What I’ve grown to love…
The high-pitched hiss of the zipper that frees the bass from its well-padded case at the start of a gig.
Opening the lid of the piano and placing the prop stick in its notch, providing for a peek under the hood at some of the instrument’s wonderfully complex innards: cast iron plate, soundboard, strings, hammers.
That subtle, interrogatory tap-tap of the drummer lightly striking his drumheads—snare, tom-toms, and bass drum—as he adjusts their pitch with his drum key.
The short click of the instrument cable, when the bass player plugs it into his bass amp: all systems go.
Tuning the bass (with varying success) to the piano.
Proofreading the manuscript of a new tune one final time, as I ready it for its "soft" opening.
Setting the tempo of our opening number in my head, before counting it off aloud to my bass player and drummer.
The night begins; we’re in play.
It’s taken me close to forty years to get here. In my late twenties, I left a Ph.D. program in seventeenth-century English literature to pursue a career as a jazz pianist and composer in my native New York City. What could have precipitated such an unexpected and exotic elopement, from the Metaphysical Poets to jazz piano? In those earliest days, it was the music of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Bill Evans that touched me and drew me in most deeply. It was not because I felt I had some special aptitude for music; I imagined that learning to play and compose music, especially as an adult, would be a challenge, and I wasn’t disappointed in that regard. I did look forward to playing music with others, yet I couldn’t know just how much that anticipated pleasure—a welcome counterpoint to time spent alone reading, writing, and eventually composing—would exceed my expectations.
These many years later, how does it feel on those memorable evenings when the sense of time within our trio is so unforced and natural that none of us need to adjust? When the music seems almost to play itself, to breathe effortlessly on its own?
In my experience, like nothing else.
We’re airborne. The band is dancing. With the time so deeply sublimated, there are no longer any bar lines in the music. If there’s a better way to cheat time, I can’t imagine it.
I revel in a heightened awareness that foregrounds the music, yet allows me to take in our surroundings as well: the whoosh of an espresso machine, the occasional clink of glasses, the welcoming face of an avid listener in the crowd, the swivel of a hip in time with the music.
The gig may have had a start time of 8:00 p.m., but once we’ve begun to play, the time is always now. There’s only the present moment, a marvelous vista, no detours ahead, all distracting thoughts in abeyance.
Impossible, then, to think of much else but where the music is taking us. An enviable state of mind that summons what Peter Matthiessen, in The Snow Leopard, called "one of the common miracles…the contentment of doing one thing at a time."
Just a few of the things that won’t cross my mind while we play: Did I remember to pick up the mail, take out the garbage, turn off the stove? Should I really start using DuckDuckGo instead of Google for my online searches? Did I use sufficient alcohol this morning when I cleaned the port on my elderly mother’s post-surgical PICC line? What am I doing about climate change? Am I sure the five-bar phrase in my new tune is organic? Did I remember to commit my code changes to GitHub? What am I doing about climate change?
"War," the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote, "is the continuation of politics by other means." I might argue that the spiritual communion inherent in great music-making is the continuation of love by other means. What we hear and create as a band is built on trust. We have each other’s backs, belong in this moment together.
When the time feels right within a band, it reminds us all, players and listeners alike, of that fleeting sweet spot in life when you’re moving forward, unrushed, unflappable, the wind at your back, seated in a groove that can’t be denied.
Reprinted with permission from The Threepenny Review