CD Jazz Review: “Frankly” by Paquito Hechavarria

December 30, 2009

Paquito Hechavarría

Frankly (Calle54/Sony Music)

By Fernando Gonzalez

You may not know who he is, but you have heard Miami-based Cuban pianist Francisco “Paquito” Hechavarría. He´s the one who played the exacting, driving tumbao (a repeated  pattern) in Gloria Estefan’s monster hit “Conga.” And well before that he played on Mongo Santamaría´s classic Our Man in Havana. But also you probably heard him on Barry Manilow’s “Hey Mambo,” or with David Byrne, or Ricky Martin, or Israel “Cachao” Lopez, or Christina Aguilera. The list is long.

In fact, Hechavarría is the quintessential “musician’s musician” —  a poisoned compliment that acknowledges mastery in his peers’ recognition, just as it suggests obscurity.

Frankly, his fifth album as a leader, speaks to his remarkable musical bilingualism, confirms his technical brilliance and might, just might, bring him out of the shadows.

Hechavarría, 70, came of age musically in the Havana of the 1950s, arguably the Golden Age of Cuban music. It was a time of superb combos and orchestras and now nearly-mythical places such as the Tropicana, Sans Souci and Montmartre clubs or hotels such as the Habana Riviera and the Hotel Nacional. Hechavarría, then a teenager fresh out of the conservatory, was part of Conjunto Casino, one of the leading ensembles of the day. And he also performed with well-known bandleaders such as Senén Suárez, and Nelo Sosa, the Tropicana club orchestra and the late composer-pianist-bandleader Julio Gutiérrez.

“All that was unbelievable,” he told me in an interview some years ago. “I had just started, and there I was, in the major leagues.”

But his truly stellar moment came when he joined the Orquesta Riverside, a premier large ensemble,  replacing Pedro Justiz “Peruchín,” a player as essential to the development of piano in Afro-Cuban music as Art Tatum or Bud Powell were to that of the jazz piano. Peruchín was leaving la Riverside to embark on a solo career.

“He was the greatest pianist in Cuban music,” Hechavarría said. “And there were some very good pianists around in those days: Lili Martínez, Jesús Lopez, Lino Frías. But what Peruchín could do in one phrase was without equal. And what he did harmonically, rhythmically, was so modern — he was 30, 40 years ahead of his time. Every important Latin pianist I know . . . has copied him or has been influenced by him.”

Hechavarría left Cuba for Miami in 1960 ( “It was the hardest thing I’ve done,” he said. “I suffered a lot leaving the Riverside. It was a great orchestra.”).  Performing in places such as the Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel, where he worked  for nine years, he moved on to Las Vegas for awhile, before returning to Miami for good in 1973. There he worked with his own group (“I think there is no place of that time that I didn’t play.”) built a name as a studio musician and, eventually, got the call for a session for a record by a fledging group with a promising singer: Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.

“It was really exciting,” he said. “As a pianist I’m usually one of the first to record and never get to hear the whole thing with the brass or the voices. Here, the album was done, but they felt something was missing. On “Conga,” I played something I had played all my life – and that tumbao was later used to identify the tune. I was proud to be part of it.”

In the mid 90s, Hechavarría signed with Sony Discos and released Piano, a middle of the road Latin pop-jazz project that included both originals and versions of  Antonio Carlos Jobim´s “Usted Abuso,” (Voçe Abusou), the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” and  Grover Washington’s hit “Just the Two of Us.”  Calculated to please several, disparate audiences, it captured none and sank without a trace.

In Frankly, Hechavarría gets a chance fitting to his talent.  Produced by Nat Chediak and Fernando Trueba (the guys behind, among other achievements, Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés unexpected late-in-life career coda), Frankly surrounds Hechavarría with a strong supporting cast featuring saxophonist Phil Woods, trumpeter Brian Lynch, bassist Andy Gonzalez, drummer Dafnis Prieto, and percussionist Pedro Martínez. The program is a coherent selection of classics from the Great American Songbook reinterpreted in an Afro-Cuban jazz vein.

That said, there is Afro-Cuban jazz and then there is Afro-Cuban jazz. This is not lazy, paint-by-numbers jazz with congas. Rather, Hechavarría and the ensemble re-imagine the songs with a smart mix of brains, brawn and humor.

Take the opening “Change Partners,” in which the pianist, goes with ease from single-note, post-bop phrasing to exacting montunos and back. Or “Sweet Lorraine,” remade here as a courtly danzón that turns into a gentle mambo under Lynch’s soloing.

In Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris,” played in a driving 6/8, the song refrain (in Spanish) says that “Havana is great fun, but I adore Paris.”  And “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” is reinvented here as a down-to-earth rumba guaguancó. Hechavarría plays it impeccably but primly, almost in a mocking cocktail-time-at-the-Algonquin mode. (Knowing Hechavarría — a portly, quirky, jacket-wearing, hat-and-ponytail man, usually with a cigarette in a holder dangling from the corner of his mouth — the thought is not as much of a stretch as it seems)

The nod here, however, is to González, Prieto and Martínez who build and maintain a driving groove without ever raising their instruments´ voices.  Lynch and Woods, as guest soloists in three songs each, contribute ideas and distinctive voices. They flow with ease between bop and post-bop ideas and — especially from Lynch, a veteran of the Latin scene — the accents and turns of phrase of danzón and mambo.

Hechavarría plays throughout with remarkable clarity and restrain. The temptation of any great technician is to play and play, and then play some more, needed or not, because he or she can.

Be it self-editing or a producer’s nudge, in Frankly, Hechavarría seems to  be distilling a lifetime of  clubs, dance halls, concerts and studio sessions (in two verbal and musical languages, by the way)  into deceptively simple, fluid lines. More often than not, he seems content with just hinting at everything he can do (killer tumbaos, clockwork montunos, long, baroquely adorned single-note lines — and that’s for starters) without feeling the need to actually show it — and the music is better for it. By playing less than all he can, Hechavarría might actually wind up finding the larger audience he deserves..


Picks of the Week: Dec. 29 – Jan. 3

December 29, 2009

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Jane Monheit

Dec. 29 – Jan. 3. Jane Monheit. There’s no more entertaining jazz way to bring in 2010 than with the gorgeous sound and imaginative phrasing of the always compelling Ms. Monheit. Catalina Bar & Grill (323) 466-2210.

Dec. 29. (Tues.) Ron Jones Influence. Jones leads his big, 22 piece orchestra in an evening of large ensemble jazz. Spazio. (818) 728-8400.

- Dec. 29. (Tues.) Wayne Bergeron’s Big Band. Trumpeter Bergeron has ample credibility as a big band performer to front his own large jazz collective, and he does it well. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

Judy Wexler

- Dec. 30 (Wed.) Billy Mitchell Group starts the holiday early with his pre-New Year’s Eve Celebration, backed by Rob Kyle, Tomas Gargano, and Frank Wilson. Crown Plaza Brasserie Jazz Lounge. (310) 642-7500.

- Jan. 2. (Sat.) Judy Wexler Quartet. Filling in as an unexpected replacement, Ms. Wexler gives her many fans an early opportunity to hear her briskly swinging vocals in action in the new year. Café Metropol. (213) 613-1537.

Highlight: New Year’s Eve in L.A……………………………………

Dr. Bobby Rodriguez

- Dr. Bobby Rodriguez New Year’s Eve Dance Party. Trumpeter Dr. Bobby knows how to celebrate a holiday, keeping the dance rhythms moving while retaining a firm hold on his admirable jazz chops. The Culver Club in the Radisson Hotel Los Angeles Westside. (310) 649-1776.

- Don Menza, John Heard, Roy McCurdy and Tom Ranier. One couldn’t ask for a better, more seasoned band to spend a holiday evening with — or, for that matter, a better place to spend it than at Charlie O’s. (818) 989-3110.

Veteran guitarist Don Peake brings in the New Year with one of his typically entertaining bands, featuring Ellis Hall, vocals, Earl Gordon, drums, Michael Torres, bass, Aaron Mclain, guitar/vocals and Harlan Spector, keyboards. Spazio. (818) 728-8400.

- Janis Mann and Llew Matthews Trio (Paul Kreibich, drums, John Belzaguy, bass). The rich, dark sound, soaring vocals of the under-appreciated Ms. Mann, backed by a sterling trio. Sheraton Gateway Hotel LAX. (310) 642-1111.

- Jerry Vivino’s Quartet from the Tonight Show with Conan Obrien. It’s described as a Masquerade and Dance Party, filled with “glitz, glamour, dancing and music. ” And with saxophonist Vivino leading bassist Mike Merritt, drummer James Wormworth and pianist Scott Healy, the description should be right on target. Upstairs at Vitellos. (818) 769-0905.

- Kleber Jorge. The guitarist/singer from Rio celebrates New Year’s Brazilian style. Crustacean, Beverly Hills. (310) 205-8990.

Louie Cruz Beltran

- Louie Cruz Beltran Latin Jazz Ensemble. Percussionist/singer Beltran is entertaining on any night one hears him. Celebrating New Year’s he’ll no doubt be even better. South Coast Winery Resort and Spa, Temecula. (866) 994-6379.

- Rick Vittallo. The veteran singer/guitarist has been a busy Southland performer since the ’70s, working in far ranging musical settings. Here he works in an intimate small group setting with bassist Pat Senatore and pianist Matt Harris. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

Roaring Twenties New Year’s Eve. Marie MacGillis performs classic jazz and swing tunes with Michto Pelo, Tommy Davy and John Reynolds. Chaya Brasserie, Beverly Hills. (310) 859-8833.

- Don Randi & Quest. Keyboardist avoids the holiday traffic by leading his fusion group Quest at his own cozy jazz room, the Baked Potato. (818) 980-1615.


