounds on stage. I really appreciated its presence for the themes, however, as the classic tone of the tenor and alto playing lines in unison is hard to beat as a real 'signature' jazz sound. Thankfully, he swapped out for a soprano sax for a couple of movements, and I love the soprano.

- And speaking of instrumentation: as someone who deals largely with electric instruments, I'm drawn more to the way an instrument sounds than what the musician does with it. So the vibes player pretty much by default won the 'favorite soloist' award. By the same reckoning, the flautist (she was also an excellent sax player) 'brought it.' Not to take anything away from either of them as musicians - since both were excellent - but you've won a large part of the battle with me if you've got the sound. Apparently, I like vibes and flute. Who knew?

- Favorite moment: the drum fake out solo and big crowd-pleaser solo not a minute later. For contrast and context and blah, blah, blah, but let's face it: when the drummer is thundering out furious tom rolls so intense that the sticks rise over his head between each 64th note strike, well, that's my jazz equivalent of the money shot. ("John Bonham! John Henry Bonham!") All that was left out was rolling his stick down the ride, demonic face paint and magnesium flares. Maybe that's the point where the phrase 'Jazz Sweet' came into my head, because, you know, it was pretty sweet.

- I'm always a studier of the faces of musicians while they play - particularly drummers (although a great lead guitarist pucker - Dave Gilmour, for example:

also makes me happy). But those drummers' faces? That range that goes from something that looks like complete boredom to intense, murderous rage? Man, I can't get enough of that. Someone needs to make a coffee table book (or a future Rambler entry). Vinnie the Drummer (man, how great a name is that?) wore a look of what I can only describe as 'doing involved linear equations with multiple variables in his head'** for the entire show, tongue pressed firmly between his lips and brow furrowed for the full hour as he looked from chart to kit to Noah and back again, clearly still mapping out the devious stops and starts in the piece but never (at least to my ear) missing a cue.

- The celebratory 6/8 (3/4?) major key finale ('Back to the Garden,' I believe), with the full band picking up a phrase that had appeared in sketchy elegiac form on solo instruments earlier in the piece - usually at a hinge between movements (my favorite of which was a mournful reading on guitar). The motif - a straightforward VII-IV-I (I think) change in (I think) Bb - as played by the full band really brought it all home nicely, sounding a bit like Alan Silvestri's theme for Back to the Future as fed through the Ben Folds Five... although it's possible Noah was referencing 'With a Little Help From My Friends,' which would have made more sense thematically, now that I think about it.

Anyway, all of the above should be taken as not remotely an educated view of the piece - my knowledge of extended thematic works in jazz pretty much begins and ends with A Love Supreme.*** It's more of a view of an outsider looking in, carrying with him the baggage of a million concept albums. Like the saying goes: when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. I guess in this case, the nail is Know Thyself, and the hammer is Thick as a Brick.

Still, even given my limited context for hearing such a piece, I was completely knocked over by it. I'm normally not a sucker for technique, but all the musicians in the band (particularly the core trio and the vibraphonist) had exactly the kind of humanity in their playing that gives the technique a reason to exist - which is to say, the ability to say what you mean. And Noah gave them something worth discussing.


*Seriously, I owe them, since they did treat my mother.

**This is a look I'm pretty familiar with, these days.

***And Mel Tormé's California Suite, if you're feeling charitable.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lying in Bed with the Laptop but Thinking about the Weekend

Literally the most meta Rambler title you'll ever read, no doubt. Yesenia is in the tub and I'm warming my loins with the MacBook, lying back at an odd angle and typing without even moving my wrists. This is as low impact as it gets (well, almost as low impact as that one time I spoke the Rambler using that dictation software, and it ended up reading like a phrasebook from a Chinese mental hospital).

Have a fairly work-packed two days in front of me - and then the decks will be clear for me to actually spend a full weekend alone with my wife. Time for just her and me has been too short, of late. Every weekend since September there's been a wedding or a party or a house-assist, or something.

Occurs to me that I've seen enough movies in the last few days that I can give some capsule reviews, so let's on to that.

Disney's A Christmas Carol
Undeniably big and flashy, but I'll have to admit there are some sequences that worked really, really well for me. Zemeckis chose to amp up the scares, which I appreciated. Particularly in IMAX 3D, not one to bring kids to. Even a fairly innocuous moment is made that much more intense when it's a mile high and simultaneously an inch from your nose.

The story is such that I don't believe you can ever wring any real drama out of it in terms of a character piece - all the flaws are there in Dickens' original, and the closer you choose to hew to his structure, the less likely modern audiences are to buy into it. Zemeckis doesn't help by adding a couple of his patented silly whiz-bang Rube Goldberg kinetic setpieces. But what's odd is that the quietest moments are the ones that really have an impact - I'll go on record here as stating that the Christmas Past sequences (minus the dance) were deeply affecting. Carrey's portrayal of the ghost as an Irish flame spirit - all whispers, hisses and gentle sputters - is both deeply cool and weirdly moving, almost the exact opposite of his by-the-book Scrooge. In fact, all of his ghost acting (he did all three Christmas Spirits) was really excellent, even though Christmas Yet to Come really just stood and pointed a lot.

Anyway, like all of Zemeckis' CGI extravaganzas, I'm pretty sure this one also won't hold up on DVD, but for pure cinema, I don't think you'll find a more amazing moment this year than the 3D opening credits fly-through of 19th century London. Holy shit.

Synecdoche, New York
A film that I found paired thematically rather well with A Christmas Carol, for somewhat elusive reasons. It's a meditation on a lot of things - the nature of obsession, the fear of death, the unclosed wound of rejection, the elasticity of time and memory, etc. But the overarching theme is the impossibility of art, which Charlie Kaufmann treats as zeno's paradox, here, as Philip Seymour Hoffman, given unlimited funds, an entire lifetime and an army of willing participants finds himself moving further and further away from actually saying a single thing.

Sure, there are the usual Kaufmann cute-for-the-sake-of-cute bits of surrealism - a woman who buys a house that is on fire, and lives in it for decades until she dies from smoke inhalation; the usual complete fear and distrust of women (particularly the fear and mistrust of Catherine Keener, who I think I'm now afraid of in real life) - but there's definitely something of value being said here, a real example of form and content working together to create a deeper meaning.

Do I recommend it? Yes. Would I ever see it again? Hell, no. Bummed me out for two solid days.

Whatever Works
Mostly pointless. The type of film that probably would have worked from Allen's run in the late 70's and early 80's, when he had the proper lightness of touch to pull it off. Allen's big problem is that he thinks he's much smarter than he really is, so whenever he tries to write a character that's supposed to be brilliant, I'm increasingly reminded of a classically trained singer trying to sing torch songs (if you get my meaning). Allen is brilliant at comedy of all kinds, but actual intellectualism and book-learnin' is clearly well beyond him. So his dialogue for Larry David as a former Columbia professor of quantum physics whose penetrating intellect has driven him into suicidal fits of despair just doesn't work at all, largely because the dialogue is the same that he wrote for Max von Sydow's curmudgeon in Hannah and Her Sisters, and Jose Ferrer's curmudgeon in A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, and the umpteen curmudgeons of ever other film he's ever made.

My father said it best, years ago (not about the 'intellectuals' of the Woody Allen canon, but it holds true): just because you're depressed doesn't mean you're smart. Seriously, if Allen wants to keep making films where someone is supposedly brilliant in a rarified field, maybe he should have them actually display brilliance in that field. It's not that fucking hard; hire a consultant.

Aside from that, I didn't really mind Whatever Works, but it felt as antiquated as anything Allen has ever done - more like a throwback to the 60's than even the 70's.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Nattering Nabobs

The Approach, Pt. 3

It's amazing how difficult it is to separate positive action from anxious frenzy, when you're in the middle of things. Particularly tough (for me, as always) to set a goal that's years off and try to keep your head down and focused through it. Maybe it seems like now is always the enemy of the future, but I know in my heart that it isn't really that way.

Stephen King wrote a quite excellent non-fiction piece - a piece of sports journalism, of all things - about the season when his son's Little League team made it all the way to the national playoffs. And the title (and theme) has always resonated with me: "Head Down." As in 'keep your...' The idea is that the best way to work through problems towards a larger goal is - to a degree - ignore them. Not really feasible, true, but...


...well, let's just close with the old meditation: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

It seems like that's what I'm trying to say.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Scissor Cells

The Approach, Pt. 2

Shit, what time is it?

This is usually the first question that pops in my mind on Thursday mornings, these days. The newspaper keeps me solidly occupied from Monday afternoon to Wednesday deadline (anywhere from 2 to 6 PM), and obviously with class on Monday night and deadline work for agency clients, Tuesdays are especially long. So Thursdays are kind of like my Saturday, although they're generally fat packed with agency work, house work, and anything else that's been left out to marinate while I'm otherwise occupied.

Thursdays, in other words, are pretty good for me. A day that I get to spend on my own, slowly trying to get shit together. I try not to waste them, although the temptation is there. Over the last two weeks, I've done a fairly good job of staying on top of work stuff - one particularly large and stressful work project kept me very tied up. Where I got lazy was the raking, so the leaves just sat all over the lawn, mocking me, while everyone else got all raked clean.

