Saturday, November 30, 2013

On Incompleteness & Missing Pieces

           Over the last few weeks I’ve amassed a number of drafts of pieces that never made it into my blog. They are all pieces I wanted to post, but which fell short is some way or another, most often because they are incomplete.

          Incompleteness, I’ve come to recognize, is one of the unavoidable – and annoyingly common – aspects of life. I’ve written here about my frustrations with time, how there never seems to be enough of it, my struggle with finding balance, so as to keep up on all the important commitments and interests in my life. But this focus on time and balance, as though there were some skill set that would eliminate incompleteness from my life, is a false hope, a distraction from the reality that nothing in life can simply be captured, contained or managed in a complete way.

          So much of the great literature is about this essential incompleteness, isn’t it? The Brothers Karamazov, Macbeth, The Foundation Trilogy all take a view on this. Perec's Life: A User’s Manual presents an achingly beautiful view of the incomplete jig-saw puzzle that life is. All of those books that present a character who has it all figured out, or with a vision of attaining “the perfect life”, such as The Mosquito Coast or Invisible Man, or Crime & Punishment end up exploring the failure to contain or control life, or incompleteness.

          At this point, I recognize that few if any of my ‘drafted’ blogs will make it to post. And so, rather than leave their content totally unexpressed, I’m aiming here for a kind of distillation, one I hope will manage to unite them thematically in some way, and thereby, take us almost in the opposite direction from incompleteness, toward gestalt, that other beautiful and inescapable characteristic of reality, namely, that a whole will amount to more than simply the sum of its parts.

          Among the things I’ve draft-blogged about are: the comical nightmare of political life in Toronto, under our bobble-head, buffoon king mayor, Rob Ford; the overzealous application of political correctness when a white school vice principal dared to costume himself as Mr. T., using blackface; and finally, the injustice faced by a young couple I work with, whose child is in the care of the Catholic Children’s Aide Society.

          But, before I try to concoct this mixture of themes, a final word on “Incompleteness”. I first came upon this quality as a subject for serious study in Douglas Hofstadter’s absolutely brilliant book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal, Golden Braid, written in 1979 and awarded a Pulitzer Prize. On one level, this is a book about something not even remotely hinted at by its title, that being artificial intelligence. On another level, it’s a philosophical game book, that pulls you inside of a wonderful medley of musical play, zen koans, Aesop’s fables, and surrealist art. But fundamentally, it’s an exploration of Kurt Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorem”, which tells us that no system or science or tool that seeks to offer a complete explanation of the world will ever succeed. And further, that the place where this system or tool’s failure will be most evident is where it attempts to explain itself. Well...something like that. (I confess that the mathematical sections of this book lost me, but DON’T LET THAT DETER YOU FROM READING IT. Just skip over the hard parts, like I did!)

          There have always been arguments about the dangers of taking very precise, scientific notions and applying them broadly to social, cultural or political areas. Witness the ways that ‘social’ Darwinism has been used to justify racial hierarchies, or the way ‘relativity’ theory has been used to excuse all sorts of behaviors. So yes, apply with caution. But, for me, a recognition of life’s essential incompleteness has served, not unlike Solomon’s “I have seen everything under the sun...and all is vanity and striving after wind”, to comfort and reassure me. Yes, I am human, my reach is small, I will don’t be so hung up about not finishingd that short story!

          Now onto my ‘draft blogs’. But I’ve spent so much time on this introduction, I now feel that I’ll have to be brief about it.

          What a bit of nonsense, suspending a vice-principal and initiating an investigation, because he appeared at a Halloween function dressed as Mr. T. and in blackface. Now, as a fifty-nine year old, Black, American male who grew up through the civil rights era, I can surely understand that the very mention of blackface will give one reason to pause and consider. But after considering, what then? Is some item or act, because once associated with a hateful system, always to be despised? I don’t think so. Dressing up as other people is what happens at Halloween. I don’t see that there’s anything offensive or embarrassing about Mr. T., such that masquerading as him is racist.

          Then you have Mayor Rob Ford, who, if a high school vice-principal would’ve been fired long ago, for any one of dozens of acts and statements, including his public drunkenness, admission to buying and using illegal drugs while in office, and any number of questionable comments. I wish Ford were gone. I’ve never felt that he was broad or deep enough in his understanding of social issues to be a good leader for this city. And as much as I fault Ford for his very selfish refusal to step down from office, there is a small degree to which I applaud the theoretical separation of a person’s human frailties from their ability to competently hold a representative position in government. The facts of him having addiction issues, being cartoonish, or making embarrassing, personal statements should not, in and of themselves, be grounds for removal from office. (And I actually find it as ridiculous as the overreaction to blackface, that some people referenced his comments about eating pussy as obscene or misogynist. Come ON, people!)

          The couple I work with, that is trying so hard to get its now 5 month old child away from Catholic Children’s Aide, is another instance of misapplied standards. These are such invaluable months in the bonding and development of a child. And this couple would likely never have come under scrutiny but for the SIDS death of their first child a year ago (for which they were deemed not responsible after investigation). Now, not only are they victim to the achingly slow legal process involved in demonstrating their worthiness to parent, they are also being held to standards far beyond any that can be considered reasonable in this day and age. Such as, that the father, a practicing Rastafarian, be tested as free from marijuana use for 3 and a half months, before they can have their son in their care. Were this standard to be applied to all parents, I suspect that we’d have more than 30% of kids in Children’s Aide custody.

