by Josh Emmons
My tastes in music are discouragingly popular. I crave ABA structures, uplifting hooks, and transportive bridges. I am inspired by key changes. My first cassette tape was Different Light. My first CD? Cosmic Thing. All of which is to say, I’m not a big fan of jazz.
I mean, I’m not a philistine. I live in Chicago. I go to the Green Mill. And I am always, always amazed and awed by what transpires there. It is something that is almost wholly unlike what I think of as jazz. It’s warm. Inviting. Surprising. A living, breathing, enveloping, harmonious spectacle.
I don’t like jazz. But it turns out I love the experience of jazz.
I can easily sum up the thoughts of an outsider first walking the halls of AXPONA with a simple quote I’m sure we’ve all heard too often.
“You paid how much for a cable?”
To those of us not in the hi-fi world, the great lengths (and expense) the community goes to in pursuit of ever diminishing returns seem ridiculous on the face of it. After all, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the Bangles on my cold-war-era Realistic tape deck from RadioShack. And we’ve all heard the story about how a professor somewhere swapped coat hangers in for I-don’t-know-what and so it’s all just a little silly, yes?
Walking from room to room, I would occasionally justify what I was seeing with my own patronizing little placations. “We all value different things,” I’d say. “They clearly think it’s worth the price or they wouldn’t have paid it.” That kind of “cast the first stone” stuff that makes me feel superior for not judging people I’ve judged.
Then I was sitting in the Audio Note room because a man named Charles King had brought a collection of reel-to-reel tapes to the show. He queued up a first-generation recording of the Chuck Israels Orchestra playing some small club somewhere, and I was back in the Green Mill.
It was so subtly mic’d, the tape so fresh, the system so well tuned… The performance simply came alive, sprung fully-formed from the speakers right there in the hotel room. Not just the horns or the bass but the clink of forks on dishes and glasses being tipped and the small “hmms” and “ahhs” of the crowd over the combined murmur of a hundred half-whispered dinnertime nothings.
This was’t jazz. It was the experience of jazz.
And all I could do is ask myself “Why?” over and over. Why had David Cope amassed and transported over $80k worth of gear to a hotel in Chicago? Why had he spent days adjusting it? Why had someone taken such care in preserving this performance? Why had Charlie King collected these tapes? Why, in heaven’s name, had he brought them with him here to the show?
And then I looked around the little hotel room at AXPONA and recognized for the first time something that always set the experience of the Green Mill apart from jazz, somehow, in my mind. I was sharing it.
Music is the most subversive form of sound.
When listening to most sound, our brain remains firmly in the driver’s seat. We might hear a shout and redirect our attention. Or a siren and change our direction. Or an argument and concede our opinion. But these are all well-reasoned responses. They’re all routed through our brains.
Music doesn’t talk to our brains. It talks to our glands. It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth; the minor fall, the major lift. And we shudder with the sudden flood of endorphins that pound our bloodstream without so much as a by-your-leave to our brains. Music is fundamentally magical-seductive-holy-seditious-terrifying. And it’s the audiophile that traffics in this good.
And of course we don’t need it to be “high fidelity” to be any of these things. How many children have been comforted by a roughly hummed lullaby? How many revolutions carried on a whistle and a drum?
But when we share music, we’re not just sharing a tune. We’re releasing emotion in viral form ready to infect the world. It can be jazz, or it can be the experience of jazz.
The experience of music, in my humble opinion, is the business that audiophiles are in.
I’ll see you next year.