Recording Live and In The Studio – Two Sides Of The Same Coin

In light of the economic state of the jazz record business, many artists have to accept live recordings as representative of their work. It’s true that even in the studio situation if the money is tight and time restricted because of that, the recording process is not that much different from live outside of the presence of an audience. I have done many records in six hours or less which essentially  is a kind of live recording allowing no time for use of the studio situation to one’s advantage. But for the sake of this discussion let’s omit economics and assume that you have approximately two hours per tune, meaning for a standard CD length around two eight hour studio days. (This doesn’t include mixing and mastering which adds on at least another day.)

There is an inherent contradiction when recording jazz in the studio. The obvious fact that people can hear the music anywhere, anytime in the world forever certainly puts something special on any recording. The paradox is that we are capturing a moment(s) of musical time and magnifying it way beyond that time scale. Ideally, jazz, in fact any improvisational art, is predicated on being in absolute present time with no past or future impeding the flow of spontaneity or the artist’s ability to respond to what is happening in the moment around them. We cognize musical “spontaneity” as an ideal, as something special. However, spontaneous doesn’t mean that completely new and fresh material is necessarily being discovered, though that exists as a goal for most jazz players. The reality is that we are playing what we have discovered before, whether it be through the practicing process, or by accident, or a combination of events. It is the interpretative aspects of the music in the moment which is the first time event identified as spontaneous. Even in the case of the pre-be-boppers who often would play a set solo with exactly the same notes from performance to performance (like the classical artist), matters of interpretation (meaning phrasing, nuance, etc.) were different every time. To use a metaphor, magnifying a snapshot into a poster can be daunting and in the case of jazz, at least theoretically, paradoxical to its very ethos. On the other hand, why shouldn’t one moment  be as representative of an individual’s playing as another, assuming the artist is skilled enough to be consistent (a skill gained by experience in the studio).

The obvious benefits of studio recording is what painters, writers and sculptors artistically enjoy as a given….the opportunity to refine, correct and change one’s art towards the artist’s vision. It is in the studio where we can actually realize a piece representing the kind of diligence and care an artist should and can give to his work and to the audience. The other reality is that you cannot hide under the harsh lights of the studio where everything is heard to the smallest detail. The studio is a great leveler of talent…everything is scrutinized. However, in our era with technology so advanced, it is possible to seamlessly alter everything about the music to such a high degree that there is the inherent danger of over correction…. a problem of too many possibilities. In other words, if I have the capability of making something “perfect,” how can I resist using it? The sad truth in our era is that a listener cannot be sure that what they are hearing is what was actually played because there are so many ways to alter the past. Of course this is ultimately an individual artist’s decision but a very important one, especially for an art form that prizes spontaneity. Let me remain positive and just say that editing in our time affords the artist a chance to make a truly grand presentation, to present a concept, to mull over details… all of which hopefully contribute to a higher level of enjoyment from the listener as well as encouraging the artist to evolve further.

Though it is less likely that a performer uses extensive editing on a live recording compared to the studio, you can never be sure. Putting that reality aside, recording live is as close as you can get to hearing the essence of jazz….spontaneous-in the moment playing which for my aesthetic is the absolute highest musical goal. What I am looking for when I hear myself is a solo that is technically beyond reproach; ideas that are musically sound and coherent; interaction with the other musicians at the highest level; and an emotional depth that the listener can feel. That is a tall order which is realistically beyond most of us, but represents the highest goal of jazz improvisation for me. Recording live can be a nerve wracking experience because you cannot go back and change or fix things without affecting the very premise of what a live recording is supposed to be.

In summary the challenges of both kinds of recording are many and for the jazz artist it is mandatory to live in both worlds. As I said earlier, because of the current state of affairs in jazz recording, much of what is being released are live recrodings, a reality we as musicians have to live with. But we must persevere in attempting to find ways of recording under the white lights of the studio, using the tools afforded us in that environment to elevate our art.

One thing is sure…for myself and my peers it was the live recordings of Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, etc., that were passed around, many of which recorded in the ‘60s, as tenth generation reel to reel copies, evolving into cassettes and finally CDs that had the most effect on our musical development. The Coltrane “One Up, One Down” track live from the Half Note in NYC was a treasure as were various live Miles Davis concerts. “Live at the Plugged Nickel” was like gold (first released in Japan only as a double LP) and I wore out Trane’s “Live at Birdland.” There were some artists like Sonny Rollins, known for not being terribly comfortable in the studio, for whom you went primarily to their live recordings to hear their latest work. On the other hand those of us who saw Coltrane live witnessed first hand a group that was completely different on vinyl than live. (Refer to the You Tube of “Vigil” discussed below).

So what does this come down to? As an artist we have to deal with what is given us in our time. But for the serious listener the only way to really know how someone plays is to hear them live a few nights in succession without the benefits of hindsight (editing). Then you can truly judge themusic. Studio recordings are another, parallel reality to be taken in account on its own merits.