Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Schoolhouse Rock! : The Echoplex - LA Weekly

Bob Dorough looks back on the last 60 years. - PHOTO BY CHRISTINA LIMSON O'CONNELL
  • Photo by Christina Limson O'Connell
  • Bob Dorough looks back on the last 60 years.
Bob Dorough Presents: Schoolhouse Rock!
The Echoplex
November 24, 2014

Better than…paying attention to the real world for a few hours.

Songwriter Bob Dorough will be 91 years old in less than a month. Has anyone older ever headlined the Echoplex? If they have, they certainly weren’t performing for audience members 85 years younger than them. 

For more than two and a half hours, Cinefamily’s Animation Breakdown took over the cavernous Echoplex with a seated, all-ages show dedicated to children’s educational program Schoolhouse Rock!, with Dorough front and center for much of the evening.

Starting in the 1970s, Schoolhouse Rock! served as a prime source for teaching kids mathematics, civics and grammar with cute, succinct songs composed largely by jazzbo Dorough. They were used as interstitials during Saturday and Sunday morning children’s programming, proving particularly influential with a generation of rockers like The Lemonheads, Blind Melon and Elliott Smith, all of whom used Dorough’s tunes as B-side tangents.

Prior to his affiliation with the show, Dorough had been a successful singer-songwriter, recording his first album in 1956. His hep swing had a wide-eyed slyness that filled nightclubs and even earned him the honor of being one of the few vocalists to guest on a Miles Davis record. 

As he composed and performed the songs for the television show starting in 1973, he employed many of his jazz world friends, including drummer Grady Tate, trumpeter Jack Sheldon and vocalist Blossom Dearie, all of whom sang some of his world-weary paeans to numbers and bills. 

Alex McDonald (left) & George Newall discuss the Schoolhouse Rock! origin. - PHOTO BY CHRISTINA LIMSON O'CONNELL
  • Photo by Christina Limson O'Connell
  • Alex McDonald (left) & George Newall discuss the Schoolhouse Rock! origin.
Last night’s event opened with a half-hour interview with Schoolhouse Rock! co-creator George Newall. The charming former ad executive, prodded by Cinefamily’s Alex McDonald, dug into the shows origins. “Don’t talk down to the kids” was his motto in creating the show, which was inspired by his boss’s son’s inability to remember his multiplication tables, despite being capable of reciting Hendrix and Rolling Stones lyrics with ease. 

Newall’s PowerPoint presentation of the show’s history closed with a video displaying the broad influence Schoolhouse Rock! had on American education and pop culture. TV clips of Conan O’Brien, The Simpsons and Barack Obama made a compelling case that Dorough’s ditties had done more than anyone could have imagined.

The inherent goofiness of Dorough’s persona is kind of irresistible. He is a jokester poet with a great sense of swing and understanding of his audience, and at the age of 90 all of those talents seem completely intact. He was playful and quick, inserting references to Pitchfork and Wes Anderson into one of his co-writing gems, “I’m Hip,” and at one point declaring, “They said I’d go far, but I never thought it’d be the Echoplex.”

Dorough sat at an electric keyboard, joined by a local rhythm section including bassist Jennifer Leitham, who alternated between electric and acoustic. After an opening set that included Schoolhouse Rock! staples “Three Is the Magic Number” and “Figure 8,” Dorough took the opportunity to dig into half a dozen of his pre-TV tunes. Absurd, catchy songs like “Love (Websters Defined)” and “This Is a Recording” showed off his meta-qualifications for the Schoolhouse Rock! task, but were met with dismay by the kids in the crowd.

Bob Dorough closes out strong. What's your function? - PHOTO BY CHRISTINA LIMSON O'CONNELL
  • Photo by Christina Limson O'Connell
  • Bob Dorough closes out strong. What's your function?
Dorough closed his more than hour and a half set with more Schoolhouse Rock!, singing and playing “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction” in front of a projection of the accompanying animation and with help from guest vocalist Skip Heller.

Throughout the night, Dorough was clearly fulfilling the sing-along dreams of many in attendance. As far removed as they may have been from their childhood, Dorough's still-strong voice could instantly transport them back to consequence-free weekend mornings and a crippling inability to remember their multiplication tables without the help of a piano player.

Personal Bias: I like those pre-Schoolhouse Rock! tunes. A lot.

