Saturday, December 28, 2013

GO:LA - Venice Penguin Swim - LA Weekly

It takes a certain disposition to plunge yourself into the waters of Venice Beach at anytime of year. The bathtub of a thousand street performers and Jim Morrison disciples is the beneficiary of a dozen points of sewage runoff and enough steel scraps to build another roller coaster. Plus the Pacific never really gets as warm as Baywatch might suggest. Nonetheless, as far as goofy American traditions go, there are far worse places than Southern California to take the plunge. (Just imagine what those polar bear die-hards endure in Coney Island!) Hence the 55th annual Venice Penguin Swim. The average water temperature is in the high 50s and afterward you can dry off with a cheap, blasphemous T-shirt featuring the cartoon character of your choice. Start the year off right. 

Venice Penguin Swim @ LA Weekly

Jamie Baum Septet CD Review - DownBeat

The Jamie Baum Septet +
In This Life
Sunnyside 1363


This album roars out of the opening gate with the blistering “Nusrat,” a nod to Qawwali vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose presence reverberates throughout the record. Baum opens everything up with a short, breathy flute statement before the full band jumps in with the horns on blast. Drummer Jeff Hirshfield’s splashy restraint is pushed relentlessly by tabla player Dan Weiss who doubles up on the intensity as the furious melody stutters with lightning speed. Guitarist Brad Shepik makes a jarring leap into the madness towards the end, wielding enough might to cut a car in half. The intensity pulls back for the next few tracks. The tribal funk of “Ants and Other Fatihful Beings” is demolished by a jarring piano solo from John Escreet that does not quite pair up with the meticulous arrangements of Baum’s melody while “Richie’s Lament,” a tune dedicated to Richie Beirach, one of four listed producers on the album, revels in space with a hymnal-like quality. Bass clarinetist Douglas Yates ascends over that roominess with measured confidence.  Baum later tackles two compositions from Khan including “The Game” from his early 90s English fusion Mustt Mustt. The performance is driven by Escreet’s bouncing simplicity with Shepik bubbling up in through the seams. The tune is played like a fairly straight-forward jazz affair, eschewing the pop production values of the original as well as the rugged melisma of Khan’s vocals. It’s Pakistani origins are buried way deep. Baum’s long-gestating record is heavily influenced by her travels in Southeast Asia but the overall sound of the project cannot be pinpointed to any location on the globe. She effortlessly blends seven or eight voices into an orchestra that at times feels unstoppable.

Joey DeFrancesco CD Review - DownBeat

Joey DeFrancesco
One For Rudy
High Note 7256


Organist Joey DeFrancesco’s One For Rudy is a sweet dollop of swing but far from a main course. The trio (Steve Cotter on guitar, Ramon Banda on drums) strolls through ten tracks of mostly well-worn standards in a nod to recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder who supervised the session last summer. This band has a lot of experience on the road together but this is their first studio outing. The liner notes include a strange quote from DeFrancesco in reference to his sidemen that raises some eyebrows: “They were my B band. Well, now they’re my A band.” Is that really a compliment? What led to the promotion? Ah, nevermind. Things progress slowly at first with a lighter than air take on “I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed” breezing by while “Canadian Sunset” gets a tumbleweed rub amid the gently propulsive swing. The band hits their stride midway through on a blistering version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring.” DeFrancesco is at his flamboyant best, opening the tune solo before letting Cotter spin an elastic take on the changes that works well against DeFrancesco’s ebullience. A driving interpretation of “Monk’s Dream” gives everybody a chance to shine. Banda trades fours with DeFrancesco in a bouncing conversation that highlights the undersung drummer’s chops.  The trio is in fine form throughout but they don’t shed any new light on the repertoire or the format. The result is an entertaining enough blowing session but DeFrancesco and his bandmates could make a record like this every single day if they wanted to. The main accomplishment of this album is acknowledging the importance of Rudy Van Gelder and getting to personally show him some gratitude for his decades of work. A gesture we all wish we could make.

