Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Eleventh Hour

Sometime back in the late 18th century, I was living in Boston, and a student at the Berklee College of Music. I was taking a class with a teacher named Gary Burton, a man widely considered the best vibraphone player ever.
Gary had done a series of tours and duet albums with a pianist/composer named Chick Corea, and I owned every one. The two of them had just released an album with a string quartet called Lyric Suite for Sextet, and it was easily among the most beautiful recordings I'd heard in my life, to that point.
Incredibly written and flawlessly performed, Chick's compositions found a way to combine the classical background of the string quartet with the jazz sensibility he and Gary had already been playing with for many years, creating something really special, something unlike anything I'd heard before.

Being a Berklee student at that time (before electric light, and all...) was like living in a monastery. My friends and I would set up in the glass-doored practice rooms at the end of our dorm hallway, and stay in there 8, 10, sometimes 14 hours a day. We would set up across from one another, so in the unlikely event that one of us would want to attend a class occasionally, the other guy would watch your stuff. We were broke, we were smoking an absurd amount of pot, and our lives were absolutely dedicated to music. Learning to play, learning to write, learning to listen. It was all we did, all day, every day.

Did we party like other college kids? Yeah, I guess we did, but it was different. For us, going to a concert was like going to church. Hanging out and smoking, bullshitting with one another, always involved whatever we were listening to and trying to absorb at the time. We were obsessed and obsessive, willing to sacrifice anything to become just a little bit better than we were yesterday. There was plenty of drinking and drugs and screwing around, but it was never on its own - it always included music in some way, we were always talking about what we were learning, what we wanted to learn, what we had already learned. In other words, to anyone outside of our closed off little sphere, we were boring as hell.

And not only didn't we know that, we simply didn't care.

So the announcement is made that Chick and Gary are going to tour with the string quartet that played on the album, and my friends and I are all over it. Symphony Hall is right down the road from the Berklee dorms - tickets are bought, plans are made, we sit and we listen to the album over and over and over again, analyzing every composition, every performance, every chance to hear them stretch it out and elaborate on it when playing it live.

Gary goes off on the road, and we end up with a substitute teacher in class. I think. I kinda stopped going when Gary left.

Anyway, the day comes, and off my friends and I go to the concert. We're baked and we're loving it, it's everything we could've asked for. Chick and Gary both are in rare form, performing in this incredible space to their hometown crowd, and the audience is eating out of their hands.

Halfway through the show, Gary steps up to the mic and says that he wants to tell us all about how this whole thing came about.

"Chick and I had been talking about recording with strings for ages," he tells us, "and at the end of the last tour, he finally talked with the record label about it. They loved the idea - they immediately committed to setting up an album and a tour. We set out and made our plans, found the quartet we wanted to work with, and booked studio time for six months hence."

"So I went out on the road with my band, and Chick went home to write the album."

"Two weeks before we were scheduled to go into the studio to record, I got home from my tour, and I called Chick to talk about the scheduled session - how were the plans? How are the string players taking to it? Is he happy with the compositions? Is everything working out as we hoped?"

"I was excited and eager to get into the studio, anxious to see what Chick had come up with, to get started learning the parts and planning my contribution," Gary says, smiling ear to ear.

"And Chick tells me, 'I went out shopping the other day. And I found the perfect...manuscript paper.'"

'Now, I can start writing.'"

I load into the Javits Center on Thursday morning. The parts to be assembled and made into my new work will arrive on Tuesday afternoon, with a great deal of work to be done once it does. As I write this, it is 4:30 in the morning, Tuesday. An amazing rendering badass is working on the images for the brochure, and a graphic design superstar is working on the layout, all of which has to be in the printer's hands in the morning.

There are calls to be made, business cards to be designed and printed, booth designs to be finalized, and there is a new chaise lounge in the collection that I will be unable to sit in until very late the night before we load it - I have no idea whether it's comfortable, other than that I think I've designed it well.

And that's how it works. I've probably been in this position a thousand times since I first heard that story about Chick and Gary, and I've thought of them, and of how beautiful that album is, every single time.

And I remember that this is how it works, and that I wouldn't change a thing. I love the pressure, I love the exhaustion, I love knowing that I will probably sleep 2 or 3 hours a night over the next several nights, but I'll probably get a decent night's sleep Friday.

And come Saturday morning, as the show opens, I'll be standing there smiling, and acting as though these pieces have existed for weeks, and pretending to be relaxed and prepared, and I'll be happy and excited and proud and charming.

Because some things never change.


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