When I was in my teens, I remember a television program on not-yet-PBS where a Japanese ink-painter showed us how to draw Mount Fuji in a very few brush-strokes. I have over simplified it in memory, reducing it to two upward slopes with some detail in the middle, and it remains in my mind’s eye. Happily, I threw out my very limited attempts in blue ballpoint pen, but the experience stays with me. The artist didn’t “simplify” his subject, but his airy, dancing brush-strokes made its immovable solidity nearly translucent.
Here is a more elaborate version, beautiful in itself and as metaphor:
Although I could not have verbalized it then and words still seem heavier than the experience, the artist was doing with his brush what jazz musicians do, making familiar melody, harmony, and rhythm take flight. He was improvising on Mt. Fuji and his improvisations enhanced it.
As an adolescent deeply under the spell of the music, I encountered the 1945 live recordings of Don Byas and Slam Stewart, performing INDIANA and I GOT RHYTHM as if the music was brand-new, the results joyous — soaring and solid both. Then, I didn’t analyze the results as a musicologist-chemist would, noting what percentage Swing, what percentage Bop, what percentage Unclassifiable Solids, and I leave such activities to those who care to, working in their basement laboratories. The music was dense but airy: angels chatting about clouds.
A few years later, I was privileged to see Ruby Braff in performance, often leading a quartet. One of his architecturally spacious ideas was to play duets within the quartet — creating a series of small orchestras — so I was dazzled by Ruby in duet with string bassists George Mraz, Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, and Michael Moore.
Fast forward to NOW, for beauty that transcends “less is more.”
I present to you four duets by Chris Madsen, tenor saxophone, and Clark Sommers, string bass — an enterprise they are calling “The Duet Book.” For those of you who might mutter, “WHAT can you do with a tenor and a bass?” my answer turns out to be, “Everything.”
One, DONNA LEE, authorship debated:
Two, TRICROTISM, by Oscar Pettiford:
Three, MOVE, by Denzil Best:
Four, ORNITHOLOGY, by one C. Parker:
One more video remains, and I wish this series were ongoing, because I cherish these effusions, where two gifted individualists show us what loving community looks and sounds like, passing the lead, being completely supportive, having fun while knowing that the serious work of life is being done.
We could say, “I wish young musicians would study these videos,” but I’d add, “Yes, young dancers, playwrights, poets, teachers, painters . . . .”
And if any member of the jazz hierarchy mutters, “Oh, they’re just playing bebop,” I would reply, “Do, please, Sir or Madam, leave this place and come back in forty years. Devote yourself to the study of beauty, and while you’re at it, work at growing up.”
Forget Mount Fuji, forget metaphor: these air-creations are profound, their beauties not absorbed in one casual hearing. Blessings on Messrs. Madsen, Sommers, and Schwab: quiet gracious masters all.
Postscript from September 14, 2018: Here’s Chapter Five —
May your happiness increase!