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The Musical Patriot

Suitcase Arias and Ithacan Jazz (But Tune That Piano!)

by DAVID YEARSLEY

There are two kinds of musical baggage, the one real, the other virtual. The so-called suitcase aria combines these two aspects. 18th-century opera stars lugged around actual leaves of paper with the notated music for their show-stopping set pieces, their musical calling cards. Arriving for an engagement in a new city, the star would demand to sing his signature aria in the opera to be performed, plugging it in at the least inappropriate moment. The larger drama had to make way for some ten minutes of pure ego. The traveling star would distribute the music to the conductor and orchestra, and when the singer’s moment came he simply parked and barked—stepped to the footlights, struck the pose and delivered the showcase aria just he had as in countless other operas and opera houses across the European continent. The singer relied on the notated score (hand luggage, if you like) along with the virtual music in his or her own head and produced by his her own voice. Still, the thought of lost luggage must have been a terrifying one to those carrying a suitcase aria. Without dimension or mass, the music of memory and imagination is the lightest baggage the traveler can take on the journey. It brings with it no surcharges, must thwart no carry-on guidelines, threatens no broken zippers or busted buckles, no diverse contents flung round the conveyor belt for the general inspection and amusement of baggage handlers and jetlagged passengers. This virtual music of the mind need not be—often can’t be—turned off during take-off and landing. For all the digital accuracy of the Ipod, its silicon hold crammed with however many thousands of tunes, it can never match the intensity and adaptability of the music of the human hard drive.

A friend of mine composed an entire 75 minute pop album of staggering originality while accompanying his mother around the museums of Europe. Genius can travel lightly.

It is true, that sad music, though physically weightless, can weigh down the melancholic traveler, as it occasionally did the greatest musical adventurer of the 17th century. Over many journeys, Johann Jakob Froberger was variously ensnared and bloodied by wars and brigands, attacked by pirates, deserted by princes. Yet on his death, he is said to have been a man of exceedingly good humor and loved by all. On one of his many adventures, Froberger composed a moving lament, a genre for which he harbored lasting and profound affection: “Meditation on my own future death.” He wrote the piece on the road, in Paris on May Day 1660 when the rest of the city was celebrating the rebirth of nature with the oncoming Spring. No i-Pod could ever do that.

17th-century medicine urged travel as a cure for melancholy. Music was crucial to this prescription, as Froberger noted on another trip with another of his lament, this one written to “pass his melancholy.” Give me such evocations of sorrow underway over the heroic Beethoven Symphonies heard incessantly in the Pittsburgh Airport or the chirpy Mozart of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York deployed to drive out the homeless.

Indeed, the whistling, humming vagabond is fueled by his own music, pushed forward by his own song. This is the truly free traveler, of say, Bach’s free-spirited cantata, Ich bin in mir vergnügt (I’m content in myself). Save the occasional well-timed handout, this hermit on the road needs no one and nothing except for the occasional handout, some crumbs of bread, and a wedge of cheese. But he must have his tunes, and these he supplies himself.

Still, the urge to accessorize is impossible to suppress, and the larger the musical accessory the greater hassle. Think of the encumbrances of the double bass versus those of the harmonica. Even the cellistS must buy an extra seat on the airplane for their cellos.

Other instruments are less unwieldy. The great violinist Nicola Matteis made his way to London in the late 17th-century: a contemporary related that “his circumstances were low, and it was say’d that he travelled thro’ Germany on foot with his violin under a full coat at his back.”

Lost luggage can be much more than an inconvenience when it concerns a beloved musical instrument. That most mercurial of violinists, Francecso Maria Veracini, lost his pair of famed Stainer violins—Stainers were more prized in Veracini’s 18thcentury than those of Stradivarius—when his ship went down in the English Channel. I always think of the catastrophic loss of these illustrious instruments, nicknamed St. Peter and St. Paul, to add the proper perspective when my suitcase doesn’t show up on the baggage carousel.

This past Sunday evening New York City trumpeter Jim Rotondi, his horn at his side and an apparently limitless store of music in his mind, showed up at the Carriage House Café, an excellent, if occasional, jazz venue at the south end of Lake Cayuga. In the recently refurbished hayloft of the 19th-century carriage house from which the restaurant takes its name, Rotondi delivered a masterful display of the virtual and real. Lying about halfway between Buffalo to the West and New York City to the Southeast, Ithaca is often referred to as “centrally isolated” by many a self-styled cosmopolitan after getting air-dropped into this college town for the purposes of academic advancement. One would not necessarily expect to find musicians here capable of following Rotondi through his high voltage bebop tempos. But the provinces hold surprises. When the mighty Parisian organist Louis Marchand traveled through what he thought were the backwaters Germany in 1717 he never suspected that he would run into a J. S. Bach and subsequently have to flee their keyboard contest under cover of darkness after hearing Bach do his thing earlier in the evening. Legion are the stories of great musicians tucked away in distant places, and in Ithaca this means the trio of John Stetch, a world-class pianist who happens to live in town, as does his equal, the bassist Nicholas Walker; the trio’s excellent drummer Tom Killian comes from nearby Corning, New York.

