Friday, January 24, 2014

Kenny Burrell profile - NPR's A Blog Supreme

Just before 11 o'clock on a crisp Monday night in Hollywood, 82-year-old Kenny Burrell put his Gibson guitar in its velvet-lined case and said goodnight to several members of the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited. He had just finished an intermission-free, two-hour-plus set with the large ensemble, as he has done once a month since the summer. Waiting patiently among the suits and smiles was a 21-year-old guitarist eager to meet his idol. When the room finally cleared, Burrell was amiable and inquisitive, talking to the young fan about music and Michigan, where he grew up.
Thirty-five years after entering music education, Burrell has never been more involved with young people interested in jazz. He is passionate and a little concerned about preserving the legacy of the musical genre he helped define. So he's doing everything he can to ensure that his students have the opportunity to share what he calls "America's gift to the world."
Fifteen years ago, I was one of those kids waiting outside the green room. I later became one of his students at UCLA, where he told firsthand accounts of interacting with Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie while also driving small ensembles with a steely strum.
"There are thousands of fine jazz musicians who have no jobs to look forward to," Burrell says a few days after the concert in his UCLA office. "There is nothing waiting for people who graduate from jazz programs like these schools. There is nothing waiting for them like an L.A. Philharmonic or the New York Philharmonic. No nothing. There are no jobs, and to me that's a shame."
From 10 Weeks To Tens Of Millions
Burrell is a rare musician for his generation. While in his early 20s, he acquired a bachelor's degree in music theory and composition.
"When I was at Wayne State University in the '50s, it was a problem studying jazz, even talking about it in some cases," he says. "So I decided if I had a chance, I would teach jazz."
While waiting for that teaching opportunity, he made himself an essential character in the history textbooks. Burrell made his recording debut in 1951 with Dizzy Gillespie, and has since recorded more than 100 albums under his own name. He also lends his soulful tone to a handful of career-defining Jimmy Smith records, as well as notable LPs by Paul Chambers and Coleman Hawkins. His energy and tone today sound just as assured and unmistakable as they did when he started.
Burrell first became involved in jazz education in 1978, when he taught a 10-week overview of Duke Ellington for UCLA's Center for African American Studies. When he was first offered the position, Burrell says he wasn't quite sure how to approach a subject as broad as jazz.
Kenny Burrell in his UCLA office.i
Kenny Burrell in his UCLA office.
Christina Limson O'Connell for NPR
"I had to figure out in my mind what would be the most effective thing I could teach for one quarter," he says. "Both logically and spiritually, the name Ellington rose to the top, because much of the history of jazz was in his hands."
In 1996, his success with the Ellingtonia course and an expanding academic interest in the art form encouraged UCLA to offer a jazz studies degree. Burrell was the logical choice to head the program; he enlisted fellow storied musicians like bandleader Gerald Wilson, saxophonist Harold Land and drummer Billy Higgins to help teach ensembles and history classes.
"Kenny started the jazz studies program while I was there, so there were a lot of exciting things happening at that time," trombonist and former student Alan Ferber says. "He always had such a joyful spirit and an elegance with the way he carried himself around campus.
Nearly 20 years later, the program has expanded considerably, thanks to the music-industry heavyweights who live in the surrounding hills. Trumpeter Herb Alpert donated $30 million to UCLA's varied music programs, music executive Mo Ostin donated $10 million to help build a much-needed expansion of the music building, and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz moved in last year, bringing musicians like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter to the linoleum hallways.
Of the more than 28,000 undergraduate students at the school, only 35 are jazz majors. But the list of alumni includes not only Ferber, but also saxophonist Kamasi Washington, trombonist Isaac Smith and vocalist Gretchen Parlato.
"[Burrell] is inspiring, warm, very passionate about keeping the jazz tradition alive and well," Parlato says. "I remember, sometime leading up to graduation, he sat me down in a talk of encouragement and preparation. He looked me in the eyes and said, 'You've got it.' That meant the world to me."
A Big Band In Every City
Clearly, not every graduate can be a headliner, and Burrell says he owes all of his students more than just a handshake and a diploma. That led to the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited, Burrell's unofficial post-graduate opportunity for his students as well as the broader Los Angeles jazz scene. It's a swinging large ensemble dedicated to classic jazz repertoire and the writing and arranging of band members.
The Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited is not a part of the UCLA jazz studies curriculum, but it does include UCLA staff (trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, saxophonists Charles Owens and Justo Almario) and graduates (saxophonist Hitomi Oba, trombonist Nick DiPinna) who get plenty of opportunities to solo and earn a regular paycheck.
"What I'm doing there is an orchestra born out of need, out of necessity," Burrell says. "One of the things that prompted me to start this organization is what we were just talking about — better, proper and more accurate recognition of the importance of this music by the community, by the powers that be, by the culture guardians."
Burrell says he hopes to expand his concept of resident jazz orchestras to cities across the U.S., hopefully underwritten by cultural organizations and corporations in much the same way symphony orchestras survive. The potential is rich, but it hasn't proven particularly easy to enact. Nonetheless, at a time when most people are enjoying retirement, Burrell lends his celebrity, his time and his guitar to make his dream happen.
"This is not Kenny Burrell's big band," he says. "This is for Los Angeles. That's what this is about. I welcome all the help I can get. I just want to see it happen. It's good not only for the musicians and the people, but the history of the music. If we don't do something, it's going to slowly disintegrate."

Friday, January 17, 2014

Scott Jeppesen's "El Guapo" - DownBeat

Scott Jeppesen
El Guapo
Creative Bottle Music

*** 1/2

Who is El Guapo? Is it saxophonist Scott Jeppesen? Is it one of the five other LA-affiliated musicians on this album? Whoever he is, based on the tune named after him, he sounds vibrant, light on his feet and guitarist Larry Koonse is definitely a good friend of his. But it can be misleading to trust someone who answers to such a name.

Is this music handsome? Yes. The band is quite polished, sometimes too polished and occasionally the music drifts into a synthetic smoothness that is not always welcome. The album stays grounded thanks to Jeppesen's earnest playing and creative writing but the occasional jolting blemish would be nice. 

Jeppesen's version of Richie Beirach's "Elm" is eerily similar to the original 1979 recording. The two tracks can be played simultaneously and line up almost perfectly. It would've been a more interesting statement if Jeppesen had played over the original instead of enlisting his band to recreate it. Nonetheless, he gently flutters over Koonse's nimble support with dreamy results. Producer John Daversa steps out with his trumpet on two tracks including Jeppesen's "Great Odin's Raven" where he trails the saxophonist a few steps on the prodding melody before Jeppesen, pianist Josh Nelson and Daversa make driving statements of their own.

The album is mostly comprised of Jeppesen's compositions. “I Tend To Agree” pits Nelson’s keyboards against Schnelle’s bumping solo while Jeppesen switches to soprano saxophone for "No Drama," a seductive platform for bassist Dave Robaire's swaying solo.

Jeppesen closes with a confident display of chops. With just Robaire and Schnelle, the saxophonist takes on the muscular Sonny Rollins playbook, honking through Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In" with a swinging playfulness. An album of that trio would be a lot fun but maybe that's a project for El Divertido. 

Scott Jeppesen @ DownBeat

Sasi Shalom's "Moments of Eternity" - DownBeat

Sasi Shalom
Moments of Eternity

It is risky to name an artwork “Moments of Eternity.” That phrase is rarely used flatteringly but pianist Sasi Shalom does not seem particularly concerned about that. He has employed saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Desmond White and drummer Antonio Sanchez to engage in his self-penned snippets of infinity, delivering a propulsive collection of original tunes that amount to an hour of straight-ahead listening.

This album is dedicated to “the children and heroes of Sandy Hook Elementary” but the record is not a maudlin meditation on loss and violence. Only a pair of the tunes out of the seven could be defined as ballads. For the most part, the record hovers in a muscular medium tempo, dishing out strong solos in a more optimistic but no less respectful tone. “Raging Bull” is an appropriately pugilistic jaunt, pushed by Sanchez’s clanging set-up. Shalom and McCaslin spit the rapidfire melody together. White and Sanchez combine for a funky platform for Shalom to dig into before White jumps into a brisk walk for McCaslin’s tenor. Finally, Sanchez gets a subdued texture for his romp, building with splashing cymbals.

McCaslin engages with his soprano saxophone on a few numbers, exploiting its reedy shriek on opener “Shari,” named after Shalom’s wife, and a soaring sprint on the titular ballad. He is in top form throughout the recording, presenting soulful calls on both horns and captivating lines in the spotlight. Sanchez and White are equally engaged, providing enthusiastic pushes at just the right time.

Not that Shalom is outshined by his bandmates. He is lifted by their efforts, presenting his tender compositions in the best possible light. His spry solos and intimate accompaniment are the soul of this recording.

Matt Wilson review - NYC Jazz Record

Matt Wilson
Gathering Call

It seems unlikely that there was a lunch break for this 
recording. The accompanying notes are union specific 
about the session: “Recorded January 29th, 2013 at 
Maggie’s Farm from 12:00pm – 6:30pm.” Breakfast was 
probably pretty good but if drummer Matt Wilson and 
Company wanted to churn out a 13-tune set of originals 
and standards, they probably had to hold out for 
dinner. The results were worth the fast.

Wilson’s quartet consists of two horns, saxophonist 
Jeff Lederer and cornet player Kirk Knuffke, and 
bassist Chris Lightcap. Lederer and Knuffke are 
constantly intertwined throughout the recording, 
frequently echoing each other’s phrases, if not starting 
new ones before the other finishes. Although billed as 
a “plus”, pianist John Medeski is a major component 
on what is really a session by the Matt Wilson Quintet.

The band opens with a popping version of 
Ellington’s “Main Stem”. Knuffke and Lederer 
introduce themselves with overlapping solos, pushed 
by Wilson’s confident thump. Medeski says a short 
hello and the tune is over in less than three minutes. 

The late bassist Butch Warren’s “Barack Obama” is 
treated with grace, Lightcap taking a brief solo that is 
more space than sound before Lederer offers a 
stuttering clarinet solo and Medeski floats like stardust, 
never descending from the upper registers.

Six of the tunes are Wilson’s. Medeski’s gloves 
come off for “Some Assembly Required”, pummeling 
the piano with every knuckle and sideways elbow. 
Knuffke steps in amid the fisticuffs to thread his way 
overhead. “How Ya Going?” boasts waxy horn 
harmonies reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s early 
experiments while Medeski skitters around the 
simmering quartet, dropping spiky, dissonant lines.

The real curveball is BeyoncĂ©’s “If I Were A Boy”, 
handled with a stronger backbeat than the original, 
giving Knuffke all the room in the world to state the 
melody. Crashing cymbals step in midway as Lederer 
takes a throaty solo over Knuffke’s simultaneous 
bursts. The cover works, swaggering under its 
reinvention, a refreshing addition to the jazz canon. 

GO:LA - Wits - LA Weekly

Wits and Giggles
Wits – Live!

The motto of St. Paul, Minnesota is “the most livable city in America.” The temperature in St. Paul on New Year’s Day was -1 degree. As livable as that might be for a penguin, Wits host John Moe knows that a fieldtrip to Southern California in January isn’t too bad of an idea. Luckily for him, the premise of his public radio show is fairly simple and travels easily: comedians and musicians share the stage for some goofy conversation, a few jokes and a handful of tunes. This evening the roster of comedians outweighs the musicians with the Office’s Ellie Kemper joining Largo fixtures Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins while songwriters Aimee Mann and Ted Leo will bring the guitars. It appears Los Angeles has its livable moments too.

GO:LA - California Fruits, Nuts & Flakes - LA Weekly

Blister in the Sun
David Kulcyzk
Book Signing

What is it about California that attracts so many weirdos? Is it the weather? The Pacific Ocean? Or is it all those cameras ready for close-ups? Sacramento-based author David Kulcyzk’s new book California Fruits, Nuts & Flakes: True Tales of Caliornia Crazies, Crackpots and Creeps has dug into the tales of forty-five of those characters who helped define the Golden State for the rest of the world as the home of sunburned eccentrics and motivated lunatics. His profiles include freewheelers like filmmaker Ed Wood, proto-hippie songwriter eden ahbez and Jack Pickford, the misfit brother of Mary Pickford whose liver and genitals cost him his career and his life. Anyone who has spent any time on the Los Angeles subway knows there is a rich tapestry of semi-psychotic creative types with ideas to share. In the old days they all had their own TV shows.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Sara Gazarek's Five Favorite Vocalists - OC Weekly

Courtesy of Sara Gazarek
Pianist Josh Nelson and vocalist Sara Gazarek keep themselves amused.

Jazz vocalist Sara Gazarek has been in Los Angeles for over a decade. In that time, she has established herself as one of the pre-eminent young interpreters of the Great American Songbook as well as tackling her own material and recent pop tunes. She embraces the story of a song, lilting through lyrical gems, buoyed by her great trio of pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Zach Harmon. Before the band plays at Spaghettini this Saturday night, Gazarek put a lot of careful consideration into identifying the five vocalists who are currently inspiring her. Ask her at the gig and she might have a completely different list.
Sachal Vasandani
Royal Eyes

Gazarek: He is a young artist that I love because he does a phenomenal job of pushing the genre forward while also respecting the roots and the places that he's come from. Everybody has that one song that is stuck in there and that one line they can't forget. He has a tune called "Royal Eyes" that does that for me. It's hard to find really phenomenal singers who are also great lyricists. It's great and inspiring and he just knows his stuff. Every one of his records sounds different. Each record is a snapshot of who he was just in that moment.
Kurt Elling

Gazarek: When I was in school, most students would attest to the idea of the onion. You start with the Sarah Vaughans and Ella Fitzgeralds and then you peel back. Kurt was the first contemporary singer I listened to. Tierney Sutton played me his performance of "Downtown" and I was floored by his sense of rhythm, intonation and command. When I dug deeper into his recordings, I really fell in love with the way he crafted his band with his longtime collaborator, Laurence Hobgood. Musically, they grew up together and the way they approached arranging really influenced my band including deconstucting a tune and making it their own and the idea of inserting poetry into his music. I find him incredibly inspiring.
Ella Fitzgerald
I Can't Give You Anything But Love

Gazarek: Ella like a lot of young girls is the reason why I'm a jazz singer. There was one record that she had that I listened to over and over again. It was my junior year of high school. I literally didn't listen to any other record. To this day I can sing every lick. Very few people have the whole package. That beautiful but individualistic tone. She played with terrific musicians. I learned so much from her approach. She was a phenomenal improviser and had a really deep and sophisticated approach to lyrics. She was my first instructor but she didn't know it.
Kate McGarry
American Tune

Gazarek: Kate was the first singer I came into contact with on a professional level that was so warm and loving as a person towards other singers and she's that way in her music. There is a vulnerability and trust in her singing. She brings herself to the table and that was a new idea to me. The audience doesn't want a caricature. They want you and she has her own style, representative of her Irish roots. I have listened to her vision of "American Tune" 5000 times this summer.
Irene Kral
Where Is Love?

Gazarek: Like most people your influences change from moment to moment. I'm particularly taken with her duo with pianist Alan Broadbent. Really, really beautiful interpretations of different songs. I'm really drawn to 'Where is Love." When she first comes in with the word "where," I've never heard someone come in with a command of the instrument like that. She's singing to you. There is a simplicity that is disarming. There is a beauty and sophistication that makes it so easy to feel what she is trying to say. I don't hear that very often, particularly on recordings, when you can't see faces and body language. She has a phenomenal, crazy, incredible instrument and phrasing like nothing I've ever heard.