The Power of Restraint

From The Desk Of

From The Desk Of  is a collection of ideas, reflections and reviews penned by Jazz Fest's Artistic Director.

by Josh Grossman

It's mid-September and, after a summer which provided a welcome respite from the intensity of Spring's Festival lead-in, it's already time to start thinking about the 2023 edition. That means discussing logistics, creating wish lists, fielding agent pitches...and spending a few minutes reflecting on what was an incredible ten days this past June.
Even after 13 (ish) festivals as Artistic Director (do 2020 and 2021 really count?), I still haven't exactly figured out how best to work my schedule at Festival time. In an effort to see as many acts as possible, and greet as many people as possible, I seem to be always on the go, never really taking in a full set of music. But there are still opportunities to pause and engage with what is happening on stage, and pick up on certain performance elements which I find particularly appealing and effective. This year, it was the power of restraint which struck a chord.
It's always exciting to see an artist take the stage and hit full force from the first note. And in some cases, that's the preferred approach - in environments such as outdoor concerts, where a certain percentage of the audience will be transient, the goal is to capture the audience's attention, in the hopes they will choose to stay...and maybe become new fans. But I was reminded in June that there is more than one way to build a set list.
There were a couple of instances where, standing in the audience, I knew full well the potential for fireworks of the musicians on stage. With some of the top musicians in Canada in these respective bands, there is no doubt that they could have been playing full-on from the get go. Instead, however, they chose a different route - creating excitement by showcasing the compositions and arrangements; the textures and colours of the instruments; the creativity of the individual soloists. And the audience was still engaged - there was a sense of being led on a journey: the interest was created in what might be next, where the music might be leading. As a result, when they did hit full power, it was even more exciting - the tension was released - it was the payoff of the slow build.
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Video: This Wynton Marsalis and Shirley Horn performance of Basin Street Blues is a great example. From the start, Shirley is the picture of restraint, comping chords and delivering her signature vocal style at a low simmer, all of which sets up Wynton for what begins as a restrained solo but climbs to expressive heights, that even he seems moved by by the time he finishes:
Video: the iconic duo of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond were well known for their remarkably restrained approach to composition. With Desmond you know he's capable of incredible flights, but he executes with such a choice approach to phrasing and rhythm.
Obviously, this kind of restraint - the slow build - won't work in all situations. If your audience is there to dance, they want to dance form the outset - they won't want to wait around through the development section. But even in the danciest, funkiest settings I've experienced incredible moments where a contrasting vibe is introduced - where the rhythm disappears, or the bass drops out. It's discombobulating at first, but when the groove returns, it hits even harder.

In the groundbreaking rock documentary* Spinal Tap, guitar superstar Nigel Tufnel is excited to show off his custom guitar amp, which goes up to 11 - for those moments, he says, when the music needs a "push over the cliff". To carry that metaphor far beyond usefulness, I'd suggest that one must be careful when going to 11 - after all, once pushed off the cliff, where else is there to go?
~ Josh
* yes I know it's a spoof...
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