San Francisco

- Dec. 29 – Jan. 2. (Tues. – Sat.) Ledisi. Soul stylist Ledisi has been entertaining audiences with her engaging voice since she was eight. Her latest album, “Turn Me Loose,” adds a touch of funk to her driving vocals. Yoshi’s San Francisco. (415) 655-5600.

McCoy Tyner

- Dec. 29 – Jan. 3. (Tues. – Sun.) McCoy Tyner New Year’s Celebration. And an all-star celebration it is — a rare combination of players not to be missed. With Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding and Francisco Mela. Yoshi’s Oakland. (510) 238-9200

- Dec. 30 – Jan. 3. (Wed. – Sun.) Melba Moore. Moore’s checkered career and sometimes troubled life haven’t diminished the quality of her work as a singer with a unique way with a song. Here’s a rare chance to hear her up close and personal. The Rrazz Room. (415) 394-1189.

New York

(Dec. 29 – Jan. 3) Chris Botti‘s trumpet playing continues in rare form, as he finishes up his epic three week run at the Blue Note. (212) 475-8592

(Dec. 29 – Jan. 3) Struttin’ With Some Barbecue. Straight ahead, hard driving, New Orleans-tinged jazz at its best. With Henry Butler, piano, Donald Harrison, alto sax, Sean Jones, trumpet, Wycliffe Gordon, trombone, Ben Wolfe, bass, Ali Jackson, drums. The Jazz Standard. (212) 447-7733.

HIlary Kole

(Dec. 30 – Jan. 3). The Bad Plus. Still at the cutting edge of contemporary jazz, the trio of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King continue to be influential pathfinders for imaginative young jazz players. The Village Vanguard. (212) 255-4037.

Dec. 31. Hilary Kole with the Chico O’Farrill Jazz Orchestra. Any night with Kole’s singing is a night to remember. New Year’s Eve with Kole and the O’Farrill Orchestra should be something to preserve in a memory book. Birdland. (212) 581-3080.

Dec. 31. (Thurs.)  New Year’s Eve with Liz Callaway.  The mellifluous voice and dramatic interpretive style of Broadway’s Callaway will be heard in two shows: Passage of Time at 8:30, featuring tunes from her recent CD; The Best of Liz at 10:30, with “Meadowlark,” “Memory,” “The Show Goes On” and champagne at midnight.  The Metropolitan Room.  (212) 206-0440.


Quotation of the Week: Woody Allen

December 27, 2009

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“I can’t listen to Wagner that much. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.”

Woody Allen

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To view more Quotations of the Week click here.



Jazz Live: The Bob Sheppard Quartet Upstairs at Vitello’s

December 25, 2009

By Don Heckman

When saxophonist Bob Sheppard was offered a gig at Vitello’s upstairs room in Studio City Wednesday night, his first reaction was to pass on it.  “Who shows up at a jazz supper club a couple of nights before Christmas?” he thought.  But he took the gig anyhow, and was pleasantly surprised – not just by the turn out, but by the enthusiasm of the response from a crowd  peppered with fellow musicians, a few of whom agreed to sit in during the second set.

Sheppard’s group included a pair of veteran Southland jazz artists in guitarist Larry Koonse and bassist Darek Oles, with Steve Hass — a relatively new arrival from the East Coast — on drums.  And the great pleasure of the night was hearing how these solid professionals allowed themselves to unwind and dig into the sheer spontaneity of making music.

At times, there was some confusion over what tune was coming next.  At other times, Sheppard had to give head nods and body language  signals to move the music from section to another.  But all that was simply a reflection of the sort of improvisational energies that were present in a set that simmered with high spirited inventiveness.  Sheppard set the pace throughout.  His versatility as an improviser is well-known, but he receives less credit than he should for his individuality, for his ability to infuse the contemporary jazz saxophone style with the special qualities of his own unique creative imagination.

Although the evening had been given the whimsical title, “The Feliz Hanukah Show,” the first few tunes made it clear that Sheppard intended to move beyond even that inclusive title.  Starting with an off-center line based on ‘How Deep Is the Ocean?” he led the quartet through Kenny Barron’s mysterious “Phantoms,” a gorgeous rendering of Duke Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” – featuring a stunning Sheppard cadenza at the close – and a loose swinging take on a Polish carol provided by Poland-born bassist Oles (Oleszkiewicz).  In each number, Koonse was the perfect front-line companion, matching Sheppard’s solo excursions with romps of his own, filling a strong, comping role when that was required.  Oles, as always, was a sturdy, swinging foundation.  And Hass, despite a tendency to fill too many beats with busyness, added dynamic vitality to the rhythm.

