The Village Vanguard Reopens

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The great jazz shrine of The Village Vanguard in New York reopened in September.

(Photo: Courtesy The Village Vanguard)

The tables were slightly fewer in number. The air filtration system was new. But when the Village Vanguard reopened in September, the air hung heavy with the metaphorical weight of musical history — and the promise of history to be made.

After 18 months shuttered to the public during the pandemic, the 85-year-old temple of jazz was again welcoming the music’s devotees. And who better to usher in the latest chapter of this storied spot than pianist Bill Charlap, who, along with bandmates Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, had logged some 20 years of appearances in this Greenwich Village basement establishment, a jazz monument in New York City?

While the club had mounted a kind of soft relaunch the previous week, with Denver trumpeter Ron Miles making his Vanguard debut as a leader, Charlap’s Sept. 21 reemergence on the venerated stage — the first night of a two-week engagement for this quintessential New Yorker — truly heralded the return of live jazz to the venue and the city as a whole.

“The Vanguard stands for jazz in New York and a kind of music — and Bill’s very illustrative of that style, that attitude, that stance,” the club’s longtime general manager, Jed Eisenman, asserted in an interview. “He’s part of the Vanguard’s inner circle.”

The moment did not escape Charlap. “The Vanguard is New York,” he said in an interview. “It is jazz. It’s our history and it’s more than our history.”

Charlap, a singularly erudite keeper of the jazz flame, served up plenty of history. In an extemporaneously fashioned set, he drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of standards, from the dreamy opener, Michel Legrand’s late-1960s ballad “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life” (which appears on his new album, Street Of Dreams), to the dazzling closer, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘N’ You,” from 1942.

Like Charlap’s choice of tunes, his interpretations had a stream-of-consciousness quality. Sprinkled with off-the-cuff melodic quotes and stylistic references to past piano masters — a filigreed run à la Art Tatum here, a block-chord passage à la George Shearing there — the allusions were, amid the photos of jazz luminaries looking down ghost-like from the club’s walls, almost de rigueur in a Charlap set.

But on this night, his playing went well beyond the obligatory. Inspired by the club’s return and informed, he said, by the lockdown time he had devoted to a revisitation of composers stretching back to the baroque, he seemed intent on delving into previously unexplored nooks and crannies of his artistic psyche.

“Maybe the quiet that was enforced gave us time to think and breathe a bit,” he said. “People are taking risks. It’s a feeling that’s very wonderful now.”

Even as he rendered melodies with the clarity due composers he obviously revered, he appeared to relish abstracting those melodies or abandoning them altogether. The result: a deeply pianistic performance marked by ruminative rumblings at keyboard’s bottom, delicate dances at its top and surging waves of glissandi disarmingly commandeering the middle ground.

Clearly, he was having a rollicking good time — and, in the process, positing possibilities for pianists operating in an ostensible mainstream.

Eisenman acknowledged that the Vanguard had sometimes favored a purist view: “There was a point in the ’70s, ’80s and a little into the ’90s when we were perhaps a little more orthodox in the booking.” But in the early ’60s, it had opened its doors to artists like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, then considered left of center.

In recent years, he added, the club had again become a more pluralistic gatekeeper — registering a sort of breakthrough in 2019 with the booking of freeform guitarist Mary Halvorson. Later this year, adventuresome players like saxophonist Chris Potter and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire will take the stage, though none will boast more radically inventive bona fides than Charlap.

If musical ideology itself is waning, Eisenman said, work is work and, with the diminishing number of rooms in town, it had become harder to come by. Thus, he said, “The demand for playing at the club keeps getting greater and greater” — a pre-pandemic trend that had only accelerated with the COVID-related closing of Jazz Standard.

Throughout, Charlap has charted his own course — directing jazz studies at William Paterson University, reviving an in-person version of his Jazz in July series at the 92nd Street Y and booking gigs, from a pre-vaccine solo concert in July 2020 at Pennsylvania’s Deer Head Inn to a September 2021 duo date with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater at Lafayette College.

But it is the Vanguard to which he always returns.

“It can’t be more ‘home,’” he said. DB



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February 2022
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