Friday, July 20, 2012

There and Gone

We stand on the corner of Railroad Street and the alley that leads to the movie theater. My impromptu bandmates are a couple of first-year students from Berklee, home for the summer. Nick plays guitar. Ariel plays trumpet. I'm blowing on my Cannonball Raven tenor sax. 

Nick and Ariel are both good players. The small crowd of would-have-been passers-by seems to like what we're doing. I've never liked crowds much, that is, unless they've been organized into an audience. I like this one.

I put down my sax and sit down behind my electric piano. We dive into a spanish-sounding groove built on an F-lydian scale. My portable power-supply kit that I cobbled together using a marine batter, an oversized paint bucket, a trickle charger and an DC-AC inverter is performing even better than I'd hoped, supplying both my Fender bass amp and my Yamaha piano with plenty of zoots.

As the groove builds, a young guy steps up from our expanding audience and asks if he can play my bass.

I say, "I guess so. Are you any good?"

He looks at me blankly, as if stumped by the question. After a moment he says, "I've been playing bass for eight years."

Ariel launches into a trumpet solo. As I comp chords with my right hand and a play bass line with my left, I look up and say, "That's great, but you didn't answer my question. For example, I've been playing bass for eight weeks, but that doesn't tell you much about whether or not I'm any good. So, are you any good?"

Seeing that my question was nothing more than what I'd asked, he responds, "Yeah, I'm pretty good. I play a lot of latin music and I've got some nice lines that would work great with what you're playing now."

I say, "Cool. Grab my bass. Top knob is the volume; everything else is set."

Our new bassist lays down a solid foundation that frees up my left hand to comp chords. This frees up my right hand to solo. Pushing my chops to the limit, I attempt some outrageous riffs just at the edge of my ability. The first couple don't quite fall into the pocket, but no one seems to notice.

I take a breath and close my eyes. I take in the undercurrent of the groove as though I were listening to a stream racing past my bedroom in early spring, rolling along effortlessly with the seemingly endless supply of snowmelt that flows down the mountain. I visualize the keyboard. I hear what I want to play. I play it.

This time I land it like a Romanian gymnast dismounting the uneven parallel bars. Every note falls right into the pocket. Not being one to leave well-enough alone, I go for another more challenging riff, and then another. I exhale and fall back into the flow.

This time, the crowd seems to have noticed. They actually cheer. Nick smiles at Ariel and then nods gesturing at me.

I get up to retrive my sax. Another young man walks up and asks if he can jam on my keyboard. I ask, "Are you any good?"

He says, "Well, I've been playing since I was four?"

What is it with these guys? I say, "I've been playing since I was twenty. What does that have to do with anything?"

Choosing to answer my rhetorical question rather than my original question, he starts explaining the correlation between years of playing and ability to play.

I hold up my hand and say, "Never mind. Go ahead. Jump in. We're playing a blues in A."

I don't know exactly what it is, but people dig live sax. I could have my best night ever on the piano, and my worst ever on the sax, and at the end of the evening all anyone would talk about was how much they liked my sax playing. Tonight though, the residual heat of the July afternoon rising from the cobbles, my Raven is warm and ready to go. With a deep, throaty sound that rivals any Harley and a sweetness reminiscent of barbecue sauce on babyback ribs, it was born to play the blues. Tonight I love live sax.

We cap the blues with a retard over the final three chords that lets us wring them free of every last drop of sound and then take a break. One of our audience members asks me what the name of our band is. I explain that we've just met, that we never played together before now. She seems incredulous and looks  around at the other players each of whom is shaking his head.

During the break, the kid on piano starts into a couple of tunes, but then stops. I ask him, "So, what do you want to play?"

He says, "How about a blues in Eb minor?"

I say, "OK, play it through a couple of times so we can all hear it."

As he plays, the effect of twenty years of piano lessons becomes apparent. He knows all the notes. He's knows all the chords. However his playing is mechanical. He seems to have no sense of time. Ariel joins him on trumpet, but can't find the pocket. It's not there. The bassist tries to help him by laying down a beat with a walking line but he ignores it.

As our audience begins dissipating into a crowd, I place my hand on his shoulder and say, "Hold up a minute. Let me play."

He gets up. I sit down and play the opening chords to Spooky by the Atlanta Rhythm Section. I say, "Look man, you know a lot about piano, but if you want to play with other people there are some things you need to know. You've got to work on your time. Play with a metronome or with a click track. Play along with recordings of bands. Also, you've got to learn to listen to what everyone else is playing and make what you're playing fit."

He looks at me and then across the way to a friend who came with him. He says to her, "Come on, we're leaving."

I think, "Oh, well."

We play on. The crowd reorganizes to audience.

Happy Friday,

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