“It’s a tragedy when people don’t know you’re being ironic.”
“Religion makes good people do bad things.”
I am writing this in a crowded subway car on my way to a gig, afraid that if my foot touches someone somewhere, or I say “God bless you” to someone who sneezes, my photo will be snapped, my soul stolen, and I’ll be hauled off in handcuffs. The lady next to me reads the art section of the New York Times, I try to sneak a peak, but fearing reprisals I think better of it. A couple of stops later she sneezes as she gets up to leave the train, I say the magic words in German, and to my surprise she turns and thanks me, leaving her newspaper on the seat beside me. I pick it up, gaze at it, and see nothing new. So much for reality. So much for fantasy. So much for the high cost of living. I’ve been away for the past month and a half and missed a lot of great gigs while gone, including some of my own. But, conversely, while away I caught a few great gigs, including some of my own. Ah, the City of Lights in Spring.
Soon after I got off the plane in Paris and rested up a bit I caught a gig by Chicago’s Sun Rooms with Nate McBride, Mike Reed, and Jason Adasiewicz, in one of the newer subterranean Paris basements. The next day found me at the loft of pianist Noah Rosen, where I heard master musicians Connie Crothers and Joelle Leandre, whom I had the honor of recording with before arriving back home. I also caught my buddy Sabir Mateen with the wonderful drummer Benjamin Sanz, whom I did a radio show with and who also appeared in the French festival La Voix Est Libre at the Peter Brooks theater Bouffes du Nord. (I will report more on this festival and its origins in the fall.) I caught great French musicians and artists that are rarely, if ever, paid attention to here, such as Geer and Bram van Velde, and others that are equally celebrated on both sides of the ocean, such as Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang.
In New York: Grammy-nominated organist Cameron Carpenter, a new name for me, stepped out onto the Greene Space stage for a concert/conversation presented by Q2 Music (WQXR’s online contemporary-classical webstream) looking a bit like a Klaus Nomi clone, with his spiked, dyed white hair. He was dressed in black, black muscle T-shirt on a well-toned body, with brown suspenders and wearing black “diamond”-studded Latin oxfords made for dancing, rather than organ shoes. He later explained that the shoes helped him feel more, though their effect on his playing wasn’t bad either. He sat down and promptly launched into a Bach fugue at breakneck speed, feet dancing wildly on the boards of his digital organ—which he is a staunch advocate of, preferring it to the conventional pipe organ for its accessibility and mobility. Questioned by moderator/host Terrance McKnight between tunes, Carpenter insisted that he was not the “bad boy” of the organ, though it was clear he felt comfortable in that role, playing everything from Bach to Ives to Grainger to Leonard Cohen to Rufus Wainwright (preferring to call the pieces he transcribed “transpirations” rather than transcriptions). He finished the evening with a part from his own suite, the Science Fiction Series, using as a main source for its inspiration the work of comics author/illustrator Chris Ware. When asked about making the audience happy, he said he wished he didn’t have to play with his back toward them and he would be a liar if he said that wasn’t one of his goals. He went on to quote a conversation between Rubinstein and Gould: When Rubinstein said to Gould that he wanted to be able to look into the eyes of the audience and capture their souls, Gould replied that he wasn’t interested in their souls at all. The conversation throughout the night was the high point for me, since I wasn’t really able to detect whether I enjoyed Carpenter’s playing or not. As he put it, leaving the constraints of Juilliard, where he played music he hated, allowed him to become completely himself on an instrument that is far less standardized than a piano, and that he’d played since he was a child. Philosophical aside: Carpenter no doubt is a virtuoso but he should calm down a bit while playing. Passion, skill, and speed can all collide, causing sloppy results. So is this postmodern fusion music? And is one’s ability to appear radical in manner, dress, and attitude (rather than one’s innovative qualities) an indicator of talent and a valid cause to be elevated to cult status or celebrity? As Carpenter himself put it, freedom to express is what counts, rather than being part of an academic system which is there only to regulate human thought.
