The Power of Two

For some, committing to one’s creativity sometimes means committing to the solitary territory of a life spent mostly alone.  The writer and his desk, the musician and her instrument, the artist and his tools: the countless disciplined hours spent developing one’s craft can mean that these may be an artist’s most enduring relationships.  Perhaps that is why seeing two people perform together has the potential to be so compelling: we are witness to a solitude that is broken, yet the performers’ voices remain distinct, individual, not lost, say, in the anonymity of an orchestra.  Last weekend at the Monterey Jazz Festival I had the opportunity to hear fantastic music performed by ensembles of various sizes, but it was the duos that struck me as the most emotionally rich and satisfying.

Jack DeJohnette remarked before his performance Sunday night that the music he was about to play with guitarist Bill Frisell would be “as much a surprise to us as it is to you.”  That quality of surprise, of open curiosity, transformed their set at Dizzy’s Den into a 90-minute arc of music-making that can only be described as spiritual.  When he is playing the drums DeJohnette has a habit of starting pieces in a mood of almost random exploration, beginning with the most basic activity of two sticks hitting a drumhead, without apparent shape or purpose. One can see him not imposing, not planning, but allowing, observing, listening.  Trusting.  Slowly, something coheres.

In this intimate set-up, Frisell never once took his eyes off DeJohnette, which meant that throughout the entire concert the audience saw the guitarist in profile, as if we were mere eavesdroppers to an important and private conversation.  I was struck by the way the two men took turns supporting each other.  DeJohnette’s depth as a musician gives him free range to improvise complex rhythmic melodies on the drums while Frisell offers a steady chordal groundbeat—usually the function of the drummer.

When DeJohnette moved to the piano, it was he who created the musical foundation in the form of slowly repeated chords, while Frisell seemed to be following a train of notes that traveled far into the ether.  (Frisell uses pedal effects to generate a loopy, sliding quality to his notes, so that each note seems more like a wave than a precise tone.)

I wish I could mention the names of some of the pieces I found so beautiful, but DeJohnette, who turned 70 last month, has a mumbly, raspy voice, and the only reference I could make out was to something from Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain,” a wandering piece whose C-Major resolution felt like the arrival of the divine.  With such exalted artistry the titles don’t really matter.  Does a lengthy drum solo that seemed to emerge out of the earth’s molten core have, or need, a title?  It does not, but it does have a context: two people in equal partnership and offering mutual support.  At the end of DeJohnette’s ferocious solo, which brought the audience to rapturous applause, Frisell was there to gently weave their sounds back together again.  It was magic.

One of the joys of this festival is simply being at the fairgrounds amidst all the people and the vendors and the wafting scents of delicious food and the strains of music that float from the different venues across the grounds and through the oak trees.  To an observer, stories and the myriad fascinations of human behavior abound.  On Saturday afternoon I watched a mother and her two boys on a patch of grass, all three of them blowing bubbles, except that the younger boy, who was around four, wasn’t getting it.  He held the little plastic blower too close to his mouth and he blew too hard.  I watched as frustration and even despair settled into his young face, as his fingers gripped the blower more tightly and his cheeks puffed up to really blow.  I saw that his mother didn’t see this.  I saw that already, at age four, this boy thought that he needed to figure out on his own how to achieve the bubbles that now surrounded him, that were emerging so easily, tauntingly, from his mother’s and his brother’s lips.  He saw them doing it successfully, and rather than ask for help, ask for someone to show him how, he burrowed ever deeper into his desperate attempt to do it alone.

The power of two is the power of listening, of asking for help, of coming out of the fire of the solo and finding that someone is there with a melody to wrap around you and carry you forward.