Unexpected Encounters With Greatness

Being present at a musical performance of unexpected greatness is even more memorable than having high expectations met.  When I heard Rostropovich with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa in 1985 playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto (they recorded it that year) I was ready to be transported—and was. A whole ritual led up to the event: finding out about the concert; standing in line for the rush tickets, going out for dinner with fellow enthusiasts before hand and discussing what we were about to hear and see. The performance itself was not an anticlimax to these preparations, but a tremendous confirmation of them.

Likewise, on hearing Dexter Gordon in Seattle with trumpeter Woody Shaw a few years earlier I was primed to be a witness and auditor to something unforgettable. As soon as the long tall saxophonist called out Soy Califa! and then started into things, I knew that the concert would remain with me for the rest of my life.

But the impact of an unexpected encounter with greatness can be even more powerful. To be blindsided by that something that only music can provide is an entirely different feeling.

I happened on the bucket drummer Larry Wright sometime 1990 in the New York subway. Before descending those stairs I had no idea he existed or that that kind of unstoppable musical energy coupled with rhythmic genius could pull such huge quantities music from an upturned plastic bucket. I let many subway cars go by before finally pulling myself away. Then there was trip to the village of Oostwold in the Province Gronginen in the very North of The Netherlands for a Sunday morning service in 1992, the farmers walking to church in their black suits, their wives in long dresses, and their blond kids in their Sunday best. The liturgy consisted of three psalms from the Geneva Psalter accompanied by a forceful organ, played masterful by my friend Koos Tiggelaar. After the introduction to the first hymn the congregation, packed into the modest square church, stood up and the men unbuttoned their jackets and let loose with the loudest, most fervent unison singing I’ve ever heard, as if it were fired by the roaring flames of the Calvinist Reformation itself.  It was a trip back to the 16th-century. To be in the middle of this otherworldly music was thrilling and terrifying. Just thinking about that epic three-psalm-session makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

To this incomplete list of unforeseen—and unforeheard—musical highlights of my life so far, I must now add a few minutes spent last Friday night at the leading jazz venue here in Ithaca, New York. The visionary of the Hammond B-3, Gary Versace, happened to be playing at the Carriage House, named for the original 19th-century function of this stone and wooden structure, elegantly reimagined and expertly renovated by the proprietors.

The Hayloft is just across the Cascadilla Gorge from my house.  After returning from some other obligations just before ten o’clock, I made my way the hundred yards up the walkway on the south rim to the nearest bridge. Like all the other bridges crossing the gorges on or near Cornell University’s campus, this one is now encased in high chain-link fencing, a response  to a spate of students suicides last Winter and Spring.  Just in advance of this academic year the university replaced the original galvanized chain-link with a variant in black, somewhat less ugly I suppose, but hardly less noticeable. No unobstructed view can be now had from any of the bridges of Ithaca’s gorges. The moonlit waters of the Cascadilla Creek down below could only be seen through industrial fencing, and this vision puts me in mind of the end of the natural world.

I was in need of some cheer after crossing this bridge, but I wasn’t heading to the Carriage House for an epiphany – just a drink and to hear a bit of jazz. Solace came immediately from the sounds emanating from rotating Leslie speaker of the Hayloft’s Hammond B-3 brought to ebullient life by Versace. A singer I didn’t know was making her way through Darn That Dream, she and her supporting cast savoring its rich and well-seasoned harmonies.  Alto saxophonist, Mike Titlebaum, director of jazz studies at Ithaca College on one of the town’s adjacent hills, soon launched into a fleet solo.  He is an agile and tasteful musician, who seems to play with absolute ease. Clearly an immense amount of work went into this admirable nonchalance. It is pleasure to hear someone playing well-known standards as if breathing in their aroma and then smiling.  Titlebaum even makes fast be-bop tunes and his rapid-fire improvisations on them sound lyrical. On a slow number like Darn That Dream his sprightly navigation of its harmonies had the air of vivacious conversation enjoyed over a soothing cocktail. Guitarist Steve Brown, Titlebaum’s recently retired predecessor as at Ithaca College, followed up with a finely judged improvisation marked by its engaging fluidity. Not prone to showing-off, even when he is at his most impressive, Brown too has utter command his instrument, one that forms a classic pair with the B-3, as in the long-time collaboration of Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Smith.

Hovering behind these musical offerings, Versace’s organ accompaniment was simultaneously plush and airy. After providing a luminous and often bluesy nimbus around his the ruminations fellow musicians, Versace launched into his own solo, accompanied with shimmering chords from Brown.

His  right was foot glued to the expression pedal, that appendage’s universal position for masters of the B-3. As I discovered later, Versace is also a virtuoso accordionist, and it is perhaps not surprising that he knows how to squeeze every possible shade and shape of expression from the B-3’s pedal.  He can use that foot to sneak up slowly on the listener or forget the stealth of it and come out brash and blustery. He can be either infinitely nuanced over unabashedly ebullient. His right foot can sponsor long-range crescendos, or be used to accent individual notes, or send a comet-like tail soaring behind the arcs of improvised melody from above. That the venerable technology that is the B-3 can be pushed to this level of sophistication puts the lie to the notion that newer is always better.

On Darn That Dream he entered almost diffidently after Brown’s solo, adjusting the B-3’s drawbars to get a higher sound, emphasizing that octave above concert pitch.  He started with wispy arabesques, but soon his left foot was on the pedalboard walking the bass-line, pushing things into double-time while his hands built giant castles of melody, almost ineluctable in their logic yet simultaneously fantastical in their grandiose architecture, each flourish a joy to behold and then let vanish as the ear followed the next bit of elaborate tracery.

In its fully assembled state, the B-3 has panels that surround the base of the frame, to be installed for the sake of the modesty of a woman organist so she could wear a skirt and operate the pedals without having people look up her skirt. These panels were not on the Hayloft instrument, so one could marvel at Versace’s left foot sauntering through its double-time Darn That Dream calisthenics, his right foot searching out high and low points of the melodic lines pouring out from the manuals over which the ascetic frame of the organist swayed, his eyes half closed, and his lips seeming to whisper to himself, as if he were experiencing religious transport like that of another organist, St. Cecilia, at her organ.

After Versace had performed his two-minute miracle on Darn that Dream, I declared myself a convert, not having expected a Road to Damascus moment on the far side of Cascadilla Gorge late on a Friday. I sat in reverential awe as he went on to dismantle and then piece back together All of Me, a request of the singer sitting-in. After she had left the bandstand, Titlebaum then welcomed the next guest, Walter White, a high-caliber trumpeter who happened to be swinging through Upstate New York.  Versace urged him through a bracing rendition of There Will Never Be Another You, before swinging through a rather leisurely Blues Walk to end the evening.  Versace showed how he could be the catalyst for musical action from the horn players or retreat to the cool shadows, before turning things up to high heat with the kick of his right foot and the ecstatic chiff of his solo lines.

Versace is not an unknown just because I had never heard up here in these distant provinces of the Empire State. He works some of the best musicians of the New York scene, having given up a safe academic job as director of jazz at the University of Oregon nearly a decade ago. I’ve ordered his 2009 CD “Outside In” and now know enough to have the highest expectations.

I don’t want to rob anyone of the surprise I enjoyed last Friday on the other side of the gorge. But given the immense range of Versace’s technique and creativity no spoiler alert is necessary. He’s a titan of the B-3 and a musician not to be missed, whether you’re ready for him or not.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. 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