Since September 2010, this blog has recorded the journey of this middle-aged man as I attempt to listen to all the music in my CD collection. CDs revisited in their entirety from start to finish - no skipping tracks, no shuffle. CDs only - no vinyl, no tapes, no downloads. And just as CD technology (and the album format itself) becomes obsolete. I'm no music critic, just a music junkie with too much time on my hands.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wynton Marsalis Septet - Live at The Village Vanguard (1999)

Released in 1999, the music on this 7 disc box set was recorded earlier in the decade during Village Vanguard engagements in March 1990, July 1991, December 1993, and December 1994. The band personnel varied slightly between dates, but Marsalis always played with a septet that included two saxophones, trombone, piano, bass, and drums in addition to his trumpet.  The discs are sequenced to simulate a week-long gig, but each disc contains different bands from different dates. At over nine hours of music (with a low original retail price of $39.98) this is quite a formidable compilation.  Some might think a 7 disc live set to be extravagant or presumptuous, but to others its a treasure trove of live improvisation by a modern master at a legendary jazz club.

With so much music, it's no surprise that the music and results are varied.  I prefer Marsalis' ealry music from his quartet/quintet days in the '80s and his takes on standards.  Those are here, but I have to suffer through some of his less interesting compositions and unusual, non-idiomatic scoring to get to them.  As I wrote in a previous post, "I rue the day in the late '80s that Wynton added screeching clarinet and growling trombone to his timbre palette."  Add to that complaint the gawd-awful screeching of a sopranino saxophone, an instrument that probably should have never been invented.

I love Wynton's playing but I don't love his late composition styles.  Seeing how one of those later compositions won a Pulitzer Prize (Blood On The Fields, 1997), I'm obviously missing something, but I like what I like.  That said, everything here swings and there's no doubt that everyone in the club during these gigs were getting more than their money's worth. Many of the discs end with the band exiting the club in the New Orleans marching band tradition, weaving through the tables while playing loose contrapuntal jams.  I enjoy those tracks, each titled simply Set Break, more than most of the other music here.  You can stream most of the tracks from this box set here.

"Monday Night"
10 tracks, 1.2 hours

After a brief spoken introduction by Marsalis, we're off.  This disc has some beautiful standards among a few average originals.  Standout tracks include the standards Cherokee and Embraceable You.  Of the originals, I prefer Black Codes From The Underground (a rather extended version, clocking in at 16:33) and The Cat In The Hat Is Back which isn't really much of a piece, but its the band's best performance on this disc - they really cook.  Not a fan of the original piece titled Harriet Tubman, originally from the album Thick In The South - Soul Gestures In Southern Blue, Vol. 1.

"Tuesday Night"
9 tracks, 1.2 hours

Another brief spoken introduction by Marsalis, this time acknowledging jazz legend Lionel Hampton in the crowd ("Now we're doubly nervous"). The top notch standards on this disc are Thelonius Monk's composition Reflections and the band's take on Ellington's In A Sentimental Mood.  Of the original tunes, I like the groove of Jig's Jig, curiously described by composer Marsalis as "a tonal description of what we see when looking into a kaleidoscope." I'm not a fan of the extended takes on either Uptown Ruler or Down Home With Homey.

"Wednesday Night"
12 tracks, 1.2 hours

Wednesday must be standards night as 7 of the tracks here were written by such artists as Monk, Basie, Strayhorn, and Ellington.  All but one of the tracks on this disc come from the 1994 dates.  Needless to say, I love it, especially the bossa take on I'll Remember April and the wonderful collection of blues tunes that close out the set. Even the originals on this disc are well-written, particularly In The Court Of King Oliver.  I don't like the squealing woodwinds on Monk's Four In One, but this is easily the best disc of the set. 

"Thursday Night"
10 tracks, 1.2 hours

The fourth disc features pianists Marcus Roberts and Eric Reed, the highlights being Roberts' composition The Arrival (from his 1989 album The Truth Is Spoken Here) and Roberts' beautiful solo feature on Monk's Misterioso.  There's also a nice 12 minute take on Gershwin's Embraceable You where Marsalis and Roberts both take the opportunity to stretch out.  I'm tempted to skip A Long Way but the version of Pedro's Getaway is much better on this disc than the original recording on the Tune In Tomorrow soundtrack.  Inexplicably, the final tune (Set Break) fades out after about 4 minutes.

"Friday Night"
11 tracks, 1.1 hours

This disc is a loosely organized tribute to the music of Marsalis' hometown of New Orleans.  The set gets off to a slow start with three pieces from the 1988 album The Majesty Of The Blues including the rather lengthy and meandering title track.  The brass players should retire their plungers after that one.  After the slow start, the disc starts to cook.  The band redeems itself with the wonderfully peppy and contrapuntal Happy Feet Blues followed by solid turns on Thelonious and Stardust.  Starting with track 3, the music is high-energy and wonderfully joyous, making this one of the better discs in the set.

"Saturday Night"
6 tracks, 1.1 hours

Saturday night starts off with a 40 minute suite from Marsalis's 1992 ballet work, Citi Movement.  It's long, but choppy, disjointed, and schizophrenic - one of those ballet works that probably works better with dancers. You're not gonna leave the place humming any catchy melodies afterwards.  The remaining 30 minutes of the disc is good, particularly the tracks Winter Wonderland and Cherokee.

"Sunday Night"
5 tracks, 1.2 hours

The Sunday night disc appropriately focuses on spiritual music from the septet's 1993 CD, In This House On This Morning which musically depicts in three parts a lengthy Sunday church service.  The first 55 minutes of the disc are dedicated to the sermon section of that work, titled In The Sweet Embrace Of Life.  It's a fun piece at times, but overall not my thing.  Admittedly, I don't have the cultural capital to understand what's going on with the musical narrative.  I will say I enjoy Eric Reed's piano work on this one.

Personal Memory Associated with this CD: I saw the septet at the Vanguard on January 9, 2000, about a month after this box set was released.  Here's the blurb from the January 10, 2000 edition of The New Yorker:

The highlight of the night for me was the intimate version of the standard I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You.  I don't have a ticket stub from that night because the club's method of taking reservations is to write your name down on a yellow legal pad when you call ahead for a seat and cross it off as you pay (I think it was $25, cash only, please).  The thrill of entering those famous double doors and immediately descending the stairs into the cramped club is indescribable.  The club sits atop a subway line and from time to time, the whole club shakes slightly while a low rumble is heard as a train passes beneath. That's my only time to visit the Vanguard and it was everything a music lover could hope for.  So while this set doesn't get a lot of playing time around here, it is a valued souvenir of one of the best nights I've ever had in NYC.

In my office, I have a promotional poster from this release.  I have it for two reasons: 1) it's a great reminder of that night at the Vanguard, and 2) I like to think it ups my coolness quotient.

Here's a photo of me with Marsalis around the time of the release of this set.  If memory serves, this picture was taken in Chicago in December, 1998.

Previously revisited for the blog:
Two Men with the Blues (2008)
Standard Time, Vol. 4: Marsalis Plays Monk (1999)
Joe Cool's Blues (1995)
Baroque Duet (1992)
Uptown Ruler: Soul Gestures in Southern Blue, Vol. 2 (1991)
The Original Soundtrack From Tune In Tomorrow... (1990)
Crescent City Christmas Card (1989)
Baroque Music for Trumpets (1988)
Carnaval (1987)
J Mood (1986)
Black Codes (From The Underground) (1985)
Trumpet Concertos (1983)

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