By Mike Faloon | Photos by Michael Bogdanffy-Kriegh / Studio MBK
Temperatures are going up. Buildings are coming down. Change is everywhere tonight. The air is thick with the stuff. I welcome most of it, but they’ve changed the format of the Monday night jazz sessions. Tonight is a jam session. Unlike the other Monday nights I’ve attended at Quinn’s, there isn’t a booked, featured performer. Tonight is billed as a “Something Else!: A Free Jazz Jam.” I’ve come to lean on these shows in recent months. I’m still wrestling with the idea of a different format as I grab a seat at counter.
Writer Lewis Nordan had a phrase, “red circle ideas.” He’d comb through a draft of a story and circle in red the images and details that stood out. There will be a lot of musicians playing tonight, jamming, engaging in instant composition. I don’t expect everything will stick. Plenty of ideas will be best crumpled up and tossed aside, but how will this rise above a practice session? How many red circle moments will there be?
* * *
The name—“Something Else”—is taken from Ornette Coleman’s debut album. Ironic, given that said album is Coleman’s most straight forward (relatively) and tonight will be anything but. This is clear even before the music starts. Saxophonist and bandleader Chris Kelsey steps to the mic donning a Ramones t-shirt. The lettering and logo are poster size, neckline to belt buckle. This bodes well.
Kelsey is joined by Francois Grillot (bass) and Enrique Haneine (drums). They open with two of Kelsey’s compositions. Much of the first tune—“Fast and Furious (When’s the Race)?”—passes before I put pen to paper. I’m still clearing my head. I may be slow to warm up, but the band is not. They plunge into the depths and quickly come up with red circles, playing frantically, surfing noisy waves of their own creation. Using a lot of movement to maintain balance—that’s the kind of paradox that draws me in.
Then Enrique Haneine’s drum break left turns everything. It’s all ride and snare. His right hand works the cymbal. His left, the drum. They never cross. He never yields to a fill, yet it’s fascinating to watch him shift back and forth, emphasizing one over the other, melding them together. This will be the case all night with Haneine. Tune in, focus on his playing for a moment, you’ll find a show unto itself. Otherwise, he’s there to make everyone else sound better. He’s like Pablo Prigioni, the Knicks’ best passer (granted, a title with few contenders), rarely shooting, always looking for the open player.
* * *
My usual parking space in front of the old Beacon Wine Shoppe is open. The building was torn down last week. The empty lot looks more desolate than I expected. I’m hoping that a used book and/or record store moves in. Not likely that such a store will sprout in a new building, but still, Beacon’s overdue. Every town needs scuffed up Steinbecks to consider, musty Neil Young records to mull over.
Change on Main Street is slow but steady . Quite the opposite of what’s happening on stage. Kelsey, Grillot, and Haneine are ceaseless motion. The second tune—“I Was a Teenage Bride of Frankenstein”—is wild, kinetic, and fast. Holding on for dear life is half the fun.
* * *
Seventies progressive rock had many silly excesses. They’re easy to mock, hard to hurdle. Writing in defense of prog rock, Rick Moody used the phrase “performative joy” to describe the bands’ fondness for displaying their technical skills. At their best, their playing wasn’t a matter of bravado. It was more celebratory. The tunes were challenging and they found satisfaction in the navigation.
Moody was writing about Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, but the quote makes me think of King Crimson. Early in the band’s history people quit because the songs were just too intense, too depressing to play night after night. Performative despair.
* * *
The first guest is guitarist James Keepnews. He usually MCs but tonight he’s here to play. It’s odd to see him in that role, but that dissipates quickly. His playing is jittery but barbed, sprinting about the fret board making his hollow body sing. He and Kelsey match up well. They play shoulder-to-shoulder, forceful and frantic, spurring each other on. Performative joy. It’s not “give and go” so much as “keep and go and go and go.” Overlapping fast breaks. Something like what the Knicks hoped they’d get by signing Carmelo and A’mare.