Other selections included a truly off the cuff version of “Carol of the Bells,” with a fiery set of exchanges between Sheppard’s soprano sax and Hass’ drums.   In the second set, the far-reaching choice of material continued, embracing everything from Tom Jobim’s “A Felicidade” to Wayne Shorter’s “Toro.”  And when, at various times, pianists Rich Eames and John Campbell, and bassist Tom Warrington sat in, the quality of the music remained at peak level, enhanced by the added stylistic variations that each of these fine players brought to the mix.

This utterly entertaining evening hit its most engaging point when singer April Williams, who also books the music for Vitello’s, sat in to sing her brief, timely and funny lyrics to “Feliz Hanukah” – based, of course on “Feliz Navidad.”  It was the perfect climax to an irresistibly entertaining jazz program.

A program of the sort that has been echoing almost nightly Upstairs at Vitello’s since Ms. Williams took over the booking management.  That connection – between a manager with an ear for talent and a room with the right receptivity — has to be considered one of the great gifts of 2009 for Southland jazz fans.  And the appearance of Sheppard, Koonse, Oles and Hass Wednesday was an affirmation of the fact that first rate jazz, performed in a relaxed and amiable setting, will always find an enthusiastic audience.


CDs: More Songs of the Holidays

December 23, 2009

By Don Heckman

Blackmore’s Night

“Winter Carols” (Minstrelhall Music)

Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple, along with his partner, singer Candice Night, have created a rich, colorful holiday portrait, using electric guitar, period instruments, soaring vocals and multi-layered instrumental textures.  The songs range from classic carols to a new song, “Christmas Eve,” and the Rednex’ “Wish You Were Here.”

Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, The Partyka Brass Quintet

“Carla’s Christmas Carols”  (WATT)

Leave it to Carla Bley to find an utterly unique way to blend jazz and Christmas.  And before the first few bars of “O Tannenbaum” are finished, it is clear that her vision is both humorous and loving.  Swallow’s mobile bass often takes the lead, and the Partyka Quintet find both the composed and the improvised aspects of Bley’s idiosyncratic arrangements.  Among the many highlights in this memorable collection is a lovely rendering of Bley’s own, “Jesus Maria.”

The Glenn Mohr Chorale

“A Star Still Shines: The Christmas Album”  (Spencertown Records)

The Mohr Chorale’s first Christmas album features the ensemble’s rich, often diverse, vocal sounds in atmospheric renderings of, among others, “Silent Night,” “The First Noel” and a lovely Christmas hymn medley reaching from “O Come All Ye Faithful” to “Angels We Have Heard On High.”

The Hot Club of San Francisco

“Hot Club Cool Yule”  (Azica Records)

The San Francisco gypsy jazz ensemble apply the irresistible rhythms of Django Reinhardt-styled jazz to the sounds of Christmas.  And the results, appropriately, are both cool and hot.  Among the many immediately engaging items are a Latin jazz take on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (re-titled “Don Rodolfo”) and the accurately re-named “Djingle Bells.”

Jerry Douglas

“Jerry Christmas” (E1 Entertainment)

Here’s one of the more unusual entries in this year’s list of Christmas songs.  Dobro master Jerry Douglas applies his superb country/bluegrass technique to a collection of classics – “The First Noel,” “O Holy Night,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” among them in a largely instrumental program.  Aside, that is, from Maura O’Connell’s “New Year’s Eve” and Douglas’ whimsical “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”  Good stuff, all of it.

Various

“A Family Christmas”  (Putumayo)

Putumayo never fails to assemble an engaging collection of material for their theme-oriented albums.  And this entertaining Christmas line-up is no exception.  The many stand-outs include Martin Sexton’s sleigh bell-accompanied “Holly Jolly Christmas,” Leon Redbone’s typically laconic “Let It Snow,” British folky Kate Rusby doing “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s “Is Zat You Santa Claus?”

Various

“Gift Wrapped” (Warner Bros.)

Another all-star Christmas collection, this time from the Warner Brothers stable – which is filled with musical thoroughbreds.  There’s a lot from which to pick, but here are some of my highlights:  Micheal Buble (“Let It Snow”), Randy Travis (“Winter Wonderland”), Regina Spektor (“My Dear Acquaintance”), The Brian Setzer Orchestra (“You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch”) and R.E.M. (“Deck the Halls”).  But there’s a lot more.

Various

“Hope For the Holidays: Rockin’ Christmas For A Cure” (JDRF)

This impressive collection of Christmas songs is dedicated to spreading awareness and support for Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes via contributions to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).  The long list of artists includes Weezer (“O Come All Ye Faithful”), Creedence Clearwater Revisited (“Run Rudolph Run”), Mike Love (“Santa’s Going To Kokomo”), Shanti Shanti (“Wassailing Rose”) and much more.

Orla Fallon

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”

It’s just a single, but it features the lusciously lovely voice of Fallon, a former star of the “Celtic Woman” show.  Hearing her airy, effortless soprano voice, arching through this familiar Christmas melody is surely one of the blessings of the season.

To read about more Songs of the Holidays click here.


