What If We Already Know?

Do you ever go to a different city and feel like all faces you’re seeing around you are familiar?

This happens to me all the time in New York.

Does the mind do this? Does the desire for familiarity morph the features of those around us into familiar ones?   Are our brains, that are constantly seeking to contextualize what we perceive, casting off the noise and distilling the remaining details into what seems like the spitting image of…someone we know.

The mystical side of me wants to believe that there are only so many feature sets available.   I know that every snowflake is unique, but to the untrained idea a lot of them do look similar.  Maybe human phenotypes are actually limited, and at certain point the creator just recycles them.  Even if there were a million distinguishable ones, in a city of 8 million people you’d expect to see a number of familiar faces.

Or maybe it’s just a craving for the familiar, another way we try to create home.  I have to admit that I enjoy the momentary rush of excitement at the possibility that “I know this person,” which is usually followed by the visual algorithm that calculates rate of aging, and the activation of the mental voice recognition software. Knowing it is unlikely, but  looking for a clue, just in case…

This morning at 9:30 I sat on a panel at the JazzConnect Conference. It sounds naïve now, but when I first entered this profession I had no idea that things like industry conferences existed.  That there were annual gathering where all the suppliers, marketers and customers gathered to do business and socialize in one place seemed like nirvana to me.

In my industry that gathering was called The JazzTimes Conference, and it took place in New York.  I imagine that academic conferences are somewhat different, but at JazzTimes, musicians, artist managers, booking agents, radio industry people, record label exec- the gatekeepers and those who desparately wanted through the gates- gathered for three days of morning to night hustle.  There were more panel discussions, breakout sessions and showcases than you could ever attend. There was a sense that vital information–how to succeed in your career information- was being transmitted behind every door.

You could spend the entire day in the lobby or walking the hall- shaking hands, nodding hellos, looking at badges.  Sometimes you’d miss an entire panel just lingering in the hallway.

As a young musician at my first conference I had a record in the top 5 on the jazz radio charts. I was playing with Roy Haynes and other notables, and I had embraced the empowered artist manifesto.  I had my business cards, my elevator speech.  I had my list of panels I needed to see, and people I needed to meet.  I worked the hallway too, surreptitiously glancing at name tags, making polite conversations, trying to be real, trying to resist reading the nametags of all the people passing by.  Trying not to wonder “are they the one, I actually need to talk to?”  All the while doing the dance of art and commerce known in the pre-internet era as “networking.”

Today’s JazzConnect conference is just an echo of those days-only three rooms at the New York Hilton.  I walk the hall and see many of the same people I saw in the 1990’s.  (My mental aging algorithm and the voice recognition software confirms this fact.

Most have aged well- graying around the temples, and mid-life body changes notwithstanding.  If they are still working this business after all this time, you can still see some of the love of the form that brought them here in the first place.  Some have morphed their careers, becoming consultants or starting companies.  Some have moved to bigger organizations. But many are where they were, just wiser, more experienced.  They have shaped something lasting and are still in the fray.

The lobby and the hallway are still full.  The waves and nods, and “how you doing’s” are still there.  But I find myself in a different place.  I’m less interested in the business conversation, less susceptible to the hum of the industry. My face tends to light up when someone mentions their kids, a career change.  While it feels flattering to have a presenter say “we need to get you out here to play,” I’m more interested in talking to them about how they feel they’ve made an impact on their own local community. How I can support them in the work they do.

Around the conference, the battles have a somewhat different tone than 20 years ago.  The question of how art interacts with commerce is still front and center, as it always will be in the arts industry. But the dialogue has evolved. There is more discussion of connection and community.  People talked about ”engagement,” a more wholistic and impactful approach than “outreach,” which often seemed like a necessary evil that performers had to take on order to leverage funding from non-profits.  There seems to be recognition on all sides that no matter what the industry does, the art is here to stay.

The most exciting conversation I had today was with pianist Andy Milne, at the evening reception for the Jazz Journalists Association.  He told me about a project he is doing with two pianists, two Japanese koto players and an animator.  The inspiration I drew from that and was able to pass back to him, was worth coming to New York for.  And for a moment I forgot we were at an industry event. That excitement and sharing of vision felt like what I feel at home…

As did the set at the Bitter End tonight by the Blue Cranes.  Sitting at table with Portland ex-pats Andrew Oliver and Drew Shoals, I got to revel in what I love about the Northwest.  Even though it makes me sound like a cliché-prone music critic when I say it: The Blue Cranes capture a sense of place. The unabashed sense of melody, the sincerity, the indie collective “all for one” ethos, the unpretentious mix of rock, free improv, noise and instrumental-singer-songwriter vibe, the tasteful use of penny-whistle & glockenspiel, all resonate the place I call home.

I walked back to the hotel tonight concluding that connection is about finding people who are on the same page as you.  Does it help that they look like an old friend?  Maybe? If that predisposes one to dispatch with chit-chat and go deeper. If the associations with past connection create the expectation that the possibility, even the likelihood of a new connection exists

Tonight at the Cornelia Street Café I shared a tiny table with four other patrons.  The one closest to me, a mixed-race young man with dreadlocks looked very familiar.  I was sure I had met him before.  Because it happened to be the front table, inches from the band, I concluded he was probably a musician. So instead of being circumspect, I asked him straight out:

‘Have we met? You look familiar.”

Turns out he was from Amsterdam. (Not it)  He was a jazz student here in the states (Maybe it) He was drummer (not it).

But then, surprising, he said the same thing.

“I was looking at you thinking I know you.”

Then I introduced myself.

“Darrell Grant!” he said.  “I just saw your Kickstarter!”

Surprised again,  I asked him how he found out about it.

“I have a band too. And we just funded a Kickstarter project.   I was just looking around the site for other jazz-related projects, and I came across yours.”

And there was more.

“A while ago someone gave me an early record of yours. You had long hair.” (True but not it)

“Also someone gave me the recorded drum tracks from a record you did with Brian Blade.  I studied them a lot.  They were very helpful in hearing how a drum part interacts with the music.  I even used them to tune my drums to sound like Brian.”

The interesting thing is that when I put those drum tracks on my website, I thought there might one day be a young drummer who would say this very thing.

So maybe I did know him.  I just didn’t know that I knew.

Time and space are interesting concepts. Is anything really new?  Or, like in one of my guilty pleasures, the movie “Cloud Atlas,” do we already know?

 Cloud Atlas


Over The Shoulder

Payette_Lake_HBIt is one month today since we performed “The Territory” at Chamber Music Northwest.  A month seems like a good amount of time for a pause.  Long enough to let things settle down-not so long  that forgotten what all the fuss was about.

The “inevitable post-project letdown,” –which always catches me by surprise no matter how many years I’ve been doing this–was delayed this year.  The day after the final performance at St Mary’s Academy  I went right into solo papa mode so my wonderful wife, who had been shouldering the whole “run-our-daily-lives-while-my-partner-pursues-his-artistic-destiny” thing for far too long, could take a little restorative camping break.  Not surprisingly, my son Malcolm and I went the other way. We rolled out to Seaside and threw down at some skee-ball, bumper cars and arcade games.

After that I jumped right into The Shed, our PSU Intensive Summer Jazz Camp.   Four days of  all jazz all the time, 9 AM to 8 PM.  Did I say it was intensive?  Not that I’m complaining. We had some great young players, and it is inspiring to to be in the music with a bunch of people from sunup to sundown.  Needless to say I forgot all about post-project letdown for those four days.

No sooner did we turn out the lights on The Shed, than I got in the car and drove to  McCall, Idaho for a family vacation on the shores of beautiful Payette Lake, which I was privileged to enjoy thanks to the generosity of  my colleague Jeff Baker.  His family’s “cabin” – a euphemism that borders on the silly- right near the water is like a mountain paradise.  We chilled, we swam, we read books, we played foosball, we paddle-boarded, we sat in the sun, we ate ice cream, and then chilled some more.  And for a week I didn’t think about much of anything.

After a quick trip to Seattle the following Monday– (The Bolt Bus feels suspiciously similar to Greyhound when it is completely full, and the wi-fi conks out, as it did on both my trips) –and my “summer” was finally ready to start. And damned if the “inevitable post-project letdown” didn’t pick that exact moment to mosey up and slap me upside the head.  Surprise.

I’m happy to say it has done its dance and left the building–just in time to commemorate the one-month anniversary of “my big project.” And in the space left behind, I’m feeling  ready to look back at the endeavor so far. I’m also feeling energized to think about what is next- which is turning out to include some pretty awesome opportunities.  So it is time for mapping again. Time to sharpen the tools, check supplies, scout out new ground.

Meanwhile, here is a link to a recording of the 1st movement “Hymn to the Four Winds” from the performance at Kaul Auditorium.  Thanks to Matt Snyder for an awesome job of live recording.


Interlude (Reading Break)

ImageWell it is August 1 and I still haven’t done the wrap up post on my Territory concerts in Portland. 

The desire to relax and take a bit of summer has overtaken me.  Or maybe it is just that the first gray day in a month or so has inspired the irresistible urge to stop working and catch up on a backlog of pleasurable reading.

Which is why I just discovered this funny, thought-provoking and very satisfying essay by Dan DeWeese in the spring edition of the Oregon Humanities Magazine  called “Burning Bushes.”   It is a very apropos comparison of our culture’s complete saturation in media  with what he playfully defines as an original media spectacle– The Burning Bush from which God spoke to Moses.

My favorite line (among many) so far in  my first reading:

In other words, attempting to live while constantly surrounded by spectacle is not a quality problem, it’s a quantity problem. I know Terry Gross is smart, a good interviewer, and a valued figure in the media landscape; I’m also tired of her, because she has been chattering for years. How am I to reconcile that I like and respect her and also wouldn’t mind if I never heard her voice again?

If you enjoy essays, long-form journalism, or, like me, need some worthwhile act of civil disobedience to the hegemony of work- read the whole thing at this link:




Chief_JosephI did an interview today with radio host and Portland writer Lynn Darroch on the jazz radio station KMHD.  Lynn posed the question of how I went about trying to capture the idea of territory in music.  The process for me is threefold.  First I need to find a story that I want to tell, a seed of inspiration.  Then I sit and listen to for the musical seeds that might come from reflecting on those stories.  The fun part for me is then looking for a point of view, much like a writer or a film maker would do.  Trying to find a place from which to tell the story.  For me this place is often discovered through words- whether text of lyrics I’m inspired to write, or  those of others.

This post has  some words that found their way into The Territory.  It has the practical purpose of letting whoever might be interested see the lyrics to those vocal movements of the piece, since there was not room for these in the concert program.

One figure whose words inspired me was the Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph.  Whether or not  Joseph was a great leader of the native people, or a prop of the US government is a matter for debate.  I think we are fortunate, however, that many of his words, which resonate with some profoundly wise thoughts, have been preserved.

One statement that inspired me was made to him by his father, Joseph the Elder, on his deathbed.  As is so often the case, the father charges the son with taking up the burden that he can no longer carry. I knew when I read these words that I wanted to use  them in the piece.  They provide the text for the verse section of Part 3: Chief Joseph’s Lament.

“My son, my body is returning to my mother earth, and my spirit is going very soon to see the Great Spirit Chief. When I am gone, think of your country. You are the chief of these people. They look to you to guide them. Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. A few years more and white men will be all around you. They have their eyes on this land. My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”

I was also inspired by Joseph’s famous Surrender Speech from October 5th, 1877

“Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are, perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Together these two statements provided the impetus for the refrain of this movement.  That this man, whose spirit was broken, might in giving up have sown the seeds for the future.

Chief Joseph’s Lament

wallowaSo many miles
into the long ago…
All that was wild
courses below the ground.
So many hands
take what they do not own.
Scatter for years
all that our blood has sown

So many miles
into the long ago…
When we were wild,
rising to run the ground.
Sky father smiled
down on these bleached bones
Taught us to fly
carried away one by one.