An Appreciation: Farewell Jack Bruce

October 28, 2014

By Mike Finkelstein

Jack Bruce passed away on Saturday at the age of 71. It’s yet another hard-to-accept cold shot for any rock fan who fondly remembers what the rock medium had to offer in its late ’60’s/early ’70’s heyday. The luminaries of the field are disappearing slowly but surely. But around that time, rock was the most interesting, cutting edge genre around. Short-lived as it was, to call it inspiring in its time would be to understate the point.

Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce

And Jack Bruce was at the forefront of all of this. He was a founding member of perhaps the first supergroup out of England, the mind-blowing power trio Cream…(as in the Cream that rises to the top). Their sound was bigger than the sum of the parts. Along with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream put psychedelic blues-rock on the map with a sonic boom. The group featured guitarist Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker, and one Jack Bruce on bass. The band blew the doors open in the blues-rock field. Their jams were marathon sequences of long solos, top-flight musicianship, and decibels-a-plenty. Twenty minutes for a song like Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” became de rigeur and a true showcase for players as strong as they were. Ginger Baker still complains that he lost most of his hearing having to be near Bruce’s unbearably loud bass rig, night after night.

As a writer, lyricist, and playing harmonica and bass, Jack Bruce was actually the wild card in Cream. His fingerprints were all over their many iconic songs from what we now remember to be an incredibly brief period between 1967 and 1969. But what a run it was. The lyrics Bruce wrote to songs like “SWLABR,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” “White Room,” “Dance the Night Away,” and “I Feel Free,” were beautifully evocative meshes of blues, mythology, and juxtaposition – yet they were also full-on psychedelic anthems. Great imagery from him! And Cream arranged for the album art to match the music. Just to see their albums in the local record store was to look at things differently. But upon listening to the record, it was so hard to believe there were only three guys putting all of those ideas and huge sound across so deftly. They did set a standard. Many folks might argue convincingly that Cream was a career zenith for Clapton, as well.

As a bass player Jack Bruce certainly took the busy angle of things a long, long way. His solos would often be as long as Clapton’s. But he was unusually melodic, and downright intriguing to listen to. Live, he was one of the busiest bassists to come along. He played leads on his bass. Guys like John Entwhistle of The Who were also playing sizzling lead bass lines at the time, but Bruce was going for broke on the same stage as Eric Clapton, in his prime. Gotta step it up to do that! In this way he was hugely influential to a generation of developing bass players. It became obvious that it was going to be OK to stretch out as a rock bassist…if you had the chops and the ideas. Many people I know literally wore the grooves out of albums like Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire, learning to play either guitar or bass. Cream offered that much talent to draw from.

After Cream was through, Bruce continued to hook up throughout the ‘70’s with guitar heavyweights like, Leslie West (no pun intended), Mick Taylor, and Robin Trower. While the psychedelia was over, the music continued to flow. Some of the stuff Bruce did with Carla Bley and Mick Taylor in the mid ‘70’s was brilliant, part of an impressive musical arc for Bruce, post-Cream.

Ultimately, Jack Bruce will be remembered most for his work with Cream and when people think of that band, it’s impossible not to be taken with the many levels they succeeded on. Whether lyrically, compositionally, or instrumentally, Jack Bruce’s legacy will continue to inspire people who can grasp what he was doing then. It was quite brilliant, indeed.

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To read more posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

Photo of Jack Bruce at the 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival by photo-journalist Bonnie Perkinson.



Live Music: Hall and Oates at The Greek Theatre

October 28, 2014

by James M. DeFrances

Los Angeles, CA.  No introduction? No problem…Daryl Hall and John Oates commenced their show Sunday night at the Greek theater in Los Angeles after Mutlu, the opening act, without any prior announcement. As a matter of fact at 8:45 they were exactly 15 minutes ahead of schedule. So early that the audience, expecting a 9 p.m. start, was abruptly surprised when the intro from the 1982 number one mega-hit “Maneater” boomed over the sold out amphitheater’s PA system. The lights were quickly brought down and Los Angeles was set for an evening of memories, Hall and Oates style.

