I imagine that most jazz fans in Washington, DC are unaware that the best venue for jazz and improvised music in the DC area is not actually in the city. Indeed, it is not located in what is traditionally considered the metropolitan region. It is located, instead, one hour north in Baltimore, Maryland.
An Die Musik (ahn dee moo-zeek), named after the title of a Franz Schubert lieder ( O Music O blessed art, how often in dark hours, When the savage ring of life tightens round me, Have you kindled warm love in my heart, Have transported me to a better world! , is an oasis in what is increasingly becoming a vast waste land of jazz and creative music in the nation's capital. I have repeatedly made the pilgrimage from my home in Virginia to North Charles Street in Baltimore to hear jazz and improv legends in this intimate and congenial venue.
The club is housed in a town house built in 1920 and located on an attractive block that has been the subject of extensive urban renewal. The first floor of the building contains an attractive wine bar which also houses revolving exhibits by local artists. In the back of the first floor is located a small but attractive and exceedingly well stocked record store , specializing in jazz, classical and world music. The stock consists of both new and used recordings, and the many colorful displays often relate to the many recent or future concerts. The walls are littered with autographed publicity photos and personalized posters of such artists as Tomasz Stanko and the Emerson String Quartet, each thanking the owners for hosting their respective successful events.
On concert evenings, those fortunate enough to have tickets may ascend the stairs to the second floor, where another small bar immediately greets the visitor and the bartender invites the listener to take a beverage into the performance. The concert hall contains approximately 100 matching and well upholstered easy chairs, each resting solidly on the tattered hard wood floor and facing the slightly raised stage containing only a grand piano. The sound of the hall is intimate and much like an inviting living room; the walls are bare and the ceiling extends approximately fifteen feet. Such was the welcoming atmosphere on two recent evenings.
On Friday, Janaury 14, David Murray returned Stateside for a single evening to play three duo sets with his current pianist, Baltimore native Lafayette Gilcrest. Although An Die Musik usually offers two shows for scheduled performance, demand was such that a third seating at midnight was necessary. At the second set, Murray acknowledged the boisterous audience and greeted us with a few jokes. Sitting in the second row, we were immediately braced by the launch with "Suki, Suki, Now". It was an up-tempo performance, but contained moments of heart-aching beauty at the mere turn of a rapid phrase.
Prior to another composition, Murray explained that "Like a Kiss that Never Ends" was written during a recording session in Cuba. Those who are well acquainted with Murray were certainly not disappointed with his fiery tone, extending from the lowest notes of the tenor to high notes which, I do not believe, technically exist on the instrument. Murray moved freely on the small stage, and used his body to punctuate the performance with sudden bursts of staccato energy and instances of cradling warmth.
Pianist Gilcrest, who was been sitting in the piano chair of Murray's octet and big band for several years was, although technically adept, stylistically out of step from his mentor. Gilcrest's playing was seemingly rooted, and at times bolted down, by the stride playing in his left hand which prevented his melodic thoughts from flying up to meet the soaring and ebullient lines of his accompanying mentor. The two, at least to these ears, did not engage in a musical discussion, but played to each other from different perspectives. Nevertheless, the evening was a success and Murray was clearly pleased with the performance and with his reception from the audience.
As if the rare club appearance by Murray were not enough, on Saturday, January 15, Andrew Hill gave two solo recitals. His appearance was the inspiration for, and the concluding concert of, the "Points of Departure" series, which hosted Marilyn Crispell, Fred Hersch, Kevin Norton, and Dave Burrell/William Parker. Hill's entrance into the small room was met with polite applause which contained a degree of reverence. It is rare to hear Hill at all, and rarer still to be treated to a solo performance in a club. Hill ascended the small stage and removed sheet music from a manila envelope. After carefully and silently placing each sheet on the piano's stand, Hill launched into a performance where he both read the music carefully and improvised upon a few of the passages. The music was plainly influenced by Hill's classical background (he was a student of Hindenmith) and characteristically weaved through winding time signatures and mood swings. Hill did not explain the piece and never addressed the audience throughout the evening; this listener was thus unaware of the title of any composition.
After each piece, Hill briefly acknowledged the audience with a hesitant bow or glance and quickly sat down again to begin another exploration of his sound world. Hill's is one of both great beauty and tempestuousness, expressed through dense runs, atonal progressions and heartfelt melodic resolutions. The listener must open the ears and the heart and surrender to this dense music. The tone clusters, contrapunctal lines and intimate musings make me wish I had a recording of the evening; only upon repeated and concentrated listenings can one begin to understand this music. Appreciation, however, is immediate.
This year promises great things for An Die Musik. I can't wait to future intimate evenings by the legends of improvised music... and to purchase some music downstairs after the show.
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