Are You Sure? MLK, Thich Nhat Hanh and Self-Reflection

This winter marks ten years since I released Soul Force, a full-album tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. In the ensuing decade, it’s interesting to note the shift in my worldview. Of course, along the way there has been a decade of parenthood, physical struggles and triumphs, profound world events, and so on. The takeaway is that I now have stronger convictions to which I’m less attached. Huh?

It’s not easy to explain, but I’ll try. There has been a deepening of my sense of commitment to goodness, to love, to peace, to justice and so on. I have stronger opinions of what all of that means . . . and a greater detachment from those opinions. I mean, really, what the @#$! does any of us actually know so definitively that it’s accurate 100% of the time? So more and more often I ask myself “are you sure?”

When the time came to go out on a limb and release my singer-songwriter EP last fall, I wanted a name for the “band” (in quotes since on these recordings I played and sang everything). Anyone who’s spent time with me is probably eye-rolling at the thought of how often I respond to a funny turn of phrase with “that’d be a good name for a (band, song, album).” Yet in this instance I wanted something with a little more dignity and relevance. I kept coming back to “Are You Sure?”

The reference is to something life-affecting I read in a book by Thich Nhat Hanh back in my 20s. He suggests writing those three words (“Are You Sure?”) on a piece of paper and placing it somewhere obvious so you will look at it every day. Getting unstuck from rigid perceptions, he explains, is fundamental to our achieving “right thought” and liberating our minds.

For those unaware of him and his work, Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk from Vietnam who has authored something like 75 books (not a typo) and has been a world leader in applying those principles both for helping Westerners understand the principles of mindfulness and in addressing inequality, war, violence and other difficult real-world issues. Now in his late 80s, he is currently defying the odds by regaining at least some of his capacities after a massive brain hemorrhage in the fall.

If I wanted to tie this into the holiday celebrating the birth and life of Martin Luther King, Jr., it would probably be enough to simply point out that Dr. King was an admirer, who actually nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 for his courageous peace activism amidst the Vietnam War (breaking protocol by speaking publicly about the nomination and the need for people to pay attention to his work). On a much deeper level, though, this “are you sure?” principle relates directly to our personal and societal need to re-examine and scrutinize embedded perceptions that may not all be completely valid.

As I’ve contemplated writing this, I’ve thought of all the exceptions I can list (things we should not subject to the heresy of “are you sure?”), but on closer examination I’m not sure that I have found any exceptions. That is because on closer examination, it seems that any kind of scrutiny of our perceptions will lead to one of two conclusions: either the perception in question could use some refining (which, insofar as that makes it more consistent with reality is a good thing – the reality is there whether you face or avoid it), or the perception remains intact with no harm done from the examining.

So am I saying that we should reconsider our most basic beliefs? Question that our God is real, question that we are attached to our parents, question that love is better than hate? Well, yes and no. I am not calling these principles into question, but I’m confident that contemplating these things doesn’t threaten their strength and validity . . . and it’s a slippery slope from refusing to scrutinize basic tenets of reality to refusing to scrutinize outdated and unhealthy perceptions. 2 plus 2 has equaled 4 every time I’ve checked, but that doesn’t mean . A case could be made that it’s simply impractical to question everything all the time, and on some level that’s true – if we literally did that with every perception all the time, it would be overwhelming. I am not, for example, stopping as I type this to consider whether English is the proper language for the essay or whether I’m using the correct fingers or whether I should instead be getting up to pee (. . . well actually, hold on a second . . .). However, we can tell when something is stirred up enough to warrant that examination, and in those cases the extra time and effort it would take to ask ourselves “are you sure?” is no greater than the time and effort it takes to dig in our heels to maintain that our perception is the correct one.

This is true regardless of your politics or faith or any other identifying traits informing your belief system. It’s pretty obvious that my own politics are to the left and that my own faith is pretty open-ended. But I never stop questioning whether my perceptions are right.

Part of why I’m presenting this idea in the context of MLK is that I’ve recently found myself debating the state of race relations in the USA with greater frequency. I stop to contemplate every argument I hear from the other side, even if I’m offended. Those who feel otherwise (spoiler alert: I personally keep concluding that people of color have not gotten a fair shake) have accused me of being closed-minded and I’ve considered that too – IS my approach closed-minded? It may be that in the context of debate the proper protocol is to stand my ground and not show “weakness” of convictions to someone who appears unwilling to consider other ideas. Am I sure that this is the correct protocol? Well, no, and I’m even less sure that closing off my own mind to these other ideas, as much as they may offend me, helps anybody – if I’m frustrated by others’ closed-mindedness, I have a responsibility to do better.

As such, it’s worth making the distinction here between rigidity of beliefs and confidence of energy and actions. I am aware that on an in-the-moment basis, there are any number of scenarios in which it is useful or even necessary to act from a place of assuredness. I’ve spent my adult life aware of this in the context of playing music – it’s important to scrutinize things when practicing, but it’s important to let that go and just play when on the bandstand. Heck, even in my limited success on the tennis court, it was always pretty clear that the tinkering I did while honing my game had no place in the stay-focused world of actual competition. When your child asks “do you love me?” that is not the time to stop and question the metaphysics of the question. When somebody is drowning and you have the chance to pull him out of the river, that is not the time to contemplate what mortality really means. From doctors to teachers to soldiers, there are many people who need to be decisive in the moment. I would say, though, that people in ALL of these positions DO benefit from introspection and examination of principles, best practices and so on. Certainly as a physically disabled person, I have learned to run, not walk (unless, of course, my body hurts too much to run – it’s a figure of speech, work with me here) away from any doctor whose approach is closed off to new information, instead relying on “I’ve seen x number of patients in my day and I know what’s right.” True wisdom does not preclude continued learning and self-examination.

So the $64,000 question is WHY we resist this. I’ve narrowed it down to three things.

1 ) It’s easier to hang on to our existing set of beliefs and perceptions than to re-route. Likewise it’s easier to file away the logical conclusion we’ve made in the moment as being correct than to consider the less-likely alternatives.

2 ) It feels better to appear (and feel) authoritative about things. Confidently stating the expert opinion at the party (or in the classroom or on social media or whatever) makes you “bigger” than

3 ) It can be scary to imagine the chain reaction if one of the chips should fall from our belief system. What else may crumble as a result?

So, in summary, convenience, ego, fear. I can relate to all of them. I like to make my judgment and get it over with, I like to sound smart and I like to feel like I understand (and thus can work within) the ways of the world. I like to think that I’m a good person and it’s thus completely tempting to simply craft a worldview that logically brings a rational person to that conclusion. I have yet to meet a person sufficiently enlightened for these motivations to be completely inert.

