I recall writing this review, which predates this blog by just over two years, but I don't remember for what outlet I wrote it. I located it today on a whim – after posting the image you see above on Twitter – on Acoustic Levitation, an online journal edited and published by Steve Koenig, a poet, teacher, and activist based in Brooklyn. A bit of introductory text on that site states "we are transplanting this from our former website," but I don't know what that other website was. I do recall distinctly that this review caused some passing friction between myself and one of the artists cited herein, until I'd clarified what I'd meant by a certain comparison—and that what I'd intended was the absolute highest of praise.
It's difficult for me to read this now, given its endless, seemingly unedited gush. But I'm always glad to find and preserve bits of my past, and the account absolutely does bring back some very, very good memories. I'll always be grateful to Stone… and to Stephanie Stone, his wife, who passed away in 2014, and Steve Dalachinsky, so present herein, who we lost in 2019.
Irving Stone Memorial Concert
Saturday, July 5, 2003
Tonic, New York City
What are the odds that a little old man with a big heart, a sharp tongue and a taste for wild music and sweet herb could unite an all-star array of New York avant-jazzers and free improvisers and inspire them to perform all day long on a sweltering Saturday afternoon in July? Irving Stone probably could have given you an exact answer. After all, he'd spent decades employed as a statistician for the New York City Housing Authority. Stone, as he was universally known, was a fixture at pretty much every concert of exploratory jazz and downtown experimentation since Coltrane was blowing the roof off the Vanguard. (I used to use "Ayler" in that sentence, until his wife Stephanie once corrected me: She and Stone never saw Ayler at the Vanguard, though they saw him plenty of other places.)
As has been noted in countless other places, the Stones were treated like royalty among the circles in which they traveled. Yet conversely, they were – and Stephanie remains – among the most generous and welcoming of all souls on that scene. Again, as more than one observer has mentioned, when you saw them at a gig you were attending, you felt like you were visiting family. For at least one generation of downtown musicians, and likely more, the mere presence of the Stones at a gig felt like artistic validation.
All of those points, and many more like them, were brought up during two hours of heartfelt reminiscences of Stone that preceded Saturday's memorial music marathon, which was organized by longtime Stone favorite John Zorn with help from numerous close friends, including poet Steve Dalachinsky, critic Kevin Whitehead and many others. Though we heard tales that we'd all heard before, or perhaps even witnessed firsthand, still, there was more revealed that gave us a better image of who Stone had been before he became the Stone we all knew. "Irving Stone taught Harry Partch how to balance a checkbook," said Mrs. Gosfield, an old family friend whose daughter Annie has become a significant downtown composer in the Zorn orbit. "Irving Stone could sing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the voice of Louis Armstrong."
And on it went, as local luminaries traded tales with longtime friends. Barely able to catch his breath in a headlong rush of emotion, step-grandson Jesse lamented that he wished he'd known his step-grandfather nearly as well as the sizeable audience assembled in the room. Steve Dalachinsky (who said he was unable to complete a serious poem about Stone because he knew the dedicatee would not approve) instead read a well-known poem by another late friend of his, Ted Joans, adapting certain phrases to better capture Stone's preferences.
Stephanie Stone, no doubt overwhelmed, addressed the audience from a seat in the front row. Normally a gregarious figure, she was clearly affected by the outpouring. The next, and last voice, belonged to Stone himself. No one in the room was spared a tear at the voice, nor a laugh as, in a pre-recorded interview, he recalled a conversation with Mark Feldman. The violinist had asked Stone if he'd noticed any difference in the way he sounded that evening, when he had used an expensive new bow for the first time. Stone politely replied that he hadn't.
"What? You mean you can't tell the difference between when I use a $2,000 bow and when I use a $500 bow?" Feldman had asked, incredulous.
"No, but I can tell the difference between when you're playing for real and when you're just fucking around," was the sincere reply. ("Fuck," we were told more than a few times, was a potent component in Stone's vocabulary.)
