Sunday, April 20, 2008

The State of the Art and Wolfgang's Vault

Every so often I go looking for a piece of recorded music that I think of as immortal, assured of everlasting life, and discover it is not in print. Today it was EMI/Capitol's The Beatles At the Hollywood Bowl, the only live recording they ever officially released. True, I should have anticipated this. It took them until 1977 to even talk George Martin into trying to clean up the tapes from the two concerts in 1964 and 1965 -- his concern was that no amount of EQ alteration, filtering and Dolby noise reduction would be adequate to produce a quality recording because of the shrill and constant howl of 17,000 locust-like fans. Apparently there were also problems with non-working stage monitors during one of the shows, which had made for rough performance. During the announcements Lennon sounds wry and detached. McCartney sounds like an embarrassed host. In other words, what is perfectly captured here is all the rambunctious chaos of what I have always imagined a live performance of the Beatles would be. I never got to see them play, so a live recording is exactly what I want to hear. It is the closest I will ever get to experiencing one of their performances. Two worn-out cassette copies lie dead in a box. If I need to buy a Dr. Ebbetts digital transfer or get a good vinyl copy on eBay and do my own transfer, I can deal with a tick here and a pop there. Because it is quite possible that instead of all parties getting together and dealing with McCartney's notorious perfectionism, Yoko's unfortunate veto powers, Olivia Harrison's reluctant conservatorship and Ringo's disinterest, that this one (like the Let It Be film) will simply never be released in a digital format.

Then there are the live recordings that you can only dream of. The ones that should have been made, or could have been made. When one of these is discovered to exist and made available, things get pretty exciting. In 2005 Blue Note Records released a recording of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk in concert at Carnegie Hall, November 29, 1957. Anyone with the admission price could climb aboard H.G. Wells' time machine and travel back to experience this magnificent performance, a moment in time that until now had been a mere legend. A curious engineer at the Library of Congress had found it in a storage box. Because of him and the smart people at Blue Note, the recording made that night in New York is available on CD.

This topic inevitably yields to yet more wonderment at the enormous volume of music that has been recorded since the 1910's. As Edison Records and others were discovering people would pay money to hear pre-recorded music, recording technology was moving from wax cylinders to 78's, and American popular music was shifting from Sousa's marches and Caruso's operas to the rolling and rocking syncopation of Scott Joplin's "ragged" time. When Jelly Roll Morton eventually cozied up to a microphone for the "King Porter Stomp", he may not have invented jazz (as he claimed), or even sound recording, but neither of those developments is more important to the history of American culture than what he did invent... with a little help from friends and enemies like Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. The State of the Art of Recorded Jazz, all these decades later, is as much his and their doing as anyone's.

Mechanically, the State of the Technology has gone from Thomas Edison's wax paper and tinfoil recordings to wax cylinders, thence to shellac and celluloid, and eventually to vinyl, magnetic tape, and the various digital permutations on compact discs and MP3 files. The Godzilla of the World Wide Web is stomping around the landscape as playback technology continues to grow (I hesitate to use the word "evolve") at such a rapid pace that, perversely, it has become the focus of attention. Perversely, because it is the communication and artistic expression that made it all happen in the first place. Jelly Roll Morton invented it, not Edison's wax paper phonograph.

But naturally, it is digitized data and the Internet that are celebrated. And that's good enough for now, because eventually, its celebrants and worshippers will be able to hear those first jazz recordings done in New Orleans and New York and Chicago. No one needs to be reminded any longer of the power or influence of www.*, nor do they need to be needled further about the deafening cacophony of useless palaver and frippery that Web 2.0 irreversibly invites into their 21st century lives in the meantime.

That's the price of opening the floodgates. Despite the overwhelming tsunami of .coms, .orgs and .nets, and the chattering white noise of Social Media's flotsam and jetsam, I manage to truly look forward to the great and wonderful things that can still wash ashore. On this planet inhabited by criminals and deal-makers, politicians and pirates, spin-doctors and spare parts dealers, it is most useful that there are artists amongst us as well. On-line IRS forms and instantaneously updated stock market prices are great for sorting out the daily, here-and-now logistics of eating and finding shelter. But artists elevate our sensibilities and get us to look ahead.

