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