Harmonizing Every Thread
Five jazz musicians walk into the living room of our house, the music room. They’re getting ready for a gig the following night at an area college. A concert.
They each bring their own vibration to the rehearsal, their individual tone. Some cats are lighter and some are darker than others. Some project calm and some project slightly refracted energy. Not centered. But these five, by the end of the afternoon, will have met in the nexus, and for a moment they will be monks, they will be enlightened, a kind of perfect. When the music ends, it’s back to factory default, all the ego jive we convince ourselves is real. This afternoon, right now, music is every vibration of the universe expressed harmonically. They will find it. Together.
The idea is not to eliminate disharmony. Disharmony will always be there in the background. The idea is to find the infinite harmonies inside and between inevitable disharmonious assertions. At opportune times, the music these five will purposefully touch discordance or dissonance – for those are kinds of harmony, too. But mainly the focus will stay on the sweet deep groovy center where nothing bad can ever happen and anything you might imagine is eminently possible.
Ernie Watts wants to know if he may practice some scales in my office, where I’m writing at my stand-up desk. “They’re talking in there,” he says, gesturing toward the living room.
I tell him of course. I stop myself from saying, “It would be an honor.” Because it would, it is, and he knows it and I know it and why make this gentle beautiful man feel uncomfortable? He commences to blazing through “scales” that sound like Bach at 78 rpm. I continue to write. Or try to. When I pause my typing, Mr. Watts asks, “Is this annoying?”
“Not at all,” I say.
“I know it can be. It’s annoying to me.” We laugh. “But it’s even more annoying if I don’t warm up.”
Especially to him. The audience would never know the difference, but to Ernie Watts it matters. His work ethic is legendary. He’s almost always the first cat to the gig, sometimes as much as two or three hours before call time, so he can play his “scales,” so he can hit the first chorus of the first tune completely lubed and glistening, like a thoroughbred racehorse, roaring out of the gate. From the moment Ernie starts a solo, you know he’s already tiptoeing in another realm.
The quintet is blazing. The bandleader, pianist Laurence Hobgood, stops them. “On the G-flat major-seven part, ba-ba-da-ba-da-bop-da-baaa, second part of bar eleven, shape that, exaggerate the shape.” These are his compositions. He knows what he wants. He implores the cats to play the charts with a kind of conscious, willful relaxation, as though they’ve been on the road with this repertoire every night for weeks. Cheat time, as it were. Cheat time by playing with superior time.
The young trumpet player, Mike Stever, takes the first solo. He’s solid. Maybe a little timid, slightly reserved. Maybe still getting warm. Then Ernie Watts steps up for the next solo, unleashing a supernova explosion of stardust, notes flying in every direction. You almost want to cry. A lifetime of music comes pouring out of him, cogently, logically, surprisingly. Apparently, Mr. Watts has arrived fully heated.
Hobgood takes the next solo on the 100-year-old Steinway grand tucked against the front picture window, overlooking the street. He, too, is warm. He’s melted butter. His hands are butterflies.
Stop. There’s something else that has occurred to the bandleader. He gives the direction, a road map clarification. Which somehow turns into a discussion about the movie “Idiocracy” and the best beverage to feed your plants.
“Gatorade,” Ernie Watts says. “Gatorade,” his wife, Patricia Watts, says, half-a-beat-behind, like good reverb.
Back to the music, for a minute. Stop. More thoughts to be communicated. This one is about how to transition out of the drum solo, handled by Dan Schnelle, a sweet giraffe-mantis of a man, with long limbs that can reach all corners of a kit without having to lunge.
Mr. Stever and Mr. Watts are playing a complicated unison line now. Shoulder to shoulder, 30 years apart, right there with the other man.
Mr. Hobgood and Mr. Robaire, the esteemed bassist Dave Robaire, are playing a complicated unison line now. Eye to eye, 25 years apart, right there with the other man.
While the musicians weave their aural threads in side, on the porch, above the cracked-open front door, a hummingbird makes her nest. She’s built above our front door in past seasons; each year she chooses a propitious spot nearer to us than before. This year, at the crossing of two vines, she’s crosshatching the base of the nest bowl, where the eggs will sit. One hair, or cobweb or leafy flake at a time, she’s tying a million hopes together with her beak, her magnificently useful needle of a proboscis, perfect for extracting nectar and weaving thread. She’s salvaging bits and pieces of detritus, of disharmony, and blending them into a most harmonious creation, a sanctuary where new life will flourish.
