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On The Corner Masthead

Fridays at Five
Launching a digital Music Experience

June 5, 2020 | by Richard Scheinin

Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano

SFJAZZ staff writer Richard Scheinin takes a closer look at the evolution of our streaming concert series Fridays at Five, the first step in a new digital future for the organization.

They say live music is dead.

It’s not that simple.

On stage at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Trio Fascination is creating music inside the music: the tunes are as mysterious as haikus. The saxophonist pauses to strike a gong — the gesture feels ritualistic; you can see him focusing on the reverberations. As the performance — filmed in March 2019 — streams onto your computer screen, the camera keeps moving closer to the stage until it feels as if you’re in the front row, staring straight up at the performers. Seconds later, you seem to be crouching on stage — between the musicians, zooming in on their facial expressions and guitarist Bill Frisell’s fingers as he extracts improbable chords from his instrument. The musical environment is right there — you can practically touch it. When the camera goes behind the band, you’re close enough to reach out and grab the wraparound sunglasses from drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s head. The distance between audience and artist has vanished. Add in state-of-the-art sound quality, and you have a warmly immersive experience that captures the musical conversation between the performers.

No, it’s not live, but it feels unusually intimate, as if you’ve spent the last hour inside a bubble with the band. When it’s over, you can feel the energy of the crowd — everyone is high from this peak musical event — and you can hear footsteps as the audience leaves the hall.

A bare-bones crew pulled off this arresting bit of video work: a single videographer, remotely controlling half a dozen cameras positioned around the hall, and a recording engineer. More than a year later, on May 8, 2020, the show was streamed to a worldwide audience as part of SFJAZZ’s weekly Fridays at Five video concert series, which launched in late March and continues in the coming weeks with pre-recorded performances by folk-roots singer Rhiannon Giddens (June 12), Herbie Hancock (June 26), Cécile McLorin Salvant (July 24), and Branford Marsalis (July 28), among others. The series is evolving to include special events: Hancock and Marsalis are part of a four-episode tribute to Wayne Shorter, recorded last year at the SFJAZZ Center. (During the first episode, featuring saxophonist Kamasi Washington, viewers contributed more than $28,000 to a virtual “tip jar” to help Shorter, 86, with his medical expenses.) September is shaping up as an homage to John Coltrane, and will include a 2014 performance of “A Love Supreme” by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John’s son. All of this is an experiment by which SFJAZZ — drawing on its extensive video archive; hundreds of shows — hopes to maintain and perhaps expand its audience during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put an end to live performances for the foreseeable future. (You can sign up for the series here: www.sfjazz.org/watch. It costs $5 per month, or $60 annually, and streams every Friday at 5 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.)

Watching his trio’s performance from his house in the Lower Hudson Valley, north of New York City, Lovano — whose weeklong April 2020 residency at SFJAZZ was cancelled because of the virus — felt himself “vibrating on all the beautiful energy. I mean, I’m not on the road, my whole year is canceled,” he says with a resigned laugh. “But watching that concert — I felt so great afterward. I was surprised. The whole next day I felt like I’d played a gig — a world concert!” The show had 2,631 viewers in 14 countries on five continents. “And the way they filmed us with all the different angles and shots — they were following the music, paying attention to what was happening, the way we expressed ourselves.” Typically, Lovano doesn’t like watching himself on video. “But the thing I enjoyed this time — I was watching us listen. You could see us listening to each other. We didn’t throw up flares announcing what was coming. No, the timing of how things flowed was natural and beautiful. Because we weren’t just standing there, playing our parts. We were listening and creating our parts.”

There is an overload of online streaming these days. Everybody’s doing it, from the Metropolitan Opera to the Blue Note Jazz Club and musicians around the globe, performing in their cramped living rooms. Fridays at Five stands out in this new marketplace. Its small recording team is developing an in-close visual language that can reveal dimensions of a performance that aren’t necessarily visible to concertgoers at a live performance. When Fridays at Five presented Cuban piano maestro Chucho Valdes last month, dozens of viewers participated in a live chat running down the side of the screen: “Being in the live audience, you hear the music,” one viewer wrote. “In this new forum, one can SEE and hear the notes!” When the Preservation Hall Jazz Band appeared on the series, the camera zoomed so close to pianist Kyle Roussel’s hands that you could read the time on his wristwatch. Of course, sometimes the broadcast’s impact comes from its capturing of ordinary concert details that everyone is missing right now because of the pandemic. When the series presented the band Snarky Puppy in April, Michael League, its bassist and leader, watched from his girlfriend’s house in Cadiz, Spain: “And when I heard the din of the audience before the show — that buzz, when people are waiting for something — I was sitting here with my headphones, and I pulled them off, and looked at my girlfriend, and I almost started crying. Six months ago, watching a live concert of us wouldn’t be anything. I mean, it would be cool, but nothing out of the ordinary. And now it’s wow! It takes me back to the time when we could actually stand within two meters of another human being.”

Until the coronavirus, SFJAZZ had planned to launch the series later this year. But with the emergence of the health crisis and the canceling of dozens — and eventually hundreds — of shows, the organization responded by accelerating the launch: “It’s like responding to an unexpected change of tempo or key,” says Randall Kline, SFJAZZ’s founder and Executive Artistic Director. There was an additional challenge: “Most people can watch videos and concerts online for free; there’s so much out there. So how are we going to compete with that? How are we going to create something so compelling that it makes them want to pay for what we’re doing here?” By the first week of June, about 6,000 people had signed up for the series.

