Monday, December 14, 2015

Wayne Shorter: Jazz For the Sake of Future-Sound - KCET's Artbound

When saxophonist Wayne Shorter first came on the scene, he was known as the "Newark Flash." The name was apt. Brilliant and fast with an extensive knowledge of superhero lore, Shorter arrived ready to be heard. But for more than half of his life now, Shorter has been a resident of Los Angeles.
At 82 years old, it is unlikely Shorter is answering to any nicknames but he does answer his phone early in the morning. "From where I live I can see the ocean, Century City," he told me recently. "I can see Catalina. I'm way up on top. At night, the sky, man, the shapes and everything. It's really happening."
In conversation, Shorter is elastic and tangential; he is amused at his ideas and not unafraid to share his opinions (He doesn't care for Kurt Vonnegut but is looking forward to the new "Star Wars" movie. Of the film "Whiplash," he says "It's an essay on how not to be."). The top of the hills is an appropriate place for Shorter to dwell because he has ascended to a level of mastery far beyond what most jazz musicians will ever glimpse.
After graduating from NYU and accruing some post-graduate work in a set of fatigues, Shorter hit the ground running in the mid 1950s, racking up time with pianist Horace Silver and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson before spending five years as a fixture of the legendary Jazz Messengers, led by drummer Art Blakey.
It was with Blakey that Shorter first saw Los Angeles. "I thought it was nice. It seemed like people had more space in between them. But I realized that no matter where I am, the environment should not really matter. An environment should not dictate your destiny."
He closed out the latter part of the 1960s as part of the Miles Davis Quintet alongside pianistHerbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, before springing into the 1970s with his band Weather Report, the definitive jazz fusion band. In 1973, amidst the skyrocketing success of that band, he moved here hoping to provide a better environment for his epileptic daughter who eventually succumbed to the affliction while only a teenager.
With a touring schedule that allowed him to live anywhere (or nowhere, really) Shorter stayed on his perch, dispensing with new and challenging ideas for anyone ready to engage. The Thelonious Monk Institute, one of the largest and most influential jazz organizations, offers jazz outreach, a fully-accredited graduate jazz studies program and an annual competition that has helped to launch the careers of talented up-and-comers like Kris Bowers and Joshua White. The organization is currently housed at UCLA and is one of those places where Shorter has recently been spending a lot of time.
"I think Monk would've OKed it," Shorter says about the Institute's mission. "I knew Monk. We spent some time with him over the years especially when I worked with Art Blakey. Those two were buddies. I think Monk would've said go ahead with it. He wanted jazz to pierce the future but not forget something called foundation. Don't cut the bridges behind you and drop all of that for the sake of future-sound."

Shorter first became involved with the Institute during a fundraiser for then president Bill Clinton. Clinton, a saxophonist who no doubt was influenced by Shorter's great 1960s "Blue Note" releases, proved to be a giddy fan. At last year's Institute competition, Clinton came on stage to receive an award from Quincy Jones and Hancock. Before accepting it, he went out of his way to greet Shorter who was sitting in the darkness, watching the pageantry. "One time I got a telephone call," remembers Shorter, "Clinton's staff called to see if I knew a reliable dealer to send him a birthday present of a saxophone stand."
In a bold move, Holophonor, a group formed from the most recent graduates from the Monk program, asked Shorter if he would produce their most recent album. He was happy to lend his ears but mostly let things run their course.
"When I was there, I didn't say much," he remembers. "I said 'yeah' or 'that's cool' but they decide the final takes and all that stuff. They are doing it themselves and that is the object. Somebody introduced a producer to Miles once. They said, 'Miles, this is the great producer so-and-so' and Miles said: 'Produce what? As a producer of oranges and fruit, stuff like that?' It's kind of like let's make up a job called 'producer.' Then we can funnel this money. Maybe you can even drive the truck, drive the artistic ship."
Shorter still tours regularly with his quartet, challenging audiences with a collective improvisation that dances with the ethereal and blinks with synchronistic sorcery. After more than 60 years onstage, he is still happily reaching for the unknowable with horn in hand.
"There was always a lot at stake," he says. "In hindsight, I can see it more clearly. The trap-door is becoming gratified in a moment, of believing that you are there wherever there is in the world. You're there and somebody else is not there. You have reached a place lots of people haven't reached. To be in a state of glorified bliss, that's a trap. A big trap. To realize that humbling oneself sincerely, going through that process of being humble, to realize that awards are OK but to reveal oneself in front of an audience... Take off all your awards. Go on the stage naked. Or your pajamas. And go out there and do what you can do to inspire something greater than yourself."
Wayne Shorter @ KCET

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Kamasi Washington: '65 to '92 - LA Weekly

Tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington sits on a couch in the middle of South L.A.'s Central Avenue. Since closing the Central Avenue Jazz Festival 30 minutes earlier with the Ryan Porter Group (one of many billings that features the collective known as the West Coast Get Down), Washington has posed for a dozen photos, signed a painting featuring his likeness and fielded a sales pitch from an aggressive shoemaker/mystic.

Yesterday he played the festival's main stage with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, then hustled to downtown L.A. to lead his own project for more than 1,000 fans at Grand Performances. That one-off show, titled "65-92: The Rhythm Changes but the Struggle Remains," managed to distill the last 50 years of African-American music into a boiling ball of fuzzed-out bass, pummeling drums and wailing horns, which looked back on our city's racially divided past and pointed hopefully toward our shaky future.

