on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2017 21 Sep


von: Brian Whistler Filed under: Blog | TB | 13 Comments


Heading home from a freewheeling trip—to visit friends in Long Island, New York, to visit old and new friends in the verdant hills of Vermont; and to meet my girlfriend’s extended family in upstate New York—I was left with a lingering sense of the friendly intimacy of the eastern landscape. Its green rolling hills, dotted with farms and forests, offered a welcome respite from the west’s big sky and relentless, dry summers.

The east coast had a mild summer this year. I was happily surprised to be greeted by pleasant temperatures, low humidity, swollen lakes and rivers, and lush forests just beginning to be tinged with red and gold. The green grass was like a luxurious carpet under my feet, which carried me along, so buoyant I felt almost weightless treading the meandering paths in the summer sun. The rain, when it came, was a shower of sweetness, so delicate, warm and soft, like a delicate kiss. At dusk, the trees, bathed in gold, stood in sharp relief against dark thunderheads.

Walking by a river with my partner, we were giddily happy, smiling in childish delight at charming covered bridges, taking silly selfies by flowing waters, giggling hysterically as we were drenched by a sudden downpour while hiking to a hidden waterfall. I thought to myself, „Does it get better than this, this life?“

Having spent my whole life waiting to be happy, I asked myself whether this was the epiphany I had always sought—this evanescent moment with the light just right, the sun’s shimmer reflected in a solitary creek, the hills dotted with cozy farmhouses and lazy grazing cows,  fields of goldenrod glinting with raindrops, the grey sky resting against a green mountain laying across the earth like a sleeping dragon.

As we traveled, I found my reverie tempered by the circumstances of the people I met. Everywhere I went I saw adversity and resiliency, friend’s new and old struggling, some looking for meaning, some without the luxury of time to do so, simply trying to make it through another day.

My Long Island friend, whom I’ve known since college, is battling serious illness, bravely meeting each day with determination, wry humor, and a strong spiritual practice. Despite the obvious discomfort and psychic weight of his condition, we had a wonderful connection.

He kindly drove me to my childhood home in New Jersey, where I walked down the placid suburban streets that had once been home to the kids I played with, past the elementary school I had not seen in 47 years. There was the spot the school bully Bobby Bull (his real name) had thrown a punch that hurled me to the pavement. There were the ghosts of the girls on whom I had harbored secret crushes, the creek I had played in, the house of a childhood pal with whom I had had terrible fight that ended our friendship, and finally, the house where my first love had lived. Her name was Alice. We were both 4, when one day her dad, a botany professor, turned his shirt collar around beneath  his black jacket and solemnly married us near the rock garden, she veiled in a tiny white dress, and me looking ever so serious in my checkered suit and bow tie. There was the spot in her backyard where her dad had built us a tiny playhouse. And the chimney where I first met the fairies Alice had discovered.

Up north, on a blueberry farm in Vermont, were two old friends brought together by fate, one a talented musician, struggling with depression, the other a retired school guidance counselor. Two years ago, their 150-year-old farmhouse burned to the ground, and they lost virtually everything. Friends came out of the woodwork, sending funds to rebuild their foundation. Precious instruments lost in the fire were miraculously replaced, some by complete strangers who mailed surprise gifts of guitars. My friends had rebuilt their house but are still in the process of rebuilding their lives.

Sitting on the plane, reflecting on my own past and absorbing the beauty, tragedy, and quiet dignity of people’s lives, I found myself playing Vince Mendoza’s Epiphany on my portable player. From the grandeur of the opening strings, this was the music I was seeking; this was balm for the soul. It is full of melancholy and sorrow, imbued with spiritual longing.

As each distinct voice came to the forefront–first John Abercrombie’s soulful opening phrase, then Michael Brecker’s powerful tenor, Kenny Wheeler’s plaintive flugelhorn horn, and John Taylor’s refined and understated piano accompaniment–it suddenly struck me: all of these great artist’s unique voices have been stilled.

There is something in knowing these artists are no longer with us that imparts even more poignancy to this stellar album, in which classical music and jazz come together in a natural marriage of orchestra and jazz sextet.

