Thursday, May 28, 2009

Airplay Cafe

I'm beginning to have a new place in Portland just a couple months before I leave. It's called the Airplay Cafe, and it's on the corner of E. Burnside and 7th.

Frankly, a lot of the events are geared toward families with kids and are not my cup of tea. However, there's a great open mic every Wednesday night with a featured songwriter (such as Dustin Pattison, who you should check out), which also allows musicians to use the house band during the second part of the evening. But, tonight I moved from giving mixed reviews of Airplay to being a fan. Tonight, there was jazz.

There were four young players who swung hard and funky – Farnell Newton (trumpet), Greg Goebel (piano), Eric Gruber (bass), and Chris Brown (drums). Do yourself a favor and follow the links to check out these guys' music, because it's phenomenal.

I first saw Farnell Newton a couple years ago at the Monday night jazz jam at Produce Row, and then saw him later with local Cuban band Caña Son. He's an exciting player who excels in straight ahead jazz, funk, soul, Latin, hip-hop, and what sounded tonight like a hard-bop/funk fusion.

I first saw Greg Goebel playing at Wilf's with Kate Davis during this year's Portland Jazz Festival, and saw him again at a Produce Row jam. He is quickly becoming one of my favorite pianists in Portland, with harmonically complex and rhythmically adventurous solos that are always tuned in to what the rhythm section is doing around him. He is slated to play a long run of shows with local modified bass master David Friesen in support of Friesen's newest CD release, Five & Three.

This was my first time to hear Eric Gruber, and I liked what I heard. He really helped amp up the energy in the rhythm section and had some fantastic harmonic interplay with Greg on some of the solos. He only took a couple solos himself, but they were harmonically rich and rhythmically driving. He plays with tenor saxophonist Devin Phillips' New Orleans Straight Ahead and the Andrew Oliver Sextet.

I had never heard of Chris Brown, and I can't believe it took me so long. He was leading a lot of the songs tonight and brought high energy and tons of rhythmic complexity. They played one or two of his compositions and a few of his arrangements, all of which were stellar. He's a Portland native (son of the famed Mel Brown), but has been on the East Coast for a decade now, where he teaches jazz theory at Rutgers and plays drums in the New York scene with luminaries such as Benny Golson, Essiet Essiet (see the link for Produce Row above), Kenny Davis, and Roy Hargrove.

These guys put on an amazing show. You have two more chances to catch them as a quartet before Chris heads back East. Tomorrow night they'll be at Jimmy Mak's at 10pm playing as Itutu and Saturday night at they will be playing as the Farnell Newton Quartet at a very cool new Portland event (which sadly ends in mid-June) called 'Round Midnight at 11:30pm.

Do me a favor and go to one of these shows, since my early work schedule will not allow me to enjoy a repeat performance. And after Chris leaves, be sure to catch Farnell and Greg whenever you can. They're well worth the affordable cover fees that Portland's underappreciated jazz scene currently charges.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Journals on fire

Throughout my childhood I would periodically have these intense episodes of overwhelming anxiety with no apparent cause. It's been ages, but I had one last night. All the crazy bunched up in this tiny space just behind my left ear lobe, and it felt like my soul was going to vomit.

When this feeling comes over me, I want to lay in bed in the dark and stare at the ceiling. But then I feel out of place and I want to eat a pint of Ben and Jerry's Oatmeal Cookie Chunk and drink a Sam Smith Oatmeal Stout. But then I am acutely aware that I am self-medicating and I put on a movie and try to tune out the low level jangling in my lungs.

I can't be around people in that state, mostly because any reasonable person asks if everything is alright and what's going on and is there a reason. I can't talk about this thing very well. It makes me feel like a psycho, and how do you say to someone, "It's cool, I just feel like yelling at the top of my lungs and banging pots together and setting my journals on fire. Don't you ever feel that way?" More frightening is if I somehow aim my anxiety at them and lash out. People avoidance is the name of the game when these moments hit.

Thank goodness for text messaging and email. In the past when I had access to neither I would just hole up in my room and read fantasy books or play video games, sensing that with each page turned or level beaten that I was drifting further away from the relational moorings that make me human. At least now I can communicate with people (in an admittedly one-sided fashion) without having to interact with them that moment. It helps me to feel like I'm still connected, still held together somehow. And now I'm blogging about it to keep that feeling going, I guess.

Deep breath...

Ok. Time to start the day.

Monday, May 18, 2009

One man's house

I have been sitting in my living room, staring at my laptop, for nearly a half hour. I want to write something profound and moving, because I feel it all swirling just beneath the surface. The other night I took semi-detailed notes on an event I wanted to write about, but the thought of pulling them out and composing a coherent essay is exhausting.

