Energies: Taking it from the Top

Before cable television and VCRs, to say nothing of the internet, music was, at the very least, a primary source of entertainment. In my home, the radio was frequently on, playing NPR or Top 40 AM radio, or else there were records being played. 1

From my father’s record collection, I heard jazz: Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis (especially the latter’s Gil Evans sessions) were handy in our house.

Miles Davis, “Summertime,” Porgy and Bess, 1958.

My mother brought singer-songwriters and popular music to the scene: Arlo Guthrie, Melanie, Ray Charles, John Denver, James Taylor, and Jim Croce were favorites of mine when I was young. 2

James Taylor, “Fire and Rain,” Sweet Baby James, 1970.

It is impossible for me to diminish the importance of my mother’s listening habits, which consisted, at times, of bringing home a 45rpm single of a song she liked and playing it, more or less, over and over again. Which is to say I grew up in an environment which supported broad listening as well as the cultivation of favorite songs. Though the music from my father’s collection has perhaps proven to be more enduring for me as a musician, my mother taught me how to listen to music.

  1. Growing up in Rochester, NY provided unique listening opportunities: the Eastman School of Music and the musicians in its orbit brought consistent classical and jazz performances, as well as a variety of dance and dance-related performances, sometimes in conventional halls and auditoriums, sometimes in public parks, sometimes on visits to schools. I grew up in an environment that not only embraced music as a cultural, social, and/or popular phenomenon but also from which I came to understand it as a thing people attended and attend to, a thing people do.

  2. John Denver’s “Black Box,” an irritant in adult life, still lingers in the back of my head as a piece that frightened me but which I could not resist; Melanie’s “Lay Down” paved the way, no doubt, for my ongoing alliance with fervor. Such examples are among the countless shadowy presences in my crowded music-memory.

Inspiration: Afrisong

“Hymn to the East,” Muhal Richard Abrams, Afrisong, 1982.

I picked up Muhal Richard Abrams’ Afrisong LP yesterday, and though I was not familiar with this record, I liked the cover and have had good luck with other India Navigation titles in the past 1.

Frankly, I couldn’t be more pleased. Abrams’ playing here lands for me somewhere between McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett; that is, he appeals like the former in his chords/rhythms and the latter in his flight, for lack of a better term 2. Communicative and uplifting.

  1. e.g. Arthur Blythe’s The Grip, Anthony Davis’ Lady of the Mirrors, and Cecil McBee’s Alternate Spaces, three of my favorite not-too-far-out recordings from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

  2. I’m lying. I think flight is a terrific term and means, for these purposes, exactly what I trust it implies: his energy, his lift, his movement.

Brahms on Craft


“In some of [your music] you seem to me too easily satisfied. One ought never to forget that by perfecting one piece more is gained and learned than by beginning or half-finishing a dozen. Let it rest, and keep going back to it and working at it, over and over again, until it is a complete finished work of art, until there is not a note too much or too little, not a bar you could improve on. Whether it is beautiful also, is an entirely different matter, but perfect it must be. You see, I am rather lazy, but once begun I never cool down over a work until it is perfected, unassailable.”

— Johannes Brahms, 1876, from a letter to Georg Henschel.

Energies (Polyrhythm)

Syncopation refers to the practice of inverting or otherwise shifting accents in an established rhythmic pattern. Polyrhythm, on the other hand, describes more than one rhythmic pattern occurring simultaneously. Though these elements frequently appear in tandem, especially in larger groups, I think their distinction from each other is worth pointing out.

Here’s some polyrhythm:

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou, “Sé Wé Non Nan,” The Vodoun Effect, 2009.

To my ear, the drums resolve in a 2/4 (two quarter notes to a measure) shuffle while the other instruments are played in 6/8 (six eighth notes to a measure). This polyrhythm yields syncopation for the ensemble’s total sound, though each rhythm sticks to its accent-pattern.

The resulting energy of the tune is sustained within the push-pull of the time signatures: the drums are steady but seem to push the other instruments, which in turn seem to drag the tempo. This is not the same thing as playing ahead of or behind the beat. It is, in fact, a difference of measure, which term should be read literally: it takes the horns longer to get back to the top of their phrase than it does the drums.

Once the vocals come in, however, the group coalesces into a collective 2/4, following the drums instead of the horns. The guitar, percussion, and organ, in the meantime, opt for a 4/4, bridging the gap between the drums and the other instruments.

If this is math, it is also rhythm. The fact that it can be quantified does not disqualify the energy and emotion it provides and amplifies. Rather, it confirms the energy and emotion, and one additional absolute truth: music does not exist outside of time.