Alternate Realities: EDS Awareness Month 2016

On the coooover of Rolling Stoooone . . .

Maybe next month?

So did you read the latest Rolling Stone? You might have missed it, but the cover story about me has some really sexy photos and a probing interview about my creative process and the 38 weeks* per year I spend making glorious music and sharing it with overflowing stadiums of adoring fans.

* 38 weeks may seem a bit lazy for someone getting that much attention, but considering that I also have four Grand Slam tennis tournaments to win each year. Each of those takes 2 weeks plus a week of preparation beforehand. That equals 50 weeks, and I do take 2 weeks’ vacation because a) I need some quality time with my family and b) I am a human being, after all.

Oh wait, I guess that isn’t accurate, is it? Well, if you have ever wondered about how glorious my life would be if I didn’t have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (as, of course, I have), maybe you’ve come to a similar conclusion. Since May is EDS Awareness Month, I have been thinking about “what might have been,” though maybe not in the most obvious ways. If it were in the most obvious ways, it’d sound something like this:

IT’S NOT FAIR!! I was supposed to go on the road with my musical heroes and sell bazillions of records and win shiny awards and be on magazine covers and have all the money, fame, and respect that (names of successful peers retracted) have! I worked hard to earn all that, and because of this damn medical condition, it was all taken from me. I can’t play long gigs, spend days (much less months) on the road, stay up late at jam sessions, schlep gear, do a gig and a record date on the same day, or even eat or drink whatever’s available at the gig. IT’S NOT FAIR!! SCREW YOU, EDS!

The thing is, I don’t actually believe that anymore. The most obvious reasons are that a) I know plenty of great, committed musicians who deserve all the things mentioned in the previous paragraph and don’t have them and b) it’s not necessarily true that having those things brings about happiness.

But what I really want to discuss here is the natural but illogical notion that we can take a difficult life circumstance and project life without it, a life in which all the things we like about our situation either remain the same or improve. Even if we accept that the above-referenced “what might have been” scenario is abstractly possible, what are some other possible outcomes for the trajectory of my life?

  • • Scenario 1: Unencumbered by EDS, my music career thrived in all the ways described above. As a result, I had sufficient access to temptation that I embraced the stereotypical “artist lifestyle.” Over the years, I developed an STD, spent my money unwisely, and wound up with a drug habit that I would need to spend the rest of my life tending to with the limited resources I didn’t already squander.
    • Scenario 2: Unencumbered by EDS, my music career thrived in all the ways described above. As a result, my life on the road strained all my important relationships, leaving me estranged from my kids and hopping from one relationship (or possibly marriage) to the next whenever the honeymoon period ended and the reality of day-to-day relationship maintenance sprung up. Not having dealt with the physical struggles, my compassion never entirely developed and even my professional relationships lacked true warmth and understanding.
    • Scenario 3: Unencumbered by EDS, my music career thrived, giving me success out of proportion to my emotional infrastructure. I never had to confront my demons or deeply assess who I was or what I wanted out of life. Thus, each coveted milestone I achieved brought about a further feeling of emptiness and despair, as the gap between my life on paper and my inner reality widened. Eventually I got out of music altogether because I didn’t know how to deal with this gap and the reality was too depressing.
    • Scenario 4: Unencumbered by EDS, I never got serious about music, because contact sports were never off limits. So instead I focused my youthful energy on different sports and became popular in school. I got mediocre grades, tried and failed to make it as a baseball player, didn’t get a college scholarship to compensate for my grades, bulked up as soon as my metabolism changed, and went about the rest of my life doing odd jobs without a sense of purpose and looking for love in all the wrong places without having any people skills to compensate for losing my athlete status.

In reality, the likelihood of any of these outcomes is at least comparable to that of the peaches-and-cream scenario. Life is a complex and interrelated system of things and we simply can’t just replace one thing with another and assume everything else will be the same. Maybe my EDS-less life would have been one of joy, glory and validation. Or maybe it would have been marked by shallowness, wastefulness, mediocrity, or self-sabotage. Unencumbered by EDS, the most likely scenario is that I would have lived a life bearing no resemblance to this one and turned out to be someone else entirely doing something else entirely.

I literally do not know who I would be without Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I don’t mean that in a quasi-heroic “character-building” sense, although that is part of it. I also don’t mean it in a generic “appreciate what you have” sense, although that’s also part of it. I mean it in a very matter-of-fact way.

Because of EDS I live in a state of flux between two poles. Hurt and healing. Struggle and transcendence. Connection and alienation. Despair and hope. I’m in a never-ending boxing match with EDS. It has the power to win by knockout and I don’t . . . but if I am smart, strategic, and willing to take it on the chin and get back up when necessary, then the scorecards just may come out in my favor, or at least I’ll prolong the bout. This is fundamental to my life, to my character traits (good and bad), and to my music – every note I create is an attempt to express the same self that would be indistinguishable without EDS.

Do I wish I didn’t have EDS? Of course I do, I’m neither a masochist nor a Buddhist monk. But the resistance has melted over the years – it’s fundamentally part of who I am, and I am grateful to be me. As always, my greatest hope for all those impacted by EDS is for more forward motion in the struggle. More research, more knowledge, more public awareness and support. All human beings have challenges that make them wish they could wave a wand and eliminate particular circumstances with no negative impact on anything else. It’s natural, it’s understandable, but it’s not the way human existence works. And it will become all the less necessary to go on these flights of fancy as all of us keep building a world in which people have the support they need to face their struggles with hope and dignity.


2010 EDS Awareness: Belonging

2011 EDS Awareness: Accommodations

2012 EDS Awareness: Losing Everything

2013 EDS Awareness: Compromised Expectations and Desirable Communities

2014 EDS Awareness: Persistence

2015 EDS Awareness: Professional Coping Skills

“Nice” Is Overrated: Farewell, Randi

On Monday I attended the memorial services that marked, in a sense, the last goodbye to my friend and colleague Randi Brandt. One conclusion is that Randi was not a nice person – and I mean that in the best way possible, for reasons I’ll explain momentarily.

By the time I began teaching teens at Choate Rosemary Hall ten years ago (at first on an interim basis) Randi was already ten years into her position as Assistant to the Director of the Arts, so she was an indelible part of the fabric there. Yesterday, though, hearing both formal and informal reflections on Randi’s life and spirit I felt like something finally clicked.

Interestingly, the light bulb went on that everyone who knew her well a) had been scolded by her more than once and b) felt more loved and nurtured as a result. My first response was “oh, I guess it wasn’t just me,” which I already knew, but still. But my second response was to reflect on how being “nice” and being caring are not only not synonymous, but sometimes actually at odds. This is not to somehow fetishize bluntness (which in Randi’s case was neither good nor bad, but simply a part of her personality) but instead I suggest we take a closer look.

To me, the term “nice” is one of the blandest ways to describe somebody. When I was a kid it was part of the cultural consciousness that when teenagers described a girl as having a good personality, it was a euphemism for unattractiveness. “Nice” is kind of like that – it means you have nothing bad to say, and nothing particularly good to say either or else you’d say “loving” or “compassionate” or “extremely kind,” all of which fit Randi. “Nice,” to me, means “not unpleasant.” Or maybe “hasn’t ever been a jerk to me.” But by itself, nice is bland. If you’re drowning, you are not likely thinking “I hope somebody nice comes along to save me . . . or at least to tweet a frowny face as they shed a tear.” No, at that moment you’re not looking for nice, you’re looking for strong, brave, spunky, principled and decisive. You’re looking for someone who’ll get in the damn water and pull you out . . . and if you get called out along the way for the idiocy of getting into that situation, you’re unlikely to begrudge that.

