Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Best LA Jazz Concerts - LA Weekly

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Photo: Farah Sosa
5. Kamasi Washington 
Footsies Bar, February 8th
Tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington is a force, and stands as thick as a redwood, which is tough when he is blocking your way to the restroom and he happens to be blasting his horn at that time too. But add in Thundercat on bass, his brother Ronald Bruner on pummeling drums and keyboardist Brandon Coleman playing a pile of instruments and you have one of the best jazz/funk/soul bands to fit into a small space. The seething, sweating crowd was really feeling it as Washington rattled the velvet paintings off the walls.
4. Anthony Wilson/Larry Goldings/Jim Keltner
Blue Whale, April 11th
Every nerd with a pair of drumsticks tried to get a glimpse of rock drum legend Jim Keltner at the Blue Whale in April. Under the guidance of guitarist Anthony Wilson, Keltner, alongside organist Larry Goldings, played a breathtaking set that was all about patience and control. Keltner hovered in the back with his shades on, providing a spare but propulsive churn that few men would have the guts to leave so unadorned. It was a daring set amid a multi-faceted residency from Wilson. Rumors of a recording session have been running rampant ever since. Here's hoping.
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3. Miles Davis Tribute
Hollywood Bowl, June 27th
Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl is usually right down the middle. It's rare to be challenged by much on stage, but it's also rare to not enjoy yourself under the stars. For the Miles Davis tribute, between a straight-ahead, throwback set from Kind of Blue drummer Jimmy Cobb and a crowd-pleaser '80s homage from Marcus Miller, the amps were cranked for Miles' electric period. Guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight cut loose as Nicholas Payton filled the trumpet position with strength and attitude. The stage was loaded with wattage and they made the most of it. It was a pleasantly deafening assault that future jazz shows could learn from.
2. Josh Nelson's Discovery Sessions
Blue Whale, July 20th
Pianist Josh Nelson works a lot. When he isn't traveling the world with Natalie Cole or Sara Gazarek, he can often be found seated at grand pianos scattered across Southern California. In July he got to lead his own band at the Blue Whale and set up behind them a striking art installation and a psychedelic projection. It clearly required a lot of forethought (yeah, some people have those at jazz shows) and it paid off with a full house and a tight band navigating through Nelson's winding compositions. It was an engaging night of audio and visual, something we could use a lot more of in the L.A. jazz scene.
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Photo: Myles Regan
1. Angel City Jazz Festival
Ford Amphitheatre, October 7th
We're awfully lucky to live in a town where we can have pleasant outdoor shows in October. We're also lucky to live in a town where the Angel City Jazz organization puts on a half-dozen concerts in two weeks that are some of the bravest bookings all year. This year's theme of "artists and legends" resulted in a five hour blow-out at the Ford that included drummer Peter Erskine's youthful trio, Mark Dresser's scalding freedom, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's fiery set and a long-time coming set by saxophonist Archie Shepp. The result was an impressive array that was challenging, swinging and befuddling in the best way possible. Can't wait for next year.

Ninety Miles review - OC Weekly

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CP Masters
Ninety Miles featuring Stefon Harris, David Sanchez & Nicholas Payton 
Samueli Theater 
December 14, 2012

