Art Pepper: You Go To My Head

Art Pepper's 1977 run at the Village Vanguard in New York was a career high point for the brilliant yet troubled (and oft-incarcerated) altoist. The gig put him in the company of one of his best rhythm sections—pianist George Cables, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Elvin Jones—and resulted in some of the most passionate, inspired playing of his career. Pepper has his way with "You Go To My Head," imbuing the ballad with the raw, almost desperate intensity that defined the work of his final years. The rhythm section's suavity contrasts with Pepper's compulsive style; his quick, double-time eruptions bespeak a welter of emotion that's always on the very edge of breaching Pepper's tenuous self-control. Indeed, there's a primal aspect to his playing that's utterly instinctual, even beyond what's common in the playing of other great improvisers. As good as Pepper was in the '50s, he was even better here, in the final phase of his not so straight life.

May 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Junko Onishi: Blue Skies

Japan's Junko Onishi was one of the most promising jazz pianists to emerge in the '90s, her series of five Blue Note releases, plus one led by Jackie McLean, showcasing her already formidable pianistics, as well as hinting at her potential as a composer and arranger. Then she virtually disappeared, and apparently hasn't recorded in the new millennium.

Onishi's two Village Vanguard CDs were both recorded on the same three nights in May 1994, with Wynton Marsalis's rhythm team of Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley offering impeccable support. These are absorbing live sessions, whether the trio is interpreting Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Monk, or standards like "Blue Skies." On the Irving Berlin tune, Onishi clearly reveals her refined precision, relentless drive, firmly swinging pulse, and ability to expand on a well-known melody through the use of fresh vamps and other creative elaborations. Onishi begins with a pianissimo tolling intro that gradually evolves into the theme. One is struck by her thoughtful clarity of vision and classically trained and nuanced touch, both remindful of John Lewis, and when she goes into overdrive you are swept along as she goes from one inventive peak to another. She alters her rhythmic attack frequently, and wisps of Horace Silver and Oscar Peterson pass by, the latter especially in her very effective alterations of the dynamic level. Not a note wasted here, nor a note not enjoyed. We await her return.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Bebo Valdes & Javier Colina: Waltz for Debby

This Bill Evans classic never gets old to my ears. With the beautiful combination of Bebo Valdes's piano and Javier Colina's very expressive and woody bass, "Waltz for Debby" is given the full-on stately treatment. Valdes glides through the introductory passages with grace before Javier Colina steps in to crank up the swing quotient. This does not stop Valdes from tossing out many lightning-fast arpeggios and extended chords that push the energy level without being needlessly flashy. Valdes was in his mid-80s when he recorded this date, and the music shows how the Cuban jazz icon had lost nothing.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Martial Solal: Corcovado

When Martial Solal played the Vanguard alone in 2007, he was the second pianist ever, after Fred Hersch, to be granted such a privilege. It's definitely an honor, especially for a European musician. But after more than a half century of playing and recording all over the world with an international reputation, it can't be considered undue. The press clips say that the Vanguard was packed every night, and the reviews were excellent. The record is, anyway, and on this track Solal plays a Brazilian standard he'd never recorded before, as far as I know. To him, all music is just music, so he won't really care if it's Brazilian or Norwegian; it's basically food for his brain and fingers.

He starts, as often, by getting at the theme from a side angle, with one hand, then two in unison. Next he exposes the theme with more and more rhythmic, harmonic and melodic alterations until hitting a brief stride passage followed by virtuoso scales. Here you may fear the worst, but the theme comes back and undergoes more metamorphoses, including a short coverage in the very low register that is surprisingly musical. And just when you are beginning to get used to Solal's way of dealing with a standard, suddenly it's over. Applause, laughs, speechless signs of surprise (one supposes) … That's about the diversity of reaction that Solal expects from a listening audience, and one wishes that all the musicians who played the Vanguard before him had found such a rapt and respectful reception.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Joe Henderson: Isotope

"Isotope" first appeared on Joe Henderson's 1964 album Inner Urge, but this version is of special interest because of the way he deconstructs the tune down to the root. In the 1964 version, he played the advanced bop thematic line in unison with a piano. This 1985 version takes the piano out of the equation, leaving it up to the remaining three to fill in the void left by the absence of a comping instrument.

Luckily, he's got Ron Carter to help out. Carter finds the crucial notes for filling out the melody on the bottom end, while Henderson performs that task for the higher registers while simultaneously blowing out quick arpeggios and other expressions. Foster keeps a beat at about double-time the original, adding his accents in appropriate spots to prod along the other two.

"Isotope" was a long-time staple in Henderson's live performances; it was only fitting that he included this in his pivotal performance at the Vanguard. It was a firm signal to the world that through changing tastes in jazz he remained the same old Joe he'd always been.

