Finding Clues In The Frozen Aisle

Our newest contributor Lara Pellegrinelli identified herself last week as an "ex-jazz lover," curious about the prefix she found herself attached to. So she began her own investigation with a trip to Brooklyn. —Ed.

——-

Joe Phillips

Joe Phillips leads the ensemble Numinous. Carolyn Wolf hide caption

itoggle caption Carolyn Wolf

A passing phase, you say. Not looking hard enough or in the right places. A lack of "B3" vitamins? I find that forgetting to take my Omega-3s can sometimes cloud my disposition, but I think the multivitamin has been taking care of the rest.

I thank you for all of your responses to my first post. Whatever your conclusions, the relief of simply coming clean was enough to get me off my rump and all the way out to Brooklyn. On a Monday night. From Queens, no less.

Somehow I'd never been to the Brooklyn Lyceum, a dilapidated 1910 bathhouse that was turned into a multipurpose space and outpost for all kinds of so-called alternative culture in 2002. I'd heard about their monthly jazz composer's salon, and was hopeful it could be a place to discover new faces on the scene.

If only I could have made them out in the narrow spaces between their scarves and their hats.

What I found at the Lyceum was four guys, sitting in folding chairs around a space heater, huddled in their outerwear. They were seated on the empty brick shell of the second floor, a cavern of unfinished cement with papered-over windows. Despite the fact that the temperature was in the twenties outside, there was no heat, save for the tall steel monster. You know, the kind you'd have on a fancy pool deck that look like they're topped by a park ranger's hat.

By the way, the theme of discussion for this month's meeting? Inspiration.

Had I come in vain? I wanted a skewer and some marshmallows.

At least the conversation gradually warmed up. Led by Joe Phillips, the bandleader/composer of Numinous, we touched on some topics you might expect: the purpose of sketchbooks, external factors that drive compositional decisions, and how objects, people and events take form in composition. Joe's face lit up as he talked about "The Spell Of A Vanishing Loveliness," an effort to capture an experience he'd had on Sept. 11, 2001. (You can hear an excerpt here.) Watching from a Brooklyn rooftop, he saw a giant cloud of fluttering strips of paper gradually make an arc across the blue sky. He'd held on to that image for three years before he'd written the piece.

Perhaps there's a danger to let catastrophic events unduly impact our perceptions of the world around us, but I can't help feeling that Sept. 11 did change my relationship with jazz. Someone brought up the John Adams piece "On the Transmigration of Souls," a piece for orchestra and choir that takes its texts from cell phone conversations, 911 calls and memorials in the newspapers. (An NPR report on the piece.) Some of my friends called it manipulative, but like Adams, I suspect I've become more attracted to art created out of the mundane scraps of our existence (like the compositions of Corey Dargel and Meredith Monk) than attempts at profundity, which I read as self-conscious. The banal just seems more precious, more intimate. Certainly more believable.

Perhaps my attitude puts a predominantly instrumental form like jazz at a disadvantage. That's what Joe suggested. Two of the others expressed skepticism about making sense of our daily lives through such fragmentary and voluminous evidence.

"Like Facebook and Twitter?" one composer asked.

"Like blogs," the other responded.

Oh great, I thought.

Whatever language it uses, I knew I needed to start looking for fresh evidence of how — and if — jazz is conversing with the world around it. And how some chilly little corner of Brooklyn could speak to the whole. Could jazz be stuck in the frozen aisle?

So I asked the others why they'd come to the salon. There was a surprise under the fur cap to my right: it was guitarist/composer Joel Harrison. He looked me straight in the eye, and said something heartfelt that I'll be thinking about for months to come: "So that I don't feel like I'm out here fighting alone."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.