Out of all the concerts I’ve attended in my life one of the most memorable was seeing Billy Joel perform at my alma mater, the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1978 (perhaps it was 1979?) in support of The Stranger LP, a hugely successful record, part of the rock and pop soundtrack of my generation. The album included such Top 40 hits as “She’s Always a Woman to Me,” “Just The Way You Are,” “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “Only the Good Die Young” and a favorite of mine which continues as a staple on classic rock stations to this day, “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”
The latter was the opening selection for that concert in 1978 (I still think it may have been 1979) and as the lights dimmed the crowd at once became silent and energetic as Billy Joel was introduced. A solo light came up, shone upon a grand piano and a roar from the crowd as we waited for the band to play. Billy was already seated as the crowd gave its approval with a deafening cheer. Billy looked out at the audience, smiled, and struck a chord that began the signature whistle from “Scenes.”
But, he flubbed the whistle after playing that first chord. You know that non-whistle that happens after eating a couple of crackers? It’s a half-dry warble desperately wanting to become a whistle, but only comes out as an unintelligible thpfftt, with accompanying cracker debris that makes even the best whistlers in the world falter. That’s what happened to Joel that night. He stopped, laughed, said something witty and self-deprecating and we, the audience laughed along, clapping and cheering in support. One of the greatest pop and rock stars of our era showed us it was okay to make a mistake. In that moment we were one with Billy as he regained his composure, struck that simple but glorious first chord once more and began the whistle. From our vantage point, and star-struck ears and eyes, Joel delivered a flawless concert.
“Practice, practice, practice…” – a phrase I heard often from my piano music teachers while growing up – is sometimes what separates a talented amateur from a working professional. The best performing artists through the years didn’t just rely on their natural talent; they honed their craft relentlessly in rehearsal spaces and in the studio, striving for perfection on record and on stage. I can’t imagine any Count Basie-led big band, or live performance by Bill Evans or Barbra Streisand imperfect. Right or wrong I think it’s pretty easy to become so accustomed to their performing radiance that we lose sight of the work involved getting to that moment, and the trial and error process that often accompanies practice. Ever have a meal in a top-notch restaurant that you remember years later? Most likely it’s because the executive chef went through numerous ‘practice’ phases searching for just the right spices, ingredient combinations and cooking time for a dish he or she hoped would make your dining experience not only pleasurable, but memorable. It was the same for the Basie and his guys, Evans and his compatriots and Streisand while working on a tune. Often the work yields lot of wrong notes, but those wrong notes can lead to future shining moments.
Before compact discs – and the ability to offer more recorded information to the listener – we were treated to the best from recording session dates on vinyl, a format by which we’re limited to roughly 22 minutes per side at 33 rpm . The sessions giving us those LPs may have taken 3 days, but in that time those ten to twelve songs hand-picked by the producers and artists were what they considered the best from those days of recording.
CDs give record companies the ability to squeeze about 74 minutes worth of information on the disc, and in order to give the consumer more bang for their buck, often when purchasing classic LP’s these days on compact disc we find more than what we bargained for… in this case it’s a good thing.
Often when purchasing a classic standard or jazz record on disc we’ll find numerous takes sometimes labeled as “outtakes” or “alternate” cuts. These are versions of songs that didn’t make it as the primary choice when the LP was originally released. It’s not unusual to find two or three other versions of the popular tracks on the disc allowing the listener to discover interpretations previously unknown to the public. Maybe these versions didn’t make the cut because a tempo was deemed too slow or too fast, or there might have been extra studio time and the producer wanted to experiment with another version of the song. Or maybe the tenor sax came in a half-note too soon, or a clunker of a note may have happened that most likely no one other than the producer or performer would have heard, but nonetheless was there. At times these alt takes are accompanied by studio chatter, giving us a very personal insight into the recording of the song, and, if we’re lucky and listen very carefully, we might even hear someone give a reason why they’d like another shot at perfection.
In those instances when the fourth wall of the studio session is opened and we’re allowed into their very special world of alternate takes, where we can actually hear a very wrong note delivered, I consider it a special moment. It’s not the joy of hearing someone make the mistake, but how the artist rectifies it, makes it better; how it moves them toward that moment when they can shout, “that’s the one!”
Working out a tune from its raw form on paper with the band or orchestra lends itself to hits and misses. How could it not? They’re painting a musical canvas full of colors and nuances most of us aren’t privy to until the final release of the record. As with master painters, there are starts, stops, and even do-overs (and luckily for us smart producers always kept the master tape rolling).
I will always root for the musician and singer during those particularly tough nights onstage when we, the audience, know they’re struggling to find the right and perfect note. It’s during those unintended imperfections that we can relate to that side of being human. Here the deeper fan is born. Since that Billy Joel concert I’ve been to a number of music performances where I’ve witnessed even those we regard as legends give performances they’d rather just forget, and sometimes even joke about and/or apologize for. No apologies necessary in my book. I want the blemishes and imperfection in live performances, and I listen intently to every out-take or alt take, because ultimately we all want to be moved, and ultimately it is the humanity, not the perfection, of the performance that moves us.
– Bill Quinn