“The unknown is terribly tempting and danger even more so. But in its contempt… for the individual… society has done its best to eliminate both.”
—Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant
I’ve been told time and time again that I should talk less about myself and more about the “other.” Well, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, who recently played Cornelia Street, has become one of my favorite groups. The quartet, fronted by bassist Moppa Elliot, includes trumpeter Peter Evans, drummer Kevin Shea of Talibam!, and 2008 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz winner Jon Irabagon on sax. This night the group was augmented by banjoist Brandon Seabrook, pianist Ron Stabinsky, and bass trombonist Dave Taylor. Besides Elliot’s original compositions, which are named after small towns in Pennsylvania, the band beautifully distorts standards and sometimes combines them in suite-like sets with Elliot’s tunes. The result, which I’d call avant–Dixie/New Orleans, is always rollicking. Not only are these some of the best players around, but they have an abundance of wit and comradeship.
A few days later Irabagon did a three-night stint at Cornelia with three very distinct and different groups, leading two of them and as a sideman with longtime veteran Barry Altschul in the third. The trio with Mark Elias on bass and Altschul was my favorite, though a quartet led by Altschul featured some of the finest drumming I’ve heard in quite a while. Shea, with his cohort Matt Mottel, will celebrate Talibam!’s 10th anniversary with the release of their first rap album, titled Puff Up the Volume. The album, on the English label Critical Height, promises to be a musical departure for the group, but will still be in keeping with their “low” standards of taste.
Speaking of taste, Lincoln Center Out of Doors ended its 2012 season with a tribute to Gil Scott-Heron consisting of singers, poets, the Black Rock Coalition Orchestra, and Brian Jackson. As far as I was concerned they killed Gil all over again. The performers took iconic songs like “Winter in America,” with its stark-naked beauty and message, and hammed them up by giving them too much slickness and “life.” Scott-Heron, though he never looked comfortable, always seemed relaxed, and other than that strange tremolo in his voice he never pushed. The words spoke for themselves, and his deep, rich, almost deadpan voice never overpowered their intent. The Lincoln Center set ended with everyone singing one of Heron’s signature songs, “The Bottle,” which, though profoundly painful and sad, is infinitely danceable. It was interesting but painful to see it sung like a joyful disco tune while the audience as well as those on stage got up and danced. Makes you wonder, or as I overheard one young woman on her cell proclaim, “I’m only a little drunk right now.”
Speaking of hams, Foamola, the long-running poetry/folk-rock group and kin to the Fugs—consisting of the poet Sparrow, his daughter Sylvia, and his wife Violet Snow, plus Lawrence Fishberg on strings/keyboard—did a great set at the Sidewalk Café, another relaxed venue in Manhattan with a great back room and wonderful sound. Their songs are as funny as they are touching, and a new one, “Why Don’t You Go to Sleep?” made my little insomniac self yawn in a most positive way. Another favorite of mine, “I’ve Been Reincarnated Too Many Times,” gives a litany of jobs both profound and mundane that have been done by one soul, who concludes that not working is the best solution.
From spring through fall the city has seen a proliferation of events celebrating John Cage’s 100th birthday, which occurred last month, ranging from mesostics to mushrooms. I caught many of them. One of the most fun experiences was listening to Cage’s wacky short solo piece for soprano, “Aria,” performed in MoMA’s fifth-floor café. The place was filled with forks clicking and folks ranting, but astonishingly when the piece began everyone including the kitchen staff fell silent and listened with great pleasure. I kept thinking, This is too much. Not like Cage interacting in 1992 in MoMA’s sculpture garden for a month with the traffic and the birdsong and loving it. I’m sure he’d hate this. But by the end I knew that he would have just laughed that sweet grinning laugh of his while chomping on a cracker.
Again quoting Aragon, “There are maniacs who are possessed by the street’s haunting memory.” So I’ll shut up now, go for a walk, and when I return it’ll be your turn. And I’ll do my best to listen.