I Heard That – The Hard Bop and Slow Blues of Brooklyn’s Eric Wyatt
I first met the American saxophonist and Sonny Rollins protégé Eric Wyatt on a bitterly cold rainy night in Shanghai a couple of years ago, when I was still sore in the hip and limping from the little street urchin who’d gaffer taped himself to my thigh in a late night ambush outside my hotel, which I strangely had to admire for its sheer commitment.
It was just before Chinese New Year and I was weary from globetrotting. I’d had a big round of meetings with friends and publishing folk in New York, then flown to San Francisco the day before-only the flight got delayed for four hours and at least five Bloody Mary’s, and so I ended up arriving in Shanghai in the middle of the night, and found my pick-up from the hotel nowhere to be found.
I had to settle for a dubious cab ride in a late model Rover (not a Range Rover or Land Rover), which a girl, who claimed to be a student, operated with her toothless father, who also seemed to be stone deaf. He did the driving; she did the hustling and yelling. It had that distinctly unofficial feeling of when your cab in from Kennedy starts taking back streets through Queens-but I was too tired to be anxious.
If you’ve been to Shanghai, you know the airport is a very long way from downtown. We’re talking a good hour even in the dead of night. And dead is right. Despite the density of population in the area, China has a policy about electricity conservation that turns nighttime into a shadowy graveyard of construction cranes, ominous massive high rises off to the side of the highway, and half-finished road works that loom like paralytic dinosaurs.
This policy of enlightened darkness naturally applies even more vigorously to the central metro area, so that what at 8 PM is one of the most radiant empires in the world, is a very different thing when you arrive after midnight. It threw me off balance-as did the beggars that descended on me the second I stepped out of the Rover into a kind of jagged, biting sleet that brought back uncomfortable memories of places like Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
China isn’t known for its begging problems, partially because the government makes a concerted effort to suppress such behavior and certainly any publicity about it-but it’s a growing phenomenon as the economy has boomed and sharp class distinctions have emerged. As the economy continues its stop-start-explode cycle and more people who have left their regional homes seek opportunity in the giant cities, it will only get worse. In the midst of winter and coming up to New Year, the situation intensifies.
I was staying at the Radisson New World Hotel, at the head of retail mad Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s answer to Nathan Road in Kowloon (Hong Kong). The hotel also looks out over People’s Park, which is where many street people huddle for shelter. It’s thus possible, within less than five hundred feet, to buy a $100,000 Cartier watch and to see homeless folk squatting in the bushes. Or, in my case, getting out the gaffer tape.
A woman, with some kind of facial deformity I wished I could’ve documented, distracted me (as if the broken windowpane rain wasn’t doing a good enough job of that) while I was trying to pay the cab fare in what little Chinese money I had on hand, when what I took to be her son made his move. He was maybe four years old and seized onto my leg as if it were a tree trunk-and then literally ripped off a strip of gaffer tape and wrapped it around me to hold himself in place. I looked to my cab associates for some guidance in the matter, but they were quick to speed off the moment the requisite sum had been supplied. Welcome to Shanghai, with little hands beating at my groin.
I confess I was uncertain what to do. Normal instinctive violence didn’t seem appropriate given the age and size of the child (although poundings on the nut sack can make you lose your sense of decorum). When I felt the teeth sink into my thigh, I thought an advisory head slap was in order-nothing to seriously interrupt blood flow, just enough to get the little thug’s ears ringing. I was also getting very wet and I was peeved that a doorman wasn’t bustling out to assist me. After all, the Radisson New World is a five star luxury hotel by any measure. No, the only hint of support I got was from the Filipina girl group, who’d just finished their final cocktail lounge set in the Sky Dome Bar on the 47th Floor, and were freezing their very fine little derrieres off, wiggling out the door in six inch heels to greet the tears of ice coming down out of the dark. They remarked, in the best English I’d heard since landing, that they’d never seen one so big it had to be strapped to a leg-and dressed up too! Very funny ladies, I thought, galumphing into the lobby, amazed that the mother seemed to have no issues with me hobbling away with her son. Maybe that was her plan.
It’d been fifteen years since I’d caused a genuine scene in a major hotel lobby, but I felt this situation excused me-and so I let rip with one of the most hair-raising cries you’ve ever heard the moment I was fully inside the door and within sight of the desk. I’d lugged this kid and my luggage for more than fifty feet through a cold pig iron downpour. I was pissed off-foreign country or not. And once you’re inside the door of a major international hotel, with a reservation paid for by a major American magazine, the rules change. You don’t have to get whacked in the groin by a street child sucked onto your leg like a barnacle. You’re a guest.
