Thursday, January 31, 2013

Branford Marsalis Interview - LA Weekly

Eric Ryan Anderson
Branford Marsalis Quartet - Marsalis (seated)
New Orleans-born saxophonist Branford Marsalis has been a household name since the early 1980s. Alongside his younger brother Wynton, he set the jazz world ablaze, earning his stripes on the bandstand with Art Blakey. From there, he found work in pop music (the Grateful Dead, Sting) and acting (Throw Mama From the TrainSchool Daze).
His unpredictable career found its highest profile when, just over 20 years ago, he became the bandleader for Jay Leno's incarnation of The Tonight Show. He spent his weekdays on late night television, smiling politely at Jay's Bill Clinton jokes and most of his weekends jetting to New York to see his young son. Marsalis did not last on the bandstand too long. He left two and a half years later to focus on his saxophone, releasing a handful of terrific records in the process including his most recent release Four MFs Playin' Tunes. We spoke to Marsalis by phone about his brief tenure as an Angeleno, ahead of his show at Cal State Northridge on Saturday.
How would you define your time in Los Angeles?
Branford Marsalis: I found people's social interactions to be very different than what I was used to. L.A. was a lot like New York where you suddenly find yourself surrounded by the people that are in your profession. Lawyers date lawyers, musicians date musicians, doctors date doctors. It's just this weird kind of social thing. There was that other side of L.A., the normal side, that I didn't really didn't get to experience except in dribs and drabs. I had great experiences there, man. The guys on the crew of The Tonight Show had barbecues and softball games and I'd go to as many of those things as I could but most weekends I spent on a plane commuting to New York which was very physically and emotionally draining.
Were you hesitant to take the gig?
When we got The Tonight Show offer, the guys in the band really wanted to go. They were calling. Their wives were calling. I thought about it and the only way to really, really know is to do it. The band was really popular with guests. Garth Brooks left his band so he could play with us. Willie Nelson left his band at home. They really dug the sound of the band and the way we treated the music. That was awesome.
People say "How come you don't play on the show anymore?" It's not the kind of thing where you hire a band to get on a plane and spend that kind of money to play on a TV show for three minutes. We don't play L.A. very often.
Did you find many places to perform in Los Angeles outside of The Tonight Show?
We found a couple of places to play. It was hard to find places where people would actually listen. The only place we could get people to really listen was Billy Higgins' spot, the World Stage. Other than that we played in a couple of restaurants but it was more of a hang.
Everybody who played jazz in America knew that Billy Higgins had a jazz club in L.A. and I thought it was important that we actually play there. That's one of them things. It's similar to us doing a show at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem which just closed. We were playing a club downtown but we went there and played a show. The economics have changed a lot since the '60s. I'm glad for those changes, don't misunderstand me, but this was our opportunity to bring some music to the people.
Seriously playing jazz music, it's hard to show up on the weekends and play. It's hard when you are not dealing day in and day out. It is hard to maintain a certain level. Doing something that was the extreme opposite of what it is I normally do forced me to come to a decision pretty quickly about what I wanted to be and I wanted to do.
Was it a difficult decision to leave?
My dad and I had a conversation once I made the decision I was going to leave the show. He said once you leave the show you really can't bitch about anything ever because you've been put in a situation where you could have had a very, very lucrative career without the pressure of the expectations from the music community. Once you decide you want to get back into this, you have to take the bitter with the sweet. I thought about it and he was right. You won't hear any complaining from me and I've mostly kept my word on that.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

SFJazz via the Internet - SF Weekly

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SFJAZZ Opening Night Concert with McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Bill Frisell, Bill Cosby, and more
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013
SFJAZZ Center via NPR web stream
Despite not having had regular employment for the last year or so, I have had the opportunity to see Radiohead perform live at Bonnaroo in Tennessee, Olivia Tremor Control's final original lineup performance at Chicago's Pitchfork festival, and, last night, the opening gala for the SFJAZZ Center, the West Coast's first concert hall dedicated to jazz. The key to all this entertainment has been a rickety Dell laptop and an overpriced internet connection.
According to that rickety Dell, I am 385 miles from the corner of Franklin and Fell. I live in Los Angeles, a town frequently shit on for its jazz scene. Even Chick Corea, during his intermission interview last night, listed a few cities worthy of great jazz halls (Tokyo, London) before conceding "even Los Angeles." There's already one coming, Chick. Frank Gehry is slated to mash some steel together for the vagabond Jazz Bakery sometime this decade and it will be glorious. Hopefully.