A Christmas Jazz Tale

December 22, 2009

A Christmas Jazz Tale

by Don Heckman

‘Twas the night before Christmas and the gig was running late;
No sugar plums, no candy canes, just another overtime club date,
Holidays are work days in a jazz musician’s life,
A chance to make some extra bucks to take home to the wife.

Chanukah’s underway, Kwaanza starts tomorrow,
The Ramadan fast soon ends, and I’ll forget the others to my sorrow.
If you want to make a living in the music world these days,
You’d better learn to celebrate in many different ways.

The clock slowly turned toward the midnight hour,
As we played a jazzed up version of the “Waltz of the Flowers.”
We labored on, “White Christmas,” “Frosty” and “Silent Night”;
And I wondered if we’d still be jamming “My Favorite Things” at first light.

But we finally got lucky, as the leader kicked off the final medley.
The singer mauled “The Christmas Song,” a version Mel would have found deadly,
We did the “Jingle Bell Mambo” and the “Drummer Boy Bossa Nova,”
And wrapped it all up, with a rock “Hallelujah” coda.

I packed my horn, gave the guys my best wishes and headed into the night.
The streets were dark and quiet, the stores closed up tight.
Not that it would have mattered, since the gig barely paid the rent,
And whatever I could afford for presents had already been spent.

I walked through the falling snow, filled with memories of Christmas past,
Of marching bands and Christmas parades, of lighted trees and times too good to last.
And I wondered if my kids, when adulthood beckons,
Would remember their holidays with the same sweet affection.

My footsteps led me home to a house warm and cozy,
Where my wife and my children lay innocently dozing.
So I sat for a while in the late night still,
Watching the snow fall gently on the hill.

When I suddenly heard a familiar sound in the distance,
A rhythm section swinging with hard driving persistence.
But this one was strange, something I’d never heard before,
A brisk and spirited clatter I can only describe as hoof beats galore.

Then a new sound, one both familiar yet odd,
Called out through the snowflakes, like a leader commanding a squad.
“On Trane! On Dizzy! On Monk! On Duke!
On Sonny! On Bird! On Miles! On Klook!”

The next thing I heard was just as amazing,
A set of riffs, hard-swinging and blazing,
Played on an instrument that was new to me,
The sting of a trumpet, the silk of a sax, the tone of a bone, all blended with glee.

I ran to the window to see what was coming,
And was met with a sight incredibly stunning,
What looked like a bright red ’57 Chevy,
Pulled through the sky by eight reindeer in a bevy.

They landed in my yard and the driver leaped out;
Grabbing a pack from the back he quickly turned about.
I blinked my eyes at this strange apparition,
His cheeks like Dizzy, his smile like Pops, as natty as Miles, a man on a mission.

“Call me Father Jazz,” he said as he came through the door, musicians are my specialty.
I’ll even make a stop tonight with a little something for Kenny G.”
Then, opening his pack, he lightly danced to our tree,
Placing presents beneath it, ever so gently.

“There’s a drum set for Alex,” he said, “that kid has great time.
And a guitar for Allegra, ’cause the songs she writes are so fine.
And the books and the wristwatch you wanted for your wife,
That you couldn’t afford, living a jazz musician’s life.”

This is way too weird, I thought, it must be a dream;
Something like this is too good to be what it seems.
“Oh, it’s the real deal,” said Father Jazz, with a riff-like snap of his fingers.
“You’re on my list of serious jazz swingers.”

Moving to the doorway he turned back for a final review:
“And if you’re wondering why no box has been left for you,
It’s because your present has already been given.
You know what it is? It’s the spirit that makes your imagination so driven.”

“Musicians like you know that the gift of music is the gift of love.
It’s a gift that can only have come from above.
And those non-jazz Beatles had it right, for all our sakes,
When they said, ‘The love you take is equal to the love you make’.”

He bounded lightly through the snow to his flying red Chevy,
Blew a celestial riff on his amazing horn — so heavy!
And urged his team forward with a rallying command,
“On Dizzy! On Bird! On Miles! On Trane!”

As his eager steeds rose into the winter sky,
Father Jazz called out one last stirring cry.
Looking down with a radiant smile and a farewell wave:
“Stay cool, Bro’ and keep the music playing.”

copyright © 2003 Don Heckman

Picks of the Week: Dec. 21 – 27

December 21, 2009

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Lady Gaga

- Dec. 21 – 23. (Mon. – Wed.) Lady Gaga. Performance as pop art reaches a new level in Lady Gaga’s ‘The Monster Ball’ — a multimedia artistic experience she describes as the first-ever ‘pop electro opera.’ Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE. (213) 763-6030.

- Dec. 22. (Tues.) Marilyn King. Still singing from her heart, the soloist with the King Sisters celebrates Christmas with a too-rare club appearance. Upstairs at Vitellos. (818) 769-0905.