I recently thought of an interaction from a few years back with my SFAM (sister-from-another-mother) Rachel Green. She’s now a wonderful mental health professional (click here to check out her current work) but one among her diverse earlier-in-life resume points is a lengthy stint as a touring singer-songwriter (fans of my work may recognize the name as the composer of “The Dance,” which I recorded on Turtle Steps). I was reminiscing about my first time hearing her perform – it was at the WNPR studios in the late 1980s when I was a freshman in high school. I remembered the original songs she performed, plus a couple cover songs including Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Rachel gently pointed out that she never performed that song . . . and I clung to it – “No, you definitely did.” And so it went for a little while until she graciously conceded that maybe she was remembering wrong. With some further reflection I realized that, of course, she was right – she did Chris Smither and Tom Waits covers that night and the Joni Mitchell moment I remembered was something and someone entirely different that I had managed to conflate with her concert. What is interesting to me is how determined I was to be right, on a level that superseded my determination to be thoughtful, accurate and so on.

But here’s the thing – in that setting it’s kind of stupid but ultimately pretty harmless, as are many trivial arguments that people have, clinging to strong opinions about the relative merits of this movie or that sports team or who is the greatest-ever guitar player or what have you. It’s not always that harmless. When we stay stuck in perceptions that lead us to judge others or evaluate the world around us, that can lead to delusion, intolerance and just plain old grumpy isolation. Looking back at my childhood (and based on “information” coming from a whole host of different sources), here are some perceptions I had:

- Black people are “other”
- Polish people are stupid
- Being nice to others is a good thing
- Gay people are weird
- Ugly people are to be mocked (and hopefully I’m not ugly)
- Girls are nicer than boys
- Stupid people are to be looked down on
- Violence is wrong
- Eating vegetables is healthy
- Eating meat (including fast food) is healthy
- Getting drunk is bad, but kind of funny
- Physical exertion is dangerous

I could go on, but you get the idea. I look at this list now and see a jumbled mess of things that are true, things that are false, things that are gross oversimplifications or misrepresentations of phenomena that have some germ of truth to them, things that are true under very specific circumstances, things that are offensive, things that are untrue but kind of humorous and so on. I haven’t the vaguest idea who I would be if I had taken these things for granted on an ongoing basis. And I also see how some of these perceptions (particularly the more prejudicial ones) were products of a world that was still limping along the path to greater enlightenment. We still are of course, though we’re getting farther. If I had been born a few generations earlier, my perceptions of minority groups would have probably been a lot worse, while most young people I meet today are brought up with a more progressive view than I had.

BUT that is possible because of the courage of so many people along the way who were and are willing to question the status quo of their perceptions. I’ve written plenty on this blog about the need to fight for love and justice and equality, but it’s important (as both Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. King did so much to teach us) to remember that this springs forth from our own personal journeys to living in an inner world of just, compassionate thought.

As an adult I think my perceptions are more accurate, wiser and more humane. But if I came to that place of greater clarity through ruthless examination of my perceptions, what would make me think that I can STOP doing that now? Quite the contrary, my integrity and sanity depend on perpetual questioning. AM I a good person? DO I treat my kids as lovingly as I should? IS my commitment to my work what it could be? ARE my actions sufficiently in tune with my stated desires to see a just, equitable world for all? DOES my day-to-day life mirror my public persona? ARE my conclusions coming from the message and not from my feelings about the messenger? DO I have the talents (and limitations) that I and others think I do? DO I know what I’m talking about? IS this entire essay actually worth a reader’s time?

It’s a lot easier to indignantly say OF COURSE and scoff a little and get on with my day, maybe even conflate rigidity of thought with self-esteem (whereby the questioning can be dismissed as unhealthy self-doubt). And I won’t lie, sometimes I do. And then I hear Thich Nhat Hanh’s voice asking “are you sure?” and I think of Dr. King and all those who refused to accept the inner or outer status quo so that my children could live in a better world. And I dig in and reconsider – it is the least I can do.

Top 10 Favorite Joe Locke Tracks

I am a sucker for musicians who play overtly soulful music and then turn around and play the hippest modern jazz, especially when they find organic ways to integrate the two. That’s the mechanism by which James Williams drew me into this music, and from Mingus to Bird to Eddie Harris to Rahsaan Roland Kirk and on down the list that has always gassed me. On the younger end of that tip is vibraphonist Joe Locke who is one of the hippest and most technically facile vibraphonists active today, but can always be counted on for achingly soulful music as a player, composer and arranger of others’ material. Here are some of the tracks that most embody that to me. There are numerous omissions from this list from his own records and tracks by such diverse artists as Hiram Bullock, Eddie Daniels, Russell Malone, Grover Washington, Jr. and the Beastie Boys. But that’s a good problem to have, as evidence by the quality of the music below.

1 ) “Van Gogh By Numbers” from Live in Seattle by Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group

I still remember approaching the George Washington Bridge when I heard this super-intense track for the first time on WBGO. I knew immediately that a) it was heavy, b) it was Joe’s music and c) that I should seek it out on a time when I was not operating a motor vehicle. Which I did, and it’s easily one of my favorite albums of the last 20 years.  Geoffrey Keezer is another great integrator of modernity and soulfulness and it’s unsurprising that his many collaborations with Joe are all worth a listen.

2 ) “I Can’t Make You Love Me” from Lay Down My Heart: Blues and Ballads

I find that it is comparatively rare to hear great jazz “covers” of contemporary (i.e. rock era) pop tunes – usually they’re either corny or they’re so hipped-up that they lose the character of the song. Joe has a great track record of finding the sweet spot with his versions of songs of that ilk, from Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” to “I Say A Little Prayer” (though I never asked whether it was Dionne Warwick or Aretha providing his template) and this song, popularized by Bonnie Raitt, is pitch-perfect.

3 ) “On A Misty Night” from But Beautiful by Joe Locke and Kenny Barron

Amidst all the other grooves that Joe explores so well, he also swings like crazy. No better way to demonstrate that than in a medium-tempo duet with the master Kenny Barron on an album full of soulful and lyrical moments. Having played duets with Kenny for 6 years as his student maybe I’m biased, but I don’t know if there’s any lovelier setting in which to get in the pocket and play.

4 ) “Twilight” from Beauty Burning

Joe has had a long association with pianist Darrell Grant, and this track (from a record that’s sadly out of print) is a profoundly soulful reading of one of Grant’s most beautiful tunes. Jeff “Tain” Watts’ backbeat keeps things at a slow burn and guest guitarist Paul Bollenback digs in hard.

5 ) “Verrazano Moon” from For the Love of You

Joe has composed some lovely ballads, and this one highlights the work of his frequent collaborator, vocalist Kenny Washington (not to be confused with the drummer by the same name). Though Joe certainly “sings” through his vibes, he also works great with those who do the real thing.

6 ) “Miramar” from Via by Storms/Nocturnes

This is another Keezer collaboration, this time in an unusually-orchestrated vibes-piano-winds trio with saxophonist Tim Garland. The music they create is gorgeous, and this ethereal version of a tune of Joe’s that also appears on Live In Seattle is a highlight.