In November of 2006, the company called Wolfgang's Vault began releasing MP3 files of soundboard recordings done by promoter Bill Graham, father of the modern rock concert. When Graham died in 1991 he left behind recordings he'd made since the early beginnings of his career with San Franciscans like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. Stacked in rows of cardboard boxes was a carefully archived library of thousands upon thousands of recordings of the concerts he had promoted and produced up until his death. Two previous owners of the estate had lacked the necessary imagination and/or determination to make use of these invaluable records of the burgeoning American art form (and commercial enterprize... why split hairs now) as he invented and re-invented the rock concert. As an aside, anyone who makes a living playing live music today should have a framed picture of this 20th Century P.T. Barnum hanging on the wall. Bill Graham, née Wolfgang Grajonza, had carefully preserved copies of everything -- his famous psychedelic concert posters and handbills, T-shirts, ticket stubs and priceless photographs -- and kept them in various storage facilities throughout his career. He was one of those unusual visionaries who saw the world from an exterior historical perspective, and seemed to understand the impact he was creating on the culture around him. Thus he also had the wisdom and foresight to meticulously archive the most precious cultural artifacts of all, his soundboard recordings. In doing so he amassed the most awe-inspiring treasure trove of live recordings imaginable. Along with the rest of the collection, they had been shuttled from one owner to the next since 1991. The good news is that the last person to take possession of them, Bill Sagan, soon discovered the astonishing wealth of this Solomon's mine of recorded jewels after he purchased the collection in 2003, and had the clarity and sense of purpose to do what was necessary to make them available to us all. These are not museum pieces to be sealed up! In November of 2006, after many, many hours spent digitally mastering the recordings, Sagan's company began making them available a few at a time at, free of charge as streaming audio and as 256K MP3 downloads for $9.98.

If you are a jazz purist you may be asking yourself, Why do I care about this? The answer is that if you listen to what happened to jazz in 1968, you'll know that there was a fusing of jazz and rock 'n' roll. Bill Graham was there as one of the new music's architects. For you jazz historians, you might want to check out what Miles Davis had to say in Miles: the Autobiography -- the story probably changed a wee bit in the telling, but suffice it to say, when Clive Davis at Columbia Records came to Miles and gave him some business advice, the man they went to for help was Bill Graham. Columbia's magnificent live recordings of those dates at Fillmores East and West (probably taken from Graham's soundboard) have been my Bitches Brew-era mainstay recordings for years. Not that I don't appreciate what Teo Macero did with Bitches Brew. But all of my desert island jazz records are live recordings.

Really. All of them (I'm one of those people who look forward to every Columbia Legacy completist reissue of Miles Davis' work that Bob Belden and Michael Cuscuna want to crank out, so that I can hear Miles and his brilliant protégés live and unedited). Even the ones you probably think of as not. For one thing, live recording was the only way anyone thought of making a record before 1947, when Les Paul played 8 different guitar parts on his "Lover (When You're Near Me)" for Capitol Records. Once Macero and George Martin had done their work on Bitches Brew and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 20 years later, multi-tracking became a pretty standard approach in all recording environments. For a period of time from the early 1970's through the early 1990's, lots of jazzers (from the avant-garde deep end of the spectrum to the smooth, shallow end of the pool) and progressive rockers made extensive use of it, obviously. But even in the midst of all that (with the exception of the stroke-inducing, synthesized Cheez Whiz stuff with click tracks and drum machines), many jazz musicians were recording material live and using multi-tracking mostly for editing or as a way to "naturalize" the sound and make it sound more "live".

So when I happened one day upon what Wolfgang had in his vault, it took me days and days to fully comprehend what was in store. These are professional soundboard recordings of performances that, until now, have only been heard by their original audiences (or on crappy bootlegs in a few cases). Thousands of them. If you do the probability math on this one... it is unlikely that you have ever heard most of them.

