Some times some things happen, which makes you glad that these happened to you. They reconfirm things that you hold close to your heart, even though events indicate that these beliefs are obsolete, and perhaps even dysfunctional in today’s marketing driven world.
I am a passionate music lover, with a longstanding love for jazz, classic rock, classical music (Indian and Western) and indeed music from various genres and from various parts of the world. When I looked for something in common among all of these various genres and idioms therein, the only things I could find were, first, the ability and desire to take chances by the performers, and second, the ability to lay their hearts on the line. Jagger and Richards said it best:
If I could stick my pen in my heart
And spill it all over the stage …
If I could stick a knife in my heart
Suicide right on stage …
If I could dig down deep in my heart
Feelings would flood on the page
To me a musician, and indeed all artists, have been given the gift by God to commit suicide right on stage, in their albums, in their books, their paintings, their movies, whatever. That’s what makes them special.
One such divine spirit was Miles Davis. I particular love his second quintet, with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. In their live shows, they would take chances all the time. Stories about this band are legion – about how Miles would never rehearse with them, about how Miles would tell them not to play what they knew but to play what they didn’t know, about how they would figuratively jump off the cliff every show night and how Miles will show them how to get back to solid ground. Many other stories too. In their studio albums, Miles showcased the writing talents of his young wards, particularly Wayne, many of whose contributions are now part of the jazz standards book.
This band was a legend during its life. Miles was already a legend when the band was formed. The others became legends during their tenure with the band. Tony passed away some years ago, just on the wrong side of 50. Fortunately, the others are still going strong.
How strong was apparent when Herbie and Wayne played in Mumbai a few days back with the student band from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. The band was the showpiece – Herbie and Wayne were really the elder statesmen guesting with the kids. The band had obviously chosen Miles’ second quintet as their lodestone – in private conversations they said as much. Them kids were scary – they were so tight that you couldn’t slide a knife between them; they were so loose, when they wanted to, that they could stretch themselves way beyond whatever they had rehearsed; they were so responsive that one could pick up wherever the previous guy had left off and carry on – like a relay race; they were so big on ideas that over two nights I didn’t hear a single lick, let alone one repeated; they were so sharp that whatever you threw at them they could throw right back (not my words, but Herbie’s). This band could scare quite a few bunches of pros.
Herbie and Wayne – its difficult for me to express what I felt. I had heard Herbie live once before, when he came to India 11 years ago. I never thought I would be able to hear Wayne in person – let alone get to hear the two of them together live right in front of my eyes. What do you say when you are in the presence of demigods? I expected nothing – they have given me so much intellectual and emotional pleasure since I first heard them on a Miles album some 40 years ago, that I had no right to expect more. They had stuck their knives into their hearts so many times for me, without anything in return, that it was unfair for me to expect them to do it one more time. After nearly fifty years of letting their feelings flood the page of their composition book and their albums, they had earned the right to rest on their laurels.
But that’s exactly what they did not do, two nights in succession in Mumbai. They still took chances, jumped off the cliff, and took me on a roller coaster ride on their solos, and more to the point, succeeded in making the students do the same. Sometimes there were no safety nets. On Wayne’s “Footprints”, Wayne just called out the song, there had been no rehearsals, and the band went along with Wayne. For me, who prided in knowing the song well, it took me about half the performance before I could be sure that it was indeed “Footprints”. Post the show, the band members confessed that they had no idea how the performance would develop – they were happy to just follow wherever Wayne and Herbie decided to lead them, secure in the belief (not knowledge) that finally the two of them would reach them somewhere close to home. Faith inspired invention, curiosity inspired risk, risk inspired camaraderie, all of these inspired a miracle called jazz. In me, it inspired a renewal of faith, a reaffirmation of my belief in what Mick and Keith wrote, and what most jazz musicians, the greats and the journeymen, have practiced for over a century.
In an age informed by the likes of Britney Spears, JLo, boy bands, girl bands, etc, driven by marketing men, and producers who are experts in manufacturing ‘music’, it’s nice to know that there still are men (and women too) who create music by taking chances, by listening to their inner voices, and by wanting to tell a story without worrying about whether they’ll make millions out of it. And it’s also nice to know that there still are a few hundreds of thousands of us listeners who will wait to listen to their stories, see them taking chances, without worrying about whether the chances are going to come off or not – after all, they are doing that because we would love to do so with our lives, but don’t have the skills and the courage to do so ourselves.
I salute them all.
(first posted on sulekha.com on Jan 21 2007)