Hall & Oates and their band

Hall & Oates and their band

The duo’s 16 song set seemed to go by “in the blink of an eye” exclaimed the woman seated next to me. Daryl Hall did most of the monologue in between songs and mentioned how happy he was to be back in Los Angeles, to which the audience affectionately cooed. Outfitted in black leather jackets and mirrored lens sunglasses, the famed chart topping partners in crime stood side by side on matching carpets at the apron of the stage. On the menu this evening were some songs they “hadn’t done in a while” according to Hall. These rarities included tunes such as “Methods of Modern Love” and “Las Vegas Turnaround.” Concertgoers remained seated until “She’s Gone,” when the majority of the crowd rose to their feet to sing and dance along.

Daryl Hall

Daryl’s voice was clear and present and possessed a rugged “been there done that” quality. His phrasing differed from the studio recordings in a way that gave the lyrics a new perspective.

John Oates followed Hall’s lead vocals harmonizing effortlessly on every song. His voice sounded warm and rich as if it hadn’t aged a day. Throughout the show he maintained a quiet demeanor, smiling and waving to the audience but never directly speaking to them instead leaving those responsibilities to Hall.

John Oates

John Oates

The show was slightly marred by microphone feedback which was audible on more than one occasion. At its worst the squeaky feedback simultaneously matched a note played by a keyboard synthesizer which gave everyone at the venue a quick laugh. The band however proved to be able to outshine any of the minor quirks of the evening. The six musicians behind Daryl and John played exceptionally well and their solos were fresh and exciting. After a long jam session at the end of “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” the band took a bow and left the stage.

But the audience wasn’t going anywhere, this much was certain. Just minutes later the duo and their band reappeared for the first of two encores and went on to play some of their biggest hits including “Rich Girl,” “You Make My Dreams,” “Kiss on My List” and finally ending the night with “Private Eyes.” Very attentive patrons would have also noticed that a pesky fan found her way onto the stage and made a beeline for John Oates during “Kiss on My List.” But all she managed to do was blow him a kiss before being escorted by security.

Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates

In the end, Daryl thanked the audience profusely for coming out and insisted that the fans “made it all possible.” He also mentioned his successful VH1/Palladia TV show “Live from Daryl’s House” and how that inspired him to open a new music venue called Daryl’s House in New York. The club is opening this weekend and Hall and Oates will christen it by playing the first show, which will be available on a free live stream on Yahoo music Friday night at 6. Although they are well into their 4th decade, Hall & Oates still seem to be in a world of limitless possibilities. They are two iconic musical pioneers who are still selling out large venues with ease. Sunday night’s show proved that their induction this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was well deserved. They have staying power and the audience CAN go for that!

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Photos by Bonnie Perkinson. 

Picks of the Week: October 27 – November 2

October 27, 2014

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

John Pisano

John Pisano

- Oct. 28. (Tues.) Guitar Night with John Pisano. Like all of John Pisano’s Guitar Nights, this week’s features a world class assemblage of players: in addition to Pisano, you’ll hear guitarist Barry Zweig, bassist Chris Conner and drummer Tim Pleasant. Viva Cantina.  (818) 845-2425.

– Oct. 28,. (Tues.) The Hagen Quartet. The much honored string quartet, which includes three siblings, makes a rare Southland appearance. They’ll perform quartets by Mozart, Shostakovich and Brahms. The Samueli Theatre in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.  (714) 556-2787.

- Oct. 28. (Tues.) Julie Kelly celebrates the release of her new CD Happy To Be backed by an all star band featuring Bill Cunliffe, Joe La Barbera, Anthony Wilson and Bob Sheppard with guest vocalist John Proulx. Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

Lee Konitz

Lee Konitz

- Oct. 31. (Fri.) Something Cool: Celebrating Jazz Sounds of the Cool School. The Los Angeles Jazz Institute presents another of their immensely entertaining vistas of broad areas of jazz, This time the event encompasses four areas of cool jazz: Woody Herman and the Four Brothers sound: the music of Lennie Tristano and his Disciples; The Birth of the Cool and its participants; and West Coast Cool. The stellar list of participants is topped by the iconic Lee Konitz as Special Guest of Honor. The programs take pace at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel. Something Cool. The L.A. Jazz Institute  (562) 200- 5477.

- Oct. 30. (Thurs.) John Proulx Trio. Pianist Proulx is a prime instrumentalist. And he is now matching that skill with his engaging work as a jazz vocalist. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- Oct. 30. – Nov. 2.) (Thurs. – n. ) The Los Angeles PhilharmonicMozart and Beethoven, Esa-Pekka Salonen returns to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program featuring Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. Disney Hall.  (323) 850-2000.

