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Vintage 31

Vintage 31
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Max marched through the front door and looked at his watch. "Where's Louie?"

"We still have ten minutes." I was setting up the music stands.

"Yeah, but we need time—"

"Maxie! Mad Max! Max the Mad Hatter!" Louie walked in with an extended open palm, his upright bass case strapped to his back.

"Hello, Louie." Max shook his hand.

Louie looked at me. "Amos the Famous. Don't-Shame-Us Amos."

"Hi Louie."

Max grabbed a pad and a pen. "Alright, what songs shall we do?"

Louie pulled a bottle out of his bag. "I'm first tonight. How's this, Maxamillion?"

"Ooo, let's have a look." Max dropped his pen and paper and cradled the bottle. "2002 Erath Pinot Noir. Big spender."

"I didn't marry rich like you, Monster Max."

"You could at least splurge once in a while."

"Not on a teacher's salary."

"God, you need some cultural literacy," said Max.

"And you need some courtesy literacy, my man."

"I suppose it'll do." Max tugged off the capsule and drilled into the cork.

Louie tuned up the bass and started noodling, his usual ploy to divert Max from planning. Max stared at the bottle, held it up to the light, sniffed the top. He poured our three glasses as Louie slid into the intro of "Red Clay." I flipped on my guitar amp and laid down the chord changes behind him. Max couldn't resist. He sat down at the piano as he sipped.

"We didn't plan this out," he said, as his bony fingers spidered the keys.

"The fuck kind of hat is that?" said Louie.

"Eight-panel cordury spitfire," said Max.

"Looks like a Jiffy popcorn foil bag," said Louie, "like you're a fuckin' newspaper delivery boy."

"Shut it and play," said Max. "Amos, take the first solo."

I played it straight for thirty-two bars, feeling my usual lack of inspiration during the first bottle, then back to the bridge and Louie took a solo. I stopped playing and lifted my wine glass. First sip of the night, warm and smooth.

King Louie gripped the bass neck and wagged his head. He got his nickname as an undergrad in the Denison Jazz Combo because he looked just like the orangutan in The Jungle Book. Aside from being a blond-haired Swede, he was short and compact with arms so long his knuckles nearly reached his knees. I always giggled to imagine him in his day job as a middle school chorus teacher, standing in front of a class of seventh-graders on risers and waving those noodles around. During our gigs, he'd sit on his stool with his head bobbing down near the bridge of the bass and his left arm reaching way up the neck.

I sipped again. Man, it was good. And "Red Clay" was a perfect start for the rehearsal. We made a point to keep the standards well-greased, since they were the songs that sold. Not a single gig went by where some idiot didn't stride up to the set and request the damn A-Train.

"Alright, it's my solo now," said Max. "Is it my solo?"

"Yeah, your solo," said Louie.

Max tucked in to the keys. Louie looked at me.

"He's too tight."

I laughed. "It's only the first bottle."

"Still." Louie shook his head.

Max's fingers romped up and down the ivories as he bent over with his spine bobbing and his ponytail swishing—the kinetic version of Max the rare-books librarian, quietly hunched over old manuscripts with a magnifying glass.

Max came out of his solo. "Are we ending this thing?"

"If you say so, Maxi Pad," said Louie. "Make it happen, Mad Max."

"We didn't talk about the ending," said Max.

"Just do it, man. Feel your way, Max the Hatter. Bang Bang Maxwell. Maxwell Smart."

"Stop it," said Max.

We ended the song, then Louie added some more twiddling and a button on the tonic.

Max spun around on the piano bench. "Why do you do that?"

"Do what? said Louie. "Play jazz?"

"All that— that— crap at the end."

"Aw come on," said Louie.

"See, if we'd talk first about the solos and the endings, that sort of crap wouldn't happen." Max lifted his hat and smoothed his hair back.

"You need to make love to the fake book, Max Factor!" screamed Louie.

"I'm not saying we should throw out the fake b—"

"This is jazz, my man!"

"It's still jazz if we rehearse, isn't it?"

