Mike Holober: Wish
(Sons of Sound SSPCD024)
Why make a jazz record? It’s an abstract
question, and sitting with Mike Holober in a
room at City College, where he teaches, he doesn't
have a ready answer. We’re listening to Wish
List and discussing liner note ideas, and
the music coming through the big speakers near
the blackboard is arguing against my question.
I find myself thinking: This is great music.
Phenomenal music. Its existence is self-justifying,
Sure. Yes. Whatever. But I can’t help
asking Mike: Why do it? In this age of instant
CDs, of too much product, not enough audience,
no money, why make a jazz record? I propose a
philosophical motive, a quote from the mythologist
Joseph Campbell: “Some say we’re
looking for a meaning to life. I think what we’re
looking for is the experience of being alive.”
Mike nods. He’s respectful, but that’s
not it. He didn’t make Wish List to
experience being alive. He hikes, he camps, he
reads, he has friends, family, he has his life
with Melissa. He’s well aware he’s
alive, CD or not.
I try another idea: Some musicians use the verb “document” when
they discuss their recordings. “It was
time, man,” they’ll say, “time
to document my shit.” So I ask,
is that what Wish List is? Documentation?
Mike shrugs. Sure, he supposes it is. But that’s
not the point either—though a CD is a calling
card of sorts, he admits. It opens doors. That’s
a reason to make it.
I think: A calling card? Something to be stamped
out by the thousands and handed around? Music
of this depth? There has to be more to it.
I ask about the band. He describes a gig they
played. He got a van from Rent-a-Wreck and they
drove out to Pennsylvania — these guys
with names on their resumes like Wayne Shorter,
Chick Corea, the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell — drove
out to Pennsylvania in a Rent-a-Wreck and played
at a club, played so well, Mike says, it was
almost depressing, played so well it made him
sad to imagine playing anything else ever.
What made it so special? I ask. No egos in this
band, he says. The musicians aren’t working
for him, they’re working together. He points
out examples on the CD: That vamp behind John's
solo on “Conundrum”? It goes from
piano to saxophone and guitar because Tim thought
it would sound cool—I would never have
thought of that. Or the last note on “Boo”?
Brian suggested pushing it up half a beat, so
we did. Or the vamp behind the drum solo “Tulainyo.” It’s
four bars instead of two because Wolfgang thought
it would make more space for Brian.
That vamp is important, Mike says, because a
drum solo won't necessarily advance the form
if there’s nothing behind it. Form interests
Mike more than anything else. You can experiment
with it, he says, or use it as a jumping off
point. Like “Blackbird”: It’s
the exact form the Beatles used, with just a
little vamp added.
He sits forward. Listen to Wolfgang there, he
says. Hear how he uses the effect pedal for just
an instant? Wolfgang’s all about making
the tune sound like itself, you know? Not making
it the Wolfgang show. Or Brian on “Nancy”,
he says, slinking around —like Nancy Sinatra:
These boots are made for walkin’… He
smiles. I ask, “Is this why you do it?
Is it the people, the friendships?” He
squints. That’s not it either.
I try asking about the titles. Well, he says, “Wish
List”is hikes I want to make. “Bumphs”was
called “Bumps”until Brian said “Bumphs”and
we all started saying it. Opening Day is
the day each Spring when we open the country
house. “Tulainyo”is the highest lake
in the continental US. “Conundrum”has
a sort of circular melody… He thinks a
moment. You know, when I’m writing something,
he says, if I haven’t written the tune
down the title will sometimes bring it back.
It’s just an aside, titles matter, a little
thing, but it strikes me. They matter? Really?
The experience of being alive is a gutter ball,
but titles matter? Why? Why name tunes
at all? Why not use numbers or pictograms or
the Dewey Decimal System?
It’s not until later, after Mike and I
have finished and I’m on the train home
to Brooklyn, that I get it. Titles are part of
the craft, and Mike has just demonstrated in
about nine different ways that craft is everything.
Because music is not an abstraction. Music is
not thought. It’s a physical thing: sound
waves that buzz through the air and across your
skin and into your muscles and bones. It’s
a thing people do, not something they
Mike, like all musicians, like Wolfgang and
Brian and Tim and John, is a craftsman. He builds
music. Through imagination, through collaboration,
through practice and study, through experimentation
and dropping pretense and ego, through work and
time and effort, he builds music: flexible, inspired,
grown-up, intricate, potent, heart-grabbing music. Why isn’t
part of the equation.
The result this time is Wish List.
And it should be documented. It will give
you the experience of being alive. It does reflect
friendships, relationships. And in a better world
it would absolutely be stamped out by the thousands
and passed around to everyone.
Why make it? Who cares. Put away your questions.
Put down the damn liner notes and listen.
— Steve Armour