Hearing, more than smell, brings (my) memories to life

I know. I know. It is widely assumed and believed that smell is the strongest sense tied to memory. But for me (and a handful of musicians that I spoke to), music – in some cases even just a few bars of a song –  can draw upon some of the most powerful memories in a persons life.

It has been an interesting month for me, for a variety of reasons, some good and some less than. Everyone has months like mine. Certainly the events are unique to each persons life, but similar where a variety of things go on, and regardless of whether or not they are all positive, the mere quantity of them can be overwhelming.

Through it all and along the way, music has seemed to fall into my lap as if it was intentional, triggering a variety of powerful memories, stronger than any smell could ever offer.

When the thought came in my head to write about this, I decided to ask some jazz friends their thoughts on the topic, and what music takes them back to a point in their life.

“I think recordings are a bit like scents. You may not experience a smell for years… say, the faint smell of your high school auditorium… and you wouldn’t even remember that it exists, except that when you’re exposed to it again, all the memories come rushing back. For me it’s not so much a particular song as a particular recording – the particular combination of musicians and how they hooked up that day and what little figures they improvised.

The John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman album has that quality for me. The whole album. Sophomore year in college was a very melancholic time for me. I broke up with my first real girlfriend and was doing a lot of soul-searching. I poured that intensity into how I listened to music, and I listened to a lot, probably to no recording more than Coltrane & Hartman.

That whole album has such a cohesive vibe that it more or less effects me as a whole … though I suppose if I had to choose one standout track it might be Lush Life. I’ve listened to the album periodically since, so it doesn’t invoke quite the same *surprise* rush of memory that it used to, but it remains supercharged with that larger-than-life emotional intensity I associated with it.

And there’s the song that I wrote for my wife and played at our wedding ceremony. I never recorded it. I’ve performed it a small handful of times. More often than not I’ve had to fight off tears when I do. In fact, I cried some while I was writing it at the piano, and I cried playing it at the wedding. I suppose you could say it has some emotional memories attached!”

– Saxophonist Anton Schwartz

I also heard from Taylor Eigsti…

“Well for me, the music most tied to my memory is not jazz. But as far as jazz songs go, my favorite, and the one that makes me pretty emotional every time I hear it, is Nancy Wilson / Cannonball “The Masquerade is Over”. I think that’s the single most beautiful track ever recorded – in my opinion, the closest thing to perfection in recorded form. Can’t get through it with dry eyes, ever. ”

– Pianist Taylor Eigsti

…and from Grace Kelly.

“When I hear Desafinado done with Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz it really resonates with me. I grew up listening to Stan Getz as a kid around the sounds and would sing along to his solos not even knowing it! When I hear this song I remember being at home, happy as a button and just chilling around the kitchen as a little kid.”

– Saxophonist Grace Kelly

I think that some of the key points made by these wonderful musicians can be the most true when it comes to most people. A particular song can trigger thoughts of a relationship, childhood, beauty, pain, or simply just a deep appreciation for the overwhelming importance of the recording itself and the first time that someone heard it, whether it is jazz or not.

Dorothy by Dr. John is a song that I not only found timelessly beautiful the first time I heard it, but it is also a song that I am not allowed to play when a certain person is around because of a completely different emotional attitude that she has towards it. The Dave Matthews/Tim Reynolds live album (while not jazz) became sort of a summer anthem for me in my 20’s, and always takes me back to the treks from Seattle to Spokane for college.

I remember not being able to get the shrink-wrap off of Michael Brecker’s Pilgrimage quick enough, after hearing for months what genius Michael had contributed to this recording while his body was being ravaged with cancer. I remember breaking down in tears in the production studio of the radio station listening to it realizing that all of the hype was correct, and I still can’t believe that the music world is without him.

I remember Basie’s version of One O’clock Jump live at Newport in 1957 being my first inspiration to becoming a real musician, Freddie Hubbard’s Birdlike making me want to become better, and Arturo Sandoval’s A Mis Abuelos demonstrating to me what I would never be able to do on the trumpet, but what only one man could.

Bach’s Mass in B Minor takes me to a German cathedral where I first heard it while studying abroad in college. Talk about the ultimate emotional surround sound. The cheesy international pop hit Macarena by Los del Rio will always take me back to a mission trip I took to Ivanhoe, Calif., in high school where the song played on a local radio station over the loudspeaker around the clock. It didn’t seem to get old while sitting in the orange groves, soaking up the sun, eating fresh fruit.

I remember seeing Brad Mehldau live on solo piano. Just him and the piano, no wires, no amplification. After a virtuosic set in a beautiful room on a stunning piano, he came out to perform his final encore, Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. While the song is a tune embedded with nostalgia in the lyrics alone, I had never thought a whole lot of it. Mehldau’s down-tempo, thoughtful, complex interpretation was probably the most touching version of another musicians’ tune that I had ever heard. On the drive back from Seattle to Tacoma from the concert, it was 30 minutes into the commute before it struck me that the radio was off, and I had been repeating Mehldau’s final 8 bars of that song over and over in my head the entire drive. His timing, his chord construction, his touch was perfect, and I will never hear Paul Simon’s voice again when thinking of that song. Just those eight bars.

Love, childhood, road trips, friends. I find it safe to say that there is not a person out there that does not have a song that has triggered a powerful memory from the past. And I will make that claim that these triggered memories via sound are far more powerful than any odor or fragrance could ever inspire. But then again, maybe I just have a bad sense of smell.

7 comments on “Hearing, more than smell, brings (my) memories to life

  1. Robin Lloyd

    I’m cursed with an excellent sense of smell, Kevin, and I’m probably the least sentimental person you know, but for me, too, it truly is the connection to hearing music that brings that rush of memories, good or bad.
    Thanks for a great post!

  2. Dave Ansel

    Great post! I’ve often said my music collection is the story of my life. Don’t care if iris jazz, classical or a form of past popular music. So much of the music I own can be related back to an personal experience be it great or small.

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