When I met Randi ten years ago, it took me a while to adjust, as she was indeed less “nice” than some other administrators I knew, and particularly since I spent my first year there not knowing if the gentleman for whom I was filling in would come back, I felt-particularly self-conscious about how to read the directness of her communication. Over time I found her to be a committed and skilled and smart and tuned in. As more time passed, I realized what a dynamo she was as a human being. I have seen her be willing to be “not nice” for the greater good of the many people (colleagues, students, especially her family) she cared about, and I really admire that. Never was this more evident than in her fight with the cancer that ultimately took her life.  I also don’t want to fetishize the “courageous fight” against terminal illness, but my goodness was she not going to capitulate to this, not with what that would mean for others, especially her daughter.

Randi will surely not be forgotten, and I’m confident that whoever is in charge of her accommodations in the great beyond cares about “nice” as little as I do.

Top 10 Favorite Prince Tracks

Like so many, I can’t believe that Prince is gone, and I’m struggling not only to reconcile that, but also to reflect with any coherence on his impact on my own musical conception. When I was a kid, I listened eagerly to all his singles and watched his videos, with no conception of anything else like the enormity of his talent and artistic self-empowerment or the conventions he was transgressing in the realms of race, gender and sexuality. I just knew that “1999” was trippy and “Little Red Corvette” rocked and “When Doves Cry” was moody in a way I loved but didn’t understand. I watched enough MTV that I heard and watched his stuff all the time (puberty more or less lined up with the video for “U Got the Look,” which . . . well, never mind) and thus never really noticed or wondered about his absence from the rock radio airwaves even though “Let’s Go Crazy” rocked harder than at least 90% of what was on there.

I got more into his music and understood more what was going on as I got older and went about the simultaneous tasks of following his development and revisiting the older stuff, including the stuff that predated my initial MTV-fueled awareness of him. The older (and more aware of what it means to be an artist) I got, the more I admired him and was fascinated both by the depth and diversity of his musical skill and by the business choices he made.

This list covers some of the moments I’ve loved from Prince as a recording artist. While I could’ve just used every song on Purple Rain, for example, I worked to make this list reflect the breadth of his career, with these tracks covering a 35 year span.

1 ) “I Wanna Be Your Lover” from Prince (1979)

His first big hit, this song cut through the clutter of disco and showed the emergence of his distinctive artistic voice. Most people probably didn’t care at the time that he was also playing all the instruments, but I sure care.

2 ) “Delirious” from 1999 (1983)

Of course I also love the hits from this record, but the super-upbeat groove on this one knocks me out – I actually use it sometimes with students to teach about multiple layers of groove. Whenever I get really tired, this song plays in my head on repeat.

3 ) “Purple Rain” from Purple Rain (1984)

Such an achingly soulful song, and THAT GUITAR SOLO and then the dramatic falsetto part at the end . . . okay, I’m hyperventilating just thinking about it. Others have waxed poetic about this song plenty (and, rightfully, about the rest of the album/film) so I’ll leave it there.

4 ) “Raspberry Beret” from Around the World in a Day (1985)

I have loved this song from the first moment I heard it. It is perhaps my favorite of the many songs bearing the distinctive Wendy and Lisa sound. I think this is the first Prince song with which I truly fell in love.

5 ) “If I Was Your Girlfriend” from Sign O’ the Times (1987)

Funky, freaky, playing all the instruments, manipulating his voice. Maybe this doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, but I use a riff from this as my ringtone for Kate, and whenever I’m unsure about an outfit before we go somewhere together, I ask (and we sing in unison) for her to help me pick out my clothes before we go out. Not sayin’ I’m helpless, but . . . well, you get the idea.

6) “Sexy MF” from Love Symbol Album (1992)

When I was starting college and in full-on jazz immersion mode, I heard about this song and thought “huh, he’s still around, eh?” And then I heard the song and grinned ear to ear. And again the second time I heard it, and the 50th.

7 ) “Don’t Talk 2 Strangers” from Come 2 My House by Chaka Khan (1998)

Prince as producer/songwriter needs to be represented here, and while there are lots of examples (from Larry Graham to Madonna), to me it begins and nearly ends with Chaka Khan. There are so many great Prince/Chaka collaborations, from her hit version of his “I Feel for You” to the Prince-produced “Sticky Wicked” from the CK album, featuring the trumpet of Miles Davis. My personal favorite is this tender, sentimental song, yet another that Prince recorded compellingly first before finding magic with Chaka.

8 ) “The Work, Part 1” from The Rainbow Children (2001)

One of numerous songs in the JB-inspired mode (something only reinforced once Maceo Parker began to anchor his horn section in live shows), and to my ear one of the best. I remember hearing it and thinking “boy, when is this guy going to slow down?” Maybe it wasn’t hit-after-hit by that point, but wow.

9 ) “A Case of You” from One Nite Alone (2002)

I love this track for a number of reasons. I love Joni Mitchell and I love seeing the connection between them, which makes total sense, made explicit. And I love the heartbreaking poeticism of this song and the tenderness with which Prince sings it. And listen to that piano playing – as much as I adore Prince as a guitarist, his piano work here is exquisite.

10 ) “ANOTHERLOVE” from Plectrumel (2014)

I first heard this one at the end of a medley that he performed with his backing band 3RDEYEGIRL. The whole album is a great example of his still-got-it songwriting in a rock-out context and the guitar duel at the end is fierce.

Top 10 (x2) Favorite James Williams Tracks

My biggest “eureka” moment as a budding jazz musician (or, to be accurate, the moment when I decided I needed to BE a budding jazz musician and not just a dabbler) came the first time I heard “Magical Trio 2″ by James Williams. My friend Noah Bloom (who was studying with fellow Art Blakey alumnus Valery Ponomarev) turned me on to some of James’ work with the Messengers, and so I went and picked up Magical Trio 2 on cassette at Cutler’s Records in New Haven, having in the meantime also seen a clip on PBS of James playing in the band of Elvin Jones, who is also on the record. Playing that album was like the moment in the “Wizard of Oz” where it goes from black & white to color – in a flash I heard everything I wanted music to be, all in one place. Hip, yet emotionally direct, rhythmically probing yet so in-the-pocket, melodically unpredictable, yet oozing blues in every note. Until that moment I was interested in jazz, but with some ambivalence. I was never the same again.

And that’s to say nothing of his profoundly kind, gentle soul. The first time I met him was in 1992 when I was auditioning for colleges and went to hear him at Bradley’s in New York with Kevin Eubanks and John Clayton. The show was wonderful (as were so many I saw in the subsequent 12 years) and after the set I waited nervously in line to meet this man who had already inspired me so much on record. I overheard someone ahead of me in line ask James what’s goin’ on, to which he responded “oh MAN, just getting a lesson every night from these fine musicians.” That complete lack of ego was bewildering enough, but then when I had my moment and took a deep breath and asked if I could take a lesson with him, he smiled and said “you don’t want a lesson with me” and scribbled something on a cocktail napkin. I walked away glad to have met him but confused and disappointed. Only years later did I understand why this humble man had taken that opportunity to write down Harold Mabern’s phone number. I was fortunate to spend some time with James in the years that followed and his warmth and humility were consistent forces.