November 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Sonny Rollins: Sonnymoon for Two

This was the first live recording ever at the fabled Village Vanguard, and although about 100 have been made there since, none tops what Sonny Rollins achieved on November 3, 1957. In a pared-down trio format, Rollins performs with a profound combination of spontaneity, discipline and wit. Not only that, but Rudy Van Gelder's original onsite engineering, not to mention his superb remastering for the 1999 RVG edition, captures the ambiance and immediacy of a live jazz club performance – and specifically the aura of the Village Vanguard, whether or not you've ever been there – as well as or better than any comparable recording.

Rollins's successful Way Out West recording date earlier that year, with just Ray Brown and Shelly Manne, perhaps inspired him to try the pianoless trio concept at the Vanguard. On "Sonnymoon for Two," his riffing blues piece, Rollins's extended 5-minute solo is essentially a series of clever thematic variations, interspersed with fleet boppish runs that contrast nicely with his various inventive blues licks. All this is played with an almost sardonically dry tenor tone that adds a distinctly modern sound to this unassuming blues. The density and complexity of Rollins's phrasing increases gradually, but he repeatedly references the main theme. When he hits upon an entirely new riff near the end, he develops it too in concise yet vivid fashion before entering a series of crisp exchanges with first Ware and then Jones, the drummer displaying facets of the style that would later coalesce during his years with John Coltrane.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Gerry Mulligan: Lady Chatterley's Mother

Gerry Mulligan's early '60s Concert Jazz Band was one of the most musically influential big bands of its time. That influence carries on today, as this band was the spiritual forerunner of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, which begat the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, which begat the present-day Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. The CJB's slightly reduced instrumentation, with one less player in each section than was and still is customary in big bands, gave it a unique and original lightness and transparency.

The supreme irony of this band is that Mulligan originally formed it as a vehicle for his own writing, but the demands of running the business side of things, combined with pressing matters in his personal life, left him little time for writing. As a result, Bob Brookmeyer assumed the role of straw boss and de facto music director, handling the bulk of the writing. The band's book was filled out by works from such outstanding writers as Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, John Carisi, George Russell, Gary McFarland, and Al Cohn, among others.

"Lady Chatterley's Mother" is perhaps Al Cohn's finest work for the CJB. It is a lively 40-bar theme in AABA form with a distinctive 16-bar bridge. Brookmeyer, Terry and Mulligan contribute characteristically fine solos, and there is a dazzling sax soli with Mulligan joining the section. The sax soli is followed by a great ensemble passage in which Cohn derives maximum intensity using minimum density by pitting a declarative unison line in the trumpets against a pedal tone in the lower horns, with no harmony in between, thus providing a great lesson for today's voicing-obsessed big band writers.

October 09, 2008 · 1 comment


Dexter Gordon: Gingerbread Boy

This recording contains all the feeling of New York in the ’70s. It was a big event in jazz when Dexter Gordon returned to the scene as a bandleader, his personal charisma in good part spurring on the resurgence of “straight-ahead” jazz in the latter part of the decade. The collaboration of the Shaw/Hayes group with Dexter on this recording, Live at the Vanguard, led to Woody’s signing with CBS and the inception of the most fruitful and successful period of his career. On “Gingerbread Boy,” a blues, Woody engages in a canny strategy (after Dexter’s long solo) of starting his solo trading “twelves” with Louis Hayes, then moving to a continuous solo statement later on—a great way of focusing attention and refreshing a long piece! Hearing Woody alongside Dexter, I really feel the continuity of tradition between these two players of different generations. Even as Woody stakes out his own position (and puts some fire on Dexter in the process!), his reference and knowledge of the tradition complements the older master quite well indeed.

September 17, 2008 · 0 comments


Bill Charlap: Rocker

"Rocker" is a must-have track on a CD containing ballad arrangements that turn most of them into plodding yawners. However, Gerry Mulligan's classic "Rocker," the opening number, is the kind of flawless performance you would expect from a trio like Charlap's that has been together for many years. Utilizing Mulligan's arrangement, Charlap craftily negotiates the well-known theme with a ringing tone, and then solos lucidly, mixing compressed, slithery passages with tumbling extended lines, all the while maintaining a persistent yet unhurried pace. Bassist Peter Washington is crisp and steadfast in support, and Kenny Washington's drumming is impeccable, with both his stick and brush work perfectly timed and wonderfully receptive. Unexplainably, many of the other arrangements are nowhere near the quality and effectiveness of "Rocker." This CD serves as a prime example of why the purchase of individual tracks has become such a popular alternative to buying complete CDs – in contrast to those attending a set or two of Charlap's Village Vanguard engagement in September 2003, who had to take the bad with the good.

August 09, 2008 · 0 comments


Sonny Rollins (featuring Elvin Jones): A Night in Tunisia

In the late 1940s and early '50s, a young Elvin Jones performed on a handful of impressive recording sessions, including a Miles Davis date (with Charles Mingus on bass) and work with Kenny Burrell, Art Farmer, J.J. Johnson, and Elvin's brother Thad Jones. It was this legendary pianoless trio showcase, however, that truly propelled Elvin into his first-call position.

