PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
May 1, 2007

A Jazz Club is Born

by Jim Newsom

Does the venue make the music, or does the music make the venue?

I must admit I had my doubts about jazz at the NorVa. It was difficult for me to mentally reconcile the theatre’s dark, biker bar ambience with the elegance of Jacky Terrasson’s piano stylings or the magnificence of Cheryl Bentyne’s crystalline voice.

Nonetheless, Tom Robotham’s desire to present top quality music in a less formal, less rigid setting appealed to my sense of adventure. What better way to cross-pollinate than to showcase first-tier acoustic jazz in a hard rock environment?

Last Wednesday, Terrasson’s trio delivered far beyond my wildest dreams. They filled the NorVa with incredible musicianship, the soundman mixed it just right, and a jazz club was born. Quite a different experience from my previous visits there—the excitement of being jammed together like a can of standing sardines having lost its appeal long ago, if it ever actually had any appeal at all.

I think of my experience seeing Jethro Tull there five years ago, and compare it to the first time I saw the band at the Mosque in Richmond in the fall of 1970. We had front row balcony seats at the Mosque, with clean sightlines, ample legroom and reasonably comfortable seats. Contrast that to the NorVa thirty two years later, with less nimble physiques, sweat and beer soaked bodies pressed together singing “Aqualung” in unison. If I wasn’t 6’3” tall, I would have seen nothing but the backs and butts of my fellow middle-aged concert goers.

I’ve seen Tull many times, in basketball arenas, outdoor theme parks and middle-sized auditoriums. But that first show back before they could fill the larger facilities stands out, not just for the quality of the music—like most bands of the classic rock era, they actually play their instruments a lot better now than they did then—but for the overall experience. I did not enjoy the NorVa show very much.

The same could probably be said about many of the concerts I’ve been to through the years. After all, what kind of musical experience can be had in a coliseum filled with 15,000 people, or a football stadium with 75,000?

Having grown up around here, I never got to experience the great rock clubs like the Fillmores East and West, the Boston Tea Party or Philadelphia’s Electric Factory. The King’s Head Inn on Hampton Boulevard got people like the Allman Brothers Band and The Police when they were unknowns, but the closest we got to seeing name bands in a fairly upclose setting was the Virginia Beach Dome.

In fact, one of the best rock concerts I saw featured the Allmans as headliners in the summer of 1971, with Black Oak Arkansas and Cowboy as opening acts. It was one of those transcendent evenings, where even the opening acts I’d never heard of turned out to be good, and Duane, Gregg and their Brothers in music sailed magically through a lengthy set of extended jams.

Ironically, I saw the Allman Brothers with B. B. King six months later at University Hall in Charlottesville, and the magic wasn’t there. Duane Allman had died in the interim, but I think it was more the difference between being twelve rows back in a small, though crammed, auditorium and being halfway to the rafters in a spacious basketball arena.

Most jazz is more intimate than rock. So setting can be even more important. That’s why Wednesday night’s concert was so surprisingly refreshing. It showed how enjoyable the NorVa can be with the right music and the right setup. I don’t expect Bill Reid will be dropping Bullet for my Valentine and Static X for Fred Hersch or Joe Lovano any time soon, but perhaps on those nights when no young rockers are passing through he’ll consider bringing in an occasional touch of jazz class.

Maybe the music does make the venue. I can hardly wait to see how Cheryl Bentyne and her accomplished accompanists work the room this Wednesday night.

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.