I was listening to Ben Perowsky’s latest album Upstream recently. The album was originally recorded in 2014, but only released last year, and finds the drummer leading a stellar trio with keyboardist John Medesky and saxophonist Chris Speed.
One of the tracks of the album is a take on Wayne Shorter’s “Face on the Barroom Floor” – a very dark composition that the legendary jazz saxophonist wrote ans performed in a duet with the late great keyboardist Joe Zawinul.
When I asked him for a comment on the tune for a JAZZIZ Track by Track feature, Perowsky admitted that while his drum teacher Bobby Thomas was a good friend of Shorter’s, he never heard the story behind this particular title.
While listening to the particular arrangement on Upstream, I recalled a Chaplin film from 1914 of the same name. The film was based on a poem of the same name by Hugh Antoine d’Arcy and finds Chaplin’s tramp drinking himself to oblivion, heartbroken with having lost the woman he loved – though he had courted her by pretending to be someone he wasn’t (a wealthy man).
What always got me about this film is that it’s not as funny so much as it is sad. And that melancholic sadness, I hear in Shorter’s composition. It rings equally true in the reimagining of the tune presented on Upstream.
Whether or not Shorter had Chaplin’s film (or d’Arcy’s poem) in mind while writing this tune, there is an everyday tragedy evoked by the title “Face on the Barroom” floor that hints at a universal theme of overcoming loss and heartbreak. It is an emotional sense that we can probably all relate to. And further proof that all art is connected, whether consciously or not, by the profound existance of human connection.