Pilgrimage to the Village Vanguard

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This past August 29 (my 17th wedding anniversary) my wife and flew to New York for the weekend. The apex of our celebration was the chance to see Paul Motian, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano at the Village Vanguard. For those who don’t know, the Village Vanguard is sort of the like the Vatican of jazz clubs. It is arguably the most prestigious jazz club in the world and only the upper echelon of jazz musicians play there. We arrived at about 8:15 for the line is already snaking down the street blocking the entrance to the nail salon next door to the club. A young woman walks up to the line and asks if it is for the nail salon and is relieved to find out it isn’t. If she’d just looked at the mostly gray haired men in the line she probably would’ve concluded on her own that this crowd wasn’t lining up for pedicures.

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The doors opened and we began our descent down the steep staircase to the club. Much hasn’t changed in the in the vanguard’s decades of operation, but they have embraced some innovations. I printed my ticket at home after purchasing it the Village Vanguard website. The tickets are checked and we are seated. We’re at a table in the second row to the left the stage. Being a guitarist I wanted to have a good view of Frisell. I saw that he was set up to the right side of the stage but I knew from having seen him several times before that he’d spend most of the night facing left towards Motian, the drummer. I’d have a good view of him on the left. Of the 100 odd people who can cram into the small basement club, we had some of the best seats in the house.

When we arrived the band was in the corner near the stage talking. Motian was writing down what appeared to be the set list – the evening liturgy for this sacred event. Eventually they retreated to a back room, we placed our drink orders with the waitress and waited for our trio of high priests to return to the stage. While we waited I look around at the people around us and discovered that not all of us were true believers. The woman in front of us nodded perfunctorily as her date explained to her why the evening’s music would be so great. A couple beside us, who looked to be in their sixties, stared at the dark stage in apparent boredom. A loud table of four behind us were loudly talking about “jazz music”. I heard someone mention Manhattan Transfer and ten seconds later the four of them are humming “Birdland.” They were making short work of their drinks and were getting louder. I began to worry that they wouldn’t quiet down when the band took the stage.

Eventually a man appeared on stage for a call to worship. The congregation was instructed to turn off their cell phones and remain quiet during the show. I prayed that the Manhattan Transfer fans had paid attention. He left the stage and in a few minutes the lights along the right side of the club were abruptly shut off leaving half the club in total darkness. A few seconds later the rest of the house lights were dimmed and the stage lights were abruptly clicked on, revealing the mess of Frisell’s gear and a web of cables. Some bags and a coat were piled on top of the piano which was pushed to the back of the stage. There’s no pretence or playing to appearances here. No fancy computer programmed lighting system. A couple of wall switches on the back do just fine. Guitar case? Coat? Just put them on the Piano.

A hush overtook those of us crowded into the pews. Applause began as the trio re-emerged from the back of the club. They each nodded politely to acknowledge the applause. Motian looked to count off the first number but Frisell wasn’t ready, fiddling with a pedal and quickly tuning up. As soon as he’s finished Motian counted it off and they launched into Monk’s tune Misterioso. They’ve recorded the song and undoubtedly have played it hundreds of times. Lovano was right up to the edge of the stage, the bell of his horn a few feet from us. He is a powerful presence, almost dancing as he plays. He teeters on the edge of the stage as he solos. The elderly woman beside, however, was fast asleep. Her husband was awake but hardly more engaged. The woman in front of us had her fingers in her ears as Motian pounded on his ride cymbal. No word from the Manhattan Transfer fan club behind us. However, I was determined not to let the apathy of the faithless diminish my experience.

The band was in top form on Mysterioso, which was the only tune I recognized during the whole set. The next song was a standard, perhaps “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” but I’m not certain. Frisell and Lovano read charts for the next couple of tunes and the effortlessness of the opening part of the set was gone. Frisell was working hard, especially during his solos on these songs. If I had my eyes closed I’m sure I wouldn’t have noticed, but I could read it on his face.

On the whole the trio sounds phenomenal. Lovano, the extrovert among the group is forceful, exerting his personality upon us as he plays. Frisell and Motian are much more introverted and introspective. Rather than reaching out to us, they merely open a window and allow us to peer in. Near the end of the set Frisell is really warming up, playing as only he can. One of his favourite licks, an ascending stagger step riff (similar to the melody of Mysterioso) makes several appearances through the night. He’s also creating ethereal soundscapes with his multiple layers of delay. A couple of songs ended with haunting loops of his guitar. Most of the crowd is enraptured. The woman beside us continued to slumber undisturbed, though I suppose she might have been praying.

Good Night, Vanguard

The band finished the set and Motian took a microphone to pronounce the benediction. He introduced his bandmates, himself, and thanked us for coming. The three of them waved and nodded, acknowledging the applause and then left the stage. The houselights came up and our lady of perpetual slumber awoke and gathered her purse, sweater and husband to go. The Manhattan Transfer fan club enjoyed the music as much as their wine, and the woman in front of us seems to have avoided permanent hearing damage. My wife and I settle with our waitress and make our way up the stairs on to the street. We began our afternoon with the matinee showing of the broadway musical “Wicked”, had pizza at Johns in Times Square and then made our way out to the Vanguard. As we walk hand in hand to the 23rd street subway station we agree that there could be no better way to celebrate 17 years together.