Monday, June 12, 2017

39th Annual Playboy Jazz Fesitval - Los Angeles Times

Each year, at June’s gloomiest peak, the Hollywood Bowl hosts a seamless two-day festival that crams more jazz and jazz-adjacent acts into a single day than a subscription package to the Bowl does all summer. It is a marathon of sound and consumption, the rowdiest and friendliest jazz crowd within a few hundred miles.
On Saturday, the still-novel rotating carousel stage brought a differing approach with each half revolution, linking without any interruptions a college vocal ensemble, a behatted retro jazz outfit, a studious homage to French gypsy jazz, four vibraphonists, two blues greats, a grizzled supergroup, two diametrically opposed British pop stars, a vibrantly percussive big band and a bass-slapping front man who opened with a Beatles tune.
Whatever the algorithm, it largely worked, with each act dictating the appropriate level of discourse among the more than 15,000 attendees.
The Django Festival Allstars, a French hot club quintet, served duty as tablecloth jazz for peckish sunbathers in the mid-afternoon. Champagne corks popped over the crowd like bubbly meteorites as the band worked through standards like “Tea for Two” and “Minor Swing” on the heels of lead guitarist Samson Schmitt’s nimble stroke.
In tribute to the late Bobby Hutcherson, Stefon Harris assembled a multi-generational quartet of vibraphonists that also included newcomer Joel Ross, the robust Warren Wolf and the repeatedly hailed “godfather of neo-soul” Roy Ayers. It did not hurt to have Eric Harland on drums and hometown hero pianist Patrice Rushen providing some of the most monstrous straight-ahead solos of the day.
Taj Mahal, clad in a mustard-hued walking suit, shared the stage with a bearded Keb’Mo. They opened with Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues,” growling as they rotated into the daylight. Backup vocalists and a horn section filled out the bluesy set while guitar techs flanked both sides of the stage as both leaders changed instruments with nearly every song. Mahal strummed his way through a ukulele, banjo, electric guitar and acoustic guitar before adding some harmonica. 
By the time Hudson pivoted to the crowd, the sun had dropped behind the trees and the house had filled in substantially. The jazz supergroup which included drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Larry Grenadier can be linked to virtually every major jazz figure since the late ’50s.
The act was supporting its ethereal self-titled album released late last week but brought a beefier, festival-ready live set. The group opened with a choppy ride through Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow.” Scofield and Medeski shot daggers from their humming machines while DeJohnette provided a muscular backbeat and Grenadier worked his bass like a greaser on the cusp of another reckless spin.
Amid the chunky riffs and feedback-friendly dissonance, the real revelation of the set was DeJohnette’s unexpected vocal take on the Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek,” belting from his drum stool — as it was meant to be sung.
“Let’s get crazy before it gets dark,” announced MC George Lopez.But there was no need to get overly rambunctious because singer/songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae was onstage in a tinfoil pantsuit backed by a cracker-jack R&B band.
She seduced the crowd with slow jams, a judicious mix of folk and funk turned up to 11. She closed with a well-received pair of radio hits, “Put Your Records On” and “Like A Star” but she didn’t get to finish the second tune as the sprightly one-man-band Jacob Collier was harmonizing from the other side of the wall, echoing across the nighttime crowd.
Collier was the first to use the Bowl’s mighty screens to his own advantage, overlaying live footage of each manic assault on his multiple musical workstations. Collier opened with Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry Bout A Thing,” emitting electric doo-wop harmonies through various tricks and whistles.
He ran around the stage playing some drums, an electric upright bass, a grand piano and a bank of keyboards, all while singing and gesturing toward the crowd in a sarong and oversized shirt. His act was a musical spinning of plates, seemingly changing parts of the song on the fly in polished loops without letting the beat drop.
“If there was a time to smoke marijuana, that was it,” Lopez announced at the close of Collier’s frazzled set. Regardless of in-house policy, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval brought the fire. Backed by his Latin big band with an assist from actor Andy Garcia on bongos, Sandoval played a high-energy set that included mambos both numbered and temperature-gauged.
He brought local trumpeter Wayne Bergeron out for a tribute to Maynard Ferguson. The two rattled glassware with a high-flying blues battle that got the crowd on its feet. Sandoval limited his trumpet playing and announced before sitting on the piano bench “the trumpet is so painful. I feel good when I play the piano.”
“I’m gonna play the most cold-blooded bassline in Motown bassline history,” Marcus Miller declared before playing two notes on his electric bass. Miller was the crowd-pleaser closer and he brought an instant connection with the audience by opening with the Beatles’ “Come Together” and following it up with the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
Trumpeter Marquis Hill and saxophonist Alex Han offered sparse lines and inventive solos that reached beyond the groove while vocalist Rahsaan Patterson, in shoes that could be seen from the last row, sang in tribute to the late vocalist Al Jarreau including fan favorites “I Will Be Here for You” and “We’re in This Love Together.”
The Playboy Jazz Festival has always struck a unique balance between the ribaldry of its sponsor and the integrity of the Los Angeles Philarhmonic. It is a festival that embraces high art and lowbrow, equal bites steak and broccoli. As long as nobody gets hit in the eye by a cork, everybody’s happy.