“GET THIS FUCKING KID OFF MY LEG!” I think I said. Something like that anyway. Echoing off all the marble, at that hour of the night, it’s hard to be sure. But my meaning was clear. And it all worked out rather well. Once the night manager had peeled the pint-sized panhandler from my pant leg, giving him a rap on the noggin I wouldn’t have felt right delivering, I was able to convey my displeasure at not being picked up at the airport despite my text message about the flight delay-and so I was immediately upgraded, from what would have been a very cool room to the full-on penthouse suite. Oh, that Chinese sense of shame.
Fifteen minutes later I was sitting on a bed bigger than some friends’ apartments in New York, in not just a hotel room, but a luxury apartment, with a law firm size office, a kitchen, a bathroom a family could live in, a well stocked wet bar, steaming towels, late night noodles with fat charred prawns delivered, and a 25 year-old Chinese masseuse with flawless skin inquiring if I needed some relaxation. I wasn’t about to let her go very fast, I can tell you-not in the mood I was in. She was still there when a bleary thousand year-old duck egg sun rose and the beast of the city properly awakened.
Shanghai is the engine room of the breakneck Chinese economy and you feel it, even through triple glazed glass. As remarkably quiet as it can become late at night, for a megalopolis, when it comes back to life, you know about it.
Freezing rain continued to fall, and it was a long time before I was able to drag myself out of the rising vapors of the glass enclosed heated rooftop pool to make it down to breakfast.
Technically, I was in Shanghai to meet with Chinese experts to do a feature on the fabulous bell set or Bianzhong of Marquis Su of Jin Kingdom, the traditional instrument consisting of bronze bells of different sizes to create different tones, and inscribed with intricate Chinese characters that were cut into the still cooling bronze with special carving knives. The Bianzhong of Marquis Su is the oldest known musical instrument of its kind in the world, dating back to 846 BCE, and fourteen of the sixteen-bell set are the featured attraction of the Shanghai Museum, one of the world’s greatest musical treasures, and a cultural artifact of great significance.
My appointment wasn’t for another day though (I’ve learned about allowing some time for my contents to settle on foreign forays), so I was at loose ends-and still haunted by the street kid strapped to my leg-but relatively pleased with my sexual performance with the chamomile scented jade maiden, given that the persistent little beggar had struck a decisive last blow to my scrotum upon being more or less excised from my thigh only moments before her blessed arrival. (I sadly suspected rather strongly that her services wouldn’t be on the house the next time.)
With it being so cold and wet, there wasn’t much incentive to trudge down Nanjing Road to the Bund, which in good weather is one of the world’s great thoroughfares-a grand taste of Old Colonial China and European extravagance on the edge of the Huangpu River (one of the hardest working rivers on the planet). Shanghai has many interesting neighborhoods to explore: Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi, Huangshan. But a throat-cutting wind and umbrella lashing rain encouraged me to stay inside. After all, how often do you have a penthouse suite to take refuge in?
Come evening though, I was becoming restless. A late afternoon nap (the result of a dedicated investigation of the wet bar and a colossal wave of jet lag) meant that I’d missed the ticket run for both the puppets and the acrobats, as well as the chance to see a traveling gypsy circus from Romania that starred a horse riding Hungarian bear. Maybe some live music, I thought.
I found out there was an American sax player named Eric Wyatt headlining at a jazz club called CJW (Cigars Jazz Wine), atop the glittering Bund Center, with a spectacular view over the river to the surreal space age tinker toy zone of Pudong (very Jetson). Even in bad weather I thought that would be good, and I liked the sound of his profile.
A Brooklyn native, he was a long time family friend of the great Sonny Rollins and had played on albums with the likes of Clifton Anderson and Kenny Garrett. He’d fronted bands in Japan and the Middle East. I just got a feeling that he had chops. So, out into the icy rain I went, fending off the beggars to negotiate a cab.
I’m very glad I did, because the moment Wyatt started to play I knew instantly I was in the presence of someone with a deep level of musical craft and a definite love of performance. The lava lamps and crystal surroundings helped-as did what view there was through the murk-but it was Wyatt’s playing that got me.
In addition to the fine young CJW house band, he was joined that evening by Harlem-based blues singer Ptah Brown, and a funky Tokyo trumpet player cum Chet Baker style singer named Norio Hidaka, both of whom bop around Asia quite a bit and were in town on the night. They played late-hard and fast, soft and slow-a huge and very diverse range of music for a band with guest artists just sitting in. Wyatt was clearly the standout. We’ve become good friends since that dark night.
