For more than a year now, jazz has been in a choke hold. Here and there, now and then, the grip has relaxed, only to tighten again with a vengeance. And while most performing arts have suffered similar constriction, the agony felt by jazz has been particularly acute. Born at the sizzling synapse between improvising musicians and drinkers, dancers, fornicators, jubilant mourners, aficionados—and, of course, other improvising musicians—jazz, hot or cool, still depends on warm bodies not only for its livelihood but for the very breath of life.
Valiantly, resourcefully, clubs and musicians have tried to stay afloat by setting up shop in cyberspace. But cyberspace is airless. It is also spaceless—the placeless place of the daily tasks, meetings, distractions, doom-scrolling, and desultory social interactions that make and mar our pandemical lives. However excellent the music, the lack of applause and vocal encouragement—or the anemic applause supplied, with just a hint of hopeless irony, by two or three techies or other staff—reminds us of our fallen state. So do the masks worn by all but, ironically, the wind players, whose instruments are Uzis for aerosols.
Partaking of jazz online (and, when possible, paying for it) is an ethical imperative, at least for those who can’t yet attend in the flesh. It is also an essential means of communion—of joining virtual hands and singing the plague-year blues. But if it’s escape we want, our best bet is a great live recording, which—by capturing in sound the sparks that fly when stellar musicians meet avid listeners—can transport us to a happier, prelapsarian world. As the philosopher Stanley Cavell once wrote: “A world of sound is a world of immediate conviction.”
However fine the music, the lack of applause reminds us of our fallen state. So do the masks worn by all but, ironically, the wind players, whose instruments are Uzis for aerosols.
Fortunately, the last few months have seen the release of several fine live recordings—some recent, some rescued from the vaults. Confining ourselves to the realm of the tenor sax, we can experience the sustained, rhapsodic moral urgency of Archie Shepp and pianist Jason Moran on Let My People Go, drawn from concerts in Paris and Mannheim in 2017 and 2018; the fizzing high spirits of a young George Coleman and friends on In Baltimore, captured before a hollering, testifying crowd at the Famous Ballroom in 1971; and, perhaps most remarkable of all, the hurricane that is Rollins in Holland, drawn from three dates—two live, one in the studio—in 1967.
Critics have run out of ways of saying that they have run out of ways of saying that Sonny Rollins is the greatest improviser alive. Though his discography is an embarrassment of riches, it has its lean years—lacunae in which he woodshedded on the Williamsburg Bridge, or honed his cobra pose at an ashram near Mumbai. This rare peek into that second chasm, which lasted roughly from 1966 to 1972, is thus of compelling interest, especially now that Rollins (taking pity on critics’ dog-eared thesauri) has hung up his sax for good.
In the generous liner notes, Rollins says he loves Holland, which comes as no surprise: not only was his paternal grandfather born in the Dutch West Indies, but something in his sensibility—that blend of swagger and ironic detachment—feels echt Dutch. On this visit to the Low Countries, some freak alignment of chakras must have released the coiled Kundalini in Rollins, a torrent of energy that tears through the tunes, scattering shingles and beams. His young Dutch colleagues, bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink, are borne along and aloft, riding the dragon for dear life. While some listeners (I’m looking at me) may prefer a more logical or lyrical Rollins to the “wham bam thank you ma’am” (his phrase) avatar here, this is certainly as good a way as any to sit back, take a deep pranayama breath, and remind ourselves of the glory that was live jazz. And the glory that yet may be. The last great global pandemic, after all, was followed by the Jazz Age.
Live recordings are available on Spotify
Evan Eisenberg is an upstate New York–based writer and the author of The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa and, most recently, The Trumpiad