If life were just, the Soulful Mister Williams, who died of liver cancer in 2004, would’ve been 65 today. And, for that matter, if the music world were just, all his music would be in print. Most of it isn’t, sadly, which makes my compiling of this list challenging – I don’t want to leave out discussion of the tracks that moved me the most, but I also don’t want those who are less familiar with this music to miss out because they’re not inclined to search the interwebs for used CDs. As such, I’m shortening my descriptions and hedging my bets with two lists – one of my “real” top 10 and then another of 10 great tracks that as of this writing are in print and can be found for download or legal streaming. I suggest you go to those 10 right away and I’ll play you the first 10 (and, if you ask, many more that couldn’t fit on this list) the next time you have brunch at my house.

Top 10 All-Time Favorite JW tracks

1 ) “In the Open Court” from Magical Trio 2

The centerpiece of the aforementioned eureka moment was when I heard this mind-blowingly soulful tribute to some of James’ favorite basketball players. The whole album, with Ray Brown and Elvin Jones, has had an incalculable impact on my own musical conception.

2 ) “Yes, Yes, Oh Yes” from Truth, Justice and the Blues (with ICU)

The Intensive Care Unit (featuring Miles Griffith and Roger Holland on vocals) was a unique project that utterly blew my mind when this album came out (and when I got to see the CD release show in NY at Visiones).

3 ) “Rainy Days and Mondays” from Jazz Dialogues

The four-CD Jazz Dialogues set features James in duets with a wide array of his colleagues. There are many transcendent nuggets here, but my favorite is this uber-soulful reading of a tune popularized by the Carpenters by James and Christian McBride.

4 ) “Reedus’ Rendezvous” from Meet the Magical Trio

Any questions about James’ ability to transcend “soulful” playing and throw down can be instantly dispelled by listening to him burn with Charnett Moffett and Jeff “Tain” Watts on this tribute to his nephew, drummer Tony Reedus (who sadly would pass on four and a half years after his uncle).

5 ) “Dancing Trees” from Sail Away by Tom Harrell

This album in general is one of my favorites of both James and the great trumpeter/composer Tom Harrell. Instead of picking the hard-swinging “Buffalo Wings” (as hard-swingers are well represented on this list), I landed on this ethereal track featuring just Tom, James, guitarist John Abercrombie and flutist Cheryl Pyle.

6 ) “Pass Me Not (Oh Gentle Savior)” from Four Pianos for Phineas by the Contemporary Piano Ensemble

This album features a quartet of Phineas Newborn, Jr. disciples, flanking James with Harold Mabern, the late Mulgrew Miller and Geoffrey Keezer (joined for subsequent projects by Donald Brown). This track is a trio number, though, as James plays a lovely ballad version of this spiritual with Bob Cranshaw and Billy Higgins, sandwiched in between an utterly gorgeous solo piano intro and coda.

7 ) “Speak Low” from Live at Bradleys by Kevin Eubanks

This is the same drummer-less trio and venue as in the anecdote above, with the exception of Robert Hurst taking over the bass chair.

8 ) “Say, Dr. J” from Reflections in Blue by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

Did I mention that James liked basketball? This is a super-swinging tune from his days with the Messengers.

9 ) “Arioso” from Arioso Touch

This tricky but gorgeous tune was premiered on this trio session with Buster Williams and Billy Higgins.

10 ) “Alter Ego” from Force of Four by Billy Cobham

Probably James’ best-known composition, this tune has been recorded a number of times, including this session featuring Ron Carter and Donald Harrison alongside James and bandleader Biilly Cobham.

10 Great In Print Tracks

1 ) “Spirit(ually) James” from Soulful Serindipity by James Williams and Bobby Watson

One of my favorite solo piano tracks by anyone ever. Classical, Ellingtonia, spiritual – check, check, check. The rest of this lovely record consists of duets with his longtime friend and colleague (and former fellow Jazz Messenger) Bobby Watson.

2 ) “Dialectical Interchange” from Art Forum by Greg Osby

James’ balance of soulful and modern is on particularly strong display here, and on this whole album.

3 ) “A Certain Attitude” from Me and Mr. Jones by Javon Jackson

Want to hear James swing hard? Want to hear him lock up with the great Elvin Jones? Want to hear one of his own tunes? Well, have I got a track for you . . .

4 ) “Ballad for Gabe-Wells” from Four on the Outside by Curtis Fuller

This lovely tune by trombonist Fuller is a great example of James’ sensitive ballad playing, though they double-up the time feel on the piano solo, so his infectious swing is also on display.

5 ) “The Soulful Mister Timmons” from Live at Bubba’s by Art Blakey (currently issued on Gold Collection, Vol. 2 by Wynton Marsalis)

Okay, I’ll go out on a limb and say it – one of the greatest (and certainly most underrated) incarnations of the Jazz Messengers was the early 80s unit with Bobby Watson, Bill Pierce, Wynton Marsalis and the late Charles Fambrough. Probably James’ best-known contribution to their book was this hard-swinging tribute to one of his predecessors in that band’s piano chair, which can also be found on the (hopefully back in print any day now) Album of the Year record.

6 ) “Rise to the Occasion” from Ph. D by Art Farmer

This swinging tune is one of a number of JW originals recorded on the three albums he did as a member of Art Farmer’s quintet featuring Clifford Jordan (and, on this record, augmented to a sextet by the presence of Kenny Burrell).

7 ) “Affaire D’Amour” from Live at Smalls Vol. 1 & 2 by Bill Mobley Jazz Orchestra

The wonderful composer and trumpet player (and fellow Memphis son) had a close relationship with James and arranged a number of his tunes for big band, including this one featuring JW himself guesting on piano.

8 )  “1983 A.D” from Waltzin’ with Flo by Alan Dawson

This burning tune (sometimes called “Changing of the Guard”) is a highlight of James’ appearance on this album by his Berklee colleague, the legendary drummer Alan Dawson.

9 ) “Old Times Sake” from You Got What It Takes by Kevin Mahogany

This swinging tune, a staple of the ICU repertoire, sounds like it could have been a standard, but it’s a fun JW tune – this upbeat version also features the great Benny Golson.

10 ) “It’s Easy to Remember” from Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane by Karrin Allyson

James’ elegant ballad work is on display here as well, in a gentler reading to contrast the Curtis Fuller track above.

Top 10 Favorite Ted Dunbar Tracks

Every few years I dust off Ted Dunbar’s “A Nice Clean Machine for Pedro” and challenge my students at Wesleyan to learn it – such a gorgeous and deceptively challenging tune. Last year I wrote about Ted’s impact as an educator (which you can read by clicking here), but now it’s time to talk about his unique and powerful voice as a guitarist and composer.

I first encountered his music in my first year at Rutgers. He came in one day to Ralph Bowen’s illuminating Jazz Theory class (which was a pipeline to Ted’s rigorous, multi-year Jazz Improvisation curriculum) and looked us dead in the eyes and said “Look, you got your chords and you got your ideas*, and you gotta hear ‘em fast and you gotta hear ‘em accurate, because they don’t arpeggiated on the bandstand, you dig?**”

* Ideas (pronounced “EYE-deeyz”) = melodic improvisational content

** In other words, you have to get your aural skills together because in a real-life musical situation nobody’s going to spell things out for you.

Anyway, once I was done crapping my pants over what lay before me, I thought I should explore the music behind this charismatic, beloved, feared person. And I wasn’t expecting to find some of the most lyrical improvisation and sensitive accompaniment I had (or indeed have) ever heard. Yes, there was harmonic sophistication, much of it informed by his deep synthesis of George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept, filtered through his years of deep friendship with Dr. David Baker and eventually developed into Ted’s own harmonic system that he called Convergence. But the soulful, melodic, interactive qualities and thematic development, while not entirely without precedent, coalesced into a unique style that resonated (and still resonates) powerfully with my own musical sensibilities.

