A friend once tried to convince me that jazz is best experienced live, and that no record could ever compare to that experience. In some ways, my friend is correct. The improvised and loose structures of post-bob jazz are made to be experienced in the moment, and the jazz community has reinforced the idea of the importance of the live set by releasing so many of them on record — often, an artist’s “live” records outnumber his studio-recorded output.
I’m not ready to give up on recorded jazz that easily. If a great jazz performance can feel like a punch in the face, a great jazz record can be like remembering that time you got punched in the face. The impact may be softened, but it’s a different kind of impact – though no less important. Live, you’re given less time to reflect because you’re forced to quickly react to what’s being thrown at you. On record, you’re able to dig in a little deeper.
For a popular audience, a primarily rockist one, jazz barely even exists anymore. It’s been toned down, in constant retreat from its more experimental fringe groups and in hiding in its invisible niche corner. Remember when the Stooges had a saxophonist? Soft Machine? Remember when people cared that John Zorn, bursting out of the underground, was successfully clashing free jazz and hardcore music with his band Naked City? Remember when Pete Rock was dropping obscure jazz samples into the hottest tracks he produced? I do, too, and I damn sure miss it.
Sometimes I think the ideas of jazz have been successfully injected so deep into the DNA of rock and pop that I’m lamenting nothing. Other times, I think it’s been unfairly banished to the far regions of the musical landscape, never to be heard from again. Is new, interesting stuff still happening in jazz? (I stress “new,” because I’m perfectly aware that guys like Peter Brötzmann and Ornette Coleman, to name two looming influential figures, are still around and kicking to some extent.) Apparently so, and it’s coming from Led Bib.
Led Bib’s Sensible Shoes is all over the place in ingenious ways. The percussion moves from full-on four-four rock beats to something more typical of jazz (sometimes in the same song), but it’s always on full blast, like he’s hitting the skins with tree trunks. Opener “Yes, Again” begins with a quiet piano melody, slowly building up, instrument by instrument, toward an all-out freak-out that sounds like it’s on the verge of collapsing at any second. “Call Centre Labyrinth” dives into some heavy fusion reminiscent of Miles Davis on his mid 1970s live records, such as Black Beauty and Live-Evil, while “Water Shortage” reminds me of a less emotive Mogwai, more turgid flourishes and less all-out bombast.
No new musical ground is truly being torn apart here, but sometimes that can be just fine. The album lags at certain moments in the middle, especially when they veer toward more populist rock formulas (“Felt Pack Fantasy”) or attempt to capture a more somber mood (“2:4:1”). The band works best in full-on attack mode, where the horns are spiraling all around each other, barreling through the constantly changing rhythm section (“Sweet Chili”).
But even with a nomination for the Mercury Prize, Led Bib is still regulated to the sidelines. You’d think a band like this — known for its small, intense live shows — would be bigger among an alternative scene, but it’s not. But the fact that music like this can float around in the current troubled waters of the music industry, even gaining critical accolades, is enough for me. Every time I hear another carbon-copy, I’ll just think of this record.