Better Than the Option
If you live in NYC and pay attention to Jazz, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard about Tim Berne’s recent week at the stone with Snakeoil and other groups. Snakeoil is a current (well deserved) favorite in the Jazz world, but they don’t play live too often. When they played three nights in a row, two things happened: people took the opportunity to go see them, and the music was on the highest level it’s ever been.
I’m not saying that myself, in fact due to circumstances beyond my control, I couldn’t go to the shows. I’m saying that because Tim Berne (who I’ve only seen excited twice in my life) expressed his disbelief in how great and crazy the music was over the week. Also, Matt Mitchell has said that it was the most fun he’s ever had playing music. Take it as you will, but that clinches it for me.
The day before their week started, the entire band was at another concert, the Craig Taborn trio at Roullette, celebrating nothing in particular. It’s their first NYC date since their new record came out on ECM, and the troops came out to support. Apart from the Berne crew, audience members included Bill Frisell (who I watched buy the record. Hilarious), numerous ECM record executive types, Mat Maneri, Jacob Sacks, Carlo DeRosa, and about a million other people who I can’t remember, regulars and one-offs alike.
No one was murmuring about wondering what they were going to hear, because they knew exactly what they were going to get, which was one of the most consistent trios of its generation giving the audience the potent cocktail of hyper-complex forms and figures (All memorized. Unreal) with the air of complete freedom and interaction. The band was so great together, everything was malleable depending on the actions of each member. Nothing could happen that would through the group off of its seat in the constant flow of musical ideas that went on for the solid hour and a half they played.
A moment on Craig Taborn’s pianism: ridiculous. The “normal” chops (fast notes, time, etc.) that he very obviously has were overshadowed for me by his touch, his dynamics, his articulation through soft passages, and his part independence (Bach-style voice movement). Pianism is one of those things that every time you see it done right, it ruins other piano playing for you for a while. Craig understands the piano in a way that few others do.
I don’t feel the need to comment on Thomas or Gerald’s musicality. I think that anyone who has ever heard either of them play anything gets that by now. I only comment on Craig’s technique because I feel like people don’t quite know that he has it yet, due to his fame as a keyboardist. That doesn’t mean that it’s news, however, he’s been a monster for a while.
Oh, and just in case the people in the audience didn’t know he was a beast, the encore was the fastest and most complex tune I’ve heard anyone play for a while, and it was flawless. Shoutouts to badass encores. Keeping the dream alive.
So why were both of these shows above and beyond for so many people? In both cases, the answer is clear: they’ve gotten to perform together.
Now if each member of each of these bands quit music for 6 months and then reunited, I’d go to both concerts, pay double what they cost, and love every second, let me just preface with that. However, hearing about Snakeoil after a 3 day run in NYC, and hearing the effectively perfect Taborn trio after a year or so of touring just made me (drool, first off) think about how things could be if creative bands could still play weeks, or be constantly on tour these days. My favorite bands these days rarely get to play at all. Three unnamed favorite bands of mine have not toured in years, have never toured longer than 10 days, and have never played more than one day in a row at any venue in NYC.
It was the first time that it really hit me that the financial situation is hurting the music in a purely creative sense, due to the simple fact that there is no substitute for performing music live in front of people who know what they’re listening for. People can come close, of course. Most musicians will practice with these groups all the time, sometimes daily, but there is an edge, there has to be. Thomas, Craig, and Gerald, as masterful as they are, do have peers who are just as amazing as them who don’t get the chance to play like they do, and it showed. There was a polish and a comfort on their music that you can’t see on many other bands, not something that makes the unpolished music suffer, but something that is just the cherry on the top, that intangible that makes the Miles quintet or Mingus and Danny Richmond just sound different.
It’s sad that the financial reality can’t be conducive to music making, especially when I think about how my favorite groups would sound if they were playing together even two nights a week. It makes me simultaneously cry and buzz with excitement at the sheer possibility of it.
“Now I told you all of that shit so I could tell you this: . . .” —Harold Mabern