When some years ago my daughter, as a young teen, was working her way through the first four movements of Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin, she asked her teacher if she could start on the final movement, the Chaconne. He said no, that despite possibly having enough technique, she needed to wait until she was older, his implication being that to play it well one needs to have lived more.
I thought of that recently when I saw drummer Pete Siers and blues pianist Mark Braun, aka Mr. B, play in Detroit. The blues, too, is music that calls for some living. Of course, chops still count, but technical facility has long been obvious for both Braun and Siers.
As a duo, and in numerous other ensembles locally, nationally, and internationally (even as I write this, Braun is on a brief European tour), they’ve earned reputations for virtuosic jamming. But with each passing year–and I’ve been listening for many–there’s been more living in their music. Braun said recently, without a hint of arrogance or false modesty, “You can’t have that claim when you’re young, you don’t dare do that. We’re old enough now, we’ve got a claim on all of that now.” All of that is right: whether it’s Deep South country-style blues, Kansas City or Chicago blues, New Orleans rhythms, bebop harmonies, or any of the myriad variations of American blues, “We’re playing from a really broad book, and it all feels really natural.”
Playing as a duo gives them a freedom and flexibility not possible in larger groups. When Siers says, “You don’t get a lot of these nuances in different ensembles, I don’t miss anything,” it’s evident he’s talking about both meanings of the word “miss.” He neither longs for the contributions that other musicians make, but he also doesn’t miss a thing that Braun is doing–and vice versa–so they’re able to respond to each other’s smallest cues and signals.
The audience doesn’t miss a thing either. On Ray Bryant’s Slow Freight, a tune that allows for the full range of dynamics, and melodic and rhythmic improvisations, Siers’ brushes stirring circles on his snare drum at first evoke the hiss of an idling steam engine, while Braun’s spare chords conjure a train slowly chugging up a hill. As they gradually build the tune to a crescendo, bringing to mind the roar of a runaway locomotive, and then back down to a whisper, we can see them communicating with brief glances, small nods, or quick smiles, and listen as they alternate being the engine–pulling, driving–and the caboose–riding, following.
Siers and Braun will close out 2017 with a New Year’s Eve concert at the Kerrytown Concert House. They’ve played there many times before, including a couple of previous end-of-year celebrations. Siers says, “That room is electric on that night. You walk in there, and everybody is ready!”