“I have Healthfirst Health Insurance. Do you know what that is?”
—Man speaking loudly on cell phone before
disappearing into the blizzard of 2016
“Words are not a substitute for thinking.”
—Morgan O’Hara, artist
“If it’s something I like I have to write it myself […] I like that legendary string …” claims the narrator of Robert Ashley’s three-plus-hour non-opera Quicksand based on his novel of the same name. Ashley’s alterego has lots of great dialogue and is, as with all of Ashley’s work, as American as it gets, spinning yarns about buttons and cheap watches while “waiting for the bozos.” A compassionate secret agent who spends much of his time feeling guilty over killing the bellhop in the hotel where he was staying, he works for a government agency known as the “Company” and happens to write operas and drink lots of vodka. It’s a non-mystery mystery that mentions mysteries a lot. There’s the protagonist’s wife, the yoga retreat, and his love for and ultimate involvement with Pooh, a sweet tour guide doubling as a freedom fighter possibly in Thailand, where pretty much all the action occurs. Pooh enlists this guy, along with the “Steelers,” a group of American mercenaries, to help promote a coup.
Problem was the live action is slim and, unlike my editor, George, (who loved it) I don’t think it had much to do with the ongoing plot. I liked the unfurling backdrop and smoke but I’ve seen it all before, bodies emerging from or covering themselves with sheets. The choreography was dull and endlessly repetitive and that guy constantly sitting at his imaginary typewriter, writing what I guessed was the very story being narrated, was not convincing. Hearing Ashley’s dreamy midwestern voice read was spellbinding, and Tom Hamilton’s music was the perfect companion, providing an even dreamier underpinning, never treading upon but rather echoing it compassionately. But as I stated to Hamilton I’d rather sit in my tiny dark living room and listen to this as I would an audio book. For me it works best that way. But the story gripped me and I strained to hear every word, wanting desperately to know how it ended. I split, however, just before they were about to attack the General’s castle to catch Farmers by Nature, a trio with Craig Taborn, William Parker, and Gerald Cleaver, a group that contains multiple layers of musical ideas, voices, and emotions.
The subway doors opened onto Broadway/Lafayette. An unseen band was playing. The cute kid across from me looked up from his book and smiled. I smiled back. I was getting off at the next stop and planned to walk up to him before exiting to tell him the name of the tune and who wrote and played it. Twice more we looked at each other almost flirtatiously. As I reached my stop and the doors opened I rushed across the crowded car and said, “The name of that tune is ‘Take Five,’ and before I could say more he smiled and replied, “I know. The Dave Brubeck Quartet.” “That’s good,” I said and left both happy and disappointed. I arrived at Farmers By Nature right on time after stepping in a huge pool-sized puddle up to my knees (sort of like ice cold quicksand). It was Taborn’s third evening of his residency at the Stone.
Taborn’s gig list and discography are extensive, reaching back to the ’90s. He’s appeared on such labels as Aum Fidelity, Pi, Screw Gun, and ECM, as both leader and sideman, playing with such luminaries as Tim Berne, James Carter, Mat Maneri, Evan Parker, Ches Smith, Dave Douglas, Dave Holland, and Roscoe Mitchell, with whom I first heard him at the Note Factory. Taborn’s style, technique, and abilities are varied and far-reaching. He is of that generation of fearless inside/outside players. Always taking risks, his palate combines/covers the entire shape/sound/color spectrum. He is new/old fashioned, fusing hard bop, free bop, nu bop, classical, and pure improvisation in a swinging high-Baroque multilingual mélange. At times slow and random-sounding, but with each choice he makes, while meandering through the keyboard, with each repeat, you feel what great music should set you up for: the magic of what might come next. Taborn says it’s about using “complex textures to thrilling, dramatic effect” and that he “want[s] to challenge the context” within a music described as “conceptual,” “technically demanding,” and filled with both “density and spaciousness.”
