Summertime Jazz: Still Alive and Swingin' in Los Angeles

Chuck Koton By

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When the news hit that the Jazz Bakery's last shows (at least at its Culver City location) would take place at the end of May, I feared that a bleak summer lay ahead for Angeleno jazz lovers. Even the reassurances and optimism of the Bakery's long-time director, Ruth Price, about reopening at a new site, did little to assuage my fears that the Southland had lost one of the world's great jazz venues forever. Yet, now that the summer is officially over, it is fair to say that the Los Angeles metropolitan area jazz scene has survived, due in no small part to the tireless efforts of several local jazz supporters, several of whom happen to be women.

In June, JoAnn Ottaviano, who has kept her late husband Charlie's dream alive by presenting great jazz nearly every night of the year, brought the Azar Lawrence to Charlie O's in the San Fernando Valley. Lawrence, who was joined by frequent collaborators Theo Saunders on piano, John Heard on bass and Fritz Wise on drums, opened the first set with "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes." From the first note, Lawrence's tenor magic hypnotized the audience. His volcanic, relentless, burnin' sax transported all those in listening range away from the mundane and, too often, ugly world, to a place where beauty and light reign supreme. On "Afro-Blue," Lawrence, on soprano sax, lifted the audience to a zone of truly rarified air, as he explored the higher register of his instrument. His impassioned, transcendant solo brought screams and cheers from the dazzled audience as he calmly strode off the stage, letting the rhythm section take over. Theo Saunders passionately rocked the ivories, pouring forth streams of notes and thunderous chords. Then it was John Heard's turn to caress and cajole throbbing sounds from the depths of his bass. With a look, Heard signaled Wise to take over. The veteran, focused laser-like on his drum kit, proceeded to put on a rhythmic display of power and finesse that would have unquestionably brought a smile to Elvin Jones' face.

Lawrence, who had just returned from New York where he performed with his East Coast band and recorded a new CD, is clearly not content with his already jaw-dropping skills on the horns. He confided to me that he's gone back to fundamentals, practicing chromatics and technique six hours a day. Lawrence's confidence and power on stage testify loudly and clearly to the wages of hard work.

Another of L.A.'s dedicated female jazz promoters, the Energizer Bunny herself, Merle Kreibich, has been promoting swingin' jazz for several years at L.A. hotels and clubs through her In-House Productions. On July 31st she brought renowned bassist, Henry "the Skipper" Franklin and his quartet to the Airport Radisson Hotel's recently refurbished Culver Room, a friendly, comfortable "hang" for jazz lovers and local musicians who often stop by to dig the vibe. Performing along with Franklin were regular band mates, the incomparable Azar Lawrence on tenor and soprano sax, fiery pianist Theo Saunders and the versatile, Latin jazz drummer Ramon Banda, all of whom also appeared together on Franklin's most recent CDs, O What a Beautiful Morning(SP Productions, 2008) and the just released Home Cookin' (SP Productions, 2009).

The Skipper and his mates opened by transforming the quaint title tune of the former CD into a vehicle for smoldering, John Coltrane-esque intensity. Lawrence, loquacious on soprano, and Saunders, prodigious on piano, spun explosive solos, while Franklin and Banda laid down aggressive rhythms, driving the band to a frenzy, before finally closing out with the joyous, uplifting melody, penned decades ago by Oscar Hammerstein. They closed the first set with an original composition by pianist Saunders entitled "McCoy," a tune that precisely captures the propulsive power and spirit of the legendary Mr. McCoy Tyner.

Later, the irrepressible and inimitable jazz and blues diva, Barbara Morrison, who also appears as a guest vocalist on Home Cookin', took the stage singing an exuberant version of "I Love Being Here With You." Ms. Morrison also regaled the audience with stories about the men in her life that had the band, and the audience, roaring with laughter. On "Shiny Stockings" she even played air trombone while Lawrence blew a bluesy tenor solo.

On this night, at least, Southland jazz lovers, as well as travelers with time between flights, had a convenient and hip club to relax and catch some great jazz playin' cats.


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