‘Tis the Season: Considering “the request” and simple gifts

I was listening to a solo piano recording by Craig Taborn the other day (from his new ECM release Avenging Angel) – the tune was “Spirit Hard Knock,” which seemed to sum up the overall sense of this year we just waded out of.  In considering the pull and pulse of the holidays and the residue of, what has been for many close to me, a very thick year, I thought I’d post this chapter on music and memory and the honoring of both those gifts.

This is from my Occasional Jazz Conjectures.


. . .delight the ear and eye
And bring mirth to the mind.
– Sima Xiangru (ca. 179-117 B.C.)

AS MUSICIANS TRUNDLE OUT into the evening, filling corners (like so much Victorian clutter and ornament by Reverdian “lamplight taking shelter”) in foreign living rooms, rented halls, country clubs, or next to the cheese counters in the A& P, it seemed like an opportune moment to consider such things as “the request,” the “casual gig,” and the mystical transjuxtaportational experience of “playing Misty for me.”

Jazz as an art form is simultaneously a sleek chrome piece of futurity and innovation and a floodgate for mood and memory, what people of the Bosavi rain forest call “gone reflections” (tiny imagist poems of experience, connecting us to threads of the knowable): a first kiss, a 50th anniversary, or so-called chestnuts roasting on an open fire. It’s a fragile setting, jazz musicians by nature are a group of bitter utopians. . . in love with possibility and a pretty melody, yet resentful of the simple pleasure that comes with “playing our song.”

Some musicians play en folastrant sagement —fooling wisely, cooly with a listener’s insatiable appetite for reminiscence. You wouldn’t want to shatter a five-yearold’s hopes for Santa, so why would you toy with the fragility of emotion that is welled-up between the box-step of “Deep Purple” or the faraway-from-home-in-a-trench immediacy of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Alongside the many expectations people have of us, I think there’s a certain responsibility to fill hearts from time to time. It’s good for business. It comes as part of the responsibility of this gift we carry.

I mean is it too much to ask that we might occasionally act as conduits. . .accelerating and reversing time, suggesting, reminding, or date-stamping access to desire? In our shined shoes, tab collars — booted and zooted— we are walking jukeboxes, worsted wool repositories that steer listeners through the music of your life. Oh I know, much of the time we’re also put in the position of organ grinder (and monkey), sonic pastel wallpaper, clown, intoxicant, flavor enhancer, antacid, and court jester (minus such diversionary skills as paper folding and topical rhymes, like our medieval fool ancestors). Charlie Haden once said, “If you are playing music to be noticed, you shouldn’t be playing at all.” But I don’t think he was recommending we become trapped inside an AM-dial on a blind date with  Brenda Lee in perpetual rotation. Yet I do know there’s a certain light in the room and a swelling resonant stillness that occurs when I play Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino,” “How Deep is the Ocean,”  or “The Christmas Song” for someone who really appreciates it.

There are certain songs (and this time of year brings them out in spades. . .fire-lit songs that make you feel like Perry Como or Jimmy Stewart) that touch us. They’re simple. Yet they remind us of what’s important. You find yourself kidnapped by the memory bandits, fed on the strength-inducing power of tiny grains of melody, somehow you’re kerned, nestled closer to the ligatures of memory, hope and a good cardigan sweater.

True story: I used to play every weekend in a club where this fellow would come in week after week. He’d start off as convivial as can be, but as the evening wore on he’d get maudlin (in a psychoanalysis-by-bourbon, Eugene O’Neill manner) and then request “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. . . suddenly he softened and would bawl like a lost child. It was only later that I learned when he was a child he had polio and walked for the first time on Christmas morning.

There’s no fooling (even wisely) with that kind of gone reflection.

Any requests?