L.A. Jazz Scene 2008: Alive and Swingin'
“ Today, Azar Lawrence burns like a bright, hot flame at the altar of his muse. Given the ever-present fire danger in the Southland, a fire truck should remain on call when Lawrence blows. ”
The Los Angeles scene has often been referred to in patronizing terms by jazz lovers, musicians and writers. It has been said that the city's laid-back vibe deprives musicians of the energy that a New York audience can impart to the bandstand. Others complain that the growth of a hip jazz scene has been impeded by the region's decentralized nature. A jazz fan can burn up valuable fuel driving between Long Beach, the San Fernando Valley and all points in between to catch a show. In spite of these complaints, and there are others, the Los Angeles metropolitan area has, in fact, had an illustrious and significant jazz history.
As chronicled by Steven Isoardi, among others, jazz arrived in L.A. as early as 1908, when a Dixieland band led by Bill Johnson began an extended engagement at a local Central Ave. club. Jelly Roll Morton spent many of the early post-WWI years in the city and, by the 1940s, Central Ave. nightclubs like the Club Alabam were featuring the greatest East Coast be-boppers, Billie Holiday, as well as great local talent like Buddy Collette, Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon. The late great Teddy Edwards is considered by many to have played the first recorded bebop tenor sax solo in "Up in Dodo's Room."
While the once vibrant jazz scene has had its ups and downs over the years, there is plenty of great jazz still being played here, at several hip venues where jazz junkies can count on getting their "fix." The reviews that follow are just a few personal highlights from 2008.
Professor Burrell Holds Class
Catalina's Bar and Grill
January 10-14, 2008
For the last couple of years, winter in Los Angeles has been characterized by severe drought conditions, which should not be surprising as the city is situated in a desert. And like the flora and fauna in this often parched land, jazz aficionados here in Southern California often must endure extended dry periods, thirsting for world-class be bop, hard bop and post bop, as many of the top musicians (for some reason), choose to stay in New York, tour Europe or play in San Francisco, rather than perform here in Los Angeles. Fortunately, this past winter, intermittent restorative rains finally fell, dampening the dry, dusty land and nourishing ravenous roots from San Diego to Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley. A deluge of great music filled the azure skies as well, and the local jazz scene flourished like the Garden of Eden these past few months.
Ushering in 2008 was the indefatigable, L.A.-based Kenny Burrell, literally and figuratively "Dean" of the jazz guitar, who brought his quintet to Catalina's, the Southland's premier jazz nightclub, from January 10-14. On this occasion, Burrell was joined by Tom Ranier on piano, Roberto Miranda on bass, Clayton Cameron on drums, recent college graduate, Tivon Pendicott, on tenor sax, clarinet and flute, and Mayuto Correa on percussion.
During the first set, Burrell introduced "Tenderly" with gentle caresses of his guitar. Professor Burrell then took the class (I mean the audience) to the land of Ellingtonia. Jazz lovers in the room sat mesmerized, absorbing every mellifluous sound his fingers made, as the master and the band played the classic, "Mood Indigo." Young Tivon Pendicott, playing reeds in place of the late, great Herman Riley, blew a bluesy clarinet solo that lingered languorously in the horn's lower register and then drifted throughout the club, intoxicating customers along the way. Surely, Herman was smiling up in jazz heaven. The tune ended with an intimate duet between Burrell and his long-time bassist and colleague in UCLA's Jazz Studies Department, Roberto Miranda. Miranda, an L.A.-based musician of prodigious talents deserving of greater recognition, passionately explored the entire range of the bass, and displayed a musical and spiritual connection with Burrell that only comes from years of rehearsing and performing together.
Highlights of the second set included the band's interpretation of Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa, " in which Correa's percussive madness on conga, bongos and assorted shakers and bells injected a little Latin spice into the rhythmic stew. KB then dedicated the next tune to Herman Riley, playing Riley's composition, "3/4 for the House." As the midnight blue hour approached, Clayton Cameron drove the band on this gut- bucket blues with a relentlessly pounding bass drum, shimmering cymbals, and shuffling brushes, before this multi-toned sound palette eventually gave way to a thunderous climax.
