CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Jazz Is Alive Online, or My Week of Listening Virtually: Day One

Lee Mergner reports on the first day of his immersion in online jazz performances over the course of a week

Zakir Hussain at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco November 12, 2020

You think you have screen fatigue? Try watching dozens of jazz shows online over the course of a week. That’s the assignment I foolishly took on, starting tonight. The goal was to see as many virtual jazz performances as possible in a week’s time. Given what the landscape of live performance had turned into, it seemed like a logical story.

Well, I’m only on Day One, and I already feel a little like a corporate schlub trying to log into his seventh Zoom call of the day. What was the password again? Better recheck those audio settings. And honestly, given all the usernames I’ve had to provide, I’m not sure who I am now. The good news is that none of these artists can see me in my stained T-shirt and ragged pajama bottoms clutching my drink of choice (red wine, thank you) throughout the evening. So I got that going for me. Which is nice.

All hubris aside, for the last few hours I’ve seen plenty of great music and I know from my tentative schedule for the next six days that I’ll see much more. Too much? Maybe. What comes through loud and clear from this initial foray is just how much the musicians want to play, not only for us, but with each other. The technical aspects and online platforms vary widely, but the spirit is consistent. They live to play, and if it has to be from a venue with 10 people or no people or even from somebody’s basement, then so be it.

For the next seven days, I’ll be sharing my experiences with jazz presented virtually. Be warned: It can’t be comprehensive, but only just a sampling of all the amazing music out there. Let us know via your comments on Facebook which shows or events you think I should catch through Wednesday, Nov. 18. My dance card is filling up, but I can always switch screens. Thanks for reading and thanks for listening.

Day One: Thursday, Nov. 12

5 p.m. Harry Allen Trio at Smalls Jazz

My first show was, appropriately enough, from one of the venues that was all in on streaming well before it became the only choice for presenting live music. Smalls Jazz has been streaming its shows for a long time, and given the number of sets per night at that popular West Village establishment, the total number of performances that the club’s presented online has got to be in the four figures. However, with all the COVID restrictions and protocols, Smalls is now only doing two sets by just one band per night, usually at 5 and 7:30 p.m. ET. That’s about as robust a schedule as you’ll find now in the city that rightly calls itself the jazz capital of the world.

I hadn’t seen Allen play in a few years, so the 5 p.m. set offered a great opportunity to hear his very warm tenor playing, which has prompted frequent comparisons to the swinging sound of Lester Young and Stan Getz. At this point in his career after more than three decades on the scene, Allen’s very much his own man, with a rich and commanding tone. Performing with Allen for a small (very small) socially distanced live audience in the club were his longtime colleague Rossano Sportiello on piano and Kevin Dorn on drums. Sportiello handled the stage announcements, but the mic didn’t come through on the stream. It turned out that Ken Peplowski was originally scheduled to perform but had to go into quarantine after a trip to Florida.

The production was pretty basic. Four stationary cameras around the small stage seemed to be set up in an auto loop, with each one selected for about 15 seconds before cross-dissolving into the next. The streaming platform allows you to pick the video quality, from 260p all the way up to HD at 720p. I stuck with the lower resolution, not trusting my own computer and wireless capability, and that was adequate for the purposes. A more low-fi approach has worked well for the venue over the years, helping to make it a destination for tourists from all over the world. There was no cost for the live stream, though you do need to sign up for a membership, at which point you’re encouraged to become a sponsor for $40, which then enables you to watch the dozens of filmed sets in the club’s online archive.

Stream on smallslive.com

Cost for one show: Free, but sponsorship is encouraged.

6 p.m. John Pizzarelli with It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere: A Musical Social from a Distance

Not everyone is enamored of the show-from-home format, and that includes both artists and fans. But the charismatic singer and guitarist pulls off this weekly one-hour concert from his cabin in upstate New York with aplomb and, dare I say it, even virtuosity. He sits on a low couch facing the camera and accompanies himself on his two custom seven-string guitars, and the result is a sound both natural and inviting. Pizzarelli asks for requests earlier in the week and does his level best to play as many as he can in the allotted time. Often the ones coming in from his longtime fans are regular material from his sets—like Mercer or Jobim—but no matter. This week I requested a Bruce Springsteen song because I’d heard that John had been playing around with versions of that iconic rocker’s material. He ignored my request and therefore will never work in Mergnerville again.

John Pizzarelli’s It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere

His wife, the noted Broadway and cabaret singer Jessica Molaskey, serves as a co-host of sorts, laughing at John’s jokes (there are a lot of them), feeding him audience comments, and throwing in a harmony vocal, all off-camera. She inevitably joins him on the last few songs, often featuring a clever arrangement they’ve worked up as a special duet. This week it was Joni Mitchell’s “A Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.” Throughout, you really feel like you’re sitting across the couch from them, taking it all in. Streamed on his Facebook and Instagram pages, the show is free, but donations are accepted and Pizzarelli often picks a charity each week to receive a portion of the revenue. A classy move by a classy guy.

