In New York, tall buildings make the sky irrelevant, crowding out the daytime sky and supplanting the firmament with constellations of office and apartment lights, managing to somehow be comforting and distant at the same time. Among New York skyscrapers, those most reassuring and distant, most permanent and surreal were the towers of the World Trade Center; they were huge abstractions on our horizon, dominating the landscape. And when they came down, amid the very real human carnage and loss was the sense that the sky, or a part of the sky had fallen. People are dazed and horrified, in shock from the atrocity and confused that they are still alive. Almost everyone I speak to has no direct personal connection to any of the thousands killed in the disaster.
But there is a hollowness, a deeply haunted feeling that somehow the world has ended but continues nonetheless, that ordinary activities now seem bizarre, even criminal. How dare we marvel at the beautiful weather that has ironically persisted, interrupted by a few dramatic and violent storms, since the attack? How do we go on buying groceries and walking the dog? Something inside tells us that we shouldn't go on living, out of some kind of respect.
That same impulse makes me ask: How can we talk about music at a time like this? And then I realize that the answer obvious: we have to. What we need, here in the famously unfriendly city where people are suddenly pouring their hearts out to each other with ecstatic honesty, is to stay centered, remembering individually who we are and drawing strength from that. To not lose touch with our souls.
For this reason, when I learned that Chocolate Genius was playing a benefit show for the Red Cross, I had to go. The Sunday after the tragedy we brought our hollow, fractured selves to Tonic, a small, hip East Village venue, some of us wondering if we were really still alive. And while we did not get distracted from recent events, nor were we reassured that everything was going to be okay, we did leave feeling less empty, less insanely light than when we arrived. I can think of no other act that could put forth an evening so sincere, so compelling and so appropriate to the time.
Marc Anthony Thompson is the prime mover of the project known as Chocolate Genius, a band whose rotating roster features some of downtown's and Brooklyn's rock and jazz avant garde heroes, including Marc Ribot and cellist Jane Scarpantoni, both previously members of another protean New York band, the Lounge Lizards. I have seen Chocolate Genius shows where the band was a tight quartet, drums bass keys and guitar, Marc occasionally jumping in on rhythm, and there have been shows where there are close to a dozen players on stage, each adding subtle elements that contribute to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This gig was one of the latter, and was in fact billed as "Chocolate Genius and Friends." There were people that have rarely played together before and might never again, including Marc Ribot and Vernon Reid, Jane Scarpantoni and Dougie Bowne (another Lounge Lizards alumnus), John Medeski, Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto, and DJ Logic.
Other guests joined from the audience at various times, and several of the musicians jumped in and out as the set wended its way through experimental, sometimes serene and sometimes angry terrain. Most of the songs were spaced-out covers, including Neil Young's "Don't Let it Bring You Down" and Blind Faith's "Can't Find My way Home," featuring long instrumental jams and trademark lyrical digressions by Marc Anthony T. The "song" songs were broken up with instrumental interludes, where the radically contrasting styles of the assembled artists jostled and harmonized, collided and grooved. At times the sonic collage degenerated into noise, a nearly inevitable occurrence with such a large, diverse group on stage in what was obviously a free-form environment. But just as often I found myself in awe, realizing that I was witnessing the unique output of a rare confluence of talent. And the moments of discord were important, too, reflecting however inadvertently the brittle shards of emotion we all, as New Yorkers, still carry inside.
Marc Anthony Thompson does not peddle phony catharsis, he is not a pathos pimp. One might think so, considering his music often seems born from immense pain, his voice a cracked whisper or a breath away from sobbing. He sounds like a cross between Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, with a little Richard Pryor thrown in, or maybe a mix of Sly Stone and Leonard Cohen. But he is always honest, and always manages to convey exactly what he is feeling on any given night. His first album, black music, comes from the scorched earth of hangover country, a sort of jazz-rock lament. The songs on that album speak of that moment when, waking on the cold floor or some foreign couch, you cry out for some guardian angel to come and soothe your splitting head and pull you out of your gutter. More accurately, the songs on black music feel like the moment just after this cry, when you realize that the angel has got better things to do than to soothe your sorry ass.
The new album, godmusic comes from a more elevated place, though still within sight of the gutter. Now, there seems to be a dialogue with the elusive angel, who is still out of reach but is at least returning calls. This album has been called more "upbeat" than the first, but notes of foreboding are woven into even the brightest moments.
Charles Mingus, they say, used to physically throw members of his band from the stage if he thought they were just riffing, just playing by rote. Marc Anthony Thompson avoids having to go to such extremes by working with many different configurations -- the combination is almost never the same, so people react differently because they are often playing together for the first time. It seems a clever way of getting a more spontaneous performance from each collaborator. It was also appropriate that the show was on a Sunday night -- Chocolate Genius shows often feel like church services, in the best possible sense: everyone leaves with their soul refreshed.
On that night, I think I finally figured out that Chocolate Genius makes protest music. And I don't mean what we traditionally think of as protest music, strident topical solo acoustic slag. For, while live performances feature his pointed, humorous stage banter and lyrical improvisations that often drift into political territory, what he is really protesting is tragedy. Whether it's the tragedy of self-destructive behavior, a self-destructive relationship, or the tragedy of losing a loved one, the music always offers a cry of resistance against despair amid the exploration of pain.
And this is why there was nobody better suited to perform at that moment in time. We didn't expect any answers, nor any solutions, and none were offered (other than "give peace a chance"). It was not about waiting for divine deliverance; instead it was about commiseration that we are all in shock and unsure what to do or what's going to happen, but we are alive and together. I will remember it as the moment when I wasn't healed, I wasn't saved, but at least I started breathing again. In these times, that is no small thing, and certainly not an abstraction.