“… internally … working through the music before actually expressing it …”
It’s all systems go at Systems Two Studio in Brooklyn. It’s also Marge Records owner Gerard Terrone’s first foray into New York City. He’s been running around from club to club catching as many gigs as possible in his one short week here, but his main reason for the trip is to do a follow-up recording for the young, promising French saxophonist Alexandra Grimal.
A dream group is gathered for the session, and I feel lucky just being in the presence of such giants as Lee Konitz, Gary Peacock, and Paul Motian. I expect nothing less than miracles, but what I get over the almost five hours is bursts of energy, wisdom, ecstasy, frustration, great solos, disappointments, and cutting humor via Konitz. The session is relaxed and stressful, playful and mature. “How do you want to do the solos?” Lee asks. “How ’bout you do the head first, then we do two choruses?” “OK,” Grimal says. She’s not much bigger than her tenor sax, but when she picks it up you can feel the authority that she brings to it. Ditto on soprano. The relaxed warmth of her tone is not unlike that of Konitz. The two saxophonists’ unison playing and trades on such cuts as “Breathing Through,” “Moor,” “Awake,” and “Bows” bear this out; as Joe Marciano, the sound engineer and owner of Systems Two point out, Konitz and Grimal are at times indistinguishable, their lines weaving around each other. With old pros like Peacock and Motian as anchors, the morning glides by.
Gerard tells me the feeling in the studio is good, as the players proceed with take two of Grimal’s “Awake,” a lilting, dream-like, mid-tempo ballad that sends a gentle breeze through the control room. And as the morning progresses we find it all to be mellow in the best possible way. “Let’s start with the last chorus,” Lee says. “Just beautiful,” Joe sighs. Konitz chortles, “It’s too long. It’ll make me go to sleep.” Everyone cautiously laughs.
With every phrase new classics are minted, landscapes created—moon walk, limits to go beyond, simple geometries to be crafted. “Let’s do it again. This one will be better than the one before,” says Motian, throwing out an idea. “He knows whereof he speaks,” says Konitz. “He’s been around.” “Yeh,” says Motian, “5,000 recordings in almost as many years.” “So let’s take a chance,” Konitz responds. Peacock says excitedly, “I’m doing my best to keep it together. You got it! You got it! That’s one whole chorus right there. Let’s just play FREE.” Abrupt wobblings—you can feel the nuances of gentle chaos—opening the eyes—stretching out. “Hey Gary, that was better… you really wailed on that one,” L.K. says. “Gary? Who’s Gary?” Gary says, pointing into space, “He’s over there. Listen but don’t listen. React off each other.” Fast-slow-in tempo-rubato.
We feel the sound of breath, the working out of process and possibilities. Ghosts in the unlocked room—“Breathing Through” (a Grimal original)—drinking in the blue tones—smooth, crazy ramblings—immeasurable pacings within these dense but loosely controlled conversations, at time Konitz the guide with his warm, crisp phrasing, climbing, breaking, and entering with his uncautious interventions. The constant comings and goings—gentle dialogues floating around the room/ cutting through ad abstracting time/ forming new formulas from old languages, while at other times suspending discussions—hearing them at other times suspending discussions—hearing them float above our ears. “Next tune. Next tune,” Konitz says impatiently. “We can always come back to it. Let’s get a feel for the whole record.” Such things happen—ways to formulate decisions—the space within the composition—mix-rush—architecture—New York winter blew blue “Blow” (a Konitz original)—stepping across the other side—finding spots for each other—leaving the door open—deciphering the story—“Does the tempo have your name on it?”—lessons always sough/ taught/ learned—a session filled with punch lines and mirth—legitimate thinking—infinite gestures—coherence and motivation—moving rapidly along the surface of sound—creating a wholeness—a roundness within the square of the studio—scrambling the rhythms with scrutiny ad certainty. Konitz jibes, “I’m faking like hell to keep the tempo. I’m hungry. Lets go to lunch. I want some hippopotamus lips and French fries.” “What’s that?” asks Alex.
After rice and beans, tempura, and sushi deluxe, the raw, tasty sounds continue. Exchanges between generations make the gap almost ageless. Forging a close bond between players and their understanding of the MUSIC—new realms in old clothes—re-inventing invention and ingenuity with constant little shifts/overcoming frustration—coming more together with each tune—never exhausting the language—Grimal stronger with every take—plummeting into ranges—cool coherence—order—gesture—Konitz wanting to play a standard/ a source of inspiration/ the center of the heart-brain-soul. They go into “Stella by Starlight” and then “Body and Soul” to wrestle the muses and loosen up more. Throughout what has now become afternoon, the four artists fit ideas comfortably into one another’s thoughts, returning to certain points of origin but never repeating anything. Completing puzzles. Matching sections, then creating new puzzles. Never assuming or playing roles, all “talking” with their own gripping and personal voices. Just blowing at times/ creating new impressions—paring things down to the bone—the bare essentials—no space left empty, though within bare essentials—no space left empty, though within the crowded box of notes always SPACE to maneuver within. Non-resistant. Taking things apart and putting them back in “order.” Piecing together all the odds and ends. At times literally bumping into each other.
As evening arrives, the trio sans Konitz tackles a couple of Peacock’s tunes, one being “If, This, Then,” a recent composition that Peacock describes as “If this then is what is now rather than worry about what it was then now we see it for what it is and might be when.” (Huh?) Another will full quartet, “Moor” (from 1960), is a spectre-like piece that finds Motian quilting the infinitely complex hinged rhythms together in an almost confusing system of interlocking beats.
“December Greenwings,” another Peacock original, brings the winter feat full-circle as the day draws to a close. You can almost feel the leaves warmly wrapping the season in warmth when leaves should no longer be present, then flying off like little angels above a grey city as the snow begins to fall. And finally “A. H.,” another Grimal original—very somber and melancholic/ umber colors/ totally autumnal, that point in the season when all the leaves have turned brown and have scattered throughout the city streets.
Music is always evolving, while at the same time performing specific ongoing functions, and when the session is over I come away thinking that to listen means more than just making a conscious effort to hear. It is a way of bringing what is outside in, to bridge the gap between the two and allow the listener to come away a bit fuller than before.