Friday, September 09, 2005

beta do not want what he has not got

I'm on the press list at Joe's Pub, which means they put you behind some velvet rope in the giant crow's nest booth at the back of the club. Loli and I laugh at Bettye LaVette's backing band and the total Frank Zappa studio dude on guitar, and she says they remind her of lounge bar bands in Japan, totally cheesy dudes playing blues and soul and jazz standards as slick as velvet jackets. The cover of Bettye's new album would make you think she was on her deathbed, but live she's fiesty and packing her black jumpsuit with some seriously stairmastered gams. She looks great some forty-four years into the biz, belting randy deflowering tales in her backyard and off-mic holding these eerie cry faces, using the shadows under the lights to accentuate her mask. Her voice is still powerful, getting into the little crevices and hidden pockets of words from Fionna and Lucinda the way she learned from listening to Frank Sinatra records, and her breath conveys it exactly, in either a breathless plea or cathartic, though still heatbreakingly human howl. There is a chill to hear Bettye send the words of Sinead O'Connor towards the void, defiantly stating "I do not want what I haven't got" all by herself, into a bar dropped into reverent, breathless silence, save for that exhalation of vents, the event suspended in time for that second in-between her gasps.

At some point in the night, whether in the rasps of her Dolly Parton or Sharon Robinson cover, or else covering Joe Simon, she draws forth tears from the crowd (no comment). She jokes about having all women songwriters on her newest album, even though she has no girlfriends otherwise. She jokes about Allen Toussaint, which I think strange, until she reveals that both he and Elvis Costello are in attendance.

I have not really talked about New Orleans, thought much about New Orleans, never been to New Orleans, and so I would rather not meditate, much less discuss, such an unknown and unquantifiable place that has become a spiralling media image of floodwaters and helicopters and fixed images of graves multiplied into infinite numbness. Such is the cycle of media madness, and having to devour A Current Affair and the Post and media news special catchphrases like "Disaster on the Delta," "Floodwatch 2005," "American Tsunami," and "Sold Down River: Ferreal" is enough to induce nausea. When I first heard that Allen Toussaint was among the numerous musicians missing and un-accounted for, I did become dizzy and severely nauseaous. I have few musical heroes and Mr. Toussaint is a beacon, a craftsman, a conveyer of benevolence, the beatific, and le bon temps roulet in song, and to think that he might not have made it out of the city before the flood made me reel at the depths of a true cultural loss. (aside: The work he did with Lee Dorsey is still profound for me, and one album in particular was my first print-published piece. Perhaps I'll dig it up one of these days and post it here.)

When lights come up, I lean over from our booth into the one with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint and reach out my hand to gush with thanks and praise that he is alright. I can't believe how soft and assured his hand is when I shake it, and he thanks me. I am but one of many people that appraoch him and give thanks and praise for his music and his well-being. Don't see anyone approach Elvis.

It's one of those nights where the mind almost reels from the possibilities and impossibilities of going out (totally miss Luciano at APT), as I then head back to Brooklyn to see Grachan Moncur III play for free. I had already been warned that Moncur seemed to have some mouth problems, or an inability to pucker up and play like he did on his still-stunning Blue Note sessions he cut in the early sixties. Okay, so there is reduced lung power, no more of those syrupy, plunging bass peals, languorous and bayou-deep, that he used to dive into back then, with Jackie McLean and Bobby Hutcherson, or Lee Morgan and Herbie Hancock, playing those intricately crafted and curious compositions of his. Not quite hard-bop, not quite the fiery models that would be taken up soon after in jazz, but hanging in-between like some stunningly modular, gently turning, almost Alexander Calder-like mobile. Which is very much the way that Moncur can suspend time.

Now, Moncur moves in more shallow registers, closer to shimmering surface. His backing band is sometimes too propulsive, makign for less pronounced curvature, less obtuse angles and tighter space. Partially that's due to Moncur's shorter breaths. Even his introductions are hard to parse, nearly inaudible in the bar's din, but he works for his music, sops the sweat off his face as often as the aerobic LaVette did. A girl comes up to me at the bar to blurt out how amazing he sounds, talking over his breathless, sometimes lost in the air, solo on the Fender Rhodes-powered version of Miles' "So What." I tell her that for some people (like myself), Grachan is a legend, but I don't really discuss what I suddenly realize about the trombone itself.

While folks like Moncur and Roswell Rudd brought the sliding, slurry timbre of the trombone into the vernacular of modern jazz, the instrument has rarely left its Dixieland roots, and no matter what its present surroundings (or even in Don Drummond's cheeks down at Studio One), it evokes New Orleans for me, echoes it in every breath. The tentacles never spread too far from its home (though how crucial were the radio broadcasts of Naw'leans R&B on the future island sound of Jamaica?), where it remains the perfect voice of the funeral dirge, the muggy air, the original screwed sound. No matter the condition of these folks, I'm glad they are still among us.


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