Not the Starland Vocal Band of Free Jazz

The words “Village Vanguard” on the cover of a jazz album automatically bid up record sales—so sez Bruce Lundvall, who oughta know since he was the president of Blue Note for a quarter century. How much that has to do with branding and how much with the peculiar acoustics of the West Village slice-of-‘za-shaped jazz palace (it's configuration and sound a consequence of early 20th century NYC subway construction) is irreconcilable today. From Monk’s formative days onward, almost every downtown jazz artist has an epiphany that involves the small 7th Avenue stage, every jazz fan has at least one apple-and-Isaac-Newton awakening while listening to records with the VV imprimatur. Sometimes these moments are as subtle as the charms of the modal piano trio interplay of Bill Evans’ legendary late-night chill out Sunday At The Village Vanguard (from July 1961).

And then there are those that skronk. Skronk not being a thing pre-Consumer Guide, John Coltrane’s October ‘61 Village Vanguard sets (available variously as the original Live at the Village Vanguard, the slightly expanded Live at the Village Vanguard- The Master Takes, and the 4-CD Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings) were instead notoriously referred to by downbeat tastemongers as “anti-jazz”. But with Bob Thiele producing the live sessions, Rudy Van Gelder recording, and a band including Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner (with Eric Dolphy sitting in), anti-anything is impossible. The thematic roots within each song (and Coltrane definitely brought the songs) provide an overlookable compositional structure out of which the band created wave after synesthetic wave of passionate, atavistic, often dark but nevertheless deeply communal boundary-defining jam.

Boundaries that were meant for exploring, and after the relative retrenchment that produced the epochal mind-fuck A Love Supreme, Coltrane would eventually go beyond the ecstasies of the Village Vanguard sessions starting with 1965’s Ascension and continuing with mixed success until his poorly timed death. Albert Ayler by way of contrast crossed over Coltrane’s Village Vanguard like a Soviet rocket without a landing plan. To my ears, Ayler sounds better during his ESP era (1964-65) and sounds best in moderation. By late ‘66/early ’67, when he recorded his own Village Vanguard sessions, Ayler had removed any remaining rhythmic or structural tethers to the real world and existed sometimes solely in a soundscape of timbre and freneticism. Live In Greenwich Village counts as a jagged touchstone in the history of atonal jazz, but at this late date that’s about all. I’m struck that in spite of switching to alto sax and having two (!) bassists on stage, the recordings still sound tinny, in stark contrast to Coltrane’s resonant VV sessions.  As influential as this raging shriek sound could be for the likes of Peter Brotzmann and James Osterberg, today Live In Greenwich Village (and much of what Ayler did in the late ‘60s) seems mostly like something that needed to be done so it could be moved around, like a car wreck towed over to the side of the highway.

Fast forward to 2014, and avant-guitarist Marc Ribot heads back to the East Village to get his own skronk on. It’s a well-deserved trip: Ribot has sessioned his way across the musical planet, starting with Tom Waits’ remake/remodel Rain Dogs and never missing a sideman's beat, while also skipping off on extended forays playing fake Cuban dance music (los Cubanos Postizos) and “rock” (Ceramic Dog). Ribot has already self-declared an affinity for the free jazz edge, recording an album of Ayler covers (called, what else, Spiritual Unity). But whereas his straight Ayler tribute is an electrified freakout (albeit a deferentially semilistenable one), Marc Ribot Live at the Village Vanguard (Pi Recordings) bows down at the altar of horrible noise. The fisted salutes to Coltrane and Ayler are explicit—two covers each among the six songs here. Coltrane’s “Dearly Beloved” in its original incarnation was the kind of sea-cresting nirvana dart that Pharoah Sanders would appropriate for his twin epics “The Creator Has a Master Plan” and “Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt”, but on MRLAAVV the psychedelic roller coaster is turned into a quarter hour of stomach-churning Sonny Sharrock rib punches.

Lest this sound perilously like he's the Starland Vocal Band of free jazz— just a de trop reconstruction— Ribot and his confreres Chad Taylor on traps and former Ayler bandmate Henry Grimes on bass cough up a rockabilly version of Ayler’s “The Wizard” (from the original Spiritual Unity), a lilting “Old Man River” that is both deep and wide, and a revisit of Ayler’s “Bells’ that crosses “The Ocean” with Neil Young noodling between songs at a Crazy Horse show (that’s a compliment). And they keep on keeping on, with the hoary jazz chestnut “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)”, originally a Fats Waller whine de lune, and yet another serial jism all over one last late Coltrane meltdown, “Sun Ship”.

Somewhere in all this is not so much a concept as it is a lesson about what it means for a song or even a moment, an interlude, to be a standard in the jazz canon. And MRLAAVV is even more about the reverent art of deconstruction, a lecture for which the Village Vanguard serves as a symbolic classroom. But put that aside if you wish and luxuriate in a form of jazz that’s more about pulse than swing, more about epiphany than ensemble, and certainly more about practice than theory. Because Ribot wants to ride you off into the clouds and sometimes he wants to blow your head off, Machine Gun-style. Baby wants it fast, baby wants a blast, she wants a rocket ride. And sometimes in this horrible no good very bad world that’s what we need.