- Oct. 31. (Fri,) Bob Sheppard with the Pat Senatore Trio featuring Josh Nelson. In a week in which Southland music stages are filled with stellar instrumentalists, here’s one not to miss, with an up front saxophone stylings from Sheppard, and briskly swinging rhythm section work from Senatore’s Trio (featuring Nelson). Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

Jackie Ryan

Jackie Ryan

- Nov. 1. (Sat,) Jackie Ryan featuring saxophonist Rickey Woodard. Although she’s one of the finest of vocal artists in the contemporary jazz scene, Jackie’s appearances in Southern California are far too rare. And she’ll be backed by Rickey Woodard’s fine tenor work. So don’t miss this one. A Jazz Bakery event at the Musicians Institute. (310) 271-9039.

- Nov. 1 & 2. (Sat. & Sun.) Helen Reddy. Australian-born Reddy was called “Queen of Pop” in the ’70s for her success in releasing hit songs. Two of the best-known are “I Am Woman” and “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” She’ll no doubt perform those and more of her dozens of memorable hits. Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

Washington D.C.

- Oct. 29 (Wed.) Maria Muldaur. Singer Muldaur’s warm voice was one of the appealing sounds of the folk revival of the early ’60s, followed bv her ’70s hit single, “Midnight at the Oasis.” And she continues her work as a contemporary exponent of all forms of Americana and roots music. Blues Alley.  (202) 337-4141.

New York City

- Oct. 28 – Nov. 1 (Tues.. – Sat.) Ron Carter Nonet. Carter’s one of the most (perhaps the most) recorded bassist in history. But he’s not often recognized for his prime skills as a composer and arranger. Here’s a chance to experience those skills up close and personal. Birdland. . (212) 581-3080.

Kenny Garrett

Kenny Garrett

- Oct. 30 – Nov. 1/ (Thurs. – Sat.) Kenny Garrett Quintet. Grammy-winning alto saxophonist Garrett has cruised the challenging territory from bop to post bop to avant-garde, playing with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis along the way. In the world of contemporary jazz saxophone, he’s the real deal. The Iridium.  (212) 582-2121.


- Oct. 31 (Fri,) Spyro Gyra. They’ve been in the vanguard of fusion and smooth jazz since they first arrived on the scene in the ’70s. But their award winning recordings are also rooted in solid mainstream skills. Paris New Morning.  +33 1 45 23 51 41.


Becca Stevens

Becca Stevens

- Oct. 28. (Tues.) Becca Stevens. Eclectic singer Stevens is often identified as a jazz artist. But her considerable abilities also include a convincing facility in pop and blues, often supported by her guitar playing, A-Trane Jazz. +49 30 3132550.


Ernie Wilkins Almost Big Band. Featuring vocalist Charenee Wade. St. Louis-born saxophonist/arranger/composer Wilkins spent the last decades of his life in Copenhagen, where he formed a mid-sized band., Called the “Almost Big Band” it was big enough (12 pieces) to serve as a vehicle for his adventurous arranging and composing. Since his death, the Band has continued under the direction of Nikolaj BentzonJazzhus Montmartre.  +45 31 72 34 94.


Stanley Carke- Oct. 30 & 31 (Thurs. & Fri.) The Stanley Clarke Band. Versatile bassist/bandleader Clarke has always led great ensembles of his own (when he wasn’t pairing up with Chick Corea). And he’s always been receptive to helping new talent along the way. This time out, his band features the impressive piano work of 16 year old prodigy Beka Gochiashvili from Tbilisi, Georgia. The Blue Note Milan.  +39 02 6901 6888.


- Oct. 31 – Nov. 2. (Fri. – Sun.) Goastt (The Ghost of a Sabre Tooth Tiger), featuring multi-instramentalists Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, was formed by Lennon (John Lennon’s son) and musician/model Muhl in 1908. But they consider Midnight Sun, released in early 2014 to be their first significant album. The duo also describe their working relationship as singers and songwriters as similar to the working relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, The Blue Note Tokyo.  +81 3-5485-0088.

Opera: LA Opera’s “Dido and Aeneas” and “Bluebeard’s Castle” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

October 27, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Two opera tales of thwarted love: one, Dido and Aeneas, in which a heroic queen loses her lover and her kingdom; the other, Bluebeard’s Castle, in which a doomed aristocrat loses his bride and his salvation. Both operas constitute the very definition of tragedy, a form that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character with a fateful or disastrous conclusion: opposite to comedy.”

