Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Masters of the Universe


Who do you think of when you read that title? Perhaps Austin Powers or Russell Crowe or Robert Downey Jr. with their fancy weaponry, army of goons and occasional superpowers. Their goal is to rule over all, to feel the thrill of absolute power and to demolish any scrawny upstart who dares challenge them.

What a bore.

I met two of the true Masters of the Universe the other night at SF Jazz. Their names are Zakir Hussein and Josh Redman. Through a lifetime of unrelenting disciplined effort, rigorous training, passionate commitment, deep listening and prodigious imagination, they have gone further than 99.99% of humanity to master their respective instruments of Indian tabla drums and tenor/soprano saxophone. Zakir is the elder (my age!), Josh a wise 48-year old and they both appear to be two of the nicest, sweetest, kindest people you’d ever want to meet. This based on a few stories and stage presence. There could be, of course, skeletons in their closets, but their general vibe is not the tortured eccentric brooding artist, but the fully human radiant personality aglow with the fruits of their own efforts to master something worthwhile—profound musical expression. They are the masters of time and tone, fully in command of both and manipulating them to create music of astonishing virtuosity and tenderness. While at the same time leaving space for the unexpected and listening to each other with a precision and intensity that is comparable to a hungry predatory stalking prey, waiting for the moment to jump. Indeed, I remember the first time I saw Josh Redman, he entered stage playing and looked exactly like a hunter in search of the miraculous.

The audience was with them every step of the way and because they were playing either music unfamiliar to us all—new compositions on two instruments that have no shared repertoire together or familiar jazz pieces accompanied by the tabla and other percussion instead of the customary drum set—we were listening as well with all our might. And could tell when both pounced at the same time and landed together. And didn’t we feel uplifted just by being in the presence of these master musicians who made the right choices about how to feel the right kind of power that human beings possess? Merely being in the room lifted us up to a better version of ourselves and left us feeling that despite all evidence to the contrary, humanity is not God’s most grievous error, but His most magnificent creation. (Though I couldn’t help but remember, as I have to too often in these dark times, that one of these extraordinary human  beings could be deported for his last name and the other shot for the crime of driving while black. Aargh!)

Tomorrow I return to school to do my little part to help children feel their power through the mastery of and spontaneity within music. It’s likely that none will rise to such exalted heights, but the glory is simply in beginning the journey and staying with the beauty for as long as it refreshes you. As for this lifelong piano player, it’s back to the woodshed.

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