"Music only serves one purpose — to express the essence of a person's experience," Washington says, catching a rare breather in the Central Avenue Jazz Festival's deserted, makeshift lounge. "If you listen to my music, you will eventually get a feeling for who I am. You don't have to know what I went through. ... Music is the deeper level of communication, communication that goes through your understanding of words and history."

Washington followed his father, Rickey, into jazz. The Inglewood-raised saxophonist first played onstage at the Hollywood Bowl while in high school, graduated from UCLA's jazz department and was a major part of bandleader Gerald Wilson's swinging ensemble in the '00s. He also became fluent in the rhythms and conventions of hip-hop, playing in Snoop Dogg's touring band and, more recently, writing the string arrangements on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly.

Since the May release of Washington's debut studio album, The Epic, a three-hour tour de force featuring a doubled-up rhythm section, strings and a choir, the rest of the listening world has caught up. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times featured laudatory coverage of the 34-year-old's ferocious approach, while NPR dedicated numerous hours to his record release show at the Regent Theater.

Coronations of all sorts continue to be heaped upon his head, occasionally tasking him with saving the entire genre of jazz, or at least Los Angeles' part of it. But Washington is still the same humble saxophonist, expressing his hopes and frustrations through a post-Coltrane roar.

He was only 11 years old and living in Inglewood when the 1992 riots broke out. His father was around the same age in 1965 and living in Watts. So when Grand Performances approached Washington more than a year ago with the initial idea for what would become "65-92," it resonated on a deeply personal level. He dove into the project with even more than his usual passion.

"It was really astounding," says Leigh Ann Hahn, Grand Performances' director of programming. "I think he conducted what would be the equivalent of a master's thesis ... the hours he put in writing the charts, the research, the conversations with elders in the community. It was more than a labor of love."

Amidst the fighting and frustration of the 1965 and 1992 riots, the radio played on, broadcasting music by black artists, which acquired significant social consciousness following '65 and careened into seething anger by '92. Washington faced the challenge of marrying those two eras. He laid out lists of Los Angeles–raised, mid–20th century jazz musicians such as Eric Dolphy and Dexter Gordon and early-'90s rappers like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, looking for connections he could weave into his arrangements.

After all his research, Washington looks back at the last 50 years warily, well aware of the roadblocks that have stifled generations. "We were heading in such a good direction in the '60s. We were doing so many things to help make a balanced society. What happened?"

Despite the recent outrages in Ferguson, Baltimore and beyond, Washington remains optimistic. "All of these horrible events are happening on camera for the world to see. People are going to get ignited and we are going to invoke change. And it's going to get better. I already know that."

He sees a glimpse of the future in a component of his fan base that has blossomed in the last few months — a generation of kids born after the 1992 riots. "There is a certain amount of empowerment to an ignorance of bigotry and racism. It's almost cool," Washington says. "A lot of kids just think it doesn't exist, or it is so far removed from them living in L.A. Part of me likes that. The other part of me doesn’t."


On the evening of July 25, Washington stood atop the Grand Performances stage at showtime, adorned with flowing white fabrics, looking ready for a baptism in the placid pool that separated the band from the crowd. Visible waves spread across the water from the mountain of speakers stacked on its shore as they thumped out sounds from more than a dozen musicians and MCs, largely from the West Coast Get Down (and including Washington's father in the horn section).

Opening with Watts native Charles Mingus' "Fables of Faubus," Washington's group dug into the ode to Arkansas' segregationist governor with fire. Upright bassist Miles Mosley introduced himself with a frenetic thump before segueing into Snoop's "Serial Killa" with help from the other nimble bassist onstage, Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner.

"We can't talk about jazz in Los Angeles and hip-hop in Los Angeles without mentioning Leimert Park," Washington said halfway through the performance. Leimert Park, the African-American cultural hub just east of Crenshaw Boulevard, is home to drummer Billy Higgins' physical legacy, beyond the thousands of albums he contributed to. Higgins' performance space, the World Stage, is an institution for many of the musicians in Washington's group and has served over the years as a color-blind haven from social unrest.

Appropriating Higgins' patented boogaloo swing, drummer Tony Austin presented a display of inventive chops while the horns danced around Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance" before the band shifted to Ice Cube's Isley Brothers–sampling "Today Was a Good Day." The transition from a tricky avant-garde melody to a '70s soul groove is not for the faint of heart, but it didn't faze the tight ensemble. Nor did jumping from Gerald Wilson's "Viva Tirado" to The Pharcyde's "Passin' Me By." Or Ornette Coleman's "Broken Shadows" into Freestyle Fellowship's "Park Bench People."

The songs flowed like one radio station bleeding into another, shifting from jazz to hip-hop and back again with intriguing grace. And Washington's swirling collective handled it as it always does — losing neither groove nor audience.

"It seemed effortless," Grand Performances' Hahn said later of the performance. "It was a love letter to the music, but it was holding all of us accountable for those things that happened [in the past], and our own future as a city. It was medicine wrapped in magic."

Kamasi Washington @ LA Weekly

Robert Glasper: Covered - DownBeat

Robert Glasper

Pianist Robert Glasper ruffled some feathers when he stated in DownBeat a couple of years ago that jazz needed a "big-ass slap." His intentions paid off nicely in the form of a Grammy award and heaps of acclaim later that year. This record is more about the intricacies of the fingertips than the brutality of the open palm.

