Music Scenes: Listening for Liveness, by Darren Mueller

by Mike D'Errico on June 14, 2013

Live at Birdland

The blurred image of John Coltrane on the cover of his 1964 LP, Coltrane Live at Birdland (Impulse A-50), suggests improvisation in process, music in motion. Recorded with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison at an important time in the quartet’s development, this LP reproduces the group in live performance—a fact emphasized on back jacket of the iconic Impulse! record.

Birdland Back Cover

The record jacket promises many things. Recorded and produced using the finest equipment and materials, it professes to give access to Coltrane’s “furious” exploration at a fixed time and “intimate” location. It assures a special (if not unique) listening experience that documents Coltrane’s artistic development. Like the cover image, it promises music in motion and music captured at its moment of creation. Live at Birdland engenders expectation of a listening experience so vibrant, so alive, that listeners will feel “there.”

When describing jazz performance, it is common, if not typical, for listeners to semantically blur the lines between the adjectival form of “live” and the verb “to (be a) live.” As Chris Holmes writes for, “Jazz is a living, breathing art and really should be heard live.” Listening, too, is an activity of motion.

But how do such claims translate to sounds on record? What musical, extra-musical, or para-musical sounds create the aural impression of liveness? What do listeners expect on live recordings?

I wish to explore this processes at work while listening. Below you will find excerpts from three different recordings with the ability to annotate and add your own thoughts about what makes these recordings sound live. How do the recordings sound live to you?

[wpspoiler name=”Cannonball Adderley, ‘Games'” ]

Cannonball Adderley, “Games”

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. Capitol SM-2663 (1966)


“[The Club] never wailed more than it did on the five nights Cannonball, Nat Adderley, Joe Zawinul, and the other musicians in the Quintet played their first stand for us—the first, we hope, of many. They played like blue smoke. They played like sweet preachin’. They played like nobody was ever going to go without honey butter again.”

“Capitol Records came into The Club one night before showtime, strung their equipment all over, and took a full evening’s performance down on tape. That was one of those great and providential blessings of history…. What my friend Cannonball did at The Club is now preserved forever, and it’ll be around a long, long time, as among the definitive works of a master. I’m proud The Club played a part in it.”

– Rodney Jones, liner notes



[wpspoiler name=”Duke Ellington, ‘Festival Junction'” ]

Duke Ellington, “Festival Junction”

Ellington at Newport. Columbia CL 934, 1956

[ca_audio url_mp3=”″ url_ogg=”” width=”670″ skin=”regular” align=”center”]

“At about [Paul Gonsalves’s] seventh chorus, the tension, which had been building both onstage and in the audience since Duke kicked off the piece, suddenly broke. A platinum-blond girl in a black dress began dancing in one of the boxes (the last place you’d expect that in Newport!) and a moment later somebody else started in another part of the audience. Large sections of the crowd had hardly been on their feet; now their cheering was doubled and redoubled as the inter-reacting stimulus of a rocking performance and crowd response heightened the excitement.”

“Opening the other side of this album, ahead of Gonsalves Rides Again, is Johnny Hodges showpiece, Jeep’s Blues. This, too, could be the top time in any other Ellington collection. But Diminuendo and Crescendo was really the climax of Ellington at Newport ’56 and the proof is right here, uncut and already mellow.”

-George Avakian, liner notes

Ellington At Newport


[wpspoiler name=”Louis Armstrong, ‘Tiger Rag'” ]

Louis Armstrong, “Tiger Rag”

Ambassador Satch. Columbia CL 840, 1956


“Louis thought of ‘Tiger Rag’ just before he went for the last half of his last show, and quickly ‘talked’ a routine with the band. The comedy bits with Trummy at the beginning and at the reprise were adlibbed on stage.

“The whole after-midnight show in Milan took place as much in the audience as on the stage. A group of young Italians, pressed down in the first few rows, were having as much of a ball as the band was. Quite literally, they were carried away by the music, and it was nothing to see them dancing in the aisles and in the narrow area between the first row and the stage.”

