Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Polyphonic Espirit - The District

From the District - (12/2/09)

With all due respect to famed cricketsman Brian Lara, it can be safely said that the steel pan is Trinidad and Tobago’s most reverberant cultural contribution. Concave, refashioned, 55-gallon oil drums that were heard vibrating like underwater xylophones behind the calypso stars who emerged on US radio and television in the mid ’50s, steel pans have since been associated with coconuts, colorful shirts and thatched roofs. But those undulating tones were created for more than just cruise-ship tourists awaiting the arrival of their boat. The steel pan is one of the most underused and misunderstood instruments in popular music, conjuring sand-swept beaches the moment it is struck, regardless of era or repertoire.

Alongside the theremin and the synthesizer, the steel pan is credited as one of the few musical instruments invented during the 20th century. Due to its polyphonic abilities, it is not strictly a percussion instrument, reaching upward of 14 distinct pitches per drum. The steel drum’s first recorded appearance was among the carnival celebrations of its island homeland in the early 1910s before taking American audiences by storm with the calypso craze of the mid 1950s. The genre, led by the charismatic Harry Belafonte, rose to prominence with steel pans providing the blissful backings to countless calypso records currently wilting across thrift-store shelves everywhere. It took another 10 years before the instrument broke free of its Caribbean origins, poking its head out of the sand for a little chart placement and rock ‘n’ roll.

The Hollies, clean-cut Manchester boys with a deft pop pen, were up there with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles on the dreamboat scale, earning their fair share of screaming fans throughout the 1960s. Their 1967 hit, “Carrie-Anne,” was a mash of twee, pop and silliness that peaked at #3 on the UK charts. The song opens with the tight, unmistakable harmonies of Graham Nash, Allan Clarke and Tony Hicks, backed by a rackety guiro that clacks out the beat alongside a handful of other artifacts from the Caribbean cabinet. Their display of worldly experimentation culminates in a steel-pan solo that leaves many wondering why the instrument never caught on with the mods. (It would appear the sitar and harpsichord were taking up everyone’s time.) Midway through the song, the pannist flutters a baroque touch behind his own pulsing self-accompaniment, while the same strummed guitar chords repeat in the background. The solo, all 32 beats of it, is an economical achievement that goes beyond gimmick into the realm of pop perfection. Never again would the work of a pannist reach such widespread heights.

These days the steel drum has been used to play everything from Bach’s two-part inventions to the anthems of animated sea-dwelling creatures; from Swedish rockers the Knife, whose sullen Björk-in-reverse electro takes the pans into a digitized hypnosis, to Pan for Punk, a tribute record featuring Ramones covers lead by a undoubtedly pierced pannist fronting a rock rhythm section. In retrospect, it is probably best that the steel pan sticks to its beachside roots.

Thankfully, CSULB’s steel-drum band has been doing just that, steadily hammering the cans since 1986. For their upcoming West Indies-themed Christmas concert, the band will be led by percussion studies director Dr. Michael Carney, a master of the steel pans who has performed within a passport stamp of Trinidad. Nearly 50 members strong, the band will work their way through Christmas classics, as well as a few choice covers (Bob Marley’s “Jammin’”, the Beatles’ “And I Love Her”). Join them for a night of holiday cheer and dulcet-toned revelry as they present an army of steel pans and brightly-colored shirts. Dress accordingly.


Polyphonic Espirit @ the District

Thursday, November 26, 2009

As Long As I'm Vertical - The District

From the District - (11/25/09)

Running a jazz club isn’t the easiest way to take home wheelbarrows full of cash. Fortunately, Long Beach has the determined Al Williams—consummate drummer, passionate raconteur, wheelbarrow-less entrepreneur. Starting out in the ’70s drumming with some of the best hard-bop talents to survive the ’50s, Williams toured regularly with titans of the Central Ave. scene: Hampton Hawes and Teddy Edwards, as well as tenor sax heavyweight Eddie Harris. “Eddie was a master,” recalls Williams. “He could do anything he wanted on stage. He could play a saxophone with a trumpet mouthpiece!” After meeting and marrying a local girl, Williams became a permanent resident of Long Beach, choosing the comforts of his new home over the lonely road.

The Jazz Safari, Long Beach’s “first jazz club,” opened in 1978 across the asphalt from the Queen Mary. “Al created and designed a very special listening and performing environment. It was like working in an acoustically correct, intimate, warm and comfortable living room,” recalls vocalist Bev Kelly. Williams successfully ran the club for eight years before packing up the piano and moving to the other side of the ship. In 1987, Williams opened Birdland West in the heart of downtown. Bigger and more ambitious, the club managed to survive seven years of great performances before closing. The same year he started Birdland West, however, Williams decided to resuscitate his idea for a jazz festival.

Last August, Williams’ longest-running venture, the Long Beach Jazz Festival, celebrated its 22nd consecutive year. “I wasn’t even thinking about how long it would last,” he says. “I’m just really pleased that it has gone as well as it has.”

Attracting some of the biggest names in jazz (both smooth and straight-ahead), Williams has managed to find a profitable business plan in something he is passionate about. His work has introduced great jazz to Long Beach for over 30 years, becoming an institution in the process. “I’ve had a great career,” he says. “And I’m looking forward to continuing on this venture as long as I’m vertical.”


As Long As I'm Vertical @ the District

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Remotely Controlled - The District

From the District - (11/11/09)

Hip-hop MC and Long Beach native LMNO is a slave to the studio, with a bounty of recordings scattered across laptops and iPods just waiting to be unleashed. In the 20 years since he appeared in the video for D.O.C’s “Formula” as a pivotal member of the new hoods on the block, LMNO (aka James Kelly) has stalked the stage, making a name for himself among the West Coast underground, most notably as a member of the Visionaries. His new release, Devilish Dandruff with Holy Shampoo, was recorded entirely online, with French producer Yann Kesz laying the sonic foundation 5,500 miles from where LMNO would drop his lyrics.

The District Weekly: Do you find there is a particular style associated with Long Beach hip-hop?
LMNO: No I don’t. [. . .] As diverse as Long Beach is, it can’t strictly produce “a particular style,” which helps make the city what it is—the International City.

What did you take away from your affiliation with NWA?
Running with DJ Speed was a crazy experience for me as a kid in junior high. At that point in time I wasn’t thinking about anything but getting to high school to graduate and then begin this journey that I’m on now. Business-wise I saw success, and with that success comes a sacrifice that most aren’t willing to pay. Music-wise I saw the power of words, which help manifest my destiny.

Where is hip-hop heading in the ’10s?
I can’t predict where hip-hop is heading, but I know if the world hasn’t crumbled and the order/chaos as we know it is still in effect, then it’s safe to say that hip-hop will continue to grow and be that voice for the less heard.

Are there upsides to producing via e-mail?
One of the upsides of Internet producing is traveling costs are reduced.

And the downsides?
One of the downsides is the lack of human interaction. I, as of early November, still haven’t met or talked with Yann Kesz, and we have been working on Devilish Dandruff for a few years now.

What’s the origin of the album title?
I was getting some ink done by my friend Edgar, and he was telling me about his most recent trip to Mexico and how he heard the border patrol calling cocaine “the devil’s dandruff.” The day before, I recorded a song titled “Cocaine,” so the play on words began. And here we are.

What can we expect from the upcoming release show?
The show has Declaime, who has a new LP out titled Holy Smokes produced by Georgia Anne Muldrow; Kev Brown will be in from Landover, Maryland (he also has a new LP out titled Random Joints); and J.Rocc and Babu bring that Beat Junkie Sound every time! DJ Orator will bless the turntables, as well. The party is hosted by the legendary Mike Nardone. I think it’s safe to say: expect a good time!

What’s next for LMNO?
Touring to promote the record, branding myself and building awareness! Adding more order to my chaotic unreleased catalogue. Also check for Economic Food Chain Music Group (, which is a production company I started with Bixby Knolls native Jon T.

Describe your perfect day in Long Beach.
The Funk Fest was a near-perfect day, but that doesn’t count. Okay, let’s see. Waking up early at the Queen Mary Hotel with my family, then getting a plate of breakfast at the Potholder, then going off to record at the Greenshack studio with EFCMG, then getting some good food at Zephyr. After, I return to the shack and keep tracking ’til it’s time to go to the Rhythm Lounge and rock a live set.


Remotely Controlled @ the District

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Let Go And Be Sweet - The District

From the District - (11/04/09)

Of all the bands that helped define the Los Angeles punk movement of the ’70s and ’80s, only X managed to amicably rock their way into the 21st century to larger crowds and consistent acclaim. With a signature blend of rockabilly strut and relentless thump, X was defined by frontwoman Exene Cervenka’s bedraggled shout and captivating stage presence. Now in her 50s, Cervenka has become a grande dame of the scene, only recently returning from a four-year sojourn to the Midwest in attempt to find a little peace and quiet. Accompanying her return is her first solo album since 1991.

