Having somewhat recently moved to northern New Jersey, I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to check out some of the jazz clubs that have long defined New York City culture. Although some of the more prominent venues have moved from their original spots, each one still fills you with a sense of Manhattan’s rich music history, and the thick atmosphere generally radiates an invigorating spirit. (The city’s tolls, traffic, and parking headaches…well…we can save those issues for another time.)
Mostly I’ve been relishing the chance to see musicians that I’ve previously been able to listen to and study only through recordings. There’s often a different spirit that becomes clear when seeing a band live. Often I’ve pored over albums or watched live DVDs or online videos and felt like I understood what an artist was all about, but then I’d check them out live and think, Oh, THAT’S their vibe.
Over the past couple of years I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time with the album Taming the Dragon, from Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana’s Mehliana project, blasting through my headphones. Yet it wasn’t until I checked out the duo live that I got an enhanced takeaway on their concept and intention. Witnessing Mehldau and Guiliana trade figures and musical jabs back and forth was like watching two boxers clashing—yet, in this case, each wanted the other to win the bout. That feeling certainly comes across on Taming the Dragon, but after seeing them in person, I got a much more complete, enlivened take on their approach.
Recently I got a chance to check out the English drummer Karl Brazil play an arena show with the pop star James Blunt. Blunt’s songs have had a significant presence on Top 40 radio since the release of his 2004 album, Back to Bedlam, so I was certainly familiar with his music. But on stage, his group’s vibe really came across. The players seemed impervious to the stresses that might come with performing in a larger venue. The band passed around comfortable, enthusiastic smiles while effortlessly slamming home Blunt’s hits, and it seemed like they were performing in someone’s living room rather than in an arena. Thinking about my own, much more modest gigs, I asked myself, How can I get straight into that headspace on stage? It was quite a learning experience.
I spoke with a friend of mine, who’s a great jazz drummer, about the opportunities he had to check out legends like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams while they were still alive—opportunities I never had—and he described the intense feelings they could fill a room with, as well as their abilities to coax everything from shimmering cymbal swells to thunderous drum tones from their instruments. Their intensity certainly lives forever on their records, but for my friend, each drummer’s vibe thrived there at the shows. After poring over their albums, I wished that I could’ve been there too.
So, this holiday season, perhaps you should give yourself a present: Go check out some shows, and see if you don’t come away with a deeper understanding of the music and the artists you love.
Enjoy this month’s issue.