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Vignette, Chicago

In Chicago, the venue is up four flights of stairs. Four amps, a drum set, several boxes of records, and all our instruments must go up the stairs. It takes a few trips, and I am exasperated by the end. I don’t have much time before people start showing up, and it is still very likely my amp is broken. I spent twenty minutes on the phone with Ziv earlier that day describing the problem, and he gave me some sage advice about what might be wrong. Ziv knows his stuff, and has several useful suggestions even without seeing the amp at all. It is not a fuse, the power stays on, but something is overheating inside the head. I need a quiet room to sit in where I can play loudly for an extended period of time and try to diagnose the problem. If it is the input stage, I am okay, I can work around it. If it is the output stage, I am fucked and will have to either buy an amp or rely on the hospitality of others for the remainder of tour.

Amazingly, the venue also houses a studio, and one of the owners directs me there. He is busy fiddling with the sound system, though, so I have to find my own way around. I am faced with three doors. The first door I try is a storage closet. Mostly empty, it would be perfect, but I don’t see any outlets and I don’t want to ransack the room in search of one. Opening the second door, I see a guy playing piano, and quickly shut it. I am worried he is recording and I may have fucked up his take. I don’t want to piss anyone off here, it is an extremely cool place and we want to come back. I ready my explanation: I’m on tour, I need to assess the condition of my amp that my band and another one are relying on for the next month, the owner said I could use the studio, I am very sorry for the inconvenience. I am relieved when he doesn’t come out and yell at me. The third door is the one I want. It is big and soundproof and full of gear. Power strips everywhere. I plug in and start playing. I have to play loud and for a longish period of time to reproduce the error, and I’m only at it for about five minutes when the door opens. It is the guy who was playing piano plus another guy. They came in to jam. I get up to leave, but they are sympathetic to my plight and say I can stay. “We’ll jam around you.” I’m not sure what that means, but I do need to get to the bottom of this problem, so I stay.

One guy plays drums, one alto sax. It is jazz. Abstract, free-form, highly technical jazz, played extremely well by guys who very obviously play together all the time. Rhythms and harmonies all over the place, expanding and contracting, assembling microstructures and disassembling them as quickly as I can perceive them. Two things are evident. I have to keep playing, that’s why I came into this room, and I will not have access to similarly ideal conditions again. And I can’t just aimlessly play like I had the room to myself, I have to respond to what is going on around me, even though I am basically intruding on these guys doing their thing and am very far below their level. They’re being nice, but I imagine they must at least sort of resent my presence.

I can almost keep up rhythmically, but harmonically not at all. I’m trying to follow contours and textures because the melodies are so far beyond my reach. Even that takes my full concentration. I resort to tricks to try and cover my complete lack of fluency in the idiom: pedal tones, metarhythms, extended techniques. But it’s hopeless, these guys know what’s up. I stop trying to keep up and just enjoy it. It is the most fun I’ve had playing with strangers in some time. There is a stretch of a few minutes where I feel like I’m getting it, we are responding to each other, even as I remain not entirely sure what is going on. We play for about twenty minutes, and the amp holds up. This is more worrisome than encouraging, because I haven’t located the problem and it might happen again. But it’s time to go, doors are open and I want to let these guys play and nobody knows where I am. I am having a blast, but am conscious of being more into it than they are, like a first date with someone way out of my league. I have been sitting cross-legged on the floor, and my foot is asleep.

There is no one behind the bar for a little while. As it turns out, this is because the bartender is the drummer I was just playing with. I thank him for letting me sit in, and order a Hamm’s. It is one of the two beers available; the right one.

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