And The Band Played On

wynton at village vanguard cover

Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

To my mind, the three Village Vanguard records that really sum up the nineties are Benny Green’s Testifyin’, Joshua Redman’s The Spirit Of The Moment, and Wynton Marsalis’s Live At The Village Vanguard. Before you stop reading, yes, I know there are many more Vanguard records out there, but these are more like Time’s Person Of The Year: they aren’t really indicative of anything except, as Redman (or at least Warner Bros.) put it, the ”spirit of the moment.”

In the mid-1990s, that moment was the Marsalis-led neo-traditionalist movement. Benny Green’s record epitomizes it – nothing happens on this record that wouldn’t have happened in 1959, if the only music made in 1959 had been Oscar Peterson’s A Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra. Redman’s record ventures further into the young turk territory of hard bop and early post-bop – he at least makes it to My Favorite ThingsSpirit Of The Moment is an exhilarating disc, but it also exemplifies the young turks in that it’s obviously the work of a musician who became too famous too fast – Redman was already in fashion ads and on the cover of GQ by the mid-nineties, and while there’s a lot of interesting music on the Vanguard disc, there’s also a lot of grandstanding and long-windedness.

There shouldn’t be any need to say why the Marsalis record exemplifies the neo-trad, young-turks movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Marsalis and his brother Branford started the whole thing, and kept the fire burning at least into the late 1990s. Marsalis rocketed to an early fame similar to Redman’s, the difference being that unlike Redman, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. The result is that he ended up like an insect preserved in amber – nothing he ever does will do much to shift our perception of him as a loudmouthed young kid without much street cred but a lot of opinions.

So it might come as a surprise that Live At The Village Vanguard – a record that gives Wynton seven entire CDs to spread out on, a record that features a long spoken piece about how Buddy Bolden’s trumpet sounded just like this and made people act just like that – has weathered better than almost every other young turk record from the ’90s (the ”almost” is because of Redman’s magnificent Mood Swing, and for Brad Mehldau’s first record).

Part of this is undoubtedly because Live At The Village Vanguard
was recorded from 1992 to 1999 but was released all at once as a mythical seven-day run, a span that allows the music to exist in its own world, both evolving over time and existing in one moment. Another genius move – one that could have backfired – is that Wynton’s opening and closing announcements are included on each disc. And it would have backfired too – if Marsalis was anyone else. But because he’s Wynton, his charming announcements humanize him and separate this music from our impressions of the man.

And, of course, there’s the music. I’m a fan of Marsalis’s music – at least the albums he released until 2000 or so  – but in my opinion, this is the cream of the crop. The band is at its best (Wessell Anderson, Victor Goines, Eric Reed and and drummer Herlin Riley in particular) and Wynton rocks the house every time he picks up the trumpet. As with his announcements, the span of the music allows it to put some distance between its reality our our perceived one. Yes, Marsalis pulls out some Louis Armstrong, and some blues – but there are an equal amount of Miles Davis and Clifford Brown moments here (he sounds especially like Brownie, and under-recognized influence on Marsalis, on two renditions of ”Stardust,” and on the unmuted version of ”Cherokee”).

I love this record for the music. That’s saying something for a record made a trumpeter who’s never been allowed to just make music, either by the critics, the public or himself. But this is the one. A few years removed from his second-coming-of-Christ debut or its twelve-horsemen-of-the-Apocalypse aftermath, and several years away from his stagnation as a business-suited, pudgy executive mainly interested in education and Dubai, Live At The Village Vanguard is the happy medium of Marsalis’s discography.