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.

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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.