To me, there is no more faithful “documentary” of music than the live performance. I love the behind-the-scenes stuff, too — and the interviews, people who love music talking about music — but the actual concerts? There is nothing like a live show. If you stop and consider classics like The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense, the strength of these feature-length, film documentaries is that they point the camera at the stage and don’t look away. The concert is the document.
While the category I file these posts under for the blog is ‘music documentaries’, the draft folder I use is actually titled “Sunday Long” — long clips to share with friends on twitter, which includes both the excellent behind-the-scenes documentaries and also these concerts.
The first video (that led to the search for the others included below) was either James Carter or Medeski, Martin, & Wood. I can’t recall now (6 weeks later) (yes, I have a pretty big buffer for these posts) which of the two I bookmarked first. Each was a pretty solid clip, but there wasn’t quite enough there to hang a whole post on. When I later tripped over the Ray Brown Trio, then I knew I was onto something. I started to assemble a Jazz Fest — not an all-time best-of or top-ten, because honestly I wouldn’t know where to start — but instead a batch of contrasting and complementary live performances that’d fill a whole-day-long playlist and scratch a jazz itch.
If that sounds as good to you as it did to me: all the clips below are in a YouTube playlist — you can have it play in a background tab all day today.
While obviously there are many great jazz albums out there (and we’re all richer for that) jazz is a performance art, meant to be seen and heard live. There is skill is mixing an album, too, don’t get me wrong, and there are many fine albums that one could say were assembled in studio, the whole becoming more than just the sum of each player’s part. The producer is part of the creative process, in addition to the band — if there was a band, and it wasn’t just session musicians working for scale, along with machines, samples, and loops. Good music is good music, regardless of how it was made — the old Duke Ellington quote applies, “If it sounds good, then it is good.”
Much more so than nearly any other form of music, though, Jazz is often a conversation, a form defined in part by improvisation. Not that taking a solo and going off the chart is new — organists have been doing so since at least Bach’s time, and the highlight and one defining characteristic of the concerto is the cadenza — but pipe organ improvisation is almost always the organ in solo performance, and for a concerto cadenza the orchestra gets out of the way, often literally sitting with their instruments in their laps.
A really solid small jazz group, a bass-piano-drums trio for example, might feature all three musicians improvising or otherwise riffing on the chart — not just a feature performer taking a single solo but the whole song, spontaneously generated, live. This can be hard to listen to; some fans of jazz aren’t really fans of 50s bebop for this reason, and later mutations like “smooth jazz” chuck this idea right out the window. But for many bebop is the real jazz, or at least the one branch of modern jazz that has to be confronted and digested, if not accepted.
I’m not a purist – I like a lot of different forms, from ragtime to funk. If you pushed me into a corner, I’d pick the post-war 1940s sound as my favorite, but I also love the stuff coming out of the late 60s and early 70s, as “hard bop” combined the stronger rhythmic feel of R&B with free-rolling bebop and eventually got real funky. Kenny G can go die in a fire.
That’s it for the lecture: lets get down to some music.
[btw – if you get 20 minutes into a set and go, “woah, that’s too weird for me” – just skip ahead 5 minutes. Odds are good the band’ll be back on track. Or just skip on to the next video in the playlist. I won’t be offended. heck, I won’t even know. Not all jazz is the same, and even if you like some of it, not everything will be to your taste. That’s cool, and you learned something, so it’s good all ‘round]
Ray Brown Trio + James Morrison – Umbria Jazz 1993 (53min)
James Carter Organ Trio – Montreux Jazz Festival 2012 (55min)
Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood – Estival Jazz Lugano 2007 (1hr16min) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAr8nTePQso
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers – Sanremo, Italy 1963 (50min)
[if you want to skip the musician introductions in Italian, cue the video to 4:30]
Chucho Valdes & The Afro-Cuban Messengers – Jazz à Vienne Live 2010 (1hr56min)
Soft Machine & Allan Holdsworth – Montreux Jazz Festival 1974 (58min)
Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, & The Giants Of Jazz – Copenhagen 1971 (54min)
Miles Davis – Montreux Jazz Festival 1986 (1hr49min)
- By 1986, the “Miles Davis Quintet” was at least an octet, and Davis had long since gone electric (for his backing band) and his style was jazz fusion (and funky). Definitely a different Miles than the one you might be familiar with.
Miles Davis & Quincy Jones – Montreux Jazz Festival 1991 (55min)
…when Miles came back to Montreaux in 1991, he was also back to playing more classic material — a return to the songs and his sound from the 1950s. He died less than 3 months later; a recording of the concert performance was released posthumously as his final album.