Music at Home
For Eddie

Music in the Time of COVID: Christian Sands and Ashley Bathgate

Village Vanguard Empty(Photo: Sabrina Santiago, The New York Times)

Well, it's been a minute. First and foremost, I hope everyone out there is hanging in, staying safe and sane.

But, I won't mince words: this year has sucked. Especially in terms of live music. This just-ended summer had no Celebrate Brooklyn, no Summerstage, no Warm Up or Tanglewood. Frankly, it felt like a missed opportunity to catch some music in the relatively-safe outdoors, especially considering there probably won't be indoor shows for at least another year. Which is particularly painful, given this is normally the time of year when the Met, NY Phil and Carnegie are hosting their festive opening nights. (Carnegie is holding a "virtual opening night" on Oct. 7 with performances by Jon Batiste, Angelique Kidjo, Lang Lang, Wynton Marsalis, and others.)

Oh, I know. There are lots of live streams which can be heard from the socially-distant safety of your desktop/laptop/phone. But, to be honest, I've had a hard time warming up to them. Live music is meant to be heard directly and with other people around, not through earbuds at 1080p. Not to mention these online performances are generally limited to bedroom solo shows, or small ensembles playing in someone's barn or basement.

But, it's what we have for now, and even if it's less-than-ideal, it's been a lifeline for countless musicians who've lost all of their gigs and whatever income they once made from them. And, as I discovered last night watching a pair of streams back-to-back, the quality has improved significantly over the past six (!) months. (Pro tip: get an Apple TV or other streaming device and a decent pair of speakers.) 

Screen Shot 2020-09-23 at 7.19.55 PMJazz, which thrives on the invisible vibe in intimate, often claustrophobic clubs, has been particularly hard hit. “(Clubs) have always been my laboratory,” the saxophonist Charles Lloyd recently told the Times. “You can bounce stuff off the audience. That experience is invaluable.”  Some clubs, like Smalls, have been getting by with streaming shows, while others have sadly closed for good


Last night, local jazz station WBGO kicked off it's Jazz-a-thon fundraiser with a live performance by the quicksilver pianist Christian Sands and his quartet (Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Clarence Penn, drums; Marvin Sewell, guitar) playing selections from his new release Be Water. I won't say it was as good as when I sat twenty feet from Sands at the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown last year, but it was real live jazz, and Sands - who said this was his first live gig in months - seemed as excited to be playing out as I was to hear him. (You can watch a replay here; show starts at 5:30.)

Screen Shot 2020-09-23 at 8.40.52 PMImmediately after, I switched over to Bang on a Can's website, where cellist and Bang on a Can All-Star Ashley Bathgate performed Michael Gordon’s House Music from her upstate home in Saratoga Springs. Gordon composed the hour-long House Music for Bathgate in 2018, and specified that it was only to be performed for small audiences in intimate spaces, preferably someone's living room. (The NY Premiere was at the home of the Times classical music editor.) As such, the audience for the stream was limited, and listeners were encouraged to share their thoughts in real time via chat module. 

Playing in front of a colorfully lit backdrop, Bathgate employed all sorts of extended techniques, not to mention a surprising and impressive singing ability. In the propulsive, relentless final section, "Surf", Bathgate tore into her cello like a rock guitarist, twisting and turning her instrument into all kinds of wild contortions. In a post-performance conversation with Gordon, Bathgate admitted to having just as many butterflies playing to a virtual audience as she has in the concert hall, maybe more. (You can watch a video of the 2018 Amsterdam premiere here.)

Sands and his quartet will be playing again tomorrow night as part of the virtual Monterey Jazz Festival, alongside live and archival performances from Dianne Reeves, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride and more. (Stream kicks off here at 8p EDT.) And Bang on a Can will be hosting it's next virtual marathon on October 18, with performances by Bill Frisell, Nels Cline (Wilco), David Longstreth (Dirty Projectors), Tyshawn Sorey and more. Both streams are free, but donations are welcome.