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Robert Plant

I call it “squinting”—you will have your own term. You’ve chosen a favorite musician, probably in your teen years, and the relationship grows through awkward phases…Along the way, you find yourself squinting to keep seeing what made you fall in love…In pop music, which is a worse deal for the aging than painting and fiction are, there can be a fair amount of effort involved.

This is the start of Sasha Frere-Jones’ review, Gut Check, of PJ Harvey’s latest release. (And PJ falls into that squinting category for me—some of her music was ecstasy embodied for me.) But when it comes to issues of doing your art and aging, pop music and ballet have to be two of the most youth-centric. Some would say they are youth-centric to a draconian degree.

But as my wise friend Sally Reed reminded me on the occasion of my birthday this week, forms change. It’s a mantra worthy of my studio wall as well as my bathroom mirror. And look at how even the forms of pop music and dance have stretched and morphed. How many aging rockers are touring and making music? It isn’t just superstars like Robert Plant, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCarthy and Bob Dylan—even Robbie Robertson, the Band heartthrob from the 70’s, just released a new album. In the words of Mitchell Stephens, “Once upon a time, these men reinvented what it meant to play rock-and-roll. Is it not possible that they might also be capable of reinventing what it means to be ‘old’ and still playing rock-and-roll? Age has, after all, done them a few favors. To begin with, it has given these fellows, none of whom has ever been saddled with a day job, years of practice. They’re better musicians than they were at 25, and better singers too.”

Another great moment recently on this same theme: Charles Lloyd, jazz veteran at 73, came out of semi-retirement to blow our minds. He recently performed at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge with his latest quartet, now playing with three extraordinary young musicians in their 30s—Reuben Rogers, Eric Harland and my favorite all time jazz pianist, Jason Moran.* It was an evening I will never forget.

And then there was the stunning moment at the end of the National Theater’s recent broadcast of Fela! when Bill T. Jones jumped up on stage and danced with the cast, shirtless. Like Mark Morris, Jones continues to engage us with the way his body can move.

All anecdotes worth considering. Yes, forms change. And sometimes what shows up surprises everybody.


Charles Lloyd Quartet

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* For a list of my many blog posts about Jason Moran, go here.

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Tarus Mateen, Nasheet Waits, Jason Moran (Bandwagon)

In the “Earth stood still for a minute. Seriously dude, it did” category: My son Bryce came with me on a 2 hour pilgrimage from Boston to Hanover, New Hampshire–Dartmouth College–on Thursday night to hear and see Jason Moran perform with The Bandwagon (Tarus Mateen on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums and guest artist Marvin Sewell on guitar.) I’ve written about Jason on this blog before, but in case you didn’t catch it I can say it again and again: He is one of the greats. If you ever get a chance to hear him, take it.

Jason has been exploring the deeper connections between jazz and the visual arts for several years. Earlier albums pay homage to the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Egon Schiele and Robert Rauschenberg. Recently he has collaborated with and explored the works of visual artists including Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper.

In the fall I went to Washington DC to hear In My Mind, a multi-media performance that is a tribute to jazz piano god Theolonious Monk. Jason’s latest undertaking, Milestone, continues to explore the boundaries of jazz performance, the audience/performer interface and how the personal and the public sides of an artist weave in and out. The players move around the stage, sit facing the audience at times, just listening to previously taped conversations along with the audience. Jason is moving outside the armature of a typical jazz performance and looking to create a different kind of experience for anyone who is there, including the musicians. And even though Jason’s wife, soprano Alicia Hall Moran, was not present at the concert, she was very much there in spirit. Her singing and spoken voice are accessed repeatedly, giving the sense that her ambient presence is hovering over everything happening on stage and in the hall.

As Jason describes his approach with Milestone: “We made a full-length theater piece out of an ordinary jazz concert, and Tarus, Nasheet, Marvin and I didn’t really know too much about stagecraft so we got a crash course from Alicia. She was the director and my collaborator as a writer. In Milestone I wanted us to play the part of ourselves almost, and bring the audience inside the heads of this band; show that while we’re up on stage and you’re looking at us, we’re involved in our own examination of you.”

Jason, Marvin, Tarus and Nasheet stayed afterwards to talk about the music. What righteous, thoughtful, soulful men each of them is. When I asked a question about that fuzzy line between the personal and the work of art itself, Jason made a very provocative comment. He said that he cared about content, and it was something difficult for his kind of jazz to provide. Without lyrics, he said, the content is harder to access. With Monk’s music for example it is vital to understand that Monk’s grandparents were slaves, that faith healings were part of his heritage, that the music he made came from his experiences, and that the story of where it came from matters. Jason talked about how he wants to make his own music more content-rich (my phrase) by including and exploring the personal dimension as well as new forms of experiential delivery.

Ah, content. It’s an ongoing question for me as a non-representational artist who values mystery, the unresolved, the uncertain, the unspoken. Jason is extending the frame in which his music sits, exploring new and bold ways to bridge the gap between maker and listener/observer. All the way home, driving in moonlight off the snow covered fields of New Hampshire, I kept thinking of the Seamus Heaney comment about the wiresculpture qualities of Eastern European poetry: “The density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”

Like the universe, my only answer to all of this is, Yes.

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