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Nobody seems to notice as Dave Marcellin walks up to the stage at Sambuca (909 Texas, 713-224-5299) and settles in at the grand piano. Thin, with a bit of grey sneaking into his beard, the Trinidad transplant has been a staple on the local jazz scene for a long time, first as a musician and music teacher, then as co-founder and part owner of the Red Cat Jazz Café, and now as a musician again.
The rest of his trio, Al Campbell on bass and Vernon Daniels on drums, are right behind him. No one pays them any attention. Everyone is either enthralled by the game on the television at the bar or digging into their salads in the dining room. It's just me, sitting on a bar stool by the side of the stage, ready for the show. I've seen Marcellin before, I know what's coming. I know that this, right here, right now, is as good as jazz gets in Houston.
Marcellin starts off with a meandering intro to a Stevie Wonder tune, solo. The drummer pulls out his brushes while he and the bass player wait for Marcellin to nod them in. Behind me a shout erupts from the crowd. Someone must have made a touchdown or homerun or whatever it's the season for. I shake my head at the lack of interest my fellow Houstonians are so proudly showing in live music and reach for my drink. Onstage Marcellin brings in the rest of his trio, and they're making Stevie sound sweeter than ever. The bass player, on a five-string, is playing low on the neck, and the drummer is brushing the top of his snare like it's made of silk. I'm in heaven.
I'm also the only one who's listening. Marcellin and his friends go on, as if they were playing to a standing-room-only crowd of happy fans. When I clap at the end of the song, some folks at the bar look over at me, confused. I can hear them thinking: "What the hell's she clapping for? The game's on a commercial." I'll make my own game, I decide. I'll be the only one in the bar who doesn't watch the television. But I hesitate. What if everyone else in the bar plays too and ignores the band?
Onstage the bass player asks if I have any requests. "They Can't Take That Away from Me," I tell him. As Marcellin starts it off, I recognize the melody but just barely. In his hands, it sounds bold, geometric and abstract, not romantic or sentimental, like it's always played. Eight bars in, I've forgotten every other version I've ever heard. He's twisting and stretching it, making it more, making it less, always keeping the original tune within easy reach, but keeping his distance, too. Halfway through, Marcellin, Campbell and Daniels are each doing something different, in unison. I clap after Campbell's solo, not caring if the crowd at the bar notices. He does more on a bass with five strings than most guys do on a guitar with six.
It goes on like that for the rest of the set. Just me listening, and Marcellin playing like I was the best audience he ever had. At the break, he comes over and says "thank you."
"You know, a lot of bands would see a crowd like this, where everybody is ignoring them, and they would coast through the set," I tell him. "Why don't you?"
"Coast? Who? Where are those guys? I don't know them." He feigns surprise, but I know them. Before I can start naming names, he goes on, "If it's 12 or 1,200 people in the place, we play just the same. We play for the spirits, and the spirits, they are always at work, they are always listening.
"These guys and me, we've been playing together for 20 years, and sometimes we'll talk and philosophize, whatever. We say the music is incessant. If you drop a pebble in a pond, you see the circles it makes around it. Those circles will never stop, they go on forever. When you play music, you have to spiritually get to where you respect every sound you play as being incessant -- it affects the suns, the spirits hear you. If you can get to that, then nothing else matters.
"On off days, like today, a Wednesday, I know these people don't give a shit about the music. They here pressing the flesh, having a good time, talking and whatever. So I just have fun with the guys. I put the spirit on the people and make them be entertained whether they know it or not. Maybe they don't pay attention, but everybody ends up having a beautiful evening, so it don't matter."
Marcellin is being kind, listening to the spirits who tell him not to demean the people who share his profession. I either don't have the same spirits or I'm deaf, because I'm always ready to call lazy musicians lazy, but I don't argue with him. After that rendition of "They Can't Take That Away From Me," I'm sure he hears lots of things I'm deaf to.
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