Lansing. Monday evening we took our seats in a small venue for a hundred people, the Creole Gallery in Old Town, with bohemian brick and mottled plaster walls, wooden chairs and old porous wood floors. It feels familiar and homey, as the venue for small, casual concerts. The gypsy jazz John Jorgenson Quintet seems to prefer these small, informal spaces, from what I gather touring their YouTube videos, and I can see why. If they were up and out on a remote stage in the Great Hall of the Wharton Center, where they fully deserve to perform with their outrageous skill and polish, we would be an audience, not participants.
Gypsy jazz is energetic at the get go. Many of the numbers are so fast paced that you have no breath left when one is done, and you're sure there are no note-stones left unturned in the musical riverbeds of the world. But John Jorgenson and his rhythm guitarist, bassist, drummer and violinist knew we couldn't take that pace any more than they could keep playing it for two full hour sets. So they mixed in Edvard Grieg (sorry, I don't remember which song), "Melancholy Baby" and "La Mer", among other calmer tunes. But for the most part, the rapid guitar picking, plucking, strumming, fingering, harmonics and violin bow stroking made it hard for me to sit still. So there was this energy in the room, flowing from the stage, and being boomeranged back from us, the listeners, many of whom were aging band members, exploding with appreciative whoops. There was also another force at play, and that was repartee. In the middle of John's frenetic strumming, violinist Jason Anick would reply with a decidedly schmaltzy quip, or a sarcastic violin moan, and the corners of John's mouth would turn up. Or vice versa. Again and again. The musical conversation of joy, love, and fun.
Here is John Jorgenson's Quintet playing Ghost Dance, but the only musician who is the same besides Jorgenson himself is the bassist, Simon Planting. The current members we saw are at John's site. And while you can catch a smile or two in this video, you can't sense the subtle frivolity we experienced at the show.
Paris. There was another concert of strings that had the same effect on me. It was Vivaldi, in an evening concert in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, another small venue for an audience of 100, one of three times I've sat in that stunning, historic space to listen to musical ensembles. (If you are interested, please read more about this jewel, Sainte-Chapelle. Here is one place to read more. You can read more about Sainte-Chapelle, and John Updike's poem after a concert at Sainte-Chapelle, at my post at Paris Deconstructed.) In spite of 6,500 square feet of windows telling biblical stories, rising 60 feet above and around us like a stained glass forest - reds, blues, purples muted in the softly lit chapel - the setting feels intimate, yet as unlike the Creole as a room can be. Old in the Sainte-Chapelle means 13th century. An ensemble of half a dozen musicians on cello, bass, violin and piano played many pieces, and often, there was the same camaraderie - the grins, the nods of understanding, the snickers while raising eyebrows and attacking strings with a bow flourish. I was so magnetized by the tangible connection between the musicians, that I left that concert floating on a cloud of euphoria. When I'm in Paris, all my senses are heightened (something I'd like to bring into the now, everywhere), which made this experience especially ecstatic.
At first, in both concerts, I wondered if the smiles, the quips, the fun, was put on. Was it just part of the performance, something to entertain and hold the audience? An act? At the Creole Gypsy Jazz concert, my eyes bored in on John's and Jason's faces to see if I could find a clue of artifice in their looks. They seemed genuine, though I couldn't be certain. I let it work its magic anyway. I believe that exuberance from us, the listeners in the wooden chairs, also amplified their emotive energy. When I glided out into the darkening warm summer night of Old Town after the Jorgenson concert Monday, with my hand in Don's, and a smile and a beat still lighting me up, it hit me that this fun, joyful exchange is necessary to their level of music. The musicians need it, as they need to practice thousands of hours to hone their skill. The music needs it, for the seeds of the notes to be broken open, and brought into the light of loving attention, to take root in the listener, and come alive, emotionally, and spiritually.
Here are 37 seconds of a concert in Sainte-Chapelle, not taken by me.
That night in Paris back in 1997, after listening and watching young violinists and cellists play like children on a playground of delicate but robust equipment, lying in bed, my soul left my body and met with those musical "children" in impassioned, playful conversation, all night. I woke up wondering, Was the conversation words, or did we speak in music? Was it a dream?
No matter how a violinist interprets Bach, Vivaldi or Mozart with bow strokes that are collé, legato, louré, martelé or staccato, or how many notes a gypsy jazz musician like John Jorgenson can strum and pluck out of a guitar in a minute, with joy and the force of love, the notes can't be squandered, or used up. The more you give, the more you get back. The riverbeds will always refill, and refresh - a far, far better immersion than what mere technical skill, melody, arrangement, and orchestration combined can provide.
I found this gypsy wagon at a flea market in Holland, Michigan in 2008
Jean "Django" Reinhardt was a French gypsy who was the first European jazz musician to make it big, and he started Gypsy Jazz - Jazz Manouche in French. 2010 is the 100th anniversary of the year he was born, in a gypsy wagon near Brussels. John Jorgenson was asked to play Django in the 2004 feature film, Head in the Clouds. How's that for synchronicity for this July in Paris? And you know what? I did not know until just now, at the tail end of this post, about that title Head in the Clouds. All that floating euphoria. I think I'd better see this film.
Jean "Django" Reinhardt
This post is part of the Paris in July blog theme, hosted by Karen at BookBath and Tamara at Thyme for Tea. Go to Paris in July to take your heart to the City of Lights.
Photo of John Jorgenson found at johnjorgenson.com.
Photo of Sainte-Chapelle courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.