Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Remembering Gerald Wilson - KCET's Artbound

Bandleader Gerald Wilson used to tell his UCLA class that if he wasn't mentioned in a jazz history book, the book wasn't worth buying. As absurd and supercilious as that statement sounds, he was absolutely right. Wilson passed away earlier this month at the age of 96. He left an unparalleled legacy that stretched back to the 1930s and will likely never be rivaled in terms of influence, endurance, and sheer entertainment.

Wilson's class wasn't just for jazz majors. The attendance typically topped off at 400 and included musicians, football players, chemistry majors and everybody in between. He taught at UCLA for more than fifteen years, regaling thousands of impressionable minds with his first-hand experiences with music legends like Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie before retiring at the age of 90.

Saxophonist and Cal State Fullerton professor Dr. Charles Sharp worked as his teacher's assistant for several years. "Gerald was not teaching those classes for jazz majors. He didn't want to do a seminar for experts," said Sharp. "He wanted everybody together. He enjoyed being an expert and being kind of a spokesperson, a representative of jazz to the broadest possible audience and I think a lot of his music is that way too. His music is incredibly advanced but can also be pop-oriented at the same time."
Wilson got his start as a trumpeter with the Jimmie Lunceford band in 1939. He honed his writing and arranging skills with the group, contributing infectious hits like "Yard Dog Mazurka" to the band's swinging book before setting off on his own. Though born in Shelby, Missisisippi, Wilson settled in Los Angeles in the mid 1940s and became a fixture on the Central Avenue scene.

His arrangements were unique, delving into dense, eight-part harmony that moved like the grasping mitts of a striding pianist, no fingers repeating the same note. He wrote more than a dozen arrangements for Duke Ellington and five times that for Ray Charles including a handful of riotous charts for Charles' landmark 1962 album "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."
The 1960s were also a successful period for Wilson's solo career. He recorded several albums for the Los Angeles-based Pacific Jazz label and they are master classes in swagger and sophistication, samba and soul. His hit "Viva Tirado" became a frequent high point of his live performances through to last summer. The band El Chicano scored with their version of the tune in 1970 which helped to redefine and boost Wilson's cross-genre appeal.
Wilson's old school desire to entertain never left his side. Mid-tune he would approach the microphone and just scream with his fists raised and his abundant white hair protruding from under his baseball cap. At his best, he had the unhinged passions of an ecstatic wildman, a trait that is so rare but always hoped for from jazz stages.
Gerald Wilson and Kamasi Washington, 2013 Central Avenue Jazz Festival | Photo: Sean J. O'Connell
Gerald Wilson and Kamasi Washington, 2013 Central Avenue Jazz Festival | Photo: Sean J. O'Connell

Aside from the thousands of students he educated, he also employed hundreds of others in his big band over the years. Tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington had the honor of being both a student and employee. At the age of 19, he joined Wilson's orchestra and immediately found his place as a featured soloist.

"As fiery and intense as he was, he was such a nice person," said Washington. "He always looked out for his band. I've played with so many other people since and they're looking out for themselves. Gerald would always make sure everyone else was cool and that's hard to do with a big band. He cared for people on a deep level."

Three years ago, Wilson was nominated for a Best Large Jazz Ensemble Grammy for his last studio album, "Legacy" (It was his seventh album since turning 80). He kept his big band active with regular appearances around Los Angeles including a spot headlining the Central Avenue Jazz Festival each summer. Last July, in the shadow of the Dunbar Hotel, Wilson led his band through one more romping "Viva Tirado" that was as full of energy as when it was first recorded in the early 60s. The next Central Avenue Jazz Festival will be the twentieth annual. It just won't be the same without him.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Jazz: Art of the Trio column - DownBeat

Andrew Downing, Jim Lewis, David Occhipinti, Bristles (OM007, 60:13 ****) The average winter temperature in Toronto, Canada hovers breezily around the teens. It takes a hearty soul to lug around an instrument in that kind of weather rather than crawl into a cave and wait for the flowers to bloom. With just ten strings and three valves, Andrew Downing (double bass), Jim Lewis (trumpet) and David Occhipinti (guitar) attack seasonal affective disorder head on with a sparse landscape of brief meditations on painters like Cy Twombly and Wassily Kandinsky interspersed with a lengthier half a dozen standard ballads recorded in mid-January. Occhipinti possesses a growly Jim Hall sound that occasionally evokes a flute while Lewis embraces the spaces between. Downing is equally patient, urging the proceedings with gentle runs. This is the sound of winter, cool and mysterious, stark but beautiful. Ordering info: davidocchipinti.com

John Chin, Undercover (BJUR044, 52:48, ***) Pianist John Chin released his debut album in 2008 and finished his second in 2010. So it must be a frustrating experience to wait four years for that sophomore release to actually see the light of day. Chin’s style falls into the Jarrett/Mehldau lineage that eschews the hard-swinging past in exchange for a more malleable and impressionistic take on the traditional piano/bass/drums setting. His hands seem to always be in constant movement, not necessarily busy but floating at all times in as many different directions as the brain will allow. A delicate take on Chaplin’s “Smile” is juxtaposed with the swagger of one of three Chin originals, “If For No One” which is molded by drummer Dan Rieser’s up-front ride cymbal. Throughout the album, Chin has a confident vulnerability that is broken up by welcome bluesy bursts. Hopefully it won’t take as long to find out what he sounds like today. Ordering info: bjurecords.com

