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The Beauty of Unrecorded Music

The machinery of contemporary culture is programmed to treat occasions as events—to freeze moments in digital permanence, to spread the local and the intimate to everyone everywhere. Much has been made of the instantaneousness of communication in the wireless age. But the documentation of every instant does not simply privilege the moment of experience; it also denies the power of experience itself. Not every occasion is an event, and the fleeting, ephemeral nature of some kinds of experience—including certain kinds of musical experience—is the source of their power. I was reminded of this last week at the Village Vanguard.

I went to see Bill Frisell, the jazz guitarist and composer, who was playing in his quirkily configured trio with the violist Eyvind Kang and the drummer Rudy Royston. The show was unforgettable precisely because it was unshowy—an hour of casual improvised music by three musicians who take palpable joy in experimenting together. They played all sorts of tunes, from chestnuts like “Tea for Two” and “Honeysuckle Rose” to blues pieces like Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” to John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” but used the material only as grounding for ideas they cajoled and prodded out of each other on the bandstand. That is to say, they were playing jazz, though not with rigorous adherence to the bebop vocabulary that traditionalists cling to as the defining sound of jazz. The set was not live-streamed, and no one shot it with a cell. It was spontaneous and erratic, intimate and playful. It happened, and it’s gone, and that makes the fact of it feel unnervingly strange in 2011.

Since there is no video of the show for me or anyone else to post, I’ll share a YouTube clip of the same Frisell trio playing the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life” at a festival concert in Verona last July. The Vanguard set from last week will stay in my memory—a place even more precarious than the digital domain, where it is already morphing without iMovie tools, beginning its inevitable transformation from an occasion into an event of the imagination.