Nestled in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City, since 1935, the Village Vanguard club stands as a monument to the art of live jazz performance.
When Blue Note released Sonny Rollins’ live performances from the Village Vanguard in 1958, they didn’t just present one of the most creative jazz albums of all time, they also started a long-standing tradition of recording at the New York venue.
For aficionados of the genre, recordings from this most iconic of NYC jazz clubs present a timline of the evolution of the style right up to the modern day, with more than 50 artists choosing to commit their intimate sets to record there over more than half a century.
With the caveat (as always) of not including everything, here’s our pick of 10 of the most essential Live at the Village Vanguard albums in jazz…
10. A Night at the Vanguard – Kenny Burrell (1959)
Kenny Burrell’s 1959 performance at the Village Vanguard is a cornerstone of jazz guitar literature, showcasing his intricate technique and his ability to blend bebop with blues elements effortlessly.
This live album captures the electric atmosphere of one of jazz’s most iconic venues, offering a window back in time to arguably the most fertile year in jazz history.
Ably supported by Richard Davis on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, Burrell nonetheless steals the show, fizzing through up-tempo renditions of standards such as Broadway and Will You Still Be Mine and displaying his delicate handling of ballads such as I’m A Fool To Want You.
Key Track: Broadway
9. Live At The Village Vanguard – Mark Turner (2023)
The Village Vanguard’s illustrious history got another gem to add to its crown with this 2022 recording (released 2023) by modern saxophone great Mark Turner.
His inaugural live album as a bandleader stands as a testament to his slow-burn rise to prominence since the early ’90s with a highly individual style stemming from the Warne Marsh ‘school’ of jazz.
Recorded as part of the Giant Step’s initiative ‘Modern Masters and New Horizons‘, the album features the same ensemble – Jason Palmer, Joe Martin and Jonathan Pinson – that shined on their ECM studio album, Return from The Stars. At the Vanguard, they explore these compositions in greater depth in a live setting, truly capturing the nuances of their on-stage chemistry.
Tracks like “Wasteland” and “Terminus” showcase Turner’s unique approach to composition and the quartet’s tight interplay. “Nigeria 2” offers a propulsive backdrop for spirited solos, while “Brother Sister” features a stunning unaccompanied tenor solo from Turner.
The result is an exceptional addition to the iconic venue’s recording legacy.
Key Track: “Brother Sister”
8. Live at the Village Vanguard – Elvin Jones (1968)
Perhaps best-known as John Coltrane’s favourite drummer, Elvin Jones was also a formidable bandleader.
His 1968 recording “Live at the Village Vanguard” wasn’t released until six years later in 1974, but was highly worth the wait!
In a pulsating trio with George Coleman on tenor sax and Wilbur Little on bass, it stayed true (intentionally or not) to the original Rollins outing in its chord-less sax/bass/drums line up.
Drummer-led albums have been less common than their sax, trumpet and piano counterparts, so it’s a great opportunity to hear a set led by the percussive genius that is Elvin Jones…
Listen out too for the nice addition of the 31 second MC introduction welcoming the band to the stage and apologising for their lateness!
Key Track: “By George”
7. On This Day … Live at The Vanguard – Joe Lovano (2002)
Of course, the great Village Vanguard recordings aren’t restricted to the golden era of jazz, as this 2002 offering from contemporary saxophone legend Joe Lovano proves.
As jazz critic Joshua Weiner noted for All About Jazz, “while that record was a well-conceived and well-executed exploration of composer/arranger Tadd Dameron’s legacy, there was something a bit restrained about it… this live album is a decidedly looser, more exciting affair, delivering on the promise of the earlier record.”
The title track – a Lovano original – was simply titled “At The Vanguard” in a nod to the importance of the venue for New York musicians of that generation, as with those that came before and after.
Unlike some live albums, the audience is in full voice, roaring on the soloists which include altoist Steve Slagle, baritone player Scott Robinson and trombonist Larry Farrell.
Key Track: “Good Bait”
6. Live at the Village Vanguard: The Art of the Trio Volume Two – Brad Mehldau
There’s a long tradition of pianists recording “Art of the Trio” records and Brad Mahldau’s second addition to that canon was captured in 1998, Live at the Village Vanguard.
“The Art of the Trio Volume Two“ showcases Mehldau’s intricate melodic patterns and distinctive approach to the genre, alongside his now-classic lineup with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy drums.