The Crowd: Nostalgic Gen-Xers and their sleepy kids.

Random Notebook Dump: It's kind of difficult sitting on a folding chair for three hours at the Echoplex.

Schoolhouse Rock! @ LA Weekly

Monday, November 24, 2014

Drummer Peter Erskine Talks 'Whiplash' - KCET's Artbound

Drummer Peter Erskine began his professional career as a teenager, putting in three years with the famed California jazz bandleader Stan Kenton before making the generational leap to Weather Report, the fusion supergroup that included saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardist Joe Zawinul and electric bass pioneer Jaco Pastorius. He was with that band for four years and five albums before moving on to more than 600 recordings ranging from Barbra Streisand to Kate Bush. Last October, Erskine released "No Beethoven: An Autobiography & Chronicle of Weather Report" detailing his illustrious career on the stage.
For the last 10 years, Erskine has served as the director of drumset studies at USC's Thornton School of Music. This varied experience behind the kit and in front of the classroom has made him the perfect candidate to discuss the new film "Whiplash," the Sundance stunner about a young drummer (Miles Teller) under the inescapable and abusive lure of his band director (J.K. Simmons). Erskine recently participated in filming bonus features for the film's DVD release but his opinion of the film was not solicited until now.
Have you ever encountered an educator like JK Simmons's band director character before?
I've played under the baton of stern and demanding conductors, as well as the critical ears of some pretty tough bandleaders. I've always experienced equal amounts of praise and criticism from the toughest of them. A conductor or bandleader will only get good results if he or she shows as much love or enthusiasm as the discipline or toughness they dole out. Being a jerk is, ultimately, self-defeating in music education: for one thing, the band will not respond well; secondly, such bandleaders are anathema to the other educators who ultimately wind up acting as judges in competitive music festivals -- such bands will never win (the judges will see to that).
What impression of jazz studies do you think the general public will come away with from watching the film?
I'm disappointed that any viewer of the film will not see the joy of music-making that's almost always a part of large-ensemble rehearsals and performances. Musicians make music because they LOVE music. None of that is really apparent in the film, in my opinion.
Also, the misrepresentation of the Jo Jones throwing the cymbal at Charlie Parker's feet anecdote may well lead people to thinking that Jo Jones did indeed, as JK Simmons' character avers, try to decapitate Charlie Parker at that epochal jam session in Kansas City where a very real Charlie Parker attempted to play some of his double-time / new harmony improvisation and more or less flubbed it. Papa Jo eventually tossed a cymbal towards Charlie Parker's young feet in a "gonging" motion to get him off the bandstand. Jazz masters could be tough, but the movie gets that story all wrong.
What did you think of Teller's performance as a drummer?
It's a movie, and the actor did a good job. The drummer(s) who did the pre-record did a very fine job. Teller is a good actor. He's a so-so drummer: his hands are a mess in terms of technique, holding the sticks, etc., and no true fan of Buddy Rich would ever set up his or her drums in the manner that Teller's character does in the film. A 10" tom? Highly-angled? With a crash cymbal at that angle? Nope, doesn't wash. Besides, that "winning" drum solo performance at the end of the film is a very passé sort of thing. If the film takes place "now," any drummer playing like that at a competitive jazz festival --especially one in New York City -- would get a cymbal thrown at their feet by the ghost of Papa Jo Jones, or I'd do it for him. Now I know how professional photographers must feel when they see an actor portraying a scene like a photo shoot where the photographer never bothers to focus any of the shots he or she is taking.
What did you think of the visual presentation of jazz in the film?
Considering that the film was shot in a (reportedly) short amount of time, I think the director and editor did a very good job. A drummer crawling out of a major car wreck and then somehow managing to get himself on-stage to play, bleeding and injured, in that all-important regional big band competition (where there are no other bands apparent?) Hardly. Musicians sitting there all stony-faced while the bandleader or conductor raises his fist to stop the band over and over again. Jazz has too many free spirits for that kind of behavior to fly. I've never seen a band act like that, or "live" music sound so "drop the needle." Also: if someone wants to test my ability to play a tempo: give me 4 beats, not just two -- YOU don't even know the tempo with that kind of a count-off, Mr. Band Director.