- Dec. 22. (Tues.) Chuck Berghofer’s Midnight Jazz Band. With Gary Foster, alto sax, Tom Rainier, piano, Peter Erskine, drums. With four of the Southland’s veteran jazz players on hand, the Midnight Band always seems to find amazing new musical adventures whenever they get together. Charlie O’s. (818) 989-3110.

- Dec. 22. (Tues.) Zane Musa Quartet. Alto saxophonist Musa has been a cutting edge player since he was still a teen-ager, and he just keeps getting better. Spazio. (818) 728-8400.

- Dec. 22. (Tues.) “Holidays with Sweet Honey in the Rock.“ The Grammy winning a cappella vocal group brings simmering African rhythms and lush harmonies to a program of holiday celebration. Disney Hall.

- Dec. 23. (Wed.) “A Creole Christmas” with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Expect Crescent City classics interwoven with Christmas standbys and the Preservation players’ irresistible second line swing. Disney Hall.

- Dec. 23. (Wed.) Josh Nelson and Pat Senatore Duo. A musically stimulating meeting of the generations, between pianist Nelson’s youthful versatility and bassist Senatore’s sturdy rhythmic drive. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

- Dec. 23. (Wed.) Dave Koz Smooth Jazz Christmas Tour. Alto saxophonist Koz celebrates the 12th Anniversary of his annual smooth and mellow romp through the musical highlights of Christmas. Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal City Walk.

New Shanghai Circus

- Dec. 26 – 31. (Sat. – Thurs.) The New Shanghai Circus. If there’s a manipulation of the human body that can’t be done, the Shanghai artists haven’t encountered it yet. But what’s really amazing is the fact that their astonishing acrobatics are always done with deceptive ease and utterly engaging artistry. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. (562) 916-8501.

San Francisco

- Dec. 26 & 27. (Sat. & Sun.) Sharon McNight. “Twisted Christmas: An Orthodox Druid’s View of the Holidays.” The title says it all. McNight is witty, sardonic, hilarious and a sneakily talented singer. The Rrazz Room. (415) 394-1189

- Dec. 26 – 28. (Sat. – Mon.) Arturo Sandoval All-Star Band. Trumpeter/pianist/percussionist Sandoval is always a joy to hear, especially when he’s backed by an all-star Latin band. Featuring Horatio “El Negro” Hernandez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Rebecca Mauleon and others. Yoshi’s Oakland. (510) 238-9200.

- Dec. 26 – 28, (Sat. – Mon.) Jonathan Butler. South African singer/guitarist Butler has been a standout since his 1987 Grammy-nominated hit, “Lies.” And he’s still one of soul/smooth jazz’s most dynamic performers. Yoshi’s San Francisco. (415) 655-5600.

New York

Freddy Cole

- Dec. 22 – 26. (Tues. – Sat.) Freddy Cole. He plays piano, sings softly and leads a trio that includes guitar and bass. And his name is Cole. But although Freddy does have some of the qualities of his older brother Nat “King” Cole, the spirit, imagination and interpretion that he brings to his music is all his own. Birdland. (212) 581-3080.

- Dec. 22 – 27. (Tues. – Sun.) Cedar Walton Quartet. Pianist Walton continues a two week run at the Vanguard, with the added participation of  saxophonist Vincent Herring joining David Williams, bass and Willie Jones III, drums. Village Vanguard. (212) 255-4037.

- Dec. 23. (Wed.) Lew Soloff & The Latin Ensemble. Trumpeter Soloff takes a foray into Latin jazz, backed by Pedro Martinezk, timbales, Axel Tosca, keyboards, Alvaro Benavides, bass and Jhair Sala, congas. But whatever Soloff plays, expect him to be swinging hard, from the first note to the last. 55 Bar. ( 212 ) 929-9883.

- Dec. 24. (Thurs.) A Child’s Christmas in Wales. A highly praised film version of the classic poem in which a reading by Thomas is illustrated by photographic sequences of life in an actual Welsh Village. Marvin Lichtner conceived, photographed and produced. (Full disclosure: I wrote the music that accompanies Thomas and the visual images.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 12 noon – 12:30 p.m. Free with Museum admission. (212) 535-7710.


Christmas Quotation of the Week: Phillips Brooks

December 20, 2009

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“The earth has grown old with its burden of care

But at Christmas it always is young.

The heart of the jewel burns lustrous and fair

And its soul full of music breaks the air,

When the song of angels is sung. “

Phillips Brooks (Episcopal clergyman who wrote ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’)


To read more Quotations of the Week click Here.


CD Songs of the Holidays: The Jackson 5, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Ultimate Motown

December 18, 2009

By Don Heckman

The Jackson 5

“Jackson 5 Ultimate Christmas Collection” (Motown)

What a great soundtrack for the holidays. The Jackson 5 with little Michael Jackson singing the lead on, among others, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Up on the Housetop,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” And there’s a lot more – “The Christmas Song,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” among them. The first 11 tracks were originally released in 1970 as “Jackson 5 Christmas album.” Additional tracks include Michael Jackson’s  “Little Christmas Tree,” released in 1970. Four other tracks are re-mixes created for this collection, along with a Christmas medley combining excerpts from some of the original tracks. And, as a final bonus, there are spoken Christmas greetings from Michael, Tito, Jackie and Germaine. For Jackson 5 fans it’s the ultimate holiday gift, especially valuable in this year of Michael Jackson’s passing..