Stream on John Pizzarelli’s Facebook and Instagram pages every Thursday at 6 p.m. ET.

Cost for one-hour set: Free with donations accepted.

7 p.m. Eric Alexander with Jazz Forum at Home

Eric Alexander

The Jazz Forum is a small but mighty 85-seat venue located in Tarrytown, N.Y., and run by jazz industry veterans Mark Morganelli and Ellen Prior. They’re currently doing both live-from-home sets (every Thursday at 7 p.m. ET) and concerts streamed from the club (on Saturday nights).   The Jazz Forum at Home sets have been performed by dozens of notable jazz acts including Bob James, Donald Harrison, Jimmy Greene, and Veronica Swift, and you can view any of those on the venue’s Facebook page. By the good luck of the draw this week, I took in a 30-minute performance by the powerful tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander and his longtime colleague David Hazeltine on piano streamed from somebody’s home, not sure whose. But the setting sure looked exactly like my office, what with the backdrop of LPs, CDs, tapes, books, and miscellaneous 20th-century clutter. And if we moved our baby grand piano into my office, I can assure you that it would have just as many papers and folders on top. It was a true jazz man cave.

This “at home” stream well demonstrates the upside to our getting to watch two gifted musicians with a common ground and history playing, listening, and improvising. Hearing them groove in sync on an Alexander tune dedicated to Eddie Harris felt like being welcomed into a secret club of jazz freaks. Alexander even evoked that funky Harris squeak on tenor. Like Pizzarelli, Alexander is a comic at heart, albeit of the droll and subversive type, wringing comical moments from the setting, the audience, and the pandemic. Their set was another Facebook stream that was free to viewers but requested donations for the musicians as well as the venue.

Stream on Jazz Forum’s Facebook page

Cost for 30-minute set: Free with donations accepted.

10 p.m. Zakir Hussain with guests Mickey Hart & Rakesh Chaurasia for SFJAZZ

When the pandemic first struck our world in the spring of 2020, SFJAZZ, the great jazz education and performing-arts organization based in San Francisco, quickly came up with a model for presenting jazz performances sans live audiences. They created a series called Fridays at Five, in which they offered shows from their past seasons as streamed videos. Among the concerts that they streamed to their members were performances by Dianne Reeves, Joe Lovano, Chucho Valdés, and other jazz greats. It was a pay-for-play model, very different from the social-media approach of so many others. Their argument was that the musicians needed to be paid, and why not do so based on their excellence?

The show tonight was of the other variety—a live-streamed performance from the venue with a minimal audience—one that many venues have settled into, for better or worse. It featured a band led by legendary tabla player and percussionist Zakir Hussain, along with drummer Mickey Hart (from the Grateful Dead) and bansuri flute virtuoso Rakesh Chaurasia.

However, the only artist playing on the Miner Auditorium stage was Hussain, with Charuasia being piped in via a prerecorded track and Hart adding sound effects on one tune via his distinctive Beam, strung with piano strings and fed through an array of effects—a soundscape used in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Overall, the staging, lighting, audio, and video of Hussain were striking, but even he had troubles with the sound, tossing off his monitor earbuds early on. Anyone who’s done a virtual event, even a simple Zoom call, can testify to the myriad of possible online syncing problems, starting with simple user error. Presenters of any “normal” show at an established venue would never hear every complaint or problem from the audience. But in this virtual world, they now have to hear and respond to everything, and what a litany of complaints they had. 

Mickey Hart

For my part, things weren’t that screwed up at all. The audio and video were just beautiful, with Hussain center stage front- and backlit like at a Spalding Gray reading. But the audience (from all over the world) was viewing the show on computers, with all that entails. And the hi-res quality may have made things tougher for some folks, but what do I know? In any case, kudos to SFJAZZ for trying to merge Hussain’s live solo performance with pre-taped tracks. It opens up a brave new world, where artists can play live yet still collaborate with their peers virtually. But there have to be growing pains even this far in.

Did I mention how beautifully Hussain played? No, I was too busy IT-splaining the issues of an ambitious streamed show like this. But he is a virtuoso on the tabla—one of the world’s most lyrical percussion instruments—and essentially this was a solo performance, with some very special cameos.

Please note that SFJAZZ offers a pay-for-play situation; you need to be a member to take advantage of all their content. For only $5 you can get digital access to the shows for a month. Or you can up that engagement as I did, albeit as the senior citizen I have become, with a longer membership for a bit more.

Let me remind you of two things. One: Artists and venues are struggling to stay alive. Two: The amount they’re asking from us is minimal. I’ve never liked the pitch of “Please support this music or venue or station.” But this is a different time. If we all give a little, then it can add up to a lot. Like a vote. That’s all I’ve got to offer after my first night of jazz binge-watching online. Support the music, the musicians, and the people who present them. Or, as jazz impresario and NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan often says, take care of the music and it will take care of you.

Stream on SFJAZZ’s website.

Cost: $5 per month for the shows. Other membership options with more benefits offered.