I Guess You Can Go Home Again.....AGING AND PLAYING WITH RAS MOSHE & CO UP IN BEACON NY
This past weekend, the one that closed off June, took me back through one of the many stops encountered on life's journey. Three and a half years after moving back to Brooklyn from the hip Hudson Valley town of Beacon NY, I had a gig up there and it was a memorable, welcome return. Wonderfully ironic though was that the gig was with Ras Moshe---the guy that probably more than anyone else is a testament to my activities since coming back to NYC. I was very pleased when Ras asked me to be a part of this performance as I had not been to back Beacon, the place my lovely wife and partner Laurie Towers and I called home from 2005 till 2010. Its a wonderful little city at the bottom of Dutchess County, overlooking the Hudson River. Beacon can count the arts among its primary tourist attractions and in the 5 years we lived up there, we performed in many settings but due to the preponderance of folk and new acoustic music, I rarely had the chance to play in the free jazz/new music genre I had engaged in during most of my adult life. We enjoyed ourselves up there playing in an expansive protest song duo, the Flames of Discontent, which offered up reconstructions of older songs of revolution, work, life and peace as played through Laurie's powerful, sinewy lead electric bass and I stood as front man. While I never saw myself as a lead singer, the situation brought out my best Pete Seeger/Phil Ochs vocal explorations, of course tainted with the shout of post-Punk and always inspired by the modernist harmonies and rhythmic liberation that has been my hallmark. The Flames, being a duet in this folkie town, saw me primarily playing banjo or electric banjo to accompany my singing, only getting to double on percussion at points. But the music---of Hanns Elser and Bertolt Brecht, of Phil Ochs, of Woody Guthrie, of Leadbelly, of the IWW, of the Spanish Civil War was inspiration enough to continue on. We recorded two CDs in that period, and performed our "novo protest" music in all of the cooler locales in the region. We played for several of the annual West Point Peace Rallies, played at festivals, performed "Joe Hill" and "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore", our 'hit "Viva La Quince Brigade" as well as originals live on the air on WDST-FM (Radio Woodstock), college stations and in a remote WBAI-FM broadcast from the Hudson River Revival fest. We shared the stage several times with Those were some good times.
In August 2009 I lost my day job and found out just how painful it is to be in a location like that with no prospects. Struggling for months, we decided to move back to Brooklyn just after ringing in 2010. I had missed NYC the entire time we were away, lovely as the Hudson Valley is, so this all seemed to be a part of the trip life takes us on. Very soon after I got back, I began to reach out to old contacts, get life back on track and then transferred my Dissident Arts Festival, which began in Beacon in '06, to the West Village's Brecht Forum. Playing jazz and new music came back naturally and my musical relationship and friendship with Ras Moshe developed soon after. We have played together in any number of Moshe-led trios, quartets and large ensembles and he is also a member of the Red Microphone. Working with Ras puts me at the very top of my game. Intensely challenging free improvisations guided by not only the path of the music but Ras' well planned vision of it. With hand cues and facial expressions, he shapes the sound, offering solo statements, points of duo and trio and allows the performers' natural abilities speak for themselves, while never losing sight of his arrangements. Truly, this seems to be the next logical step in new music.
ON FRIDAY JUNE 28, I TURNED 51 YEARS OLD. I always say that birthdays are bourgeois and insist on keeping it light, even when Laurie wants to make a big deal of it all. I spent most of the day preparing for the next day's gig. I found enough time in the day to take my father out for a long lunch though. As I crossed over into my second half-century, he had turned 84 (yes we share a birthday!), so I knew it was an important day for him, even more than I. I picked Dad up and we drove into his old neighborhood, what he used to call "south Brooklyn" but is actually in the northern end of the borough. He was raised on Present Street between 3rd and 4th aves. When I was a kid and we would go there to visit my paternal grands, most people thought of this section as no-man's-land. Filled with factories, empty lots, warehouses, a few stores and a collection of poor and working class people hanging on for dear life as the drug trade invaded the city. My father, a Great Depression baby, says that his block was always populated by the working poor, but I guess you can only use that description as long as there are jobs. Much of this area, for decades, was populated by poor who wished to be working. Odd that it is just off of the edge of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Park Slope. Well, somehow in the past few years, no-man's-land became "Gowanus" and the developers who re-named it created a hip community that wealthy New Yorkers are now fighting to buy condos in. The strip of 4th ave, once a dying stretch from Sunset Park to Downtown, is now filled with rows and rows of tall luxury buildings, with bistros and high-end food shops taking the place of rusted gates and tire shops. The skyscraper-like buildings seem to have been placed over the small apartment houses built up nearly a century ago over local stores....just encompassed them fully and wiped out any memory of what had been.
"My God----wow! When did this happen??". Dad asked incredulously as we drove from Bensonhurst to his old block. "SO much change; how could it be? Who could afford this?", he asked, though recognizing the changed demographic in the passersby strolling along the avenue. "Dad", I asked, "my question is: where do all the poor people go when a neighborhood becomes gentrified like this?". We sat quietly as we drove down, looking over the gleaming luxury buildings, Village-like green grocers, gourmet food shops and Euro-looking restaurants. We visited President Street. The family had sold the house in 1975 after my grandmother, by then a widow, could no longer live on her own. My father had rarely looked down his old street since then, so we were happy to see that his old house still stood there, and in very nice shape. Not replaced by a condo building--happily--but respectably kept up in view of the shining structures up on the avenue. We had lunch at a nice Americana restaurant a block over. "This used to be the college diner" he told me, "and all of the rackets guys hung out here. This was a tough neighborhood, so many of my friends got involved with them", he said, pushing his nose to the side, giving off an old silent symbol of the Mafia. "I almost had a job on the water front, a member of the Longshoreman's union. I never followed up.....", he said, looking outward, imagining earlier times and struggles.