7 ) “Blue November” from Force of Four

I’ll admit that my first impetus for checking out this album was the guest appearance on this slow, funky tune and one other track by my old buddy Wayne Escoffery, who has recorded two great records of his own in the piano-less group Veneration, with Joe laying down the chords. But while I came for Wayne, I stayed for all the deep, soulful music provided by Joe and the rest of the band.

8 ) “Nearly” from Stardust by Ron Carter

My first live exposure to Joe Locke was at the Blue Note in the fall of 2002. It was a double bill and Wayne got me in, as he was playing in Lonnie Plaxico’s band (along with keyboardist Helen Sung, who I also heard for the first time, mind-blowingly). It was a double bill, though, with Ron Carter’s sextet, and this was just a few weeks before I went into the studio with Ron and Ben Riley to record my “Patch Kit” album. So I was there mainly to hear him, but what stood out most was the work of the guests, Joe and elder statesman Benny Golson (who Ron referred to as “our hero”) on tenor. Both of them appear on this album and are featured on this slow, bluesy Carter original, as is pianist Sir Roland Hanna.

9 ) “Naima” from Phantoms by Eddie Henderson

Meanwhile, my first exposure to Joe’s playing of any kind was also through a Kenny Barron connection, in this case through an album containing 3/5 of Kenny’s classic quintet – Kenny, drummer Victor Lewis and master trumpeter Eddie Henderson, who would go on to employ Joe for several more records. On this slow Latin version of the classic Coltrane ballad, Joe gets a turn at the melody, adds great chordal textures and takes a gorgeous solo.

10 ) “Sword of Whispers” from Live at JazzBaltica by Trio da Paz with Joe Locke

Carrying on in the tradition of Gary Burton’s early days with Stan Getz, Joe can play the heck out of Brazilian music, and these days there is no better setting in which one could do so than with Romero Lubambo, Nilson Matta and Duduka Da Fonseca, better known as Trio da Paz. This is a tune of Joe’s that fits right in with the rest of their program on this uplifting record.

Non-Linear Healing

Humans have an amazing capacity to heal, whether physically or emotionally, from profound trauma. Maybe we never get back to 100%, but even when our bodies and hearts seem irreparably broken, there is great potential for recovery. We can tap into that even more potently if we acknowledge that this healing may not take the predictable, sequential route that we might expect or hope for.

So let’s start by keeping it real here: I am not looking forward to December 14. Last year I spent the anniversary of the Sandy Hook murders (which, by twisted coincidence, was my 40th birthday) barely able to get up from the couch. Even after spending a year processing, contemplating, grieving and, yes, healing, when the day came I was pretty much incapacitated by pain, sorrow and inability to comprehend. I cringed* every time someone said “happy birthday,” though I was intellectually able to parse out the intended substance of those wishes and to construct socially appropriate responses (e.g. “thanks”).

* Not that this is of great importance in the larger scheme, and I’d be perfectly content just to let the day pass with my birthday unacknowledged, but for those who want to say something, props to anybody who phrases such wishes in terms of gratitude that I exist/was born and skips the “happy” part.

The year since then has been one of further healing. I still think about Ana and our friends who must go on without her every day, but I have reclaimed some wounded and shriveled parts of my heart and been able to move forward energetically in ways that seemed inconceivable even this winter. And yet my heart clenches tighter with each day closer to 12/14 we get.

My rational mind is tempted to say “it’s just a day on the calendar, it’s a symbol, why would that day be any harder than any other?” My rational mind, however, also knows enough about trauma and healing to acknowledge the inevitability of bumps in the road, some more predictable than others. Heck, maybe after all the looking-into-the-grief I’m doing now, the day of will be pleasantly anti-climactic. Or maybe there’ll be moments of levity amidst moments of gut-wrenching sadness. The one thing I do know for certain is that I don’t know. Huh? That is, I am confident that the healing process has a path of its own and will run its course in ways I can’t predict. From everything I’ve seen, the larger patterns are more predictable. That is, I have faith that I and my suffering loved ones will feel better in 10 years than now and that there will be, when viewed from a distance, an upward arc. Get closer, though, and the lines have a lot more twists and turns.

This is not to say that anyone dealing with the aftermath of trauma is entirely at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. There most certainly are tangible steps we can take to promote healing of whatever sort. Indeed, a disproportionate percentage of my life choices have revolved around this. I don’t have total control over healing from any among the spate of injuries that are inevitable due to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, but there are lots of choices I can (and, indeed, must) make to foster healing in that way. My process of healing from childhood sexual trauma (already addressed on this blog) has been long, convoluted and ongoing, with the one common thread being my stubborn determination to confront the demons and come out on top.

It’s important to make a distinction between healing and coping. Coping is surviving, getting through something in the moment. Coping is important on one level, but it is a comparatively finite and superficial thing. Some coping mechanisms include avoidance, distraction, intoxication-induced numbing (drugs, alcohol, etc.) and all sorts of other things that we wouldn’t deem particularly helpful. Even healthy coping mechanisms (of which there are many) exist to get through the present moment, not to address the core issue causing the suffering. If that core issue is trivial, then that’s enough (coping with sitting through a boring lecture, for example). If it’s a bigger or deeper challenge, then coping alone is at best a stall tactic. Coping is necessary, of course, as we can’t be knee-deep in our pain 24/7. The point, then, is not to denigrate coping but simply to acknowledge that it isn’t the deep or transformative part of the process. For example, many people are currently coping with the recent spate of high-profile racial injustices by moving their attention elsewhere (“I’m tired of hearing about this”), but no rational person would claim that this approach is healing anything or anybody, personally or societally.

Healing is seldom easy, but it’s a lot easier when we acknowledge and accept the convolution of the process both for ourselves and for others. It would be so much easier and more clear-cut if things WERE predictably linear. Today I feel better than I did yesterday, tomorrow I’ll feel better than I do today, and so on, and at this pace I’ll feel like a million bucks a week from Thursday. Maybe with the common cold or disappointment over last night’s Lakers game this can happen. But deep wounds and the deep healing that they necessitate don’t work that way, and the more complicated the trauma, the more layers of healing there are to intersect in ways that may or may not seem coherent. Not only are some days better than others, but there may be good parts and bad parts and confusing parts all happening concurrently and on different schedules.

This is particularly challenging when surrounded by those expecting linearity. I began contemplating this (albeit in a comparatively trivial context) a few years ago when I resumed playing tennis after years away from the game due to issues with joint health. I can admit now that my biggest fear wasn’t that I’d get hurt. My biggest fear wasn’t that I’d get into it and then be emotionally crushed when I had to stop again (which, ironically enough, may be where I find myself now – we’ll see . . .). My biggest fear was that I would undo the years of work I’d done in training people around me to understand that I had a physical disability. Most people perceive that you’re either sick or well. So for me to go on a tennis court would mean that I was better now and all the other accommodations I had needed would no longer be relevant. It is not that simple, and yet I was conscious that for some people I was pushing them beyond their comfort zone for embracing divergent realities.

