It's gotta be live

Submitted by Josh Grossman on Thu Apr 1 2:40pm

Have you spent much time checking out NPR's Tiny Desk concerts?

For me, they are a constant source of musical enjoyment. I'll tune in for a favourite artist, use them to research someone less familiar, or take more of a "blindfold" approach ("Let's see what this one's all about!"). I'm always impressed by the calibre of the sound and picture in what seems like a challenging space for high-quality production. The musical performances don't always hit home, but from a viewer standpoint, the experience is consistently satisfying.

I especially enjoy the necessarily stripped down sets required of musicians performing at the Tiny Desk. On occasion, a performer is inadequately prepared for the mostly acoustic setting; but for the most part, performers embrace the format and the setting, and end up presenting powerful, intimate sets. There is no hiding behind studio trickery or backing tracks; a musician's raw performance talents are on clear display.

With so many outstanding Tiny Desk sessions available, by musicians of an enormous variety of musical styles, it's hard to choose one to highlight for the purposes of this post. But a few weeks back, I watched the 2018 Tiny Desk performance by Saba. I can't remember how I ended up there - if it was a recommendation from an article I read or a more exploratory click - but his show had me transfixed. There's a lot going on - his lyrics are moving, and there are several layers to his story (including having his dad as a backup singer) - but for me it's always about the music...and what they were able to do live in a cramped space sounded better than some projects I've heard coming out of a studio. The sudden starts and stops, the vocal effects, the tempo transitions, the musical balance, etc., that I tend to assume are studio tricks - or at least the product of multiple takes and creative editing - were performed perfectly live, and they made it all look and sound easy. See and hear for yourself (a caution that this video contains some strong language):

I recently did a presentation for Music Africa's Artist Training Program, and my assigned topic was "Arts Presentation" - the goal was to discuss the do's (and some don't's) of preparing to make a festival submission (you can watch it here). It's a presentation I've done a number of times before, but I figured I'd check in with some colleagues across the country to ask what they look for in a submission. I received some excellent comments, but a consistent point was the importance of being able to discern the quality of an artist's live performance. We need to trust that what we hear in a submission can actually be reproduced live on stage.

This shouldn't come as a real surprise. Jazz and jazz-related genres have always been performed by live musicians playing live instruments. Although the art form has broadened dramatically over the years - often in exciting ways - to incorporate sounds, styles and techniques found in other musical forms, for me the most moving performances have always been those at which I'm reacting to how musicians are manipulating their instruments and voices, and interacting, live and in real time. A few weeks ago I watched the SF Jazz rebroadcast of a 2015 performance by the ACS Trio (Geri Allen, piano; Esperanza Spalding, bass; Terri Lyne Carrington, drums) - the interaction between the musicians, and the music they made, was mesmerizing. I wish I could have experienced the show in person; but the magic of that live performance shone through online.

As we launch into Jazz Appreciation Month (every year in April), I'm feeling especially thankful for all of the musicians who toil for so many hours, in jazz but also music in general, to bring incredible live music to stages around the world. We'll be celebrating some Canadian jazz artists later in the month with shows that demonstrate a few different approaches to the presentation of live music - more details will be announced soon. But each will be an excellent example of the outstanding artistry involved in putting on a live show.

Until then, find some fantastic concert footage online (you could even start at the Tiny Desk!) and enjoy the beauty of live.

Josh