Rotondi had spent the previous two weekend nights playing Rochester, that once-shining city on the shores of Lake Ontario, now a dimmed beacon of New York’s distant Industrial Age. These days a tour of Upstate New York is a tour of rural poverty and urban decay, with bright ribbons of suburban sprawl holding the whole thing tenuously together.

Nestled between the city of Ithaca on the valley floor and the citadel of Cornell University on the bluffs above, the Carriage House Café has the wooden and stone warmth of a winery tasting room though about half the pretentiousness and more than a century of aging to supply the necessary luster of authenticity. Like the café as a whole, the hayloft indulges in the requisite modern touches of “good taste”—the carefully selected details of tile, the retro lighting fixtures, the occasional leather armchair of the gentleman’s club. The studied chaos of the weekend antique collector fills out the decor: a penny farthing bicycle hangs on the wall above the bandstand, old typewriters and accordion cameras peek out from ad hoc niches between beams and vaulting. The architecture and interior design are the opposite of that found in the celebrated jazz basement that is the Village Vanguard. The bandstand is itself enclosed by a wooden balustrade that could easily be mistaken for an altar rail. And why not? The audience is here to celebrate the priesthood of musicians over a communion cup of well-chosen, if foolishly named Zinfandel.

The primitive thud of a fraternity barbecue wafting across one of Ithaca’s famous gorges begins to fade. The flow of SUVs with New Jersey plates thundering over the brick paving on the street below recedes. The evening sun bathes the wooden interior of the Carriage House in the red afterglow of the weekend.

Rotondi and the John Stetch Trio confer sotto voce, Rotondi telling his new musical acquaintances what they’d be playing first: the tune, the key, the basic parameters of the tempo. We were about to hear the first notes the visitor will play with this well-organized trio. That is exciting for the musicians and for the audience, and constitutes the true and limitless wealth of jazz: the virtual suitcase aria. Of course we all bring music with us, though only a small fraction of the huge library of jazz standards shared in the minds of Rotondi, Stetch, and Walker. We’re all ready to sing Happy Birthday, even if diffidently, but not at lightning speed under the non-stop pressure of ever-changing polyrhythms coming from all directions and against constantly shifting harmonic variations to the basic chord patterns grabbed intuitively by all participants at the light speed of the imagination.

Rotondi called “Alone Together” for the opener and the quartet set off at a brisk tempo, a plunge into the unknown over the familiar terrain of a tune played and recorded uncountable times. The title itself is the perfect motto for the enterprise of jazz, and for the first meeting of these musicians. As writers on music have noted since at least the 17th century, ensemble playing involves a mysterious dialectic of cooperation and competition. There is a sense of the whole, but also one of establishing individual credibility, not to say excellence. Jazz is perhaps the perfect form for the workings of this dialectic: showing-off is a huge part of the fun and art of it. Yes, each player can and should be buoyed by their partners, but there is no hiding behind the group. Exposure is crucial to the equation of jazz.

Rotondi doesn’t have a problem with overexposure: he loves the limelight and it is a real pleasure to hear him bask in it, especially without the clutter and distortion of amplification in the intimate, welcoming acoustics of the hayloft.

Hailing from Butte, Montana, a place known more for the Berkeley copper mine pit than its bebop trumpeters, Rotondi has an astounding agility of technique and invention, often pushing his improvisations beyond the safe harbor of harmonic and melodic convention. I am not one to denigrate the familiar, as I think novelty for its own sake is a curse of art, and Rotondi plays much that is wonderfully straight ahead. But I gladly follow Rotondi as best I can along the sometimes bumpy terrain of the outer reaches. He guides us with an unfailing swing through every moment of the journey, offering up his own complex commentary on the progress of musical time and harmony and charted by the richly varied metrical and harmonic impulses of the John Stetch trio.

If you doubt that music is learned as a language, consider Rotondi’s mastery of the complexities of bop syntax, developed in 1940s New York, by black virtuosos and aesthetes, or be moved by his playing of the blues—and I don’t mean just the closing blues-line with which the quartet ended the first set. Rotondi’s authenticity is that of a native speaker, who may have learned the language first in distant Montana but has nonetheless mastered its cadence and meaning. His accent was doubtless perfected during his early touring years with Ray Charles. At the Carriage House Rotondi’s blues were as black as bituminous coal.

