Monday, March 17, 2008

Minimum Balance

Caught the excellent Marilyn Crispell trio Sunday night at the Village Vanguard. It was the last set of a six-night run, but if the players were tired or sick of the group dynamic, you wouldn't know it. It's a killer line-up - Crispell on piano, Mark Helias on bass, and Paul Motian on drums: veteran musicians, virtuosos all, playing charts mostly written by the players themselves. I can't imagine you can make music of this caliber and complexity without sensitive ears, so it was a bit shocking when, from the very first note, it seemed obvious the drums were way too loud.

I don't know what the sound was like up on stage, but it surprises me that after 11 shows, no one off-stage had the courage to suggest the group re-think balances. It wouldn't have taken much: move Motian to the back, strip the set of mics (if there were any - tough to see from my seat) and pump up the bass and piano. But for whatever reason no one mentioned it and the music suffered.

I wish this were an exceptional occurrence, but after years of concert-going I've come to expect crappy sound - even from talented players in well regarded venues. As a consequence, I've started to see less pop and jazz and more classical, where instrumental balances are considered a crucial aspect of performance and basic audibility can be taken for granted.

What's the deal, though, with pop and jazz? Why do we tolerate shitty sound, especially when we know from recordings the revelations clarity can bring?

My best guess is that it has to do with the social origins of the music. Long before popular forms were heard in concert, they were played at marches, dances, bordellos, sporting events. While the music may have grown in complexity and subtlety (in some cases necessitating the sort of focus at one time the preserve of classical music) people still expect to be able to order a drink mid-set, to chat with their friends, and move about the room.

Another factor, especially at rock shows, may be that identification of volume with intensity I mentioned the other day. It always confuses me to put on ear plugs at a concert. My dad says it's something like wearing sunglasses to a museum and I think that's right: no matter how good the plugs, you lose a ton of information. And yet! People seem not only to accept but to embrace this aspect of the live show. (You get this a lot at bars and parties, too. It always shocks me to see people shouting over the music week after week. Wouldn't it be easier to just turn it down a few clicks? And yet! Something's obviously lost.)

Anyway, balance issues aside, it was still a pretty satisfying show. Even when Motian drowned out the rest of the group, there was plenty to enjoy in his rhythms alone. The man is some sort of rhythmic genius: at times he would play nothing but his ride with one stick, and I would still have trouble keeping up.

Helias, who's played with tons of amazing musicians and yet kept a relatively low profile, was also impressive. He has a rich tone and strong melodic sense, reminiscent of Charlie Haden, and his playing, like the master's, seemed extremely modest - always in service of the overall sound, nothing extraneous.

Crispell, though it was her gig, was in some ways the hardest to gauge. Maybe it had to do with that cursed lack of audibility, but it took focus to hear what she was doing and she didn't always attract it. Her playing was an odd pairing of knotty atonality and sweeping lyrical passages - the former generally coming off better than the latter. That said, like Helias, she seemed an incredibly gracious player, even in the selection of pieces which were, I think without exception, by her band mates.

I'd be curious to hear what others have to say about the volume issue, as it's so pervasive - and I am so utterly convinced that it needs to be rectified - that something must be amiss. Lest balances go askew in this blog, please chime in.

No comments: