Friday, June 20, 2014

Jose James: While You Were Sleeping - DownBeat

Jose James
While You Were Sleeping

Anyone concerned about singer-songwriter Jose James abandoning his loverboy cred can rest easy. His newest album opens with a desire to "taste you" and - not counting an elegant cover of Al Green's "Simply Beautiful" - closes with the phrase, "All I need is one more night alone with you." In between those carnal desires, however, James tries on a few different hats with varying degrees of success.

Guitarist Brad Allen Williams opens "Angel" with an unexpected nod to Randy Rhoads, supplying a sturdy rock riff to what would otherwise be a simmering r&b ballad. The guitar sound makes for an unexpected opening statement and returns again in even stranger territory on "Anywhere You Go," an unabashed post-grunge rock'n'roll song that could have been in heavy rotation on an early '00s alt-rock radio station. Anyone purchasing the album on the weight of that track would be in for a surprise, and James seems only to be sticking a toe into the mosh pit.

Well-deserved Blue Note muse Becca Stevens - she also penned a track for trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's 2014 release - performs a vocal duet with James on her own "Dragon," blending a hushed groove and ethereal production into a pulsating vibe. Labelmate Takuya Kuroda delivers a wonderfully melodic trumpet solo on "Simply Beautiful." James is a welcome, youthful bridge from the jazz world to the r&b scene but this album is a little too schizophrenic.

Jose James @ DownBeat

Beyond: CD Review Column - DownBeat

Seun Kuti + Egypt 80
A Long Way to the Beginning

It doesn't take long to establish the intensity of this album: the fist on the cover, the "Fela Lives" tattoo on the back; the fact that Miles Davis' favorite 12-letter word shows up within the first 30 seconds of the disc. Seun Kuti, son of Fela, spits venom over strafing horns on "Higher Conciousness" and builds a driving, scratchy groove on his alto saxophone for the frenetic "Kalakuta Boy."  The instrumental support is dense with upwards of 15 musicians contributing to the funky pig pile of spidery lines and buckshot blasts. Keyboardist and co-producer Robert Glasper contributes to every track on the album, while rapper M-1 from Dead Prez makes a brief but suitably fuming guest appearance on "I.M.F." Kuti carries on the family tradition while adopting a few noble ideas of his won, making for an engaging album on numerous fronts.

Ernest Ranglin & Avila
Bless Up

Guitarist Ernest Ranglin could fill a radio station's entire playlist solely with the records he has contributed to since becoming a key session musician for the Jamaican music scene in the 1950s.  Now in his early eighties, Ranglin's rich history as a bridge between the worlds of reggae and jazz is well established.  He is a master of laid-back cool, employing a sprightly touch to help roll out his economically prodding phrases. On this recording, he serves as frontman for the six-piece, San Francisco-based band Avila, which is steady but rarely shining. Tracks like "Sivan" channel light touches of Les Paul, while the self-titled track is a bit of a hokey turn around the roller rink. The album is nearly instrumental but for a brief snippet of studio goofiness that leads to "Ska Renzo." Of the 16 tracks on this album, only a handful move at a tempo any faster than a stroll. "Ska Renzo" has a welcome bounce that gives Ranglin a little room to unravel his skittish riffs over gurgling horn harmonies and a reverb-heavy  melodica. But in the end, this album brings similar results as an afternoon sipping sweet cocktails by the beach: warm, happy and a little sleepy.

Lee Fields & The Expressions
Emma Jean

There is a generation of soul men who witnessed and worshiped James Brown in his prime when they were only in middle school. Those determined disciples are now in their sixties and some of them are still singing their hearts out for the title of The Hardest Working Man in Soul Business. Lee Fields, 63, is one of those lifers, and his plaintive wail is scorched by decades of living. Faithful production values and an airtight band help to elevate Fields' righteous sound. The band does not stick to simple rehashing of vintage soul but offers unique touches like a gentle slide guitar on "Magnolia" that takes the tune to a different dustier locale, while tubular bells on the chorus of "Paralyzed" further broaden the orchestral reach of Fields' band, The Expressions. An unexpected take on Leon Russell's "Out In the Woods" is heightened by a handful of no-nonsense back-up singers and a bristling guitar building in the background. There is an almost spooky sadness to Fields' delivery throughout this album, but he fights of the misery for a performance that is riddled with gritty honesty. It's an engaging listen from beginning to end.

Ikebe Shakedown
Stone By Stone
*** 1/2

This Brooklyn-based, seven-piece band sounds like they could be an Afrobeat unit from the 1970s. Album opener "The Offering" and "The Beast" give it up to the gods of funky  togetherness, slathering the horns in vintage Daptone gels and a gnarly baritone saxophone solo. Like its borough neighbor Antibalas, the band delivers a well-informed homage to the sounds of sweat-drenched Afro-pop, but the band's reach quickly expands and dilutes beyond the shores of Western Africa into warbly surf guitars and Ethio-jazz. The 10 tracks dip into a sandy swagger on "Rio Grande" with a humming vibraphone solo, while album closer, "The Dram," could make claymation raisins testify. This is instrumental party music indebted to a shrinking globe and expanding ears, the soundtrack to a fun night out that doesn't result in paying the babysitter any overtime.

Beyond: Global Grooves @ DownBeat

Monday, June 16, 2014

Jelly Roll Morton in Los Angeles - KPCC

The following is the script to my story for KPCC's Off-Ramp. Would you rather just listen to it? Click the link at the bottom.

Of all the places in the United States to look for the headstone of the jazz’s first big innovator, East L.A. is probably the last place on the list. But buried under an unassuming stone in Cavalry Cemetery are the bones of Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe — better known as Jelly Roll Morton — the self-proclaimed, and not entirely wrong, “originator of jazz.” 
Can any one person be credited with inventing jazz? Probably not, but Jelly Roll Morton had the audacity and experience to at least be a top contender for the position.
Morton was born in New Orleans in 1890 and honed his chops as a teenager, playing piano for deep-pocketed lowlifes in Storyvilile, New Orleans' famed red light district and the birthplace of jazz.
There he developed an unmistakable sound, blending the ragtime feel of the previous century with his own complicated rhythms and innovative arrangements. He was a larger-than-life personality with a giant diamond in his teeth and furs on his shoulders.
When Storyville was shut down in 1918, he sought out his childhood crush, a woman named Anita Gonzales, who was running a tavern in Las Vegas. He wasn’t too keen on the weather there and suggested a move further west.
“Anyway, Anita decided to stay in Los Angeles so she went into a small hotel business," said Morton in a 1938 interview with musicologist Alan Lomax. "She bought a hotel on the corner of Central near 12th in Los Angeles and named it The Anita. By that time, I had several little businesses branching out myself again.”
Most of Morton’s "business" skills had been picked up in Storyville: pool shark and pimp proved to be the most profitable. After an unsatisfactory musical career in Los Angeles, Morton packed his bags and left Anita behind.
He found success in Chicago scoring the more riotous Jazz Age parties with his Red Hot Peppers but when the Great Depression hit, Morton’s career stalled. He sold most of his diamonds and moved to New York.
In 1938, Morton was stabbed twice at a gig — in the head and in the chest. He survived, but the injuries led to chronic respiratory problems.
Two years later, at the age of 50, with failing health and a limited cash flow, he drove himself from New York to Los Angeles to reunite with Anita after almost 20 years.
Once in L.A., he ignored doctor's orders and tried to mount a comeback, going so far as to book rehearsal time at Central Avenue’s Elks Hall with his old New Orleans friends Kid Ory and “Papa Mutt” Carey, but it never happened. On July 10, 1941, after an 11 day stay in Los Angeles’ General Hospital, he died of heart failure.
Jelly Roll Morton was buried without a headstone. Nine years later, the Southern California Hot Jazz Society held a fundraiser to finally put a marker over the jazzman’s casket. Only then did Anita step up to fund the stone herself, likely with the royalties he'd bequeathed to her on his deathbed.
In just a few short decades, Morton was lost to the evolving trends of jazz and had sabotaged his musical legacy with his own ego.
On the night he died, a savvier young bandleader named Duke Ellington premiered “Jump For Joy,” his impassioned bid for equality and artistic nobility at the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles. The history books were far kinder to him.