1998 winner of Le Grand Prix du Jazz du Maurier in Montreal, Stetch has produced a stream of fine recordings over the last decade-and-a-half, the last half dozen available from Justin Time Records. Miraculously, he began playing the piano in earnest only at the age of eighteen. In spite of the late start, he has built an impressive technique, which includes octaves, abundant and creative use of the left-hand, and fleet lines in the right. He can play bebop in the tradition extending back to Bud Powell, though I often hear more the elegance of a Wynton Kelly in the contours of his right hand melodies and his rhythmically incisive left hand. While embracing that history, Stetch isn’t stuck in it. A creative and energetic accompanist, Stetch delivers solos that are sermons of the unexpected, often moving between disparate rhetorical registers, from careening, widely-spaced octaves and fifths darting in parallel motion, to spontaneous counterpoint between right and left hands, to jubilant block chords, and to the aforementioned skeins of melody.

The range of styles is ecumenical, as in his tenor-range gospel intonings on the group’s Latin reading of “Love For Sale.” Stetch’s is a pianism of many languages, often spoken simultaneously. He also has a great sense of musical humor, as in the tightly-knit trio’s featured version of the “Theme from Star Trek”—a virtuosic up-tempo arrangement that turned this bit of a pop-culture pablum into and an enlivening sorbet, a palette cleanser to the richer fare of jazz classics served up over the rest of the evening.

Unfortunately, Stetch was saddled with a disgracefully out-of-tune Steinway. Like one of those Carriage House horses of yore, he stoically dragged the grand piano through the evening like a thoroughbred pulling a hackney coach with a broken axle. Taking an odd solace in the fact that even the Village Vanguard’s piano heard on so many live recordings could be almost as off-kilter, the provincial in me took a perverse pride in displacing my own displeasure at the unkempt instrument onto Ithaca’s best piano tuner, who happened to be sitting at the table next to mine. But even this unlikely form of sublimated Schadenfreude could not completely assuage my sense of loss that Stetch’s lovely introduction to the ballad “Darn that Dream” had to suffer such indignities.

Bassist Nicholas Walker is not only a great jazz musician but possibly one of the most diverse musicians on the planet. Such a claim should neither be attributed to my provincial pride in local talent nor to the fact that he’s my neighbor. We both live just downhill from the Carriage House, in a neighborhood tucked between the sprawling and picturesque city graveyard and the dramatic Cascadilla Gorge. For several years Walker toured with famed tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet (more about him next week), and he’s recorded with many other important jazz musicians. Walker’s Beatles bass concerto, performed a couple of years ago to a sellout crowd in Ithaca’s historic downtown theatre, is masterpiece of charm and allusion.

He plays in the one of the world’s leading period instrument orchestras, Boston’s Handel and Haydn. Professor of bass at Ithaca college, he is as at home playing the Bach cello suites on one of his basses as he is with the tangos of Piazzolla. Did I mention that he’s also an excellent viola da gamba player, and that I’ve even had the pleasure of joining him for some swinging 17th-century Venetian music, lagoon bebop from La Serenissima? Such domestic and public music-making with a neighbor belong to the truest of provincial joys.

At that Carriage House jazz Sunday, Walker announced his musical credentials with a beautifully constructed bowed solo on “Alone Together.” He proceeded then to spread his abundant gifts across the rest of the evening. In his rollicking and rhythmically complex treatment of Miles Davis’s “Solar,” Walker moved from jagged bop lines to bluesy utterances high up on the finger board before returning us to the beginning of the song’s form and ushering in the re-entry of the quartet. He did so with an eloquent and ghostly quotation from the tune itself cast against the grain of the beat—a dazzling feat of poised musical oratory founded on an unwavering sense rhythm.

The visiting virtuoso Rotondi clearly had met in the hill and lake country of central New York more than merely able companions for his tour through jazz standards from the group’s lightning scamper through “Just One of Those Things” to the relaxed “Nostalgia” of ill-fated bop legend Fats Navarro (with whom Rotondi would have more than held his own) to the funky, unnamed blues à la Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” that might have closed things out had the quartet not obliged the enthusiastic audience with an encore. The proceedings then duly concluded on a more mellow note, one perhaps tinged by the melancholy of the traveler, with “Bye, Bye Blackbird. ” It would have been the perfect moment for the Harmon mute favored by Miles Davis on this tune, but apparently that accessory hadn’t made it into Rotondi’s bag.

Afterwards I set out into the evening, at a suitably provincial hour of 10:45, a fine fresh loaf of Carriage House ciabatta handed me by the proprietor on my way out of the door. I headed down the rim of the gorge to my house, glad that I could enjoy this memorable jazz journey without even leaving home.

As for the hard-working Rotondi, the rest of April finds him traveling through Spain, his trumpet in tow. I don’t know if it fits in the overhead compartment. As for the music within him: baggage restrictions don’t apply.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University, and is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint (Cambridge University Press). He’s also a long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu