Our band will never sound the same again. – Duke Ellington, after the passing of Johnny Hodges
Not a minute of this Thanksgiving will go by without my thoughts turning time and again on my brother Robert. This will be the first Thanksgiving since his passing. To be sure, we did not gather last year, either. By that point, he had had his operation, the removal of his tongue, and could not eat. Plus he was deep into his chemo and radiation treatments, which weakened him. We hoped he would get better. We hoped.
Robert played the bass in our family band. Louis played guitar. Tania sang. I played tabla. We jammed like this nearly every Thanksgiving. This tradition goes back over two decades. Now our bass player is gone.
Lester Young played with the Count Basie Orchestra at Newport in 1957, his first time playing with them since the early 1940s. Afterwards he said, “I always bust my nuts when I play with them.” I always think of that quote after playing with Louis and Robert. Both masters of their respective axes, they knew all the jazz standards, and more, and never tired of playing. The tabla player had to keep up. It was an honor to do so.
Robert always enjoyed the odd-rhythms I introduced. He loved 5s and 7s, but also get a kick out of 11, 13, even 17. The last time I played for Robert, over the phone about a month before the end, the first thing he said was, “I can hear the 7s.” He lavished me with praise for my skills, but he always had a deft sense of rhythm. He’s the OG master of tal.
I had a feeling this Thanksgiving would be challenging, and it is. My ears still hear the words he spoke at our last Thanksgiving together, in 2012, just as he left for the night: “This was the best ever.” Yeah, it was. I almost didn’t write this piece, but I had to say something. Before launching into new holiday traditions, I had to acknowledge the weight of what came before. Though we’re all doing our own thing this year, I have no doubt that the surviving Mighty Russell Players will play again one day.
Though, of course, our band will never sound the same again.
For you, Robert, I’ll play a little something tomorrow. I’ll make it an odd-rhythm. Because.
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