Here, There & Everywhere: Freddie Hubbard

December 30, 2008

By Don Heckman


Freddie Hubbard

I’ve written a lot of obituaries for the Los Angeles Times.  Most deal with the passing of folks either directly or indirectly connected to the world of jazz.  And most, therefore, are artists whose music I’ve known, loved and respected for many years.  As such, each obit, as I write it, generates a multiplicity of feelings: the first time I heard someone’s music; the impact of a special song or recording; a recollection of having interviewed the person; a sense – in many cases – of the way in which their passing represents the end of an era.

All those feelings were present yesterday when I wrote the obituary for Freddie Hubbard.  I’ve been listening to his music for more than forty years, and was awe-struck by almost everything I heard.  Yes, I was a bit disappointed with some of the later CTI recordings; but so was Freddie, himself.  But the correct perspective on his remarkable career returns when you hear his work from the ’60s, in which he moved, with astonishing ease from settings that included Ornette Coleman’s double quartet, Eric Dolphy’s “Out To Lunch,” John Coltrane’s “Ascension,” Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil,” Oliver Nelson’s “Blues and the Abstract Truth,” Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage.”  As well, of course, as his extended gig with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Maybe there’s someone out there who can suggest another trumpeter who could have handled that range of musical assignments.  I can’t imagine who it would be.

The last time I  heard Freddie was in April, when he played at Catalina Bar & Grill with The New Jazz Composers Octet – the ensemble led by David Weiss as a Hubbard showcase.  It wasn’t the old Freddie, of course, and there were moments that made one wince, while simultaneously honoring him for getting out there and laying himself on the line.  And doing so at a time when his damaged chops could not always reproduce the imaginings of his never-failing, ever-active musical creativity.

Freddie was one of a kind, one of the magical characters who are the true originals, inventing their own worlds, allowing us the pleasure – and the privilege – of sharing their unique adventures.

A Personal Reminiscence


Heckman and Hubbard

Decades ago, I was fortunate to be a student at the Lenox School of Jazz’s summer program, and doubly lucky to be playing in the ensemble that also included Freddie Hubbard.  There were some pretty good players in that ensemble.  Trombonist Mike Gibbs went on to become a very successful composer/arranger; the envelope-stretching tenor saxophonist Ed Summerlin also composed some of the finest jazz liturgical music; the MJQ’s Connie Kay played drums.  Yet all of us – as well as such other attendees as Don Ellis, David Baker, Gary McFarland, Hal McKinney and Jamie Aebersold (to mention only a few) – were astonished by Freddie’s free flying displays of sheer talent on the wing.

I remember the rehearsals (here pictured) with special glee because of the opportunities to have fun trading licks – with Freddie, of course, always triumphing.  There’s a recording of the final night’s concert.  And I listened to it again, today, for the first time in years.  Although the sound quality leaves something to be desired, I cherish every aspect of that memorable evening, of sitting alongside Freddie Hubbard, charging forward in the rhythmic wake of his amazing trumpet.


Funeral Services for Freddie Hubbard will take place on

Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at
Faithful Central Bible Church
The Tabernacle
321 N. Eucalyptus Avenue
Inglewood, CA  90301
(310) 330- 8000
Viewing 11 am- 1 pm
Service 1 pm

Picks of the Week: Dec. 29 – Jan. 4

December 29, 2008


Los Angeles

- Dec. 30 & 31. (Tues. & Wed.)  Roslyn Kind. Don’t let the fact that she’s Barbra Streisand’s kid sister fool you.  Roslyn is definitely one of a Kind.   Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.


James Moody


Barbara Morrison

-  Dec. 31. (Wed.)  The James Moody, Kenny Burrell & Benny Green All-Star Quintet bring in the New Year with a healthy toast of bebop and straight ahead. The Jazz Bakery  (310) 271-9039.

- Dec. 31. (Wed.)  New Year’s Eve with Pink Martini.  Expect a little something for every taste – from Brazilian samba and Parisian cabaret to classical chamber music and Afro-Cuban rhythms..  Walt Disney Concert Hall. (323) 850-2000.

-  Dec. 31. (Wed.)  New Year’s Eve with Barbara Morrison, the one and only blues, ballad and bop singer for all seasons.   Vibrato. (310) 474-9400.