Christine Cervenkova was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1956 but spent her teen years in Florida. Under-stimulated and overly ambitious, Cervenka longed to escape to somewhere more amenable to her desires. New York-based session guitarist RK Watkins, a high-school classmate of hers, recalls that “she never exhibited any musical tendencies in school. It was before punk rock, the tail end of glam. Back then she was just a real fashion queen.” So at the end of high school, with a suitcase full of hair dye and Salvation Army dresses, Cervenka hit the road with a friend bound for Los Angeles—as good a place as any to pursue her wild-eyed dreams.

In Los Angeles she found her calling, befriending bassist/songwriter John Doe, with whom she formed a band—and married. X played the crustier dives of the Sunset Strip before a chance meeting with bespectacled Door Ray Manzarek, who offered to record the band’s first album. “He came to see us play at the Whisky,” Cervenka recalls. “He came backstage and said he wanted to work with us. We were part of musical history just for being in the club, and it made us profoundly thankful to work with him. It was a magical moment.” Their partnership lasted through their first four albums, resulting in classic anthems like “Los Angeles” and “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline.” Although X never reached superstardom, their influence echoes through any band with a twang and a pulse.

After nearly 30 years in Los Angeles, Cervenka needed a change of scenery. In 2005 she left her smog-ridden home for the wilds of Missouri, where she spent her time engulfed in creative pursuits. “That’s pretty much all I did for four years: practice guitar and focus on making art,” she recalls. “I just focused on making stuff.” The result of that sabbatical is Somewhere Gone, recorded sporadically last winter.

A far cry from her throat-thrashing in front of X, Somewhere Gone is a quieter album reflecting her countrified confines. Cervenka strums her way through 14 songs of Americana-drenched instrumentation and tight vocal harmonies touching equally upon love and loss. Acoustic and intimate, the album rings with an honesty no less passionate because of its reduced decibels. To promote the album, Cervenka will be appearing at Alex’s Bar with members of Los Angeles-based alt-country stalwarts Dead Rock West, including silky-voiced crooner Cindy Wasserman, who appears throughout the new album. “[People] are not coming to the shows expecting to hear a loud rock band,” Cervenka says. “They don’t know what to expect at all.”

Despite a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Cervenka remains upbeat about her health and is focusing on unleashing a newfound sense of creativity. “I am really enjoying being back here. I’ve been doing a lot of recording. It’s extremely rewarding to be back in a community of musicians,” she says. “We’ve recorded two new X songs for Christmas. I’ve recorded some songs just to do it. It’s been great.”


Let Go and Be Sweet @ the District

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Inherit the Groove - The District

From the District - (10/27/09)

In 1973, producer/songwriter/future animated chef Isaac Hayes was at the height of his soul power, appearing regularly in his gold chain blouse, with a shaved head and sporting sunglasses regardless of the weather or time of day. That same year, Patrick “Sleepy” Brown was born, destined to inherit the same chromed dome, shades and effortless soul—and to find himself behind the mixing board and mic for some of the biggest R&B hits of the ’90s and ’00s.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, to Jimmy Brown (lead vocalist for mid-’70s funk band Brick), the younger Brown absorbed his father’s smooth sounds, becoming by his early 20s a regular in the Atlanta scene—keyboard and sampler in hand—and eventually partnering with Rico Wade and Ray Murray to form one of the biggest knob-twirling production teams of the ATL renaissance, Organized Noize. After the birth of hip-hop in New York in the ’70s and ’80s and its move west for the early ’90s, the magnifying glass was looking for something new—and found a wealth of great sounds being recorded among Georgia’s peaches and humidity.

Brown saw his earliest success with Organized Noize producing the debut album by Parliament heirs Outkast. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik introduced a production style that melded elements of Philly soul, 808 beats and rapid-fire rhymes. Not long after, in the midst of producing Goodie Mob’s debut Soul Food, Brown joined the ranks of FM-radio immortals when he co-wrote and produced TLC’s “Waterfalls.”

It would be another eight years before Outkast and the Dirty South defied all odds with a chart-topping, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink self-produced double-album, Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Despite the fact that Brown did not produce it, he was featured prominently on “The Way You Move,” crooning over Big Boi’s hot-buttered beats. Since that dance in the spotlight, Brown has worked toward carving out a niche as a performer, in spite of numerous music-industry roadblocks. Still, his soulful vocals and party vibes make for an interesting heir to the immortal Black Moses. Be sure to wear some gold chains.


Inherit the Groove @ the District

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Game On - The District

From the District - (09/23/09)

Whenever the phrase “hit jazz single” comes up and the laughter subsides, conversations often turn to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s recording of “Take Five” before dwindling into more sedate alternatives like Chuck Mangione and Kenny G. Unlike those Costco jazzbos, pianist Dave Brubeck is a straight-ahead practitioner with a thunderous attack and tasteful approach to songwriting. His “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke” became jazz standards as soon as they were released, with artists like McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Pharaoh Sanders taking a crack at his refined progressions. Fifty years after the release of his groundbreaking album Time Out, Brubeck is still swinging for the masses.

Born in 1920 in Concord, California, Brubeck was the first music graduate from the College of the Pacific unable to read sheet music, something that says as much about his innate skills as it did about the college’s curriculum. While serving in the army band during World War II, Brubeck met Paul Desmond, who would become a frequent collaborator until his untimely death in the late ’70s. Following the war, Brubeck studied with composer Darius Milhaud, counter-balancing his jazz education with a wade through more avant-garde waters. By the mid ’50s Brubeck had carved out a successful living mixing the high- and low-brow for malleable minds at college campuses everywhere. His 1954 release, Jazz Goes to College, was a collection of live performances that exemplified Brubeck and Desmond’s effortless timing and smart sense of swing. It was also the beginning of his run of hits with Columbia Records.

In the summer of 1959 Brubeck entered Columbia’s 30th Street studios in Manhattan supported by Desmond (alto sax), Eugene Wright (bass) and Joe Morello (drums) to record what would become a definitive jazz classic, Time Out. Part of the elite class of Columbia releases that included Mingus Ah Um and Kind of Blue, Time Out was a swinging stroll across odd time signatures and distant harmonies that found commercial success with “Take Five,” an off-balance drum feature that was Desmond’s lone contribution, which became a Top 10 pop hit shortly after its release. (In his will, Desmond bequeathed his performance royalties to the American Red Cross.)

As much as Charles Mingus redefined the limits of a horn section and Miles Davis revealed the power of scales, Brubeck and his band rewrote the unspoken limitations of time signatures, branching out into prime-number meters that were inexplicably danceable. The album was a beatnik’s puzzle, featuring Neil Fujita’s abstract cover design and seven original compositions that wound their way through the phonograph into smoke-filled rooms across America. Songs like the Eastern European blues “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “Kathy’s Waltz” (an ode to Brubeck’s daughter misspelled by the album designer) are memorable melodies that are entertaining and innovative, not relying on rhythmic gimmicks to carry the weight. At the time of its release the album was widely panned by critics but grew in stature, eventually becoming the first million-selling jazz album after reaching No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts.

After Time Out secured his future, Brubeck went on to tour extensively with the quartet before settling to focus on loftier compositions and raise a family. His home-grown troupe of musicians has since their teen years supported their father on stage and in the studio. Now in his late 80s, Brubeck is as busy as ever, with an upcoming itinerary that will find him behind keyboards from Los Angeles to New York before being recognized in December at the Kennedy Center Honors alongside youngbloods Bruce Springsteen and Robert De Niro. Witness a West Coast legend while he still walks the stage.


Game On @ the District

Monday, September 21, 2009

More with Cabeza de Vaca Arcestra - The District

From the District website - (09/09/09)

How did you choose to do Faust? The first time I did Faust I had wanted to do the score for Haxan—a silent Scandanavian film from the ’20s about the history of witch-craft—but it doesn’t have a big enough draw. I was given a list of silent films that do well on their own, films that fans enjoy enough to see over and over regardless of live score or not. Faust was on the list and I had been attending a lecture series at the Philisophical Research Society about Alchemy. So it seemed to make sense.

What can we expect from the upcoming show? Thirteen different takes on selling your soul to the devil. Each musician gets to sonically represent Satan at one point or another during the film. It’s interesting to see how they hear that.

How do you hear it? I created a theme that is used as a starting point but most musicians wind up using unpitched sounds at one point or another. Things like string scraping or extended techniques like multiphonics on the horns and winds, as well as effects like delay and distortion. Personally I think a catchy jingle works best. We’ll also have a taxidermy goat with us as well. I’m hoping there will be a lot of people claiming to be Alchemists at the box office to get the student rate.

What’s the best way to prove you’re an alchemist? A conversation about the subject and a jive handshake.

Who did the poster for the show? Owleyes ( My favorite contemporary artist. I cannot say enough about how much I like his work and how fortunate I am to be able to work with him. I don’t know if it’s because we are both Virgos AND Dragons but we have really good chemistry. Next summer the Arcestra will be playing some shows in Europe and I want to set up art shows to go along with them. Our music and his art work go extremely well together. The posters that he creates for our shows bring a certain amount of excitement for everyone involved in them; they tie everything together for me.

