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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!

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