Fresh Tracks

Jazz in the studio vs. jazz recorded live.

It’s been a year of archaeological wonders for jazz fans, one in which long-lost recordings of legendary concerts have been excavated, restored, and released on commercial labels. The highlights:

*The Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker quintet at New York City’s Town Hall in June 1945 (unmarked acetates unearthed in a Connecticut antique store);

* Thelonious Monk’s quartet, with John Coltrane, at Carnegie Hall in November 1957 (tapes discovered during a routine inventory at the Library of Congress);

* John Coltrane’s quartet at the Half Note in the spring of 1965 (tapes found in his widow’s closet).

While the Half Note sessions have been floating around for years on bootleg labels (which were incomplete and in poor sound, made from copies of copies of copies), the Town Hall and Carnegie Hall concerts came as complete surprises. All these decades, nobody has known, or everyone had forgotten, that they had been recorded. More stunning, they’re not mere collectors’ items; they turn out to be some of the most thrilling performances, by some of the greatest musicians, that have ever been preserved on disc.

Which prompts a thought: Maybe jazz musicians should record fewer albums in studios and more before live audiences, in nightclubs or concert halls, where the music naturally belongs.

Parker and Gillespie’s 1945 studio recordings stand as path-breakers. They mark the beginnings of bebop, a new style of jazz that extended the art of improvisation, with musicians building their solos on the chords of popular songs in syncopated rhythms and at blazing speed. But they sound almost quaint compared with the Town Hall concert, which took place only a few weeks later. Listen to the two versions of “Salt Peanuts.” The studio take, recorded May 11, has the casual sway of the swing era; Parker’s alto-sax solo is brilliant but compact. The Town Hall performance, on June 22, is a blast into the jet age; there’s a ferocity that’s hair-raising even now.

In part, this disparity between live and studio performance is a simple matter of time. On the 78-rpm recordings of the day, musicians had to keep a song to a few minutes and a solo to shorter still—eight bars, 16 at most. At a live date, there were no restrictions, so the songs could go on for at least twice as long, and so could the solos. The difference is not just the extra length but also the freedom to stretch and experiment: If the soloist gets lost in his first chorus, it doesn’t matter since he can push it further and get it right in the second chorus or the third. And, of course, Parker and Gillespie never got lost, and they never played a chorus the same way twice. So we wind up with a new set of masterpieces that are more adventurous than anything we’d thought these two were playing so early on in their collaboration.

The Monk-Coltrane concert at Carnegie Hall is remarkable in a different way. The quartet had been formed in July 1957 to play at the Five Spot, a music bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The engagement marked Monk’s return to the live jazz scene after five years and Coltrane’s return to vitality after kicking heroin. The quartet was so popular that the gig was extended for six months. The band recorded just one studio session, near the start of their stay at the Five Spot. The Carnegie Hall date took place in late November, near the end. They’d been playing together almost every night for four months, and they’d become a “working band.” They knew each other’s moves; each of them could take wild excursions without fearing that the others would lose step.

The studio sessions, classic as they are, sound studied and stiff compared with the Carnegie concert. At Carnegie Coltrane blazes in his solo on tenor sax, Monk shuffles tempo and lays down unexpected accents on piano, while the rhythm section shifts and swings. In the first couple minutes of “Monk’s Mood,” the concert’s opener, Monk and Coltrane float through the chords as if in meditation, opening up spaces that neither would have dreamed of indulging at an eyes-on-the-clock studio date. Or check out the opening of “Epistrophy,” where drummer Shadow Wilson taps out a straightforward beat on the studio session —but clangs a Latin rhythm on his cymbals in the early set at Carnegie, then a completely different, staggered, hard-boiled rhythm in the late set.

The newly discovered master tapes of the Coltrane sessions—recorded seven and a half years later at the Half Note, a tiny jazz club that was near the Holland Tunnel—are something else again. It documents one of Coltrane’s final gigs with his “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass), orbiting along the jagged edges of structure—exploring every possible variation on a passage of music, extending his improvisations for as long as a half-hour—before blasting off, later that year, into the outer space of free jazz. Unlike the Monk-Coltrane and Parker-Gillespie albums (which are essential albums of modern music), this one isn’t for everybody; but for those who can take the intensity, it’s transfixing.

(For those whose taste in Coltrane runs to the adventurous but not quite so “out there,” I’d recommend his 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard and his performance of “My Favorite Things” at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival—both far more startling and energetic than anything he did in a studio.)

Another, newer live recording, by an equally legendary tenor saxophone player, is Sonny Rollins’ Without a Song, recorded at a Boston concert a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Rollins is a peculiar case. More than almost any other jazz musician, he feeds off the enthusiasm of an audience and feels constrained in the artifice of a studio. He has made several terrific studio recordings in his half-century as a leader, but his best albums have been cut live, most notably A Night at the Village Vanguard (1957) and Our Man in Jazz (1962). More recently, say in the last 30 years, the only truly great album he’s made, G-Man (1986), was recorded live. Without a Song is just average for a Rollins concert, but that means it’s stupendous by the standards of most studio albums, Rollins’ or anyone else’s. Compare his performance of “Why Was I Born” with his 1991 studio rendition. The latter is fine, but it never quite takes off, never strays very far from the melody. In the concert version, he builds and builds until he finally seems to lock onto not only a hidden essence of the song but some fundamental rhythm of the earth. (Really. Listen.)

What accounted for the difference? The chemistry of the crowd? The emotion of the times? The sheer absence of limits on time? All of the above?

The fact is, many of the great modern jazz musicians recorded some of their greatest albums live. There are obvious exceptions. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue stands as the perfect studio jazz album, but it’s only a notch above his Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965) or Live in Stockholm (1960); during his jazz-rock fusion period in the 1980s, his live recordings (all released posthumously) were staggeringly superior to his halfhearted studio sessions of the day. Bill Evans will be remembered, above all else, for Waltz for Debby (Village Vanguard, 1961) and Last Waltz (Keystone Korner, 1980). A long list could be drawn up. (For a partial one, click here.)

This theory doesn’t hold so much for classical and rock recordings. Classical musicians see albums as a chance to lay down a definitive (or perhaps a revisionist) rendition. They want, in most cases, the notes to be perfect, a goal facilitated by the section-by-section takes and retakes that only the studio can permit. Rock bands see albums as hit-makers, so they like the multitrack control of a studio. Some bands’ albums—for instance, post-’65 Beatles, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan—are artifacts of the studio and could not have been made live.

There are exceptions to both rules. Solo classical musicians, like Martha Argerich, scale impassioned peaks before a live audience. Others, such as Dinu Lipatti or Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, entered a studio so rarely, we’ll take whatever copies of live radio broadcasts we can find. Some rock musicians—say, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead—have focused their careers on performance and rarely played a song the same way twice. Collecting their live bounty has its own rewards. (There are limits even here, though: Dylan’s raucous rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone” in Manchester, England, 1966, is one of the most awesome performances in rock history; but the track laid down at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio will always be considered the definitive version of the song.)

What’s different about jazz recordings is that jazz, by nature, is an improvisational music. There is no “definitive” or “most correct” version (except perhaps in the case of big bands with complex arrangements, such as Duke Ellington’s or Gil Evans’). Especially for small, acoustic jazz groups, a song played a dozen times sounds different each time; which version is better or worse can’t be predicted in advance. So here’s a proposal for jazz musicians: Get booked into a jazz club for a week; hire a really good engineer to record all the sets; afterward, pick the takes you like best; compile them into a CD. More likely than not, the results will be better, livelier, than the album you might eke from a day or two in the studio.