Wednesday, September 17, 2008

If These Walls Could Talk

While in New York last weekend to see the stadia (Shea and Yankee) before they meet the wrecking ball (or the memorabilia-seekers), my father and I put in at the legendary Village Vanguard to see the trio of Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. Needless to say, a fantastic set, with Lovano taking the helm on most pieces, and Frisell getting frisky with his gadgets and toys, but never overdoing it, and with Motian pushing things along without getting in the way. But as much as the band, we were there to see the venue, the venerable Vanguard. Consider the list of names who've played there (for reference, go to All Music, do an album search on "Village Vanguard" and see what comes up; then figure how many have taken the stage without the tapes rolling). It was quite a night. And yes, Lorraine Gordon still takes drink orders.

So, because lists are the new analysis, here are my three favourite Vanguard-born recordings of all-time:

3. Sonny Rollins, A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note)

Sonny and his piano-free trio (Donald Bailey and Wilbur Ware on bass, Pete LaRoca and Elvin Jones on drums) took to the Vanguard stage in November of 1957 and cut enough material to fill two CDs (now available as The Complete..., whereas it used to be spliced into two volumes). The music is Rollins at his absolute best: agile, powerful, but with enough panache and humour that you might let your guard down and almost fail to recognize just how incredibly good, how dexterous a horn player he is. Few technicians sound this fun.

Also fun is running through these CDs a few times and then throwing Amon Tobin's brilliant Bricolage from 1997 into the CD player and spotting the samples culled from the former and sprinkled throughout the latter.

2. Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby (Riverside/Original Jazz Classics)

In June of '61, lyrical piano genius Bill Evans led a new trio down the tight stairway and into the club on 7th Avenue. The aforementioned Paul Motian occupied the drummer's stool (possibly the first time he'd been at the club, but not the last), and the bassist was the innovative Scott LaFaro. The rolling tapes captured enough music for two LPs that night, and they're both undisputed classics. Not bad for a day's work. Something about the sound of both Sunday... and Waltz for Debby is undeniably wonderful -- they sound like live jazz recordings should sound. I mean that both technically (the sound is clear, warm, perfect) and artistically. The interplay between these three men is astounding.

Listen to the title cut from "Waltz for Debby." Listen to Evans' sweet playfulness. Listen to LaFaro's ability to find the middle ground between Evans and Motian, and fill every nook therein. This record set a new standard for the piano trio. That's not hyperbole. This is not a piano backed by a rhythm section; it's three frontline instruments perfectly in tune with one another.

Now listen to "My Man's Gone Now" from Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Listen to the elegaic tone and try not to be affected by the knowledge that LaFaro would be gone ten days later, a victim of a car accident, not quite 26 years old.

1. John Coltrane, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse)

If this comes as a surprise, you haven't been paying attention.

This is the point where John Coltrane jumped off into the abyss of complete artistic freedom. This is where he began exploring Eastern motifs and themes. This is where Eric Dolphy's sometimes-membership in the band bore it's greatest fruit. Coltrane used these handful of dates in November of 1961 to throw all his ideas into the hopper and see what emerged. He experimented with the makeup of his band, with new compositions, and with new techniques. He did all this with the critics and the curious fans in attendance. What he learned from these experiments set the trajectory for his art until his death.

This is essential listening. The thought that I was sitting in the same room that had borne witness to the creation of this music was as humbling an experience as I've ever known. If Coltrane is a religion, this is the first book of his New Testament.

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