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On The Corner Masthead

Fridays at Five:
A Look Behind the Scenes

September 14, 2020 | by Richard Scheinin

Video Director Jake Drake in the editing suite at SFJAZZ (photo by Amy Heiden)

Over the past four months, staff writer Richard Scheinin has spoken to many of the artists whose performances have streamed on the Fridays at Five concert series, presented by SFJAZZ. His interviewees have included saxophonist Joe Lovano, vocalist Lizz Wright, bassist Marcus Shelby and guitarist Julian Lage. Now he goes behind the scenes to talk to the technical wizards who make the online concert series possible.

Jake Drake flies blind.

The video director has shot hundreds of concerts at the SFJAZZ Center while cooped up in his office — his only view of the stage through a bank of computer screens on his desk. They are his eyes, letting him view the audience and musicians by directing half a dozen remote cameras around the concert hall, three floors below. We’re talking pre-pandemic, of course, but what he does with his cameras is remarkable — and the results can be seen on Fridays at Five, a weekly series of streaming concerts drawn from the SFJAZZ archives. Drake’s videography has a look all its own. He will zoom straight in from the back of the hall, drawing incrementally closer to the action, and finally settling, say, on the drummer’s hands — a blur of motion in the middle of a turbulent solo. Or he will shoot straight down on the action, using a camera that’s attached to a fourth-floor catwalk high above the stage; from that angle, the drummer looks as if he’s seated amid a forest of cymbals that shine like full moons in the darkened hall. Upstairs in his office, choreographing all of this, Drake improvises from moment to moment: live-switching between cameras, changing perspectives, superimposing images. He calls it “flying by the wires.” It’s not what he learned in school: “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.”

In this age of Zoom, when everyone complains about too much screen time and an overwhelming sense of disconnection, Drake and SFJAZZ are trying to infuse analog intimacy into digital events. Since Fridays at Five launched in March, it has presented shows that cover the gamut of jazz and improvised music: piano genius Chucho Valdés, saxophonist Joe Lovano, singers Cécile McLorin Salvant and Dee Dee Bridgewater, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. A host of great musicians have performed in tribute to Wayne Shorter: Herbie Hancock, Kamasi Washington, Terence Blanchard, Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman. September will include a 2017 performance by Shorter himself (Sept. 18, with his quartet), as well as an homage to John Coltrane, featuring a 2014 performance of A Love Supreme by Ravi Coltrane, John’s son (Sept. 25).

Ravi Coltrane during John Coltrane A Love Supreme 50th Anniversary week

SFJAZZ had planned to launch Fridays at Five later this year, but the virus forced it to change directions, quickly.

“It’s like responding to an unexpected change of tempo or key,” says Randall Kline, the organization’s founder and Executive Artistic Director. The challenge has been to distinguish the series — to “create something so compelling” that people are willing to pay for it in an online environment that’s grown crowded with free streaming content. (Over the past six months, the series has attracted 9600 subscribers.) “The question becomes, `How are we going to compete?’ So we’re trying to come up with our own language: What happens at the beginning of a tune? And when it goes to the solos, what happens then? When do we go to the split screen? It’s all under development and it’s working — this thing works!” Kline says. He explains the underlying idea: “You feel as if you’re in the hall. And you’re following all these cues, the way someone does when they’re actually sitting there at the concert. So you pan and zoom and focus and refocus and maybe you get distracted — you hear the cymbal, so you look over there, and then the saxophonist starts a solo, so you look over there. The band starts locking in and maybe the drummer and pianist are looking at each other from across the stage, smiling, and so you look at that… It’s like the movie 1917,” he 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 series is the first step toward a much larger endeavor for SFJAZZ: a whole new digital division that could help recapture some of the income lost during the pandemic, while expanding the organization’s footprint beyond the Bay Area in the years ahead. Its potential components include an expanded schedule of streaming archival 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 touring band; backstage interviews with Resident Artistic Directors, known as RADs (Valdés and Lovano were among them during the truncated 2019-20 season); educational apps for aspiring musicians; and a trove of long and short-form behind-the-scenes videos.

Two projects are scheduled to begin rolling out in October and November: a series of live-streamed solo concerts from the Robert N. Miner Auditorium, the main performance space at the SFJAZZ Center; and the marketing of on-demand programming, including some Fridays at Five shows. The series “was conceived as a test, as an experiment, from the get-go,” says Ross Eustis, SFJAZZ’s Digital Projects Manager and, with Kline, the co-executive producer for the series. (In his spare time, he plays trumpet with numerous Bay Area bands and co-runs an independent record label, Slow & Steady Records.) “At the beginning, it was like, `Let’s throw this thing out there and see how people are responding.’ It’s been going six months now — we’ve done like 25 shows — and it’s become this very defined thing that people seem to value and understand. There’s still a lot of shaping and developing going on, but I definitely think we’re on the right path.”

                Behind the scenes with Technical Director Amy Heiden

Before each episode of Fridays at Five, the viewer hears the pre-concert buzz of the audience, a familiar sound that’s sadly approaching extinction, thanks to the pandemic. But the moment the viewer logs in to a show and dons a pair of headphones, that sound emerges: “It’s kind of like the audience noise wraps around you,” says SFJAZZ Technical Director Amy Heiden, who manages the audio and video team that produces the series. “So from the beginning, you feel like you’re in the hall. And in terms of the look, we’re going for unique angles, lots of close-ups of hands — on bass or piano or horns — and out-of-the-ordinary shots, where we’re focusing on somebody in the foreground, but maybe you’re also seeing things happening in the background. Maybe you see someone cueing in an entrance or a solo. And then when the camera gets closer, it’s a little bit more intimate even than being in the front row.”