Recorded live last December in Blue Note's glamorous West Coast offices, the Capitol Records building, the album is a no-frills nod to the purists. The 13-minute "In Case You Forgot" opens with a solo piano intro reminiscent of "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs"-era Chick Corea. Crisp and lightning quick, Glasper doesn't dwell on any notes for long, flicking daggers before being joined by the rest of the trio (drummer Damion Reid and bassist Vicente Archer).

A few months ago in this section, writer Bradley Baumbargner used the phrase "depressingly de rigueur Radiohead cover." Add Glasper to that strange list of those who drank from the well of Thom Yorke. It's a shame that with so many smart and interesting r&b covers, Glasper doesn't look particularly far for a rock song. But he makes amends by covering Kendrick Lamar to close out the affair. "I'm Dying Of Thirst" is an instrumental backdrop to a recording of children reciting the names of black murder victims at the hands of law enforcement. It is a powerful message presented without comment. Glasper isn't done slapping yet.

Robert Glasper @ DownBeat

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Nightlife Map of Los Angeles's Central Avenue

Here is a hand-drawn, not-to-scale Central Avenue map I made as an insert for my Los Angeles's Central Avenue Jazz book. Make a copy, drive around Central Avenue, look for ghosts. Thanks for reading.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Herbie Hancock Interview - KCET's Artbound

Hancock has always kept his eye on the horizon and at 75 finds himself a Harvard professor, UNESCO World Ambassador, the chairman of the Thelonious Monk Jazz institute and a guest star on Flying Lotus' "You're Dead," one of the most innovative electronic albums of the past decade.
He spoke with Artbound by phone between tours of Europe and Australia about his gig in-between -- the Playboy Jazz Festival -- as well as his last forty years as a resident of Los Angeles.
The first time you played at the Hollywood Bowl was in 1964 with Miles Davis. Is that correct?
I guess. Ha ha. You don't think I'd remember that, do you?
How do you prepare to play an 18,000 seat outdoor venue?
There's no special preparation. I've played the Hollywood Bowl several times now. There's the realization that if it's the day time, the sun may or may not be out. Well, at the Hollywood Bowl the sun is usually out. It's going to be very different in that respect than in the evening. The Bowl is a huge place. Very often in the day time, especially at the Playboy Jazz Festival, people bring their families and they have picnics and it's very difficult to actually get the attention of the audience. In the evening, there is much more focus on the stage. That doesn't mean that artists can't get their attention but it takes a lot of work.

Is it frustrating to play in that situation?
It could be. It's a reality that exists. It goes with the program.
Are ballads out?
You've better have their attention already before you play a ballad. Maybe Tony Bennett could pull that off.
What factors do you consider when putting a program together with the Los Angeles Philharmonic?
It's a pretty large venue. You try to make a package that's going to have not just "popular jazz" but have a package that has some cutting-edge stuff with something else that has more of a name. I like the idea of exposing new music and concepts and new creative ideas to an audience. Not just make a cookie-cutter kind of program. I have great help in putting together with Laura Connelly who is my absolute right-hand person for the LA Philharmonic.
Is there anyone that you wish you could book but hasn't worked yet?
We tried to book Maria Schneider with her orchestra with Dave Holland's big band. I didn't want it to be a battle of the bands or anything. She turned it down. Maybe she wasn't able to do it. She's an amazing talent. I would love to have her on the stage at the Hollywood Bowl.
You moved to Los Angeles in the early 70s. What was the incentive to come here at that time?
I had been living in New York for eleven years. When I would finish a tour and finally come back to New York, I wasn't looking forward to coming back to New York anymore. I had to analyze why. I think it was cause I always felt like I was surviving in New York. That was one reason. There was so much input, so many things going on that I needed some space to gather my thoughts and figure out my own take on things. When I came out to California to explore the possibility of moving here, I felt the difference right away. I've been able to have that space in order to find my own way. At the same time, Los Angeles was much cheaper to have a wonderful living space. The main thing was I feel like I'm living in LA rather than just surviving. There are trees around, not just big tall buildings. You can't beat the weather here. Even though it gets hot, it's still comfortable. It's comfortable even when it's 88.
Were you afraid that your career would suffer trading New York for Los Angeles?
No because I traveled a lot anyway. It didn't matter so much where I lived. I lived in apartments until I moved to LA. I've lived in the same house I bought in 1973. I moved here in December of 1972. In February or March, I bought this house. I can drive my car. I can swim in my pool.
There's a certain spirit of vitality here that I think that resonates with me. The friends that I have here are not friends out of desperation. We're close because of our heart. There's a kind of a bright light that kind of pervades the world from LA. It is it's own entity. A lot of things are generated from LA. A lot of great music is generated here. Some of it is in the hip-hop area not just jazz. Like Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, for example.
You played keyboards on Flying Lotus' last album, "You're Dead." How did you become involved with him?
I had been asking around about young artists who were doing some cutting-edge things. All the young people said Flying Lotus is the guy. I finally got a chance to meet him. I find out that he has a family history in jazz. Alice Coltrane is his aunt. His mother was a jazz musician. I got a chance to meet him. We talked and I got to see his show which blew my mind. We began to interact. I hung out with him at his house and I met Thundercat, an amazing bass player with his own career. Besides talking we just started playing some stuff. Little bits and pieces of things. I didn't know what was going to happen with it. Some of it ended up being on "You're Dead" which is an astounding album.
Did you hope film work pick up for you when you moved to Los Angeles?
I never thought about it. Doing film scores is one of the things I do. I never considered it a major part of my career because I'm primarily a pianist, keyboardist and composer. I've done about ten film scores. I never focused on it as a major part of my career I never considered whether I'd get more film work living in Los Angeles.
It crossed my mind. Maybe there'll be more opportunities for film work. I never concentrated on whether I did or not. I certainly did more films but it didn't change that much. Before I moved here, I did two film scores: "Blow-Up" back in the mid-60s and then a film called "The Spook Who Sat By the Door," kind of a cult film. After I moved here, I did the other eight films.
Don Cheadle is making a bio-pic about your old boss, Miles Davis, called "Miles Ahead." Is it true you are contributing music to that project?
Not primarily me. I did one scene that I'm involved with playing [by] me and Wayne Shorter and some other musicians. Robert Glasper is the guy that is mainly doing the score.
Is someone portraying you in the film?
I don't know. I haven't seen it.

