DC at Night

DC at Night

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Avant Music or Noise - You Decide

Medeski, Martin, and Wood
A problem with avant jazz is that it is not for everyone's taste. I was pretty sure I would be in trouble when I convinced my wife of almost 40 years to come with me to a late-night (9:30 p.m. start time) Medeski, Martin, and Wood show at the Kennedy Center. The evidence of a possible marital fiasco in the making was daunting.

  • I had just dragged my wife to a late-night Kennedy Center show featuring B-3 organ jazz virtuoso Dr. Lonnie Smith and his trio the previous Saturday, a concert which she tolerated but certainly didn't love the way I did. 
  • My wife enjoys music she knows and she knew as much about the music of MM&W as she knew about the sounds of the rarely-played Slovakian bassoon (which unfortunately, from my wife's perspective, John Medeski decided to employ at some length during the show.)
  • My wife likes songs with familiar lyrics that she can miss-sing and MM&W is exclusively instrumental (keyboards, bass, drum).
  • My wife likes music you can dance to and improvisational jazz rarely fits into that category.
  • My wife does not like jam bands and MM&W are regulars on that scene.
  • The MM&W show was coming less than 24 hours before an all-star tribute to Woody Guthrie concert at the Kennedy Center, which I had also convinced my reluctant wife to attend.
  • The MM&W show was also coming at the end of an extraordinarily busy 13-hour DC day in which we had worked 3 hours for the campaign to re-elect President Obama; attended a special program at the Newseum with long-time rock critic Rona Eliott about her new enhanced E-book celebrating the 50-year history of the Rolling Stones; gone to an engaging book talk with Laura Lippman, best-selling author and wife of The Wire creator David Simon, at Politics and Prose; and enjoyed a New Orleans po' boy with red beans and rice and sweet tea dinner at Bayou on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Translation, there was a good chance that my always energetic wife might actually be tired and she doesn't do tired well).
But despite the potential for disaster, I decided that the rewards (granted, probably only to me) were worth the risks.

But as soon as we entered the newly designed Supersized Jazz Club in the huge atrium of the terrace level of the Kennedy Center, I began to rethink that position. A young, mostly 35-year and under crowd, was milling around. They were milling because they were obviously quite social. They were milling because they wanted to see the stage setup and capture some pictures. But mostly they were milling because there were no seats, only a handful of couches in the back of the venue which had already been snapped up by the few people our age at the show.

"Wait, there are no seats?" my wife asked, giving me one of her all-time best I Can't Believe I Let You Drag Me Into Something Like This Again Faces. "You didn't tell me there weren't any seats. I've told you - I don't do standing concerts anymore. I'm 61 years old, I'm not 17 and you aren't either, even though you act like it most of the time."

I quickly adopted my often-used I'm Innocent This Time look and presented my best defense. "Hey, I didn't know there weren't any seats. I've never been here before." Which, technically was true. Although we've been to the Kennedy Center numerous times, this was the 1st time the center, whose jazz offerings are now under the curation of jazz pianist Jason Moran, was offering a Supersized Jazz Club show.

Defense exhibit 1: Wood on acoustic
Deciding I might as well take advantage of the lack-of-seating arrangements, I nudged my wife toward the stage. We were about 3 rows of people from stage-front when she stopped. "Wait, what are those?" she asked, pointing to the large bass amps and side speakers that were on the stage.

"They're amps," I said, noting the obvious.

"You said this was an acoustic concert," she replied. "Acoustic concerts don't have amps."

"Well, technically they do," I countered. "But see Medeski's 2 pianos there. They are accoustic pianos. And see Chris Wood's bass; that is acoustic. And look at Billy Martin's drum kit. There's not an electronic drum there."

I decided to press my advantage. "And it says right on the ticket An Acoustic Evening with Medeski, Martin, and Wood." I pulled my ticket from my jacket pocket and pointed to the words An Acoustic Evening with Medeski, Martin, and Wood.

My wife looked at the ticket. Then she looked at me. "I don't care. If there are speakers that big then it is not acoustic. You lied. And the Kennedy Center is lying, too." She pointed to a small space on the floor against the wall.  As she was placing the earplugs she always carries with her to any concert in both ears, she said she was going over there to sit. She told me to enjoy myself and not worry about all the people that were bound to step on her. I took her at her word and worked myself to the side of the stage where I would have the best view of John Medeski's playing.

In a matter of minutes the show started and for the next half-hour I was mesmerized as Medeski's fingers flew across the piano, his left hand playing unbelievably magic full chords while his right hand soloed over all 88 keys. The show started with an incredibly unique 11-minute version of the old Elvis Presley hit "Suspicious Minds." Wood plucked his base, exhorting it to new lows and highs. Martin provided the tie-together rhythm that allowed me to join the crowd in a kind of ultra-hip jazz sway. 

About a third of the way through the set, I felt my wife at my side. "There's some seats in the back. I'm going back there. Enjoy your show." I nodded acknowledgement and returned my gaze to the stage. I worked my way to the other side to get a different perspective. At the one-hour mark, I remembered my wife. I left my prized position and headed toward the back of the venue. I sat down on the empty couch seat next to her. 

"Listen, we can go if you want," I said.  

"No, it's alright we can stay," she said. "But this isn't an acoustic concert. I have a ringing in my ears and my chest hurts from the bass. I wouldn't have that if this were an acoustic concert. But hey, we can stay."

Medeski on mouth keyboard
"OK," I said, jumping up to again move closer for a better view. Medeski, Martin, and Wood, for the 1st time that night, had embarked on a psychedelic musical journey. Medeski was playing some sort of mouth instrument that was producing the alternating sounds of  a cat being strangled and a high-pitched bird squawking its last breath. Actually, I was kind of digging the fact that such a soul-jarring sound could actually make something that resembled music. But then I thought of my wife. And her earplugs. And the fact that if there is anything that she hates more than jam jazzing, it is psychedelic jam jazzing. I returned to the sofa and bent down close to her ear. "We can go. There's only 15 more minutes. I know you don't like this," I said.

Outside in the hallway, my wife told me she only had one thing to say. "That was not an acoustic concert. I don't care what you say. I don't care what the the Kennedy Center says. I'm never believing you again."

I turned my face so she wouldn't see my smile. I had taken my wife to a late-night show so I could hear Medeski, Martin, and Wood. And I had survived. I was golden. Or at least I was golden until 7:30 p.m. and the start of the Woody Guthrie tribute. You see, I had forgotten to ask my wife how she feels about banjos and hillbilly yodeling. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Apparently Judy wasn't the only person who wouldn't put this Medeski, Martin, and Wood show at the top of their favorite list. As we were waiting for the shuttle bus to take us back to the Foggy Bottom Metro, we were joined by a younger couple. The young man, seemingly in his late 20s or early 30s, smiled. "Did that sound get to you too? I like Medeski, Martin, and Wood, but that was a bit much. I kept seeing a crazed, dying cat." We struck up a conversation about music that ranged from Bob Dylan to Neil Diamond. He told us they were also going to the Woody Guthrie tribute. He promised my wife that there wouldn't be any crazed, dying cats there, just a lineup of musical all-stars like Guthrie's son Arlo and Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, John Mellencamp, Donovan, and Judy Collins. I hope he is right. Two nights of crazed, dying cat sounds might be a little much for even me. And then there would be the mess and cost of that divorce. So let's hear it for this land is your land, this land is my land. And please leave any crazed dying cats home. Woody didn't say anything about it being their land, too.

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