Vanguard Vibrations: Right There In It

At least three indicators can tell you when a band is operating on a high level: Each musician propels the time with equal commitment and groove; the notes from one instrument begin to blend into the next, as the ensemble becomes less a collection of players and more a single sonic ecosystem; and flickering smiles are exchanged on the bandstand during unexpected moments of glee.

The Fred Hersch Trio & special guest Miguel Zenón proved to be just such an ensemble Friday night at the Village Vanguard in New York. For those of you eager to see them, call ahead — the place was packed and only two nights of their run remain.

An early highlight was an otherworldly ending to Hersch’s timeless “Sarabande,” in which ethereal sounds from Zenon’s horn melded and seemed to enter the piano strings as Fred tremelo’d octaves in the upper register. Similarly, on Fred’s tribute to Sonny Rollins, the aptly titled “Newkalypso,”—which sounded on this night as though it were written as a feature for Zenon—included some telepathic merging of sounds between the pianist and saxophonist. As Fred remarked to me afterward, Zenon “is right there in it.” That is to say, he’s not a soloist floating over a rhythm section, but in the center of the rhythmic dance unfolding between the musicians, propelling the music forward as much as any rhythm section player.

Speaking of rhythm, I was particularly struck by the exuberance of drummer Eric McPherson’s playing from the get-go. I heard many more shades of Art Blakey and Tony Williams, Clyde Stubblefield and Questlove, than I’d ever heard in McPherson’s playing, and yet he remains an individual iconoclast behind the drums, orchestrating and bringing out unexpected textures from the kit. Typically more reserved in the trio format, tonight he dropped bombs and made thunderous entrances when the spirit moved him. He also used actual drum sticks on many pieces. Typically, with the trio, he chooses a variety of brushes and other implements to get the full range of lower-decibel dynamics required to play Hersch’s music. As I mentioned to Fred, the sticks-to-brushes/broomsticks/hot rod ratio was strikingly different with Zenon’s fiery alto in the mix. But as Fred agreed, McPherson’s dynamics were utterly appropriate to the spirit and vibe of the evening. This music is FUN, and McPherson was having a good time. (So was this listener.)

Hersch is one of the world’s great pianists, to be sure, but he is perhaps most celebrated for his solo work. His solo rendition of Round Midnight (Fred makes a point of including music from Thelonious Monk in each set he performs) was astounding, and a fascinating study in colors from the low end of the piano, spontaneous reharmonization, and counterpoint. I couldn’t help but be reminded that the last few times I’ve heard him, Fred appears to be exploring the low register of the piano in ways I don’t necessarily associate with his sound. It is profoundly inspiring to hear a mentor and hero like Fred continue to grow and expand his artistic palette even after decades of albums, accolades, and achievements.

A sultry tempo emerged from Round Midnight, and the band launched into a loose, greasy rendition of Monk’s Blue Monk, where the rhythm team and Zenon rejoined the fray. Aside from a nearly free-form solo on this piece, tonight John Hebert’s bass playing felt perhaps a little more grounded and foundational than it often does with the trio, and appropriately so — with the winds blowing in a multitude of directions, the ensemble noticeably morphed with the addition of Zenon, someone had to stay closer to earth during the soloists’ skyward excursions. Nonetheless, at many points during the set I heard a fresh rhythmic figure unfold from Hebert’s bass, only to hear Hersch and Zenón respond with in-kind musical answers in their respective solos.

One wild card was Miguel Zenon’s introduction of the Aca Seca Trio’s lovely “Vidala sin voz,” a folclóric-sounding melody from Argentina with an unusual form, which the quartet played with reverent lyricism. The flights of fancy were most pronounced, however, on Hersch’s “Blackwing Palomino” (written for his favorite variety of pencil), the aforementioned Newkalypso, and perhaps the set-opener, Hersch’s dynamic arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love,” during which EMac’s electric propulsion of polyrhythms brought to mind Tony Williams’ prophetic work with the Miles Davis Quintet in the 1960s.

The audience was ecstatic by the end of the night, and Fred guided us back to earth with a poetic arrangement of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes,” recorded on his 2017 solo album “Open Book.” I was thrilled to have witnessed one of my favorite saxophonists join one of my favorite piano trios in an thrillingly organic and spontaneous performance.

Set list:

Easy to love
Blackwing Palomino
Vidala sin voz
Round Midnight
Blue Monk
Encore: And So It Goes

**Full disclosure: Fred Hersch is a long time teacher and mentor of mine.

Vanguard Vibrations: Sharing the Air*

"You do know that sound is air, right?" remarked pianist-composer Vijay Iyer, thanking an exuberant audience for sharing the room, space, and air with his tremendous band on Thursday night. At New York's historic Village Vanguard, Iyer led his sextet in a tour-de-force performance that was at turns visceral, emotive, dramatic, nuanced, jarring, delicate, and exhilarating. While the music is complex, I find it corporeal rather than cerebral. This music is funky -- it's vibrant, groovy, and full of feeling, a full-body experience.

Segueing from piece to piece with only one pause during the set, Vijay kept his bandmates on their toes -- one could see them rifling through stacks of sheet music as each new song began. As he is wont to do, Iyer improvises sets in the manner that he improvises at the piano: unpredictably, sometimes with sudden shifts of gear and dynamics, other times with gradual dynamic builds or textural decays that seem to stretch the listener's perception of elapsed time.

I attended the late set, which included many themes from Vijay's excellent ECM album, "Far From Over," featuring this very band, with one notable exception. In place of the stellar percussionist/composer Tyshawn Sorey** was Jeremy Dutton, who very ably filled the role of rhythmic instigator and textural fire-starter. He played with a ferocity and commitment to groove that was unshakeable throughout the many rhythmic complexities of Iyer's music. Dutton's explosive use of the floor tom reminded me of certain passages Sorey plays on the album, and his way of orchestrating around the kit makes him a strong fit for this music.

Graham Haynes was a minimalist sound-sculptor on cornet and electronics, a fantastic foil to the more sheets-of-sound pyrotechnics of saxophonists Steve Lehman and Mark Shim. One solo in particular found him playing very few notes and manipulating the envelope and decay of each sound with his effects rig, the electronics as crucial to the improvisation as the horn. Bassist and longtime Iyer collaborator Stephan Crump was lyrical and steady, the heartbeat of a band in which every player is required to assume a drummer-like role. Indeed, one of my favorite elements of Iyer's sextet is the way in which the imaginary lines between horns and rhythm section are dissolved and roles inverted. For example, in one piece, Lehman's alto doubles an accompaniment figure by Iyer, which in turn is an integral part of the drum groove; in another, the horns accompany the rhythm section's excursions with punctuated single-note figures.

Since I started listening to Iyer as a high schooler, I've been intrigued with his unique pianistic vocabulary and use of extreme high and low registers on the instrument. Now, what perhaps impresses me most by his piano playing is how his range of timbres and colors seems to keep expanding and deepening. There are moments on "Far From Over" where Iyer will get an incredible after-ring to "glow" on a note in the high register of the piano; I assumed this was due to the fine piano, studio, and production techniques of ECM's venerable Manfred Eicher. But no - Vijay did it live, as they say, creating this otherworldly light on some unspeakably delicate tones towards the top of the piano, often while sustaining a dyad or simple chord beneath. 

Highlights of the set included "Down to the Wire," one of my favorites from the album, during which a low simmer develops into a steady boil, and ultimately erupts in a fury of simultaneous improvisations from the entire band. Another standout was Iyer's solo rendition of Billy Strayhorn's heartbreakingly beautiful "Blood Count," again exhibiting some of those otherworldly "glow tones" in the upper register of the piano. As Vijay remarked to me afterward, he felt that the high-octane, high-decibel energy had been calling for a bit of cool-out, and his solo meditation on one of jazz's great melodies provided just that.

The Vijay Iyer Sextet will be at the Vanguard through Sunday evening, and I highly encourage all fans of dramatic, grooving, high-energy music to give them a listen. The power and spontaneity of their music comes across well on recording, but truly comes alive when witnessed in person.

