Wednesday, April 4, 2012

ex nihlio -- beauty out of chaos

This week, the church I pastor is collaborating on another one of our jazz liturgies. Easter felt like an appropriate (if a bit insane) time to piece together something I can't help but get excited about this -- about the beauty, the possibilities, all the parts and pieces you can't plan when you put together a group of jazzers in a room and just say "Go!".

Ultimately, the great jazz musicians are really master story-tellers. They listen to each other and build off the others' words, images, plots until they weave together a narrative that can't help but press against your flesh. Watching this, hearing this is enchanting and inspiring. You're literally watching creation take place -- ex nihlio -- as they birth beauty out of chaos. The harmonic foundation is laid, even if it's discovered along the way. A groove finds its way into the crevices and cracks and the melody joins the dance, sometimes boldly, sometimes hauntingly. Each musician bringing their intuitive and honest piece to the creative narrative. How appropriate to charge these souls with the task of telling the most epic story of life versus death, of beauty versus destruction!

I don't pretend to be any kind of great jazz musician; but (spoiled girl that I am) I get to collaborate and work with some heavies. Most of these collaborations have left me musing on the creative essence of GOD-in-the-moment; the GOD who seeks to co-create with us in the here and now. It leaves me laughing at my own desire to plan things out twelves steps ahead -- like life was some crazy chess game -- to the point that I miss the opportunity right it front of me. Co-creating is a gift and a practice. Sometimes it's messy. Sometimes it's beautiful. It's always raw and a little exciting.

Last week, I headed into the studio to lay down a few demo tracks with my all time favorite piano player and collaboration partner. Here's exactly how this went down moments before we started recording:

Me: We should probably do a third tune. Got a suggestion?
Justin: Nothing lame or too chick-singer.
Me: Excellent. How about some harmonically wacked-out cover of Leonard's "Hallelujah?"
Justin: <Yawn>
Me: about some Bill?
Justin: "Sunshine"
Me: Awesome. How you wanna do it?
Justin: No idea.
Me: about you start playing and I'll start singing and we'll see where this baby lands.

Two takes. Boom. I listened to him. He listened to me. No final destination marked out. No road map to force our direction. Just shooting for what was the most beautiful and true in this piece of music and then leaning into each others' next step. Ex nihlio. Beauty out of chaos. I really like how the song turned out. It's raw. Conversational. Fluid story. But the process was, to me, the most divine aspect of this final product.

[wanna hear it? Justin Adams is a monster. Damn.]

I'm still learning how to listen and lean into the next step, the next note, the next harmonic exchange when I play with other musicians. Now, if only I knew how to bring that co-creative essence of the Divine into all that I do... but maybe that's one of the great Easter lessons, eh?

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Story of Recklessness

Every now and then, I have need of a visit to the hospital to shore up from this crazy lupus that challenges me. In the course of my many visits, word got out that I was a jazz-singing, foul-mouthed pastor of a Christian church. And before I could snap, I had a whole new congregation made up of the sick, the dying, the pissed off, the too-old-to-care and the staff who cares for them.

It was almost six weeks ago that I was pulled aside by a nurse. "Paul has asked to meet you. He just wants to say hi, I think. You smiled at him in the hallway the other day and he's not talked about anything else since." So she led me to room 1317 and pushed open the heavy hospital door slowly, using her body to move it quietly and reverently like a temple door. That should've been the first clue something magical was about to happen.

Paul was reclining half upright on the bed with his eyes closed, a well-built man with a head full of curly white hair. An open book rested pages down against his chest. He had the worn, creased look of a dying man. And he is. Paul has brain cancer.

One gentle touch on the shoulder and he opened his eyes and stared at me for what turned into an uncomfortable amount of time. He finally spoke with a voice that had the sparkle of what must have once been youthful vigor. He wanted to meet me, he said, because when he saw me in the hallway that day, he was sure that he'd seen a ghost. Or that the cancer had finally hit that part of his brain that kept him rooted in reality.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sometimes the Piano Is Just Too Big

I am the jack of all trades and the master of none. Or something like that...I spend most of my week bouncing my attention between my three part-time jobs (one of which is pastoring a church "part-time"...yeah, I'm laughing too...), caring for my fabulous children, attempting to be a friend, and practicing, teaching & writing music. I don't pretend that I'm amazing at anything I do, but somehow, I make it all work the way that most of us do when we have seemingly impossible tasks laid before us.

Sitting next to one of my most thoughtful child piano students the other day, I found myself with my arm around his tiny, slumped shoulders as he explained almost tearfully that there were just too many notes and not enough fingers. Too many possibilities and not enough time to sort them out. The piano was too big and he was just too small. I just wanted to sit and boo-hoo with him for a minute; because as it would turn out, life had been making me feel that way now for a while. Instead I scooted next to him on the piano bench and said, "Let's play just the black keys."

Thirty minutes later, we both stood up from the piano bench, probably not more improved technical players, but certainly more at peace with our musicianship, with our relationship to our instrument, and with ourselves. That's how it is sometimes...I just need to give myself permission to mess around with what I know will work. This blog is a place where I plan on doing that very thing -- and sometimes just coming back to the center and staring at it for a while, tinkering around with a spontaneous pentatonic melody. Doing what I know will work. No profound thoughts and, god forbid, no preaching here. Just musings, pictures, words, poems, tunes, and the occasional story that I hope will encourage, provoke and inspire whoever may stumble into this humble conversation. It seems that all of us, in some way, are trying to find center - whether that's a melody, love, sobriety or a GOD that animates all of those things.

So I'll start here. 'Cuz if just the black keys are good enough for St. Stevie Wonder, they're good enough for me.