Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Just a New York Conversation: Lou Reed - LA Weekly

Lou Reed is a rock and roll legend. That is an indisputable fact. And he doesn't bless Southern California with his downtown swagger very often. So when he takes part in a staged conversation it is only fair that he gets to pick the subjects.

Unfortunately for many who paid $45 bucks to hear Reed's deadpan drawl on CSULB's Carpenter Performing Arts Center stage Friday, he was mostly interested in discussing his 1975 attempt at career suicide, Metal Machine Music, which is also the focus of the art show Reed was there to promote. The topics of the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, even Metallica, were ignored in favor of Cartesian coordinates and pressure gradients.

Based on the few dozen walk-outs it is safe to say that some people were disappointed to not hear about David Bowie but more surprisingly Reed and moderator Bob Ezrin seemed disappointed that many in the audience didn't share their enthusiasm for $400 dollar headphones.

The evening started out promising. Reed, weeks from 70, ambled across the stage, wearing an ensemble of faded black with red socks, greeted by a standing ovation. Ezrin, a man with many multi-platinum production credits (Pink Floyd's The Wall, Kiss' Destroyer, Alice Cooper's School's Out), promised a "public conversation between two dear friends." And that conversation seemed pretty relaxed.

Reed addressed the Occupy Wall Street movement ("everyone is wondering where the fuck are the students these days?"), Newt Gingrich ("three wives and conservative values. Maybe he knows something we don't.") and even the contributions of African-Americans to popular song ("if we didn't have black people, we'd be fucked. We'd still be doing jigs...nevermind R&B and the dunk-shot.") And then things took a turn.

After a fairly lengthy discussion about the greatness of a particular brand of earbuds, a member of the audience expressed his disinterest in the topic. "You guys are talking about headphones?" yelled the surly, hirsute audience member. To which Reed challenged him to stand up and identify himself and another member of the audience shouted at the heckler "stand up, asshole!" The uninhibited man did stand up and escorted himself out of the theater after a brief fist-pump. From there on out the evening was dedicated to Metal Machine Music and the art show.

A mere ten-minute hike from the theater, a darkened room in the University Art Museum already emitting the dense smell of body heat houses the art show, a $80,000 dollar sound-immersion project. The twelve-speaker project attempts to recreate the spatial sensation of standing on stage amid Reed's harrowing feedback, which was re-recorded in 2009 in New York. If you can withstand the aural assault ("loud" was probably the most popular word of the evening), the project is impressive. Anytime there is more than one adult lying on the floor, you know you are in for an interesting time.

At the event, Reed and Ezrin were eventually joined by members of Reed's band (Ulrich Krieger, Sarth Calhoun) and the tech-heads who helped make it possible. The rest of the evening was then dedicated to the discussion of sines and cosines and at that point the walk-outs accelerated.

An agonizing question and answer session, which sometimes had two or three people asking a question at the same time, only helped to insure that little else would be discussed on stage.

Reed even admitted that the biggest mistake he made about Metal Machine Music was "putting it out." So it was curious to see him baffled by some of the audience's disinterest in the subject.

Ezrin closed the evening by essentially apologizing for their passionate gear-talk. "I want to thank everyone for indulging us," he said. "This is how our brain's work. It's not a show."

And with that the house lights got a little brighter, the remaining audience applauded and "Walk on the Wild Side" started playing over the house speakers.

Come back soon, Lou!

Lou Reed @ LA Weekly

Monday, January 30, 2012

Top Ten Best Live Music Venues - LA Weekly

Here's my contribution to the ten best venues list for LA Weekly. Pretty good list.

8. Blue Whale

Located in a corner of Little Tokyo that sees the least amount of foot traffic, the Blue Whale is a jazz sanctuary. The sound system is perfect, the house piano is a jewel and the bar staff takes care of you. Whether you want to hear avant-noise from serious-looking Europeans or soak up some straight-ahead sounds from our vast collection of local talent, the Blue Whale is always a worthwhile bet.

Top Ten Best Live Music Venues (#10 - #6) @ LA Weekly

Thursday, January 26, 2012

LA Jazz Clubs Need More Loud Drunks - LA Weekly

A little heckling never hurt...