Would that be strange for you to see that?
Strange is not the word you are looking for.
Intriguing, maybe. I figured I couldn't play myself. I'm too old to play myself.
You are playing this weekend with students from the Thelonious Monk Institute. Since establishing their permanent campus in Westwood, the program has left quite an impact on the local scene.
There are so many innovative ideas that come from the Institute's association with UCLA. I think it's that flow of creative ideas that has attracted Herb Alpert. Herb is a major supporter of the Monk Institute. The music school is very excited about the thing's we are doing in our program. We are not just focussed on the kind of insular jazz music arena. We are looking at other arenas that jazz can impact or could be an interesting connection. For example, the medical and science field. What improvisation does to the human spirit and body, that could impact even religion. Los Angeles has been very receptive to the Monk Institute and its programs.
Are you surprised that the keytar didn't become a more widely embraced instrument?
I thought it might be more widely accepted by musicians than it is. The interesting thing is, every time I put it on at my performances there is always applause. I'm sure it's from the younger segment of my audience that comes to my concerts. The appeal is still there but I feel it from the audience but I don't see that many musicians picking up on it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Epicness of the West Coast Get Down - KCET's Artbound

Earlier this month, more than three dozen, influential jazz, R&B and soul musicians took over the stage of the sold-out Regent Theater in downtown Los Angeles. With a soundboard manned by National Public Radio and the giddy anticipation brought on by global accolades -- Los Angeles Times profileNew York Times profileFlea's twitter feed -- jazz tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington was finally getting the recognition he had worked so hard at. This wasn't the birth of a new era of jazz in Los Angeles. But it was a cosmic communion, and a breakthrough for Washington.
"I do feel an obligation to promote Los Angeles jazz," Washington says. "I was one of those people overlooked."
The origins of the evening's massive band, the West Coast Get Down, is a bit nebulous. The double-down rhythm section grew out of Los Angeles's Leimert Park. Washington, an Inglewood-raised UCLA graduate, booked a gig upstairs at Fifth Street Dick's coffeehouse more than ten years ago. When childhood friends -- bassist Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner, drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr., and keyboardist Cameron Graves -- informed Washington they couldn't make the gig, he called another trio, upright bassist Miles Mosley, keyboardist Brandon Coleman and drummer Tony Austin. Then to Washington's surprise everybody showed up. The formation stuck, later adding trombonist Ryan Porter, trumpeter Dontae Winslow and vocalist Patrice Quinn.
That core group can easily be linked to thousands of musicians around the world.
Washington toured with Snoop Dogg after college and Chaka Khan. Bassist Bruner, Jr. has worked for Kenny Garrett and Suicidal Tendencies. Mosley has had recording contracts since he was a teenager and even toured with Jonathan Davis of Korn. Austin has held it down for Santana and Willow Smith. But they have always returned to Hollywood's Piano Bar for their twice weekly residency.
Washington has been a towering local presence since the late 1990s. He was a vibrant burst of youthful firepower in the Gerald Wilson big band. He has toured with drummer Harvey Mason.
In the last decade he has performed under his own name at Walt Disney Concert Hall, LACMA and Grand Performances. And earlier this year he was an integral part ofKendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly" ensemble, contributing string arrangements and some horn work. Finally, this spring a recording with his name as the headliner was coming out.
Washington's debut on Los Angeles-based Brainfeeder Records is making up for lost time. Called "The Epic," the album is nearly three hours long, spread across three discs. Through hard-hitting originals and a few unexpected left turns ("Clair De Lune," "Cherokee"), Washington presents a sound that is 21st century jazz. It is informed by hip-hop, brushed with a little reggae but wholly in the pocket, full of fire and sensitivity. Washington blares through the dense arrangements with unwavering confidence. It is as grand a statement as one could hope for from someone with so much to say.
"The record was playing in my dream," said Washington of the marathon recording sessions that took place back in 2011. "I would dream the whole three hour record. It tripped me out. I took it as a sign."
He also took it to his label boss Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, and told him that all seventeen tracks had to be released together. Ellison, a cornerstone of the Los Angeles electronica scene, and an increasing advocate for the jazz world, expected that response and agreed to release Washington's vision in full. "Lotus shined a light and opened a door," Washington says, "he gave me the confidence to go all in."
Washington's armfuls of tapes were just part of the recorded output. All ten members of the collective are capable bandleaders with very different perspectives and many of them came away with recordings of their own from that original session. Brandon Coleman, on loan from the Mothership, has an album waiting. Bruner, Jr. has his own double-fisted project ready to go and Mosley and Austin have a duo called BFI that clobbers with funky precision.
So how long can the West Coast Get Down last? Will they perhaps splinter under the weight of some long-deserved recognition? How long can they continue playing twice a week in Hollywood? Thundercat was the first to step out with a pair of releases also for Brainfeeder showcasing his astounding bass work and dilated psychedelic "third-eye" influence. Those albums helped him become an in-demand entertainer, even headlining a tent at the Cape Town Jazz Festival last March, eschewing his usual chainmail for colorful dashikis. Washington is filling his calendar with tour dates reaching as far as New Zealand and with each spotlight-worthy excursion, the West Coast Get Down will become harder and harder to contain.
But Washington keeps spreading the group's gospel. "I'm making a point to tell everybody how amazing my friends are," he says. "Ronald Bruner is a genius. Brandon Coleman is a genius."
And the world is finally paying attention.

