Tuesday, August 7, 2012

That Spark of Energy by Andy Scheer

For all that I've ranted about the important of tight, accurate writing, I recently got a powerful reminder that there's a lot more to art than mere precision.

The last weekend of July, I enjoyed the traditional jazz festival in Evergreen, Colorado— centered around musical styles from the 1940s and earlier.

Take the Hay Train at the
Evergreen Jazz Festival
Just as novels fall into many sub-genres (how many categories of romances are there?), even traditional jazz comes in many flavors. This year the festival organizers branched away from the more usual styles (New Orleans, Chicago, West Coast) and invited a new group to play in the genre called western swing (a fusion of cowboy music and big band jazz).

A few years back a western swing band had been popular at the festival, so the organizers searched for a group that could come. But they have a tight budget and the big-name acts (such as Asleep at the Wheel) were out of the question. So in the spirit of jazz they found a creative solution: bring from Florida a group of five talented professional musicians who would make their world debut playing in this style—in eight performances over three days.

The opening day I try to catch at least one set by each new group so I can discover which ones to follow from event to event. Having attended the festival before, I expect excellence. And I appreciate most of the sub-genres (even the more obscure ones such as the group playing in the Gypsy style of Django Reinhardt and one playing like Benny Goodman's sextet).

But this year a few groups seemed on the verge of just going through the motions. The musicians were top-notch and they followed carefully crafted arrangements, but their heads stayed buried in their charts. They played all the right notes, but something was missing.

The two groups I most enjoyed did have some charts to refer to, but that's not where their eyes were. They were looking to each other—seeing what spontaneous riff the soloist of the moment was taking and deciding how they could both complement and respond to each other's creativity. They also made good eye contact with the audience—and when they did they were smiling.

This was especially true for Take the Hay Train, the western swing group that had never performed together in this style. In the spirit of jazz they took familiar instrumental and vocal tunes (“San Antonio Rose,” “Jambalaya,” “Lady Be Good,” “Stormy Weather") and experienced the joy of bold experimentation. Yes, they missed some opportunities. At times they could have done better.

And that's just what they did. Each of their next four performances I watched just got better—without losing any of the spark of creativity they were enjoying by taking familiar stories—familiar tunes—and contributing their blend of unique skills and styles.

Before they attempted it, I would have never expected the classic Duke Ellington/Juan Tizol big band tune “Caravan” could be performed by an accordion backed up by a fiddle, guitar, and upright bass. As I think about it, I'm still grinning. Fortunately, Take the Hay Train had the chutzpa to try. Maybe there's a lesson here for artists whose keyboard says qwerty.


Rick Barry said...

As a fan of Big Band era music in general (and Glenn Miller in particular), I would've enjoyed hearing these musicians. I don't play any instrument, but I appreciate those who do and do it well. I stick to my qwerty keyboard and trust God to bless others through it.

Thanks Andy.

Anonymous said...

There's a lot to be said for the freedom and joy musicians can have.

sally apokedak said...

Lovely post. It makes me want to be creative. Experimentation is great.