The community of improvising musicians—a brother-/sisterhood of dedicated individuals striving to master the continuum between imagination and facility—creates a beautiful and, at times, seemingly incomprehensible array of musical situations. I’ve been blessed over the last few months to be playing in several regularly repeating performance situations where the personnel and repertoire are fairly fixed as well as situations where the performances and personnel may not occur or assemble again.
The regularly occurring performances are in restaurant/bars where the management appreciates music and takes pride in making a place where music can be presented as an art and not as a backdrop to small talk. Readers of this blog know that one is the Queen Vic on 2nd Avenue in New York City’s East Village. One of the others is a beautiful restaurant in Ossining called the Karma Lounge. On Tuesdays, guitarist/vocalist Tom Flammia brings a quartet there to improvise on music of the Great American Songbook as well as Bossa Nova and hard bop. The third is The Garage on Seventh Avenue South where I play with vocalist Elli Fordyce one Sunday a month. This Sunday we’ll be there for the brunch slot, but I’ll be leaving early to play at the 6th Street and Avenue B Community Garden with a saxophone/bass/drum trio (and later that day I’ll be playing in New Rochelle with a Latin jazz fusion group led by trumpeter Steph Chinn—gotta go with the flow, y’know).
For the last set at The Garage Ed Schuller, one of the sons of the great American musician Gunther Schuller, will play bass. Ed and his younger brother, George, have been performing the music of Jaki Byard at Dizzy’s Jazz Club at Lincoln Center this week. Byard was an iconoclast in American music. A brilliant pianist who also played excellent saxophone and trumpet, he began his career in the 1940s. Byard codified his approach to making music and taught people how to improvise. He was murdered in February of 1999. Nobody knows why and the police aren’t pursuing the investigation now. (A letter writing campaign to reopen the investigation into the death of John Arthur Byard of Hollis [Queens], New York is being addressed to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly at: www.nyc.gov/html/mail/html/mailnypd.html.) The lineup at Lincoln Center is comprised of a few of his thousands of students. This might be one of those situations where the musicians won’t be regularly performing together after they’re done with their run at Dizzy’s. It’s well worth the trip to Columbus Circle I think.”
I’ll be playing in a concert in Central Park on Saturday evening with a line up that is similar only in that it is very likely to never occur again. It ties in with the discussion about popular music that was begun two weeks ago in this blog’s comments section. It is a celebration of the music of the American poet, illustrator and songwriter, Shel Silverstein, and will be free to the public. Producer Hal Willner has employed two arrangers, Steve Bernstein and Steve Weisberg, to put together the program. The arrangements are being assembled during rehearsals and begin as little more than lead sheets. The group, which consists of bass, drums, two guitarists (one plays banjo and lap guitar), two pianists, trumpet, trombone, two saxophones, a string quartet along with at least twenty featured artists, are improvising their parts into existence. It’s been rewarding, revealing, and a learning experience (this is after one rehearsal; there are two more to go).
The connection to the blog comments lies in the idea of popular musicians who are “improving and innovating our musical landscapes.” It is well-known that Shel Silverstein was a composer of popular music. “A Boy Named Sue,” “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” and “The Unicorn” are just a few of his hits. But these are songs, which is what almost all pop music is, and are composed of two principle elements: music and words. Of these two elements, the latter contains the most important part of the genre. While it is true that some popular musicians have made an impact with their music (Stevie Wonder and Prince come to mind), it is the words that carry the weight. I can think of very few examples of popular music that don’t have words to convey a message of some kind. In the case of Silverstein, the words can be profound in their acid wit and dark humor, such as the chronicles of the last half hour of a death row inmate in “25 Minutes” or a night in the life of the average American predator class in “Rosalie’s Good Eats Café,” but his music is formulaic. There is a joke that claims that Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber only wrote one song and the rest of his tunes are mere variations of it (although there is a strong case made that he actually stole the rest of them), Shel Silverstein seems to have actually done this. In fact, the music used to accompany the best known versions of his hits is often very different from their original versions. So Silverstein’s music is almost unneeded to perform his works—it’s about the words, much like spoken-word forms like hip-hop and rap that pretty much use the same drum sample. So, while popular music can serve as a viable wedding of poetry and music, the wedding is really about giving the poetry (or prose) a “green card” into the musical milieu.
It’s the use of group improvisation to create the appearance of acceptable domesticity for the benefit of the average American audience (in the guise of “social worker”) who might believe that literature is music that I find wonderful and fascinating. One medley performed by” Reggie Bennett weds hip-hop and lieder in an arrangement by Steve Weisberg that uses elements of Sound Painting to negotiate its terrain. Steve Bernstein’s arrangement of “The Ballad of Judy Jordan” takes its cues from the school of “conduction,” an invention of Butch Morris, who Bernstein spent years working for. So, while the music of Shel Silverstein isn’t that much of an improvement or innovation on our musical landscape, the innovations of 20th Century American music lend what some might consider an improvement to his music.
If you’re near 71st Street and 5th Avenue this Saturday night, walk into Central Park and follow the signs. I’d love to read what you thought about it.