Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Brad Mehldau's most recent album, Ode, is a return to the trio format that helped make him one of the most prominent jazz pianists of the last twenty years. His delicate touch, contemporary repertoire and impeccable co-horts helped to usher in what he defined over a series of albums as the "art of the trio." Last night at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Mehldau performed with longtime bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, proving that the "art" is still in his fingertips.
After a quiet delay (who starts at 7:30 on a Monday anyway?) the trio opened with late-'90s Paul McCartney song, "Great Day." After a short piano intro, Grenadier joined in on the descending melody. He took a throbbing solo on his upright behemoth before making way for Mehldau's soulful solo, his right hand poised over the keyboard at all times, contemplating his next move like a chess player.
In keeping with the theme of unparalleled classic rock songsmiths, the trio followed with Brian Wilson's "Friends." Ballard drove the group with his waltzing brushes, slowly transitioning to sticks one hand at a time. He offered up a calculated solo on his kit, dropping small bass bombs alongside Grenadier, while building to a thunderous riot.
From there Mehldau offered himself up with a trio of compositions. The first had the pianist exploring the piano's mid-range with a sleepy waltz, while the next was driven by Ballard's samba-ish brushes. Even a lengthy cell-phone ring couldn't phase the band as Mehldau dug deep this time into the lower register of the piano, displaying long snaking passages with his left hand.
The next original, "Ten Tune," got him pondering the meaning of titles of jazz tunes. "We have to think of all these cute titles," he said. "Let's face it, jazz titles are some of the worst." Regardless, this tune proved to be their longest workout with Grenadier reaching for his bow as he and Mehldau dropped the melody over Ballard's cracking snare and splattering cymbals. His drum solo stuck mostly to the toms, providing a melodic drive over Grenadier's bowing bass. Mehldau was eventually left to explore the tune on his own, drawing the most from the lower register in an unyielding, baroque examination.
The trio attempted to close the night with Johnny Mandel's "Where Do You Start?" Using a slow and straight reading, the ballad displayed their command of space, leaving long breaths between phrases. Mehldau's pensive solo was wrought with emotion drawing complete silence from the rapt crowd. It has been awhile since I heard a performer invest so much in an instrumental performance.
After a standing ovation, the trio returned for an encore. It turned out to be a bit of a drum feature with Ballard's propulsive sputtering hinting at the slightest backbeat. Grenadier offered a funky and floating solo while Mehldau focused his almost entirely on flying right-hand lines. The two melody men traded sixteen measure solos with Ballard before allowing him room to rumble away as Mehldau sat cross-legged on his piano bench. It was a strange juxtaposition considering the previous tune drew such somber reverie from the audience, but their follow-up allowed the band to display their astounding range.
Not that anyone was doubting it but Mehldau can still clearly drive a classic rhythm section. The band's willingness to take their time and build up a tune, regardless of its tempo, was an amazing feat to witness. Here's hoping for another local appearance soon. Maybe on a weekend.
Personal Bias: Mehldau can be interesting by himself and in the capable hands of Jon Brion, but the trio setting has always been my favorite.
The Crowd: Older, paler and watching through designer lenses. Plus, the usual jazz cats come to pay their respects.
Random Notebook Dump: The naming rights to the water fountains are $25,000 a piece, but the parking is free.
Brad Mehldau @ LA Weekly
Thursday, May 17, 2012
I think this list has had more readers than my entire writing career combined. It could be worse. Audio clips can be found through the LA Weekly link at the bottom.
Lots of folks know almost nothing about jazz, but condensing the hundred some odd years of the genre into ten albums is not easy, something akin to asking someone to describe the history of baseball in ten games. It also depends on where you're from. A guy in San Francisco is going to have a different opinion from someone in Cincinnati, but either way they'll both agree that the guy in the Yankees hat is full of shit. So here are ten jazz albums that will help to give you an idea of why people dig this stuff. This isn't even close to a definitive history of jazz, but rather the list we would use to convince someone the music is worthwhile.