What have you been reading lately? Kafka on the Shore. I don’t know what I was expecting but I was not expecting this book to be as beautifully far out as it is. It’s my first Murakami book. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. I bought Vonnegut’s Dead Eye Dick on a trip last month. I got through most of it during that trip but didn’t finish it, I don’t think I will. Maybe I’ll finish it on my next trip. Everywhere I go a copy of Conference of the Birds follows me. It’s Sufi poetry from the 1100s. I think the book gods are trying to tell me something.

What have you been listening to? String Quartets. Ruth Crawford Seeger wrote one of the best. You can do so much with two violins, viola and cello. George Crumbs “Black Angels” is an insane piece. The numerology behind it and the use of God’s number—7—and the devil’s number—13—is the basis for the whole piece. All of the musical material is based on the two numbers. It’s obsessive compulsive genius. I enjoy looking at his scores as much as I do listening to his music. John Fahey, Lee Hazelwood. A mix CD of Macedonian music. I don’t know the names of anyone on the CD but the music is full of so many good times, it comes right through the speakers.

What have you been watching? Recent Youtube searches: Hurdy gurdy videos. Jodorowsky interviews. Jay-Z/freemason conspiracy videos. Harry Partch videos. Giant panda in china rips off mans jacket. Kwele music. Daniel Kachamba. Tom Waits videos. Latarian Milton, 7-year-old badboy videos.

Favorite spot in Long Beach? Acres of Books: genie magazines and maps. Two of my favorite things.

Favorite Dinosaur? It’s a tie between T-rex and Donovan.

More with Cabeza de Vaca Arcestra @ the District

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Mind-Benders - the District

From the District - (9/9/09)

With his sturdy cane and no-fly-list facial hair, Jimi Cabeza de Vaca has been a fixture of the South Bay music scene for the last decade, providing ample cushioning for Joel Morales’ finely-tuned pop songs as the keyboardist for psychedelic-pop magnates dios and stringing his banjo over Red Cortez’s hard-shouting rock. Now he fronts his Cabeza de Vaca Arcestra, an auditory barrage of internal-organ-squashing feedback and unprecedented vocal swells that he unleashes upon often-unsuspecting audiences, rendering them speechless and on the verge of a panic attack.

Cabeza de Vaca started his music career crisscrossing America in a van. Dios, occasionally known as dios (malos), rekindled a pop-music love affair between Hawthorne harmonies and solid songcraft, playing loudly in low-ceilinged rooms. But after years of only occasionally sleeping on mattresses and trying to remember where he was, he yearned for a more stable lifestyle.

The sound experiments began at Cal Arts, Walt Disney’s Valencia brain farm, where Cabeza de Vaca pursued a Master’s degree in fine arts. Faced with an impending performance, he called upon a few noise enthusiasts to create a séance for a coffee table involving anointing oil, animal masks and a dream machine. The success of the performance encouraged him to take things even further.

Last spring, Cabeza de Vaca moved his Arcestra off campus to Fairfax’s Silent Movie Theatre, where he accompanied F.W. Murnau’s Faust—a 1920s silent German film depicting the less-pleasant side of dealing with the devil—to a full house and bewildered applause. Since that last performance, Cabeza de Vaca made a trip to the Faust House in Prague while touring with the Arcestra, absorbing strains of mysticism and alchemy to bring back home (alchemists receive 20% off admission!).

The onstage head count for this Friday’s performance may surpass 15, with contributions from sparrow-voiced Nora Keyes and soap-wielding Don Bolles. Among them will be multiple electric guitars, resonant brass, Tuvan throat singers and a theremin, each ebbing and flowing with every fluttering cape in Murnau’s masterpiece. Supported by an army equally educated in the classroom and on the road, the collision of sight and sound will be an intense experience that could threaten to explode into chaos, were it not contained by Cabeza de Vaca’s unflappable countenance. But if it gets to be too much, you can always step outside.


Mind-Benders @ the District

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Way I Feel About Cha - The District

From the District - (9/02/09)

There is an autobiography floating around good libraries and better bookstores entitled Bobby Womack: Midnight Mover: The True Story of the Greatest Soul Singer in the World. It is a gripping 300 pages of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And, according to Womack, “it was a lot of BS.” The book, written in the UK by various biographers, was the Oliver Stone version of Bobby Womack’s life. “When the book came out I wouldn’t promote it,” he says. “Some things were in bad taste. They didn’t get permission from me to release it. It’s not all about getting people’s attention.” A Zelig-like tale of a man who found himself in the just right place at just the right time for over 50 years of musical history, the book was only 90% true.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, 65 years ago, Womack was the third of five brothers. His father, a musician and taskmaster, pushed his sons into the music business. Originally called the Womack Brothers, they were renamed the Valentinos by Sam Cooke, who had met Womack when Womack was only nine years old. Applying the same successful transformation from gospel to soul, Cooke swapped “God” for “girls” and put them on the road with James Brown. One of their first singles, “It’s All Over Now,” became the Rolling Stones’ first number-one UK hit. “The first time I heard the Stones’ version was when Sam Cooke played it for me. He was thrilled they were cutting the song. He was thrilled because he had the publishing. ‘Why don’t they get their own song?’ I asked him. It seemed like it was just getting ready to happen for us. But when the royalty check came around I was real surprised.” Not long after, the Valentinos broke up.

Contributing heavily to the band’s demise was the death of Cooke, murdered at the Hacienda Motel in 1964. Three months later Womack married Cooke’s widow, Barbara, and found himself blacklisted from most record labels. After a few unsuccessful bids for stardom, Womack turned to his guitar, taking a position with Ray Charles. Eventually he landed in Memphis at the recommendation of another mentor, Wilson Pickett. Womack spent several years working as a guitar for hire, turning up on some of the greatest recordings to emerge from Tennessee. “Some songs they say you played on, and I don’t even remember. But I’ll listen to it and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s me.’ I was an unknown. It’s just what we all did. We all got together and put something in the pot.” Those “pots” just happen to include Aretha’s “Chain of Fools,” Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds,” the Box Tops’ “The Letter” and a couple dozen other pop-radio standards. “I feel fortunate to have been a part of it. Twenty, 30 years later I look back and say, ‘That’s amazing.’ I just happen to have been one of the guys to be invited to the session.”

In 1969, Womack finally achieved solo success with a version of “California Dreamin’” that cracked the US Top 50. Over the next couple decades he charted with a string of hits, including “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” “Looking for a Love” and “Across 110th Street,” putting his distinctive growl and guitar style to more personal uses.

Last spring Womack was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the first Clevelander to be so honored. “When I went to Cleveland I really couldn’t believe it, to see how Cleveland had really grown. I was knocked out.” With Ron Wood by his side, Womack soaked up the accolades. But he went right back to work afterwards. A few months ago he lent his pipes to the upcoming Gorillaz album, and this weekend he will be headlining the Long Beach Blues Festival. “C’mon out,” he offers. “It’ll be a Sunday. We’ll be going to church!”


The Way I Feel About Cha @ the District

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Go-To Funk - The District

From the District - (8/26/09)

Maybe it’s the humidity, or maybe it’s the crawfish, but there is something in the Crescent City that makes everything undeniably funky. Ever since “Jelly Roll” Morton “invented” jazz behind moist brothel walls in the early 20th century, New Orleans has produced some of the most significant merchants of funk. The Meters, a powerhouse quartet forged by the spirit of Mardi Gras against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, provided inimitable support for many of them.

Originally dubbed the Hawkettes, New Orleans royalty Art Neville (keyboards) formed the Meters in 1966 with session men 10 years younger than he, including George Porter, Jr. (bass), Zigaboo Modeliste (drums) and Leo Nocentelli (guitar). They became the go-to rhythm section for producer Allen Toussaint, who over the next dozen years had them backing definitive voices of New Orleans (Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, Professor Longhair), as well as a few red-coated members of the pop scene looking to acquire a little bayou authenticity (Paul McCartney, Robert Palmer, Peter Gabriel, Sting). Only 20 years old when he joined the band, Nocentelli was eager to learn as much as he could. “It was a great experience for me because it was a learning experience,” he says. “I learned how to arrange and structure songs. [Toussaint] helped me as a writer.”

Aside from backing some of the greater voices in New Orleans, the Meters were hit-makers in their own right. “We played at a club called the Nightcap,” Nocentelli recalls. “Everybody in those days used to open with a song called ‘Hold It.’ So I wrote a melody and introduced it to the guys. There was a dance at the time called ‘Sophisticated Sissy,’ so we called ours ‘Cissy Strut.’” A surprise instrumental radio hit, 40 years later any kid worth his weight in guitar strings knows the simple riffs by heart. “It was hard to be an instrumental group then. People like to hear lyrics and love songs; songs that deal with emotions. ‘Cissy Strut’ was a phenomenon.”

