On Jazz: Long Live Live Music

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Recorded jazz music has its place, and there is also a historical need for good clear recordings in any music collection. Live recordings can capture a time, the ambience of a space and atmosphere. With recordings, you can experience the same thing again, again and again. At a live experience, on the other hand, you will never repeat the exact moment again. Even live recordings cannot capture the looks exchanged, the breaths and atmosphere of a live performance.

Live events also have clear knock-on effects, too. Up close and personal jazz spaces, which the U.K. and Europe are generously endowed with, capture the vibe and engage the audience. There are, of course, larger halls where the musicians are separated from their audience by physical placement, barriers or having separate entrances and places to eat, drink, smoke or gather – yet there are also spaces like that of Cafe Oto, the Vortex and the 606 Club and Smalls, where you are sharing the same space. This makes interaction easier, more natural and gives everyone a sense of being part of an event. It makes people feel connected and makes for new connections.

When I curated the London Jazz Platform in June 2017, 13 acts from different genres of jazz performed one after the other. There were big bands, smaller bands, varied combos and soloists and the audience comprised members of the public, producers, writers and photographers –
some of whom were guests and others who came along out of interest. Having so many acts together with these people meant connections took place. Two players who had not recorded together for many years met and decided to go into the studio and make some new recordings. One had a booking at London’s 606 club, and after the event so many of the other musicians agreed to go along and support him that he got a repeat booking.

Meridian FM made recordings at the gig and shared not only the music but the opinions of the musicians and audience with listeners, and the musicians formed new connections with each other, discussing future projects and events. There are other live events such as the regular Mopomoso performances in London curated by the improvising guitar player John Russell which encourage improvising musicians to get together, create gigs, workshops and events, as well as engage in live sessions. Fete Quaqua, also curated by John Russell, is an annual jazz event which takes place over three days with workshops, live performances and projects staged by invited guests, and audience participation at some is definitely encouraged. The event is designed, as Russell says, “to provide a fertile ground for free improvisation, strengthening existing ties and making new ones free improvisation.”

Live events can alter your perceptions, too. I recently watched a band live who I had heard on CD and vinyl before, thinking they sounded fine – but live they were excellent, because you could feel the energy and vibe, see the dancing around, watch the interactions which were missed in the studio or even live recordings. Occasionally, a live event engages people who would not normally go to see a particular genre. I have enjoyed folk and opera music live, although I probably would not have listened to it much before. Performances of shows or opera, where you watch the action at the same time as listening to the music are far better and more engaging than simply hearing it.

Live, you literally feel the musical vibrations. The thundering of the drums, the deep, guttural rumble of a double bass create vibrations which dissipate through the floor and your body; this is unlikely to happen when you listen at home. When you see a double bass plucked, banged, tweaked, bowed and used as percussion, each different vibration goes through you in a different way – making it real and more interesting. No matter how good the recording equipment or the system on which it is played, nothing which can quite capture the resonance and tone of instruments like the contrabass saxophone, soprano saxophone or bassoon.

Of course, recordings also miss the spontaneity and truth of a live performance. By the time even a live recording reaches your ears via audio equipment, it has been changed into signals which are changed back to sounds. Live, you sense the nearness of those surrounding you, you can smell people and other things, you see visual signals and body language. Spontaneity, which happens at live jazz gigs, is lost in a recording. There might be someone sneaking in late, or out early, a group may start grinning, clapping, dancing. Recordings will miss the delight on someone’s face when the music hits that sweet spot.

Perhaps what live recordings miss completely is the energy flow, especially from musicians to audience and back, which happens at live gigs. Life itself generates that energy wave, and it is transient and cannot be captured. Live events do mean committing time and often money, but the price is worth the unique experience. The sound quality at jazz venues can vary, and if you are a stickler to purity of sound, then audio equipment can help but this is improving as more venues upgrade their systems.

Of course, this is an experience often better shared with people who enjoy the same kind of music. It may be hard to find someone to go with, especially if they are paying for an event where the genre is not something they would normally try. However, there are now organizations like Jazz Meetups where, for a token joining fee, you can arrange to connect with other people who are going to an event. Social interaction is also what makes live music great, because you have a commonality with others present. Sometimes, cameras, phones and tablets floating about at head level, interfering with your view of the live performance can be annoying, but it is worth bearing with that.

One thing about live music is, it reflects what is happening at this moment: The changes and refractions caused by society are echoed at a live gig far more effectively than in a recording. That is not to detract from the importance of recorded music. The instant a moment is recorded, whether in the studio or live event, it becomes historical, recorded, documented and this can be important too. At a live gig, you listen in the here and now. There is an intimacy in live events which is very different from when it’s just you and a piece of recorded jazz. With live performances, of course, you can’t edit mistakes and the reaction of musicians to their mistakes, or the mistakes of others. That is also part of the experience. There is often a curse and a retry or they just carry on, or the rest of the musicians enjoy a bit of banter at the expense of the musician who made the mistake.

One thing live music cannot do is bring back jazz musicians who have passed on, and it is important to hear the true masters of any genre if there are recordings of them playing. So if you want to hear Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Alvin Ayler or a whole host of other greats, recorded music has its place. You may hear more recent recordings or tribute acts or musicians covering the originals, but for the real sound the only way now is the recordings they left behind.

So, recorded music is important for many reasons, including that of generating an income for jazz labels who continue to support recording artists and music – and without whom no documentation would take place – but the experience of music live probably edges it over recorded in many ways. It is vital to support live venues, and the playing of spontaneous music. Many musicians have told me they understand the importance of recordings, but for most of them live playing is the way to go – and it’s how they prefer to play.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein
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