That's me at the Blue Note, 05/10/19, Saturday, waiting for Robert Glasper and Yasiin Bey

Robert Glasper and Yasiin Bey at the Blue Note

We saw Robert Glasper and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def, but he’s way beyond that now) at The Blue Note on Saturday, October 5. Last we year we saw them at the later show, also in October. Both shows spun me around, but much differently. This year, my husband bought tickets for the eight o’clock show and wanted us to get there at six o’clock to get good seats. And we did.

Below is a picture Manny took of me after an hour of waiting. When DJ Jali Sundance appeared on stage and began setting up–I recall hearing a digable planets song–he asked that no one take photos or videos.

That's me at the Blue Note, 05/10/19, Saturday, waiting for Robert Glasper and Yasiin Bey
Me at The Blue Note waiting for Robert Glasper and Yasiin Bey, 05/10/19

To me, keeping the cell phone off and locked is critical for any live performance. For these musicians–DJ Jali Sundance, Chris Dave on drums, Derrick Hodge on bass, led by Robert Glasper on piano, and special guest, Yasiin Bey–the samples, effects, mics, dynamics, etc. are finely tuned for improvisation. Trying to record the deeply layered sounds from your seat results in disrespect and distortion. Especially because they respond to the other in the moment. A version of Glasper’s residency shows up in his new mixtape, Fck Yo Feelings.

Each set offers a unique experience. What you hear, ideally, includes the vibe in the room, in other words, us, the audience. Yasiin Bey addressed this last year, and requested that we, “Put your robots away.” Many did not.

This year, he asked us to focus–stay alert and participate in the miracle of the here and now. Then, becoming playful, he said, they didn’t want to “enforce” the rule. In whole-hearted agreement, I perhaps misread the mood. Because surprise! He said, “All right, let’s get it over with! One minute.” The women near me shouted, “Thank you, thank you!” Robert Glasper struck a Megan Rapinoe pose. Yasiin took off his hoodie and slowly turned.

After that? Yasiin started one of his hits and transformed it. A huge admirer of his word play and repetition, I recall variations on, “All that’s real isn’t true. And, all that’s true isn’t real.” He elided words, whistled, mimicked birds, and danced. The song “Treal,” included on Robert Glasper’s mixtape, rose and dipped, intertwined with new lines and rhymes. He pronounced “Treal” (true and real) to rhyme with kill. “The one thing death can’t kill–life!” Life, death, kill, trill! Yet he also spelled it clearly, T-R-E-A-L.

The lyrics, the different meanings, and layered rhymes and rhythms resonated inside me like iambs with a spondee on the fifth (Shakespeare), but more so! I cannot convey the shifts and sheets of jazz converging with cosmic intonations, except that it grew ever more ecstatic.

Diary of a Heretic, the cover of the paperback version.

Diary of a Heretic, a novel

Diary of a Heretic, the cover of the paperback version.
Years ago, a character formed full-fledged overnight in a dream. But Malcolm’s story took me years to write.

Once, years ago, I woke up with a full-fledged character in my head–as close I’ve gotten to real inspiration. A huge boost! And yet, writing his story took many years. Malcolm is wild, insecure, anxious, easily manipulated, hyper-sensitive, and charismatic.

My husband finds this novel hilarious, as intended. Unintended, however, is a resemblance between Malcolm and me. Once Manny pointed out the traits and tendencies we share (charisma aside), I had to concede. But even if my charismatic heretic is purely an extension of myself, his  story of being goaded into starting a cult religion, Religion Without Rules, just isn’t going to happen to me.

RIP Roy Hargrove

royhargrove
In August, 2012, I heard a trumpet playing that was so brilliant and happy, I jumped from my desk to follow it. I found Roy Hargrove playing a free concert in City Hall Park. His trumpet playing gave me a light, breezy sensation that swept away a phase of spiraling darkness I’d been trying to escape for months. The songs he performed that Sunday afternoon kept me buoyant for a long time.
After that, we got tickets to har him whenever we could–whether we could “afford” it or not. He traditionally performed at Chicago’s JazzCase in Chicago at Christmas and those shows were such a high point after too many family traditions.
We heard him play with the RH Factor at the Highline Ballroom in New York, and more than once at The Blue Note. The last few times we saw him, he seemed unwell but with his band, still put on a smart, uplifting show.
My husband will never forget his performance (I was suffering a migraine) at the Litchfield Connecticut jazz Festival, where our daughter was attending a jazz camp. It was mid-day in mid-August, in the mid 90’s, and various jazz artists sleepwalked though their sets under a big tent. No one, it seemed, had the energy to break through the heat and humidity. Until Roy (who was from Waco, Texas) emerged, immaculately dressed in an electric blue suit and tie, his hair in neat dreadlocks. He snapped his fingers rapidly to set the pace for the band and they
took off into a searing hour and a half set. He outburned the sun that day.

