What jazz has that rock rarely finds is fiery and crafty improvisation. Last night, brilliant performances from some world-class players put a huge grin on my face.
I made a rare excursion to a jazz club recently as part of Winter Jazzfest 2011 — two nights of jazz spread over five clubs in New York's Greenwich Village. I went the second night and heard full or partial sets by nine acts. It wasn't until the 2 a.m. set by the trio of Jean-Michel Pilc, Francois Moutin and Ari Hoenig that I remembered so clearly why I used to care about jazz, and why rock can let me down. Pianist Pilc said to the late-night audience at Zinc Bar, "I don't know what we're going to play, but we're going to play it." And play it they did. It was an hour of nonstop magic, with each player (upright bass, drums and piano) inspiring the other and making music, not just playing music.
That's the huge payoff for me: to hear musicians react, spark laughter, surprise one another and sometimes surprise themselves. It's the delight of live performance. Every art form could use a little more of it, and rock players should take special note.
There's hope in that regard. Seeing Nels Cline's Stained Radiance, for example, hit that sweet spot of risk-taking. Cline is steeped in free jazz, but also works as the rock-guitar-texture guy in Wilco. His "Stained" project is just Cline and effects pedals, with painter Norton Wisdom. Wisdom paints live while Cline makes wild sounds, each affecting the other. Cline seemed distracted by tech issues and his music didn't unfold for me the way the painting did, but still, it reminded me of my days of seeing and making performance art. It was also nice to see a diverse audience — in terms of both color and age — at the sold-out Winter Jazzfest. It must feel the way the South by Southwest music festival did when it got its start 25 years ago. We'll see how these musicians and venues find ways to connect with this new-found crowd, but I look forward to joining them in the years to come.