- Dec. 31. (Wed.)   Don Menza, John Heard, Roy McCurdy and Tom Ranier – an all-star jam to welcome 2009.  Charlie O’s.  (818) 994-3058.

-Dec. 31. (Wed.)   The Wailers.  The iconic Jamaican reggae band — now featuring Elan — performs, in its entirety, “Exodus,” the recording that TIME magazine called “Album of the Century” in 1999.  Special guests include Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds and DJ White Lightning.    The Roxy.  (310) 276-2222.

San Francisco

-Dec. 31.  (Wed.)  Seventies funkmeister George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic with The Greyboy Allstars.  The Warfield.  Ticketmaster: (415) 421-TIXS.  Info:

- Dec. 31 (Wed.)  Roy Hargrove‘s sterling trumpet and effervescent Big Band. Yoshi’s Oakland. . (510) 238-9200.

- Dec. 31. (Wed.)  Eddie Palmieri‘ inimitable percussion with La Perfecta II.  Yoshi’s San Francisco.  (415) 655-5600.

New York


Hilary Kole

- Dec. 31. (Wed.)  Hilary Kole‘s warm voice and insightful musicality should make a fascinating mix with the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra.  Birdland.  (212) 581-3080.

Dec. 31. (Wed.)  Chris Botti and an all-star aggregation of Mark Whitfield, Billy Childs and Robert Hurst with a toneful and tuneful welcoming of Baby 2009. He continues through Sunday.  The Blue Note. (212) 475-8592.


Los Angeles

- Jan. 2. (Fri.)  Pianist Alan Broadbent, bassist Putter Smith and drummer Kendall Kay in a display of jazz at its elegant, articulate best.  The Jazz Bakery  (310) 271-9039.


Robben Ford

- Jan. 2 – 4. (Fri. – Sun.)  Robben Ford showcases his blues, crossover and funk-driven guitar stylings. (323) 466-2210.

Jan. 2 & 3. (Fri. & Sat.)  Lanny Morgan (Fri.) and Plas Johnson (Sat.) kick off a month in which Fridays and Saturdays at Charlie O’s are devoted to the jazz saxophone.  Charlie O’s.  (818) 994-3058.

San Francisco

- Jan. 2 – 4  (Fri. – Sun.)  Pharoah Sanders‘ tenor saxophone keeps the Coltrane legacy alive. Yoshi’s Oakland. . (510) 238-9200.

Live: The Filipino-American Jazz Festival

December 28, 2008

By Don Heckman

Jazz singer Mon David had barely gotten into the second chorus of “Footprints” Saturday night when my wife turned to me and whispered, “Isn’t jazz wonderful?”  No revelation there, of course, but I knew exactly what she was talking about.  There we were, in the warm and welcoming environs of Catalina Bar & Grill, L.A.’s premiere jazz supper club, listening to a performer from the Philippines, embracing jazz as an utterly personal expression of who he is and where he comes from.

The event was the 4th Annual Filipino American Jazz Festival – a celebration of a seemingly unlikely blend of cultural expressions.  And, by the time the long, entertaining evening was over, the unlikeliness was wiped away by both the impressive array of talent and the incomparable capacity of jazz to serve as a creative vehicle for artistry of every imaginable source.


Mon David

Mon David, the winner of London’s first International Jazz Vocalist Competition in 2006, didn’t stop with his unique take on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.”  His reading of Abbey Lincoln’s touching, too rarely heard “Throw It Away” found the song’s beating heart.  And here, as elsewhere in his set, his remarkable voice, able to leap octaves in a single bound, combined with an utterly original approach to scat singing to establish him as a jazz talent with a  big future.


Charmaine Clamor

Singer Charmaine Clamor, perhaps the most visible Filipino jazz artist on the current scene, affirmed her desire to maintain a strong connection with her roots as she grows and develops as a jazz artist.  The set began with a selection from her new CD, “My Harana: A Filipino Serenade,” a collection of traditional courtship serenades, rendered in jazz settings. She followed with her unusual version of “My Funny Valentine,” which she titles “My Funny Brown Pinay,” transforming the Rodgers & Hart standard into an affirmation of Philippine beauty.  And she wound up her brief, but brilliantly eclectic set with a romp through the jazz standard, “Centerpiece.”  In each case, her singing underscored her growing status as one of the important and original new jazz singers of the decade.

