Thursday, September 8, 2011

ups and downs

Once again, I've let a lot of time go between posts. But things have been complicated. It started with my trip to Israel in June on a grant to work with Arab and Jewish Israeli educators to develop critical thinking in teacher education. This refers back to what I did during the '80's and 90's when I was deeply involved in critical thinking, both in New York where I directed a program called the Reasoning Skills Project and in New Jersey where I was the Associate Director of the Institute for Critical Thinking at the University I teach at. The idea of getting back into the hard work of developing critical thinking programs that promote change is not all that attractive to me at this point in my life. But the idea of trying to do some good in Israel across the Arab-Jewish divide is very compelling. Anyway everything will depend on getting funding and in this economic climate I am not particularly optimistic.

Anyway, I went Israel in June and stayed a few extra days to record an album. That's the guys in the picture. Steve Peskoff, the guitarist who put it together for me is on the left. Steve is the head of the jazz program in a conservatory in Jerusalem. Originally a New Yorker, Steve has been on Israel for about 25 years. I’m next to him, then Steve's son Chaim who played drums, and Gilad Dibrecky a percussionist I played with quite often in the states, who has moved back to Israel. On the right is the bassist Gilad Abro who rounded out the quintet.

We recorded for two days after one day of rehearsal and things went rather well. I put it on a hard drive and took it home. I finally got a chance to pick takes and do a rough mix, which prompted the post. The music is like my other albums, playing jazz in response to world music traditions. We recorded a number of Chassidic tunes (niggunim), three originals (two by me and one by Steve) and a waltz from the 1930's. The engineer says the music is 'Jewish, retro, contemporary' but I guess so are all of my albums. My Cuban, retro, contemporary album El Cumbanchero is mastered the cover is done and going into production.

El Cumbanchero might be the best album I have ever recorded. It certainly has the most beautiful cover, as you can see. I've mentioned this in previous blogs, but it is worth saying again. Aruan Ortiz who wrote the arrangements for string quartet and contributed three original compositions has written one of the most amazing pieces of music I have ever had the pleasure of playing. The fact that he gave this music to me and permitted me to respond with complete freedom is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.

Although I have complete confidence in the result, I was a bit anxious as to how the music would be received. Since it uses both a traditional Cuban form, the charanga, and recasts the form in contemporary terms. The first test was when I asked Danilo Lozano to write the liner notes. Danilo is a fine classical flutist working out of LA and a serious student of charanga music. His father Jose Rolando Lozano is one if the legendary Cuban charanga flutists along with Fajardo and Richard Egues. For those of you who don't know much about the music, it is played on a 5-key wooden flute that was the basic flute before the Boehm system became available at the end of the 19th century. It is a flute that is favored in many folk kinds of music and is still used by Irish flutists. It was the instrument of choice for Cuban charanga flutists who played it in the extreme high register. Not only did they play the highest notes with a beautiful tone, but they used a fast operatic vibrato, something that requires enormous strength and control. I on the other hand, am a jazz flutist, use a metal flute (a Powell Aurumite) play mainly in the low and middle register, using high notes only to extend the range of my lines, and use a wide harmonic vocabulary. But I have been playing Cuban-based music for 50 years and have a deep respect for the melodic sweetness and rhythmic power of Cuban music. So I hoped that those who love the charanga would be willing to accept my reconfiguring the charanga flute tradition around my strengths as a jazz flutist. Happily I can report that Danilo was happy to write the liner notes, and without tooting my flute too much was quite positive about my flute playing and how I approached the form.

But to be honest I take much less credit for the beauty of the album, which I owe to Aruan. My only instructions to him was to listen to number of tracks from a CD compilation of the legendary charanga Arcaño and su Maravillas and to 'extend the music from the inside.' I knew I was on the right track when for his first arrangements he choose to rearrange were two of my most favorite compositions, 'Doña Olga' and 'Armoniosos de Amalia.' Choosing to recast these classics, originally arranged by Israel Cachao Lopez, was both a tribute and an enormous risk. The way I approached playing the flute presents an even greater challenge, both to the musicians and to the listener. In the liner notes Danilo focuses on the tension between what we did and the expectations for the audience who is deeply engaged with the charanga tradition. And he sees it as ‘a risk well worth taken.’’ I hope his acceptance is any indication of how others will feel and I have great optimism about the success of the album. But acceptance aside, I think it is truly wonderful music and I know it will be a welcome addition to my work over the past 6 years with Jazzheads records. Needless to say, Randy Klein, the president of Jazzheads is supportive of this latest effort and is planning a significant promotional campaign including branching out internationally. I have already seen some success in this regard. Timbassa was licensed by Japanese label and I get quite a bit on play outside of the US.

Speaking of international connections. I got a chance to play at the Quebec Music Festival in July, thanks to a wonderful woman Jocelyn Michaud who has been promoting my music in Canada. I played with a sextet, two sax players and a rhythm section. I played the parts originally written for flugelhorn. It was quite a different musical context for me, but it was a lot of fun. And I did a few features with the rhythm section that were very well received. All ups so but the downs started the night I got back from Quebec.

When I got back I had no electrical power. I microburst took out a tree which took down all of my external cables. Little did I know that in a few weeks many people would suffer much worse as storms, floods and fires would result in far greater catastrophes. But at the time, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, even though I was up and running in a few days. I started teaching my usual two section of a graduate course in research methods. Three weeks into the semester I had one of the all-time pain experiences of my life, and I have a few, diverticulitis that led to major surgery in 2000 followed by a large kidney stone a few months later. The kidney turned out to be a lucky break, since when they did a procedure to see how big the stone was they saw a sponge that was left in me when I lost a foot and a half of colon to the diverticulitis. More recently I had a glaucoma attack that was one of the worst headaches I ever experienced. I had disregarded sign of glaucoma for some time, and by the time I got to the emergency room I was very close to losing the sight in my right eye. You think I would have learned not to disregard pain. Anyway, back to the my recent travails. I had been having stomach aches for several months and even after finding out on Google that there is no disease called a stomach ache or even one called indigestion, and that people over 55 should take frequent stomach pain seriously, I didn't pay much attention, assuming it was something I had eaten. Until the third week of my class, on a Sunday I sat with crippling pain for an entire afternoon telling myself I had food poisoning from the smoked salmon omelet I had for breakfast. Then all of a sudden the pain went away and I set down in a room without an air conditioner to watch television. In about a half hour I started shivering violently. I checked my temperature and it was normal, but the shivering got worse. I took my temperature again and it was starting to climb. When it hit 102.4 I went to the emergency room. After 9 days I was finally allowed to leave, without a gall bladder. It was a simple laparoscopic surgery that usually gets you out and about in 24 hours. But not when you have been disregarding stomach pain for several months. I was badly infected with a blocked bile duct, the resulting jaundice and liver malfunctions, plus blood pressure off of the scale. Plus my poor students didn't have classes for the rest of the semester but still had to produce a semester project. Fortunately I could read their papers on the Internet and get them comments by email. I gave lots of A's so nobody got hurt.

Those are the downs.

One more up. I got through Irene with just a damp basement and no trees down despite the fact that I am surrounded by big trees and I thought it was great that my house is covered with English ivy. Unfortunately so are the biggest trees in my back yard and the tree lady says it is only a matter of time before the ivy kills them. But if I don't take warnings seriously about my self, how can I be expected to worry about ivy. There is nothing like being a critical thinking expert who is a complete damn fool.