Author’s note: The live music discussed in this post has been recorded, so because of that, we can better analyze the parts of the live performances.
Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue gleams with melodic melancholy and flippancy, setting itself up for close listening or beautiful background music. As the album title suggests, the songs are never entirely blue, allowing the listener to glide over the notes as they’re played without at all dwelling in sadness. It’s a masterpiece in and of itself. That said, how does a live performance of, say, “So What” compare to the album recording, considering that jazz is full of and defined by its improvisations?
Anyone who has listened to the opening track dozens of times is familiar with some parts of the horn players’ solos: the slow, rhythmic descending notes, like when Davis begins his at the 1:31 mark, or when Julian “Cannonball” Adderley follows his quick climbing notes with them in 5:28 and 5:54.
These phrases stick for their clarity and slowness amid the long, often quick, meandering notes. Surely several people are fond of these and derive some form of pleasure or relief upon hearing such cool, suave tones. They might even recognize that these are from “So What” if these are played by other musicians in their own music.
Davis’s live performance of “So What” in 1959 at the Robert Herridge Theater in New York has a slightly faster tempo than the Kind of Blue track. His solo begins with a variation of that of the song’s album recording, then flies elsewhere. It remains smooth and light, but it’s more emotional as Davis holds the high notes, giving way to a cry. John Coltrane follows the levity before firing rapidly cascading notes that he’s widely praised for.
Wynton Kelly plays a blues-inspired piano solo while sustaining the song’s signature couplet, and finishes it off with a ragtime feel. The piano solo itself is a stark difference from the album recording where Bill Evans accompanies only. The blues and ragtime with Davis playing the head lends “So What” a more flavorful and groovy sound.
More exciting is the 1960 live radio broadcast at Kurhaus in the Netherlands. The bass starts in double time then in comes the piano and the loud drums, the hi-hat ringing and the snare slapping away. Miles Davis has given “So What” an explosive nu-jazz feel through the more aggressive swinging of the drums.
Davis plays a completely different solo that sounds more aloof. He produces more quick and rhythmic notes with a few rests, and after much dawdling, he and Paul Chambers manage to meet. At the 3:02 mark, Davis plays over Chambers’s drum rolls then Chambers hits the crash on Davis’s new bar and high note, and again right when Davis ends the fill. All this happens in about a second. The instance gets our attention, somehow snaps us back from our reverie. And just when we think Chambers will hit the crash cymbal again or copy Davis as he trumpets the same rhythm over and over, Chambers drums the groove before meeting another one of Davis’s fills at 3:16. We hear a stronger and cleaner riff and transition to the sax solo.
Great skill and precision titillate the jazz enthusiast. There’s something about how virtuosic musicians play the notes that come to them, and as they seem to get lost in their own worlds, they peak in their solos, wrap them up, and are followed by another player—all the while the rhythm section attentively listens for signs of build-ups and reinforces certain fills. They have full control and a mindful letting loose, both of which give rise to an undeniable connection among them. Trust is there too; surely Davis had Kelly play with him because of Kelly’s style, so having the blues influence was architectured, and Kelly delivered.
We experience a band’s dynamic through music when we catch the live performance. Moreover, the improvisation, the connection at present among the musicians and between the band and the audience, lets us realize that we will never hear again what we hear now.
It’s surreal, to be aware of and feel time slipping away while being still. It becomes inevitable to enjoy the moment—the logical move given the situation.
Pop and classical music are predictable, with one known to be less sophisticated than the other for reasons of skill level needed to master the genre or to even play the music well. But the live performances of such music are also pleasurable to listen to, considering of course that the artist is talented.
Performing “Grown Woman” for Chime for Change in 2013, Beyonce’s powerful and soulful voice resonated when she sang. She’s capable of emoting while singing, and even the Beyonce track attests to that: She growls and shrieks, exuding strength and excitement over her persona’s independence. Her belting while dancing on stage doesn’t let the roundness of her tone waver. If anything, one hears her take a breath to sing a note more powerfully, and that adds more dynamism to the song.
Equally impressive is how the song, done live, starts with longer back-up vocals and instrumentals, flaunting deep keys, heavy percussion—what sounds like a conga with the modern drum set—the regal and spiraling brass section, the bass, and the faint shuffle of an electric guitar. All those instruments coming together owing to the band makes a musical feast. “Grown Woman” becomes more textured, musical, and colorful—more human—compared to the manufactured, but no less danceable and electrifying, drum-heavy rhythms of the album recording.
