The Mike Murley Trio – Murley on soprano and tenor saxophones, Reg Schwager on guitar and yours truly on bass – played a concert on the evening of February 5 at The Fourth Stage, a newish performance space at The National Arts Centre in Ottawa. It was part of the city’s newly-founded Winter Jazz Festival, which in turn is part of its annual celebration of ice and snow, “Winterlude”. Although this year, “Interlude” might be more like it, as our normally frigid capital is having almost as mild a winter as Toronto, with temperatures barely cold enough to keep the ice sculptures solid and the Rideau Canal, normally an outdoor skating rink, partially unfrozen.
Oh yeah? Check this…..
The major sticking point in the logistical arrangements for this gig was the presenter’s – or maybe the stage-crew’s – insistence that we do a 1 p.m. sound-check for a 7 p.m. concert. Apart from being obscenely early just on the face of it, this didn’t take into account that the band was driving all the way from Toronto that day, which, in winter conditions and including finding our way through a (mostly) unfamiliar city, would mean having to leave at about eight in the morning. Simply put, this just wasn’t going to happen. It was even more of a long-shot once it was decided that Mike and Reg would be riding in Mike’s Mini and my wife Anna would be driving me and the bass in our Chevy, because she’s even less of a morning person than the guys in the band – much, much less. In fact, Mike half-jokingly suggested that Anna – who can be, shall we say, formidable – take over as our agent in these negotiations. (I can just hear how that would have gone, starting out with, “Now listen up, you dumb mother——s……”)
So, back and forth it went, with the venue/crew citing union rules re schedules, hours, meal breaks and so on, and Murley suggesting compromises such as a 4:30 sound-check, etc. Very late in the game, it was revealed that we would be the second of three bands appearing on the same stage that night, so there was maybe some method to their schedule-madness. But this was new information and still didn’t make it any more feasible for us to comply. Finally, running out of time and patience, Murley brilliantly hit on a novel and ideal solution: there wouldn’t be a sound-check, because we didn’t need one. It’s still only February and pretty early going, but as far as Reg and I are concerned this puts Mike Murley firmly in the lead for “Bandleader of the Year” honours.
With just saxophone, guitar and bass, we already know how we sound, thanks, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure us out. We don’t play in 5,000-seat venues – as if – and we don’t have a drum set (with the all-important ‘kick-drum’), a piano, a vocalist or other complications; all we need are amplifiers for the guitar and (maybe) the bass, which were being provided, and a talk mic for Murley. And possibly a saxophone mic, though with Mike’s ample sound that’s optional, depending on the size of the hall.
Though hardly a Trotskyist coup, there was something liberating in this push-back against the tyranny of the sound-check, now so deeply ingrained as to be a sacrosanct convention, geared toward the sound-crew’s convenience but never the band’s, utterly time-wasting and mind-numbing. This would be a revisionist return to the glory days when a jazz band arrived just before the gig, set up, tuned up and played.
Countless concerts and tours have taught me that in the real-speak of gig-world, the term sound-check simply translates to “a perfect way to ruin your day”. On the road, they’re always scheduled at a time when you either desperately need to eat or sleep, or both. Or, heaven forbid (and only under the most extreme circumstances) maybe even practice, all of which would aid your performance on the gig, which is what people are actually paying to hear. And speaking of money, here’s another thing to consider: the sound/stage-crew guys are all getting paid during these “check-1-2-check-1-2-3” fests, which therefore don’t exactly breeze by in a timely fashion – “more kick-drum, please…..” – but the band isn’t. The pay for whatever time of ours is squandered during all this is supposed to be reflected in what is laughingly referred to as “our fee”.
So, it felt good to cut all this loose for a change, the only danger being a possibly disgruntled crew with an eye toward being uncooperative, if not downright saboteurish. You can laugh and call me paranoid if you like, but I’ve seen this a couple of times when the band gets these uppity, independent notions about how it should sound (like we’d know) and diplomatic relations with the techies break down. Believe me, it can get ugly in a hurry.