On this night, as on every other night that Kenny Burrell and his band perform, the blues flowed freely, and the musicians tapped into the heart of the human soul. Once the primitive, bony armor of racial, ethnic and national hatred and suspicion is torn away, the universality of human emotions guarantees every Burrell audience will be rhythmically tapping its feet, snapping its fingers and nodding its collective head to the beat. In addition to performing, Burrell, as head of the UCLA Jazz Studies Dept, teaches a class on Duke Ellington. On this evening, class was still in session in Hollywood.
Underrated But Never Unwelcome
Hollywood Ramada Inn
March 15, 2008
On Saturday, March 15, alto sax great Arthur Blythe brought a quintet consisting of Gust Tillis on marimba, Greg Erba on guitar, Essiet Essiet on bass and Sylvia Cuenca on drums, to an unlikely venue, the Hollywood Ramada Inn. While the performance space lacked glamour and grandeur, the intensity and creativity of the band's music would temporarily metamorphose the room into Carnegie Hall.
Blythe came out roaring with a spirited interpretation of "One Mint Julep," his Monk-like crazy notes and rich, bluesy tone instantly activating the audience. Blythe, Tillis and Erba then alternated swingin' solos, before Essiet, accompanied by Ms. Cuenca's deft use of brushes, displayed his New York honed chops, rhythmically slapping and plucking the bass like it was a mischievous child.
On his original composition "As of Yet," Blythe took the audience on a roller-coaster ride with many unexpected turns. His horn created a mood of tension and suspense, like a chase scene in a film noir. Blythe's tone, alternately plaintive and insistent, pushed and pulled at the audience's emotions, while Tillis' frenzied runs across the marimba recreated the sounds of feet pounding pavement. The band closed the set with Blythe's classic "Lenox Avenue Breakdown," swinging hard and bringing the ecstatic jazz lovers to their feet in applause.
Blythe has always experimented with unorthodox instrumentations. His collaborations with tuba player Robert Stewart, one of the more remarkable of the many different combinations he has led over the last 40 years, reflect Blythe's commitment to follow his imagination wherever it may lead. This evening Blythe's choice of instruments brought an especially visceral percussiveness to the music. Those jazz lovers hip enough to attend were treated to a very intimate, and in these days of mega-spectacle, very rare experience with Blythe, a musician whose truly original sound and approach to music has, unfortunately, not led to nearly enough recordings or live gigs in recent years. We can only hope that someday a change will come and great artists like Arthur Blythe will gain the recognition and support they merit.
Texas Tenor Returns to Culver City
Culver City, California
March 12-15, 2008
Winter's mild rains departed L.A. and spring arrived, with the Santa Ana winds blowin' hot in the person of Billy Harper. The veteran tenor man, a welcome visitor who hadn't played in L.A. in nearly 17 years (about the same period of time between cicada sightings), warmed up the audience with an unusual extended question and answer session. As the questions kept coming, Harper admitted he was in no hurry to play and would gladly continue chatting with us. (To be honest, I couldn't tell if he was putting us on.) Mercifully, people kept their hands down and Professor Harper launched into a more visceral jazz lesson.
The first set of Harper's 4-day engagement opened with bursts of sound from pianist Francesca Tanksley and drummer Aaron Scott. Then bass, trumpet, in the person of Dr. Eddie Henderson, and finally, Harper, joined in on an up tempo hard bop journey called "Illumination." Veteran Henderson took a blistering solo that singed audience ears with hot blasts from his horn. Tanksley attacked the piano with a Tyneresque touch and Scott drove the band with roaring rhythms.