Key Track: “The Way You Look Tonight”
5. Friday Night at the Village Vanguard – Art Pepper
If the success of a live album hinges on an artists’ seemingly unending flow of improvisational ideas, it’s apt that alto saxophonist Art Pepper makes this list.
His 1977 album “Friday Night at the Village Vanguard” is part of a series which capture his three nights at the club; the other two are titled (unsurprisingly) “Thursday Night at…” and “Saturday Night at…”
With the same line up of George Cables (piano), George Mraz (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) maintained throughout the run, all discs demand repeated listening, giving an up-close and intimate opportunity to hear his highly personal sound on the saxophone.
Friday gets the nod for this list, for its treasure trove of intense improvisations summed up by the 10 minute rendition of But Beautiful, of which he wrote:
“Billie Holiday sang this song so beautifully… I try to express the quality of the human voice when I’m playing a ballad.”
Key Track: “But Beautiful”
4. Chris Potter “Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard” (2004)
Two generations after the monumental recordings of Rollins and Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, saxophonist Chris Potter added his own masterstroke to the tenor lineage with his 2004 release “Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard.”
Known for his virtuosic technique and expansive harmonic vocabulary, Potter presents an album that pays homage to the jazz tradition while firmly rooting itself in the contemporary landscape of the music.
Surrounded by a formidable ensemble – Kevin Hays on piano and fender rhodes, Scott Colley on bass, and Bill Stewart on drums – Potter navigates through a labyrinth of styles, from post-bop intricacies to soulful ballads.
The quartet’s telepathic interplay shines throughout, but what makes this album truly distinct is its improvisational audacity. From the harmonic deconstruction in the opener “Lift” to the intricate rhythmic layering of “High Noon,” Potter and the ensemble are in a constant search for innovative ways to extend the jazz vocabulary.
The solo saxophone intro to finalé of Mingus’s Boogie Stop Shuffle is so epic that it gets its own track on the album; not to be missed!
Key Track: “Boogie Stop Shuffle”
3. Sunday at the Village Vanguard – Bill Evans (1961)
Forget ‘best Live at The Village Vanguard’ albums, this outing by pianist Bill Evans is one of the great live jazz recordings of all time.
Captured in 1961, “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” features his remarkable trio with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums.
The tragic passing of Scott LaFaro not even two weeks after this recording lends a haunting undertone to the music, in particular the poignant ballads. In fact, the album was apparently rushed out, with a focus on LeFaro’s best tracks, as a result.
Key Track: “Waltz for Debby”
2. Coltrane “Live” at the Village Vanguard (1962)
If Sonny Rollins kick-started the tradition of Vanguard albums, John Coltrane’s 1962 offering shot it into the stratosphere.
A landmark album not just in the world of ‘live albums’ but in avant-garde jazz history in general, it showcases Coltrane’s spiritual explorations alongside the classic line up of McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums, with an interesting passing-of-the-baton from Reggie Workman (the bassist’s final album with Coltrane) on some tracks, to Jimmy Garrison (the ‘new’ bassist) on other tracks.
Coltrane’s avant-garde ally Eric Dolphy also makes an appearance on bass clarinet for the performance of Spiritual.
Key Track: “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”
1. A Night at the Village Vanguard – Sonny Rollins (1958)
When it comes to the best saxophone players of all time, few can rival the status and longevity of Sonny Rollins. His 1958 release, “A Night at the Village Vanguard” remains an epitome of live jazz recordings and a pioneering example of the piano-less sax trio.
The album was captured across 3 sets – one in the afternoon and two in the evening – which stands testament to both the stamina and endlessly flowing ideas of the great man.
It also showcases Rollins’ interaction with different musicians, with the afternoon set featuring Donald Bailey (bass) and Pete LaRoca (drums) whilst the evening sets were with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones, respectively.
For my money, this is one of the greatest jazz albums of all time when it comes to reinventing standards through prodigious creative improvisation.
Key Track: “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”
Round Up: 65 Years of Village Vanguard Albums
These Village Vanguard live recordings not only serve as a masterclass in jazz but also capture the ineffable atmosphere of one of New York’s most iconic venues.
Add to that the fact they span several decades and even a relatively small collection of these albums allows us to trace the various styles of jazz that emerged, all in front of an intimate (and very lucky!) live audience.