Last year, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, tenor saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott recorded a terrific album in Cuba under the title Ninety Miles. The album was recorded with a Cuban rhythm section but is far from a guayabera-toting, Buena Vista society jam. Instead, the result was a hard-driving work that dug into a wide range of genres, firmly planted in the present. On Friday night, Harris and Sanchez brought their tour to Costa Mesa with trumpeter Nicholas Payton in lieu of Scott and a four piece rhythm section ready to blaze.
The band has either three leaders or no leader depending how you look at it. They only played four tunes in a little over an hour and the three marquee names each took a turn at the microphone, usually introducing their own compositions. Harris seemed to enjoy the MC duties the most, introducing the band with enthusiasm and humor, drawing eye-rolls from his bandmates and smiles from the crowd.
Harris, boxed in by his marimba and vibraphone, opened the set, hammering across both keyboards on "Brown Belle Blues." As the group joined him for a brisk, off-kilter blues, he continued to support the band with his left-hand on the marimba while his right kept a steady pattern on the vibraphone. Harris made joyous sounds throughout the set, humming like a glass harp at times, while piercing through the rhythm section with an unnatural strength at others. When he splayed four mallets across two hands, he was able to provide intricate chordal support to the rest of frontline.
Sanchez played the good cop. His delicate take on "the Forgotten Ones" brought out his smoothest tones, painting a picture with patience and breathy phrases. He did the same on "Brown Belle Blues," eventually building to a muscular honk. His demeanor and approach created a considerable contrast with the bad cop.
Payton, in white sneakers and a low-brimmed hat, brought the fire from the first note until the last. His original tune, "The Backward Step," was the one song from the set not featured on the record. The band was at their funkiest on this tune as Payton began to stretch out. His trilling blasts tested the limits of the microphone, scalding the crowd with unbelievable force. The crowd cheered between breaths and each time they did, he returned mightier than before.
The rhythm section was filled with Carribean-soaked ringers including pianist Edward Simon, bassist Ricky Rodriguez, drummer Henry Cole and percussionst Maracio Herrera. Those four held down the beat, staying largely out of the way. Simon took a sweet solo on "E'Cha," spreading his lanky fingers across the keyboard in a jangle of montunos, stride and swing.
Just as the band seemed to be hitting their stride, they walked off the stage and that has been the theme the last two shows in Costa Mesa. To Ninety Miles' credit they had three other shows for the weekend, I'm not sure where Ahmad Jamal was off to.
Personal Bias: The Samueli Theater is one of the nicest rooms hosting jazz in Orange County. With a nice sound system, roomy tables and a bar, they have captured a great ambience for a night out.
The Crowd: Old enough to remember when anyone could hop on a flight to Cuba without question.
Random Notebook Dump: 7:30pm on a Friday night is kind of a rough showtime.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Beck's Song Reader - LA Weekly

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SJ O'Connell
Beck Hopes You Have Been Practicing Your Scales
Not too long ago, most folks could read music in this county. Most middle class kids, at least, could bang out some chords on the piano at their parents' cocktail parties.
Nowadays, of course, pianos most often serve as furniture. But that hasn't stopped Beck from releasing an "album" that requires one to dust off an instrument to hear the songs. Via a project that's as retro as one can go, he's released sheet music for 20 tunes -- which he calls his Song Reader. Released by McSweeney's, the book is full of ridiculous jokes and painstaking design.
In any case, Beck says he won't record these songs, so it's up to his fans to decipher the music. "Old Shanghai" was one of the first songs to be leaked, and it's got a "slow swing" tempo, four separate horn parts, and a lower-register piano chart, vocals and ukulele tabs. YouTube is already littered with interpretations of the glacial ballad; here are five wildly different interpretations of it.
Many folks' first instinct is to make the tune sound as much like a Beck song as possible, particularly of the Mutations-era variety. Unplugged70, then, does a decent Beck interpretation for awhile until starts to develop a strange vibe reminiscent of Beck's early releases.
New Yorker Nonet
Oh jeez. Nine New Yorker employees made this thing about as twee as you might expect. Despite the plethora of instruments, the makeshift band doesn't flush out the score more than the previous version, but the addition of violinist Rachel Lee makes for a nice mid-song solo. Although, Lee seems like a bit of a ringer for this band; her website notes that she has a master's degree at the New England Conservatory through its joint five-year program with Harvard!
Twee again. Contramano's heavily-edited video implies that much of the work here was done in post-production; frankly we'd have appreciated the song more if we hadn't seen it. Major points to the cellist for his faithful adherence to the written trombone part. Unfortunately, these points are taken away because he appears crouching naked in the video.

