The Sound Check - When the Presentation Obscures the Performance.
You never know who's listening out there.
As a musician myself I certainly understand the difficulties of getting gigs and making music. But the following situation shows that some complications of presenting the music can be avoided if we all were more aware and listened to our surroundings. I am very lucky to tour with a sound engineer with great ears and good sense. The engineers at this event may also have had that expertise - we'll never know for sure.
I recently had the opportunity to listen to the Ravi Coltrane Quartet play a sound check and was astounded at how the "presentation machine" of sound reinforcement engineers and the musicians themselves prevented the music from happening in a unique acoustic environment. Their inability to come to a consensus on how to present their music in a different venue than they are used to prohibited the art from happening - to the point that I stayed away from the concert knowing that I could find better music in my home or in my head that evening than attending that concert.
The sound check was billed as a "workshop" for student musicians to attend and be introduced to a professional jazz group and perhaps learn something about the presentation and performance of the art of jazz. Of course, it was just a sound check, four musicians and three sound reinforcement engineers playing on unfamiliar rented instruments, microphones, sound mixers, auditorium speakers, six stage monitors for four musicians, (with the exception of Ravi Coltrane's saxophone) all trying in vain to get accustomed to the instruments or electronic machines and the sound they produce individually, how the acoustic of the venue either enhanced or curtailed the various colors and dynamics of each player as then perhaps investigating how they might put these newly altered skills together as a group to make the music they are used to making in other venues. All of this took place two hours before the appointed concert time, probably because they just flew in from another venue.
Did it work? Were they able to make adjustments, put the right mix in the monitors, use suitable microphones for the idiosyncrasies of the room, eliminate any feedback or unwanted vibrations from occurring either in the sound system or acoustically on the stage? No. They didn't even come close and the music, musicians, and especially the audience suffered.
First, the hall was very small, a neighborhood community-center auditorium designed as a large acoustically-live living room, seating no more than a hundred people. The facility is new and usually has worked very well for small ensembles. The stage floor is wood without a concrete base and does have some resonance of its own which might be desirable for small choral and dance presentations but can produce some spurious, unwanted feedback with instruments, acoustic or amplified. It was amazing that none of the participants on stage noticed that the facility was designed for un-amplified performances. The sound crew had loaded enough amplification apparatus to fill an acoustically dead hall ten times that size and it sounded like they had started with that assumption - mic everything and put everything into all the six monitors, as well as the large house system. Sometimes I think that sound crews get paid by the pound, considering the weight and size of the stuff they bring into a venue.
The piano was a small grand, the action a little stiff but still a loud instrument even in such a small room. The sound crew solution, open the top all the way, use two very sensitive condenser mics, one about a foot away from the action section of the instrument and another about a foot away from the lower, longer bass strings of the case. The result? They made a decent sounding Yamaha instrument sound like something much less, amplified way out of proportion to the room. The mics also picked up reflected sound from the stage and from the wooden top of the piano making for some real problems.
The bassist, Drew Gress, usually a sensitive musician very attuned to the tone of his instrument and how it is perceived by the listener, was using one of the cut down, portable basses which are designed for airline travel rather than tone quality. The bass tone was none existent, sounding like a badly set up Chinese instrument you might find in a public school. The instrument had no real bottom to the sound and almost no sustain in any register. The sound was thumpy, metallic and non-descript.
The bass amplifier was the ubiquitous Gallien-Kruger MB-150-112, known for its small size and ability to give a natural sound at low levels, perfect for the double bassist to use as his personal monitor and sometimes provide the only needed bass amplification on stage and for the hall. However, this GK was fried. One of its previous users had pushed it past its limited capabilities and the cone of the speaker had become separated from the coil, producing that sizzling, small sound one might get out of an old fashioned radio when played too loudly. The technical term is "clipping," a raucous distortion that is absolutely unwanted in an acoustic band.
The poor sound of the GK was directed by means of a line output into the house mix and also into the various monitor mixes around the stage, making for unwanted feedback of a horribly clipped, distorted, poorly created bass tone. Eventually the sound engineer removed the bass from the monitors but the house level remained to be too much for the room.
The drum kit was a standard Yamaha set, with the heavier plastic heads preferred by rock and roll drummers. The snare, tom toms, and cymbals really had no color of their own and seemed incapable of producing the various colors needed for a good jazz performance. The drummer didn't even attempt to get various colors out of the cymbals by playing closer to the crown or taping the bottom, or anything else. He didn't seem to be bothered by the colorless, noisy monochromatic plastic sound except that he did fill the bass drum with a rag that helped stifle it a bit, more in keeping with the ideal jazz bass drum sound, barely felt and not at all over-powering. The tone of the ride cymbal was the same as the crash cymbal, boring noise. I don't think the drummer even brought his own cymbals.
The drums themselves were amplified with a snare drum mic, two Shure SM 41 condensers overhead, mics noted for a good overall pickup of the upper and mid registers but at the price of having a very low signal-to-noise ratio. The bass drum was miced with some sort of bullet shaped mic, as if the bass drum needed to be miced at all.
The drummer himself was not to be forced into playing at any softer level then he was used to, in spite of the extremely live acoustic. He must have assumed the it was up to the sound reinforcement guys to bring everyone up to his noisy dynamic level, which was way too loud for the room. He only tried brushes once on a ballad but seemed very anxious to get back to his sticks. If ever there was a room that required constant use of brushes or sticks played very lightly, it was this one. This fact was totally ignored by the drummer and the sound men. Good drummers, when confronted with this situation, will alter the drums to produce a wider dynamic range and rainbow of colors with which to accompany others in the musical demands. The cymbals can be taped, the drum heads muffled with a rag stretched over the head, and the player can play with his hands on the various surfaces instead of sticks, using the high hat in creative ways, or just playing the on the stands that hold the cymbals. This drummer was simply not interested in doing any of that, at least at the sound check.