Lean On Me

Jose

Last night we were lucky enough to see Jose James at The Highline Nightclub, doing songs from his album, Lean On Me, a tribute to Bill Withers.  As always, Jose James performing live was thrilling. His band was a group of killer musicians–didn’t get every name but the drummer was Nate Smith.  James said when he first started talking about a Bill Withers’ tribute album, on which he’s been working long enough to grow a significant Afro, he narrowed it down to sixty songs—he couldn’t do it without including all of them. He then met Bill Withers. They talked for three hours, after which James made the album “Lean on Me,” which includes ten songs. The tour is going on now.

After performing “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Hello Like Before,” and “Use Me,” everyone left the stage except the drummer, Nate Smith, who easily enrapt the audience. James and crew returned, James now wearing a pale blue suit circa 1972 that looked terrific on him. A trained jazz singer who incorporates hip-hop, R&B, gospel, and funk, he said people have been asking him, “Why Bill Withers? Why now?”

Several answers to that question, one of which is that he considers Bill Withers the greatest living songwriter. But the answer he offered as his go-to response was that “Lean on Me,” was an uplifting anthem on the level of “We Shall Overcome” (or “Lift Every Voice and Sing”.) Bill Withers grew up in West Virginia during the Jim Crow era.

The songs opening lyrics are:

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

and grow even more compassionate from there. I’ve been listening to this album for a few weeks now.  James’s live performance of “Grandma’s Hands” last night, I hope, will stay with me forever.

Most of “Lean on Me”  album isn’t on YouTube. To this day, scarce bits of James’s live shows are all that’s offered of his lyrics for John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” “Central Park West,” and “Resolution.” Limited showings, too, of his Billie Holiday tribute, which is both faithful to the original and stunning in interpretation.

Yasiin Bey at the Blue Note

Yasiin
Sorry my photo isn’t better. Trying to keep it together, I spilled a glass of water.

Robert Glasper and his band are performing at NYC’s Blue Note for a month’s residency.  The guest performer for October 11-14 was Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. For  Saturday night’s performance, some of Yasiin’s lines were familiar. Some were not. His delivery, however, struck me as wholly original. He seemed to sculpt rhymes and rhythms in the air, where they lasted all night. He was emphatic and ecstatic, but more than that, he was intent and serious while creating art in real time. Yassin Bey has perfected his rapport with the energy of a spirit at large.

(An original, outside spirit filling one with artistic energy was once what inspired meant.  But its overuse, often regarding not much, has led it into the awesome muck. Possibly, not too distant from Mark Zuckerberg’s empathy.)

During a pause, the young man next to me asked, was this hip-hop? He wondered, too, why change your name when Mos Def is such a great name? Mos Def is a great stage name, but it conveys none of real-life seriousness of an artist who dares to take his work seriously. Of course, all art depends on being playful. Many people play all their lives and are undeniably artistic. But taking the risky, sky-leap into serious art occurs to very few people, and even then, it demands nerve, commitment, and luck.

At one point, he started “Ms. Fat Booty,” and Anderson.Paak joined him onstage. (A surprise–AP had been sitting in the row below me, among the “cheap seats.” The younger rapper, his voice higher, his intention pure fun, blended, perfectly with Yasiin’s lofty joy.

The show ended with Yasiin’s ecstatic litany starting in contradiction, moving through repetition, in which a word or emphasis is altered in loop until what you hear is something like a koan, or no, original truths. (That’s what I thought, anyway.)

Yassin Bey’s raspy voice and supreme invocations offered everyone present the “Sun, Moon, and Stars.”