And that was a physical issue. Even harder is navigating the same phenomenon while also dealing with the emotional strain of trauma. People want you to get better because it’s tiring to be around people who are in pain, because it makes them uncomfortable and forces them to confront their own demons. People see you functioning well and assuming you’re on the up-and-up and that this means you’ve crossed some kind of threshold that won’t be crossed again in the opposite direction. These are understandable expectations in the sense that it’s easier for most people to think concretely and sequentially. But it just isn’t the way these things really go. It just isn’t. We should expect, both of ourselves and others, that these things will take circuitous paths and that there is no “all better” end point like we might expect from a virus or broken bone. Failure to do this has a whole wave of consequences, none of them good (unless you believe that “suck it up” is a clinically effective means by which to heal from trauma – if so, I’ve got some books to loan you).

Is it hard to reconcile this unpredictable non-linearity? Heck yes it is. But not half as hard as it is to do the actual work of soldiering forward through loss, pain and other fallout from trauma. Those who have experienced trauma need to accept this reality so as not compound the inevitable challenges with the further struggle of unrealistic expectations and disheartening failure to meet them. Those who are not in the throes of that struggle also can work on making sense of this seemingly irrational reality. Ultimately, that’s self-serving as much as anything. How? Well, nobody is immune to trauma, so everything we do to create a world that envelops those who are suffering with, at minimum, patience and understanding (love and nurturing being bonuses on top of that) is like creating an insurance policy against being isolated, pressured and misunderstood when that moment comes. And unlike most of this stuff, that is as straightforward as it gets.

When “Thank You” Trumps “I’m Sorry”

Since it’s Thanksgiving today, it seems like good timing to address a subtle yet surprisingly powerful shift that I’ve learned to make in the realm of gratitude. You’ll hear lots about counting your blessings, being grateful for what you have and so on, and that’s all valid and important. But aside from lost perspective, gratitude can also help transform shame, weakness and remorse.

I am a strong advocate for apologizing when we mess up. That’s pretty straightforward, but what constitutes messing up? I think we can all agree that when we do or say something that we shouldn’t have and it hurts somebody, then an apology is warranted. When we mean well but due to our own ignorance we bring about the same outcome (and can see that impact in hindsight) then an apology is still very appropriate, certainly better than “aw c’mon, I didn’t mean it!”

But what about when we don’t do anything wrong, yet a negative outcome results. If you get the flu or are rear-ended by a car or you are mugged or your secure job is downsized due to a corporate merger, these are all things that, objectively speaking, will introduce burdens to your loved ones. Yet, in most cases (unless you taunted the mugger, French-kissed someone you knew had the flu, etc.) they are beyond your control. What then, should you still apologize?

The impulse to do so isn’t all bad, and part of that impulse should certainly be preserved. I’m talking here about the impulse to acknowledge the impact on others, including whatever efforts (for reasons upon which I’ll elaborate in a moment, I hesitate to call them “burdens”) are added to their plates as a result. Being defensive about that helps nobody, and the world is full of caregivers (either long-term or temporary) who should be celebrated for helping to keep the wheels spinning amidst adversity.

The problem with an apology in that case is it involves making ourselves accountable for things outside our control. Often it’s just a linguistic issue at first (“I’m sorry” rolls off the tongue a lot faster than “I acknowledge that your life has been made more difficult as a result of this circumstance”), but language impacts perception. Shouldering that kind of responsibility invariably leads to the sorts of negative emotions that don’t actually help anyone. As Brene’ Brown discusses in her work (most recently Daring Greatly), guilt is a societally useful deterrent against doing irresponsible and hurtful things, while shame takes some of the same substance and internalizes it in a soul-crushing way.

I suppose it’s harmless enough when we say “sorry, I thought I-95 would be faster than the Hutchinson Parkway this time of day” or “sorry, I guess that movie kind of sucked” or maybe even “sorry, I’m just not feeling up to finishing this volleyball game” – though these are “beyond our control” circumstances, they’re not particularly self-shaming. Really, I’m not advocating any kind of large-scale elimination of the term, but it’s a slippery slope.

Taking extra personal responsibility for illness, injury, proximity to random tragedy and so on is a natural impulse and is generally connected at least somewhat with the desire to have a modicum of control over a helpless situation. But does it actually help anyone to apologize for having the flu? In that case, maybe it’s harmless enough, but I have seen vividly that it becomes much more insidious when the circumstance is unchanging. Objectively speaking, those who’ve lost loved ones and those who have chronic (especially incurable) illnesses face challenges that make things more difficult for them and for the people who love them, and these challenges don’t go away. As a result, any unhealthy responses to this sort of adversity will also linger long-term. And sadly I’ve seen this happen. As someone who’s lived my life (and will live my remaining days) with a physical disability, it breaks my heart to see comrades-in-EDS suffer additional stress, even marriage dissolution, due to problems stemming from this fundamental dynamic of blame-and-shame over something over which the ailing one had no volition.

So what if “I’m sorry” is replaced with “thank you” in these cases? It’s a bit of a paradigm shift, but not so hard if you step back a bit. And remember, I’m still a pragmatist beneath it all, so this is about what works more than anything else. There are two fundamental reasons why I find this works for all parties, both those directly afflicted with something and those taking a beating as caregivers.

1) For someone suffering for reasons beyond his or her control, it’s emotionally dangerous to take on personal responsibility. You run the risk of becoming your adversity, your illness, your bereavement. This leads to shame and shame leads to all kinds of other negative things, including a paralysis that increases the difficulty of making change. Saying “thank you” does all of the positive, healthy things (primarily acknowledging that you are at the moment the epicenter of a challenging circumstance that impacts others and expressing gratitude for not having to go it alone) while shifting from a perspective of damage and burden to one of teamwork. With or without major adversity, thanking one’s teammates is always a great idea, and particularly in tough times, it’s helpful to shift perspective away from one’s own down-in-the-dumps circumstances to the blessing of outside support, however subtle it may be.

2) Gratitude is a much more powerful motivator than pity. This applies particularly to whoever comprises the support team. If you pity someone, will you help? Maybe, depending on your personality, but it’s unlikely to feel great and it’s unlikely to be the sort of support that feels sustainable. Sure we’ll drop a dime in the cup of the scraggly panhandler, but most of us won’t really invest (or feel great about it) unless the dynamic shifts to one of working together to make things better (even if that just means enduring together until things can get better). So if pity is the way you can get the next meal and if that’s all you’ve got, then of course you’ve got to eat. But the wells of pity will eventually run dry, while the river of solidarity just keeps on running (dang, that’s kind of poetic). Really, though, a sense of teamwork and shared responsibility is powerful and sustainable, even if in purely logistical terms one of the team members is limited in what he or she can do. Encouraging that kind of solidarity is a real example of taking control of a seemingly helpless situation.

I have seen this manifest in my own life with surprising power. Kate and I have developed a policy of, whenever possible, demanding that apologies be reframed as gratitude. “I’m sorry I kept you up” or “I’m sorry you have to clean my wounds” or “I’m sorry you couldn’t go to the concert” becomes “thank you for being there for me.” All of the healthy stuff in the apology is still there, yet it feels so much better for both of us and it foments the kind of healthy teamwork that we all need so badly to endure life’s challenges. If it were just a touchy-feely way to feel better, then that alone would be of some value, but more importantly, this is another tool to actually make things better. One more reason for gratitude, eh?

Top 10 Favorite Jimmy Greene Tracks

November 25 marks the release of A Beautiful Life, a musically brilliant and emotionally potent new album by Jimmy Greene in tribute to his murdered daughter, Ana Grace. I could write a long essay about Jimmy the human being – we’ve been friends over half our lives by now – his humility, his strength, his faith and his caring responsibility. But that’s not what this is. Instead, I wanted to whet your appetites with some personal highlights from the catalog of Jimmy the musician. Though he is my friend and a major formative figure in my own development as a young musician, I have also been a fan of his music since I first heard his soulful, mature playing when he was 16. It has of course only gotten better. As a saxophonist and composer he has developed a distinct and important voice.

I have omitted the tracks from A Beautiful Life because a) you should just buy the record without my putting it on the list and b) I am not about to take on the responsibility of picking one of those tracks above the others. I have also omitted Jimmy’s tremendous contributions to my own records, though for those interested, he is prominently featured on “Happy Birthday” (in a “tenor battle” with fellow “twin tower” Wayne Escoffery) and “Washington, 1963” from Soul Force and “Motherless” and “Lester” from Ripples. Finally I have omitted some great and significant recordings from Tom Harrell, Horace Silver, Ben Riley, the New Jazz Composers Octet, Myron Walden and others, not to mention many wonderful tracks from Jimmy’s own albums as a bandleader. Ten is a small number, and I went with personal highlights.

1 ) “Love In Action” (from Mission Statement)

Jimmy’s longtime quartet of Xavier Davis, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland is augmented here by guitarist Lage Lund on a sweeping, extended rubato tune. The soulful, sophisticated music and the important message are both perfect representations of what JG is about.

2 ) “Song for Isaiah” (from True Life Stories)

The older I get, the fewer life-altering musical experiences I have, just the nature of the aging and learning processes. One notable exception came a little less than a decade ago when I went with my wife and oldest daughter to hear Jimmy premiere his extended work The Overcomer’s Suite at the Village Vanguard with his quartet, a moment in which I felt both my ears and heart expand. One of the movements in that suite was recorded on this Criss Cross release with the addition of Jeremy Pelt’s trumpet.

3 ) “Heavy” by Avishai Cohen (from Colors)

This infectious track documents Jimmy’s long, fruitful relationship with bassist/composer/bandleader Cohen. Jimmy’s beautiful flute playing is on display alongside trombonist Avi Lebovich and pianist Jason Lindner, another frequent collaborator.

4 ) “He Is Lord” (from Forever)

This duet with Xavier Davis shows a number of things: Jimmy’s immense lyricism (especially on ballads), his sensitive interplay, his gorgeous tone on soprano saxophone and the role of faith in his music. The absence of a full band or musical pyrotechnics doesn’t keep this from being seriously intense.

5 ) “Art of War” by Ralph Peterson (from The Art of War)

When I heard that Jimmy was playing in Ralph Peterson’s Quintet (alongside Jeremy Pelt, Eric Revis and my onetime Rutgers classmate Orrin Evans) I got pretty excited. I chose this track because it was the first track from the first of their 3 records together and I still remember where I was sitting when I rocked back in my chair from the onslaught of sound. As sensitive a player as Jimmy can be, he can also blow the roof off with his tenor, and he does just that here.

6 ) “Word! Dr. Byrd” by Darren Barrett (from First One Up)

While still in graduate school, I had the mind-blowing experience of travelling up to Boston one weekend to hear Jimmy play at Wally’s in a quintet with trumpeter Darren Barrett, pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer John Lamkin. I’m glad that group is represented on record, and this hard-swinging tribute to a major mentor of Barrett’s is just one among the highlights.

7 ) “Arioso” by Lewis Nash (from The Highest Mountain)

The blend of Jimmy’s soprano and Jeremy Pelt’s trumpet is on display again here in Nash’s wonderful quintet. I have a soft spot for this 30+ year old waltz by the late, great James Williams. Nash’s group has a perfect balance of fire and sensitivity all around, aided tremendously by the comping and soloing of another frequent JG collaborator, pianist Renee Rosnes.

8 ) “Brand New World” (from Brand New World)

I would be remiss if I didn’t include some of the important figures from Jimmy’s time at the Hartt School of Music. In addition to Goldberg, Barrett and the late Dwayne Burno, this track from Jimmy’s RCA Victor Records debut prominently features fellow Jackie McLean disciples Stevie-D and E-Mac (trombonist Steve Davis and drummer Eric McPherson). And the baby niece for whom he wrote this tune is now in high school – Jimmy, we’re getting old, dude . . .

9 ) “Arc for Puppy” by Mario Pavone (from Ancestors)

Though JG is best known for more “straight-ahead” contexts, he is quite versatile, as displayed through his multiple collaborations with progressive bassist/composer Mario Pavone. In this group his saxophone (tenor, on this track) is juxtaposed seamlessly with the generally more experimental sounds of Tony Malaby as well as pianist Peter Madsen and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

10 ) “242 E. 3rd“ by Lamont Johnson (from 242 E. 3rd)

This is the oldest track on this list (though far from his first record date). This Latin-inflected tune, also featuring some great Howard Johnson tuba, has some searing JG tenor work alongside the piano and writing of Johnson, an important and underappreciated Jackie McLean sideman. Jimmy, I forgive you for missing my wedding rehearsal for this and am glad you made the ceremony :)

The Trap of Unmet Expectations

The other day I had lunch with a new musical acquaintance. He has some physical issues and wondered aloud how long he’d be able to keep doing this. Without any particular intention to preach, I asked him what “this” refers to. Like a room full of light bulbs going on at once, this illuminated my percolating awareness of the huge role expectations can play in our perception of bounty versus scarcity. I told him that in my experience and observation, specificity of expectations is the biggest obstacle facing so many musicians (and, for that matter, every other human being) – bigger than physical frailty, bigger than economic challenges, bigger than anything about the “hustle” for gigs, publicity, recognition and so on. It’s easy to get into the trap of evaluating the value or satisfaction of something based on these expectations. It’s hard enough to objectively ask ourselves “where am I?” Hard becomes virtually impossible, though, when our own sincere thoughts are being drowned out by a sea of other questions: “Where should I be?” “Where are the people I envy?” “Where do others think I am?” “Where did I expect I would be by this point when I was younger?”