In one sense, Wyatt is about as straight ahead a jazz reed player as you can hear today. His roots are in high-energy hard bop music of the old 52nd Street variety, mixed with big classic ballads like “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (which give him a chance to really work out on the melody line). From this very traditional base, with its emphasis on rhythm in the first case, and on melody in the second, he has developed a strong performance dynamic on his up tempo numbers, and an evolving, complex appreciation of harmony across new compositions that move from anthem to ballad-into emerging territory that draws on his world travel experience.
He was from the first night I saw him, obviously one of the best ensemble players I’ve come across in recent times. Listening to him later in New York, he loves to play right along side a trumpeter, particularly someone of Grammy Award Winner Roy Hargrove’s stature and musicianship. Solos are de-emphasized in favor of tight, simultaneous interaction between the instrumental voices.
Now having heard his new material, it’s clear his greatest growth though has been as a composer. Time in China, Japan, the Middle East and the Caribbean have added to his fund of world music influences, becoming incorporated into the Old School framework to result in surprising new tones and time signatures.
What I most admire about this evolution is the subtlety with which he has integrated these new influences. Even some of the greatest jazz musicians, from Don Cherry to Carl Tjader, often hammer the point home about where their musical direction is coming from in a particular piece. “Oh, that sounds Japanese-or African.” With Wyatt, the connections are never so explicit. You keep asking questions about what you’re hearing, and so you listen more closely. You never quite know where the music is going, so you never stop paying attention. There’s not a moment where the influence of other musical cultures descends to the level of gimmick-and there’s never a point that wouldn’t satisfy a jazz purist. It’s a remarkable, organic balancing act. I’ve since asked him how he achieves this.
“The first thing you have to understand,” he said, “is that with the exception of Haiti, almost everywhere I’ve played overseas has been an extended gig. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people, to play with different artists there-and to really live there for a few months, listening to not only the music of the culture, but the day-to-day street sounds and rhythms too. It hasn’t been just flying in, staying at a hotel and maybe picking up a few riffs in passing.
“The second thing is why I’ve gotten the engagements. I’m seen as a musical ambassador, performing and bringing to life a certain kind of Brooklyn-Manhattan jazz sound. So, the introduction of some local and traditional musical influences from these other cultures into a main stem jazz thing has happened really naturally. You come to share your culture, and you appreciate the things you hear when you’re there. The two play off each other and mingle on their own. If I’d set out to consciously create a Chinese or a Middle Eastern theme, I think it would sound like musical tourism. It wouldn’t have heart. It might fool American listeners back home, but it wouldn’t cut it with locals in a club in Beirut or Beijing.”
Wise words from a much-traveled man, not only of music, but of the world in its deepest sense.
I know some extremely talented musicians, and I’ve met and worked with some of the greats, including Oscar Peterson and Frank Zappa. A considerable number wouldn’t tour or perform live if they could avoid it, and even those who swing the exact other way and are in some sense addicted to touring, often still don’t see in live performance, the “opportunity” as Eric Wyatt puts it, to acid test their music. For Wyatt, audience response is a critical part of the composition process, and one gets the feeling that a part of him would like all his recordings to be live.
Why, you may ask, haven’t you heard more about him? Why isn’t he signed to a major label? There are three reasons. First, jazz, like every other art form today is an insular world and I think while Wyatt has grown musically because of his time abroad, his career has paid a price for that absence from “the scene.”
Secondly, jazz is in a curious state of crisis and has been for some time-torn between being a “classical” American form (read museum artifact, like the wonderful bells of the Marquis Su) and a legitimizing means of upgrading pop music to wine bar sophistication. Look at the careers of Snora Jones, Michael Bubblehead and Diana Krawl. Jazz acts-or pop acts?
When my first novel Zanesville sold, I was in New York and was neighbors at the Algonquin Hotel with Jamie Cullum, who was performing there. Nice young guy, who’d just signed a million dollar deal with Verve. He gave me free tickets to his show. A fine performer and a talented musician. But a cabaret performer. No matter what stadium he plays now, he will always be a cabaret act.
Eric Wyatt is and will always be a jazz performer.
If you’re in the New York area, or visiting, I encourage you to check out the gig guides. He hosts the jam session nights at the famous Lenox Lounge in Harlem and his quartet regularly plays at Fat Cat on Christopher Street in the Village.
I had the pleasure to have him and friends back me on two of my live readings/performances promoting my last novel and the accompanying musical CD of the same name, Private Midnight.
I’m hopeful of working with him again on my next musical project. He’s a helluva player with a whole world of sound inside.
He comes from a musical family and started playing early. His first instrument was in fact the trumpet.