LIVE: The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra @ Tanglewood, 9/6/09

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra
The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

Swing, swang, swung…

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra conjugated it pretty much every old way you could possibly want on the final day of the 2009 Tanglewood Jazz Festival in Lenox, Mass.

The towering 80-minute performance was primarily crafted from the sturdy building blocks of the vast Thad Jones catalog, which was certainly no surprise since the 16-piece VJO is devoted to carrying on the music and legacy of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

Led by bandleader John Mosca (who might have a future in stand-up comedy should he ever decide to hang up his trombone), the VJO blew through such Jones-penned gems as the opening “Mean What I Say,” the wigged-out waltz “The Waltz That You Swang For Me,” the slow walking blues “Kids Are Pretty People” and the Latin-centric “My Centennial,” before wrapping up the afternoon with Jones’ heartfelt ballad “To You,” which the band dedicated to the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

Nearly everyone of the 16 strong members had at least one moment in the spotlight, but some of the most potent solos came from soprano saxophonist Billy Drewes, trombonist John Mosca, baritone saxman Gary Smulyan and bassist Phil Palombi.

The band also offered a sneak peek at their next album, with an angular, thoroughly modern blast of “Oatts,” a brand new Bob Brookmeyer nugget that offered alto sax great Dick Oatts plenty of room to wail.

The Vanguard Orchestra
The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

The band does its thing every Monday night at the famed, intimate NYC jazz club, the Village Vanguard, and it’s definitely worth stopping by if you’re in the neighborhood. As their Tanglewood concert proved, you can take the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra out of the Village Vanguard, but you can’t take the Village Vanguard out of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Opening the concert was a meeting between two jazz piano giants – Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller – and though there were only two men on stage, they made just as big a sound as the the 16-piece VJO. Largely improvisational, rarely predictable and frequently downright astonishing, the two faced each other over a pair of nine-foot Steinway grands, and the results were, well, grand in the truest sense of the word. Majestic. Sparkling. Jaw-dropping.

They never painted themselves into a corner and frequently finished each other’s phrases, their empathetic and intuitive playing perfectly in balance. They each took one solo turn and Miller’s particularly playful treatment of George Gerswhin’s “Liza” was a solid winner. But the real magic ocurred when they squared off with each other, of course, proving that when two genuine masters get together one plus one frequently adds up to more than two.

Go here to read my review of the concert in the Times Union.

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra earned the Grammy Award earlier this year in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble category for their live, double-CD “Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard.” The album was released on the small, non-profit record label Planet Arts, based in Catskill.

And finally, Jason Crane – host and producer of “The Jazz Session” website – served as emcee of the concert and also conducted interviews with many of the musicans who were performing at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, so be sure to check out his site.

Kenny Barron & Mulgrew Miller
Kenny Barron & Mulgrew Miller

Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Barron
Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Barron

all photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

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