Further reminiscences detailed whimsical close encounters with Kenny Dorham, Salvador Dali and Charlie Chaplin—all of which served notice that Stone was a man who lived life to the fullest, and shared everything that he had. For the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening, many of the artists who Stone nurtured over the years came forward to pay tribute on behalf of everyone assembled, in the manner that Stone had loved best.
As the back of the club assumed the nature of a lively, post-funeral reception, two unfamiliar performers, a close-cropped young woman with a large, hollow-body guitar and an equally young man with touseled hair, took the stage to begin the performances. The idea, Dalachinsky reminded us, was that Stone had always been among the first to open his ears and heart to newcomers, and that these two, Mary Halvorson and Tim Keiper, were among the most recent arrivals on the scene. The two, part of the flood of talented young players to recently emerge from Wesleyan University, offered a brief, playful free scamper, the guitarist occasionally tweaking her clean, open sound with an effects pedal; it was as if someone was playing a Joe Morris record, but occasionally spinning it backward on the turntable.
When they finished, Dalachinsky returned to the stage to read a lovely new poem by Joe McPhee, who was in attendance but had not brought a horn and did not wish to play. ("I just wanted to pay my respects," he told me later. "There are a lot of other people who needed to play here worse than I did.")
Saxophonist Tony Malaby opened his contribution with a series of deep, resonant sighs, underpinned by roiling, minor-key chords that pianist Angelica Sanchez seemed to have temporarily liberated from Alban Berg's Piano Sonata. As her chording became more agitated, she pulled Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey along in her wake. With his handsome, burnished tone assuming a baritonal heft, Malaby isolated and emphasized melodic cells from Sanchez's increasingly agitated flights, while Rainey stabbed and bumped around right angles and blind corners. The turmoil rose to a lamentation of Brötzmann-like proportions, Malaby's overblown rage finally rising to an ear-splitting squeal. After a moment of silence, a more ruminative Sanchez inspired a pensive melody from Malaby. Rainey provided a tom-tom pattern; Sanchez locked into sync, then melted away as Malaby considered a full range of emotional responses, dismissing each in turn. An anguished, unaccompanied coda suddenly transformed itself into a sweeping, majestic benediction in the style of late Coltrane, prodded not by tumult, but rather by slow, steady single stokes on a cymbal.
Sanchez left the stage for a private moment with Stephanie, then returned to play with Susie Ibarra's new quartet, which also includes saxophonist Greg Tardy and bassist Trevor Dunn. Ibarra's music was as clearly composed and formal in structure as the preceding set had been loose and created on the fly. The first piece opened with somber, stately chords over which Dunn madly bowed keening high-end slurs. The band stopped on a dime; Ibarra and Sanchez played a skittering duet, then made way for a duo in which Tardy's tenor and Dunn's bass melted and drooped into one another like Dali's watches. An ascent to the saxophone's high end brought the quartet back in to accompany his multiphonic outpouring to the piece's conclusion. The second piece, presumably another Ibarra original, wouldn't surprise anyone were it to have come in the middle of a John Lewis performance: Tardy began with a simple, unaccompanied melody; moments later, Sanchez offered canonic counterpoint. Dunn's entry made the music sound like a busy fugue, then Ibarra laid a propulsive, tango-like rhythm underneath. After a long, searching Tardy solo, the band downshifted to half-time for Sanchez's animated turn. As Dunn began to solo, Ibarra and Sanchez both laid out; rather than ending, the piece quietly dissipated.
Saxophonist Louis Belogenis might well have been expected to offer a more unfettered explosion of unreconstructed free jazz. Instead, possibly due to a recent hernia operation, his standard fire-breathing was somewhat chastened. Malaby proved an effective, brighter-toned foil to Belogenis's dark purr, as Tom Rainey once again applied his multidirectional swing and sensitivity. He gently prodded Belogenis with brushes, then chased Malaby with tricky stickwork, and later settled into a hand-drumming pattern in sync with Trevor Dunn's purposeful walk. The saxophonists laughed, cooed and sighed, ending with a choked altissimo cry, but steadfastly avoiding empty histrionics.
