Saturday, January 27, 2007

Elimination Dance 1: Handy Aisles

The first Elimination Dance pits a jazzman against an indie-band-cum-wonder-producer-aided-solo-act…

John Handy, Live at the Monterrey Jazz Festival

The Spinanes, Arches and Aisles

The name John Handy meant nothing to me before I picked up a worn-as-hell copy of Monterrey for a buck at Value Village one afternoon. I took a chance, figuring that if that record didn’t pan out, the Thelonious Monk Live in Italy I also scored probably would (it had Charlie Rouse on it – it was a sure thing). I put the Handy record on first. It was a long while before I got to Monk.

The story: in 1965, aided by a recommendation by none other than Ralph J. Gleason, an all but unknown John Handy took a very interesting band onto the stage at Monterrey. The band featured Handy on alto, Mike White on violin, Jerry Hahn on electric guitar, and a rhythm section consisting of bassist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke. It’s hard to say what, if anything, the audience was expecting. A select few, like Gleason, might have seen him playing clubs in San Francisco, and so had some inkling as to the nature of this five-headed beast of a band. But I think even they were probably surprised by what happened on that stage.

There are only two tracks, one per vinyl side (the LP had the order of performance reversed; the CD version corrects that problem). The mournful “If Only We Knew” begins with a slow, plucked guitar figure by Hahn, and then comes a statement of the theme by the band. But then everything falls away, and all that’s left behind is Handy’s alto. For the next five and a half minutes, Handy explores his horn’s range and his heart’s contents. While never straying from the tuneful centre of his performance, he reaches far heights and low depths of sound, but all in a linear fashion. There are blues figures, displays of multiphonics, eastern motifs, challenging runs and gaping spaces. All of it, remember, improvised. It is astonishing.

What remains of the track’s nearly 27 minute running time is given to solos in turn – Thompson (unaided), then Hahn (who changes the dynamic of the song, stepping it up a notch or two), White (who takes Hahn’s cue and creates swirling eddies of sound, gaining in intensity), and then Handy again – before becoming a full band workout. They step back from the brink with a couple of minutes remaining, taking time to ruminate perhaps on what has just passed. Or maybe they’re just catching their breath, knowing what’s soon to come. The statement returns, the sound fades, and the stunned crowd applauds.

And then, after Handy introduces the band, then comes “Spanish Lady.” A solo Handy riffs gently for a moment, and then a galloping drum signals the whole band to action. Handy all of a sudden sounds like he’s channeling klezmer ghosts. Is this lady really Spanish? Either way, she raises the blood pressure. The band get more frenetic.

It’s Jerry Hahn’s guitar that drives the song (shorter than its predecessor, at a mere nineteen and a half minutes). Handy reaches for the sky, but it’s the guitar that propels, spurring JH forward while the two spar and trade asides. White comes in around the six and a half minute mark, and initially threatens to squander the momentum, but then catches his breath. Trying to separate his violin, Handy’s alto punctuations and Hahn’s strummed rhythm is a chore. Don’t bother - just let it all happen at once.

At ten minutes, Hahn takes ownership. He starts with clean single note runs, but soon things get a bit harrier. He churns up a series of fuzzy sounding crescendos that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sonics record. His turn here lasts only about two minutes, but it gets my blood up.

Handy’s back. More swirling, like the quintet are attempting to induce vertigo. And what happens next, at the very last, is amazing. The band build up, and up, and up, and then, having achieved the summit, they drop you over the ledge. A cold stop. The whole affair, all nineteen minutes of mounting tension, comes to a crashing halt. You can hear it in the crowd: an instant of absolute bewilderment, manifest as silence. And then the applause.

I’ll spare the reader any further suspense and state that Monterrey will be moving through to the Final 10. It is, without question, my favourite recording of all time. Perversely, what makes it all the more thrilling for me, in addition to the sounds I’ve described at length, is the fact that it represents the pinnacle of Handy’s career. Never again would he record anything so astoundingly whole. He went on to enjoy a workmanlike if unspectacular career, recording several albums for Columbia and then a series of other labels. I believe he’s still alive and teaching music in the Bay Area. But this record, with this band, bears witness to something of a celestial alignment, a confluence of fleeting factors. It wouldn’t last, but on that long ago September afternoon, John Handy’s band were the greatest musical performers on the planet. And here’s the thing: wouldn’t we all like our greatest days captured on tape?

Ready for the anticlimax?

The Spinanes’ Arches and Aisles is uniformly inviting and warm, like the soft parts of your lover that welcome you as the sun sinks and the cicadas sing (with the probable exception of “Sucker’s Trial,” which stands out, sore thumb style, for its briskness and relative aggression, but you quickly forgive the Spinanes because they’ve otherwise been so sweet and accommodating).

That voice. Rebecca Gates must’ve recorded the vocals while reclined, G&T in hand. And the instruments; mellotron! Keyboards by John McEntire that sound like the amber bubbles in a sundown Michelob. The bass sounds like a viscous liquid.

These are the songs Gates found in her hip pocket as she pulled her jeans on one sticky, sun-flooded morning. She was on her way to work where she had finally resolved to give her two weeks’ notice, and she stuck the songs in the glovebox. When she found them again, a month later, after her last day and a full five weeks before she found another job, the heat had sort of melted them together, so it was hard to tell where one idea stopped and the next one started. She left them that way. Then they got mixed up with that fear and excitement she felt at not having a job for a while and sort of not caring, so she poured a drink and hit RECORD. She finished and fell asleep and forgot all about the songs. Then you found the tape one day and she said, “Oh shit, that,” very offhandedly, and told you to take it home, and you did, and you poured a drink and listened and thought, “Why, it’s nearly perfect.”

Nearly perfect, I said. As warm and bubbly and post-coital as it all sounds, I’m forced to concede that, while great, it’s top 20 great at best, simply not top 10. So the Spinanes, sadly, are the first to be eliminated from the dance.

Progress report 1

Tonight’s the night:

John Handy, Live at the Monterrey Jazz Festival

Could’ve been so beautiful:
The Spinanes, Arches and Aisles

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