Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Robert Glasper at The Horseshoe

The venue is the dim-lit, low-ceilinged back space of a tavern on Toronto's Queen West. Not what I expected for a rising star bringing his act - The Robert Glasper Experiment - to Toronto's annual Jazz Fest. And passing through the Horseshoe's front room, an un-renovated space with a long, well worn bar, its bank of stools lightly populated by indifferent regulars, I can't help but think it an unfitting spot for the latest Grammy winner for best R&B album. It gets even odder as pairs and groups of gray hairs like me file in, almost an hour to showtime, sipping beers while talking NBA playoffs and riffing on their latest overnight business flight anecdotes.

But soon enough, the atmosphere begins to thicken and deepen, as streams of young hipsters flow in, crowding around the stage, greeting each other with bubbling, expectant energy. There are maybe 4-500 bodies in the room by the time the quartet appears on stage, and they are greeted with an ovation that must sweep aside any thoughts about not being in the right place, if the players have any of those to begin with. But, seeming almost to respond to my thoughts, a relaxed and joking Glasper refers to a previous time in Toronto when they were ejected from the stage - for some reason I don't catch. "Now that I got a Grammy, WE DON'T TAKE THAT SHIT!", Glasper declares, taking on a comic-defiant pose.

And then he gets down to business.

Business is a set of dense, throbbing fusion that leaves no bit of sonic space unfilled. Glasper's fusion is a melange of HipHop, NeoSoul and Jazz. In a Downbeat interview, Glasper recently said that he's bored with Jazz and that it needs an ass slap, and he's set out to do the slapping. To my ear, the result is right in line with what progressive, experimental jazz is all about. And this group is dubbed "The Experiment" for a reason.

This isn't your linear, melody dominated music. It feels to me that what lines of melody stand out are a little like the tiny human figures that landscape painters sometimes include in a work, something to give scale to the dominating background, even to suggest or induce a degree of reverence. Glasper's music is much more about atmosphere, tone and foundation; it's about the world that melody is sketched in. We feel Derrick Hodge's electric bass lines throbbing up and down our backbones, and Glasper's sometimes heavy, sometimes dancing keyboard chords rumbling in our core. Chris Dave, the drummer is into interlacing his precision work with bursts and stabs of energy. Casey Benjamin, who leads with passages of synthesized vocals along with his sax and keyboard work, really is a front man, in the sense that his work is not the essential piece, but one of four, balanced and strong voices.

I love the dense flow of sound the band produces. Bass and drum are sometimes funky, and always earthy and tight, and Glasper and Benjamin range freely through Ornette Coleman like harmelodics and always find their way back to the driving beat, anchoring them to their excited audience.

Ponczka and I are standing on stools against a wall, able to see over bouncing heads to the stage. She's bouncing too, just like she's done at Sting and Black Keys concerts. That surprises me a little, because when I play this stuff on the stereo at home, she'll react to the discordance after awhile, and ask me to turn it down. But it's no real surprise. It's not discordant when you're bathing in it, feeling it instead of just hearing it, letting the music sculpt its own territory instead of listening to it out of a box.

Glasper wants out of the box, his music says. All through his playing is actual play, as he throws in quirky riffs and plunky splatters of notes, and chordal grooves, one after another. It's fun, new music. It rocks, it soars off on tangents, fills you up and wrings you out, then drops you down on the front porch. A sweet and serious ass slap that doesn't hurt a bit.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Fewer Words

      I had an English teacher - Mr. Drummey - who would say, as he designated new words for our vocabulary: "With every new word, you can Think a new Thought."
      The idea is reasonable. But I couldn't help but wonder if words don't get in the way. Maybe they limit our thoughts, by funneling them into too rigid channels. Maybe without words our thoughts would range more freely into territory that ordered language won't allow.

      Samuel R. Delany wrote a sci-fi novel - Babel-17 - about an alien invasion by means of language. The language changed the way the mind operates, and thereby the perceptions and functioning of the person using the language.

      Sometimes, I just want fewer words. Fewer chances to tangle up my reality in layers of unwanted possibility or diluting specificity. Less chance to dull my emotion behind protocol and the lessons of the past.
      I want PURER but not more PERFECT - There it is, right there: truth lost in parsing obfuscation.
      Sometimes, the deeper I go, the less I manage to say.
      Can't I say anything SHORT?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Detroit - the Lure of Not Quite Home

Subrato, a friend of mine from overseas said something very interesting the other day. "When I'm here in Canada, home is huge in my mind and heart. But when I'm there, in my home country, Canada is very small and very far away." He'd come to Canada about a decade ago, for better opportunity, to make a mark, to see something of the world. But for all his successful adaptation here, Home still has a powerful hold on him.

My home town is Detroit, and I don't have nearly so close a connection to it as my friend does to his. He's returned to India almost every year since I've known him, working overtime and foregoing all other vacations to do so. Though when I moved to Toronto I found myself (purely by accident) a mere three hour drive from Detroit, I've gone there less than a dozen times in twenty years.

