There was plenty to celebrate at the Village Vanguard on Sunday night. First of all, the iconic space itself: the evening was the culmination of a weeklong celebration of the Vanguard’s 80th anniversary curated by Jason Moran. Each night took its theme from a different aspect of the room’s history, including poetry, comedy folk music, solo piano and Monk.
Then there was the headliner, as the evening happened to coincide with the birthday of Charles Lloyd, three years younger than the venue itself. To mark the occasion, Lloyd led his justifiably beloved New Quartet (not coincidentally featuring Moran on piano) through two sets at the apex of the vaunted basement triangle.
Regardless of the calendar, though, any appearance by this remarkable band is cause for celebration, not to mention one in a space this intimate and storied. Reflecting on the show the next day in his hotel room overlooking the Hudson, Lloyd remarked that it was special in part because he’d been playing the Vanguard since 1965. But the typically understated saxophonist failed to add that he hadn’t returned for the last four of those five decades, his last appearance occurring before his famous retreat to Big Sur in the early ’70s.
Any gravity implied by that historic significance was absent from the bandstand, however. After nearly a decade, the New Quartet has evolved into a stunningly loose and open unit, able to build to moments of intensely moving power and beauty, then allow each piece’s architecture to collapse and dissolve before discovering a new path to follow. Listening to this band is akin to watching the creation of a Tibetan sand mandala, where an object of breathtaking intricacy is painstakingly crafted only to be blissfully destroyed.
What is evident from the band’s demeanor onstage is the joy that they find in their interactions. Drummer Eric Harland is given to an almost out-of-body posture, head leaning back and eyes closed, until his neck suddenly snaps forward and he unleashes a whip-crack barrage that propels the band forward. In the tight confines of the Vanguard’s stage he and bassist Reuben Rogers shared a jocular push and pull, each goading surprised laughter from the other.
Moran remained more absorbed into the music, regularly reemerging from the maelstrom with a swirling pulse that bridged the set, much of which unfolded without a pause. Lloyd himself remains an inveterate seeker at 77. In such close quarters his tenor scythed the air, his every entrance into the music dramatic and perfectly timed. When he set his axe down he wandered among his bandmates like a scientist observing the results of an experiment, examining the sound from multiple perspectives, his lanky, fedora-topped frame occasionally swept up into a quick soft-shoe.
For all of its legacy, the Vanguard’s vitality is undiminished when artists of Lloyd’s caliber take its stage, and at least for the late set last Sunday the room was as alive as it’s ever been. The walls disappeared that night, and we all had the chance to float off on Charles Lloyd’s transcendent stream of consciousness.