Jazz Heavyweights Celebrate the World’s Oldest and Greatest Club


“We’re glad to be here,” said Jimmy Heath onstage, “and to be old, but still not cold.” He played the line for laughs, and got them. But the saxophonist also explained the absence of Percy, eldest of the Heath Brothers, by acknowledging that he was “going through some treatments.” It was an intimation of mortality even more poignant than the black-and-white photos on the walls or the auction of jazz relics the following day at Rose Hall. The Vanguard itself is a jazz relic and would be laudable for survival alone. But during a week that saw a different working band every night—and not a single empty seat—the club reaffirmed that survival is the means, and not the goal.

Roy Hargrove began the week’s inaugural set with Dizzy’s “Groovin’ High,” a bop touchstone that evoked rote solos all around. The trumpeter loosened up on the next song, a Jazz Messengers-like “Close Your Eyes,” and later subjected Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning” to pulse-quickening pyrotechnics. For clarity and coherence, however, neither Hargrove nor alto saxophonist Justin Robinson could touch special guest Slide Hampton, whose meticulous, melodic trombone inventions were the evening’s most fortunate feature. Wynton Marsalis was more like Hampton than Hargrove the following night, imbuing each of his well-balanced solos with a shape and a story. Armed with aw-shucks disclaimers, Marsalis ambled through his repertoire of 20 years ago—and proved himself a distinctly more intriguing improviser than his younger, hotter self. “Cherokee” provided not only a platform for his Harmon-muted heroics but also Aaron Goldberg’s piano progressivism and Ali Jackson’s nimble brushes. “Caravan” was a similar bonanza, although Jackson sat out the second-line stomp so Herlin Riley could sit in, eliciting hollers with a tambourine.

Tambourines surfaced twice more during the week: in the hands of Tootie Heath on a thinly veiled remake of “Autumn Leaves,” and at the disposal of David King on Björk’s “Human Behaviour.” That performance took place a third of the way through the Bad Plus’s first set, which trailed Marsalis by a day and had the odd distinction of providing both the week’s populist allowance and its dose of avant-garde abstraction. “Knows the Difference,” by bassist Reid Anderson, even ventured into thunderous free improvisation—an indulgence only implied on the set’s more obvious barnburner, Ornette Coleman’s “Street Woman.” Pianist Ethan Iverson’s penchant for chromatic counterpoint ensured a smattering of smaller atonal flare-ups, most strikingly on a complex and nuanced reading of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” This was followed by a round of recognition applause for the sensuous Anderson closer “Prehensile Dream,” and finally a Journey-like group genuflection.

The pointed inclusion of the Bad Plus was, like all recent-vintage Vanguard, a reflection of the personality of Lorraine Gordon, who has run the wedge-shaped club since the death of her husband, Max, in 1989. At the official anniversary party on Valentine’s Day, Gordon demurred at giving a speech, handing the microphone instead to Professor Irwin Corey, who delivered a trademark mock-officious recitation. Gordon was more vocal the rest of the week, her rasp audible whenever something went awry. It was for this reason that guitarist Jim Hall got a chuckle on Friday with the quip “I’ve been in arguments with Lorraine Gordon for 80 years.” He didn’t mention that he’s not yet 75, but did offer a catalog of artists he’d seen at the club, including Jack Teagarden and Mort Sahl—a handy pair of totems, given his own marriage of dry wit and easy swing. Hall offered the week’s quietest show, a dialogue with former student Satoshi Inoue. The guitarists took turns strumming chords, plucking obbligato, and playing unaccompanied melodies, like the multifaceted gem of a first chorus Hall fashioned for “Skylark.” Inoue faltered on that ballad but soloed thoughtfully on two successive waltzes, the Japanese folk song “Red Dragonfly” and a rearranged “All the Things You Are.” At set’s end, the audience was herded to the rear exit because someone had vomited in the main stairwell—according to Gordon, a Vanguard first. (“It certainly wasn’t your playing,” a manager reassured Hall.) The mess was gone by Saturday’s crisp and courtly Heath Brothers set, which in turn was succeeded by a closing-night Bill Charlap Trio that I regretfully had to miss. No matter, though: They’ll be back at the Vanguard in April and, it would appear, for many years to come.

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