Why We Fight

There are many nights when being a music writer comes down to the whining about the stark question: why am I dragging my ass out on the town again? What reason do I really have to see this act? Or to see this act one more time?

I know, I know, boo hoo, free tickets for the poor wittle music writer who wants to stay home and watch bad TV. I'm aware this is a rarified problem that only a handful people can relate to but believe me there are times when getting up, or in my case staying in the naked city after work, waiting for an act to come on at 11 pm, can be a slog.

Last week in San Francisco at Herbst Theatre I saw the great Kronos Quartet. Now over the years I've seen David Harrington and Co. many times. I was an enthusiastic supporter of their whole late 80's heyday when they transformed the music of Thelonious Monk and most famously, Hendrix's "Purple Haze" by coming up with innovative, strangely organic transcriptions for string quartet. The stuff was undeniably weird but a whole lot of fun and brilliant in its way. Since those days they’ve collaborated with musicians from nearly every genre yet they've sort of lost their luster a bit, become old hat. At least that's what I thought until the overly chatty cab driver ("I'm going to run off to Vegas and get married")dropped me off at Herbst Theatre.

Once inside, one of the first people I'm introduced to is the legendary Orrin Keepnews and right then I knew why I'd come to that concert. It was a rare pleasure to meet the great engineer/producer who at 84 and not in the best of health, is still making it out to gigs. Keepnews is best known as the co-owner of Riverside Records (Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins), the time he spent at Fantasy Records (1972-1980) and finally as co-owner of Landmark Records where he recorded a couple of Kronos albums. Along with the not-so-nice Rudy Van Gelder, he's one of the music businesses true remaining legends. It was a very great pleasure to meet him and tell him how much I loved many of the records he's made. I mean just his Bill Evans recordings alone make him damned near immortal.

As for Kronos, the half of their performance that I saw, reminded me again what a bunch of fearless explorers they are. Their physicality is always a shock: they do not sit even remotely still when they play. In a John Zorn piece, Selections from Dead Man, they showed their sense of humor by whipping their bows back and forth up in the air, together and apart, in silence, for at least five minutes. One great Kronos maxim has always been keep it short and sweet and this they accomplished wonderfully, proving the classical music need not drone on for hours, past the point when many ears turn off.

The most breathtaking point in the show came when they mimicked the sound and approach of a downtown jazz ensemble. The concert was part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival after all so some nod to jazz was expected. Other highlights included one of their constant staples, sawing away on a mishmash of the music of the great Raymond Scott whose music ended up being the centerpiece of many Warner Brothers cartoons and also a gorgeous, evocative piece by Indian composer Ram Narayan. In the end, their performance reminded me that more than a string quartet, they're really more an experimental music act who were once based in classical music.

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