CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

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

Lee Mergner reports in on the third day (and night) of his immersion in online jazz performances over the course of a week

Patrice Rushen and Billy Childs perform together in Los Angeles for the "Duos and Duets" series for the Carr Center
Patrice Rushen and Billy Childs perform together in Los Angeles for the “Duos and Duets” series for the Carr Center

When I initially came up with the premise for this seven-day series on live streams of jazz performances online, I had this fantasy that I would sit on my leisurely ass, wine glass in hand, watch a few entertaining shows each night, and report on them in real time or close to it, offering my observations as to what worked and what didn’t. That’s just what I did for the first two days, but on Day Three I was stymied by the overwhelming quantity and quality of the shows on offer. The quantity was astounding, perhaps because of the go-out-Saturday-night syndrome, but it required me to get off my ass and drink much less, just to appreciate the more than eight hours of music. The quality knocked me for a loop, especially knowing the economic and logistical issues that everyone involved with every stream faced. How did they manage to make it look and sound so good?

The challenges that artists and organizations have to cope with right now are confounding. Yet many of them seem to have found their own way in this COVID era. Platforms like Facebook and YouTube are there to help, but only to those companies’ benefit, so enterprising individuals have figured out how to do it themselves on a revenue-generating platform. No matter what approach they choose, there are still so many obstacles to overcome, from the setting to the ticketing process to the band to the recording to the promotion to the internet connection to I don’t even know or want to know. Many have realized that, in essence, they have to turn into television producers. It’s something I saw at the Detroit Jazz Festival earlier this year. Put simply, you can’t play for a live audience, so you have to play for an online one, which is pretty much the same as a TV one. Except that the online one can tell you what they like or don’t like and the problems they’re having with their computers.

Tonight I saw a wide range of performances and presentations, but in nearly every case, the presenters had raised the bar on bringing jazz online to us, hunkered down in the shelters we call homes. Mine is called Almost Paradise, because we name our houses here in Emerald Isle, N.C. Maybe you should consider doing that where you live, especially given how much time you’re surely spending there. In any case, I hope you enjoy this rundown of eight shows that I somehow managed to see on a very busy Saturday night. It required all sorts of juggling, but many of the organizations or presenters allowed you to watch their stream at a different time from the scheduled one, as long as you signed up and paid up. Thank goodness for that.

*****

Day Three: Saturday, Nov. 14

12 p.m. A Conversation with Brandee Younger at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem

So far during this series, I haven’t written about interviews and conversations, which are pretty well ubiquitous on social media. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. One of the unexpected benefits is that artists are taking the initiative to interview each other, which makes for some interesting conversations; Christian McBride has been conducting many good ones for the Jazz House Kids organization in a weekly stream called Hang With Christian. For today’s stream from the folks at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (NJMH), the museum’s artistic director Loren Schoenberg spoke with harpist Brandee Younger in a Zoom-like session. Younger, an engaging musician who resides in Harlem, talked about her development as both a jazz harpist and a first-call session player, at least when a hip-hop or R&B artist needs a harp. 

Brandee Younger

Schoenberg, a saxophonist as well as a jazz historian, is an able and knowledgeable interviewer who gets right to the important questions and he dug in deep with Younger, particularly in relation to her affinity for the music of Alice Coltrane. With conversations like this, you can just leave it on and go about your business, because you don’t need to see yet another Zoom call image. I do wish that interviews like this had better sound and visuals. Lighting, people, lighting. Still, as someone who produces streamed conversations and who has overseen some that looked and sounded slightly better than hostage videos, I live in a glass house of online glitches, so I sure won’t be throwing the first stone. Keep an eye out for other interviews from Schoenberg and NJMH.

Stream on Facebook page of National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
Cost: Free

4 p.m. The Big Blind at Kurt Elling Cocktail Hour

Very soon after the pandemic began, Kurt Elling was doing Zoom streams from his home in NYC, hosting conversations, sometimes a little boozy, with various friends and colleagues. A one-hour session every Friday at 6 p.m., the Kurt Elling Cocktail Hour became a real favorite for thousands of jazz fans. Not long ago, Elling moved back to his hometown of Chicago and reconnected with Dave Jemillo and the Green Mill, the venue at which he’d originally worked as an up-and-comer and with which he’s maintained a close relationship.

Elling and his manager Bryan Farina started producing concerts from the Green Mill with Elling’s band, streaming them through a view-on-demand service called Mandolin. The show tonight was not only the last in a series of four weekly shows, but also much more than a concert. Elling and Farina decided to redo The Big Blind, a radio play that Elling and his co-writer Phil Gladson had presented at Jazz at Lincoln Center back in March 2019. This large-scale theater and performance piece originally featured a cast of Elling, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ben Vereen, Ian Shaw, and Allison Semmes, backed by a band and orchestra as well as a genuine Foley artist (that’s sound effects). The presentation was something like A Prairie Home Companion, though in the form of one long story about an aspiring Chicago-based singer Jack Lewis who reaches for the big time but is felled by love, pride, the Mob, and his own manager. You can learn more about the piece in this story on jazztimes.com.

