On a weekly, and often daily, basis, I have conversations with friends, email exchanges, or Facebook interactions about the decline and inevitable death of the New York new jazz scene. Many of the concerns people raise are very real: fewer opportunities to play live (and fewer that pay well), eroding audience numbers, venues closing, gentrification and rising rents, the lack of a geographical center for the community, etc. And while all of these trends have caused great instability for artists working in New York, I am sometimes amazed when the audacity of a particular performance makes me forget, at least for one evening, the great challenges looming on the horizon.
On Independence Day, I had just such an experience watching VAX play live (and outdoors) in Red Hook. These three performers–Patrick Breiner (tenor saxophone), Liz Kosack (keyboards, mask), and Devin Gray (drums, voice)–played their hearts out in a shanty on Van Dyke Street in front of a crowd of eager listeners. Their music takes place in a series of hyper-moments brought alive by improvisation and an intense emotional connectivity. The three players seemed relaxed enough to deal with the unexpected while maintaining a focus that achieved a tight closeness in their driving sound.
Breiner, Kosack, and Gray played one continuous set for a little less than an hour. The unusually cool weather did nothing to dampen the fiery surges that the three emitted, one after another. There is also a measure of theatrics in how the three play and how they interact with each other. All three musicians use their bodies to add to the impact of their sound, sometimes even just to fill the audience with expectation via a gesture or posture, before pulling the listener over the edge into their chasm of sound. This is music that rears up like a torrent and washes over you in succeeding waves.
There is nothing careful about how this band plays. In fact, they seem to have thrown caution to the wind as they embark on their daring artistic journeys. There is no facade, no pretension, here, just the fierce drive to break through into the deep interior of music that somehow unites us all. VAX is inspiring. So I am now reinvigorated to return to those conversations about the death of art, for I am reminded that music that ignites our inner fire like this is as vital as air, sustaining as bread, and as beautiful as water.