Happy 80 Candles to the Village Vanguard!

village vanguard

Has it really been 30 years since I interviewed Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard for The Villager newspaper, for a story on the 50th anniversary celebration of the venerable Seventh Avenue South nightspot? Hard to believe. That summer, during my brief stint as a grad student in cinema studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, hardly seems so long ago. In addition to Gordon, I spoke with some of the many jazz greats who played the anniversary show, including trombonist Al Grey.

Gordon, the short, somewhat gruff, cigar-smoking, Lithuanian-born owner of the Vanguard, opened his place in 1935, and in its early years it became a home to poets, singing/acting revues, Caribbean artists (Harry Belafonte), folk and blues singers (Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie), and comedians (Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen).

Its most lasting legacy, though, is that rooted in its late-’50s rebirth as the city’s finest listening room for performances by great jazzers, of the bebop variety and beyond, many of whom are immortalized in the gorgeous photos still hanging in the basement club. John Coltrane and Miles Davis played there. So did Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Carmen McRae, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra (which became the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which still plays there Monday nights).

Christian McBride quintet

The Vanguard is practically a temple to the high art of jazz, and I’m happy to have seen bassist Christian McBride’s Inside Straight quintet (above; see my review of his December show), guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and the late guitarist Tal Farlow at the Vanguard over the years.

Sunday, the Vanguard turned 80. Tuesday, it kicks off a week of concerts presented by pianist Jason Moran. Pianists Moran, Fred Hersch, and Kenny Barron, and saxophonist Charles Lloyd‘s quartet (with Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland) are among the artists slated to play March 10-15.

While other NYC jazz institutions have come (Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Smoke) and gone (Bradley’s, the Village Gate), and others have routinely upgraded and renovated and even changed music policies, the Vanguard has kept folks coming in part because it has stayed the same — a generally low-dough admission charge, a focus on music listening (loud talkers get shushed), and a decision to not introduce food to the mix.

“One thing that’s great is that, through all the years, they’ve had the wisdom not to mess with it,” as Hersch told The New York Observer. “I like the Vanguard for its purity.”

Lorraine Gordon, Gordon’s wife, took over the club in 1989, when he died; at 92, she and her daughter, Deborah, run the place, with the Vanguard’s longtime manager, Jed Eisenman.

For more information on the Vanguard’s 80th anniversary celebration, click here.

NPR Music’s Best Jazz of 2014: Steve Lehman, Wadada Leo Smith, Ambrose Akinmusire, more

New releases by saxophonist Steve Lehman, trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Ambrose Akinmusire, and saxophonist Sonny Rollins topped the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll (I voted), organized by longtime jazz writer Francis Davis.

Also in the top 10: Releases by Mark Turner, Marc Ribot, Jason Moran, Brian Blade, Kenny Barron & Dave Holland, and Jane Ira Bloom. A wide swath of critics — 140 — were polled for their choices, and they nominated more than 700 albums for honors.

John Coltrane’s “Offering” was named best reissue, with best vocal album award going to Andy Bey, best debut to drummer Jeff Ballard, and best Latin to pianist and bandleader Arturo O’ Farrill.

For Davis’s thoughts on the Top 10 recordings, along with audio clips, and links to all of the voting data (including my ballot) assembled by Tom Hull, click here.

The Village Vanguard at 75

Belated happy 75th birthday wishes to the Village Vanguard, the basement jazz temple on Seventh Avenue South opened by Max Gordon, who launched the nightclub as a home for folk music, poetry, and comedy.

I’ve been privileged to visit the Vanguard — intimate, acoustically pristine, its staff eminently respectful of the music and devoted to the arts of jazz playing and listening — quite a few times over the years, for shows by the likes of guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and an all-star group gathered to celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary.

For that 1985 occasion, I met and interviewed Gordon, who passed away in 1991; his widow, Lorraine, subsequently operated the club. If/when I track down the piece I wrote for The Villager, during my brief stint as a grad student at NYU, I’ll pull some quotes/observations and include them here.

How and why has the 123-seat Vanguard survived, while other famed Greenwich Village jazz clubs, including Seventh Avenue South, Sweet Basil, and Bradley’s, have not?

“It’s not fancy,” as Lorraine Gordon told Lara Pellegrinelli for a story published at NPR.org. “It’s not pretentious. It doesn’t serve food. It doesn’t take credit cards. It doesn’t allow cell phones or cameras. It doesn’t do a lot of things, but it does give good music.”

The Vanguard celebrated its 75th last week with a residency by saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Us Five, with pianist James Weidman, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and drummer Otis Brown and Francisco Mela. Sad to say that I couldn’t be on hand for any of those performances, but happy to report that I’ll get the chance to see the group in late April at Jazz Fest in New Orleans.

More than 100 jazz albums have been recorded at the club, starting with a 1957 classic capturing performances by saxophonist Sonny Rollins‘ pianoless trios.

Gordon’s “Live at the Village Vanguard,” published in 1982, remains the essential biography of the Vanguard’s first half-century. Lorraine Gordon’s bio, which I’ve yet to read, “Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In and Out of Jazz Time,” co-written by Barry Singer, was published in 2006 to great acclaim.

And the music isn’t slowing down: The Vanguard’s schedule includes upcoming performances by drummer Al Foster‘s quartet (March 2-7), and trumpeter Payton’s quintet (March 9-14).

