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David and Art - History Down in the Village

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Thinking about some historic music recorded 60 years ago at a historic venue.

Last week I talked about a recording from 1961 from jazz great John Coltrane. I got it for Christmas courtesy of an iTunes gift card and have spent a great deal of time listening to it. In 1961 Coltrane and his group was on the verge of taking jazz in a very new direction. These recordings were made live at a jazz club in New York called the Village Vanguard.

Even now, 60+ years later, the music sounds very experimental, very out there. Coltrane’s piano player, McCoy Tyner, said “We always were experimenting with something, expanding perimeters, looking for new horizons... That was the nature of the band, but when we played the Vanguard, it was an especially fresh period in the band’s history.”

It was a good place to make history. In 2005, commemorating the venue’s 70th anniversary, the Wall Street Journal said it was “the center of the known jazz universe to an international circle of musicians and music fans. ...[T]o a hip populace it’s where the ghosts of past jazz giants still play, where the best living jazz talent aspire to record, and where sound waves seem to reverberate in a manner unlike any other club, anywhere.” My first time at there, I found myself sitting underneath a photograph of John Coltrane. As I listened to the quartet that was playing that night, led by a tenor saxophone, I could feel the presence of the past.

This recording that I’ve been listening to—The 1961 Complete Village Vanguard Recordings—includes only nine different songs over the course of almost five hours of music. There are multiple versions of these tunes as the group played them over this four-night engagement. Some songs you get three versions of. Some songs you get four. If you heard my Christmas jazz show, you heard a version of “Greensleeves” from this recording.

We’ve talked about the improvisational character of jazz many times here together and what you’re hearing when you listen to this recording is a group of supremely talented musicians working through and interpreting the same song night after night after night. What you hear is an evolution of interpretation. This is particularly clear in the case of the song “Spiritual” as it evolves from under 13 minutes on the first night to almost 21 minutes the last night.

Do you have to be a musician to enjoy this? That’s a good question and a serious one. For another week.