Seems like we're the only people on the street who clear our own yard, these days. Everyone else has the land crew come by and with the magic of a small army armed with industrial leaf blowers, they get the whole thing spotless in about 20 minutes. We, on the other hand, have me and my dinky, underpowered electric blower and a tarp. And I have a pretty bad attitude about the whole thing - yard work will be low on my list of preferred activities until the day I die (probably while doing yard work).

Thing is, there's a scheduling tightrope that has to be walked with getting rid of those leaves. You have to wait until the tress have lost enough leaves to justify spending real time out there raking - regardless of the leaf count, the amount of time spent raking a section of the lawn is always the same - but you also have to get what's out there piled on the curb before the town trucks show up to clean the street. And you never know exactly when those trucks are going to show up. You can always hear them off in the background somewhere, the sound of their massive vacuum sucking up piles on a street somewhere unseen but nearby, somewhere in the neighborhood. Always coming closer. And if you miss it, they're not going to be around again for another two months, at which point you're stuck with the leaves.

I always ride this deadline - like I ride all deadlines - really, really tight. Although I don't like yard work, I don't mind doing it. Provided, that is, that I only have to do it once.* If you rake too soon, you just have to rake it all over again in another week. But tempt fate too long and deny all of the nice, clear and sunny days when you can really enjoy being outside, and you're in danger of having the rains come and make raking both messy and also eating away at precious pre-truck time. In previous years, I would take a half-day towards the end of leaf season and rush home to clear up, sometimes just finishing up as the truck pulls around the top of Cedar Street.

This year, I'd already raked the front yard three or four times. I may be lazy, but I still want the house to look somewhat nice, you know? And on Monday, the day I was sure, sure, sure that the trucks were finally going to come - I'd seen them on Lester Drive the week before last, and I think they did Summit Avenue last Wednesday - I spent an hour before trooping off to the paper clearing a big part of the back yard which was about three inches deep in leaves. But that still left the side yards, the other half of the back yard and all of the bushes and stuff (I consider clearing the bushes the bonus round).

Shit, what time is it?

Today was Thursday morning. I awoke around 8 AM, hearing the ever-present sound of trucks and leaf blowers quietly off somewhere. And I knew: it's now or never. I humped out of bed, headed out into the cool gray morning and broke out the gear. This year, I've even given up on the blower. Frankly, more trouble than it's worth. Just the rake and the tarp. Rake, pile, put on tarp, drag to the curb, repeat. By 10:30, everything was clear and the truck was thankfully nowhere in sight.

But you can still hear it. Come on, take my leaves. I piled them just for you.


*I only like doing work once in any area. If I do it, it's done, all right? I'll never be able to make clients understand that my original ideas are genius. Lord knows why they always need revisions...

11.13.09, 9 am - Edited to Add:I woke up to the sound of the phone ringing today, at around 8:45. As soon as I got off, I walked downstairs to let the cat out - and the leaves were gone. Lord knows how the trucks can wake me from several blocks away but running a giant fan right outside of my house doesn't stir me at all. Speaks volumes about the nature of the sleeping brain, no?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fully Packed with the Devil

The Approach, Pt. 1

Not that it's such an original observation, but the '9' years - you know, 29, 39 and, presumably, 49 - are probably even a bigger drag than the huge milestone years they precede. Because the '9' year is the point where you simply can't beat around the temporal bush anymore: no longer 'getting old,' now you're just 'old.'

Which wouldn't be such a bad thing in and of itself - youth is wasted on the young, and I was no exception, except that I hated all of the things that came with being young and just wanted to get into the comfortable routines of middle age. But the problem for people of my generation with aging is the cognitive dissonance that sets up between our chronological age and our emotional age. I'll put it this way, readers of my generation: do you picture your father logging in to a few hours of World of Warcraft after a day at the office?

What faustian bargain was collectively struck back in 1970 that allowed us to keep our sense of play as we aged? And what did we promise in return?


Tick Tick Tick

They've made digital doorbells that 'sound' 'like' actual doorbells, cell phones with ring tones that ring like the phone in a 1940's detective thriller, etc. Has anyone yet thought to make a digital clock that ticks like the real thing? Surely there are few more soothing sounds than the regular ticking of a clock. Veterinarians recommend wrapping one in a small blanket for kittens to help them sleep (reminds them of mommy's heartbeat, I guess).

Thing is, like all the other senses, sound is one of those things that's very difficult to fool - we pick up on ersatz sounds very easily. Even if you don't pay attention to such things, you might hear a digital piano in a song - no matter how well done - and think to yourself that it sounds a little off. I can just imagine that what we think of as a regular, unchanging sound - the clock's inflexible up/down ticking rhythm - is actually made up of a million tiny variants in tone. Each tick and every tock as individual as snowflakes. The digital version would just be one tick, and one tock, cycled over and over and over again, and we'd know it's wrong, because it would never change - whereas the real world is constantly stumbling over itself.