i lost a dear dear friend and primary musical co-conspirator almost two weeks ago. Jonathan Nocera, known to most of us as JP, spent over a year battling brain cancer. i’m extraordinarily grateful that I saw him two days before he passed. and he knew what was coming, so we got to say our goodbyes. he left gracefully, peacefully, bravely. and on that last visit, he was still cracking me up, schooling me about music and offering up heavy encouragement, love and support.
i don’t know where to begin. JP and i met in college. he’s the deepest musician with the biggest ears of anyone i’ve ever met. drummer/ sound engineer, Jim Bertini (our friend, the drummer on my album and JP’s platonic other half) said, at the memorial something along the lines of this– he knew how to be your voice, to musically say exactly what you wanted. JP’s the one who convinced me to release my album for real, and it was the first release on his independent label, Proliferate Music. he also played guitar on it, on everything else i could get him to play on. seriously, any project i could imagine doing, of any genre, he’d be the right guy.
he spent many nights in school upstate crashing on my couch off-campus, and i spent many nights in the city crashing on his parents’ couch in greenwich village. we’d stay up all night talking and deep deep listening to music until the sun came up.
we went to see Ornette Coleman together. and John Zorn’s Cobra. he introduced me to an absurd amount of music, and knew how to play just the right track at just the right moment to hook me in. Acid Mother’s Temple, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, Black Sabbath, Derek Bailey, Steve Lacy, all kinds of Japanese noise music, dub reggae, and high life… i think at least half of my itunes library is from him.
soon after he was diagnosed (and was already having a hard time playing,) he invited Scrap Relation over to his place. (that’s the band i played in with him most and most recently– with Zach Dunham on drums and Alex Carter on sax.) he made us him famous spicy and perfectly aldente pasta with tomato sauce and mushrooms (one of two things he could cook,) and schooled us on noise music. i just found his email inviting us over which says: “I’ve even fashioned a 2 CD noise mix designed to provide context (ALEX!!!!) of the various scenes, from academic to primitive, analog to digital, rock to jazz, ambient to downright hateful.” i love this because it’s so perfectly JP. he could rage so hard- stay up all night drinking and smoking and he came up on Black Sabbath. and he was also an intellectual, philosopher, a self-taught and down-to-earth musical academic. and, as i reminded him, one of the few people who could successfully interrupt me in a debate!
JP taught me a lot about how to take yourself seriously (but not too seriously!) how to be brave and calm and open. and when i played music with JP, i did things i didn’t know i was capable of. and when he played my music, it became something much larger than my wildest dreams. when i saw him before he left i said– look, the past year you haven’t been able to play and it’s been so hard for me to write music without you. “write for me anyway,” he said, “and you’ll find people to play it.”
i spoke to one of our mentors, pianist/ composer John Esposito on the phone after JP died. John also lost a dear friend and musical inspiration when he was young, Arthur Rhames. and in classes with John, he always made sure we knew about Arthur, heard his music. John’s constant tribute to Arthur, decades after his death, is a reminder of what i can and will do. i hope John doesn’t mind if i share this, it’s from an email he sent me, he writes:
“You don’t get over the loss of people like JP or Arthur. They have a big impact on our lives not so much because they teach us but because they give us the opportunity to find the best in ourselves when we aspire to work at their level. Once you’ve done that you know how to do it forever and you don’t need them to do it with but you sure do miss them and their spirit. But then its on us to have that kind of spirit and that’s the part of them that stays alive in the world, even more than the CDs and written compositions.”
right now, i’m walking around with a deep sadness in my body. because it never occurred to me that JP would stop physically being here to guide me, interrupt me and listen so hard. because i wanted to hear all the new shit he was going to make. but i know John’s right too, that JP’s spirit is something i will never ever shake, something i will continue to turn to for inspiration, guidance and that push to be better than i knew i was capable of being.
i could say so much about JP. there are so many stories. and i’m fixating on the strangest things right now. like the crazy shit he’d order at a diner– fries with onions, a layer of mozzarella on top, then a fried egg, and a layer of swiss, all piled high. or his hilariously on-point Pearl Jam impressions. or this big debate we got into about the politics of relief work in New Orleans when we were just getting to know each other. or a text he sent me while i was on tour about how i was living the dream and he couldn’t wait for me to come home so he could show me that he found out-of-print albums where Derek Bailey and Steve Lacy played together…
but the last advice he gave me, and the other visitors who got to see him as he was saying goodbyes his last week or so, was to “Keep it weird.”
and he left behind some amazing, weird sounds. he knew it too; when i saw him last he told me he was proud of the music he’d made. so, enough words for now. just listen. JP left us with so much. here’s the smallest bit of it.
Scrap Relation playing Ornette Coleman’s WRU:
Scrap Relation again, this piece is called Transubstantiation in Small Town America. JP wrote it after having an epically creepy dream:
this is from a project the 2 of us did with Daniel Fishkin, who plays daxophone. it was our own version of John Zorn, George Lewis and Bill Frisell’s News for Lulu album. “Lotus Blossom” by Kenny Dorham:
here’s an improv that Zach Dunham and i did with JP. Zach and i can’t stop listening to this one:
i am a huge fan of StickLips, a band that JP co-founded. he put so much into this album, if you haven’t heard it, you should:
okay, i’m going to put this here because i don’t know where else to put it. JP was making music until the very end. the last few weeks, Jim came over a couple times and JP was telling him things to put into the music notation program, Sibelius. that kind of blows my mind. and months earlier, in the thick of his battle with cancer, JP invited myself, Zach and Monroe Street to come over and improvise with him. it was when he still had a little use of his hands. not enough to play guitar, but he was making some electronic music (which he’d always done anyway.) he had just come out of a shitty stay in the hospital’s ICU and when he got home, he prepared some sounds that reminded him of what he’d heard while stuck there. so he sat at the computer and the three of us came with a guitar, and some percussion objects (i got particularly attached to the metal bowl) and he asked us to make sounds with him about what he was going through. it was an honor and a cathartic experience for sure. unsurprisingly, what came out is intense, so be forewarned. here’s some of what happened:
when i saw JP last, we talked about my record. the way he believed in it means so much to me. he impressed to me, not for the first time, that his favorite track was “More Like Us.” which always surprised and pleased me. it’s the piece i’m still most nervous about. it feels deeply personal, controversial, confessional. it’s my attempt to make music about race, and specifically whiteness, which feels daunting and urgent, still. i love that he loved this piece. it makes me think a lot about the kind of bravery i want to have as a performer, and the way JP understood that. so here’s video from my cd release concert of us performing that piece. obviously the cd has better sound-quality. but i want there to be a moving, breathing JP represented in this post. i love the small, perfect solo he takes at the end, make sure you hear that. here’s the footage, in 2 parts:
JP left instructions that his memorial be on a boat with a New Orleans-style brass band and an open bar! He clearly wanted us to celebrate his life, rather than mourn it. this is just a start. there will be many many more tributes to JP. honoring him is an everyday practice.