Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"But Principal Skinner, it was the reed" (Vando Jam)

Can one digress before one even begins? I guess I won't know until I try (incidentally, relaxed writing standards are one of the nice things about being a jazz musician as opposed to a lawyer). Anyway, I hope people are familiar with the Simpsons episode entitled "Lisa's Pony." Basically, Homer screws up with Lisa and in order to win back her love he needs to buy her a pony...and hilarity ensues. This is required watching for saxophonists because of how Homer screws up. He is supposed to get Lisa new reeds as she has a performance in the school talent show that night. Instead he takes a detour at Moe's Tavern and Lisa is forced to play on a bad reed. The result is painful, and she is humiliatingly stopped by Principal Skinner, prompting this immortal exchange:

Principal Skinner (clapping sarcastically): Let's hear it for Lisa Simpson and her wacky saxophone.

Lisa (softly and tearfully): But, Principal Skinner, it was the reed...

Principal Skinner: Sure Lisa, it was...the reed.

So, if you have ever played the sax then you know how critical having a good reed is, and if you haven't, well, it's hard to imagine how something so tiny can make such a huge difference. And they are pricey and notoriously fickle-- a box of ten frequently only yields three or four playable reeds, plus they have tragically short life spans...

Which finally brings me to the subject of this post, the Vando Jam, which I attended this past Monday night (July 13). "Vando" stands for Vandoren, which is one of the largest reed companies in the world (they also make a lot of other woodwind products). They sponsor a jam session that takes place on the second Monday of every month, from 8pm until midnight. It's a bit of an oddity by New York jam session standards in that (1) it's really early (most sessions start after midnight); (2) it's not that well-attended due to limited advertising and the monthly schedule, and; (3) it's in a really swanky location, the Iguana on West 54th Street. Honestly, most jazz clubs are dives, and this place is in the shadow of the Ed Sullivan Theater (of Letterman renown) with trendy martinis and a good-looking crowd...of course, they hold the jam in an upstairs room so there's not much mingling with the crowd :-)

So you're left with a session made up almost entirely of musicians, primarily horn players. The result is a very "educated" audience and a bunch of very talented guest artists. The session is led by Mark Gross, an amazing alto player, which makes sense because if you're going to lead a bunch of saxophonists and represent Vandoren, you'd better be pretty good! Gross is that and more-- he has impeccable time and technique as well as a powerful and commanding tone that grabs you right away. I thought that I could hear some of the influence of Kenny Garrett and Steve Coleman, as well as Coltrane, in Gross's, but he definitely has his own sound and approach.

Gross' band was great too. He had Benito Gonzalez on piano, and Chris Brown on drums (as Gross said, the "real" Chris Brown). Not only is Brown a fantastic drummer, but after the session opened up and another drummer replaced him, he reappeared a few minutes later holding an alto sax-- which he played at a very high level as well :-)

While the tunes were pretty common jam session offerings (On Green Dolphin Street, Billie's Bounce, The Days of Wine and Roses, Softly As In A Morning Sunrise), the overall musicianship extremely high and the players exhibited a wide range of styles. I got a big kick out of a soprano player who had an almost-eerie command of John Coltrane's "sheets of sound" work from the early 1960s (a little like Frank Tiberi). But it was a real pleasure to "sit in" (another jam session term) at an amicable session where everyone knew what to listen for and picked up on so many of the nuances that flow through jazz solos. An audience of one's peers, so to speak. I played on "The Days of Wine and Roses" and had a lot of fun sharing and harmonizing the melody line with Mark and a few of the other players...

So keep an eye on the calendar. On the next second Monday of the month, ask yourself if you can think of another place to hear great players for free in a comparatively-luxurious setting-- and still be able to get up for work the next day. If you can't, come check out the Vando...

***I would also like to point out that I have used Vandoren reeds for the past 18 years, so if there are any Vandoren reps out there, I too would be more than happy to accept a corporate sponsorship. My availability for corporate sponsorships is by no means limited to saxophone accessories. I alternate between exercising in Nike and Adidas shoes. I enjoy trail mix from Planters (although the generic is pretty good too, but I'll switch if that's part of the contract), I often drink a cup of Starbucks coffee before I begin a practice session, and I am currently typing on a Toshiba laptop. And I firmly believe in the efficacy of Glide floss for all wind instrument players...anyone? :-)


  1. Another gem from that episode:

    Marge: We can't afford to buy a pony.
    Homer: Marge, with today's gasoline prices, we can't afford not to buy a pony.

    Sadly unrelated to jazz, but still a great Simpsons moment.

  2. That entire episode should be classified as a national monument or something. Seriously, does it getter better than the scene where Homer goes to get a loan from Mr. Burns?

    Homer: Mr. Burns, you do this personally?
    Mr. Burns: Oh, it's a hobby. I'm not in this for any personal gain, heavens no! By the way, are you acquainted with our state's stringent usury laws?
    Homer: Us-ury?
    Mr. Burns: Oh, silly me! I must have just made up a word that doesn't exist.

  3. Way to rock a Simpsons quote in a jazz blog!

  4. I truly believe that there is an appropriate Simpson's quote for each and every life event :-)