Looking ahead while considering my own musical past
Today, as I began to work on some text for the staff person at U Chicago Press who will be working on the marketing of my Mwandishi Band book, it dawned on me that people will actually be reading it by mid-summer. All that remains on my end is the index (I’ve started working on it) and reviewing page proofs.
This evening, while making dinner, I was thinking about a conversation I had some months ago with pianist/composer Billy Childs about the impact of the Mwandishi band on his (and my) development as a musician. Both of us were entering into young adulthood when we first encountered the band. But what brought the conversation to mind was something he had said about music I was listening to while cooking.
The music was ‘Tarkus’ by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. That band was important to Billy when he was a teenager, and I had the same experience. My first encounter with ‘Tarkus’ was an early version played at the Fillmore East in 1971, before it had a name (Keith Emerson referred to it as “something about an armadillo”). The reason I’m bringing this up is for this reason – as I wrap up the Mwandishi band book and begin to work on something new, I’m mostly focusing on my own playing. I’m preparing for some upcoming shows. This is giving me the time to reflect on my current piano playing in relationship to my book topics. And it was hearing Keith Emerson that helped me make a transition from being Julliard piano student into a different kind of musician and musical thinker.
The first stage of this personal transition was hearing Jimi Hendrix, soon followed by seeing Herbie Hancock’s Sextet, as it began to morph into Mwandishi (Bennie Maupin and Billy Hart were the first new additions when I saw them in July 1970). What grabbed me about the Sextet was first and foremost about the band as a whole, how the energy level of the ensemble as a whole moved around; it was Bennie that most comes to mind. It was difficult to hear Herbie’s playing, beyond the way it helped direct the band, over the loud din of the noisy, disinterested crowd. The next step for me came when I first heard some music by Stockhausen (it began with ‘Mantra’ for two pianos and ring modulators) King Crimson, Frank Zappa, and then Emerson, Lake and Parker.
What mattered to me about ELP was Keith Emerson’s pianism. In him I found a pianist who I could personally relate to “as a pianist,” one who was both familiar and unfamiliar; but close enough to give me something to hold onto while feeling excited by new possibilities. And believe me, my musical world had been so hermetically sealed that new possibilities were absolutely exhilarating. The main thing I knew about the piano at the time was technique (which represented most of what I learned growing up), and Emerson’s particular technique was familiar to me. His repertoire was exciting because it seemed like a hip version of music that was familiar. I seemed unable at the time to take any pianist seriously who didn’t have tons of chops and some musical relationship to Bach or Bartok. Emerson had both. Let’s say, it was not an easy transition for me! But when ‘Tarkus’ came out, I listened to it multiple times without ever tiring of it. It was rather enjoyable to hear again tonight, while cooking dinner.