Thursday, September 18, 2008

now or never

The 1980's was no time to live in Washington Heights if you had proclivities towards self-destruction. I was going through hard times. Faith, my toothsome sweetie was gone, living out her fantasy, going to India and ending up married in Bali. Sioux, my teenage dream girl, had gone off to the Rainbow Family after an all too brief year of great fun and romance. And the most beautiful one of all, a Punjabi women who must remain nameless, one of the great loves of my life, had finished her year and a half dalliance with sex and the seamier side of life and moved on to her proper station in life. I had gone bankrupt in 1980, pulled a job out of a hat thanks to Philosophy for Children, and was running around the city, first by subway and bus, then with my ex-father in law's trusty 1976 Dodge Dart, putting together a living as an educational consultant. The only 'club date' philosopher I knew, waiting until August to see if I had enough contracts to survive another school year. In the mid 80's my best friend Jerry had succumbed to the white beast in California and I let him live with me, when his choice was leave Santa Cruz or go to jail. Suffice it to say between Jerry and Washington Heights I was sunk. I met Lesley, my second wife, at the World Congress of Philosophy in Brighton, England in 1988 and grabbed onto her like the proverbial drowning man and the life-saver (she was to melt away after 11 years, but saved my life in the meantime).

My trouble behind me, ensconced in a beautiful house, built in 1902, in Glen Ridge NJ with a tenured position and two incomes, mine and Lesley's, I decided it was now or never. It was 1995, I was 55 years old, had been playing non-stop for 20 years, and Montclair NJ (next door to Glen Ridge) is a place to be if you want to be a jazz musician. The Dean I worked under was an ex-drummer and when he found out about my playing jazz he told me that Chris White was teaching jazz at the College. Chris had been the bass player at the first jam session I ever went to in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn when I was still in high school. And musicians never forget musicians. I called up Chris and he gave me a lesson. Chris is an all-time great teacher, who finds just what a student needs. I had plenty of chops and could play changes fine. He knew I played with Jamey Aebersold records. His advice to me was that when I practice with the records, I should play cliches. His example of a cliche was 'Happy Birthday.' He also told me to listen to women singers. It was perfect advise. I had to play melodies and I had to project a sound worth listening to.

Chris and I rehearsed a few time with a quartet with the great guitarist Jimmy Ponder and a drummer friend of his and I got a sense of how it felt to play with the 'big boys.' The college offered a performance opportunity. I got to play in the art gallery for openings, usually with bass and drums. Montclair was a cornucopia of musicians. One of my gallery gigs used Cecil Brooks III and Reggie Workman. Cecil was a great drummer and producer and he put together a rhythm section for me to record the four tune demo that became my first album, Seasoning. The quartet had Bryan Carrot on vibes and marimba and bassist Dwayne Dolphin. After the recording, Cecil pointed out that the days of 4 tune demos were gone forever. I liked the quartet tunes, but I felt I needed to do something out of the ordinary. There was a great little club in Montclair (now gone) that had guitar night on Wednesdays. New Jersey has always had a guitar players' scene and the two guitarists who alternated Wednesdays were among the best in New Jersey, Vic Cenicola and Vic Juris. Both of them played duos with another guitar player. Cenicola let horn players sit in. I became a regular at the session, but it was Juris who I was after. Vic Juris didn't let people sit in except for a few musicians he knew and I hadn't met him. He played with a fine young guitarist, a student of his Rob Reich. One Wednesday I called the club to see if Juris was playing and heard a flute player sitting on. I grabbed my flute and went down. Bob Ackerman, a local well-regarded sax player was playing flute with the duo. He had finished a solo and sat down at the bar, while the guitarists were still playing. I took out my flute and did the compare flutes thing that flute players do instead sniffing crotches (trombone players do mouthpieces). When the tune was over I walked up to the guitarists holding my flute, Vic glared at me, and I said 'let's play Stella.' We played Stella by Starlight, a tune that easily shows bebop skills, and Vic said, 'you know Cenicola is the jam session, not me.' I told him I was making a record and just wanted him to hear me play. Rob and Vic became the second rhythm section concept of Seasoning, flute and two guitars. And Vic Juris, Chris White and Cecil became the third concept. I had a finished album.