*Though I was tempted to title this post "Vijay's Vivacious Village Vanguard Vibrations," my editor (read: girlfriend) gently insisted that I save the dad-jokes for a later decade.

**Full disclosure: I had the great fortune of studying with both Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey at the Banff Centre in August of 2016.




Monk 100th Birthday at New England Conservatory

The lights dim to almost nothing, and a velvet chord—with a touch of cayenne pepper—emerges from depths of the Steinway on stage.  Next, the first four notes of Thelonious Monk’s signature “Round Midnight” are intoned, and we are transported both backward and forward.

Iconic pianist Ran Blake’s spellbinding, four-dimensional reading of Monk’s masterpiece was less a tribute than a re-imagining, and I like to think that’s how Monk would have liked it.  In fact, Blake’s solo performance was one of many moving, jaunty, humorous, and heartbreakingly beautiful moments at New England Conservatory’s celebration of the High Priest of Bop’s 100th Birthday Celebration last Thursday (October 19th).  And in the spirit of Thelonious, each artist approached the music from a personal, unique angle.

Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the definitive Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, gave an introductory statement on Monk’s life and legacy, and reminded us of this: Monk was a rebel.  Yes, we are honoring the man and his music, but let’s not relegate him to the museum or history books or halls of idolatry.  Thelonious Monk resisted – he resisted a violent, racist encounter with police; he resisted musicians and critics who claimed he couldn’t play; he resisted conforming to the demands of a society that too often puts conformity and efficiency above creative self-expression and truth.  Monk always knew, and reminded those around him to “always know.”  Being yourself in all ways is the way to make a lasting mark on your family, your friends, your community, and the world.  In this spirit, dozens of creative musicians celebrated the music of an unabashed, uncompromisingly individual artist.

The first half of the concert continued was a set entirely of solo “re-compositions” of Monk’s material.  Frank Carlberg, who, like Blake, is a former teacher of mine, opened with a stunning version of “Panonnica,” Monk’s tribute to his friend and patron of the arts Pannonica de Koenigswarter (also known as the “jazz baroness”).  Carlberg’s clarity of sound, reference to Monk’s harmonic/rhythmic signatures (without sounding imitative), and deeply personal arrangement that used another Monk composition (“Crepuscule with Nellie”) as an intro and ending, made for an auspicious beginning to one of the most memorable Jordan Hall concerts I’ve witnessed.  Pianist Anthony Coleman followed Carlberg with a percussive and wide-ranging reading of “Think of One.”  Within the first few notes of Coleman’s performance, I was reminded of how remarkably different the same piano in the same hall can sound when played by different musicians of such a high caliber.

Matana Roberts’ solo saxophone improvisation alluded less to a composition than to certain “Monkisms”—intervals and rhythms reminiscent of the master’s musical fingerprints.  She seemed to revel in the way in which her gritty, ebullient tone, devoid of instrumental accompaniment, reverberated around the great hall. One- and two-note incantations were left to hang and travel around, careening through space as though driving home the idea that the immediacy of Monk knows no bounds of time or space. 

I was especially moved and taken with vocalist Dominique Eade’s solo Monk medley (or “madly,” as she jokingly referred to it to me during the intermission), which featured most prominently the devilishly chromatic “Brilliant Corners” and the underrated “Introspection.”  Eade is that rare singer who has the range of color, sound, dynamics, and vocal dexterity to render a performance that sounds almost orchestral despite being delivered by a single voice. Her humor and swing came through loud and clear with a sly nod to the end of the bridge of the standard “Just You, Just Me” (the chord sequence of which forms the basis of Monk’s signature “Evidence”), with Eade singing, “use your imagination!” Her performance earned an explosive applause and curtain call.

After Ran Blake’s mesmerizing solo rendition of “Round Midnight,” Fred Hersch concluded the first half of the program.  For me, Fred has one of the most compelling, original, and emotionally vital solo piano approaches in all of music.  (Full disclosure: Fred is also a teacher of mine.)  He first played “Ask Me Now,” segueing into the virtuosic Monk burner, “Work.”  Also receiving a standing ovation and curtain call, Fred confessed during the break that Ran Blake “was a tough act to follow!”  Both Fred and Ran’s performances were transcendent, unique tributes to a transcendent and unique musical mind.

