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.

The Meaning Of The Blues

Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

What is the meaning of the blues? And if anyone knows, is it really all that likely to be Keith Jarrett?

Isn’t it far more likely to be Wynton Marsalis? After all, in 1983, when Jarrett’s Standards, Volume One was released on ECM, Marsalis was talking an awful lot about the blues. He was talking an awful lot about an awful lot of things: pop music, Miles Davis, Buddy Bolden, his own jazz pedigree, and under it all was always, of course, the blues. Marsalis is a black musician from New Orleans, after all.

Of course, for all Marsalis’s talk and outward appearances, his claims to the heritage of jazz are more often contested than not in the jazz community, while Keith Jarrett’s musical philosophies  – if not his attitudes towards his audiences – have weathered extremely well.

Perhaps it’s because even though Standards, Volume One was released at the inception of Marsalis’s neo-traditional movement in jazz, and though its concept of interpreting standards – and only standards – seems to fit snugly into that traditionalist moment, the Jarrett Standards Trio is a band committed to the music. Just the music. Unlike Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette are three musicians with a point to make, and they let the music make it.

That’s the point.

Aside from all this analysis of the context of Standards, let me just say that this record is a scary fucking record. It’s visceral in a way that standards records, even later ones by Jarrett himself, fail to be. Part of this is undoubtedly the fiery playing by the trio; at times, Jarrett’s fingers seem to overtake themselves, and Peacock and DeJohnette are dizzyingly adept at filling in blanks and intuiting musical directions. Part of it is surely the literally frightening array of sounds that issue from Jarrett’s mouth over the course of the record. But the really scariness of Standards lies in the combination of these two; monumental imaginings of jazz standards, seemingly by some kind of inhuman beast.

I mentioned that the Standards Trio lets the music make its points. That’s what allows them to take liberties with the tunes, liberties that suddenly, when heard, seem no less than the composer’s complete intention. The Jarrett trio can’t make their points any other way – their histories are too contradictory, or at least meandering, for that. All played avant-garde jazz at one point; that’s how Gary Peacock made his name, after recording surf-movie soundtracks with Bud Shank, and it’s what Jarrett did with Charles Lloyd and DeJohnette in the ’60s. Jarrett, after breaking ground with the electric Miles Davis, renounced electronic instruments. All three were at the forefront of a generation that relished in leaving standards in the dust.

Wynton’s never been that way. That’s why he’ll never be able to record a version of ”God Bless The Child” that rocks out for a full fifteen minutes, Leon Russell-like, with backbeat and funky bassline and all. That’s why he’ll never squeal his way through an ”All The Things You Are” that somehow finds new paths through old changes. That’s why he’ll never find the meaning of the blues, or at least the meaning of the jazz tradition: that the music can’t be limited by its past; that the music only really lives when it’s injected with something new and fresh. Why was Louis Armstrong so badass? Because he played these notes at this speed over these changes? Partly. But mostly because no one had ever played that way before, and he did.

A lot of words have been written about how Marsalis went wrong. But not much time has been spent looking at the people who were doing it right. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette do it right. They do it for the music. And hey – that’s the point, right?