Playboy Jazz Festival - Los Angeles Times

Photo: Jabin Botsford
The Playboy Jazz Festival requires stamina.
The crowd at the Hollywood Bowl never had more than a 30-second break from the moment the first band started at 3 p.m. Saturday until the last note echoed up the hill just before 11. The rotating stage traded one rumbling bass player for another without a hitch, a tremendous innovation that allowed twice as many bands to play in a night but prompted the crowd to stretch and socialize during performances — waves of distraction that some musicians handled better than others.
Within the first hour Saturday, host George Lopez was already hoarse yelling out to the sun-drenched revelers. Tia Fuller appeared on soprano saxophone to relieve the MC with her fierce rhythm section churning behind her. She spent a large part of her set aggressively locking horns with drummer Terreon Gully, who was awash in thunderous retorts. Switching to tenor saxophone, Fuller stepped beyond the shade of the half-shell to sparkle in the sun, offering a soulful sound with a confident delivery.
Seattle-based wunderkind Allen Stone provided a party-friendly set that was better served by his foot-stomping rock than the chicken-wing soul-strut that dominated his appearance. His dance movements were perfectly befitting his boxy white shoes as his band dispensed dorm-room seductions with a little echo and a few radio-friendly guitar hooks.
Pianist Kenny Barron fought off the chatter of the crowd with a strong set of straight-ahead jazz. His trio was joined by tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, who played on a couple of tunes by his father's former boss, Thelonious Monk. A brisk "Well, You Needn't" had enough muscular drumming from Johnathan Blake to overcome the din of audience mingling that greeted bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa's earlier solo.
During the dinner hour, vocalist Dianne Reeves floated in with a crowd-pleasing performance that included covers of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" and Marvin Gaye's "I Want You." The charming frontwoman held center stage as her whip-tight band churned around her.
Hyperactive British jazz piano phenom Jamie Cullum handled the sunset from behind a snare drum. By the second tune, he had shed two articles of clothing and had stood on the piano. He was working overtime trying to engage the audience. Songs about prostitution are rarely appropriate to sing into a stranger's face, but that didn't stop Cullum from climbing into the crowd during a sinister "Love for Sale."
Under the almost full moon, Jello shots flew overhead like bats and tricolored plastic bunny ears blinked blearily in the darkness. About 17,000 people were happily joking, drinking and eating, and a flustered Arturo Sandoval attempted to battle that joviality with stage patter, his frustration evident. Long spells between songs made the crowd only more restless.
But when his band was on, it was unstoppable. High-flying mambos and glass-shattering blasts from Sandoval's trumpet helped get the crowd on its feet as actor Andy Garcia assumed the role of a bongo brick in the orchestra's wall of percussion. Patti Austin came out to sing a couple of standards with a no-nonsense, finger-wagging approach, and the audience adored her.
Saturday night closed with a loving tribute to the late keyboardist George Duke, who is beloved by the jazz community. Although his songbook seemed a tad obscure for the Bowl audience, the band delivered the jams regardless. A slender Ndugu Chancler strutted around the stage for a theatrical "Dukey Stick," and electric bassist Stanley Clarke shredded on "Wild Dog."
Vocalist Al Jarreau followed, at his most Muppet-esque, filling silences with vocables and closing his introduction of Clarke with the statement "I gotta pee anyway." During a reflective ballad, a bouquet of roses, a white hat and a keytar stood center stage in honor of the funky fusion trailblazer. Unfortunately, it only helped to point out that nobody played a keytar during the entire tribute.
Sunday returned with more relentless sunshine and breezes. Hard swinging veterans such as Dave Holland and Dr. Lonnie Smith dominated, and octogenarian hometown hero Big Jay McNeely joined the James Cotton Blues Band early in the afternoon for a few slow burners.
In between those experienced leaders, neo-soul stirrers such as José James and Jon Batiste brought a social message and youthful swagger.
After 35 years of Playboy productions, this was the Los Angeles Philharmonic's first attempt at producing the biggest jazz festival in the city, and its emphasis on "jazz" over "Playboy" was a welcome touch. Sure, the bunnies still worked on their tans in heart-shaped sunglasses, but the activities onstage offered an even brighter level of entertainment.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Los Angeles's Central Avenue Jazz - The Book I Wrote

I wrote a book about Central Avenue in Los Angeles. Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus grew up there. Art Tatum and Charles Brown hung out there. Please consider buying a copy for your self or to send to an enemy.

From the late 1910s until the early 1950s, a series of aggressive segregation policies toward Los Angeles’s rapidly expanding African American community inadvertently led to one of the most culturally rich avenues in the United States. From Downtown Los Angeles to the largely undeveloped city of Watts to the south, Central Avenue became the center of the West Coast jazz scene, nurturing homegrown talents like Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, and Buddy Collette while also hosting countless touring jazz legends such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday. Twenty-four hours a day, the sound of live jazz wafted out of nightclubs, restaurants, hotel lobbies, music schools, and anywhere else a jazz combo could squeeze in its instruments for nearly 50 years, helping to advance and define the sound of America’s greatest musical contribution.

