Friday, July 3, 2020

Emmet’s Place

Talk about making lemonade out of lemons.  The young and great jazz pianist, Emmet Cohen, has created a Monday night streaming jazz session from his Harlem apartment which is nothing short of sensational.  He has an irresistible personality, prodigious talent, and a reverence for the history of jazz and its legendary performers.  It all converges at Emmet’s Place.

It is probably sacrilegious to observe that in many ways these live, streamed performances are at least as soul satisfying as seeing him and his bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole in person.  Streaming those performances mandated getting a Fire Stick as soon as Amazon got them back in stock.  Now we can enjoy these on the “big screen” with surround sound in the comfort of our home, as good as seeing them in a Club but without people talking, serving distractions or viewing obstructions.  The first time we saw Emmet perform was in NYC at Dizzy’s Club and honestly, we were blown away.

It’s just so special to watch him perform in the intimacy of his apartment and interface with his group and with special guests remotely or, more recently, in his apartment, such as the jazz vocalist and scatter supreme, Veronica Swift.   Most recently he hosted jazz legend, singer and pianist, Johnny O'Neal who sang his iconic “I'm Your Mailman.”  O’Neal also displayed his virtuosity on the piano. 

The last time we saw Emmet and Trio live was on the Jazz Cruise back in February, where we made sure to catch as many of his gigs as possible, sometimes having to bypass other sets to get a seat reasonably close to the stage.

We also admire Emmet the man: he is self effacing in spite of his remarkable talent.  His reverence for his predecessors and mentors greatly impresses us along with his genuine admiration for his fellow artists.  But putting those aside, he is one of the best and most versatile jazz pianists we’ve ever seen and he just turned 30.  Yes, 30.  We wish we could be around to witness his full maturation.

We’ve been blessed over the years to see some of the jazz piano greats in person:  Oscar Peterson, Claude Bolling, Bill Mays, Admad Jamal, to mention a few.  I should add Benny Green and Tamir Hendelman to the list, both of whom we saw on the ship.  Oh, I also used to see Dave Brubeck but that was in my dentist’s office in Westport!

The Emmet Cohen Trio has coalesced over a five year period to the point where they can playfully hand off to one another at unexpected times and in unexpected ways and it’s never quite clear whether anyone is  in charge.  They just sense when to dive into the musical conversation or pause and it makes for interesting, mesmerizing listening.   His side men bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole are outstanding performers in their own right and sometimes carry long solos.

Emmet has given himself over to a Jazz Masters series, playing with some of the greats.  He channels them as well as those who are no longer with us, with strains of Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk.  The point is, he can and does play all styles, straight jazz, stride, swing, rhythm’n’blues, and in synthesizing these, he creates his own unique, soulful style.  He can transition from block chords to light; fast improvised ascending and descending arpeggios which definitively land on the base note.  Just listen to him paying homage to the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, playing his "Original Rags" at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola @ Jazz at Lincoln Center some four years ago (when he was only 26!).

This is indeed what makes this young man so special.  In addition to his talent he has a genuine outgoing personality and a kilowatt smile.  A couple of months ago he was soloing at Emmet’s Place, taking requests from the audience via the YouTube’s streaming comment feature and I was typing “please play Johnny Mandel’s ‘Where Do I Start?’ and I wasn’t but a few keystrokes into the message, and he played it!  I almost fell out of my chair at how serendipitously that happened!  I emailed him afterwards about the strange coincidence and expressing my love of Mandel’s music (and wishing him a happy 30th birthday which was just coming up, noting that it coincided with my wife’s, who is a mere 49 years older) and he was good enough to reply “That's so crazy!! Wonderful when the universe works wonders... Thanks for all the kindness, and happy bday to Ann!!”  That’s a mensch.

This last week Johnny Mandel passed away.  Perhaps Emmet will mark his passing with another Mandel medley in his next session.  I hope so.  The afternoon before I learned of Mandel’s death, I felt this strong compulsion to play some of his songs on my piano.  I ended up playing ALL of them (at least all of my favorites), even including “Song from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless).”

It was as if something drew me to his music and that night reading the NYT, I learned that he died.  Now that is just plain bizarre.  I couldn’t help but think of that stunning medley Cohen played but a few weeks before, and the entry I wrote, now, more than two years ago about Mandel’s place in The Great American Songbook.