"We are rehearsing."

"We could do better."

"Yeah, if you'd loosen up, Maxa Moxa."

I turned up my amp and started "How High the Moon." If I could keep them in the music, their bickering wouldn't last. It was always the same argument: do we lay down the details of A sections, B sections, solos, and endings, or do we breeze through and wing it as we go along? Either way was fine with me, I didn't care. No, wait, not true. Max's way was worse. We'd once spent forty-five minutes going over (and over) the ending of "It Don't Mean A Thing." Louie had nearly strangled Max.

We played and drank. I refilled glasses by pouring with my right hand and hammering the guitar fingerboard with my left. "How High the Moon" was peppy— just what these two needed for their energy and to distract them from each other. We were finally cooking, gliding through the changes. The first bottle was nearly gone, and I was feeling it. Had these two forgotten their squabbling? I think so. I smiled and drank and played and smiled some more. In these moments I knew their quarreling didn't matter, we'd find more gigs, and Louie would keep his marriage together.

Louie had been pushing us to rehearse longer and find work every Friday and Saturday night. Max was so busy he didn't have the time and claimed it would wreck his family, the way Louie was trying to wreck his own. I'd braced for a fight, but Louie had just nodded as he played. He despised his wife more than he hated teaching at McKenna Middle. He wanted Vintage 31 to become a full-time, professional jazz trio. I wouldn't have minded more gigs and more rehearsals, but I sympathized with Max. There was a time when I would put in eighty hours a week as the owner of the Druid Café on Broad Street just to keep the place solvent, but then a few years in I'd met with the guys from the Illuminator Bookshop next door and we'd decided to break down the wall between us so people could walk back and forth. Bingo. Eureka. Sales tripled. I'd promoted my best barista, Wolfie, to store manager, and he'd been running the place ever since. I would go in for a few hours each day to pull some shots and check the books, but Wolfie would handle scheduling for opening and closing and day-to-day operations. So these days, there was nothing keeping me from going full tilt with Vintage 31.

"Gimme the solo, gimme the solo," yelled Louie. "I want it."

"Go, cat, go," said Max. "King Louie."

And Louie took off up the neck for a "How High the Moon" solo. He was flying. I was too. My fingers were hot and loose. Even Max felt the flames, I could tell. He bounced and wagged his head down at the keyboard as that ponytail danced. King Louie's left hand was lightning up and down the bass neck, like a kung-fu orangutan. Wine was in my blood, music in my fingers, fire in my brain.

"Here we go," said Louie. "Here comes the end. We didn't rehearse the ending. Oh no, what are we going to do?"

"Asshole," said Max.

I laughed. The ending was perfectly synced, couldn't have been better.

"Oh yeah, that was good," I said.

"Not bad at all," said Max. He swung around on the bench and put his hands on his knees. "Where's the gig this weekend?"

Louie uncrumpled a flyer from his pocket. "The Pickled Ostrich Jazz Series presents Vintage 31."

"Hey, they serve wine," I said.

"Yes they do, my friend," said Max as he reached into his blue canvas tote. "Speaking of which, I notice our first bottle is empty."

"Bring it on, Max Man," said Louie.

Max's eyes sparkled as he pulled out the bottle. "A little something from the Italian region of Umbria."

"More red!" said Louie.

"Indeed," said Max. "A 2003 Montefalco Sagrantino."

"Okay, whatever," said Louie. "Pour!"

Max pulled out the cork and sniffed and squinted before pouring. He handed Louie and me our wine, then sat back and swirled his glass. I sipped. Max lowered his nose into the glass and breathed. Louie gulped a big swig.

"Jesus, Louie, slow down," said Max. "Do you know how much this stuff costs?"

"Does it matter?" said Louie.

"Seventy bucks," said Max.

"Whoa," I said.

"Yeah, yeah," said Louie. "Maybe if my wife was Executive VP of Pharma-Whatever-the-Fuck I'd bring fancy wine too."

"Would that have kept you from screwing the drama teacher?"

