Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Cutting-Edge Vanguard Jazz Orchestra Play a Rare Weeklong Stand At Their Usual Spot

This year the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra celebrates 49 years as a New York institution. They were a lot different when trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis founded the group in 1966 as a way to blow off steam and have some fun playing swing tunes as a break from the schlock they had to contend with at their dayjobs in Broadway pit bands. Jones left the group in the late 70s; a couple of years later, valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer took the project in a rather radically different direction by introducing his own ambitious, more classically-influenced and sometimes strikingly noir compositions. Since then the group has become a vehicle for one of Brookmeyer’s many proteges, pianist Jim McNeely, who continues to serve as the band’s guiding force. Their weekly Monday residency at the Vanguard is the stuff of legend, and starting tomorrow, Monday the 26th and continuing through Feb 2 they’ll be playing a rare weeklong stand on their home turf. Sets are at 8:30 and 10:30; cover is $30 which includes a drink ticket. Early arrival is always advised at this place, no matter who’s playing. Update – there is no show Monday night because of the weather – check the club for what’s up with Tuesday’s show.

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s latest album, Over Time – streaming at Spotify – is a collection of Brookmeyer pieces, five of them previously unreleased, the others dating from his early years with the band. Brookmeyer was a very distinctive writer, and his influence is still widely felt in jazz circles. His time in Gerry Mulligan’s big band is obvious in these numbers’ many West Coast noir moments. Brookmeyer liked building to lots of sudden, explosive crescendos, usually getting there by pairing instruments or sections of the band against each other, and the band really pull out the stops paying tribute to a guy who did more than anyone to put them on the map.

The older material here is also the darkest. Sad Song, a dirge and the album’s most overtly classical piece, featuring for the most part just McNeely’s piano and Dick Oatts’ flute, brings to mind Gil Evans going off onto an Indian tangent. The Big Time – a previously unreleased early 80s number – works every cinematic trick in the book: breathlessly bustling swing, suspenseful cymbals against eerie tinkling piano, uneasily chattering trumpets, the works. The enigmatically titled XYZ, a partita, is the showstopper here, from its creepy conga opening, through broodingly starlit piano, sarcastic blues caricatures and eventually a poignantly restrained Terrell Stafford muted trumpet solo that sounds like it’s wafting from around the corner. By contrast, Brookmeyer’s well-known arrangement of the well-known standard Skylark comes together brassily, with lots of tersely carefree alto sax from the veteran Oatts.

The more recent stuff – delivered to the orchestra right before Brookmeyer’s unexpected death in 2011 – is somewhat more boisterous. A triptych, Suite for Three begins with a modally astringent pulse with Oatts’ brightly acidic alto over ominously lustrous brass (and some bizarrely avant garde piano). Part two, featuring vivid work by lead trumpeter Scott Wendholt on flugelhorn, is a gorgeous mood piece that draws a line straight back to 50s Miles Davis. Tenor saxophonist Rich Perry features prominently on the concluding section, a wickedly catchy, blues-infused cha-cha in disguise. And At the Corner of Ralph and Gary provides a long, hard-swinging launching pad for intertwining lines from tenor saxophonist Ralph LaLama and his baritone counterpart Gary Smulyan. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to Brookmeyer, who was clearly on top of his game until the end.

January 25, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Clayton Brothers at Dizzy’s Club, NYC 1/16/09

No Wasted Notes Week must have gone into double overtime. Friday night’s early show by the Clayton Brothers at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center was a clinic in good fun, good taste and good chops. The quintet adhere to the long-hallowed tradition of stating the tune and then following with solos around the horn, either over the changes or some permutation thereof. What differentiates them is their complete commitment to melody and making what they play actually count for something: even when trumpeter Terell Stafford (a frequent McCoy Tyner sideman) would ride a crescendo about as far out as he could go, there was no doubt that he’d eventually land solidly. Otherwise, there’s something to be said for keeping it in the family and in the case of this band it works like a charm. The Claytons (patriarch John on bass, brother Jeff on alto, son Gerald on piano and adopted son Obed Calvaire on drums) all share a wry sense of humor, a prominent,  constantly recurring, most welcome trait. 

 

Throughout their hourlong set, John Clayton – a Ray Brown acolyte – restored the phrase “smooth grooves” to its rightful place in the lexicon, providing a supple pulse occasionally spiced with counterintuitive bowing and a marvelously tuneful, even minimalist sensibility. This was especially evident on the Kenny Burrell composition Bass Face, written for Ray Brown. To John Clayton’s credit, he put his own stamp on it, a cool, sly, slinky take (deadpan would be an accurate word, except that Clayton was wearing one kind of grin or another throughout the show).

 

Jeff Clayton is something of the group’s Secretary of Entertainment. John, a self-described “California boy,” groused about walking all the way down to the club from 75th Street in what these days of global warming is unseasonable cold (temps in the teens). “I just waited on the wing for the boat,” Jeff announced, referring to Thursday’s US Air flight’s miraculously successful Hudson River crash landing. Working up to a big swell, Jeff Clayton goodnaturedly bedeviled his mates, backing off, playing amusing little fractals and then when everybody seemed thoroughly nonplussed, he’d swing the melody by the tail and in an instant everybody would be back at it again. Yet perhaps the most emotionally impactful solo of the night was his, plaintive and thoughtful on an imaginative, low-key Monty Alexander arrangement of the old Broadway chestnut What Is Love. 

 

The night’s most impressive solos belonged to Gerald Clayton, who set a devious tone early on and didn’t stray far. Whether winding up one of a seemingly endless series of impressionistic crescendos with a vividly Asian-inflected melody, or plucking the strings inside the piano for a banjo-like tone while John Clayton worked up a guitar line, he kept both the audience and the rest of the band on their toes. Drummer Calvaire was fearless and all business, playing at a sonic level just short of what would have been too loud for the room – but he never went there. His star turn came on the Jeff Clayton composition (from the band’s reputedly excellent new ArtistShare CD Brother to Brother – a tribute to other brother acts in jazz throughout the ages) Wild Man, dedicated to Elvin Jones. Calvaire judiciously and inventively mixed in many familiar Elvin tropes – like the sudden drop on the tom or the aggressive ping off the top of a cymbal – without turning a heartwarming and rather exciting homage into parody. The band closed with a John Clayton number chronicling a trip through a traveler’s hell, starting with a missed flight in Berlin and ending with the bassist taking the stage, late, in Tokyo, 48 hours later, several connections later, probably with no sleep. But it wasn’t bitter! The band swung the song resolutely, just as John Clayton must have walked it and when they reached the part where he finally reached the stage, the melody rose and became utterly blissful, Stafford and Jeff Clayton fueling the party. It may have been cold outside last night, but there was a fire on the fifth floor at 60th and Broadway.

January 17, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment