A few weeks ago I went to a performance by Wynton Marsalis, whose music I have been buying since the early 1980s. He arrived then as a young trumpeter who could play jazz and classical music with equal genius: I remember listening to his recording of the Hayden Trumpet Concerto in 1983 and feeling that every note he blew was placed in exactly the spot required: not a femtosecond too early or late, too long or too short. At the same time it was Hayden’s music, but played by someone who was aware of everything that had happened after Hayden.
All the work he’s done since, I think, has been while standing on that same platform: technically impeccable, respecting the music’s history, recognising that we listeners come with modern ears. I commend to your own ears Mr Jelly Lord, his CD from 1999 of Jelly Roll Morton tunes first put down by the fellow New Orleans master 75 or so years earlier. It’s properly Morton, but played by people who are aware, and who know that we the audience are aware, of bop and other developments in jazz history in the decades since Morton’s death.
And yet … I came out of the Marsalis concert feeling that I had listened with real enjoyment to musicians who had played flawless improvisational jazz, rooted in the music’s history, though with enough of a flavouring to show this was not merely a reproduction, a tribute band. But I wasn’t blown away. Was that evening much different to listening to Wynton Marsalis on CD? Not a lot.
Seven days later I saw a performance by the Zawose family from Tanzania – and if you don’t have a grin across your face within 45 seconds of starting to watch those ladies, have yourself checked by a doctor: you may be dead. Fantastic, exhilarating, explosive: as a live experience they shove Wynton Marsalis off stage and out the door. I wouldn’t want to buy their CD, though. The Zawose family are an excellent illustration of a great live act that won’t reproduce well on an MP3 player, or similar sound-only recorded music deliverer. Tremendous visually, fantastic enthusiasm, send you home very happy, but paddling about in the shallows musically.
What has this got to do with beer? Only that while I was thinking about the difference between live and recorded music, and how ultimately live music, when it’s good, is unbeatably superior to the best recorded music, because nothing surpasses the enjoyment of being there while it’s happening, it occurred to me that I have similar feelings about cask beer, proper live maturing-in-the-cellar brews, and bottled beer.
To me, and this is just my opinion, you’re entitled to feel completely different, while there are many fine bottled beers, a fair number of which I enjoy greatly, not one beats a good pint of cask ale caught at the peak of condition. The flavour, the texture, they’re all unsurpassable, and unachievable any other way. Of all the pinnacle moments I can remember in decades of beer drinking, those times when you think: “What I am drinking here is just superb”, only one of many has involved a bottled beer, and that was from the Fuller’s Vintage Ale range, which is, of course, bottle conditioned: about as close to a cask ale in a small container as you’ll get.
Now, you’re going to say: “But you’re dismissing whole traditions and styles of beer there,” and yes, I am. Condemn me as a cask ale chauvinist if you want: it’s only my personal take on beer. But I know what I like. Bluntly, in my experience – and I’ve drunk across five continents and as many decades – nothing is capable of beating the best cask ale. That won’t stop me drinking other types of beer, any more than loving live music stops me listening to the recorded sort: many bottled beers are almost as good as cask beer. Many recordings are almost as good as being there live. Ultimately, however, the best cask ale shoves any other sort of beer off the stage and out the door.