The following day, I found myself remembering how exactly a year ago, on the heels of a scary hand injury, Kate turned a gig of mine into a surprise early 40th birthday party. As I reminisced about that night it occurred to me that my angle of view could profoundly shape what the take-away was from the night.

Interpretation #1: What an amazing night. I was down in the dumps from an injury that left me only able to use my left hand to play, but I decided to soldier on and play my gig that weekend. Lo and behold, as we played “Be Real Special,” a flood of wonderful people marched through the door. Before I knew it, I was being feted with kind words and beautiful songs and a parade of hugs worth of “this is your life.” The music was buoyant, and my desire to acknowledge the perseverance that allowed me to still play the piano come 40 was, ironically, addressed perfectly by playing left-handed, never mind doing so in such a supportive environment. Every man should be so lucky as to feel this appreciated and loved for a day. How blessed am I.

Interpretation #2: What a disaster. For years I’d been aiming to musically celebrate on my 40th birthday, but that was of course implausible since the date (December 14) is now inexorably linked with both personal and global tragedy. So instead, people came out on a night when I was physically and musically compromised, in pain and sleep-deprived. As a result, all of these folks showed up, some of whom seldom get to hear me play, and they got a broken-down, impaired version of me at a place that doesn’t even have a piano. A bunch of important people couldn’t even make it, and yet because there were so many people, I couldn’t spend more than a moment with any of them. So by the next day I was back to being alone, with only the left over cupcakes to get fat from. Boo hoo, poor me.

You may find this surprising, but I have opted with interpretation #3. I am an upbeat guy in general, so it would be natural to think that I’d have chosen #1 and that’s quite reasonable. Everything in #1 is completely accurate, genuine and reflective of the sort of gratitude and optimism that provide the antidote for the “Debbie Downer” approach embodied by #2. However, I am not saying that there is any moral superiority or even necessarily personal gain to accentuating the positive at the expense of acknowledging the full scope of reality. Really , everything in interpretation #2 above is true as well, and all else being equal I prefer truthful cynicism to delusional optimism. This may seem subtle, but what I choose to reject in #2 is not any of the factual information. Rather it is the way in which the embedded pessimism revolves around unmet expectations.

It is fact that a tragic mass shooting has made my actual birthday a day unfit for celebrating. It is fact that on the day of last year’s gig/party I was in significant physical distress. It is fact that some of my nearest and dearest people were in far-flung places and unable to be there. It is a fact that I gorged on cupcakes (okay, I’m not going to lie, that part was actually pretty awesome). I can’t claim to embrace the full scope of life or reality if I shuttle these things into the periphery of my awareness.

And yet, what does it mean if I get bent out of shape based on my unmet expectations? Am I somehow entitled to not be in pain or to be immune to the sorts of deeper challenges that other humans face? Does everything have to go right for an experience to be deemed positive? Is “going right” even a quantifiable thing outside of my own preconceptions? And am close enough to being the center of the universe for any of that to be of great import?

Taken a bit more broadly, the definition of my own career as a whole is a broader-scale example that provides context for this notion. Am I a hero who has overcome disability and industriously triumphed in putting forth beauty into the world? Am I a star-crossed loser who failed to achieve his goals?  Uh, both? Neither? More to the point, the very logic behind the question is not entirely healthy. The most real answer is that I’m just a guy who is navigating fluid and unpredictable circumstances and trying to make the best of things. Just like the vast majority of other human beings on the planet.

I am also not saying one shouldn’t set goals or have standards. It is very difficult to focus one’s energies without doing so. Goals and standards do not necessarily equal expectations, however. The desire to become good enough to play high-level basketball can be a great source of inspiration and discipline. The sense that the world has betrayed you if you don’t make it to the NBA is not useful.

Why not? Because you miss out on life. Whether you are happy or sad is in part a matter of personality, choice and life circumstances not entirely within your control. Yet neither happiness nor sadness has to dictate how fully you live your life, and living it necessitates both going with the flow and being open to all that surrounds you. How many people have missed out on great relationships because they were too busy pining for an unrequited infatuation to look around? If you don’t get something you wanted, it’s not my place to say how you should frame that emotionally, but in practical terms getting caught up in that decreases the likelihood that you will be aware of the other opportunities that exist.

In the end, I don’t know whether my new pal will be hanging up his instrument in two years or playing the Superbowl halftime show in twenty. I do know, though, that any prediction we make now will be at best semi-accurate. If we choose to let go of those expectations, this needn’t be stressful, only another facet of the blessing that is life.

Top 10 Favorite Jack Bruce Tracks

Jack Bruce finally succumbed to his liver woes yesterday at the age of 71. I’ll always be a fan of his most famous work with Cream, and could certainly have done a Top 10 list of just those tunes. But as a person interested in jazz, rock and the sometimes nebulous crosshairs between them, I find Jack Bruce to be a particularly important (dare I say unique?) figure, with credibility in both worlds and a long track record of exploring the intersections. This list was compiled with a particular slant towards showing his diversity in that regard.

1 ) “White Room” by Cream (from Wheels of Fire)

This is not the first Cream song I ever heard or enjoyed, but it’s the one that made the light bulb go on for me around Jack’s genius as a player, singer and songwriter. The song is so iconic that I’ll admit to sometimes taking it for granted, but I can’t imagine a musical world without it!

2 ) “HCKHH Blues” (from Things We Like)

Though not initially released, this 1968 session was Bruce’s first as a bandleader, an instrumental jazz album with a quartet including saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, guitarist John McLaughlin, and drummer Jon Hiseman. This track (indeed, along with the whole album) is a great example of the high-energy, edgy jazz that some visionaries in the UK were producing at that time.

3 ) “Right On” by Tony Williams Lifetime (from Turn It Over)

I love Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius, but as far as jazz-rock electric bass-centered jams go, can you really get any nastier than this? Far from being the rock-star mascot alongside Tony, organist Larry Young and important mutual associate John McLauglin, Bruce is a wonderful contributor to this criminally underappreciated early jazz-rock fusion album.

4 ) “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune” (from Songs for a Tailor)

Lest one think that Bruce’s output of great rock ended with the breakup of Cream, this delightful 1969 track features great horns and some gnarly George Harrison rhythm guitar in service of a super-catchy song with characteristically obtuse Pete Brown lyrics.

5 ) “The First Time I Met the Blues” by Graham Bond Organisation (from Live at Klook’s Kleek)

This live 1964 recording from London features Bond’s quartet with saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, drummer and soon-to-be Cream co-founder Ginger Baker along with Bruce, heard here on vocals and harmonica as well as bass. Whatever that hard-to-define sweet spot was in which blues and hard-rock sensibilities were coming together in the UK at that time, this is a wonderful document of the gestation of that sound.