Donovan Max
Donovan Max's "Alternative Son" version melds a traditional Cuban bass-line with an electric guitar. Maybe it's because all of these versions are in the same key, but all of the vocals sound pretty similar. Perhaps if Max had sung in Spanish he could have truly set it apart, but kudos for switching the rhythm on the bridge.
Portland Cello Project, featuring Lizzie Ellison
Of the videos floating around, the Portland Cello Project gets the closest to what's written in the sheet music. The languid trumpet line gets a gentle pull while the drummer digs into a shuffle with his brushes. The choir of cellos covers the rest of the chart while vocalist Lizzie Ellison sings a weary ode to coastal China.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Princess Noire: Nina Simone - NYC Jazz Record

Princess Noire: 
The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone 
Nadine Cohodas (University of North Carolina Press)

Nina Simone was known publicly as the High
Priestess of Soul but Nadine Cohodas’ biography
places her in a more pampered light that in many
ways feels appropriate. Simone has always had a
curious place in the jazz world. Her music was filled
with improvisation and swing but she more often
than not fell into the realm of pop interpretation,
putting her stamp on Tin Pan Alley classics while
also honing a catalogue of personal rage and
empowerment. Her humming vibrato and strident
piano style are unmistakable but her personality
seems to loom largest.

Cohodas’ nearly 400-page biography of Nina
Simone is both concise and circular, depending on
the sentence. Over the course of 28 exacting chapters,
Cohodas gets down and dirty with the story of the
reluctant, classical-aspiring Eunice Waymon and her
late-night, nicotine-scented alter-ego Nina Simone.
Cohodas chronicles Simone’s early career as moving
without a hitch. She grew up in a supportive family
and community who went out of their way to
encourage her musical skills. After a failed audition
for the Curtis School of Music (3 students were
accepted out of 72 applicants) she moonlighted as a
cabaret act in Atlantic City. She became a singer
because she was told to by a nightclub owner. She
became Nina Simone because the same owner asked
how she wanted to be billed. Her paychecks steadily
rose through the years. From there the book goes on
to document her rise and decline with an emphasis
on the details: the tantrums, politics, lost loves and,
naturally, the music.

The resulting doorstopper is an unapologetic
examination of one the most outspoken and
challenging artists of her generation. Cohodas has
clearly put in a massive amount of research and
there is an interesting anecdote on nearly every
page. Nearly ten years after Simone’s passing, she is
still a fascinating puzzle (a remix album from a few
years ago cast her music in a new light while an
upcoming biopic is already awash in controversy).
Princess Noire painstakingly helps to point out why.

Nina Simone @ NYC Jazz Record

The Cookers - NYC Jazz Record

The Cookers - Believe

The liner notes to the newest release from The Cookers
refers to pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee,
drummer Billy Hart, saxophonist Billy Harper and
trumpeter Eddie Henderson as “damn near jazz
royalty”. How modest. These men are kings though
and what is so refreshing about this album (their third
release as a unit) is how they play with the force of
musicians nearly half their age.

As a sort-of hardbop Expendables, this septet has
the grizzled life experience to imbue any tune with a
meaty sense of swing. The group is rounded out by a
couple action stars in their own right but with a little
less grey. Trumpeter David Weiss brought the group
together while alto saxist Craig Handy lends a little
fire and mid-range honk.

The album, except for a brisk and faithful reading
of Wayne Shorter’s Messengers-era “Free For All”, is
entirely penned by the band. Harper contributes two
tunes, including the dense album opener “Believe, For
It Is True”. The four horns swing a breathless line as
Cables pulses with a Hancock-esque mid ‘60s nautical
vibe. Cables also provides a pair of originals including
“Ebony Moonbeams”. Not to be left out, McBee
provides two of his own lines; “Tight Squeeze” is a
brisk, off-kilter tune that gives Hart a nice chance to
shine. The band goes out with Hart’s lone contribution,
“Naaj”, as an upbeat jaunt that best embodies the
band’s name.

