Monday, January 20, 2020

Tales from New York: The Stone and the Village Vanguard

It is forbidden to take pictures at the Stone, the New York venue founded by John Zorn that is devoted to experimental music. So you'll just have to take my word for it that I was there this past Tuesday, January 14. 

The venue used to be located on Avenue C in a storefront that was very easy to miss, even if you weren't looking for it. Since early 2018, it's been located in the New Glass Box Theater on the campus of the New School.

Drummer/percussionist Ches Smith had a week-long residency there last week. On Tuesday, he performed with pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri, a group that released The Bell on ECM a few years ago. The trio also had a special unannounced guest that a lot of people in the know seemed to be expecting - guitarist Bill Frisell. (He has shown up the night before on a Winter Jazz Fest bill too, from what I heard.) 

When Smith, Taborn and Maneri recorded The Bell, and in two shows I caught around the time of that 2016 release, the music was very loose and open. In Pittsburgh, Taborn used an electric piano instead of an acoustic, and he was able to manipulate the sound a little more. On Tuesday, the music was still pretty loose and open but there was more movement within it. There were times that the sound would put focus on particular players, but then it would shift the action to somewhere else at a moment's notice. Smith started off playing vibes, sometimes bowing them. Not being able to see everyone's hands clearly, meant that it wasn't always possible to tell if Maneri or Frisell was providing more ambiance or atmosphere to the sound. Some low end bass notes wound their way into mix too, and then it was clear that Maneri was responsible for that.(He utilized some of those octave-dropping effects when the trio played Pittsburgh).

Then Frisell would start with his trademark volume pedal work which gave everything a dreamy sheen. When Smith sat at the drum kit, he frequently played grooves, sometimes in odd meters, sometimes in more measured tempos. Either way it came as a surprise because it added more of a shape to the sound. The whole thing made me forsake my notebook, and just get lost in the music, hoping my memory would hold me. Sometimes things moved glacially, but the music - which Smith told me afterwards were all newer pieces - had more direction and action built into them.

Until Wednesday night of this past week, I had never set foot in the Village Vanguard. It was a hard thing to admit, and one friend couldn't resist poking me about it. In a way that razzing is warranted: What's keeping me from going?

Well, the venue doesn't take part in Winter Jazz Fest so I'm usually hopping from one place to another during the marathon nights to catch several different sets. Since Wednesday night was a night off from WJF events, it felt like the right time to go to the legendary space that appeared on so many equally legendary album titles.

Guitarist Julian Lage was in the middle of a week-long residency, with a trio of Bad Plus drummer Dave King and bassist Jorge Roeder. I showed up around 9:45 hoping to get into the 10:30 set and I'm glad I didn't come a minute later because there was a line forming next to the awning. And that was just the line of people with tickets. A smaller "stand by" line was queued up on the opposite side of the awning. Luckily it wasn't cold or rainy.

Note: there is a number "1" right where the flash appears in the picture above. More than 23 people are allowed in the Vanguard but 123 people seems like a small crowd for such a place. If you're going there, you're probably walking in thinking that money is no object. But just so you out-of-towners know, the cover was $35 and there's a one drink minimum. If you don't have a ticket, you just pay later at your table, where you'll likely to be in close quarters with someone you don't know. Me, I was lucky because I squoze into an aisle chair in front of a table and no one was sitting next to me. On top of that, the minimum drink was THE BEST TASTING GIN AND SHANLEYS I'VE EVER HAD. ("Gin and Shanleys" is the nickname given to my usual drink of gin and club soda. There's more to that story but now isn't the place.) It was the unnamed house gin too. I ended up having two.

It's true that there isn't a bad seat in the Vanguard. At first it felt like the room was triangular because the two side walls seem to come to a point at the stage. But the stage, with its red curtain backdrop, has its own fairly long wall behind it too. Everything can be heard and seen. Those side walls are adorned with pictures of legendary jazz musicians.

After the set I had to get one of my beloved Cecil Taylor. There are also a couple sousaphones mounted of both of the side walls. The look of the place seems historical without looking like it's in need of renovation. You do get a sense of the history naturally. There doesn't need to be a plaque to explain it.

The set began with Roeder hitting a vamp in the upper register of his bass and King playing his kit with one hand and one stick. Lage plays amazingly rich melodic lines, peeling off fast runs in a manner that reminds me of something I've heard in Joe Negri, where he soars an octave and a half up the fretboard and only then starts a proper phrase he hears in his head. He began one tune unaccompanied, going through a series of complex figures with that rapid approach. There were some tortured guitar faces but consider what he was conjuring with his instrument, he can look any way he wants. When the opening salvo was over, it was pretty impressive that the song that followed this testimony was "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." It wasn't a wry statement or anything flashy. Lage was figuring out how to make this chestnut still sound current after all this time. And he succeeded.

King and Roeder were enjoying themselves as much as Lage was. They went in a free direction where King was doing the driving. Earlier in the set, the drummer also proved how hard he can swing when the situation calls for it. Roeder added some beautiful bow scraping to a ballad without getting too heavy. In one intriguing moment during said ballad, Lage landed on a tritone and bent the note far enough that it quickly went back in tune. The guitarist didn't back announce much of the set but after this one, he mentioned Peter Ivers and the film Eraserhead, so maybe it was "In Heaven (The Lady In the Radiator Song)"? There's an interesting choice for you. Regardless, I'll take it.

Some of the tunes that night felt a little poppy and folk-like, built on some very major changes. But even when the heads seemed a little light, the interplay between these three lifting things higher.

Nels Cline came into the Vanguard prior to the show with a guitar strapped on his back, so I thought he was going to sit in. No such luck. He was just there checking things out. He wasn't the only one from what I could tell. At the bar, in the back of the room, Cline and several other musicians were hanging out, checking out the music. I guess that can be a typical Wednesday night at this place.

It was a short walk back to the hotel, which gave me time to really soak in the music and the space.

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