Kurt Elling performing with his band at the Green Mill for stream of "The Big Blind."
Kurt Elling performing with his band at the Green Mill for stream of The Big Blind

In this iteration, The Big Blind was more of a teleplay, with Elling narrating from the Green Mill bar, playing Lewis as well as a few of the other characters, while also performing live with his band (Stu Mindeman, piano; Clark Sommers, bass; Dana Hall, drums; John McLean, guitar; Tito Carillo, trumpet; John Wojechowski, tenor sax). But that wasn’t all; there were also clips (mostly featuring Bridgewater’s songs) from the 2019 performance, as well as some virtual duets by Elling and the story’s love interest, played by Semmes.  They even added a few new songs. If it sounds like a lot, it was, but they pulled it all off—all the syncing of prerecorded video, live performance, and virtual recording. It was an incredible hybrid of various platforms and the most ambitious and dramatic streamed event I’ve seen so far.

Stream on Mandolin.com.
Cost: $15

7 p.m. Ethan Iverson & Thomas Morgan at Mezzrow

I was really looking forward to this duo performance from one of my favorite NYC jazz spots. Mezzrow, sister club to Smalls and located about a block away in the West Village, is a fantastic place to hear pianists, with a very limited seating section by the very small stage. So small that it usually means that the band will be a duo, as it was for tonight’s set by the accomplished pianist (and regular JT contributor) Ethan Iverson and sensitive bassist Thomas Morgan, who last year released a great duo album with Bill Frisell on ECM.

The video feed is basic, with two cameras positioned above the stage and cross-dissolving from one to the other automatically every 15 seconds or so. Unfortunately for me, and I suppose Mezzrow, the sound was lost on one of the cameras, making much of the set an awkward listen. In addition, the stage announcements by Iverson were tough to hear. This has been a problem with many of the streams; it seems as though the emphasis is on the performance side and that the extra mixing to make sure the vocal/announcement mic is at the right volume gets lost in the process. There are numerous other performances in the Mezzrow archive featuring Iverson, so look for them. Or check their schedule to see what artist you’d like to hear; they do a show every night. The piano at Mezzrow is one of the best in the city and the acoustics of the room are excellent. You can understand why so many outstanding pianists perform here regularly.

Stream live at smallslive.com.
Cost: Free for live stream, but paying members can view vast archive of past performances.

7:30 p.m. Patrice Rushen & Billy Childs in Duos & Duets for the Carr Center

The Carr Center is a performing-arts center in Detroit that was presenting jazz and creative music on a regular basis until COVID. The artistic director, Terri Lyne Carrington, had big plans for special programming but, like every presenter, had to pivot to something else. One virtual series she’s created is Duos & Duets, in which she pairs two perhaps unexpected artists. Tonight’s program featured two pianists with a ton of common ground, who both grew up in Los Angeles and attended USC within a few years of each other. They’ve also both had great success as music directors and composers, but they’d only played together once before at a Sondheim tribute. You don’t often get to hear two pianists together, so this performance was a real treat for us and them.

Day Three: Saturday, Nov. 14
Patrice Rushen performing a streamed concert for the Duos & Duets series for the Carr Center

After a short Zoom-style interview with the two moderated by Carrington and Just Jazz’s Leroy Downs, the organization streamed a concert that was recorded a few weeks ago at the Mr. Musichead Gallery in Los Angeles. The two grand pianos were positioned so that the duo faced each other, against a backdrop of dozens of famous music photos. The sound and filming were excellent. I appreciated that, unlike many presenters, they provided captions or title cards to let us know what compositions they were about to play. Of course, they did several of their own tunes, both in solo and duo format. Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention to Rushen’s output, but I still know her best for her electric piano sound; it was cool to hear her touch on the acoustic, and she even played her hit “Forget Me Nots,” one of the more sampled songs in contemporary jazz. 

I look forward to the next edition on Dec. 12, which will feature vocalist extraordinaire Lisa Fischer and bassist Ben Williams, who has played with Pat Metheny, David Sanborn, José James, and others, as well as leading his own groups.

