Jumpin’ In

a column by
Greg Buium

After twenty years, my respect for Michael Kimmelman’s Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Elsewhere grows all the time. Published in 1998, the book’s premise is simple. Kimmelman, then chief art critic of the New York Times, invited different visual artists to join him and together look at work they admired – to talk about pieces the artist found mysterious or vivid or underappreciated, or for any reason at all. It’s a series of profiles based on a series of conversations: on taste and one’s habits of mind, on the push and pull of emotion and intellect, and, above all, on how artists think about their practice. “This book,” Kimmelman began, “records not only what eighteen artists said about the art they chose to look at in various museums but also what they revealed about themselves in the process.”

If Kimmelman’s concept had many sources, to me it felt mildly reminiscent of Down Beat’s Blindfold Test. The differences are real – not the least of which is the absence of any kind of gotcha mentality. Here the artist leads, and the critic follows (notebook in hand), rather than the other way around. Ben Ratliff masterfully transposed Kimmelman’s approach in The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music (2008), a book built, like Kimmelman’s, on a series of columns that had originally appeared in the Times.

I started writing about music professionally the year after Portraits was published. I’ve happily (and often unwittingly) let myself be led through the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Elsewhere – figuratively speaking – ever since. Seeing is Kimmelman’s subject. It isn’t a stretch, however, to think it’s about listening, too.

Take the chapter on British painter Lucian Freud. In the middle of the night, Kimmelman and Freud wandered the empty corridors of London’s National Gallery. “The lights had been left on for him,” Kimmelman wrote. “We stayed past three in the morning.” The museum had given Freud special access: he could come and go as he pleased.

“I use the gallery as if it were a doctor,” he told Kimmelman that night. “I come for ideas and help – to look at situations within paintings, rather than whole paintings. Often these situations have to do with arms and legs, so the medical analogy is actually right.”

Or consider the profile of New York-based photographer Cindy Sherman. Sherman couldn’t remember the last time she’d visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kimmelman wrote: “In the lobby, along with the tourists, she is fishing around the information desk for a map. What is there to see? she asks. She is open to suggestions.” Or the curious case of Roy Lichtenstein, the master of Pop painting, extoling pieces by Rembrandt, Fragonard, Hals, and van Gogh. At some point he advised Kimmelman, “I wouldn’t believe anything I tell you.”

In my experience, musicians can have these conversations anywhere: a restaurant, a living room, backstage. The records don’t need to be around either; the music is always there, in their mind’s ear. I remember sitting with Jason Roebke at a sidewalk cafe during the 2016 Vancouver International Jazz Festival. I was asking the Chicago bassist, composer, and band leader about his new octet album, Cinema Spiral (NoBusiness). I suggested a few reference points: ICP, Mingus, even the colors and contours of a classic 1960s Blue Note date. Roebke quietly listened; he didn’t disagree. But then he identified the key source: Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi. “To me, it’s a little bit uncomfortable how close it is,” he said. “Obviously it’s not funkylike that. But to me, this is like a poor man’s Mwandishi band.”

Mwandishi? It felt like a jump, and so I called Roebke after he was back in Chicago to clarify. “It’s more in the way that the music unfolds itself ... in a really patient way,” he said. Roebke recommended some of the band’s early ‘70s live radio broadcasts that were then popping up online. “It’s not like everyone’s improvising, and then everyone’s playing written material. The way that Herbie Hancock was doing this stuff, it was like, everybody’s improvising, and then all of a sudden Julian Priester and Bennie Maupin would play some line as sort of a background, to nothing. It was not a background. It was just a thing – that somebody took and then went a different direction with it.”

On the surface, Cinema Spiral doesn’t sound anything like Mwandishi. But maybe this was Freud’s point. For Roebke, Hancock’s method of unfurling improvisation was instructive; these are the arms and legs that Freud was talking about. Recordings can be used as doctors, too.

In another conversation (same cafe, same summer festival), German pianist Georg Graewe spoke to me at length about his admiration for Bach. To Graewe, Bach was the complete musician – the master composer and improviser. “I have high ideals, very high ideals,” Graewe said. “So this is not a comparison in any way, but the musician is somebody like Bach. He’s of course the governor.”

I felt embarrassed to ask, but what did he mean by “the governor”? Later, in an e-mail, Graewe explained. The reference came from Tony Palmer's documentary on Cream's 1968 farewell concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. In it, Graewe remembered, Jack Bruce called Bach a major influence and said something like, “when it comes to bass lines, Bach is the governor.” Cream was among Graewe’s other early, irreplaceable influences.

Kimmelman’s larger point is true for musicians, too: listening with an artist is fundamentally a study in psychology. To steal a line from a friend, there is no tabula rasa.

All of these things came to mind recently listening to Rob Schwimmer’s new album, Heart of Hearing (Sunken Heights Music).

Schwimmer’s career has been a model of under-the-radar authenticity. He is a pianist, but he also plays, among other things, organ, celesta, clavioline (an early synthesizer), Haken Continuum (a microtonal, touch-sensitive keyboard), and most famously, theremin. He has worked with Sam Rivers, Wayne Shorter, and Joseph Jarman, on the one hand, and Stevie Wonder, Simon and Garfunkel, and Gotye, on the other. He is sui generis. “Whatever instrument I play,” Schwimmer once said, “I always try to keep it unreal.”

On Heart of Hearing, apart from a single trio at the end (with bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jeff Hirshfield), he is alone. Here, “assorted esoterica combine in Rob’s subconscious,” Ethan Iverson wrote in the notes. “Many of the works directly come from Rob’s past emotional life or are inspired by people he has known.” He wrote a number of pieces, but he also included, among other things, variations on Chopin and Godowsky, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” (with a nod to Thelonious Monk’s “ ’Round Midnight”) and Bernard Herrmann’s “Scene D’Amour” (from the Vertigo soundtrack).

I was especially drawn to “The Question,” an original dedicated to Paul Bley and Annette Peacock. Schwimmer met them both in the early 1970s when he was still in his teens. In 1974 Schwimmer toured Europe with Peacock.

Two winters ago, shortly after Bley’s death, seven pianists gathered at New York’s Greenwich House Music School to perform and celebrate the great man’s life. Mr. Joy: A Celebration of Paul Bley included Schwimmer, Iverson, Frank Kimbrough, Lucian Ban, Matt Mitchell, Jacob Sacks, and Aaron Parks. Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, a colleague of Bley’s on and off for many years, performed at the end. Schwimmer was instrumental in organizing the event. Point of Departure contributor Clifford Allen, who was there that night, called Schwimmer “a particular revelation”:

“Like some of the participants, he had more than a few Bley stories and also spoke accurately of the joy that Bley could bring to absolute desolation, sadness and doldrums-like passages. Schwimmer also performed ‘Ida Lupino,’ including a teaching moment by rendering note-for-note a chunk of Bley’s solo on that tune from the 1966 ESP LP Closer.”

Regrettably, I wasn’t there. But listening to Schwimmer’s new album, at home on my headphones, I couldn’t help thinking about his performance that cold February night. Now it feels like he’s invited us on a journey; in the spirit of Michael Kimmelman’s Portraits, I can imagine being led into a series of quiet rooms, tucked away at an obscure gallery in a faraway town. Schwimmer’s solo work may not be a natural fit for the Point of Departure community – aesthetically, there’s often something softer in play which, to some ears, might diminish the accomplishment or obstruct the wisdom. But there is a great deal of wisdom – and wit and genuine tenderness – in Schwimmer’s art. On Heart of Hearing, his palette is in plain view. But if you really listen, you might just see how his mind works, too.

©2018 Greg Buium

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