The LA Opera served up these two stirring masterpieces in a double bill directed by Barrie Kosky of the Komische Oper Berlin. One, Bluebeard, stayed true to its tragic form, the other, Dido, was a puzzling foray into comedy.

Much has been made of the unusual pairing of these two short operas created over two hundred years apart. I found this decision an inspired one for they have much in common – most noteworthy being the glimpse of Eden shared by the lovers, Dido and Aeneas and Judith and Bluebeard, followed by banishment and despair. They seem two sides of an existential coin. And musically, they compliment each other – the transparent delicacy of Purcell coupled with the expressive vitality of Bartok. Why Kosky chose to subvert his thoughtful construction by reimagining the haunting Dido and Aeneas as a comic romp is perplexing.

The opera opens on the chorus and principals crowded together on a long white bench running the width of the stage. The bench is pushed to within a few feet of the proscenium with a pleated gray screen poised directly behind. Figures are arrayed in pastel colors and the house lights are up. So far so good. Then Belinda, Dido’s lady in waiting, sings, “Shake the cloud from off your brow.” With exaggerated hand motions, her head bobbing and eyes popping, a startled smile on her face, Belinda foreshadows all that is amiss with the concept. At every turn, Kosky directs his principals to act out broad comedy better suited for operas like Falstaff or Gianni Schicchi. Yes, Kosky entertains with the slapstick antics of Dido’s attendants who become a gaggle of sorority sisters rather than the concerned subjects of the noble queen. He has the audience roaring with the Sorceress and two witches (three countertenors replacing the traditional mezzo-soprano and two sopranos). And he elicits a laugh when Aeneas slams off the stage and out of the theater like a petulant schoolboy. But this staging goes beyond interpretation to become a misreading of the magnitude of Purcell’s tragedy.

“Dido and Aeneas”

Culled from Book IV, The Passion of the Queen, from Virgil’s The Aeneid, the opera, Dido and Aeneas, tells the tale of Dido, the proud queen of Carthage, who reluctantly gives her heart to Aeneas, a prince of Troy, only to be abandoned. Her great love lost, Dido dies broken hearted and, with her death, so too dies her kingdom. Musically, it is supremely beautiful, recounting a story of inconsolable sorrow, which permeates the score. Just listening to Dido’s Lament, “When I am laid in earth,” can bring on tears. It is one of the most moving arias in all opera. Kosky’s concept, though exhilarating at times, undermines the nature of the opera, draining it of pathos and its final catharsis. Dido and Aeneas are reduced to teenagers with a crush on each other, making Dido’s empire seem more like a high school corridor than the vast kingdom of Carthage. When Dido sings her Lament at the end of the opera, one is left curiously unmoved.

Kosky makes a directorial decision to overlay the concluding orchestral music with Dido, alone on stage, convulsively sobbing – a sobbing that goes on for about five minutes. I’m sure, for some, this is a startling piece of theater, but for me, it is an unforgivable distraction from the music and incomprehensible in light of the preceding comedy.

Paula Murrihy, as Dido, puts heart and soul into her performance, but her queen is never allowed the nobility of her role to shine forth. Musically, she brings a lovely luster to the upper registers, but one wished for more heft in the lower registers, which convey the core of Dido’s passion.

Paula Muorrihy as Dido and Liam Bonner as Aeneas

Paula Muorrihy as Dido and Liam Bonner as Aeneas

As Aeneas, Liam Bonner’s baritone is a thing of beauty. A knockout in last season’s Billy Budd, Bonner has all the gifts: a supple sound, skilled acting, an attractive presence, and personal charisma. His Aeneas shares the same fate as the other principals, however. Cast as a wayward schoolboy, he isn’t permitted to expand into the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid. Fortunately, his potent voice conveys the grandeur of his character.

John Holiday (center) as the Sorceress, with G. Thomas Allen (left) as the First Witch and Darryl Taylor (right) as the Second Witch

John Holiday (center) as the Sorceress, with G. Thomas Allen (left) as the First Witch and Darryl Taylor (right) as the Second Witch

Kateryna Kasper is a solid Belinda with a warm and beguiling soprano. As the Sorceress and her two witches, John Holiday, G. Thomas Allen, and Darryl Taylor bring the house down, but seem more like exiles from a Mel Brooks movie than the conspiring trio who precipitate the tragedy. In fact, they are so hilarious that someone should design a new production around them. Kosky’s strength in this piece resides in directing the machinations of the chorus. They move en masse across the stage and into the orchestra pit, creating tableaux worthy of heroic painting. Thanks to Grant Gershon, the chorus sings as an organic whole, interpreting the music as Purcell wrote it with crystalline purity.

