Sonic Gravity

There was a moment where the drummer was playing poly-rhythmically on the hi-hat. He was playing fives, squeezing an odd number into the even meter of four. Kick and snare still fell heavily on the drawn out downbeats, always coming back around–it felt like standing on the ground listening to the screams off a rollercoaster as it loops up and down and back around, always returning–loudest–in time. That five on the hi-hat danced over the rooting thud and crack coming from pedal and stick.

Fives feel both rushed and drawn out to listen to. You are squeezing in an extra sound where it doesn’t typically belong, and to make room for that, each preceding hit feels rushed. One, two, three and four get friendlier than they would if you were playing typical machine-gun sixteenths. They accommodate the bastard-brother that is five. Yet there’s also the pull of the triplet, the lure to turn five into six, so that last moment of expecting, of waiting for that six, feels drawn out and savory–it makes your head roll back and you breathe in and fall forward with the downbeat, like you’re taking a long drag on a cigarette, half-drunk, fighting off the spins. Like you’ve drunkenly skipped a step descending the stairs toward the subway, but your foot has landed flat and firm.

Looking around Tompkins Square Park, I got an idea of which festival attendees recognized the drummer’s polyrhythmic prowess and which didn’t. Behind the waist-high steel temporary fencing that separated those of us on the green from those right up near the stage, standing on ashy asphalt on the hot end-of-summer’s day, there were families sprawled on the dry grass, spreading out ratty blankets and eating their packed-picnic snacks.

There were those who showed up to the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival to listen with the most critically incisive ears. The musical Magellans who’d memorized the labyrinthine charts of the genre we fondly know as jazz. The ones who analyze and break down every sound, every metric modulation, every moment of pointed eye contact shared between drummer and bassist, between howling horn and his rhythm section. Hidden abacuses behind their eyes, categorizing and charting and evaluating the aptitude of each cog within the ensemble, and then the machine itself.

There were those who showed up just to listen in the heat of late-August, to sweat through t-shirts and watch the wet stains widen, the bodily condensation clinging to and ultimately dripping off limbs like droplets off an AC unit falling to the sidewalk. There were young couples in their Tom’s shoes or their freshly white Chuck Taylors, chino pants rolled up at the ankles to reveal vibrant socks, sundresses revealing creamsicle thighs as knees were drawn to breast and wrapped in tawny arms, creating a resting spot for chins, stretching the spine and elongating the back so the other half of the couple could caress gently as if each fingertip was a paintbrush he’d yet to dip, taut back a canvas, a painting created by lovers as the jazz crashed over them from the speakers and the stage like a popped hydrant dousing the neighborhood.

And then there were those who knew nothing at all about jazz–the ones who wondered aloud, “Who is Charlie Parker?” You can call him Bird, he used to live ’round here, I said in response, inaudibly. Perhaps they’d just heard the saxophone’s siren song with its sonic gravity and were pulled from the sidewalk on Avenue A. Maybe they were notified via a friend’s panoramic snapchat story, slowly capturing the dense and swaying crowd, complete with East Village geo-tag. Either way, these attendees waded deeper and deeper into the cascading waves of invisible oscillation, wading deeper and deeper into the pleasant pool of mass-serenade, into the warm bodies, slowly being submerged.

I was particularly struck by one man. His hairline was pulling back from the battle that his forehead would surely win, so like most men in this surrender, he’d Bic’d his head. I’d imagined his eyes blue and cutting sharp as the Bic that’d cleaned his head. Going eye-to-eye with him would probably be terrifying for about fifteen seconds, but then there’d be a shared appreciation. The way Lake Tahoe’s cerulean hue is unsettling but eventually calming. I wouldn’t know though, since our man here never took off his Aviators. He stood at the edge of another person’s blanket in Keene sandals, toenails in need of trimming, tips yellowing and dirty in disrepair. In his left hand was a brown-bagged tall-boy, which–despite his efforts to quell the noise–made that wonderful and crisp pop sound as he opened it, the starter-gun to a long sedentary jog of drinking and unwinding and overall good-humor. Pressing the tab down and popping the metal to let the friendly fizz bubble up and sometimes over is the surefire embarkment on a good time. Brown bag of booze hanging limply in his grasp, the man swayed back and forth in his tank-top, sometimes exclaiming “Yeah!” after a particularly well-executed riff. He was by himself, which I cannot verbalize my respect for. I’d gone with a friend, as the idea of sitting alone–better yet drinking alone in a park full of strangers listening to jazz, that was too much for me. Then again, I don’t see why not.

Whether or not you know that a drummer is playing a polyrhythm on his hi-hat is irrelevant at a music festival–particularly those festivals that are free and/or outdoors. None of us don’t belong. All are welcome, all enjoy, all pull g’s as we revolve around the stage in our heads, listening, in orbit of the same celestial sound that cannot be reproduced note-for-note ever again. That’s the beauty of jazz–even with the standards, no two renditions, not even by the same ensemble are ever, ever, the same.

There’s a familiar yet distant camaraderie that exists among crowd-members. It is always prevalent at events like the Charlie Parker Jazz festival. The guy next to you might not know who Dave Holland is, but he can still enjoy his performance just as much, if not more than somebody who does.

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