Frank Sinatra

“Christmas with Sinatra and Friends” (Concord)

Old Blue Eyes did a number of impressive albums during his long career. This one, however, is a current compilation, assembled and remastered in first rate fashion, featuring some unusual Sinatra performances as well as added tracks from his “Friends.” Among the Sinatra highlights: his lovely renderings of the too rarely heard “Christmas Memories” and “The Christmas Waltz”; a dramatic “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”; and an atmospheric version – with chorus – of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

The off-beat items include Jimmy Webb’s “Whatever Happened To Christmas” as well as “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and Sinatra’s own “Mistletoe and Holly” from a 1957 TV special “Happy Holidays with Bing & Frank.” The “Friends” are well-chosen, especially Mel Torme singing his unique version of his own classic, “The Christmas Song.” Betty Carter and Ray Charles add a soulfully swinging duet on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” Rosemary Clooney finds the heart of “White Christmas” and Tony Bennett teams with pianist Bill Evans on Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born.”

Ray Charles

“The Spirit of Christmas” (Concord)

It may be Charles’ only Christmas album, but this 1985 release was done so well that there was no need for a follow up. For this version, Concord has added the duet with Betty Carter on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – also featured on the above Sinatra album – as a bonus track.

The opening number, “What Child Is This?” sets the stage for the imaginative approach to the material created by Charles and his arrangers. Starting with a slow, dramatic opening backed by rich horn chords, it suddenly shifts into big band swing, with driving solos from tenor saxophonist Rudy Johnson and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Although some other tracks add different timbres – the chorus on “The Little Drummer Boy,” the voices and strings on “Christmas in My Heart,” – the charts essentially position Charles in a rhythmically upbeat, richly timbred big band setting. The result is an irresistibly appealing set of heartfelt performances by Charles at his best.

Various Artists

“The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection” (Motown)

“Ultimate” is the right descriptive word for this two-CD assemblage of Motown’s biggest stars having a go at the classic Christmas repertoire – in addition to spoken holiday greetings from the likes of the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Thelma Houston and many others. With three dozen music tracks, there’s a lot from which to choose, all of it celebrating the season in the uniquely soulful, grooving Motown style.

Among the most intriguing items: Stevie Wonder singing “Ave Maria,” Smokey Robinson and the Temptations doing “Noel” and “The Christmas Song,” the Supremes applying their magic to “My Favorite Things” and “White Christmas” and the Four Tops getting together with Aretha Franklin on ”Christmas Here With You.” But that’s just a brief sampling from a collection that belongs in the holiday music collection of every fan of classic American music.

To read about more Songs of the Holidays click here.


Picks of the Week: Dec. 14 – 20

December 14, 2009

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

- Dec. 14. (Mon.) Larry Goldings and Anthony Wilson. The launch of Organ Night at Vitello’s and it’s hard to think of a pair of players who could do it better. Red Carpet Jazz Serries. Upstairs at Vitellos. (818) 769-0905.

Andy Williams

- Dec. 14 – 16. . (Mon. – Wed.) An Andy Williams Christmas It doesn’t exactly harken back to “Father Knows Best,” but it comes close. Still, sentimentality comes into its own during the holidays, and Williams has always done it well. The Cerritos Center. (562) 916-8501.

- Dece. 15. (Tues.) Pete Christlieb’s Small and Tall Band Christileb (Tall) and his wife, trombonist Linda (Small) are at it again with their swinging little band. Spazio. (818) 728-8400.

- Dec. 16. (Wed.) Inner Voices. Julie Delgado, soprano; Sheri Izzard, tenor; Michael Mishaw, baritone; Morgan Ames, alto/arranger and Shelby Flint, soprano bring their exquisite harmonies and extraordinary vocal skills to an irresistible collection of Christmas classics. Red Carpet Jazz Serries. Upstairs at Vitellos. (818) 769-0905.

- Dec. 17. (Thurs.) Dewey Erney and the Ron Eschete Trio. Veteran vocalist Ernie teams up with the superb backing of Eschete to survey some of the classics from the American Songbook. Crown Plaza Brasserie Lounge. (310) 642-7500.

- Dec, 17, (Thurs.) Denise Donatelli. The warm voice and atmospheric stylings of Donatelli place her in the top group of singers who should be heard at every opportunity. Red Carpet Jazz Serries. Upstairs at Vitellos. (818) 769-0905.

Mike Stern

- Dec.. 17 – 20. (Thurs. – Sun.) Mike Stern Quartet. w. Dave Weckl, Randy Brecker and Tom Kennedy. A quartet of players who skim easily from imaginative mainstream to hard grooving blues and funk. Catalina Bar & Grill (323) 466-2210.