Vic was playing at the Blue Note and I was sitting at the bar talking to a nice old guy (whose name is lost to me). When I mentioned I had just recorded an album with Vic he told me that he had been associated with Concord Jazz and I laid a copy of Seasoning on him. After he heard it he offered to send it out to radio stations for me and gave me the bad news. Jazz CD's are expensive business cards. The main thing you do with them is give them away. He also told me about a Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo. I wish I could find out his name. He did me two really big favors and I'd love to thank him. He set my expectations low enough to survive the realities of being a jazz musician, as musicians used to say, 'he pulled my coat' and Romero was to become one of my favorite musicians to record with.

With Seasoning as a business card I was able to start working some gigs. The picture is Vic Juris, Chris White, Steve Berrios and me playing at Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair in 1997. The three heads in front are my second wife Lesley and her parents, including my all time favorite father in law, Edmund who, 5 years older than me, Lesley was 18 years my junior, referred to me as 'the boy' during my first awkward visit to her family in England.

Jean Paul Bourelly had moved to Berlin and he had come to the states to pick up his van from his families home in Chicago and bring it to their new home in DC. He had a recording to do in New York and he asked me if he could leave his van in my driveway. I said 'sure' and asked him if he had time to record with me while he was in town. We had played some gigs and recorded two demo records in the past, but nothing had ever worked. Jean Paul knew about my interest in Cuban music and was very interested in African based music. When he got my place I played some folkloric records of Santeria music which he related to immediately. He recognized some of the melodies as songs he remembered his grandmother singing to him when he was a child (Santeria and Voudon share much of the same West-African heritage). I called Steve Berrios to play percussion. It was very short notice, Jean Paul only had a few days in town, and Steve was busy, so I called the master percussionist Milton Cardona who knew my history (I had done some arrangements for Milton of toques de Santo, the music played for the deities in Santeria). The three of us went into the studio and played two extended improvisations on the toques de Santo for Elegua and Babalu Aye. We recorded in a typical New Jersey basement studio run by a guitarist, Tony Vizcardo. Jean Paul only had an electric guitar with him, but I knew Tony had a number of acoustic guitars in the studio. Jean Paul decided to do the date on 12-string, which ended up being perfect for the music.

I got Romero Lubambo's phone number and asked him if he would consider recording a trio with me and a percussionist. I told him it would be part of an album that I had already begun with Jean Paul and Milton. That was good enough for him and we got together, picked tunes and discussed the concept. He called Cyro Baptista, a world class percussionist, who showed up with a van-full of amazing sounding percussion instruments that were the perfect complement to Romero's exquisite sounding hand-made classical guitar. I played the Jean Paul recording while we were setting up to show the guys what I wanted. We played two tunes, the first a 17 minute improvisation on a well-loved baioã, a classic example of music from the northeast of Brazil and a beautiful, but obscure bossa nova. I had 2/3rds of one of the most amazing recordings I have ever made, Jazz World Trios. I asked Jean Paul to recommend a bass player. He told me about Santi Debriano, who was to play with me on a number of other records. I played the music I had already recorded for Santi and he got Cindy Blackman to play drums. We played a 13 minute blues and an original composition of mine. Jazz World Trios was finished. I had touched the three kinds of music that I would focus on from then on, Brazilian, Cuban and post-bebop.

Jazz World Trios is a record I will always be proud of. It is wonderful music, but it was the experience of recording it that changed my life. I shouldn't have been able to pull it off. Jean Paul had never played with Cuban drummers. Milton seemed under the weather (he only had one conga drum, but fortunately the studio had a djembe). It turned out that he was suffering from a heart condition that would put him in the hospital soon after the recording. But Milton and Jean Paul hit if off musically and the music speaks for itself. Playing Brazilian music was even more of a stretch. I had never played authentic Brazilian music in my life. When I told Romero I wanted a folkloric tune he picked a baioã so fundamental to the genre that guys argue about what it is called and who wrote it. I had no idea of what a baoiã was! Romero and Cyro are masters of the genre and I had to play up to standard. I am quite content with the music we played.

