1 December 2019

Column: Simon Spillett – There’s Always Someone Looking At You: The Peculiar World of the Jazz ‘Recordist’

There’s Always Someone Looking At You: The Peculiar World of the Jazz ‘Recordist’


I was on a gig the other night when a man noisily elbowed his way through the door of the venue, pushing what looked for all the world like some sort of portable defibrillator unit, mounted on a wire frame and complete with a set of wheels that appeared to have been stolen off a vintage pram.

He wasted no time in approaching the band.

‘Do you mind if I film a bit?’, he enquired, a question met by quizzical ‘we’ve been here before’ looks between myself and the other musicians on stage.

‘Well, er…’

A few minutes later and the man had his equipment whirring away in full Heath Robinson glory. This was none of your simple camera-phone held at shaky arms’ length business, mind. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Suddenly, myself and the other players were pinned in a spotlight that wouldn’t have been out of place at Colditz, while its operator, shielded from view like a Gestapo interrogator, made busy adjustments to a camera that to my eyes looked to be just this side of the sort of thing you’d expect to see atop a security fence at an MOD site.

Dazzled by this spectacle (quite literally), we did our thing and then, almost as soon as he appeared, the man was gone, his wire-wheels, arc light and surveillance get-up off into the chilly night.

A day or so later a friend emailed me to ask if I’d seen a YouTube clip of ‘The Simon Splillett Trio’ [sic.] that had just been posted. I hadn’t and I didn’t want to but there it was all the same – three musicians looking like rabbits caught in the headlights playing a gig which – when all’s said and done – really wasn’t the kind of thing that needed capturing for posterity.

That’s the thing these days though – it’s not whether we want to be recorded or not that matters. It’s Joe Public who’s boss and says so.

As a naturally reluctant ‘recording artist’ it’s taken an age for me to accept the insidious way of life that is the mobile phone camera but for sanity’s sake I’ve had to.

I learned a while ago that you can’t beat it, you just can’t.

And I suppose if people are willing to share hours of ‘you had to be there’ epic ‘fails’ on the net (thank you Rude Tube!) I suppose a musician showing some sort of accumulated skills shouldn’t be too surprised that those who watch them want to film them.

No, that’s not my beef here. My issue is that there are a growing army of so-called ‘jazz fans’ who roll into gigs with ever more elaborate recording equipment, be it audio or audio/visual, and who feel as if there is some sort of service being done to the music by documenting its more obscure happenings.

Only a few weeks ago I was about to go on at a London jazz venue when I saw a man sit down in the front row and unpack so many free-standing table mics that I thought he was about to deliver a press conference.

When I politely questioned what he was doing he seemed most offended – as if I shouldn’t mind at all that someone is taking away a free sample of what we do and – come on, we’re not stupid! – sharing it willy-nilly with their mates.

Now before anyone accuses me of being unnecessarily heavy-handed, let me say that it’s the deeper issue that is the real concern, not the simple gesture of taping a gig. Rather, it’s the nature of how some folk regard the gig itself.

Like many musicians I know, I’m saddened by some people’s increasing inability to walk into a music night and enjoy it for what it is – a live event, an in-the-moment never-to-be-heard-again occasion that is as much a social thing as an ‘artistic’ display.

Yes, I know there have been gigs we’ve been to that we wish we had a souvenir from but to my mind part of what makes a gig a gig is that it is something that is transient and unrepeatable – think of that famous quote from Eric Dolphy about music being ‘gone in the air.’

The trouble is that now there exists a particular kind of music follower – halfway between Dean Benedetti and that guy in The Truman Show – who can’t help himself in his over-obsessive documentation of what he likes. OK, you can argue it’s his camera or his mini-disc recorder or whatever, but honestly does someone – anyone? – really need to capture the most inconsequential of pub blows for future generations?

You can also argue the toss from what you might call the ‘environmental’ angle. Think about it for a minute and imagine what it would be like if Greta Thunberg had decided not to turn her ire on the older generation and its shamelessly size 14 carbon footprints but on the rampant overuse of digital media.

Of the many troubling things in our paradoxical shrinking-but-growing existence, the overload of information we face daily on the internet is, for me, the most disturbing.

Sealed behind a laptop or mobile screen there exists a whole cyber-realm in which, for some unjustifiable reason, the most inane, unimportant and, quite frankly, ‘so what’ of experiences have been elevated to worthiness.

Yes, I use YouTube to look at vintage jazz clips and the like, but I’m blowed if I’m going to wade through an entire set by a current jazz icon taken at the rear of a club on a wobbly selfie-stick.

The trouble is that the rules of cyberspace – that is, NO rules – has robbed the whole enterprise of the one thing the human race (without exception) needs from time to time: an edit button.

Give a limitless forum to the entire globe, one which has, let’s face it, all too little policing of its content and yes, you’ll undoubtedly get gold dust from some (think of that old chestnut about a room full of monkeys and typewriters) but you’ll also have to watch some adenoidal nerd from Des Moines telling you how to play ‘Countdown’ in all twelve keys over an impossible-to-decipher clave rhythm.

I think this might be what Andy Warhol was getting at when he predicted the ubiquitous ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ back in the 1960s. Fortunately for him, Warhol died in 1987, several years before the internet came into public use, thus robbing him of the educational, mind-expanding experience that is watching endless novelty pet clips or skateboarding tricks gone wrong.

And, despite being a pioneer in turning the everyday into ‘art’, I’ll wager that even he would have baulked at the idea that some out-of-the-way pub gig needed to be sealed permanently into the digital domain.

Simon Spillett

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