The hummingbird knows. She hears the music. She has hovered down to my face and looked me in the eye. She has briefly flown and levitated inside the house, where the musicians play. She knows who’s here. She hears their song. Then she sings her song, which, when translated into human, into English, goes like this: I know that you know I am building my nest here, within a Dan Schnelle arms-length from the front door. This is where I will put my most precious little pearls, my eggs, my babies. This is where I will complete the sacred cycle of motherhood, of life. I surrender all fear. I submit to your kindness. I hear the music. I feel the vibrations emanating from within this home. And I know my babies will be safe here. They will have a beautiful life here, in this garden, beside this home where the music lives.
Correction from the bandleader: “It should be two before three, not three before two. Two beats before three.”
“Jazz has disliked me for a long time.”
Always improvising. Clocking in at the checkpoints, making it up in between.
During the break, while the cats chit-chat and unanimously agree that it’s sounding great, Dave the bassist asks if I could make a pot of coffee. I’m in the kitchen getting it ready when they recommence rehearsing. Ernie Watts is playing a written melody, a lyrical, mournful burble. He’s singing through his horn. I reach for the bean grinder, but it feels like an affront. I don’t want to introduce the clamorous buzz of an appliance to this song.
Soon Hobgood will have an incisive comment or direction. Then I’ll grind.
“The whole point is to have the arrival on the D-minor – we have a plan. Building from the third system. There’s a bar of six-four, and then one of three-four. Right?”
Everyone understands perfectly. They nod and do it again. The maestro is pleased.
Hobgood’s chops are impressive. Ever since he split from Kurt Elling, a gig in which he was considered a master accompanist, Laurence has aimed to occupy some of the rare remaining market territory not currently occupied by piano titans like Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Brad Meldhau. Like a great athlete, he’s raising his game, even when his old game was beyond adequate. There’s no competition in art, only mystery.
It’s late-afternoon. Feeding time for the wild birds visiting the garden. The finches and doves and sparrows and everyone else are all flittering and fluttering, like one of those Ernie Watts high notes that sounds like a cry from another epoch. Technology has attempted to hijack the word, but the birds still twitter madly, a gorgeous cacophony of cross-conversation. They’re an orchestra. The quintet is their featured guest. The symphony they play together is heard once and then disappears into forever. And then another song begins.
This time they do an Ernie Watts composition. Hobgood returns the musical favor on his compatriot’s tune, delivering a slithering, seething solo. After one happy pass through, Mr. Watts reminds the cats to play a certain figure in a certain way – ba-da-daaaaa-bop – shrugs modestly, and pronounces himself generally well pleased. Yes, this is what we do.
Hobgood, leading his tune “The Gilded Cage,” counts off to seven. But he wants to be clear. “It’s almost like it goes to three. Ba-ba-da-ba-ba-da-dop, Ba-ba-da-ba-ba-da-dop. Into the pickups of the double bar. Ba-ba-da-ba-ba-da-dop, Ba-ba-da-ba-ba-da-dop.” Now the whole band is singing along to the figure.
He counts to seven again and they’re off and cooking at full tempo. Ba-ba-da-ba-ba-da-dop, Ba-ba-da-ba-ba-da-dop. Burning. Jazz cats would say they’re killing it, and the jazz cats would be right. But the musicians are also birthing it, giving life to something new and wondrous and in the moment, right here and now where eternity happens.
The mockingbirds high in the trees, preparing to sing all night in search of a mate, are presently chirruping and beeping and now they’re picking up the rhythm bouncing out of the house. The sequence. Ba-ba-da-ba-ba-da-dop. The birds, they got it. Ba-ba-da-ba-ba-da-dop. The band gets it. Everyone and everything is grooving. All the threads entwined. Harmony achieved, at least for now, in this moment that wasn’t the one before.
When rehearsal ends and all the musicians depart through the front door, each person passes beneath the hummingbird nest-under-construction. It’s twice the size it was when they arrived.