Stream on the Carr Center’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
Cost: Free

8 p.m. Veronica Swift with the Joe Farnsworth Trio at Smoke Jazz Club

The great Smoke Jazz Club, located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has established itself as one of the foremost jazz venues in the city, thanks in part to regular appearances by a cadre of notable mainstream artists like Vincent Herring, Eric Alexander, George Cables, Lezlie Harrison, Emmet Cohen, and many others. In the wake of COVID, co-owners Paul Stache and Molly Johnson as well as  label manager Damon Smith worked hard to reposition the club in a city that has changed its regulations for bars and restaurants. One thing many fans don’t understand is that venues really make the bulk of their revenue from food and beverages; further complicating things, the city of New York does not allow venues to charge for live music at present.

Smoke has built a sidewalk enclosure that enables them, at least for now, to serve food to a limited number of customers outside, who can also listen to the live music inside played by bands on the Smoke stage. For those of us outside of NYC, they’ve come up with a nice multi-camera setup that nicely captures everyone on the bandstand. Since mid-July, they’ve been streaming every Friday and Saturday night in a series they call Smoke Screens. Because of the distinctive lighting, it actually looks and feels like a nightclub rather than a brightly lit soundstage, but the images are sharp and the sound is crisp. The bands do about a 70-minute set.

Veronica Swift performing with the Joe Farnsworth Trio at Smoke Jazz Club in November 2020

Once again I lucked out on this busy Saturday night: The magnificent singer Veronica Swift was performing a dynamic and swinging set with the Joe Farnsworth Trio, featuring the leader on drums, George Cables on piano, and Paul Sikivie on bass. In another stroke of serendipity, it turned out to be Cables’ birthday, making the occasion seem even more special. Usually vocalists take longer to develop, but Swift had a head start thanks in large part to her parents, the late pianist Hod O’Brien and vocalist Stephanie Nakasian. I could talk at length about Swift’s unique gifts as a singer (and songwriter), but the Smoke team was kind enough to give us a short clip so you can experience her precocious talents for yourself. Here she sings “Someone to Watch Over Me”:

Stream on Smoke Jazz’s YouTube channel.
Cost: $10 per show

9 p.m. Live from Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio: Joe Lovano, Ron Carter, Isaiah Thompson, and Kenny Washington

There are many hallowed locales for jazz fans—Preservation Hall in New Orleans, the Village Vanguard, Louis Armstrong’s house, any of John Coltrane’s houses, the grounds of the Newport Jazz Festival or the Monterey Jazz Festival—but one that echoes in every jazz record geek’s ear is Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey. Those geeks don’t have it in their mind’s eye, though, because the legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder was famous for not wanting anyone but musicians and producers to see the inside of his studio. First located in Hackensack and later in Englewood Cliffs, this was where most of the classic Blue Note recordings were made, as well as many other great jazz albums.

Since Van Gelder’s passing, his associates have kept on keepin’ on, but with the collapse of the recording industry and the rise of digital recording, that’s been a tougher task. So the studio had been in the process of making the transition to a historical landmark when COVID hit. Well, it’s still a historical landmark, and now they’re letting us see the setting for so much magic in jazz history.

Flyer for first episode of Live from Rudy Van Gelder's Studio
Flyer for first episode of Live from Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio

The facility has launched a new virtual music series called Live from Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio that will stream live from vangelder.live. The inaugural episode featured a band that represented multiple generations in the music—Joe Lovano, Ron Carter, Kenny Washington, Isaiah Thompson—paying tribute to the legacy of Hank Mobley, the quintessential Blue Note saxophonist. In between some banter about Rudy and the studio, the band played tunes that Mobley made famous, at least to jazz fans, like “Dig This” and “Soul Station.”  The recording and video was impeccable, of course; everyone in that crew must have known that Rudy could come back and haunt them if the sound in particular was anything less than great. He probably would have been agnostic about the video cameras and that analog genius may be turning in his grave at this very moment, but I bet that he’d be enjoying the music all the while.

You can read more about the evolution of Van Gelder Studio in an upcoming piece on jazztimes.com. In the meantime, tune into vangelder.live and dig the room, the vibe, the mics, and the sound.

Stream on vangelder.live.
Cost: $15

10 p.m. “The First Lady of Song” at Jazz at Lincoln Center

With its four venues and a host of special educational programs and events, Jazz at Lincoln Center lost a great deal with the onset of the pandemic.  However, they moved very quickly to provide numerous virtual presentations, as well as recasting events from their incredible archive (the organization wasn’t just streaming well before COVID hit; it was producing almost network TV-quality shows).

Tonight’s event originally was held on Apr. 20, 2017 and was a blockbuster in every sense of the word. I don’t even want to know how much it cost to attend this show in person, but I’m guessing more than my monthly electric bill. The theme—celebrating the legacy of Ella Fitzgerald—brought out stars from genres beyond jazz. The host, New Orleans-born-and-bred Harry Connick, Jr., has a long history with Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director. And given that this was essentially a television broadcast, why not have as host one of the most telegenic jazz-leaning musicians of our time? 

