I recall the easy way we slipped into shows in earlier days. Pre-purchasing tickets was something we almost never did: there was always room for one or two more. Though a part of me knew that the Grouper show at Swedish American Hall would “sell out” I also did not want to commit to leaving the house after 8pm on a Friday: the days start early in our house, and that Friday began before 5AM. So when I arrived and the gatekeepers sheepishly turned me away, suggesting I come back in an hour to see if there was room, I wasn’t totally surprised. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll just grab a beer and come back.” But strolling down Market and passing Lucky 13 and Blackbird, the smell of stale beer kept me moving. Across the way stood Aardvark Books and it had been awhile since I browsed there. 9PM and they’re still open, fantastic. The guy behind the counter barely looked up as I entered, and I was immediately attracted to the Staff Picks box with a paperback copy of Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. I’d never read Whitehead before, and I was drawn in to the first few pages. But the music playing in Aardvark continued to give me pause, a cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, especially “Somewhere” and the lead up to The Rumble.
Earlier in the week I read a few pieces on Ethan Iverson’s Do The Math blog that mention West Side Story in the context of Buddy Rich’s show-off drum virtuosity vs. the devotional music of free jazz players:
A story about Mel Lewis: Mel hated giving lessons, but finally a kid talked him into letting him come by a record session and watch Mel at work. During a break Mel gestured for the kid to sit behind the kit, and said, “Play me a snare roll.” The kid played a good, professional roll. Maybe not as good as the one that starts the movie Whiplash, but still, a good roll. Not easy to do. Mel took his sticks back and said, “See, right there is your problem. You shouldn’t be able to do that. I can’t do that. You gotta quit that shit and start becoming a drummer.” That’s a fun story, but truthfully drummers do need to learn how to roll. Mel himself surely learned to roll at some early point. However the point is clear. At least for Mel Lewis, devotion has precedence over chops. Another way to say it is: After you are good enough to learn your military rudiments, are you good enough to let them take a back seat to feel?
While browsing the stacks, among many posters for various anarchist book fairs, Aardvark proudly displays a poster version of Chris Ware’s Penguin Classics cover of Voltaire’s Candide: Or Optimism. A thoroughly engaging and depressing piece.
Back to Swedish American, and the sleepy gate keepers were surprised and happy to guide me in to hear some music. I entered during Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s performance. Enchanting, haunting, bubbling.
And then Grouper. I’d prefer to leave Haunting as a descriptor for her set. She played sitting cross-legged on the floor, Paul Clipson films projected on the wall behind. I recall seeing her in Portland at Holocene in 2008 with a very similar vibe to her set. That rush of hiss and crackle, the sound of her guitar so “live” or “hot” you can hear the jangling of her bracelets through the pickups, the strings so open, so much room between them, but everything reverberating. A dream, surely.