I once really loved Detroit. Though I left there at 5, I spent my summers there through my early teens, and I went back regularly into my mid-twenties. But by then, several years after the '67 riots that devastated the city and set it on its long, downward path, a kind of deep ugliness had begun to set in, and I just wasn't interested in being there anymore. Every other city I experienced - New York, Boston, San Francisco, Montreal, Rome - offered so much more, to my eyes. They were livelier, cleaner, saner and a whole lot safer. Because Detroit could be scary as hell. All that beautiful spirit that sparked the music and the spontaneous, party-hearty exuberance of Detroiters could get ugly and mean pretty quick. And the dull mono-culture of the car plants, where just about everybody did shift work, seemed to carve out a recess through which violence and self-destruction flowed.

I guess you could say I'm conflicted about my hometown. I'm grateful for the rich cultural stew that Detroit is. It was a mecca for Blacks from all over the South and Midwest in the early part of the 20th Century, who came there for the good jobs and freedoms they lacked at home. This included my father, who ran off to Detroit from a small town in Indiana on the night of his high school graduation. But personally, for most of my own life, I’ve been grateful not to be in Detroit.

And yet, Home has a kind of attraction. And lately, Detroit’s been reasserting a hold on me that I haven’t felt in a long, long time, if ever. Because Detroit seems to be in the process of reinventing itself. For the last decade and more, all sorts of urban experiments have been taking place there. Urban farming is maybe the most well known aspect of this exploration, but the creative innovation extends into business, the arts and ways of creating and supporting community.

As a social worker for so much of my life, I’ve done lots of working and studying and thinking about community, about what makes it work, and why it so often fails. I’ve longed to put strategies into practice. But I’ve not had the commitment, the conviction, nor the persuasive powers to be a community builder.

Now, Detroit beckons from a distance, luring me with the wide openness of its desolation.  It’s lost more than half its population over the last forty years, and – always a geographically large city – it now has a huge surplus of space, both actual and metaphorical. What are the possibilities of all this space? And what might I bring to that?  Might I be an explorer in my own home town? Might I somehow enrich that place I was born, by returning there with all my experience of other places? How might I contribute to Detroit’s Renaissance?

These are intriguing thoughts, and they have me contemplating my home city in a new and different way. Which brings me to an interaction with another Toronto friend. Sean grew up here, in the Cabbagetown, Corktown and Regent Park areas of Toronto’s downtown East side. When I last spoke to Sean, he was bubbling over with excitement over just having bought a mansion in Detroit. He got it for what would’ve gained him a shabby hovel in Toronto, and in Indian Village, one of the high end communities of Detroit that came through the latter part of the 20th century relatively unscathed.

Sean is so high on Detroit. He’s meeting people everywhere he goes, impressed by their friendliness – which contrasts nicely with the public aloofness of Torontonians. He’s engaging with the revivalist spirit he encounters, and he’s immersing himself in the music and arts history and culture. He is of course aware of my Detroit, but he firmly believes that it will die out with those who’ve survived it but won’t let it go. The New Detroit, as he sees it, belongs to those – both native and newcomer – who imagine it, have the passion and energy to create it, and who Believe!

I see this new spirit, this creative passion, in the children of cousins who remained in Detroit when I left. They are mature adults now, raising their own families, full of their own memories and intentions and dreams. One of them, Claude, has a flower business, and he works and promotes his business with a verve and passion and level of commitment that won’t acknowledge any possibility of failure. If I sometimes imagine that my own generation failed or was failed by Detroit, it’s clear to me that Claude’s generation has tossed aside our explanations and excuses and will recreate their city according to their own vision and in no way bound by our sad memories.

Claude’s brother, Edd, is equally impressive in another way. His skills are predominantly in the creative domain. He’s a writer and musician. And while I dodder along, with my fantasies of someday having my novel put into print by a traditional publisher, Edd has struck out boldly and self-published, selling his books at readings and author appearances at local bookstores, and wherever else he can.

I don’t imagine that I will ever actually return to Detroit and set down roots. I’ve never been one for going backward in that way. But even if I was, just the idea that I’d be going back tells me that I have it all wrong. My Detroit is gone, and has been for a long time. When I visit there, I’m reattaching myself to whatever memory, nostalgia and ambivalent longing can resurrect. That may sometimes amount to a memorializing of life, but it isn’t living. I’m sure that I will continue to indulge in this view of home through the rear view mirror, but I intend to cultivate a forward view as well. There’s a Detroit arising that I don’t see coming, that I can’t even imagine. And I welcome it. I welcome the fresh eyes and the new heart that it will demand of me. And, while I hope never to forget the city I have such complex, contradictory feelings about, I will invest my loving expectation, my trusting, my own believing in what may be hidden from me, but is certain to come. There’s a new and different Detroit in the making. And it will be home enough for those who create it.