But what stands out in my memory of the session, the experience that showed me what was up, was the first take of the recording session with Santi and Cindy. I was presenting a paper at a conference on argumentation theory at Alta, Utah and had a dream that I was a musician in the 30's and had written a hit song. I wrote down the melody of the song when I woke up, drawing the ledger lines on the manila envelope my paper was in. I wrote down the primeval blues melody that I named LKC Blues, my wife's initials and the name of our record company. I decided to record that with Santi as well as an art sung that I had written in Puerto Rico, on the road with a salsa band, when I was flirting with going to Juilliard to study composition. Playing a fundamental sounding blues is a tall order for anyone. Modern jazz musicians rarely mess with basic blues; that is Coltrane territory. I was dealing with musicians who had never played with me and playing the blues was coming on very strong. That was more pressure than the two earlier recording dates. Jean Paul and I went way back and we had the melodies we recorded in common. Romero had come by my house before the recording date with him and Cyro and we had played through the material. I had written some suggestions for harmonic development, so he knew the direction I wanted to go in. But I had never played note one with Santi or even met Cindy before. It was all or nothing! I told Santi to begin a medium blues with a classic bass line, 'like Sonny's Blue 7,' I said. I told Cindy to come in after the first chorus with press roll (the signature jazz technique first used by the New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds in the 1920's). She looked at me oddly. I said, 'let's run through it.' I played the deep blues melody from my dream, and as they say, 'took the music out.' They followed me like we had been playing every day for years and we never looked back. 13 minutes later the three of us walked into the booth to hear the take. Cindy looked at me and said 'we could never do that again.' I got religion! There was no way that I could have done that without some real help from G-d.

I am very much an ethnic Jew, but I was raised with no connection to the religion. My father was the kind of Russian-Jewish immigrant you rarely hear about, in and out of the army, a small time hood during prohibition and a manual laborer. That's why I was raised in the projects. My mother kept kosher until my brother came back from the Navy after WWII and wanted bacon and eggs for breakfast. We had Passover dinner and ate matzoh, but didn't even go to the synagogue on High Holidays. I had no Jewish education and since my father died when I was 12 1/2 never even had the sort of pseudo Bar Mitzvah that even secular Jews make their sons go through. But out of nowhere, when my son Jack hit 12 in 1981 I wanted him to have a Bar Mitzvah. I called up an old student, Emile Pincus, who had recently become a Bal Teshuvah (one who was returned to serious observance). Emile and his wife Helen were among the stalwarts who would support me by coming to my gigs and Emile had asked in return that I come to the West Side Minyan the first time he chanted Torah at the Sabbath service. I called Emile and asked him how Jack could become a Bar Mitzvah and he told me to come with him to services at the Minyan. We did for almost a year and the community was kind enough to let Jack (and me) be called up for an Aliya (Torah honors, the essential thing to become a Bar Mitzvah) and so both of us became a Bar Mitvah the same day. Jack, in typical 13 year old fashion stopped coming to shul (synagogue). I felt too obligated to stop, plus there was something about the shul that I needed. I was going through a rough period after breaking up with my Punjabi sweetheart. There were lots of cultural reasons why the relationship couldn't work, but at the heart of it was that I was a failure, a recent bankrupt, and a musician. She just couldn't present me to her family. And that really hurt! I could sit in the shul and cry, an old Jewish tradition. It wasn't only the crying that led me to sit in the back by myself. I was an illiterate in a community of knowledgeable Jews and very ambivalent about religion in a community of committed Jews. But I came most Saturdays, sat alone and didn't relate to the people. They accepted me anyhow. The West Side Minyan was an amazing place, egalitarian and participatory, full of brilliant women who were permitted to read Torah (many of whom went on to become women Rabbis, when that was finally possible) and equally wonderful men. When I left New York with my life back in shape I committed myself to strive to connect to Judaism. I joined a synagogue in Montclair, learned Hebrew and began to pray regularly. But it was recording Jazz World Trios that gave me my first real sense of religious connection. There is just no reason for me to have been able to record that album. The other musicians are so great, the improvisations are exceptionally long and rely on the musical performance for structure (the tunes don't have the complex changes that carry a soloist) and with very little experience other than with Jamey Aebersold play-alongs, I played up to the level of those guys and we made music from start to finish. I put a line from the Psalms on the cover of Jazz World Trios, as I do on all my recordings. And on the desk top of my computer is the statement of my deepest commitment to spirituality: there are no atheists in recording studios.


Sir James Galway said...

Dear Mark,

This is a most interesting and moving story.
God bless you and thank you for sharing it.
Best wishes,
Sir James Galway.
New York,

21 September 2008

mark weinstein, jazz flutist said...

Sir James, I am overwhelmed. Thank you for your kindness and your courtesy,