What is the ultimate goal of a college band director?
To inspire his or her students to get the MOST out of music, by GIVING the most to music. To, yes, inspire and instill a sense of discipline and responsibility, but to show students the rewards of concentration and playing well and working as a team. At the same time, developing any latent improviser's confidence and belief in their own solo voice, all the while increasing the musicians' vocabulary and knowledge of the language of the music. That's what I try to do at the Thornton School of Music at USC, and I know that my colleague professors including Bob Mintzer, Alan Pasqua, Patrice Rushen and Chris Sampson all do the same. I can't imagine our dean Rob Cutietta putting up with an ounce of the behavior portrayed in the film. But, like I said: it's fantasy, it's Hollywood.
Meanwhile, the one very real detail in the film -- the big band chart titled "Whiplash" which serves as inspiration and background to the movie -- is a kick for me because the composer and arranger of that piece, the late Hank Levy, worked a lot with the Stan Kenton Orchestra (while I was a member beginning at age 18) as well as with the Don Ellis Orchestra (who recorded "Whiplash" back in 1974 or so; Ralph Humphrey was the original drummer on that). Hank was a lovely man and he got all of his student bands to sound incredible. 

Clark Terry Keeps On Mentoring at 93 - DownBeat

Jazz relies heavily upon oral tradition to stay vital. Its practitioners are just as frequently asked about who they studied with as who they listened to. The value of that firsthand exchange of knowledge is what ensures not only that the music lives on but the attitude too. The new film Keep On Keepin' On is about Clark Terry, an NEA Jazz Master who, at the age of 93, continues to mentor aspiring musicians though he is bed-ridden. He is a sharp, funny and unflinching subject for the documentary.

Terry started his career in the 1940s, playing trumpet and flugelhorn in the big bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He has recorded numerous solo discs, embracing modern technology and developing his own distinctive, mumbling scat style. Throughout his career, Terry has shared whatever he could. Quincy Jones, at the age of 12, became one of Terry's first students. Some decades later, Terry was teaching at William Paterson University, which is where he encountered first-time director Alan Hicks and pianist Justin Kauflin.

"My original intention was to just have the film be about Clark and his life," said Hicks, who spent a couple of years on the road as a drummer with Terry. "Even if we didn't finish making it, I would've given the footage to an archive. After a year of shooting just Clark, we asked Justin if he would let us follow him around as well. Once we made that decision, the story between those two blossomed."

The film focuses primarily on Terry's mentoring relationship with Kauflin, a Thelonious Monk competition semi-finalist who is more than 60 years younger than Terry and lost his vision at the age of 11. Their bond formed as Terry began losing his eyesight due to complications from diabetes.

"The thing is, it's not blatant," said Kauflin. "Yes, I am blind. Yes, I have a guide dog. I appreciate that the movie doesn't call attention to it much. That's our lives. That's what we are dealing with. No need to make it anything more than it is. I knew that anybody could watch this movie. Everything Clark shares with me and his students is universal."

Keep On Keepin' On paints a sometimes brutal reflection of jazz life and examines the effects of aging and disability. As Kauflin's world expands, Terry's gets smaller and harder to navigate. According to Hicks, Terry permitted the film crew to document anything they wanted. This resulted in amazing footage of Terry in a hyperbaric chamber talking with Kauflin as well as late night bedside tutoring sessions that only hint at the lifetime of work required to become a master musician.

"When those health things were happening, it was really tough," Hicks said, alluding to his personal connection to Terry. "We weren't a hired crew. He was our mentor. It was a bit of a roller coaster." But for the most part, the time they shared was good. "We shot 350 hours of footage, plus [we compiled] 100 hours of archival footage. Clark is filled with so much great advice and wisdom."

Hicks struggled to keep the film rolling when a chance visit from Quincy Jones at Terry's house led to a new investor in the project.

"The most surreal moment was when I was at the table between Quincy and Clark, seeing their relationship after 770 years. To see them as people and see how much they love each other really brought everything home to me," said Kauflin. "Quincy is one of those students! I'm one of those students!"

Keep On Keepin' On is uplifting and heartbreaking, swinging and somber. The film is ultimately triumphant, providing a fascinating look at the beginning and end of a professional jazz musicians' career.

