Invisible Brilliance

I’m gonna make it to heaven, light up the sky like a flame
I’m gonna live forever, baby remember my name

I was playing pool with friends on Sunday evening, and I had music on, as I always do in the pool room. About fifteen years ago, I bought a Sony 400-disc CD jukebox, which operates on the same principles as an old record jukebox: a rotating carousel of inventory that spins to the appropriate slot and lifts the correct disc out into the player. I thumbed through my printed list and chose disc 202, the flamenco guitarist Paco deLucia performing Juan Rodrigo’s 1939 Concierto de Aranjuez. Kind of normal fare for a pool room, the thing that comes between Lynyrd Skynyrd and AC/DC, right?

Anyway, it was a terrific record, one that I haven’t heard enough times, but as with all good things, it came to its end. The jukebox put 202 back into the rack and automatically advanced to 203.

Let me tell you a little bit about disc 203. The record is called “Broken Barricade,” recorded in 1993. I bought the CD for 99 cents in 1998 at the Grocery Outlet in Eureka California, over by the expired corn flakes and the pallets of ill-fated Marcus Allen sports drink. I knew nothing about the band or the music, but for a dollar, I was intrigued.

It’s one of the very best records I have.

The band, Paradox, was a project of the guitarist Yoichi Tanabe, who gathered three studio musicians—pianist Masado Matsuda, bassist Hiroki Takeda, and drummer Kozo Suganuma—to play some of his jazz compositions. And is usually the case with session players, these guys are tight! The music is precise and sharp, the solos expansive, and the pieces themselves build expectations only to subvert them and head off in a new direction. Here’s one piece, Diagram 776. It isn’t to everyone’s taste, no music ever will be. But the level of talent in composition and performance is undeniable.

At the time this was recorded, all four of them were in their late 30s, which meant that they’d each had at least 25 years of music experience. This is the level of talent that can make you an international superstar, or land you in the cutout bin.

Disc #45, “Unfinished Business” by the Bill O’Connell Big Band, came from the cutout bin. Disc #62,”Mute” from Catchers, came from the cutout bin. 102—”Milliontown,” by Frost*. 120, “In with the Out Crowd, by Grant Geissman. 173, “Lightwave,” by Tycho Brae. 187, “Take the Z Train,” by the Microscopic Septet. 193, “Sex,” by The Necks. 204, “In Process,” by Parsek. 218, “Opaque,” from Pekka Pylkkanen’s Tube Factory. 221, “Colors of the Night,” by Peter Finger. 297, “Human Condition,” from Shai oN Shai. 300, “Trombonia,” from Slidewerke. 327, The Third Ending’s self-titled record. 342, “Downtown Uproar,” by the Widespread Depression Orchestra.

There is SO MUCH outstanding work in the world that will mostly go unseen, unheard, unread. Some of my very favorite writers came originally from the cutout or used bins—Joe Coomer, Jennifer Tseng, Eugenia Kim. I have visual art from Rachel Mello, from David Munyak, from Kurt Meyer, from Aimee Lee, none of whom will ever be at the Whitney or MassMoCA but all of whom make elegant, noble work.

The musician Elvis Costello was once interviewed by NPR, and said that he was often asked by worried parents what to tell their kids who were interested in a career in music. “Make sure they’re interested in music, and not fame,” he said. “Fame can be disappointing, but music is very rarely disappointing.”

So this is my tribute to all who do brilliant, invisible work. You may not be this year’s chart-topper, but someone sees you. Someone’s life is made better by your work. And you may never know who that is.

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