Deadbeatniks and live jazz

Tuesday, 4 September 2007 — 2:02am | Jazz, Music

I don’t like writing obituaries—not just for the obvious reason that it’s generally unappealing to write about dead people all the time, but primarily because there are too many people out there who make an impact on our lives or culture, however large or small. Somebody important—distant, personal, or somewhere in between—is going to die every week, maybe even every day.

That said, I received the news of Doug Riley’s passing with profound regret. (That’s Hammond B3 master Doug Riley to you, mister. And he’s no slouch at the pianner either.) And wherefore regret? It’s quite simple: he played in Edmonton so often, but I never took the opportunity to see him. I’ve certainly heard him on CBC’s jazz programmes often enough to revere his acumen as one of our country’s premier keyboardists, but it’s not quite the same thing.

The experience of a live jazz concert differs from recorded music in a way that is, in my reckoning, quite different from how most other genres operate. Perhaps the most instructive testament to this, or at least, the one freshest in my memory, is the modern jazz legend I did see: guitarist Bill Frisell, who played with his trio in Calgary last Thursday in the delightful venue that is Quincy’s on Seventh.

What do we get out of live concerts, anyway?

If it’s the symphony, be it with a classical repertoire or a contemporary one, we get a level of audio fidelity that no home theatre speaker system is yet capable of duplicating. A symphony orchestra is still too big for a compact disc, and seeing it in a capable concert hall is like seeing an original painting in person as opposed to a print; you really do get a full appreciation of every stroke and every nuance in the available soundspace. With the symphony, you reap the benefits of the price of admission almost wholly in the appreciation of the music itself.

If it’s with something like a rock concert, or another popular act—well, I can’t quite speak to this, having only been to a few big tickets, but there’s the volume level, the party environment provided by the gathering of all the fans in one place, and the theatricality of the stage production.

There’s also the inherent appeal in seeing a certain individual or band in person, especially with music that is performer-centric, as opposed to composer-centric (which is what classical music is for the majority of undiscerning attendees, or patrons who do not have access to so many symphony orchestras that they can easily compare and contrast). In a way, the live experience delivers an illusion of intimacy—or maybe not an illusion at all, if you really are in the centre of the front row and about two metres away from Josh Groban, as I was last month thanks to the efforts of my groupie mother.

It does get to the point where the experience becomes all about the party and the production, of course, as it does in the sort of pop music where the performers get away with lip-syncing and the music is indistinguishable from that on the albums, apart from being louder. But that’s outside the domain of music I respect enough to discuss, so let’s ignore that.

As an aside, I do wonder what the Beatles would have been like had they not ceased to perform live concerts when producing their later albums, which set the precedent for the degree to which audio editing and production is a fixture in most recorded music today. Perhaps it would have sounded something like Let It Be… Naked, much of which I prefer to the Phil Spector’d original release. I’m not the sort of person who believes acoustic or “reproducible live” music to be inherently superior, in spite of my personal preference for playing acoustic instruments, but I do insist that when it comes to a live concert, I’m actually getting my money’s worth, and there’s some live music performance going on.

How does jazz fit into all this?

Well, it’s certainly not the only genre of music that incorporates improvisation, but the art of improvisation constitutes jazz to such an extent that the music you hear in a live concert really does only happen once. You may hear it again on a concert recording, and you may watch it on YouTube (which is how I’ve seen many long-dead greats at work), but that same music will never get created in quite the same way. And unlike most other genres, those differences are major. When you see live jazz, you are watching a spontaneous act of creation, and not just a performance.

Beyond that, jazz musicians tend to behave very differently in a live setting than they do in a studio recording.

I speculate that generally, people prefer to buy (or in this day and age, download) studio recordings over recordings of live concerts. Without stray ambient noise or applause between tracks, you can shuffle through your playlist and preserve a certain continuity and purity that you wouldn’t get with the tracks in a concert recording. In other words, you can filter out the extramusical “noise” from the “signal,” which is an interesting tendency in itself—see John Cage’s 4’33” for details.

