Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Jazz Piano

I heard the other day that Brad Mehldau was coming to town, and it got me thinking about jazz piano. What a great thing it is, and how many and diverse the styles that have developed. It isn’t necessary to reach back to the days of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller to be amazed by it all. I began to wonder if a system of coordinates could be established upon which every pianist could be plotted, with a smooth-rough continuum running horizontally, and an earthy-celestial running vertically. A chart would appear on the cover of each recording with a star indicating what the tone of the music was—or a smear (a little Andromeda Galaxy) suggesting what range of moods we might expect to hear. Following this scheme McCoy Tyner would appear in the rough-celestial quadrant, counterbalanced by Thelonious Monk in the rough-earthy sphere. Bill Evans would appear in the smooth-celestial quadrant, with Mal Waldron across from him on the smooth-earthy side. A pianist like Kenny Barron, smooth-funky-gritty-celestial by turns, might appear somewhere near the middle of the grid.

All such systems are doomed to crumble, of course, though they still make for good cocktail conversation. Brad Mehldau himself is a brooding pianist, but is that brooding earthy or celestial? Bud Powell is definitely rough, when compared with such facile successors as Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson—but he also has a bright and energetic linearity. And where are we to put the expressive sloppiness of Don Pullen? The halting dignity and bizarre harmonies of Andrew Hill? It would appear that we need a three-dimensional grid, with the third dimension extending north-south harmonically from “far-out” at the top to down-to-earth at the bottom. This dimension might seem to echo the others, but Cecil Taylor and Jason Moran are far-out but not really celestial. Hank Jones is down-to-earth but not, perhaps, all that earthy.

Jazz pianists often make their mark first as accompanists on small-group recordings. We read their names for years without developing a clear idea of who they are or how they operate stylistically. Jackie Byard? Mulgrew Miller? John Hicks? The world of jazz is littered with striking, amazing, even shocking talents, and I for one have long since lost track. (I once heard Byard at the theater in the East Village and I could have sworn he was simply playing works by Darius Milhaud.)

Every so often I “discover” an artist that, to judge by the albums and accolades I run across on-line, has been a jazz commonplace for decades. I recently downloaded an album of solo piano music by Fred Hirsch and was flabbergasted by the sophistication and delicacy of his music. It were as if the haunting off-kilter simplicity of the Catalan composer Federico Mompou and the voice-leading sophistication of J. S. Bach were being put to the service of an energetic jazz vision. Wow. More “pretty” than driving, perhaps. Tending to remote harmonics in the French style. And speaking of France. Does anyone have bouncier style than Michel Petrucciani?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Wisconsin Fish Fry

It being Friday, and Lent, we piled into a car with another couple and headed out of town, down the Mississippi and across the bridge to Prescott, Wisconsin. Once across the bridge we cut a hard left and continued east along Highway 10 across the rolling hills of western Wisconsin toward Ellsworth. It was a drizzly day and the snow had vanished entirely from the fields. It was a melancholy spring afternoon, you might say, and melancholy is of the essence of spring—especially for the fish—but we were in high spirits, and we asked ourselves once again why it is that once you cross the border into Wisconsin suddenly everything seems different? (Is it because of the glaciers?)

The hills were lovely, and the trunks of the trees in the distant woodlots were almost black in the gray air, but it seemed we were headed for nowhere—not a town, not a building, and nary a car in sight. Finally a building appeared at the top of a hill, with a string of trucks and SUVs parked alongside it. It was on the wrong side of the road, however. A place called Jimmy’s Supper Club.

At the bottom of the next hill the Valley Bar and Grill came into view. With trucks and cars jammed in every which way and some oozing out onto the edges of the highway, it was clear that we had come to the right place. A line stretched out the front door and alongside the building under an awning, and we joined it. We asked the tall slim man standing in front of us if he’d eaten here before, and he said, “I come here all the time. I live four miles away.” And he gestured to the north with a half-crooked finger.“This place is good; but have you been to the Bluffs, down by Red Wing? Also very good.” Clearly he was a connoisseur.

He told us he owed 57 acres, and I asked him if he was a farmer. “No, I work at Anderson Windows.”
“My brother used to work there,” I replied, as if that would form some sort of bond between us. “What do you do with the land?”
“I just like the space,” he replied. “Forty acres are woods, and some is in a government set-aside program.”

He explained how that worked. You put in a bid, and if they accept it then that’s what they pay you not to work the land. “This year I put in 65 dollars an acre and they took it. If they won’t take it you go lower. But what I don’t like are the taxes. I paid $8,500 last year.”
“That doesn’t sound that bad to me,” I said. "for all that land."
“But all I have on it is a house, a garage, and a shed!”