"Fuck you, Max," said Louie, gulping again.

"Your wife still doesn't know, does she?" said Max.

"Moving on," said Louie.

"You said you'd tell her."

"Not worth it," said Louie. He put down his glass and grabbed the bass. He started playing "Killer Joe."

"No, no, stop," said Max. "I want to decide on at least one song."

Louie stopped playing. "No you don't. You want to decide on all the goddamn songs. You don't want to have any fun."

"You don't appreciate the beauty of structure," said Max.

"Are you fucked in the head? Jazz is structure."

"Look, look, I've got a new song," said Max. He put his glass on the coffee table and spun around on the bench to face the piano. "Here's a song inspired by you, Louie. No structure and no plan."

Max hammered the piano keys with his palms and fists in the manner of unsupervised children in a linoleum-floored church fellowship hall during coffee hour.

"I call this song 'Louie's Way.' You like it?"

He pounded and pounded. It was like cats having an orgy on the keyboard.

"Here it is, the world according to Louie, see?" said Max. "We just make up some stuff and 'go with it' and everything will be fine, just fine. See? Isn't it great?"

"Fuck you, man." Louie chugged the last few gulps and then disappeared down the dark hallway toward the bathroom with his shoulders drooping and his knuckles dangling low.

Max stopped hammering.

"Max, you're harsh," I said. "Too harsh."

"He frustrates the hell out of me."

"Yeah, but he's a monster bassist." I refilled Louie's glass.

Max sipped. He breathed out and wiped his forehead. "You're right." He sighed. "You're right, he's good." He sipped again and stared at the bass leaning against the wall by Louie's stool. "Yeah, I was too rough. We're lucky to have him."

I nodded. "Max, we're lucky to have you, too." I raised my wine glass close to his. He half-smiled and we clinked.

It was true. Not only was Max an excellent pianist, he knew a lot of people. He arranged most of our party gigs and house concerts. And because of his wife, he forever landed in interesting situations with cool people. In November 2003, we'd taken a three-week break from rehearsals so Max could travel to Turkey with his wife. She had business meetings in Istanbul and Ankara, and not only did they get free tickets to the Ankara Jazz Festival because she knew a Turkish executive who knew someone's brother, but the brother knew some Turkish jazz pros and got Max into the festival. I mean, actually in. And if it wasn't enough that Max got to jam with some cool Turks—he played with this trumpeting cat named Maffy Falay—during a break he ran into Charlie Haden.

"Charlie Fucking Haden?" Louie had said.

On his way to raising a wine glass to his lips, Max had leaned back in his chair and said, "Yep."

"Dude, man, I need a rich wife," Louie had said.

"Doesn't hurt," Max had said, and sipped again. "Those Turks, they're amazing players. This guy Maffy on the horn, incredible."

Max had also brought back the story that a Turkish euphemism for masturbation is the number thirty-one, which according to legend is the exact number of strokes necessary to reach climax, the literal phrase being "to pull thirty-one." We thought that was the funniest thing we'd ever heard, and during one rehearsal into that third bottle of wine when we were all thinking how great this bottle was and how much fun drinking wine was and how hilarious it was that thirty-one meant jacking off, Max said Vintage 31 should be the name of a wine, and Louie said it should be the name of our trio, and we thought it was brilliant. That was it. Everything was brilliant during the third bottle.

Louie emerged from the hallway still scowling and marched to his bass.

Max said, "Louie, I'm sorry, I was out of li—"

"A Night in Tunisia," said Louie. He grabbed his bass.

"Jeez," said Max. He looked at me. "I tried."

"Let's play." I pulled the guitar strap over my shoulder.

"And anyway," said Max, "it's just 'Night in Tunisia,' not 'A Night in Tu—' "

"Shut up," said Louie. "Shut your smart ass the fuck up." He played.

Max tightened his face and turned to the keyboard. He played the intro chords but shook his head. "We've never done it in E."

Louie played.

