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So Cal Jazz 2013: Highlights and a Serious Low

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Azar Lawrence Quartet
RG Club
Venice, CA
January-September 2013

2013, already slipping deep into the fog of forgetfulness, had its share of memorable jazz moments here in Southern California. And while, according to the Western, as well as the Chinese calender ( Happy Year of the Horse!), this review and these expressions of gratitude (as well as a few well deserved outbursts of contempt), may be tardy, for the Persian followers of All About Jazz, Happy Nowruz, y'all!

Heart felt thanks go to the steaming sax locomotive, Azar Lawrence
Azar Lawrence
Azar Lawrence
b.1952
saxophone
, his killer rhythm section (Theo Saunders/piano, Henry Franklin/bass and drum legend Alphonse Mouzon
Alphonse Mouzon
Alphonse Mouzon
b.1948
drums
), Lawrence's numerous guests and virgin club owner, Brad Neal, all of whose efforts kept me off the streets and out of trouble weekend nights from January through September. The band's unprecedented ten month residency at the new RG Club in Venice, which began in November 2012, offered Angelenos a truly rare opportunity to witness four individual musicians transform into an elusive musical species, "jazzicus hippis," a finely tuned sonic beast that breathes as one, while each member still expresses his own personal, musical identity. Once the club's "kinks," like issues with sound, lighting and advertising, were ironed out, the RG Club was the place to be. Every night these cats took the stand, they burned as bright hot as William Blake's "tyger." And though the RG Club has been shuttered for a while for renovations, owner Neal has reassured us that Lawrence's band will return soon. Yeah!

Hancock, Shorter & Miller
Disney Hall
Los Angeles, CA
April 23, 2013

The single most sublime jazz evening of the year transpired at Disney Hall in April with a Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
tribute organized by bass virtuoso, composer, tireless producer and UNESCO cultural ambassador, Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller
b.1959
bass, electric
. Miller, whose prodigious efforts helped resurrect Davis from a self-imposed hiatus from the jazz scene in the 70s, was reminded a couple of years ago that 20 years had passed since Miles ascended to jazz heaven. That was all the motivation Miller needed to convince Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
and Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
to join him in "arranging," musically and logistically, an appropriate homage to their fearless leader. The band toured Europe two summers ago before finally performing in LA last spring. And, as Miles was renowned for his refusal to stagnate and recycle his past creations, they performed inventive music that would make Davis smile.

For over two hours, the three jazz masters wove a dream-like, seamless web of Davis' music. Their performance, which also included Sean Jones
Sean Jones
Sean Jones
b.1978
trumpet
on trumpet and Vinnie Colaiuta
Vinnie Colaiuta
Vinnie Colaiuta
b.1956
drums
on drums, organically linked all of Miles' disparate styles, from 50s bop and cool sounds, to the modal revolution of Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and then the second great quintet of the 60s, to the electric fusion of In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew(Columbia, 1969), and finally culminating with the dramatic sound palette of Tutu (Warner Bros., 1986). The band's effortless invention and sensitivity took the listeners' breath away.

On "Walkin,'" Miller and Colaiuta played a funk beat while Shorter, on tenor, and trumpeter Jones played the melody straight as a razor. A brilliant interlude of ensemble playing was followed by Hancock and Jones trading licks and then, in the blink of an eye, the band slid into a deconstructed "Milestones," at once languid but with an underlyng rhythmic tension.

Oh yeah, no doubt Miles was diggin' it!

Throughout the glorious evening, the cats slipped back and forth in time, musically and chronologically. They played an indescribably delicious "Someday My Prince Will Come," featuring Shorter blowin' a furious tenor solo and then magically, Shorter, soprano in hand, waited as Miller, now playing acoustic bass (does anyone remember him on upright bass?), plucked the mysterious and instantly recognizable bass line from Shorter's iconic composition, "Footprints." Hancock came in slowly, as he often did when playing this tune with Miles in the 60s, before taking off on an inimitable solo. The band cooked on a rhythmically roiling take on "In A Silent Way." Then, with Miller on bass clarinet, trading licks with the bright sound of Jones' trumpet, the cats morphed into "Bitches Brew."

After nearly two hours, the band actually returned for an encore. Of course, as is typical at Disney Hall where many attend solely because they've purchased series tickets (thanks for supporting the music "in your own sweet way"), dozens of foolish people departed and missed a foot stompin' iteration of "Jean Pierre." Thanks to Hancock's frenzied synthesizer (strap on keyboard) exchange with funk master Miller, the real jazz lovers went home boppin' to the funky beat!