Jon Irabagon

Jon Irabagon

Alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon‘s high spirited program displayed most of the reasons why he was the winner in this year’s Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition.  He displayed his  startling technical virtuosity in a romp through “Just One of Those Things” that somehow was kicked off at such a rapid tempo that it startled Irabagon, as well as his back-up trio.  But no problem, the Autobahn twists and turns were negotiated with the same imaginative ease that Irabagon brought to his articulate blues soloing on Wayne Shorter’s “Charcoal Blues” and dark-toned balladry on Billy Eckstine’s “I Want To Talk About You.”

Also on the bill – pianist Tateng Katindig, a regular on the L.A. jazz front, revealed the speed and the fluency, if not always the sensitivity, of his Oscar Peterson influences: Bo Razon showcased his percussion versatility; and the Ben Luis Collective somehow managed to impart some needed Filipino seasoning to a program of smooth contemporary jazz sounds.

All of it, as my wife so spontaneously pointed out, was indeed wonderful – convincing testimony to the pleasures of what Charmaine Clamor colorfully and accurately describes as the new genre of  “Jazzipino” music.

Here, There and Everywhere: Eartha Kitt

December 26, 2008

By Don Heckman

The first reviews I wrote about Eartha Kitt for the Los Angeles Times were in the early ’90s.  She’d been a major star for a good four decades at that time, a success in virtually every medium she’d encountered.  As early as 1950, she’d been cast as Helen of Troy by Orson Welles in his Parisian production of “Time Runs.”


Eartha Kitt

When I heard that she’d passed away yesterday, at 81, of colon cancer, my first reaction was “No…no… it’s too soon.”  Too soon for a spirit as dynamic and alive as Eartha Kitt’s to leave, too soon to believe that anything could take down this extraordinary woman – who was simply one of the most alive persons I’d ever had the good fortune to know.

Eartha, the little girl who was born on a hardscrabble South Carolina cotton farm, the school dropout who went from factory jobs to a scholarship position with the Katherine Dunham dance company, was on Broadway (and in the subsequent film) with “New Faces of 1952,” and topping the record charts thereafter with such offbeat hits as “Santa Baby,” “C’est Si Bon” and “Huska Dara.”  She won two Emmy Awards and several Grammy nominations, and was a memorable Cat Woman in the sixties’ “Batman” television series.  She was in the films “Anna Lucasta” (with Sammy Davis, Jr.), ‘St. Louis Blues” (with Nat Cole” “The Mark of the Hawk” ) with Sidney Poitier, earned Tony nominations for the musical “Timbuktu!” in 1978 and “The Wild Party” in 2000 and was on Broadway as recently as October 2003 in a revival of “Nine.”  And that’s just a small, partial list of her credits.

I knew her best in her cabaret persona, reviewing her or writing features about her virtually every time she made the trek to L. A. in the late eighties, the nineties and the early two thousands.  And experiencing her up close and personal in rooms such as the old Cinegrill, was an experience to be savored, when she stalked the stage like a feral feline, scaring the hell out of any man sitting at a front row table, utterly defining the intensity, the passion, the whimsy and the inner drama that cabaret is all about.

Although she lived her life, publicly and on stage, as a diva, I saw her – in the few conversations and interviews I had with her – as quiet, vulnerable even a little shy, at times.  But it was also clear that she knew exactly who Eartha Kitt was, and that she worked every aspect of that amazing creation to the absolute limit.  As, I suspect, she would have done, no matter what her work may have been.

“Look,’ she once told me, “I’m just happy to be working at all. The problem is that we are not taught to have self value. We are not taught that any kind of work is respectable work to be doing. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a meager job.”

Nor was there ever anything meager, or less than superb, about what Kitt put into her art.  And Welles was right on target, as he so often was, when she was still barely into her twenties, and he said, “Eartha Kitt is the most exciting performer in the world.”

CD Review: The Big Phat Band

December 26, 2008

“Act Your Age” (Immergent)

By Devon Wendell

We jazz purists in pursuit of the next revolutionary original sound sometimes forget to curb our obsessive-compulsive enthusiasm and simply enjoy some fun music. Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band’s multi-Grammy nominated album “Act Your Age” is simply fun – which may be exactly what we need during these turbulent times.

gordon-goodwonProduced by Lee Ritenour, Dan Savant, and Goodwin himself, “Act Your Age” is the fourth album by this popular Southern California native and his band. Goodwin is a triple threat, playing tenor and soprano sax as well as piano over some well thought-out, funky big band arrangements.  The Big Phat Band’s stellar horn section includes familiar West Coast players such as trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, saxophonist Eric Marienthal, and trombonist Andy Martin.  There are also several special guests.  Ritenour lends his tasty guitar skills to a revamping of the Earth, Wind and Fire classic “September,” with Patti Austin on vocals.  Other guests performers include Chick Corea, Dave Grusin, and Nathan East.

Goodwin’s boldest and most satisfying move, however, is “Yesterday,” in which Art Tatum’s piano track is overdubbed with full band backing. Although the jazz world has been saturated with take after take of the Kern and Harbach standard, Goodwin’s experiment is surprisingly the album’s highlight, with an original Goodwin arrangement that showcases the dynamics of the Big Phat Band’s horns with Tatum’s remarkable piano work.

Like many of the pieces, the opening Goodwin original, “Hit The Ground Running,” feels like a cross between something from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters period and Quincy Jones 90’s slick pop/funk orchestral explorations. Goodwin’s tenor playing, which weaves in and out of the big brass arrangements, is stylistically close to that of David Sandborn’s more polished works, but effective enough not to distract from the buoyancy of the composition.  Curiously, the Big Phat Band’s take on “Watermelon Man” sounds less like a direct nod to Hancock than some of the album’s other tracks – though Herbie’s influence is continuously evident in Goodwin’s piano work, which comes off much stronger than his sax solos.

Bottom line: Goodwin isn’t setting out to be the next Coltrane or  Ellington, but this good time music arrives at precisely the right time.

Humor: Jazz musicians Look to Federal Budget For Bailout Support

December 23, 2008

Here’s an excerpt from a recent post by jackzucker at The Gear Page ( that tells it like it really is.  To read the entire hilarious post, click here:

Washington, D.C.  In light of the recent downturn in the American economy, the nation’s jazz musicians have joined the long line of lobby groups looking to Washington for support as the economy slides into a deepening recession.

The jazz industry is asking Washington for a bailout package and major subsidies on par with that of the auto sector.

As such, jazz musicians also want access to credit and tax breaks to stimulate investment and help the development of new recording and performance opportunities.

“This recession has really got me dragged, ya dig?” says Luther “Hip Bones” Jones III, a New York City saxophonist and a cornerstone of the little known Wall Street Avant-Garde jazz scene. “I mean, now that gigs aren’t flowin’ like they used to, I actually have to get up before noon and find a way to make some coin!”

Similarly, Jones’ associate Willie “Fat Cheeks” Hughes comments that with the economy in near chaos, the demand for his jazz bagpipe skills has waned considerably.  Hughes also noted that with a sluggish economic situation, he will soon have to find another girlfriend or else face certain “homelessness.”

While this crisis has been brewing for some time, a recent spike in the number of trombonists delivering pizzas in New York’s Greenwich Village has brought this dire situation to the public’s attention…

Picks of the Week: Dec. 22 – 28

December 22, 2008

Los Angeles

- Dec. 22. (Mon.) Count Basie Orchestra. “A Swingin’ Christmas.” Only three or four of the players in the current Basie Orchestra ever actually worked with the Count, but under the direction of Bill Hughes, the ensemble brings the familiar Basie groove to a collection of jaunty holiday tunes. Walt Disney Concert Hall. (323) 850-2000.


Soweto Gospel Choir

- Dec. 23. (Tues.) Soweto Gospel Choir. The irresistible spirituality of this superb collection of South African singers adds a new slant to the music of the season. Walt Disney Concert Hall. (323) 850-2000.

- Dec. 23. (Tues.) Johnny Vana’s Big Band Alumni with singer Bonnie Bowden. Probably the only opportunity in the Southland to hear some classic big band Swing era hits with your morning ham and eggs, and mid-day brunch. Bonnie Bowden adds her own delightful vocal stylings. Las Hadas Mexican Restaurant and Cantina. 9048 Balboa Blvd., Northridge. (818) 8927271. 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

- Dec. 26. (Fri.) Banu Gibson. She’s known for her convincing takes on New Orleans jazz, but Gibson’s style reaches far beyond the Crescent City. Expect to hear an evening of standards reaching across five decades, all performed with her inimitable enthusiasm. The Jazz Bakery (310) 271-9039.


