At the Vanguard

Classical musicians have Carnegie Hall. Country musicians have the Grand Ole Opry. Rock musicians have…uh… er…Budokan?

And jazz artists have the Village Vanguard.

What do they have in common? Once you’ve played there, you’ve made it.

As Ron Carter tells Thomas Conrad in this month’s cover story about the legendary hole in the wall in Greenwich Village, New York City: “It’s like Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden. Events that take place there are, by default, more important.”

So important that when an avantgarde-leaning group like the Bad Plus made its debut there recently, traditionalists were ringing their hands about what was happening to that hallowed, wedgeshaped room. But were not Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and, now, Jason Moran, “avant-garde” too? Meaning, according to Merriam-Webster, “an intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts especially in the arts.” It’s not simply a euphemism for free jazz,or noise, or whatever other aspersions people like to cast upon the phrase. The Village Vanguard, while generally presenting what is now considered mainstream jazz, also has a legacy of presenting the genuinely unique, living up to its surname.

Jason Moran is today’s jazz avantgarde, in the purest sense. He’s expanding jazz’s language while staying true to its etymology. Moran can swing and play the blues with anyone, but he also has absorbed everything from Bach and Afrika Bambaataa to Björk and Hermeto Pascoal, synthesizing it all into his own sound. He’s an artist to the core, as Nate Chinen’s feature and Moran’s stunning new CD, The Bandwagon, recorded live at the Vanguard, proves.

While it would be wrong to say Joe Lovano is an avant-gardist, per se—his concepts aren’t so experimental—it would be absolutely correct to say that few saxophonists today can match his versatility. Over the past 10 years, from tributes to Sinatra and Caruso, to blazing trio and nonet discs, to his essential 1994 quartets double-CD recorded live at the Vanguard, Lovano has presented jazz in nearly all of its myriad forms. His latest CD, On This Day…At the Vanguard, is another testament to Lovano and his nonet’s amazing ability to swing like some of the greatest jazz bands in history. As Conrad talks about in his Vanguard piece,however,On This Day’s peculiar recording quality is another matter all together. Either you won’t mind it or you’ll hate it; I doubt you’ll love it. But the performance is undeniably great.

It’s safe to say that both Joe Lovano and Jason Moran have made it.

Originally published in September 2003

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