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The history of music is full of accounts harried travelers stumbling onto the stage before an impatient audience with little sympathy for the difficult journey just completed. I wouldn’t count Madonna’s recent Philadelphia stunt of arriving some two-and-a-half hours late as among the most celebrated instances of this phenomenon. She richly deserved that choruses of boos that were her welcome.
Instead, I’m thinking as usual Johann Sebastian Bach, who, after a day long coach ride was hurried into the music room of the Potsdam Palace in 1747 where he was awaited by Frederick the Great, the greatest musical monarch since Nero. The Prussian King was in the midst of the concert that took place every evening in which he was the featured soloist. As always his court musicians—a collection of the greatest virtuosi of their age—were alongside. With word of his arrival, Bach was ushered in and promptly directed by Frederick to improvise on the fugue subject the king had supposedly devised for him, one of the most demanding in the history of the genre. After a day being tossed about on the ruts of a rural highway and then finished off by the punishing cobblestones of Potsdam the aged Bach had to be on form—first with a spontaneous three-part fugue, then one with six voices. Never have the unforgiving expectations made of the travelling virtuoso been more sublimely surpassed than on that occasion.
A more recent example of the heroics of a musician on the road come from pianist Maria Joao Pires, who showed up in Toronto this past Spring to play a Mozart concerto under the baton of Riccardo Chailly. At the dress rehearsal, with considerable audience in the concert hall, the first orchestral chords of Mozart’s D minor Concerto seem to damn her directly to the fires of hell; it was only with those ominous sonorities that she first realized she had prepared the wrong piece. Her stricken look evokes pure pity. She went through the seven stages of grief in record time—the period allotted her by the two-minute orchestral introduction. After coming to acceptance—with some encouragement from the conductor—she began to play the “wrong” concerto, and did so perfectly. What ensues is the most unlikely thing in the universe: a nightmare with a happy ending.
Many are the musicians who do great things after long hard days. Most of these tribulations and successes are not recorded, but instead quickly forgotten and ignored as simply part of doing one’s job and making a living. These deeds are nonetheless remarkable when seen at first hand.
Ithaca, New York often complains of being “centrally isolated”; it’s a difficult place to get to when measured by the standards of modern travel. These claims seem overstated when measured against the jostlings and jolts of a cramped coach with passengers plagued by rotting teeth and fragrant bowels. Those journeys were far worse then almost anything that airline travel can presently serve up—never mind the threat of highwaymen and breakdowns. Would Bach have managed the Royal Theme better had he been offered in-flight drink service on the flight from Leipzig?
Alto saxophone titan Vincent Herring recently made one of those late arrival to Ithaca New York’s Carriage House—one of the premiere venues for jazz in a small town anywhere on the planet—to kick-off a new series called Jazz Spaces. With thunderstorms and high-winds troubling the skies between New York City and the Upstate provinces the delays mounted for Herring. It is a pattern familiar to many who have tried to fly to Ithaca whether in tropic summer and arctic winter. Late in the day a flight to Syracuse took off and Herring was on it. The director of Cornell University’s jazz program, Paul Merrill, himself a gifted trumpeter, sped through the countryside and then back (about three hours round trip) to transport the traveler to the Carriage House twenty minutes after the scheduled 7:30pm start. Merrill made a plea to the audience for a moment for the traveler Herring to catch his breath (a necessary thing for a wind-layer) and consult with the in-house trio of local musicians—John White (piano), Peter Chwazik (bass) and Tom Killian—about what they might play.
The bandstand was still empty in the Hayloft at the top of the Carriage House, a handsomely restored mid-19th century building whose spacious attic provides everything a concert space should: warmth, resonance, intimacy. A short time later, Herring ambled to the bandstand with the trio and admitted that he’d just met his new musical colleagues for the very first time. He also allowed that he hoped they were as good his host, Paul Merrill, had claimed. They soon proved that they were. In addition to the day’s travails, Herring also informed us that he’d just gotten back from a tour of Japan. The air miles—across the globe and across the state—showed on his face.
As soon as he started to play all weariness seem to fly from him at the speed of sound. He cajoled the trio into a brisk There Will Never Be Another You that showed no signs of the Newark Airport dolor that had plagued his day. It is claimed that Herring carries the mantle of Canonball Adderley. In print such assertions can seem excessive. But when he blows his horn all doubts are allayed: Herring pulled that heavy, colorful Cannonball’s garment from his hand luggage and wore it with abundant good humor, bluesy brilliance, and the towering technical command of his illustrious predecessor.
Herring’s huge, warm sound has glinting edges, and he brings with him suitcases full of ideas that he can unpack at blinding speed. His flawless navigation of familiar chord changes is impressive and joyous in equal measure: the towering virtuosity doesn’t seek so much to astound as to uplift. His crystal-clear chromatic flurries are habitually enlivened by the blues, and after countless choruses of On All the Things You Are he ended this first solo with a sprint followed by a soulful aside. Then he turned and listened to White carve incisive lines with his nimble right hand while showing the talent, taste, and courage to explore the harmonic peripheries of the tune with the great New York virtuoso looming alongside the keyboard. A buoyant solo from bassist Chwazik ushered in some spirited trading of four-bar segments between the incisive Killian and effusive Herring.
But the band as whole had still not found its collective groove. After each player had more than proved his right to be on the stand with the illustrious visitor the band played the melody once more, and at its close Herring commandeered his cohort into a sprawling tag—a familiar cycle of chords that can be grafted on to any tune. He roared and soared, like a preacher scaling the mountaintop of euphoric peroration, refusing to let his local charges wander off. The riddle of how such simple chords can spark such endless invention and fun is a mystery that thankfully will never be solved. Only after the quartet really began to swing—that had been the message of his sermon—did Herring raise his horn and give his bop benediction.
Throughout the evening classics like I’ll Remember April (that one not visited by Herring for many years, he said) with generous mastery. A melancholic “‘Round Midnight” showed signs of a more vibrant night-life when it was spurred to double-time. This could have been taken as a teasing suggestion that jazz is made much earlier in the provinces than in the big city. We were out of there before ten at night. The slowest possible “Blue Monk” let Herring serve up the greasiest musical fare of the evening along with some urban Monkish spice. His bossa nova reading of Here’s that Rainy Day showed that music can triumph over the weather that he so delayed visitor. And at the end of the evening a blindingly up-tempo Four proved that Herring’s mental sharpness and fleet fingers had plenty more to offer.
From the fast furious to slow and soulful, from the introspective and exuberant, listening to the ideas spill out of Herring’s horn was like watching someone stretch out his cramped limbs after a long day. Even though he was on the road, it was like he was home at last.