I sit in my room listening to the La La Land soundtrack once again, and I’m a little disappointed that this is the thing that brings my mind back to Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls show last Friday night.
My interest in jazz has been limited and sporadic over the years. I had played the clarinet for years, but when my school set up a jazz ensemble, I quit halfway through the first practice. Something didn’t feel right; my fingers didn’t move over the keys easily enough, my mind didn’t create fast enough to tell my fingers what to do, and I felt overwhelmed and out of place. Granted, I was only 13 and should probably have stayed for longer than half an hour, but nonetheless I always saw jazz as unnecessarily complicated and frightening.
Ryan Gosling’s La La Land character, Sebastian, says that jazz is about constant creation and tension – each character is always composing, performing and listening to the others for cues on how to fit in. I noticed that, maybe for the first time, at Bird Calls. I told myself to just sit, listen and feel the music as if jazz were no different than pop or classical. I found my head bouncing to the rhythm, my fingers twiddling to the moves of Rudresh’s saxophone. I found a light and love in jazz that I’d maybe had once but forgotten over the years.
Rudresh and his band would probably scoff at the idea that a Hollywood rom-com brought me into the world of jazz. But if I hadn’t watched that film (and listened to the soundtrack for weeks), I might not have made the decision to see Rudresh perform. I might not have watched with such a keen eye and ear, either. You could tell with every moment of the 90-minute performance that the five band members were working at the top of their energy and ability. Their hands and fingers danced over the keys as if their life depended on it, molding and melding the tune into whatever they wanted in the moment. There’s a different adrenaline rush when you can watch jazz without having to play it, and you’re aware of the power and talent that goes into it. I would have been impressed by any jazz show, but the intricacy and beauty of this one blew me away. I walked away feeling revitalized and inspired, not for anything in particular, but just to live life – to feel, to play, to follow the music. I guess that’s the feeling jazz musicians leave with every night.
To see more Rob Strong photos of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Hopkins Center master class, go “Workshopping a living art form with Rudresh Mahanthappa.