Josh Nelson On Exploring Mars - KPCC's Off-Ramp

This is a description of an interview with pianist Josh Nelson in anticipation of his newest album "Exploring Mars." For the full audio, click the link below.
______What does Mars sound like on a piano? Pianist Josh Nelson came up with one answer on his latest album: Exploring Mars.
Nelson has performed and collaborated with musicians like Jeff Hamilton, Peter Erskine and vocalist Natalie Cole. When performing live, the pianist and composer often includes a live videographer to collaborate with his band.
Off-Ramp contributor Sean J. O'Connell went to Nelson's home to talk about the newest album. Here are some highlights:
On writing an album about Mars
Mars is awesome, lets just start with that. Second, it's been in the news quite a lot. For me, it was the landing of the Curiosity rover in August 2012 that kind of seeded the project. And then with all of the Space X stuff going on, with trials of people hopefully populating that planet someday... it seemed like an apropos time to release something with that subject matter.
It all started with "Martian Chronicles" — Ray Bradbury and his vision for the Martian fantasy world definitely got me going before that. 
I really love the romanticism, the idea of musically reflecting upon the planet. But at the same time, paying homage to someone like Gustav Holst, who took Mars and the astrological meaning of the planets, and putting my own spin on it.
 On translating the concept of Mars to music
For this record, I would take other records — or also films, like "Invaders from Mars" from the 1950s — and just put it on and just start playing. Solo piano wise, [it sounds] romantic and kind of other worldly. But I really love the idea of just kind of improvising, especially with the films of Mars, or the JPL/NASA stuff that they've been putting out from the Curiosity rover landing — that's super inspirational to me as well. 
 On performing live with a videographer
I love film, I love theater, and I just wanted to marry the two with my music. Growing up a Disney kid, my dad was an Imagineer with Disney. My brother and I got to be the first guys to ride on a lot of rides at Disneyland, testing them out. And we were fascinated by the theatrics that go into it. And the mechanics, but also the resulting art — the feeling that you get from seeing something like this.
So, yeah. We have the Discovery Project. I'm surprised more  jazz artists don't do it, actually. Because there's a serious visual component that I think a lot of them deal with. It's really fun for the band. It's fun for the audience. It's a really fun journey from beginning to end. 
 On the impact video has on the musicians' performance
Absolutely, there's different performances, yeah. They respond visually and then it manifests different sonically when they perform it. I actually like really hearing the tunes performed with video and without to see how they're different and to see if the guys are, in fact, reacting.
Josh Nelson @ KPCC's Off-Ramp 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sunshine & South Africa

I spent an extended weekend in South Africa for the Cape Town Jazz Festival last March. This video was shot during one day. It features penguins, a hotel pool and a funicular. Enjoy.

Players: Sammy Figueroa - DownBeat

photo from

Sammy Figueroa: Leader Satisfaction

From the mid 1970s until the late 1980s, Sammy Figueroa was the go-to man when pop radio needed a Latin percussionist. His upbeat thump propelled hits for Whitney Houston, Chic, Sister Sledge and David Bowie. Twenty years ago, after hundreds of recording sessions, he left New York, the city of his birth, for Miami, a city close to his Puerto Rican roots. He set out to relax and breathe in the ocean air. What he didn’t realize was his attempt at retirement would turn into the busiest and most personally satisfying years of his career, with his first foray into band-leading, two Grammy nominations and a weekly radio show on Miami’s jazz station WDNA. But it was behind the counter of a record store that Figueroa got his first break.

Figueroa worked at the Sam Goody near Rockefeller Center where he flexed his jazz knowledge for any customer looking for something new. “I met Herbie Mann while I was working there. He would come in once a week and he took a liking to me cause I was always turning him on to new stuff. Herbie one day, after like the ninth visit said ‘hey kid, do you play anything?’” Figueroa’s confident answer became the turning point in his life. 

After a jam session that night, Mann immediately hired him, personally informed Sam Goody management that Figueroa would not be returning and whisked him off to Montreux. Over two weeks, he performed with Mann, guitarist John McLaughlin and the Average White Band, all of whom employed him for studio and road work but it was a late night phone call back in the US that put him touch with one of his biggest idols.

