Go See Live Music!
I had never heard of James Cotton
till recently. The man plays blues harp - he's blown with Muddy Waters, that's some pedigree. I'm glad I went to see him last week.
He is fronted by an incredibly tight band. The standout was Slam Allen on lead guitar, big, with a meaty, toothy grin that hid a feel and verve that reminded me of T-Bone Walker. Solo after solo brought the intimate crowd to its feet. The astonishing part was that he's only 28. The bassist rolled with the best, laying on slap-happy fills to complement the winks he distributed amongst the girls in the front row. The introspective left-handed rhythm guitarist pulled out some scorching solos of his own, reminiscent of Stevie Ray, laced with slide lines that channeled the Dickey Betts of old.
The four piece band played half an hour that heated the house to capacity, then, in true WWF style, Slam Allen announced SuperHarp, Jaaaaaaaames Cotton! And the old man blazed in on a high note, blowing the wings down as he ambled out with his harp and settled into the empty chair out front. Shaped like a walrus, with eyes that looked out sideways through tiny slits, he gripped the harp and a microphone in his left hand, leaning back on his chair, propelling blasts and moans and slurs through the room, looking back at his band, slapping vibratos with the free right hand. Note after note, song after song, they nailed them all. From Sweet Home Chicago to Got My Mojo Working, two sets of frantic, crazy, breathtaking, sweet, awesome, painful, beautiful blues was wreaked on a loving audience. "Testify, brother!" said the man from the back of the room. I couldn't have put it better. Yelling, screaming my acknowledgment, jerking regularly out of my front row seat to, yes, clap between movements, I was glad to be there, honored to be able to shake the great man's hand at the end. It didn't quite beat the time BB King looked at me, but heck yeah - I touched greatness the other night.
A few days later I went to one of the opening acts at the local avant garde jazz festival. This shall remain unnamed. About a hundred people crammed into an L-shaped room. The musicians, a saxophone, a cello, and a koto, a big Japanese zither. Now, I have heard Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, so I had a little context for this. But this was my first time attending one of these things, and too bad for me, I did not enjoy it. I certainly did not "get" it. The saxophone blew irregular staccato blasts while the cello droned frantic anxious saccades beneath. The koto plucked, irregularly. A few members of the audience were enthralled. I was most entertained by the old gentleman to my right, who closed his eyes and shook his head in ecstasy -- while trying to keep time with his right hand. The performance was probably best described by the glimpse we caught of the cellist's music sheet as we left -- it was a single sheet of paper divided into large grids, each grid containing a single symbol. Most of the symbols meant nothing to us - they were certainly not standard musical notation. But the one we did recognize was the one repeated most often: it was simply "~X".
The second night at the festival was much more accessible. I had heard of Vijay Iyer several times but had never either seen nor heard him. Vijay Iyer, for the last two years running, has been anointed DownBeat's musician of the year -- that's no small feat. This time he was playing with the Rudresh Mahanthappa Quartet. Rudresh Mahanthappa, another Indian-American, looks like a hip Ganesha without the nose. He plays alto sax with skill and gusto and is not inclined to hold back on the wit. The quartet played truly wonderfully - all technical excellence and interplay, pushing the kind of post-hard bop envelope that Hancock and Shorter have come to call their own. Rousing choruses, in-jokes, counterplay, time-bending comping, they had it all. As the finished in a triumphant explosion, the house rose in delight. Iyer emerged from behind the piano, blinking, a little embarrassed. Mahanthappa cracked a few more jokes. We emerged into the night air.
It was a good week for music.