Narrowing down this list to 10 was hard given that I have (and enjoy) the vast majority of Ted’s discography. Some on this list are no-brainer “desert island” picks. In the fringe cases, I aimed to emphasize work that is in print (that means you can listen to it NOW) and in which Ted is featured prominently. As such, left on the cutting room floor were out-of-print albums by Don Patterson, Lou Donaldson, Billy Taylor (with the Jazzmobile All-Stars), J.J. Johnson, Susanna McCorkle, Michal Urbaniak, Willis “Gator” Jackson and David Schnitter, among others, Likewise, I left off some great records to which Ted contributed noticeably, but not as a featured soloist, including sessions by McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston, Sam Rivers, Diana Ross (yep), Frank Wess . . . okay, you get the idea.

So here goes:

1 ) “A Nice, Clean Machine for Pedro” from Blues in Five Dimensions by Mickey Tucker

I vividly remember the first time I heard this tune, in a lesson with Ted on his cassette boombox. He told me the story behind it (ask me in person sometime and I’ll tell you, maybe even in faux-Ted-voice) and the lyricism and joy in the song left an indelible mark. Extra points as he put this album (by his frequent and cherished collaborator, the great Mickey Tucker) forth as the best he’d ever done, particularly high praise for what is technically a sideman album.

2 ) “Blue Monk” from Peruvian Blue by Kenny Barron

Ted and Kenny had such a great hook-up – hearing them play (especially duo) at school was a real lesson in guitar/piano interactivity (on par with Bill Evans and Jim Hall – yes, I said it). Aside from a great but out of print record from the mid-70s, this one track from Kenny’s second album as a leader is what we have to document that.

3 ) “There Comes a Time” from Ego by Tony Williams Lifetime

I don’t know if there’s been another tune quite like this – hard rocking polyrhythmic 5/4 time with psychedelic Larry Young organ, oodles of percussion (thanks to Tony, Don Alias and Warren Smith) and endearingly trippy vocals from Tony. Oh yeah, and utterly nasty guitar from Ted, who had just replaced John McLaughlin in the band.

4 ) “You Say You Saw What?” from Secundem Artem by Ted Dunbar

The one exception I made to the in-print proviso on this list is here, as I had to represent his output as a bandleader on the long-defunct Xandau label. This one is from his sophomore effort as a leader, featuring Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Al Foster and a young Steve Nelson on one of his first record dates. This moody, multifaceted original tune by Ted depicts a sighting of a UFO, which makes me particularly nostalgic given Ted’s fondness for outer space.

5 ) “The Loud Minority” from The Loud Minority by Frank Foster

There are a few great examples of Ted’s longtime relationship with composer/saxophonist Frank Foster. While I love the live stuff they did with Mickey Tucker and Billy Hart, I chose this rocking and politically outspoken epic from 1972, prominently featuring Frank, Ted, Harold Mabern and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

6 ) “Little Sister” (from House of David by David “Fathead” Newman)

Ted had a particularly sweet hook-up with organ-based groups dating back to his very first record date with Gloria Coleman. This hard-swinging track features Ted with comparatively unknown organist Kossi Gardner alongside longtime Ray Charles sidemen Milt Turner and Fathead.

7 ) “Summertime” from Svengali by Gil Evans

Ted had a clear fondness for Miles Davis, both as a conceptualist and as an exemplar of highly lyrical improvisation. It is then appropriate (and significant) that when Gil Evans decided to remake his classic arrangement of “Summertime” (from Miles’ Porgy and Bess album), he chose Ted to play the lead part and be the sole soloist on the track, now imbued with a funky backbeat.

8 ) “Sop City” (from Smokin’ by Curtis Fuller)

I remember Ted teaching me this song in graduate school, before I had heard this album that so well demonstrates folks of Ted’s generation keeping the flame of hard-swinging jazz in the 1970s. In addition to Ted and Curtis, we hear trumpeter Bill Hardman, and pianist Cedar Walton (on electric piano), saxophonist Jimmy Heath, bassist Mickey Bass (on electric bass) and drummer Billy Higgins. This track just edges out several from Albert “Tootie” Heath’s Kwanzaa record from the following year, also featuring Jimmy and Curtis (alongside Kenny Barron and Heath brother #3, Percy).

9 ) “On Return” (from Gentle Time Alone)

There are few things as gorgeous as hearing Ted Dunbar play a ballad. This one, from his last album as a bandleader (again, featuring Mickey Tucker), is just one of many examples I could have picked. For someone as harmonically hip as Ted was, his pure melodicism was so exceptional.

10 ) “Hang In There” (from Sankofa/Rear Garde by Hamiet Bluiett)

This bouncy Latin original by Ted (alongside Bluiett, Clint Houston and Ben Riley) is a good example of Ted operating as the sole chord-playing instrument in a rhythm section. While he had an unusually sensitive capacity to function compatibly with a pianist, hearing him take the load on his own is always a treat. So too is hearing how he navigates soloing with just bass and drums.

Honorable Mention: “I Love This Life” from Uptown Groove by Zachary Breaux. This “tune” is basically an interview with Ted in which he reflects poignantly on some of his notable musical experiences. You need to listen to it.

Top 10 (x2) Favorite Jazz Albums of 2015

It seems that with each year it gets harder to keep up with all the great music being released. I began with a Top 10 list, and in the end struggled to narrow it down to even 20. I also left off George Colligan’s Write Them Down and Sean Clapis’ The Unseen River, recusing myself since they came out on my label, RMI Records. Do consider checking them out, though, as well as these wonderful albums below.

Important Note: these are in alphabetical order, not necessarily order of preference.

1 ) George Cables – In Good Company

I’ve been a fan of Cables since I was a teenager and first heard him on Dexter Gordon records. This is a stellar trio record (with his working unit of bassist Essiet Okon Essiet and the great Victor Lewis), paying tribute to other greats, including Kenny Barron, Billy Strayhorn and the late John Hicks (whose “After the Morning,” my personal favorite Hicks tune, gets a gorgeous reading here).

2 ) Stanley Cowell – Juneteenth

This isn’t the brilliant pianist/composer’s first solo piano record, but it is my favorite to date, a powerhouse milestone in his late-career resurgence. The whole suite is brilliant, and the final 17-plus minute track “Juneteenth Reflections” is superlative.

3 ) Chris Dingman – The Subliminal and the Sublime

With all due respect to Kamasi Washington (who is also on this list), this is the most “epic” jazz record I have heard this year, thanks to Dingman’s cinematic full-album composition and the excellent work of his stellar band, with Fabian Almazan, Loren Stillman and Justin Brown (all vets of his wonderful debut record Waking Dreams) joined by Linda Oh and Ryan Ferreira.

4 ) Josh Evans – Hope and Despair

Young Mr. Evans has been making a substantial name for himself as a trumpet player for some time already, but this emotionally potent record puts him on the map as a composer/bandleader. The powerful spirit of his onetime mentor Jackie McLean is evident here on multiple levels, including the wailing alto of Bruce Williams and the presence of two other noteworthy J-Mac disciples, Abraham Burton and Eric McPherson.

5 ) Orrin Evans – Evolution of Oneself

At last count, pianist/composer Evans had recorded about 643 albums as a bandleader, something not surprising given the creativity and ambition I’ve seen since I first met him in 1993. This mature, soulful and eclectic trio record (featuring Karriem Riggins and Christian McBride) may be the finest yet.

6 ) Yoron Israel – This Moment (Live in Boston)

I’ve been a fan of Yoron’s drumming since I heard him in the 1990s with Jay Hoggard, James Williams and others, and he’s really come into his own as a bandleader. This live record shows his quartet High Standards in performance, living up to their, well, high standards.