Conducted by Steven Sloane, the LA Opera Orchestra, though marvelous in Bluebeard’s Castle, seems unsteady in Dido, lacking cohesiveness, resulting in a loss of clarity and transparency. It is with Bluebeard’s Castle that the orchestra shines, savoring the complexities of Bartok’s vigorous score, with its debt to Debussy and Hungarian folk music.

An opera written for two voices and large orchestra, Bluebeard’s Castle (also titled Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), is a mesmerizing portrayal of the strangled emotions of twentieth century man. Loosely based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, this Bluebeard doesn’t end as well. Abandoning her family and betrothed, Judith marries Bluebeard and enters his menacing castle, which harbors dark secrets. She thinks her devotion can save him from his agonizing loneliness, only to discover that by her ceaseless curiosity, she dooms them both. In more traditional stagings, Judith opens seven doors, each displaying in turn, Bluebeard’s bloodstained torture chamber, armory, treasury, garden, dukedom, lake, and finally the room his three former wives occupy in a kind of half-life.

"Bluebeard's Castle"

“Bluebeard’s Castle”

Kosky goes a different route, creating the contents of the doors out of various bodies inhabiting the stage. Judith pulls leaves out of Bluebeard’s suit jacket, symbolizing the garden; water pours out of the cuffs and coat of three actors perched mutely on stage (stand-ins for Bluebeard himself) symbolizing the lake of tears. All this takes place on a slowly revolving circular platform designed by Katrin Lea Tag, as Bluebeard and Judith bemoan the unfolding events. Kosky stays true to the character of the piece, succumbing to the tragic elements while interpreting the clash of husband and wife in his own terms. His duo is dressed in modern attire, beginning and ending their journey as a contemporary couple in turmoil, engaged in a Freudian battle of wills.

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith

The flaw here, however, is that like Dido and Aeneas, Kosky abandons the noble, epic nature of his characters. Missing is the initial courtly restraint that lends pathos to Bluebeard’s solitude and the heroic to Judith’s mission to save him. Because Judith and Bluebeard seem frantically at odds from the moment we encounter them – two wounded and desperate animals – the drama has nowhere to go as the music builds to its inevitable climax. What we are left with is reduced to a domestic drama. Perhaps that is enough, but I longed for less Albee and more Shakespeare.

Bass-baritone, Robert Hayward, and soprano, Claudia Mahnke, embrace their roles as the tragic couple. Musically, they prove a compelling pair, illuminating Bartok’s short melodic phrases as the orchestra weaves its magic spell and thunders towards Bluebeard’s final secret.

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Photos by  Craig Mathew courtesy of LA Opera.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.


Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  

Brian Arsenault Takes On: Dead (and loses again)

October 25, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

I ‘d like to write something about Jack Bruce dying. But I can’t. “Crossroads” keeps playing over and over again in my head. By the way, he is dead isn’t he? Not a hoax, like one report said.

Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce

I’d like to write something about Jack Bruce living. But I can’t. “I Feel Free” keeps playing in my head over and over again. Guess he’s free of this “mortal coil” now. I’d like to write something about Jack Bruce’s music. But I can’t. “Sunshine of Your Love” just seems so empty now. My head won’t play that one. ‘

I’ll say this. He and Ginger never did get along very well, they say, but I think “they” never heard them play together. Man, it was magic. Over, under, sideways. Just banging off each other and Eric and it was like a frigging 90 piece orchestra. I don’t really care if they didn’t say nice things to each other.

This Wall Street stock trader I know saw one of the Cream reunion shows in New York about a decade ago and said Bruce and Baker yelled at each other between just about every song. Then just nailed it when the next song began.

Jack Bruce taking a photo of the .audience at the  Playboy Jazz Festival

Jack Bruce taking a photo of the .audience at the Playboy Jazz Festival

Yeah, yeah Clapton has gone on to be a mega rock star, but was he ever as good as when Cream was soaring in concert or dazzling in the studio. Cream was one of the last rock “bands,” you know, not just a front man with some sidemen but a fully integrated organism where the disparate parts blended together to create a single identifiable sound.

Individually, Bruce, along with John Entwistle between them developed rock’s lead bass to a fine art form. They could play under but they could also play over. They could follow or blaze the trail. The Ox is gone too. So’s Noel Redding.