“I get a call at 2 in the morning in New York at my apartment. This guy calls me up and says ‘hey! It’s Miles Davis’ and I go ‘who the fuck is this?’ ‘Motherfucker, this is Miles Davis.” I said “fuck you” and I hung up and went back to bed. The phone rings ten minutes later and he goes ‘if you hang up on me again I’m going to find you and I’m going to kick your ass.’ I said ‘I gotta get up in the morning’ and I hung up again. Fifteen minutes later a voice comes on and says “Sammy. I’m sorry to wake you up. This is Teo Macero and you just hung up twice on Miles.” It was the first time everything in my body cringed. I couldn’t even breathe.”

Quickly convinced, Figueroa got dressed and headed down to the studio. “I said ‘Mr. Davis, I’m so sorry’ and he punched me in the stomach. He punched me so hard I nearly fell on the floor. I reacted to it so I punched him. My adrenaline went up to my brain and I lost it for a moment. I was still half asleep. He fell down and he had a little blood trickling from his lip. What did I just do? Is this a nightmare? The only thing that came to mind was that I’ll go home and this never happened.” 

Much to Figueroa’s surprise, Davis was impressed by his punch. They opted not to record that night and went to the movies in the wee hours of the morning. “From that day on, I did the record Man With The Horn, I went on tour with him. I was with Miles for 8 years.”

Not long after Davis’ passing, Figueroa made the move south but the lure of the stage was too much for him and he began to play regularly, eventually putting together his aptly-named band the Latin Jazz Explosion with help from his producer Rachel Faro. Their partnership has resulted in four albums including the most recent release Talisman, a collaboration with Brazilian vocalist Glaucia Nasser and featuring guitarist Chico Pinheiro. The result is a departure from his more party-driven previous records, relying on the mellower vibes that meet somewhere off the coast of the Southwestern shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

“When I was living in New York, there were a couple stations that kept asking when are you going to do your record? I didn’t feel I was ready to do an album on my own,” says Figueroa. “I didn’t know what the responsibility was in becoming a leader. I feel like I became a superintendent of a building. When something broke, I had to fix it and I hated it. I got so used to being the musician with no responsibility in that sense. I would get paid and leave. It took awhile to get used to it but I’ve become a leader. Now I don’t want to go back to the way it was.”

Harold Mabern: Afro Blue - DownBeat

Harold Mabern
Afro Blue

While a majority of the Smoke Sessions Records releases have been recorded live at the Smoke Jazz Club in Harlem, pianist Harold Mabern's first for the fairly new label was not. The heavyweight vocal lineup includes Kurt Elling and Jane Monheit but alas they did not all crowd the stage for a swingin' affair. Instead, this disc is the result of two days in a recording studio with each guest performing on a couple of tunes before relinquishing the microphone to the next headlining vocalist. The band feels restrained and often the arrangements don't feel challenging enough but throughout Mabern's piano is strong.

If the title of this album is based on its best track, then Mabern made the right choice. Gregory Porter is the guest vocalist for "Afro Blue," summoning a rich baritone over relentless punches from drummer Joe Farnsworth. The drums don't shine any brighter than on this track. They are unhinged and driving, serving as great inspiration for Eric Alexander's breathless tenor solo. The rest of the album never approaches the joyous intensity of Mabern's persistent riff and Farnsworth's attention-grabbing fills. An instrumental version of Steely Dan's "Do It Again" holds a little too closely to the original, while "You Needed Me" features gospel richness from Mabern and a poppy horn riff that results in a little too much "lite" sound.

Harold Mabern @ DownBeat

Marc Cary: Rhodes Ahead Vol. 2 - DownBeat

Marc Cary
Rhodes Ahead Volume 2

Keyboardist Marc Cary fills a whole power strip for his return to the chill-out tent. Aside from the Fender Rhodes, Cary employs a Hammond organ, an Access Virus synthesizer and a laptop to create his swirling sequel. Volume 1 of this project surfaced late in the last century and a lot of this follow-up feels like a snapshot of that same scene, untouched by changes to electronic music. Cary wrote or co-wrote most of the tunes, but the album's first full track is a driving take on Harold Mabern's "Beehive." Trumpeter Igmar Thomas drills a vibrant solo over drummer Terreon Gully's frenetic punches and Gully's fisticuffs work hard throughout, filling in the spaces with plenty of double-time kit work. Cary's "Eassaouira Walks" hinges on a repetitive Rhodes phrase, each note precisely pounded out. On his solo, a flock of electronic chatter hovers while Cary unleashes pentatonic inversions up and down the board, a common soloing feature. Cary's propulsive sound on "African Market" gets a boost from a vocoder and a bag of percussion jangled by Daniel Moreno. For a while, he harkens back to a more Stevie Wonder/Bernie Worrell funk that has a loping charm. Album closer, "The Alchemist's Notes" features an organic feel with an impassioned spoken word performance from Sharif Simmons. Seven minutes before the end, the band finally feels relaxed, floating in the trip-hop ether.

Marc Cary @ DownBeat

Chris Biesterfeldt: Phineas - DownBeat

Chris Biesterfeldt

Pianist Phineas Newborn Jr died over 25 years ago, destitute and under-recorded at the age of 57. In his prime, he was one of the most technically gifted pianists to swing a trio. His legacy lives on in the seemingly impossible two-handed runs captured on such albums as We Three (1958) and The Newborn Touch (1964) but he has never been held in as high regard as other nimble pianists like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. Guitarist Chris Biesterfeldt is doing his part to keep Newborn in the conversation.

