Leave it to Andrew Bird to dub an annual series of concerts "gezelligheid." The Dutch word doesn't have a direct English equivalent. Depending on its use, it could mean cozy, celebratory or simply nice. For the multi-instrumentalist Bird, the intimate concert series has the larger meaning of being at home and making audience members feel like they belong. At the 2013 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the genre-leaping songwriter will perform on the Fais Do-Do stage, which is smaller and more personal than its mammoth neighbors.
"Every time I play a show I consider where I'm at and the significance of the music to that," he says.
Bird just put down his guitar before answering his phone. He speaks slowly and deliberately, giving thoughtful responses made of almost sighed sentences.
"I like playing on my feet and reacting," he says. "It keeps me awake and musical to have to stay on my feet. ... The people I've found to play with, they thrive on not knowing what's coming next from me. They enjoy that. We all still have the spirit of jazz, though maybe not the actual sound of jazz. We always feel let down if something new didn't happen every show."
Bird's latest album, 2012's Hands of Glory, captures that intimacy, and along with it the spirit of early folk and blues recording sessions, during which musicians huddled around a single microphone and recorded together, as if each take could be their last.
Bird is wary about calling it nostalgia. "The Hands of Glory stuff does bring me back to old New Orleans stuff," he says. "Even though it's old-timey stuff, old bluegrass, I still play hot jazz. It's just the way my phrasing ends up."
In the late '90s, Bird recorded his first two albums with then-group Bowl of Fire on Magazine Street in an old sno-ball factory outfitted with a single microphone, much like the sessions for Hands of Glory.
"That was out of this religious respect for the old 78s and old music — that's when I was younger and more dogmatic about it," he says. "Now it's like, when you play into one microphone and you have no headphones and no monitors, you just sing and play better. ... Having to project your voice out and barely be able to hear yourself — that's what it feels like on stage. It pulls real music out of you."
Bird's Bowl of Fire borrowed from traditional folk, blues, jazz and swing — a pastiche of the American songbook that Bird has studied since childhood. He first picked up violin at age 4.
"I learned music like it was a language," he says. "I didn't learn to read music until I was 13 or 14. There was a good 10 years of just soaking it up and learning Bach and Mozart — but as if they were folk tunes."
Bird branched out to world music, from indigenous Scandinavian and Irish stylings to Hungarian gypsy music, then to early jazz greats like Django Reinhardt and New Orleans legends Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Snooks Eaglin and Buddy Bolden, of whom no recordings are known to exist.
"I just loved reading about this kind of history that's unrecorded — pre-recording-era stuff. Totally fascinating," he says. "Even if it's very dry history, I found that it sparked my imagination of what it's like."
Bird's early folkways gave way to lush, eclectic pop operettas — ambitious albums (like 2007's Armchair Apocrypha and 2009's Noble Beast) scored with long-winded lyrics and his signature plucked violin.
"Since I went on a path away from that rooted, traditional music, it's always been something I play before a show to remind myself what it's supposed to feel like, even if I'm doing my own songs, which have less traces of early blues and jazz," he says. "It's what I do to open up my voice and feel musicality. It all comes from the old hymns."
Hands of Glory reimagines songs from last year's Break It Yourself coupled with his take on traditional hymns and Americana. Bird also covers Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You," a straightforward, sentimental country-folk ballad, played in stark contrast to his delicately layered compositions and elaborate vocal phrasings. ("The opposite of a typical Andrew Bird song," he says with a laugh.)
"The less descriptive the song is, the more descriptive you can be every show. It's just a blueprint," he says. "My favorite kind of music ever is the kind that doesn't tell you how much to play or feel. That's kind of an important revelation. Some people know I can do more complicated stuff ... but this is harder, this simple thing. You've got nothing else to hide behind. It demands you be present and musical and honest."
Bird says he won't try to recreate that revelation onstage. "There's no hope," he says. His live shows are famously different from his albums — the former is a partially improvised, loose approximation of his songs, while the latter relies on his finely tuned arrangements.
"A lot of bands try to recreate that headphone masterpiece," he says. "A song is just made of some basic elements. There's melody, there's chords, lyrics. Start building it from scratch on stage. It'll be far more interesting than replicating the record. That leads to a lot of fun on stage, just throwing it out the window and start all over."
On 2010's Preservation, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band invited artists including Tom Waits, Pete Seeger, Jim James, Jason Isbell and others to record live in the venerable jazz institution. The musicians spent only one session each with the band and performed just a few takes — all live, with no overdubs, like Hands of Glory. Bird shines on album opener "Shake It and Break It," originally by Charley Patton, an out-of-the-gate stomping jazz number, with Bird's signature fiddle and whistles fluttering into the room.
"Coming back and playing with Preservation Hall a couple years ago was kind of a trip," he says. "It's been a while since I really spent time in the city. I remember playing with different busking musicians back when I was in my early 20s in New Orleans. I remember how territorial it got. If you were on the wrong corner you could very well get your ass kicked. I kind of expected that territorial thing. I was pleasantly surprised Preservation Hall was so warm towards me. Some of the guys knew of those early records. I said, 'Oh, I used to play this kind of music.' And they said, 'Yeah, we know who you is.'"