His wife, a petite, attractive middle-aged woman (whom we later learned was a grandma twice over), was only half-listening to the conversation, but she perked up when another man came up with a boisterous Hello.
“You remember the Hargesheimers,” she said to her husband. “Their daughter used to baby-sit for us years ago.” The man extracted a stack of snapshots from his pocket and soon they were all engrossed in a private world of “catching up.”

Once inside the low-sling building, we saw that we still had a ways to go. The line snaked around the pool table and along a rather lengthy bar, then turned the corner and continued down the other side to a cash register, where you paid your $11.25. Beyond that was the buffet. We ordered a beer as we inched along and pondered whether to snag a table.
“You could do that. Nothing wrong with that,” our new friend said. “But they sort of regulate the flow so there’s always somewhere to sit.”
In the end, we decided that it wouldn’t be in the spirit of the place. The way things were going, someone could take the same table, eat there, and leave before we even got to the buffet. We did claim some places at the end of a long community table just before we reached the register —so we could set down our beer—and then, finally, we began to work our way through the food.

The woman at the cash register told us that there were only two people working in the kitchen, plus a dishwasher. Then she showed us the long list of take-out orders that people would be coming by for soon. “They must be doing a good job back there,” Hilary said. “And you’re good, too.”
“I know I am,” the woman smiled.

The odd thing about a buffet is that even if the offerings are uniformly good the desire to sample everything leads to some very strange combinations. Undaunted by this consideration, I filled my plate with little dollops of baked beans, herring, au gratin potatoes, three-bean salad, and a potato-flour roll before arriving at the fried fish and ham. I applied a generous slathering of tartar sauce to my crispy fish chunks, ignored the marshmallow salad and French fries entirely, and determined to return later for the celery, coleslaw, and macaroni salad—wondering all the while what happened to the pickled beets!

The $64 dollar question at any fish fry is this: How greasy are the fish? These fish were light, flaky, and very hot. The chunks were the size of a thick wallet, and the supply was replenished every few minutes by an adolescent boy from the kitchen who would dump an oversized plate of the compact fillets into the stainless steel bin and then retrieve any strays with his bare hands and return them to the pile.

Yes, the fish were good. The ham was also good. The beans were surprisingly firm and free of that overly-sweet bacony flavor, and even the tartar sauce, though straight out of an industrial-sized plastic jar, was (refreshingly) less sweet than is often the case. The potatoes? Cheesy and good. In fact, everything was good.

Two women wearing baseball caps and carrying very small glasses of thin red wine sat down at the other end of our table.
“We won’t bite,” I said.
“And we won’t spill,” one of them replied, with somewhat greater wit. But they spotted a free table elsewhere and moved off without further comment. A middle-aged couple arrived a few minutes later, and we soon established that they lived four blocks from our friends in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul. But I doubt whether many of the people enjoying the fish had all the way from the Twin Cities. River Falls, Prescott, Hastings, Hudson, and Red Wing are a lot closer, not to mention Martell, El Paso, and Hager City. And then there are all the ex-urbanites and genuine country folk roundabout.

As we were finishing up, the wife of the man we’d been talking to earlier came up behind our table. “Are you enjoying the food?” she said pleasantly. Indeed we were.
“You should come back in the summer,” she said, “when it’s less crowded.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ortega y Gasset

It’s a morning much like other mornings. Hilary is ironing something to wear to work. I’m standing in the doorway in my green plaid bathrobe with my hair sticking up like Eraserhead. Outside, the last traces of snow are melting in the shadows of the white spruce in the front yard. Our neighbors left this morning before dawn to visit their parents in St. Louis. At any rate, I presume that’s what all the door-slamming was all about. And in my dream I was defending the artistic excellence of the Yardbirds.

As I stand in the doorway, I glance (without really looking) at a stack of books lying on its side at the end of a wall-mounted shelf right in front of my face, and a title jumps out at me. There it is—History as a System by José Ortega y Gasset—sandwiched between a book of poems by Emily Dickenson and a small hardcover volume of woodcuts by Hans Holbein—The Dance of Death. I extract the book from the stack, being careful not to dislodge other items on the shelf or bring the shelf itself crashing down. And as I examine the contents page it occurs to me that I never did get around to reading the title essay in that collection, though I read one of the other ones, “The Sportive Origins of the State.” Well, today may be the perfect day to reconnect.

Ortega y Gasset is one of those early-twentieth century thinkers who has fallen through the cracks, which is a shame. His interests were broad and his style was casual. Fifty years ago, many of Ortega’s books were not only in print but also widely read, even beyond the confines of Latin America. As is so often the case, his most popular book, The Revolt of the Masses, is not, perhaps, his most important one. Though neither is the book that he himself considered his crowning achievement (the one on Leibnitz), which, I suspect, has been read by almost no one.

