I just this minute got back from the Village Vanguard, where I heard a special one-night-only old-fashioned “battle of the bands” in which the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (which plays there every Monday night) squared off against Bob Brookmeyer‘s Europe-based New Art Orchestra, in town for the annual International Association for Jazz Education conference. Only there wasn’t any battle, not really. The Vanguarders were on their mettle tonight, but Bob Brookmeyer is no ordinary bandleader.
He is–just to start with–the greatest living composer of music for big band. I don’t call it “jazz” because Brookmeyer’s music, though it’s certainly jazz, is in certain important ways something else as well. He is one of the very few jazz composers to have mastered large-scale form, and his pieces have an organic wholeness and flow usually found only in classical music. He is also a superlative valve trombonist whose blunt, burry tone and no-nonsense solos are as recognizable as the face of a friend. He leads the New Art Orchestra with the lucid gestures of a first-class symphony conductor (think Fritz Reiner, not Leonard Bernstein). As for the band itself, I don’t know when I’ve heard better ensemble playing from any group, regardless of idiom. These guys crackle and burn–elegantly.
Brookmeyer and the Vanguard go back a long way. “I’ve spent more time in this place than in some of my previous marriages,” he said wryly at the start of the first set. In fact, he put in a memorable stretch as music director of the Vanguard band starting in 1978, after Thad Jones moved to Europe, and did some of his best composing and arranging for the group (which returned the compliment tonight by playing his celebrated version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”). But his earlier efforts, impressive though they remain, don’t hold a candle to what he’s writing now. At 74, Brookmeyer has pared away the thorny dissonances of his middle-period style. His music is simpler, more linear, unequivocally tonal–and full of joy. It’s the sort of development one sometimes runs across in the work of major artists as they grow older and strip their art down to the barest of essentials. That’s what happened to Matisse and Bartók in their old age, and it’s what’s happening to Brookmeyer now.
I’ll have to put my thoughts in better order tomorrow morning in order to write about the Brookmeyer band for my “Second City” column in this Sunday’s Washington Post. I hope that what I write will profit from a good night’s sleep and a bit of reflection. But I also wanted to post a few lines tonight, while I’m still bubbling over with the excitement that comes from having heard the kind of performance that reminds us critics of why we do what we do. And no matter how well my column turns out, it won’t be any more to the point than the one-line note scribbled on a cocktail napkin that a musician friend passed to me midway through the first set: “Colors are flooding down the walls.” That’s just what it sounded like.