Many of Jones's strongholds are on display in this 9-minute track: his heavy, laid-back Latin groove, his powerful ride-cymbal pattern that often accentuates the final beat instead of the first (ding ding-DA, ding ding-DA instead of DING ding-da DING ding-da), and his rapid-fire over-the-barline triplet fills effortlessly executed while simultaneously maintaining his unique ride-cymbal pattern. While Jones would go on to develop and perfect many of these characteristics over the course of his career, his experimentation here (without another comping rhythm-section member) is the perfect introduction to the Elvin Jones trademarks that had already begun modifying the vocabulary of the jazz drummer.

August 02, 2008 · 0 comments


The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra: Kids Are Pretty People

Don't dare call the Vanguard orchestra a ghost band! That said, some powerful spirits from the past float around the bandstand on Monday nights at the Village Vanguard. This ensemble took life in the mid-1960s as the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and the 2008 edition of the VJO pays homage to one of the great Thad Jones groove ballads from back in the day, "Kids Are Pretty People." The kids who were pretty people when Thad was around have grown up . . . shucks, they now run the band. But the parents can look on with pride. The VJO performs this testament to intergenerational goodwill with relaxation and warmth. The section work is a joy to hear, and top solo honors go to trombonist John Mosca. A new bunch of kids are around these days. Let's hope they give this track a listen.

July 17, 2008 · 2 comments


John Coltrane: Chasin' Another Trane

1961 was a big year for the recorded legacy of John Coltrane. Early in the spring he worked with Miles Davis for the last time, and a couple of months later recorded his two Africa Brass sessions. The other major event was his 4-night residency at the Village Vanguard. This legendary stand included several additional musicians (oboe, contrabassoon, oud) who added a real sense of experimentation to the proceedings. While there might be as many as eight people onstage at one time, this track is essentially a quartet, though McCoy Tyner can be heard comping for the first couple of choruses before dropping out. For all the enthusiasm and intensity that Coltrane brought to his performances, I always feel that playing with Eric Dolphy brought out something additional in both men, as evidenced here. It's just a little odd that this was thrown on a CD called Newport '63.

June 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Wynton Marsalis: Stardust

This much beloved jazz standard has its own deeply ingrained personality, and you tinker with it at your own risk. The verse is as interesting as the main theme, and the whole melody is so well written, it could stand comparison with the finer classical art songs. In other words, you just can't blow on these changes like they were "Blue Moon." Marsalis understands this implicitly, and he lets the mood of the piece inform his solo. His tempo is just a tad faster than your typical ballad, the pace of a lazy stroll. Wynton plays sly cat-and-mouse games with Hoagy Carmichael's melody, hinting at it at some moments, while elsewhere coming up with something novel that still reminds us of the distinctive intervallic leaps of the original. Even when the trumpeter tosses off some high notes that swing triumphantly like the man on the flying trapeze, they still flow naturally from the emotional temperament of the song. This is a very mature performance by the artist, who was 33 at the time of this Village Vanguard session, but played like a seasoned veteran.

June 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Keith Jarrett: (If The) Misfits (Wear It)

Here is a glimpse of Keith Jarrett the avant-garde experimentalist, the combo leader who built a band around former Ornette Coleman sidemen, the artist who constantly staked out new territory with every LP. No standards here, I'm afraid. Jarrett was a different cat completely back during the Nixon administration. He plays with ferocious pianism in the opening moments of this track. Instead of the typical comping chords and jazzy right-hand phrases that most keyboardists bring to work every day, Jarrett dishes out flurries of notes, a biting sandstorm of sound. Then midway through the performance, he stops playing the piano completely, and we might as well be back in Ornette's band. "Chord changes? We don't need no stinkin' chord changes!" Later, when Jarrett starts playing soprano, matching up with Redman in the front line, who can be surprised? Fans of this band were so used to the unexpected that nothing could shake them by this point. But those who only know Jarrett from "Over the Rainbow" and "My Funny Valentine" might be shaken and stirred by this early vintage performance.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Sonny Rollins: Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise

A Night at the Village Vanguard, Volume 1 marks Sonny Rollins's first "live" recording as a leader. He used several combinations of fine musicians during that engagement, but preferred this trio lineup. Thank God there were people recording these nightclub sessions back in those days. In this case, legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder rolled the tape. There is a certain charm to the technical primitiveness of the times. This monaural recording authentically captures artists in growth mode and also helps define a historic period in American music. Can you believe that people used to go out to local jazz clubs and listen to music? I know it seems hard to believe, but lots of folks were doing it.

The ballad "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" is treated with reverence by Rollins, bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones. Ware plucks a few strings to let Rollins know when to start. Rollins plays the melody with a blues melancholy, revealing Sonny the sensitive interpreter, not the powerful saxophone colossus. Ware follows Rollins's affecting solo with a fitting run at the melody himself. If you listen carefully as Jones uses his brushes, you can hear some of his signature vocal grunts helping to carry the tune along. All three players were in top 1957 form, playing music that was worthy of a vaunted venue like the Vanguard.

I was only 10 months old when this gig happened. But I still miss those days.

May 09, 2008 · 0 comments


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