But that is one of Ortega’s strengths as a thinker: he was never merely an academic philosopher. He was raised in a family of publishers and he himself worked as a journalist throughout his life. It’s true that he studied in Marburg under Husserl and others, and later established the Department of Metaphysics at the University of Madrid, but he was eager to tackle a wide variety of problems, from modern art to bullfighting, from the purpose of the university to the nature of mysticism. There is so much boyish vigor in his prose that it is little wonder he never produced the sort of weighty, labyrinthine tome that seems to impress philosophy professors. By the same token, he was deeply interested in word origins, but wary of neologisms. In the end, he coined very few of those expressions that can bring a conversation to a reverential halt, because no one in the room is willing to admit that they don’t know what it actually means. The few which he is associated—perspectivism, vital reason—are sound, but not exotic enough to have retained much currency.

Perhaps the trouble is that although Ortega is not a system-builder, he is not quite an aphorist either. A very interesting volume could be worked up of one-liners and pithy paragraphs from his books—but nowadays, who would bother? Most of Ortega’s books were derived from lecture notes, and as a result, they tend to be slightly repetitive and more than a little digressive.

Having read the essay, I can say that “History as a System” runs true to form in that regard. All the same, it offers a very compact point of ingress into Ortega’s thought. And it also gives us a convincing explanation of why Ortega’s reputation as a thinker has withered. In “History as a System” Ortega reveals himself to be a historicist.

I would wager that few people today have the faintest idea what historicism is. We might put it into some sort of perspective by suggesting that as the theory of evolution is to modern biology, and as relativity is to modern physics, so historicism is to modern philosophy. All three movements have their roots in the nineteenth century, and all three consist of an untethering of vital concepts from rigid categories. Darwin freed biology from Aristotelian (and Biblical) notions of unchanging species; Einstein freed physics from Newtonian ideas of unbendable time and space. And historicism freed philosophy of the vain quest of exposing eternal verities by means of abstract reasoning.

I suspect that most philosophers shy away from historicism because it is simply too hard to deal with. The historicist student of ethics, for example, would no longer find it sufficient to consider hypothetical examples, such as: “Now, if I told a little white lie, but with the best of intentions, and my boss found out, and….would it be wrong if I…?” Or, “Is it ethical for me to wait until I’m in a public parking lot to kick the clinkers off the wheel-wells of my car, or am I morally obliged to kick them off in my own driveway?” Such hypothetical cases fall by the wayside as we begin to analyze complex and often nasty historical events—the crossing of the Rubicon, the rise of the Dutch Republic, the bombing of Coventry or Hiroshima, the Final Solution. The end result of such inquiries will not be a tidy formula on the order of the categorical imperative or the Golden Rule. No, will would be a genuine work of thought, of history.

If historicism had really caught on, then existentialism would never have become fashionable. Existentialism is historicism in training wheels. It’s rooted in the awareness that life is fraught with anxiety, due to the fact that we never really know if we’re doing the right thing. But rather than developing an awareness of all the marvelous and difficult things that people have done in spite of this dreadful fact, and perhaps attempting a few themselves, existentialists tend to romance the feeling itself—as if the experience of anxiety were the same thing as doing good—and giving it all manner of literary shading and nuance, from ennui to “the sickness unto death.”

In short, existentialism is romanticism without the brio. Historicism is a romanticism that has matured by taking itself beyond the heroism and pathos of the individual being, toward a deeper grasp of the social and historical dimension of individual endeavor.

Ortega y Gasset was not the most rigorous exponent of historicism. In fact, his name appears with some frequency in the second tier of those existentialist anthologies that were all the rage during my years on campus. But in “History as a System,” he gives us a pretty good idea of what historicism is and why it’s important. Along the way we also get a better idea of Ortega himself.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mozart and Meritage

We ventured across the river to St. Paul, (which is like an instant vacation) one bright March morning recently to hear the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra perform some bright pieces, and also some dour ones. The theme was “nationalistic influence,” I guess. A young Mozart was attempting to wow the French with his very Italianate “Paris” Symphony, at a time when the French wanted their music to be distinctly French (and when have they not?) The other three composers, Honegger, Ravel, and Lutoslavsky, were all, in different ways, resisting the enormous sway of the Germanic style at a time when things German were no longer in vogue.

