Uptown Oasis Caught in the Madoff Debacle

The New York Psychoanalytic Institute is not where you’d expect to go to hear jazz licks or banjo riffs, but on two consecutive Saturday afternoons in December the third floor rocked. Or, at least, reverberated. The venue was The Philoctetes Center for The Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination—a long name that has sheltered a multitude of different events, from poetry readings to films to “round tables”, free-ranging discussions by experts on anything from New York dance in the 1960’s, to the art and craft of magic, to cell biology and cancer, to the history of violin-making.

And music. Before the bad news, the good: an appreciation of those two events. On the 14th, three “world-renowned jazz artists and long-time collaborators”, pianist Fred Hersch, bassist Drew Gress, and soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, got together to explore “Jazz Improvisation: The Art of the Ballad”. This was about playing slow and moody, what Bloom described as “breath[ing] together slowly, with the bass at the bottom.” Hersch, doing his best with an upright piano, spoke of the “shape of the [ballad] beat, softer and wider, with the piano as percussion”. Gess said that with ballads he “became aware of wide open spaces….the tone is important, because you don’t have the overt rhythm”.

They treated us to “Mood Indigo”, achingly slow, Bloom’s sax sounding like a clarinet threading around the melody. A perfect example of “the 11 o’clock song,” Hersch said, “the next-to-the-last number, when you can relax and connect emotionally”.  “It’s so simple, you’re naked,” said Bloom. “All there is is … a beautiful line.”

They played a Hersch piece for Wayne Shorter, “Still Here,” in ¾ time. They played “How Deep is the Ocean” in E flat minor (not the usual key , which is C minor), making it “fresh, and darker,” for Bloom, who refers to her improvisations as a “counter-melody”. They talked about the ballad key, and Billie Holiday, and what a ballad is. Hersch: it has a range of 10 notes, peaks at the end of the tune, and words and notes are completely intertwined.

They went out on “The Nearness of You”. Somehow, although nobody sang, throughout the afternoon the words and the music were completely intertwined.

As they were again on the 21st, when Béla Fleck, “the best known banjo player in the world today” and leader of the Grammy-winning Flecktones, teamed up with jazz pianist Dr. Lewis Porter to explore jazz improvisation in “Living in the Musical Moment: Banjo Innovations.” They said they’d never really played together before, and the piano occasionally drowned out the banjo. (Later, Fleck demonstrated that the piano and banjo are in the same range, and explained that the bass is complementary.)

The afternoon really belonged to Fleck, who gave us a lively education in the history of the banjo and the intricacies of banjo technique. He showed us the 3-finger Earl Scruggs style, with metal picks, that he uses—the rippling and syncopation of bluegrass—then called a young woman named Abigail out of the audience to show us the “clawhammer” style. This is a “stroke-pluck” technique, with no picks, all 5 fingers on the stroke, plucking with the thumb. It’s not syncopated, but a slithery, minor-key drone.

The style goes back to the African roots of the banjo: Fleck saw the same hand position in West Africa, on a 3-stringed instrument, in the town of Banjul, The Gambia, where they make instruments from the Banjul tree. A 4-string banjo was used in mid-20th-century American jazz, by Louis Armstrong. The 5-string banjo, however, may go back to the 1830’s.

Fleck and Porter played Fleck’s “Valse,” a “jazz waltz”, “like things I’ve heard jazz piano players do,” Fleck said. He recalled playing it with Chick Corea, who “gets inside the beat and slices it up”.

Fleck has recorded everything from Bach to bluegrass, and he played both for us. In bluegrass, he observed, there is a “tendency to play on the front end of the beat, push it”; whereas jazz may be more on “the back end”. Corea was “a forward-leaner;” McCoy Tyner, not. Then he played a wonderful solo, improvising on a piece he learned in Tanzania. He followed this with a bluegrass piece, then deconstructed both to show us the difference. Of improvisation, he said, he “doesn’t remember it if it’s really good”.

Finally, Fleck got into detailed demonstrations of the Earl Scruggs, Don Reno and Bill Keith styles: Scruggs “never repeated strings”, while Reno “hit the same strings over and over again”. The Bill Keith style, called “open strings”, is derived from fiddle tunes and alternates high and low strings. Fleck demonstrated, and for a minute you thought you understood the differences, the driving force of Scruggs’s bluegrass, versus the infinite virtuosity of the open strings, a continuous up-and-down rippling, major to minor and back.

The room was full of knowledgeable people; Fleck answered detailed questions, and, with Porter, played several more pieces. The whole event felt generous, expansive, and enlightening.

All you had to do was show up early (seating is limited) and listen. Events at Philoctetes are free, simulcast around the world as well as to the 2nd-floor auditorium that accommodates overflow crowds, and subsequently available as audio, video or transcript on the center’s website, philoctetes.org.

Which makes the recent news even sadder. On the website is posted “A Letter to our Friends:  Most of you will have read about recent events surrounding the firm, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. Regrettably, the foundation that funds all activities at the Philoctetes Center held large investments with Madoff, and the Center’s capital and income source has literally vanished overnight….”

The letter asks for donations, and information about foundations that might be interested in supporting the Center. It’s signed “From Center Co-Directors Francis Levy and Edward Nersessian.”

As a long-time regular, I hope they make it.

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One Response to “Uptown Oasis Caught in the Madoff Debacle”

  1. Malachi McCormick Says:

    Dear Signe,

    Just had a quick run-through some of the Zeitgeist
    (I’m short of zeit –and geist, too)
    Enjoyed the musings on music
    (many of the names were familiar to me.)

    The Bernie Madoff story is of course now quite advanced since December. Martin Smith did a powerful Frontline piece for PBS the other night. I’m sure you could find it on PBS.org (–if you have both zeit and geist.)
    I wrote quite a bit about him in my blog (–again, if you have the Z/G…)

    Nice to hear from you,

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