There are other thoughts running through my brain these days, such as the complexity of love in all its forms – familial, fraternal, romantic, divine. And then there is that most elusive love of all, the love of one's enemy. I definitely don't have the energy for that post right now.

No, I am sitting here staring at my laptop, because I am mostly enamored by something so ordinary in Portland that even mentioning it seems pointless. Tonight, I am enamored by the rain. Perhaps more accurately it is the smell of the rain that is captivating me.

Sitting by the window after a string of gorgeously warm and sunny days inviting we denizens of Stumptown to imagine summer in full swing, I am struck by the fact that in all of the autumn, winter, and spring rains we have had, it has been years since I stopped to smell the rain. It's such a distinctive aroma, and it wafted through the window unexpectedly as the sky turned it's final shade of night. My first thought was, "Oh, how I've missed that smell!" My second thought was, "How did I miss it when it's always raining?"

It sprung upon me tonight, held me down and wouldn't let me go. In minutes I will turn off the lamp and lay on my dark bed, drowsy mind dancing slowly to the rhythm of rain falling gently on the walkway below my window. In my dreams, I will wrestle with the rain until dawn, demand some kind of answer for an ineffable question. Perhaps I will awaken with a name that dissolves on my lips before I can speak it.

The rain speaks to me in so many ways. All the powerful imagery comes to mind of cleansing and baptism, growth and refreshment. The first time I came to Portland, I was in awe of the vividness of the greens here. Unless you grew up near a rainforest, there is no way to prepare for how green the Pacific Northwest is. Four years later I can tell you that it is a 9 month deposit of rain that produces the pristine perfection of lush vegetation set against sapphire skies during the summer. It's well worth it.

Rain brings to mind Lauryn Hill's performance on MTV's Unplugged 2.0, the recording of which is the last new material we've heard from Ms. Hill in nearly a decade. Near the end she plays Bob Marley's "So Much Things to Say", which includes the lines:

Though the wicked may find me guilty
Jah will prove my innocence
'Cause when that rain
When that rain falls
It don't fall on one man's house
Remember that

This is Marley's rendition of a troublesome part of Jesus' sermon on the mount. Why so troublesome? Because the original statement is that the rain falls on both the just and unjust, which is meant to underscore Jesus' remarks immediately prior: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..."

There I go, marking the head of a trail I have neither the courage nor the energy to explore tonight. Suffice to say, the smell of the rain is moving me to contemplate the deeply subversive call to love my enemy and the necessity for all of those symbolic functions of rain to come into play for such a call to be followed.

The rain is singing redemption songs, and redemption is a welcome companion tonight.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Jazz is once again a metaphor for my plan, or lack thereof. The essence of jazz is that each song is a framework, a beginning and ending melody which bookend a myriad of improvisations in the middle. Each performance is completely different.

When I started playing jazz, I would go over the songs for my lessons and memorize an “improvisation” that sounded good from start to finish. It worked while I was playing alone, but once my teacher started playing piano with me, he would ask, “Why aren’t you responding to what I’m playing?”

I’m thinking life is like that, for me at least. I’ve got great players surrounding me, a strong starting melody, and now it’s time for improvisation. The trick is that I can’t plan it and I can’t figure it out without committing to play something with no idea where it’s going next. I must put myself out there, then listen and respond to what the other players are offering.

I’m going to China in September, if all continues apace. I will study Mandarin and work with my friend to figure out how to bridge the Christian/Muslim divide in our minuscule corner of a tiny corner of the world. After a school year (semester?), I’ll see if it’s time do something else, and if that something else has made itself accessible.

It is not much of a plan. It is the first note, the first lick, in a longer improvisation that I cannot hear yet. All I can do is surround myself with good players, put my heart and soul into that lick, and pray that I don’t miss what the others around me are playing.

Then, when the time for improvisation is done, I will know the exact changes, exact notes for how the tune finishes. I will be able to look back and see how the improvisations brought the melody full circle. Then, if I’m fortunate, I’ll be able to look back and discern a coherent, plan-like journey.

Either way, I was playing jazz, and that’s what it’s about.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


The Wanderer Returned

In the middle of the street, I wonder, Where
is the city? It's gone, has not come back.
Perhaps this one is the same––it has houses,
it has walls, but I can't find it.
It isn't a matter of people––Pedro or Juan––
nor of that woman, nor of that tree;
now that city has buried itself,
has tumbled somewhere underground,
and this is another time, not the same at all,
taking on the same lines of streets,
assuming the same house numbers.