If I hadn’t attended the pre-concert lecture, however, I would have put an entirely different, and much simpler, spin on the program—sweet and sour. Both halves of the program consisted of a delectable confection followed by a heavy dose of cod liver oil. Mozart’s three-movement Sinfonie was never deep, but it had a pulse, texture, and ceaseless interest. And from our seats near the left-hand edge of the front row, the contributions of the various string sections were more pronounced than they’re likely to be on a perfectly-balanced recording.

All the same, as the symphony developed, my mind began to wander, and I asked myself why we enjoy revisiting that time of powdered wigs, cruelly unequal social classes, engrained legal exploitation of the masses, and a bigoted and venal higher clergy. It occurred to me, as I stared at the wood veneer on the edge of the stage in front of me, that it’s because though we have the same injustices and imbalances today, in those days they were more open and more personal. And I began to wonder, as I listened to the groaning and largely tuneless Lutyslovsky concerto that followed, whether it reflected the agonies, not only of a Polish nation that had been battered from both east and west in the course of the early twentieth century, but also the bewilderment of an individual who had lost his reliable, if not comfortable, position in the social world.

The donut holes that were served in the lobby at intermission put such ruminations to flight, and we returned to our seats to enjoy that orchestral chestnut, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Both the melodies are the textures are delectable, and the orchestra handled a number of very subtle shifts in tempo deftly. The Honegger symphony that followed seemed to have issued from the pen of a man who has mastered the elements of composition, but has found he has nothing to say.

After the concert we walked in the sun across the most urban square in the Twin Cities to what may be its best lunch spot, Meritage, which looks like a French bistro and serves food to match. Hilary’s pre fixe selection included a choice of “amusement,” and she ordered a puree of cauliflower topped with what appeared to be caviar. It was the size of a golf ball, but very tasty, as was her chicken sandwich. I chose the daily special—a hefty chunk of salmon resting on a little pile of green beans and turnips, with a purée of root vegetables underneath it that added a touch of sweetness to every bite.

Hilary generously shared with me a few bites of the espresso pot au crème that came with her meal. Mozart never had it so good.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Sea is Awesome

Yes, it’s been said before. But I’LL SAY IT AGAIN—the sea is awesome. You can look out at it for hours without being bored. On the other hand, looking out at the sea often engenders a sort of mental stupor, because every little thing seems interesting—the oyster-catchers climbing on the rocks, the starfish clinging just below the surface of the water, the surge of the spray, which reaches high into the air first in one place and then another. Seeking respite from this mesmerizing but vacant allure, you begin to pace, and your attention is drawn to little pieces of nothing on the beach—broken shells, strands of kelp, a translucent jellyfish that’s been left high and dry.

And then there is that never-ending question of whether the tide is coming in or going out.

I am sure that those who live near the sea can tell at a glance which way it’s running, but for land-locked Midwesterners like me, the question is a source of unending fascination. Not that it matters, one way or the other. But an event is taking place right before our eyes, and we want to know what it is. Because the tide moves so slowly, it can take quite a while to reach a conclusion.

Gazing out into the middle distance you slowly scan the horizon, looking for those tell-tall clouds of spray that betray the presence of a gray whale heading north. Such sightings are common on the California coast in early March. Once you’ve spotting one, it’s likely you’ll catch sight of the back and perhaps even the tail with a pair of binoculars.

On top of all of these sources of stimulation, you have the waves themselves.

In the opening pages of his novella Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino offers a detailed analytical description of waves, of how they come in to shore, of how difficult it is to separate them one from another. The details are right but the temperament is all wrong, for the man observing the waves, Mr. Palomar himself, is a nervous, analytic person who finds it convenient to measure his observations for the purpose of mastering and then dispensing with them. Thus Calvino writes:

Mr. Palomar now tries to limit his field of observation; if he bears in mind a square zone of, say, ten meters of the shore by ten meters of sea, he can carry out an inventory of all the wave movements that are repeated with varying frequency within a given time interval.

These efforts are doomed to failure, of course, and Mr. Palomar recognizes the futility of the enterprise. He even goes so far as to admit that “if it were not for his impatience to reach a complete, definitive conclusion of his visual operation, looking at waves would be a very restful enterprise for him and could save him from neurasthenia, heart attack, and gastric ulcer.”

It is only by limiting our field of observation that we come to some sense of mastery over our impressions. Looking at the sea, more than any other experience, perhaps, defies such analysis. The incoming waves do follow patterns. The crest and the trough, the layering of one mass of water on top of the one preceding it. The point where the wave “breaks.” And the size of the waves, which vary in both length and height.
Gusts of wind far out at sea caused these variations, no doubt. (And this thought throws into doubt the very notion of causality.) A pleasant tussle goes on inside our heads between the order we seek to find in life and the irregularity nature presents to us. It's the stuff of music. Endless music. Like the Sirens call, I guess.