As we are self quarantined until there is an effective vaccine, which, who knows, could be for the rest of our lives, we’re hoping that Emmet’s streaming sessions will continue as it is our only way to be so close to the music we love and to preeminent musicians who bring it to life.  It’s one of the reasons we’ve joined Emmet’s “Exclusive” Club.  It gives members access to a “unique and ongoing creative feed’ and more significantly allowing us to feel that we’re part of his and his group’s journey, one well worth supporting, particularly as their tour revenue has dried up in these times of COVID-19 and uncertainty.  This support provides “a path for new innovative and creative endeavors to come to life.”  Indeed it does, and thank you Emmet for sharing your creative genius at Emmet’s Place.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Are we doomed to repeat history?

Entitlement: this is what passes as a “Constitutional Right” even as we, as a nation, confront potential existential threats to our “pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  The threats seem to be ubiquitous. Ones such as environmental degradation, political divisiveness, income inequality and racial injustice are long term, systemic, and need to be dealt with through legislation, the courts, and at the voting booth.  But another is immediate and it is a behavioral issue: COVID-19.  Changing behavior is not something that can be merely legislated or policed. It is more of a matter of acting with an esprit de corps.

During the Spanish Flu of 1918 there were no antibiotics, steroids, ventilators, and no “Hail Mary” prospects of an effective vaccine or even a therapeutic.  Some 675,000 people died yet that number would have been much higher had not certain measures been widely adopted.  Which ones?  You guessed it, wearing a mask, social distancing, use of disinfectants and cancelling schools and large public gatherings. It was proven then that social distancing works. 

Even with the advantage of modern medicine, we have more than 125,000 deaths in the United States from CV-19.  This tally is already approaching 20% of the total of the Spanish Flu 100 years before, but we’re only four months or so into this pandemic.  And, the United States seriously trails other developed nations in controlling this, proving our utter ineffectual leadership.  One only has to compare our curve (which is really not a curve, but a flattening out and now another peak) to those of Europe, South Korea, Japan, and China.  No wonder we are now on the EU list of countries whose citizens are not welcome.

There are those who claim their right to not wear masks and to congregate in large crowds as being their “constitutional” right to do so (even our Vice President implied the latter last weekend).  In an embarrassing video of a recent Palm Beach County Commissioner’s meeting where they voted for mandatory face masks (as if there was any question), impassioned opposition comments included one woman saying it was equivalent to her being denied her individual freedom not to wear underpants.

No, lady, that is a false equivalency as not wearing underwear does not endanger anyone else. Perhaps she’s never heard of the “promoting the general welfare” clause which IS enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution. (Indeed, there is nothing about wearing face masks or panties for that matter.)

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The point is, in order to secure the common good in this pandemic, we all need to work together.   How in the world did we conflate not wearing face masks with an “individual liberty?” Perhaps it can be traced to our President’s statements and his behavior which his sycophants (such as our Florida Governor) mimic.  Our President even implied that some Americans might wear face masks not as a way to prevent the spread of CV-19 but as a way to “signal disapproval of him.” It’s always about him, not about our welfare. 

During WW II Americans had to sacrifice for the common good.  Ration cards were given out for virtually every commodity.  Imagine if this generation was asked to sacrifice their “right” to fuel and sugar?  We would have lost that war and we are going to have more and more needless deaths in this CV-19 war because our lack of national leadership and thus our failure to pull together as a nation. Those who refuse to follow or deny scientific advice on attacking this critical threat are not patriots, but traitors.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Redhead by the Side of the Road

Anne Tyler’s works could be described as being from the school of the comedy of manners, and I’ve made many comparisons in the past of her work to Jane Austen’s penchant for dissecting societal foibles.  Tyler’s writings also embody the mysterious, the light within her characters, very in keeping with her Quaker upbringing, and bringing in a touch of magical realism in the dreams of her characters, including daydreams.  Redhead by the Side of the Road has all those elements.   Here are people we all know and their quotidian lives are ones most of us share in some way.  Tyler knows how to engage us.

The life of the protagonist, Micah Mortimer, is yet another diorama in the Anne Tyler Museum of Damaged Men.  He’s an inherently good man but flawed, essentially a loner, a man of routine. Tyler establishes that right out of the gate: You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer.  He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.

That routine involves his three jobs, his work as the super of a small apartment house for which he has living space in a basement with a few high windows, his work as the sole proprietor of a computer repair business, aptly named “Tech Hermit,” for which he has a magnet sign he slaps on his KIA, and his day to day “work” of living, provisioning, cleaning, dressing, eating, and a run in the morning. He has a system for every such task, even commenting out loud in a foreign accent on his housework and having a running dialogue as he drives with an imaginary “Traffic God” who normally will compliment him on his prudent driving.  Indeed, you “have to wonder.”