I often quip that at this stage of life, most of my heroes are either really old or dead. This unavoidable truth is made that much more apparent with the almost weekly report of the passing of yet another master.

Each of us is part of a wave; all of us witnesses to the waves of the generations before us breaking on the shore. For many of us in our 60s, we have already lost one or both of our parents, and most of us have lost friends and colleagues, some of whom have left us all too soon.

Even though we all know death is a natural part of the life process, somehow each loss feels like a shocking surprise. We’re just wired that way, perhaps for a reason: if we fully comprehended the human predicament, would we be able to manifest anything at all, create art, build cities, make a family, go about our day?

On my trip, I experienced the joy of life. But the lives of the people I met, even the autumnal landscape itself, reminded me of life’s inevitable losses. True to its title, the album gave me my own realization: the fleeting appearance and disappearance of all things makes every one of us—all our loved ones and each moment in which we miraculously reside—that much more sacred and precious. Like the grey clouds set against the illuminated green hills, our impermanence stands in stark contrast to our desire to be happy and our need to feel our lives matter. And within the mysterious web of these seemingly irreconcilable polarities, there is beauty and grace.

This entry was posted on Donnerstag, 21. September 2017 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. uwe Meilchen:

    Wow ! A blogentry suitable for framing !

  2. Michael Engelbrecht:

    You don’t do it without epic proportions, don’t you?

    Love reading it, love particularly the photo with the grey house under black clouds …

    I had some of your thoughts when, after the death of Nana Vasconcelos, returning to the first of the three brilliant CODONA albums … (the younger me met the older me)

  3. Michael E:

    … and, yes, a true time-travel journey.

    The people not seen in a very long time, the old places. I know an area in my old hometown where nearly everybody is dead now, the rest (the then young ones) spread out in the world. Every once in a while I slowly drive through these „lost places“, and what keeps too much sadness at bay or balanced is the soundtrack of that time, say, three, four records strangely connoted with an upper middle class area in D. – one of these albums is THE ELEMENTS by Joe Henderson, now reissued. Go for it even if you have no story with it. Such a gem …

  4. Brian Whistler:

    Thanks Micha, I will check out that Joe Henderson album. I love his music.

  5. Michael Engelbrecht:

    Joe Henderson – tenor sax, flute, alto flute
    Alice Coltrane – piano, harp, Tambura, harmonium
    Charlie Haden – bass
    Leon „Ndugu“ Chancler – drums (1, 4)
    Kenneth Nash – narrator (4), flute (3), congas, North African Sakara Drum, bells, gong, percussion
    Baba Duru Oshun – percussion, Tabla
    Michael White – violin

  6. Brian Whistler:

    Wow, what a lineup! I just ordered it.

    (By the way, I was honored to have Kenneth Nash play on one of my tunes a couple years ago.)

  7. Jochen:

    Just read the article. Brilliant and personal writing, Brian – guess your report of a journey also is a reflection on loss and time. „September´s here again …“ once David Sylvian sang and Kenny Wheeler played along with it. Curious about that Vince Mendoca record.

  8. Brian Whistler:

    Yes, loss and time. Seems to be a theme in my life these days.

    „September’s Here Again“ – my favorite time of year.

  9. Michael Engelbrecht:

    I told him Brian should be „our most consistent writer“.

    Next time we’ll hear about the rain in Northern California :)

  10. Michael Engelbrecht:

    I always loved Kenneth Nash wherever he made his appearances …

  11. Brian Whistler:

    I used to see Kenneth Nash play regularly with Andy Narrell back in the 80s. Andy is one of the greatest jazz pan players on the planet, but he knew Kenneth had a special juju, and he used to place him dead center in front of the rhythm section, because he was so amazing to watch onstage, like a magical sound shaman. A wonderful creative colorist.

  12. Michael Engelbrecht:

    Oh, boy, I missed something in my life …

    I would call me a pagean nowadays, so I’m fond of shamans :) …

    THE ELEMENTS is awesome, the minor quibble some of the endings of the four tracks had no defined last second, just fade outs, but how coming to a last note anyway when strolling into the open …

  13. Brian Whistler:

    Looking forward to that album. My kind of group for sure. What a lineup!

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