Organ Trio East, Chemistry (No catalog number or label, 67:41, **1/2) It has been said that the trombone is the most human-sounding of all instruments but that is only if the human likes to yell. The trombone often appears to be one of the hardest instruments to convey a lot of ideas, most of them pertaining to the softer side of the sonic palette and despite a tune called “Quietly,” trombonist Jay Vonada’s range prefers blasts over whispers. As the sole horn on the trio recording, Vonada has to carry a lot of weight (he also wrote five of the tunes) but organist Steve Adams has his hands full too. He composed four of the tunes including the brisk “Wandering” which highlights drummer Jim Schade’s lithe brushwork. Unfortunately, a muddy recording quality pushes the proceedings a bit too far into the mire. The addition of another horn could add considerable depth here. Ordering info: jayvonada.net

Matana Roberts, Sam Shalabi, Nicolas Caloia, Feldspar (TDB9008, 47:21, ***) Is there something going on in Canada that is creating bleak, percussion-less avant-garde trios? Or is it simply a winter trend? This disc recorded in Montreal in December of 2011 has the sharp edges of a sheet of ice and seven song titles named after equally jagged minerals. Roberts’ alto saxophone on “Spinel” evokes a deranged Paul Desmond as bassist Caloia and guitarist Shalabi generate simmering refractions of her soulful flutters. The title track builds into a wailing assault, heightened by Shalabi’s percussive shudder. The juxtaposition of Roberts’ more earthy humanistic tone with her Canadian compatriots’ spasming dissonance forms a complex and difficult puzzle that occasionally becomes too complicated to suss out. Despite those sounds, silence is the prevailing uniter. Each band member is unafraid to listen and wait, filling the gaps with the sound of falling snow. Ordering info: tourdebras.com

Michael Musillami Trio, Pride (PSR112613, 124:17, ****) Though this sturdily packaged two disc set is billed as a trio recording there are just as many guests brought on board. There are studio sessions that include tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene (a pair of bleating appearances including a masterful build on the optimistically titled “Bald Yet Hip”) and pianist Kris Davis who makes attentive contributions to the trembling “Old Tea” while Musillami digs in deep. The guitarist’s interpretation of a wild rumpus, part of four tunes intended for Where the Wild Things Are, is menacing and offers a brief glimpse of the shadowy shredder lurking just under his fingertips. The second disc features four live recordings with violinist Mark Feldman. The result is a harder swinging, see-sawing sound.  The band doesn’t hesitate to stretch out with drummer George Schuller maintaining a tense pulse as bassist Joe Fonda grips tight for a swelling undertow. Ordering info: playscape-recordings.com

Alon Nechushtan Profile - DownBeat

Recently, during his first West Coast tour, pianist Alon Nechushtan perched at the piano at Los Angeles' intimate nightclub Vitello's on a Friday night. The crowd was restless, but he quickly won them over. With unyielding assurance, he led his pick-up band through an extended set that touched upon blues, modal standards and closed with a swinging touch of klezmer propelled by drummer Chris Wabich's tambourine and Nechushtan's own percussive rattle. The Israeli-born musician consistently demonstrated his vast skill-set with confidence and humor.

It was the pen that brought him to the United States as a classical composition major at Boston's New England Conservatory. Today, more than a decade later, Nechushtan is part of a growing circle of jazz musicians bridging the musical realities of New York and Israel.

Nechushtan credits saxophonist Arnie Lawrence (1938 - 2005), a former Tonight Show band contributor and the founder of the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, with expanding his and many other Israeli kids' horizons. In 1997, the saxophonist moved to Jerusalem and founded the International Center for Creative Music, where an impressionable young Nechushtan took in the sounds of swing. "He played a large role," Nechushtan said. "He's kind of a crusader in that manner. I remember hanging out with him and learning about jazz. He was very patient."

Jazz's presence in Israel, relative to the history of the genre, is a fairly new phenomenon. The rise of internationally acclaimed artists like guitarist Roni Ben-Hur, violinist Miri Ben-Ari and the Cohen siblings (Anata, Avishai, Yuval) has helped broaden the appeal of swing in Israel, where jazz is now part of the sonic landscape.

The pianist is levelheaded when discussing the current state of the Middle East. He diplomatically avoids any comment on the summer's unrest, focusing solely on the sounds coming form the stage and his unrelenting desire to return. Prior to his gig at Vitello's, he shared a bill with the mighty Los Angeles-based Palestinian saxophonist Zane Musa. The two got along so well that Musa joined in the following night to blast through Nechushtan's newest material. Nechushtan is happy to welcome as many voices to his compositions as he can.