As a computer nerd, he gets business from Google searches and the notoriety of his one and only published book, First, Plug It In. It was one of Woolcott Publishing’s better-selling titles, but Woolcott was strictly local and he didn’t have a hope the book would ever make him rich.  Micah Mortimer is a variation on Aaron Woolcott of Tyler’s A Beginner’s Goodbye. 

It is Tyler’s hat tip to that antecedent novel and character who is the publisher of Woolcott Publishing.  By the way, the firm’s best seller is Why I Have Decided to Go On Living.  Indeed, the sort of book Micah might have read!

His girlfriend, if you want to call her that as we’re talking about people in their 40’s, Cass, is an elementary school teacher, and they’ve lived together on and off for more than three years.  One can understand that a person such as Micah Mortimer is comfortable with an arrangement that seems to be going nowhere, but Cass? As Tyler comments, they had reached the stage where things had more or less solidified:  compromises arrive at, incompatibilities adjusted to, minor quirks overlooked.  They had it down to a system, you could say.

Part of his routine is a run in the morning.  All of the action in the novel is in the familiar territory of most of Tyler’s novels, Baltimore, although I have come to call her sense of place, ”Tylerville.” He follows the same path on those runs, out so early in the morning that there is no one around.  He likes it like that and finally people begin to emerge by the time he’s heading home.  It is on such a run, early in the novel, that Tyler departs into the realm of magic realism, from which the novel derives its title and thus endemic to the theme.  His vision is not very good so things take on different appearances: On the homeward stretch this morning, he made his usual mistake of imagining for a second that a certain fire hydrant, faded to the pinkish color of an aged clay flowerpot, was a child or a very short grown-up.  There was something about the rounded top of it, emerging bit by bit as he descended a slope toward an intersection. Why! He always thought to himself.  What was that little redhead doing by the side of the road? Because even though he knew by now that it was only a hydrant, still, for one fleeting instant he had the same delusion all over again, every single morning.

Indeed, why that vision, and why does he have dreams while he sleeps of a baby beckoning to him in supermarket?

Suddenly, the first complication in the novel arises, Micah finding a young man sitting on his step, Brink Adams.  He is the son of a former girlfriend, Lorna Bartell, from college.  He thinks Micah might be his father.  Seeing Brink, who is really not his son, he remembers that dream:  The image rose up in his mind of the baby in the supermarket, watching him so expectantly. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that prophetic dreams were not much use if their meaning emerged only in hindsight. 

He feels, however, a certain responsibility towards Brink and allows him to stay overnight, Micah urging him to call his mother.  He does not.  So Micah says call or leave and leave he does..  Micah immediately suffers regret:  He had handled this all wrong, he realized.  But even given a second chance, he wasn’t sure what he’d do differently.  Tyler cuts her protagonist some slack.  She does love her characters, even those who might not act on a second chance.

Allowing Brink to stay over, while Cass was having apartment house difficulties, creates the next complication, her sudden decision to break up with Micah.  Cass calls and drops that bombshell because he didn’t offer for her to move in with him while she was having those apartment issues, and instead, briefly took in this stranger, Brink, in the office bedroom.  This stuns him, never associating the two. “That never even crossed my mind! I didn’t even know you were willing to move in!  Is that what this is about?  You all at once think we ought to change the rules?” “No, Micah,” she said. “I know that you are you.” Indeed, a revelatory statement by Cass. He meekly accepts this judgement putting his phone into his pocket and staring out into space.  He confesses to himself though that he hated it when women expected you to read their minds.

He remembers when he first met Cass.  He was making a tech call at an elementary school where Cass taught.  The class was not happy that they had to go to a retirement home to Christmas carol, objecting that the residents “smell bad and the old ladies keep reaching out to us with their clutchy, grabby hands.  And here Tyler shines in her narrative, showing her increasing sensitivity to the matter of aging as she has in her last few novels, as Cass says: "I'd like you to look at this from another angle. Some of those people get to see children only once a year at Christmas, when our school comes to carol. And even the grown-ups they knew are mostly gone. Their parents are gone, their friends are gone, their husbands or wives gone-whole worlds gone. Even their brothers and sisters, often. They remember something that happened when they were, say, nine years old-same age as you all are now-but nobody else alive remembers it too. You don't think that's hard? You'll be singing to a roomful of broken hearts, I tell you. Try thinking of that when you decide you don't want to bother doing it." Ridiculously, Micah had felt touched, although in his own experience most old people were relentlessly cheery.

