Nostalgia, remixed

By JON GARELICK  |  December 7, 2007

Whatever “live” recording remains in the music business, most of it is probably done by jazz and classical musicians. Individual instrumental or vocal performances might be edited from one version to another, but those bits are drawn from separate takes that were recorded with the entire ensemble — overdubs are frowned upon. In jazz — and in classical music, too — time is flexible. It’s always rubato. We listen to the Busch String Quartet or the Miles Davis Quintet because of the way they play together, the way they respond to one another in the moment. When Clint Eastwood filmed his Charlie Parker bio, Bird, Parker’s widow, Chan, was said to be furious that Eastwood had re-recorded the rhythm section to give it more presence. It didn’t matter that the new rhythm section was re-creating that music as faithfully as possible — the music, she said, wasn’t about Bird’s solos with an interchangeable backdrop but about the way he responded to and related with those particular musicians.

Of course, many “live” jazz recordings are as much an illusion as pop concert records. Most of Duke Ellington’s famous 1956 live-at-Newport session was originally released in a form that had been re-recorded in the studio. And Miles was editing solo sections from one performance to another as far back as the ’50s. But in Miles’s marathon recordings for Prestige (in which the band had to lay down six albums’ worth of material in three days to fulfill his contract obligation and move on to the greener pastures of Columbia Records), he tried to simulate a live club date by leaving in studio chatter. Granted, his hoarse exchanges with the engineer aren’t typical of clubs, but the effect was the same: they create the sense of an experience unfolding in real time. (You can hear some of that chatter on Evolution of the Groove.) Charles Mingus went so far as to re-create his admonishments to an audience in order to simulate a live show (“No applause, no cash registers ringing, etcetera”). The result was comically transparent.

And there is exciting jazz that’s even more blatantly synthetic. The recent Floratone (Nonesuch) is as heavily produced a jazz album as you’re likely to get, Bill Frisell and drummer/percussionist Matt Chamberlain trading files with producers Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine, who subjected the long jams to “extreme editing” before Frisell overdubbed with new string and horn parts. A few years ago, Kurt Rosenwinkel, with Heartcore (Verve), and Brad Mehldau, with Largo (Warner Bros.), also went in for heavily produced records. I’m happy that these albums were made. But I’d hate for them to supplant old-style “live” recording.

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