My favorite jazz tune! "Night in Tunisia" always made me wish Vintage 31 had a drummer. We made it work, though, with Louie as backbone and Max and me trading off-beats and fillers. I shuffled around the living room with the Montefalco bottle, refilling the glasses during Louie's solo. Max's left hand kept rhythm while his right hand raised his glass. His head stopped bobbing only when he sipped.

"Firm tannins!" he said. "Earthiness, can you taste that?"

I shrugged at him and grinned. To me it was dark and red. Oh, and yummy. Definitely that.

A guy from my Tuesday night drumming circle who came to the Druid Café every morning for his macchiato, after learning about Vintage 31 and our three-bottle rehearsal routine, started bringing me wine from his own cellar for my Thursday night contribution. Last month it was a 1986 Chateau Fonbadet Pauillac, which incited Max to start nattering on about how the vineyard was organic and had a low per-hectare yield and how this wine in particular would benefit from thirty minutes of decanting, and so on.

"You're rocking that bass, Louie," said Max.

"Yeah," said Louie.

"Seriously," said Max, "you're the bass man. King Louie. Killer bass. Monster bass."

Louie giggled.

"Ha!" said Max. "There he is. He's back!"

Louie chuckled again and shook his head.

I hadn't told Max and Louie yet, but last week I'd bought the old clothing store next to the Druid, on the side opposite the bookshop. During the next few weeks, the contractors would be breaking down that wall and expanding my café space: more tables, more couches, and a corner stage and sound system for live music. I'd been keeping it a surprise. Vintage 31 could finally cut a live album. I wanted to tell the guys right now, but I was determined to be strong and wait until the project was finished. Man, they were going to love it—we'd been talking about doing an album with "Night in Tunisia" as the opening track to highlight Max's virtuosic piano and bring on the energy right out of the gate.

"Dude, you're sprinting!" Louie yelled at Max. "You're McCoy Tyner all of a damn sudden."

"Let's bring it home!" said Max. "Our night in Tunisia couldn't last forever."

"Oh, Tunisia," said Louie. "We hardly knew you!"

I laughed. We ended it.

I pulled the strap over my head and put the guitar on the sofa.

"Well, men, it's time for the third bottle. My turn." I disappeared into the kitchen and returned with another red. We liked red. "Here we are."

Max lurched for the bottle. "Good Lord, Amos," he whispered. His eyes locked on the label.

I strapped on my guitar. "What, is it a good one?"

"This guy from your coffee shop, he must really like you." Max turned the bottle around to the back label. Then to the front.

Louie rolled his eyes. "Max, dude, you're not gonna hump our third bottle, are you?"

"Opus One!" yelled Max. "2001 Opus One. Look, it's by Mondavi and Rothschild."

"Is that good?" I said.

"Who are they?" said Louie.

"Who are they?" Max looked at Louie. He slapped his own forehead so hard his eight-panel cordury spitfire fell backward onto the floor. "I can't believe you, Louie. How —"

"I don't know those names either," I said.

"Oh." Max picked up his hat. "Well. They're big-time vintners. This is seriously high-end stuff. Do you have any idea how much this bottle is worth?"

"Fifty dollars," said Louie.

"More."

"A hundred?" I said.

"More."

"Damn," said Louie. "Well, open it up and let's go. We're still working here."

Max popped the cork and handed me the bottle. I poured the glasses, but Louie couldn't wait for the next tune.

"On Green Dolphin Street!" yelled Max.

He turned to the piano and played. I reached over and handed him his glass. He stopped playing and took it with both hands, then stared into the glass as he swirled it. He sniffed with closed eyes.

"Woooooooo!" said Louie.

I laid down the chords behind Louie's bass, and we were rolling. Max sipped slowly and breathed deeply in through his mouth, then out through his nose. I watched him mouth "My God." He gently put his glass on the piano top and then hit those keys like a madman. His head wobbled, his back swiveled, and he had the biggest smile I'd ever seen.

I sipped again. Ooo, man. Another sip. And another. Was I supposed to slow down when the wine was expensive? Damn it was good. I drank half the glass.

"The dolphin is swingin'!" said Louie.

