Sunday, December 11, 2011

A handful of shows

Sonny Rollins will live forever, right? I ask because I passed up the opportunity to catch him last month…at the Olympia…in Paris. What was I thinking? (I returned home to the news that Sonny’s contemporary, the drummer Paul Motian, who I harbored hopes of seeing at the Village Vanguard during one of his week-long residences, has died.)

Every year, holidays approaching, I resolve to attend more than a handful of shows in the coming year. If you don’t think attending more live music performances counts as self-improvement, I tell you it does. If it seems to lack the punitive element you require of a resolution, well, you can decide on something to give up, to pay for your price of admission.  

March 26th, 2011; bad restaurant on the waterfront on Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama; unknown trio w/policeman: A blistered and hung-over Canadian couple also staying at the Hotel Don Chicho shared a tale of a “fantastic” trio of musicians (“Algerians and Jamaicans, we think”) playing at the island’s bars and being shut down, night after night, by the police. Was the band too loud? Had the club owners neglected to pay off the cops? It wasn’t clear, the Canadians said, but it was a shame.

That night or the next, six or seven bars deep into a night on the town in the Caribbean, we stopped, for a second, late dinner, at a pleasant-looking restaurant with a horrible kitchen. The infamous trio arrived just after us, and soon began setting up the equipment (guitar, drum kit, congas) that their tiny, beautiful girlfriends had, with great visible effort, loaded in for them; then the cads commenced playing, and…they were as good as advertised, playing tight arrangements of American rock tunes – the Doors, the Stones, Sublime’s “Santeria” – that the guitarist sang in a charming, French-accented baritone.

We were enjoying the free music, the band’s enthusiasm (palpable, even though they were playing for ten people, girlfriends included), and the serendipity of it all, when the cop walked in.

He was a short guy, and exuded the phlegmatic quality common to all authority figures in a corrupt Central American country. Smoking a cigarette, he stood to one side of the band, facing them, studying them, arms folded, while they finished a number, clearly unnerved by his presence. He stepped forward and spoke to the guitarist; the bartender had made his way out to the floor, hovered behind the band. Here comes the shakedown, I thought, or the eighty-six.

Then the guitarist handed his guitar to the cop, who played and sang (in Spanish) a few bars of a delicate ballad, shyly acknowledged the applause, handed the guitar back with a word of thanks, and walked out into the night.

April 19th, 2011; Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan; The Stooges: A hometown Stooges show at the beautiful Michigan Theater would have been great, and Iggy Pop seemed up for it; but this date was a tribute to the late Ron Asheton, a weird, self-congratulatory, all-things-to-all-people kind of affair. First, Henry Rollins took the stage, for a monologue on the importance of the Stooges, to rock and roll in general and his life in particular, leading up to a note-perfect anecdote; unfortunately, Rollins talked for another twenty minutes, thus setting the tone for the night.

Iggy, acting against the express wishes of the venue management (he said), invited all who would fit to join him onstage – twice.

Mike Watt, as he coaxed feedback from his bass, dry-humped his Marshall stack – twice.

The head of the Michigan Theater Foundation, a local bank president and a high school classmate of Iggy’s, told a funny anecdote about his first meeting with the former Jim Osterberg; and, standing in for the mayor, presented Iggy with the key to the city.

Iggy Pop, a man in his sixties, who could have simply said “No, thank you” when this presentation was first suggested, rolled his eyes, lobbed the key over his shoulder, and put me in the terrible position of feeling embarrassed for a bank president.

July 20th, 2011; Toledo Zoo Amphitheater; Steely Dan: “Thanks for coming to the zoo!” Donald Fagen said, after opening the show with a beautiful rendition of Aja.

There’s only one way to deliver a found joke, a sure laugh, the kind everyone knows is a gift: you have to convey a certain humility. Fagen faked it perfectly.

Looking around now, it’s hard to believe that Steely Dan ever had a place at the top of the popular culture of this country. I don’t even know how to begin explaining them to the people of today. Except, perhaps, thusly: “Imagine the Coen brothers were musicians…”

And most people who do remember them are either obsessive fans, like myself, or utterly despise them.

“Do it again!” the drunk next to me continued to shout, after Becker and Fagen left the stage.

“I don’t think they’re going to do it again,” I told him.

November 11th, 2011; Jazz at Pizza Express, London; Michael Janisch/Aruan Ortiz Quintet feat. Greg Osby: Ronnie Scott’s is the premier jazz club in London, but they had booked Dave Brubeck’s Sons Play the Music of Dave Brubeck for the duration of my visit to the city. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away: Greg Osby! The less-promising-sounding Jazz at Pizza Express turned out to be a fine venue: small basement room, great sound, comfortable seating. Janisch, a big, affable American bassist, and the Cuban-born pianist Ortiz, led the band through their own compositions as well as pieces by saxophonist Osby and Fats Waller (“Jitterbug Waltz”). They played a complex and thrilling set, with Janisch, Ortiz and drummer Rudy Royston never merely comping, but improvising their own trio/duo interactions behind the solos from Osby and trumpeter Raynald Colom (from Barcelona).

This was a Friday night in Soho, and several of the larger tables in the room were taken by groups who’d obviously come from work by way of the pub, ordered pizza, had too many drinks, and could not shut the fuck up. Finally, Ortiz, after saying a few words prior to the final tune of the set, offered to wait until the crowd stopped talking before playing again. The room went quiet, but about twenty thin-skinned patrons walked out during their last number.

As the friend I was at the show with pointed out, none of this was new. Listen to any renowned live jazz recording and you’ll hear crowd chatter, dishware noise, etc. (This is probably the secret history of fusion. A jazz musician, tired of not being able to hear the drummer over the sounds of a tableful of salesmen trading jokes, buys himself an amplifier. “Talk over this, motherfucker!”)

But it posed a small dilemma for me the next morning, when Ortiz and Osby sat directly behind me on the “Chunnel” train! How could I let them know I’d greatly enjoyed their set, without also blurting out that I wasn’t one of the talkers in the room? When the train pulled in to Gare du Nord, I did just that. (They were more than gracious.)

November 17th, 2011; Sunset Sunside Jazz Club, Paris; Francois & Louis Moutin w/ Rudresh Mahanthappa & Jean Michel Pilc: Francois Moutin plays bass on several of alto saxophonist Mahanthappa’s albums, and in pianist Jean Michel Pilc’s trio, but I don’t know if the three of them had ever played together before, or with Francois’s brother Louis on drums. Based on this set, I’d say no, but it was an awe-inspiring clash of styles and temperaments. Louis’s playing owed more to Charlie Watts than to Tony Williams (or, perhaps, Rudy Royston’s non-stop inventiveness was still too much on my mind). Mahanthappa switched from Indian music infused modalism to free jazz blowing and back, often leaving Pilc, whose own solos pointed to classical training and a fondness for the Romantic, sitting on his hands. Francois was a monster, up for anything. Does it sound like a mess? It was a gig. It was great. To quote the only English on the club’s menu, “Jazz is freedom.”