A Discourse on Freedom, With Sax

To carry off something supremely clever and complicated while making it seem natural, even fun, is the rarest of artistic feats. This ability is partly captured by the sprezzatura of Castiglione’s courtier, he who can conceal true difficulty behind the sheen of effortlessness. While a gifted few may be born with fully formed facility in this department—exiting the womb with neonatal nonchalance—others, however gifted, must work hard to give the impression of ease.

Art Tatum at the piano comes to mind, cigarette casually emitting curling threads of smoke, like the player himself, seemingly untroubled by the almighty wind of runs and arpeggios rushing from the ebony box. Endowed with prodigious native talent, Tatum had nonetheless practiced intensely to be able to make his Herculean labors on the ivories seem like child’s play.

Ithaca’s Carriage House Café has often been praised by me in this space as an unsurpassed locale for all kinds of chamber music, but especially jazz in its latter day, smokeless form. There is no need for the carcinogenic ambience of yore in the warmth of its wood-floored and beamed interior populated with antiques, from old cameras to suitcases to a penny-farthing bicycle on the wall above the bandstand—these objects artfully collected and displayed by the owner-designers, the convivial-minded and music-loving Chandler family.

On the ground floor, where horses were quartered when the gracious stone structure fulfilled the purpose for which it was originally built, the best breakfast within miles is to be had. Upstairs, the converted hayloft serves up tremendous musical fare: from local masters of international repute like Malcolm Bilson playing Mozart on eighteenth-century pianos to the likes of alto saxophone giant Vincent Herring and other distinguished visitors.

Perched between the upland enclave of Cornell University far above Lake Cayuga and the occasional bustle of a downtown Ithaca currently undergoing a radical facelift that might just scar the patient for life, the Carriage House offers a place to see long-time friends and fellow devotees where all can listen to, and talk about, music. The atmosphere is sophisticated yet relaxed, and the art is great even if the stakes never seem to be too high. The Carriage House’s Hayloft can amp things up with Saturday night energy when so required, but it is at its best on Sunday evening when it becomes the perfect refuge against the looming terrors of the week.

It also provides space and encouragement for musical sprezzatura. Yet even that term does not fully capture the style and achievement of saxophonist James Spinazzola and the constellation of musicians who shone around him this past Sunday night in the Hayloft.  As leader of the band, Spinazzola set for himself the challenging project to write jazz tunes based on compositions from the 1920s and 30s by the leading figures of the so-called Second Viennese School—the group’s guru Arnold Schoenberg and his two most famous students Alban Berg and Anton Webern. The generative musical material of such works is known as a tone row—a distinct iteration, painstakingly chosen by the composer, of a succession of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, no pitch to be repeated before the series has been completely filled. Each work, then, grows—organically, many would say—out of this genetic musical stamp. The music that results is commonly called “atonal,” though Schoenberg disliked the term. He preferred a discourse of freedom: Schoenberg’s self-proclaimed “emancipation of dissonance” meant that harmony and a tonal center—a home key—would no longer govern the musical polity. For those comforted in the cradle by their mother’s soothing diatonic lullabies (i.e., almost everybody with a musical parent), this could and can be a disorienting, even alienating form of liberty. That truth did not trouble Schoenberg’s elitist modernism, but rather encouraged it. Thus Spinazzola set out to fashion jazz “tunes” from material that was hardly tuneful in the traditional sense.

Still more daunting aesthetically—and more challenging to the practice of sprezzatura—is the seemingly academic nature of the exercise. In a way pianist Bill Evans had already paved the way for these kinds of efforts with his pair of Twelve Tone Tunes from the early 1970s, but this excellent music did not confront the original masters of the row on their home turf: Evans in his corduroy suit and open collars did not echo back at the starched and cravatted Viennese master their own inventions. Such an exercise risks pedantry and pretense: Why wrestle twelve-tone rows into a jazzman’s get-up if not to demonstrate—indeed, show off—one’s highbrow engagement with a rarefied historical repertory?

The miracle of Sunday evening in the Hayloft was that Spinazzola’s creations and his fiercely imaginative improvisations on them were utterly devoid of academic arrogance and annoying ambition, even though it was abundantly clear how much imagination and compositional care he had lavished on his music in order to give it such bright flair and flow. This was music full of spikey humor and irrepressible joy—a sunny contrast to the interwar Viennese angst that clings to the tone rows Spinazzola drafted into jazzful service. There was no lecture in word or in deed:  this was music that spoke for itself, even while it did not hide its debt to historical antecedents. The most ardent philosophical defender of the Second Viennese School was Theodor Adorno, who called their work the New Music. The pervasive erudition of Spinazzola’s new-new music was all the more impressive for never trying to impress. What Spinazzola drew from these rows taken from some of the most famous Second Viennese works—beginning with Alban Berg’s beloved Concerto for Violin and Orchestra—appeared as natural and swinging and smart as jazz can be. And out of other composer’s ideas, Spinazzola had crafted something utterly original.

