Missing the Sound of Surprise
It’s hardly the most urgent question raised by a global pandemic, (writes Jon Turney), but, you know, I do have time just now…. So, what’s a jazz lover to do when live music suddenly stops?
In forty years, I’ve been to a ton of mediocre gigs. Pre-lockdown I thought I’d got cooler about actually going out now there is so much other access to music. But now the habit feels hard to do without. The best ones offer things the finest recordings can’t match. They yield improvised moments of collective joy that have everyone in the room, players and audience alike, feeling elevated: aesthetically, emotionally; even spiritually. For a punter, like me, who cannot execute any music worth hearing, live playing that scales such heights is a special pleasure. It’s as close as I can get to one of the things that make human beings seem worth knowing as a species. Every now and again, without ever touching strings or keys, I feel I have assisted in the smallest possible way in an act of genuine creativity.
Is there any point looking for that during lockdown? It’s surely not easy to find. You can deepen appreciation of favourite recordings, but still miss that extra buzz. Streaming is taking off, but doesn’t quite do what I want now it’s all unaccompanied playing. (It’s been endearing this last couple of weeks watching musicians doing the solo-set-from-my-front-room thing on dodgy Facebook video, trying to get comfortable with an invisible audience, and mostly not quite managing it yet. They ought to attract social media huzzahs, but not reviews, I think. The only decent thing to say to each is: “Thanks so much for doing that; please point me to your PayPal button”.)
Then there’s almost limitless concert footage on youtube. Can any of that get near to filling the gap left by the emptiness of live stages? I’m trying to figure out some selection rules there.
I want something well-shot. Not necessarily the kind of extreme close-up you can get in the typical small jazz club. But at least to be able to see all the players, and catch how they are interacting. There needs to be a sense of the audience, too, and not just a leader smiling out into the darkness of a concert hall and remarking amiably that they can’t see anyone. You need to get something of the listeners reacting to the music, and vice versa.
The sound needs to be good, too, of course – sure, jazz is about the feeling but a lot of the feeling is in the details, sometimes the smallest ones. Then, for habitués of contemporary live jazz, I reckon it’s best to have something recent, ideally a band who still tour, perhaps playing fresh material. After that it’s harder to define what works.But the best videos have a quality – an immediacy, perhaps an intimacy, a special kind of presence – that, like the best live music, you know when you see it. It is partly to do with moments, or even whole episodes, where you sense no-one quite knows what is going to happen next, goes with that, and reap the musical rewards hard to access any other way.
Tick all those boxes, and perhaps the discomfort of not being able to go out to a gig is dispelled. Oh, and to address that seriously, I suppose you should only watch the thing once, though the temptation to repeat certainly isn’t one I’m going to resist if there’s an item that satisfies me in the way I crave.
And do they exist? Yes! I’ll nominate one for starters. The Bimhuis, a favourite European jazz club in Amsterdam, has been offering audio from gigs for years. More recently, they’ve moved into very classy video. Check the set from Jasper Høiby’s Planet B, first aired live just a couple of weeks ago. The launch for their excellent New CD, it was the start of a tour which is now on hold. New music, brilliantly expanded by a saxophone, bass, drums trio playing at the highest level. I’d love to have been there, and really hope to see them live one day. But this will do for now.
But brilliant though this is, I can only watch it so many times. So, tell me, what have you found that matches it for jazz captured in flight?