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Published: 2004/11/01
by Jesse Jarnow

Billy Martin & Paul Auster, Symphony Space, NYC- 11/22

NYC ROLL-TOP: The Writing Table Sessions

The idea of pairing improvising jazz musicians and writers in performance is certainly not new, but it doesn't make it any less remarkable when those in question are of the caliber of novelist Paul Auster and Medeski, Martin and Wood percussionist Billy Martin. The two collaborated, along with Martin's downtown associates, saxophonist Marty Ehrlichman and clarinetist/guitarist Doug Weisleman, at New York's Symphony Space on Friday evening. Perhaps due to the steep ticket price ($21), the late show was cancelled, but the hour-long early set marked a template as potentially fertile as the multiple series of Turntable Sessions that Martin has staged over the past three years.

Martin took up the right side of the stage with his trap kit, along with his usual array of melodic percussion instruments spread on the floor in front of him — wooden xylophones, mbiras, hand drums, and the like. On the left side of the stage, Auster sat behind a music stand. Between them, and slightly to the rear, sat Ehrlichman and Weisleman. Auster began with a long excerpt from 1985's post-modern staple City of Glass. It was a particularly inspired choice. Though the New York Trilogy, of which City of Glass is the first volume, draws its form from classic detective novels, it is Auster’s lyrical, frequently playful, voice that keeps the pages turning.

Auster's inspired choice was a winding monologue by Peter Stillman, an enigmatic character at the center of the still unfolding mystery. It is the first time either the reader or the main character, Quinn, have met him. "'No questions, please,'" Stillman begins. "'Yes. No. Thank you.' He paused for a moment. 'I am Peter Stillman, I say this of my own free will. Yes. That is not my real name. No. Of course, my mind is not all it should be. But nothing can be done about that. No. About that. No, no. Not anymore.'" And he's off. The rest of the speech – eight pages of text in the book – is masterfully musical in cadence, phrases and ideas repeating and mutating as Auster moves forward with Stillman's dubious story of being locked in a room during childhood so that he might speak the "language of God."

In performance, Auster emphasized the rhythms with a near monotone, gave giving to the repetitions. "'I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name. My real name is Peter Rabbit… think what you like of this. I say it of my own free will.'" The story was both mysterious enough to be drawn into, but abstract enough that one could appreciate the writing as a purely musical voice (not to mention cerebral enough to send one's brain whirling). As Auster built speed, Martin and company began to improvise along quietly. The music was very much in the vein of Martin's recent solo performances and recordings — textural and pretty, with an emphasis on his own melodic work. When Auster left the stage after his first segment it became apparent how quietly the band was playing, and their sudden increases in volume were dramatic. Ehrlichman and Weisleman launched into a near-Dixieland groove. It is probably the closest Martin has come to playing swinging traditional jazz – distinctly unfunky – in many moons (and certainly one of the first times in my memory). He reacted with a rhythm that was quintessentially Martin: somewhere between a march and a freefall.

Auster's second excerpt, from 1999's Timbuktu, while not as patently brilliant as City of Glass, was at least as enthralling as a performance. At times nostalgic, the prose was an internal monologue by a dying homeless man, occasionally speaking to his dog, Mr. Bones. The band’s reaction, which included beautiful Asian-sounding arpeggios from Weisleman, was marvelous. As a form, storytime – and that’s what this was – seems perfectly healthy and fun. As an artistic expression, it seems a promising new canvas for Martin and Symphony Space curator Limor Tomer, who also put together the first batch of Turntable Sessions at SoHo’s Exit Art in 2001. With luck, Martin and Tomer will tap into the vast well of New York area writers (my dream pairing involves Martin with Motherless Brooklyn genius Jonathan Lethem), try out different approaches, and produce a series of Writing Table Sessions (and accompanying releases of the best-of on Martin’s Amulet Records). Or not. There are lots of canvases.

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