The concert itself was equally inspired in the way it brought together old and new, “jazz” and “classical.” Even while Spinazzola wears and plays his erudition lightly he is not afraid to show us something: to teach in the most gracious and entertaining way. The program began with Fort Worth by the celebrated American tenor saxophonist, Joe Lovano; the composition’s extended stretches of stasis fostering long arcs of modal exploration by the players turned out to be a starkly contrasting prelude to the rapid fire harmonic changes of the twelve-tone music to come. Pianist John Stetch introduced the tune with big dark chords low on the keyboard: archly portentous reflections, perhaps, on the challenges to come. A long-time resident of Ithaca, Stetch recently moved back to New York City, but he frequently returns to town to fill the Hayloft with a visionary pianism marked by a mastery of convention and brilliance at departing from it.

For a musician who must have dedicated a good chunk of his summer to mapping out this jagged topography of twelve-tone tunes, Spinazzola can improvise fleet and fascinating lines above the flat lands of Fort Worth. Even on this gentler though not unchallenging terrain, Spinazzola’s Cornell colleague, Ithaca native Paul Merrill on trumpet, was clearly in an exploratory mode, at times almost elated, pushing himself and letting himself be spurred by his fellow musicians: the incisive and exuberant commentary of Greg Evans, Ithaca’s ubiquitous drummer, and buoyant, big-toned bass playing of Peter Chwazik.

From here we turned back towards Vienna. The tunes did not have titles per se, but merely listed the original compositions on which they were based and then the twelve pitches of its row. First up was perhaps the most tonal of these “atonal” melodies—that from Berg’s Violin Concerto. Its row begins with a minor triad and ends with the fragment of a whole-tone scale. This last segment happens to be the same four notes as the opening of the penitential Lutheran chorale Es ist genug.  In his concerto Berg quotes from Bach’s harmonization of that deathbed tune, and to hear these forebodings of mortality transformed with such apparent effortless into vivid life by Spinazzola and his band made the composition and the individual improvisations on it all the more affirming, even unexpectedly moving. The heavy was made light—but never lite.

After a kindred transformation of Anton Webern’s Symphony, Spinazzola took a break to make way for the keyboardist Blaise Bryski who introduced the material of Schoenberg’s Serenade on the Hayloft’s Hammond B-3 with a riveting fantasy of jabbing pointillistic color: Webern’s Klangfarben rendered in dazzling Day-Glo bursts and streaks.

With Spinazzola’s jazz triptych still seeming to hover above the altar-like bandstand, Bryski sauntered to the grand piano and Spinazzola put down his gutsy, but fleet tenor saxophone for an alto, and both were joined by violinist Ariana Kim and clarinetist, Lenora Schneller for a piece of original Vienna: Webern’s Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone and Piano. Whereas the Viennese-inspired jazz was outgoing, even effusive the original was fretful and fragmented, the four chamber voices sounding like the internal monologue of a shattered consciousness, its shards intensely, almost painfully beautiful. Whereas the jazz rushes along to a stream of continuous, but vigorously textured rhythm, there’s hardly a downbeat in either of the two movements of Webern’s quartet: even musical time is questioned to the point of dissolution. Never did “emancipation” sound so fraught, especially when rendered with such exquisite ensemble.

Schneller and Kim stayed on to play the rollicking elaboration of the row in the ensuing number, then departed the bandstand as the men (yes, jazz is still a male-dominated medium as I’ve pointed out here before) investigated the potential with their own up-tempo ruminations that forsake the self-searching business of the original for the spirited communal conservation provided by Spinazzola’s composition. In the interior of this row loom the notes B-A-C-H; indeed the unsurpassed improviser Bach himself would have been thrilled by these electrifying proceedings.

Keeping the evening’s voyage to a pleasant and digestible 90 minutes, Spinazzola piloted his ship back to the home port of jazz with his concluding Joy’s Blues: its greasy and spiced twelve-tone chromaticism allowing, indeed encouraging, musicians and audience to help themselves to the feast. The thankfulness of all for this tour-de-force of compositional craft was acknowledged by the leader with a disarming grin.

Even if this was music of and in the moment, history hung in the smokeless air. I couldn’t help thinking of Adorno, who infamously hated jazz, describing it with adjectives like comical, grotesque, and anal. The dyspeptic Frankfurter would likely have been appalled—though perhaps also fascinated—by the uplifting contradiction of Spinazzola’s project: to take the emancipated dissonances of the Viennese and shackle them to a tonal center and repeated chord progression that can be improvised on, extemporaneous elaborations that Adorno dismissed as faux, childlike, and primitive. The problem with so much modernism is that its difficulty must be made to sound so, that the torturous challenges of originality must be placed center stage.  Marveling not just at Spinazzola’s encompassing musicianship but also the grace with which he pulls it off, makes you glad to love art but not be forced to worry about it.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com






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