Ravi Coltrane was amplified by a very sensitive mic directly in front of his horn. It was better when he turned away from it as it brought out the the worst of his sound and individual tone color. The sensitivity of the mic and high level also produced a lot of unwanted feedback as the other instruments bled into it. Ravi has a beautiful open sound on the tenor which sounded great before they turned the mics on.
What Should Have Happened.
Several years ago I heard the Phil Wood Quintet play in a slightly larger venue but with the same resonant wooden floor and similar sound reinforcement attributes. About 5 minutes into the sound check, Phil stopped everything, told the sound crew to unplug all microphones and leave the stage. Then, just to be sure, he asked that all sound electronic components be turned off, except for the small bass amp, trusting his acoustic-minded bassist, Steve Gilmore to use judicious amplification. Drummer Bill Goodwin is the kind of drummer who can produce enormous amounts of needed energy within a soft dynamic. Phil announced the tunes without a mic from the stage. It was a beautiful concert and the audience was very attentive and appreciative.
The Ravi Coltrane sound check that I heard was so bad that I had no need to attend the concert that evening. That decision was further substantiated by the choice of tunes.
Ravi's Choice of Music
Having looked up Ravi's history online I was quite gratified to see that he is doing his own thing rather than trying to mold himself into some kind of legacy of his father. He was two years old when John Coltrane died and never knew his father except through his music. Most critics say that his sound is more like Joe Henderson. However, I detected a searching quality in his soloing that is definitely more Coltrane than Henderson. The band only does one of the traditional Coltrane tunes - a 5/4 version of Giant Steps which was one of the tunes the band warmed up on and not very well I might add. Specifically the piano player was really not making the changes, choosing to sort of play free over the changes, rarely synchronising with the chord changes. "Giant Steps" is a bebop tune, period. It has complex changes and that is one of the challenges of playing the tune. If you aren't up to the challenge then don't play the tune.
It was interesting that there was a young jazz musician in the audience who asked, after they had played "Giant Steps," with no announcement, if the band played "Giant Steps." Ravi replied that "we already played it, but we'll play it again." The young student frantically looked through his book of tunes for his lead sheet sheet on "Giant Steps" and tried to follow along. The expression on the students face was amazing - he could not recognise the tune from what they played. I could tell roughly that the changes were "Giant Steps" but in a strange meter. I figured it out finally, sitting in my seat, a few moments after the second playing. They were playing it in 5/4 alternating the 2 and 3 accents on different sections of the tune. This was verified after the sound check was over when I went up to talk to bassist Drew Gress. It's too bad that Ravi didn't take the time to explain that fact to the audience, especially that young student.
I was also bothered by the other tunes the band read through. All seemed to be composed by Ravi and consisted of non-functional chord changes with an angular, melody designed to never to be singable, at fast tempos. All of the players had to read the tunes from a music stand, except for Ravi but he had a music stand in front of him anyway. It bothers me that Ravi expects his musicians to play decent jazz while reading a tune in front of a live audience. In going over one tune, the bassist had to stop and check on a section of the tune that was not jiving with what the piano player was playing. It turned out that they had different versions of the chart, the later version having a section repeated that wasn't in the previous one. What is so disappointing is that they had planned to play that tune for the concert that evening. No one seemed to have knowledge of the tunes under their fingers yet except Ravi, the composer, and the drummer who did not use charts and I assume chooses not to read music.
Actually the drummer had the right idea. How can one play jazz solos on a tune he still has to read on the gig? I'm a firm believer that a player must "internalize a tune" (with homage to bebop Guru David Baker) before soloing on it in front of an audience. Many times I have been asked to solo on a tune I was not totally familiar with and I usually declined, letting someone else in the band more qualified than I solo on the tune. Sometimes it pisses off the leader and I may have lost work because of it but that's my story and I'm sticking to it! I can always play great music by myself in my living room.
In closing I hope these guys can get it to together. I loved Drew Gress when he played with pianist Fred Hersch. He was using a familiar bass and amplification system and never over-powered, always getting a beautiful warm personal sound. This was not the case with Ravi's band. The band had another date in West Virginia then were going on to a 9 day tour in Brazil, then back to New York. I don't know what venues they will encounter there but I hope they listen more to what is going on with the room and make the adjustments necessary, even if it means dismissing the sound crew.
I worked a sound reinforcement contract for the National Flute Association, in between my music and teaching dates. There were over a hundred sessions in the designated hotel, each with sound reinforcement requirements. One was the great flutist Jimmy Walker who works in the studios in LA. He was playing a new concerto for flute with a 60 piece local pick-up symphony orchestra. I placed a mic on stage with a switch for announcements, well in-front of the orchestra and made sure it was turned off. Then I placed a high quality Neumann mic about 7 feet in front of the soloist. At the rehearsal sound check, I walked around the large square room and found that Jimmy's sound was so strong it penetrated to the back row, even when the orchestra's percussion and brass section were pumping it out. After the rehearsal I told Jimmy that I was leaving the solo mic on stage just for looks only - the cord was not even plugged in to the sound system and that his sound was projecting fine to the back row. He gave me a knowing nod and said "fine." Later that evening after the concert members of the audience came up to me and complimented on how "natural" the sound was and how great the balance was between the solo flutist and the orchestra. One guy asked "what kind of microphone did you use - that was great." I just smiled and told him the model of the unplugged mic. The board members of the association later told me that sound was great for the entire conference and the best that had used so far.
Sometimes no amplification is the best amplification.