Q: Back when you were studying and making music as a young man, did you expect that music would be your life’s work?
A: Yes, on some level I figured that I would always be engaged in it.
Q: But did you plan on being a working musician?
A: When I was in college, yeah. And I did that after college. Music school is really like trade school. And my degree is in the absurd realm of studio music and jazz.
Q: Oh, that’s funny. Studio music?
A: Exactly. But yet I never questioned that I wouldn’t do that. I spent a couple of years playing lots of weddings and bar mitzvahs on Miami Beach, lots of gigs where none of my creativity as a musician was really needed. You’d get hired by a band leader and you’d show up and you’d meet him and he’d be like 70 years old, and bitter, and not very good at what he did. I didn’t want to be that.
Q: Did you feel like a different, more gratifying kind of music career wasn’t available to you?
A: You know it’s funny, because when you’re just trying to live and eat you don’t really think about it. You’re in the soup of “Oh my God, how am I going to make the rent?” kind of thing. It was clear that doing criticism would allow me to listen more and be exposed to music at a creative level much more readily than I could play that kind of stuff, but it took me years to figure that out. I was fine with those other kinds of gigs. I worked on cruise ships for awhile. I played in Maynard Ferguson’s band for awhile. I was on the road with a rock band for awhile. And those were all great.
Q: So is there an element here of finishing what you started? Are you reclaiming a youthful dream?
A: That’s a great question. I don’t know. I’ll deflect for a second and answer a different question that’s come up a lot, sort of a variation on that, which is are you doing this to show people that you knew what you were talking about when you were writing. That’s a great question too, and a legitimate one. It didn’t occur to me at the time and I hope that I wouldn’t be quite that jaded and cynical. But the idea that what we do as critics does have equivalency and parallels with that of an artist is one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is that there is something about trying to gain mastery over something as vast and unknowable as music that is lifelong and eternal. It’s a path you’re just on. So I was more concerned I think, if I’m honest, with finding a way to be of service in just a broad sense. This is going to sound Messianic, and it’s not, but I really think that the people who I always admired as critics were there in part because their motivation was to serve music and to be advocates for great work. And I would like to think that’s what I strive to do when I sit to write or when I find a record that I want NPR listeners to know about. Let me be as tiny and as humble as I can be and see if I have anything to say.
Q: It sounds like it’s all of a piece for you, the criticism and the songwriting and playing.
A: That’s right. The impetus and the inspiration and the flow of it is really the same thing. I never want to stop writing, I never want to stop playing.
Q: Is that a shift in your thinking? Did making this record change the way you think about yourself and the way you engage with your work?
A: Yes. For many years I treated music as sort of an escape valve for when I finally was done with deadlines, and I could sit at the piano and write a song or whatever. And the idea that in fact I had created this very artificial divide in my own life — I feel like I wasted a lot of time to be honest with you, because all the time I worked for the man at The Inquirer I might have been just as active creatively as I am now.
Q: That’s bittersweet.
A: Well, a wonderful thing to at least realize at some point. And it wasn’t until doors were closed did I realize that maybe it’s because I was looking at it in a very bifurcated way.
Q: I say bittersweet, but maybe I’m just projecting because I’m trying to do something new and it doesn’t matter how much natural talent I have or how devoted I am or how much time and energy I pour into it, the fact is I don’t have enough time to get really good. So for me, stumbling on something later in life, while it’s incredibly exhilarating, there’s a shadow over it in a way.
A: Don’t let that stop you.
Q: I’m not letting it stop me.
A: Even more than that, don’t let it create any sort of division in your thinking about where your energy should go at any given time. Because you would be amazed at how just a little bit of mastery, for lack of a better word, or just a few tools –
Q: Three chords.
Q: That makes me want to know if your background as a critic makes you hypertensive to your own limitations and shortcomings?
A: You know the answer to that.
Q: I do know the answer to that. I’ve had this almost psychedelic experience where I’ve come to understand why there’s so much bad music in the world. It’s because it’s so exhilarating to actually make music. So in one sense I feel like my aesthetics and my senses are so well-tuned from years of listening and knowing what I like, but at the same time I find that it’s so damn fun to do that I just lose my critical faculties. It’s this weird conundrum.
A: And you have to do that.
Q: You have to withhold judgment?
A: That’s right. At a certain point it’s the trapeze and you have to let go.
And the idea of holding onto everything that you know, like where good is, that all has to be suspended. Now that doesn’t mean that you turn that off forever, or you don’t reengage it when you next sit at the computer. But I believe very strongly that the only way that I can communicate through music is to just be in it right now with absolutely no evaluative stuff going on at all, whether it’s exhilarating or terrifying.That’s not to say that you wouldn’t be guided by the same sort of basic building block stuff that you’re aware of as a critic. It’s not to say that if I jumped into something and I’m out of tune that I wouldn’t try and fix that. But it is to say that I’m not sitting there going, “Well, this ain’t happening, I better pack up.” I’d rather see if I can make something happen.
Q: That’s exactly right.
A: That skill, that very thing, is the difference between people who are alive and not. I mean, you know, alive to whatever the moment can offer us. And I really feel like, if anything, the lesson I’ve had from hanging around with 20-year-old kids is that there’s something about being young that enables that condition to prevail more often. The minute that we get into this thing where a job is on the line, money is on the line, there are “stakes,” we’re in some other realm. I feel very foolhardy doing what I’m doing. I’m not saying that I’m not proud of having done this work. But last night I showed up at a place and played with some friends, and a couple of other people, at this bar in Philly, and it just didn’t work. It wasn’t for lack of trying, and it wasn’t for lack of being mindful about all this in-the-moment stuff we’re talking about. But it just didn’t work. And you feel like an idiot. I really believe that that element of feeling like an idiot is where some of what we think of as “good work” comes from.