Over the summer I was at the Blue Whale jam session when a handful of drunken girls were asked to leave for being too chatty. Set aside the miracle of a bunch of drunken girls actually being at a jazz club; the fact that they booted on a night when literally anyone can play is absurd. And probably not too good for business, either.

Regardless of what snotty musicians might think, jazz clubs could use a few more noisy drunks, girls or otherwise, because not only do they pay the bills, they bring a bit of energy to a sometimes-sullen genre.

Before long jazz will be as bad as classical. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's website says that if you're not sure when to applaud, "the safest course is to wait until the conductor has turned around to face the audience and everyone is clapping." The message seems to be that people with unbridled enthusiasm should go somewhere else, somewhere where they're not as strict with the rules to their music.

But second only to classical snobs are jazz snobs. For a genre based largely on improvisation, it's odd that they take pride in applauding at just the right time , and pity those unfamiliar with the genre's increasingly rigid code of conduct.

Jazz got its start in brothels and bars. Somewhere around the time Miles turned his back on the audience and suburban kids started studying it in college, jazz transformed from entertainment to "art," and nowadays rarely looks back. Over-educated musicians expect silence and awe at their increasingly inaccessible sounds, whether it is deserved or not. The threat of a slurred heckle could do a lot to put that pretension aside.

Jazz players have long complained that they don't make any money. Could that perhaps be because they've seemingly pushed away anyone who might be casually interested, leaving little more than a few scattered intellectuals and their own family members? Why would anyone but the most devoted go out with friends to a jazz club when the experience is more akin to a church service?

At New York's Winter Jazzfest earlier this month, there were 65 bands over two nights, and over 4000 people showed up. The crowds were diverse and the drinks were flowing. The solution to combat the noise was to turn the bands up even louder, and most everyone seemed to be having a good time. Why can't we do that here? Sometimes, we can: Jax in Glendale is like that on good nights, and no one seems to mind. After all, people are there, first and foremost, to be entertained.

So I've come up with a simple solution: put a double-sided sign in front of every "jazz" club. If the sign reads "entertainment" that means we can bring our friends and have a good time. If the sign reads "art" that means we can show up alone, nurse a single beer and furrow our brows in silent reverie. That way everybody's happy. Right?

Loud Drunks @ LA Weekly

Monday, January 23, 2012

Brian Charette - LA Weekly

Brian Charette - Road Warrior

The last time I was here, I was chased out of my agent's place in West Hollywood with a baseball bat...Long story short, out comes the bat and I had to pack up my things in Trader Joe's bags and split. Halfway down the strip to my friend Samsonic's house, I passed a few other LA bums with their stuff in bags just like me. We looked each other up and down for a moment, then kept walking. I'm hoping this [L.A.] outing has a little less drama. -Brian Chrette's email pitch to LA Weekly

"Feel it," says the New York-based organist Charette, offering his pinky finger. "It's fused." We are standing at the bar of a small French bistro in Manhattan, having just met five minutes prior. His pinky finger is fixed into a permanent crook due to an amp falling on it ten years ago. "I can't play classical anymore" says Charette examining his damaged digit. "But I can still play jazz!"

Charette is the consummate road-warrior, and he has the scars to prove it. His pulpy organ sound has backed such disparate artists as soul-jazz legend Lou Donaldson and scarf-draped dandy Rufus Wainwright. This Tuesday Charette plays the first of three gigs in Los Angeles at the Mint alongside guitarist Greg Erba and drummer Andy Sanesi.

The night before we met, Charette played a gig in Boston. The next day, he was bound for Prague. After Los Angeles comes a couple of weeks in Southeast Asia. This dedication to gigging, although not much for his social life, has brought him before a lot of crowds. "I play about 330 gigs a year. In New York in the '90s, I'd play ten or eleven gigs a week!" He adds wistfully: "Those days are long gone."

To make up for it Charette has taken to what many stability-craving musicians do: he's teaching. "I just started writing these master class articles for Keyboard magazine. They're a lot of fun and the response has been great." Tackling subjects like orchestration and chord voicings, Charette has found a forum for his techniques, and he offers private lessons via Skype.

