So Cal Jazz 2013: Highlights and a Serious Low

Chuck Koton By

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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, his killer rhythm section (Theo Saunders/piano, Henry Franklin/bass and drum legend Alphonse Mouzon), 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 tribute organized by bass virtuoso, composer, tireless producer and UNESCO cultural ambassador, Marcus Miller. 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 and Wayne Shorter 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 on trumpet and Vinnie Colaiuta 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, 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, 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, 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 joined John Beasley'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 and Dizzy Gillespie, to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. 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 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
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