During Friday's second set, the band played "Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart" from Harper's near-classic Black Saint recording (1975). Tanksley played a gentle, meditative piano solo, slowly building the tension. The release came when the rest of the band joined her in a sonic explosion. Harper's big tenor sound, influenced by Texas tenors like Arnett Cobb and James Clay, also revealed a depth of sincerity and spirituality reminiscent of John Coltrane as he probed his inner being. Henderson, with muted horn, played a minimalist, smoky blues, reminding the audience that much can be said with few notes.
Later in the set, Harper and company performed "Africa Revisited," a song dedicated to Coltrane. Bassist Louis Spears joined the band in creating that heavy, rhythmic pulse from Coltrane's memorable Africa/Brass Sessions (1961). Henderson's bright, bluesy trumpet revealed an inner ease and confidence honed by years of practice and performance. No need for rapid-fire trumpet pyrotechnics, feeling and nuanced personal expression constitute his mature style. Then Harper's tenor, alternating between cries of hunger and sighs of peace, expressed a full range of human emotion, while the band rejoined him to take the tune out.
Harper's long overdue gig at the Jazz Bakery provided Angelenos a rare chance to hear a great but woefully under-recorded artist in his prime. Equally rare was Henderson's appearance in Los Angeles. Harper and Henderson, both great musicians, both deserving of greater recording and performing opportunities.
Practice Pays Off
Van Nuys, California
July 18, 2008
Azar Lawrence, the saxophone master who has returned to the jazz scene after a too long hiatus, strode into Charlie O's, tenor sax in hand, nearly 15 minutes late. When I asked him if he'd been stuck in traffic, Lawrence replied, "I was practicing and lost track of time." He then proceeded to demonstrate to the intimate club's enthralled listeners that practice, indeed, pays off.
Lawrence opened the evening with an unrestrained intensity and power that threatened to ignite the parched San Fernando Valley hills. On John Coltrane's "Impressions," Lawrence, joined by Theo Saunders (piano), Onaje Murray (vibes), Jeff Littleton (bass) and the ageless drum master, Roy McCurdy, took off on a flight of Trane-inspired, heat-generating improvisation.
On "Afro-Blue," Lawrence picked up his soprano, and, if it was possible, raised the level of intensity. Rocking back and forth, chorus after chorus of notes came flooding forth from Lawrence's horn. Theo Saunders, equally possessed by Coltrane's spirit, pounded the ivories like a jackhammer, as he matched Lawrence note for note. Murray soloed next, moving back and forth over the vibraphone, like a frenzied dervish. McCurdy drove the band relentlessly, like an engineer feeding coal into a train's burning belly, while Littleton laid down the bass foundation.
Finally, Lawrence slowed the pace, playing "Say It Over and Over," another song famously recorded by John Coltrane. Lawrence's tenor blew romantic tones, revealing the wide range of his musical sensibility. And the audience sighed collectively, overwhelmed by the music's lush warmth.
Azar Lawrence exploded onto the jazz scene at a tender and all too vulnerable age. By the time he turned 21, he was touring and recording with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Miles Davis. Unfortunately, his meteoric rise to the top of the jazz pyramid proved too dizzying, and Lawrence veered away from his true musical path in life. Happily, the Spirit has redeemed him. In the last two years, Lawrence has been making up for lost time. He's recorded two of his own CDs, has been sitting in with old friends like McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders, and leading his own bands in the Southland from Long Beach to Van Nuys, and back East in New York and Washington,D.C.
Today, Azar Lawrence burns like a bright, hot flame at the altar of his muse. Given the ever-present fire danger in the Southland, a fire truck should remain on call when Lawrence blows.
L.A.'s Good Fortune
Culver City, California
November 12-15, 2008
November couldn't have gotten off to a better start. First, in the wake of Barack Obama's historic victory, the venal Republicans have crawled off to hide under a rock. Then, the summer heat belatedly but mercifully relaxed its stranglehold on the Southland. And finally, two long years since his last appearance here, the incendiary Sonny Fortune opened a 4 night gig at Culver City's jewel of a non-profit music venue, the Jazz Bakery.