Such mutual respect and admiration was also apparent through Ken Schaphorst’s magnificent curation of the second half of the concert, featuring the NEC Jazz Orchestra.  Man, these students can play!  While perhaps shaking off some rhythmic/sonic cobwebs on the first tune, they quickly settled in and closed out the concert with aplomb.  Schaphorst graciously reintroduced Frank Carlberg, who led the big band through two excellent readings of his Monk-infused original compositions from his recent recording (highly recommended!), “Monk Hallucinations, Dreams, and Nightmares.”

Ran Blake re-emerged to play a devastatingly beautiful, grooving, and energetic version of his composition “Short Life of Barbara Monk,” with an incredibly imaginative, fun, and dance-able big band arrangement by Schaphorst.  The piece is a celebration of the life of Monk’s daughter, whom Blake had babysat when she was a child, and who died of breast cancer in 1984 at the young age of 30.  The iconic vamp of a pair of minor-chords in an irresistible rhythm was made colossal when scored for 18 musicians.  Perhaps the biggest trip of all was seeing the NEC Jazz Orchestra pianist, the fantastic Iñigo Ruiz, play celeste right alongside Blake on the acoustic piano.  Here was one of my most inspiring teachers, Ran Blake, performing with one of my most inspiring students from Berklee, Iñigo, who is now a graduate student at NEC.  Not only that, “Short Life of Barbara Monk” was a piece I had performed on my own graduation recital at NEC, as a duo with my good friend Doug Pet.  Talk about worlds and generations colliding!

Nedelka Prescod gave a powerful and moving rendition of Round Midnight, this time with Carmen McRae’s lyrics.  Schaphorst’s exquisite arrangement culled many jewels from various versions of this classic Monk tune.  The closing piece of the night again featured Fred Hersch, in Hal Overton’s iconic arrangement of “Little Rootie Tootie,” the middle of which gave Hersch a chance to wail, solo, without any accompaniment at all.  Fred then led the band back in, and the horns proceeded to play that impossibly virtuosic Monk solo, now scored for 13 winds! 

Perhaps most heartening was to see and feel the love and joy in the hall – love for Monk’s music, for the musicians on stage, and for the community that celebrated this icon of American Music in a way that was reverent and irreverent all at once (just the way Monk would’ve had it, perhaps?).  I remember plenty of outstanding concerts at Jordan Hall that were poorly attended, with maybe barely 100 people.  It was gratifying to see a large audience many times that size hooting and hollering and clamoring for more by the time the music was finished. I was moved to realize that Monk, a high school dropout (and undoubtedly a musical genius), was being celebrated at an elite Conservatory originally founded to teach the music of dead white men.  Times have changed, and the music keeps getting better and better. 






Ran Blake, Inigo Ruiz, Ken Schaphorst, and the NEC Jazz Orchestra.

Ran Blake, Inigo Ruiz, Ken Schaphorst, and the NEC Jazz Orchestra.

Ken Schaphorst, composer and director of New England Conservatory's Jazz Studies Program, welcomes the Jordan Hall audience.

Ken Schaphorst, composer and director of New England Conservatory's Jazz Studies Program, welcomes the Jordan Hall audience.

Robin DG Kelley, author of  Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original , gives introductory commentary on Monk and his music.

Robin DG Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, gives introductory commentary on Monk and his music.

Dominique Eade performs "Brilliant Corners" and "Introspection," among other Monk references...

Dominique Eade performs "Brilliant Corners" and "Introspection," among other Monk references...

Saxophonist Matana Roberts in a solo performance at the Monk tribute.

Saxophonist Matana Roberts in a solo performance at the Monk tribute.

Fred Hersch performs a solo medley of "Ask Me Now" and "Work."

Fred Hersch performs a solo medley of "Ask Me Now" and "Work."

Pianists Anthony Coleman and Ran Blake after the concert.

Pianists Anthony Coleman and Ran Blake after the concert.