"From a very early age, I wrote for classical ensembles but I always wanted to write a big band chart," Nechushtan said. "Sometimes I keep the worlds separate. Sometimes I combine them. I went to school fascinated by Third Stream, classical and jazz. You have to go from lead sheets to incredibly descriptive music. When you work with a small combo, they are an integral part of making that music come alive. You don't have to have every gesture written down. My music is descriptive when it is a combo - not as much as when it is written down - but my creative process is the same."

As an undergraduate, Nechushtan began his jazz studies in earnest, taking up with pianists Danilo Perez and Fred Hersch. "They were great teachers, but I wanted to study with New Yorkers like Uri Caine and Henry Threadgill. My idea was to come to New York and try. I didn't know that I would love it and stay."

His new album, Venture Bound, is an upbeat homage to that decision to stay. (He has lived in New York City for the last 10 years.) A small ensemble of New York-based heavy hitters help deliver his message. The dual tenor saxophone onslaught of of Donny McCaslin and John Ellis ensures a breathless display of honking soul, while drummer Adam Cruz can dance like raindrops or smash like polyrhythmic thunder. The entirely original set includes "The Gratitude Suite," which splashes Eastern European modes over tight harmonies aided by trumpeter Duane Eubanks, while "Haunted Blues" features the pianist's hard-bop swagger encircling the upper register. The engaging, accessbile album is squarely focused in the pocket with the occasional sprinkle of ancient modes to reflect the pianist's diverse background.

Undettered by the turmoil in his homeland, Nechushtan will continue to tour there. While he and his family have settled in New York, the lure of his roots is irresistible. "it's a matter of playing to people who want to go out and hear music," Nechushtan said. "If they are depressed and bombs are falling overhead, it's a challenge of a different kind. It's not a musical challenge. It starts to be a safety challenge. But I will be there no matter what."

Alon Nechushtan @ DownBeat

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ernie Andrews: Soul of Los Angeles - KCET's Artbound

It is not uncommon for instrumentalists to weather a multi-decade career sounding fairly similar to the young musicians they started out as but it is a rare event when a vocalist pulls off the same age-defying trick. Jazz singer Ernie Andrews is one of those exceptions. The secret to the 86-year-old's golden pipes may lie in the fact that by the age of 17 he already sounded like a man of a thousand seductions. This Friday he'll receive LACMA's LA Jazz Treasure award, a fitting recognition for a man who has spent much of his career here and is still an undiscovered jewel to many listeners around the world.

Andrews was born in Philadelphia on Christmas Day in 1927 and spent some time in Louisiana before arriving in Los Angeles with his mother in 1945. He attended Jefferson High School alongside some of the city's brightest young jazz stars -- Sonny Criss, Chico Hamilton, Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy -- but got his real education on nearby Central Avenue, the hotbed of Los Angeles's jazz scene for the first half of the 20th century.
"I was always big for my age," says Andrews with a chuckle over the phone. "I'd go in these after hours places and see all these wonderful people that were performing. We'd see Art Tatum. He'd be at a place called the Double V. He'd sit there and play all night long."
Between classes and impersonating adults, Andrews took a job at the Lincoln Theater on Central Avenue at 23rd street which was then known as the "Apollo of the West." The nearly 2,000 seat theater was built in 1926 and hosted jazz luminaries like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Chick Webb before converting to a church in the early 1960s. "I was head usher over there and they'd have amateur night on Wednesdays. I would get on the amateur show. I was very successful on those shows 'cause I would perform in uniform."
Andrews quickly developed his rich baritone with an eye for the ladies. (This past summer at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival he declared himself a better lover than Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone mid-song. There was far more applause than eye-rolling.) At the age of 17, he had a local hit with "Soothe Me." He debuted "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" not long after. It wasn't a hit for Andrews but Ray Charles did pretty well with it.
In his late 20s, Andrews set out to see what his options were outside of Los Angeles. His New York City debut was an intimidating double bill with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1954. Fortunately, he already knew Parker from his days in Los Angeles. "Charlie Parker used to come to my house," recalls Andrews. "He would come over with Miles Davis."
Andrews also shared some fun times with an unrelated Davis in Las Vegas. From 1959 to 1969, Andrews worked with the Harry James band, much of that time at places like the Flamingo and the Frontier. "We'd hang out with Nat 'King' Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr. Sammy had new movies flown in everyday and parties at his place after the gig around 4am. Everybody would get off we'd end up at the Sands. Most of the acts would come up and just watch movies, settle down and have a bite to eat with Sammy." Those were the golden days for Andrews. He had regular work and was close to his family in Los Angeles.
The 1970s and 1980s brought sporadic work. Los Angeles's once frequent jazz opportunities were waning and Andrews wasn't a kid anymore but he wasn't old enough to work the legend circuit. "We had too much of everything and not enough of nothing," says Andrews of the scene. "Having a spot and having a place here in the business is so important."
Things have brightened since the late 1980s with regular bookings popping up around town whether its large jazz festivals or small club dates. "This is hard work," Andrews says in response to his upcoming award. "We've been doing this work all our lives. Sometimes it's very hard to know what is going on with this business and then all of a sudden you get these praises. It's good for the heart, good for the soul."

And if there is one thing Andrews has, it is plenty of soul.