Free Jazz

I've been teetering on the edge of my seat at the Dakota Bar & Grill for nearly an hour. Now I'm standing up, shaking my head in disbelief, calling out encouragement to the Dave Holland Quintet, which has come to town for two sold-out nights. Tenor saxophonist Chris Potter's hands are a blur as his horn honks, sings, squeals. Trombonist Robin Eubanks talks back, sliding from high pitch to low pitch, stripping the gears as he changes speeds. Billy Kilson's drum kit is a musical machine gun--crisp, clean, and tight enough to hurt James Brown. And on bass, grooving with a grin, is the 56-year-old bandleader, bassist Dave Holland.

This isn't jazz the way the mainstream media trains the masses to think of "jazz"--corny as cocktails at the Playboy mansion, or worse, some sort of math class for music geeks. This is something entirely different. It is free, but funky as a mix master's turntable. It's brainy, but punk-rock raw. Just before I give myself over to it, I conjure one last cogent thought: I wish that those I care about could instantaneously be transported to this place, because everyone should know what it is to feel this good.

Then I'm gone.

The first time I had a similar sensation, I was 12 or 13 years old, standing beside my father, singing on a Sunday morning. He has a professionally trained voice, a sweet, deep tenor. Whenever I could, I'd get next to him in church so I could pretend the two of us were leading the congregation in a hymn. I'm still not sure why, but one day I suddenly stopped singing and just listened (from my father's point of view, I'm sure, a first). I remember all of the pubescent angst and repressed familial dysfunction washing away, if only for a verse or two.

Two years ago I desperately needed a psychological escape hatch. There was nothing special about the knot I'd tied myself into. But when I first came face to face with the mess I'd made, I melted down. I tried everything to get over the sleeplessness and daytime disquiet (including, but not limited to, senseless rage and self-pity). Being a good German boy, I worked up a half-decent game face. Behind the scenes I gained weight, drank too much, stress-tested my marriage, and, along the way, lost interest in almost everything that had once given me pleasure--everything except live jazz.

My CD collection got me from day to day, but it was the weekly performances that coaxed me out from under the blanket: Zen masters like saxophonist Charles Lloyd and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba; intemperate, intrepid trumpet players Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton; wise men like drummer Elvin Jones. Not every show provided a porthole to paradise, of course. Still, there was always the chance that a beautiful sound might temporarily hijack the spirit.

When I first thought to write about this musical relationship, my intention was to convince people like my friend Jerry, who ranks bebop right up there with bingo, that he didn't know what he was missing, that I somehow had the corner on sonic bliss. But somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that the last thing people need right now is someone telling them how to get away from the grind. All they really need is a reminder that they must.

For the past six months, liberal or conservative, hawk or dove, all of us have been beset by equal parts fury, grief, and dread. Our leaders and the media (this paper included) have capitalized on that vulnerability, telling us what we should have learned and how to react: Wave your flag; march for peace; strike back; turn the other cheek; close the borders; become more tolerant; buy a gun.

Lost in the bitter political, social, and economic backwash is the sensible and necessary notion that, every now and then, we have to leave it all behind--or it will ruin us.

My humble suggestion: Throw on a Ramones album or dig out your Bob Dylan bootlegs and head for memory lane; track down your favorite DJ and crawl inside the beat; close your eyes and breathe deep at Orchestra Hall; camp in front of the amps at First Avenue; get up and find a greasy gospel brunch. Whatever it takes, if only for a verse or two.


All the Rage appears every other week. E-mail the author [email protected].

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