And a March 16-21 appearance by drummer Paul Motian‘s trio with pianist Jason Moran and saxophonist Greg Osby looks to be one of the highlights of New York’s spring jazz season. Motian doesn’t tour, but he’s playing the Vanguard show to support a new CD with Moran and saxophonist Chris Potter, Lost in a Dream (ECM), due for release March 9.

The Blue Note 7: Mosaic

Blue Note Celebrates Its History … Again

A band organized by Blue Note, specializing in music from that label’s archives?

Déjà vu, anyone?

Blue Note’s New Directions Band, with the storied jazz label’s young stars — alto saxophonist Greg Osby, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, pianist Jason Moran and vibraphonist Stefon Harris — joined by bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, was just such a group.

New Directions, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the label, recorded a self-titled CD in 1999, and released it early the next year.

The band gave a significant boost to the careers of its members, several of whom obviously have notched considerable artistic and commercial success. I caught one performance on the group’s national tour, at a tiny, smoky, now-defunct club in Ybor City (Tampa).

Blue Note, too, has celebrated itself with countless concerts, films, sampler recordings, and other products.

The Blue Note 7 Launches

Now here comes The Blue Note 7, a band suggested by booking agent Jack Randall, and organized by Randall, pianist Bill Charlap, and talent manager Danny Melnick, as a way to celebrate the label’s 70th anniversary.

blue-note-71

“When plans for the extensive tour reached more than 50 American cities, the idea of a recording was inevitable,” according to jazz critic Ira Gitler’s liner notes for the group’s just-released CD, Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records.

 

The septet, this time not a group of upstarts, includes a stellar front line of horn players — celebrated New Orleans-bred trumpeter Nicholas Payton, underappreciated New York alto saxophonist and flutist Steve Wilson and tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, still laboring to escape the shadow of his famous father.

Charlap, the musical director, is joined by rhythm-section mates Peter Bernstein on guitar, Peter Washington on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums – solid pros and creative players, all.

The material, variously arranged by band members and pianist Renee Rosnes (who happens to be married to Charlap), emphasizes compositions recorded for Blue Note from the mid-’50s through the mid-’60s.

Melnick, the CD’s executive producer, is head of the company producing the band’s tour. So is The Blue Note 7 an organically assembled outfit, or merely a sampler recording designed to promote a tour and boost sales of the label’s new and archival recordings?

Gitler writes, “It is more than a tribute band, a cadre with a cohesive compatibility, dealing with powerful music and reinterpreting it through new arrangements and individual solos.”

Mosaic

That assessment rings true, as the music on Mosaic is familiar (maybe overly so) but almost fresh — the band builds interesting new arrangements and consistently superb solo work on gems by major jazz composers. Thelonious Monk’s “Criss Cross,” arranged by Wilson, comes with new rhythmic twists, a spiky Coltrane solo and aptly rambunctious piano work.

Payton’s playing is particularly incisive and poignant on a floating-to-grooving version of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” arranged by Rosnes, also responsible for a soaring arrangement of McCoy Tyner’s pretty, slow-moving “Search for Peace”; the horn players on the latter come off as a brass choir. Bernstein turns in warm melody work and a searching improvisation on his arrangement of Duke Pearson’s “Idle Moments,” originally recorded by Grant Green.

The title track, penned by Cedar Walton for the Jazz Messengers and arranged by Nash, lifts off with the drummer’s tricky rhythmic set-up. The tune later offers the kind of driving, chunky swing and extended trap-set wizardry sure to warm the heart of anyone who’s ever loved hard bop and lamented its passing (that includes me).

Also included in the eight-song set: Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” arranged by Payton; Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem” (Wilson); and Horace Silver’s “The Outlaw” (Charlap).

Blue Note 7’s U.S. Concert Trek

The tour is off to an impressive start, according to jazz critic Doug Ramsey’s report on the band’s performance in Seattle. “…the little time they have spent as a unit is out of proportion to the ensemble’s spirit and unified sound,” Ramsey writes.

(Sadly, the tour itinerary doesn’t include any Florida dates).

Will this band continue working together after its weeklong engagement at New York’s Birdland, which concludes April 19?

Yes, as Charlap relates in the above video clip.

“We’ll be continuing later in the year, in the fall, in Europe,” he says. “Many of the players are already writing new arrangements. … Perhaps there will be a volume two and a volume three. I would not be surprised if that happens.”

Jazz Times: Best of 2008 – Charles Lloyd, Bennie Maupin, More

Rabo de Nube, a 2007 live recording by Charles Lloyd’s quartet, tops the list of 2008 critics’ picks in Jazz Times. lloydFor the CD, documenting the veteran saxophonist’s 7oth-birthday concert in Basel, Switzerland, he was joined by pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland.

The Top 10 highest vote-getters in the poll include three – by Pat Metheny, Cassandra Wilson and Anat Cohen – that made it onto my own list, published online at Jazzhouse (Jazz Journalists Association) and in print at Las Vegas City Life.

The remainder of the Jazz Times top 10:

  • Bennie Maupin, Quartet, Early Reflections
  • Joe Lovano, Symphonica
  • Pat Metheny, Day Trip
  • Dave Holland Sextet, Pass It On
  • Bill Frisell, History, Mystery
  • Carla Bley Big Band, Appearing Nightly
  • Cassandra Wilson, Loverly
  • Various Artists, Miles From India
  • Anat Cohen, Notes From the Village

For the complete list of the top 50, click here

More:

The year-end round-up: “The year started off with a big surprise in the music industry: Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters (Verve) broke out of the jazz category and won Album of the Year at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards.” The rest

Complete critics’ picks

Jazz Times Readers’ Poll results