Too Grand To Be Two: Adventures in Jazz
The wonderful thing about having a diverse and interesting group of friends is that you often end up in places you never expected, doing things that truly amaze you. This past Sunday proved to be one such occassion. Jeff, our keys player, had invited me to come check out a couple pianists with him--at the time I was existing in what could charitably be called a perfect storm of chaos, so naturally I accepted without much thought or research whatsoever. To be fair, Jeff has excellent taste in music, so I felt I was in good hands. However, I should have known that I was in for something when he stearnly stipulated that I was NOT wear any dress that had anything akin to googly eyes attached to it. And sure enough, that Sunday, I found myself being directed by my GPS up into the literal heights of sophistication. The address Jeff had given me was, in fact, a house--a house imbeded in the hills up above Sunset, looking out on a stunning view of Los Angeles along with a handful of its other tastefully wealthy bretheren. Those hills, by the way, must have been designed to keep the less fabulous away--my sad little Saturn wheezed and puffed and barely made it to the top. Because of the aforementioned labored ascent, I arrived just barely on time, and was ushered into the house by Jeff before I could truly pepper him with questions about what, exactly, the fuck this was.
The house consisted primarily of one enormous, central room, off of which a large balcony jutted and a cliff fell steeply away. It was sparsely decorated--a few pictures here and there, but the main attraction was clearly the two pianos set up to face each other in the front of the room, and the two pianists sitting at each one. The pianists were set in startling contrast to each other--one a younger man, devistatingly hip, with long dreads and a crisp suit, the other older, slight, with round glasses and the air of a benevolent professor just roused from a nap. There were, respectively, Gerald Clayton and Shelly Berg. For you jazz nerds: I'm sure I need say no more. For everyone else: Shelly Berg is a deeply respected and widely acclaimed jazz pianist, as well as former professor of Jazz Studies at USC and dean of the Frost School of Music in Miami. Gerald Clayton is his protege, who in his late twenties has already recieved several Grammy nods. To put it more bluntly: as we were settling into a pair of folding chairs in the back, Jeff whispered reverently, "these are probably two of the best pianist alive today". This became clear the second they started playing.
Jazz is a funny creature: unlike a lot of popular music, it lacks any kind of linear narrative, instead unfolding and twisting away in different directions like a staircase in a Dr Suess book. In the right hands, it can be a strange, playful, visceral experience, where the listener is treated to glimpses of the shifting personalities of both player and song. In the wrong hands, it becomes a never-ending nightmare. Luckily, these two pairs of hands were the right kind. Berg and Clayton traded back and forth seamlessly, catching eachother's motifs and expounding on them, creating an effortless musical conversation that filled the room. Their physical styles were very different--Clayton played with an off-the-cuff cool, while Berg seemed to slip into an ecstatic revery all his own, bouncing up and down on the bench and panting. However, if you closed your eyes (and I did) you couldn't tell where one pianist stopped and the other picked up. My favorite part was towards the end of the first set, when Berg and Clayton traded ballads. At one point, Berg launched in to a gently embellished version of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face". As a vocalist, I sometimes struggle with hearing the emotional expression in instrumental arrangements as clearly as I do with vocal ones. But Berg captured tenderness, wistfulness and poignancy of the song so clearly that it brought tears to my eyes.
The drive back down felt strange and alien, the way you feel when you wake up still half-way through a dream. For a small moment I was not standing outside looking in on legend, but so close I could touch it. (Thanks Jeff!). These moments always seem to mess with the way we measure time-I could have sworn they'd only been playing for half an hour when intermission arrived (an hour and a half later). And I will hold that memory clearly, and dearly, for the rest of my life.
Picture courtesy of www.fallsrivermusic.com