Hang onto your hats, jazz-rockers.

There are 5 concert recordings of Miles and his "lost" electric quintets in 1970-71, 2 at Fillmore East, 1 at Fillmore West, 1 at Tanglewood and 1 at a CBS Records Convention.

There are 16 recordings of Mahavishnu Orchestra during their 1973 Birds of Fire tour. 16 recordings of the original wrecking crew of McLaughlin, Goodman, Laird, Hammer and Cobham.

There is a single, valuable recording done on September 2, 1973 of Return to Forever at the peak of their rawly breathtaking original powers with Bill Connors on guitar. He and Chick, Lenny and Stanley tear down the house in Lenox, Mass.

On the bill with Return to Forever that same night in 1973 at the Lenox Music Inn were Weather Report, recorded during their magical mystery Sweetnighter tour with Miroslav Vitous on bass, and Eric Gravatt and Dom Un Romao on drums and percussion . Wolfgang also has one more recording of a set with this same outfit, made a couple months later at Cornell University.

And there are recordings of original jazz fusioneers like Larry Coryell and Gary Burton, as well as rock fusioneers like Carlos Santana, Yes, King Crimson, even an early Chicago Transit Authority set with a burning Terry Kath.

Although it isn't strictly fusion (actually, it's two guys playing face-to-face grand pianos), there is another recording on with Chick and fellow fusion master Herbie Hancock, listed only under Hancock's name. For aficionados, this is an incredible find -- the albums from this historic tour, both Chick's on Polydor and Herbie's on Columbia, were taken from recordings done a month earlier, in February, 1978, and have been edited. The two tracks Wolfgang has here, "Homecoming" and "An Improvisation with a Hook" (called simply "The Hook" on the Polydor issue), are straight soundboard tapes from a month later. They are a month's -worth of touring looser, and fuller, sweeter, more complete recordings.

Last week I got an email notification from Wolfgang's Vault saying that they had just posted the last of 4 sets of Jimi Hendrix playing at Winterland in October, 1968, just after his Electric Ladyland album had been released. If you need any more evidence of Hendrix's jazz inclinations than "Rainy Day Dream Away" on that recording, wait till you hear these live sets. In fact, don't wait. Listen to the October 10th second set's 16-minute opening tune "Tax Free". Jimi's fusing of blues and jazz is something to behold -- he may never have had the opportunity to play with Miles (as he wanted to do, and would have done after the Isle of Wight, except that he didn't make it home to New York) but he certainly was listening to his music. And you know Miles was listening to his.

Closing note: a few days ago I discovered yet another place to hear live recordings. National Public Radio has been broadcasting and recording live music for decades. Marian McPartland's show Piano Jazz has been running on NPR since 1978. Many of her insightful interviews and recordings with various jazz guests can be streamed (like one with Pat Metheny) or are available on CD. What I didn't know is that NPR has been archiving other sets of live recordings done on their affiliates. Like Philadelphia's WXPN radio, who recorded Chick Corea and Bela Fleck doing three tunes in their studio. Amazing! I had gone to see these two perform at a Borders in-store performance in Los Angeles a year ago. What I have grown to love about the The Enchantment recording that they did together is when they'd air it out and just play, so when I got to hear the three tunes they recorded live at WXPN, all loosened up after several months of having performed together, I was blown away. The sophistication of their artistry at their level of anticipation and improvisation blew me away.

Isn't it the ultimate irony that after nearly a century-and-a-half of feverish technical advancement by the most passionately creative artists and engineers in the world, the peak of the mountain, the State of the Art, is still a live recording done just like Tatum would have done it? Once through. No stops. No edits. It can be done now with much improved fidelity, that's for sure. But the State of the Art is a naturalistic rendition of pleasing rhythms, melodies and harmonies.

Live music!


(Photo of Miles Davis and Steve McQueen by Jim Marshall. Prints available at

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