Pioneering house bands like the Funk Brothers at Motown and Booker T. & the MG’s at Stax paved the way for the Meters’ sound with their signature flair and consistency. What set the Meters apart from their predecessors was an earthiness and unrepentant funk few bands had ever exhibited. The guitar and bass were often doubled up, while the drums laid out a disjointed second-line rhythm that provided a gold mine for hip-hop producers several decades later. “When I was writing back then I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” says Nocentelli. “It was creating a thing called syncopation. A lot of people used it back then in jazz, where you have the bass playing the melody with the guitar while the drums play something else.”

Not unlike the remaining Beach Boys and their myriad configurations (Family and Friends! Endless Summer Band!), these days everyone is capitalizing on their affiliation with the Meters: the Funky Meters, the Meter Men, the Original Meters, the Meters’ Experience. All these bands tour regularly and feature various original members. “They do their thing, and I do mine,” says Nocentelli. “Each one of us can’t help but take a piece of the Meters with any project we do. But we’re on good terms. Some of the old wounds are there, but whenever we can get together to play and make some money, you know, it’s all good.”

This week Nocentelli will be fronting his version of the Meters, the Meters’ Experience. Next week at the Long Beach Blues Festival Art Neville and George Porter, Jr. will appear on stage as the Funky Meters. But Nocentelli assures that he is the real deal. “When you hear me, you’re always going to hear the Meters experience. The Meters’ Experience is the music. Ninety percent of that music was me. No matter what I do, it’s going to sound like me.”


Go-To Funk @ the District

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Improvised Icon - The District

From the District - (08/05/09)

In the summer of 1969 the Les McCann Trio played the Montreux Jazz Festival backed by horn legends Eddie Harris and Benny Bailey. Without written charts or time for rehearsal, the minutes-old quintet hit the stage and recorded one of the most influential soul-jazz singles. “Compared to What” is a blistering shout of frustration that brought success to road-weary jazz pianist Les McCann, reinvigorated veteran pop star Eugene McDaniels and launched the career of soul great Roberta Flack.

Composed by his friend McDaniels, McCann’s version of “Compared to What” opens with a rollicking montuno before floating a reference to “Aquarius” over a wailing cowbell. From there the song turns into an unstoppable eight-minute freight train. McCann sings a series of confrontational verses (“The president, he’s got his war / Folks don’t know just what it’s for / Nobody gives us rhyme or reason / Have one doubt / They call it treason”), while in between the horns blast the soundboard into the red.

Part of the jazz generation that includes fellow pianists Ramsey Lewis and Gene Harris, McCann was raised on the sounds of Erroll Garner and developed an iron-fisted right hand that led to a string of releases on the Pacific Jazz label. His first album for Atlantic Records, Swiss Movement, was a live recording of his ferocious Montreux performance jump-started by “Compared to What.”

McDaniels got his start in the early 1960s with radio epics “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” and “Tower of Strength.” By the time McCann was playing his songs he had transformed from charming pop star to seething activist. McDaniels eventually went on to write “Feel Like Makin’ Love” for Roberta Flack, who had been discovered by McCann in a Washington nightclub and whose debut features a version of “Compared to What” released just two days before McCann’s incendiary set.

McCann’s interpretation is an invigorating marathon of soulful exclamations featuring great sax work by Eddie Harris. Two decades on, “Compared to What” still stands as one of the great live jazz recordings. And why not? He was only trying to make it real.


Improvised Icon @ the District

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Long Player - The District

From the District - (7/29/09)

When the long-playing record was introduced in the late 1940s, it drastically extended the capacity of mass-produced albums to over 10 times their previous length. This revolution was both a blessing and a curse, allowing those with more to say (Miles Davis? Beethoven?) ample room and forcing those with less to say (the Andrews Sisters? Frankie Laine?) to fill some space. But years later when the compact disc (twice the recording space of an LP) came to dominate the local Sam Goody, few felt obligated to fill all that acquired time. Bands like Guided By Voices and They Might Be Giants were certainly stretching the track limit, but rarely did they unleash as many fully-formed nuggets as can be found on the Blank Tapes’ 80-minute album Daydreams.

The Blank Tapes is primarily Bay Area mainstay Matt Adams aided by a coterie of souls subsisting on a diet of bioluminescence and driftwood kindling—part of that hippie invitingness lurking in the fog, welcoming anyone with a melodica and a functioning lung to the party. Daydreams opens with a tumbling “And Your Bird Can Sing”-like guitar rush fed through the history of Bay Area rock, from ranch-dwelling Neil Young to suburban Stephen Malkmus. Songs like “We Can Still Be Friends” and “It’s the Best” echo with spontaneity and a solid beat that can cause any driver to casually abuse his steering wheel, while the psychedelic craftsmanship of a song like “Smoke and Mirrors” brings out Adams’ talents as both arranger and songwriter.

Whenever Adams comes to town, he always makes the most of his gas money by hitting any stage that will let him sing a few songs. In just a little over a week, Adams will perform 10 shows within earshot of our murky ocean’s air, including a swing by Fourth Street’s most valuable bookstore, {open}. Bring a chair. Without the limits of recording technology holding him back, there’s no telling how much he may have to say.


Long Player @ the District

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Drink of the Week - The District

From the District Weekly - (7/22/09)

The important word to remember during an afternoon bout with the booze is “simplicity.” Three o’clock is no time for muddling or open flame. (Whether there is ever a right time for those is an entirely different discussion.) Instead, it is the hour for two ingredients—three at the most—and a few cubes of ice. And so it was that during a breezy afternoon, bound by the grid of our citrus-scented Levittown, my over-educated, under-employed ne’er-do-well friends and I were compelled to spelunk Lakewood’s Snug Harbor. Nestled in the center of an unassuming suburban strip mall, the bar’s craggy façade looms behind a few tattered lawn chairs and a sign boasting the sailor-friendly opening time of 6 a.m. The wood-paneled interior is a hospitable cave where grumbling conversationalists are interrupted only by the occasional burst of sunlight stumbling through the front door.

In an attempt to draw as little attention to ourselves as possible, we stuck to some drinking basics. 1) In the middle of the afternoon, the bartender is only there for three things: pouring drinks, turning on the TV and unlocking the door. Anything above and beyond merits an appropriate gratuity. 2) Respect the regulars. The retired magician and his bowling partner, four hours into their own intoxicated journey, do not want you anywhere near their seats. 3) Do not operate the jukebox unless the bartender knows your name. No one wants to hear the garbage you like unless they can insult you on a personal level.

For this situation, a gin and tonic played the perfect inoffensive request. None of that cucumber-tinged, herbs-and-spices hokum, just straight well rotgut with a little fizz and a slice of lime. A few of these in the afternoon kept us out of the way and off the streets. Even a retired magician can appreciate that trick.

SNUG HARBOR 5520 DEL AMO BLVD LAKEWOOD 90713 562.425.0964

Drink of the Week @ The District

Mr. Unstable - The District

From the District Weekly - (7/22/09)

When mutton-chopped bassist Derek Smalls attempted to usher in Spinal Tap Mach II as a realization of his lifelong musical dream “Jazz Odyssey,” it should be remembered that the phase was introduced and immediately abandoned before a theme-park crowd assembled to watch a performance by puppets. The New Rome Quartet play hazy, fuzz-soaked jams of bended strings and bossa beats intended to evoke decades of facial hair and weightlessness in a self-proclaimed “intergalactic porno jazz odyssey.” Comprised of two members of pogo-ing Salton Sea rockers Throw Rag (Dan “Scorcho” Lapham on samples, “Franco” Cronin on bass) plus strummer Todd “Hornshark” Murdock and drummer “Stevo” Monroe, the quartet aims for a level of comfort approximately elbow-deep in a bag of Cheetos, free of such oppressive societal restrictions as drink coasters or pants, with the intention of providing the “soundtrack to your new-millennium nervous breakdown.”

Sonically, the New Rome Quartet snatches a lock from every cigarette-singed instrumental genre worth its weight in polyester. While the drummer propels a sand-swept vibe of starlight and sugar cane, circa 2525, the songs dip their toes in everything from Dick Dale’s first slide into infamy to the throbbing other-worldliness of ’70s camp classic Vampyros Lesbos. Fittingly, their music is best put to use as a soundtrack to something beyond complete mental collapse. The quartet performs on the fringes of a projector’s glow, backs turned to a towering psychedelic reel that befits their groove-oriented workouts engulfed in a cloud of jazz cigarettes and PBR.

Although this project does not appear to be a priority for most of these gentlemen, it does serve as a considerably less-strenuous form of self-expression than the globe-trotting whomp rock they do to pay the rent. With song titles like “Sir Pothead,” “Beer on Ice” and “Mr. Unstable,” it is obvious that they are not relying on this venture to pay for much beyond a few drinks and a night out of the house. So as the columnated Madison trembles under the weight of their loungey vibe, remember to just stay mellow.