Charmaine Clamor

- Dec. 27. (Sat.) 4th Annual Filipino-American Jazz Festival. It’s no news that Filipino artists, over the past decade, have thoroughly established their credibility as jazz artists. But it’s still fascinating to hear the unique slant they bring to their music. The headliners for this growingly popular event include singers Charmaine Clamor and Mon David, pianist Tateng Katendig, the six-piece Ben Luis Collective, multi-instrumentalist Bo Razon and saxophonist Jon Irabagon, winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk Competition.   Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210. Photo Ned Vizmanos

- Dec. 27. (Sat.) Larry Karush Comprovisations for Solo Piano. The title has it right. What pianist Karush offers is a set of music that blends spontaneous compositions and improvisations. The results are usually unexpected, always compelling. Café Metropol.….

- Dec. 28. (Sun.) Josh Nelson and Pat Senatore Duo. Nelson, one of the Southland’s most gifted up and coming pianists, in a fascinating musical partnership with the dependable, always swinging bassist Senatore. Vibrato. (310) 474-9400.

- Dec. 28 (Sun.)  Lorraine Feather and Shelly Berg.  It’s a perfect combination: the literate, witty lyrics and buoyantly rhythmic singing of Feather and the superbly supportive, harmonically imaginative piano of Berg.  One show only.  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

San Francisco

- Dec. 26 – 31. (Sun. – Wed.) Roy Hargrove Big Band. Trumpeter Hargrove brings his swinging charts and driving musical collective to a run that climaxes on New Year’s Eve. Yoshi’s Oakland. . (510) 238-9200.

New York City

- Dec. 22 – 28. (except for Christmas, Dec. 25) (Mon. – Sun.) Barbara Carroll Trio with Ken Peplowski. A pair of engaging veterans bring their Swing based styles – featuring Carroll’s vocals and piano, with Peplowski’s clarinet and tenor saxphone – to a program of classic jazz. Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. (212) 258-9595.


Chris Botti

- Dec. 23 – 31. (Tues. – Wed.31). Chris Botti. Trumpeter Botti’s beginning to look like the hardest working man in jazz. After two sell-out weeks at Yoshi’s Oakland and San Francisco, he’s following up with another long run at the Blue Note. And his fans will love the opportunity to hear his soaringly lyrical playing up close and personal. The Blue Note. (212) 475-8592.

- Dec. 26 & 27. (Fri. & Sat.) Louis Hayes and the Cannonball Adderly Legacy. Drummer Hayes and his sterling quintet recall the best of the Cannonball memories. Birdland. (212) 581-3080.

- Dec. 26 & 27. (Fri. &Sat.) The Fab Faux perform the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Let It Be and the White Album. Expect to hear startlingly accurate versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “I Am the Walrus.” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “Because,” “Nowhere Man” and “Paperback Writer.” Terminal 5. (212) 665-3832.

- Dec. 27. (Sat.) Nanette Natal. Critically praised from all directions, singer Natal still hasn’t received the attention that her singular talent deserves. Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowerie. (212) 674-8112

Picks of the Week: Dec. 15 – 21.

December 15, 2008

Los Angeles

- Dec. 15. (Mon.)  Judy Wexler‘s engaging,  jazz-driven vocals are enhanced by the solid back up band of Jeff Colella, Bob Sheppard, Chris Colangelo and Mark Ferber.  Typhoon.  (310) 390-6565.


Gerald Clayton

- Dec. 15. (Mon.) If you’ve watched television or seen a movie lately (and you know you have), you’ve almost certainly heard some music by a member of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers.  Partnering with the Los Angeles Jazz Society, they’re celebrating the season with saxophonist Kim Richmond, vocalist Tamora Pellikka and the ASMAC Trio (pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist John Clayton and drummer Kevin Kanner).  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

- Dec. 16. (Tues.)  John Pisano‘s Guitar Night is always at its best when a versatile player like Larry Koonse is in residence. Spazio. (818) 728-8400.