– George Avakian, liner notes

Ambassador Satch


Listeners rely on technologies of sound reproduction and its physical manifestation, the record, to make musical performances repeatable, transferable, and portable. It is not surprising, then, that music studies (especially of popular music and jazz) continue to emphasize the importance of recordings and how they give access to spontaneous moments of music. Jazz listeners in particular, as sociologist Sara Thornton has argued, fetishize recordings as objects that function as a literal transcription and replica of a “unique jazz performance.[2. Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 67.] The technological processes employed in the studio often remain absent though they, too, impact how listeners (including scholars) interpret and understand the music.

Jazz records do not present single moments of performance. Ruptured from their moment of creation, such sounds pass through several layers of mediation within a matrix of creative agency that connects performance and listening. Processes of recording, mixing, mastering, and pressing affect sounds even before they are packaged, marketed, distributed, and eventually consumed. Yet, throughout the history of popular music—a history at once musical and technological—recording companies have attempted to render the processes of mediation silent.

Audio production can create a sense of liveness in subtle ways. As my examples above demonstrate, live recordings are sometimes not as live as they seem. Two of the five tracks on Coltrane’s Live at Birdland (“Alabama” and “Your Lady”), for example, were recorded in the studio five weeks after the quartet’s Birdland performance.[3. The performance occurred on October 8, 1963. The studio date was November 18, 1963.] The title and notes on the jacket make no mention of this. Such textual descriptions mislead in other ways as well, purporting to position a recording at a fictitious nightspot. The animated audience on Adderley’s “Games” was not recorded at Chicago’s “The Club” as reported on the record jacket, but rather from Capitol’s studios in Hollywood, California with invited guests rather than paying customers. Indeed, the audience frequently figure into the production of liveness. Ellington’s recording from the 1956 Newport Festival includes audience overdubs placed on the recording after the fact by producer George Avakian. “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” is a hybrid recording, a combination of sounds recorded in performance and sounds from the studio. Avakian used similar techniques on Armstrong’s “Tiger Rag.” Encore and all, this track was recorded in an empty concert hall but made to sound live in the studio during postproduction.

Live records like those of Adderley, Ellington, and Armstrong present bodies interacting in particular spaces. The yells, claps, cries, and shouts are not singular, but elements of a soundscape that make the ambiance of the event and its location aurally perceptible. The believability of such sounds rests on the professional activities of those using the technology of sound reproduction. As George Avakian writes in the liner notes to Ambassador Satch: “Fortunately, uni-directional, close pick-up mikes kept most of the audience reaction within bounds, so that the music is not drowned out in these recordings the way it sometimes was in the hall.” This recording, like the others collected here, crafts a particular idea of being “there,” one that does not distract from the clarity of performance. Live recordings like these presents an ideal location of listening, tailor made for a listening consumer at home with their record player.

I hope readers will forgive my aural sleight of hand. This essay was purposefully organized to emphasize how production decisions inform listening, even if deceptively. Though they may be manufactured, such sounds help our ears construct a sense of place and temporal location. Deception, in other words, helps bridge the gap and is a vital aspect of most, if not all, so-called live recordings.

Liveness is not something a record possesses, but rather a quality that listeners ascribe to it. Live records prompt such constructions to happen. Rather than focus on authenticity, as often is the case, I wish instead to inquire into the relationships between performance and technology, and how that relationship influences the production of (musical) knowledge. There is a dual process at work, where liveness is heard as people interacting on and off stage and as mediation of sounds through technology. Any discussion of liveness remains incomplete without a critical engagement with its technologies of reproduction.

Darren Mueller is a doctoral candidate in Musicology at Duke University where he specializes in the social and cultural history of sound reproduction. His dissertation examines the long-playing record and its influence on the artistic production and historical construction of jazz from the 1950s to the present. He co-founded the soundBox project, which seeks to enhance the practice of using sound in born-digital scholarship. He also performs professionally as a saxophonist, appearing in various locations in North Carolina and the Southeast. Follow him on twitter: @listeningbig 

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: