Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Some Perspective on Time

with Drew Gress, NYC.
I don’t like for too much time to pass without maintaining the blog in some way.  And yet it seems to be averaging once every six months.  So my perspective on time itself may be an issue worth exploring.  At any given time there is a lot to respond to, comment upon or advocate for.  And for this saxophonist, living in NYC (a place that seems to exemplify over-stimulation as a virtue) writing here serves as a means to try and clarify a single perspective and perhaps look towards a larger view. On the other hand I’m writing at the computer and so it actually bothers me to some degree that in posting this I’m essentially asking you to stop what you are doing and look at your phone. So if you’re reading this I’d like to humbly suggest that it not interrupt any activity that you might otherwise be involved in.  Or that it not take the place of time spent doing nothing.  That’s very important as well.  In fact, if you chose not to read this post and instead did something else entirely, you’d probably be better off.

But if you’re still with me, back to the question of time.  I’m thinking about time especially in the context of a recent performance involving long-time friend and bassist Drew Gress.  This gig was organized by drummer Devin Gray and took place at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.  As we were getting set up Drew and I mentioned to Devin that we’d known each other since 1977, starting our first year of college together in Baltimore.  We played countless gigs in those early years and continued on as we each eventually moved to New York.  Many more gigs, tours and recordings followed. Drew observed that this year marks 40 years that we’ve known each other.  That’s a formidable number to contend with.  And yet it feels almost like nothing.

In recent years we seem to cross paths less than either of us would like and yet the music always feels fresh and immediate each time we get together.  I heard so many new things in Drew’s playing that evening, yet all delivered in his own recognizable voice and with an astonishing depth.  It made playing together seem the simplest thing in the world, requiring almost nothing, 40 years of time condensed in a single musical moment.  In the way Drew pulls the string.  The sound he gets.  His own personal timing.  It’s all right there.

I wonder about this kind of experience in the context of the kinds of conversations I see/hear on improvising, jazz (assuming that’s a word you relate to) and being an artist that take place in the community at large.  Conversations that often emphasize methodologies, approaches, techniques.  Or concern validity.  Or commodification.  What is it that I’m offering here, towards any of these conversations, that you might take away for your benefit?  Turns out, not much actually.  What I’m talking about is revealed in the music itself.  You have to be there.  And enter into it not knowing.  Of course we need to bring clear intent.  And it does pay to think about these things and be aware of the multitude of perspectives each of us bring to this activity.  But when it comes down to it, I got nothing.  Zip.  I don’t know.  And that somehow feels right.

One thing I will say.  While I don’t like seeing musical training reduced to “information” I also see the danger in reducing musical experiences into…”experiences”, that can too easily be  compartmentalized, compared and rated.  Peak experiences are one thing, but this quality of completeness that I’m talking about is more subtle than that.  It was there in Drew’s playing that night.  And maybe because I’ve known him for so long I was able to recognize it in such a clear, matter of fact, yet profound way.  I really don’t know how to talk about it except to say that it was as if the past, present and future were all going on at the same time.  I don’t even like to say stuff like that because it seems to privilege “this” moment over “that” moment, as if one thing were starting and another stopping.  What if we saw our awareness as more continuous, not so broken up, not so compartmentalized?  How would that affect our perception of time?

with Adam O'Farrill and Tyshawn Sorey, Philadelphia.
I’ll tell you about another deceptively simple musical moment.  A few months back I was on the road with bassist Stephan Crump in a quartet with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.  In the van one afternoon, on the last day of the tour, I was relating a story to Tyshawn that came from Pops Foster’s autobiography.  In it Pops Foster talks about what it was like to play music in New Orleans in the early 1900’s.  He spoke about a group led by a violinist, containing horns and drums, playing for dancers.  Because the violinist needed to be heard over the ensemble they all needed to play quite softly.  And because they were playing for dancers they needed to swing with some real energy.  Foster says that most of the time the music was so soft you could hear the sound of the dancer’s feet sliding along the floor.  I don’t know if this story had anything to do with the music we played that evening but I think Tyshawn may have taken some inspiration since at the end of the evening he announced, “I played the entire gig without using sticks”!  Perhaps a first for him, I’m not sure. What was most surprising was that I hadn’t actually noticed.  I did notice that it happened to be a particularly great gig.  In using brushes (and those thin rods bundled together, called rutes I think) Tyshawn managed to open up sonic territory and infuse great energy and intensity in this space without actually filling it with sound.  What am I saying here?  It’s not a comment on drum implements or relative volume levels.  It really raises two questions, what is silence and what is sound? Tyshawn understands.

I’ll sign off with a stray thought…some years ago I was chatting with dear departed friends Stephanie and Irving Stone (who had heard a LOT of live music in their time) about the scene in the 50’s and 60’s as they experienced it.  Seems the bottom line criteria in evaluating a musician was “does he/she have something to say?”  That stuck with me.  So what do you think that might mean? And where might that come from? And how would you access that?

Till next time…

P.S. I want to especially thank Devin Gray, Stephan Crump and Adam O’Farrill for their total involvement.  Also thanks to Devin for the photo with Drew and thanks to Stephan for his photo depicting the glamour of road life, with Adam and Tyshawn.