The final product is a comforting slice of hardbop
that delivers on its expectations. This isn’t just a
blowing session but a working band with a great book
of original tunes. These men have formed a solid
ensemble, which provides a lot of space for solo voices,
all who make the most of it.

The Cookers @ NYC Jazz Record

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Shuggie Otis review - LA Weekly

Christina Limson O'Connell

Shuggie Otis
The Echoplex
I have a couple of words for those who staggered out of the Shuggie Otis show less than an hour into the proceedings, politely holding the door for the like-minded strangers streaming behind them: Screw you. What did you show up expecting to see? Did you want to hear a barrage of 40 year-old hits played by a preserved soul legend? Or something approaching reality? Did you want a set that pulled together influences both new and old with an emphasis on a long-term legacy with a nod towards the ticket-buying public? Or a soulful time capsule that bowed to songs that 90% of the audience wasn't alive to appreciate when they first hit the airwaves?

Shuggie Otis is Los Angeles music royalty. His father, Johnny Otis, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 90, was an R&B legend who helped bring the world Etta James and the Hand Jive while his father-in-law, Gerald Wilson, is an encyclopedia of the most important developments in jazz since 1939. Shuggie's performance last night hovered somewhere amid the past the future, acknowledging his soulful heritage while dipping into a blues-drenched familiarity that united father, son and holy ghost.
Otis is now 59 and has only released 4 LPS, unofficially announcing his retirement before the age of 25. The Brothers Johnson covered "Strawberry Letter No. 23" in 1977, solidifying Otis' closest claim to a radio hit. Since then he has lived a life of obscurity and a couple of failed comeback attempts.
Har Mar Superstar had this tweet less than an hour into the show:
@harmarsuperstar: RT if the Shuggie Otis show ruined your life tonight.
Ruined your life? Why? Cause he didn't play Strawberry Letter No. 23 for twenty minutes? Or because he wrestled with a faulty amplifier?
For much of the first half hour, Otis stood with his back to the stage, fiddling with a giant stack of amplifiers. He addressed the crowd a couple of times, blaming his underwhelming performance on a poor guitar sound. It seemed like a cop out. He even interrupted a tune midway to announce "You should get your money back." This is the last thing a paying audience wants to hear and, indeed, at this point it felt like all was lost. Had Otis left the stage at that point, the crowd would have quietly walked off. But he didn't.
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Christina Limson O'Connell
Instead, he returned with a slow simmering blues number that highlighted his chops, summoning B.B. Kings' Lucille and Albert King's Flying V in equal measure. Otis easily settled into the role of solemn bluesman, working his axe over a shrill Hammond organ and unrelenting feedback. Following that tune, he requested a house amp from the sound crew to no avail, provoking hoots and hollers from the audience.

Undeterred, Otis continued his set, mentioning band members' birthdays including his son Lucky, who was doubling on guitar.
Eventually, Otis even broached "Strawberry Letter No. 23," referring to it as "a song made famous by the Brothers Johnson." The crowd naturally lost its shit as he dug into the repeating riff that spiraled into a psychedelic maelstrom as his six-person crew of veterans churned behind him.
Although Otis started forty minutes late, he opened with classics "Inspiration Information" and "Aht Uh Mi Hed." That alone should have been enough to satisfy the sold-out crowd. But he continued forward, proving himself the heir to the Otis family throne as a straight-forward blues showman with an unwavering control of the six-string guitar. Too bad for those who left early.
Personal Bias: I like a meltdown as much as the next person.
The Crowd: Varied but hovering mostly in the 20 and 30 year old scenester demographic.
Random Notebook Dump: I knew the night was over when I caught Johnny Rotten checking out my wife dancing to the post-show rocksteady offerings.