7 ) Joshua Kwassman – Heartwork

When I met Josh, he was still a high school student and expressed artistic ambitions that I found disarming at the time. Fast forward nearly a decade, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t DOING it. The “it” in this case is keeping a super-tight band (Brother Spirit) together as a vehicle for his sweeping, ambitious soulful compositions that consistently illuminate the human condition.

8 ) Joe Locke – Love is a Pendulum

Joe Locke’s records are always a feast of melody, soul and virtuosity, and the feast is all the more bountiful when there is an overarching concept, as there is on this beautiful set centered on an utterly gorgeous set of compositions he based on a set of poems by Barbara Sfraga.

9 ) Lionel Loueke – Gaia

The innovative guitarist Loueke’s trio with Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth has been well-represented on records. I hesitate to simply say this one meets the group’s lofty standards, as that doesn’t do justice to the fire and continued evolution represented here.

10 ) Luis Perdomo – Twenty Two

Perdomo’s Controlling Ear Unit (featuring Mimi Jones on bass and Rudy Royston on drums) is a great vehicle for his stunning piano work and his distinctive compositions. It is worth noting that he is also a sideman on two other records on this list.

11 ) Perez Pattitucci Blade – Children of the Light

Danilo Perez, John Pattitucci and Brian Blade have had a multi-dimensional relationship in various different configurations . . . oh yeah, plus being the rhythm section for that Wayne Shorter guy. Hearing them groove and undulate through this program of trio music is such a treat, highlighted by their deconstruction of my personal favorite Perez composition (“African Wave,” originally from The Journey).

12 ) Roberta Piket – Emanation: Solo, Vol. 2

Piket is an absolute monster, and it is unsurprising that this solo piano record is as nuanced and authoritative as the first volume was. I find her solo piano take on Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof” to be particularly miraculous.

13 ) Pete Rodriguez – El Conde Negro

Rodriguez, a fabulous Austin-based trumpet player and composer, has found a way to balance his position as the son of salsa royalty (the great singer/bandleader Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez) and a man with his own distinctive artistic voice. His band (featuring Luis Perdomo, Ricky Rodriguez, Rudy Royston and Robert Quintero) absolutely smokes, but Pete is in command throughout with his playing, singing, composing and clever arrangements of tunes associated with his father.

14 ) Sean Sonderegger – Eat the Air

Sean Sonderegger has been blurring the lines between straight-ahead and avant-garde for some time now, and this album is a mature, coherent statement that is simultaneously lyrical and restless.

15 ) EJ Strickland – The Undying Spirit

If you listen to straight-ahead jazz you’ve invariably heard EJ Strickland’s drumming in recent years, but hopefully this record will put his multifaceted talents (including composer/bandleader) in the public consciousness.

16 ) Ike Sturm – Shelter of Trees

Through both his own work as an artist and his vital role as Music Director for the Jazz Ministry at St. Peter’s Church (the renowned “jazz church”) in NYC, bassist/composer Sturm has found the sweet spot that encompasses authoritative jazz and spiritual devotion. The band here has a significant overlap with Chris Dingman’s group mentioned above (including pianist Almazan and saxophonist Stillman as well as Dingman himself) along with soulful work from guitarist Jesse Lewis and drummer Jared Schonig, as well as the disarmingly beautiful and fascinatingly complimentary vocals of Chanda Rule, Melissa Staylianou and Misty Ann Sturm (and two tracks featuring marimbist Zaneta Sykes). Taking center stage, though, are Sturm’s wonderful compositions, each of them reaching for the divine while also paying tribute to his late father, the important composer/educator Fred Sturm.

17 ) Gregory Tardy – With Songs of Joy

Another artist with a distinctive track record of straight ahead jazz with a spiritual focus, all Tardy seems to do is put out one record after another of soul-affirming, powerful music. The majority of these records are buoyed by his longtime rhythm team of Sean Conly and Jaimeo Brown, joined here by the powerful John Chin on piano and the stellar young trumpet player Philip Dizack.

18 ) Charenee Wade – Offering: the Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson

This material is ripe for the picking in a serious jazz context, and the excellent young singer Wade does exactly that, with a moody set that simultaneously recontextualizes and pays proper respect to the cutting-edge and, sadly, still-relevant 1970s work of the revolutionary Gil Scott-Heron and his keyboard-playing and composing cohort Brian Jackson.

19 ) Kamasi Washington – the Epic

The “epic” part could refer to length of this 3-CD set or to the large ensemble, augmented at times by strings and a choir. All of that is used to strong effect on this record, but I have a particular soft spot for anyone who can tear the roof down with spiritual wailing on the tenor saxophone, as Washington does so effectively here.

20 ) Steve Wilson and Wilsonian Grain – Live In New York – the Vanguard Sessions

It is a true delight to see and hear Steve Wilson reassert himself as a bandleader here. Backed by a great quartet including the aforementioned Orrin Evans, we get tune after tune of Wilson’s uniquely soulful alto and soprano and his distinctive improvisational vocabulary.

Whose Burden Should This Be?

If you saw somebody carrying a heavy load, would you take your knapsack and put it on his or her back? Of course not. Should a healthy person walking up hill ask for a ride from someone in a hand-cranked wheelchair? Of course not. In situations that concrete, it’s pretty easy to assess who can handle more burden and who could stand to be relieved of some. So why do we so often do this with our words and our actions? Why do we take people already burdened by trauma or oppression and unload our own comparatively manageable burdens upon them? The “Love Wins” mantra to which I and so many others have clung for the last three years is predicated on compassion, and we mustn’t lose sight of that amidst philosophical arguments that ring hollow without it.

December 14 has become a day for me to reflect on the capacity of humans to ease or exacerbate burdens. It’s my birthday and was a day of celebration and gratitude until 3 years ago when in an instant the still-inconceivable murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School rendered it a day of intense mourning. As with all who lost loved ones there, my capacity to view human tragedy as an abstraction vanished, replaced by a new understanding of burdens, those foisted upon both Ana’s family and on ours.

We found ourselves seeing the hierarchies of burden from both directions. We dutifully promised to do what we could to help our bereaved friends and found ourselves greatly depending on others further removed from the tragedy to hold us up. All along the way I observed the ways in which good intentions needed to be backed up by good sense. While my desire to help never waned, that didn’t exempt me from messing up and pouring salt on a wound because I didn’t choose my words or actions with sufficient care or wisdom. I suppose I could have played the “hey, be happy I’m helping” card, but that would have been antithetical to my actual intentions, both towards them and as a morally evolving being. Through the experience I have seen things that have taught me both what to do and what not to do for “how can I help” to be a substantive question and not a hollow way to assuage one’s own guilt or helplessness.

The experience has also stoked my skepticism toward those who judge other people’s reactions to adversity they themselves have not experienced. Those of you outside of academia may have missed this, but the current wave of campus protests surrounding inequality (particularly racial inequality) has spurred a counter-movement of critics. In particular, many are portraying the climate on campuses as that of coddled and over-reactive young people. Under the guise of political correctness and accusations of “microaggressions,” so the criticism goes, they are demanding insulation from the realities of life and thereby setting themselves up for adulthoods as spineless blobs lacking any capacity to handle life’s subsequent challenges.

The severity of the issues being minimized by these critics (literally all of the authors of these pieces I have encountered are white males who didn’t talk to any actual college students) is a vitally important topic in itself, but that is a separate conversation (and one happening all over the country, whether or not folks choose to wake up to it). But what about the underlying notion that we are weakening society’s fabric by expecting sensitivity?

