Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ben Flocks: "Battle Mountain" - DownBeat

Ben Flocks
Battle Mountain

The coastal magnificence between Santa Cruz and San Francisco is unlike anywhere else in the world. The roads twist and dip unexpectedly while winds can blow from any and every direction. Ben Flocks, a 24 year old saxophonist, hails from that Pacific paradise and his debut is a jovial mix of American musical styles well suited for a ride down Highway 1.

Guitarist Ari Chersky is an essential force on this disc, helping Flocks transmit the grooves in various ways. He hovers on album opener, "Battle Mountain," with a moody surf twang that grounds Flocks' rumbling horn and drummer Evan Hughes' riptide torrent. His sly six-string touches to a roadhouse rendition of "Gee Baby Ain't I Good To You?" add a modern feel, juxtaposed next to Flocks' Big Jay McNeely-esque honk. Keyboardist Sam Reider lends a pounding modernism to a soaring cover of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," before switching over to the accordion for a zydeco-inflected stomp through Leadbelly's "Silver City Bound." Unexpected to say the least, but it works well with Flocks' confident tone conjuring Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" at a crawfish boil.

Flocks' original "Boardwalk Boogallo" maintains that hot-fun-in-the-summertime feel with an homage to Santa Cruz's seaside wonderland, no doubt wailing on his tenor with a sizable grin. Between the old-timey tunes and upbeat vibes, the band comes across as though they were booked for a school dance rather than a concert hall - and that's a good thing.

Ben Flocks @ DownBeat

Friday, March 21, 2014

Blues Benefit for Max Bangwell - OC Weekly

With a name like "Max Bangwell" there are a few professions one might consider to be fate. Of those careers, "professional drummer" has the greatest longevity but also the most stringent requirement for wearing pants to work--usually. Bangwell opted for the path of becoming a local, blues drumming icon and he's been pretty successful at it. He's played with nearly every greased-up, revivalist rocker from Dana Point to Point Mugu but now, after 27 years in Southern California, he is in need of some help. Bangwell has been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. This Sunday, from 2pm to 7pm, more than 25 bands and musicians including the immortal Blasters and blues mainstay James Harman will bring the heat to Long Beach bar the Gaslamp to help raise funds for Bangwell's complicated financial situation and recovery.
How many musicians can boast having played with Weird Al Yankovic and Jerry Lee Lewis? Bangwell's credits are vast. He took up the drums as a teenager. A chance encounter with legendary bluesman Robert Lockwood Jr. in Cleveland determined his livelihood for the next 10 years. That gig introduced him to a world of blues legends and rock'n'roll parishioners. He packed up his Midwesterners kit and moved to Los Angeles in the mid 1980s where he settled in with a passionate upswing in rockabilly and blues culture.
In Los Angeles, he took up a wide range of musical pursuits, handling harmonica duties for Weird Al and helping to start the diverse but short-lived House of Blues record label. Around those projects, he kept a steady schedule playing famed joints like the Blue Café and Babe & Ricky's Inn.
Imposing blues vocalist and harmonica player James Harman had been a California transplant for more than a dozen years before he met Bangwell but their musical connection was effortless."He has an intuitiveness that makes him easy to play with," says Harman. "He's the kind of player who can jump in by the seat of his pants and follow whether he knows the song or not. He can read what you're doing and give you exactly what you're looking. That's a big factor in this racket."

An even bigger racket is the health care industry. Bangwell has been a lifelong smoker. Although he was eventually able to pin down health insurance it was not before he accrued an extensive set of bills for doctors, therapists and medication. Coupled with the inability to take on work behind the drums, Bangwell's finances have suffered immensely hence the overwhelming display of support. Every pompadour with an amp will hit the stage for Bangwell's afternoon benefit including Kid Ramos, Junior Watson and White Boy James & the Blues Express. It should make for a nice reunion and a helluva impromptu car show in the parking lot.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ambrose Akinmusire review - NYC Jazz Record

After a highly praised Blue Note debut, trumpeter 
Ambrose Akinmusire has returned with an album that 
maintains a kitchen-sink embrace of styles and 
textures. He penned all but one of the tunes, 
collaborating with a handful of vocalists and adding 
the explosive guitarist Charles Altura. But with a few 
exceptions, this is an unquestionably somber record. 