Shuggie Otis @ LA Weekly

Monday, November 26, 2012

Ahmad Jamal Quartet - OC Weekly

Ahmad Jamal Quartet
November 24
Segerstrom Concert Hall
82-year-old Ahmad Jamal is an undisputed master of the piano. His use of space and repetition hold a unique place in a genre that prizes dexterity and note count.On Saturday night, before a disappointingly spacious crowd (why were those choir seats empty in front and full in the back?), Jamal led his quartet through a brief set of standards that highlighted his mastery of the 88 keys of ebony and ivory.
In the center of Segerstrom's elegant concert hall, Jamal set up alongside upright bassistReginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Bedrena. As Jamal approached the piano he started playing, not even waiting to sit down while his band was already seated and ready to go. They launched quickly into a steady backbeat with Jamal setting the tone over his churning band.
It must be a challenge to play alongside Jamal. He constantly conducts from the piano, pointing at band members for solos while frequently allowing the unit to ring without any solos. Jamal has a confidence in open spaces that would terrify most younger musicians but in Jamal's hands patience is rewarded. The quartet held a cohesive sound that never let up on the groove, breathing new life into standards like "Blue Moon" and "Like Someone in Love." The band is spooky good at following Jamal's whims, jutting left than right like a flock of birds.
Around 8:45 the band stood up as a unit and bowed, drawing a scattered standing ovation. Was this intermission? Nope, apparently just a chance for the band to stretch together at the front of the stage. They returned to their instruments and proceeded to play a couple more tunes including Jamal's 1958 hit, "Poinciana."
Not a lot of jazz musicians play their hits (jazz musicians have hits?). The genre gives most musicians permission to play whatever the hell they want. Although Jamal is not much of a talker from the stage (when he named his band members, his voice was indecipherable), he does frequently grant the audience a taste of the past. That unmistakable lilt of "Poinciana" popped from Riley's mallets and the audience was applauding before Jamal struck a note.
I wonder if Jamal has been playing the song consistently for the last 54 years or if he made peace with it at a certain point. The band worked through an extended version of the song with Jamal ringing low end clusters and high repetitious phrases as Bedrena kept a steady pulse on a tambourine before they closed with a coy trill.
And that was it. The band stood up and bowed, the audience stood up and clapped. The house lights turned on at 9'15 and what felt like an intermission was actually the end. The audience, barely surfacing from a post-Thanksgiving haze seemed to be just getting into things when it was all over. Last month, Pat Metheny played for twice as long and I enjoyed it half as much. Oh well. In classic showbiz style, Jamal left the audience wanting more.
Critical Bias: I have heard Ahmad Jamal play twice before in the last ten years. Both times he played "Poinciana."
The Crowd: Respectfully attentive but disappointingly spacious.
Overheard:"I'm so glad he played that song."
Random Notebook Dump:The night played out more as a club gig than a concert hall gig. I guess at the age of 82 you can play for however long you like.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Austin Peralta, RIP - LA Weekly

Jazz pianist Austin Peralta died yesterday, at age 22.
The son of Venice Beach skateboarding legend Stacy Peralta, his iconoclastic lineage gave him a unique perspective, with his long blonde hair more reminiscent of the boardwalk than the practice room.
Nonetheless, Peralta was a regular presence on Southern Californian piano benches, popping up on short notice with his band in a Westside lounge, as part of Kamasi Washington's double-barreled ensemble in a well-amplified club or the occasional pick-up gig including an appearance the night he died.
He also worked with Flying Lotus, who announced Peralta's passing on his twitter account early this morning:
it kills me to type that we lost a member of our family, Austin Peralta. I don't really have the right words right now.

