The musical life of Emily Remler
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Who can deny it? From time to time, we all worry whether ours is a life well lived1. Almost as proof that this is not an uncommon worry, there is no dearth of advice on how we can make our lives better and more fulfilling. For some, it is by making a bucket list2 and then proceeding to check every item off it. For others, it is to try and do in 6 months what you may have imagined would take you 10 years to do. For the sage among us, it is by striving for the best, accepting the worst and not worrying about things beyond your control. No doubt, these are all worthy methods to pursue, but it is never as simple as being comfortably settled in deliberate pursuit of your chosen method. Pardon the philosophising, but I often wonder what it would have been like for jazz guitarist, Emily Remler, who made a definite impression on the jazz world despite her very short musical career.
I discovered Remler through Wes Montgomery. I first heard Montgomery about 15 years ago. But lately I had been listening to a lot of his music again. I was listening to a radio program — an NPR jazz profile — on Montgomery when I heard the host refer to Remler as one of Montgomery’s direct descendents, alongside guitarists George Benson and Pat Martino. Then there was an interview clip of Remler herself on air, gushing with admiration for Montgomery’s music, his sense of timing and his sensitivity. Later I checked the playlist of the radio program. I was not surprised to find that all but two songs were Montgomery recordings and one of those was a clip of Montgomery’s hero, guitarist Charlie Christian. But what I was surprised to find was that the other song although a Montgomery composition called Movin’ Along, was actually played by a 24 year old Emily Remler from her debut album Firefly. I hadn’t even been able to tell her apart from Montgomery!
I searched for her recordings and I picked to listen to her album East to Wes whose title was obviously a tribute to Montgomery. I had understood that she wasn’t alive since I had heard the host refer to her as “the late Emily Remler” in the NPR profile on Montgomery. But I didn’t think that it was a remarkable fact. Many jazz greats are no longer alive. I had East to Wes on heavy rotation and I just loved it. Unlike Movin’ Along in Firefly where Remler arguably sounds quite a bit like Montgomery, in East to Wes she sounds much more distinctive. Yet you can sense that she uses rhythm well and constructs her improvisations with sensitivity never letting her technique overpower the music — qualities that she so admired in Montgomery. Then I read her biography and was shocked to learn that she died at the age of 32!
Death is difficult. Even a stranger’s death gives us pause. For a moment, we put ourselves in the shoes of the near and dear ones of the deceased, and it is hard not to feel the pain. Celebrity demises have been known to cause massive distress. It has been argued quite eloquently3, that fans have every right to feel devastated and mourn the death of their heroes, even though they are often complete strangers. But a death that is so clearly premature forces us to rationalise it in some way. It inspires brave generalisations like “only the good die young” and grim clubs like the “27 club” of musicians who died at 27. Attempts have also been made to suggest a “32 club” of musicians or of celebrities too. Given that jazz is not so big with the masses, it is not surprising that Remler has unfortunately been left out. Then there are the circumstances surrounding her death. Her demise itself was caused by heart failure on account of the drugs she was addicted to at the time. Haven’t we heard this just so many times — how drugs have claimed the life of a musician or an artist?
And yet rather than remembering what Remler succumbed to, it is more worthwhile to remember what she endured and surpassed. Her journey4 as a jazz instrumentalist of the wrong gender and her immense show of strength in overcoming it are inspirational even today. As a woman guitarist, Remler encountered musicians and teachers who assumed she would have poor timing, that she would play soft, that they would have to accommodate her playing. Rather than get bogged down by it, she swore “to get so good that you surpass it”. For instance, she practiced obsessively with the metronome to hone her sense of timing. She had posters of her favorite jazz instrumentalists on her wall, and she learned their music with an equal fervour. Each hero would last about a year, although “Wes lasted two years”.
With Firefly, Remler’s career was off to a good start. Although her technique and musicality is on display, the Montgomery influence is quite strong too. This has elicited reviewers to remark that Firefly though “recorded in 1981, it sounds like it could have been recorded in 19615.” After a few more albums, Remler went on to collaborate with the jazz legend Larry Coryell on an album titled “Together” in 1985. In a fascinating interview that she and Coryell gave to Ben Sidran in the Talking Jazz series, you can hear the knowledgeable and faultlessly courteous Sidran, the self-assured demeanour of the legendary Coryell and contrast that with a young, charming and intelligent Remler. In many ways, the interview mirrors the sound of the album Together — Coryell with his more intense style, Remler with her sensitive sound but equally rich musically, and how they complement each other as rhythm guitarists when the other leads. Then in 1988, she recorded “East to Wes” which for me really establishes Remler in her own right. Just listen to “Hot House” from East to Wes and see how she swings through the furious tempo while still sounding almost laid-back!
In the short span of less than 10 years, Remler took Montgomery’s torch and carried it forward while also giving it her own identity. We can only wonder at what might have been, had she lived and played longer. Just when she had overcome the hurdles of gender bias, technique and the long shadows of her heroes, and begun to form her own voice, it all ended so abruptly. So, was hers a life well lived? Today, it seems that our lives are so much about output than input — about the things that we display rather than about the things that we absorb. Remler’s career was tragically cut short with the result that she did not produce the output that was so obviously within her musical reach. Yet I think she got more out of her life by absorbing her life experiences, learning from them and just harnessing them into her music. That was the musical life of Emily Remler — short and bittersweet, but very much well lived!
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Helen Fawkes of the BBC writes about how learning she had terminal ovarian cancer prompted her to make what she calls “A list for living”. It is an inspiring story written in 2013, made even more poignant by the fact that she passed away in 2017. ↩
Samir Chopra of the City University of New York writes at ESPNCricinfo about how the death of a cricketer who was a complete stranger to him, still stirred the pain in his heart. Of course, we are all human but more than that, we form symbolic connections over endeavours of mutual interest, whether it is sports, arts or any other field. The death of a fellow human connected with that field of human endeavour diminishes it and stirs real hurt within us. ↩
Tzvi Gluckin of Premier Guitar magazine writes a wonderful, touching story covering the early years and the maturing of Emily Remler, only for her musical career to be abruptly cut short by her demise. ↩
Alex Henderson at All Music reviews Firefly. While he acknowledges Remler’s immense talent and unfulfilled potential, he is somewhat reserved in his praise of the album itself and even somewhat condescending to call it dated - by 20 years. ↩