Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Bolero and Breakfast

One lesson I learned in the music business: if you're going to mess up, be bold. There's no place in professional music for a furtive, stifled boo-boo. Pros just don't do that. When they get into trouble, it's while playing full-out. The definitive example when I was much younger was Ron Barron's notorious "Bolero" entrance with the Boston Pops - the clam heard round the world.

Barron was a great player; a legend. But on this occasion, he stared down the most heart-stopping task in all of trombone-dom, and he blinked. He blinked and he slipped and he fell and he slobbered and he imploded and he decomposed. It was worst case scenario, the most dreaded nightmare any trombonist could imagine, come painfully to life. Luckily for Barron, the tale has faded in musician memory, but let me resurrect it for cheap perspective on a horrible blunder I recently made at breakfast.

The first note of the dreaded "Bolero" trombone solo is nearly the instrument's highest note. And the thing about high notes on brass instruments is that they're perilously close together, so it's extremely easy to overshoot or undershoot. Imagine selecting a knife from a high shelf on your tippy toes, when they're packed in tightly with one another. With training, you'll get it right 99% of the time, but failure is very messy indeed.

What's more, while Ravel splays out his sexy build-up, you sit there, not playing a single damn note, for nine long minutes. Your chops get cold, your horn gets cold, resolve weakens, and all you think about is that knife you'll soon be grabbing from the high shelf on tiptoes. Meanwhile, your two fellow trombonists sit there next to you, pumping out pheromones - a combination of pity, sympathetic anxiety, and better-you-than-me-dude shadenfreude. Such subtleties are palpable because Bolero's endless build-up contains no lushness or bombast in which to lose oneself. It's like being slowly ratcheted up to the top of a very tall rollercoaster, at the summit of which you'll need to let loose with the music business' most-exposed entrance. Tighten your underpants, redden your face and pop your eyes as you squeal along with me: "DWeeeeeeeeeeeeee...."

Oh, and the solo goes on forever, and stays stupid high the whole time, so you'd better not tighten up. And, man, why on earth wouldn't you be tight, selecting a high knife and broaching a cold horn, your colleagues silently clenching their fists in a paroxysm of stress you must entirely ignore so you can stay loose - not merely fearing, but fearing fear itself. After minutes of this, you must exhibit inhuman control to hit the damned note without ruining absolutely everything, and hope your instrument hasn't gone completely out of tune during the nine minute chilling period.

Geez. I almost blacked out, myself. Just don't be a symphonic trombonist. No one deserves this. I wouldn't wish it on Harvey Weinstein.

So here's what happened that fateful evening with Ron Barron. First of all, he came in like 17 bars early. John Williams, having spotted him hoisting his horn eons before the proper moment, had broken all decorum, wildly flailing his arms to stave off the catastrophe. "No! NO, Ron! Don't play now! Stop!! Don't do it!!" but Barron wasn't paying the least attention. And then, for good measure, he absolutely butchered the note as wildly as if his horn had been grabbed by a drunken 5-year-old. It was a slaughter. There was blood on the fur coats in Symphony Hall. It was frickin' EPIC.

So let me tell you about breakfast. I was facing a thirty minute wait to get into Old West Cafe (600 W Northwest Hwy, Grapevine, TX; 817-442-9378), and had come up with the bright idea of heading next door to a generic random burrito place for a quick tamal and coffee, just to give myself something to do and to tide me over. Over-enthusiastic, I decided to try both chicken and pork tamales. And they were larger than expected:

Soon after I'd polished those off, I received a text message saying that my table at Old West Cafe was available. I wandered next door, and soon confronted what was easily the most intimidating breakfast of my entire life. Behold the "Huckleberry": "A hand-tenderized, hand-breaded chicken-fried ribeye steak smothered in homemade sausage gravy served with two eggs, hash browns, and Texas toast". And, oh, look! They appear to have comped me an extra egg! Lucky me!

I had trouble fitting it all in the frame, so, as with a Mercator Projection, the ratios are off. That small seeming puck in the distance is an entire breaded and fried ribeye steak. The little pile of hash browns was the size of a cigarette carton. I couldn't do much more than nibble at the edges of this fearsome mass. Worst of all, it was sensational. I'd committed a humungous chowhounding blunder. But, like any good trombonist, I sucked it up. At least I'd messed up big.

More about this breakfast tomorrow. In the meantime, here's Bolero, fast-forwarded to the trombone solo:

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1 comment:

Jim Leff said...

It's a well-executed solo (in the video), but the vibe's all wrong. It's stentorian/starchy - a conservatory prig feigning jazziness. It should be devilishly sly and seductive, but that's not a vibe legit bone players are encouraged to cultivate.

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