On Tuesday night, Peralta lent spiraling keyboards to vocalist Natasha Agrama's passionate performance at the Blue Whale, pulling off articulate runs and sensitive accompaniment behind a set list that ranged from Bjork to Mingus. He was often featured as the lone instrumental voice alongside Agrama, highlighting his deft touch with nary a note out of place as he worked his incomparable magic. He appeared joyous and playful that night, both on the bandstand and between sets.
Now, for most of us, that magic will be confined to the handful of albums he left behind. Last year, Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label released Peralta's Endless Planets, a record we gladly placed on our top five jazz records of the year. It was a psychedelic trip through pulsating soul that, alongside Thundercat's the Golden Age of Apocalypse (on which Peralta also played) heralded something truly fantastic and new. Peralta had moved far beyond teenage phenom and into a sound that resonated with promise and originality, giving hope to the future of the Los Angeles jazz scene.
Now only great "what ifs" remain as he will always be preserved in boyish youth and limitless potential. A truly devastating loss.
That he died at only 22 is hard to believe; I first saw him leading a trio nearly ten years ago. Blessed with a devastating left hand, Peralta was driving the now-defunct Lunaria in Century City into a frenzy despite being a very young kid. I couldn't have been much older than 22 at the time and it drove me crazy because while I was trying to figure out what to do with a piano, he seemed to have a lot of it already figured out.
Rest in peace, Austin.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Kareem's Top Jazz List - LA Weekly

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, legendary UCLA and Lakers center, six-time NBA MVP and Bruce Lee foe, has had a passion for jazz his entire life. Raised in New York, Abdul-Jabbar had the opportunity to soak up the center of the jazz world at one of its most vital periods. He regularly crammed himself into the tiny tables at the Village Vanguard as a teenager and now more than twenty years retired manages to take in a show at the equally tight quarters at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

As part of a recent interview with the LA Weekly, Abdul-Jabbar offered up his list of essential jazz albums. It is a solid list of classics that belong in anyone’s record collection so here, in no particular order, are those records.

Herbie Hancock
Empyrean Isles (1964)

Sam Rivers
Fuchsia Swing Song (1965)

Miles Davis  
Miles Ahead (1957)

Chick Corea
Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)

Miles Davis
Kind of Blue (1959)

Miles Davis
Cookin’ (1956)

Miles Davis
Birth of the Cool (1957)

Sonny Rollins
A Night at the Village Vanguard (1957)

John Coltrane
Live! At the Village Vanguard (1962)

John Coltrane
Coltrane Plays Blues (1962)

John Coltrane
Blue Train (1957)

Thelonious Monk
Monk’s Music (1957)

Thelonious Monk
Monk’s Dream (1963)

Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall
Town Hall Concert (1959)

Larry Young
Unity (1966)

Freddie Hubbard
Ready for Freddie (1961)

Wynton Marsalis
Black Codes From the Underground (1985)

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra
Thad Jones Legacy (1999)

Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins
Brilliant Corners (1957)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Kareem on Jazz - LA Weekly

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer. As both a Bruin and a Laker, he is a pillar of Los Angeles basketball. On Friday, Nov. 16, he will have his jersey number retired, and a statue of him will be unveiled outside Staples Center. That's fine and all, but we wanted to talk to him about jazz.

Your father was a musician. Were you always surrounded by jazz?

Absolutely. My mom and dad both sang in the Hall Johnson choral groups. They did the background work on the late-'40s film Cabin in the Sky. My dad started at Juilliard right after the war, class of 1952. He played trombone, tuba and baritone horn. In my household there was always music on the turntable. I started out on Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine, my parents' favorites.

[Bassist] Ron Carter used to play basketball with us on Riverside Drive in Harlem. He'd come and play when I was in the ninth grade. At first I didn't know he was Ron Carter. He was just one of the guys who would come play with us. He wasn't that great [laughs]. When his son RJ was born, he missed taking his wife to the hospital. His wife couldn't find him because he was with us, playing basketball.
My dad took me the very first times I heard music live, but by the time I got to high school I was on my own. The Village Vanguard was just awesome. Mr. Gordon, who ran the place, would let me in for free because I was really good friends with the guys in Thelonious Monk's band. I saved a lot of money that way.

What was the jazz scene like when you arrived at UCLA in 1965?

I got a chance to hear some good music at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, Shelly's Manne-Hole in Hollywood. There was a club called Marty's on the Hill in Baldwin Hills at La Brea and Stocker. That was a great spot. I saw Miles' band play at the Orange County Fairgrounds in the spring of '66. UCLA had good jazz performances on campus too. I got to see Mingus, Ellington, John Handy, all those guys.

