Live Recordings - The essence of authenticity
The moment occurs about two and a half minutes in. We've been carried along by the mellifluous and delicate arrangement of a well-known love song. It started soft and sparse, building its drama slowly. And then, a quickened pace, a rat-a-tat from the drummer to signify soulful change, something's coming. The piano colorings get a little darker right about the time the bass player drops in the groove and I swear to you I was at the table with the men you hear in the background with their "ohhhhhhh YEAH!" bearing witness and applauding this change of direction.
I have no business being in this legendary 100-seat jazz club where final notes from Miles and Coltrane still hang in the air, but I am. Washington, D.C., 1965. The Bohemian Caverns. I arrived in a murderously elegant black Lincoln Continental. You can see it on the album cover - "The In Crowd" from the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
It's one of my favorite moments on that album and the epitome of why I love the electric authenticity captured by live recordings. I'm feeling exactly what that audience felt, across 45 years, before race riots shuttered Bohemian Caverns and before its rebirth and ultimate demise several years ago.
Spontaneity. Of-the-moment honesty. The human connections made when a small group of people performs and you can hear and sense the impact on a larger group of people in the same intimate space. I love when the band is tight and flawless, but give me those unpolished and unrehearsed moments, too, emotionally powerful in any given direction and full of vulnerability and the unexpected.
Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer of epic talent, performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, Freebody Park, in July 1958, backed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Rain fell that night and the capacity crowd waited until near midnight to hear Mahalia Jackson.
As expected, she filled the space with her joy, exuberance and skill. The crowd couldn't get enough. After her passionate performance of the spiritual "Didn't It Rain," the crowd's strong applause lingered for some time before the singer stepped back to the mic.
"Alright. You make me feel like I'm a star," she says modestly.
It's magnificent. This is Mahalia Jackson! She was bringing down the house in foot-stomping fashion! She's the singer whose performances were so powerful and talents so enormous that words couldn't capture them. "Many have tried in vain to describe what it is that is so captivating about Mahalia and the songs she sings," Cal Lampley wrote in the liner notes of the "Newport 1958" album. "In this respect, I too have failed, for greatness is seldom describable."
And there she was, in command of a midnight musical prayer meeting, giving thanks for the opportunity to perform and seeming to be in slight disbelief that people would wait so long in the rain for her. You don't get that from a studio-recorded album. You only get that richness in the layers of live recordings. Just a few words spoken across a few seconds between songs. (Can you believe I found footage of this exact performance and moment? I had no idea a documentary was filmed and released in 1960 - "Jazz on a Summer's Day")
In the world of the blues, I'm a steadfast listener of the unique North Mississippi style...its hypnotic repetition, a hard-driving powertrain of relentless force. For years, musicians like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside seared the air in Mississippi juke joints. If you didn't live close to one, you never heard it.
Sinking into Kimbrough's "Most Things Haven't Worked Out," recorded in these juke joints, gives the appropriate feeling. You get a bit of audience back and forth on it. Grit crunches underfoot on the concrete floor. Humid, hot river-bottom air drapes all things and people, and it's so easy to be mesmerized and free of anything but the pulse. It's ominous and muscular. And it comes out however it comes out that particular night, never to be the same.
There are documentaries out there about Kimbrough, Burnside and all the musicians of the Mississippi Hill Country style. Worth your time, if this all sounds interesting, as it tracks how these guys went from obscurity to being discovered by people way beyond Mississippi.
I could go on and on. I haven't even mentioned the Sonny Rollins Road Shows or Jazz at Massey Hall or Lou Rawls LIVE! (1966, private show) or Ahmad Jamal at The Pershing or Bill Evans Trio's Sunday at the Village Vanguard or...you get the point.
With all this slick-packaged, antiseptic, pop-a-bottle-of-disposable-music, nothing hits like the authenticity of raw and unapologetic emotion.