- Dec. 16. (Tues.)  A Chanticleer Christmas. The San Francisco-based, Grammy-winning male chorus convincingly sings everything from Renaissance music to jazz.  This week it’s time for their annual celebration of the music of Christmas.  Walt Disney Concert Hall. (323) 850-2000.


Alan Bergman

- Dec. 16. (Tues.)  Alan Bergman.  There’s nothing quite as special as hearing a lyricist sing his own words.  And nobody does it better than Alan Bergman.  Let’s hope he includes “The Windmills of Your Mind.”  Vibrato. (310) 474-9400.

– Dec. 17 – 20.  (Wed. -Sat.)  Clayton Bros. Band.  Brother Jeff brilliantly brings the history of the alto saxophone to everything he plays; brother John applies spontaneous compositional touches to his illuminating bass work.  Next generation pianist Gerald Clayton may turn out to be the biggest jazz star in the family.  Add trumpeter Terell Stafford and drummer Quincy Davis to the mix, along with selections from the new recording, “Brother to Brother,” and expect musical excitement. The Brothers will open the evenings with pre-concert discussions.  The Jazz Bakery.  (310) 271-9039.


Kristin Korb

- Dec. 18. (Thurs.) Kristin Korb Trio. Korb would be impressive if she just played the bass, or if she just stood there and sang (and maybe if she just stood there)..  Doing all that together, she’s not to be missed.   Jazz at the Crowne Plaza LAX Hotel. (310) 642-7500.

- Dec. 18. (Thurs.)  The gifted bassist John Heard, who is also a world class painter and sculptor, returns to action after a too long hiatus from playing.  He’ll be backing the sturdy, imaginative saxophone work of Justo Almario with drummer Roy McCurdy and pianist Lanny Hartley.   Charlie O’s.  (818) 994-3058.


Inner Voices

- Dec. 18. (Thurs.) and Dec. 22 (Sun.)  Inner Voices and the “Gift of A Cappella.”  Christmas wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without hearing a performance of holiday music, old and new, by a group of the world’s finest and most versatile vocal artists.  On Thursday at Vitellos Restaurant. (818) 769-0905.  And on Sunday at The Jazz Bakery.  (310) 271-9039.

San Francisco

- Dec. 16 – 17. (Tues. & Wed.)  Yoshi’s Oakland.   Dec. 18 – 21.  (Thurs. – Sun.)  Charlie Hunter brings imagination and an amazing array of sounds to the 21st century jazz guitar world. Yoshi’s San Francisco.  (415) 655-5600.

- Dec. 18 – 21. (Thurs. – Sun.)  The Taj Mahal Trio keep the blues alive.  Yoshi’s Oakland. . (510) 238-9200.

San Diego

- Dec. 16 & 17. (Tues. & Wed.)  Spyro Gyra.  The contemporary jazz icons and nine-time Grammy nominees celebrate the holidays with material from their new CD, “A Night Before Christmas.” Singer Melissa Morgan is also on the bill.  Anthology   (619) 595-0330

New  York City

- Dec. 16 – 21. (Tues. – Sun.)  The Christian McBride Band with Geoff Keezer, Ron Blake and Terreon Gully. A collection of some of the contemporary scene’s finest jazz players get together for a night of mutual inspiration.. Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. (212) 258-9595.


Freddy Cole

- Dec. 17 – 20. Wed. – Sat.)  Freddy Cole‘s career has always been shadowed by the presence of his brother Nat.  And it shouldn’t be.  On his own, he is an elegant, intuitive singer/pianist who knows how to find the heart of a song.  Birdland.  (212) 581-3080

Zappa Plays Zappa at the Roxy — Opening Night

December 12, 2008

by Casey Dolan

On the 35th anniversary of his father’s recorded stand at the Roxy (“Roxy & Elsewhere”), Dweezil Zappa took his fine ensemble, Zappa Plays Zappa,  to that venue for a four-night stand of his own. Wednesday night was the opening gig and it was an occasion which elicited much thought about pere and fils.

Zappa Plays Zappa is riding high right now with a Grammy nomination (Best Rock Instrumental Performance) for its version of “Peaches En Regalia,” perhaps the most well-known Frank Zappa composition other than the hit singles of “Valley Girl” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” A good reason for that recognition is the high quality of the musicianship in the band; it is uniformly excellent. It would have to be, given the nature of Frank’s compositions and the personnel of his own bands. And it is hardly a tribute band, as Dweezil pointed out last night, but more like the ongoing work of a son discovering and celebrating his father.