You had your own jazz festival in the 1970s. How was that experience as a jazz promoter?

Leonard Feather gave me a great write-up in the L.A. Times. I can still remember the review. He said, "Jazz scores with an assist from Jabbar." I did it at the Ahmanson. I was lucky. ... I didn't think it had to make sense financially. Fortunately for me, it was not a financial bust. At the end of it all, I think I made $2,000. People told me, "At least you finished in the black," but as you can tell, I didn't do it again.

My dad played. The people in my office arranged that. My parents came out for the festival, but I was never of the opinion that my dad was someone who people might want to hear play. It was not my idea. I should have known when I saw [his] trombone case, but I didn't put it together. He didn't embarrass me. That's all I was worried about.

What are you listening to these days?

I'm really enjoying the ascendance of Robert Glasper. It's just wonderful to see someone from the young generation, who appreciates all the music that I have enjoyed. He's aware of it and made his own take on it. He's still loyal to the tradition without distorting it. I think that that's pretty great.

Kareem @ LA Weekly

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dayna Stephens review - NYC Jazz Record

Young tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens has been
dogged by health issues lately. While waiting for a
kidney donation, he continues a rigorous schedule of
dialysis but his newest album is filled with strength
and vitality. Recorded over a single day last October,
Stephens managed to compile ten confident
performances with a stellar band.

Stephens sticks mostly to the seize-the-day
direction but he starts the album off with a confident
swing through Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”. His
languid take on the melody floats over the driving
rhythm section of pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Kiyoshi
Kitagawa and drummer Donald Edwards.
After that masterful display, a majority of the
focus is on Stephens’ pen. The swinging “Kwooked
Stweet” places the leader in tight harmony with
trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, Stephens putting his
guttural honk to use, digging in over Edwards’
persistent cymbal. “Radio-active Earworm” is
supplemented by the addition of Raffi Garabedian.
The two tenor saxophones blend in close harmony on
held-out tones while Parks takes an equally spacious
solo. Guitarist Julian Lage is added to the troupe for
Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus”, taken as a gentle
waltz with Rodriguez returning on flugelhorn. The band 
digs into the Parks-enabled ‘70s vibe, neither rushing nor dragging
the tune, as Lage takes a brief but spidery solo.
Parks makes a couple of compositional
contributions that bring out the beast in Stephens.
“Hard-boiled Wonderland” gets a rich tenor solo over
the pulsating rhythm section while album closer
“Cartoon Element” is equally bright. Stephens and
Parks dip and dive in formation on the melody before
the tune turns into a tug of war between Stephens’
splattering phrases and the rumbling rhythm section.
The resulting hour plus is an inspiring collection
of performances that rise above Stephens’ health
hurdles and present a powerful band rolling through a
well-rehearsed set. Here’s to many more tomorrows.

Sara Gazarek - NYC Jazz Record

Sara Gazarek does not sound like Blossom Dearie.
Thankfully, she isn’t trying to. Instead, the young, Los
Angeles-based vocalist is reaching a sound of her own,
a little less coy but no less swinging in her tip of the
cap to the late Dearie. Under the production guidance
of organist Larry Goldings, Gazarek sticks with her
working group (pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Hamilton
Price, drummer Zach Harmon) to craft a dozen tunes
that roll with a popping, straight ahead swing.

