On The Return of Live Music

I have a band called Casabella. A group of friends who get together seven or eight times a year to play a gig. It’s incredibly loose, to the point that the band has been around for over ten years and is literally on its hundredth iteration.

It started as a background jazz band, playing a weekly gig at an Italian restaurant in a shopping centre. We got the gig via Myspace, when a chef at the restaurant found our nascent social media presence and called us up. A one-off gig turned into a Friday night residency that carried on for seven years. The deal was simple – $100 each and a pizza for three hours of low volume jazz.

Over time the low volume component became the most important part of the gig. We were regularly asked to turn down, at least three or four times a night. I started leaving my sticks at home and just turning up with brushes. Then I started cutting my kit down – ditching the toms, ditching the cymbals, eventually buying a smaller kit – an 18” kick, snare and ride cymbal. One gig I forgot my kick drum at home and no-one noticed. If anything it probably made the gig better.

The nature of the gig meant we weren’t overly precious about it. If something else came up – another gig, a social occasion, the deadline for a uni assignment, you would dep out the gig to someone else. Over time we ran through the entire undergraduate Melbourne jazz cohort of 2008 – 2012. It became a point of pride, a point of jest, a gig that people still talk about now – seven years after it ended. Oh you’re playing Casabella tonight? I’ll take a small with the lot.

Some players got booted from the list – if they couldn’t play low volume jazz it wasn’t the gig for them. If a horn player couldn’t stretch out and solo for three hours then they were gone. The band iteration shifted from a quartet to a trio – drums, bass and another member. The best trios were piano led. The worst were probably trumpet, because once the trumpet chopped out and stopped soloing it was just a weird bass/drum duo, and once the bass stopped soloing it was just solo drums. Not the ideal background music for an Italian pizza restaurant.

We lost the gig with some dismay in 2015, when the owners finally realised that no-one – staff, customers, or band were actually enjoying the experience, and Casabella lay dormant.

I revived the project a couple of years later, on returning from a national tour with a two piece blues band. I missed playing jazz. I missed playing in a band with chord progressions and interaction and players who listened to each other. The new iteration was vaguely like the old iteration – we played a couple of background gigs at farmers markets, we had a bunch of different players for each gig because I was happy for it to be a loose hang. There was no low-volume stipulation, and there was finally room to actually stretch out.  I found my sticks again. For one sneaky gig I brought along a floor tom. The line-up slowly solidified into the same group of friends who were regularly available.

On coming out of lockdown last week, the first gig I had booked in was Casabella at The Wesley Anne. It’s a place I’ve loved for years – a church turned in to a drinking hall that we’ve played many times. It’s about as relaxed as a gig can be – the band crams in to the front window playing to the punters who walk past on the street. There’s no pressure to bring a fan base, no pressure to appease a certain type of audience, just a vague understanding that if you play well and don’t get too raucous then everyone will have a good time.

In this one little gig I experienced more joy than I’ve had in months.

I’ve had a musically productive series of lockdowns – recording an album, learning a brush routine, practicing guitar, writing songs for my banjo project, but none of these things compare at all to playing two hours of loosely arranged music with a bunch of friends. It felt like an animated conversation, everyone throwing ideas into the room and hearing other people catch them, twist them, throw them back. It felt like a hearty meal at the end of an exhausting day, thoughts and flavours and fragrances that tickle the senses. It felt a little like a tightrope where we stretch out a little bit and occasionally fall off, but mostly there’s someone there to catch you. Or if not to catch you, then to play something behind you that makes it sound like you all vaguely know where the beat is meant to be.

I’ve missed playing music. It’s great to be back.

PS. This gig got written up in the Age!

PPS. One year on from this video with Tim Woodz!

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