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If improvisation is a hallmark of jazz, the provenance of Evanston’s weekly concert “Live at the Whiskey Lounge” seems to have been in keeping with that idea. One thing led to another and then another and soon there emerged a show that has already been broadcast to more than 140 countries.
Steve Rashid, a well-known local musician and arranger, is the series impresario and he still seems unable to believe his luck at having it all come together at Evanston’s 27 Live. Mr. Rashid said when he was helping organize a reunion performance with a sketch comedy group from his Northwestern days, he toured the Whiskey Lounge, 27 Live’s upstairs venue and was immediately taken with its intimate, well designed space.
“When I first saw it, I thought this was somewhere I would really like to play,” he said, “but it quickly went beyond that.” He discovered that the acoustics were wonderful, something about how the music was encompassed by the brick façade, and never looked back.
He began booking the room for small ensembles, duets and trios mostly, playing anything from contemporary to bossa nova to stride piano, using many of his Chicago- area relationships for the initial performances. He didn’t want it to be merely a dinner club with a band in the background. With a limited number of instruments, he wanted to foster a certain musical intimacy. To this end, notes on the tables ask the patrons to “eat, drink and be merry” but to keep talk to a minimum during the show. “If you talk loudly,” they announce, “Big John may have to visit your table. Trust me, you don’t want that to happen.”
After the success of those inaugural shows, Mr. Rashid got the idea that he might record them for promotional purposes. Then, rather out of the blue, he called the local jazz radio station, WDCB, to see if it might have any airtime for the sessions. When the station voiced some interest, he went a step further, figuring he might try to capture the ambience of a small jazz club and transmit it across the web.
With a couple of computers and five cameras set up for the most felicitous views, the show (via YouTube) has now been seen in Britain, Germany, Brazil, Japan, and a few other obscure places one might need a map to locate, like tiny Reunion Island.
At one of the performances, Mr. Rashid warned the audience that cameras would be panning the crowd so “if you’re with someone you’re not supposed be, you might want to be careful.” Someone in the audience shouted “I wish,” to a round of laughter.
The series almost seems hidden away in a relatively inconspicuous building at 1012 Church Street, fronted by a new Greek Restaurant, but the network of rooms inside offers a modern, multi-faceted club experience. The cover charge is only $10 with a one drink minimum. Though food and drinks are served, the show represents a true jazz lovers’ experience, featuring a range of different styles and the audience’s attention remains riveted to the stage.
When Mr. Rashid was a boy, he heard a song by Louis Armstrong and had a “soulful, life changing moment” that led to a career in music. Over the years, in addition to being an acclaimed recording artist himself, he has been a composer, producer and arranger for theater, dance groups, film and TV. He has been influenced by such diverse artists as Duke Ellington, Paul Simon and Randy Newman.
While Mr. Rashid occasionally joins the performance, playing piano, trumpet or harmonica, he is most often the master of ceremonies. One of the unique features of the event is an informal interview Mr. Rashid conducts just before the break. He feels that music is at its best when it tells a story and by having the musicians say a little about their history with the tune or give some background about a certain interpretation, this helps to make the evening more personal and accessible.
The bands consist of players who perform together regularly as well as those
who might be meeting for the first time.
Mr. Rashid explained that musicians’ interaction with each other is like a “conversation where the participants have “colloquialisms we all understand. You choose a tune and a key. There’s a certain canon of jazz songs most everyone knows – ‘Green Dolphin Street,’ for example – and off you go.”
Rebroadcasts of the series are featured once a month on WDCB’s Chicago Jazz Spotlight Wednesdays at 9 p.m. But for those who know there’s no real substitute for actually being there, one can pleasantly follow the notes wherever they lead every Thursday night in a small venue that nevertheless reaches around the world.