Last Song for Valentine, Part 1-4: Dancing in the Dark

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

It was at the end of the second set when Cory realized that he couldn't play. Nothing had really changed. He looked across the room in Jan's Supper Club and saw the same familiar faces and some new ones too. Valentine wasn't there. She would never be. He had tried to persuade her many times. "Look," he had said, "it's free. I'll write you on the guest list. You don't have to pay anything. It's free."

Of course, nothing's free. You pay for everything, it's just a matter of how you pay. As a musician he knew all about it. How often had he not discreetly handed out a CD with the faintly hidden hope of positive response in return? At some point, he had stopped giving his music to friends. It wasn't because he wouldn't give it away. It was the anticipation of response that would sneak up on him the very moment he was supposed to enjoy his act of altruism. The innocence of paradise was lost, and he was becoming all too aware of his own motive. His naked need for validation.

He tried not to make a show of it, hiding behind a mask of aloofness, but he sensed the cracks in his armor and he had spent too much energy trying to decipher the reactions of his surroundings. It was a losing game. A positive response could always be better, and the honest response of criticism would hurt, although he didn't like to admit it. So now he only gave his music to industry professionals working in the record business.

The record business, that was a fitting name. As much as he despised being a mercenary, at least that was honest. He was trying to sell a product and looked for someone that would help him. In the beginning, he found it strange to speak about himself as a product. Gushing about his own originality and the praise lavished on him by others, but in the end, he got used to it and learned the clichés that are necessary in the music press.

The distance came gradually and protected him, but it also made him a stranger, oblivious of his own need for love. Not love as in two kindred souls joining each other in carnal understanding. Love as the invisible thread binding humanity together. The act of meeting a stranger that suddenly becomes familiar because love says I understand you.

In his project of forgetting his own vanity, he had become hardened, but he had also become cynical. Valentine represented his last connection to a vulnerability he had been trying all too much to forget. Through all the years, he had never stopped sending her his music and at every gig he hoped she would be there.

He looked across the room, squinting, as he tried to catch the eyes of the sound engineer. "A bit more bass, please." The sound engineer nodded.

"All right, now we're going to play some new music for you. This one is called "Whirlpool." He walked lazily back and forth on stage and suddenly, without counting, he turned around and burst into a flurry of notes like a beast surprising its prey. The drummer almost fell back from his chair as he desperately hit the cymbals, but quickly regained his composure and started to play some circling patterns, a hypnotic rhythm that was sometimes broken as he hit a string of little bells.

The bassist stood stoically and occasionally plucked the strings with the deep booming sound of his instrument resonating in the room. The pianist splashed chords and little figures with the approach of an expressionist painter. For a moment, he listened to the bells and echoed the sound with a high-pitched touch on the keys.

Cory stood with a concentrated look as he blew sound in all directions, trying to make the notes swirl in a downward movement. He was not ecstatic, building layer upon layer, but rather wanted to be sucked in by his own sound. He heard bells in the distance and the pulse of the bass like blood flowing in his veins, and he felt the restless movement in the water. The ebb and flow of the piano whose colors seemed to shift all the time.

He tried to get away and be lost in the moment, but he was not there, although it seemed that way. When the music ended, he was afraid to catch the eyes of the audience, and instead continued with a melody he had been working on for some time. It was a lullaby, or at least that was how he thought of it, but it had some disturbing elements of dissonance that he could not figure out. It was these elements that made him return to the piece to unlock its secrets.

Pearl, the drummer, was playing it straight and smiled while he added a rhythmic pattern that he had played on many other ballads with little variations. Fox, the pianist, could not figure out how to approach the melody and shifted between irony and innocence, dramatizing too much with theatrical chords while suddenly being surprised by his own sincere touch in a part of the melody. He smiled like a confused child before he returned to his safe position behind the keys.

At the end of the song, Cory looked at Nathan, the bassist, a sign that it was time for the final piece in the set. He started out with a solo, patiently building a structure bit by bit, changing between forceful slaps on the strings and prickly figures. At the end of the solo, he paused for a moment, as if to contemplate the melodic structure he had made, only to tear it all down with a deep groove that quickly set Pearl into motion. Now they were in it together and even Fox lost his reservation and started comping with a riff, building the groove with the rhythm section.

Cory watched them and could not help smiling. He relaxed and interjected a motif that they returned to again and again with little variations. Suddenly, Pearl broke the motif into two pieces, inserting an artificial break between the melodic parts. Fox grinned as he started to break up chords before he returned to his riff. Cory got carried away. He played a solo that started out with an idea he had often used before, but suddenly the music pushed him in new directions. The motif was torn apart like a puzzle with scattered pieces he somehow managed to connect in new ways. At the end of the groove, he was drenched in sweat.

"That was all we had for you. I hope you enjoyed it. If you are interested, we have some CDs for sale at the bar and please come by and say hello." He heard clapping hands as Jan entered the stage. "What about it? Give a big applause for Cory Dextrose and his quartet." The sound level rose a bit with clapping hands, creaking chairs, chatter and clinking glasses. "Do you want to hear some more? Do you have one of the old ones for the road, Cory?"

"I might have. Here's one that Bird played. It's called "Dancing in the Dark." You just have to imagine the strings." Cory closed his eyes and he heard Bird play. He just followed his lead, playing a note for note transcription of his solo and danced away on the ceiling, moved to tears, not by his own playing, but the light melancholy elegance of Charlie Parker.

Parker could play. Every note had meaning and coherence. The music just poured out of him like a garland of roses. Not only did he know how to sculpt a phrase between the heavy burden of a blue night and the early optimism of morning, it was the way he was able to express himself in one singing statement.

The most amazing thing was it seemed like he could turn his creativity on like a tap. He would let the strings introduce him. Then he would sing his song and stop in a perfect curve to give way to a string interlude before taking off again, soaring majestically.

For a moment, as he played in Bird's feathers, Cory discovered freedom and knew it was possible to catch the essence of music, but he also knew he had a long way to go before he could fly on his own.

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