Sunday, April 29, 2007

Coffee Talk

Does it seem like we have the most beautiful Sunday mornings of any place? Summer, winter, spring, fall, we have days like this one, where the sun is clear and warm, the woods are vibrant with vegetation, birds, squirrels, people playing all up and down the streets. I'm in Rockville, and it's just the most comfortable place in the world. Some jazz saxophone is playing on the radio, my cup's about half full, the dog is watching the cat but not chasing her at the moment.

Last night I went out to see one of my favorite local bands. The James Mabry Band played at the Outta The Way Cafe, over in Derwood. I think the only time they play together is at this place, once a month or so. The first time I heard them, I told my wife, "This is what I like about music."

Their repertoire is a pretty straightforward list of blues standards. "Driving Wheel," "Got My Mojo Working," stuff like that. James does Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Matchbox" with a kind of laid-back rocking feel, not like Carl Perkins but not like the original, either. "Crossroads" with a New-Orleans type of syncopation, very nice.

Typically a song starts with Mabry on the guitar. Having been there, I appreciate this. He doesn't tell the other guys what song it is, what key they're in, he doesn't have to get their attention to count it off. He just starts playing. They might come in after twelve bars, or maybe they've done it before and have a way to pick it up. Whatever, there's lots of dynamics, lots of surprises, this is heads-up ball.

The really outstanding thing here is the rhythm section James has put together. The bass player, Jay Turner, is rock-solid, his attack is hard and I have never heard a doubtful note out of him. I'd say he's what holds this whole thing together.

Then, if you're gonna say that, you'd have to say drummer Timm Biery is the force that blows the whole thing apart. I mean that in a good way: he's explosive. This guy is unbelievable, and this little band, playing a neighborhood bar, lets him go to places that drummers don't usually get to go. And I mean go, man. They'll be bopping along on some roadhouse shuffle and all of a sudden you'll hear this swelling underneath, and Biery will fly out of the groove like some insane polyrhythmic ghost that leaves the earth, beats against the ceiling for a while, sticks its head out the window and makes faces at passing traffic, then drops gracefully back, right on the beat. He's riding along back there, tapping on the shells of his drums underhanded (he uses a traditional NARD grip), ringing the bells of the cymbals and damping them, rolling with one beater on the bass drum. This is a level of percussion performance that you just don't see.

Last night I counted through a drum solo, just to see if they were staying with the meter or coming back in on cues, and it turns out that the meter survives intact. But a normal person can't count it, there are layered measures and successions of syncopated misdirections that seem to abandon the underlying count but they never really do: it is technically perfect.

This only works because the bass player is so dependable. I mean, come on, this isn't some timbale player in a salsa orchestra, this is four guys up there. The bass player holds down the fort until the drummer returns.

Last night there were a couple of times that the guitar player, James, was throwing some polyrhythmic licks back at the drummer, and they played some figures together out of time. I haven't heard them try this before, but it was fun. Really, not too many guys are going to try to walk out on the little limbs that Timm goes onto.

James himself, the band leader, is a big affable guy who seems to know everything about music. This isn't just a deal where he's playing all the songs he knows; this is a selection of pieces with a particular place in American musical history, and he bridges styles in a way that makes it palatable to the upcounty crowd, locals and musicians alike. Last night he had four guitars on the stage, which is, to my mind, overkill for a gig like this, but he really is a good, innovative player who surprises me lots of times.

Most of the time their fourth player is Linwood Taylor, a respected blues player with a following of his own. He and James love to get out there on something crazy like "Third Stone From the Sun" or "Hey Joe" -- I think they're both Hendrix nuts, but generally Linwood is an excellent blues guitarist and singer. He wasn't there last night. Last night they had a keyboardist filling in.

Some nights you'll see different guys from the area sit in, maybe a Nighthawk or two, or one of James' students, and that's fun.

See, for me, music shouldn't be something you memorize and reproduce onstage flawlessly every time. Especially blues, but I'd say this about country music, rock, jazz, bluegrass ... live popular music. You want the music to talk to you, you don't want to hear a recitation of phrases but something in the moment. There is a worldwide community of musicians who are "good enough," who can play together -- Bela Fleck is, to my mind, the ultimate exemplar of this, traveling around the planet jamming with people in their local style. Musicianship transcends nationality and genre, these are just players and they know how to play, and it doesn't matter where you're from or what song this is. They know how to listen, and they can anticipate where the music is going.


Post a Comment

<< Home