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9 March 2013


I have been trying to put my finger on the reasons why I enjoy some traditional jazz performances far less than others.

I like to hear all the individual instruments clearly. The quality and balance of the sound matter. I like the musicians to play in tune and to listen carefully to each other so that they are truly a team. This involves producing appropriate harmonies and also giving the music a conversational quality, where phrases are complemented and responded to by other players. I like the lead to be passed around, with the backing instruments putting in subtle, appropriate decoration, or working together in creating harmonies and varied rhythmic patterns. I like the tempo to feel appropriate to the piece of music and to be properly maintained. I am not impressed by mere exhibitionism.

It does not matter whether the tune is a simple 8-bar number or a complex multi-part rag. In all cases, that's how I like it to be played.

So often, performances of this kind are not what we get.

A common cause of poor quality is loud, insensitive drumming. Similarly, amplification frequently makes it impossible to distinguish particular instruments, or distorts the sound. I wish bands and organizers would ask themselves whether they really need so much amplification.

Sometimes I am unable to hear clearly the notes played by a keyboard or by a string bass because the musicians have plugged their instruments into amplifiers that give a pulpy sound, blurring the clean, percussive natural timbres.

Sometimes the tempo is fine at the start but the band gradually slows down and the tune begins to drag.

It takes only one musician playing out of tune or failing to listen carefully to the others to spoil the performance. In those cases where a band has both a clarinet and a saxophone, each going its own way (but often trespassing on the other's notes), the result can be unpleasant, to my ear. Saxophones in particular, if played too loud and without attention to what the other musicians are doing, can have a blurring effect.

Sometimes, several of these forms of distortion go on at once. It is as if treacle is being poured over the music.

So I am disappointed by what I hear.

But maybe it's just me. Even when I do not enjoy a performance, there are plenty of other people in the audience who seem happy with it and applaud heartily at the end. I suppose I'm just a finicky old fuddy-duddy.