Mr. Unstable @ the District

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sunshine Symphony - The District

From the District Weekly - (07/15/09)

My interview contributions to the District Music Issue:

What’s your favorite song for summer? The Edmund Velasco Quintet. Edmund is a fabulous multi-reed man, and also an exceptional composer and arranger. He has many originals—”Cat Walk” being one of my favorites. It was written to showcase his drummer, Jimmy Ford, who is a master of the brushes. It’s a terrific tune! His trumpet player, Kye Palmer, is heard regularly on The Tonight Show; a fine soloist! In fact, all the guys are great players. Mark Massey on piano is the swingin’est! Edmund has also done some WONDERFUL arrangements of Beatles tunes. They play out at Steamers in Fullerton a lot. I recommend them! I’m also proud that Edmund is a graduate of the music program at CSULB—my alma mater!
Favorite record to play during summer? Herbie Mann Live at Newport—best jazz flute disc of all time! It just sounds like summer. Captures the feeling of hanging out at the beach, playing in the surf and having fruity drinks at sunset!
Favorite drink? Decaf with LOTS of cream. At Parker’s Lighthouse, on the patio, watching the pelicans fish.
Most memorable night DJing? A coast-to-coast broadcast on New Year’s Eve from a jazz club that no longer exists (Donte’s, in North Hollywood). Jack Sheldon’s band was playing, and Harry Sweets Edison came by and sat in. WOW! And I was hosting the broadcast!
What’s the best record you’ve scored for $1 (or less)? A Louis Armstrong anthology for 89 cents. It had a great assortment of Louis, and it was my real introduction to his music. It had three tunes from the 1928 Hot Five with Earl Hines. It had Louis singing “Honeysuckle Rose” with Velma Middleton from the ‘50s tribute Satch Plays Fats, and more! The disc changed my life. I stopped being merely a Beatles fan and became a stone jazz fan. (Sean O’Connell)

Helen Borgers spins for 88.1 KKJZ, America’s jazz and blues station.

What’s your favorite song for summer? Icy Lytes’ “Chickenazo.” You can’t beat a song with a rooster crow in it.
Favorite record to play during summer? All Bangers and Cash songs, all the time.
Best part about Long Beach in summer? Well, it’s hard to beat San Pedro, but the other two Bitches Brew girls live over there, so I guess they are the best part of Long Beach in summer and all year ‘round.
Most overplayed summer jam and why? Probably anything by the Black Eyed Peas because they will never be good.
Favorite drink? Where to drink it? Kelly KoncocKtion at the Indian Room in San Pedro on Friday nights.
Most memorable night DJing? At Que Sera a few years ago on my birthday. It was for Call Sick on Friday, and people were buying me chocolate-cake shots, and they started taking off their clothes when I put on 2 Live Crew. Pretty hilarious.
What’s the best record you’ve scored for $1 (or less)? The Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. (SO)

DJ Knockout spins at Bitches Brew, Call Sick on Friday and house parties all over Long Beach.

What’s your favorite band for summer? Grand Elegance. No matter how hot it may be in the room, by the end of the set you will be covered in a refreshing shower of beer and sweat, and not necessarily your own. As for a song, I pick “The Rain Song” because it’s rain I miss the most during this interminable season.
Favorite record to play during summer? Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cosmo’s Factory. I don’t like sweating that much, but something about this album makes it appropriate and bearable.
Most memorable night DJing? I once DJed a Filipino cotillion at a Redondo Beach Cheesecake Factory. All I was told was, “Bring ballroom dance music.” I had absolutely no idea what exactly I was supposed to do, and by the end of the evening I had begrudgingly consented to a young man’s request to play Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” The elders were unamused.
What’s the best record you’ve scored for $1 (or less)? In Canada, I scored a slightly scratched album circa 1983 by a group of children singers called Minipops. They do pop covers, and it’s kind of creepy, but I discovered that if you put it on 45 rpm, it all sounds like happy hardcore, which takes me back to when I sat next to a raver in my drawing and painting class in high school. (SO)

Sunshine Symphony @ the District

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Way Out West - The District

From the District Weekly - (6/24/09)

Jimmy Vivino recently moved to Los Angeles to become an integral part of the Tonight Show Band along with the rest of the Conan O’Brien crew. For 16 years he was the associate music director of the Max Weinberg 7 while maintaining an active musician’s life in New York, working with legends Levon Helm and Al Kooper. This weekend, he’ll appear backing blues greats Hubert Sumlin and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. A lifelong Yankees fan, Vivino speaks only hours after meeting Joe Torre in what is just another day at the office.

The District Weekly: How did you end up in the Max Weinberg 7?
Jimmy Vivino: Basic New Jersey mathematics. We had a band together called Killer Joe—a jump blues band. Mark Pender and my brother Jerry were in the band. Mike Merritt played bass. That band split up, and I ended up out west with Clarence Clemons. We rounded it out with La Bamba—another Jersey legend. We pieced together this band for the Conan audition and got the gig. Who would have thought it would last that long?

You had experience playing on several TV shows before Conan, including your brother’s program—The Uncle Floyd Show.
It was pretty wild. We got to play with the Ramones. I didn’t know the Ramones were this big band. I got to know those guys pretty good. Joey Ramone had the best record collection in the world. The Floyd Show—it was punk TV. David Bowie was a fan. Floyd would buy time from the cable station and do what he wanted.

Was it a difficult decision to come out West?
It doesn’t get any better for a musician who wants to work as a musician, not as an artist. This is a working job. There aren’t many, and this is one of the top ones. How could you not do it? Leaving New York was not easy after living there all my life, but so far, so good.

What is the most surprising song you’ve played on Conan?
For me it was probably when Howard Stern wanted a Rob Zombie song. It’s not like everything you listen to is the only thing that’s good. That had to be the one. I was like ‘Why do we have to do that?’ But the guest hardly ever has a say. The situation has been changing with publishing problems. We’ll probably be writing more music.

How do you plan to keep up your activities in Los Angeles?
When I can get there, I get there. I’m up in Woodstock on July 4. Staying busy is the most important thing in this business. I’m putting a lot of faith in the airlines these days. I play every Wednesday at Cozy’s in Ventura. I’m running back and forth to the East Coast.

What is your plan for the Bayou Festival?
Hubert Sumlin called me and asked me to put something together for him. I found out Willie Smith was on it, too. I spent a lot of years backing up Lowell Fulson, Johnnie Johnson, Son Seals. I have a real affection for those guys. [Sumlin] is the guy who created the guitar sound we’re all using today.

What is it like getting to play in bands with idols like Al Kooper, Levon Helm or Hubert Sumlin?
The thing with that is you grow up looking over the fence. You want to get into the game, but the kids are too big. You think you can play, but it’s very rare that you’re ready and then down the road you find you are ready and they throw you in the game. The idea is to just get out there and become a peer instead of a fan. I’m always trying to sit on that fandom part of playing with people that I respect so much. Luck is easily 50 percent of it. As Yogi Berra says, ‘The other 90 percent is talent.’


Way Out West @ the District

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bed of Broken Beer Bottles - The District

From the District Weekly - (6/10/09)

Country music has never been much for virtuosity. Aside from Chet Atkins, few grass-fed stars get by on chops alone. Country musicians are first and foremost storytellers—road-weary troubadours spinning tales of women, whiskey and woes. Virginia-raised songwriter Mike Stinson sings lived-in stories that sound best filtered through a screen of chicken wire, coursing over a bed of broken beer bottles and drunken tears. With his long hair and faded blue jeans, Stinson more resembles a canyon-dwelling Neil Young than any hippie-stomping country pioneer. Appropriately, his sound does not draw solely from the Stetson crowd but all of rock ‘n’ roll, from the rusty-stringed warblers of 1950s Chicago to the slick-haired, hip shakers of the humid South.

“My favorite writers include Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Harlan Howard and Dallas Frazier,” says Stinson, listing merely a handful of the greatest American songwriters of the past 50 years. Despite the fact that his list is rather Opry heavy, when his band really gets cooking they can take on a heavy Chuck Berry pulse that blends honky-tonk influences from both sides of the tracks, creating a modern amalgam of popular song that has been fermenting since the Band broke out of Canada.

Stinson’s vocals, an earthy blend of mid-’70s Dylan and tar-coated Haggard, are pure twang, with “gits” and “’rounds” chopping words down to their most essential syllables as guitar lines twirl by in fluttering triplets. Stinson’s stories are ably supported by a solid backbeat and thumping bass, with only the occasional guitar solo drawing attention away from the vocals. And his own guitar work meanwhile is minimal, mostly strumming chords with rhythmic consistency.

When Stinson arrived in Southern California, country music was dominated by Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks. During the past 18 years, he has witnessed significant changes in the musical landscape, but locally things still remain challenging for a twangy gent like himself. “The state of country music in LA is largely neglected,” he declares with equal parts acceptance and disappointment. Aside from the hard work and harder drinking of the Bakersfield scene, Southern California has never treated its country stars with much respect, but Stinson has managed to scratch out a little well-deserved recognition. Billboard’s Chris Morris referred to him as the “leading LA light of the moment,” while rock-crit godfather Robert Hillburn described him as “one of Los Angeles’ best-kept musical secrets.” And all of this for a man who has largely earned his reputation from the stage rather than the stereo.