Time then does exist, I realize it.
I know it exists, but I cannot understand
how that city which had warm blood,
which had sky enough for all,
and whose midmorning smile
spread like a basketful of plums,
those houses with a forest smell,
wood newly cut at dawn with the saw,
the city that always sang at the water's edge
of sawmills in the mountains,
all that was yours and mine
of the city and its clarity,
wrapped itself up in love, secretly,
and let itself fall into forgetfulness.

Now where it once was there are other lives,
a different way of being, another hardness.
All is well enough, but why does it not exist?
Why is its old aroma now asleep?
Why did all those bells fall still,
and why did the wooden tower say goodbye?

Perhaps the city fell away in me,
house by house, its warehouses eroded
by the slow damp, by passing time;
perhaps it was I who lost the blue of the pharmacy,
the stored-up wheat, the horseshoe
that hung in the harness store,
and those souls who were always searching
as though in a well of dark water.

Then what am I coming to, what have I come to?
That woman I loved once among the plums
in the stunning summer, clear, clear
as an ax blade catching the moon,
she with the eyes that bit
like acid into the metal of helplessness,
she went away, went away without leaving,
without changing house or country,
went of her own will, tumbling through time
backwards, and did not fall into mine
when she opened, possibly, those arms
which clasped my body, and she was calling me
perhaps at the distance of so many years,
while I, in another corner of the planet,
was drowning in the distance of my age.

I will ask leave of myself to enter,
to return to the missing city.
Inside myself I should find the absent ones,
that smell from the lumberyard;
perhaps the wheat that rippled on the slopes
still goes on growing, but only within me,
and it's in myself I must travel to find that woman
the rain bore off, and there is no other way.
Nothing can last in any other way.
I am the one who must attend those streets
and somehow or other decide
where the trees should be planted, all over again.

--Pablo Neruda, from Fully Empowered
(translated by Alistair Reid)



Goodbye, goodbye, to one place or another
to every mouth, to every sorrow,
to the insolent moon, to weeks
which wound in the days and disappeared,
goodbye to this voice and that one stained
with amaranth, and goodbye
to the usual bed and plate,
to the twilit setting of all goodbyes,
to the chair that is part of the same twilight,
to the way made by my shoes.

I spread myself, no question;
I turned over whole lives,
changed skin, lamps, and hates,
it was something I had to do,
not by law or whim,
more of a chain reaction;
each new journey enchained me;
I took pleasure in place, in all places.

And, newly arrived, I promptly said goodbye
with still newborn tenderness
as if the bread were to open and suddenly
flee from the world of the table.
So I left behind all languages,
repeated goodbyes like an old door,
changed cinemas, reasons, and tombs,
left everywhere for somewhere else;
I went on being, and being always
half undone with joy,
a bridegroom among sadnesses,
never knowing how or when,
ready to return, never returning.

It's well known that he who returns never left,
so I traced and retraced my life,
changing clothes and planets,
growing used to the company,
to the great whirl of exile,
to the great solitude of bells tolling.

--Pablo Neruda, from Fully Empowered
(translated by Alastair Reid)

Monday, May 11, 2009


For Everyone

I can't just suddenly tell you
what I should be telling you,
friend, forgive me; you know
that although you don't hear my words,
I wasn't asleep or in tears,
that I'm with you without seeing you
for a good long time and until the end.

I know that many may wonder
"What is Pablo doing?" I'm here.
If you look for me in this street
you'll find me with my violin,
prepared to break into song,
prepared to die.

It is nothing I have to leave to anyone,
not to these others, not to you,
and if you listen well, in the rain,
you'll hear
that I come and go and hang about.
And you know that I have to leave.

Even if my words don't know it,
be sure, I'm the one who left.
There is no silence which doesn't end.
When the moment comes, expect me
and let them all know I'm arriving
in the street, with my violin.

--Pablo Neruda, from Fully Empowered
(translated by Alastair Reid)

Into the spiral

or, Pablo Neruda tells me why it makes me so sad that my friends Ray and Kelly are moving this week, and that I will be moving at the end of this summer, and that if/when I return it will not be the same

A series of three posts telling my story in verse.

*Editor's note: Pablo Neruda is said to have asked poet Alastair Reid to translate the collection Plenos Poderes, or Fully Empowered. Nevertheless, as in all things involving translation (especially poetry), it loses something. If you speak even just a bit of Spanish, look up the original versions. If you don't, these are still beautiful poems. Enjoy.