Big Jay McNeely Still Blowing the House Down - KPCC's Off Ramp

The scene is a small house in South LA. Big Jay McNeely is attired in immaculate black Dickies, a perfectly pressed royal blue dress shirt, and a carefully chosen silk necktie. As he talks, you start to think this 90-year-old jazz legend is going to climb off his mobility scooter, grab his sax, and blow like he did one day in 1951 .
As Sean J. O'Connell puts it: "Big Jay McNeely was etched into pop music immortality in 1951. Photographer Bob Willoughby captured McNeely at a concert at Los Angeles's Olympic Auditorium 1951. In the photo, the Watts native is blasting his tenor sax on his back, the camera capturing the raised fists of post-war teenage hysteria seething in undershirts and pompadours at the foot of the stage. From Central Avenue with Charlie Parker and Art Tatum in the 1940s to the R&B circuit of the '50s and '60s, McNeely was there through a roller coaster of musical evolutions and had a good time along the way. His showmanship and soul are both youthful and timeless. He is rock & roll history, alive and well."
Big Jay McNeely, showman extraordinaire, at Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles, 1951
Big Jay McNeely, showman extraordinaire, at Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles, 1951 ©BOB WILLOUGHBY/MPTVIMAGES.COm
Big Jay McNeely can't get down on the floor anymore, but he can still get down: he performed two concerts for his 90th birthday, and has two more scheduled this month.
Big Jay was born in Watts on April 29, 1927, given name Cecil James McNeely. Back then, Watts was country ... Cecil chopped wood for his mom's stove, they had livestock at the house, and the actual iceman cometh. He played with Little Richard, Junior Wells, B.B. King, and Etta James, and had his biggest hit in 1949, with "The Deacon's Hop," which hit #1 on Billboard's R&B chart. He played through the 40s, 50s, and 60s, retired from music in the 1970s, then returned to music in the 1980s.
McNeely is a showman, the last of a particular type of sax player called a "honker," who integrated showmanship with musicianship. "It wasn't really part of my program to lay on the floor (and play)," he says. "But I was working in a little town called Clarksville, Tennessee. We were working upstairs, blowing out brains out, but nothing happened. So I got on my knees. Nothing happened. So I laid down on the floor, and man, they went crazy. Everybody from downstairs would come up because they heard all this noise."

Then there was the time he had a gig with Lionel Hampton in LA's old Wrigley Stadium. He started playing up in the bleachers, moved all around the stadium, and wound up crawling across the infield. He also painted his sax fluorescent colors and used black lights to heighten the visual experience. And when he plays, he concentrates on engaging the audience ... with repeated notes, dramatic pauses, "overblowing" the horn, and other techniques he talks about in his interview with Off-Ramp jazz correspondent Sean J. O'Connell.
The reaction he got from teenagers in the city of LA, he says, worried officials here, who apparently thought he was some sort of Pied Piper. "The kids were responding to the music," he says, "and they didn't know why were responding in that way. They'd take pictures, I guess they'd try to analyze it, and they couldn't find out what's happening." So they wouldn't give him a permit to perform.
McNeely attributes at least part of his longevity to "living a clean life" as a Jehovah's Witness. "I was in Germany and was walking around saying, 'Man, I'm 75. I haven't got much longer to live,' cuz the Bible says 80, you know.  I got baptized as a Jehovah when I was 12, and my hope is for the Kingdom of God where you can live forever and ever. And that's what has kept me from getting involved ..." (in drugs or in focusing on success over happiness). "When you put your whole life into a career, and it don't happen, it affects some people. But to me the Kingdom is the only hope, so I'm still looking for that.  That's all that matters."

100 Years of Ella Fitzgerald with Barbara Morrison - KPCC's Off Ramp

Ella Fitzgerald spent the last part of her life here in Los Angeles. She had a mansion in Beverly Hills and after she died in 1996, was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery. She would have turned 100 on April 25, and the celebrations have begun... including at the brand new California Jazz and Blues Museum in Leimert Park, which is presided over by LA's own first lady of song, Barbara Morrison.

Off-Ramp contributor Sean J. O'Connell met Morrison at the museum this week to talk about Ella's life and legacy. Make sure to listen to the entire interview in the audio player so you can hear Barbara give scatting advice, and give us a beautiful a capella version of Make Someone Happy.

I do. I was probably about ten years old. My dad had a hi-fi. And he played all the old songs of the great black singers in the day. And we had the first black radio station. It was in Inkster, Michigan. That's all he listened to.

No, I liked Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown. I liked the more bluesy stuff. But she was artistic, and that part of her I did like. She was more creative. She took leaps and bounds. You know, sitting on the bandstand with Chick Webb when you're a little kid and you got all these professional horn players blowing all kinds of solos. She had a photographic memory. She could remember all that stuff. She could remember what Johnny Hodges was playing in his solo, and she could sing it.

"Ella in Berlin." When she did "Mack the Knife" and forgot the words. I think that really really really made her famous because she carried that whole thing, but she made it all work. I think people appreciated that, because that's how life is. You know? You make it work.

Morrison just christened the California Jazz and Blues Museum at 4317 Degnan Blvd 90008 which has a corner devoted to Ella. "It's called Ella's Pub," Morrison says, because "Dizzy and all the cats would come to town, and instead of hanging out in nightclubs where people would bother them, they'd go to Ella's house and she had a pub in her rec room and they'd all jam all night - Oscar Peterson and everybody."