As Good as It Gets

(for the late Stu Millman, consummate Edmonton jazz bassist)

There is so much to like
about this trio, this gig.
In a word, movement.
Piano lets you know which standard
is to be resignatured.
And then the momentum
of bass and drums and
you are into it before
the waitress even takes your order.

Courtyard lounge,
big-screen tv menacingly above
the real news and true art.
What is there about
these 3 that delights?
A look, a glance,
a sideways motion?
Cymbals splash and then
bassman is on–
spontaneously composing
in public–an unnatural act
if ever there was one
for this space.
Up and down, he speaketh
and what rhythm, man!
What memory of melody.

It may look like work
and yet is so effortless,
this desire to put it out there–
to declare oneself:
one`s chops and sensibility.

And stopping and waiting
for that first tentative clap,
no matter how quiet–
to know there`s a connection
going down, a bridge
gapped by noteful play
and interplay.
(These 3 have evidently met before.
This is not their first or last time.
The encore of divorce aside,
some marriages are charmed.)

Like this one–
piano precise, taste-full
and yet open-ended
to what the crowd might bring
to this swingin`smorg.

Drummer only seems to be
`way over there`–
distance a mirage.
His brushes and accents
an undersong bonus.

And then those bass arms–
over, under, and finally thru.
Who`da thunk he could re-
enact a chiropractor`s dream?

But pay close attention:
this is a very good story.
An encapsulation of all
of life`s gigs and quest
for spiritual nourishment.
A plot rolled out like
a Kerouac teletype novel.
As life could and might be.

Three pairs of eyes and ears
on the very same page
saying, We are unit–
our experience and jazz wisdom
times three.

Another break, a laugh
and no one knows
who it came from.
Well, that was easy,
that was a slice.
What next, o brothers?
Wither wilt we goest?
Duke? Porter? Train?
So much to recall now,
so much of the ideal–
the jazz gods be praised tonight
for this assemblage of mortals.

The limitation of lounge,
non-listeners and chatter
now forgotten and small.
There are always limitations.
But maybe this once,
for some anyway:
a remembered lyric
a nameless glow
a gentle communion
a momentary stay
against confusion.

And thus curiosity becomes a drummer`s brushes.
Whim, a bassman`s bow.
Wonder, a minor 6th chord.
It`s all there with a first-drink mind,
the charts momentarily abandoned.
So many tones and colours
to be sampled and voiced,
each player imagining
his own way and role.

It`s all in their faces–
the way the eyes focus
as a zone is ascended.
Out there and yet
strangely here.
Passing strange, in fact.
The great balancing act of all art
and all that jazz.

a word devoutly to be wished.
One can only savour
the tonal axe-stasy of these 3.
The Glad-To-Be-Alive.
This moment.
A truly cool place to be.
As good as it gets, folks.
No kiddin`.


For me, music has been one of life’s great possibilities. This poem is an homage to live jazz, a particular trio (Charlie Austin Trio), and a very special bassman-friend. What I tried to capture was the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual equivalent of a performance. I think what interested me most was the communication that was going on here, especially amongst the musicians. Music can be a transcendent experience; in this case, the musicians transcended the context of a somewhat impersonal setting, their three instruments, and some initial audience distraction. What jazz musicians impressively do is very risky, far riskier than anything played by a classical music orchestra or a commercial rock act, for instance. They basically create something beautiful, true and good out of nothing, spontaneously and continuously.

Good and great music speaks to the feelings, the mind, and the soul. In concert, this can be seen and experienced en masse for large numbers of different people. No other form of art (except dance) can do this with large numbers of people in one spot, in one time. Music offers the great life possibility and experience of transcendence from one’s own cares and situation. The best music depends on intuitive communication between players and audience. And good or great music offers depth, richness, and connection. At its best, music makes us feel less alienated and more connected to something other or greater than ourselves.

“That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”–Willa Cather, My Antonia

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