New Familiarities: Mike Nock’s This World

All night long the cat had loudly improvised games. Batting and chasing things across the hardwood floor, the hunt accompanied by little cries.

In the morning, she sweetly looked at me from the edge of the bed, the effect akin to a naughty child dressed up for a party or church.

All artists up to a certain (fame/power) level, we walk a razor’s edge. The lifestyle requires that we walk a razor’s edge. Stoicism, which increases with age, kicks in during lulls of activity or contemplation. It reminds us that while not every possession is now gold plated and Kanye still hasn’t called, on the other hand, neither are you chained to the oars in some office cubicle galley.

Still, there is the periodic bubbles of ambition. Ambition is good when it facilitates evolution. It only becomes a problem when as happens occasionally, it creates an inner churning. Then the stoic voice must raise up, for some reason now and then taking on the accent of my grandfather:

“It is raining out, hard. What time do you have to catch the train to work? That’s right, you don’t.”

I go downstairs to start the coffee. Mae gets back from her run just as I am pouring. I normally do not check my email at the table as it signals the start of the day, but it had been left on to do updates overnight. I caught myself stealing a peek. Hit parade. If not what some would consider “fame”, then exposure eventually brings out some of the ghosts.

It is a generational thing, I do not feel compelled to be on Facebook et al but I am easy enough to find.

“You are not going to believe who dropped me a line.”

“The coffee is good, who?”

“The trick is to make it heavy like a stilted thought, then pour a little in each cup so that they both get some crema before proceeding to fill them. Wendy. How long has it been?”

She smiled, having already savant like finished the math.

“It was another lifetime ago, when everything, fooling around, cooking, taking a bath had to be paired to the perfect soundtrack.”

The letter was temporarily forgotten as my mind cast back, at first to see if her math was right, which of course it was, then in general remembrances.

Music has always been important to me. With the passage of time, it is not so much that our relationship has undergone a sea-change so much as that layers have been added. A big pleasure for me used to be the exploration and when things worked out, discovery of new artists and works. I reached a point though where for a while it became almost solely about the hunt and capture. The goal of embracing and drawing newfound discoveries into what constitutes my taste dropped by the wayside in favor of a type of constant perusing motion.

I think that for any non-musician whose life revolves in some manner around music that there is an obsessive hunt phase. An equally prevalent variation on this is seeking out the new, not just to oneself, but in general. Having blinders on to all but the novel has its own built in limitations.

Needing a constant nouveau fix, it is misconstrued that being linked even tenuously to the past lessens a work’s power. Originality is important but novelty for novelty’s sake leaves very few places to go:

“Now I am into a guy who plays pieces of metal that he mined from the scrap yard himself. He is so out there-original that he doesn’t even record his works.”

Tradition is not nostalgia which can definitely at times allow for a loss of intensity. Artistically, it should never be anathema to draw or build off of the past. Some early modernist’s work cast a quick glance back while striding forward towards their own thing.  Stravinsky incorporated snatches of folk melodies and pagan rhythms, Jean Cocteau with his Greek myths turned out in chic couture buzzing around the right bank in the back of chauffeured Mercedes.

The past presents a navigational point, to draw inspiration from or reject and build something new in response to. With his oil paint stick, Basquiat would riff on the moodiness of Ajax (Aias) after not winning Achille’s armor with a tiny winged Charlie Parker looking on from above, but he ran out of time.

Continuing to explore while not rejecting a foundation presents more options for enjoyment than merely chasing the latest thing. An analogy which comes to mind would be one of my other passions, gastronomy. While it is great to discover new dishes, spices and flavor combinations, without the tradition of established things that work, what can it be measured against? While it is exciting to discover something new, there can be an equally satisfying experience digging into a long-established dish such as a simple spot on roasted chicken or sole meunière. This is especially important to recognize as sometimes the new gets some of its power just from existing in uncharted territory, the shock of the new which will eventually have diminished returns with increased familiarity.

While something which does not reject or radically depart from its artistic precedents may not have the convulsive beauty of something radically unfamiliar, it can offer up pleasure which is steady and lasting. This is the case with the new album “This World” by pianist/composer Mike Nock (Lionsharecords)

The album consists of all original compositions penned either by Nock or other members of the quartet. In its cadence and stylings, it has the feel of early to mid-sixties Wayne Shorter Blue Note dates mixed with a sort of ECM label vibe.

Written by bassist Jonathan Zwartz, “And in the Night Comes Rain” is one of my favorite tracks. It starts with lone piano which is rich and stark. The intro verges on being programmatic as it conjures up precipitive feelings, even were one to not be aware of the title. The drums enter initially as a cymbal(ed) hiss, the rain hitting atop every surface of the city caught unawares. The appearance of the horn, legato murmuring of nocturnal hours, its companion, softly knocked bass percussion, the brief slowed down flirtation of a samba. A terminal beauty. The lifespan of a bouquet of flowers, the laughter at a party, Tchaikovsky contemplating that glass of water. A melancholy moment universally recognized but pictured differently for each of us.

There used to be an Italian restaurant that I often walked by. Their sandwich board sign proclaimed, “Eighty-Seven Sauces”, which had to be about eighty too many. There was no way they could all be good, the best-case scenario being that they were not that terribly different from one another. This World offers pieces in various styles but rather than seeming an over extended hodge-podge, it comes across as displaying various aspects of the band cohesively.

“Riverside” by tenor saxophonist Julien Wilson is gospel tinged without trying to over emphasize that it is so. I do not know if the ensemble is a road-working unit nor if they had each other in mind when writing the songs but throughout the album is a naturally occurring interplay. Julien’s sax plays long declamations without losing articulation. It is the sustained notes of a good idea that pops into one’s head naturally. There is a piano break that alternates between bright percussive single notes and chords, the snappy back and forth of perfect repartee.

“Aftermath”, written by Mike Nook is a freebop soundtrack for something ethereal. The nine tracks average about seven minutes in length. This is one of the longer tracks and its length allows it to become an elemental song. Little jetties of piano extend their fingers out into an ocean of contemplative sound. The saxophone see-saws between earth and sky all in rich mid-range tone.

To say that the ensemble is steeped in (modern) tradition would be to oversimplify the case. The past is not rejected but avoided is the effect of an old house with merely a new coat of paint. This album has staying power since there is no importance placed on shock of the new or gimmick/novelty. Everything unfolds with an organicness where emotion is not sacrificed for technique. It will be great fun to see what this ensemble offers up to the ears of listeners in the future.

Mike Nock Piano

Hamish Stuart Drums

Julien Wilson Tenor Saxophone

Jonathan Zwartz Double Bass

Maxwell Chandler Dec 2019

Not for use without permission. maxwellachandler@aol.com

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  1. 2019>2020 | Julien Wilson

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