Kirk Lightsey Returns to the Village Vanguard After 25 Years
“Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve been in this place,” the pianist Kirk Lightsey said after taking the stage at the Village Vanguard on Tuesday night. Surveying the room, he chortled, wearing a look of beatific astonishment. He introduced the members of his quartet, and then restated the obvious: “I’m so happy to be back in town; I’m just giddy.”
Jazz has long held special provisions for its prodigal sons, and in a certain light Mr. Lightsey, 77, seems to fit that bill. Born and raised in Detroit, he made his mark in New York during the early 1980s, fast becoming a prominent sideman and an estimable solo artist. Then in 1992 he moved to Paris, effectively vanishing from the American scene.
With a few exceptions — notably a three-night stand at the Jazz Standard in 2006 — he hadn’t been back since. He last played the Village Vanguard more than 25 years ago, with the saxophonist David (Fathead) Newman. So although Mr. Lightsey has had a respectable career in Europe, this week’s run suggested a comeback, a bit like the one made by Dexter Gordon, another of his former employers, in the mid-’70s.
Whatever you want to call it, the opening set on Tuesday was a genial depth charge, a distillation of what Mr. Lightsey’s New York fans have been missing. He’d enlisted several distinguished old colleagues — the guitarist Ed Cherry, the bassist Rufus Reid, the drummer Victor Lewis — and he led them with a light touch, putting well-placed trust in their cohesion. For a first set, it felt sturdy and assured, driven by a sense of play.
Mr. Lightsey has a dry, clear touch and an elegant way with chord voicings, which go hand in hand with his deep respect for melody. His recent repertory has included a handful of staples, including most of the tunes in this set. During “In Your Own Sweet Way,” the Dave Brubeck standard, he played a solo girded with block chords, quoting Wayne Shorter’s “One by One” as the lead-in to a drum break. He likewise modified “Pee Wee,” a shadowy waltz by Tony Williams, linking it to his own composition, “Heaven Dance.”
Noting that Tuesday would have been John Coltrane’s birthday, Mr. Lightsey also included “Equinox,” one of Coltrane’s key themes. Mr. Reid stamped its droning bass ostinato with a weighty authority, laying into an open string, while Mr. Lewis played a sly rhythmic game of tension and release. Mr. Lightsey soloed credibly on flute, but it was Mr. Cherry who lifted the tune, with a modern derivation of Wes Montgomery’s style.
The closer was “One Finger Snap,” by Herbie Hancock, and if Mr. Lightsey didn’t quite nail the tricky angularities of its melody, he didn’t let that slow him down. The quartet, swinging mightily, powered straight through the tune. And its leader was once again all smiles, as if there were no place else he’d rather be.
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