As they first pondered this welcome tribute to the legendary Davis, Miller and his illustrious partners Shorter and Hancock knew they had to somehow capture Davis' restless creative spirit. As Miller noted, they reimagined the music in a way that they felt Davis would have approved. On this night, they played a sound track of Miles' dreams: no rules and no walls, just a sonic stream of consciousness spanning four decades of jazz history.

Kenny Burrell
John Anson Ford Amphitheater
Los Angeles, CA
Aug. 18, 2013

In August, jazz lovers filled the idyllic confines of the John Anson Ford Amphitheater for an evening of jazz driven by a well deserved, dual purpose: to honor a legend of jazz guitar and education, Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
b.1931
guitar
, as well as to raise desperately needed funds for the World Stage, the invaluable jazz and spoken word performance space birthed nearly twenty five years ago by LA's own irreplaceable and unforgettable drummer, Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
1936 - 2001
drums
, and equally treasured poet, Kamau Daaood.

By the time the music began, the sun had receded behind the Hollywood Hills, and the Bowl's occupants were floating in an ethereal balm of mild air and swingin' sound. Burrell and his LA Jazz Orchestra Unlimited kicked off the musical festivities with his original composition, "Four Dimensions," a hot and swingin' tune that featured his own richly elegant guitar sound and veteran Charlie Owens' passionate rumblings on baritone sax.

Burrell's long time associate on the band stand, and in UCLA's Jazz Studies department, trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, composed "Adelante," which means straight ahead in espanol, in honor of Burrell, the dean, literally and figuratively, of straight ahead jazz guitar. Rodriguez blew a bright, hot solo that lit up all the faces in the Bowl. Of course, no performance by Burrell is complete without a stop over in the land of Ellingtonia, and, on this occasion, that meant an enchanting, unaccompanied guitar solo on "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me."

Living proof of the value of Burrell's leading role in jazz education then took the stage in the person of vocalist Gretchen Parlato
Gretchen Parlato
Gretchen Parlato

vocalist
, a graduate of the UCLA jazz program and a true "rising star" in the jazz world. Parlato joined Burrell for a duet on "Solitude," her voice a gossamer whisper so intimate it sounded as if she were at home, alone and reading from her diary.

As darkness descended over Hollywood, Lee Ritenour
Lee Ritenour
Lee Ritenour
b.1952
guitar
joined John Beasley
John Beasley
John Beasley

piano
's Monkestra for a spirited take on "Epistrophy." Ritenour's unmistakably fluid, swinging guitar and the multi-talented Beasley's piano drove each other to Monkian heights.

The evening's highlight, however, came when vocalist Dwight Trible, possessor of a singularly personal singing style, joined the Monkestra for a tear- inducing rendition of "Strange Fruit." Trible, who so deserves greater recognition, reached deep down into his soul and shouted out the pain from this country's collective memory. His preternaturally modulated and emotional vocalizing brought to life the nightmarish horrors from Amerika's not so distant past.

Preach on, Reverend Dwight!

If any member of the jazz community deserved a tribute, it is certainly Kenny Burrell. In a career that has spanned seven decades, Professor Burrell has played with just about everyone, from Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
and Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, to John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
and Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
. As a leader, he has recorded over one hundred albums. Remarkably, Burrell's contributions as a jazz educator rival his work as a performer. Nearly forty years ago, he began teaching a course on Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
at UCLA. In 1996, Burrell became the director of UCLA's Jazz Studies program. Under his guidance, it has become one of the most prestigious jazz programs in the world. Thank you, Kenny Burrell!

And one final thought regarding the fund-raising aspect of that day's musical adventure. The contempt alluded to above is reserved for the most venal perpetrators of yet another crime against humanity, specifically, the financial interests behind the developing, but hopefully, still avoidable destruction of the heart of LA's African-American cultural community, Leimert Park, and its hub, the World Stage.

The jazz and spoken word venue, established nearly twenty five years ago by the late, legendary drummer Billy Higgins and the prolific poet and community activist, Kamau Daood, had struggled mightily to convince the "powers that be" in Los Angeles that the light rail project currently being built should extend a "line" to the cultural oasis of Leimert Park. What better way to encourage economic development in an African American neighborhood crying out for relief from poverty. Of course, what chance could they possibly have in a world where only money "talks."

Well, lo and behold, miracle of miracles, the "Man" said yes, and the people rejoiced!

And yet, that was not the end of the story. Because in the United States, in 2013, no victory for the people, no matter how small, can survive the greed of the 1%ers. And every cloud contains not a silver lining but a torrential downpour.

Slowly but surely, mysterious and troubling signs began to appear. Leimert Park's small businesses began to have their leases terminated. Real estate began to change hands, but the identity of these acquisitive "land sharks" was shrouded in secrecy. In anticipation of the economic boost expected to result from the completion of the Crenshaw light rail line, greedy and cowardly realtors have been buying up the neighborhood. "Going out of business" signs have already appeared on many store front.

At present, the World Stage continues fundraising and community outreach as it seeks to continue its mission of "Seeking light through sound." For anyone who would like to support the World Stage, plan to visit or just want to learn more about this unique community landmark, check out their web site: http://theworldstage.org/

Angel City Jazz Festival
John Anson Ford Amphitheater
Los Angeles, CA
Oct 6, 2013

Much gratitude also goes out to stalwart jazz lovers, Rocco Somazzi and Jeff Gauthier
Jeff Gauthier
Jeff Gauthier
b.1954
violin
, who labor in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles to present the kind of jazz that is rarely heard here in Los Angeles. This year, the 6th annual Angel City Jazz Festival culminated in an all day affair in October at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater. Prior to the musical proceedings, the first episode of a four part jazz documentary, "Icons Among Us: A Quiet Revolution," was screened. This segment presented a varied and, at times, provocative discussion about the nature of jazz. One particularly outspoken contemporary voice is that of trumpeterNicholas Payton
Nicholas Payton
Nicholas Payton
b.1973
trumpet
, who has attacked the very name "jazz," insisting that the music he plays be labeled Black American Music, BAM. Peyton's resentment stems from the historical origin of the word "jazz," which has been traced to its use, at the turn of the century, as a vulgar substitute for te word "sex" in Storyville, the "red light" district of New Orleans. Mr. Peyton has unequivocably demonstrated his own intimate knowledge of the music and its glorious history, and if he feels insulted by the label, so be it, BAM it is!

Fellow NOLA native, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison
Donald Harrison
Donald Harrison
b.1960
sax, alto
, speaks eloquently about the music and asks, quite appropriately, "If you don't know the tradition, how can you move forward?" Harrison's words were directed at those musical new comers who, in their drive to be relevant to today's youthful listeners, may ignore the vital musical foundation built by masters of the "language," jazz icons like Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
, Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Miles Davis and John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
. The failure to first hone these musical tools is akin to painters who may try to break with artistic tradition by spilling paint on a canvas while blindfolded and standing on their heads, without ever learning how to draw a simple human figure.

Yet the worst was still to come. And come it did, in the words of the angry young man (actually, no longer so young), keyboardist Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper
b.1978
piano
, who, at the last minute, cancelled his performance at Angel City. Glasper, through interviews like the one in this film, has come to epitomize the arrogance of those musicians who, ostensibly, are striving to escape the musical chains of the past by playing 21st century music. Yet Glasper crosses over from creative freedom to rude displays of his own insecurities when, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times (3/22/12), he bleats "Look in any jazz magazine, 90% of it is old people." In another observation, he notes," Jazz, nothing ever happens. It's literally like being in an old-folks home on bingo night." Moreover, in this film, he truly trespasses into the world of farce when he states his goal of hoping to be "badder than Trane and I think it's possible." Even a brief exposure to his music will reveal that he is light years from approaching Coltrane, although these days, adding hip hop drum beats and turn table scratching into otherwise forgettable music may be enough to be voted into the Down Beat Hall of Fame!

The American dream apparently lives on in Glasper's quest, as hopeless in its way as was Jay Gatsby's. And one day, Glasper will also be "borne back ceaselessly into the past," where he just may find himself in a jazz club, playing "Cherokee" to a crowd of gray beards.

Meanwhile, out in the bright light and 90 degree heat of the Ford Amphitheater, the crew was putting the finishing touches to the stage. Happily, by the time the Richard Sears Group began to play, a refreshingly cool breeze caressed the tragically too few listeners in attendance on this otherwise perfect October evening. The sextet, which included five nattily attired young cats in suits playing alto sax, bass clarinet, trumpet, bass and Sears on piano, was propelled by the youthful septuagenarian, Albert "Tootie" Heath
Albert
Albert "Tootie" Heath
b.1935
drums
, on drums. In spite of the impressive musical chops displayed by the youth, the smiling elder statesman, Heath, attracted the most attention. He impishly prodded the band, at times swingin' the beat, at other times funkin' it up, much to the delight of the audience and his band mates. Heath's jovial mood, no doubt, has been enhanced by the critical acclaim garnered by his recording, Tootie's Tempo( Sunnyside, 2013) in which he is joined by pianist Ethan Iverson
Ethan Iverson
Ethan Iverson
b.1973
piano
and bassist Ben Street
Ben Street
Ben Street

bass
.