Keep On @ DownBeat

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Stanley Clarke Band: Up - DownBeat

The Stanley Clarke Band

This over-the-top meditation on Clarke's impressive career features 30 musicians. Many are drawn from the youthful well of Los Angeles up-and-comers but there are also plenty of Clarke's contemporaries making cameos. The first few tracks suffer from a funk that could only be categorized as "80s sitcom theme." The flash and intricacy of Clarke's arranging is present, but so is the overwhelming production and lack of vulnerability. Clarke's command of the upright bass finally takes control of the album five tracks in. He takes two solo snippets that are a beautiful glimpse to another, more appealing record. Clarke returns to a few catalogue hits, too, including "Brazilian Love Affair" (dedicated to the late George Duke) and the perennial crowd-pleaser "School Days." Chick Corea and Clarke close the album with a duo performance of "La Cancion de Sofia" that is as welcome as the solo bass tracks.

The Stanley Clarke Band @ DownBeat

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Angel City Jazz Festival - DownBeat

The Angel City Jazz Festival kicked off on Sept. 19 with a swinging set by Young Artist Competition winners the Interstellar Quintet and finished on Sept. 28 with a wave and a blessing from an ailing Arthur Blythe. Throughout the festival, which annually presents some of the boldest jazz you’ll hear anywhere in Los Angeles, multiple venues hosted a range of artists, from vocalist Youn Sun Nah to saxophonist Anthony Braxton.

The final day of the festival featured 10 acts on two stages around Hollywood’s Barnsdall Park. One of those was pianist Josh Nelson, who led his group in the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre. Nelson made the most of the darkened room with help from video artist Travis Flournoy, who backlit the band with mostly black-and-white vintage film clips. Nelson and guitarist Larry Koonse conversed in hushed, gentle tones before Brian Walsh joined in on clarinet with a humming warmth built around Nelson’s right hand. A humorless tune dedicated to comic actor Peter Sellers played out like an “in memoriam” montage that featured a beautiful bass solo from Dan Lutz.

The theater’s house piano took a beating from Aruán Ortiz, who went deep with a cacophonous performance aided by bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Cleaver was the bedrock for the ensemble as they capitalized on a slow build. The trio at one point engaged in an extended collective clattering that sounded like a thousand bats trying to escape the stage.

Pianist Craig Taborn, who was third in line for the bench, delivered a rather impenetrable set. He attacked the instrument with an incredible range of dynamics and the deliberate touch of someone avoiding a few well-placed mousetraps. Like the previous two pianists, Taborn was not hesitant to stick his hands inside the strings and mess around a bit.

The multiple stages at this year’s Angel City Jazz Festival ensured that something was always being missed. Though the organizers encouraged listeners to wander in and out of venues to catch whatever interested them, the performers didn’t cater to the wristband-wearing vagabonds. To fully appreciate the breadth of most sets, it was necessary to commit to one choice and stay put.

On Barnsdall Park’s outdoor stage, trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom raised hell with his electrified quintet. Tenor saxophonist Azar Lawrence followed with a straightahead quartet that included bassist Henry “The Skipper” Franklin and drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Lawrence brought Coltrane-like heat, including a deep take on “I Want To Talk About You” that featured a meditative solo from Franklin in the shadows.

A supergroup that included saxophonists David Binney and Oliver Lake, marimba player Gust Tsillis, bassist Nick Rosen, pianist Andy Langham and drummer Alex Cline took the Gallery Theatre stage for the festival’s headlining event, a tribute and benefit concert for saxophonist Arthur Blythe. The core rhythm section was delightfully boosted early in the set by tuba player Bob Stewart, who busted out funky lines. Lawrence unexpectedly joined the tribute and seemed to throw the proceedings a little off-kilter, his presence onstage more of a distraction than an asset.

Things really got moving as the ensemble got smaller. The core trio backed Binney and Lake on blistering solos with ample space for Langham to get in some Erroll Garner-like rolls. Vocalist Dwight Trible, who had performed at the festival a few days earlier, delivered an impassioned swirl on “Faceless Woman” that was breathtaking in its unchecked exaltations.

When the band finished after little more than an hour, Blythe was brought on stage. Unable to walk and largely unable to talk, Blythe silenced the crowd as he gave a very brief “thank you.” It was a touching close to a festival that has done a tremendous job of engaging all parts of the Los Angeles jazz community.

Angel City Jazz Festival @ DownBeat