"Unprecedented" is the word of the moment, but there is nothing new under the sun. In 1918, at the dawn of the jazz age, the Spanish flu swept the world with devastating consequences, due in part to the authorities’ failure to recognise the gravity of the situation and take appropriate measures. Then, as now, cultural life suffered collateral damage – on 19 October 1918, in one of the birthplaces of jazz, Chicago’s Emergency Commission declared that “all public gatherings not essential, such as banquets, conventions, lectures, social affairs, athletic contests, of a public nature be stopped. Music, cabarets and other entertainments be stopped in restaurants and cafes. Crowding prohibited in poolrooms, saloons, etc.” Thus public jazz performances are put on hold til the aftermath.
Back then, viral transmission was still not understood. Now we have all the resources of virology at hand to combat the disease: and we have new resources to combat the collateral damage to our cultural life as well. Jazz is a forward-thinking art form and jazz musicians have been quick to take advantage of our new digital affordances of social media as well, and so, even in the first days of our new restrictions, the virtual gig is rapidly becoming a thing.
Thus it is in these circumstances that we are welcomed into Alina Bzhezhinska’s living room for a Facebook livestream of her duetting with regular collaborator Tony Kofi. The parlour recitation is an ancient form of presentation, pre-dating the paid gig: the livestream is a new phenomenon, a new mediation for an old tradition with its own unique array of opportunities and difficulties. One evolving convention seems to be the opening shot of one of the performers leaning into the camera and asking the other, “Is it working? I can’t tell if it’s working properly!” before returning back to their station: the domestic setting can sometimes intrude, as when Bzhezhinska has to repeatedly break off to field calls from her mum (it’s also Mother’s day), and on my stream there’s a noticeable latency between sound and image so that the musicians seem to be playing catch-up with themselves.
The conventions of performance have yet to be established: Bzhezhinska announces the tunes, and Kofi stands up to take his solos, like in a regular gig, but there’s also a lot of relaxed domestic banter of the sort that wouldn’t happen on a stage and, of course, while we can hear the performers, they cannot hear us or our applause. Our presence can be detected via the live comments in the right-hand bar (people log on from across Europe, and wherever else the timezone permits) and via the limited range of emoticons upon which you can click, to release them so that they float like little bubbles of acknowledgement across the performer’s faces. Thumbs up, heart, laughing, surprised, sad, angry – that’s the range of our demonstrative emotional response to the music.
How about the music itself? A pair of Alice Coltrane compositions to start: one a brief harp solo, then a rendition of the magisterial 'Blue Nile'. The impact of Kofi’s entrance with the mournful, keening theme cuts through the digital blur, his thick, chunky tone and unsentimental phrasing conveying the power of the moment. The subtleties of Bzhezhinska’s technique can be perceived at a distance: her use of harmonics, the tonal variations up and down each string, the powerful bass from her left hand, are all present cutting through the haze. Evan Eisenberg, in his book The Recording Angel, recounts how 19th century audiences were entranced by the wax cylinder and shellac disc recordings they listened to, despite the approximate reproductions offered by these primitive technologies: the brain can make up the deficit of information so that the performer’s intent can still be detected, and so it is tonight.
A Dorothy Ashby soul-boogaloo number keeps its funk thanks to Kofi’s big-toned, rhythmic tenor: Bzhezhinska’s own 'Spero' is a mellow ballad well-suited to the Sunday night occasion: McCoy Tyners’s 'Contemplation' is performed in honour of its late composer, despite further telephonic interruption from Mrs Bzhezhinska mère, with Kofi showing the strength and purity of his upper register on tenor in a suitably powerfully charged rendition: his solo, switching between fast fluent runs and jagged bluesy melodic fragments, illustrating yet again what an original voice he is, and the velvety power of his low notes hum across the bandwidth.
As the evening progresses, the players relax into the informal oddness of the occasion. Kofi even takes to the harp for a portion of 'Afro Blue' as Bzhezhinska pounds a djembe, but there’s no mistaking the commitment of their performances when they return to their primary instruments for some extended declamatory soloing. After a heartfelt plea for us all to support each other through whatever the coming months may bring, they finish with a totally focused rendition of 'After The Rain'. Bzhezhinska’s harp is stately and sonorous, Kofi’s sax tough and devoid of schmaltz, but equally neither cerebral, nor abstract, but earthily rooted in feeling. It’s a much needed message of hope: let’s hear more.