Completing the trio of challenging last names is upright bassist Matthew Rybicki and drummer Jared Schonig. The band doesn't aim to replicate or overtake the Newborn songbook, instead using his recordings as loose source material for their funky forays. Like Tatum and Peterson, Newborn was a gifted interpreter. Thus only three songs on the album are penned by him, with the bulk of the material coming from other notable jazzmen. "Cookin' At the Continental" burns with a breathless solo from Biesterfeldt that covers the full range of the instrument. A confident and straight-ahead "Juicy Lucy" features a solo from Rybicki that is patient and wonderfully disjointed. "Manteca," a tune that Newborn positively demolishes on A World Of Piano! with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, is taken in a different direction. Instead of the manic bombast that marks the Newborn version, Biesterfeldt goes for a swinging chicken scratch that culminates in a popping solo from Schonig over the tune's introductory riff. Throughout the recording, Biesterfeldt attacks each tune with a madman's spirit, bouncing from chords and single lines at the speed of light. This album stands on its own as an invigorating trio recording while paying homage to one of the undersung greats of jazz.

Chris Biesterfeldt @ DownBeat

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Raphael Wressnig: Soul Gumbo - DownBeat

Raphael Wressnig
Soul Gumbo

Austrian organist Raphael Wressnig is a loyal student of the New Orleans sound. This album is the culmination of all his study sessions, aided by some of the best practitioners on the Gulf Coast. The problem? Too many guests. Wressnig becomes more of a curator than a bandleader, showcasing the songwriting, vocal and instrumental skills of great New Orleans talent on six out of nine tunes. Still, it all adds up to an engaging compilation of soul-jazz and adult contemporary pop.

Walter "Wolfman" Washington offers the strongest cameo with his tune "I Want To Know." The weary slow-jam features a classic horn riff and a guitar solo from Washington that is a master class in economy and soul. The frenetic instrumental "Mustard Greens<" one of four Wressnig originals, features searing solos from both the leader and guitarist Alex Schultz. Wressnig's nods to Young-Holt Unlimited and Stevie Wonder exemplify his more populist approach and pianist Jon Cleary's inoffensive tune "Sometimes I Wonder" comes across as a little more yacht rock than Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise." Wressnig has a great memento from his time in New Orleans. But after listening to this album, it is still rather difficult to define Wressnig's own goals.

Raphael Wressnig @ DownBeat

Sax Gordon: In the Wee Small Hours - DownBeat

Sax Gordon
In the Wee Small Hours

Wild Bill Moore, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet - these are just a few of the honkers that saxophonist Sax Gordon Beadle pays tribute to on this organ trio outing recorded at the foot of the Alps in Bruino, Italy. Beadle honed his intricately manicured chops on the American blues circuit, picking up no shortage of flash, fire and fist pumps. By comparison, this recording is a modest swing through some worn-out standards, keeping the pyrotechnics to a minimum and the melody to the fore.

The album opens with "The Glory of Love," a tune that has lived a thousand lives from Benny Goodman to Otis Redding. Beadle starts reserved but gradually builds with help from the rest of the trio into a bombastic swinger. The Sinatra weeper that serves as the title track slows way down with drummer Alessandro Minetto gingerly working his brushes, while "Whatever Lola Wants" features organist Alberto Marsico in full snake-charmer mode, combining his drawbars for an old-school sound. "Big Top Blues," Beadle's writing contribution, is an uptempo workout that gives Minetto a few moments to skitter across his snare in the spotlight. This album could've benefitted a lot more from Beadle's stage craft. His fat notes ring with a true r&b education, but they never surpass the spirits he is trying to invoke.

Sax Gordon @ DownBeat

Houston Person: The Melody Lingers On - DownBeat

Houston Person
The Melody Lingers On

At the age of 80, Houston Person has almost as many records under his own name as years on earth. The prolific tenor saxophonist rattled off this newest release in a single day last summer. His mission on this release is to deliver the melody of 10 tunes of varying levels of recognition with respect and charm. Person never fails on those fronts. He hums through chestnuts like "My Funny Valentine" and "They All Laughed" with the assuredness of a man who knows the tunes inside and out. His solos are graceful and in constant homage to the melody. Person is joined by a quartet of tasteful veterans that could perform these mostly medium-tempo tunes in their sleep. Vibraphonist Steve Nelson provides a warm pad for Person to float on, while pianist Lafayette Harris supplies tasteful soul and bossa grooves. Lewis Nash's cymbals ring with a bottomless shimmer, their vibrancy and tone sustained from beginning to end.

Houston Person @ DownBeat

Outhead: Send This Sound to the King - DownBeat

Send This Sound To The King

It is rare to encounter a vocal part that inspires a double-take. But Outhead has managed to elicit some on its new album - through a whole bunch of sexual euphemisms. Of course, prurience is in the ear of the beholder, but it might be good to skip a few tracks if the listener looks like anything like the toddler on the cover.

