Life in the Wake of the Great Quake, pt. VIII: The Fairer Sax
The reason I went through the avenue of destruction was that I was invited to a jam session. Actually, it was a rehearsal. The Kashima Jazz Friends, originally known as the Kashima Seaside Jazz Friends, is an open-participation jazz ensemble that was founded together with the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival (now simply "Kashima Jazz") in 2003. It was intended to be a jazz counterpart to the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra with the same stated objective, i.e. to help raise the cultural level of Kashima so that it won't only be known as a "sports city". From the start it was an unwieldy but good-natured alliance of pro and amateur musicians. However, though I'd worked with them closely every year to help carry out the Kashima Jazz event, I'd never been a member of the group, and I'd never joined them in a regular performance. I was told that they'd assumed I was too busy. They were probably right, but this year they finally invited me to join them, and I decided to give it a try. Sure enough, my schedule kept me from attending their rehearsals in January and February, and the Great Quake wiped out all activity in the month of March. Then it was announced that they'd be doing a rather hastily organized performance as part of a local charity event for earthquake relief. The evening of April 27th was scheduled as the one and only rehearsal. I was invited, and so I made the time. However, since the usual Kashima Jazz Friends practice venue was still out of commission, we had to use an alternative venue down in Kamisu; hence the journey down through the tsunami ghost town.
I arrived there not knowing quite what to expect. There were some faces I recognized and others I didn't. I was told that at least two of them were professionals if not more. It was also made clear from the start that I was to be treated almost as a sort of guest celebrity, i.e. I was given lots of feature spots. That got the nerves going; I was asked to play tenor sax and flute, neither of which I'd touched in ages. In fact, it had been a very long time since I'd done any kind of jazz performance except as director. I was well aware that I had a reputation that had probably long since become more myth than reality, but now I was faced with the prospect of dashing it.
They didn't waste any time throwing me into it, either. They started right off with the piece that had me on flute with a switch to a sax solo in the middle. Naturally, they insisted on miking the flute, too...so no faking it. I played it as best I could, promising to practice more later. (Actually, the biggest problem was probably playing in tune.) I had no changes written for the sax solo, so I winged it by ear. It was fun, but I still felt rusty as hell. The rehearsal continued for a few more tunes, including a couple that I sang, and then I noticed something. The wind players consisted of a whole bunch of saxes (all but one alto not counting myself) and one trumpet. All of them but one were men my age or older. The one exception, a younger female alto saxophonist, was clearly the leader and by far the most aggressive and competent musician of the lot. She definitely had some solid jazz performance chops, which told me that I needed to get my act together or else. However, she was very civil and totally cool about the whole thing, helping me to follow the group's long-standing arrangements once the initial jitters had faded. There was one tune in which we had back-to-back solos, and that got me thinking...
During a break, the founder of the group, a professional jazz drummer and totally interesting guy, got behind the drum set and invited me to do an improv jam. My heart immediately landed in my stomach; it had been too long since I'd done anything of the sort, and I couldn't conjure up any jazz tune I could play on tenor sax with any real degree of confidence. The alto sax woman immediately jumped in, and she and the (pro) pianist played a tune I'd never heard in my life. Embarrassed, I took the plunge and started in on a tune of my own afterward, specifically "Harlem Nocturne", but I'd only ever played it on alto sax, not tenor, and not long after the piano and drums picked it up, I totally lost it and started foundering all over the place. I improved around it when I could, but after a while the pianist mercifully brought it to an end.
We were debating what to do next when a key member, the guitarist, finally decided to show up. He wanted us to go through some tunes we'd already practiced, which was good for me, anyway. It also got me thinking again...and when we came to the tune where I played a back-to-back solo with the alto sax woman, I decided to go for it and asked if she'd be interested in trading 8's and 4's. She was most definitely game.
"This is going to be fun," she said impishly.
"And I fully expect to get my ass kicked," I replied, "but that's fine."
So, without telling anybody else what we were up to, we traded 8 bar solos followed by 4 bars, stretching it out (while the rhythm section competently followed, and the other wind players looked confused and squinted their eyes at the music sheets), and finally closing it by doing the last 2 bars together. Yes, I got my ass kicked, but she was very cool about it. We did our best to play off each other, and she even playfully mimicked my style(?) toward the end, so it was easy for me to come in onto it to close it.
Sometimes getting your ass kicked is good, because it gives you motivation to try harder. The performance is in a week. Time to practice...