Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Stapelia gigantea, a milkweed-family succulent from Africa, growing in a neighbor's front yard. The adaptation: carrion-scented flowers, pollinated by flies.

When my brother was a Midshipman, he told me the Marines had a saying: "Adapt and improvise."

His Naval Academy buddies also frequently used an acronym: "Bohica." It stands for "Bend Over, Here It Comes Again."

Speaking of sayings: the unreliable narrator and I have one that summarizes an approach to the music people still insist on calling "Jazz": "Real Book at the Radisson." Maybe you can already hear it. If not, imagine the typical upscale cruise ship atmosphere in any lobby bar in any business/upper middle class tourist oriented hotel in any town or city shooting for swank, imagine the piano trio with guest vocalist or guest alto player, imagine the setlist ranging from What's New? through maybe Wave to perhaps the adventurous arrangement of Green Dolphin Street or the blunt-force literalness of the sax feature of maybe Ornithology or the late night wild and crazy straight-six-eight of Footprints or even the jazzed up Beatles medley.

I've played these gigs. One of them was New Year's Eve, '85 into '86, at the King of France Tavern (I think it might be called The Treaty of Paris Tavern, actually) in Annapolis, MD, with the stunningly talented pianist and arranger Stef Scaggiari (perhaps best known for his brief, impeccably arranged variations of the All Things Considered theme on NPR). Stef used to host an open mic night there and I once jumped into the fray with a piano improvisation, sort of equal parts Gershwin-lite and ham-fisted ersatz Cecil Taylor. Scaggiari was nicely supportive and ended up calling me for the drum chair for the following New Year's gig (his regular drummer, a very talented DC session man, had bigger holiday fish to fry). Imagine my astonishment that the 4 hour gig paid $300. I figured I was finally launching my career as a professional musician.

Sadly, my bass player friend Steve Singer (on the gig on my recommendation) and I didn't really play very well at all. Actually, Steve played well. I pretty much stunk up the joint. Maybe I had a few too many free, very dry martinis; maybe I just had an "off night." But I insisted on wheeling out my less than integrated Elvin Jones chops, and some of the unevolved Tony Williams flourishes I had bastardized in a horrific overlay on my suburban white boy Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson roots. Not realizing how thoroughly inappropriate these half-assed references were for the setting, I pretty much bashed and busied my way out of any future gigs with Stef, and seemed to confuse everyone involved, including myself.

Unanchored by any wise elders, mentors, teachers or tradition, and coincidentally not very skilled at self-reflection and accurate self-assessment, I conveniently avoided learning anything at all from the experience. In fact, I remember feeling frustrated that Stef and Steve were so fuckin' square and couldn't go to all the multi-layered, polyrhythmic and envelope-pushing outlands in which I was so obviously completely at home. My immense ego could grasp that something wasn't working, musically, but that's as far as things could proceed.

One of my favorite Proverbs of Hell, from Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise."

And so it was, dear reader. Many more Real Book at the Radisson gigs before that fateful New Year's Eve and after, virtually every one of which was a study in everyone involved having chosen poorly, in reference to and including me. Another standout was a string of gigs one languid summer at a hotel in Santa Fe called, at the time, The Picacho Plaza, which is now, believe it or not, actually a Radisson. These gigs were a couple of nights a week, organized by a "jazz vocalist," whose name I have forgotten, with the impeccable musicianship of Santa Feans Sherman Rubin on piano and Spin Dunbar on bass. This was the summer of 1990, when I had left a 5 year relationship for a siren named Petra, a performance artist and dancer. She came to one of the gigs and yawned a lot. Sherman and Spin eventually tired of my showboating and got me fired.

Perhaps it is this string of utter artistic failures "in the tradition" that makes me want to eat my own arm off at the shoulder every time I hear "BeBop 2007" or "The Young (aging) Lions Play Exactly In The Style of Blue Note Circa 1966," or the "jazz repertory" sadness that gets all the surfaces right and completely misses the meaning (pace Eliot) or the irredeemably miserable Diana Krall, or the pale, millenial fireside warbling of Norah Jones. Those who can't do, criticize.

Yes, but in my own defense: I am completely and totally sent by, for example, the Herbie Nichols trio stuff with Max Roach and Al McKibbon. Or Miles and company coyly working over some idiotic fluff like If I Were A Bell. Or Elvin masterfully picking his spots on the Sonny Rollins Night at the Village Vanguard sessions. Or Sarah Vaughan, even on something as thin as Black Coffee.

I also want to gnaw madly at my extremities when I hear "Free Jazz" a la 2007. Ken Vandermark, for example, despite being well-funded and even immortalized now on the big screen, just misses the entire boat for me. Pick your poison and all that, of course. But the self-consciousness of it all completely bypasses the original vitality of the approach. "How to Take a Vital Tradition and Turn it Into Various Clunky Shapes Cast Entirely in Lead."

Cecil Taylor/Tony Oxley/Bill Dixon in 2002...a snapshot of part of what the "wise elders" are up to. Unrelentingly stunning, authentic, urgent, assured aural conjuring. Utter magic. Completely different: The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble's recent release, Hot 'n' Heavy, with Corey Wilkes. Bam, wake up. Wachet auf! Roscoe Mitchell, Harrison Bankhead, Corey Wilkes, Vincent Davis live a few months ago in Albuquerque: clarity, fire, roiling intensity, freshness, joy, depth. High concept music underpinned by earthy power as deep as you'd want to take it.

The contrast is absolute. The New Thing on CD is Real Book at the Radisson in a thousand thousand forms. It's nice. It's entertaining. It's a display of obviously highly crafted musicianship (usually with very tasty drumming). And if it weren't nailed to the perch it would be pushing up the Stapelias.


unnarrator said...

This may be my favorite post of yours so far. You may have been a ham-fisted, actively alcoholic New Year's Eve drummer (since we both know it takes a lot of finesse and musical maturity to do something different from the same old If I Were a Bell or The Man I Love or Black Coffee or or or--while still keeping it something to which the common listener can, well, listen)...but you have been more than redeemed (at least in my Real Book) as a self-lacerating writer (my favorite kind). And, some of us also happen to think, as a sober pianist and drummer with both a lot of critically informed taste and a heck of a lot of raw instinctive mastery. You may have blown your gig with Stef but think of it this way: you didn't lose a lounge gig, you're gaining an improvisational opera with me and Mols.

unnarrator said...

PS: Paging Dr. Ben Dover!

Brent said...

of course blue note put out unit structures and conquistador in 1966...

peter breslin said...

Hi Brent- That's true, and not the mid-60s Blue Note to which I was referring. But a good reminder that I can sometimes paint everything with the same brush...


Anonymous said...

say, what are you doing THIS new year's eve?


the improvising guitarist said...

That was painfully funny story (and very well told).