Kline describes Fridays at Five as the first step of a much larger endeavor: an entire new digital wing of SFJAZZ. Under development for several years, this new platform is still waiting for an official title. But in-house, it’s informally referred to as DIANA. It’s a kind of code name, a mash-up of the words “Digital” and “Analog” – signaling that the digital experience should be as distinctive as the “real life” analog experience of attending live performances in SFJAZZ’s 700-seat concert hall. It’s a hybrid venue that feels much like a nightclub, partly because no seat is more than 55 feet from the stage.

A former bass player who founded SFJAZZ (then called Jazz in the City) in 1983, Kline has a whole vocabulary for his vision of DIANA. It will be “a digital magazine” with many components. Alternatively, he describes it as a digital “ecosystem” that carries the “warmth” and “flavor” of what he likes to call the “SFJAZZ experience.” The new platform should strengthen and “synergize” the SFJAZZ community — he defines that as the convergence of audience, organization, and the musicians themselves — while expanding the membership base beyond the nine Bay Area counties. At this moment, there’s also fiscal necessity at work. With the hall closed, SFJAZZ’s 16,000 members have nowhere to go except online, so the new digital platform could represent a critical revenue stream in the years to come.

Its potential components include an expanded schedule of archival concert broadcasts; an SFJAZZ radio station; a “Live from the Center” podcast; living room visits with members of the SFJAZZ Collective, the organization’s all-star house band; backstage interviews with Resident Artistic Directors, known as RADs (Valdes and Lovano were among them during the truncated 2019-20 season); educational apps for aspiring musicians; and a wealth of long and short-form behind-the-scenes videos. One that’s in the can takes us backstage with alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, who explains his arrangement for the SFJAZZ Collective of Miles Davis’s “Nardis.” Zenón has a brainiac mathematical side that would be confounding if he weren’t so good at explaining the nuts and bolts of his musical process — which in this case involves merging Davis’s classic with the metric complexities of Bulgarian wedding music. We watch as Zenón rehearses the band. We see him bring “Nardis” to the stage at the SFJAZZ Center, where he explains the arrangement one more time — and where the eight-piece band proceeds to nail the number, bringing the crowd to its feet. A new musical work has been born — and its story has been told in under ten minutes.

But for now, Fridays at Five is “our first foray into shaping the digital product,” Kline says. He rarely feels relaxed while watching. Almost always, there’s something that could be improved — some aspect of the sound, the lighting, the video editing. He’s been this way for decades: “I can literally remember the first Jazz in the City concert, when I went racing up the stairs at the Herbst Theatre, because the sound wasn’t right, and you had to climb up two flights to get to the sound board. And it hasn’t changed in 37 years.” That said, there are moments when Kline says to himself, “Holy shit, this thing is working.”

A key idea behind Fridays at Five is that the camera is like a member of the audience — a roving eye that at one moment focuses, say, on the drummer’s amazingly detailed chatter, and then zooms away to catch the beginning of the saxophonist’s solo — or to look at the hat worn by the woman in front of you. “It’s like the movie 1917,” Kline says, alluding to the 2019 film about young British soldiers on a mission in World War I. “Your eye is always moving and it’s one continuous shot.”

The videography isn’t traditional or clean: “You’re breaking a lot of rules,” says Jake Drake, SFJAZZ’s video director. “Everything I was taught in college not to do — I’m doing all that. If I were following all the rules about proper camera angles and lighting, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and unique. It would be kind of drab.” It’s Drake who filmed Lovano’s show last year — and scores of other concerts since December 2017, when he was hired. Sitting in a third floor studio at the SFJAZZ Center in front of a bank of computer screens, he has no direct view of the stage. He is engaged in a kind of remote video choreography, controlling six or more cameras in the concert hall that can zoom in and out or capture low-angle, up-close shots of a bassist’s fingers. He’s looking to tell visual stories, he explains. Perspectives constantly shift. Maybe there’s a super-tight shot of the pianist’s hands (and wristwatch), followed by an aerial shot from a fourth-floor catwalk above the stage. Suddenly Drake has you looking straight down on the drummer and a forest of cymbals that shine like full moons in a darkened hall. Drake (who controls a camera attached to the catwalk) describes the process as fast moving and instinctive: “A lot of it is fly by the wires. You can’t capture all the moments, and you have to embrace your mistakes.”

He sounds like a jazz musician, talking about improvisation.

Drake and his team “definitely know how to edit in a musical way,” says guitarist Julian Lage.

In late March, Fridays at Five streamed a 2019 performance by Lage and his trio. It was a slow-burning set, and Drake’s videography told story after story. While bassist Jorge Roeder cradled his instrument, playing a brooding solo, the camera zoomed up from a low angle to capture Lage’s response. Eyes closed, he looked blissed out; his mouth curled into a goofy smile. On a tune titled “Blues for Elden,” drummer Dave King became intensely focused, like a cat stalking a mouse. Again the camera zoomed in. You could examine the tattoos on King’s forearms and you could see his snare drum shake when he gave it a decisive whack.

Dave King, Julian Lage, Jorge Roeder

It was a super-interactive performance by the trio, and viewers were into it. As the live chat scrolled down the right-hand side of the screen, one fan, watching alone at home, wrote, “It’s wonderful to be in the presence of true artistry — when in reality it’s just me, two cats and a pile of laundry!”

As the concert came to an end, another viewer remarked, “My kind of happy hour.”

Speaking by phone a few weeks later, Lage — who participated in the live chat — calls the broadcast “a tribal experience.” But Fridays at Five, he says, is only a beginning: “We’re at the edge of a frontier. But for a performance to feel as exciting as possible in a virtual realm, it really has to be happening live. Just imagine if a live-stream could sound like a beautifully mixed and mastered recording — whoever figures that one out is going to be a very rich person. We can’t achieve that level of fidelity right now, so it still feels a little like the Wild West… But today, given what’s going on in the world, if it helps keeps musicians alive, and if it helps keep organizations alive — what’s not to like?”

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.