10) Sarah Vaughan
Live at Mr. Kelly's (1957)
This album is the essence of jazz vocals. The band is clearly under-rehearsed, searching for keys and lyrics, but they are also having a great time and have Roy Haynes holding down the drum chair. Vaughan is loose and at the top of her game. You can just picture her leaning against the piano as the band takes a few tasteful spins through the chord changes. This album proves that all you need is a great feel and everything else will fall into place. Even if you can't remember the words.
9) Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers
Free For All (1964)
This album proves that jazz can have muscle. Not every jazzbo is sitting in the corner snapping his fingers and smoking a joint. A lot of jazz is downright terrifying and this is a good place to start. This music will and should scare you. A lot of people talk about the importance of Miles Davis' bands but Art Blakey basically ran an academy. Over a span of 35 years Blakey hired at least fifty great musicians for his Jazz Messengers: Horace Silver, Benny Golson, Hank Mobley, even a couple Marsalis brothers. This incarnation, which featured saxophonist Wayne Shorter, is our favorite. Reckless and unrelenting, the band sounds like an 18 wheeler barreling down the far left lane with little regard for human life. We're not even sure if they have their headlights on.
8) Ray Bryant
Alone with the Blues (1958)
Jazz is a pretty good genre for feeling sorry for yourself. Ray Bryant's solo piano album captures a mood of melancholy and solitude better than anybody. His effortless swing and beautiful left hand are the perfect accompaniment to sitting in the dark, drinking bourbon and remembering the good times. Whatever those were.
7) Ambrose Akinmusire
When the Heart Emerges Glistening (2009)
Where is jazz now? Jazz is here. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire released his debut last year and if we had to convince someone that jazz is still relevant we would hand them this. It's daring, it's challenging and it's accessible. Akinmusire takes a journey that is both progressive and in the pocket. This is, no doubt, the shape of jazz to come.
6) Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius (1976)
Electric bassist Jaco Pastorius introduced a lot of things to jazz -- stunning dexterity, steel drums, headbands. I'm not saying it was all good but his record did go on to influence every electric bassist since. But this album isn't entirely about playing a thousand notes per measure; he also managed to reunite Sam & Dave, and it's a sprawling collection of styles and excess that would go on to have a profound effect through the '70s and '80s. It opened up a lot of avenues both commercially and musically for jazz musicians.
5) Duke Ellington/Charles Mingus/Max Roach
Money Jungle (1963)
Duke Ellington is the definition of jazz. His compositions are still played today, his persona is still copied and his lifestyle is still envied. By the time this album was recorded he was 64 years old. (Dig that hat!) Bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach were nearly twenty-five years younger. The album brims with tension whether it is Ellington's twenty-ton paws crashing on the piano or Mingus' menacing thump. The resulting album is an amazing collision of generations that testifies to Ellington's push for relevance til the day he died.
4) Miles Davis
A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
This list could easily be ten Miles Davis records; the man was a game changer almost every time he put the trumpet to his mouth. Obviously if you want classic, Brooks Brothers hipster jazz, start at Kind of Blue. This album, however, which is actually a film soundtrack, is our favorite of Miles' electric period. The band is just burning with drummer Billy Cobham bashing the hell out of his cymbals and John McLaughlin's jagged guitar chopping things to pieces. This one pairs well with a blacklight poster.
3) Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane
Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (1957)
Two of the most polarizing characters in jazz. Pianist Thelonious Monk was a harmonic innovator whose twisted fingers discovered strange beauty in sounds that had previously not been well received. His compositions were convoluted puzzles that revealed more than his little dances led on. Coltrane was even more mysterious. Within a few months he would go on to develop a technique known as "sheets of sound" before breaking open the avant-garde in the 1960s and dividing the jazz community like never before. His early '60s masterpiece A Love Supreme should be worked up to despite the fact that it is used as background music on KCRW every day.