There were some surprises Wednesday night, but the biggest one was Dweezil himself. He has ascended to become one of the world’s truly astonishing guitarists, surpassing even his father’s commendable work. It’s a scalar style, mixing modes and going for those highly emotive bends so beloved by metal and blues players (but mercifully without the physical melodrama). The solos were neatly paced, alternating between thoughtful sustained notes and brilliantly executed flash riffing. Unfortunately, the stamp of mentor Steve Vai is heard in many places (thankfully, Dweezil doesn’t attempt Vai’s squeaks, squawks and dive-bombing) and it would be a good thing if Dweezil could just…let…that…go. Vai has always been the master of guitar arrogance and Dweezil seems a more humble fellow. Other discernible influences are Wayne Krantz (the strange intervallic jumps), Alan Holdsworth (the liquidity) and, of course, his dad (that previously mentioned scalar style). It would be nice to hear more chording (Krantz and Holdsworth, once again, are excellent sources for that), but nothing can take away from the fact that nearly all of the solos Wednesday night were thrilling.

And this could be said for nearly everyone else in the band. They all had moments to shine in the set, some more than others. Scheila Gonzalez had several on tenor and alto sax (and one bop tenor solo was particularly extraordinary), but second guitarist Jamie Kime is criminally neglected. Kime’s one solo during some extended variations on an extremely fast “Pound for a Brown” was a passionate set highlight and made me wonder why the hell he was hiding for most of the rest of the set (but, then, remember that Dweezil is the other guitarist and leads the band). Vocalist Ray White sang an emotive, sweaty lead on most of the tunes (although everyone had a chance to step up to the mike). Aaron Arntz demonstrated how nasty an organ can really sound (and strange keyboard sounds is a well-regarded Frank Zappa tradition). Billy Hulting had the unenviable task of following the impossible tradition of Art Tripp and Ruth Underwood on percussion and marimba, as well as being principal narrator during “Billy the Mountain.” Drummer Joe Travers was the backbone of everything and his equally daunting task was to follow the numerous drum stars of Bozzio, Colaiuta, Wackerman, Dunbar, Humphrey, Mundi and Black, which he did superbly. He never overplayed, which many of Frank’s drummers did, and also contributed some of the funnier Flo & Eddie moments from “Billy the Mountain.” Finally, Pete Griffin played solidly on bass, taking one memorable blues-based solo and having the most demonstrably fun time of the whole band on stage. He was a joy to watch.

Perhaps Dweezil might consider taking this band out to do other material besides his father’s?

Here’s the bad news that will not endear me to Zappa fans and, indeed, cause many to wonder if I have lost my mind: Any of the problems that existed were in the material itself, not the performance of such. It is anathema in certain quarters to question Frank’s writing, but I have to do it; so much seems disjointed.

We are not talking about classical works out of the pages of “The Yellow Shark.” We are talking about songs (or, if you will, pop or rock compositions) and some of them have A sections, B sections, C sections, D…E…F…a bridge here, an interlude there, a four-bar linking phrase here, a comic percussive moment there, a bar of 6, a bar of 9…and what happens? The unity disppears. The focus is lost. Indeed, the whole point is gone…and, I’m sorry, boredom ensues. It becomes a compositional exercise.

Frank Zappa and his disciples would argue upon the basis of “Project/Object,” a philosophical point of view in which all of Zappa’s music was one continuous form incorporating various repeated musical and lyrical themes — much as Neil Young said during the Arc/Weld tour of 1991, “It’s all one note, man.” Think of it as a fundamental unit of work subdivided into build directories and given the blessing of the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps my mind is not so oriented toward the Great Picture and focuses on such small items as the perfectly constructed song.  I’m appreciative of a composer messing with conventional structures, but not at the expense of my attention. Frank Zappa wrote quite a few perfectly constructed songs and pieces — and they are sprinkled throughout his enormously prolific career, from 1966’s “Freak Out” through the 1970’s funk-cum-rock period to the 1980s more pointedly political engagement — but there are just as many examples of strung-together ideas with no shape, form or reason.