Stinson’s most recent record, Last Fool at the Bar, was released in 2005. He has a new album in the can but has yet to find a distributor. “No release date yet, but it won’t be long,” he promises. Evidence of his status among musicians, however, is abundant. Both Dwight Yoakam and Billy Bob Thornton have recorded his California ode “Late Great Golden State,” while Willie Nelson has been known to keep a copy of Stinson’s first album Jack of All Heartache in his touring bus.

If everything goes as planned, Stinson will share a wealth of old and new three-minute gems, providing the perfect soundtrack for a booze-drenched fist fight or an awkward spin across the bar floor. “Next for me is the release of The Jukebox in Your Heart. We will tour as far and wide as possible to promote this record that we’re very proud of.” His conquering of the world is going to start locally first, though, and for all the rickety stages Stinson and his band have pummeled, they have never tackled Long Beach’s finest miner-themed bar. “This will be our first time at the Prospector,” he says. “Our ‘special plan’ is to make the show on time and remember our songs.” Who could ask for anything more?


Bed of Broken Beer Bottles @ the District

Monday, June 08, 2009

Chug-A-Lug - The District

From the District Weekly - (6/03/09)

When the White Stripes and the Black Keys grabbed attention beyond the shores of their Great Lakes, audiences marveled at the primitive strut blasting from a set of drums and a fuzzed-out guitar. These bands could tour in a sedan and rock the hell out of any-sized stage, while Austin native Scott H. Biram could tour on a bicycle. The self-proclaimed “Dirty Old One-man Band” plays a mean country-blues like a sleep-deprived Son House driving the General Lee, blazing through barren landscapes of tumbleweeds and asphalt with a mouthful of chaw and a belly full of speed.

For many people, the idea of a one-man band is a gimmick of technological prowess, best left to boardwalks or any other surface that can support an up-ended hat. Part manic sideshow, part split-brained ingenuity, the songs rise to the surface in the most unadorned of musical expressions while the performer breathlessly juggles a thousand responsibilities. Without an additional set of hands, the performer is forced to convey the message in a fit of self-reliance, beholden to no one and compromising very little—no scheduled rehearsals, limited phone calls and no sharing of groupies.

Shrouded in a trucker hat and muttonchops, Biram is a fierce performer releasing the strength of a thousand strings through one battered Gibson, his hands alternately strumming and picking behind his charcoal-filtered growl, singing of fast women and faster cars. At the same time, his amplified left foot fulfills the drummer’s role, ingeniously making the most of a nearly involuntary action. He is a modern troubadour, beaten by the road but determined to get in a few licks of his own.

As the sound of permanence buzzes around the Queen Mary (who gets a tattoo on a ship?), Biram will churn his chug-a-lug guitar for the early-rising, ink-stained masses. His sound is the accumulation of a thousand years of hard-drinking storytellers, reliant solely upon themselves and enough gasoline to get to the next gig. Few people have the coordination to accomplish such a feat, let alone say something worthwhile; Biram gets it all done with one limb to spare.


Chug-A-Lug @ the District

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sibling Rivalry - The District

From the District Weekly - (5/20/09)

From the percussive wars of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich to the venomous barbs brandished between Jay-Z and Nas, a little musical competition always benefits the listener. Without rivalries, friendly or not, the world may have been deprived of such important works as Pet Sounds and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

At Motown Records in the 1960s, under the watchful eye of enterprising young Berry Gordy, there was constant pressure to produce hits. There were two primary songwriting factions at work in the Hitsville studio: velvet-voiced Smokey Robinson and the mighty Holland-Dozier-Holland. Robinson had been with the Motown organization since its inception, having co-written music with Gordy in the late ‘50s. He wrote most of the songs for his own band the Miracles (“Shop Around,” “I Second That Emotion,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”), as well as for other performers in the fleet such as Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye and Brenda Holloway.

Holland-Dozier-Holland were songwriters Lamont Dozier and the two Holland brothers, Brian and Edward. Their partnership resulted in such hits as “Heat Wave,” “Where Did Our Love Go” and “This Old Heart of Mine.” Their production and songwriting skills were essentially what defined the Motown sound, along with the Funk Brothers in the mid-1960s: smooth harmonies, tight rhythms and an omnipresent tambourine.

Appropriately enough, both the Temptations and the Four Tops were from Detroit. The Temps, with their high-intensity dance moves and outrageous costumes, found success with Smokey. “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl” and “Get Ready” all worked their way into the top 10. Fronted by silky-smooth baritone Levi Stubbs, the Tops sang some of H-D-H’s greatest hits: “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love.”

Now more than 50 years old, Motown enjoys its status as one of the most important American record labels ever. Not as gritty as Stax or Chess, Motown found success courting suburban teenagers with its motto “the sound of young America.” Without the hard work of the Four Tops and the Temptations, Motown’s legacy would not be nearly as valuable.


Sibling Rivalry @ the District

Friday, May 08, 2009

Boogie Stop Shuffle - The District

From the District Weekly - (5/06/09)

Kind of Blue. Time Out. Giant Steps. The Shape of Jazz to Come. Mingus Ah Um. For many music fans, the albums of 1959 define modern jazz. These records featuring Miles Davis’ modal breakthroughs, Brubeck’s unorthodox time signatures, Coltrane’s sheets of sound and Ornette Coleman’s limitless structure opened up a bottomless pit of possibility for every merchant of swing. Mingus Ah Um, a larger ensemble workout that took the reins from Duke Ellington and filtered them through an angrier pen, was driven by the distrust and undeniable sense of determination flowing out of upright bassist Charles Mingus.

The angry young man from Watts was his own worst enemy. Prone to onstage fights, he barreled his way through gigs with Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and even Ellington—canned by all of them. Eventually, he built enough of a reputation to lead his own bands and dispensed abuse without fear of losing the gig. His book, Beneath the Underdog, is one of the greatest fictional autobiographies ever written—up there with Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues or Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues. Full of bullshit and bravado, Mingus dishes about everything—sexual conquests, emotional hang-ups and even the occasional recording date—with a deranged disregard. His behavior was so important to his music that the liner notes to his epic The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady were composed by his psychologist.

Mingus Ah Um, Mingus’ first release for Columbia Records, is a vast collection of styles, with oscillating harmonies in tribute to Lester Young on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the freight-train drive of “Boogie Stop Shuffle” and a two-step strut opening up “Jelly Roll.” The compositions and the octet’s instrumentation all grew out of Mingus’ earlier experiments known as the Jazz Workshop—an idealistic, at least in manifesto, co-op of composers shaping their ideas via committee. The Workshops, outside of the studio, were something altogether different, bringing Mingus’ temper to the fore; but the album, 45 minutes and nine tracks, was recorded in just two days.

Fifty years after the record’s release, the Mingus dynasty is alive and well. Headed by Mingus’ widow, Sue Graham Mingus, Jazz Workshop Inc. has built a fleet of bands dedicated solely to the work of Charles Mingus. Composed of some of the best musicians in New York (Jeff “Tain” Watts, Sean Jones, Orrin Evans), the unparalleled organization takes on the Mingus legacy, not preserved in nostalgic amber but where it might be now had he still been growling across the stage with trembling young-bloods. The organization doesn’t just capture his great compositions but also evokes his performance philosophy, with arrangements changing on the fly in response to the crowd or a particularly hot soloist (no word on whether any of the new members have taken to clobbering each other on stage).

At home in New York, the Mingus organization takes over a midtown basement every Monday night. The man holding down Mingus’ post is Boris Kozlov, who has been playing bass for the band since 1998. In New York, he gets to play Mingus’ actual instrument, which Kozlov nonchalantly describes as “just a good bass with a lotta spiritual value.” The key to keeping things fresh, says Kozlov, is a “multiplicity of approaches, being myself and trusting the guy next to me. If the tune doesn’t evolve, it gets to be strange and goes against the original purpose of the whole thing.”


Boogie Stop Shuffle @ The District

To A Sheen - The District

From the District - (5/06/09)

Fiddler/vocalist Carrie Rodriguez has toured much of the world in the last few years. Most recently, she has warmed up concerts for country stalwarts Lucinda Williams and John Prine, as well as headlining the Austin City Limits stage for PBS cameras. Although raised in Austin, Texas, Rodriguez currently hangs her boots in Brooklyn—a place where every niche can find a fan club—landing there by way of the Berklee School of Music, only 200 miles up the interstate, where she honed her fiddling skills and acquired an urban grit that spices up her sultry performances.

Rodriguez’s sound is as indebted to the empowered women of mid-‘90s rock (Alanis, Shirley, Tori) as to any well-coiffed lady of the Opry (Dolly, Loretta, Tammy), with her voice simmering evenly between anger and seduction. At times on her recordings, it is only the instrumentation (pedal steel, fiddle) that can qualify the tracks as “country,” falling more in line with radio-friendly pop balladry, exuding a commercial polish that has dominated the genre since the heyday of Shania Twain.

