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

by delarue

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.