Back in the Apple

It feels great to be home after ten weeks on the road. Even though the tour only had four legs and the shortest length of time spent in one location was a week, being away from home for so long can put one out of touch with one’s inspiration; or at least I have found that to be the case. But it should be said, lest the sentiment is misunderstood, that I have travelled for extended periods with groups before, but I’ve never been away from home for this long at one stretch.

It’s one thing to be traveling with a stable group that is focused on playing music together and it’s an entirely different thing to be traveling by oneself. When I was younger, I had the great good fortune to play in the house band at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, Michigan for three weeks in 1977. I was part of a group that backed up pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. (with Bert Myrick on drums), vibraphonist Milt Jackson (with Myrick and pianist Terry Pollard), and saxophonist Sonny Stitt (again with Myrick and Pollard). Up to that point in my career I had only toured with artists that brought their own groups with them: Cal Tjader, Jim Pepper, and Joe Henderson. (Although these artists toured as soloists, they also had groups that they took on the road.) In fact, I had played at Baker’s while touring with Joe Henderson and was offered the opportunity to stick around while all the other eligible bassists in Detroit were on the road! It was at this point that I learned two things: 1) that improvising with complete strangers is really hard; and 2) that playing music isn’t always about having a good time. I have found that having fun while playing is a perk, and not a necessity to playing good music. And it should be emphasized that not having fun isn’t a reflection on the people one is playing with—it’s about how one feels at the moment.

During my last week in the Bay Area on this trip, I played on a demo recording and, while I had a good time hanging out with everyone, I was not very happy with my playing, although it sounded fine in the playback. This is mostly attributable to my process of improvisation; I generally know what I would like to play just before I play it. When it doesn’t come out quite right, the process of making what’s “wrong” (admitting that there are no wrong notes) sound right can feel frustrating. To be frank, I also find that the recording studio is one of the least comfortable places I can think of to make music—no audience, bad acoustics, often no direct communication with the others who are recording.

One factor about that recording session that made things work out well is that all of us had spent a lot of time in the same place, New York City. The pianist Dave Udolph is from there, and the drummer Akira Tana lived there in the 1980s; in fact, we worked together there. New York was a point of familiarity for the three of us, even though we have yet to play as a group outside of the Bay Area. I was staying with the pianist and his wife, vocalist Sherri Roberts, for the last two weeks and he and I had quite a bit of time to talk about the aesthetic differences between New York and San Francisco improvising musicians who play jazz. We came to agree that there are great musicians in each city who have never set foot in the other, and they play their instruments very differently. It’s almost as if the reasons for playing music in one city are different than for the other city. We finally came to the conclusion that for someone like Dave, who began his studies while negotiating the scene in New York, San Francisco offered a sane alternative to the frenetic and somewhat dangerous environment that is New York. Very little happens after 2:00 a.m. in San Francisco, and the residents enjoy clean air and a relaxed state of mind. For someone like me, New York offers the opportunity to create my own personal music immersion program that can be accessed until 4:00 a.m. in several locations around town, as well as the chance to hear just about any genre of music on just about any day of the week. A discussion on the subject with another pianist I know from New York who now lives in San Francisco, Bliss Rodriguez, arrived at the same conclusion.

It wasn’t until I was en route home that I realized what we were trying to pinpoint in the playing of New York musicians that was different from, and often desirable to, San Francisco musicians. It was something that someone (I wish I could remember who) told me years ago about New York City. Someone, maybe me, had described the city as a “melting pot” where artists come from all over the world and create new sounds. The person disagreed with the analogy whole-heartedly, describing it as a “mixing bowl,” where artists come from all over the world and meet a few other like-minded artists with whom they create those new sounds. The fact that there are a lot of artists doing this at the same time makes the concept competitive, so that technical proficiency is highly desirable and often rewarded. (Of course, there is a drawback in that technical proficiency, by itself, becomes boring and can become un-interesting.) But I now know that this is what lay at the core of my dilemma. Without access to my “easy listening,” the new music swirling around the mixing bowl of the five boroughs, I lose sight of what I’m working on—the things that I’m trying to get into my head and fingers. The difference between what I feel now that I live in New York City and what I felt when I lived in San Francisco is that when I went on the road then, I found a similar kind of inspiration in the local artists I heard and could bring that back home with me.

To be absolutely honest, I did get some inspiration from this extended tour, especially when I was introduced to the compositions of bassist Chuck Metcalf. In fact, I’m going to be including some of his compositions in my personal repertoire. Nevertheless, I’ll still be chanting something Judy Garland told us a long time ago: “There’s no place like home.”

No Place Like Home

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