Charette has a controlled sound on the organ, taking a classic approach to both technique and instrumentation with his bands. His nimble lines follow in the footsteps of B3 masters like Jimmy Smith and Dr. Lonnie Smith. His patience and deliberation led WBGO tastemaker Josh Jackson to declare Charette a "master of space and time."

But Charette isn't just master of musical battles. As his website kungfugue.com attests, Charette could probably beat the shit out of you too; after all, he holds a "black sash" in White Crane kung fu, whatever that is. After ten years of study with a few less-than-stable mentors, Charette could probably do some damage, crooked pinky and all. He is even embarking on a project to bring his passions together, incorporating kung fu into his music like modern dance.

For now, Charette is focused on playing as many gigs as it takes to pay the rent. Despite being warmly embraced by the people of the Czech Republic finding an audience in sunnier domestic climates has proven difficult. "I have put more time into booking Los Angeles than anywhere else," says Charette. "I've made three trips to L.A. in the last year and a half. What's interesting is the crowd but I love it in L.A. I especially like walking there."

Brian Charette @ LA Weekly

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Portlandia: The Tour - LA Weekly

Portlandia: The Tour
The Echoplex

Portlandia, the Pacific Northwest-skewering IFC comedy show now in its second season, has run less than ten episodes. But SNL'er Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney rocker Carrie Brownstein have clearly captured a devoted following. Last night, for an hour and a half, Portlandia: the Tour -- featuring Armisen, Brownstein and a handful of special guests -- presented their second sold-out night at the Echoplex, to an audience of hardcore fans.

The evening turned out to be neither rock concert nor comedy show, but more of an interactive convention for devotees of dumpster diving and homemade crafts. After a brief video introduction from the show's fictional mayor, Kyle MacLachlan, Armisen and Brownstein emerged for a 21st century Burns & Allen routine, sharing Armisen's increasingly clingy text messages, like "Your birth was not a birth but the death of all others."

The duo then strapped on some instruments (Armisen - bass/vocals, Brownstein - guitar/vocals) and were joined for several songs by Telekinesis mastermind Michael Lerner on drums and Brownstein's Wild Flag bandmate, keyboardist Rebecca Cole. "The Dream of the 90s," which appeared in the first episode, succinctly summed up the demographic of the audience ("In Portland, you can put a bird on something and call it art.") and drew supportive swaying.

The in-jokes continued. Between clips of the new season, Aubrey Plaza appeared in a skit that had her helping the show's feminist bookstore owners find a Los Angeles outpost. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani appeared as a car rental clerk.

The audience shouted comments at the stage, often receiving replies from the performers. At one point a moderator-free microphone was passed through the crowd for a question and answer session. Considering how awful those kind of things can be, this one was mercifully concise. But pity for anyone who had not seen the show at this point because the real nerd questions were handed out in droves (Tom Hulce is their dream guest. Beloved extra Ellen Bloodworth has some good Jerry Orbach stories.)

The evening closed with two songs aided by ageless Bangle Susanna Hoffs. The band opened with a loose but poppy version of the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning" and closed with a Velvet-y version of "Manic Monday," complete with feedback and thrashing windmills from Brownstein that resulted in a broken string.

And then, much like a Portlandia sketch, it was abruptly over. Brownstein, licking the frosting off a cupcake, said a clipped thanks and the piped-in reggae music that had started the evening returned.

Personal Bias: I miss Flight of the Conchords.

The Crowd: SNL fans, Sleater-Kinney fans and cat lovers.

Random Notebook Dump: Someone could have made a lot of money selling food (or pitchforks and torches) to the hundreds of ticket holders waiting in line a half hour after the supposed showtime.

Portlandia @ LA Weekly

Thursday, January 12, 2012

LA Jazz Collective Residency - LA Weekly

Matt Otto Duo
Ariel Alexander Group
Matt Otto Quintet
Blue Whale

Better than...watching the People's Choice Awards

Last night, after a few technical difficulties and a strict adherence to "jazz time," the second of four residency performances by the LA Jazz Collective got underway at Little Tokyo's Blue Whale. The evening featured three bands presented by two leaders (saxophonists Matt Otto and Ariel Alexander) creating what Alexander cheekily referred to as a "Matt Otto sandwich."