Damn, I guess somebody’s gonna die from that era about every month now. Hope it’s not every week. Too damn depressing.

I’d like to write something about Jack Bruce living. But I guess the hoax stories were the real hoax and he really is dead. Damn.

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Photos by Bonnie Perkinson were taken at the 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival, in Jack Bruce’s last appearance in Los Angeles.


Live Music: Robert Davi at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

October 24, 2014

By Don Heckman

Bel Air. Robert Davi was back at Herb Alpert’s elegant Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. at the top of Beverly Glen last night. And, as always happens in his performances, he spent most of his program demonstrating his belief in the Great American Songbook as “America’s Shakespeare.”

Robert Davi

Robert Davi

Davi, whose acting career began in a film starring Frank Sinatra, has been one of the most convincing Sinatra-influenced vocal stylists for most of his career. But, unlike the growing cadre of Sinatra wannabees, he’s never been an imitator. Inspired by Ol’ Blue Eyes, he has instead invested the lyrical expressiveness and rhythmic swing of the style with his own considerable interpretive skills.

As he did Thursday night at Vibrato. Backed by a solid, six piece band led by his music director, pianist Andy Waldman, Davi offered a program mixing Sinatra classics with an intriguing range of tunes from a variety of other sources.

For many responsive listeners, the Sinatra songbook items – “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Just One of Those Things,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “That Old Black Magic,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “The Best Is Yet To Come” and “That’s Life” among them – were the high points. And there’s no disputing the fact that they were brought vividly to life within a Sinatra framing shaped by the Davi imagination.

Roberto Davi and his band.

Roberto Davi and his band.

Other songs were equally persuasive: a warmly intimate reading of “Moonlight In Vermont”; a stunning medley of “Old Man River” and “River Stay Away From My Door,” thoroughly displaying the rich timbres of Davi’s mellow baritone voice; a Broadway stage-worthy version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”; and a rendering of “New York, New York” deeply touching the heart of every former New Yorker (including this one) in the room.

Robert Davi walking the room

Robert Davi walking the room

Davi enhanced lengthy segments of many songs with tours through Vibrato’s forest of tables, using a wireless microphone to create an informal, living room setting. And he was typically humorous, as well, often jokingly arguing with some of his show biz friends in the crowd about the correct identities of various songwriters. In one especially amusing segment, he recalled meeting “Russia’s Frank Sinatra” during a concert program in Russia. Imitating what he heard, Davi sang “The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else” with what can best be described as a hilarious Russian accent.

Robert Davi

Robert Davi

As he has done in past performances, Davi also sang “The House I Live In,” from a mid-’40s short film, featuring Sinatra. The film, rare for the time, offered powerful opposition to Anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. And Davi, always a strong supporter of the best characteristics in American culture, underscored the song’s contemporary value at a time when those characteristics are most needed.

In sum, Davi’s performance was a virtual seminar in how to bring imagination, creativity, musicality and the sheer pleasures of entertainment to a beautifully expressed evening of song. And it was done so well that it aroused – for this listener – a feeling I’ve occasionally had at past Davi performances: the desire to hear his extraordinary skills at the service of a even wider repertoire of songs.

Among the possibilities: more works by the incomparable Alan and Marilyn Bergman; more songs by Leonard Bernstein; and Davi is more than versatile enough, as well, to find some offbeat musical riches in the singer/songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s.

That said, Davi’s performance was another musical night to remember. And when he returns to the Vibrato stage, we’ll be there once again, packing the house, along with his legions of enthusiastic fans.

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Photos by Faith Frenz

Jazz With An Accent: A Conversation with Sammy Figueroa

October 23, 2014

By Fernando Gonzalez

Miami, Florida       

Puerto Rican percussionist Sammy Figueroa is a versatile, resourceful player whose extraordinary career includes performing, recording and touring with a dizzying list of jazz, pop and rock stars and groups, including trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Sonny Rollins (his current employer) and the Brecker Brothers but also David Bowie, David Lee Roth, Ruben Blades, Annie Lennox and Mariah Carey.

Sammy Figueroa 2In 2001, Figueroa quietly settled in South Florida. He organized a band, when in town he played at places such the defunct Van Dyke on Lincoln Rd. in Miami Beach and recorded three albums that garnered him two Grammy nominations. He now also has his own “The Sammy Figueroa Show” every Monday morning on Miami’s WDNA 88.9 FM.  Unassuming and with a puckish sense of humor, Figueroa is also an irrepressible storyteller. He doesn’t just answer questions, once he gets on a roll he playacts entire scenes, bringing to life characters and situations with the timing of a comedian.

