L.A. Jazz Scene 2008: Alive and Swingin'
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.