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Generosity at work – that’s jazz

October 21, 2016
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Had a couple of grumpy posts, I know but I like to accentuate the positive here – jazz is the love of my life after all. So just a quick note to pin up a quote that’s stuck in my mind.

It comes from a long and (as always) very interesting interview by Ethan Iverson with the long-time music critic of the New York Times Ben Ratliff. The whole thing is well worth reading if you’re interested in how a smart writer thinks about the job of cultural critic. (Ratliff’s books, especially Coltrane’s Sound, are also highly recommended).

Along the way, Ratliff recalls one gig like this (I tweeted about this, but want to revisit the full quote).

BR:  Around 20 years ago, there was a very short-lived club that opened on the upper east side—it might have been connected to a hotel or something. I’d always go to these places out of curiosity, and Houston Person and Etta Jones played a gig there. It was a small room and the gig was under-attended. I don’t think the sound was anything special, and it was a first set of maybe a two-night run. This was never going to go anywhere, this enterprise, but those musicians created a condition of nirvana in that room. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the generosity of what they were doing—so much so that it made me want to weep. Why did they think we deserve this, in this situation? How could that be? Anyway, they created something intensely special in this very non-special place for a non-special occasion. That’s really hard to do. All this time later I’m still thinking about that.

I love this because it puts into words so well a sensation I recognise but had never expressed quite like this. All art can do this sometimes – artists make their work for their own reasons, but for the viewer/listener, the effect often is a special kind of gratitude. And it’s enhanced in jazz, I reckon, because it is often in small spaces, and achieves instants of unrepeatable excellence that are impossible to miss if you are listening properly – the ones that musicians tend to recall as moments of transcendence that pass description.

This, when all’s said, is why one turns out for gigs instead of staying at home and listening to CDs in comfort.

And I’m not saying that Ian Ballamy‘s quartet sets on Wednesday at the Fringe exactly fit Ratliff’s words – the small room was stuffed, for one thing. But I did come away, after two sets of  really beautiful playing from everyone, genuinely adventurous in the second half, and with a couple of surprise bonus songs from a visiting Norma Winstone, with a feeling pretty close to what he’s describing. I can’t really describe it without getting portentious, but what the hell. It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does it rekindles something that’s important to hold on to in life – an admiration for humans cultivating their best selves that makes you feel better about the whole deal, at least until the next news bulletin.

(Incidentally, generosity – to audiences, to fellow musicians – is something I’d say also marks Ethan Iverson’s work. He’s in town with The Bad Plus in a couple of weeks (Nov 7), so come sample for yourself.)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Chris Leonard permalink
    October 24, 2016 12:23 pm

    Thank you for this very fine, thoughtful and thought provoking post. Like Ben Ratliff, I have often been moved to tears by the generosity of highly talented jazz artists playing to small audiences. Most memorably, the Ollie Brice Quintet playing to about nine people on a Bank Holiday afternoon at the Future Inn this summer. As you say, there is something immediate and unrepeatable about live jazz performance. I feel this especially when the artists somehow contrive to integrate me as listener into the ensemble. An existential moment of magic occurs as I become part of their art. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest…perhaps I should learn to play a musical instrument.

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