Sometimes the mood makes the musicPublished 4:58pm Saturday, March 30, 2013
When it comes to music, it’s often all about the experience.
Last weekend, I met a small group of friends in St. Paul to celebrate the upcoming marriage of a friend in California.
This was no bachelor party you’d expect to be dramatized like “The Hangover.” Rather, our “guys night” agenda entailed meeting for dinner at a burger restaurant and then walking to the Artist’s Quarter Jazz Club to watch Atlantis Quartet, a jazz group our soon-to-be-married friend had heard good things about.
As an absolute sucker for live jazz, I quelled my expectations, since I feared the name Atlantis Quartet sound a bit too much like a jazz-fusion group.
My attempts at keeping realistic hopes were dashed when the Artist Quarter’s doorman left his usual post in the basement doorway to introduce the band — something I had not seen in prior trips to the jazz club.
The doorman raved about the quartet nearly to the point of rambling, saying they have one of the best rhythm sections around and one of the best up-and-coming saxophonists in the state — before he corrected himself and added in the entire nation — and then he spoke of their skilled rhythm section again.
He finally ended by urging us is the audience to sit back, keep our voices down and “just dig” the music.
We couldn’t help but listen to him: To put it simply, the band had chops. The quartet played the type of show that keeps your feet tapping from start to finish, and they impelled the crowd to show its respect by reserving most talk to whispers. The quartet seamlessly mixed in older standards with their own new tracks.
Partway through the first set, my friend told us even though he thinks jazz is dead, any genre of music is inspiring when it’s performed skillfully live.
“Hearing it well done live, there’s nothing that tops it,” he said.
He went on to add while he would never listen to a contemporary country album, he’d likely enjoy it if performed well live.
As a jazz fan and jazz record collector who disputes “jazz is dead” claims, I brushed off his argument at first. But a few days later I pulled up Atlantis Quartet’s website and listened to streaming versions of the quartet’s studio albums. While still accomplished music, the recordings playing from computer speakers lacked the pizzazz of that Saturday night. The sounds didn’t have the same tones, the same intonations, and the emotion of the music felt foreign even when I recognized the songs.
I write this not as a judgment on the very skilled Atlantis Quartet; instead, I write this to highlight what was missing from the recordings: the experience.
The Artist’s Quarter is a bit like walking into a time capsule, and most everything about the basement club enhances the musical experience.
Even for the relatively small and intimate jazz club, we didn’t have prime seats that night, but that did nothing to sour the mood. We pushed together two circular high-top tables toward the back beside the square bar. After our waitress steadied the wobbly table with a wadded napkin, she warned us we were sitting at the “windy table.” The overhead air ducts blew directly onto the tables, jettisoning napkins, straws, receipts and any other gravity-impaired objects to the floor. Before long, we all pulled our coats back on to guard against the cool air. Such things are small and easily forgettable when the music is good.
We were still in a prime spot to take in the entire experience of a jazz club. The limestone brick and black painted walls are lined with framed posters of famous jazz photos. Every time I’m there, I think of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
The club, like the music, offers a distant, but personal feel. The doorman never stamps your hand or puts on a wristband after he takes your cover fee, because he assures you “I’ll remember your face.” Throughout the night our waitress calls us by name, albeit the names she assigns us based on our cocktails of choice.
Even St. Paul is a good town for jazz, as the city is more confined and intimate than its larger neighbor, Minneapolis, and still maintains historic roots to the jazz age and Minnesota’s famed son, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
All those things — the ambiance and the character of the setting — often work together to form the perfect backdrop for the experience.
Jazz and other music isn’t that different from other American pastimes. No HD television and surround sound stereo can recreate the crack of the bat and the summer sun of attending a baseball game.
Is jazz dead? No, you just need to know where and how to look and listen.