For the most part, concert recordings are meant to be listened to as complete experiences from beginning to end. I wouldn’t expect people who relegate music recordings to an ambient background to have the predisposition for that kind of listening experience, or the patience.

When it comes to jazz, which I tend to parse as a resolutely “foreground” music, I’ve actually come to prefer concert albums, complete with applause and clinking glasses. This isn’t because I go out of my way to embrace “noise” à la Cage. It’s because the solos are longer and more daring. They make studio recordings seem constrained and oddly well-behaved by comparison. Jazz is often at its best when it dispenses with discipline to reach the heights of ecstasy that demand interaction with and a response from a live audience, and it really shows in the music. It’s in a live concert, or a recording thereof, that the musicians will explore a tune for ten to fifteen minutes, and the band as a whole will sustain a genuinely unpredictable internal dialogue and turn it into a fully formed conversation.

For the sake of comparison, consider how a journalist might write in a blog as opposed to a newspaper. A newspaper article is concise, easy to follow and more immediately palatable. A blog post—hyperlinked and unconstrained by word counts or policies on content or style—may be a tad messier and not quite as accessible to new readers, but it has the potential to be far more rewarding, as it provides the writer greater license to stretch out and take risks.

I am not claiming that a studio session is by necessity too constrained; after all, only in the context of a studio recording could John Coltrane have overdubbed his own band to create a septet finale at the end of the “Psalm” in A Love Supreme. What I am saying, instead, is that a live setting provides a certain rapturous freedom that the best jazz artists are all too happy to appropriate.

And at long last, that brings me to Bill Frisell.

In his concert at Quincy’s, Frisell’s trio often played for well over half an hour at a time without interruption, flowing seamlessly between entire idioms of music. There are medleys, there are suites, and then there are the full-fledged tableaux that manage to unify a history of ideas into a continuous evolutionary process. Frisell went for the tableaux. He’d strum away at a bluegrass dirge for however long, and then through some curious metamorphosis, he’d play with his loops and distortions and multifarious electronic effects to carry the audience into the space age, then wind up swinging over a standard or laying down the funk.

What the trio ended up conveying was a dreamscape of sorts: like any great dream, you’d be caught up in the ecstasy of a given moment with no recollection of how you got there or where you were last, but you would possess an unshakable, residual certitude that you got there smoothly, and wherever it was you were last was wonderful.

Sure, it’s easy for one musician alone to meander from one extended idea to the next and make it sound like it was all on a whim, whether it was or not, but for a band to do it so cohesively—now that requires the kind of telepathy that makes a live jazz combo resemble a posse of magicians.

When Frisell finally stopped for applause at the conclusion of his last ambulatory adventure, he topped it off with a gentle rendering of “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” and tagged his double curtain call with that sweetest of Beach Boys tunes, “Surfer Girl.” Like I said: magic.

I have to add a word or two about the excellent opening band, Calgary’s very own Aaron Young and his trio. They were more straightforward in presentation, playing and introducing one tune at a time with a definite beginning, middle and end as opposed to Frisell’s meiotic intermezzi, but they were at the top of their game. It’s been fashionable for jazz musicians to fool around with time signatures since Dave Brubeck did it with Time Out back in 1959, but Young has a natural feel for rhythmic asymmetry. When he played “All the Things You Are” in seven and “Norwegian Wood” in five, it never sounded forced or overly technical—and part of it was because of how well the solos spilled over the barlines and still managed to fit, one of those skills that every serious jazz musician aspires to master.

The hurdle, I think, is to truly internalize the character of the given metre to the point where there’s no longer any need to count. Most people, musicians or otherwise, don’t need to constantly count a simple time like 3/4 or 4/4 any more than they need to think “left foot, right foot” while walking; the beats are just there.

I regrettably didn’t have the opportunity to see any of the other acts in the C-Jazz Carnivale, but I hope the support for festivals like this in Calgary only grows from here—if only because I’m eager to see who they bring in next year, both locally and from abroad.

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