You know the old saying that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing? In Taborn’s case they know each other all too well and can either complement, as in controlled repetitive vamps under or on top of fast free-runs and melodic parallels, or consist of completely different structural ideas traveling in oppositional directions without him or his hands losing control or touch with one another, all the while smiling and having serious fun. It’s new wine in old bottles and vice-versa, old and new dreams, new and old gospel, all applied to his thinking, growing process, and unlimited potential. He at once sees all facets of how each musical component relates to the other yet in an instant can demolish and reconstruct those relationships. He can be soft, slow, tender, raucous, and rousing, all within a brief duration. He is possibly one of the few musicians at present who traverses every mood and tempo within a seamless one-hour set—quickly, quietly, imperceptibly achieving a huge buildup then bringing it back just as imperceptibly to near silence, from individual notes to large clusters. And when engaging with John Zorn’s finger bending, brain twisting “Bagatelles” his concentration can be felt throughout the room. Taborn is pure song, filled with constancy, elegance, and power. Catch him whenever you can and pick up his solo and trio efforts—and Aum Fidelity and ECM CDs—Chants with Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver; solo release Avenging Angel; and Ches Smith’s new release, The Bell, with Maneri. Heck, pick up everything he’s on. You won’t be disappointed.
Entering Jazz at Lincoln Center, the tune in the elevator was “Take Five.” I wanted to stop the elevator to listen closer to its author’s mellifluous alto, but the only way to do so would be to pull the emergency brake. I thought better of it and went to the pre-concert discussion on Charles Lloyd instead. After that I went to the concert featuring Lloyd, Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Reuben Rogers, and Eric Harland, dreading the worst. Though Lloyd, whom I love (listen to Chico Hamilton’s Man from Two Worlds and Passin Thru and Lloyd’s Columbia LPs), stated in the Playbill that he “strives to go forward,” and that “music is in constant evolution,” you’d never know it from what I experienced: tunes from his most recent CD on Bluenote with said group (plus guest spots by Willie Nelson and Nora Jones).
Lloyd sold millions in the ’60s with his Forest Flower LP, played with the Beach Boys, and got pretty psychedelic for awhile, before retiring, then re-emerging. I wouldn’t call what he played either evolutionary or revolutionary, though due to his overtones, trills, lush/harsh sound, and the expertise of Frisell and Leisz (at times playing with too much pedal steel), there were some wonderful moments. Before the music began Lloyd gave a heartfelt speech and thank you to George Wein who was seated in the first row, saying, “Wein floated my boat,” and “for a long time [he] stood up for the music when nobody else would.” He also stated that “This indigenous art form is the bedrock of the culture,” and “This music had me drunk since I was a little kid and heard Lester Young, and I’m still drunk. We’re all drunk. On the music that is.”
The set began with Dylan’s “Masters of War” and ended with “Abide With Me.” In between they played the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” “Shenandoah,” and a Lloyd original. But there was no Gábor Szabó magic, and for me playing all these tunes was a step backward, not forward, though I can certainly see its wide audience appeal. Still it’s always good to hear a seasoned veteran who’s dealt with everything still willing to do so.
About two days later at another Taborn gig I met a guy who had sat next to me at Lloyd’s. He said he noticed I didn’t clap but that I clapped for Taborn. I told him I didn’t like the Lloyd gig but also that I’ve clapped so much in my life that sometimes I take a rest. He said he loved it and came to Taborn on a whim, thinking he’d hate it, but loved that as well. Life is funny that way.
By the way, Pat Martino can still swing. I caught two fine trio sets at the Jazz Standard and left elated after hearing his covers of “Footprints” and “Impressions.”
Best placement of music in a film this year: Haydn’s The Creation played on a crank-up portable Victrola on a canoe going down the Amazon in the incredible film Embrace of the Serpent, a kind of Fitzcarraldo meets The Teachings of Don Juan within The Heart of Darkness, wherein the main protagonist—a native shaman—says to the white man after a heavy “trip” in the decimated 1909 Colombian rain forest (they are searching for a magical cure-all flower), “Listen for Real. Not only with your ears.”
I dedicate this to Jay Small, activist, musician, tireless worker for justice and tenants’ rights who will be missed by many.
Poet/collagist STEVE DALACHINSKY was a long time contributor to the Rail. His book The Final Nite & Other Poems (Ugly Duckling Presse - 2006) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His latest CDs are The Fallout of Dreams with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach (Roguart, 2014), and the book/CD Pretty in the Morning with the French art rock group the Snobs (Bisou Records, 2019). He was a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. His most recent books include Frozen Heatwave, a collaboration with Yuko Otomo (Luna Bissonte Prods, 2017) and where night and day become onethe french poems (great weather for MEDIA, 2018) which received a 2019 IBPA award in poetry.