- Dec. 18. (Fri.) The Cunninghams. The veteran duo, with Don on vocals, vibes and percussion and Alicia on vocals keep alive the Jackie and Roy tradition of engaging, bop-tinged vocal stylings.. The Culver Club in the Radisson Hotel Los Angeles Westside. (310) 649-1776.

- Dec. 18 & 19. (Fri. & Sat.) Ozomatli. The classic L.A. band, blending jazz, salsa, funk, reggae and hip hop into a brew that could only have come from the Southland’s simmering cultural melting pot. Club Nokia.

Renee Olstead

- Dec. 19. (Sat.) “The Nutcracker Swings: A Cool Jazz Christmas.” A benefit concert for the Pasadena Jazz Institute featuring the Pasadena Jazz Orchestra, Red Whige & Bluezz All Stars, Sacred Nation Gospel Choir, the P.J. Junior Super Stars, with special appearances by Victor Vener, Sylvia St. James, James Torme and Renee Olstead. The Pasadena Convention Center. (213) 765-7000

- Dec. 19. (Sat.) Bobbi Page & Dream Street. With an instrumentation that includes cello, violin, bassoon, guitar, bass percussion and the lush vocal sounds of Bobbi Paige Dream Street produces an irresistibly romantic blend of acoustic sounds. Red Carpet Jazz Serries. Upstairs at Vitellos. (818) 769-0905.

- Dec. 19. (Sat.) Mike Melvoin Trio. Pianist Melvoin’s playing never fails to be intriguing, but it always seems to peak when he’s in the company of regular companions Tony Dumas on bass and Ralph Penland on drums. Don’t miss this opportunity. Spazio. (818) 728-8400.

- Dec. 20. (Sun.) John Campbell/Pat Senatore Duo. Pianist Campbell and bassist Senatore, a pair of versatile players, experienced with every imaginative style, come together to produce their own uniquely appealing sounds. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

San Francisco

Charlie Hunter

- Dec. 15 – `17 (Tues. – Thurs.) and 18 – 20. (Fri. – Sun.) Charlie Hunter. Guitarist Hunter leads his quintet in his “10th Anniversary Home For The Holidays” program. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Doug Wamble joins him at the San Franicsco dates. Yoshi’s San Francisco. (415) 655-5600. Tues. – Thurs. Yoshi’s Oakland. (510) 238-9200. Fri. – Sun.)

- Dec. 16 – 17. (Wed. – Thurs.) Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra and the Pacific Boys Choir. Bassist Shelby backs the talented young singers of the Grammuy-winning PBC in an engaging program of holiday music. Yoshi’s Oakland. (510) 238-9200

New York

Roy Haynes

- Dec. 15 – 19. (Tues. – Sat.) Roy Haynes “Fountain of Youth” Band. Given his ever vital drumming, Haynes undoubtedly knows more about the Fountain of Youth than most people. Go hear him demonstrate it in person. Birdland. (212) 581-3080.

- Dec. 15 – 20. (Tues. – Sun.) The Cedar Walton Trio. For decades one of jazz’s A-list pianists, Walton is always a pleasure to hear when he’s on his own, working his way through his intriguing compositions. He appears with David Williams, bass and Willie Jones III, drums. Village Vanguard. (212) 255-4037.

- Dec. 15 – 20. (Tues. – Sun.) The Music of Lucky Thompson. The sound of the star-crossed saxophonist – still one of the bop era’s under-appreciated icons – performed by Eric Reed, piano, Victor Goines, tenor saxophone, Reuben Rogers, bass, Rodney Green, drums. Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. (212) 258-9800.

Chris Botti

- Dec. 15 – Jan. 3. Chris Botti. Trumpeter Botti’s playing deservedly draws a crowd. But this time out he’s setting remarkable new attendance records, with a three week, seven-days-a-week residency, including Christmas and New Year’s Eve. If you can still find a ticket, grab it. The Blue Note. (212) 475-8592

- Dec. 17 – 20. (Thurs. – Sun.) Steve Wilson Ensemble. Always opened to new conceptual ideas, altoist Wilson ‘s “The Zawinul Project” explores the far-reaching compositions of the late, great keyboardist. With Jeremy Pelt, trumpet, Danny Grissett, piano, Ugonna Okegwo, bass, Lewis Nash, drums. The Jazz Standard. (212) 447-7733.

Minneapolis

- Dec. 19 & 20. (Sat. & Sun.) The Peterson Family . Three generations of the Peterson clan – whose members have performed with everyone from Prince and Bob Dylan to Dave Sanborn, Donny Osmond and Anita Baker (to name only a few). They celebrate their 22nd year of holiday performances as a family, led by the piano of eighty-something matriarch Jeanne Arland Peterson. The Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant. Minneapolis. (612) 332-5299.


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