Fortune, although admittedly exhausted from travel and lack of sleep, hit the bandstand running. This dynamic, master, multi-instrumentalist (these days he's tripling up on alto and soprano sax, as well as concert flute) is too much of a professional to give less than 100%. Ably assisted by a well-rested, local rhythm section of Theo Saunders (piano), Henry "the Skipper" Franklin (bass), and the ageless, redoubtable Roy McCurdy (drums), Fortune treated the sparse but enthusiastic opening night audience to his volcanic, post-bop musical offerings.
The saxophonist opened his show with Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." Played up-tempo, torrents of notes flooded the room from his soprano. Cascading soulful beauty in their wake, Theo Saunders' fingers raced across the piano keys.
On the standard, Bronislaw Kaper's "Invitation," Fortune's flute play delivered an emotional explosion that stunned the listeners into rapt silence. Franklin, who has released two swinging CDs in the last year and a half, effortlessly summoned forth full, rich tones from the bass.
The second set offered those Angelenos "fortune-ate" enough to be in the audience a real treat. Who happened to be in the audience, horn in hand, but Azar Lawrence, a former band mate of Fortune from the 1970s, when both men were playing with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Miles Davis. Although three decades had passed since they'd seen each other, Lawrence came up on stage and joined the band in a burning interpretation of "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise." Fortune, Lawrence and McCurdy traded riffs, and the time melted away. A serious blowing session reminiscent of the good old days.
On Friday night, Fortune and the band turned up the heat. On John Coltrane's "Impressions," Fortune's alto nearly levitated the audience out of its seats. Roy McCurdy, locked and loaded, provided the muscle and precision on the drums needed to power this hi-octane music. After a frenzied 15 minutes, Fortune calmly set down his alto and played a beautiful, breathy interpretation of Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." Fortune then closed out his engagement with a torrid "You and the Night and the Music," the title track of his 2007 CD, which for months remained among the year's top-selling recordings.
Incredibly, more than forty years have passed since Fortune followed his mentor and fellow Philly neighbor, John Coltrane, to New York and onto the peak of the jazz world. After witnessing eight shows, it's clear to this reviewer that there's no slowing down Sonny Fortune.
Homage to Herbie
John Beasley Quartet
Culver City, California
December 4-6, 2008
John Beasley may not have been a familiar name in jazz households until recently, but after the release of his 2008 CD,Letter to Herbie, he will be on every jazz lover's radar. The Louisiana native, born in Shreveport, not New Orleans, has continued the musical tradition begun by his grandfather who, "back in the day," played Dixieland and toured in a "territory band" in the Southwest, eventually making it all the way to Santa Monica. His father, also a musician and music educator, was always bringing home great music like Jimmy Smith's Midnight Special, and young John just "caught the [jazz] bug." Beasley's father was also responsible for his exposure to Herbie Hancock. He brought home Maiden Voyage, and then Headhunters, and it was time for John to get a Fender Rhodes.
Fast forward a few years, and Beasley has since toured with a wide spectrum of the greatest artists, including: James Brown, Chick Corea, Queen Latifah and Miles Davis, among many others. Then one day, Beasley's manager suggested he do a recording of Hancock's compositions and music inspired by the piano legend. Beasley admitted he was a bit "afraid to do the record at first," but once he felt the magic happen, he embraced the project wholeheartedly. He was fooling around with the music one day and discovered a nice fit with "Maiden Voyage" and "Tell Me a Bedtime Story." After that, the recording came together.
For the gig at the Jazz Bakery, Beasley had Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums, Bennie Maupin (tenor sax, soprano sax, bass clarinet) and bassist Buster Williams. Although Maupin and Williams did not appear on the recording, this group had a chance to get acquainted during a recent week-long engagement at Ronnie Scott's club in London. Maupin and Williams, of course, were original members of Hancock's groundbreaking fusion bands of the early '70s, making their presence for this project especially poignant.