Drake’s shooting of Monsieur Periné — a jazz-folkloric band from Bogotá, Columbia — is a good example of how the process works.

At the start of the concert — from 2018 — the camera zooms steadily in from the back of the hall. As Drake’s “eye” gets closer to singer Catalina García, there’s a blur of motion behind her head; it’s the band’s saxophonist, Jairo Alfonso, hoisting his horn. Then the camera — which seems to be shooting straight up from the front row — gets so close that you can read the time on Alfonso’s wristwatch; it’s 7:20 p.m. There is one such visual touch after another, and as the group’s members — who all sing back-up — break into four-part harmony, Drake goes to the split screen effect: Each of the singers appears in a separate panel. The sound is excellent, too — captured and mixed live by a team of staff audio engineers, led by Masanori Yura, a 2009 GRAMMY winner. (Later, the sound is remixed and mastered.)

                              Monsieur Periné on stage at SFJAZZ

Even so, the concert hasn’t exactly taken off; it feels a bit formulaic, as the group plows through its repertoire of samba, cumbia, and Gypsy jazz. But then there’s a shift — it happens instantly; you can feel it — as Monsieur Periné opens up into a bolero. There’s a live chat running down the side of the screen, and one of the viewers comments, “OK… atención! This is my jam.” Drake’s camera returns to the saxophonist: Alfonso is in his own world, slow-dancing at the back of the stage. In front of him, García senses that the energy in the room has escalated; her face, seen in close-up, crinkles up into a delighted smile. Pretty soon, bass lines are percolating. Drums are popping. García leaves the stage and — still singing — goes out into the hall. From the back row, Drake’s camera — shooting from just over the heads in the crowd, almost like a drone shot — zooms in on García, who’s dancing in the middle of a bobbing circle of fans. Everyone is heading toward that circle. Everyone is dancing. The camera brings you straight into this mayhem. Watching at home, it’s really just you and your computer — but you feel as if you’re in the middle of an epic party.

By the time you see the results on your screen, a whole team has been involved: audio engineers, production managers, Drake. Everyone works remotely. These days, Drake is in San Diego, where he edits the episodes at home in his cramped office while his wife, a linguist at the University of California, San Diego, works in the adjoining room, zooming with students.

Speaking from his home office, Drake — Video Director at SFJAZZ since 2017 — explains that he’s trying to find stories to tell inside each performance. This is his first job as video director for live musical performances. Previously, he worked as a freelancer for HBO and the Discovery Channel. He also worked as production director for a web show about business startups: “Two years, 700 shows,” he says. “It was a machine. We were rolling. This Week in Startups. It’s still around.”

At SFJAZZ, he says, “The overarching goal for me is to really capture the moment as much as humanly possible.” He’ll often zoom in on a bass player’s face, because “something I’ve learned about bass players is they’ve spent years getting to where they are. They’re incredibly precise and you can see that in their finger work, and when the camera gets super-tight you can see the passion in their faces. Oftentimes their eyes aren’t even open. They’re not looking at the music or a chord sheet or anything. They’re just going with it, and I like discovering those kinds of moments.”

                Joe Lovano's "Conception Vessel" from Fridays at Five

While preparing for a 2019 show by saxophonist Joe Lovano, Drake was taken with the playing style of drummer Carmen Castaldi: “It’s the way he likes to accentuate whatever he’s doing, every little gesture. Especially in his cymbal work, he has these almost over-emphasized arm motions, and I was just picking all this up at sound check. And it became a nice little bonus” when it came time to film the show.

Like Kline, who uses 1917 as a point of reference, Drake takes inspiration from the cinema. In filming Castaldi, he says, “I was inspired by the movie Cold War,” the 2018 drama by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski.

“It has this one scene where they’re in this Soviet era, Cold War jazz club. And the way they filmed that concert in that little jazz club was so phenomenal, and it made a huge impression on me, and I think I’d watched it the week before Lovano’s show. And just as a spur-of-the-moment bit of inspiration, I decided to film Carmen, the drummer, from behind, the way they did it in the film. I’m matching that shot almost frame for frame,” Drake says. “And because of the angle — because I’m looking from behind him — a lot of the lights used to light up the stage were shining directly into the camera. So you get these really intricate and beautiful light leaks across the lens. It creates this very interesting aesthetic look.”

Much like an improvising musician, Drake believes that by embracing technical mishaps and even outright mistakes, one can create something new and surprising. “There’s a lot going on in that shot,” he says. “You’re combining all these layers, where you’re seeing not only Carmen himself, but you’re seeing his hands, his cymbal work, and you’re seeing Joe in the background — and Joe is watching Carmen. And then you’re seeing those lights leaking across the lens. It’s not a clean thing; it’s a gritty shot. You’re breaking a lot of rules,” he says, “and once a decision is made, you can’t take it back. You just do it. You’re trying to paint some pictures, to give it a little color. You just go with it. It’s jazz, right?”

In the coming weeks, Fridays at Five will feature Wayne Shorter (Sept. 18), Ravi Coltrane (Sept. 25), Bobi Cespedes (Oct. 2), a Thelonious Monk birthday celebration with Joanne Brackeen, Kris Davis, and Helen Sung (Oct. 9), Mary Stallings and the Bill Charlap Trio (Oct. 16), Taj Mahal (Oct. 23), and Lila Downs (Oct. 30). Subscribe to the series ($5 monthly or $60 annually) at sfjazz.org/watch

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.