SO ON SATURDAY THE 29TH, Laurie and I pointed the car north and took off for Beacon. Just outside of the Bronx I came to realize that I had literally replaced all of my knowledge of the Hudson Valley with NYC travel directions. Damn---I couldn't recall the route once we got closer, and I fumbled around, almost missing the entry to the Taconic, and then once out onto the more local roads, I grew foggier still. A sign of getting older or just too much info to contain....? We checked into a lovely hotel nearby (Laurie wanted it to be perfect so this room was really a duplex suite!) and then had to get over to the gig for set-up and sound check. The performance was at the Howland Cultural Center, an amazing space, "the jewel of Beacon", where I had played many times before; this was the birthplace of the Dissident Arts Fest. I saw the other guys there and we got my vibes and bells and percussives out of the car. Kibitzing about jazz, politics and life as we set up, Laurie had the chance to get out and catch up with another dear friend, Gwen Laster (a monstrously gifted violinist) as we launched into sound check. Ras entered just after me, waving and beaming, carrying his horn and flute and the collection of bells he likes to add to the mix. He walked in with drummer Andrew Drury, with several drum cases on his shoulders, long ponytail draped over them. At the piano already, recalling his piano bar days, was a smiling Chris Forbes. And guitarist James Keepnews, who'd set up the entire series this gig was a part of---Change of the Century---was adjusting his amp and offering up excited conversation. The Howland's main sound engineer, Thom Joyce, is also a musician and became the most enthusiastic person in the room as we dug into it. The room has amazing natural acoustics and add to that the skill of someone like Thom and you can imagine that the band sounded quite amazing. We were good to go. Laurie took me out to a birthday dinner and we had the chance to look over Beacon. Much had changed in three or so years---and there were new shops and galleries and best of all new performance spaces. Wow, we were so glad for the wonderful folks of this little city we still held near to our hearts. So glad to see that the town, after struggling through the financial downturn, had moved upward and taken its residents with it. The mix of peoples, faces, shades and hues, remained as always. A welcome return indeed.
THE GIG BEGAN at around 8PM, with no prior discussion on what we would be doing aside from the idea of two 45 minute sets. After being introduced to the appreciative Howland crowd, Ras turned to us and said "okay, just saxophone and drums to open up" and Andrew kicked out a roving, timeless rhythm which rolled over bar lines and time signatures, bouncing and dancing through Ras' wandering, melodious explorations. As it built up and cooked, the rest of us began to enter slowly, adding touches, sounds, chordal figures here or there, small accents, pepper, creating this piece from the ground up. Before long we were burning and the house vibrated with sound and excitement. The texture grew thick and just as the volume seemed to reach its apex, we took it down. As always, Ras offers up generous solo time for the members and also knows how to structure this in a way to feature that individual's sound. My own hands felt electrified and though I could feel my fingers getting sore at some points, I ignored the pain as the music took me well past it. I think we played two pieces in that first set,but its safe to say that this all felt like a symphonic exploration with multiple movements, even with a break in the middle.
For this performance, I focused on vibes as I usually do, tapping into the influence of Bobby Hutcherson with Dolphy whenever possible; there is a rich history of the vibraphone in new and exploratory jazz and it compels me every time. What an amazing legacy to be a part of. In addtion to my trusty Muuser vibe, I also also had orchestra bells, and two cymbal stands with additional attachments that allows me to incorporate wind chimes, Celtic bell, Alu-bell, various cymbals and metals to add shimmer as needed, as well as small percussives. The Moshe units require new and exciting uses of standard instruments and also a wide palette of sound. Ras' Coltrane-ish improvisation reach into the stratosphere when not tunefully lamenting or soaring to new heights, Chris' piano is a universe of sound and emotion (ranging from lush harmonious chording and melodic flows to absolute eruptions), James' electric guitar is often sound-painting with effects pedals that open up the spectrum, and Andrew is a one-of-a-kind drummer who has incorporated plumbing supplies, bevels, flower pots, tubes, and a large metal sheet into his kit. He uses a bow almost as skillfully as if he'd had violin training and has also discovered a technique to blow through some of the metal tubes right into the drum heads and down into the heart of the instrument. This mix brings howls and whale sounds to the various metals. But his drumming in and of itself is orchestral and driving in unique, fiery ways.
This was the first time this band had ever played together though each of us have worked together in different settings. On this night, the sonic journey was as exciting and new to us as I would hope anyone in the audience experienced it. I switched mallets several times as the volume and texture would change and moved around to the orch bells and other percussives as the music demanded it. It was cool in the house but, like the others, had worked up a major sweat that felt cleansing, as if I'd spent time contemplating life in a Native sweat lodge. The music can do that to you.
We packed up and entered into the dark Hudson Valley night, breathing deep.....