Singing inside a fish

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jazz

Had planned to take Mom to dinner last night, thanks for delivering me from the thigh-high weeds that choke my yard and prompt dubious looks from the neighbors, but that didn’t work out.

Instead, I wound up at Catharine Newell’s gorgeous house, looking at her art, talking life and crunching crostini. I had all kinds of fun watching her compress years of artistic evolution into some very cool new directions. I love watching the translation of self into art, and I can’t wait to see this particular art translated into a gallery space.

Later we headed down to Alberta Street for Last Thursday, slipped inside Guardino’s for a look at their new exhibit (the one I was in came down on Monday), and caught a ceramics artist, Karyn Gabriel, whose elegant porcelain leaves (left) remind me strongly of, well, glass. Very nice stuff.

We dove into the crowds on the street for an invigorating rubbing of elbows with humanity. It wasn’t as crowded as it might have been–the Blazers were playing.  I’m still not clear on exactly WHAT they were playing, but it’s apparently very thrilling and the majority of glassland stayed home to watch it. I’m pretty sure it’s either baseball or basketball but whatever it was, it meant we got a parking space.

I do know, from Catharine’s partner (noted musician) Reggie Houston, that one or more Blazers did an almost textbook-perfect squeeze thing in the first part of the game. It was extremely exciting (Reggie had to come share with his beloved) and quite likely assisted the team in winning whatever it is they’re playing for. Or with. If they won.

So much for sports reporting.

Back on Alberta Street, when we’d been sufficiently invigorated by humanity’s elbows, we headed for Halibuts and things took a turn for the musical.

Halibuts is a little jazz bar far down Alberta, dark, crowded and noisy, with excellent clam chowder. We met Catharine’s friend there, renowned blues guitarist Mary Flower, grabbed a table and waited for the performers to return from break. A long break, according to Mary.

Finally Janice Scroggins took her place behind a Kurzweil keyboard; a man–I didn’t get his name–took up a guitar and sat down next to her, and they began to play. I’d suspected they’d be good if Mary and Catharine wanted to hear them, and they were.

The music was smooth and crisp, sobbing and sprightly, in turns. They weren’t playing to the crowd, they were playing for themselves and letting us in on the fun, which is always better.

A round black man sat up near the stage with a lady in a red jacket and a box of CDs for sale on his table. He had power in this crowd; others came to pay court and he’d slap them genially on the back and smile, while the lady in red sat impassively beside him.

Then she got up to sing and the focus shifted. Her name was Linda Hornbuckle, and her voice was wide-throated chocolate, with just enough rasp in the back to convince you that she meant what she sang. Like all good singers, she slid inside herself and shaped the emerging sound. She did Yesterday, the old Beatles standard, dug out its bones and dressed them in new flesh, then smacked it upside the head.

Now, I tend to prefer my jazz (or any music, actually) in a quiet room with no distractions. There’s a lovely intricacy to the interplay between instruments, subtle nuancing as the notes slip and slide against each other, that you just can’t hear if some lout in the back is answering his damn cell phone.

I pretty much studiously avoid the whole “live” scene because sooner or later I’m gonna get up, drop a drink on somebody’s head, and invite them to visit the exit if they can’t shut the hell up. I came perilously close to it last night, which would have been rude, even though the blonde broad with the 5-foot mouth was driving me nuts.

Still, it reminded me where this music comes from: Crowded noisy bars where the only way to beat back the bumpkinous intrusions is to be damn good. And maybe tipsy crowds add the final seasoning to this gumbo; maybe isolating the jazz animal in a quiet room, far from its native habitat, is somehow missing the point.

If the performers were irritated by the noise, they gave no sign; I watched Janice augment the guitar, enhance Linda’s song and do her own solos without a single change of expression.

She was dressed better than the bar, with the keyboard lapping her thighs and a cascade of tight braids down her back. She watched her mates through cokebottle glasses and smoothly, effortlessly, gave them a foundation. Her sound was as expressive as her face was not; the emotion was all in her fingers, and I found that curiously arresting.

I wondered about that oddest of animals, the accompanist, whose job it is to showcase someone else’s talent. I’m not suggesting that was going on here; Janice was clearly a respected artist in her own right, deferred to by the other musicians in the room. But I wondered how it felt when an obviously equal collaboration puts someone else first in the credits, as it seems to with keyboards.

Was she irritated by this? From what the musicians were saying, Janice is the keyboard of choice for many, many musicians; I wondered if she preferred that to going solo, tearing the spotlight away from her mates to shine it on herself. Or if that even mattered when the object of the game was the collaboration, the jam.

A celebrity came in, musician by the name of Margo Tufo. She accepted our obeisance with serenity, shook my hand and asked, curiously, if she should know me, too. I shook my head; I was a fish out of water in Halibuts’ last night, and puzzling the dynamics was keeping me from the music. So I shut up and sank back into the song.

It got late, the ladies finished a set and we got up to leave. I dropped a five in their tip jar, and surprised a shy smile from Janice. “I enjoyed your playing,” I said, and this time her eyes smiled, too.

2016-07-30T16:15:13+00:00

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