In a cultural climate where a young country star can convert mass-appeal into massive piles of money, Rodriguez is being presented as a brunette alternative to the Underwoods and Simpsons. Although Rodriguez co-authored every song on her last record, She Ain’t Me, she is still a few albums away from shaking off the calculated presentation of the various promoters and handlers depending on her to finance their summer homes. Her music is good, and her playing exemplary, but everything seems a little too deliberate. When Rodriguez is finally left to her own talents, the result will inevitably be more genuine and engrossing.

In all likelihood, her local appearance will be a straightforward affair. Rodriguez will be performing as a trio with the help of an electric guitar and bass, eliminating many of her atmospherics before zigzagging west of the Colorado River and Europe. Rodriguez can be a forceful fire-breather, anchored by her fiddle and rhythmic stomp; catch her New England-refined, Brooklyn-dwelling, Texas-grown heat before she gets that Pepsi endorsement.

To A Sheen @ The District

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Old Cowhand - The District

From the District Weekly - (4/29/09)

By the end of the 1950s, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins had recorded enough quality wax to fill a jukebox. Rollins released nearly one record per month in 1957 for a handful of different record companies, and on March 7 of that year, Rollins, passing through Los Angeles on tour, recorded the first of two releases for Contemporary Records, Way out West. The rhythm section—bassist Ray Brown, in the midst of his lengthy stint with Oscar Peterson, and drummer Shelly Manne, who appears to have spent more time in the Contemporary studio than the mixing console—was absent of any chordal support (e.g., piano, guitar, electric clavinet, twelve-button accordion). Instead, Rollins’ unorthodox instrumentation had become a regular setting for his boisterous tenor, giving him far more soloing flexibility but also more melodic responsibility. His two supporters lay back, allowing Rollins to strut over the minimal accompaniment, his seesawing lines leading every turnabout phrase to a frustratingly clever conclusion.

The trio began recording, depending on whom is talking, somewhere between 2 and 5 a.m. in the Contemporary studios—a converted office space just off Melrose Avenue. By sunrise, the band had recorded six solid tracks, half of which kept up the cowboy theme: “I’m an Old Cowhand,” “Wagon Wheels” and an original, “Way out West.” The production, laid out by the innovative ears of Roy DuNann, is spaciously vivid with saxophone pads clopping behind every note and an unintended panning effect occurring every time Rollins turned to conduct the band. On the cover, Rollins stands skeptically in cowboy regalia, holster and all, giving William Claxton’s camera an arched glare among the Joshua trees. When it was released, people couldn’t tell if the cover was joke or jive.

With Way out West, Rollins had secured his jazz legacy by the age of 26. And over the last 52 years he’s nearly perfected it, never laying back on his status as one of the greatest living jazz legends, continuing a relentless tradition of tenor madness. Catch the old cowhand while he still has the generosity and sunglasses to hit the stage.


The Old Cowhand @ the District

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Catch Him While You Can - The District

From the District Weekly (4/22/2009)

every community that draws water and electricity in this smoggy sprawl, there are musicians documenting what goes on outside their windows for anyone who will listen. From patchouli-tinged minstrels to landlocked emcees, the voices that resonate beyond their street corners are forever indebted to these surroundings.

Emcee Bambu’s story is of the Filipino-American experience in the oft-romanticized Los Angeles era of pagers and Raiders, where storefronts and futures were just as likely to go up in a blaze. His gangbanging childhood bred an unapologetic streak of confidence and hard knocks that make wrestling with the music industry pale in comparison. After being jailed for armed robbery as a kid, he joined the Marines at the recommendation of a judge. Since this turning point, Bambu has been on a track to improve the world around him. “Change happens from the bottom where the problems are,” he says, calling from New York following a speaking engagement at NYU. “Not the top down.”

Bambu’s newest release, . . . A Peaceful Riot . . . , is a 10-track extension of his philosophy straight off the heels of his recent full-length, Exact Change. Fatgums’ bright production shines with dramatic stutters, both melodic and rhythmic, popping with pristine crispness between a pair of cans. The big-beat stack of Stax cushions Bambu’s calculated rhymes, lighting up both minds and dance floors, with one skeptical eye on those in charge and the other on himself.

The EP is being released exclusively by Beatrock—the safe-house/art gallery within sneezing distance of Long Beach City College. Aside from a busload of DJs and emcees, including DJ Tanner, Otayo Dubb and the CounterParts Crew, the upcoming EP release show also promises what any good party should have: charred, marinated meats. “If you’ve never had Park’s Finest (Johneric Concordia) BBQ, then you don’t know barbecue,” he tells me with a passion usually reserved for the stage. “It would be a foolish thing for you to miss that barbecue.”

Fatgums and Bambu have been working together for a little more than a year. The resulting collision has included not only Bambu’s last full-length album but the recent soundtrack/mixtape, A Song for Ourselves. Earlier this year, filmmaker Tad Nakamura released a documentary about troubadour Chris Iijima, a leading voice in the Asian-American Movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. “Tad had been in touch with my DJ. It wasn’t even a question. ‘I need you to get in the studio and do this.’ ” So, Bambu got to work with DJ Phatrick resulting in a 19-track mixtape that features Bambu on nearly half of it. “A lot of socially conscious emcees have clever sound bites and catchy rhetoric, but Bambu has a deep knowledge of historic and current social struggles to back it all up,” says mixtape contributor Senz of Depth. “It takes some courage to talk trash to another rapper, but to critique the most powerful nation and military on earth—in such a smart, lucid, unapologetic way—takes courage on a whole other level.”

As far as the future goes, Bambu has an ambitious game plan focusing squarely on raising his child in a better world than the one that raised him. By the time election fever sweeps the nation again, Bambu expects to be out of the rap scene. “I just don’t know if I have it in me with the family. I just want to challenge folks to look for new talent. I just want to step away,” he says. Like Iijima, who went on to become a teacher and a lawyer following his strummed outrage, Bambu wants to change the world on a local scale by opening up a community space, after-school programs and even teaching some martial arts. Bambu’s effortless flow will be missed when it is gone. So, catch it while there is still time, and grab some barbecue before you leave.


Catch Him While You Can - The District

Swingtown - The District

From the District Weekly - (4/22/2009)

Southern California has an abundance of great jazz education programs—no surprise, given there are an overwhelming number of skilled music educators out there roaming the freeways looking for financial stability and a decent health plan. And along with the more headline-grabbing programs at UCLA and USC, Cal State Long Beach has been slowly building its reputation as a premier institution of the swinging arts.

Since the 1970s, the jazz department has enhanced the talents of mighty lions like John Pattituci, Mark Turner and Wayne Bergeron. In March 2008, the department was renamed in honor of local real estate baron Bob Cole. Cole, a longtime music fan with a reputation for striking an occasional piano for family and friends, left a sizable contribution to the school after his passing five years ago. In the last year, as malleable minds have attempted to broaden their marketability, or at least postpone reality, the school saw its largest number of applicants looking to toil in the shadow of the corrugated blue pyramid.

Earlier this month, the program’s Concert Jazz Orchestra and vocal ensemble headed up to Steinbeck’s beloved peninsula to take part in the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation competition. The MJF, America’s longest-running jazz festival, started as a West Coast answer to George Wein’s socialite-fueled Newport Jazz Festival. In the last 52 years, the MJF has become a first-rate educational advocate providing instruments, scholarships and attitude to countless young musicians in need. For the second time in three years, the orchestra took first place in the College Big Band division, earning them the opportunity to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival this September.

For the final concert of the season, the orchestra has planned a set of tunes by the likes of Thelonious Monk, Bob Mintzer and the head of the jazz program, Jeff Jarvis. With Cal State Long Beach housing the No. 1 jazz radio station in the country and a rising star in the educational field, it would seem their profile could not get any bigger. Now we just need a few venues for them to play in.


Swingtown - The District

Night Shift - The District

From the District Weekly - (4/8/2009)

It will become a lot harder to find a serious jazz room in Southern California when the Jazz Bakery closes at the end of May. The Chimay and gruyére crowd may have driven out one of the purest jazz venues in the state, but down south there is a room that, every now and then, hosts great music without fretting over drink minimums or obliviously chatty crowds.

Alva’s Showroom has been booking an intriguing collection of jazzbos since 2005. During the day, Alva’s provides an open space and ballet barres for the more flexible members of the community on a quaint commercial strip in western San Pedro. But every Saturday night, it is divided and transformed into a 60-seat jazz club complete with a mammoth Steinway and state-of-the-art sound system for the not necessarily physically flexible but certainly mentally so. (Witness the impressive time-lapse video on the venue’s Web site transitioning from twinkled toes to tickled ivories.)

