First, let me say that again I don’t want you all to think of me as a narrow-sighted one-trick pony—meaning that I’m not just a music junkie. I love all the arts, and I frequent galleries, museums, film, and readings, but my editor wants me to restrict myself to music so that’s what I do. These past weeks have been fruitful, though in some cases disappointing, but I’ll spare you all the details and just give you some highlights.
Visions de l’Amen: Messiaen at 100
For me one of the treats of the season, and a steal at $9 a ticket, was the five-hour tribute to Olivier Messiaen at Weil Auditorium at Carnegie Hall. It started with a biographical lecture by scholar and pianist Peter Hill, who told a wonderful story about how on his first visit with the maestro he was directed to sit in a chair that immediately collapsed beneath him. From there, we were treated to the film Olivier Messiaen: The Crystal Liturgy, which dealt partially with his piece From the Canyons to the Stars (which I caught later that week at Juilliard). After the intermission there was an hour-long interview with Boulez, a student of Messiaen’s who told it like he felt it: “I hate those bird impressions,” and “I couldn’t believe that a man so advanced could fall so easily back into romanticism.” The day ended with a performance of the duo piano piece Messiaen wrote for himself and his student/second wife, Visions de l’Amen.
My almost-two-month Messiaen odyssey ended with a free Town Hall concert, the reunion of the group Tashi playing the great Quartet for the End of Time, written in 1941 while Messiaen was interned in a German POW camp.
Dancing in Your Head: Ornette at 79
With the price of tickets ranging from $77 to $101—expensive for Town Hall—I begged and begged to get a comp to this one. For comparison, imagine what tickets cost when Coleman played the historic 1962 Town Hall concert (which, coincidently, has just been reissued on ESP Records). Oddly enough, though, the cheap seats were half-empty. So it goes when a legend charges too much.
Ornette, dressed in a plaid suit, had a quartet that consisted of his son Denardo on drums, Al McDowell on electric bass, and Tony Falanga on upright bass. After a short up-tempo piece, which the crowd went wild for, the show went from up to down, back up, back down, back up, with a few sluggish points. And, as with many of Ornette’s gigs, the sound was somewhat muddy due mostly, in my opinion, to his palette and concept, and how the band makes use of the available sound system.
The tunes alternated from fast to slow and were kept short, except for one tune in the middle of the set whose structure and melody were based on one of the Bach cello suites. The concert ended with the sweet but usual encore of “Lonely Woman,” still one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.
I still contend that Ornette can’t play the trumpet or violin very well (though when he played them they were so faint in the mix that I couldn’t really hear them), but what’s important is that he plays them 100% his way.
Tenor Madness: Sonny Rollins at 78
This unique one-on-one interview with Gary Giddins at CUNY proved totally rewarding. Sonny was his usual warm self, answering everything Giddins (and later, the audience) threw at him concisely and with humor and grace. He spoke very honestly about his drug addiction and when, as he put it he “wasn’t a very nice person to be around.” When Giddins played him some music, first from an early Prestige recording and later a long unaccompanied solo from a more recent live performance, Sonny just grimaced and said he could do better. I thoroughly agree about the solo piece, which was repetitive and, in typical Rollins fashion, quoted almost every tune ever written. But overall this was a joy.
Angels, Devils, and Haints: The Pope at 81
After spending all afternoon watching the likes of Jose Feliciano and Harry Connick Jr. serenade the Pope at Yankee Stadium, I headed out for what ended up being the great double-header of the season. First stop was an invitation-only concert at the Tribeca residence of the sculptor Alain Kirili and his wife, photographer Ariane López-Huici. This was a quartet led by one of my favorite players on the scene, Joe McPhee, in a tribute to Albert and Donald Ayler. The quartet consisted of Michael Bisio and Dominic Duval on contrabasses and Rosie Hertlein on violin, along with McPhee on tenor and pocket trumpet. After talking a bit about the Ayler Brothers, McPhee launched into an hour and ten minutes of bliss, anchored by and interspersed with intense moments by the other players. With the basses alternating between pounding and bowing, Joe launched into a barrage of energy that went non-stop for about twenty minutes (spotted with fragments of “The Truth Is Marching In”), then brought it down with a beautiful rendition of “Old Man River” and back up again. McPhee has always been a perfect conduit between harshness and tenderness, free blowing, growling, crooning, and balladeering, managing to fuse it all into a thing of beauty.
Next was “Goin’ Home” and finally, on trumpet, Joe ended with the Donald Ayler tune “Our Prayer,” all played out amongst Kirili’s sculptures, as outside the frame as was this great music.
Then we headed crosstown to Rivington Street and the Soto Velez Center to hear the Peter Brotzmann–Han Bennink quartet, with Brotzmann on reeds, Bennink on drums, and two young Americans, Peter Evans on trumpet and Tom Blancarte (a new name for me) on bass. We got there near the end of the first set, which was so furious I had to hold the top of my head on for fifteen minutes or so. The second set, with Brotzmann starting out on a recently purchased silver alto, was a bit less frenetic, but nonetheless (except for a brief instance when Brotzmann played a white metal clarinet) never let up in intensity, proving to be a non-stop sheet of sound.
This was a pivotal meeting between seasoned European avant-garde legends and their younger American counterparts. Bennink’s unparalleled switch from sticks to brushes and back again at high speed is always amazing, and he went through both sets without his usual clowning around. One way or the other, we were in for a brutal thrashing. I lost my way a few times during the gig thinking how slow and expensive the cab ride over had been, but it was a ride well worth it, a journey from McPhee’s melodious, sometimes aggressive seductiveness to Brotzmann’s almost brutal forced entry. As for the Pope, I kept wondering whether he ever made it back to Shepherd One.
Natural Things: Frederick Rzewski at 70
Dolly Parton at Radio City or Rzewski at Zankel? Between these two icons of Americana, F.R. won hands down. Though this was a night of wit and political theater, he himself said that politics, like banks, are an anachronism and therefore felt he was not, despite the labels put on him, a political composer.
The evening consisted of two piano pieces and three ensemble works, including Natural Things (2007), a New York premiere that included such instruments as thunder sheet, garbage can, cardboard boxes, tin cans, and a megaphone, and spoke of, among other things, workers’ wages.
The spotty but daring 1986 piece Spots—written, Rzewski said, for TV—was an open score consisting of thirteen one-minute movements, one of which consisted of a cello–basketball duet, another of a weather forecast, and the last lots of foot-stomping. The solo piano piece “War Songs,” played by Rzewski, dissected “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” while the final piece, “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” scored for two pianos, sent chills through my body, it being so dark and dense and F.R. having sung the lyrics earlier in the evening during the Q&A.
When asked about the music he creates, Rzewski stated that he “makes traditional music” and “music that makes no sense because the world makes no sense.” He also said that he now realizes music cannot change the world—but you’d never know that from the rousing ovations for his composition Attica, presented here with its original 1972 narrator, the great poet/activist/actor/comedian Steve Ben Israel. Ben Israel repeated, elongated, and fragmented the one-liner response that Richard X. Clark, one of the organizers of the 1971 uprising, gave when released from prison: “Attica is in front of me.” After which Rzewski stated, “Well, maybe theater can change the world”—so powerful was Ben Israel’s performance.
So I leave you with this: As Rzewski so aptly put it, most music on TV comes down to a horn player being caught picking his nose in front of the camera, so steer left and keep your eyes and ears alert. Don’t wear headphones, talk on cell phones, or text while driving or walking, but when taking a trip in a cab, an environmentally incorrect SUV, a plane, a ship, a bus, a horse and carriage, or a train, it’s totally OK to LISTEN.