I love house concerts. Listening to music in so intimate a setting places the music front and center, where it belongs. The audiences tend to be connoisseurs that have a strong bond with the performers and the music. The setting is warm. I remember going to an Indian music house recital in Los Angeles many years ago that featured the late Shubbho Shankar (son to Pandit Ravi Shankar and Smt. Annapurna Devi) on sitar and Pranesh Khan (son of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan) on tabla. We all crowded on the floor at their feet and listen to them play late into the night. Indian classical music lends itself to this type of setting.
So does jazz. From its early days, jazz has connected with its audiences in small settings, from rent parties in crowded flats to those smoky clubs tucked away in basements or off back alleys. Yoshi’s is awesome, as is the SF Jazz Center. But an intimate setting, where the musicians and audience can truly relate to one another, that’s where it’s at.
Saxophonist Anton Schwartz has hosted concerts in the intimacy of his West Oakland loft for the past 13 years or so. The general format is that he invites a guest musician to sit in with his group, featuring John Shifflett on bass and Lorca Hart on drums. I met Anton after his performance at KCSM’s Jazz on the Hill last year. Since we have a mutual friend, I did something I normally don’t do and introduced myself to an artist I really like. At that encounter, I placed myself on his mailing list. So when he announced a Loft Concert at his place in West Oakland, I couldn’t buy the ticket fast enough. Good thing, too. The second show quickly sold out. I attended the first show, a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
His loft is in a converted school building on the ground floor, already the makings of a good jazz club setting. The performance space looks like a typical modern loft: high ceilings, a concrete floor, an office area on one side and a galley kitchen on the other. The performers played at the front of the room next to a baby grand piano. Lots of chairs tightly packed the floor. No smoking, but Anton’s stage manager and wife Dawn had plenty of munchies to nosh on and beverages to sip casually.
Joining the band at this concert was pianist Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets. They began the show with one of his tunes, “Les is Mo,” an homage to Les McCann. It was a good groove and a fine show starter.
Despite the concrete floor, high ceilings, and limited acoustical padding, the space had, to my ears, a very warm sound. Dawn later explained that the audience itself helps with the acoustics, lessening the space’s natural echo. Also, the musicians generally balanced well among themselves, none overpowering the other. Mr. Ferrante’s piano sang beautifully behind Anton’s sax as well as on its own. And Mr. Shifflett’s bass came through clearly as well, with Mr. Hart’s drums holding it all steady.
Balance ruled the performance as they switched between livelier songs like “Les” and more contemplative ones, like Anton’s own “Then Again.” I knew only one other piece from the program, “Pangur Ban” from Anton’s latest album Flash Mob. So I enjoyed experiencing music I had not heard before. I came away from the show feeling mellowed. The music was both exciting and calming. In addition to helping the acoustics, the audience radiated its own warmth, responding well to the musicians. It was a friendly crowd, easy to strike up conversations with during intermission. A few folks I spoke with had studied with Anton. This fits the mold of a house concert, a group of musical connoisseurs in tune with the music and the musicians.
Anton splits his time, when not touring, between the Bay and Seattle. By his own admission, he has not hosted many loft concerts in West Oakland of late. In fact, the one I attended was the first for this year. Let’s hope the warm and enthusiastic response he and his group received will lure him back again soon.