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The good, the best, and the goodest
By Jon Garelick

THE LONGER I write about the arts, the more I find I'm just as happy to have artists tell me how they got to whatever place they happen to be in, how they came to make their art, as I am in sitting around analyzing the art they've made. There was the "free improv" saxophonist David Gross, perfectly happy to switch from child-day-care worker to paralegal, with no expectation of making a living with his music. "I do feel like, you know, we're trying to fucking just make music," he told me. "It's not like flavor of the week. And that's because nobody's going to make a living from it. There's freedom in that. There's no reason to do anything else but exactly what you want."

Similarly, there was Brian Carpenter, of the local band the Beat Circus, who maintains his day job as a computer programmer because "I never wanted music to be a job."

Carpenter's story got bigger the more he talked - not longer, but deeper. As a musician, he wanted only to improvise - with no notion of what kind of music he ultimately wanted to make or what kind of band he wanted to lead. After moving from central Florida in 2001, he was immediately stunned by the quality of talent he found in Boston, and by local musicians' openness about joining him in a completely undefined musical project. Of the musical scene in Florida, he said, "If it wasn't a well-paying gig and it didn't offer them something tangible, then they weren't interested." In Boston, he found players like Jim Hobbs, Brandon Seabrook, and Jerome Deupree, who were up for anything, and would respond to someone they didn't know based on nothing more than a phone call.

In Florida, he had studied classical trumpet, learning from exercise books "black with 32nd notes." Now he was making a kind of original, avant-garde circus music, playing slide trumpet, pursuing his interests in theater, comedy, and film (he's two years into production on an Albert Ayler documentary), and hooking up with Amanda Palmer and the Dresden Dolls cabaret scene, the burlesque-revival crowd. For him Boston was a place where you could pursue anything, and it wasn't hard to find other artists as serious as you were.

When I listen to stories from people like Gross and Carpenter, about their relationships with overlapping circles of artists, I'm reminded of a story I heard from the jazz musician Steve Lacy, who had lived for 30 years as an American expatriate and worked with a disparate crew of like-minded musicians, poets, painters, and dancers before choosing Boston as his port of entry, and his home, upon returning to the US. Lacy (who taught at the New England Conservatory and died last June 4) had an extensive knowledge of the music of Thelonious Monk - music that he had not only studied, but learned firsthand in Monk's band. Once, in a public forum, a questioner asked Lacy why Monk had sometimes used musicians who weren't up to the demands, the originality, of his music - if, say, they were playing a Monk tune that was a B-flat blues, they simply improvised on a standard B-flat blues instead of the very particular tune Monk had written.

"Well, first of all, Monk only wrote three B-flat blues," Lacy said, addressing the facts. " 'Straight No Chaser,' 'Blues Bolivar Ba-lues-are,' and 'Blue Monk.' " But, in particular, the questioner wanted to know why Monk stuck with the tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, when there may have been other, better players out there.

Lacy was for a moment taken aback. "Why, sure, he kept Charlie Rouse for how many years?" Then he continued, "Monk didn't always prefer the supercharged players. Not necessarily. He didn't necessarily want the hottest thing going. But he wanted the goodest thing going, the rightest thing going, the thing that was happening. And what Monk valued was the minuscule changes that go on night to night from a beloved person. Not the flash from out of the blue once in a while. No, but it's a kind of love, a kind of continuity, where you play with the same people and every night it unfolds a little bit. And there's always something new. Not a whole lot like that, but something. And then some nights it's really fantastic. But it's always ongoing. And that's what Monk valued was that kind of fidelity and that kind of continuity, and that is another kind of swing.

"But at the same time, I know that his favorite horn player was Sonny Rollins. And Sonny Rollins understood his music certainly as well as Charlie Rouse did, and in a sense could play rings around Rouse. But, Sonny Rollins wasn't always available. Whereas Rouse stayed with him. Rouse loved him and stayed with him for all those years. That's what's happening."

Jon Garelick can be reached at jgarelick@phx.com.

Issue Date: November 11, 2004

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