I have decided that I like music that’s about instruments. That's not the same as saying I like music that's about instrumental virtuosity.
The first time I heard Vijay Iyer live was late 2012, his trio with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore, at Mayne Stage in Chicago, around the corner from where I was living at the time. I went with Ben and we sat up front stage right, maybe ten feet from the piano. After the concert, I walked the two minutes home and dumped out all the beers in my fridge. I would not suggest that I had a big problem with alcohol at the time, but obviously I viewed it as some sort of impediment to the higher work I wanted to be doing. That work can be elusive. The whole reason you want to make it so badly is precisely because it doesn’t exist yet. This, obviously, makes it hard to perceive with any consistency or clarity. It comes in glimpses. Those glimpses are to be cherished.
One of my jobs that year was guiding a neighborhood craft-beer tour on the North Side, and let’s just say, there were beers in the fridge again before too long. But I’ve never forgotten the spark that concert gave me. It didn’t need to instantaneously change my life. It only needed to give me the sense that such change was possible, and worth the sacrifice it might require.
I needed music to be something worth believing in.
I heard Iyer again the other night at the Village Vanguard, with the sextet from his most recent record. This music is forceful. It’s personal, and it’s collective. It’s virtuosic, and it’s atmospheric. In ways that could never be isolated in the score, or maybe even on a recording, this music transcends the specifically aesthetic to become ethical in its basic argument. It doesn’t even make me want to imitate it, as a composer or instrumentalist. It makes me want to live in a certain way.
Because it isn’t about websites or Twitter followers or record sales or grants or professorships or, God help us, “posterity” or history or necessity or talent or “genius” or even “influence.” It’s about loving things and following through. It’s about people, it’s about air, it’s about instruments. It’s about what you actually do.
Another night this New York trip, I heard Ari Hoenig’s trio at Small’s. He’s a favorite drummer of mine, for clarity and for complexity: in one tune he might maintain multiple rhythmic levels at once, but juxtaposed rather than superimposed, horizontal rather than vertical. The shifts happen perceptibly, and happen in the same way enough times that you’re able to parse them. His thinking on the drums is textural, compositional. The band was clean and rollicking and fun.
But I wonder if this is music for insiders. It rewards you for knowing its codes. When Hoenig retunes his drums so he can play the melody of “Moanin” on them, that’s basically a pun on the form and the genre. It’s fine listening on its own, but it’s actually deriving its meaning from an assumption that you’ve heard the original version and recognize what he’s doing with it. Another case: when the bandleader says they’re going to play a standard without announcing the title, then play a coy version of it that might not be immediately recognizable, that’s well and good—it’s fun for the insiders. But it’s also exclusionary. The reward is being in on the joke. If you realize you’re not in on the joke, either you’ll go study the music to try and get there, or you’ll shrug your shoulders and go listen to something else.
When you go to a “jazz club,” especially in New York, this is about waiting in line and paying some money and going down a narrow flight of stairs and entering a very small room, getting a seat, buying a drink. This is a classical music—as evidenced by the fact that no one is talking over it or dancing to it. So what’s the significance of it happening in a bar in a basement? Is this environment useful for the music, the musician, the listener? Is it only a historical contingency? Has it preserved itself for reasons beyond nostalgia for a time when this music had different social vectors? It’s interesting to me that not just a music but a specific venue can proceed from disreputable to reputable to canonical.
When I read George Lewis’ book about the AACM, it struck me that a generation of black middle and working-class musicians fought to get creative music out of bars, whereas my generation of composers, often white, often middle and upper-middle class, was fighting to get it back in.
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