“Following the Thrush”

To my discredit, I rarely read poetry.  However, I do occasionally take recommendations from friends I trust, and as a result I’ve enjoyed two recent prose books by celebrated modern poets.

Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack and Honey offers collected lectures and essays about poetry. Like many creative types she fears analysis, and her apologia for the book is brilliant:

I do not think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sound, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve – if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods; you will never actually see the thrush (the hermit thrush is especially shy), but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come. “Fret not after knowledge, I have none,” is what the thrush says. Perhaps we can use our knowledge to preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive.

The themes of the lectures mostly concern Ruefle’s own work in relationship to other great poets (interestingly, the copyrights pages are buried in the back, one needs to read carefully to always understand who she is quoting), but there are also surprise guests like Socrates and advertising copy. Ruefle is funny, elliptical, and profound.

In the New York Times review, David Kirby writes,”This is one of the wisest books I’ve read in years, and it would be a shame to think that only poets will read it.”

Kirby’s right, this is a book for anybody. I will be returning to Madness, Rack and Honey often.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is comparatively direct. Indeed, it is a steamroller, an astonishing and lucid explication of everyday racism. Rankine uses the second person to achieve a kind of grandeur. I can’t recall reading a voice like this before:

When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in 
silence you are bucking the trend.

It’s all devastating, but the chapter on Serena Williams was all new to me (as with poetry, I rarely interact with sports) and shocked me to my core. The New Yorker review by Dan Chiasson makes a great point:

“Citizen” conducts its business, often, with melancholy, but also with wit and a sharable incredulity that sends you running to YouTube. These kinds of errands into the culture could not have been performed before the Internet, which provides, for all of us, the ultimate instant replay.

To my surprise I have been watching Serena Williams videos, trying to fathom how such injustice could exist under such a bright glare, for example the sequence of bad (racist!?) calls by umpire Mariana Alves in the 2004 U. S. Open. Rankine is a thoroughly modern artist using the very latest news to achieve lasting impact.

Universal Remonster 7



The Log Journal is becoming the place for interesting discussions about how the discourse around music is changing:

Anne Midgette

Zachary Woolfe

Du Yun

The above three interviews were conducted by Steve Smith; Will Robin led the discussion with Suzannah Clark, Anne Shreffler, and Alexander Rehding.  Across the water from this Harvard trio is the controversial Guardian piece by Charlotte C. Gill. While I understand some of the spoken and unspoken rationale at Harvard (diversity and challenging the Western canon is good, also this is another way to snag music majors for the university’s coffers) the Gill piece is less easy for me to parse. In the end I suspect Gill’s unspoken agenda is about finding ways to cut funding for the arts by claiming that notation is elitist. I’m not a really sophisticated observer here, but in recent times it seems like England has produced more valuable music in the European classical tradition than most other countries. If that’s true, that must partly be a product of how an unusually large percentage of the population understands notation. Alex Ross talks about “pop triumphalism,” this may be relevant concept when considering Gill’s argument….

Hua Hsu on Alice Coltrane.

Oliver Lake on  Arthur Blythe.

Mark Padmore on Bach. (This is really great!)

RIP Allan Holdsworth. David Adler (who is a guitarist as well as critic) offers the right kind of obit.

RIP Chuck Berry. Did you know it was Jo Jones on drums behind Berry at Newport 1958?

Alex Ross on Stravinsky’s rediscovered “Funeral Song.”


The Story of the Wind

How lovely to have some light shown on pianist/composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou by Kate Molleson in the Guardian: There’s both an essay and a radio documentary with Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou speaking in English.

Ethiopian music is a vast subject that I know comparatively little about. However, there does seem to be an agreement (from those that know much more than me) that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is absolutely unique.

My own experience must be fairly common. One day several years ago I was at Pete Rende’s house. Pete put on the 21st volume of Francis Falceto’s Éthiopiques series, my eyes widened in shock, and I ordered my own copy that night. (It turned out later that many Brooklyn jazz cats are hip to Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, but she was new to me.)

As far as I know, that CD is the only digital issue of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s music. It’s a must-own for those interested in the possibilities of the piano.

The first track, “The Homeless Wanderer,” is quite involved with something akin to a one-chord blues.

However, this seven-minute lead-in also might give the wrong impression about Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s music in general, for most of her compositions are comparatively complex harmonically.  (I accept the Guardian‘s headline, “The Honky-Tonk Nun,” only if it gets more clicks on Molleson’s work.)

“The Mad Man’s Laughter” is noticeably chromatic.

The reference that I hear is European piano music. Not exactly the biggest names like Liszt and Chopin, but rather turn-of-the-century drawing-room composers like Moszkowski and Chaminade. These two maintain a place in the repertoire today mostly with a handful of encores, but all of their music has high finish and a perfect understanding of the instrument. Both were also wonderful pianists. Sadly there are no recordings of Moszkowski, but Chaminade has to be heard to be believed.

One flaw with comparing Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou to Moszkowski and Chaminade is that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is a deeply spiritual artist. Her music has never been played for profit: Indeed, she has perpetually given all proceeds to the poorest of the poor.

Also, the rhythms and melodic phrasing from Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou are not European, for example the “free” (but actually precise) melodies over a habanera bass in “Homesickness.”

However, I stand by my comparison to Moszkowski and Chaminade because there is something so antique about the way Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou handles the piano. Even though the recordings on the CD are from 1963-1972, they somehow sound like a historical piano track from the 1920s .

Recently I heard Yolanda Mero’s 1926 disc of a once-popular encore by Vogrich.

I’m convinced that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is in this same family. The piano seems to just play itself, with immense technical skill allied with a reservoir of pre-20th century charm.

Even some of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s titles are like those one could find in a old anthology of intermediate-level European piano music tucked away in your grandmother’s piano bench. Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s “The Maiden’s Prayer” was a huge hit in about 1890: Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s (much more soulful) work is “A Young Girl’s Complaint.”

My casual speculations are perhaps veering into nonsense. Anyway, thanks again to Molleson for the recent Guardian pieces. It’s wonderful that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is still here (now in her mid-’90s) and still modeling a selfless, profound, and personal way to live. And that music!




In Good Hands

Saw two excellent gigs last night. At the Jazz Gallery, Cory Smythe offered selections from new release A U T O TROPHS, where a modernist compositional aesthetic meets piano virtuosity and playful electronics. Frankly I was floored, this was an amazing gig. A finely-wrought and controlled meeting of composition and improvisation has been en route for so long that I was beginning to wonder if it was ever going to show up. Maybe Smythe is the next true advance.

At the Drawing Room, Jacob Sacks led a quintet with Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby, Mike Formanek, and Dan Weiss. All Jacob’s tunes for a recording to be done today (I think). In a way these are our masters now: Eskelin, Malaby, Formanek: there’s so much depth to their abstract improvising. Jacob has done really incredible work integrating the sound world of Conlon Nancarrow into jazz, and Dan Weiss can always learn it all, remember it all, and play the dynamics of the room perfectly.

TBP News!

It’s true: At the end of the year I will no longer play in the Bad Plus. Orrin Evans, a great pianist, great guy, and long-term associate of Reid Anderson, will take over the piano chair.

Sign up for Floyd Camembert Reports if you want me to keep you posted on forthcoming non-TBP gigs. A lot of stuff is going to be happening in 2018.

A couple of common practice hits, near and far: In Brooklyn on Sunday with a pair of legends:


And in Portland in a couple weeks with two big local talents: