Let's get one thing straight, right off the bat: Lorraine Gordon was not in Hanoi with Jane Fonda. It's one of the more colorful of the many legends that has become attached to the 83-years-young owner of the Village Vanguard, New York City's most hallowed surviving nightclub.
"That's another myth," Gordon told my TONY colleague K. Leander Williams, in an interview that appeared in the June 20-27, 2002 issue of the magazine. "She visited North Vietnam during the war, and I was a member of a great organization called Women Strike for Peace. We're both beautiful women, but no, we've never met."
Other tall tales abound. One credits Gordon with discovering Thelonious Monk. Not true, she says in the same interview. But she did convince her first husband, Blue Note Records founder Alfred Lion, to sign Monk, and she did schlep the iconic pianist's early sides around to the retailers. Later, she married Max Gordon, founder of the downtown nightclub where she and her brother had spent many a youthful evening at the bar, trying to stretch a beer or two across the duration of multiple sets -- the same way young fans do today.
For a few years, I enjoyed a close working relationship with Lorraine Gordon, as a publicist for the firm that then handled the Village Vanguard's public relations. I had the privilege of almost daily contact with the always straight-shooting, sometimes cantankerous Gordon and her staff. The better I got to know her, the more I loved her, and the more convinced I became that the story of where she came from, what she's done and what's she's seen would make one cracking good memoir. I'm happy to report that such a book is finally coming this fall, and I'm envious of Barry Singer for being the lucky co-author.
I also had the incalculable fortune of spending a lot of time in the Village Vanguard. Make that a LOT of time, actually. I was not a complete stranger to the scene; in fact, the Vanguard was one of my first pilgrimages when I moved to New York City. The night I was there is preserved on a pair of live CDs by Arthur Blythe, in fact. They actually aren't among his better records, truth be told, but together, they form an honest snapshot of a working musician in a room so haunted and hallowed that the very words "Live at the Village Vanguard" on a CD cover have come to confer a degree of authenticity in jazz like few other phrases in the language. During the time that I worked with Gordon and the club, I became a regular. It turned out to be fortuitious timing: During one particularly arduous stretch my life, I salved my aching spirit by going to hear Tommy Flanagan's sterling trio with Peter Washington and Lewis Nash five or six times during one of his traditional two-week runs. (Flanagan's take on Duke Ellington's "Sunset and the Mockingbird" will never fail to moisten my eyes.)
On Monday night, the JVC Jazz Festival paid tribute to this inimitable, invaluable force of nature with "Sweet Lorraine," an extensive, multi-artist bill at Carnegie Hall. All five of the acts on the bill, however disparate, had one thing in common: Each has been nurtured by Gordon and her club. First up was New Orleans clarinetist Dr. Michael White and his Original Liberty Jazz Band, a trad-jazz combo that has provided festive sounds for many a New Year's Eve in the club. (Dr. LP and I spent December 31, 1999 at the Vanguard with this band, reasoning that if the dreaded "Y2K Bug" sent the world to hell in a handbasket, there were worse places to be than in a basement loaded with booze.)
White's intonation can be patchy at times, but the spirit and sheer depth of insight with which he leads his seasoned players more than makes up for any shortcomings. "Shake It and Break It" danced on the very edge of giddy chaos, while "Give It Up (The Gypsy Second Line)," an original patterned on "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon," found common ground between Dixieland and Eastern European folk idioms -- inevitably including klezmer, thanks to White's keening clarinet. George Lewis's "Burgundy Street Blues" and the standard "In the Sweet By-and-By," the latter featuring a Satchmo-like vocal by trumpeter Gregg Stafford, wrapped up a rollicking set.
Drummer Paul Motian first played at the Village Vanguard in 1955, but his career became indelibly associated with the club on June 25, 1961, when a few sets he played with pianist Bill Evans and bassist Scott La Faro were recorded by Riverside, and issued as Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. The drummer led a very different kind of trio on Monday night, a version of his Trio 2000 + One: Chris Potter on tenor saxophone and Larry Grenadier on bass, with nary a chordal instrument to be found. The set opened and closed with two of Motian's original compositions: simple, stark melodic constructions, the sort that make for excellent springboards. Both Potter and Grenadier consumed solo space with admirable restraint; the music was actually skeletal much of the time. (Wisely, Potter actually pushed his microphone aside, filling the cavernous auditorium with his sound. It was enough to make one question why, in a hall specifically designed for delicate acoustic music, everything JVC does here has to be amplified to excess.)
Between those two bookends, singer Rebecca Martin -- Grenadier's wife, and one of the most distinctive young singers to come forward in some time -- joined the band for three selections from its upcoming CD, On Broadway, Vol. 4: The Paradox of Continuity, due in August on Winter & Winter. (I adore about half of this disc; much of the rest features pianist Masaumi "Pooh" Kikuchi, a potentially engrossing player whose distracting verbalizations make the likes of Glenn Gould and Keith Jarrett seem like small-time offenders by comparison). Proving himself a consummate supporter, Potter wrapped satiny tendrils around Martin's sandy, salty voice in "Everything Happens to Me" and "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," the singer happily eschewing any trace of hackneyed jazz-singer cliché. During both of those songs, Motian restrained himself to steadily rippling brushwork; his introduction to "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me," on the other hand, crackled and splattered restlessly. Martin and Grenadier held fast to the line, and Motian fell in with them for the first chorus, Potter responding with a fabulously oblique, earthly solo.
Motian's set, it could be argued, was music made for the Vanguard: subtle, introverted and slightly diffuse, it compels a listener to lean in and listen more closely. That's possible in Carnegie Hall, too, but the effect isn't quite the same. On the other hand, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, in at least one of his several guises, plays a version of brash, mainstream hard-bop that's made for the masses and easily discernable in the cheap seats. Eventually, that was the Hargrove that showed up, although he started the set with "Trust" (from the newly issued Nothing Serious), a graceful number that features the burnished beauty of his flugelhorn playing.