On the art-rock side there was Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood’s attempts at painting at the Broome Street Gallery. On display are all manner of watercolor portraits of his bandmates in action, plus other notables. Passable but weak fare, although I did get a poignant story out of it: At the opening some kid asked the price of one of Wood’s painted guitars. The answer was $45,000, and the kid started to walk away somewhat dejected. So the gal asked him if that was his guitar near the gallery entrance, and when he said it was, she whispered, “Bring it over to Ronnie and ask him to sign it.” The kid asked in disbelief, “You really think he would?” She said, “Well, try and see.” Wood did. A good time was had by all. Pass this one by if it’s not in close proximity to your shoes, unless you’re a Stones maniac.
Two books recently came across my “desk” (note: I don’t own nor do I have room for an actual desk) for review: Jason Weiss’s Always in Trouble: An Oral History of Esp-Disk’, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America (Wesleyan, 2012) which I mentioned in a previous column, and Elvis in the Morning: Poems and Tales (iUniverse, 2012)by poet and jazz journalist Florence Wetzel.
ESP (the name stands for Esperanto, a language that Stollman hoped all would learn to speak and tried to foster with the release of the label’s first disc) has always had a dubious rep: not paying royalties, being licensed to many different companies, etc. Yet at the same time it has produced some of the most important musical as well as other documents of the twentieth century and in the twenty-first has still managed to release new voices as well as new material from its never-ending archive. Though it sometimes appears as if it’s in a coma, it remains to this day very much alive.
Weiss, as with his former book on Steve Lacy, has compiled personal accounts by owner/operator/lawyer Bernhard Stollman, his brother Steve, who lived on Houston Street for many years, and others, mainly musicians who either played on ESP recordings or, like Ken Vandermark, were influenced by the music the label produced. The book features a who’s-who of the avant-garde: Cecil Taylor, Frank Wright, Sunny Murray, John Tchicai, William Parker, Gunther Hampel, and many others. After intro(s) by Weiss the book launches into about 75 hardcore pages of Stollman’s accounts and reminiscences. Then, after a ten-page, black-and-white photo-folio, a section called “ESP-Disk’ as Lived and Witnessed” begins, and for the next 200 pages we are treated to testimony of every sort by some 39 different and distinct voices.
Like the crazy (dis)organization of ESP itself, Paul Thorton of the Godz states, “I think that…a key to our success, [was] not knowing what we were doing.” Still, I have to say that despite all the arguments against Stollman for “not knowing what he was doing,” without ESP we would have lost a valuable part of musical history and there would be less of a proliferation of independent labels today.
My first encounter with ESP was as a kid in the sixties when, while walking down MacDougal Street, a guy I knew stopped me and said, “Hey, I know you like Cecil Taylor, so you should go to Dayton’s on West Eighth Street and pick up this record Bells by Albert Ayler. He’s the Cecil Taylor of the saxophone.” I promptly bought my one-sided clear pressing of Bells, got stoned, and got it back to Brooklyn safely, where I played it softly while my parents slept in the next room. I was hooked. It went inside me immediately. I started buying every piece of ESP vinyl I could find, particularly the jazz stuff and groups like the Fugs, and to this day I’m still enchanted, overwhelmed, and enthralled by the label’s output—rivaled only perhaps by the French label BYG from the same era.
As Alan Silva states, “If every record label was as diverse as [Stollman’s], we’d be in a more interesting point of view.” This book is a must for avant-garde music junkies like me. Oh, and I’m still missing a few ESP titles, so contact me if you think you can help me find them cheap.
Florence Wetzel’s book, with a forward by poet Herschel Silverman, is in sections that vary in length and substance, from haiku to “bad romance” to “all sorts of life” to a brilliant section titled “Music and Jazz Portraits.” Flo provides us with insights into every facet of the human soul. (Also look for Flo’s jazz mystery novel Dashiki.)
So until you hear from me in the fall remember that, as Flo states in various poems: “in the place where words come…” “inside of sound a piece of peace…” “the essential flame escapes from word to sound….” and “the limitless world is not in the music if it’s not in the listening.”
This piece is dedicated to Brant Lyons and Steve Ben Israel, two friends who passed away while I was gone.