Bill Irwin on Beckett

bill-irwin-2nd-headshot-200x300-1

Last night we saw Bill Irwin’s Exploring the Work of Samuel Beckett at the Irish Repertory Theatre.  The actor and clown you need to see to believe presented pieces developed from Beckett’s writings: Texts for Nothing; The Unnameable; and Watt.  The actor’s interaction with the prose–words he said haunt him–elevated dense prose into fast and riveting dramas about struggling to live, claiming to “give up,” (a slump, a sinking, and for a second it appeared he might sink into a grave), but as language persisted until the momentum seemed inescapable, admitting, perhaps not yet.  He also acted parts of Beckett’s plays, Endgame and, of course Waiting for Godot, in which Irwin has played the character Lucky and Vladimir. He said that, after memorizing the lines for the roles, he cannot forget them. And his presentation of Lucky’s monologue, along with examples of Vladimir interacting with Estragon, left no doubt that Samuel Beckett’s characters run through his head almost constantly. I learned, too, that while in the U.S., we pronounce Godot as Guh-DOE, in England and Ireland’s it’s GOD-oh. He said when he first appeared in the play in England someone asked if him by saying Guh-DOE, he was trying to seem “French.”

My husband overhead someone saying after the ninety minute performance, “That was a master class.” I wouldn’t know, except that it certainly didn’t strike me as a class. Staggering, funny, and enlightening, yes. But no class ever tapped so deeply into my self-awareness or made the fantastic and hilarious but dire struggle to survive seem so tangible.  My five (or six) senses absorbed things that were new to me, things I will never forget.

Virtuoso Timing

arnold

Dan Leo’s This World or Any Other, the perfectly titled Volume Two of the Memoirs of Arnold Schnabel intensifies the stakes and comic timing. The first volume  unfolded at Cape May, New Jersey during several weeks in the summer of 1963. This second volume occurs on the night of August 10. With virtuoso precision, Arnold’s adventures expand and contract in time, toggling between the astonishing and the familiar. Read this memoir and then the first, or vice versa. The same characters reveal new depths and peaks, while several new friends, saints, demons, and provocateurs prey upon Arnold’s unfailing good manners.

Arnold gives his attention, aid, and counsel to eccentrics and barflies, while worrying about his sanity. Yet he also enjoys a few romantic respites with his beautiful, talented, and profoundly level-headed “lady friend,” as she’s called in 1963. Before long, he’s waylaid by a panoply of supernatural errands, prompts to acts of kindness, calls of nature, and pleas to have one more drink with a deity seeking his human aspect. All necessary and all keeping Arnold from his lover. Indicative of 1963, men openly rate women by their appearance. And while the white characters drop by “the Negro bar,” Arnold casually notes the unlikeliness of reciprocal activity. These signs of the times are asides.

The author’s timing as characters drink one beer and then another, and a few Manhattans followed by more beers, reminded me of a first-rate comedian’s. As a teetotaler, I often find drinking scenes to be the same thing all over again. Not here, though! The repetition works because the writer’s timing keeps every round, down to every swallow, humorous.

Freewheeling through portals and considerate while cringing, Arnold’s concessions to have “just one more” are endearing and funny.

Post Card

trumpet

Saturday night, Manny and I went to the Met’s exhibit of Michelangelo’s drawings. Many of the drawings, paintings and even the few sculptures were studies by the Master’s students and imitators. The picture above (in fact, a photo of a post card I bought) Michelangelo drew.

The plaque explained that an angel, also known as a genius–a usage I’m familiar with, although I didn’t know it harked to the Renaissance–is blowing a trumpet into the man’s head. The angel/genius inspires the man with a blast note to the head. I’ve slightly emphasized the trumpet because to me it looks like a weapon for a blow dart to the naked artist’s brain.

Instead of hearing a trumpet when I saw the drawing, I thought of Bob Marley singing “Trenchtown Rock,” specifically the lyric that includes “hit me with music…brutalize me…”

Crowds filled the space, Two women seemed unaware that assistants had created much of the art. Or that other pieces were intended in homage. Much awed murmuring regarding “the folds of fabric.”

We hadn’t visited the Met in many months, because the new Whitney is walking distance–a nice long walk. Michelangelo’s drawings didn’t move me as much as I expected. But these days, Leonardo da Vinci is my hero. I keep sending my novel, The Vitruvian Man, to people and places to no avail. Meanwhile, I’m rewriting the sequel, The Vitruvian Woman.

Leonardo didn’t care very much if people read what he wrote, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography. He kept intending to order his notebooks and studies for publication, but some intriguing new puzzle always seized him the minute he proved a theory through drawing, observation, and experiment.

He loved learning for its own sake. Being illegitimate and homosexual, he enjoyed being a “misfit.” It freed him from having to meet common social expectations. Mostly unschooled, he sought knowledge relentlessly, and rarely accepted received wisdom without applying his own tests.

But because his discoveries were unpublished, many, if not most, had to be rediscovered hundreds of years later. Isaacson posits his famous “mirror-writing” was not a code, but a method to keep from smearing ink, and one other left-handed writers used.