This week, the showroom will feature keyboard-tamer Mitch Forman—a man who has found himself sharing stages with the undisputed saxophone legend Wayne Shorter and impossible dance band the Mahavishnu Orchestra. His sound can veer dramatically from synth-drenched sandal-jazz to hunch-shouldered impressionism, but based on the listed sidemen (Darek Oles, bass; Peter Erskine, drums), the calendar implies Forman will go the acoustic route using two of the most sought after rhythm men in town. Forman’s subdued early ’90s tribute to Bill Evans, Now and Then, secured his place as a master beyond the electro-gimmickry of his young-blood years. His quick attack flutters a thousand well-crafted ideas with his fingers splayed across the keyboard like a rake. In the span of a phone call, he can render an audience winded, leaving them to catch up on their own time with the lines he has dispensed.

In the past few months, Alva’s has hosted a boatload of solid performers: the Littleton Brothers, Elliott Caine, Azar Lawrence. San Pedro, for all its cultural claims to fame, has never been much of a jazz town, but, with a little luck and maybe a few more dedicated nights, Alva’s could change all that.


Alva's Showroom - The District

Brave the Storm - The District

From the District Weekly (4/01/2009)

It’s hard to sell instrumental music to anyone these days. It’s a fact of life that most people enjoy hearing the human voice—if not their own, then at least someone pretty. Not since Santo & Johnny has the genre had any chance at major radio play, and despite the fact that Seattle’s Kinski have been slowly adding a layer of vocal icing to their last couple recordings, the cake remains the same.

Instrumental noise enthusiasts Kinski have strangled guitars in the upper-left hand corner of America since the late 1990s—a simpler time when plaid still went with everything and the Supersonics were a force to be reckoned with (RIP, Squatch). Under the leadership of Chris Martin (no, not that one), the rain-soaked foursome (two guitars, bass and drums) toured the world with like-minded sound merchants Hovercraft and Acid Mothers Temple, with whom they released a split album several years back. For the last 10 years the band has refined its strength, condensing the bone-liquefying attack of a thousand guitars into a couple of Marshall stacks.

Kinski’s third and most recent full length, Sub-Pop’s Down Below It’s Chaos, is a heavy assault rife with punishing drums and guitar riffs that revolve and resolve like a planetary orbit. Their sound veers seamlessly from Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth to the Jurassic-techno of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” But the rumors of their newest album indicate radio-friendly running times and vocals on every track. It’s unclear what to expect on this current go round but it will inevitably inspire a floor-staring sway from those healthy enough to remain upright in the face of Kinski’s feedback hurricane.

The Prospector will be the southern most point of their current tour and likely the smallest stage/low-ceilinged corner to support their instruments. The sheer mass of Kinski’s sound could quite possibly cook all the steaks in the kitchen. Consider yourself warned.

Brave the Storm - The District

Persistence & Resistance - The District

From the District Weekly - (3/18/2009)

On inauguration day, as millions watched America’s official homecoming king and queen take to the dance floor for the Neighborhood Ball, a question occurred before numerous television sets: Why is Beyonce singing Etta James’ song? Surely if Aretha can slap on a bow and sing “My Country Tis of Thee,” then Etta James could sing “At Last” for the first couple. Instead, the Obamas got a movie tie-in featuring Hova’s wife in all her youthful glory. And probably the most important person wondering why Etta James was not on stage was Etta James. “I tell you that woman he had singing for him, singing my song,” she told a Seattle audience in late January, “she’s going to get her ass whipped.”

Jamesetta Hawkins was born in 1938 to 14-year-old Dorothy Hawkins. Her father, as she theorized in her brutally candid autobiography Rage to Survive, was master of the felt and cue, Minnesota Fats. Jamesetta was thrust into the world with an uncanny pair of pipes and the world stacked against her: By the age of 10 she had become a singing prodigy in her church before being whisked up to San Francisco for a life of petty crime that would dog her well into the Reagan administration.

Jamesetta became “Etta James” at the hands of musical potentate Johnny Otis. She penned her first hit, with Otis’ help, in 1955. “Roll With Me, Henry,” a ribald answer record to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie,” spent a month on the charts. From the very beginning, James’ speaker-rattling shout was full of venom and vigor.

In 1961, James sang the song that would accompany countless tuxedoed slow dances. “At Last” was recorded under the direction of Leonard Chess for Argo Records, a subsidiary of blues powerhouse Chess Records. It was one of a dozen standards that were to form James’ first full length album of the same name. In just under three minutes, with a metronomic piano plinking amongst swooning strings, James poured out a swell of contentment. Her weariness, all fluttering eyelashes and clenched fists, was a far cry from the street-hustling fireball that would go on to dominate her recording career.

As much as the song may belong to James now, it was written 20 years before she put it on tape. Penned by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the musical Orchestra Wives, “At Last” was originally performed by Glenn Miller, where it hit the Billboard Top 20. Fifteen years later, Nat King Cole put his velvety fingerprint on the song. But it was James’ version that transcended the hit lists to become an enduring theme of romance that has become a staple to film music supervisors—an immediate signifier on par with “Stand By Me” or “Unchained Melody”.

So whose song is it? James has been singing “At Last” for nearly 50 years. Aside from Beyonce, Celine Dion, Norah Jones and Cyndi Lauper have tackled the song, and they all clearly aimed for the version by the notorious Miss Peaches. Hardly any have used Nat Cole’s example and fewer still Glenn Miller’s wah-wah rendition. Tavis Smiley, in conversation with James several years back, told her, “There are very few people who can take a song that’s already there and put their stamp on it in such a way that it becomes your song.” A little persistence and resistance has made it uniquely hers.

While James’ onstage rants have kept her in the news, her voice has kept her on the stage. She was recently awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and is a member of both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I’ve learned to live with my rage,” she says. “In some ways, it’s my rage that keeps me going. Without it, I would have been whipped long ago. With it, I got a lot more songs to sing.” Including the one that has paid her bills all these years.


Persistence and Resistance - The District

Lend Me Your Ears - The District

From the District Weekly - (3/11/2009)

Public radio DJs are a lot like hip, deadbeat siblings. They keep odd hours, always ask for money and have great record collections. Helen Borgers, KJAZZ’s current weekday DJ and resident cheerleader, has been heard on the far end of the Long Beach dial for nearly 30 years. But unlike so many pleading DJs, Borgers’ passion can charm the bills out of wallets without demeaning herself or her listeners. Through hard work and impeccable taste, she has become the undisputed queen of jazz radio.

Borgers grew up in Kansas City, Mo., where jazz forged a stable home along the wide latitude containing crucial jazz territories New Orleans and Chicago. But like all good American girls, she fell first for the Beatles before being swayed by her brother Ken’s wax. “The stuff that hooked me—Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines. I grew up listening to that music through the walls of my brother’s room,” she explains on a break from the station’s most recent pledge drive. “John Coltrane. Gerald Wilson. Sonny Rollins. But after I discovered Louis, I never looked back. That stuff, as soon as I put it on, gets me just as much as it did then.”

In the late 1970s, Borgers headed west to pursue a theater degree at Cal State Long Beach and eventually found herself working for her brother in the music library under its former call letters KLON. “When I joined the station, you could only hear it across the street. Now our power is greater, and we have a much broader range. It’s a whole new audience.”

In a time when radio stations, both corporate and public, are dropping like flies—and while those remaining strive for faceless Top 40 drivel—it is hard to believe KJAZZ exists. During her rise from the library to the daytime microphone, KJAZZ has grown not only into one of the country’s top jazz radio stations, but one of the top public radio stations worldwide, with a weekly listenership hovering around half a million people.

As if hustling for public radio was not enough, Borgers became the artistic director of the Long Beach Shakespeare Co. a dozen years ago. “My brother told me it was the one thing that made less money than jazz,” she says with a chuckle. But it is clear that Borgers is driven by her passions rather than her bank account. “It’s a joy come true. Those two things have been the guiding light of my life. I’ve been a Shakespeare fan since the age of 7; to be able to work in both fields is wonderful.”

For the company’s upcoming fundraiser, Borgers has combined her passions into one stellar night. To celebrate Caesar’s least favorite holiday, she has enlisted trumpeter Jack Sheldon and the Al Williams Jazz Society to brighten the air with their hard-swinging sound. “My all-time hero,” she says of Sheldon. “The first time I saw him was at Dante’s. When I came in, he was in the middle of doing the ‘To Be or Not To Be’ speech from Hamlet. I sent him a note and he came over to the table. We’ve been friends ever since.”

In between sets the event also promises to provide what Borgers does best: spin records. “We’ll be hearing everything back from the early days like Sidney Bechet, Louis and Buddy Rich. I’ll take it through the swing era to early bebop,” she explains.

Through her innate enthusiasm and selfless dedication, Borgers has found a niche that makes her and her listeners endlessly happy. Even in these trying economic times, Borgers’ daily campaigning has brought in the bucks and allowed KJAZZ to swing another day. Hopefully the same will be said for her upcoming event. Any organization would be thrilled to have her in their corner, and in Long Beach she’s got two.


Lend Me Your Ears - The District