Dressed to the hilt in sharp-looking suits, Hargrove and the younger members of his posse (saxophonist Justin Robinson, bassist Dwayne Burno, drummer Willie Jones III) resurrected the "young lions" movement of the '80s; guest vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and pianist Ronnie Matthews added a dash of veteran wisdom to the mix. Wanderers and stragglers fought their way up the aisles after Hargrove's first selection; his second, which opened with a cacophonous outburst of dashing, crashing instrumental lines, scored the scene perfectly. But it was here that serious audio problems crept into the set, and Hutcherson's vibraphone was the victim. You could see him playing, but as he headed to the top end of his instrument, the sound disappeared -- and every attempt to remedy the situation on the fly resulted in crashing feedback. Hargrove clearly noticed, and the longer the problem lingered, the less interested he seemed to be in his own set. His solos became brash and perfunctory, as he left Robinson and Matthews to carry both this tune and most of a Latin-style closer. In the end, the hero of the set was Jones, an undersung player whose crisp technique and imperturbable swing -- and, it must be said, his close-cropped, vintage look -- made it seem as if somehow he'd been clipped out of some old vintage TV clip from the late '50s or early '60s and magically brought to life on the stage.
During a previous JVC Jazz Festival some years back, the Bad Plus was one among a handful of bands booked into the Vanguard for a series of atypical one-night stands. "The Bad Plus? That's not a band, it's a bad report card," is what Lorraine Gordon reportedly said of the group's unusual moniker. (Or something like that -- Ethan Iverson will remind me of the precise wording, I hope.) Still, she took a liking to the group, inviting them back for a full week. It's exactly that kind of personal reaction that has seen the likes of Don Byron, Bil Frisell and Dave Douglas repeatly playing the club, sometimes leading projects that might seem distinctly un-Vanguard like; Lorraine simply appreciates these artists, and trusts them to respect her bandstand.
That booking also led to the Bad Plus signing with Columbia Records, for a tenure now reportedly concluded. Monday night, the group repaid the favor, paying homage with a tight, witty set that was clearly the evening's finest. Embarassing as it is to admit it, this was my first live encounter with the trio, and it was revelatory. Digging into the torrential head and tumbling triplets of pianist Iverson's "Mint," drummer Dave King was poetry in motion -- only the poetry is some off-color mix of Gregory Corso and a dirty limerick. All elbows, grins and pratfalls, King rumbles, lunges and snaps even when the music he's making is of the utmost delicacy. Iverson patiently summons corruscating lines and prodigious, granitic chords; bassist Reid Anderson provides a rock-solid fulcrum upon which his bandmates teeter and bounce.
Each is also an accomplished writer. King was represented by the playful clatter of "Thrift-Store Jewelry," while Anderson supplied a ballad, "Giant," which opened with a long bass solo of hymnal eloquence -- the spirit sundered only by a lingering cell-phone intrusion. Alluding to a statement made by the evening's host, Jeff Levenson, Iverson noted the skepticism that the Bad Plus had sparked among jazz purists. "If it's good enough for Lorraine," he concluded, "it must be jazz." The group closed with a Burt Bacharach chestnut, retitled "This Band's in Love with You" for the occasion: a straight-faced, respectful reading rendered slightly off-kilter by the anomalous sight of the physically commanding King punctuating phrases with gently tinkled harness bells.
The evening concluded with a brief set by the Village Vanguard's resident Monday night big band, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Organized by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis in 1965, the band has been in residence for four decades, surviving the passing of both founders. "It violates our contract to play above street level," trombonist and band leader John Mosca quipped, as he and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan took the solo microphones for a playful Jones burner, "Three and One." Resident composer and pianist Jim McNeely's "Hardly Ever," from the suite Up from the Skies, was a typically elegant ballad, in which the band offered lush, impressionist passages behind a handsome solo by trumpeter Terrell Stafford and a scorcher by alto saxophonist Dick Oatts.
The band featured one of its most famous alumni, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, in Bob Brookmeyer's "Nasty Dance," which -- with all due respect to its enormously distinguished composer -- seemed little more than a string of loud, swaggering action-movie cues, a convoluted concerto that shifted gears every time the soloist threatened to build any real momentum. Closing the set was a fast-paced rendition of another Jones standard, "Little Pixie," in which one band member after another came forward to solo. In the club, this would have ended the set on a high note; here, however, the house lights were raised midstream, pinching the fuse on a firecracker of a performance.
Adler's fine blog on jazz and politics, Lerterland, belatedly joins the blogroll (under "Music," at least for now); so do Tim Rutherford-Johnson's The Rambler (under "Music"), ANABlog (under "Musicians") and Running the Voodoo Down (under "Poptones"). A few seemingly inactive sites have been removed; if one of these belongs to you and your hiatus is only temporary, please let me know.
Jimmy Giuffre 3 - 1961 (Fusion/Thesis) (ECM)
Paul Motian Trio 2000 + One - On Broadway, Vol. 4: The Paradox of Continuity (Winter & Winter)
Jacob Garchik - Abstracts (Yestereve)
The MG Marching Band - Broadway/Lafayette (Meadownoise free MP3 download album... engaging chamber jazz recorded live in the NYC subway station to which the title refers)
Carl Maguire - Floriculture (Between the Lines)
Polwechsel - Archives of the North (Hatology)
Joseph Haydn - Orlando Paladino - Patricia Petibon, Elisabeth von Magnus, Michael Schade, Christian Gerhaher, Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)
Peter Eötvös - Chinese Opera; Shadows; Steine - Klangforum Wien / Peter Eötvös (Kairos)