Bright Moments: So Cal Jazz Highlights, 2011
Los Angeles, CA
September 23, 2011
Since 1937, UCLA Live has brought the world's greatest performing artists to the Royce Hall stage. That first season's program included such musical luminaries as Duke Ellington, George Gershwin and Marion Anderson, among others. This past September, UCLA Live presented another giant, a tenor titan, in fact, by the name of Sonny Rollins, to a nearly sold out and very enthusiastic audience.
Sonny Rollins and Sammy Figueroa
Rollins came out roarin' hard on an up tempo blues. He stalked the stage as he improvised, stopping in front of band mates, guitarist Peter Bernstein, long- time bassist Bob Cranshaw and percussionist Sammy Figueroa, seemingly interrogating and challenging them like some kind of a white haired, swingin' Jazz Inquisitor. Fortunately, they were all up to the task.
On Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful," Rollins displayed the infinite musical imagination that allows him to play the simplest melody and then transform it into a natural vehicle for his, and the audience's, improvisatory pleasure. Bernstein soloed with his characteristically elegant and impeccable swing, at times recalling the sound of UCLA's resident jazz guitar legend and director of the Jazz Studies program, Kenny Burrell.
No Rollins performance would be complete without a taste of Caribbean flavors in acknowledgement of his familial West Indian roots. Rollins kicked off the calypso, his tenor bobbing and weaving with infectious rhythms. Then conguero Figueroa and drummer Kobie Watkins took the spot light with an extended rhythmic duet.
At 81, Rollins, the recent Kennedy Award-winner, may move more gingerly around the stage, but his quest to create is undiminished. Reveling in his forever youthful spirit, Rollins mesmerized and delighted the audience for ninety minutes, a living testament to the power of music.
Long Beach, CA
October 14, 2011
The commanding figure of sax master Azar Lawrence brought a packed house full of jazz lovers from all over Southern California to the Seabird Lounge in downtown Long Beach to be captivated by his exalted sounds. And from the very first note, everyone knew they were in for a mystic journeythe title of Lawrence's successful 2010 recording on Furthermore Records.
On McCoy Tyner's "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit," (which he often performed as a member of the pianist's band), Lawrence, his tenor held high, blew unrelenting chorus after chorus of blues. Pianist Theo Saunders reached deep for a taste of his inner Tyner, matching Lawrence with rich, soul-stirring chords. Then the rhythm section took off on an extended sonic flight. Saunders, along with master bassist Henry Franklin and dynamic, young drummer Tony Austin got into a visceral, hypnotic and sweat-inducing groove to Mother Africa.
On the Heyman-Green standard, "Body and Soul," Lawrence mingled his lush sax sound with the elegant tones of trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos. Taking the first solo, Lawrence authoritatively stated the familiar melody before roaming insistently through the lower depths of his tenor. Next, Castellanos patiently built his solo, beginning with muted blue tones then leaping to a bright crimson climax. The Mexican-born Castellanos, who grew up in a musical family (his father led the Gil Castellanos y Su Copacabana) , heard Freddie Hubbard recordings at an early age and fell in love with jazz. Today, this Berklee and Cal Arts-educated trumpet phenom is an increasingly visible presence on the music scene, whether playing straight-ahead or Latin jazz with his own New Latin Jazz Quintet.
The band closed the set with a languid iteration of "Say It Over and Over," the Jimmy McHugh composition memorably performed by John Coltrane on his Ballads (Impulse!, 1963). Lawrence's romantic nature took over, as his tenor's warm notesalong with Saunders' sensitively stroked ivoriesvisibly moved the listeners to spontaneous "oohs and ahhs."
Lawrence recently recorded a highly praised gig at the Jazz Standard with his New York band, which features trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Benito Gonzalez, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts and bassist Essiet Essiet. He expects to release the live CD sometime in the summer of 2012.
Los Angeles, CA
November 12, 2011