The album opens with a song associated with
Dearie’s 1957 debut, “Everything I’ve Got”. The upbeat
tale of physical violence is driven by Harmon’s crisp
drumming while Nelson takes a brief, two-handed
solo. Guitarist John Pizzarelli follows, lending a little
celebrity to the ensemble, dueting on the titular
Gazarek co-write. The two tangle in tight harmonies as
Gazarek works her higher range. She gets a little too
sentimental on a cover of Ben Folds’ pop love song
“The Luckiest” (Gazarek notes that both she and her
husband have a snippet of the lyrics tattooed with hers
clearly visible on her outstretched arm on the cover).
The album retorts with a little oomph, letting Harmon
drive on the bell of his cymbal during “Down With
Love” while Nelson gives an off-kilter solo that bounds
across the keyboard. A pair of well-worn standards
hover next to each other. “Tea for Two” gets a sultry,
slow rendition with Price getting room to amble gently
for a chorus while “I’m Old Fashioned” feels equally
hushed but the band quietly churns, peaking during
Nelson’s flickering solo.

The album closes with another nod to Dearie,
“Unpack Your Adjectives”, from the old Schoolhouse
Rock series. Goldings lends some blues organ touches
as Nelson is muscular on the piano, Gazarek adding
some sass to her delivery, which will hopefully make
more than a cameo in her next album.

Gazarek has a beautiful, pure voice that is
perpetually indebted to the lyrics. Rather than flighty
histrionics or bubbly mumbling, Gazarek sells the tune
with a straightforward, refreshing approach. Hopefully
it will be less than five years before her next outing.

Sara Gazarek @ NYC Jazz Record

Franchesca Robi Carries Platters' Torch - OC Weekly

Paul Robi was the booming baritone of the 50s vocal group the Platters. He stayed with the group through their chart topping heyday, performing on timeless classics like "Only You," "The Great Pretender" and "Twilight Time." He passed away in the late 1980s, performing for as long as his body would allow. This summer his daughter, Franchesca, released a collection of Platters covers in tribute to her father's legacy, proving a inherited sense of phrasing and romance. She spoke with us by phone in anticipation of her Society of Singers benefit this Monday.

OC Weekly (Sean J. O'Connell): How old were you when you realized what your father did for a 

Franchesca Robi: I think I realized how famous the group was when I got to my teenage years. I went on tour with them a lot. That was kind of interesting. We'd be out of school a little bit too much. It was fun to travel with my dad. They were so well known around the world. That was really cool to go to a different country and see people who didn't speak English but knew the lyrics to Platters songs.
The weird thing is we got the same response everywhere we went - Indonesia, Australia, Taiwan, Finland. People loved the music. People loved it no matter what. My mom and my dad loved performing in Japan the most. They absolutely loved the Platters in Japan. I toured there for many years too. After my dad passed I continued on with the music. We had a great time there. People love the idea of the daughter carrying on the father's music.

What do you think the Platters' legacy is?

I think it's timeless music. The songs were love songs with beautiful melodies and harmonies. Their music was so beautiful. They don't make songs like that anymore. The whole combination is what made that group and they were such smooth, elegant performers. They were sort of in the same vein as Nat King Cole, that type of swagger. It was amazing to see them perform.
They were more into love songs and ballads. Even though they were in that doo wop scene, everyone would get together and slow dance to them. People would come up to my dad and say "we fell in love to this song" or they conceived their first child listening to one of their songs.

Your album seems like quite a production with strings and a jazz quintet. What did it take to make it happen?

It was a project that my mom and I had talked about for many years. It all came together last year. We met the right people who wanted to get involved. Next thing you know we were in the studio. We recorded the whole thing at Capitol Records in Hollywood. The Platters' first hit was recorded there as well. It was an amazing experience doing the record there. The engineer we used at Capitol, Dan Wallin, is one of the oldest engineers still working. He's very in-demand and he had just done the soundtrack for Mission Impossible. He helped me get all the musicians together for the quintet [including bassist Chuck Berghofer, drummer Peter Erskine]. He was in the first session with the orchestra. He loved my voice. He said "you gotta get back in here and I have the perfect guys for you."

You're fundraiser is for the Society of Singers. What is their mission?

The organization was founded by Henry Mancini's wife, Ginny. She put it together for singers who have medical problems. There isn't usually health insurance for available for singers. The organization is there to help people who are unable to take care of their medical costs. It's a great cause and I'm glad to be a part of it.

Robi @ OC Weekly