Nearly unrecognizable in a conservative, salt-and-pepper coif and glasses borrowed from a midwestern librarian, Shelley Hirsch offered her trademark babbling and ululations, mixed with personal reminiscences of seeing the Stones in her audiences over the years. The effect was something of a cross between Joan La Barbara's rigorous explosion of new-music vocal techniques and the daffy outbursts of comedienne Ruth Buzzi. Hirsch alternated between two microphones, one extremely live and present, the other treated with the echoing distance of a cathedral. Accompanied by the cheesy patches and round, sonorous blurps of longtime partner David Weinstein, she evoked both phantasmagorical frenzies and cabaret songs performed by an asphyxiating porpoise.
Entering with a crash, the trio Mephista offered a set of rough eruptions stirred about by Susie Ibarra's filigree brushwork. Sylvie Courvoisier spent as much time under the lid of the piano as she did racing up and down the keyboard; she prepared its top strings with strips of bright yellow packing tape, creating an impromptu xylophone on which she quarreled with Ibarra's drumming, and bashed its low strings with a timpani mallet. Ikue Mori provided busy commentary with the pings and swoops of her laptop, taking the lead voice as often as either of her counterparts. A second improvisation opened with quiet chords and rumbling cymbals as Mori mapped a pockmarked terrain. Again and again, the trio offered reminders that on a good night (or afternoon, as the case may be), it can be one of the most riveting, visionary trios in contemporary improv.
Earl Howard opened a brief set with queasy microtones on alto saxophone, as bassist Mark Dresser bowed furiously and clutched massive handfuls of notes. Switching to soprano, Howard fluttered with carefree abandon as Dresser tapped a tripping melody with both hands on the neck on his instrument.
Pianist Annie Gosfield offered her childhood reminscences of "Uncle Stoney." Clearly in a nostalgic mood, she played "Second Avenue Junkman," which she had composed in memory of her grandfather, a Lower East Side metal collector. Over a stolidly marching Eastern European rhythm, she rolled her piano chords over Greg Cohen's stolid walk and Roger Kleier's twang-guitar exotica.
On alto saxophone, Oscar Noreiga opened a set with the rhythm section of Dunn and Rainey in a benedictory tone, offering a sailing melodic line that gracefully unspooled over a stuttering background. Switching to bass clarinet, he popped, burped, scraped and growled in a three-way conversation that built to a raucous climax, then quietly subsided. If the trio's trajectory was somewhat predictable, the outcome was no less satisfying.
Bassist William Parker's tone was thick as a tree-trunk, soft and sweet as molasses, under a tart, bluesy narrative by Jemeel Moondoc—notably the first incursion of the Vision Festival family, which in many ways has once again grown lamentably distant from Zorn's usual Tonic coterie in recent years. The spectacle of watching Parker attack a solo interlude with two bows simultaneously had a Nigel Tufnel element of visual whimsy about it, the lower bow scraping a buzzing drone under the bridge.
Ever the droll ranconteur, Tim Berne revealed that when he first began to notice the Stones at every gig he attended, he believed that they must be critics for The New York Times. Abandoning that notion, he then decided that they must be the parents of one of the musicians… until the regularity of their appearances made that possibility seem suspect, at best. He reaffirmed that it was only when they began to attend his own gigs that he decided he could call himself a musician, and also revealed that Stone had quietly provided financial assistance for him to launch the Screwgun label, but swore him to secrecy. "When I tried to thank him, he said, 'Fuck you,'" Berne recalled. (That Berne lived up to his promise until now is easy for me to verify—I personally worked closely with him, day-in and day-out for months, to launch Screwgun, and only learned of Stone's beneficence last night.)
In his set with Courvoisier and Rainey, Berne began with breathy ostinatos, which the pianist isolated and extended into filigreed arabesques and insistent rhythmic tattoos. As in the previous set with Mephista, Courvoisier went toe-to-toe with the drummer, smacking each of Rainey's volleys right back at him. As the tension ebbed, the pianist took the lead, with Berne now snatching and stretching her motifs. A martial snare pattern led to a scorched earth sax-and-drum battle, while Courvoisier drummed urgent paradiddles at the top end of her batterie.