The evening opened with tenor-man Otto working through a demure set alongside pianist Leonard Thompson. The two share a long history together and it was evident in their playing. For much of the set Otto hovered around his breathy lower register while Thompson laid down an impressionistic pillow of support. After a slight foray into the outer realms Otto returned with "All The Things You Are," giving it an airy swing that stopped one chord short of resolution. It was a pleasant set but a little sleepy, prompting the man next to me to get himself a cup of coffee.

The second set was led by alto saxophonist Ariel Alexander. Alexander, backed by a solid quintet that included mountainous bassist Tim Lefbrve, played a handful of originals composed by her and her guitarist (and husband), Jon Bremen. Alexander has a tight, controlled sound on the alto but it was often marred by needless and sometimes maddening effects. Nonetheless, within seconds of their opener, drummer Chaun Horton taught the house drum kit who was in charge, pounding with a relentless precision that never let up whether he was using sticks or brushes. The band even got the beanies in the crowd bobbing with their furious backbeat. But throughout the set only Lefbrve appeared to be having any fun, getting so funky on the last tune he had to sit down. Only when speaking did Alexander display a playful personality that could have been put to good use had it been channeled through her horn.

The final set of the evening featured the return of Otto with an instrumentation identical to Alexander's group, but in a more straight-ahead setting. In lieu of Horton's thunder we got the solid rhythm and Keith Moon-esque grimaces of drummer Jason Harnell and the equally stoic guitar work of Jamie Rosenn. Otto's democratic dispensing of solos led to some great turns from keyboardist Gary Fukushima -- who drew sharp yelps from his worn Wurlitzer -- and fearless bassist Ryan McGilliccuddy, who took the only four-stringed solos of the night. Towards the end of the set, nearly four hours after the start of the concert, Thompson returned to sit in with the quintet, literally sharing a piano bench with Fukushima. The band burned through Otto's obscure homage to George Shearing, creating a chordal wall that Otto had little trouble climbing.

Now halfway through their residency, the LA Jazz Collective has proven themselves worthy representatives of this sprawling city, with the ability to fill a room and keep them there. Their adventurous programming is a great testament to the vitality of the Los Angeles jazz scene.

Personal Bias: I attended the first ever meeting of the LA Jazz Collective. I said very little and enjoyed my breakfast.

The Crowd: Young people doubled up on little chairs. Old people doubled over them.

Random Notebook Dump: With all the feet moving around and all the drinks placed on the floor it was pretty impressive that only three glasses were broken.

LA Jazz Collective @ LA Weekly

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Best of...2011

I contributed to two larger "Best of" lists for LA Weekly.


Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
by Ellen Willis

This compilation of The New Yorker's first pop critic pulses with unbridled passion for artists as diverse as the Who, Bowie and the Boss. The unsung Willis had a keen eye for the importance of her subjects that helped to elevate the status of both the artists she wrote about and the genre of criticism she helped to create.

Best Books of 2011 @ LA Weekly

LA Jazz shows:

Walter Smith III
Blue Whale, December 17

Joon Lee, the modest personality behind Little Tokyo's Blue Whale, is an indispensible part of the local jazz community who books some of the most daring acts in Los Angeles. Saxophonist Walter Smith III, a hard-swinging transplant, was one such act earlier this month. His band of ringers put on an powerhouse set before a standing-room only crowd that reminded everyone that there is a sizable (and bar-patronizing!) jazz community in Los Angeles.

Best LA Jazz Shows @ LA Weekly

Mary Halvorson/Jessica Pavone - NYC Jazz Record

Departure of Reason - Halvorson/Pavone

Since the early aughts, guitarist Mary Halvorson has
built a sturdy reputation from behind her hollowbodied
guitar. Her bending lines and precise phrasing,
even in the midst of chaos, can be found throughout
poorly ventilated rooms around the city. The equally
prolific violist Jessica Pavone can often be found
bowing right alongside her. For their newest release,
armed with just two voices and ten strings, the pair
have woven together an hour’s worth of original
material (five compositions apiece) that oscillates
between swaying folk and churning avant garde,
sometimes within the same measure.

