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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Not Waving But Drowning
by Stevie Smith
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.