Even if we accept the twin goals of protecting free speech and fostering resiliency (and who wouldn’t?), there is a certain absurdity to an argument that fundamentally revolves around defending the right to offend people. If you’re an ACLU lawyer, relax, I’m not challenging that right. I am, however, saying that exercising that right indiscriminately likely makes someone an a**hole, flouting the nebulousness of the distinction between engaging in “tough love” in telling people truths they need to hear (which indeed may offend some) and simply being disrespectful. Is there really a rational argument to be made that the best way for people tasked with nurturing young people to prepare them for the world’s injustices is to directly perpetuate them? Or is that just a way to justify selfish or lazy resistance to change?

My own incredulity over this line of thought is compounded when the people having to “suck it up” are those already carrying extra burdens. If a student of color in a historically white institution is spoken to dismissively, then he should accept that because it will be even worse in the world outside? If (to cite a recent real-life example from a friend) a sexual trauma survivor doesn’t like rape jokes, then she should just avoid comedians and let the rest of us enjoy unfettered humor? Well, these cases could be made, but this viewpoint at minimum means forfeiting claims of inclusion. My own physical disability has put me in this position repeatedly, and for most of my life my go-to response until recently was to suck it up and take that extra load (on top of the existing loads of chronic pain, joint instability and so on) because having to fight to get my needs met was more burdensome than simply meeting them myself. Of course I also meticulously catalogued the people and institutions that were or weren’t capable of being allies. And don’t even get me started on being a foster/adoptive parent who yearns to protect his kids from further marginalization.

Indeed, when I became a parent, I became far more vividly aware of the subtleties of constructive nurturing and the struggle that people (even very intelligent people) have to make some important distinctions. Much is made today of the term “helicopter parenting” and it is indeed important not to hover over our kids and. However, there is a fundamental difference between stepping back to let our kids experience the natural consequences of their actions and failing to be attentive and sensitive. Because my kids were teens when they arrived in our family, I was aware that they carried burdens that I could not erase but had a sacred duty to help with. While my track record is far from perfect, I have always tried to be attentive to that. And I have been criticized for that, a criticism that largely centers on the inability to make the above-mentioned distinction. First of all, it is my duty to help ease their burdens (even if through something as imperceptible to the outside world as treading carefully around a sensitive subject) to free them to do the important work that only they can do. Second, they need to be loved powerfully and they need to be seen vividly. Expecting resilience and savvy from someone who is denied that core nourishment is like expecting someone who has been denied breakfast to run a half marathon – it’s abstractly possible, but with unnecessary strain. If the effort it takes to provide that leaves me depleted for some reason, it is my job to seek out others to nourish me, not to put that responsibility back on those who I am trying to liberate from suffering. You want to see my blood boil? Opine that my kids should be grateful for what they have and that I’m paying too much attention to the minutiae of their ups and downs. I think the body of empirical evidence that has been built over the last 11 years suggests otherwise.

Note that we’re not even talking about major sacrifices on the part of those having to make these shifts, unless being a little more disciplined and trying to evolve into a kind, helpful person is a major sacrifice. We are talking about attention to respect and kindness. We are talking about learning to engage in modes of communication that enfranchise those who are already burdened so they might succeed and contribute. We are talking about word choices and tone of voice and remembering certain details. This is neither rocket science nor heavy lifting. Recently, while exercising, I saw some mid-1980s clips of a very tame comedian of whom I was fond when I was a kid. I was really taken aback that over the course of an hour he made jokes about gay people, disabled people, acquaintance rape and a number of other things that would rankle even moderate sensibilities today. Folks, those ain’t the “good ol’ days.”

For candor’s sake, I’m going to close with an extremely embarrassing anecdote. In my mid-20s I still retained much of the scatological humor I had inherited from my now-deceased father. I knew better than to deploy butt and poop jokes, say, in a job interview or on the mic at a gig, but with friends it was fair game. On one occasion, while taking a walk with a friend, I made a reference (borrowed from Frank Zappa) to “ramming it up the poop chute,” to which the friend cringed and explained that, as a person in an ongoing process of healing from profound sexual abuse, this was not only unfunny but actually upsetting.

In a split second I had two thoughts, the first of which is not a source of pride but has been a source of insight ever since. I first thought “okay . . . but it WAS funny” and stewed on that for what seemed like an excessively long time (though in reality it was probably 5 seconds) before landing on “I care about this person and thus my perception of humor is utterly irrelevant here if I want my behavior to reflect that caring.” I apologized without qualification. I recognized that even if it had been the funniest joke in the world, this friend already had an unfairly heavy load to carry. I stopped using this sort of humor around this friend and pretty soon retired it altogether with no noticeable impact to my overall capacity for wit.

Was it difficult? Well, it was not zero-effort and it required the humility and, I like to think, integrity to recognize that my good intentions didn’t shield me from messing up. And I had to live with that and decide to change. But in the end I didn’t even do it for my friend – I did it for myself, because I don’t want to accept being that kind of person, even if the law may protect my right to do so. I tell this story to reinforce that few of us are immune to having thoughts we really shouldn’t express if we don’t want to hurt people – the crossroads comes in deciding what do we do in those moments. In the inevitable moments when you find yourself in that position and experiencing the natural resistance to change and accountability, I urge you to ask yourself the question “whose burden should this be?”

Is Music Enough?

In times of turbulence (or, I should say, times when for whatever reasons we are acutely aware of turbulence) I and many in my line of work contemplate the big question of whether music is a sufficiently “important” pursuit. My honest answer is “yes and no.” I’ll explain the ambivalence in a moment, but it is perhaps best illustrated by this conversation I overheard recently between St. Peter and a recently departed musician reconciling his contribution to humanity.


St. Peter: Good day, sir.

Musician: Whassuuuuup! Dag, those gates are pearly!

St. Peter: (blushing) Yes, I know. We get them polished every Tuesday. Anyway . . .

Musician: So can I just go in or do I need to get my hand stamped or something?

St. Peter: Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Musician: What do you mean? I was an agent of good? If it wasn’t for that tainted batch of acid, I would still be down there making a joyful noise unto the Lord.

St. Peter: Hmm, I’m not sure I’m buying it.

Musician: Are you kidding me Pete? I mean, music is the universal language of love. Doesn’t that speak for itself?

St. Peter: Maybe sometimes. Are you saying that you healed the sick and uplifted the downhearted?

Musician: Broseph, you clearly never heard my solo on “Wild Thing” (begins air guitaring)

St. Peter: Perhaps not, but really, I have to say, I question whether your work quite lives up to that standard.

Musician: (feigning a dagger to the chest) Et tu, bro-te? Are you saying I needed to practice more?

St. Peter: Well, that’s probably true, but it’s kind of not my point. Was your music created with the intention of moving people’s hearts? And if so, did your comportment offstage support that goal?

Musician: Rock and Rooooollllll!

St. Peter: (raised eyebrow)

Musician: (incredulously) Broski, get a sense of HUMOR. Of course! I always tried to make the people happy not only during the show but AFTER!

St. Peter: (eyebrow raised further) Sex with groupies doesn’t count.

Musician: Well, er, uh . . .

St. Peter: Okay, this is not going to work . . .

Musician: Wait, wait, there was that time that I . . .

St. Peter: Save your breath, “bro.” Don’t worry, you’re not going all the way down there. There are a lot of great musicians in purgatory and you’ll have a perfectly decent time there while we wait for the policy on this subject to be clarified administratively. Your case will be reviewed in the order received once we get there . . . between you and me, that’ll be a while. Step aside, please, the shuttle leaves soon.