2) Wes Montgomery w/ Wynton Kelly trio
Smokin' at the Half Note (1965)
Jazz has got to swing. The biggest gripe you hear from old timers always revolves around swing. This band? They fucking swung. Wes Montgomery had a unique full-toned sound on his guitar that never sounded better than when it was backed by pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb (the same trio were Miles Davis' rhythm section for a few years). For this album the band just flies with a determined playfulness. Montgomery may have made a few regrettable recording decisions at this time but this album alone is enough to erase those musical crimes.
1) Dizzy Gillespie
At Newport (1957)
Charlie Parker was the most influential alto saxophonist ever. His brilliant lines and reharmonizations created bebop in the late 40s and Dizzy Gillespie was standing right alongside him for most of that. The difference for us is that Dizzy always sounded like he was having a good time. Of course he could play his ass off too. This jovial performance at the Newport Jazz Festival finds Gillespie in top form, joking with everybody around him before exploding full-force over his unit of all-stars.
Top Ten Jazz @ LA Weekly
This is my profile of the great Joon Lee for LA Weekly's annual People Issue.
Anyone willing to open a jazz club these days must be a little crazy, but if Joon Lee is nuts, he's doing a great job of hiding it. In fact, since its late 2009 debut in Little Tokyo, his venue, Blue Whale, has become the go-to spot for new and emerging jazz artists from around the world.
"I was uncomfortable that people were always complaining about the jazz scene in L.A.," Lee says, perched at his venue's bar. "So I wanted to create an artists' hang. A place for writers, musicians, painters -- everybody."
While working the room on show nights, he functions as something of a jack-of-all-trades: Lee, 37, mans the door, works the soundboard and even clears empty wine glasses, all with serene calm.
Raised in Korea, the soft-spoken, affable Lee never really had much of a business plan. He came to New York from Seoul in 1995 to study architecture and discovered jazz while bussing tables at a West Village restaurant. He eventually took up singing himself. Two years later, on a whim, he moved to Los Angeles. "I only had one friend in the United States outside of New York, and that was in L.A.," he says.
A dozen years later, while he was working on an album, someone showed him the Blue Whale's space, and it drew him in. Although it is located in a fairly out-of-the-way spot -- and the address is more than a bit bewildering: 123 Astronaut E.S. Onizuka St., Suite 301 -- the club is well worth seeking out. Its ceiling is inscribed with poetry, its walls are adorned with photos of local musicians, and its bar is seductively lit. The sound system is high-quality, and the well-maintained house instruments are ready for anything.
But, like a good jazz club, darkness pervades, putting the focus squarely on the performers. Rather than booking big names, Lee concentrates on local notables like Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Walter Smith III. The young crowd that passes through always seems game.
"Sometimes I'm sitting at the mixer before the set and I can see the hunger in the performers' eyes," Lee says. "That for me is my inspiration."
It's been less than three years, but he already has successfully tapped into a scene that was desperately looking for a new home. The Los Angeles Times calls Blue Whale "one of the top spots for jazz in the city," and Lee finds the club's calendar booked months in advance.
"I'm not a businessman, but I'm learning. I wasn't looking to open a club," he says, adding wistfully: "I still haven't finished my album."
Joon Lee @ LA Weekly
Matt Chamberlain Residency with David Torn
Better than...watching the Lakers lose.
Last night, before a moderate-sized crowd, drummer Matt Chamberlain resumed his month-long residency alongside guitar slinger David Torn. The two instrumentalists, armed with impeccable understanding and a relentless light show, put on a display of instrumental prowess rarely offered in Los Angeles.
Torn is renowned for his avant-garde leanings. His spidery licks have graced the work everyone from David Bowie and Don Cherry to John Legend and kd lang. Chamberlain, a San Pedro success story, is a jack of all trades. He has backed everyone from Fiona Apple to William Shatner.
The duo entered bathed in green light. They started with a slow, industrial echo attached to Torn's guitar while Chamberlain laid down an ambient pulse. For the entirety of the set, the band dealt in atmospheric ramblings and propulsive backbeats. Torn provided a strange series of disjunct guitar riffs in response to Chamberlain's driving drum beats. Torn's nimble fingers fluttered over his six strings as Chamberlain pulsed about both acoustically and electronically.
