Swing at Sunset

Last Friday afternoon, I did something unprecedented (if three weeks constitutes a history): I left work at 4.30. The plan was to meet Nl downtown, get something to eat, and then head for the SJ Jazz Fest. I came across the event in a completely random way in Ben&Jerry’s; usually I just make a mental note, miss the date, and then feel wistful for the rest of the week. This time I actually looked it up and Made Plans.

The light rail, which by the way takes about 15 minutes to get into Downtown, was not at all bad. After a little bumbling I met Nl and we had dinner at a Moroccan restaurant (excellent service, average food), and then hustled ourselves out the door to get to Zoe Keating’s performance. It was a good thing we got there earlier, too. The chair-stealing had started in earnest, and Nl and I carted away a couple from outside an eating establishment which will go unnamed, looking around furtively.

Zoe Keating

Pity the hat dominates the foreground.

Zoe Keating is a lovely performer, not just a wonderful artist. She kept us engaged with her conversation as well as her music; I found her gentle humour lovely and very much in the style of the performance. And the music… so much of it was actually, almost transcendentally, gorgeous.

I think she can be very accurately described as a one-woman orchestra. She makes music out of her cello, her bow against the wood, and a piece of software that layers sounds with the help of a foot pedal. If I heard her correctly, she writes and tests out her own code for this. It makes the whole thing just — geeky in a way that makes me go starry-eyed. So all the background music — the rhythm, the harmony, the plucked notes, everything — is just Zoe playing, except that she simply puts it together herself.

And the best part? It’s all done in real time.

Watching her play is surreal in made even more surreal because it’s almost as though there are multiple Zoes, spliced out in time. She closes her eyes and just becomes the music, keeping time and tune in some unearthly fashion. Behind her, the sun flamed and set, the night grew colder and… planes descended into SJ airport every few minutes, completely ignored by the crowd.

There is something so wild and elemental about Zoe Keating’s music that it makes you feel like you’re perched on a lonely rock somewhere near the ocean, where the rhythm of the waves somehow transmutes itself into the bone-rumbling bass of the cello.

When Nl and I left at 9, after an hour, we did so very reluctantly.

The Ohio Players

Sadly, I do not have much to say about them. Nl and I wandered over there in time to hear them finishing a really rollicking piece that was still far more jazzy than Keating’s (not that that ever made a jot of difference to us). They started into a feel-good soul piece next, though, and we stayed for part of that.

It was really wonderful to see such a responsive crowd (although the bottles and cups full of not-quite-water that I saw could’ve been contributing to that), swaying in time, dancing with each other, just soaking up the atmosphere. A large percentage of the crowd was black, and I couldn’t help but laugh (internally, I have been assured I look weird doing it out loud) at the thought of what used to be popular in the black community back then in the 40s and what’s popular now.

Nl at this point looked at our map/list and said she wanted to take a look at the Swing Stage or Stompin’ at the Savoy and I was all for it, so we left. But if I get a chance to listen to the Players again, I’ll take it gladly.

Stompin’ at the Savoy

Getting here was a bit of an adventure in itself. The instructions literally said “enter through the parking lot”. We debated for a while whether they meant garage or lot, and then went over to the back of a rather sketchy looking parking lot. Of course, right behind was something called the Theater at San Pedro where we had to ascend a narrow flight to stairs to the real scene. All this was pretty exciting, despite the shirted volunteers out front that obviously made it legit, but then we entered this bar with a stage set up at front, several men and women in tailcoats and spats and evening gowns.

And then we realised this was The Real Deal. People belting out jazz hits like In the Mood, swing-dancing in the space in front of the stage, trumpets and everything in the supporting orchestra!

If I’m not wrong, some of the singers were sort of imitating the more popular singers/styles of the day. The lady in mauve had something of the deep velvety voice of Ella Fitzgerald, and the black gentleman sounded in places like Louis Armstrong. I’m afraid those were the only two I could recognize; none of the others sounded familiar to me at all.

This is the thing about jazz, for me — I can never seem to define what about it attracts me so much. Even in its melancholy it’s self-deprecatingly cheerful; and when it’s all major notes it’s still a wistful, a little longing. Or perhaps it’s the rhythm, or the trumpets, or the air of restrained romance and sensuality.

I don’t think it could’ve been more perfect if I’d imagined it. Such a Prohibitionist era feeling as well — marvelous. I think Nl enjoyed that solid dose of jazz as well, so it was all good.

Bhangra

No, I don’t know what it was doing here either. I think the Jazz Beyond stage was… well, exactly that, a way to showcase some really interesting music (or global music, for that matter) that fit in well with the free-form style that reminds me of jazz in general.

The performance itself lasted a scant ten minutes — the group took more time to teach the audience the moves. I was encumbered by my bag, but it didn’t matter, because it was clear that neither Nl and I were going to be hogging the limelight at any shaadis any time soon. I think I spent far more time laughing than actually dancing.

That changed when the performance became a party. There was a DJ and a live dhol player and the sound reverberated across the neighborhood. We discovered it was incredibly hard not to dance when the music was so ridiculously infectious — and the people just so receptive — so for the first time in my life I ended up dancing without the aid of artificial stimulants.

So a highly successful Friday evening, in short. I can’t think of many other people whom I’d have had as much fun with as with Nl; I’m glad we got a look at a downtown San Jose and even happier that we got to hear some excellent music 🙂

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