Last week, I was in France for a wedding, and a side trip took me to the Loire Valley. While walking along the river in the charming town of Blois, I caught sight of two swans gliding upstream. The Loire has a swift and strong current, so I knew the swans had to be paddling furiously under the water’s surface, but up above it, they maintained a completely calm, beatific look. I thought of one of my favorite words, sprezzatura: the ability to make a difficult task look easy. And that put me in mind of one of my favorite trombone players, Joe Jackson, who is conveniently in my jazz band. Two months ago, Chaise Lounge played a concert with the Pan American Symphony Orchestra, and one of the pieces on the program was Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” with Joe playing the solo usually performed on violin. This beautiful, impossibly high lyrical piece would leave most trombone players in tears, but for Joe, it seemed effortless. Of course, I knew his “effortlessness” came from 30+ years of devoted attention to his craft. But the best players, like swans swimming gracefully upstream, can make you forget everything but that beautiful performance.
My friend Susan recently hired me to play at the opening of an art exhibit she’d curated. It turned out to be a beautiful gig, in no small part because my jazz trio was surrounded by so many vibrant prints and silkscreens from around the world. I fell in love with one of the pieces: a print of a woman in a turban by a Cuban artist named Choco. I couldn’t stop thinking about the piece and, after I got home, I called Susan up and bought it.
It is curious how we need art. In the order of food, shelter, clothing, it is understood to be pretty far down the list of primal needs. But maybe it’s not. Cavemen made cave paintings, after all, and Lord knows they had more pressing things to do, like fighting off saber-toothed tigers. Perhaps the need for art runs on a parallel track to our survival instincts. We can be hungry and still long to see beauty.
The print I love is now hanging on my dining room wall, and it makes every other piece of art in the room look brand new. And every time I look at it I am fed. As we go through our days making work to feed our families (and possibly our egos), it’s good to remember that we might be feeding the human spirit as well.
My latest play just opened in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Him & Jim is a comedy about what happens when a divine stranger wanders into an unremarkable auto parts shop. My partner-in-crime in this project is director Ara Barlieb. I wrote the play alone, but Ara gave it life, and from what I am hearing he is taking it in directions that I never even imagined. And yet I trust Ara enough to know that whatever he and his talented cast invents, it will make sense with the play. More than make sense: It will make the play a better one.
Last week, maestro David Fanning and the National String Symphonia brought my piece, Retablos, to life for the first time at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. The piece features a fiendishly difficult percussion part that requires the percussionist to leap from the bass drum to the vibraphone, to various temple blocks, and back to ten other instruments. For the soloist, Mark Carson, it was an exercise in choreography and stamina as much as it was in musicality. Mark and I (but mostly Mark) worked off and on for months to make sure that this percussion part was playable. The result was a fluid and, honestly, gorgeous performance. The NSS will perform it again in Baltimore on March 11.