The set was a strange experience, with the house lights flipped to every switch and providing an utmost laser/planetarium setting. In between, billowing fog set out over the first few rows of the crowd. Admirably, the duo set out to match the stadium atmospherics on offer.
Chamberlain was in deep correspondence with Torn's far-reaching guitar sounds, providing synchronized beats to his pyschedlic freak-out. Pity the late-comer, for how many colors can a curtain turn? And how much eye-sight is one willing to sacrifice to a laser beam? But the band showed no sign of stopping during their brief set, pummeling a bell-like tone as Torn gave it his all.
The second and final tune of the show was set to an EKG dance beat that had Chamberlain pounding on a stick-driven drum machine. Torn let loose over the metronomic pulse as the laser beams continued to scatter across the crowd like a delirious sniper. His searing guitar sounds bellowed over Chamberlain's thundering drum samples. Torn dove into a world with as many knobs as strings, providing a scattering animal-like sound that would have raised Sir David Attenborough's interest. The squeaks and purrs of his pulsating device were only matched by Chamberlain, who contained a rhythmic potpourri in his oddly-shaped drum kit.
At one point Chamberlain asked the house to ease up on the kaleidoscopic offerings. "Do you mind keeping the strobes down?" he asked. "Maybe a little lighter on the smoke?" Too bad. The show was becoming a happening but Chamberlain wasn't really interested in pleasing the more far-out audience members.
Their first exploratory set allowed the audience access to Chamberlain's many sides while Torn dug deep into his trick-bag. Although it may have been the least commercially appealing of Chamberlain's residency, it was brimming with challenges for both the performers and the audience, and a feat certainly worthy of high praise.
Personal Bias: I've always had a soft spot for Fiona Apple's "Criminal."
The Crowd: A lot of guitar nerds, a few drum nerds, and numerous confused dates.
Random Notebook Dump: The Mint was offering a month-long pass to Chamberlain's residency. That seems like a pretty clever way to fill a house.
Matt Chamberlain @ LA Weekly
Wednesday, May 09, 2012
Alex Sadnik Quintet
Better than...going swimming in Long Beach.
Saxophonist Alex Sadnik is not a household name but he's trying. Aside from booking and playing a handful of rooms around the Long Beach area, he has embarked on a more globally minded project -- a podcast. Last night, Sadnik presented his quintet in tribute to late hardbop trumpeter Lee Morgan at Fingerprints Record Store alongside his most recent interviewee, trumpeter Ron Stout.
For the most part Sadnik's podcast, "Break the Mold," focuses on local jazz artists like Anthony Wilson and Kim Richmond. In a sprawling, anything-goes atmosphere, Sadnik stays out of the way allowing his guests to guide the conversation anywhere they see fit, with only the gentlest prodding. On his recent three hour-long episodes with trumpeter Ron Stout, Sadnik gave ample space for the local veteran to espouse his opinions on nearly every subject from piano legend Horace Silver to the uselessness of critics.
With Marc Maron's "WTF" podcast at the front of his mind and Jason Crane's "Jazz Session" lingering just behind, Sadnik has embarked on a West Coast aural jazz history project that shows no signs of stopping and aimed at the stars. His ultimate guest? Saxophonist Charles Lloyd.
For this night, however, Sadnik wasn't there for an interview. He was there to play. The two horn front line, placing Stout in Morgan's shoes, rolled through close harmonies on most of the melodies, even providing the occasional subtle horn backing to rhythm section solos. Stout, with his Santa Claus beard, wasn't nearly as talkative as he was on Sadnik's podcast, choosing instead to speak in short swinging bursts with his trumpet before taking a modest step to the side for others to enjoy the spotlight.
Sadnik, who handled the minimal patter, gave a few frantic solos before settling nicely into Jimmy Heath's "CTA," backed only by the bass and drums. His decision to do a night of Lee Morgan was mostly motivated by a desire to learn more about the trumpeter's legacy, having delved into a night of Wayne Shorter previously.
