Spring 2019 Part 3: I Got To Keep Moving

Composed by Balance (Michael Malis/Marcus Elliot)
After texts from I Got To Keep Moving by Bill Harris (Wayne State University Press)

Bill Harris — narration
Gerald Cleaver — drums
Marcus Elliot — saxophone
Michael Malis — piano

Most people who have been following my work over the last few years know about my duo collaboration with saxophonist/composer Marcus Elliot, Balance. Our musical relationship goes back a very long time (to our high school days, actually) and he is really like a musical brother to me. We’ve released an album as a duo, but in the last couple of years we’ve also invested time and energy in creating projects that expand our ensemble. These projects feel less like “duo plus” projects, and more like larger visions that Marcus and I co-manage. It’s been a great working relationship, and we definitely have more plans to keep working in this direction. Our collaboration with Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings, which I posted about a couple of weeks ago, is another example of this kind of project.

A few years ago, Guggenheim fellow and legendary Detroiter Bill Harris casually mentioned to us that he’d be interested in collaborating with us one day, we leaped at the opportunity. Bill is someone whose face I knew before I knew his work: his portrait is emblazoned on a building that I passed by almost every day for six years:

It’s a little hard to see in the Google Earth screengrab, but that’s Bill in the bottom right corner. Also featured in this mural by Nicole MacDonald is Sixto Rodriguez (a.k.a. Sugarman,) Robert Hayden, Terry Blackhawk, and other Detroit literary giants. Being on liquor store mural with Sugarman is pretty much the definition of “Detroit Famous.” Simply put, Bill is a legend.

Bill recently released a collection of short stories called “I Got to Keep Moving”, which portray loosely interconnected stories of the Great Migration. They begin on a plantation in Alabama, and trace similar characters as they and their ancestors journey north. It’s a strikingly powerful set, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Marcus and I took three of these stories and set them to music. In a series of live performances with Bill, we performed while he read. We performed the show three times over the course of the weekend: at the Toledo Museum of Art, at the University of Michigan School of Music, and at the Detroit Public Library Main Branch.

We decided to invite Gerald Cleaver on board to round out the quartet. Gerald is from Detroit, but he and Bill had never met. I was a little unsure of how the group was going to gel, since nobody (other than Marcus and I) had played together before.

All of my worries were quelled as soon as we sat down and played. Bringing Gerald on turned out (predictably) to be a great decision. His playing is completely and utterly phenomenal. Of course, I knew that already, since I’m a major fan. But I wasn’t really prepared for how much fun it was to play with him. His sound on the instrument is inviting and unobtrusive, but strong, solid, and without any ambiguity. His ears are laser-sharp in their responsiveness. I realized over the course of the weekend that, for years, Gerald has been the benchmark that I measure all other drummers against. I didn’t know that I was doing it, but now I know. It was just such a joy to play with such a masterful musician. I feel like playing with him brought my own playing up at least a couple of notches, and he really made the ensemble sound amazing.

The real star of the show was Bill, whose stories are deeply powerful and moving. He was incredible in all of our shows, showing off his skill as an engaging and poignant storyteller. He (and the rest of the band) really found his groove by our third show, at the Detroit Public Library. That show felt like a hometown reunion, and there was an incredible energy in the room. Many of the old Detroit Jazzheads were there. Gerald’s family came out. Some of my students came. A lot of Marcus and I’s friends came. It really lifted my spirits.

We also got a really glowing review in All About Jazz. Here’s a nice quote from Troy Dostert:

“What was most striking about the synergy between Harris and the band was the sheer beauty of the music: the stark contrast between the grim realities of Harris's story and the band's melodic core, located in Elliot's exultant phrases and Malis's evocative runs, was stirring. And much of the music's strength was found in the spirit of resilience and defiance that permeates Harris's text.”

The Detroit show was incredibly well documented. In addition to the trailer posted above, the full performance was shot and I suspect the video will be on the internet at some point in the (hopefully near) future. I’ll make sure to post it. In the meantime, here are some additional photos by Troy Anderson and Steven Stark:

Past — Present — Future

Today I bought my first tarot deck. I spent a lot of time at the shop going through the different decks they had, and the one I settled on was this one: The Illuminated Tarot by Caitlin Keegan. It’s a bit of an unconventional deck — only 53 cards, compared to the normal 78. But I got it because it’s directly correlated to a normal deck of playing cards — Major Arcana are reduced to make that work. The extra card (a normal deck of playing cards has 52 cards) is a joker.

I’m interested in using playing cards to generate musical material — Numerology is the farthest I’ve taken this so far, but I employed similar processes in the creation of Resound, What Follows From, Orbital, and Double Double. So the fact that this deck was relatable to playing cards was a big plus for me. Furthermore, It’s beautifully illustrated and simple. I don’t know that I’ll be able to do full spreads with it, and maybe one day I’ll have to get a more robust deck, but for now it’s interesting and it resonated with me.

I just concluded my first ever self-administered tarot card reading.  I used a simple spread — three cards, each card in order represents either the past, present, or future. I asked the cards to reflect on my aesthetic and creative world, past, present, and future. The results were illuminating and beautiful. 

Here’s the spread I drew:


The card in the Past slot was the Ace of Clubs. This apparently represents strength, overcoming desire, building trust, and courage. 

The card in the Present slot was a 2 of Spades — the Hanged Man. This represents peace through self discipline and freedom from distraction. 

The card in the Future slot was an Ace of Diamonds. This represents the world, peace, travel, and open-mindedness.

In the context of my creative life, it is interesting to think of the Past in terms of strength, overcoming desire, and building trust. I think that my past — my training, my learning, my education, both formally and informally — was a massive gathering of tools, frameworks, and discipline, with lots of focus on learning how to learn. Of course, this stage isn’t over for me; it never will be. But while I’m certainly interested in growth and expansion now, it is absolutely true that there are certain skills that I learned when I was younger that I fall back on and don’t have to think about anymore. They’re my foundation. Tonal harmony and music theory. How to make a gig. Learning by ear. Accompanying a vocalist. Transcription. Reading music. These are my rocks, my touchstones, my strength, the processes that I can rely on when all else fails. 

The second card was also enlightening in terms of the present moment. For starters, I was struck by the image itself. The character is blindfolded, which makes sense to me. I do feel like I’m walking myself in right now, insulating myself from a lot of attention so that I can undergo radical transformation.

This, for example, was one of my takeaways from my recent trip to New York last weekend — how can anyone grow here when everyone is so reliant on self promotion? It does seem antithetical to the openness that is required to fertilize creativity. Of course, those are broad brushstrokes; not everyone is unable to do both at the same time. And of course, it’s self centered; I’m also self promotional, and I’m trying to grow creatively. Still, it was a feeling that I picked up on.

Nonetheless, the idea behind this card — “peace through self discipline — works for me. This card is a reminder of what I should be doing, and how I should be spending every day. I think that at my best, I can find myself here, but I also ebb and flow  quite a bit.

And if I can commit to that work, then what’s waiting for me might be in the last card, the Ace of Diamonds. The world, peace, travel, and open-mindedness (read: open-heartedness). That peace and openness applies to my personal life, but also to a cultivating a more ecumenical spirit in my art. That’s my goal — to find a way to synthetize the width of my musical interests and activities. It seems that I’m on my way, if I can just be patient. 

Also interesting to me that I got Ace — 2 — Ace. The highest to the lowest and back to the highest again. It makes sense.

Stay the course. Stay open. Lead with your heart. Lead with your ears! The rest will follow.