How collaborating with the found noise of New York City inspired fresh hope after months of isolation.
It was a normal day, a normal afternoon — except for the drumbeat.
The rhythmic concussions and metallic splashes seemed to ricochet above the power lines, skating over the construction site to my left, rebounding off the wall of brownstones to my right.
The source took a minute to pinpoint. Eight or ten stories up, between two high-rises and across the ragged socket of ground that would soon sprout one of their towering brethren, there was a man on a balcony, on a drum kit, laying down some funk.
The drummer was high and away, too far for me to see clearly. But his groove flew like a bird through breeze. His kick drum was tight, sparsely patterned, consistent; his dancing hi-hat and snare equally uncluttered. Mostly, his playing spread like five wide fingers — but every now and then, a complex fill would contract like a fist.
At first, I listened, entranced — then stunned to realize that my last time hearing a seasoned drummer jam live was also my last time performing with one. Fifteen months prior, I had played with the Michael Gallant Trio at our five-year-strong Tomi Jazz residency in midtown Manhattan. Then case numbers rose, the city closed, and our gigs hit a silent fermata.
As I stood, listened, watched, I was reminded that, despite the loss, I was blessed that music had permeated my time in quarantine and that many of my musical colleagues had not been so fortunate. It was an honor to have Steinway Records release my first solo piano album last July. It was also an honor to live-stream a performance to benefit an old friend rising in regional politics and improvise a two-keyboard iteration of “God Bless America” of which I’m immensely proud. My production partner (who is also my wife) and I released new tracks and are preparing to launch more. And in late summer, as an additional blessing amidst growing chaos, I received a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts to bring a concept I’ve long held — melding my sonic improvisations with dynamic visual ones — to life.
That afternoon out on the street, in an unwanted echo of last year and last surge, COVID numbers were again swelling. And when it came to pulling the dream of my grant project into seeable, hearable reality — in a way that felt safe and sane for all involved — I had no full-grown answers. But I did have a drum beat. And that call needed to be answered.
I ran to my apartment and grabbed my Hammond Melodica, a hand-held, wind-powered keyboard instrument that sounds like the offspring of an oboe and harmonica. My instrument wasn’t loud when placed in combat with buses and jackhammers, and the drummer couldn’t have known I was there, playing up from below. But that wasn’t the point.
I sat on a nearby stoop and slipped the mouthpiece under my mask. The elevated drummer folded into something old-school, halfway between “Superstition” and “Rapper’s Delight.” I breathed into my first note slowly, then with increasing pressure.
After a year-and-a-half divorced from live percussion, my playing didn’t seal into his as magnetically as I would have liked, but I felt the gap lessen the more we jammed, him unaware, me soaring. Passers-by turned to watch him, watch me, move on. I wasn’t playing for them. I played for myself. I played for my city.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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