The Year in Gigs

“We just relaxin’,” said Wynton Marsalis, “playing standards and stuff.” It was just after Valentine’s Day, and the trumpeter was onstage at the Village Vanguard, taking part in the club’s 70th anniversary celebration. The disclaimer, playfully offered, underscored just how far the world’s most illustrious jazz musician has drifted from the nightclub scene. But as Marsalis handily proved that night–and with the subsequent release of Live at the House of Tribes (Blue Note), recorded three years ago–it’s a setting he still inhabits with glorious ease.

Clubs remain the heart and soul of jazz, and the landscape they create is the music’s most accurate bellwether. So for this second edition of “The Year in Gigs,” I’m focusing strictly on the performances that transpired out on the scene. In so doing, I’m omitting some momentous concerts–like Keith Jarrett and Fred Hersch, in brilliant solo recitals; the fierce and otherworldly Art Ensemble of Chicago; and a billowing, expansive Pat Metheny Group–but I hope to gain something in the balance. After all, even Marsalis sounded better at the Vanguard than on several subsequent occasions at Frederick P. Rose Hall, which also marked an anniversary this year–its first.

It was a good year for gigs, at least in New York City. And I probably caught more of them this year than in any other: Notwithstanding a weeklong summer hiatus, I averaged five or six shows a week. I wasn’t the only one, of course. A handful of critics could be counted on to turn up regularly (they know who they are), and there was a stretch in early autumn where I ran into Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus almost every night. (One evening, Iverson club-hopped from Charles Tolliver at the Jazz Standard to Geoff Keezer at the Vanguard to Ben Monder at the 55 Bar; I know because I was there for two of the three.) But enough preamble; here’s a chronology of 10 sets I’d relive if I had the chance.

Brian Blade Fellowship, Joe’s Pub, January 13: Perhaps it was the presence of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock that upped the ante at this release party for Michelle Mercer’s biography of Shorter. Blade’s ensemble was powerful and poetic, and although I was technically more floored by a subsequent Vanguard gig in September (with the superb Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar), this one had that extra-special touch.

Branford Marsalis Quartet, Village Vanguard, January 23: A blizzard briefly jeopardized this rare Vanguard appearance, but Marsalis and crew were typically unshaken. Closing night was a mindblower, especially when the saxophonist called “Spartacus,” a tune that hasn’t been in active rotation for years.

Mingus Orchestra, Joe’s Pub, March 24: Sue Mingus didn’t spend much time lamenting the demise of Fez, longtime hub of the Mingus universe; this gig took place one night after its doors closed, at an aboveground venue just up the block. The Orchestra managed some impressive Third Stream stirrings–including a scintillating “Half-Mast Inhibition,” conducted by Gunther Schuller.

Joe Lovano Quartet, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, May 22: Lovano’s tenor saxophone maintained a marvelous equilibrium on this reprise of his Blue Note album Joyous Encounter. Pianist Mulgrew Miller subbed brilliantly for Hank Jones, and Paul Motian’s drumming was a study in elliptical swing.

Drew Gress’ 7 Black Butterflies, Jazz Gallery, June 10: This quintet–Gress on bass, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Craig Taborn on piano and Tom Rainey on drums–ushered in a gripping new Premonition album with an even more gripping performance. Gress’ compositional forms, by turns lyrical or prickly, sparked a succession of thrilling solo and group improvisations.

Chris Lightcap Group, Zebulon, August 8: Another bassist-composer; another five-piece; another Taborn gig. But Lightcap’s modern aesthetic found its tension in a contrasting pair of tenor saxophonists–Tony Malaby (brusque) and Mark Turner (brittle)–and skirted the outer fringes of an almost poplike lyricism.

Jenny Scheinman Group, Tonic, September 12: Marking the release of her whimsically somber album 12 Songs (Cryptogramophone), the violinist augmented her heavyweight septet (which prominently features guitarist Bill Frisell and trumpeter Ron Miles) with an equally august string section. The music they made was dreamlike and ethereal, but studded with sharp particulars.

Tim Berne’s Hard Cell, 55 Bar, September 23: Both as an alto saxophonist and composer, Berne seeks, and finds, fantastic abrasions. Here he got plenty of extra help from David Torn, on laptop, sampler and electric guitar, Taborn on Fender Rhodes and Rainey on drums. (Note Taborn’s third appearance on this list, which is anything but a fluke.)

Billy Hart Quartet, Jazz Standard, October 13: The aforementioned Turner and Iverson comprised half of this superb quartet, with Ben Street on bass and Hart on drums. Smartly straightahead, the group finessed standards (most powerfully, Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”) as well as originals (like Hart’s lovely “Charvez”). The musicians went into the studio just after this run; here’s hoping we see an album soon.

Brad Mehldau Trio, Village Vanguard, November 23: Mehldau still leads one of jazz’s exceptional piano trios–only now it’s exceptional in a markedly different way than before. Drummer Jorge Rossy was always a sympathetic partner for Mehldau, but the polyrhythmic thrust of Jeff Ballard has clearly invigorated the band. Halfway through a triumphant Vanguard week, the new trio firmly announced its maturity and raised giddy expectations for what they have in store for next year.