Rare Bird

Blues for Smoke

When I saw the sign “Blues for Smoke” Whitney ad on the subway, I got right rearing mad.  Someone’s stealing Jaki Byard’s thunder, I thought, and I’m the only one on the train who knows it.  In full angry-letter-writing mode, I went online to check it out immediately, and found that, oh my, they’re actually paying homage to Jaki Byard.  I thought initially that it was Jason Moran’s doing, I know that he has had some connection to the Whitney in the past, and that he would certainly love the chance to get Jaki’s name out there.  All I could find out was that the impetus came from The Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, curated by a man named Bennett Simpson.  I didn’t get farther than that before going to check out the exhibit, which was promising contemporary art from the blues aesthetic.  Count me in.

It was quite the exhibit, with an installation playing Blue Train at three different places, angular contemporary art, a giant mural eulogizing Jazz artists that died before their time, Booker Little, Bessie Smith, Bird.  A room dedicated to beat lingo, with translations to English and German.  Headphones playing Blues for Smoke and Young at Heart in their entirety. Best of all was a room of televisions, all sound blaring all the time, with the rare Jaki Byard documentary “Anything for Jazz”, a live show of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a piece from the also rare Mal Waldron documentary “A Portrait”, and Duke Ellington’s picture form the 30s about him writing a symphonic work.  All going at the same time.  I was a kid in a candy store.

Once I left, I decided I wanted to go back.  I checked the website again to find that there was a concert series that was accompanying the show.  When I saw Annette Peacock’s name, I almost fainted.

Now I don’t actually know much about Annette’s music.  I know her compositions, as they compile about a third of Paul Bley’s repertoire, and I know her importance in the world of synthesizers, Robert Moog gave one of his first synthesizers to Annette, and she was reportedly the one who convinced Paul to switch over to playing with them.  I know that she toured with Ayler.  I don’t know any of her recorded music, or what she’s been doing for the last 40 years.  I did know that I’d never seen her name on a schedule anywhere, anytime (and I do keep track of these things).

Luckily, while I was in the gargantuan line for the show, I saw Manny Maris from one of NYC’s best record stores, DMG looking to get in, and he joined me in line (I don’t really know him, but he recognized me.  Let’s just say I’m a regular.  Or an addict.  Whatever.).  When I told him that I didn’t know anything about Annette he (after expressing his disappointment) gave me the full run down, about her eventual foray into prog rock, about Bowie offering her the Keyboard position on Ziggy Stardust and her turning it down, about the complex record label situation that turned her off to making creative music without complete control.  He confirmed that this was her first American show in 12 years, and her 3rd show/stint worldwide since 2000.

Funny enough, although I had no clue what to expect before talking to Manny, I now had absolutely no idea what to expect.  What I got started with a video.  It was basically of lolcats(older readers) that morphed into hideous abominations of themselves before morphing again into beautiful flowers, usually a single rose.  Over top of this and other images of a small girl and her teddy bear and oil spill pictures, was a beautiful melody over an abstract harmony, in lo-fi.  Really great melody, I can’t stress that enough.

Of course it was Annette’s, and it was the beginning of a night that made me realize that she is the only songwriter I’ve seen on the level of some of the classic songwriters. Every melody was so annoyingly simple, liftable without instrument, but its interaction with the lyric and the way she phrased it made every single one a masterpiece.  Her set up was simple.  Solo concert, an old Roland synth with one sound patch, a steinway grand, and a 1990’s beat box with three drum loops on a CD inside of it. Whenever she played the synth, it was in the same tonal space.  Mostly functional harmony, with minimal twists and turns, over a mostly diatonic melody.  The great thing about it was her orchestration of a single note piano line within the harmonies of the synth.

Her touch surprised me.  I thought her a composer-pianist, but her virtuosity as it related to touch was evident.  She rarely played more than one note on the piano, never needing more than a counter melody.  Her voice was sublime too, so clear and even.  Her phrasing was simple, making only slight changes to the established melodies, but the subtlety of the alterations was magic.

And her piano playing.  Once in a while she’d play a solo interlude on only piano, and if I had to describe it to someone who had never heard her, I’d say that it was Paul Bley with a tenth of the notes.  Free language with strong melody, but stripped down to its bare essentials.  She could make Basie look overcomplicated and busy. Unbelievable, when combined with her amazing and even touch.

The drum loops were used mostly as a device for atmosphere, that sort of cheesy 70s feeling added to the combination of synth and voice, but the final of the three drum loops was different.  Still in that same world of bad action movies, the loop started the same as the others, but quickly morphed into a surreal constantly shifting beat, like something out of a Steve Coleman record.  Her phrasing of this simple melody changed with the loop, and the minute changes she made snaked in and out of the background to make something fantastic.

She had everything memorized, but the arrangements seemed quite strict.  The drum loops were literally just a CD track, and she timed everything out so that the track ended during the last phrase of the song.  Amazing, especially the last one.

She was called back for an encore, but said she was tired, and thanked everyone for coming.

Walking out, it was quite obvious that I had seen something that I’d never see again.  And now I have to buy some Annette Peacock records from Manny.  That crafty bastard.


“Joe Magnarelli just butt-dialed one of the guys in the band and left a four minute message of chromatic fourth licks.”—Tweet from Jacob Garchik about a jobber



~ by Martin Porter on April 30, 2013.

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