Monday, February 06, 2012

Rafi Zabor

In the early '80s, after I quit reading Trouser Press, my favorite music rag was Musician, a well-written and designed publication aimed at the "player and listener." Unique for the time, Musician straddled the gap between pop and rock, with a "new wave" emphasis (the Talking Heads and Police were big editorial faves; I remember with great fondness the issue where they had Joe Strummer and Robert Fripp -- a regular contributor -- interview each other; a cover story pulled my coat to Uncle Lou's late-'80s zenith), and jazz (Weather Report was top of the heap; Lower Manhattan was still happening, but Wynton Marsalis had arrived).

My favorite Musician scribe was Rafi Zabor, who wrote extremely well about jazz; I recall a Ronald Shannon Jackson article on which he collaborated with Mandance producer David Breskin -- some of the photos that accompanied the article wound up on the album's inner sleeve; go fig -- that was evocative and intriguing enough to make me a fan of Shannon's. Zabor's music writing sleeps with the fishes, unless you can find old copies of Musician, but his two books, the prize-winning novel The Bear Comes Home (1997) and the autobiographical I, Wabenzi (2005) -- supposedly the first of a four-volume series, which didn't eventuate, either due to its initial installment's poor reception or its author's lost inspiration -- are both shamefully Amazon-available for pennies. He recently conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a novel-in-progress, The Bosphorus Dogs. It's good to know that he's still out there.

The Bear Comes Home is the story of an alto-sax-playing bear and his progress through the world of jazz in the '70s and '80s. (There's some chronological weirdness going on here; the narrative doesn't seem to encompass enough time to take in both the early-'80s closing of the Manhattan venue the Tin Palace and drummer Steve McCall's 1989 death, both events to which Zabor alludes, but whatevah.) The novel was inspired by a street performer that Zabor (b. Joel Zaborovsky in Brooklyn, 1946) saw in Turkey in the late '70s. Its first part was originally serialized in Musician beginning in 1979. Then he put it down for 14 years to do other things, including taking care of his ailing (emphysema and dementia) parents, who both died in 1986 -- an experience that served as the jumping-off point for I, Wabenzi.

Quite simply, nobody writes better than Zabor about the act of playing music, in all its dimensions. He's well-versed enough in the technical aspects to describe them credibly; he's sufficiently tuned-in to the interpersonal dynamic between musicians to depict it in a way that rings as true as, say, Charles Mingus' bandstand conversations in Beneath the Underdog; and he can take off into spiritual and metaphysical realms without sounding precious or corny. Bass-thumping Minuteman/Stooge Mike Watt shoots for the same quadrant of the sky in the epic Joycean sprawl (sans capitalization) of his tour diaries, but Zabor's a _real writer_, and the difference is all.

It's hard to find an example of Zabor's music scrawl that's appropriate for quoting here, since his paragraphs are structured, well, like a Coltrane solo -- that's the kind of heft and depth (not to mention length) they possess. Here's the Bear duetting on a ballad with Charlie Haden:

Once he had it loosened up right, the Bear let Haden's lyric understrumming coax him into deeper seas than he usually travelled. Every time the Bear would play a line, Haden would find something larger to say about it on the bass and the Bear would have to submit to the authority of what he had proposed. Haden surrounded him like an orchestra of basses, lured unknown music out of his lights and vitals, and coerced his consent to a beauty beyond the rim of his circumspective troubles of the moment...When the Bear stopped, Haden took a solo, carressing up from the strings a richness of melody that paid tribute to the beauty of the bass and his own deep human nature.

Anyone who's ever listened to Charlie Haden can attest to the verity of Zabor's description. He also provides vivid sketches of musical icons including Lester Bowie and Ornette Coleman, including a pretty fair simulacrum of OrnetteSpeak. The effectiveness of these portrayals spills over into Zabor's invented characters, from the members of the Bear's touring band (of which the junk-addicted pianist Rahim Bobby Hatwell is the most compelling) to his human sidekick Jones (who won the Bear in a card game and was his partner in a street-performing "animal act" before serving as his manager and later, his record label connection) and his, um, interspecies love interest Iris (with whom his relationship trials 'n' tribs actually ring true, if one can suspend disbelief).

The Bear sits in with Arthur Blythe and the Art Ensemble of Chicago; gets locked up after a tempestuous Tin Palace gig, then sprung by Jones and Iris with help from the Art Ensemble; makes a record for a thinly-disguised ECM; moves upstate to Woodstock for an idyll with Iris; goes out on tour; helps Iris spring her daughters from the custody of her unraveling ex in New Mexico; and achieves transcendence during a solo on Coltrane's "Pursuance." The richness of Zabor's imagery and his hip-but-not-painfully-so voice -- he's the kind of hipster that's not too cool to laugh at corny jokes, or to allow himself some clever-but-silly wordplay-for-its-own-sake -- make it an eminently enjoyable ride.


Blogger Eric Wagner said...

Nice blog. I too love Rafi's writing, and I too got turned on to his writing back in Musician. I remember a great cover story he wrote on the Art Ensemble.

I've read each of his books three times, and I love them. I can't wait for his future writing.

10:56 AM  

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