The driving “Memo (g. learson)” features brisk 
statements from tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III 
and Altura while jagged “Bubbles (john william 
sublett)” gives bassist Harish Raghavan ample space to 
tangle with pianist Sam Harris’ rapid-fire phrases over 
a hypnotic groundswell and drummer Justin Brown’s 
skittering funk. Elsewhere, haunting textures creep 
like fog. Vocalist Becca Stevens appears on her “Our 
Basement (ed)”. The sparse arrangement deals in 
silence with pulsating strings, heightening Stevens’ 
impassioned quaver. The same strings weave a nearly 
Celtic palette for “The Beauty of Dissolving Portraits”, 
allowing Akinmusire to sputter over a chamber group’s 
long tones. Vocalist Theo Bleckmann continues that 
misty backdrop, accompanied primarily by solo piano 
on “Asiam (joan)”, his multi-tracked vocals spinning 
spectral dust over the bare landscape.

“Rollcall for Those Absent” is Akinmusire’s most 
direct social statement. The tune features him glacially 
surveying on a Juno keyboard as a child recites the 
names of recent high-profile, unarmed murder victims 
like Amadou Diallo and Kendrec McDade. The 
repeated invocation of the names Trayvon Martin and 
Oscar Grant are particular reminders of the hostility 
young black men like Akinmusire can face without 
merit and without warning.

Not surprisingly, Akinmusire’s return exudes 
confidence. He has a way with intervallic leaps that are 
uniquely his and shows great patience in embracing 
the more languid instincts of his pen, the same one that 
seems to relish cryptic song titles. He can blow like 
nobody’s business but seems more intent on 
showcasing his way with emotion and instrumentation. 

Kris Bowers review - NYC Jazz Record

Two and half years have passed since pianist Kris Bowers won the Monk Piano Competition. Aside from the generous check he got, he was also awarded a Concord Records recording contract. Now 24, Bowers did a lot of learning about the piano and what he intended to do with his debut in that time span. He popped up on Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne and travelled the world with vocalist Jose James. The result reflects those experiences, dishing out as much R&B as solo-oriented jazz. One of the more unexpected influences however would be New Wave Briton Joe Jackson.

Following the ambient chirps and swirling piano of the brief album opener “Forever Spring,” Adam Agati’s jagged guitar introduces “Wake the Neighbors.” Bowers springs in with a sound that all but begs for a cover of Jackson’s 1982 radio staple “Steppin’ Out.” It’s a curious vibe and probably a bit of a shock for a listener expecting renditions of “Blue Monk.” Unfortunately for them, things only get more eclectic from there.

The most youthful and trendy gesture is naming a song after a hashtag. “#TheProtestor,” driven by drummer Jamire Williams’ pinpoint funk, pushes saxophonists Casey Benjamin and Kenneth Whalum III to work in tandem over his pounding backbeat. Meanwhile, vocalist Julia Easterlin lays down a bed of bouncy overdubs for her sensual outpouring on “Forget-Er” before bassist Burniss Earl Travis II pulls the band out of the clouds for a minute with a sparse but twisting line. “WonderLove,” evoking mid 70s Stevie Wonder, swirls with headphone magic, a compelling vocal performance from Chris Turner and another unbreakable beat from Williams. The saxophonists get a lot of grooving and unexpected honks for such a radio-friendly gem. Jose James shows up to close out the proceedings on the oscillating “Ways of Light,” bringing his intricate facial hair and swoon-inducing croon to maximum seduction levels. Bowers takes a spirited but all too short solo, full of straight-ahead potential.

The resulting album is a varied collection of ambitious tunes that should help Bowers fill some concert venues and reach some young record buyers. He has a wide range of interests and investigates nearly all of them in less than an hour for a fairly cohesive package, evoking recent albums by artists like Robert Glasper and Thundercat. It will be interesting to see where he focuses his spotlight on the next release.