As you can see, there are no easy answers to this question. Okay, so I can’t say for sure that this conversation actually happened (I concede that I mis-hear things sometimes) but it is instructive nonetheless.

To me, the St. Peter imagery (while admittedly cheeky) underscores what makes it actually a fairly straightforward question. In essence, what makes one’s time on earth a net positive? Or, to put it a different way whenever/however a day of reckoning might come, what will make your case look good, so to speak? Or when the end of the year or the next birthday comes, do you look at that year and think “I made use of this time to make the world better” or not?

Now, of course, how you make this calculation is a very individualized thing depending on your beliefs of life, spirit, deities and what comes next, among other things. If you don’t feel that you have any responsibility to do good, then it’s pretty easy (though in that case I haven’t the vaguest idea why you’ve read this far). For the rest of us, there are infinite ways to evaluate that responsibility and measure what actions sync up with it.

Speaking for myself, music both does and doesn’t fit into the equation. It does in the sense that the potential to catalyze true beauty and move the hearts and souls and minds of other people is a profound and utterly necessary thing. Whether Thelonious Monk or Nina Simone or Muddy Waters or Peter Gabriel , there is so much music that has lifted me when I was down, challenged me to be a better person or otherwise galvanized my soul – and doing so in a manner completely unrelated to the artists’ lives away from the stage or recording studio. This demonstrates conclusively to me that the substance in music (at least some music) is utterly necessary to humankind and I’ve seen so much evidence of this.

But is it ENOUGH? That’s a matter of reckoning for each individual, really. It’s no secret that Miles Davis had some, er, personal idiosyncrasies that would make one question whether he was a “good person.” It’s also no secret that he produced music of profound beauty, music with a depth and sensitivity that has moved millions of people. So did that cancel out the other stuff? I don’t know and you don’t know either unless you were there for his meeting with St. Peter. And if you were, why haven’t you posted the video on YouTube?

Miles is, in fact, often cited when I or others ask this kind of question, and frankly I find that it is most often to obfuscate the question. That is, “Miles was a jerk and we’re glad he existed, and therefore the mere fact that I make music absolves me of the responsibility to contemplate this issue.” And maybe that’s valid, what do I know? But for my value system it’s irresponsible to dismiss it that simply.

It’s important to note that if we’re just talking about careers in broad terms, then that’s only part of the equation. To me music is a “service” career, but there are all sorts of others (politics, education, social work, etc.) whose practitioners struggle with the same questions. And in the end there are great public servants and corrupt or apathetic ones . . . and there are people in all sorts of other fields that are not inherently based on doing good who are making a difference in people’s lives.

In the end, is your life centered around goodness? Are you using your work as a vehicle for that? Are you using your time “off the job” for that? Are your seemingly mundane moments and interactions governed by that? THESE are the questions I ask myself all the time, and I’m always trying to make the answer “yes.” On the days when I am devoted to making music, that is where that energy is funneled. On the days when I am devoted to teaching, parenting or running errands, that is where that energy is funneled.

Do I think I’m capable of making music that can profoundly impact people? With all due humility, yes – if that weren’t so I certainly would no longer be putting my body through the grind. And I will keep trying until I no longer can (or probably longer – who are we trying to kid?). Do I think that music could be potent enough to outweigh apathy or avoidance in the face of my responsibility to live a life of kindness, courage and awareness? Regardless of whatever St. Peter might have to say, I don’t intend to find out.

Top 10 Favorite Allen Toussaint tracks

Allen Toussaint, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who passed away this morning, is best known for his monumental work as a songwriter and producer, so it’s easy for folks to lose sight of what a powerhouse he was as a performer. I enjoy his subtle vocal style and his bandleading but it’s his piano that knocks me out, incorporating the sounds of New Orleans giants Professor Longhair and James Booker along with elements of jazz and pop, with the result being a totally distinct style.

Because I wanted to emphasize the performance aspect, I didn’t make room for things he produced but that don’t feature him prominently (hence the omission, for example, of Toussaint-produced-and-penned tracks by Lee Dorsey, some of my favorite music ever recorded). Likewise, I omitted songs both by New Orleans artists like Irma Thomas and the Wild Tchoupitoulas and non-Louisiana artists like Paul McCartney (with Wings), Robert Palmer, Solomon Burke and LaBelle. RIP, Tousan, and thank you.

1 ) “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (from Louisiana Piano Rhythms compilation)

I first heard this compilation in the 1990s and honestly don’t know the recording date or other information. What I DO know is that this solo piano version (along with a version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street”) shows off his great stride piano skills and the amazing intersection of New Orleans piano and jazz chops (including some downright modern moments) that underpins his point of reference at the keys.

2 ) “Bright Mississippi” from Bright Mississippi

My LORD is this fonky. This 2008 session got some attention for the prominent young jazz musicians and the recordings of jazz jazz tunes both traditional and more modern. On this Thelonious Monk tune his rhythm section of Marc Ribot, David Piltch and Jay Bellerose lays it down with an infectious street beat and guests Nicholas Payton and Don Byron wail, but the centerpiece is the great piano work by the maestro himself.

3 ) “A Blue Mood” (single) by Al Tousan

“Al Tousan” is of course Mr. Toussaint’s early pseudonym. This instrumental single from the early 1960s is a slow, bluesy number revolving around his piano soloing, with a rich horn section providing some extra depth.

4 ) “Southern Nights” from Songbook

From his last album (a solo retrospective of some of his classic compositions) his one is fascinating, a 13-minute solo version of his tune from the mid-70s that would go on to be a #1 smash for Glen Campbell. The music is wonderful, but possibly even better is the lengthy segment of spoken reflections on his youth in New Orleans.

5 ) “Skydiving” from Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed by Conjure

This 1980s Kip Hanrahan production is an interesting mix of funky and modern with an eclectic band playing (and composing) music to the wonderful writings of Ishmael Reed. Toussaint’s piano is featured throughout, though this track is his sole compositional contribution, and it’s a doozy, with soulful vocals from Taj Mahal atop a rock solid foundation laid down by Billy Hart and Steve Swallow.

6 ) “Brickyard Blues” from Bluesiana Hot Sauce

The “Bluesiana Triangle” series began a few years before this 1993 session, with Art Blakey and David Fathead Newman teaming up with Dr. John. Fast forward a few years and we get to hear Toussaint singing and playing soulfully with a similarly eclectic group, on this track alongside bassist Eddie Gomez, drummer Will Calhoun and guitarist Phil Hamilton, whose funky licks are featured prominently.

7 ) “I Like It Like That” (single) by Chris Kenner

This massive hit song from 1961 (#2 on the pop charts) was co-written by Toussaint. It is a classic of New Orleans R&B and the fun vocals by Kenner could almost make you miss the Fess-evoking piano that rollicks throughout. Unless, like me, you live for that stuff.

8 ) “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further” from The River In Reverse by Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint

This Toussaint tune is the one lead vocal feature from his emotionally affecting post-Katrina collaboration with Elvis Costello. Extra props for New Orleans stalwart Big Sam who kills it on trombone on this track.

9 ) “A Certain Girl” (single) by Ernie K-Doe

I first heard this super-catchy tune in the early 1980s in a live version by Warren Zevon that was in rotation in the early days of MTV. I eventually traced it back to the Yardbirds’ version and THEN to the 1964 original, composed by Toussaint and featuring his infectious piano.

10 ) “Night People” (from Motion)

Maybe this sly funk tune from 1978 is too slick for some (Larry Carlton, Jeff Porcaro, Richard Tee sharing keyboard duties, etc.), but I grin every time I hear it.

