Yesterday afternoon I was lying on the floor, trying to play with the bell of my flugelhorn jammed into the bottom of a conga drum, as a dancer dragged the drum across the room with a guitar cable. An hour before that, I was on a stage with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary; Cuban jazz legend Paquito D’Rivera; pop producer Nile Rodgers; Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge; composer David Amram; and about a half dozen others, with everyone singing and playing along to “This Land is Your Land”. A couple hours before that I was frantically searching NYC music stores for a suitable cornet mouthpiece. And the night before that I was running up and down the stairs of a very hot Abrons Art Center, co-producing the Festival of New Trumpet Music meets the Vision Festival mash-up, with five sets of music and two documentary films. It was an interesting 24 hours to cap off an exhausting week, so I figured what better time to restart my blog.
We just finished up the 3-day WE SPEAK concert series with the Festival of New Trumpet Music. (For the observant jazz heads out there, catch the Booker Little reference.) It kicked off last Friday night in the all-acoustic concert hall at the Rubin Museum of Art; Stephen Haynes, Stanton Davis, Wadada Leo Smith, William Parker, Warren Smith, and myself paying musical tribute to Bill Dixon. It was a beautiful night of music (amazing that it was the first time Stanton and Wadada ever played together), I hope we did Bill’s spirit proud. On Sunday, Wadada’s Golden Quartet, with Pheeroan akLaff, John Lindberg, and Angelica Sanchez, brought their exquisite sound to NYC. (Getting to hear Wadada twice in a weekend, one of those days standing next to him, was a personal treat…the sound he gets out of his horn has such profound power.)
Then on Tuesday, FONT met the Vision Festival, and it was a blast. I love the symbolism of two grassroots, artist-run organizations working together, especially in times as tough as these for the general arts economy. And the Vision Festival is the contemporary standard bearer in NYC for that model of DIY arts activism, it’s incredible that they’ve stayed strong for 16 years. I was proud of the program we put together, it really demonstrated a wide spectrum of styles, generations, and ideas within the larger context of innovation and improvisation. Amir ElSaffar’s music was entrancing; a fully realized microtonal language equally fluent in post-modern jazz and traditional Iraqi maqam. We had two films by Robert O’Haire and Jeff Burns, always inspiring to see Joseph Daley talk about writing for the low-end of his orchestra, and to hear Bill Dixon tell us what it is in the studio. Ted Daniel brought a joyful spirit to the music of King Oliver, connecting the dots between today, the NYC lofts of the ’70s, and the New Orleans of the ’20s. Whether Stephanie Richards’ horn was underwater or wrapped in aluminum foil, she played the hell out of it, making sounds that relished in their timbral manipulations. Tomasz Stanko’s new quartet blew me away; Mark Helias, Sylvie Courvoisier, and Mark Feldman kept an improvisational fire bubbling in a chamber instrumentation, and Stanko’s sound was gorgeous, alternating between lush and raw in a manner that would do Dixon or Cherry or Miles proud. Jonathan Finlayson closed out the night with a powerful and sweaty set, expertly navigating the rhythmic and intervallic complexities of his chess-inspired music. I was mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the night, but happily fulfilled. (For me, this was also my last big hurrah as a FONT producer after several years as one of the primary curators…I’m sticking with the organization and will continue to help out, but planning to take a smaller role. So this night felt like a very nice way to close out.)
A few weeks ago, Margaret Lioi from Chamber Music America asked me to play at a luncheon honoring the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. I was more than happy to do so; both CMA and Duke have been steadfast advocates for jazz and creative music in an often bleak funding landscape. I’ve been lucky enough to have their backing for several of my projects, and they were also major supporters of FONT this year, both helping us present Wadada Leo Smith and giving us general operating funds, so I owe them much gratitude. I didn’t really know what the context of this lunch was going to be, but on Wednesday, I woke up and got ready to head midtown to pay my musical respects. (I had decided to bring together some former CMA/Duke grantees for a special trio, and was excited both Jason Kao Hwang and Ellery Eskelin had agreed to join me. Jason’s been one of my close collaborators and friends for years now, and this was the first time Ellery and I had found an excuse to play together, though I’ve long loved his playing.)
