Friday, December 8, 2017

The Next Needed Song

I've been listening to a lot of the Keith Jarrett Trio driving to and from work. Nothing new for me, but now listening harder from the point of view of a being a jazz pianist aspiring to his level of expressive proficiency and proficient expression. Not with the illusion that I'll achieve it, but with the idea of getting one inch closer. I’ve always loved Keith Jarrett’s piano playing— a touch and feel that goes right to the heart of the song, an incomparable rapport with his brilliant co-musicians Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, phrasing that makes bar lines feel like open invitations rather than borders to be crossed and the uncanny ability to find the next needed note not pre-determined by cliché, but discovered in the heat of the moment. All of this was crafted from a lifetime of dedicated hard work, but one can't help be feel the hand of some divine inspiration in the mix. Take some time to listen—really listen, with nothing else but 150% attention—the medley that goes from You and the Night and the Music to Someday My Prince Will Come on the Still Live album. Extraordinary.

Knowing his personality issues, I imagine there is some unnecessary ego involved in keeping the applause on all his recordings. But from another point of view, the audience reaction could be seen as part of the whole experience, their testimony that he opened up closed territories in their heart and they were not only thanking him for it, but applauding their own willingness to go to those vulnerable places. And who can begrudge him the satisfaction of touching so many in large concert halls? It must be intoxicating and sometimes for the right reasons beyond fame and fortune.

I imagine Mr. Jarrett doesn’t envy me. And yet today, as I have so many days before in the last 9 years, I released a mitzvah in the Jewish Home for the Aged and gave some 15 elders an hour of beauty, energy, humor, companionship, solace and the chance to forget any pains in their 85 years + bodies and feel young, vibrant and whole again. With the able contribution of the five lovely souls from our SF Orff Intern Program, adding violins, snare drum, voice and vigorous dance to the mix, we covered centuries and thousands of miles of musical territory. And it was pure jazz in the sense that we were awake and alert to the energy of the moment. My decades of devotion to investigating and being able to play diverse musical styles allowed me to know what was the next needed song and to go directly there with hardly a flip of a page from a music book.

From the opening blues to Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah to one of the residents singing My Yiddish Momma, I crossed the border to Schubert’s Ave Maria and the Interns noticed a voice singing along from the far back of the small audience. We brought a Chinese-American woman up front and she stood next to me at the piano singing the song again, with a powerful voice and with words intact. From there I suggested Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria and she jumped right in and then we went to Hoffman’s Barcarolle. Her face was alight with joy and she told me she hadn’t sung in the last 20 or 30 years. From there I lept into the Can-Can with Hana (an Intern) dancing, followed by Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance. Then a Straus waltz with the violins and now in waltz time, the meter suggested more—Cielito Lindo, Home on the Range, Bicycle Built for Two and Irving Berlin’s Always. A short leap from Irving to Jerome (Kern, that is) and on to Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man. Now firmly in the jazz venue, onto All of Me and Sunnyside of the Street with most joining in the song and then a side trip to Besame Mucho and — well, how much time do you have? I know some three hundred plus jazz standards. But another Intern offered to play a Turkish song on violin, which oddly, I happened to know and accompanied on piano and sang along. Then it was time for a ballad and That Old Black Magic was just the ticket and got the tears flowing as I remembered my dear friend Fran singing this song with me. A short step away was Somewhere Over the Rainbow and then it was time to go, with such love and appreciation from each of the 15 as the Interns and I held their hands and talked with them a bit before saying goodbye. Mr. Jarrett has the appreciation of thousands and deserves it, but he doesn’t get to see close-up the effect of music the way that I do. And same for my daily sings with elementary and weekly with the preschool

What a trip we had taken in a mere 60 minutes! Yiddish, English, Latin, Turkish, Spanish languages, major/ minor/ slow/ medium/ fast/ jazzy/ Latin/ waltz time/ different keys and more and me steering the ship at the piano feeling what the next needed song would be and able to play it. If Coleridge was right that "each word/ note properly heard unlocks another faculty of Soul," the lights were on in just about all the rooms of the Soul's resplendent mansion. That’s my power, that’s my hard-earned gift, not one the world particularly cares about or notices or knows how to praise or appreciate it—no Grammy Awards given for artful Sing-a-longs. But nevertheless, a worthy skill that brings a flow to an hour of music-making that develops like an improvised Suite or sonata form.

Gary Snyder’s Zen teacher once said: “Sweep the garden. Any size.” Clearing out the cobwebs and dust of the world through music— Mr. Jarrett and I share that livelihood. Me with my 15 elders in the Jewish Home, him with thousands in a big concert hall and millions through recordings. Any size. It’s the act that counts and the Soul doesn’t care about numbers. 

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