Farewell to Tennis and Lessons Learned

It’s now been a year and 17 days since my last ever time hitting a tennis ball. Not that I’m keeping track. I miss it tremendously, but I was also determined when I began my “comeback” in earnest to have a different experience when I eventually hung up the racquet than I did the first time that happened. And indeed, the overarching sense is one of gratitude. Gratitude not only for the great experiences, but for what being on the tennis court has taught me about life outside the lines.

Given the improvisational spirit of tennis, it’s not surprising that I was drawn to it just as I was drawn to jazz music. In both cases there was some divine intervention as well. In the case of jazz it was in large part meeting the right peers and mentors at the right time and being exposed to inspiring music at formative junctures in my development. In the case of tennis, my struggles with the connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) led to the somewhat naïve sense that athletics would be fine for me as long as I avoided contact sports. I had zero interest in golf, bowling or competitive swimming but fell in love with tennis rather quickly.

My love affair with tennis never waned, but my life as a player was gradually back-burnered starting at age 17 when my pursuit of a career as a musician began to dominate my schedule. At one point I had enough money to either sign up for the next round of tennis lessons or replace an important piece of keyboard gear and that sealed the deal in a sense. I kept playing, but that petered out in my twenties in the face of EDS and the awareness that it was going to be hard enough to keep my body functional enough to keep playing music without giving it a further pounding on the tennis court. I gave my racquets to an elementary school PE program and even wrote a song called “Bye Bye Backhand” for the 2002 sessions for my Patch Kit album.

And then, some years later, I picked it back up again. The “comeback” is documented here and here

I knew when I picked it up again that a) I was playing with house money and really needed to savor every moment and b) when, inevitably, it was time to pack it in, it was important that I be able to translate it. The most important part of that was the joy. It pains me to confess this, but for reasons I still don’t entirely understand, playing tennis gave me a joy that is difficult to access even with music. Partly the endorphins, I suppose, partly the thrill of competition, partly the different expectations (there’s no career pressure, for example) and partly who knows what else. But what I hoped more than anything was to learn how to access that joy at other times.

And I did, which is in and of itself all I need to feel grateful about. But I got a lot more, and that’s part of why I was able to walk away. When I walked (limped, really) off the court on 10/12/14 I didn’t know yet that would be it, but when I saw the writing on the wall (or, I suppose, the MRI of my back) it was from a place of surprising peace that I decided that was it. I got so much out of it that in my “first life” as a tennis player I didn’t yet have the maturity to absorb.

In recent weeks I have been contemplating some of the primary lessons I learned, which I’ll share here.

Dig deep.

Such a tired sports cliché, but so important to me. Perseverance through challenges is one of tahe traits I value the most, but usually that’s a pretty unglamourous and subtle thing. But at 3-3 in a sweaty, exhausted third set, the notion of digging deep takes on a visceral form of immediacy. Especially given my physical challenges it was huge for me to have that experience of pushing. It is ultimately the biggest reason I walked away (that drive to push is at odds with my need to meticulously control what I do with my body), but I can feel how all of my times pushing myself through a wall on court reminded me potently what that means in the bigger picture.

Reset and recalibrate.

I was what one would call a “streaky” player, sometimes walking on air and sometimes plodding along with leaden shoes and a string-less racquet. Because of this, and because tennis depends so much on composure, it was vital for me to learn how to take a deep breath (or three) and play the next point with a clean slate. Many of my most satisfying moments on court came when, regardless of outcome, I was able to reboot and abort a slide.

Plan ahead and be patient.

Constructing a point on the tennis court was a really counter-intuitive thing for me. My friend and coach Shona Kerr would talk about improving my position through depth and angle, one stroke at a time. Serve out wide, drill to the backhand, do it again, do it again, do it again, do it again, do it again and follow it into the net, hit a good volley, hit another good volley, put it away. And oh my lord did that sound boring and soulless. Over time I got over that resistance and learned to have the vision to work incrementally towards the goal . . . and then get ready to do it again on the next point. This is, of course, an allegory for most means of systematically pursuing success as an adult.

Invest deeply in the preparation, disinvest from the outcome.

This is a core philosophy of mine, and tennis helped to strengthen it. All we can control is our side of the court and not what happens outside (whether the other people involved or other circumstances beyond our control). Because my objective was personal growth and not trophy-accumulation it was important for me not to get caught up in the results. While obviously I tried to win each time on court, I learned to appreciate the well-fought loss more than the sloppy or lazy victory. In the end, I learned to win or lose and move on

Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.

Tennis is, of course, an “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” game. You could be down 6-0, 5-0 and still have an abstract chance of winning. I never had a problem fighting until the last point, but the other side was a chronic weakness. That is, if I was winning comfortably, I would take my foot off the throttle and often before I knew it I had a fight (and sometimes, ultimately, a loss) on my hands. Staying ruthless until the end, while not natural for my personality (I’m not a particularly ruthless guy), was an important skill to acquire.

Goals are helpful, but are not necessarily to be taken literally

When I resumed playing, my goal was to not get hurt. When I didn’t get hurt, my goal was to regain my strokes. When I regained my strokes my goal was to regain my fitness. When I regained my fitness my goal was to eventually play a tournament. When, several years later, I played (and won) a tournament, my goal was to win more and play better. When I won more (still at the 3.0 level) and played better my goal was to play credibly at a 3.5 level tournament. When I played credibly at several 3.5 level tournaments, my goal was to win one. And that totally didn’t happen, and soon my body began going backwards. But that didn’t make that goal any less valid than the others – indeed that goal, just like the others, existed to get me to find something within myself.

This was a good chance to test out my Sisyphus-inspired core philosophy of ambition and persistence, as I discuss here.

Integrity trumps victory

The tennis code of ethics dictates good sportsmanship, including the edict that if you aren’t SURE about a call, you shouldn’t make said call in your own favor. Toward the end of my time on court, I had a moment in a tournament that forced me to put that to the test. It was a pivotal moment in a long, exhausting match and I’m pretty sure my opponent hit the ball out . . . but in the moment I wasn’t sure enough (I was watching my feet more than the ball as I scrambled in vain to get to it), so I called it in, lost the point (and the game, and the match). It wasn’t without some ambivalence, but in the end the only meaningful thing I would have to show for the match, win or lose, was a sense of pride. Having a victory built on shaky ground wouldn’t serve that, so there was no practical reason to go that way, never mind the ethics. This is a principle that applies to so much of life.

Most of us don’t get the storybook ending, and that’s okay.

I played three tournaments last year. In the first, I lost my first match 6-0, 6-1 to a high school kid and then waited around for 5 hours for a consolation-round match that never happened. The next one I fought hard for the better part of 3 hours against an intimidating opponent and lost 7-5 in the third set. Finally I played a match in which my body felt terrible, but without the usual fleeting moments of adrenaline-fueled light-footedness. I was down a break in the third set and I DUG DEEP and FOUGHT and brought it to 4-4 and then had two break points. On one I constructed the point perfectly and then dumped an easy forehand volley into the net and on the next I hit a perfect point-ending shot and got a bad call. I don’t think five minutes passed from then until the deflated handshake and my retreat to the showers. I played twice more after that, on the last occasion pushing (probably foolishly) through sciatica that ultimately hobbled me for months thereafter.

I’m not going to lie, I STILL can taste that forehand volley. But I’m not aware of any athlete (or, really, human) whose last moment is the picture perfect one. And if it is, there are probably still pangs, they’re just pangs of wondering whether there could have been more. This is part of the human condition and life gets a whole lot easier when we recognize that.

Thanks tennis – I’ll keep admiring you as a spectator and will always cherish what you gave me as a participant.