Luckily, these ramblings are mostly scenes from an old movie. In recent years there’s been much better cooperation and a meeting of the minds between musicians and sound techs, who seem to have formed a better idea of what a jazz band is actually supposed to sound like, as in less-is-more. It’s a far cry from twenty-five or thirty years ago when Rob McConnell said he hated the concept of the sound-check because “it gives them two chances to screw you up, one in the afternoon and the other at night.”
Anyway, these anxieties were allayed as soon as we arrived at 6:15 and saw the space: one look and I knew we were in business. This was our meat, a small, pie-shaped cabaret-style theatre that held about 300, little round tables with four or five chairs at each, a perfectly-sized stage right in the middle and a nice, cozy atmosphere. The first band were still tearing down so there was no rush; I relaxed, set down the bass and reserved a couple of seats for Anna and her old friend, Kata.
When the stage was clear, I unpacked the bass and played a few notes, which told me all I needed to know: the room had terrific natural acoustics, warm but not too live. There didn’t seem to be any hostility whatsoever from the sound guys, two very tall gentlemen who knew their business and went about it. If anything, skipping the preliminaries had made their lives easier, their attitude almost seemed to be, “Wow, these guys don’t need a sound-check, they must be good.” The bass amp was a great big Gallien-Krueger – way more amp than I’d ever need in a room like this, with a lot of do-dads, knobs and buttons. Following the ‘dashboard’ advice Ed Bickert gave Jim Vivian long ago in a similar situation, I found the “it-sounds-like-shit-knob and turned it way to the left” until it sounded like a bass, or at least a bass played by me. One of the guys asked if he could put a clip-on microphone on the bass and I answered “sure” because this one attached unobtrusively to the strings way down by the tailpiece and gave the bass sound a little more warmth in the house. These guys were good, I was sensing theatre-school training. I got a couple of notes from Reg and tuned up – close enough for jazz – and was ready to go. The whole thing had taken about five minutes, much more like it. Music – 1, Clock – 0.
So it was on to the dressing room to figure out what we’d play – it was to be a seventy-five-minute set, so Mike figured eight or nine tunes would do it and jotted down a list. He was pretty weighed down as we walked on stage – his soprano and a sax stand in one hand, his tenor and some sheet music in the other. It was a full house and he talked to the audience for a minute, saying he’d thought of telling a joke to open, but had forgotten it on the way to the stage. Then he said we’d mostly be playing standards, but some of them might not be that familiar. Then he introduced our first tune “You For Me” as one we liked to open with and counted it in at a medium-up tempo.
A Victor Borge Moment
All seemed well for a few bars, when Mike suddenly stopped playing the melody, looking askance at his horn. He sounded fine to me, but something was up and he motioned to Reg and me to keep playing, but we petered out because there was nothing to play to. Everything crashed to a halt and there was a murmur of confusion and embarrassment in the room as people tried to figure out what had gone wrong. This turned to gales of laughter when Murley eventually looked into the bell of his tenor and pulled out a full bottle of water – his hands were too full to carry it onstage so he’d stuck it in there and forgotten all about it. It was his genuine, dumbfounded surprise that made it so funny and Mike laughed as hard as anybody. Just as it was dying down he got on the mic and said, “I guess that was the joke” and then, “I thought my reed felt a little wet.”
It was a unique, unintended ice-breaker which only served to humanize us and focus everyone’s attention….the crowd, who were already on our side, seemed more so now. So, we took another crack at “You For Me” and this time Murley sounded like he’d been shot out of a cannon – it’s really amazing how much easier it is to play the saxophone without a huge blockage in the bell.
Laughter From the Hip
Mike switched to his curved soprano – the saxophone brooch – for our second number, a haunting and folkloric waltz by Jimmy Rowles called “Looking Back”. Even though I introduced it to the trio, this is the one piece I like to have a lead sheet for when we play – it has some tricky corners that sometimes elude my memory. Mike had left it and a few other rumpled charts on our music stands just in case and my stand now magically got in on the slapstick act. It was a Wenger rather than a Manhasset and this particular one had mysterious sheet music-repelling properties, not exactly what you want in a music stand. For some reason, the sheet music kept falling off it and drifting to the ground, laying littered around my feet until my area of the stage looked like like the garret of a novelist with a bad case of writer’s-block. This brought some more chuckles and I was grateful I didn’t really need any of the paper, because putting down the bass and bending over to pick up all this would have been awkward. And frankly, I was too lazy to do it anyway.