“That Other Things” opens the album with
Halvorson playing a chunky oom-pah behind Pavone’s
spacious melody for three slowly building minutes
before Halvorson kicks out a staccato phrase that
quickly escapes into one of her signature jagged lines.
“Hyphen” starts with a promising dissonant Santo &
Johnny strum until halfway through when Pavone
starts repeating the same scale over and over to
aggravating effect. The song eventually dissolves into
a distorted display of flickering guitar and swaying
viola that lurches towards a demure conclusion. The
chamber bounce of the curiously titled “Onslaught”
balances intricately woven lines with lighthearted
aplomb while the give-and-take of penultimate “Ruin”
delves into a harsher realm with Halvorson’s eight-bit
bends and distorted barre chords diving around
Pavone’s jagged downstrokes.

The three songs that feature vocals are quite
different, almost pop-like in tone. “The Object of
Tuesday” has a choppy beat that finds Halvorson and
Pavone in extremely tight harmonies, often sounding
vocally and instrumentally reminiscent of the Haden
sisters. The repeated phrases (the word ‘city’ appears
20 times in the first four lines) add a hypnotic lull
whereas the dirgey vibe of “Saturn” uses the lyrics
more spaciously, revealing that “belief” is the
“departure of reason”. Album closer “Why Should You
Surrender?” meanwhile finds both women in plucked
synchronization. The vocals are also sparser and
contain a sort of lecturey Ooompa Loompa-esque
repetition that is eventually demolished by Halvorson’s
spidery guitar.

Although this album has its charms amid the stark
instrumentation it would be great to hear these same
compositions backed by a hard-rocking rhythm section.
In the meantime these bare performances stand as a
winning testament to their complex partnership.

Halvorson/Pavone @ NYC Jazz Record

Kris Bowers - LA Weekly

Kris Bowers - "Keeping the Young People Aware"

When most college students return home for winter break, they watch TV in the den and get drunk with high school friends.

Pianist Kris Bowers, a 22-year old-graduate student at Julliard, however, has come home to Los Angeles with some big prizes, and will perform at Catalina Bar & Grill tomorrow night, January 4th. The awards? After winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition in September, he now possesses a recording contract and a $25,000 scholarship.

"Last time the Monk competition featured the piano was five years ago," says Bowers. "I knew a lot of people that were doing it then. All three people that placed I looked up to. I was determined that next time it was piano that I was going to apply myself."

So Bowers buckled down to perform in front of a judging panel that included piano greats like Ellis Marsalis, Danilo Perez and Herbie Hancock. His subtle command of the instrument -- both tasteful and deliberate with little of the flash that can mar a musician his age -- beat out the international array of contestants.

"Since the competition I've been having a lot of conversations with Jason Moran," says Bowers. "He's given me some good advice. He says I should really play in the sound of today, and make sure I'm incorporating that and all the things that are affecting me musically."

Julliard Jazz Studies director Carl Allen secured Bowers' talents early with an undergraduate scholarship. "The biggest challenge for him will be to keep balance," says Allen. "What to say yes to and what to say no to. I think if he's got that balance and keeps great mentors close by, he'll do a lot of wonderful things."

It hasn't all been swing and studies for Bowers -- he did a gig with Q-Tip at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, and it just so happened that Kanye West was a guest. From that serendipitous meeting, Bowers found himself in the enviable position of playing on a few tracks for West and Jay-Z's ode to obscene wealth Watch the Throne.

For most of his career Bowers has worked as a sideman, picking up gigs with friends and classmates. But a part of the Monk prize is a recording contract for Concord Records, which will put him directly in the spotlight. "I've been trying to write a lot more now that I'm thinking about the album. I'm focusing on forming my music and my musical identity and trying to take make sure I do it the way I want. It's definitely new for me, but exciting."

For his homecoming show at Catalina's Bowers promises something unexpected. "It's not just going to be jazz standards," he says. "I'm trying to reflect all the things I'm in to - from indie rock to old school R&B to film scoring. I just want to keep the young people aware of what jazz music sounds like now."

Kris Bowers @ LA Weekly