Other highlight's of the evening included a set by Kneebody, which changed the pace with some raucous ensemble playing before the talented "rising star," Ben Wendel
Ben Wendel
Ben Wendel

saxophone
, took off on an unaccompanied tenor sax solo. On the original tune, "Sleeveless," from their recording, The Line (Concord, 2013), the band kicked off on a relaxed groove from drummer Nate Wood and keyboardist, Adam Benjamin.

Yosvany Terry
Yosvany Terry
Yosvany Terry

saxophone
, who brought his contemporary take on latin jazz to Angel City, blew seriously hot and spicy alto sax licks over roiling Cuban rhythms. Terry punctuated the tune, "Harlem Matinee," with a brilliant solo on shekere, which he learned to play from his father, a leading Cuban percussionist. Osmany Paredes on piano and Michael Rodriguez on trumpet augmented this tune's mysterious Hancock/Shorter vibe. These cats were as tight as a ride on the Lexington Ave line as it rumbles past 116th St in Spanish Harlem, during rush hour!

Closing out the evening was altoist Greg Osby
Greg Osby
Greg Osby
b.1960
saxophone
, who opened with a rhythm section of young Monk Institute cats. With a nod to this year's theme, the band traveled back to the year 1926 when one of the founding spirits of jazz, Duke Ellington, composed the tune "East St.Louis Toodle-oo," an appropriate choice as Osby hails from the river city. Osby's peformance was a lesson on how to connect to the jazz tradition while remaining contemporary. Maintaing his edgy, angular sound, Osby could still swing like a motherfucker! He even managed to slip in a Bird lick. Sadly, this was a lesson likely lost on those most in need of it. Finally, Osby was joined by his guest, clarinetist extraordinaire, Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen

sax, tenor
, with whom he swung gracefully through a set that included "Mack the Knife" and "Nature Boy," among other standards.

In spite of the noble and Herculean efforts of Somazzi and Gauthier, who continue to present challenging music almost never heard by ears in the Los Angeles area, people here still just don't seem to get it!

Randy Weston/Billy Harper
Nate Holden Center For Performing Arts
Los Angeles, CA
Nov 22, 2013

Of course, no look back on a year of jazz in LA would be complete without mention of the invaluable and irreplaceable, Ruth Price
Ruth Price
Ruth Price
b.1938
, whose efforts to keep jazz alive here in LA must have the support of Athena, the gray-eyed goddess herself. Price has performed miracles in garnering political, financial and artistic contributions in support of the Jazz Bakery's resurrection. In her "spare" time, she has continued to present the finest jazz musicians in the world in performance at several local venues under the banner, Movable Feasts. http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php? id=45389#.UzNenyh68lJ

In November, the esteemed duo of pianist Randy Weston
Randy Weston
Randy Weston
b.1926
piano
and tenor saxophonist, Billy Harper
Billy Harper
Billy Harper
b.1943
saxophone
, performed a transcendent evening of jazz at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. Weston, a youthful eighty eight years young, not only tickled the ivories in his inimitable style, but also embraced the role of griot, (an African oral historian) as he enlightened the audience on the roots of the music in Mother Africa. He pointed out that "Nature is the original instrument, the original orchestra. Mother Nature improvises and plays the polyrythms which inspired man to emulate her diverse sounds."

Establishing the roots of jazz in the blues, Weston opened the evening by invoking the roaring Victoria Falls with a powerfully rhythmic, repetitive groove on his original composition, "The Healers." Once he had established the hypnotic mood, Weston was joined by the illustrious Texas tenor, Billy Harper, whose deep and spiritual sound belies his origins in the earthy Lone Star state. Harper lingered in the horn's lower register as he blew a solemn invocation to the ancestors.

On Weston's classic, "High Flyin," the two jazz masters, like two birds chatting, engaged in a playful interchange. At times gentle and at other times rambunctious, their sonic banter exuded a love and friendship that transcended language and, except for a couple of idiots shooting flash photos with their damn cell phones, captivated the otherwise attentive audience. They closed out the evening with Weston's "Berkshire Blues," hitting the audience in the solar plexus like a blues drenched night on Chicago's South Side in 1953.

Yes, 2013 had plenty of great jazz to satisfy even the most discerning of musical palates. Let's hope that 2014 not only surpasses this past year's offerings but also brings a "happy ending" to the World Stage saga. Meanwhile, those interested in supporting the World Stage, get on down there for the live music or go to their web site and make a donation. http://theworldstage.org/

And in the words of the immortal poet, Willie the Shakes, "If music be the food of love, play on!"

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