The pandemic has hit jazz hard, as it has every other art form. But jazz is used to surviving hard times, because that’s all it ever knows. Jazz lives an especially precarious existence because it falls between two stools, being neither a “high art” deserving a proper place at the funding table, nor popular enough to survive in the marketplace. Ironically, given its roots, its existence is especially hand-to-mouth in America. In Europe a trickle of funding descends down to jazz; in the US it’s barely even that.
As a result, there’s a thriving culture of self-help in America that kicked into action the moment the lockdown was announced. An online jazz festival to raise funds for out-of-work jazz musicians was organised as early as April, and many of the hundreds of small music venues around the country have organised on-line events to keep themselves in the public eye and raise funds.
Among them is the Village Vanguard, the legendary jazz club on New York’s Seventh Avenue which is celebrating its 85th year in business. It started life as a platform for left-wing poets and folk-singers before becoming a jazz club, and something of that ruggedly counter-cultural energy clings to it still. On Sunday night, the great saxophonist Joe Lovano gave the latest in its series of weekly streamed concerts, in the company of his Trio Fascination.
Lovano is an amiable, slow-talking, bear-like man of Sicilian origin who first came to prominence in the Seventies, and his pre-filmed chat in praise of the venue’s special qualities used phrases of that era such as “You dig?”. It’s hard not to dig Lovano in full flow, because he is so very persuasive. He cut his teeth in the Woody Hermann band, where he learned to swing hard, but is perfectly at home in a more free-jazz ambience. One of the pleasures of this 75-minute gig was the easy way he passed from one end of this spectrum to the other, often in mid-breath.
Alongside the stylistic virtuosity was an engaging expressive flexibility. In pieces such as A Unified World and the Dawn of Time, Lovano moved towards a rhapsodic, visionary style, untethered to a pulse, with long phrases that faded away as they drifted higher, like a vapour trail. Elsewhere, he proved he’s a composer of considerable wit, as in the engaging number which began with obstreperous speed in the “wrong” key before settling into a louche swing beat – only to be pulled back again to the fast tempo, so by the end we still weren’t sure which was the piece’s “real” tempo.
With Lovano on stage were bassist Ben Street and drummer Andrew Cyrille, who were absolutely in tune with Lovano’s blend of mystical rhapsodising, surprise and lazy swing. But it couldn’t be said this was a vintage Lovano trio evening. All the ingredients were there but they were a tad undercooked, the flights of lyrical fantasy relaxed rather than ecstatic. You could feel the players were missing the live audience, and by the end I was too.
The next streamed concert from the Village Vanguard takes place on July 10, at villagevanguard.com