Next we played Rodgers & Hart’s wonderful “A Ship Without A Sail”, which sounds too fresh and modern to be a song written in 1929; following it with a classic, slow Jobim bossa nova, “If You Never Come To Me”. I’d played solos on each of the first four tunes and, as if reading my mind, Mike said, “Boy, there sure are a lot of bass solos in this band”, backpedaling with… “although it is a trio”. It was still too many and I couldn’t help myself from saying to the crowd, “You know…..it would be really helpful if you people would at least have the decency to talk during the bass solos so I could feel more at ease.” It was dangerous ground, but they were hip enough to get the irony.
I passed on soloing during the next two quicker numbers and when they were over, Mike realized he hadn’t introduced Reg and me. So he mentioned Reg and some of his many accomplishments and when he came to me, he said “Steve has played with practically everybody over the years, including The Boss Brass and Oscar Peterson …” Again I couldn’t help myself, drawling like Al Cohn, “Yyessssss… there has been a bit of a comedown lately”. It brought down the house and once more I thanked my lucky stars that the audience picked up on the irony or I would have seemed snotty, not for the first time.
We closed with the stark blues by John Lewis, “Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West” in the bass-friendly key of G. I love to play the blues and had at it in a lengthy solo, followed by Mike on tenor, then Reg, who, as he often does, got the last laugh. As the third soloist, he worked a wild quote of “The Third Man Theme” into his outing, even mimicking the crazed zither sound of the famous score’s composer, Anton Karas. Knowing a million tunes as he does, Reg is an absolute master at this. His quotes are never gratuitous or cheap, they always refer to something that happened earlier in the tune or the concert, or something that we talked about on the way to the gig, they’re always sly and witty. And he has a way of displacing or bending them so they never seem obvious, but more surreal, coming at you from around a corner. And most of all, they’re funny, he provided us all with one final laugh.
The venue and the sound guys were marvelous, but even better was the audience, one of the best I can remember playing for. I’ve only come to realize it in recent years, but the members of an audience don’t know just how crucial they are to a performance. They complete the circle, act as the sounding board for everything we musicians do and they reflect everything we give them back to the stage, inspiring us, making us better. Not only by being attentive and listening, but by being interactive and participating with some energy. Above all by getting it, as these folks surely did.
Jazz Is Serious Fun
The audience helped the trio play about as well as we can, but long after the quality of this evening’s music fades from memory, it’s the comedy that we’ll remember best. Jazz is a serious music and we’re serious about playing it, but it’s also the imperfect art. Because the music is so spontaneous and the improvisation involves so much risk-taking and surprise, laughter is never far away, nor should it be. There are bound to be little goofs or flaws in such a long-odds, impromptu approach and the proper response to these unpredictable turns and flubs is not to go all boo-hoo, but rather to laugh, to delight in them and keep going. It’s not that jazz can be played for the laughs – it can’t – but they must be accepted and enjoyed whenever and however they come, for come they will. It sounds paradoxical, but jazz is too hard and too important to be taken too seriously, there has to be humour and joy to break the tension and ease the pressure, otherwise we’d just give up. And when the comedy is as sincere and spontaneous as the music was on this night, it only heightens the whole experience.
Not to overthink it, but Mike’s unexpected water-bottle moment – pulling a rabbit out of a hat as it were – was oddly symbolic of what jazz musicians are supposed to do: create real music out of thin air with nothing up our sleeves but our knowledge and ears, our spirit and instincts. It’s a bit of a high-wire act with no net, but jazz players are grateful to take these gambles in public each and every chance they get. It’s maybe not quite magic, but when it works, it’s as close as I’ll ever come.
© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.