Alto/tenor saxophonist Alex Weiss leads this tight quartet. Bellowing below him is baritone saxophonist Charlie Gurke. While the twin saxophone ensemble is the focus of this album, it is the guests who make it meaty, exotic and even a little bit dirty. An uncredited appearance by guitarist Peter Galub heaps a pile of grungy goodness onto "The Chairman." Bassist Rob Woodcock drops a lumbering bass line over drummer Dillon Westrbook's restrained kit while the saxophones help to turn the tune into an instrumental that would be a good fit for 1980s Tom Waits. The band reclines nicely into its troubadour-punk vibes but also digs into straight, wailing swing. "Trotsky" and "Glass Houses and Gift Horses" are both churning, freewheeling explorations. Gurke wrote the former while Weiss penned the latter. Their similar sensibilities are on constant display as the two interact seamlessly and with deep understanding. The record loses its PG rating with some guest vocal spots. "A Made Truth," written by Westbrook, discourages the listener from any absentminded listening. Vocalist Sarah Horacek matter-of-factly strolls through Westbrook's poem of "throbbing" and "pumping" that ostensibly has to do with a well. When vocalist Eunjin Park returns at the end of the tune with the same poem in accented English, things get a little more confusing. Despite all the "engorged" lyrics, maybe the really are just talking about a well?

Outhead @ DownBeat

Wil Blades: Field Notes - DownBeat

Wil Blades
Field Notes

"Magnificent, wonderful, sometimes tragic" is how Wil Blades is described by his 8-year-old daughter in the opening seconds of this recording. While this is a satisfying organ trio album, it is neither the first nor the last of those things. But it is occasionally wonderful. Blades mans the Hammond B-3 and is joined by guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer Simon Lott for a set of tunes mostly composed on the road but away from the spotlights. Blades sticks to the party groove and serves it nicely, blending a '70s-era Book T & the MGs sound with the occasional spidery out-funk from Parker's guitar. He is not a showy organist. He stays in the pocket and propels the group with healthy doses of stability. Blades affixed a clavinet to the top of his behemoth to complete the '70s vibe for the closing intergalactic swagger of "(I Can't Stand) The Whole Lott of You," while Parker digs into the effects board for his feature number "Parks N' Wreck." "Dewey" revisits the clavinet with a scuzzy waddle, embracing a disjointed groove that appears to be in no rush whatsoever, while the following tune, "Addis," pops with a transferable urgency that works its way around the band. The closer and lone cover on the album is the Big Bill Broonzy honky tonk standard "I Only Get the Blues When It Rains," an unusual choice that gives Parker an airy space to solo before Blades steps in with a hokey drawbar setting. Each tune is a bite-sized chunk of funk, a good soundtrack to an afternoon in the backyard. The trio hangs almost exclusively with tradition, only veering from the road when the adventurous Parker rips a hard left turn.

Wil Blades @ DownBeat

Robert Glasper & Q-Tip: Capitol Records' Studio A - DownBeat

The most star-studded month in Los Angeles is without a doubt February. Between the Grammys and the Oscars, entertainment industry parties pop up in nearly any room that can accommodate a stage and a bar. On Feb. 4, Capitol Records’ famed Studio A served as the setting for an intimate performance by the Robert Glasper Experiment to celebrate their Grammy nominations (Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Jesus Children” and Best R&B Album for Black Radio 2) and to announce Blue Note Records’ new partnership with Sonos, manufacturers of wireless high-fidelity sound systems.

Because Blue Note has been producing sounds for 75 years, it only makes sense that they would move into the realm of merchandise and machinery. The Sonos Blue Note Play:1 is the result. The limited-edition speaker is equipped with access to numerous Blue Note-approved playlists that have the potential to be updated and diversified. Wireless speakers have become a tremendous market in recent years with most of them attempting to blend in with other stereo equipment. This tasteful deviation from those norms gives the Sonos device a distinct charm; plus, it has enough wattage to fill a living room.
It would take quite a few Bluetooth speakers to fill the Captiol Records Building. The cylindrical tower has been an instantly recognizable fixture of the Hollywood skyline since it was built in 1956. It was even more striking on Feb. 4 because it was bathed in blue. Multiple shades of blue lit up the building to honor Blue Note Records’ legacy from 1939 to present day.

The Robert Glasper Experiment is one of the highest-profile acts of the current Blue Note Records roster. They played for over an hour on a small, low stage to a crowd that was equally divided between rapt attention and networking chatter. Naturally, the sound in the room was commanding. Electric bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Mark Colenburg took full advantage of the floor-rattling potential with an unyielding barrage of machine-gun funk. A crisp telepathy can pass through the quartet, capable of stretching out into the ether or stopping on a dime.

Glasper spent the night seated at a bank of keyboards, conjuring synth pads with his left hand and lithe soulful lines with his right on a Fender Rhodes. But it was saxophonist/keytarist Casey Benjamin who could have easily been mistaken for the leader. Between his vibrant reddish pink top-knot and unflinching grin, Benjamin attracted a lot of the attention. His ferocious horn and intergalactic vocoder-driven come-ons were just as memorable as his sense of style.

A few guests managed to attract more of the crowd’s attention. Vocalist Lalah Hathaway performed a simmering rendition of “Jesus Children” wherein bassist and actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner stepped up to contribute a somber spoken-word section addressing the Sandy Hook massacre. But the artist who prompted the most camera phones to be pointed toward the stage was rapper Q-Tip.
Dressed in black leather pants, a leather jacket, red sweatshirt and sunglasses, he worked hard at pumping up the small but enthusiastic crowd. At one point he brought up a young woman to serenade her with his A Tribe Called Quest hip-hop classic “Bonita Applebaum.” She was coy, awkward and charming.

Throughout Q-Tip’s short set, Glasper and company maintained a forceful pace, proving again a mastery of their unique blend of influences—jazz begets r&b begets soul begets hip-hop. The result is a distinctly here-and-now mash-up that always grooves and often impresses.