Friday, August 14, 2009

Touching magic

An old friend "in the business" helped remind me today why I work in and around music, where the compensation is something to sneeze at (or even puke on). It's important to be reminded of things we already know. Today, unfortunately, I was reminded of two magic memories for the saddest reasons.

I saw Les Paul play only once, maybe five or six years ago. The old man was gigging in Midtown every Monday, for years, at Iridium. My friend Maggie was in town for a few days and I had the idea that it would be fun and not the same as just going to any old rock club for whatever band. At the time I enjoyed the sort of life where I could simply ring someone up and ask, and there'd be two tickets at the door, with nice reserved seats, and "No no, don't worry about meeting the minimum," which is good, cause I might not have been able to. Les Paul was 89 or 90, and still as in love with his guitar and the playing of it as anyone can love anything. If he had lost a step over the years, it really seemed only a step, even dealing with arthritis. Watching his long, craggy fingers dance on the strings was quite literally amazing — amazing in the true Webster's sense (as opposed to the modern vernacular). This master was funny and outgoing, not like an uncle or grandfather but like us, sharp and crass and not missing a beat, a glance or a comment. He ragged on his bandmates playfully, traded jabs with the crowd, told us every story that passed through his mind. Sometimes I wonder what people mean when they use the word "generous" to describe an artist, but that was him. He was playing one night a week, sometimes two shows a night I think, well into his 90s. He pretty much invented this stuff and was pretty much the best at it all along the way. Les Paul, ladies and gentlemen. Do follow the link on his name at the top of this graph — just incredible.

And Rashied Ali. I got to see him play a number of times earlier this decade, solo and in small groups, at Tonic, where I DJed with my friend Chris (we were The Polar Bear Club, extending a cool tradition that had started in Minneapolis). Man, did I see a lot of great music in that room. Friday nights at Tonic were usually my first chance to relax and have some fun after a stressful week at the magazine. We went from 9pm to 3 or 4am most nights, so I'd often walk outside for a break; Norfolk Street then was dark and quiet in a way no part of the Lower East Side is anymore. Rashied had a solo gig upstairs at Tonic one Friday night, maybe 30 people there. That whole thing always struck me: Rashied playing the drums right here, now, in this room...for 30 people. We had more than that downstairs (our thing was free, though).

I had watched most of his set, caught up in the storm of his playing, and some time later in the night walked outside to decharge my batteries. Across the street, a big old sedan was parked. I noticed a silhouette in the driver's seat. My eyes focused, and I realized the silhouette was looking at me; my eyes focused more, and I realized the silhouette was Rashied Ali, the guy who copiloted all the way out with Coltrane and spent the years since punching tickets for comparably heavy trips to other unmapped planes with all kinds of big hitters.

We stared at each other for a few seconds, or maybe an hour, who knows, and then he waved for me to come over to the car. When I got to the window I noticed a ribbon of smoke in the darkness. I think I laughed, and then like it was no big deal he asked if I wanted to help him finish his jazz cigarette, which he held up in the biggest fingers I thought I'd ever seen on a man. We sat right there on Norfolk Street and talked like regular people who'd known each other for a while. Except for when he spoke about the importance of "getting free," which he did with an uncommon authority, a relaxed, confident fervor that identified as religious way more than anything I know of as "religion." I didn't talk then, just listened.

I was a little bowled over by the experience afterward, but when I mentioned it to some friends working at the club they all were like, wave of the hand, "Oh yeah, Rashied's hilarious," like they were talking about an old aunt or something.

Rest in peace, Les Paul and Rashied Ali. Two real masters who may not have had a thing in common other than greatness before today.