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.

On Aug. 1st, Ms. Kreibich brought Louis Van Taylor's quartet to Bar Melody, another venue near LAX in Westchester, Calif. Taylor, a master of all the reed instruments, as well as the flute, may not be a familiar name on the jazz scene but his vibrant, impassioned and often funky sound has, nevertheless, been heard by many lobes around the world. Taylor has played and recorded with the Gerald Wilson for over 20 years, the Ray Charles band for over 15 years, as well as with performers as varied as The Temptations, Kool and the Gang and Mariah Carey. Nice resume.

Tonight, however, Taylor was fronting his own band which included Jacques Lesure on guitar, Mikal Majeed on organ and Paul Kreibach on drums. Taylor had feet tappin' and fingers snappin' throughout the packed lounge when his funky tenor blew the Eddie Harris classic, "Cold Duck Time." He gave an impassioned interpretation on flute to Freddie Hubbard's jazz classic, "Little Sunflower." On the Duke Ellington tune "In a Sentimental Mood," Taylor displayed a rich, warm tenor sound that had couples around the club moving just a little bit closer to each other. Ah, "If music be the food of love, play on."

Taylor's amiable stage presence, masterful musicianship and choice of instrumentation, the classic blues and funk form of sax, guitar and organ pioneered so lustily by the Blue Note recordings of Stanley Turrentine, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Smith, worked to perfection, percolating a good time, party atmosphere for all. Not bad for a Tuesday night in the flight path to LAX.

One of the hippest and most valuable contributors to Southland jazz for decades, Ms. Mimi Melnick is owed a deep debt of gratitude for her efforts in keeping jazz alive. She has opened her home in the hills above the San Fernando Valley several times a year to present intimate jazz salons, where guests imbibe tasty snacks and all manner of beverages, while nourishing their souls on epicurean, musical sustenance.

On Aug. 23rd, bassist Roberto Miranda and his quartet, composed of multi-reed master, Charles Owens, keyboardist and recording engineer, Wayne Peet, drummer extraordinaire, Sonship Theus, and augmented on this occasion, by the spoken word of Steven Blake, performed at Mimi's Place.

Recently inspired to devote himself solely to making "sacred music," defined as marrying the African-American jazz tradition with the Biblical word, Miranda has enthusiastically embraced this new direction, preaching the word through music.

The performance opened with an unaccompanied drum solo by Theus, invoking the spirits and joining those gathered together in harmony. The bass drum thump, thumped; the cymbals shimmered and crashed; the bowed bass groaned; the tenor saxophone blew deeply; and, appropriately for this Sunday "service," the organ wailed. Finally, Blake read from the Bible and intoned, "Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!"

Then the band started to swing.

On "The Creator's Musicians," the Rev. Miranda reminded the congregation that the ancient Israelites used musicians to induce the people into a proper meditative state in order to receive the Word. After a song of praise spoken by Blake, the band took flight again, swingin' the people into a celebratory mood.

And thanks to the efforts of progressive jazz promoter, Rocco Somazzi, of Rocco's as well as Café Metropol, on Labor Day, the second annual Angel City Jazz Festival was held at the John Anson Ford Theatre. The audience was treated to seven hours of performances by "creative musicians dedicated to stretching the boundaries of modern jazz." The amphitheatre, nestled in the sylvan setting of the Hollywood Hills, though, at first, worrisomely bereft of patrons, gradually filled with aficionados of alternative music, (jazz doesn't really begin to describe the sonic explorations that transpired on stage).

Opening the second day's program was Alex Cline's Band of the Moment. First, each musician gravely jiggled bells. Then, Cline tapped the gong; John Fumo blew a muted horn; Jeff Gauthier caressed the violin, and the band slipped into a laid back groove reminiscent of Miles Davis' "In a Silent Way." Next, a seamless, yet sudden shift to an edgy, up tempo pace, as Cline propelled the band with insistent beats. The band's set also included trumpet passages suggesting Humpback whale conversations, a funky interlude highlighted by Leubig's throbbing bass, and a jagged, free form break of clanging and screeching instruments that satisfied the more primal urges within the human heart.

The Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet may have pushed the limit of the "jazz" festival label even further, particularly in its instrumentation. With Horvitz on piano, joined by Ron Miles (trumpet), Peggy Lee (cello), and Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon), the ensemble alternately produced haunting, screeching, reflective, cacophonous and joyous sounds that encompassed the entire spectrum of human emotion.

As day turned to night, a cool breeze and warm applause greeted the Nels Cline Singers and Jeff Parker, who responded with heated sonic distortions of their own. These guys scratched, scraped, slapped and pounded their instruments for maximum effect, all the while looking like delirious teenagers given free reign in their high school's woodworking and metal shop.

And while jazz traditionalists (there probably weren't many in attendance), may have cringed during these raucous excursions, the band's interpretation of Ornette Coleman's "Congeniality" was a festival highlight. Their initial statement of the melody triggered immediate cries of recognition and appreciation from the hip audience. Leader, guitarist and twin brother of Alex Cline, Nels, his exertions manic in intensity, blurred the line between his roles as creative musician and mad scientist. Devin Hoff, a depraved look on his face, did things to his bass that I'd forbid a child to witness. Drummer Scott Amendola, jaw clamped down tightly on his sticks, resembled a psychiatric patient undergoing electroshock therapy. Meanwhile, Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker, heeding fellow Chicago legend Oscar Brown Jr.'s advice to " keep cool," brought balance and sanity to the proceedings, as he sat back and calmly let loose his own blues inflected improvisations.

Bennie Maupin and Dolphyana, a band formed as a tribute to the late, great L.A. native, Eric Dolphy, closed out the festival. Dolphy, whose premature death was one of the jazz world's great tragedies, had entrusted several of his final compositions with a friend before departing on a European tour that he would not survive. Years later, these compositions were turned over to flutist, James Newton, who then passed this material on to Mr. Maupin, knowing that the reed master had been inspired by Dolphy to take on the bass clarinet. Their set included some of this never before heard material, as well as original works by Maupin. Darek Oles opened with a pensive bass line on Dolphy's "Something Sweet, Something Tender." The sonorous tone of Maupin's bass clarinet mingled seductively with the light, airy sound of Nestor Torres' flute. On Dolphy's "Out to Lunch," drum master, Billy Hart, launched into a riveting solo. Unlike too many younger drummers who overwhelm a solo with speed and power, Hart demonstrated the value of nuance, changing tempo and intensity with a veteran's ease. The evening's musical program concluded with a Maupin original, "Message to Prez," from his recent CD, Penumbra (Cryptogramophone Records, 2006). Maupin's hypnotic bass clarinet, so memorable on the Miles Davis classic, Bitches Brew (Columbia Records, 1969>, seemed supernaturally empowered to reach out to Mr. Lester Young in the far beyond.

As the lights came on and the band packed away their instruments, the evening's emcee, LeRoy Downs, KKJZ DJ and virtual host on his Jazzcat Website, thanked the crowd for its enthusiastic and warm embrace of the festival's challenging musical program called out Somazzi for a well deserved hand for organizing this rare and desperately needed affair. And on that note, let's hope that Southern California will always have enough brave, hip and dedicated souls to keep jazz alive.

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