Pianist Doug Carter mostly overcame his tinny Nord keyboard and provided a brisk solo on "Totem Pole," shortly after Stout's torrent of precision and hit a rising barrage of his own on the break on "CTA." His turning phrases were breezy but occasionally winded on the tune.
It was the other two members of the rhythm section that carried a lot of the weight. Bassist Anthony Shadduck repeatedly offered tasteful solos from the opening number until set closer "The Rumproller," where he strutted over drummer James Yoshizawa's gentle cross-sticking. Yoshizawa kept a patient swing throughout the set but, like the rest of the band, offered his most inspired take on Morgan's "Ceora."
The band hit their stride with that airy ballad. Stout provided a searching solo that drew the largest applause from the audience while Carter and Shadduck laid down measured solos of their own. Yoshizawa spent most of his time on a tambourine, floating a simple samba off of the rattling percussion instrument. Although they were capable of pushing the tempo, the laid back tune seemed to fit them best.
Personal Bias: A used copy of my band's last EP is on sale at Fingerprints for $7.99. What a bargain!
The Crowd: Lots of dudes in hoodies and bros in flip-flops.
Random Notebook Dump: The old Fingerprints in Belmont Shore, although full of charm, really can't compete with the warehouse they have got on Fourth Street. The only thing I miss is getting pizza on the corner. Nonetheless, props to anyone who can expand an independent record shop in this century.
Alex Sadnik @ LA Weekly
Monday, May 07, 2012
Bucky Pizzarelli - Challis In Wonderland
Guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli, at the age of 86, has
produced an album in tribute to some of his
inspirations. The memories of arranger Bill Challis and
trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke anchor the album with a
collection of obscure standards aided by Pizzarelli’s
guitarist son John, bassist Jerry Bruno and the Dick
The album opens with the bouncy “Sunday”,
setting the tone with Pizzarelli’s chunky four-to-thebar
chords as the Dick Lieb Strings carry the melody.
After Pizzarelli’s full-bodied solo he trades fours with
featured violinist Aaron Weinstein who proves the
gem of the album with engaging solos on the seesawing
“Davenport Blues” as well as both versions of “Sugar”.
With just Bruno accompanying them, Pizzarelli
and Weinstein cut loose on the first version of “Sugar”
with a bouncy midtempo approach. Weinstein does his
best to summon the legacy of Stephane Grappelli in his
melodic phrasing while Pizzarelli lays down an equally
Hot Club-indebted jaunt. The full-band reprise of
“Sugar” towards the end of the album finds Pizzarelli
and Weinstein equally playful but pushed a little
harder by the presence of the string section. “Oh Baby”
is the most upbeat track on the album, with a
delightfully thick pulse laid down by the leader and
Bruno while Weinstein steps up to the plate to highlight
his mandolin skills. The foot-tapping pulse proves you
don’t need a drummer to drive a beat.
The self-titled track is the lone original of the
album. Pizzarelli’s gentle melody nods to Ellington’s
“Prelude to a Kiss” as it floats gently with help from
his son on seven-string guitar. Father and son later
stretch out for the most recognizable standard on the
album, “What’s New”. Guitars and bass delicately
swing across the changes before the senior Pizzarelli
closes out the record alone with Beiderbecke’s
“Flashes”, leaving no doubt about his mastery.
The album is a swinging collection of tunes that
honors the undersung Challis while also displaying
Pizzarelli’s still boisterous chops. The string
arrangements by Lieb are a nice touch, putting them
front and center rather than swaying delicately in the
background while the alternating tracks offer smooth,
in-the-pocket performances from family and friends.
Bucky Pizzarelli @ NYC JAzz Record
Saturday, May 05, 2012
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Birthday Bash
Violist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is a really a nice guy - a "beautiful cat" as they might say in advance jazz speak. He radiates an openness and familiarity that few musicians possess and that helps when you want to get fifteen friends together to play some music at the Blue Whale for your birthday. Last Friday, before a sold out crowd, Atwood-Ferguson did just that in a confident display of bandleading chops and communal reverence.
