... interesting music with Max Bernard
Sent: 9:00 AM November 26
I played music last night at Public House with a pretty amazing classical pianist named Max Bernard. I would guess that he is about my age. He is an "Ex" computer programmer about Otto's skill and eccentricity. I remember him from years ago when he was working at the Food Coop, back when he was writing a new computer language - seems like that was about 8 years ago - and that he had sold the program and gotten a fancy little car with a vanity plate on it and then disappeared. He now has about 30 pieces of music memorized.
It was a dark and stormy night and all the other bars in town had loud bluesy bands, so he had a very small audience and was mostly playing for himself.
I sat down on the edge of the stage to listen and after a while - after some pieces that just sort of fizzled instead of reaching completion - I sat down next to him and asked if he would like some company.
He handed me a notecard with words written on it, some the short way across the page some the long way. I looked and realized that they must be names of tunes - not real names but the names he used to remember them. "Pick one:" he said and so I did.
He played it for me. I said it was lovely, my favorite kind of music in the world. He said pick another.
I said - "no, what I meant was did you want musical company - I really do love what you are playing and I can play music like that in real-time, by ear. Sometimes I can add lines the composer would have put in there himself, if he had known a guitar - or a guitarist - could play those sounds ... "
He was a little evasive, very unsure of how to respond. First, we discussed how much time was left in the show (a little over an hour) and then he was emphatic about how he was NOT splitting his fee with me. I told him that I do not want money for playing ... that it was just about against my religion to mix music with money. He eventually capitulated and said "o.k. go get your instrument ... "
So I walked off, more than a little ambivalent myself, not quite sure if I should keep looking for a place to be for the evening or really walk back to the Airstream to get my guitar and amplifier and then drive back just to intrude into his solitary space for half an hour or so.
I decided to do it as I walked past the Town Tavern - every other room in town was just loud loud loud, totally the wrong scene and entirely the wrong music - there was clearly no place else in town or me to be, if I needed to be somewhere other than here.
When I got back and tuned up he said "what shall we play" and I said "play that sea song again but simplify it a little and leave out the bridge the first time around - it sounds like stuff from The Band ".
He said "I can't - I only can play it start to finish, exactly the way I memorized it off the printed page!".
"Wow! I thought ... I've never memorized anything, but can play almost everything! " It turns out he cannot improvise at all and has never been able to play with another person - they always get in the way and distract him making him forget where the next note fits because he learned the music by memorizing it note for note.
His playing is quite capricious - subtle and difficult turns of phrase and timing but very authoritative and apparently based on scholarly research and he had wonderful stories about Debussy. I was able to offer some good Gershwin stories in return. In additon to classical repertoire he plays Gershwin, George Shearing, Debussy - maybe the most beautiful Claire De Lune I have ever heard. I sat utterly spellbound and did not add a single note after the first few bars. We played and talked 'til almost 11:00
He has apparently recorded at Danny Hull's studio - the place where I took Tal Raboy to record a demo last summer. Danny came in near the end of the show and listened for a while and announced that we sounded pretty good playing together. And then the three of us talked about how different it was from how I approached music to have all these arrangements totally memorized and mapped out, note-for-note - and Danny agreed, saying that he just played, too, and that he had never really learned anything Max's way either.
When it was all over and Max was putting on his coat to ride off to Danny's house to sleep, he stated that we could perhaps try it again - that it seems like we can actually play together ...
I played for another half hour or so and then came home.