6 ) “Apostrophe” by Frank Zappa (from Apostrophe)

This instrumental jam with Frank Zappa is intense, busy and kind of all over the place . . . in a good way, if you ask me. As Frank himself observed, this isn’t typical bass playing, with Bruce taking the spotlight at times with his own dramatic playing.

7 ) “There Comes a Time” by Spectrum Road (from Spectrum Road)

This Tony Williams Lifetime “tribute band” featured former band member Bruce alongside John Medeski, Vernon Reid and Cindy Blackman-Santana. In addition to his great playing over this rhythmically tricky tune, Bruce capably handles the deceptively challenging task of singing Tony’s vocal part from the original.

8 ) “Born Under a Bad Sign” by Cream (from Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6, 2005)

It may seem heretical to only include two Cream songs AND have one of them be a recent live recording. Still, I wanted to give some props to Jack’s endurance post-liver-transplant and his ability to come back and deliver his snaky bass lines and his characteristic blues-meets-sneer vocals with such authority, all of which he does in spades here.

9 ) “Directions Home (for Tony Williams & Larry Young)” (from Shadows in the Air)

This 2001 album features guests ranging from Bernie Worrell and Vernon Reid to Gary Moore and Eric Clapton. This track, not an all-star affair per se, is my favorite, building a rhythmically infectious groove off Robby Ameen’s drums, percussive handclapping and a gorgeous chordal vamp over which Jack sings one of the most lyrical melodies of his later years.

10 ) “Doxy” by Graham Bond (from Solid Bond)

This 1963 session, with the same band as on the previous Bond entry above, plus John McLaughlin on guitar, shows an early Bruce playing acoustic bass in a thoroughly straight-ahead jazz context. It isn’t necessarily the best Bruce OR the best version of “Doxy,” but it’s fun to hear these guys just swinging, straight-ahead.

White Bean Dip

Possibly my most popular recipe on this blog is our household’s default “formula” for hummus, but sometimes a less heavy and/or simpler bean dip is called for. This tasty dip is good any time of year, though if fresh herbs are available, all the better. It’s good on crackers, as a dip for vegetables or as a sandwich spread.

white bean dip

you can put it on a carrot, you can eat it with a spoon . . .

-          2 large scallions, coarsely chopped

-          3 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

-          3 Tbsp good-quality olive oil

-          3 cups white beans (navy beans or cannellini work great)

-          ½ cup lemon juice (ideally but not necessarily freshly-squeezed)

-          2 Tbsp tamari (or other high-quality soy sauce)

-          ½ cup chopped parsley (add up to an additional ½ cup parsley or, if available basil)

-          Salt and pepper to taste

1) In a wok or skillet, heat the olive oil on medium-high heat.

2) sauté the scallions and garlic for 2 minutes; remove from heat and set aside to cool.

2) Add the beans to a food processor and process for about 30 seconds.

3) Add the garlic/scallion/oil, the lemon juice, and the tamari and process until smooth.

4) Stir in parsley (unless you don’t like the texture of chopped parsley, in which case you can add in step 3) and add salt and pepper as you deem necessary – it should be pretty durned tasty as-is.

Mastery Is Not A Lost Art (or What I Know About Life I Learned From the Fruitery)

As a jazz musician, is it weird to cite the guy who sold me a bunch of cantaloupes as a bigger influence on my career than Duke Ellington? If you look at it that way then of course. As you might expect, though, there is a bit more nuance in here – Ted Xenelis and the crew at the Middlesex Fruitery have driven home the lesson of what it means to be a master practitioner.

The Middlesex Fruitery has been a community landmark here in Middletown, CT since the 1920s. Ted took over his father’s business and continued the wonderful if (in his own words) archaic practice of offering full-service produce. That is, you go into the Fruitery and once you make it to the front of the line, someone helps you. Quite often that someone is Ted or his wife Mary, or possibly his longtime employee Brendi.

What does “helping you” entail, exactly? I mean, don’t you just grab a couple peaches and an eggplant, pay and get out of there? Well, no. You can’t actually touch the fruit or vegetables. This is the part of the explanation where neophytes are often put off or at the very least confused . . . until I explain further. Would you rather have a tomato that 15 other customers have fondled or one that has only been touched, gently, by the staff?

Never mind that, but let’s get real – go to the supermarket and grab a peach and you are essentially playing roulette. Comparatively low-stakes (depending on how much you need that peach) but with all due respect to the hard-working folks in the produce departments at Stop and Shop or Price Chopper, you’re not likely to get a heck of a lot of guidance. Go to the Fruitery and ask for a peach (keeping your grubby mitts off, of course) and here are some likely responses:

“When do you expect to eat it?”

“Would you like a taste of one?”

“The weather in Georgia has been rough this month – I think you should really try the nectarines this week, they’re spectacular.”

For the last 15 years this routine has been part of my existence and rather fundamental to my civic pride here. I keep speaking in the present tense as I describe this, but as of Saturday Ted and Mary will begin their hard-earned transition to retirement and Kate and I and others will begin our own transitions back to hunting down a worthwhile peach with the rest of the poor saps who walk the aisles of Whole Foods or C-Town or wherever it may be, making at best semi-educated guesses about the melons and green beans.

Now, anybody who knows me (or uses the recently-neglected recipes section on this blog) is aware that healthy food is central to my existence. So a big part of my disorientation as we anticipate this transition is the straightforward and relatively mundane question of finding the best fruit and vegetables we can, a quandary that I recognize is one of privilege. Not everybody has access to such things even under ideal circumstances.

Really, though, the biggest thing for me is that I have never before found buying food to be a soulful, educational and life-affirming process and frankly, I don’t expect to find that again.

What I find myself reflecting on is the care and attention to detail that was so clear whenever I walked in the door there, and the epicenter of all that is the notion of a job well done. I now realize that all my experiences at the Middlesex Fruitery galvanized my determination to embody that in my own career. In a world where “good enough” is the standard, commitment to excellence is all the more conspicuous.

I have always valued this notion, but Ted has been a vital mentor in that regard. My father was widely respected in the architectural world for his comprehensive mastery of the specific sub-specialty in which he chose to specialize, and reflecting on his life that stands out as one of the most resonant lessons he passed on. But, frankly, I’m just not that interested in architecture and while (like computer science and road paving) it impacts me, the specifics are just over my head. Conversely, I think of some of my jazz instructors’ high standards, something that affected me profoundly. But that was trade school, and I interpreted it as learning what the wider world’s expectations were and how one could “compete” in a crowded field – I didn’t think much about how it translated to life beyond.