"Sing, dolphin, sing," yelled Max.

"I said 'swing.'"

"Yeah!" said Max. "Right on!"

I laughed. I drank some more. I grabbed the solo without even nodding at the others. They let me take it. I loved these guys. I looked at the fingers on my left hand as they moved up and down the fretboard. Were those my fingers? Just what were they doing, exactly? They were so fast. Did they know where to go? They were so beautiful. The music was so beautiful. I couldn't believe how beautiful it was.

"I'm building us a sound stage!" I yelled.

"What?" said Max.

"At the Druid. I'm expanding. It'll be bigger. We'll have a stage for our gigs!"

"Dude!" said Louie. "That's awesome."

"Right there in your coffeeshop?" said Max.

"Yes!"

Louie jumped up and down even as he kept playing.

I didn't think this was possible, but Max's head bounced faster.

I ended my solo and Louie jumped in. I vamped. My left hand took over as I reached for my glass and sipped.

"I love it!"

"Of course you do!" yelled Max.

Mondavi. Rothschild. What a wine. It was good. Did I mention it was good? It was seriously good. And soon we'd be gigging at the Druid. Vintage 31 at the Druid! It was awesome! This was great.

Louie nodded it over to Max, whose right hand dashed up the keyboard with his scampering fingers in the lead. I sipped. I played. I sipped again.

"Yeah, Max!" said Louie. "Mix and Max. Max to the Max."

"Ha ha!" said Max. His body swayed left and right.

"Max Max BoBax."

"Oh yeah!" Max's hat fell to the floor.

I loved "On Green Dolphin Street." I loved all our songs. I loved songs! I loved these guys! Where would I have been without Max and Louie?

"You guys are great!" I yelled. "I love you!"

Max nodded the end of his solo. Louie's noodles were flapping. I was flying. Max was dancing. Eight more measures. We were almost there.

And then it was over. We were done. But then Louie twiddled an extra coda. Max joined him and tickled a few high keys. They touched down on the same chord at the same damn time.

"Ha ha!" said Max.

"Yeah!" said Louie.

I plunked down on the sofa and stared at the ceiling. "Good rehearsal."

"We're not done yet," said Max.

"Dude, it's almost eleven, and the bottles are gone. See?" Louie held up the third bottle. It was dry.

"Rules is rules," I said.

"But look at Louie's glass." Max was pointing.

I lifted my head from the couch. He was right. There was about an ounce of that Opus One in the glass. I flopped my head back down. I didn't want to keep playing. The couch was so soft, and the popcorn pattern on the ceiling was so mesmerizing.

"Let's just be done for now," I said.

"Max is right," said Louie. He sat on his stool and grabbed the bass neck with his long fingers. "Come on, Amos. Don't be lame-us. Aim at us, Amos."

"Those aren't working," I said.

"Well, I'm drunk."

Max swung around to the keyboard. "Like you said, rules is rules."

Awwww. Hrngh. I hefted myself up from the sofa. "Whoa. That Opus One went straight to my head."

"You said it, Billie!" Max's velvet fingers played.

I staggered across the carpet and strapped on my guitar.

I shook my head. "She didn't sing it in E-flat."

"Yeah, yeah," said Max.

"Wait, said Louie. "Shouldn't we talk about the ending first?"

"Oh hell, Louie," I said.

"Fuck it!" said Max. I'd never heard him use that word.

King Louie hit the bass, and the two of them wove the intro. I stood and stared at them. In that moment, those two together—they were creating the most gorgeous, smooth sound I'd ever heard. I watched and listened. It was slow and sweet and soft and haunting and stretched-out, like warm taffy, and I suddenly felt there wasn't anything I could possibly have added. It was already perfect.

"Get ahold of yourself, Amos!" said Louie. "We can't do it without you."

So I played. I joined in, my veins flush with burgundy brew and my brain bubbling, enraptured by the mellow harmonies of my friends—these two astounding musicians —and grateful to be steeped in the glow and sparkle and spell of this moment.

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