Bennie Maupin and Buster Williams
The band opened with Hancock's "4 A.M.," a driving, up-tempo composition that captured the restless energy of a late, late New York night. Watts took a propulsive solo that kept everyone's feet tapping out a frantic rhythm. After an astral mood shift generated by Beasley's explorations on the electric keyboard, Maupin stepped up to the microphone, blowing his tenor with a power and authority that resonated with decades of saxophone mastery.
Later, a pensive piano intro, eventually revealing itself as "Tell Me a Bedtime Story," melded seamlessly into the instantly recognizable opening notes of Hancock's "Maiden Voyage." It was easy to see how this creation gave Beasley the confidence to complete this recording. Maupin's soprano sax, the navigator on this ethereal journey, brought the same excitement that the Mwandishi band generated decades earlier.
On Maupin's "Message to Prez," the reed man mesmerized a nearly sold-out crowd (a remarkable achievement at a mid-week performance in L.A.) with the skill of a snake charmer. Watts joined in, his brushes creating a light, shimmering rhythm. Williams displayed dexterity and a rich tone, his fingers effortlessly sliding up and down the bass. And Beasley, without imitating Hancock, distilled the essence of the music and bottled it in his own personal style.
The John Beasley Quartet played a riveting night of music that left the audience hungry for more.
Class Back In Session
Kenny Burrell All-Stars
Culver City, California
December 31, 2008
On the last night of 2008, the Kenny Burrell All-Stars, featuring James Moody on tenor sax, Benny Green on piano, Trevor Ware (bass) and Clayton Cameron (drums), celebrated the New Year in a festive Jazz Bakery concert filled with blues, bebop and Ellington.
The band opened with the Charlie Parker classic, "Yardbird Suite," Burrell tearing through the first solo with the swing and grace that has characterized his guitar mastery for nearly 60 years. Next, the irrepressible James Moody stepped up to the mike. No stranger to bebop, Moody was playing in big bands and small groups led by Dizzy Gillespie back in 1947 and two years later recorded, in Sweden, his immortal solo on "I'm in the Mood for Love." On the Bird vehicle, Moody breathed life into a tune he must have played thousands of times. Piano virtuoso Green, a relative "youngster," played a feverish, swingin' solo that reassured jazz fans the music's immediate future, anyway, is in solid hands.
As midnight approached, Burrell urged on the audience with the words, "Can't Wait to Get Out of 2008." Amen! Injecting the New Year with appropriate sentiment, Moody sang (predictably) "Moody's Mood for Love." With words supplied to his original solo by Eddie Jefferson (after which it became a hit record for King Pleasure), it was definitely the evening's highlight. As if his impersonation of the female part (originally sung by Blossom Dearie) weren't enough, Moody segued into a "rap" and, in the process, demonstrated that he is truly young at heart.
Kenny Burrell then introduced Green, who played a particularly dramatic solo interpretation of Jule Styne's "Time After Time." Green painted with a broad palette of piano colors, ranging from meditative blues to hot, electric reds, as this Bud Powell-influenced piano prodigy, once every jazz critic's nominee as heir apparent to Oscar Peterson, explored very personal inner lands.
And just like every Burrell gig, the band took the exit for the land of Ellingtonia. Burrell vocalized a silky interpretation of "In a Mellow Tone," then improvised some lyrics to Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train." The crowd, which included one of the most passionate (and certainly the tallest) jazz fans around in Kareem Abdul Jabbar, joyously shouted and clapped its approval.
What a way to end the year! 2008 began with Burrell and ended with Burrell. That happy coincidence speaks volumes about the quality of music listeners on the West Coast can enjoy most weeks of the year. So the next time you hear someone bad rap the L.A. jazz scene, let 'em know that the cats are swingin' hard here in the Southland.
All Photo Credits