Yet watching Ted in action has driven home how a life and career can be built from a core sense of expecting to provide something exceptional to people. I’m no idiot, and I know that caring that much is at best inconvenient and at worst impractical. Owning a business like that, there’s no “overtime pay” for the 4am trips to the market and for the long work days on purported days off. I don’t know how to quantify how these high standards translated to profit, but I’m pretty confident that this is beside the point anyway. As far as I can tell, this kind of excellence and attention to detail come from an inner sense of integrity and determination to serve both other people and the ideals of your field (whether music or fruit). I sometimes think of Ted when I’m rewriting a composition for the third time or doing that extra bit of research to corroborate a detail or listening to multiple examples of a tune to offer the most relevant example of something for students. In most cases I could get away with not doing that, but that feels irrelevant – sometimes pragmatism demands that you do the best you can and move on, my sense of duty is not governed by what I can get away with.

In the end, though, so many of us need to have this in our lives. Any adult who has a really trusted attorney, accountant or car mechanic knows what it feels like to put something important in the trusted hands of another and also knows how that feeling contrasts with the sense of “geez, I HOPE this works out.” Fruit may on the one hand seem more trivial than taxes or car maintenance – I could argue that food is more fundamental than any of that, but that’s ultimately not my point. My point is that commitment to deep knowledge, hard work and excellence may be on some level impractical, yet it’s so vitally necessary. This is true on both ends. As the consumer, that sense that wisdom is out there and someone will care enough to dispense it for our benefit is a vital source of security. As the purveyor, our personal growth is at a certain point tied in with our ability to commit to something in that way (whether it be a profession, parenthood, training for kayak races or whatever else).

If all this sounds like a big deal to make over a produce vendor, then I’m sorry you did not get to visit the Middlesex Fruitery. However, it is far from too late to embrace these principles in our own lives and to cherish those in our communities who bring this sort of love and commitment to their work. In the meantime, bravo and thank you Ted and Mary.

Top 10 Favorite Joni Mitchell Tracks

Shameful confession: I didn’t “discover” Joni Mitchell until my twenties. They didn’t play her on the rock stations I listened to as a teenager, and as a college-age jazz student I was maybe a generation too old; nowadays musicians like Brian Blade openly cite her influence and have made it hip to dig into the textures, harmonic complexities and emotional resonance of her music. Me, I thought she was the chick who wrote that “Big Yellow Taxi” song, which was pretty clever. My roommate played “The Last Time I Saw Richard” from Blue for me once and I indeed thought it was emotionally potent, but that was about it. In general I lumped her in with other folkie singer-songwriter types of the era like Judy Collins (who, I wasn’t hip enough to know, had the earliest hit versions of Joni’s tunes), James Taylor and so on – nothing wrong with them, but that wasn’t my bag. Then, doing some research for a graduate school project, I checked out the Court and Spark album and had a “my God, where have you been all my life?!” moment. In the ensuing years, I’ve gone both forward and back in exploring her catalogue, much of which has left an indelible mark on my own musical vision. Thanks Joni, and sorry it took me so long!

These lists are always “favorites” and not “bests,” and in this case it’s particularly geared towards pointing out the stuff that has impacted me.

1 ) “Free Man In Paris” (from Court and Spark)

Who knows what would have happened if I heard Court and Spark when I was 17 instead of 23? No matter, I still heard it and it still blew my mind. The textures of this song have penetrated my consciousness deeply, never mind that it’s got the best lyrics ever written about being a record executive. And even if there were more such songs, that would probably still be true. Most songs on this record belong on this list, but if I had to pick one, then here it is.

2 ) “River” (from Blue)

Many folks, when they think of Joni Mitchell, think of solo piano or guitar plus a single voice. While that’s not necessarily true for me, that stuff is of course brilliant, and never more so than on this heartbreaking and harmonically rich performance from her seminal Blue album.

3 ) “Dreamland” (from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter)

To say this is one of the coolest tracks that exists in music is, I suppose, not particularly useful. Manolo Badrena, Don Alias, Alex Acuna and Airto create a dense, propulsive layer of Brazilian percussion, and over that Joni sings an utterly gorgeous melody with ethereal lyrics, eventually joined by Chaka Khan. That’s the closest I can get to describing it, it’s just otherworldly, and who needs chords? I felt I could only include one voice-and-percussion song, thus bumping off her experiment with drummers from Burundi (and Moog synthesizer) on “Jungle Line” from Hissing of Summer Lawns.

4 ) “Good Friends” (from Dog Eat Dog)

Not unlike Miles Davis, fans of Joni Mitchell tend to gloss over the aesthetics of the output from the 1980s, but in both cases there are some real gems in there. This Thomas Dolby-produced album has a number of them, most notably (to my subjective ear) this gorgeous song featuring a wonderful blend between Joni’s smoky vocals and those of Michael McDonald. I’ve been grooving on this song for 15 years but I actually didn’t realize until about 5 minutes that they made a video for it, too, with some cool 1980s animation.

5 ) “Carey” (from Blue)

Also from the “Blue” album this song was technically a minor hit in 1971, but is primarily known by Joni-philes at this point. If you had told me at 15 that I would be permanently haunted by a song revolving around vocal overdubs and the Appalachian dulcimer, I would have . . . well, I actually have no idea what I would’ve said (I was a pretty open-minded young dude) but in my 20s that’s precisely what happened.

6 ) “Woodstock” (from Ladies of the Canyon)

It was probably 10 years between my getting acquainted with the hit Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young version of this song and my first time hearing Joni’s version, and frankly my first exposure was rather disorienting because I’d become so used to all those harmonies. But what a potent performance of an iconic song this really is, and I’m glad I took the time to figure that out!

7 ) “Trouble Child” (from Travelogue)

This is a great tune from Court and Spark, rearranged in an orchestral context (and in a lower key) by Vince Mendoza, making it all the more moody.

8 ) “Let the Wind Carry Me” (from For the Roses)

The For the Roses album fascinates me, particularly in that Blue and Court and Spark are the two records that have most influenced me and this album represents the transition between them. This track, featuring Joni’s piano, the lush woodwind overdubs of Tom Scott and a gorgeous, often surprising set of chords accompanying her

9 ) “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” (from Hissing of Summer Lawns)

Bassist Gary Wang, knowing I was into Court and Spark, was adamant that I needed to check out this, the follow-up album. The juxtaposition between the edgy quality of the songs and the slickness of the musicians is striking and foreshadows some of her future collaborations with Jaco Pastorius and others. This song takes the “12 bar jazz blues cover” idea from Court and Spark (where she did “Twisted” by Annie Ross) to another level, with a great version of “Centerpiece” (featuring Joe Sample’s piano solo) sandwiched amidst the ethereal “Harry’s House.” I challenge you to listen to the transitions and not feel a little disoriented . . . in a good way, of course.

10 ) “The Gallery” (from Clouds)

If Joni hadn’t evolved past the style of her earliest work, I’m not sure if I would have ended up revering her the way I do, but boy is it still lovely stuff. This haunting track from 1969 already shows a great degree of insight and sophistication.