We can’t help admiring the artist and her producers more for having such an arrangement. And we are floored by the spectacle that a live pop performance affords. The African-inspired choreography done by a troupe with much flair and unity, the lights and the bright colors of the tribal image projections, and the confetti, all paint a fun, celebratory feel to “Grown Woman.” Beyonce indulges our senses, and we share the burst of energy and cheer with those around us like it’s one big and grand feast. The spectacle, especially the all-female troupe dancing to a Malinke chant and then to the hypnotizing flute-like section shining above the percussions and the deep saxophones, heightens our experience of the song. That said, it’s not surprising to like the live version better. We feel like we connect with the song and the artist whom we now respect or idolize more.
Appreciating classical music live more than an edited recording of it is not easy for some listeners. For some, just hearing the song live in the proper tune is enough for them to recognize that the soloist, quartet, or the orchestra plays well. Some others scramble for ways to admire the musician, knowing that the sheet music already directs the playing. As the genre aspires for perfection and precision with the musicians playing the song correctly, how do the listeners compare one musician with the other, and between the experience of listening to both renditions?
And still, there are those who are moved by the slurs, the dragging of one note to get to the next. It’s possible that they’ve already attached emotions to the song to not consider sloppy what others might. But it’s also possible that they’re able to understand the slurs as part of the artist’s interpretation of the song.
These slurs are easier to hear when a soloist, rather than an orchestra, plays. Take for example this performance of “Le Cygne” by Hanna Chang:
Evident in 0:30 to 0:31, 1:04, and 1:39 to name a few, Chang drags her notes, creating twangs or cracks. For some people, it has a way of evoking sadness, as the twangs can sound like moans. Compare that with Yo-Yo Ma’s cello playing with the Boston Pops Orchestra, led by John Williams:
Yo-Yo Ma’s is clean, so Camille Saint-Saëns’s composition sounds more graceful and princely—very characteristic of a swan. His steadier tempo also supports those qualities, while Chang’s more rapid build-up to the B creates more passion, one that’s suitable to a dying swan mourning and resisting its fate. Unlike Chang’s more evocative playing that’s perfect for dance, Ma’s rendering depicts a scene more clearly: When he finally plays in pianissimo, it’s as if the swan swims away to hide from us or to leave us, and that brings us loss, which he plays in a long, swelling and oscillating high key. And before we know it and wish it wouldn’t be so, we are left with ripples from the swan’s exit.
The artists’ interpretation, which we hear in their delivery, connects us with the music. How they play informs our feelings and imagination. They do risk being criticized for playing in a way that some people disagree with. Yet there are still others who will be taken by their rendition, and perhaps that is enough.
Like in staring at a painting, we notice elements we didn’t know were there before when we listen intently to music, whether it’s recorded in an album or played live.
We might hear tones we don’t often hear, as these come from instruments we don’t usually or have never encountered before. We become aware of the harmonies, the texture, the dynamism. There’s pleasure to be had in learning something more about a song we thought we knew well. It’s a pleasant surprise, and probably a sweet-sounding one too.
The activity demands that we think of nothing else but the music. Only through that does the song take the us elsewhere, to its own world or narrative. One can think that it does us a favor by giving us a momentary escape from the monotony of our routines, by reminding us that beauty exists, or by strengthening us to keep us going afterwards.
Through a live performance or broadcast, the pleasure of listening to music becomes amplified by our awareness of its being transitory, that we probably won’t experience something like this in the same way again—at least when technology isn’t concerned—and, at the same time, by our awareness and marvel of all the things that make the moment: music we like, music that is nothing short of glorious, the talent, all the practice and hard work it took the artist to be one of the best and to play or sing what’s on his mind and heart, that we see and hear a person, and that we connect and share this energy with that person and with the other people around us.
We too behold order: musicians playing in tune and in time, dancers moving on the beat, symmetry on the stage, the audience singing out loud, bobbing their heads, or some of them sitting with closed eyes. Apart from those, in jazz, we hear dissonance; in classical, conflict. Yet always, before the song ends regardless of additional measures or more experimental playing, we are led back to the theme, to order; and often it’s a more complex one, one with slight changes, considering all the tumult that was just conveyed. The return is a gift, as real life is not always tied well together; people don’t always climb out of the pit.
In all this fleeting beauty, some surprises, and the promise of order, for a while we are compelled to be in the moment; and what a moment it is.
“The Record Effect,” Alex Ross. The New Yorker. 6 June 2005. Article.
Performing Music in the Age of Recording, Robert Philip. Yale University Press UK. 2004. Book.