Here is a (very) abridged version of a conversation at his Miami Beach place in which he discusses his beginnings in music as a salsa singer, Miles, Dali and his elephant and his latest project, Talisman, a set of original music recorded in Sao Paulo, Brazil with Brazilian singer Glaucia Nasser and a terrific band featuring guitarist Chico Pinheiro, pianist Bianca Gismonti and young pandeiro phenom Bernando Aguiar.

Fernando Gonzalez: You have spoken about first hearing jazz when you were 15. What were the circumstances?

Sammy Figueroa: Very simple: I lived an isolated life, I didn’t go out, I didn’t play with other kids, I had a big afro, was very skinny and they used to kick my ass at school. So I stayed home — and discovered jazz. The first record was Clare Fischer and his big band, and I thought it was amazing. Then I heard Sam Cooke, Herbie Hancock — and then I heard Miles and I thought “Oh yeah, I’m in.”
Any little money I made doing some horrible gig, I’d spend it on records. I was living with my mom, I wasn’t paying rent. So I locked myself in the room and listen to this stuff until three in the morning. My mother would bang on the door for me to go to bed. After listening to Clare Fischer, Herbie, Chick, all those guys, when The Beatles came out with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” it wasn’t that impressive.

FG: You were playing percussion at the time?

No, I wasn’t playing at all. I was singing with a quartet. I was doing gigs as a singer in hotels. And then Bobby Valentin, the great salsa bass player, heard me and said “ You sing pretty good. Do you ever sing salsa?’ “Nah, Not really.” “Why don’t you audition for me next week?” So I went home and listened to Joe Cuba and started imitating Cheo Feliciano and went back to Bobby and told him “ OK, I got it.” So he auditioned me. So the band starts playing, I start improvising and he goes “Damn, you are really good!” “Really?” So I joined the band and for five years I was the lead singer for Bobby Valentin. I didn’t play percussion, I was a salsa singer.
The congas came later. While I was with Bobby, Fania [the Motown of salsa] offered me a contract — and my mother went completely crazy. She said “What!? You are not going to do what your father did and blah, blah, blah.” My father was a singer and had died an alcoholic. And I’m glad she did stop me because then I turned to percussion. Nobody would teach me so I started practicing with a broken conga that my neighbor had. I had to learn by myself, invent my own exercises. But I did a little gig with Perico Ortiz, the great trumpeter and arranger, and … I became Perico’s percussionist for four years. He got me into the instrumental thing.

FG: You’ve worked with so many people, pick three artists you liked to work with the most.

On the road I loved working with the Brecker Brothers. I liked working with Miles. It was so much fun. It was so unpredictable. He was out of his mind — but that was what made it interesting to me, and we became very close friends. And, of course, I love Sonny Rollins. He’s unpredictable. I should also mention David Bowie and [Brazilian pianist]Tania Maria. Tania took me places that never, in my wildest dreams I thought I would go.

FG: Can you share a story with Miles Davis?

We could spend days on Miles — he lived in my apartment for almost a year and also almost burned it down cooking, but let me just tell you how we met.
I didn’t know Miles. I only knew him by his records. By the time I joined Miles [in 1980] I was a household name in New York. I had already done 50-something records and I was a well-known studio guy.
So I was in my little apartment in New York, with my then wife, I was already in bed, I had came back from a session late and my phone rings at about 2:15 in the morning. I pick it up and I hear (imitating Miles’s rasp) “Hey man, what’s happenin’ motherf#@^&*” and I go “Click” and hang up. Who calls at that time? I thought he was [trumpeter] Lew Soloff my closest friend. He would be the one to do a stupid thing like that. Then the phone rings again. “Thank you for hanging up mother%$#” and I go “Who is this?!” “It’s Miles Davis” And I say , “Oh yeah, sure, Miles Davis,” and hung up. And then the phone rings again and I hear this other voice [formal] “Is this Sammy Figueroa? This is [Miles’ producer] Teo Macero.” Now my eyes are wide open … “You just hang up on Miles — twice. I’ll take care of him. But if you want the gig get your ass over here. Now!” … So I took a cab to the old Columbia Records studios and I walked in and saw this really black guy, I mean blacker than coal. He’s seating in a chair just looking at me, and I say “Miles, I’m so sorry I didn’t know” and without saying a word, he got up and punched me in the stomach! He punched me so hard that I fell on the floor. I couldn’t breathe. And I’m thinking “I got up at 2:30 in the morning to get punched in the stomach??” So I just reacted and I hit him. I hit him so hard he fell over the piano and I broke his lip. I saw this little thing falling, going over the piano like a crow. And Teo comes out the booth: “What the fuck happened here??!!” I’m looking at Miles and apologizing “I’m sorry Miles,” and he looks at the blood from his lip and says “”Damn, that’s a good right hook mother#@^%” And that was that.