Why is it that at birthday shows the honoree always seems to do the most work? Atwood-Ferguson, celebrating his 32nd, must have been a busy man leading up to this show. Not only did he arrange almost every chart, but just the rehearsals and the amount of phone calls involved in assembling this all-star group must have taken days. He's got an adventurous repertoire and knack for assembling supergroups.
After a lengthy delay that can be chalked up to revelry and the longest line for the bar I've ever seen at the Blue Whale, Atwood-Ferguson wordlessly took to the stage backed by a 12 piece band that included a handful of woodwinds, a guitar/piano/bass/drum rhythm section plus assorted percussionists. Ushered in by Carlos Nino's shimmering sleigh bells, the group embarked upon a fully-composed introduction entitled "Peace on Earth." The vibes were set in motion.
The group picked up the tempo with a driving hi-hat from drummer Zach Harmon and Vardan Ovsepian's lower register piano. Flutist Katisse Buckingham, a featured soloist on nearly every song of the first set, offered a muscled flutter as Atwood-Ferguson conducted with all parts of his body. Ovsepian provided a dashing and deliberate solo before making way for guitarist Charles Altura's spacious one. Altura, who also shreds in Stanley Clarke's band, was a frequent mystery to the crowd with hushed whispers quietly expressing awe. He cut loose a barrage of notes to close his solo before Atwood-Ferguson and Buckingham drew out the ending in tight formation.
After a funky, Latin-ish start, the band broke into a driving swing on "Afro-Centric" that featured a tasteful solo from trombonist Garrett Smith over the pulsating horn section while Buckingham provided a precise solo over the churning rhythm section.
Starting with a pregnant Mia Doi Todd, a parade of vocalists followed. Atwood-Ferguson introduced Todd as "expecting in a matter of hours" and the elegant vocalist performed a gentle rendition of the old chestnut "Wild is the Wind." Clarinetist Brian Walsh got a little taste of the spotlight floating over his fellow woodwinds.
Jimetta Rose Smith approached the mic next, confusing the hell out of the band as they frantically checked their setlist and charts. As the band rumbled over a mid-tempo backbeat, Atwood-Ferguson turned away briefly. When he looked back, Smith had sat down to make way for Coco O Malaika who was actually slated to perform the next song on the list. With a chuckle, Atwood-Ferguson launched into Flying Lotus' "Tea Leaf Dancers" interjecting dissonant harmonies over Harmon's pummeling bass drum while Malaika, swathed in golden beads, soared over the daring accompaniment.
Vocalist Jessica Jeza Vautor then took the stage for a dramatic re-working of the Edith Piaf classic "La Vie En Rose." With graceful poise and pronunciation, Vautor handled Ovsepian's beautiful arrangement with ease. His bouncing piano was propelled by the percussion section's poly-rhythmic handclapping and Buckingham's sputtering flute, transforming the cabaret classic into the here-and-now.
The set closed with Hermeto Pascoal's "De sábado prá Dominguinhos" featuring Vautor and Smith vocalizing over Ovsepian's oscillating vamp. The liveliest tune of the set revolved around a pulsating samba that Buckingham twisted and parried over.
Personal Bias: Atwood-Ferguson's arrangements on the orchestral homage to J. Dilla - Suite For Ma Dukes - heralded a one-of-a-kind arranging voice. We are lucky to have the man sharing his talents in so many diverse situations here in Los Angeles.
The crowd: A wide variety of ages, ethnicities and musical talents.Lip-locked lovebirds were squeezed in with legends like KCRW DJ Tom Schnabel and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Even more satisfying for a jazz club was an even division between men and women.
Random Notebook Dump: Katisse Buckingham provided the sound for Ron Burgundy's pyrotechnic performance in Anchorman. I have immense respect for that gig because jazz flute has always been a small passion of mine.
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson @ LA Weekly