I think everyone into jazz remembers their first trip to the Village Vanguard. Mine came in the spring of 1979. Exams were over and since I had an extra week before I had to clear out of the dorms, I was taking some time to check out NYC. When I saw in the Village Voice that McCoy Tyner was playing the Vanguard, off I went with my neighbor Dave in tow. A #1 train, a #2 train and five minutes later we were being seated underneath a photo of Bill Evans, about fifteen feet from the piano. I still remember our jaws dropping a few minutes later when Tyner walked by our table to take his seat at the piano bench.
I suspect that the sense of awe is even greater for musicians. It was palpable from Rudy Royston Tuesday night as he embarked on his first set as a leader at the revered venue. He nearly choked up when it came time to make remarks about the set list and introduce the band.
Royston is a superb drummer who has been heard often in the company of bands led by guitarist Bill Frisell, trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist JD Allen. Here he was leading his band, 303, named for the Denver area code as Royston grew up in the mile high city and lived there until about eight years ago when demand for his skills in the jazz capital became too great to stay away.
303 is an unusual septet in that it features two bassists, Mimi Jones and Yasushi Nakamura as well as guitarist Nir Felder, pianist Sam Harris, trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis and ace saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Since it’s yet another drummer led band that doesn’t play simple straightforward tap your feet hard bop, I wondered how the crowd which seemed a little heavier on the tourist quotient would respond. I needn’t have been concerned; early in the set one couple got up, but instead of leaving, they moved to a spot where they could see Royston more clearly. Aside from that, the audience sat rapt for the 75 minute set.
303 opened the show with “Invocation,” a brooding piece where gentle thunder Royston’s tom toms was joined by dueling and infectious bass lines and topped with a pithy solo from Irabagon. The second tune was a slow blues, and it felt as if each soloist was describing the sun rising over a meadow. In the third, Irabagon, Harris and the leader brilliantly shared solo space, finishing each other’s phrases and pushing the tune and the excitement in the room higher. After a tune that was about as close as this band gets to that stone cold tap your feet burner as this band gets, it closed with “Gangs of New York,” a piece that builds on a riff from the soundtrack to the movie.
Afterward, I saw Lorraine Gordon, the owner, beaming from her usual spot near the door. If he draws as well as he did for Tuesday’s first set, leading a band at the Vanguard could become a habit for Royston.