The Village Vanguard: 3 Great Live Sets

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Jazz musical history has been made at the Village Vanguard. (Photo by Yoshizumi Endo)

The Village Vanguard in New York City’s Greenwich Village is probably the most famous jazz club in the world. It is a mecca for jazz fans who visit New York City from all over the world. Many iconic albums have been recorded there over the years since it was first opened in 1935 by Max and Lorraine Gordon.

51mbWxI9w0L._AA160_Today, I thought I’d focus on three albums in particular. The first is the new Live at the Village Vanguard album from busy bassist Christian McBride with Christian Sands on piano and Ulysses Owens Jr. on drums. The group has been together for something like six years, and it shows—their interchange is telepathic. Aside from being a phenomenal bassist, you’ll hear Christian’s warm, avuncular rapport as host with his audience, much like Cannonball Adderley on his live albums when he addressed his audiences.

The audience response is more befitting of a rock concert than a jazz show: people are clapping, almost on their feet, throughout the set. The recorded sound is great. By the time you get to the last song, Rose Royce’s classic “Car Wash” from the disco-era film, everybody is feeling it. Talk about a great trio set.

411WEoNu-QL._AA160_Let’s turn to another great album by a jazz trio recorded at the legendary nightspot in June of 1961: Waltz for Debby by pianist Bill Evans, together with Scotty LaFaro and Paul Motian. The audience noise underscores the blasé attitude New Yorkers used to have during jazz concerts. You hear them talking the whole way through, sometimes loudly. They’re not nearly as involved as in McBride’s show. True, Evans’s music is more cerebral than McBride’s, with fewer soul and funk accents. He was, after all, first a classical musician, so there was always an intellectual tone to his playing.

As an aside, some of you may know how much I hate people talking during jazz concerts. (For some reason, they tend not to do this during concert hall situations.) I’ve always felt that if people don’t actively listen, they’re not really hearing the music at all. It’s disrespectful to the audience and rude. It annoys the %&¿@ out of me because it’s not easy to enjoy music when you’re getting angry at the people yammering away beside you. I was once invited to be a bouncer at Catalina’s Jazz Club in Hollywood after I got some noisy patrons kicked out. The waiter said to me with his thick Romanian accent, “You make good bouncer.”

51KA7OW8mEL._AA160_The third live set is an important album to me: Impressions by John Coltrane, recorded in November of 1961. Coltrane played some unbelievable music that transfixed me when I first heard it as a teenager in high school. There’s no talking, maybe because the music is louder, but I have the feeling that people weren’t talking because of the musical tapestry that was unfolding before them. It is utterly new and challenging music. By the end, people clap lightly and politely. Maybe they were too stunned to clap?  Stupefied? There is a complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings box set from 1961 that I recommend. It contains every set during that three-night historic gig, no studio additions as on the original Impressions album.

These are just three musical treasures that celebrate the longevity of this legendary New York City venue.  There are countless other recordings done there over the seven-plus decades the club has been open.   Have audiences changed for the better, from talkers,  non-listeners,  to attentive, appreciative listeners? Listening to Christian McBride’s new album, you’d surely think so. Regardless of whether you have or will ever visit the Village Vanguard, you should check out these three albums from this sacred temple of jazz music.

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