On December 13,2002 (and that was Friday, the thirteenth) I heard a quartet of "championship" proportions at the Meetinghouse in Amherst, MA. The quartet abounded with Joe McPhee, saxophones and pocket trumpet, Roy Campbell, trumpet, flute and pocket trumpet, William Parker, string bass and wooden flutes, and Warren Smith, drums.
Reviewing this concert almost seems superfluous in regards to how it truly affected me. The music was unparalleled. I sat in the first row, so close to the sound of instruments that the presence of the players as they made music transcended separation of the human element from the sound element. The impact brings to bear the fact that sometimes the most salient quality of this music is its immediacy and within that its power.
Often, translating ‘listening’ to words is a forced act. And worst of all, imposing a categorical viewpoint on music ruins it. This may be perhaps what I am doing, but I do not think so. Situations have presented themselves to me (when I am sitting among the cognoscenti of the avantgarde who, from my observation, are mostly men) where confounding fact after viewpoint after fact after viewpoint is espoused almost to the point of argument in a conversation. And absolutely nothing can be said by lowly me because it is not permitted. So I just listen and internally shake my head. Behavior like this obfuscates the intentions of improvisation. I mean, folks, expression of inner sancta comprises the essence of the music. Groove, abstraction, groove, total abandonment. Such expression is simply itself; it doesn’t mean anything else.
Musicians can launch the members of the audience to another zone. Who cares whether that zone is Coltranesque? Or is it? Does the derivation matter, or is it assimilation of all the music that historically came before the present? Or how about predilection for a certain kind of music that became the teacher? Keep saying to yourself: FOCUS, for God’s sake; memorize the transitional stages, recognize the shape that the instruments place on the sound....You can do that, can’t you? Or is it asking too much and taking away from one’s pleasure? If I can become conscious of the structure of the improvisation through exposure, then why can’t the foreknowledge of what might happen in the music be interesting, a game I play with myself?
In the midst of writing this article, I came upon a piece by a well-known writer on an independent label’s website. In this article, he questions the validity of recordings of the vanguard musicians, weighing those recordings against the experience of the music in concert. What has triggered my writing has been a live performance. I have also reviewed a multitude of recordings, some of live performances. In fact, I know of one record label whose one and only founder, producer, and recording unit, records and puts out nothing but live recordings. Recordings are a chosen means of learning about the music; they are not necessarily teachers. It is unfair to talk about musicians as being taught by recordings. I believe that many musicians, those who practice and perform themselves, know music by performance,not by recording. Some people obsess over owning CDs; they are audiophiles; they love recorded music; they should not be disparaged; they support the music and artists, who, by the way, are not all on the BIG LABELS. The audiophiles hopefully attend performances as well.
I was intent on not writing a "review" of the concert that I cited at the beginning of this article. I told a friend sitting next to me at the concert that my focus changes when I am not taking notes. I remember the whole evening; I remember several unforgettable details. Concerts generally carry with them a dynamic that cannot be achieved anywhere else. I remember, for instance, Parker adjusting his amp as he simultaneously played the bass. I remember, for instance, that Campbell mistakenly dropped a mute out of his horn, the sound of the dropping becoming incorporated into the percussive aspect of the music; but I remember also the way in which Roy lifted his flugelhorn to his mouth, marking his entrance into the music by raising it way up in the air towards the ceiling and down and up again just as it reached his lips. I remember the solo Campbell rang out of his pocket trumpet (which I believe, is his best instrument). I remember the clarity and coincidence of Campbell and McPhee playing excitingly gorgeous harmonies. I remember Smith flipping his brushes from the brush end to the metal end so that he could utilize the metal ends as sticks to change the timbre of how the sticks hit either the sides of the drums or the skins themselves. I remember the way Smith pursed his lips and closed his eyes as he made the drums and cymbals hiss, constantly. I remember the way in which McPhee stayed his course when he played the tenor, standing erect and full of breath as he blew unusually long phrases. I remember McPhee as he caressed his soprano sax while the winsome tones spiraled out with every twist of his body standing out of range. I remember McPhee standing out range of the other players not only out of politeness but also awaiting the musical space for his entrance. I remember Parker bowing his bass with two bows at once; the bows came right in the direction of my face; I remember their slippage as they were driven across the heavy thick strings in glorious deep tones.
You see, I can only describe what I see and vaguely approach describing what I hear which two components can barely touch the intensity of the process of the music.
Enthusiasm conveyed by writers about concerts and recordings invites new audience, new listeners, new appreciation. Those persons who involve themselves with the music have everything available to them. There is only so much one can do. But I will say that the ones who benefit the most by the appreciation of the music are the musicians. They love their audiences and believe in them, for without them, the musicians would not be able to do what they do best.
Before I left the concert on Friday, the thirteenth, I made a point of thanking and saying good-bye to all of the musicians. Waiting to speak with him, I stood behind and to the side of Roy Campbell, who happened to be talking to someone. When the time was right, I said, "Good-bye, Roy, and thank you". He turned almost full-circle and threw his arm around me in a half embrace and said: "Good-bye, Lyn, thank you for coming."
And that is the point where I begin.