The one and only trait Leonardo and I have in common is left-handedness. Unlikely to take up mirror-writing, I smear stuff everywhere.

 

For William Todd

Not Waving But Drowning

picture of English poet, Stevie Smith

by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
 And not waving but drowning.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
*

William Todd, partner to my dear friend Diane died, five years ago today.  When Diane phoned to say William, for whom she administrated end-of-life care for months in their tiny apartment, had died in the night, Manny and I weren’t surprised. We had visited the night before. The end hovered in the room.

I had always been very fond of William, who was among the most knowledgeable, literate, artistic men I have ever known, as eager to learn as to teach.

I remember Diane, who had been heroically devoted and conscientious for months, telling us, after we had been away, that William had lost most of his body weight. I wasn’t afraid of that. What I feared more was that I would annoy him. Inadvertently, I would add to his discomfort when he had been suffering so awfully for so long. For instance: after saying hello, I asked, “Are you scared?”

His face lit up. For once, my inappropriate curiosity was appropriate! Too weak to talk much, he said, “I’m petrified.”

Diane had set up a table near the hospital bed brought in by Visiting Nurse Service of New York. On the table was a photograph of William and his sister in Liverpool, ages perhaps seven to ten. I saw that same handsome, nonchalant little boy in the photograph lying in the hospital bed. He shook his head.

I said, no, you’re the same.

Another photograph was of a man in flight gear. Unlike me, William rarely talked about himself. And at the end, talking was difficult for him. Manny asked if the photograph was his father. He indicated yes. His father had fought in WWII as a bombardier. The last word I heard William Todd say was, “bombardier.”

Sitting with William as he died, I witnessed moments when he broke through the terrible pain and became more than lucid–pure. His death convinced me that a person’s death involves triumph, not an earthly triumph, but something larger than sorrow, and everlasting.

The poem above by Stevie Smith was familiar to me but when I spotted it on a blog William was designing years ago, it suddenly became ingrained in my memory.

Departure

departure copy

Last summer, I decided to stop writing this serial fiction.Don’t know if anyone’s looked at it, but I planned to end it when Jasper leaves with Sung to make the movie, Readiness IS All. That’s not the end of the story, but it might have felt more finished to a reader than departing from James Bond and the Girls of Woodstock at episode 79. (previous post)

Last year life threw me into a grief-stricken tailspin. And this summer a few sorry events kept me from writing serial fiction for two months. My recent small sadnesses may have increased my capacity to realize more of last year’s everlasting loss. But either way, after this latest break, I’m convinced that persisting with another serial installment makes no sense. Naturally, I often doubt my ideas and abilities, but this time I don’t doubt I’m right.

I had hopes for this story when I started it here. And yet I knew well enough that James Bond and the Girls of Woodstock is way too long and wide-ranging, with too many characters, for me to write it as serial fiction. Also, it quickly became obvious to me that any coherency achieved by alternating between Brooke and Jasper’s point of view was a poor trade-off for a slower pace than I wanted.

Serial fiction should be fast and plot-driven. The episodes should consist of five hundred words, at most. (Try as I might—countless rewrites—the episodes here average nearer to a thousand words.) But I admit to using serial fiction as early drafts for novels or short stories. It keeps me writing and I truly do everything I can to make it readable and fun. Nevertheless, what’s here is an unfinished experiment. I loved writing it and discovered many little techniques that were new to me. It’s unlikely, however, I’ll ever reimagine and rewrite James Bond and the Girls of Woodstock. Also, any fiction I write from now on, will occur offline. At most, I might post a quote with a photo.

Simultaneously with my serial fiction, I was constantly rewriting my novel, The Vitruvian Man. The title comes from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of a man positioned within a circle and a square. (See the version above.) Every time I had to face another rewrite, I despaired of doing the impossible. Such as, writing a novel that would draw readers into it, unaware; and keep them there with prose so delightful they would never ever realize they were—reading. But once I got into the story (which, I’m afraid, does call upon a reader’s time), it exhilarated me—even more than before. In the middle, I soared. Upon finishing another rewrite, however, I felt exhausted and heartbroken.

Finally, I believe—and more significantly, my husband believes—The Vitruvian Man has reached its peak. When it’s published, mu blog and/or site will undergo radical changes. The serial fiction and excerpts from Diary of a Heretic will disappear. No doubt these things will take years. Anything I try to accomplish takes forever.