I pulled out my cornet to warm up, and had a minor panic attack as I realized I had left my mouthpiece bag at home! The mouthpiece tends to be a fairly indispensable component to making sound on a horn. Being able to make a sound on a horn is a good thing when you’re supposed to play, especially when you’re supposed to play for one of the only funders of this kind of music in the country. I was doubly embarrassed because the last time I made this error, (yes, I have done this before), was at a recording session of Jason’s. I didn’t want to prove myself an idiot, I prefer to keep it a suspicion.
I often get on my soapbox about the cornet being an under appreciated step-sibling of the trumpet, if you want proof, try finding a decent cornet mouthpiece, even in New York, on a half-hour’s notice. It is actually impossible. Luckily, I also had my flugelhorn with me, and those mouthpieces are slightly easier to find. I was happy to see a friendly face behind the counter at the music store, the excellent saxophonist/clarinetist Jason Mears, who hooked me up with a flugel mouthpiece reasonably close to what I usually play, and I was on my way.
When I met Jason and Ellery at this Art Deco ballroom on 47th St, I was just relieved to be there close to on time after my mouthpiece scare. I did know that Paquito D’Rivera was also being honored (Margaret from CMA had given me a heads up, since Paquito is know to spontaneously join in the music at these kind of events!), but still didn’t know what the event was really about. I found out on the program about the National Music Council, the sponsoring organization, and that the other honorees were Nile Rodgers and Peter Yarrow. Check out the list of previous honorees, it is a heavy bunch. My favorite years are 1986 (Morton Gould and Dizzy Gillespie) and 1992 (Elliot Carter and Max Roach), those are some hip pairings. After we quickly ran through the music, a lady I haven’t met yet started her soundcheck, singing “We Are Family” over a prerecorded backing track. I figured she must be a protege of Rodgers, so is singing one of his big hits, but I can’t imagine it’s actually Sister Sledge. I was thinking maybe it was Daughter Sledge. She doesn’t look that much older than me, and that song came out in 1979! But she sure sounds good…I didn’t know Kathy Sledge was just 16 when they recorded that song, and yep, it was her.
That was the start of a rather surreal lunch. Jason, Ellery and I sat with Margaret and Edward Henry, the head of the Duke Foundation, along with Paquito D’Rivera and his family and David Amram, who was introducing Paquito. (Amram has one of the most impressive resumes in American music, yet is an incredibly warm and friendly guy. Definitely someone who exemplifies the connection between music and humanism.) The award presentations started, each accompanied by 5-minute musical tributes. Edmar Castaneda, a harpist originally from Bogota, played a ridiculously virtuosic number for Paquito. Then after Kathy Sledge and Nile Rodgers warmly reminisced about meeting and recording all their hits, she sang “We Are Family”, getting members of the audience to join in and sing along. Obviously the usual kind of warm up acts for some experimental, improvised chamber music. After fairly rapturous applause for Edmar and Kathy, we received a polite and somewhat confused spattering of claps from the $500 donor seats, though I do think Peter Yarrow and David really dug it, and Paquito complimented our intonation. Kathy Sledge was a remarkably lovely and gracious person as well. I must admit, I was impressed that the stars treated us weird music types with friendship and respect.
Peter was his own musical act, closing out the event singing with accompaniment from Paquito (getting his chance to sit in) on clarinet and David Amram on tin whistle. As the organizers asked all the presenters, performers, and honorees to take the stage for a final bow, Peter jumped in once more with “This Land is Your Land”, and how can one resist playing some plunger mute obbligato along with that company? That has got to be the most bizarre afternoon gig I’ve ever been a part of, but overall quite a fun and friendly time. As I told Ellery and Jason, the next time I call them for a gig I can’t promise it to be quite that unusual.
And immediately after the luncheon, I jumped on the L train out to Ridgewood, for a rehearsal with the new interdisciplinary performance collective Action Theory. I’m loving this group, with Abraham Gomez-Delgado, Melanie Maar, and Rachel Bernsen, every time we get together I end up doing something I’ve never done before, musically or physically or both. An incredibly exciting context to be in as an improviser. We’ll be making our NYC debut Friday night at the Vision Festival, so come check it out. That’s how I found myself on the floor, playing into a conga being dragged around by a guitar cable, and weirdly, that felt like just where I was supposed to be by that point in the day.