One of my first influences outside of classical music was Fats Waller. He seemed to have an inexhaustible set of riffs and turns that made me a very happy teenager. His effortless playing on just about any quality of piano amazed me, and his ability to turn out tracks of super high quality again and again got my attention. I listened to him on repeat all the time.
I was so lucky, being a curious kid, to discover his music in the racks at the local library. I ran home and threw his discs into my CD player and was confronted with a world I had no idea about.
And what a gateway. He was a character, something I’ve always loved and appreciated about musicians. From him it was a short trip to Jelly Roll, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Billie Holiday.
These days everyone needs to either be cool, dress acceptably, and fit a certain image or archetype. I see it happen all the time. Fats Waller was beyond that – he was his own archetype.
I don’t like being lumped into archetypes. I find it sad the way age and experience takes our individuality away. It doesn’t help us as artists. What it really accomplishes is reducing our contact with who we really are. The lucky few who are discovered early – THEY get to be as eccentric as they are or are not.
So yes, I’m on the side with Celibidache and Kleiber. With Van Nevel and Christopher Jackson. They are, and were, eccentric. But they got somewhere that no-one else could because they didn’t necessarily follow the rules as understood.
In the case of Van Nevel, he completely reengineered the understanding of what an early music vocal ensemble is. And they all have uncovered things most of us can’t because they can go to places we don’t view as necessary in the wider musical world. I don’t think Paul Van Nevel actually has an explanation for some of the choices he has made, but why does he need one? Maybe its enough to listen to the singers humming lines and realize that he cares about contrast and has found one that works. Go listen to a track of them humming while a soprano sings a solo verse and tell me it doesn’t hold your interest.
Maybe its enough to do every recording live, and to live with whatever little mistakes are made to capture the energy of live performance. Its the totally opposite philosophy from the norm. And that’s what makes them one of the premiere recording ensembles in the world – the ability to leave the archetype behind.
But, John! He’s a MAD SCIENTIST!!!
(He has also read everything and is nearly 80 and has done more for Flemish music than nearly anyone and continues to explore what early music means even today and has made many discoveries and is a whiz with transcription and… other stuff that I won’t talk about here)
Being eccentric comes with its own baggage. I was at a concert in Antwerp where Huelgas nailed it and afterwards all this guy I met wanted to talk about was how taking one voice out of a trio for a while was such a lousy idea. I don’t think he understood the spirit behind Huelgas, but I’d spent a month with them and I was the fortunate one in that I had understood some things about them that others can’t from the outside.
I had a choice to make in the last few years about whether I would embrace the road less traveled. I decided I would. Its not always easy, but thats ok. Nothing worthwhile really is.
I respect the musicians who choose the other path. They are more often employed and viewed as more employable and thats good too. I can’t make art without embracing myself, and after 25 years of sacrifice I think I’ve earned the right to a little self acceptance.
Christopher said it to me again and again – put down the pencil and find your own way.
Well, I did, Christopher. But it involves a pencil from time to time because I learned that language from you and it works. So I take it and develop it in my own way. But thanks very much for showing me one way to do it – some of it works really amazingly well.
So here’s a true original. I think he gets it.