GO:LA - Santa Anita Opening Day - LA Weekly

Horse racing embodies what a lot of Americans really want from sports: outdoor yelling, large beers, readily accessible gambling and participants who can be shot if they underperform. There is no venue in California that has been offering those perks for as long as Santa Anita Park. The oldest still-functioning racetrack has picturesque views of the San Gabriel Mountains and warm enough temperatures to open the day after Christmas (Let's see Saratoga try and do that!). But there's plenty to do at Santa Anita Park Opening Day even for those who don't like the ponies. The place is an art deco marvel full of intricate details and gorgeous, horse-themed photo opportunities. And if that isn't enough, the Santa Anita Mall is right next door. Black Thursday, anyone? 

Santa Anita Opening Day @ LA Weekly

Monday, December 16, 2013

McCoy Tyner Quartet review - OC Weekly

SJ O'Connell
Pianist McCoy Tyner turned 75 years old last Wednesday and his body reflected most of those years when he approached the piano on Friday night. Obviously, it is unfair to expect anyone to radiate the heat they were so famous for decades ago. No one has expected Willie McCovey to hit a home run since the Carter administration but they do like to see him step out on a field and wave his hat occasionally. This four night stand was Tyner's opportunity to wave his hat and bask in the glow of the adoration he rightly deserves, overcoming his limited mobility in order to entertain a rapt audience.
Tyner came to prominence alongside John Coltrane in the 1960s, offering a hammer for a left hand and claw for a right. The two helped to redefine jazz with their uninhibited outpourings of fire and soul, taking popular music into unchartered intellectual realms. After leaving Coltrane's band, Tyner continued to define his place as one of the most influential jazz pianists of the 20th century with a series of recordings in the 1960s and 1970s featuring unrelenting physicality from the piano bench.
Over the course of an hour set on Friday, Tyner was joined by saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Francisco Mela. Tyner addressed the microphone several times during the set, humbly thanking the crowd and briefly introducing Duke Ellington's "In A Mellowtone" but the band was never identified. Their sadly unrecognized contributions were essential to the band's success and the source for much of the evening's intensity but they didn't seem to mind.
Tyner is still reaching for those pounded left hand notes but his precision is a bit lost. At times, he laid on the sustain pedal for so long that the piano began to hum with the reverberations of a hundred notes. His glissandos and tremolos were occasionally arrhythmic but his attention to the overall performance was undimmed. He ended most of the tunes with an invisible whip crack and a shout and his stellar ensemble stopped on a dime.

Aside from a straight ahead take on the aforementioned "In A Mellowtone," Tyner and company took a rousing stroll through some Tyner-penned standards. "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit" was driven by Cannon's consistent thump while Mela battered his kit with youthful enthusiasm. Lovano honked wildly as the rest of the band traded smiles. Seeing Lovano as a sideman was an interesting treat, as he stayed out of the way for most of the evening and happily avoided the spotlight.
"Blues On the Corner," from Tyner's seminal 1967 Blue Note Recording The Real McCoy, was the quartet's closer. There was a playfulness and spontaneity to the arrangement that had the sidemen looking around at times for where things were going next. Mela's solo breaks fell in different spots in different choruses forcing the band to stay on their toes while Tyner's solo offering was drenched with a soulful grit.
Less than an hour after starting, the band left the stage. Tyner thanked the audience and then laid the microphone in the center of the piano. The cord draped between his hands as he began a sweet rendition of "I Should Care." He tried once to remove the cord but gave up. Eventually, Mela attempted to complete the trick but Tyner was already deep into the tune and was resigned to working around the hurdle he had set for himself. It was a delicate performance, short and contemplative.
It was at times hard to see someone who is defined by their strength displaying such frailty but his determination to continue performing is a reassurance that his passions remain undimmed.
After his solo performance, he promised to come back to Orange County. I look forward to that return.
Personal Bias: The Samueli Theater is quite fond of a static psychedelic projection that gets splayed out behind the bands. It remained off for Tyner's set and an unintended consequence was a beautiful reflection of the piano's white keys jutting at a forty-five degree angle above the piano. The resulting bird's eye view reflection was far more interesting than any tie-dye wallpaper.

The Crowd: 
With the floor seat ticket price averaging out to about $1.50 a minute, the crowd was of the age and financial background that can afford those rates.
Random Notebook Dump: Two berets and three goatees on the stage. A hepcat's fantasy.

GO:LA - A. Scott Berg - LA Weekly

Woodrow Wilson Smiles for the Camera

It takes a certain kind of personality to write biographies for a living, delving into the nitty-gritty of strangers' lives, unraveling mysteries and angering relatives. A. Scott Berg has been quite successful in that line of work, winning a National Book Award for his biography of literary editor Max Perkins in 1978 and a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of aviator Charles Lindbergh 20 years later. His subjects are all 20th-century American cultural icons (Katharine Hepburn, Samuel Goldwyn Jr.) and his newest topic fits that mold perfectly -- President Woodrow Wilson. Berg spent 13 years on the 800-page-plus doorstopper. He'll be discussing the finer points of gaining access to personal correspondence and how to dominate the New York Times best-seller list with author Mona Simpson.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

MAD vs Cracked vs Crazy vs Sick: A Primer

MAD magazine was always been the definitive black-and-white, advertisement-free spoof magazine. Cracked has held on a long time and they even managed to pilfer a few of MAD’s writers at the height of their powers but the other insanity-themed parody magazines that tried to ride MAD’s coattails were short-lived. Riot, Nuts!, Get Lost, Madhouse, Whack, Flip, Eh!, Wild, Blast, Gag? They just couldn’t cut it. The parody parade peaked in the 1970s and there was a real lack of variety between the topics they covered and no shortage of attempts at Spiro Agnew jokes. 

The following photos offer just a small fraction of the ridiculousness once available on newsstands and it is a reminder that at one time there was plenty of work for people who could draw a good David Carradine caricature.

MAD vs. Cracked: The Sting

Crazy vs. MAD: The Bicentennial
 Crazy vs. Cracked: Serpico

 Cracked vs. MAD: The Godfather Trilogy

 Cracked vs. Sick: Jaws (with a Z)

 Crazy vs. Cracked: Kung Fu

 MAD vs Cracked vs Crazy: Bionic Woman

Special thanks to the Berkeley Library of Entertainment, Cartoon & Comic History.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Best Jazz Albums 2013 - LA Weekly

Courtesy of the artist
Albert "Tootie" Heath, center
Assessing the jazz world every year is a challenge, and the following albums can at times sound like George Duke, Wendy Carlos Williams, Bill Evans and Radiohead. That's a hell of a wide net.
This was supposed to be a list of five, but there were so many good ones that we turned it into seven. They represent the best of 2013; it was a good year.
5. (Tie)
Thundercat Apocalypse
Derrick Hodge Live Today

Los Angeles' Thundercat and Philly's Derrick Hodge have two very different techniques for seduction: Hodge ironed his high thread count sheets and chilled the wine the day before, while Thundercat is fumbling on the couch while cartoons blast from the TV screen. Apocalypse is a dark display of electric bass pyrotechnics that dilate the pupils and shred the mind. Live Today is a smoother gem with jutting horns and a cameo by Common. Both provide compelling arguments for putting the bassist front and center.
4. Geri Allen
Grand River Crossings

Solo discs are the true test of a pianist. This is Detroit pianist Geri Allen's third work of her planned trilogy and here she digs into the music of her hometown, with an emphasis on Motown and a brief trip to Liverpool. The album swings delicately and benefits from a few appearances by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Allen succeeds in creating an engaging spin through familiar tunes, expertly showing off why she is considered a master of the piano.

3. (Tie)
Charles Lloyd/Jason Moran Hagar's Song
Ben Wendel/Dan Tepfer Small Constructions

On paper, these two albums are similar in concept: A hornman and a pianist get together in a studio and see what they can make. Longtime California-based saxophonist Charles Lloyd imbues his album with a rich sadness, taking Houston-born pianist Jason Moran wherever the wind blows. LA's own Wendel and Paris-raised Tepfer are aiming to control the wind, employing studio trickery and extensive breathing techniques to reach a very different destination. Both accomplish their missions, with Lloyd and Moran creating a contemplative pillow for reflection while Wendel and Tepfer manage a knotted maze of 21st century chamber magic.
2. Albert "Tootie" Heath
Tootie's Tempo

Drummer Tootie Heath made his recording debut with John Coltrane during the Eisenhower administration. He's been thumping his kit ever since, ensuring his legacy as a first-call jazz drummer before he was 30. Now in his late 70s, Heath is joined by pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street, relative young guns, for a smiling swing through nearly a dozen standards, resulting in an album heavy on cross-generational reverence and the assurance that the roots of jazz will outlast us all.
1. Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd
Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project

A furious MC. Crunchy guitar riffs. Intergalactic keyboards. Screaming cello. Pummeling drums. This is not background music. Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project is an assertive statement. New York-raised pianist Vijay Iyer and MC Mike Ladd explore the experiences of recent veterans of color and their haunted lives following service. The performances are raw, angry and impossible to forget.
Best Jazz Albums @ LA Weekly

Monday, December 09, 2013

Five Blues Albums Recorded Behind Prison Walls - OC Weekly

B.B.King contemplates how to defend himself with a sharpened guitar pick.
Nearly 2.5 million Americans are in prison in the United States. Although we've mastered that form of low income housing, the Shawshank Redemption has all taught us that prison is not that much fun. During the 1970s, however, some of America's incarcerated were treated to the best American blues musicians including a stand-out set by B.B. King forty-two years ago (he plays Segerstrom Hall this weekend) and music industry executives (better dressed wardens) saw a great opportunity to capitalize on their performances before a permanent and uniformly dressed audience.
It's all Johnny Cash's fault. His 1968 album At Folsom Prison was an unprecedented success. He even returned to lock-up the next year to record Live At San Quentin. Record labels took note of these raucous crowds and found a gimmick that could sell. The gimmick tailed off by the mid 1970s but country musicians and blues cats had a new stop on the touring circuit for a little while. Here are five of blues records recorded in the clink:
B.B. King Live From Cook County Jail (1971)
King brought a seven-piece group into Chicago's Cook County Jail to pair with his definitive Live at the Regal. After an amusing collection of boos for representatives of law enforcement, King works Lucille with extended solos and lots of patter. It is hard to believe he was already in his mid 40s then.
Eric Burdon & Jimmy Witherspoon Black & White (1971)
Burdon was the white on this recording. Witherspoon was the black blues veteran. The former Animal and the American blues legend combined for an interesting take on the blues and although not all of this album was recorded in prison, the above track was recorded live at San Quentin.
John Lee Hooker Live at Soledad Prison (1972)
The boogie master is in good form on this recording, a little sloppy but sinister. Hooker's son, John Lee Hooker Jr, joins his old man for a little bonding time. The Central California prison is still there off the 101, advising drivers to refrain from picking up hitchhikers.
Jimmy McGriff Friday the 13th Cook County Jail (1972)
Blues organist Jimmy McGriff was a funky dude. He brought his long-form tune "Freedom Suite" to a crowd of folks who knew the meaning of the word. This instrumental cut is dripping with soul and Is a nice departure from some of the more commercial recordings he released around this time.
Big Mama Thornton Jail (1975)
Janis Joplin's cover of Big Mama Thornton's tune "Ball and Chain" helped to attract some attention for the blues legend. The original hound-dog belts out here on some originals and blues standards, digging in deep with her solid band.

Five Sad Toasts to the 21st Amendment - OC Weekly

It was 80 years ago this week that prohibition was repealed. If you could legally drink on that day, the youngest you could be now is 101. While our nation's command over alcoholism didn't improve following the legal sale of alcohol, a lot less people went blind after screaming "shots!!!" in crowded, poorly lit spaces. Everybody's drinking soundtrack is different. Some folks like to cry and listen to Billy Joel. Others like to cry and listen to AC/DC but the results are usually the same: a car goes through a living room. Here are 5 sadsack toasts that wouldn't be possible without the 21st amendment.
Louis Jordan What's the Use of Getting Sober (1942)
I've been thinking
but I keep drinking.
I guess I'm about to lose my mind.
Even an upbeat guy like Louis Jordan likes to sing about drinking a pint every two hours in the morning.
Amos Milburn Let Me Go Home Whiskey (1953)
Let me go home whiskey,
let me walk out that door.
I got orders from my baby
not to come home juiced no more.
Amos Milburn sang about booze a lot. "Bad Bad Whiskey," "Good Good Whiskey," "Thinkin' and Drinkin'" "Just One More Drink" and about a dozen more. Sing about what you know, they say.
Frank Sinatra Drinking Again (1962)
Sure, I can borrow a smoke,
maybe tell some joker a bad joke
But nobody laughs,
they don't laugh at a broken heart.
Nobody could make glamor look as miserable as Frank Sinatra. Poor guy. At least he isn't drinking alone.
Merle Haggard Wine Take Me Away (1967)
I gotta leave this lonely town
and you're the quickest way I found
Help me friend of mine
wine take me away.
Some folks just don't want to go home. Especially if that home is Bakersfield.
Jerry Lee Lewis What Made Milwaukee Famous (1968)
Now she's gone and I'm to blame
Too late, I finally see
What's made Milwaukee famous
Has made a loser out of me.
Those country boys really know how to sing about depression.

GO:LA - Hollywood Christmas Parade - LA Weekly

Is there any other Christmas parade in the world that can boast about having named Tom Arnold as grand marshal twice? Maybe but certainly not one as big as the Hollywood Christmas Parade. When the parade first started in 1928, only one person was wearing a costume: Santa Clause. Nobody was standing around dressed as Elmo taking photos for tips. If a guy milling about looked like Charlie Chaplin, it was probably actually Chaplin. Eighty-five years later, Hollywood Boulevard has become the Times Square of Los Angeles and the daily parade of weirdos and tourists is the perfect fit for celebrities and drumlines to strut their stuff in a light jacket. The annual tradition has had its ups and downs but this year’s grand marshal, Buzz Aldrin, is all class. Hopefully he can come back next year and tie Tom Arnold’s record.

GO:LA - Moth Mainstage - LA Weekly

It's always fun to sit next to a great storyteller at a party. The best tales stick with you, whether they're about stumbling upon Bruce Springsteen on the Jersey Shore or two years spent learning irrigation in the Peace Corps. The Moth has hosted events devoted to the art since 1997, building its reputation on the idea that storytelling is the oldest, barest and most challenging form of entertainment. In founding the organization, poet George Dawes Green famously envisioned re-creating nights on a friend's porch in his native Georgia -- telling low-key yarns while moths flitted about, presumably. But good ideas tend not to stay small, and so there's been a one-hour radio broadcast since 2009 -- The Moth Radio Hour, which airs on both KCRW and KPCC. There's a book. And there's a series of live events, like tonight's in Hollywood, when 800 people will fill a concert venue for KCRW Presents: The Moth Mainstage. It's a different kind of challenge from what Green imagined, but some of L.A.'s best storytellers -- including Les Kurkendaal, Mona Simpson, David Ullendorff and Lauren Weedman -- will take it up willingly. How could you not want to listen in?