On the Road Again, Heading Towards Handel By Way of Elson and Mobley

My contribution to this year’s Handel commemorations is to give the great man his feet back. The impetus for this anatomical reconstruction stems from disagreements that rippled the waters in the later 18th century, long after both Bach and Handel were dead. It was the great musical tourist and historian, Charles Burney who threw the first stone into the pond in which the legacies of both men were reflected. Burney published an account of the Handel celebrations in London in 1784, held during what was mistakenly thought to be the centennial of his birth. Burney wrote that Handel’s “full, masterly, and excellent organ-fugues, upon the most natural and pleasing subjects, surpassed … even those of Sebastian Bach, the most renowned for his abilities in this difficult and elaborate species of composition.”

This claim provoked a lengthy rebuttal in a widely-circulated German periodical by an anonymous writer, who was none other the Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. With a watchful eye on his father’s posthumous reputation, Emanuel was offended, not least because he knew that English organs, with a very few exceptions, didn’t even have pedals. Deprived of the chance to use the  feet, no organist could produce a valid fugue for the king of instruments: “One may assume without fear of contradiction that the pedal is the most important part of an organ, without which it would have little of that majesty, greatness, and power that belong to it alone above all other instruments. Anyone who knows at all what the word ‘organ’ means will grant that. What shall we say, then, if Handel almost completely neglected and seldom used the very thing that makes an organ an organ, and lifts it so high above all other instruments?  Not at all because he was completely lacking in the necessary genius, but because he was not practiced on the pedals, or because he was compelled, as an Englishman, to renounce the experience of the pedals that, as a German, he had possessed.” It is inevitable that C. P. E. Bach comes to this summary judgment: “If we weigh the organ works of the two men in the same scales, there is a difference as wide as the sky in favor of J. S. B.”

So for 2009 I’ve been taking various pieces by Handel, both famous and somewhat neglected, and giving them robust pedal lines to be displayed on larger 18th-century German style organs that have been sprouting up across America. (This prologue has been rambling towards the following plug: on March 8 and 10th I’ll be in Yuba City and in Chico California’s Central Valley, where I let Handel go toe to toe, with his exact contemporary J. S. Bach.)

This past week I crammed Handel in my briefcase, and he and I drove to New Haven, Connecticut where Yale University now has one of the finest Baroque organs in the world.

We headed southwest out of Ithaca on New York Route 79 on the way to connect with the trio of highways —I 81 south to Binghamton, New York 17 and I -84 East into Connecticut—that will bring us to within range of New Haven. Twenty miles from Ithaca we pass through the battered hamlet of Richford where John D. Rockefeller was born to humble beginnings in 1839.  If anything, life has gotten still more humble in Richford. The Gospel of Wealth has not led this place to the Promised Land.  The best that can be hoped for in the rusting trailers is the other gospel: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”

I don’t spend much time in a car, so I use a road trip like this one to recapture something of those endless adolescent evenings of listening to LPs on twenty pound headphones. Music!

To get me the hour from the small roads to the big ones, Handel and I have brought along saxophonist Steve Elson’s new release Mott & Broome. I say saxophonist, but Elson is not only a multi-threat reed player (he’s heard on the disc on baritone, tenor, and soprano saxes, as well a Bb and Eb clarinets), but also a composer of great imagination and fluency, whose music delights through its warmth and humor and through a temperament that favors subtlety as against exhibitionist bluster. All of the disc’s thirteen tracks are Elson originals. These survey many familiar styles—Ellingtonian swing, sundry Latin grooves, exotic Mozarabicisms—but always with a flair that nudges the genre he’s exploring in and towards unexpected places.

The opening track, like several others on the CD, finds Elson in a Gilberto/Getz mood, but with an urban, northern edge. “Remember This” begins with a unison motto, repeated insistently by guitar and saxophone. This invocation to dance is then pushed aside by a rush of humid breeze and music of exhilarating warmth, like that first sip of a Mojito sluicing away all the troubles in the world.  Within two minutes this tune, with its unexpected inflections of melody, piquant harmonic turns, and hip counterpoint between saxophone and guitar, lets us know we’ve got a great album stretching ahead of you like a long tropical night. The pressing unison figures between guitar and saxophone return to introduce Elson’s short but sweet solo, which remains mostly near the upper register, bluesy and suggesting urgency. His improvising is of a piece with his composing.