Kris Bowers @ NYC Jazz Record

Kyle Eastwood - OC Weekly

Bassist Kyle Eastwood grew up immersed in the world of jazz. The classic sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane filled his home as a child and his father, legendary actor Clint Eastwood, introduced him to many of the genre's greatest practitioners before he was old enough for middle school. Between breaks on a film scoring session, the younger Eastwood spoke with the Weekly about that path to becoming a globally-recognized commander of the upright and electric bass. He will be appearing with his band this Saturday at Spaghettini in Seal Beach.
OC Weekly (Sean J. O'Connell): When did you take up the bass?
Kyle Eastwood: The first time I picked up the bass was when I was 13 or 14. I was in high school. I had a lot of friends who were musicians and they were always looking for a bassist. I studied piano and a little guitar first but I knew mostly guitarists and horn players. Luckily it came naturally to me.
Did you gravitate to upright or electric first?
I started on electric. At 18 I switched to acoustic and I focused on that for a few years before I went back to electric. I like playing both. It's nice to get different sounds and different colors. I spent a few years just playing acoustic but then I missed the electric sometimes. I had to split my time on both instruments.
Who were your initial influences musically?
I was really into Paul Chambers, transcribing his bass lines and solos. I got slowly into the old school guys like Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Blanton and Slam Stewart. When I first started playing I was learning Motown tunes so lots of James Jamerson. All the funk bass players. I listened to a lot of James Brown.

I did a master class with Ray Brown once. I got to see him record in the studio when he was working with my father on the Bird soundtrack. I was about 19 or 20 then and it was great. Ray and Monty Alexander were replacing the tracks behind some bootleg Charlie Parker recordings that someone had recorded from the audience.
You grew up in Carmel in Northern California. What was the jazz scene like for you growing up?
I grew up going to the Monterey Jazz Festival. I started going in the late 70s. The very first time I went I was about 9 or 10. The Count Basie big band was playing. That was the first time I remember going out with my father. We went around near the end of his set and watched from the side of the stage, close to where the drummer was. I was impressed by the power and swing and drive of that band. That's what got me interested in seeing live music.
As a kid, if I was travelling with my dad, we'd go to clubs on location like San Francisco or in LA or London. He took me to Ronnie Scotts once in 1979 or 1980. We went to hear Horace Silver. He'll go hear some music on a night off. I remember going to all the clubs like the Baked Potato and Dantes in LA. I definitely would not have gotten in if it wasn't for my dad.
You are one of your dad's most frequent scoring collaborators. What is it like working with him?
It's a lot of fun working with him. I grew up watching him work. I know what he likes and how he approaches making films. Some of the scores I've done myself. Sometimes he'll write a melody or a theme on the piano. He'll want to incorporate that into the score. It's good. He has distinct ideas of exactly what he wants but gives you creative freedom just to come up with something right.
Was there ever any desire to rebel against his tastes? Ever want to play in a punk band?
I did all kinds of music. I used to play electric bass with a couple of singers around LA. I played the Roxy, the Troubadour and the Whiskey. I played all those places when I was 21 or 22. I like all kinds of music but jazz has always been what I've been interested in.

Friday, March 07, 2014

GO:LA Redondo Beach Kite Festival - LA Weekly

Up, Up and Away

Few things in life are as satisfying as twisting a couple of sticks and a strip of fabric into a flying object. The thrill of sprinting like a goon while a trusty sidekick matches your pace from the other end of a string is unmatched - but the trick is finding enough open space to take flight. The most reliable place in Southern California to find strong winds and a suitable runway is by the ocean, so it makes sense that Redondo Beach is hosting its 40th annual Festival of the Kite today. Take part in the launching of a giant kite, try to win the award for "highest flying kite" or just find a little space to get airborne. Either way, remember: Tangling lines can be a great way to meet people.

Festival of the Kite @ LA Weekly