Listen to “Lucky Thirteen” from Songs of Samsara

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“Samsara” is a Sanskrit word referring to the realms of existence one passes through before the true nature of mind (“nirvana”) is realized. “Songs of Samsara” was recorded over a four-year period rich with suffering and joy. If the music is “about” anything, it is about the human condition as I’ve personally experienced it as a musician over a long life, but especially during those long days. The playing of the music is deeply rooted in desire and aversion, condemnation and praise, yet at the same time celebratory in every blessed sixteenth-note of its playing out. Sometimes the pain and pleasure are sequestered off by themselves, but more often they are mixed and mottled, braided as creek water.

The pieces are entirely improvised; I had scarcely a notion of what I would play beforehand save “something fast,” or “lots of low tones.” The one piece that feels most extreme and mixed is so entirely mysterious to me that in configuring the sequence of pieces for this album I hadn’t the foggiest idea where to place it. Finally, in a fit of courage, I placed it at the beginning, with the title “You Tell Me.” Indeed, all the titles came, as they ordinarily do, at the end of the process after the album was all put together and ready to go. Yet the titles may have some personal meaning — Amadea and Moon are middle names of my daughters; an mbira is an African “thumb piano” which makes me want to call the piano a “grand mbira.” But the titles are just tags, not meant to be hidden clues. The music is, ideally, about itself, and the authentic meaning arises only in the act of listening.

But since you are kind enough to be reading my website, I will tell you the story of the title of track 15. A friend of mine once told me he walked into a men’s room to relieve himself, and there, at eye-level over the urinal, scrawled huge in a juvenile hand, was the message: “I LIKE TO SCREW GRILS.” Down below this, in normal-size letters, a more mature person had inscribed: “You mean GIRLS, Stupid.” And way down in the lower right-hand corner, in a teeny, delicate, script, was written: “what about us poor grils?” Now if that isn’t samsara, what is? I’m seventy-two years old at this writing, and have been improvising at the keyboard for sixty-plus years. This album finally gets it right for me — or so it seems at the moment — and it was worth the wait. My guru, North Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, used to say “Everything is mixture,” and in this music I seem to have come to a place where this world and what is beyond this world feel inseparable. Still, I have no idea whether or not this rings true for others.

You tell me.