Marty Ehrlich offered a chaste melody on high, keening alto with the slightest edge of a gritty cry. Bassist Mario Pavone stepped in from Ehrlich's shadow, urging Ehrlich to extrapolate. A rude honk coaxed trombonist Ray Anderson to add his own interjections, worrying a rhythmic figure for a long stretch while Ehrlich and Pavone continued their conversation. As Ehrlich reached for his clarinet, Anderson broke into verbalized babble, settling down only when Ehrlich gave the cue that led into a concluding, hymnlike "Comme Il Faut," which resolved the set in an affirmative, gracious tone. Solo cellist Okkyung Lee followed, her plaintive wails, growling grinds, skittering runs and ghostly harmonics suggesting a stream-of-consciousness clash of stirred emotions.
Ned Rothenberg was scheduled to play next, but Stephanie Stone, who had been encouraged to play all evening, finally found the fortitude to do so. Enthusiastically announced by her grandson with all the subtlety of a World Wrestling Federation advertisement, Stephanie said, "I'm going to noodle a little bit – that's what I do, I noodle – and then I'm going to play something that I wrote." Her first tune was a poignant, dreamlike ballad based on standard changes, the second a more rhapsodic soliloquy. Met with a standing ovation and a request for a song, Stephanie sang two lines of "Come Rain or Come Shine," only to succumb to the melancholy lyric and abruptly cut off the performance. And who could blame her? She left to another heroic ovation.
Rothenberg introduced his segment by explaining that he'd spent the week trying to come up with a fitting tribute to Stone, only to surprise himself by penning "a completely conventional 16-bar jazz tune." A listener would be forgiven for questioning the "completely conventional" part, given that the tune sounded something like Monk as arranged by Schoenberg. Paired with hyperpianist Denman Maroney, Rothenberg played whirling figures extended into infinity through circular breathing. Maroney demonstrated his startling virtuosity, at one point playing a simple melody with his right pinky while the remaining fingers intricately tangled with Rothenberg's fluctuating frenzy, even as his left hand was busy playing disorienting swoops, smears and bends under the piano lid.
The unidentified drummer with whom Charles Gayle was supposed to have been paired was apparently a no-show, because Tom Rainey was drafted in his place. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise: Rainey is a very different kind of drummer from those with whom Gayle usually spars. In place of a constant barrage of sound, Rainey offered Gayle angular rhythms and copious space, forcing the saxophonist into unfamiliar but welcome territory. The two listened intently to one another, each following the other's lead at various times. Gayle assumed Ayler's big, bathetic tone on a breathtaking unaccompanied passage, then cued the drummer's explosive re-entry. The climactic build to the conclusion, in which Rainey played an exaggerated slow drag behind Gayle's revivalist spiritualizing, drew impassioned shouts and gleeful laughter from audience members. Rainey sat out for Gayle's solo piano feature, chock full of Rube Goldberg-esque trapdoors, chutes and ladders, overly upholstered flourishes and stride allusions that stomped into dizzy oblivion. Full of surprises, the set offered further testimony for the potential of collaborations between players from disparate scenes.
Arguably, the most surprising set of the evening was that of Butch Morris, who took to the stage looking like Morgan Freeman in white pajamas, clutching a plastic bag. As the delicate sounds of multiple music boxes filled the air, Morris drew his cornet out of the bag. Seated, he played a rhythmic ostinato on the valves of his trumpet, punctuated with sputters and squirts, rude kisses and breathy "foomps"—a vocabulary that fell somewhere between the stoic explorations of Bill Dixon and the recent paths of Greg Kelley, Axel Dorner and their cohorts. As Morris blew a fluttering, flutelike melody over the ends of his valves, an infant on the front row cooed in appreciation. The music was utterly transcendant, though it was clear that not everyone in the audience agreed.