On the spot he asks her out to the movies.   She searched his face for a moment.  She seemed to be trying to make up her mind about him…”And I do like going to the movies,” she said. ..”Well, then,” he told her. And he couldn’t keep from grinning.  It was her speech to the children that had won him. “A roomful of broken hearts”! He liked that phrase.  And so does the reader.

Is it no wonder they then get together? Cass “completes” him.  He just doesn’t really know it, yet.  But his family does, all his sisters wondering where Cass is at a family gathering, vintage Tyler, everyone talking over everyone else. Tumult, the opposite of Micah’s ordered life. They were really looking forward to Cass’ appearance as much if not more so than brother Micah.  They are incredulous that Micah doesn’t grasp the issue.  So, Cass broke up with you because you gave your guest room to the son of an ex-girlfriend that you don’t even see anymore?”  This leave him with the thought: he liked his family a lot, but they made him crazy sometimes.

And now Tyler has Micah dancing to a cacophony of complications, guilt over throwing Brink out, guilt about not trying, yet, to find and contact Brink’s mother, Lorna, guilt about not being sensitive to Cass, and feeling berated by his family.  He starts first by trying to contact Lorna to let her know her son is safe, tracing her via the Internet and then emailing her. 

The next morning he’s out for his daily run, again noticing that that early no one is out, and daydreaming what if a neutron bomb made it permanent?  No one for him to deal with.  How idyllic that might be?  No complications.  No effort to live. He runs in a trance.  Until, once again, the hydrant which he mistakes for a redhead appears, his giving his usual shake of the shoulders at how repetitious this thought was, how repetitious all his thoughts were, how they ran in a deep rut and how his entire life ran in a rut, really.  And really they do.

Lorna does not email or call but arrives, finding his address by Googling “computer repair” in Baltimore and found “Tech Hermit…it was what the girls in my dorm used to call you.”…”I guess I’m pretty predictable.”  She didn’t disagree.

After discussing the matter of her son with Lorna, she leaves with her contact numbers if Brink shows up again. He goes out on a computer call, but returning to his apartment, the place gave off a kind of hollow sound, it seemed to him.  Nobody said “You’re home!” Or “Welcome Back.”  He finds some of Cass’ overnight clothes and goes into a reverie about her and her clothes: “The sweater matched her eyes exactly, but when he'd once  pointed that out she had said it was the other way around; her eyes matched the sweater. "Whatever color I wear, my eyes just go along with it," she'd told him, and then, nudging him playfully in the ribs, "You should see me when I wear red!" Remembering that now, he smiled.

Maybe red was a premonition all along?  Or the red fire hydrant?  And the baby dream?  Micah’s sister Ada has an opinion on that one: it’s a sign from your subconscious that you’re ready for the next stage of life. But, is he?

Brink indeed returns to Micah’s apartment, agrees to be picked up by his mom and step dad.  Micah has filled his obligation.  Good man. He and Lorna have a heart to heart about Micah’s opinion that he turns women off, “it’s like all at once they remember somewhere else they’d prefer to be. But in discussing this with his ex-girl friend from college, it begins to dawn on him that even their love was not the perfect one he imagined it to be, and Lorna delivers one of the themes of the novel: “ can think back on your life and almost believe it was laid out for you in advance, like this plain clear path you were destined to take even if it looked like nothing but brambles and stobs at the time.”

With Cass, Lorna and her son gone, Micah is dreaming more, becoming more disheveled and Tyler moves into the novel’s denouement with a gathering momentum as Micah goes through the motions of his Tech Hermit calls, his apartment house responsibilities, with an inner dialog underway which is disturbed only by Tyler making a rare departure to the other reality as he listens to talk radio in the car discussing police violence.  It is a brief foray outside the terrarium of Micah’s world as he struggles with his very identity.  The last chapter inexorably, powerfully moves him towards a resolution, but is it one in which Tyler pushes him further into damnation or into the light of redemption?  As I was reading this suspenseful chapter, I thought it was going decidedly in one direction, and I’ll have to leave it there as it would be a spoiler to reveal my expectations or the reality. It is a remarkable piece of writing.

Tyler never fails to engage and delight.  As I said at the onset, she is our very own Jane Austen, but with a modern sensibility, and now that both John Updike (who admired her writing) and Philip Roth are gone she is indisputably one of our leading writers of fiction. Redhead by the Side of the Road is vintage Anne Tyler. Her, now, more than twenty novels a treasure trove of American life observed and deciphered.