"...as a jazz musician, Mr. Caine thrives on the practice of inspired variation." -- New York Times
"...what has got to be one of the year's best records, expanse, authority and imagination are in full alignment." -- Down Beat
"Uri Caine is a pre-eminent 'straight ahead' jazz pianist and a 'cutting edge' innovative pianist, musician and composer..." -- All About Jazz
...recorded live at NYC's famed jazz venue, is a power-packed expose ...the band is tight, hip and highly focused. -- All About Jazz .com august 2004 by glenn astarita
Concerts in this place are already important because this where they are happening, writes Nat Hentoff in his preface to Max Gordon’s autobiography. It doesn’t matter who comes onstage. For the club enjoys a fantastic reputation. The name "Vanguard" became more than appropriate for the club, which constantly justifies it. A mythical place, whose fascination is as great as ever. This principal stage for the innovators of the 50s and 60s is in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. They all played here: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Bill Evans. Within jazz, the Village Vanguard was the catalyst for a whole era.
Back then, if anything exciting happened anywhere, it happened here, in this cellar with its 123 seats. The creative macrocosm of the New York jazz scene had its home here, and a faithful audience slotted straight into its concentrated mood. Someone like John Coltrane praised the communicative atmosphere in the Vanguard. This was, above all, thanks to Max Gordon, who opened the club in 1935.
Gordon was an open guy, full of curiosity, who stuck by jazz and its musicians even in tough times. »Live at the Village Vanguard«: at very latest, it was pianist Bill Evans’ 1961 recordings that made this a recognised mark of outstanding quality. Since then, more than 100 concerts from the Village Vanguard have been issued. For a long time, jazz historians believed that the first recorded session was the one by Sonny Rollins that came out in 1957. But recently, decades later, Max Gordon’s widow Lorraine Gordon, who has been in charge of the Vanguard since his death, found an earlier recording with Stan Getz. Max Gordon, an immigrant from Lithuania, became a central figure in jazz, both as a manager and for his programme selection.
His friendliness and closeness – he was in the club every evening – tied him to "his" musicians. He didn’t just give them engagements – he cared for them. The Vanguard soon became more than a platform: it was a place to exchange ideas. Here one could meet, forge plans, and even try out something new spontaneously. Since the 40s there had been Monday sessions, and later the Big Band, led by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. Max Gordon encouraged such situations. Yet it had begun differently.
At first, the club was a meeting place for the Village poets. At Gordon’s, they found a place in which they could present poetry and prose for the talent-seekers of the literary scene, but also for each other. After them came comedians, blues people (such as Leadbelly and Josh White), and singer/songwriters (such as Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie. Only gradually did the jazz musicians make an entry; till the end of the 40s, their territory was further north, in 52nd Street. The poets and their hangers-on had noisy festivities with lots of alcohol. In comparison, a music evening was more civilised. Some people revere the Vanguard as a mystically transfigured "sacred space", whose atmosphere is determined by the spirits of the musicians who have played here.
If someone plays that they don’t accept, they supposedly make sure that he plays badly, and doesn’t come back. The club has a full, transparent sound. Musicians and producers are always praising the acoustics, and the quiet, in which every nuance can be heard. So it doesn’t really matter that the sound engineer has to monitor the recording from the kitchen, because across from the oven there’s at least a small space for the tape recorder or the computer. The fact that the kitchen and the office have been put in the same room has encouraged a friendly proximity between the artists and the club owners.
In the intervals, the musicians go into the office/kitchen, and have something to drink or eat. Gordon was on the music’s side. He didn’t follow fashions, even when things got tight for jazz. The result is an unrivalled continuity going back 70 years, and with no end in sight. »Live at the Village Vanguard«: ever since the recordings by Sonny Rollins (1957) and Bill Evans (1961), records with this title have aroused the highest expectations among musicians and fans. To play for a week at the Village Vanguard is every musician’s dream. Especially if there’s a recording.
Uri Caine made one from May 20-25 2003. In the last few years he has been unusually preoccupied with classical music. He has been thinking about how one can perform music by Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler and others meaningfully these day – how one can fetch these milestones of music out of the imaginary museum and, having all due respect for the scores, fill them with life. Caine hasn’t been reducing symphonies and chamber music to the simple formal level of 32-bar songs, on top of which soloists shines with figures they have learnt by heart: he’s looking for more.
Composition and improvisation should flow into one another, and add to each other’s musical aesthetics. This gives rise to complicated questions about times and spaces. Naturally, this work rubs off on Caine as a jazz musician. Because the question of meaningful relationships within a piece applies in jazz too, if improvisation is to be more than inconsequential chit-chat. In a band, this calls for alert partners who can achieve something like this in communicatively interlocked playing. Uri Caine has invited such people for his trio. Drew Gress and Ben Perowsky come from the New York downtown scene of the 80s and 90s. Here they were regarded as terrific musicians in peak form, also ideally familiar with current playing styles.
They could think conceptually, and in a band, they could conduct exciting musical dialogues with their colleagues. Only strong partners like this are in a position to give jazz new, unheard-of facets. Then, if an arrangement of classical music pops up – from Giuseppe Verdi’s »Otello« - it’s not out of place. It’s probably the first time a piece of opera had been heard in the Village Vanguard. And from it, the three extract a searing intensity. They seem to have taken to heart the basis that Max Gordon, founder of the Village Vanguard, saw as the source of his success: “Talk to people, and let them talk to you. Perhaps there will be one or two good ideas you can pick up on”. And, one must add, keep on with!
- Ulrich Kurth (Translated by Richard Toop)