In the meantime, we are closely watching the SFJAZZ center. I have no idea what it looks like other than some stills. Google Maps shows a car repair shop at the listed address, but I have watched the interior slowly come to life through the tweets of director Randall Kline. A big hole in the ground slowly filled with cement and gradually it took on the shape of a concert hall. They even opened on time!
Now that it's finished, they put on a show befitting such an event. NPR's live video feed of the performance lasted 204 minutes. In that time, MC Bill Cosby did some funny things (bantered with tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman) and also some strange things (bantered with a 14-year-old high school student). Pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland gave a beautiful display of telepathy, while Chick Corea engaged in a sweet duet with Bill Frisell on "It Could Happen to You" before leading a trio featuring bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Jeff Ballard. Redman and fellow tenorist Joe Lovano bounced through a Lovano original and the SFJAZZ Collective flexed some muscle.
By intermission, a wide swath of jazz history had already blessed the stage. The second half upped the game by bringing out pianist McCoy Tyner, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and hometown hero John Handy on alto saxophone. Despite his frailty, Hutcherson displayed an effortless strength through his mallets on Tyner's "Blues on the Corner." Corea returned for a newly commissioned arrangement of his tune "Spain" with the Collective, and then the radio signed off. But the video feed kept running.
What the radio audience missed was a swaggering Robert Anderson, a fundraising co-chair for the center, armed with a bottle of Wild Turkey and a polished "ring-a-ding-ding" routine, playing a gentle Billie Holiday 78 on an oversized Victrola positioned right next to Chick Corea's elaborate, whammy bar-equipped keyboard. The hushed crowd soaked it in before Anderson signed off with "Welcome to the 21st century in San Francisco."
Is this method of entertainment a substitute for concert going? Hardly. The people watching, the mingling, even the smells were not there to share. But on the plus side, the parking, the need for pants, and the smells were also not a part of the experience either. Live radio broadcasts have been around a long time. Symphony Sid imploring listeners to come down to 52nd Street was the beboppers' greatest marketing tool, but the idea of watching it live, from multiple camera angles with a crisp, well-mixed audio feed, is kind of irresistible and still wonderfully futuristic.
I don't have the bank account to nab a good seat for an event like last night. (That cultural/economical/"jazz is dead" conversation could fill a book, so I'll spare you.) Those who do probably have their names etched on a wall somewhere. So how does a venue make this kind of accessibility profitable? Can this kind of venue succeed elsewhere? Will this venue succeed? I don't have those answers, but like most people who have been comfortably freeloading, I hope it doesn't come from my wallet.
What I do know is that the SFJAZZ Center put on a hell of a show, and has set a very high bar for preserving the jazz genre. While simultaneously instant messaging with a friend in a Brussels airport, ignoring the dishes in my sink and barefoot, I got to witness a piece of musical history. Welcome to the 21st century indeed.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Monterey Jazz tour review - OC Weekly

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Sean J. O'Connell

Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour
Segerstrom Concert Hall
January 13, 2013

Sometimes people forget that jazz gigs can be fun. The musical knowledge required by some jazzbos leaves just enough room for the graduate students while everybody else goes somewhere warm and unobtrusive. Yesterday, the Monterey Jazz Festival tour, under the hypnotic charm of Dee Dee Bridgewater, presented a two-hour show that was at times very deep, occasionally goofy but always swinging.
It would be hard to sign an all-star band for 40 dates that is better than the one that played yesterday. Bassist Christian McBride served as musical director while pianist Benny Green and drummer Lewis Nash rounded out the rhythm section. TrumpeterAmbrose Akinmusire and saxophonist Chris Potter formed the front line while Dee Dee Bridgewater strutted the stage, belting out tunes with a smile.
The concert opened with McBride and Bridgewater striding together through "My Mother's Son-In-Law." It would be hard to find a more captivating, bald-headed duo than these two. The full band joined them for Horace Silver's "Filthy McNasty" withAkinmusire and Potter giving rich solos before giving way to a disjointed, Monk-ish solo from Green.
It's hard to believe that the boyish Green is nearly 50. He was granted the Oscar Peterson throne years ago and spent several years employed by legends like Art Blakeyand Ray Brown. He took the lead on a Ray Brown arrangement of a Dizzy Gillespietune called "Tanga." Green's lightning fast solo break earned its own applause and Greenflew with unrivaled dexterity throughout his solo, doubling his lines with both hands while jousting with Nash's hummingbird-like brushes.
Bridgewater joined the trio for a masterclass in space with a crawling "A Child is Born." Only a veteran band like that could let each phrase flutter and expire before embarking on the next, giving weight to every delicate note. Green then played the straight man toBridgewater's come hither routine, melting into a puttied Eddie Valiant beforeBridgewater's Jessica Rabbit (All this after saying 'hi' to her grandkids in the crowd). "He's a sensitive being," said a coy Bridgewater before the band left Green alone on stage for a solo rendition of "Like Someone in Love." It was a moving performance that showed Green's ever-expanding range on the keyboard.
The band returned for a fiery take on Bobby Hutcherson's "Highway 1," a route that bisects the festival's homebase, Monterey, California. Potter gave a particularly strong solo that brought him more into his comfort zone without straying too far outside of the straight-ahead essence of the set.
McBride tried to get the crowd to join him for an 'Amen' before the band, fronted byBridgewater, set to testifying on "God Bless the Child." Green layered beautiful gospel rolls as Nash splashed his hi-hat. Bridgewater's no-holds barred performance netted the band a standing ovation before they closed out with a couple of ensemble performances.
Bridgewater is more than a singer and a musician. She was the emotional core of the group who happily laughed, danced and swaggered before an adoring crowd. She is a veteran entertainer and was in top form with a stellar band and it was impossible to deny her affection for the audience and her bandmates. The jazz world could use a few more ambassadors like that.
Personal Bias: My father and I have seen Christian McBride more times in the last year than we've seen many of our own friends and family members.
The Crowd: A little bit of everything with a bunch of kids for the family-friendly 4pm start time.
Random Notebook Dump: I've never seen an indoor jazz show so early in the day. It seemed like a bad idea beforehand but kind of made sense when it got out at 6 o'clock and there wasn't any pressure on dinner. Dare I say it? We need more jazz matinees.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Monterey Jazz Fest preview - OC Weekly

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Photo Courtesy of Monterey Jazz Festival

This fall, the Monterey Jazz Festival will usher in its 56th annual performance along California's crystal coastline, 350 miles north of Orange County. Since 1958 the festival has hosted every major jazz musician conceivable. The first lineup alone included Billie HolidayLouis ArmstrongMilt JacksonSonny RollinsDave Brubeck andMax Roach. Since that first weekend the festival has expanded into an empire, drawing more attention to Monterey than Steinbeck could ever have imagined with school programs, a record label and now a band of touring ambassadors that include vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, bassist Christian McBride, pianist Benny Green and a handful of other ringers. In honor of their appearance this Sunday at Segerstrom Hall, here are five performances that helped to make the Monterey Jazz Festival one of the most important music festivals in the United States.
Miles Davis Quintet
By 1963, Miles Davis was light years away from "Kind of Blue," his groundbreaking 1959 release. He had an entirely new band that included pianist Herbie Hancock and his sound had already moved deeper into a well of angularity and confrontation than most trumpet players could manage in a lifetime. This blistering version of "So What," driven by 18 year-old Tony Williams' insistent cymbal probably surprised quite a lot of people who were still trying to process Davis' 1950s sounds.
B.B. King & T. Bone Walker
Two giants of the blues! B.B. King was at the top of his game in the mid 1960s, having recently released a handful of powerful live records. T-Bone was knee deep in a revival. The two of them sharing a stage is a spine chilling thrill. The roots of rock and roll lie inT.Bone's fingers with Chuck Berry and Keith Richards flying out over one quick riff. Meanwhile B.B. is all charm in his electric blue suit.
Marian McPartland, Bill Evans, John Lewis & Patrice Rushen
That's the great allure of festivals. You have all this talent sitting around, so why not get them together? This performance by four distinct jazz pianists sharing two pianos is what festivals are all about. In this clip, Rushen is only 21 years old and playing with three well-established pianists, all worthy headliners. Their romp through Charlie Parker's 12 bar blues is nothing short of delightful with Evans standing out in an equally charming suit.
Woody Shaw
Man, this is just burning. Shaw is in top form and tenor saxophonist Carter Jefferson, an undersung veteran of some great bands, really cuts loose. A large, receptive audience always helps to get those tempos flying and the rhythm section look like they are going to explode. I thought I might explode just watching it.
Banyan featuring Mike Watt & Nels Cline
It's not all sensitive pianists in maroon suits. San Pedro's own Mike Watt brought the heat alongside guitarist Nels Cline for a brash set that featured Stooges tunes and thisFunkadelic cover. Cline, then a recent addition to Wilco, does his usual job of shredding the scene while frequent compatriot Norton Widsom splashes paint behind him. Who knows what the parasol crowd thought of this set but it never hurts to have a dude in plaid flex a little muscle.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

