The Folly Theater and the Village Vanguard are venerable venues renowned for their excellent acoustics. The similarities between the two performances spaces end there. The high-ceilinged Folly Theater in downtown Kansas City seats more than 1,000. The Village Vanguard, the world's most revered jazz club, is located in a cramped New York City basement. Its capacity is a mere 123.
The 16 members of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra had plenty of elbow room during their splendid performance Saturday at the Folly Theater.
"This is a great venue," trombonist and director John Mosca said. "It's a perfect site for us."
The theater at 12th and Central may be exceptionally accommodating, but Mosca's band rose to prominence in New York. Initially named the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, the aggregation began a weekly Monday residency at the Village Vanguard in 1966. Aside from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the ghost bands bearing the names of bandleaders of the past like Glenn Miller, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is the most famous big band working today. During its performance Saturday at the Folly Theater, the collective also made a case for being the best big band of our time.
One indication of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra's sterling reputation was reflected by the composition of the attendees. A few dozen of Kansas City's most prominent jazz musicians were among the audience of about 500. One locally based artist noted that only a band as respected as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra could compel so many musicians to forsake their work on a Saturday night. While casual jazz fans may not recognize most of the names in the orchestra's current lineup, musicians know that the bandstand was loaded with elite players.
Every solo taken in the two-hour performance impressed and the section work was impeccable, yet saxophonist Billy Drewes stood out. A relatively unheralded player, Drewes' fearless solo outings managed to summon a startlingly full spectrum of jazz that included the pioneering Sidney Bechet and the explorations of John Coltrane. Among the more conventional soloists, the passionate work of trumpeter Greg Gisbert was the clear audience favorite.
The material associated with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is no less important than its members. Six of the 10 selections performed Saturday were written or arranged for the ensemble by Kansas City native Bob Brookmeyer. While noting that Brookmeyer died in 2011, Mosca suggested that he was "one of Kansas City's greatest exports." Brookmeyer's work scarcely acknowledges the form's original function as a dance music, but his innovative arrangements inspire hearts to race and imaginations to soar. The inverted blues of his arrangement of "Willow Weep for Me" and the brassy fusillades launched during the third movement of "Suite for Three" served as fitting tributes to the late jazz legend.
While Brookmeyer is gone, his hometown provided the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra a welcome reception. When its members squeeze onto the small bandstand of the Village Vanguard on Monday, they'll have reason to fondly recall the spaciousness of the Folly Theater and Saturday's appreciative audience.