Roy Campbell – who revealed that he had spoken to Stone at least once a week for the last 25 years even when he lived in Europe – offered a solo set of a very different sort, an unaccompanied rumination that ranged from mournful to celebratory, marked by dog-whistle squeals, chromatic cascades and half-remembered snatches of song, all shot through with a melancholy blues. He invited Gayle to accompany a second improvisation at the keyboard; while their tonal intersections were random at best, the two tracked one another emotionally with disarming ease.
Greg Cohen returned to the stage with drummer Kenny Wollesen and baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson. Inverting the normal "quiet-loud-quiet" story arc that defines most free improvisation, the trio entered at a roar, an empty chair at center stage somehow providing an unlikely poignance – as if the seat was reserved for Stone, the ways seats all over town had been for years – then hit a quiet middle stretch before ending in another throaty roar. Between the first and second blows, Sewelson recalled something Stone had once told him: "'Sewelson,' he said, 'there are two types of people: Those that like to get high, and those that like to be high.'" Declining to explain the precise significance of the anecdote, the saxophonist roared into another ragged improv, driving his horn well past the red line into piccolo range.
Sewelson remained onstage as William Parker marshalled the considerable forces of his Little Huey Creative Orchestra. Following the extended string of small ensembles that had dominated the day, the massive sound that poured forth was a sanctified yawp, a jolt not just of volume but of sheer mass and density. Trumpeter Matt Lavelle's opening solo drew holy-roller shouts from audience members (in particular, one guy in the aisle shouted for everyone by name); the saxophones, by contrast, backed him with lush, buttery chords. The winds grew darker behind Charles Waters's squawk; backing Rob Brown, the saxes resumed their lushness but the brasses were argumentative. The band hushed to a subdued, minor key Mingus riff behind Roy Campbell's muted solo; the winds caressed, the brasses chortled. Andrew Barker dropped out momentarily, allowing Parker to assert the rhythmic lead under Sabir Mateen's brawling tenor utterances. Re-entering a moment later, Barker played fractals across Parker's granitic pulse; as the reeds played at one angle, the brasses at another, the music was simultaneously as brainy as Anthony Braxton and as earthy as James Brown. At the risk of preacher-like hyperbole, at that moment there was no greater energy source on the face of the planet.
Exhausted, I had to take a break at last, in the process missing all but a few snatches of Chris Speed's tenor soliloquy. When I came back into the room, I saw an unknown woman playing heartfelt effusions on solo trumpet. I was later introduced to Lesli Dalaba, a pioneering presence on the downtown scene, long since relocated to Seattle. She had come to town for Stone's memorial without her instrument, she told me, but borrowed Roy Campbell's horn because "Stone told me to play."
Throughout the evening, Zorn had run things so smoothly that everything was on schedule, even running a bit early—which is probably why when Matthew Shipp's appointed slot arrived, the pianist had yet to enter the building. The gap provided a welcome impromptu solo spot for Satoko Fujii, who underscored her impressionistic dabbles with insistently eddying currents, alternating stress and repose in a resolutely minor key.
Giving up on Shipp, Zorn finally took the stage himself. He performed a solo exorcism of growls, shrieks, impudent snaps and snarls, after which he offered his horn sideways, a la Dexter Gordon, to Stephanie. Ikue Mori joined him for a duet that, for all its outward strangeness, was nothing more than a conversation between two old, intimate friends. As they ended, Shipp raced up the aisle, taking the bench to perform a solo in which he raced from heavily pounded bass to feather-light treble. Shoulders squared and head bowed, he dug at length into the lower reaches of the keyboard, offering a quarrelsome, pugilistic bout between left and right hands at the dark end of the street.
I've spent the last several hours typing this from notes that I took throughout the performance. I'll close by simply saying this: If anything I've written here evoked a sense that made you say, "I wish I could have been there to hear that," then that is my last, best gift to Irving Stone, who made these exceptional artists want to give of themselves in his memory—and who made me feel like part of the family before he even knew my name, and never forgot it, once told. R.I.P. and God bless.