Los Angeles's Central Avenue Jazz @ Arcadia Publishing

GOLA : GumbyFest - LA Weekly

For most kids under the age of 65, Gumby was their introduction to stop-motion animation. The high-pitched, oddly shaped hero and his horse companion, Pokey, had their television debut on The Howdy Doody Show in the mid-1950s - and from there the sky was the limit. In 1960, creator Art Clokey moved his production company to Glendora to churn out more than 100 episodes of Gumby and Davey and Goliath, and the city takes immense pride in its role in animation history. The inaugural Gumby Fest will be a six-hour celebration of all things Gumby, featuring a temporary museum; an animation presentation from the producers of Robot Chicken; and a panel featuring Clokey alumni, including his son Joe and makeup wizard Rick Baker. All that plus a lot of videos of Gumby walking through walls. Not a bad legacy for a simple hunk of green clay. 

Gumby Fest @ LA Weekly

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Five Central Avenue Hits - LA Magazine

From the late 1910s until the mid-1950s the neighborhood surrounding Central Avenue was the heart of Los Angeles’s African American community. Restrictive housing laws and a web of oppression confined artists, doctors, ship welders, and jazz legends to a narrow strip three miles south of downtown. Proximity bred creativity and a scene of tremendous creativity developed. It was here that swing and bebop transformed into R&B and eventually became rock and roll.
For nearly fifty years, jazz legends like Charlie Parker and Lester Young passed through the neighborhood while budding local legends like Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus took copious notes before setting off on careers of their own. The scene peaked during World War II, expanding to the newly formed Bronzeville neighborhood (formerly Little Tokyo) and offered swinging sounds 24 hours a day to appeal to defense industry employees who worked the nightshift. The scene became so popular that LAPD crackdowns became commonplace in an attempt to dissuade Hollywood stars like Orson Welles and Humphrey Bogart from “slumming it.
By the mid 1950s, work was scarce and housing options had expanded. Long after Central Avenue’s music scene faded away it bestowed Los Angeles—and music lovers everywhere—with a cultural legacy that has expanded beyond its original neighborhood to become a global soundtrack. These five influential songs are a great place to start listening.
Lionel Hampton - "Flying Home" (1942)In 1939 vibraphonist, drummer and aerophobe Lionel Hampton was nervously awaiting a flight out of Los Angeles with Benny Goodman when he came up with the line for his signature tune. When he recorded it in 1942 under his own name, honking saxophonist Illinois Jacquet drove the performance into a ribald frenzy that was a touchstone for the rapid evolution towards rock and R&B that would follow.
Jack McVea – "Open The Door, Richard" (1946)This novelty tune was based around a vaudeville standard. The narrator pounds helplessly on the door in hopes of attracting the attention of Richard. “How you know he’s in there?” “I got on the only suit!” It was a goof and also an enormous hit that found its way into the repertoire of comedians like Jimmy Durante and Jack Benny as well as the Looney Tunes cannon.
T-Bone Walker – "Stormy Monday" (1947)Guitar-slinging wildman T-Bone Walker was known for doing the splits and playing the guitar behind his back long before Chuck Berry was a household name. He was a Central Avenue fixture, plugging in anywhere he could find enough electricity to power his amp. In late 1947, DJs flipped his single “I Know Your Wig is Gone” and discovered the inimitable slow blues charm of “Stormy Monday.” The definitive hangdog blues tune became a hit and remains a setlist standard for bar bands across America.
Nat King Cole – "Nature Boy" (1948)Nat King Cole was a rapid-fire pianist who could swing with the best of them before he became a television personality, swathed in cigarette smoke and Brylcreem. In 1947, backstage at the Lincoln Theater (located at 2300 Central Avenue), a bearded mystery man named eden ahbez gave Cole’s manager a copy of his new tune, “Nature Boy.” Cole struck gold with the tune the following year. It immediately became a permanent part of the jazz repertoire.
The Penguins – "Earth Angel" (1954)This tune became the soundtrack to more makeout sessions than anyone can count. Originally a B-side, the doo-wop tune dominated not only the Billboard R&B charts but also the pop charts. The tune was recorded and released by Dootsie Williams, a musician and businessman who ran Dootone Records out of his home (9514 Central Avenue). Aside from striking gold with this release, he was also responsible for recording local jazzmen like Dexter Gordon and Buddy Collette as well as up-and-coming comedian Redd Foxx.