Ever since Bill Evans's classic 1961 recordings the phrase "Sunday at the Village Vanguard" has had a mythic ring. Tourists go to the Vanguard on Friday and Saturday. The real people, the die-hards, go to the Vanguard on Sunday. The music isn't something the die-hards do on a night out, it's part of their weekly routines—as essential to good living (if not as mundane) as a home-cooked dinner or laundry. You do routine things—even beautiful routine things—on Sunday.
Sunday is also the night at the Vanguard on which you're most likely to hear a great show. Jazz bands get tighter and bolder the more they play together, and a week-long stint at the Vanguard is often a process of gradual improvement. A promising piano trio with solid ideas on Tuesday becomes a potent and intuitive music machine by Sunday. To crib from poker, on Tuesday, the musicians play the tunes; on Sunday, they play each other.
I've rarely visited the Vanguard twice in one week, but every time I have, I've been rewarded. Guillermo Klein y Los Guachos' first show on Sunday was the latest confirmation that ten sets (and, in this case, a recording session) do a lot to hone a sound. I loved Los Guachos' performances on Tuesday, but the band sounded tentative on some of Guillermo's new material ("Artesano" felt even more off-kilter than intended). On Sunday night, Los Guachos strutted with an ecstatic shuffle. They owned the material, and their confidence allowed them greater freedom and creativity.
On "Juana," a song the band has been playing for 15 years, tenorman Bill McHenry showed that he knew the music well enough to play directly against its current. Instead of mimicking the song's jaunty clave-heavy groove, McHenry sang out a tectonic procession of long, heavy notes. Usually a soloist flys fast over the top of the music; McHenry allowed the rest of the band to rush under him—a great ship at anchor resting atop the waves. McHenry has been playing a version of that solo on "Juana" for years (you can hear it on Los Guachos II), but his version on Sunday was a more extreme rendition, and it was all the more expressive and moving for it.
Los Guachos' interpretation of the first movement of Alberto Ginastera's "Piano Sonata No.1" also showed the benefits of a week's hard work. What had been moving but inconsistent on Tuesday landed with a wallop on Sunday. Ginastera's daughter Georgina and her companion, the Argentine poet Albino Gómez, sat in the audience. After the set, Guillermo admitted that he'd been nervous in the presence of such porteño cultural royalty. If Guillermo really had the jitters, they didn't hamper his playing. It was the strongest version of Ginastera the band had played all week, Guillermo told me, even more assured than what they'd recorded the previous day for their album.
It's that remark, that the band's best came not during an exhaustive recording session but on a lonely Sunday night in a basement club, that reveals why these visits to the Vanguard can feel so magical: there's the possibility that you'll witness the music in its most perfect form. If you're so lucky—as I think we were on Sunday—it'll exist for just a moment in the ears of you and about 100 other people. Then it'll fade, and the band will start playing—imperfectly, beautifully—once again.