FG: And then there is wah wah pedal incident …

Oh yes, the wah wha pedal. He was going ‘wah wah wah’ with the trumpet and I hated it.  Then Miles has to leave the room and I’m looking at the thing, looking and looking, and Marcus [Miller] looks at me and says “Leave it alone Sammy.” But I was sick of it so I pulled it out to unplug it and because it was so old it broke and the springs came out — so I hid it, I threw it awy. So Miles comes back after 20 minutes and asks “Where’s the wah wah pedal?” and immediately looks at me ”Sammy!” “What are you looking at me for?” And he says “Who else would do such a crazy thing like that. These mother f@#% are nice. You are crazy.” And this is all happening in that first night.
He picked the trumpet and started playing. He didn’t sound good. It wasn’t until 5 in the morning that we kept one track where he sounded really good. That was ‘Man With The Horn.’ The rest of the album we did it over the next four days.

FG: Did you eventually establish a good relationship with Miles?

The best . He called me at my house 15, 20 times a day. Teo [Macero, his producer] would say “Hey I took care of him for 30 years, now it’s your turn. Bam.”
He became a dear friend. He lived in my apartment for about a year.

FG: Any one particular moment you recall?

There was this time when Miles was talking on the phone at the house and he goes “Yeah …yeah … yeah … yeah,” and I’m looking at him like “Who is that?” And he looks at me and shrugs so after 20 minute she hangs up. “Who the fuck was that?” He goes “It’s that mother#@^ Salvador Dali. He calls me every day and I don’t know what he’s saying.” And I go “Wait, that was Salvador Dali?.” That was life with Miles.
Miles painted and Salvador loved him and called him every day. Salvador was crazier than Miles. Crazier. A few weeks later we played Barcelona and he came to the show. … He ended up inviting me to his house and I ended up staying there for the day. The following day he had the opening of an exhibit and [his wife] Gala spent the whole time looking for an elephant, calling every zoo, the circus. And I´m seated there watching all this and thinking “These guys are nuts.’”
They did find the elephant, by the way. So for the opening Dali arrived riding the elephant. He made an incredible entrance. He was the king of self-promoters.

FG: You became a bandleader late in your career. What did you take from the different bandleaders you have worked with?

When I moved to Miami, actually [producer, friend and long time collaborator] Rachel Faro, jazz booker Don Wilner and [jazz producer] Ron Weber put a band together for me and I did my very first gig ever as a leader at the Hollywood Jazz Festival.
Rachel Faro: “It was funny because I had to force him to put his congas center stage,” she says.
Sammy Figueroa: It wasn’t fear, I was used to being onstage it’s just that I was so used to be in the background.
As for leading a group, my way out has always been joking around and having fun. I make them laugh, I make them comfortable  they don’t want to go anywhere. But when you deal with difficult guys, I wasn’t really a leader I was too scared, really. A leader is strong and will fire you in a minute. Like Miles. I didn’t have that.

FG: How did you approach your work in Talisman? This is not a straight up Brazilian record. The grooves are Brazilian, obviously, but one can also hear Puerto Rican bomba, Afro-Uruguayan candombe, mambo rhythms even African grooves. What was the plan?

What I played in Talisman is part Brazilian and part Latin because I didn’t want to interfere with what they guys were doing . We had with us [pandeiro player] Bernardo Aguiar and he’s wonderful. So I wanted the guys to play the authentic stuff and I’d play bomba and plena or a really fast mambos for example — and it worked perfectly. If I had played Brazilian conga, which now I know how to play, it would’ve been too Brazilian. Then it wouldn’t have anything to do with what I wanted to do which was to bring the two approaches together. When you are mixing different styles you have to know where and when to put them. Is like a chef. If you put too much condiment you overpower the natural flavor of the food. You need to put the right amount and keep it simple.

EPK Sammy Figueroa and Glaucia Nasser



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