Elson’s quartet is filled out by Scott Latzky on drums, Yasushi Makamura on bass, and Pete Misth on nine-string quartet and is joined by singer Jennifer Griffith on four tunes with smart and often very funny lyrics by CounterPunch contributor Daniel Wolff. Griffith has a pure, yet expressive voice, and a sure sense of pitch that allows her to follow Elson’s melodies to unexpected destinations, at several lovely moments even to a tone a lower than the place to which more conventional musical syntax might have sent them.  The disarming quality of Griffith’s voice heard in counterpoint with the knowing sensuality of Elson’s saxophone compound and enrich some of Wolff’s brilliantly ironic lines, as in the title track’s evocation of his neighborhood in Lower Manhattan at “Mott and Broome”: “From the murder at the sweat shop / To the murder at the drug drop”—again heard against a laid-back Latin rhythm. This is music you want to listen to again because it delivers on all its promises, because Elson’s is a warm and welcoming originality, and because there are more than few hidden shoals.

Elson gets me through rust-belt Binghamton and onto New York 17 heading due East. Green signs promise “Future 86”—the Interstate of tomorrow.  It is a philosophically complicated, not to say mind-blowing, sign, and I’ve been scheming for years to steal one.  Eighty-six means to nix something, or more specifically to throw them out of  bar or restaurant [see the late Danny Cassidy’s How the Irish Invented slang for the phrase’s Gaelic origins, Editors] and this sign wants to do this in the future … with an Interstate Highway.

Since I’m heading to New Haven I’ve brought along The Complete Blue Note Hank Mobley Fifties Sessions issued in a limited edition of 7,500 by Mosaic Records ten years ago. Mosaic is based in Stamford just down the road from New Haven and still offers wonderful collections of jazz greats. The round-trip to New Haven will now be dedicated to the six Mobley CDs.  A great tenor player in an era overflowing with greats (Coltrane, Rollins, Gordon to name only three), Mobley is perhaps best known for his work on Miles Davis’ Someday My Prince Will Come of 1961.  There is so much more than that. In the second half of the fifties he was recording indefatigably for several labels in attempt to find outlets for his creativity and to feed his drug habit. At the cathedral of hard bop that was Blue Note, Mobley was the dean, and this box set rejuvenates his legacy in a thousand ways; one of the most compelling being through the crucible of the alternate takes included in the collection. This was a man with huge talent and taste, inventiveness, fleetness, compositional range and flair. And then there’s the way he brings out the best in a host of celebrated collaborators. Some five years ago I got number 1,181 of the 7,500 boxes produced back in 1998.  Hurry to the Mosaic website and discover the mastery of Mobley, while supplies last …

Thirty miles beyond Binghamton, with Hank and his running mates happily working their way through ten minutes of “Barrel of Funk,” Handel and I arrive at the last traffic light on 17 in this entire stretch of highway. Embracing an elusive future, the 17 Diner has changed its name to the I-86 Diner since last I was here a few years ago.  I pull in for coffee out of respect for this old New York highway separated from oblivion by a single traffic light.

I take a seat on the pink Naugahyde at the light green formic bar and get my coffee. I ask the waitresses about when Future I 86 will become the living present, and if Obama’s stimulus package might be just the thing to usher in that reality.  “They’ve been talking about it for thirty years,” says one of them. And what would an overpass and the removal of the intersection mean for business at the diner?  That questions elicits only shrugs and a rueful joke from one of the waitress about “maybe we’ll be just eighty-sixing ourselves.”

Back in the car it’s the fast, but not furious, “Double Whammy.”

I leave Future 86 for Present I 84 and cross the Hudson at Newburgh.  In the Connecticut Hills I pass by the Federal prison where some many of the illustrious have cooled their heals: Robert Lowell for refusing to serve in World War II, Ring Lardner, Jr. for refusing to testify before HUAC, Sun Myung Moon for tax evasion, and, since the huge facility was converted to a super-low security country club for wayward women alone,  Leon Helmsley and Martha Stewart. Mobley’s into “Funk in Deep Freeze” Another hour on and I exit onto Connecticut Route 34 then takes me down along the Housatonic River, with its ice fisherman contemplating life in the shadow of million dollar cheek-by-jowl mansion. From postindustrial ruins of Derby it’s a few short miles to the surrounding ghettos of New Haven and into the City of God laid out by the Puritans. As I motor along the New Haven Green past the homeless sitting on the on benches in front the colonial churches and within a beer can’s throw from Yale’s Old Campus, it’s Mobley’s “Startin’ From Scratch.”

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu




DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com