RG Club - New Jazz in Venice - LA Weekly

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SJ O'Connell
Late last year, a modest billboard along Lincoln Boulevard in Venice started touting the pending residency of saxophonist Azar Lawrence... 50 feet below.
The newly christened RG Club -- a former dive bar located between an AT&T store and a Jewish community center -- opened in November with Lawrence playing three days a week. Jazz club openings are few and far between in the Southland and it's a beacon of hope for Westside jazz fans.
It's everything you might expect from the phrase "Venice jazz club" and so far it seems to be working out quite well. A little after 11pm this past Friday, the club was full, the small tables surrounding the stage were all occupied and the bar staff was fluttering about. Drumming heavyweight Alphonse Mouzon, in sunglasses and an Australian outback hat, splashed a loud and swinging solo on Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring" and the audience soaked it up, applauding Mouzon's boisterous display. Owner Brad Neal, in a sweater and a pair of shorts, was roaming around the club, sizing up his investment.
Lawrence, the larger-than-life tenor saxophonist who made a name playing with McCoy Tyner, was out of town. His band, however, was ready to play and trumpeter Nolan Shaheed had taken over horn responsibilities for the night. Bassist Henry "the Skipper" Franklin, seated next to Mouzon, was an anchor, taking agile solos when not laying down a solid foundation behind his bandmates. Neal couldn't have picked a better band for this opening residency. After their set, I asked Mouzon if he'd ever been booked for three months in the same place. "No, never," he said with a smile. "I've been on tours but never anything like this. It's great."
Still finding its footing, the venue is slowly offering more nights of music with guitarist Julian Coryell moving to Thursdays and promising young guitarist Brent Canter taking over Sundays, while Lawrence will continue on Fridays and Saturdays. Neal made a living through real estate but has now decided to try his hand at club ownership, pursuing a lifelong dream. It hasn't been easy securing a liquor and entertainment license, taking almost a year to wrap up the bureaucratic end of things. Now that he has everything in place he can pursue his ambitious goals.
"Once I brought a sound engineer in there and I knew the acoustics were good, I knew that I was going to have something great," says Neal. "In the next few months, we are planning a second story restaurant and a third floor smoking deck." Despite all these additions, he has made one promise: "We will always have jazz. No matter what. Anyone that is profit driven would probably shy away from jazz but it will always be a part of the club."
And it appears that the billboard will always be a part of the club too. After a disagreement with Clear Channel, the billboard became a double-sided blank canvas for Neal to do what he liked. "I'm going to dedicate both sides to the venue. Jazz musicians just don't get the respect that the great genre of American music should have. The billboard is our way of setting us apart and paying that respect."

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

John Beasley interview - LA Weekly

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Photo: Tim Sassoon
Pianist John Beasley has been in Los Angeles for over 30 years, playing pianos in gin joints, movie studios and everywhere in between. He has been a steadily employed sideman since he was a teenager starting out with Sergio Mendes and has most recently released an LP under the name 3 Brave Souls, alongside funk kingpins Ndugu Chancler and Darryl Jones.
For the last four Wednesdays in January at the Blue Whale, however -- starting tomorrow night -- Beasley will be offering up three completely different ensembles under his own leadership including, for the first time, his own big band.
Beasley will start his residency off in a familiar place, working two sets of duets with incomparable vocalist Dwight Trible. The following week, Beasley will play two trio sets of obscure Brazilian music, sidestepping the bossas and sambas of everyone's cocktail hour. It is the last two Wednesdays where Beasley will debut his most ambitious project, Monk'estra.
"People think I'm crazy for putting a big band together in this day and age," says Beasley in the backyard of his sun-soaked Venice home. "When I was a kid, my dad brought home these Thad Jones/Mel Lewis records and I just went ape over them."
From that point on there was no stopping him. His father, a teacher at North Texas State University and performer with the Dallas/Ft. Worth Symphony, nurtured his son's interest. "Once I got the bug, he showed me how to make a sketch. He would show me how to not make the trombones so muddy and where to put the saxophones." The tutoring paid off when he won a scholarship for a Stan Kenton clinic while still in junior high school.
"I got into playing jazz piano by wanting to be a big band guy. I've had glimpses of it, arranging for singers and of course doing TV work. It wouldn't necessarily be a big band but I've had that feeling of writing something and then hearing it played back by an orchestra. That's a great feeling."
But it is only recently that Beasley got the chance to get back into the big band game. "About four or five years ago, Charles Owens with the Luckman Orchestra asked me to start writing some big band charts. I reconnected and found out that I could still be experimental with it. I didn't feel boxed into things."
He has assembled an all-star 17 piece ensemble for the residency, drawing from young guns and experienced locals including powerhouse drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. and saxophonist Bob Sheppard. "I put a rehearsal band together just to see what would happen and it went well. It was kind of quirky with a certain ugly beauty in there. When the residency came up I thought there's my opportunity. It was important to have a goal and it's about fellowship because there's certainly not a lot of money in it."
With a few arrangements still getting touched up, Beasley is excited for the potential , rattling off new ideas into his iPhone when the inspiration strikes. He's enthusiastic about his opportunity this month to show off his leadership abilities and diverse piano skills but most importantly, he's interested in having a good time. "It's not a formal concert. The Blue Whale has a great bar. You can dance if you want. I would love that. I feel like we have to get the music back to the street in some way. It's gotten too classicified and calcified. We got to let the good times roll. This is fun music."