By Steve Feeney
The exhilarating power of live music in a small club blazed forth whenever the momentum built loud and hard toward a stirring transition.
Billy Hart Quartet at the Village Vanguard —Livestream, June 13.
The first time I visited the Village Vanguard, the legendary jazz club in New York City, I descended the stairs to the subterranean club with an anticipation that had accumulated after years of listening to live recordings made in the space. This was the amazing spot where giants of jazz — John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and many others — had done some of their best work.
Reality quickly intervened. The place was empty. I was informed that Chucho Valdéz, the great Cuban pianist who was scheduled to appear, had encountered some sort of immigration issue and couldn’t make the gig. Back up the stairs I went to await another opportunity (not until a couple of years later) to experience the wonders of live music at the Vanguard.
Now closed to in-person audiences because of COVID-19, the 85-year-old club has begun streaming live music on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons to anyone with an internet connection and the seven-dollar price of “admission” to the portal at villagevanguard.com. The weekly series opened last Saturday with a fine set by the Billy Hart Quartet.
Helmed by veteran drummer Hart, the group has been working together on and off for 15 or so years. Saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson, and bassist Ben Street, along with the leader, have developed a rapport that allows them to explore, with agile confidence, the nooks and crannies of their original repertoire, with an occasional standard thrown in.
Subtle, subdued, and delicate; these were words that figured prominently in my notes as I watched the multicamera (fixed and handheld) up-close webcast and listened to the finely wrought sound. The session’s musical approach mainly stayed in the post-bop to modal range; there were dedications, announced by Hart, to such figures as Hampton Hawes (“South Hampton”) and John Coltrane (“Ohnedaruth”). Light touches of classical and folk music enlivened the mix in a few spots.
One has the impression that Hart holds back a bit for the sake of the group’s collective sound. Harmonies executed by Iverson and Turner, on such tunes as “The Duchess,” form the crux of the group’s identity. The control and focus of Turner’s tenor work is always impressive — doubly so when he’s buoyed by Iverson’s support.
The leader’s mallet- and brush-work behind Iverson’s ballad “Showdown” was a gentle highlight that also confirmed the pianist’s pivotal role in this ensemble. A later piece encouraged the keyboardist to fascinatingly fragment his lines. Though not afforded a solo in this set, Maine native Street provided a solid grounding throughout.
“Teule’s Redemption” and a final composition, about which there seemed to be some confusion regarding its title, brought the flame up just a notch, showing that the musicians had ample skills to move a bit beyond the evening’s favored cool comfort zone. The exhilarating power of live music in a small club blazed forth whenever the momentum built loud and hard toward toward a stirring transition.
Perhaps, without the encouragement of a crowd there in the moment, some intensity was lost in this set. But this quartet seems to be more about leaning in than blowing away.
The series continues with upcoming livestreams led by Vijay Iyer, Joe Lovano, and many others. Here’s a chance to experience something like being at the Village Vanguard in the comfort of your own home — don’t pass it up.
Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.