          Threads that these items share are the ways in which we judge and are judged by others. And it relates to the broader theme of incompleteness in that few, if any of our judgements are rendered with complete knowledge. We try to stay on top of things, to make decisions and judgements that uphold our deepest values and that support health and respect and well-being. But so often, our judgements come down to guesses and feelings and biases. Referring back to the young couple again, it seems certain that the Catholic Children’s Aide Society is testing their readiness to parent with such fervor because it has been knocked severely in recent months for failing to identify abusive situations in which children suffered.

          I hope this isn’t a depressing piece. I didn’t intend it to be. But it does represent a kind of surrender. I’ll not manage to write here about all the things I’d like to write about, even if at times I feel my well has run dry. And what I do take on won’t be covered exhaustively. It will merely represent a pulling together of some of the thoughts and impressions (maybe even a fact or two) I have in a moment in time. And even that passing moment will defy any containing or explaining. I find this an almost liberating view. It points to the fullness and richness in things. This “incompleteness” isn’t something in the world, really. It’s just a reminder of how huge and wide and miraculous the world really is.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Wayne Shorter at Massey Hall

Wayne Shorter doesn't write songs anymore. I don't know if he writes jazz anymore either. Maybe the issue is whether or not you can call what he does 'writing'. What Wayne Shorter does, for sure, is create music.

Shorter turned 80 three months back, and he's been touring with what is being called his 80th Birthday Celebration. But his is not the case of a recognized master merely regurgitating the treasures of his prime. Though the quartet he brought to Massey Hall on November 22nd has been performing together for over a decade, Shorter’s music is as fresh and vibrant as at any time in his past. The music had the unmistakable immediacy, that forward-pulling energy of the freshly created. There's magic in such music. And it transcends easy categorization.

The concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall last Friday brought seven musicians to the stage. The opening act was ACS, a trio comprised of two veterans: Geri Allen on piano and Terry Lynn Carrington on drums, with the much younger, meteorically talented Esperanza Spalding on bass. The scarcity of female instrumentalists in jazz has long confounded me, but that's a subject for another time. Enough to say that this trio of women laid down a set with such power and mastery that I openly doubted that Shorter's follow-up could be anything but a come down. The three were a perfect demonstration of interplay, of the essential listening and responding aspects of jazz. They infused their playing with spontaneity and generosity. It was a spectacular set, raising the alertness and sensitivity of the audience to a high level of receptivity.

And somehow, impossibly, Shorter's band emerged and lifted the evening's fare to a level I could not have foreseen. In trying to come up with an adequate word for what Shorter does – and failing – the concept "impressionist" comes to mind. He is, I'm reminded, a visual artist as well as musician. He seems to – paraphrasing the words of a famous sculptor – take raw sound and shape it, mold it, sculpt it, until he has uncovered the primal, the universal within. These aren't mere songs that emerge. They are crystallizations of feeling, of ideas, of longing and searching, of finding and absorption, as in how one lover can absorb another, to the end of joining essence to essence. I was very moved by this quartet's performance. It wasn't just the brilliant musicianship, it was what they were able to evoke. My feelings were drawn out and taken for a ride. The music entered me and shook me and thrilled me.

About the four musicians. I've been listening to Wayne Shorter since I was a teenager trying to get my head inside the music of Miles Davis. Bitches Brew is the album that slammed into my musical awareness, shattered it, and forced me beyond my James Brown and Motown trained hearing. It was while listening to "Spanish Key" that I first started to get a sense of 'sound' as a quality, separate from melody and harmony, though obviously a component of them. It was then that I began to learn to listen without so much expectation, so that the music could draw me into something I didn't already know. Wayne Shorter, with his piercing, often minimalist soprano sax was a big part of that music. I probably saw him on stage with Miles during that period, but I didn't recognize him as more than one among many voices, flowing and layering one another.

A few years later, it was through the group Weather Report that I developed a deeper awareness of Shorter. On compelling tunes like "Sweetnighter" (a Joe Zawinul composition) I began to identify characteristics of Shorter's style. He’s not your typical soloist, claiming the spotlight with flurries of notes playing on top of a band. Rather, through a sparer approach, weaving his sound in and out of the voices of his collaborators, he enriches the body of a tune, shaping and flavoring its core. Then there was the Native Dancer album, with Milton Nascimento, and the Atlantis album, both of which took me deeper into Shorter's compositional style, which is both quirky and wide open. And there was his supportive collaboration with Joni Mitchell, backing her on most of her albums since the late seventies.

At Friday night's concert, Shorter flexed his horns just enough, adding accent and emphasis where required, but, as always, allowing lots of space. John Patitucci, who I first encountered as a member of Chick Corea’s quartet, was vibrant and fluid on the upright bass. Danilo Perez was similarly stellar on piano, using his palate to flavor tone and mood. But I have to say that, for me, the wizard on the stage was drummer Brian Blade.

Along with Shorter himself, and Esperanza Spalding, it was Brian Blade whom I attended this concert to see. I first became aware of him when I bought his Fellowship CD from a remainder bin many years ago, with no idea of who he was. I've been an admirer ever since, and have noted his play backing many other greats, including Herbie Hancock. But I'd never laid eyes on him before. And what a treat it was to watch him play.

Brian Blade interacts with his drum kit like an alchemist happily mixing potions in his cauldron, watching the heady elixir bubble away as it gives birth to strange, new life forms. His body language is mesmerizing. He seems almost possessed as he sends his drumsticks dancing across skins and cymbals like wands. His was the palpable magic that drove this brilliant set, that held together the virtuosity of the others.
The ovations at the end of the night were ecstatic. Shorter and company returned to deliver two short and sweet encore numbers. But the cheering didn’t let up. Finally, Shorter returned to the stage again to smilingly gesture that he had nothing left. At that point, I don’t think anyone really expected anything more. We were simply so full of appreciation of the magical, musical offering, that we didn’t want to stop saying Thank You!