the year all music was house music

Víkingur Ólafsson, Debussy — Rameau: A couple years ago Ólafsson recorded a clear, warm Bach album (which in turn spawned a bizarrely Nordic music video). I think I like his new album of Debussy and Rameau solo piano works even more: it’s a rewarding across-the-centuries tour of French harmonics. And of course, it comes with its own quirky music video, this one for a sublime, suspended-in-air piano transcription from a Rameau opera.

Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud: Reviews of Waxahatchee’s new album have often compared it to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an all-time favorite album from my early adulthood spent driving across the Mississippi River. Those comparisons draw not just on the Southern-ness of the two albums, but on the foregrounding of “placeness” in both. Instead of Lake Charles, here we get West Memphis; instead of imagistic lyrics for a Delta juke joint, here we get “folding chairs, American flags, selling tomatoes at five bucks a bag.” Saint Cloud is the road trip you didn’t take in 2020.

Jeff Parker, Suite for Max Brown: I wrote about Parker’s album earlier this year and its opening admonitions to “Build a Nest.” We’re still nesting, almost a year on, but this album hasn’t grown stale one bit. My old roommate summed up its ten-minute closing track as “underworld music for some impossibly hip” Super Mario game, and Parker saturates almost every track with harmonically rich guitar work. One track (“Metamorphoses”) could have come straight off an old Tortoise album, too.

Artemis, Artemis: It was an especially good year for Cécile McLorin Salvant, but this all-female jazz super-group (whose seven members include her) shares joint responsibility and joint praise for this debut album. On some tracks, you can hear how one of these world-class musicians takes the lead—Allison Miller’s drumming on “Goddess of the Hunt,” for example, and Anat Cohen’s clarinet on “Nocturno.” But even if each member of Artemis could headline a concert herself, we get an album that miraculously balances seven heavyweights in equipoise.

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters: Fiona Apple launched her career from the piano bench, but her latest albums have shown her knack for the percussive tap and clang. This last album’s title song, which layers noise upon noise upon upright bass, came at the just the moment when the whole country had already learned to mumble her lyrics, “I’ve been in here too long.” And the final track, too, captures our appetite for bursting out of collective restlessness. In 2021, we will all “move to move.”

pen pal citizenry

Since I left my home state of Michigan and its swingy, volatile politics, casting a ballot—especially in big, national elections—can feel like an exercise in statistical irrelevance more than one of civic empowerment. New York City itself has almost the population of the entire state of Michigan, and the state’s electoral hue is a predictable, deep cerulean. Even if we New Yorkers aren’t apathetic about politics—is anybody apathetic anymore?—it’s still easy to feel like we’re watching the important players from the sidelines.

These electoral pangs inspired me to volunteer with Vote Forward, an organization that allows Americans to write nonpartisan letters to their fellow citizens to encourage democratic participation. For our upcoming elections, over 150,000 volunteers wrote 17 million letters to voters in dozens of states. My own stack of 400 letters—mostly addressed to Michiganders—appears up top, on its way to the post office later this morning.

During the slow, patient labor of addressing envelopes, I would find myself looking up tiny villages on Google Maps and reading five-star reviews of nearby lakes. Their street names and neighborhood diners often seemed to have come from Raymond Chandler novels. I imagine that, like many Vote Forward volunteers, I began writing letters out of a sense of civic urgency, but these evenings spent among postage stamps became quiet rituals of civic familiarity. Double-checking a stranger’s ZIP code and articulating our shared franchise in blue ink cultivated a kind of fellow-feeling—like writing to a friendly citizen pen pal.

The close relationship between friendship and citizenship, it turns out, is an ancient interest, and in fact, Aristotle devotes several chapters of his Nicomachean Ethics to the overlap—here’s a brief excerpt:

It does seem, as we said at the beginning, that friendship and justice have to do with the same things, and involve the same persons. For in every kind of sharing community there seems to be a specific kind of justice, and also friendship; at any rate people address as ‘friends’ those sailing with them or on campaign with them, and similarly too with their partners in other kinds of sharing community. And to the extent that they share in it, they are friends; for that is the limit of the justice between them too. Again, the proverb says ‘What belongs to friends is shared in common’, and correctly so; for friendship depends upon sharing.

8.9, 1159b (trans. Rowe and Broadie)

Elsewhere in Book Eight of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle cautions that good friendships can be hard to come by—we should expect to have just a few. Aristotle’s reservations about developing such relationships partly stem from the recognition that friendship “requires that the parties have acquired experience of each other and a close acquaintance with one another’s character, which is very difficult to achieve” (8.6, 1158a). Of course, one doesn’t become acquainted with people simply by addressing an envelope, but I found that spending a minute learning how to spell my fellow Americans’ street names could feel like getting to know them in a way that scrolling through their tweets did not. Writing letters, by granting a just-long-enough moment to imagine the lives of other citizens, “might help us to like one another, even trust one another, both necessary to a functioning democracy.

In his book To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov warns against the allure of “technological solutionism”—the tempting idea that algorithms and processors will cure our political and cultural ills. Indeed, those technological fixes are too easy and too fast. As Aristotle observes above, forging a political community, like forging a friendship, can’t be effortless. If repairing the American political project demands that we undertake the salutary labors of “liking one another, even trusting one another,” perhaps we might start by scribbling unfamiliar ZIP codes and developing a little cramp in our fingers.

quiet in the house

Fred Hersch, July 31

These past several months, the Village Vanguard (among other struggling venues in New York) has been performing concerts to an empty house—empty, that is, aside from the camera crews piping sight and sound to our living room routers. As in so many other dimensions of our Covid-inflected lives, the computer screen has become our best substitute for an increasingly distant “real world.” Packing dozens of chattering night-owls into a tiny Seventh Avenue basement now seems epidemiologically horrifying, so at least for the time being it looks like I’ll be meeting the Vanguard drink minimum with whatever I find in my fridge.

Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan, Rudy Royston, August 7

Even if we’d gladly trade this and that (and that and that) to get back to our Vanguards and Mezzrows, there have been, I’ll admit, a couple perks to the Zoomified jazz experience. Aside from the ease of taking these historic, bemasked screengrabs—I still find them spellbinding—the empty house lets those final chords and cymbal crashes linger, never drowned out by eager applause. And the cameras, attentive to each instrument, sometimes give otherwise-impossible glimpses of the musicianship on stage. Overhead shots of Bill Charlap’s fingers, for example, or close-ups of Rudy Royston brushing a snare drum.

Drew Gress, Joechen Ruckert, July 31

Still there’s the unshakeable awkwardness and even sadness of playing to an audience of wall hangings and stacked chairs. Sometimes that comes across through poignant set lists—you’ll likely hear something like Fred Hersch’s “Wichita Lineman” or Bill Charlap’s “Here’s That Rainy Day.” Technologically and even musically, I think, these Vanguard live streams capture so much of our nation’s pandemic psychology. They’re absolutely worth your weekend evenings.

Bill Charlap, September 11