* * *
I strike up a conversation with saxophonist Mike Dopazo. He’s playing later. He mentions a teaching gig he has on the side. Middle school kids, once a week after school. We delve into motivation, how to get kids to care, practice, read, write, etc. His current class has a concert coming up and they’re not ready. He’s incredulous.
“I’d have had that tune down in a week.”
“Really, you had good work habits when you were a kid?
I think he means, Hell, yeah!
* * *
Keyboardist David Arner is called up next. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a piano,” Kelsey explains, “but we have an electronic keyboard that was endorsed by George Duke.” Dopazo follows a moment later. He takes a last slug of PBR and grabs his sax case.
* * *
The latest note from my son’s teacher said he’s been doing too many karate chops in class. He’s five. Still needs to harness the energy.
Some people say that teachers should match their students’ energy, aim for the stimulation levels kids encounter with television and video games. This is spouted by people who’ve never taught for more than a day, never had to return to the same setting. This perspective has probably yielded at least two Robin Williams movies.
But here it works—reeds up front, strings in the middle, drums in back—so many sounds matching or exceeding, everyone wailing at once. The whole is overwhelming. The show is like a ten-band festival but with blink-of-an-eye changeovers. Three players, then four, six, three, but the sounds are so consistently stirring, turbulent, shape shifting by the moment.
* * *
Well, it’s working for nearly everyone. Arner is hesitant, reserved. The George Duke-approved keyboard isn’t cooperating. He steps off the stage.
* * *
Writing about this seems odd. Trying to capture something that’s meant to be composted as it’s experienced—sounds that exist to renew and enrich, not to be stored and considered. Kind of like the Monty Python skit wherein Eric Idle and Graham Chapman provide a play-by-play breakdown of Thomas Hardy writing a novel.
* * *
* * *
Between sets Dopazo and I talk again. I compliment him, and the band. He’s unsure. “Really? I’m a bebop guy. This is crazy. It’s not like I can say, Let’s play ‘Cherokee.’” Dopazo is better suited for this madness than he lets on.
* * *
A flutist steps up to open the second set. He floats in unannounced, tall and serene, gently wades into it with the rhythm section. I can’t say when his warm ups end and the next piece begins. I can’t say what his name is either, not definitively. (Later I ask around but no one’s sure.) The mix of flute, ride cymbal and upright bass is sweet, pleasant, cleans the pallet.
I didn’t think of Ron Burgundy then. Anchorman surfaces later. The goofy flutist bouncing across the table tops of ‘70s San Diego. Completely unlike our mystery flutist who’s just a bit too far from the microphone, but the band adjusts and we lean in closer.
* * *
The revolving door pushes the next musician, Denman Maroney, to the spotlight. He takes over on keyboards. By this time the technical problems have been untangled.
Maroney plays quick runs, fingers skittering across the keys. He stops and starts, leaving lots of empty space, odd increments at irregular intervals. He expends more energy above the keys than on them. His right hand steady while his left leapfrogs over and back. Reminds me of Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles. More red circles.
* * *
When the door closes behind me and I can faintly hear Grillot’s bass chugging along. The sound fades with each stride. When I get home a light rain mixes with a chorus of cicadas and I’m thinking of summer—taking a shower before bed, sleeping with the thinnest of sheets, the windows open and a fan oscillating sweet night air. I can wait for summer. Spring is here.
Coleman’s titles have a knack for inspiration. Galaxie 500 borrowed the title of their third record, This Is Our Music (1990), from Coleman’s fifth record (1961). Mostly Other People Do the Killing and The Universal Congress of nicked the same Coleman record. Refused swiped Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come for The Shape of Punk to Come.
“And he's off, it’s the first word, but it’s not a word. Oh no, it's a doodle way up on top of the left hand margin. It is a piece of meaningless scribble, and he's signed his name underneath it. Oh dear, what a disappointing start, but he’s off again and here he goes, the first word of Thomas Hardy's new novel, at 10:35 on this very lovely morning. It’s three letters. It's the definite article. And it’s the!”