music, technology & life in pasadena, california

Words vs. Music

On the evening of February 12, 2009 a Continental Connections flight bound for Buffalo, NY crashed just one minute before its expected landing, now known to be caused by icing conditions and human error. Onboard that flight were two musicians: Guitarist Coleman Mellett and saxophonist Gerry Niewood, both players in Chuck Mangione’s band.

My friend Kevin Axt, bassist for Chuck Mangione, and one of the most talented, soulful and eloquent people I know, granted me his kind permission to publish his words and thoughts written shortly after attending Gerry Niewood’s memorial service in early March.

Words vs. Music

I suppose that it's rather ironic to comment on the effect that music has on us by using words, but I'm afraid that this written-word medium is the distillation process through which these thoughts and feelings must pass. Gerry Niewood was and is a great friend and musical partner. At his memorial service yesterday I was struck by the phenomenon of the contrasting visceral effects between words and music. Gerry's son Adam, a great sax player in his own right, wordlessly began the service by fronting a quartet that included Jim McNeely (p), Chris Higgins (b), and Bill Goodwin (d). They played jazz standards in a big resonant stone church. No mics. Every note heartfelt and laden with love, longing, gratitude, remembrance, worship; All the things that Gerry meant to these musicians as well as the assembled family and friends. Of course these same notes carried subtexts that cannot be described with words, yet were felt by all in attendance- timeless expressions of thought and emotion- spiritual expression without ideological definition. I let these notes move me and wash over me and through me. Then the service started, and by this I mean the words. The words were beautiful too, but they felt limited and fundamental. The music felt like a multidimensional crystal into which one peered- where the slightest twist of the wrist would reveal an entirely new universe. The words were flat like paper. I found my mind wandering, almost impatient. The words were spoken artfully, yet the content felt slow and cumbersome and monochromatic. I did my very best to attend, but the notes continued to reverberate within me causing my thoughts to disconnect from the words, seeking more fertile ground. As musicians we understand that we are gifted with the ability to communicate with the language of music. We experience the bliss of creating moments in time that levitate our beings; egoless expressions of the content of our hearts and souls which we share with each other and all those present to witness these moments. These are discourses of the highest order- the ultimate interfaith worship.

People came and went from the podium on the stage. They shared personal observations of Gerry and they offered their perspectives on the irrational twist of fate that brought Gerry's death. And then the musicians would play again. Gene Bertoncini played a solo nylon string guitar and took me to that place again- the place where I could feel Gerry and all the other musicians that were fortunate enough to make music with him. Chuck Mangione stood before a mic and in a voice choked with emotion, shared his tribute to Gerry honoring him as a great friend and musician. He then moved away from the mic to the center of the stage and played two choruses of Amazing Grace with absolute perfection. It was a mystical act of superhuman strength that provided the most profound moment of the service. We felt his love for Gerry and the anguish of his loss, all of our losses, in every note; the last of which trailed off for 20 seconds, a perfect decrescendo into absolute nothingness. We heard 50 years of love, and friendship and pain in a single resolute fading note.

How is this done? Words have not been invented to explain; we as musicians simply know this as a simple fundamental fact of what we do. We may occasionally forget how blessed we are to possess this gift and to share it among ourselves and with others that are not as blessed. Music is both this thing that we get to create and a mystical force that we get to channel at the same time. All the physical rules of the universe as we know them do not apply. Those of us fortunate enough to contribute to this force are granted a kind of eternal life. Those of us that leave too soon are no less eternal. Those of us left behind can only attempt to grasp the magnitude of the gift that we've been given as musicians, and our lives are the joyously futile pursuit of expressing our gratitude for such a gift. Gerry's playing and his life manifested this thing which I can't explain yet we all understand.

- Kevin Axt

May 19, 2009 | Link to this entry


Several years ago, I don’t remember when exactly, I had the chance to play Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins with the LA Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. This wasn’t during Zubin’s reign as music director of the orchestra (how old do you think I am?) but as a visiting guest conductor during Esa-Pekka’s tenure. The piece begins, as I recall, with a small clarinet figure, a dotted-eighth-then-sixteenth upbeat to the first bar, and the banjo plays beat two and four and so on in that inimitable style of Weimar backbeats Weill made so ubiquitous in much of his music.

In each rehearsal, Zubin conducted the upbeat and the downbeat, as well as the first bar, in one tempo, no stretching of the phrase. It was all business with him. On the night of the first concert, he gave the upbeat, the downbeat, and milked the hell out of that first beat and totally laid back the attack of beat two. It was unexpected, exciting and scary at the same time. I played that backbeat exactly where he placed it, and before beat four came around I looked up to see him staring at me with a big impish grin on his face! What a troublemaker…

Here’s a great quote from Zubin’s new autobiography that shows a wonderful insight I’ve rarely experienced or seen in words before. It shows the true meaning of musical collaboration.

Orchestras have a definite musical memory, and a conductor must see it as something being offered him by the orchestra. This kind of memory should never be underestimated; instead, it should be utilized as much as possible…If a conductor realizes this while he is still young, it helps him get past his uncertainties and doubts, not to mention the mistakes he will inevitably make.

What is needed is a willingness on the conductor’s part to take the musicians’ experiences and memories seriously and even to incorporate them, no matter how many years it may take. Only then can a conductor attain the necessary maturity, insight, understanding, and feel for the music he wants to perform. These qualities are just as important as all the analytical skills

- from Zubin Mehta’s new autobiography, Zubin Mehta: The Score Of My Life

May 11, 2009 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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