Is it possible to be looking in two directions at once?
Be going in two different places at once?
Is it possible to see two distinct sides of the same idea, to run from both of them simultaneously?
I’ve done this before.
2009. I accepted an offer to play bass at The Sofitel Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam. I had never been to SE Asia before, didn’t speak the language and had no real idea of what i would be playing other than it was “jazz”. The offer wasn’t real heavy on details, only allure, but hey, it sounded like a grand idea so i accepted. After wrapping up a few loose ends, I was on my way to Vietnam with a six week ticket.
First stop, Chicago. Two-hour layover. Plenty of time to change my mind. Fuck it. Baseball season had just started. I could go watch the Cubs lose and jump back on a plane home.
Everyone would understand.
I started drinking.
There is a lot of time to reflect, rethink, second guess and generally freak out on a trans-pacific flight. I remember being overwhelmed with a sense of sheer terror, an uneasy mixture of doubt and dread. “What am I doing?”, I thought to myself over and over.
Los Angeles by night.
I drank a lot on that flight.
I woke up in Taipei, Taiwan and had to run the full course of the airport to catch my next flight. Not the best thing to do with a hangover and food from China Air swirling around in your stomach.
I was seated near the bulkhead, the closed curtain serving as a reminder of how the better half lives. Next to me a small asian woman sat cross legged on her chair and began to clip her toenails. The inflight movie was shown on a small beige plastic encased screen that reminded me of the old computers from grade school. I half expected the words “You have died of dysentery” to pop up at any moment. A romantic comedy starring Reese Witherspoon was the selection shown and I had a hard time making sense of the plot, it was only later that i figured out that somehow the DVD was in shuffle mode. The scenes played back at random. The inflight meal served was Squid, complete with it’s head still attached. I went hungry.
Upon arrival, I stepped out of the airport for a smoke and the first thing I saw was a goat. And this may be an anomaly, but this goat was not being lead around by anyone. This goat had complete autonomy. This goat was his own goat and he looked at me like i didn’t know what i was doing. This goat was right.
An hour passed. My friend who was supposed to pick me up hadn’t arrived yet. Looking around i saw things I never had before. Small scooters packed with chicken cages stacked 3x3x3. Families of five on scooters with babies riding on the handlebars. Men smoking with machine guns hanging loosely at their side. A water buffalo in a moat by the side of the road, tied up to a post via a rope through a ring nose. Another hour passed. No friend. No way out.
“Oh, Lord. What have I done?”
Eventually, my friend Al showed up explaining that he had misplaced his keys, and off we went, me on the back of his moped. We drove into Hanoi and i knew my life would never be the same. Nothing would ever match this.
There is much more to this story. The hotel gig fell apart before it ever started. I ended up staying in SE Asia for just under a year becoming a Divemaster on a small island, recording an album with elephants at an animal sanctuary and working in the house rhythm section of a jazz club.
We will get back to that.
2016. I’m enroute now.
After an uneventful layover in Los Angeles, i’m currently in Shanghai. I’m not sure what the Shanghai or Hu word for goat is, but I’m sure I’ve heard it in passing along with accompanying looks. Rightfully so, I currently smell like a goat. I am on hour 37 of travel. Fucking goats.
I board the last flight of the trip. The seats smaller than normal. The movies have no translation, the smell of seafood and fried noodles permeating the cabin and the announcements made in 3 distinct dialects, one vaguely resembling english… Air China. Nothing like it.
As you start your descent, the tree covered mountains roll out beneath you as thunderous green canopy sprawls in concord with the rise and fall of thick rock, carving it’s way through the terrain. Rivers run like veins through the dense jungle floor. Eventually, the grand peaks giving way to rolling countryside, lush with terraced fields and rice patties stretching as far as the small pane of window will allow you to see. We touch down, and once again, Al is here to pick me up. This time, on time.
The smell hits you the second you walk out of the airport in in never leaves. The feeling doesn’t either.
This is Thailand.
There will be no sleep, Farang.
Two hours after landing, I am sitting on a bass amp, something i’ve done all around the States and on a couple other continents before this and something I will most likely do for the rest of my life. To my right, there is a drummer, past him a keyboard player and a guitar player. In front of me, a trumpet player who’s name I don’t know is counting off the tune and were off.
Monk, Jackie McLean and Gigi Gryce charts are on my music stand and I am have having trouble reconciling my feelings about this music. I respect the history, lineage and importance, but sixty years after the fact would Monk, if he were still alive, be playing old standards, or for that matter, Monk tunes? Where is the future of this music? Will it still be alive, outside of a small dedicated community of players and scholars in twenty years? Is it anything more than that now? Maybe I’m just tired and cranky, my circadian rhythms in direct opposition to the current local time. The rest of the set (meaning my playing) is in no way remarkable other than for the location.
A small, dimly lit bar with an upstairs balcony, overlooking a small stage. Snake nests of cables intermingling, with no seeming coordination, strew out across the floor connecting various amplifiers and keyboards most likely made in China in the late 1980’s. In front of the stage, small tables and even smaller stools sprawl the length of the room leading to a torn, fake leather couch, on it’s last legs, engaged in a symbiotic dance of support with the back, poster adorned wall. To the left is the reason for the crowd. A small wooden bar serving Chang, Leo and Beer Lao, along with Lao Khao and Samsung, occupies the corner of the L shape of the room.
The dilapidated interior is ordained with pictures, some framed some not, of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Archie Shepp, The Chicago Art Ensemble and whomever was ambitious enough that week to make an advertisement of their upcoming performance. A rare photo of the King playing trumpet watches over everything from a singular spot above the stage.
The second set is what this place is known for, why this is a hub in SE Asia for people seeking an outlet for creative assertion. A place where improvisers gather. Stretching the limits of an agreed upon language, an acquired perception of the weight and gravitational pull of music’s tensions and resolutions. Hopefully an agreement to be intimate and unabashed in expression; fear, shame, doubt, listlessness and inhibition all checked at the door. The goal to be truly present required with admission. The whole superseding the sum of it’s parts. Participants from every corner of the globe are gathered tonight amalgamating a furious mixture of pride and intent, producing a sticky syrup of sound.
I am back at the Northgate Jazz CO-OP in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
It feels good.