“For Ellen Raskin” (+ R.I.P. to Lee Server and Andrew Vachss)

Another preview track from my forthcoming trio disc with Larry Grenadier and Jack DeJohnette has been released by Blue Note. “For Ellen Raskin” can be heard on YouTube and on all the streaming services.

“For Ellen Raskin” is a tribute to an early influence, the famous writer and illustrator. Her greatest work is The Westing Game, which has consistently remained in print since publication in 1978. My vast passion for this comic puzzle knew no bounds: I even made my 5th grade teacher read it out loud to the class during story time, one chapter a week. Regrettably, I was out sick for the final pages, and when I returned, I had to give an impromptu explanatory lecture, for my classmates complained they didn’t understand the ending.

The other Raskin I read over and over was her first novel, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) from 1971.

Raskin was idiosyncratic. She loved wordplay, puzzles, and nonsense. Her books are deeply surreal. There’s no doubt in my mind that Raskin paved the way for my future appreciation of surreal jazz pianists such as Thelonious Monk.

At the conclusion of Figgs & Phantoms, Ellen Raskin doesn’t write “The End.” She writes, “The &.

This is just like the conclusion of a Thelonious Monk track where hits a high minor ninth. It’s obvious. Raskin: “The &.” Monk: “Clang!

Raskin’s “The &” connects to her other gifts as an illustrator and graphic designer. Wikipedia lists over twenty books graced with Raskin art, including the cover for the first edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1963 classic A Wrinkle in Time. The Newbery Medal is the most prestigious award in children’s literature. Both A Wrinkle in Time and The Westing Game won a Newbery.

A unique statistic: Raskin designed the cover for one Newbury winner and wrote the text for another.

I rarely play a jazz waltz, and haven’t composed one until now. Mal Waldron’s “Fire Waltz” and Wayne Shorter’s “Ju-Ju” are in my repertoire, because it helps to have something in a dark and droning zone when playing with an unfamiliar rhythm section, but I shy away from anything in the Bill Evans-ish camp of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Very Early” and so forth.

When contemplating recording with Jack DeJohnette, I looked through John Coltrane and Elvin Jones references, for Coltrane and Elvin are a big part of where DeJohnette is coming from. My first ever jazz waltz, “For Ellen Raskin,” is the same tempo and feel as Coltrane’s famous “Spiritual,” recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 1961, but with a harmonic structure that is comparatively light and breezy — although, hopefully, not without some Iverson idiosyncrasies, and perhaps even the kind of idiosyncrasies Ellen Raskin would approve of.

Jack DeJohnette is magnificent throughout Every Note is True, but I’m especially happy to get some primo Jack at the “Spiritual” tempo on tape.

(“For Ellen Raskin” is the second Iverson composition featuring the name of a non-musical hero in the title. The first was “Bill Hickman at Home.” As far as I know, these are the only jazz tributes to either Raskin or Hickman.)

The Westing Game is a bonafide mystery novel, and I suppose it was the first one I ever read. As I got older, my interest in crime fiction would become a major hobby.

I like thinking about genre. If we know what genre any proposed work of art is planned to be — if we really know, because we command the terrain and can speak truthfully as to what has been done before — then we can fill the container with work that supports or denies a given set of conventions.

The research I have done exploring crime fiction has informed my attitudes to everything else (including music criticism and even what I play on the piano). One of my most helpful guides was Lee Server’s Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers. Server, who died at the end of last year, is best-known for well-regarded biographies of Robert Mitchum, Ava Gardner, and Johnny Rosselli, none of which I have read yet. However, I certainly owe a debt to Server: Whatever little skill I have when writing a capsule music review comes in part from emulating Server’s superb style in Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers.

Not every author covered in Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers is truly pulp, and some of the Amazon.com reviewers are up in arms about this minor transgression. Their point is easy to understand, for everyone in that game is eager to define different genres in very precise terms. Still, Server’s commentary on two famous authors rarely classed as pulp, Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler, affected my opinion. Indeed, both Fleming and Chandler went up a notch on my private scorecard thanks to Server.

Server didn’t just include people who fit the bill, he also bent the rules and included people when he could advocate for them with a distinctive “take.” Again, in my music criticism, I follow Server’s lead.

Andrew Vachss also died towards the end of last year. Not long after I arrived in NYC in 1991, I went through a brief Vachss phase, reading a half-dozen of the early Burke series in the then-ubiquitous Vintage trade paperback edition. Within a year or two I rescinded my invitation, and didn’t even include Vachss in my substantial overview, “The Crimes of the Century.”

After hearing of Vachss’s passing I picked up the first three Burke novels on Kindle: Flood, Strega, and Blue Belle. Vachss has real poetic flair, especially when crafting a comic description of urban decay, but what at first seems charismatic soon wilts into a one-note riff. Sexual sadism is inflicted on children, and the former heister (now quasi-PI) Burke goes on the warpath to seek vigilante vengeance.

The titles of the books are Burke’s girlfriends. These women all are simply lurid cartoons, just like the rest of Burke’s associates: the silent Mongolian assassin, the sophisticated trans streetwalker, the salt-of-the-earth black Prophet, the Jewish electronics expert who hides out underneath a Bronx junkyard. Burke relentlessly talks of this crew as his “family” in exactly the same manner that Dominic Toretto describes his associates in the Fast and Furious movie franchise.

While I will never be a card-carrying member of the Andrew Vachss fan club, I enjoyed re-reading the early Burke trio last week. Not for the works themselves, but because it was a way to time travel and re-visit a place last seen almost 30 years ago. The same is true when I pick-up The Westing Game or The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Probably a decade hence I will go through Server’s Encyclopedia again, not expecting to learn anything new, but simply to check in on the slow but constant evolution of my personal aesthetic.