Dave Douglas and his sextet played at the venerable Village Vanguard located in the heart of the Village in New York City. It was a balmy and warm evening on the foot trek over to the set. Washington Square was aglow with pedestrians, students and stragglers. A lone man was heard on the saxophone playing Horace Silver’s "Song for My Father." At my friend’s request, he played "St. Thomas." It lifted my spirits and only enhanced my anticipation for the show.
The Village Vanguard needs no introduction to the jazz world. The venue is steeped deep and rich in jazz history and folklore where all the mighty pythons of jazz have graced the walls of this cozy and cavernous jazz club. On this night, the place was filled to capacity with 120-plus people. This was Douglas’ last night in a week long engagement that began Monday, October 20th through Sunday the 26th. The appearance advertised as "Word" included Douglas on trumpet, Andy Bey on piano and vocals, Myron Walden on alto saxophone, Roswell Rudd on trombone, James Genus on bass, and Clarence Penn on drums.
Douglas and Rudd played a couple months earlier in a "warm-up" session at the Tonic, located in Soho. On that night, packed with an eclectic crowd in standing room only surroundings, Douglas and Rudd gave a memorable performance. They seemed relaxed and played adventurously. Douglas’ understated trumpet styling contrasted nicely to Rudd’s earthiness. The two seem to bring out the best in each others playing. It was an ideal line-up for that date which was trumpet, trombone, bass and drums. It would be a precursor for tonight’s show.
The Village Vanguard is now a smoke-free jazz club. But it hardly needs the romantic haze of smoke and choke. Douglas and the band created their own incendiary fire. The set began in earnest and lasted nearly two hours. Dressed unremarkably in black jacket, shirt and pants, Douglas launched into the numbers with a three horn attack and vocal lines by Bey. The sextet performed with some spirited playing, telepathic accompaniment, and music making. This should come as no surprise as the band has had a week long tune-up of playing side-by-side. Also, Bey, Rudd, and Genus have played with Douglas in one form or another. Actually, Bey had just performed a work by Douglas that was commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum in honor of American Poet, Stanley Kunitz. "The Tides," which was presented at the museum before Kunitz, was performed tonight. Quietly beautiful and evocative, a trio of Douglas, Bey and Genus moved the audience. Particularly touching is the way Douglas soloed. His phrasing was understated and elegant, and unmistakably, his signature. It was a treat to hear Bey sing in that honey-rich tone; one of many highlights of the evening. Bey caressed each word with heart felt emotion and intensity.
All numbers performed on this night were compositions by Douglas. The musicians seemed to enjoy playing Douglas’ music in that they could stretch out and play unfettered. Walden soloed with intelligence and soulfulness and was able to hit full stride quickly. Particularly enjoyable was a number introduced by Penn with mallet and drums. Walden filled the backdrop with a haunting blues line while Rudd dipped and growled on the trombone. He made sounds reminiscent of the animal sounds in Ellington’s Jungle Band. Douglas then took stage and soloed for several bars over the propulsive thrust of Genus until the drums and mallets returned with Walden and Rudd restating the original theme and bowing out.
Tonight’s show closed as it had opened; with a hard-driving groove and even harder driving solos from all its players. The sextet drew a thunderous applause from the audience. It seems their momentum and fervor drew each player to exhaustion and, when finished, had them seeking and retreating to the lounges. They had, after all, played their hearts out.
Douglas and his men served up some fine jazz and I had the appetite for it. The three horn front line was energetic and powerful. The rhythm section was tight and swinging. The sextet was unflappable. If you must see Douglas perform live, and I hope that you do, you will have to wait until February 2004 when Douglas makes a return engagement at the Village Vanguard. I will see you there.