Saturday, March 10, 2018

wandering in the wilderness as a lenten discipline...

There comes a time in many musician's development when you realize, "I don't know shit about what's happening in music now!" Jazz players often take a sabbatical from sound to either rework their chops; or, like Sonny Rollins has done from time to time, to rethink what they are called to accomplish in the time that remains. Back in the day, Bob Dylan would periodically disappear from the scene only to pop up with new ideas and sounds. And now, for different reasons,  a wide swath of so-called "heritage" artists from Paul Simon and Elton John to Joan Baez, Ozzy Osborne, Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton are choosing to take an extended break. Some will fully retire while others will rest before regrouping to explore new musical vistas.

Personally, my musical development has been on hold for the past few years, too. These have been spiritually and emotionally confusing times. Fertile in a dark and germinating way, but also dry like the Sonoran desert waiting for that surprise winter rain that explodes overnight in wild flowers. So unlike Kiki Dee, for a few years I didn't have the music in me - so not much came out. 

Two exceptions were post-sabbatical projects in 2015: the local premier of Paul Winter's "Missa Gaia" under the direction of Carlton Maaia II, and, a reworking of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" for Good Friday on the occasion of this masterwork's 50th anniversary. Both came off brilliantly and were artistically and spiritually satisfying. But then... nothing was cooking. I didn't play many gigs. I had no juice or interest in reworking songs for church. And I pretty much quit practicing. To everything there is a season, I know, but the flow of tunes within me shriveled up and hid. Some jazz masters, notably Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock, held my attention during this period. Singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer, too. But that's about it.

Only after working my way through the labyrinth of issues related to retirement did I start to play and practice again - albeit in a very selective way. I had no interest - and still don't - in just sitting around playing tunes. Regurgitating the past at church was not an option either. And playing in public without serious rehearsals? Forget it!  Once again there were two creative projects that awakened my inner groove. The first was a dream held close to my heart for over a decade: an interfaith concert called Songs and Sounds of Solidarity. I was able to recruit 15 spoken word artists and musicians from the Judeo-Christian tradition in the Berkshires to support the Four Freedoms Coalition. I also gathered some of my favorite musical friends to rework Herbie Hancock's take on "Don't Give Up." This event felt like closing a circle - it took place just weeks before my formal departure from church - and was aesthetically beautiful.

The second put me back in relationship with my buddy Hal.  Last fall we started practicing for what I thought might be a house concert. It ripened into an authentic musical mission: creating original songs of compassion and challenge for 21st century people. We shared some tunes in my closing days of worship and also did a small concert event that was well received. And now we're in rehearsals in anticipation of taking this show on the road. I believe Hal is a humble musical genius - a gifted guitarist with a wide range of styles - with songs that cut deep. They question lethargy and denial. They offer sounds of hope to a culture that is amusing itself to death. And they are consistently poetic and beautiful. What's more, I get to play electric and upright bass with a dear brother in a new and profoundly satisfying manner. 

All of which is to say that the past three years have been a protracted season of Lent for me. In my tradition, Lent is a time for winnowing. Stripping away that which clutters the heart, inhibits compassion, or confuses creativity. In A Long Obedience, Eugene Peterson evokes the challenge of Lent like this: 

We are surrounded by a way of life in which betterment is understood as expansion, as acquisition, as fame. Everyone wants to get more – to be on top – no matter what it is the top of that’s admired. There’s nothing recent about the temptation. It’s the oldest sin in the book. The one that got Adam tossed out of the garden and Lucifer tossed out of heaven. What is new about it is the general admiration and approval it receives.

Lent trains us during its forty days for extended emptiness and uncertainty. In a contained vessel, with loving guidance and solidarity, Lenten pilgrims practice wandering in the wilderness. The goal is not asceticism, but the cultivation of trust that lives deeper than the obvious. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel points to this truth from within his own wisdom:

Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart. Audacious longing, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse over-whelming the heart, usurping the mind--these are all a drive towards serving the One who rings our hearts like a bell.

To everything there is a season indeed: a time to laugh and a time to weep, a time to dance and a time to mourn, a time for silence and a time to make music. And so it is coming to pass and I give thanks.

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