Frank Zappa got into the greatest trouble, in my opinion, in his longer, more “theatrical” works, which seemed to give him license to cram every musical idea he had into them: “Joe’s Garage,” “Thing-Fish,” “Civilization Phaze III,” “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary,” and…yes…”Billy the Mountain.” And Zappa Plays Zappa elected to play that last piece in its entirety.

Hoo-weee. Somewhere, halfway through this fairy-tale of the forces of freedom and independence (Billy the Mountain and his wife, Ethel, a tree) fighting an intransigent, suffocating government (embodied in the character of Studebaker Hawk), I began to wonder out loud at my table, “Is this really worth it?” And I thought of the absolute pain it must have been to rehearse this material with its topically tropical points of reference like Cal Worthington Dodge, Crosby, Stills & Nash and L.A. Police Chief Thomas Reddin.

I’m sure that Frank had intended a sort of Brecht/Weill dramatic rendering, and representational motifs (Prokoviev immediately comes to mind) are heard throughout, but it fails to engage both on its original recording (“Just Another Band from L.A.”) and in the live version that Zappa Plays Zappa offered.

Relatively shorter disjointed workouts, like the instrumental “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” (perhaps the most difficult thing performed and another set highlight), almost seem to wear their peacock’s quiver of musical ideas audaciously and they work as virtuso set pieces probably because of their relative brevity.

It almost hurts me to criticize Zappa Plays Zappa; the commitment is so entire, so encompassing and so obviously out of love, and…it has to be said…Dweezil has commendably avoided his father’s most extremely offensive work, some of which goes way beyond the bounds of Rabelaisian humor into, perhaps, a darker realm. But, in the greater scheme of things, Frank did some good and he did some bad. Some things work and others don’t and the concept of “Project/Object” can become a conveniently reductionist excuse for incompletely developed ideas.

Live: The Wayne Shorter Quartet and the Amani Winds

December 12, 2008

By Don Heckman

Wayne Shorter’s journey continues.  At 75, his quest to illuminate new jazz territories is as exploratory and as adventurous as it has been over the course of his long, creatively productive career.  And his performance at Disney Hall Wednesday night was a fascinating display of his ongoing willingness to risk the hazards of unfamiliar terrain.


Brian Blade, Danilo Perez, Wayne Shorter, John Patitucci

Two factors stood out in a program showcasing Shorter’s music for his quartet, for the Imani Winds quintet, and for the two units combined.  The first was a continuation of the free form, free flowing, improvisationally based style that reaches from his work with Weather Report, through his duo concerts with Herbie Hancock and into the current quartet, with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade.  The second, somewhat more elusive, was an indirect subtext, reaching through much of the evening’s music, related to Shorter’s fascination with films.


The Imani Winds

The latter quality was immediately apparent in his piece, “Terra Incognita,” composed for the Imani players. Shorter is far too musically sophisticated to be trapped in the literal impressionism of film music.  But this piece, like a lengthy, untitled work performed later by his quartet, lived and breathed with dramatic passages.  Programmed after Villa-Lobos “Quinteto em Forma de Choros,” played with stylish elegance by the Imani ensemble, it flowed with a similar contemporary synthesis of roots sources. At times, Shorter – like many jazz players writing in so-called “classical” mediums – ran into the hazard of over-emphasizing his technical mastery of the style and the instrumentation.  But more often, it was an expression of striking originality, at its best in the final third of the piece, when its incipient rhythmic impulses came fully to life.

Shorter’s tenor saxophone playing with the quartet tended toward the epigrammatic brevity he has demonstrated recently – most notably in his work with Hancock.  In that context, the quartet played like a single creative organism.  Bits and pieces of solos surfaced from time to time as the music flowed through subtle references to various Shorter pieces.  But the emphasis was upon the remarkable, intuitive empathy that these four players have developed over the past few years – one of the great achievements of contemporary music.

When the quartet and the Imani players came together for the final three numbers, Shorter moved to soprano saxophone, simultaneously taking his role at the front of the music as the primary soloist.  The compositions – “Three Marias,” Pegasus” and “Prometheus Unbound” – were brilliantly collaborative, with Shorter’s composed passages linking the players in  a style that was beyond genre and beyond labeling.  And it also was here that the soloing Shorter of earlier years returned – stretching out across the boundaries of his instrument, allowing his spontaneous passions to flow freely in his improvisations, fully displaying his enduring jazz mastery.


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