If you are a musician or close to one, you are probably aware of the always-simmering tension in that world between the trained and the untrained, the adept and the innocent, the proficient and the primitive, the certified professional and the passionate amateur who might make 100 times more money under certain conditions. Of course, the vast majority of musicians of all stripes are bigger than that false dichotomy. If they were not humble to start, they will be humiliated into it eventually; and they will come to profess an “it’s all one” ecumenism when the issue flares, as it inevitably will in the course of our long, happy day of singing, dancing and arguing about it. But the tension is real, too, and maybe it is not all one.
While the “player” camp is more often accused of pulling rank, I usually find the dogmas of the other side – call it the left – to be the more fundamentalist and denying. While they can in fact be locked in their chops, theorybound and smugly entitled in their claim to the stewardship of music, trained players typically recognize the value and allure of the naïve musical impulse, the punk and folk impulse in its many eccentric, traditional and self-invented expressions. Maybe this is because they have to recognize it; again and again, they have had to contend with the reality that many people who (by the standards of their Jazz Studies and Commercial Music programs) simply cannot play or sing have, in fact, played and sung in ways that have changed history. They also have to make sense of the reality of Paul McCartney. And they often have to go to work for people who don’t really know what they are doing, but got this thing going on.
But those on the left side own and operate cool, and that’s a big burden to carry. Music is defined in terms of emotion, passion, truth, relevance and the moment in culture, not half-diminished sevenths, clichéd hot solos and Hanon exercises. Wielding this unassailable authority of cool and the standards of relevance, the left is all too easy in its dismissal of “trained” music. It delineates the boundaries of “mattering” in a way that often leaves virtuosity and institutionally acquired sophistication outside looking in, as if there were no wildness, eccentricity and strokes of passion and luck possible in the institutional world of the trained.
Someone needs to tell them that no one owns the spark or can define its capricious will. Someone needs to tell them that those hot jazz or Latin or classical players whom they mock are often every bit as clueless and out-on-a-limb in their own way as the venerated punks of the basement and the touched visionaries of the bedroom four-track. Someone needs to nudge them to concede that these hypertrained ramen aficionados out there playing their gruelingly difficult music to small audiences under even more grueling economic conditions may be today’s authentic do-it-yourself punks. Someone also needs to hip them to the very real emotional truth of the half-diminished seventh.
Not me of course, but my pal Neil Alexander could do it. Dude is a rare and shining exemplar of an earned “it’s all one” universalism – not the “it’s all good” kind that smacks of conciliation and appeasement, a throwing of the hands in the air at the point at which you realize that arguments over taste, aesthetics and the terms of relevance are fruitless and unwinnable. The keyboardist and composer Alexander is well-known regionally and beyond, almost exclusively as a leading figure in that upper tier of “trained” players. Most of the things that he has done, from the prog/fusion of his original project NAIL to his Weather Report tribute band Mr. Gone to his wild and difficult solo jazz piano record to the labor-of-love one-piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that almost killed him seem to sit comfortably on the “trained” side.
Story ain’t so simple, though. Alexander is trained – self-trained. Early on his path he realized that technique and theoretical understanding were going to be essential to the music that he wanted to make, but the imprimatur of a great music school wasn’t in the cards for him. He did the training and the curriculum on his own (with many mentors, of course), and that essentially “punk” route may account for a musical gestalt and an inclusive vision that I find to be kind of unique.
He is a superfan of numerous naïve rock bands that many of his peers might easily dismiss as the youthful tyrants of cool. Last time I saw him, he was positively beaming in glory at the Television reunion show at BSP. And yes, I must disclose that he has been an ardent and enduring supporter of my own quirky rock band, providing a sustaining encouragement from a direction that I least expected.
Another cool thing about Neil: He lives in and fully embraces his beautiful, complex and difficult adopted home city of Newburgh, and he is a central figure and advocate in the exciting cultural and artistic awakening taking place there. On Saturday, October 15 at 8 p.m., the Safe Harbors Lobby at the Ritz welcomes the Neil Alexander Quartet with special guests to the Ritz Theater in Newburgh.
The concert will be in “jazz chamber orchestra” format: a small ensemble featuring a core quartet with the addition of strings, wind and percussion. The Neil Alexander Quartet consists of Peter Furlan on sax, Peter Brendler on bass, Nadav Zelniker on drums, Neil Alexander on piano and synthesizer, with guest artists Fung Chern Hwei on violin, Rachel Evans on violin and viola, Mark Frankel on percussion and marimba and Tom Reese on flute and pennywhistle, with spoken-word from poet Mona Toscano.
The scheduled program includes the original piece Cumberland Spring, an arrangement of Gershwin’s Lullaby for Strings and a very special performance of Neil’s 2002 four-movement jazz suite titled Newburgh: An Urban Romance, written during his early days as a Newburgh resident. Neil also will premier two new works, Gravity Well for violin and piano and The Inner Journey (originally composed for choreographer), along with his jazz arrangement of the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 and several other original works.
Tickets cost $25 and are available at www.safe-harbors.org/shop. The Ritz Theater is located at 107 Broadway in Newburgh. For more information about the music of Neil Alexander, visit https://nailmusic.com.
Neil Alexander Quartet with special guests, Saturday, October 15, 8 p.m., $25, Ritz Theater, 107 Broadway, Newburgh; www.safe-harbors.org/shop.