As host, Connick warmly and wittily introduced one talented and famous singer after another to perform songs associated with Fitzgerald, accompanied by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Guests included Marilyn Maye (a JALC favorite), Diana Krall, Renée Fleming, Audra McDonald, Roberta Gambarini (in a duet with singer, not drummer, Kenny Washington), Diana Krall, and Cécile McLorin Salvant (accompanied by Sullivan Fortner). Fortunately, not one singer imitated Fitzgerald; each sang in her own fashion.

Camille Thurman performing at "The First Lady of Song" gala concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2017 (photo by Frank Stewart)
Camille Thurman performing at “The First Lady of Song” gala concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2017 (photo: Frank Stewart)

The young Camille Thurman led things off, a nice touch that showed Fitzgerald’s influence on multiple generations. Even Connick got into the act, singing “I Got It Bad” on piano with the orchestra. There were some interstitial clips from JLCO band members and others as well as segments written by Geoffrey Ward, all extolling Fitzgerald. Overall, the result wasn’t particularly virtual; it could have been aired on PBS. I felt fortunate to view it, even with very real screen fatigue setting in.

Keep in mind that Jazz at Lincoln Center’s website has a wide range of other offerings, many free and all excellent.

Stream on jazz.org.
Cost: $15

10 p.m. Saturday Night with Marcus Miller & Friends featuring George Benson & Joey DeFrancesco

Up to now, I seem to have naturally focused on mainstream jazz, for no real conscious reason. So I was pleased to take in something different, presented by Entertainment Cruise Productions (ECP), who produce the Jazz Cruise and multiple sailings of the Smooth Jazz Cruise. Because those sailings were scheduled for the January/February period of 2021, they were all canceled, leaving the company with its resources and relationships on hold. You can’t do a cruise virtually. However, one of the hallmarks of those jazz cruises is their remarkable attention toward production values, as well as the unique collaborations they foster between great musicians spending the week together. It can make for some once-in-a-lifetime pairings.

Michael Lazaroff, executive director, decided to produce a short series of online shows geared to the smooth jazz audience, but with solid jazz leanings. One of the most valuable resources of the Smooth Jazz Cruise is the singular Marcus Miller, with whom everyone on the ship wants to play because he makes everyone sound better. Knowing that, and knowing too that Marcus had been musical director for Night Music, one of the most original music variety shows ever shown on network TV, Lazaroff created with Miller a show called Saturday Night with Marcus Miller & Friends, which would stream on Saturday night at 10 p.m. ET but would also be available to view on demand afterward. The first show, which I saw tonight, featured George Benson as the headliner, with Joey DeFrancesco (and Patrice Rushen) as guest bandmembers. Driven by Miller and his house band, which included music director/saxophonist Eric Marienthal, the music really cooked and the show moved along through Miller’s tunes, DeFrancesco’s tunes, and of course several of Benson’s hits. To see George play with Joey D, an heir to the legacy of Jack McDuff, was worth every nickel of the ticket price. Best of all, the way this show looked—the episodes were taped on a Southern California soundstage—was far and away more sophisticated than anything I’ve seen to date online. Heck, it was better than what I see on the network talk shows now. (I do not want to see Stephen Colbert in his home office one more time introducing some lame pre-taped performance by a band.)

Joey DeFrancesco and George Benson performing with Marcus Miller and his band for Saturday Night with Marcus Miller & Friends
Joey DeFrancesco and George Benson performing with Marcus Miller and his band for Saturday Night with Marcus Miller & Friends

Another asset in ECP’s pocket is the comedian Alonzo Bodden, who many of our readers may have heard on NPR’s popular radio show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me. Alonzo has been sailing on all of ECP’s jazz cruises for several years and has become a favorite of both the fans and musicians, all of whom have learned not to sit too close during his shows because of his “crowd work,” in which a casual conversation with an audience member can quickly turn into a roast. Bodden acted as emcee for all of these shows and with his comedy segments, interviews, and intros, he added a lively dimension so often missing from jazz shows. Don’t get me started on the patter and stage announcements of jazz musicians; that’s sure to be a column by me in the upcoming months.

The other three episodes of Saturday Night with Marcus Miller & Friends are: Gregory Porter and Patrice Rushen; Jonathan Butler, Keiko Matsui, Kirk Whalum, and Peter White; and the funk-rock band War. All of them are available to stream on demand until Nov. 23. There has been discussion about doing another show focusing on the mainstream jazz associated with the Jazz Cruise. Given the professional level of these shows, that would be a welcome addition to the landscape of jazz online.

[Full disclosure: The author also works as a freelance consultant for ECP, but he was not involved with the production of this series and swears it really was that good. —Ed.]

Stream on ECP’s website.
Cost: $25

Read Day One report here.

Read Day Two report here. 

Read Day Four Report here.