Mystery makes the man and his music
There is an argument to be made that Jandek's art isn't the sounds he makes so much as the mystery that surrounds them. Only the sparsest of basic information (such as his real name, which is probably but not certainly Sterling Smith) has poked its way through the 30-year curtain of silence. In a way, that might actually help make Jandek more accessible. Anybody can understand the mystique, which can't be said about the music.
At Friday's sold-out show at the Institute of Contemporary Art (his first New England appearance), the artist led three local musicians in two hours of crawling atonality drawing heavily from free jazz. Clad entirely in black and hiding behind both a music stand and a low-pulled fedora, he began by plucking what seemed to be a few bearings-gathering notes from his fretless bass.
But as Eli Keszler's clanging, clattering drums and Jorrit Dijkstra's and Greg Kelley's moaning saxophone and trumpet joined in, it soon became clear that not a note would be wasted. There was a slowness to the music, and that it had movement at all -- that it wasn't simply crystallized shards of static noise -- was thanks to Jandek's almost unwavering eighth notes, propelling the songs forward inch by inch.
The music generated a tone of almost unfathomable gloom, and he sang like someone clawing through the grips of a fevered delirium, as conversational as David Byrne but with unexpected dips and elongations. As Jandek crooned, "I can't get out/ And even when I was out/ I was still in your whirlpool," Kelley blew just enough to hear the wind (and spit) moving through his trumpet. Dijkstra would later follow suit by simply playing the air against the valves of his saxophone.
To the untrained ear, the songs all sounded the same. But Jandek does not attract untrained ears, and the audience hung on every note. Only on the final piece, where an otherwise typical love song lyric like "I don't want to win or lose/ I just want to be with you" was completely recontextualized amid the cacophony and pained delivery, did the applause arrive before the artist's bass notes died out fully. And when Jandek briefly looked, blank-faced, at the standing ovation before leaving, it was the night's lone acknowledgement of the audience's presence.