Live Jazz: The Count Basie Orchestra, the Dave Holland Big Band and the Dave Douglas Big Band at the Hollywood Bowl

July 29, 2010

By Don Heckman

It sounded like a good idea.  Big Band Jazz night at the Hollywood Bowl.  Lacking a resident ensemble such as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, L.A.’s fans of big band jazz are generally limited to hearing large ensemble sounds on occasional Monday nights at the clubs.  (And we can be grateful for the fact that Vitello’s, Vibrato, Steamers, Charlie O’s and a few other places continue to make it possible for us to do so.)

Wednesday night’s program at the Bowl was a rare big band presentation at a large venue, with a program that crossed from the classic (the Count Basie Orchestra) to the contemporary (the Dave Douglas Big Band and the Dave Holland Big Band).  But its promise was often wrapped in disappointing results – and not always because of the efforts of the musicians themselves.

Count Basie

Start with what worked.  The Basie band has been one of the jazz world’s great ensembles, even over the course of the 26 years since Basie himself passed away.  With the advantage of a great book of music, most of it instantly memorable, and the careful selection of first-rate players, their performances reach well beyond nostalgia into high voltage musical excitement.  Prompted by Bill Hughes at the helm, the band ripped through such classics as “Shiny Stockings,” “Blues In Hoss’ Flat,” “Li’l Darlin’,” and “April in Paris.”  The soloing, especially from trumpeter Scotty Barnhart was first rate.  And vocalist Carmen Bradford – a veteran of nine years with the band when Basie himself was at the keyboard – delivered a pair of dramatic vocals on “Young and Foolish” and “My Shining Hour.”

Dave Douglas

The opening bands didn’t fare quite as well.  The Douglas band, as it turned out, was a kind of hybrid.  The compositions were by trumpeter Douglas and he served as front man and principal soloist.  But the arrangements and the piano work were by Jim McNeely – who was initially introduced as the “Featured Artist.”  In addition, the band included a mixture of players, some from the East Coast some from L.A., including tenor saxophonist, Bob Sheppard, who provided some of the set’s best soloing.  Although the music was delivered in efficient fashion, neither the compositions nor the charts possessed any particularly memorable qualities.  The sole exception was titled “The Persistence of Memory” – presumably inspired by Salvador Dali’s famous painting, but unmentioned by Douglas in his introduction.  Its most appealing aspect, however, was the resemblance it bore to Gil Evans’ arranging style, with Douglas sounding especially Miles Davis-like in his soloing.

Dave Holland

Holland’s big band offered a group of generally well-crafted charts, played with a unified feeling heightened by crisp, well-articulated ensemble passages.  Add to that some first rate soloing, especially from tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart and Holland himself.

But despite their willingness to occasionally reach into daunting contemporary dissonance and brief collective improvising, there were few extraordinary moments in the performances by either the Douglas or the Holland East Coast-based bands.  How much more intriguing might it have been to have had one of the unique Southland-based big bands on stage instead: the Bill Holman Orchestra, to suggest an obvious possibility?

It’s also worth mentioning that the Bowl’s dreaded BBAP (Big Band Audio Problem) once again reared its head.  The BBAP seems to be generated by the failure to realize that big jazz bands are horn ensembles.  Over-amplifying bass, drums, keyboards and guitars may be essential to contemporary rock and pop performances, but it completely distorts the natural sound of a big jazz band.  One egregious example: the guitar (played properly by Will Matthews) in the Basie band should have had an almost subliminal quality, blending intimately with the bass, supporting the piano comments (remember, Count Basie was the founder of this band).  But in this performance, the guitar strums often matched the level of the four trumpet section.

Listening to this out of balance reproduction, I  couldn’t help but wonder how Gustavo Dudamel would feel about having the contrabasses in the Philharmonic consistently sounding louder in the audio mix than the violins.

Quotations of the Week: Descartes, Voltaire and more…

July 28, 2010


“To do is to be…”

-   Descartes



“To be is to do…”

-   Voltaire




“Do be do be do…”

- Sinatra



Live Jazz: Louis Prima Gets His Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

July 27, 2010

By Devon Wendell

Musical Renaissance man Louis Prima would have turned 100 this year, and maybe that’s why he finally received his star of the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Sunday July 25, 2010, in front of The Montalban Theater in Hollywood, some 32 years after his death.

Prima’s incredible legacy began in the 1930′s when he headed to New York City from his New Orleans home, and soon landed a contract for his band to play on CBS radio twice a week. His “Swing, Swing Swing” was a major hit for Benny Goodman in the ‘30s.  Later, his own twenty two piece orchestra delivered such top selling tunes as “Angelina,” “Please No Squeeza Da Banana” and “Josephina.”  And in the ‘50s, with partner (and then wife) Keely Smith, backed by Sam Butera and the Witnesses, Prima produced such chart topping, Vegas-era hits as “Jump, Jive, Wail,” “Just A Gigolo” and “That Old Black Magic.”  Prima started his own record company, Prima Magna Groove, in 1963, and his smoky voice and tender wit was added to such children’s films as The Jungle Book, and The Rescuers.  Prima’s signature smooth vocals, and his limited but effective trumpet stylings, have made him one of the music world’s most unique and memorable entertainers.

But at times, the event Sunday seemed to have more to do with the 50th anniversary of The Hollywood Walk Of Fame than it did with Prima, the honoree.  Los Angeles City councilmen Eric Garcetti and Tom LaBonge, along with Sam Smith of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, led the ceremony, which inexplicably kicked off with an Aztec drum ritual of fire and dance. Thankfully, the star of the ceremony finally became Prima’s son, Louis Prima, Jr.

Louis Prima Jr. and his band

After receiving the star for their father with his sister Lena, Prima Jr. performed a short set of his father’s classics, opening with “Jump, Jive, Wail.”  Although many of Louis’s stage antics and mannerisms mimicked those of his father’s, the band had a loud and progressively unique sound — loud being the operative word, meaning that much of the subtle nuances of the original music got lost in the shuffle.  The horn section, consisting of trombonist Phil Clevinger, trumpeter Ted Schumaker, and tenor saxophonist, Marco Palos, were the standout members of the band. This was especially evident on “Angelina Buona Sera.”

Singing with Prima, Jr., Sarah Spiegal may have looked and dressed the part of Keely Smith, but sadly she lacked the vocal skills and charismatic stage presence. Her voice was often off key and brash, especially when paired up with Prima Jr.’s soft, laid back sound, disrupting the easy swing of “Old Black Magic.” Fortunately, the resemblance between father and son was especially apparent on the group’s reading of “Just A Gigolo,” with some energetic young swing dancers stimulating the enthusiastic fans to move along in rhythm.  Sister Lena Prima did a duet with her brother on “When the Saings Go Marchin’ In,” and proved to have a stronger voice and more natural stage appeal than Spiegal. Cousin Jimmy Prima’s drumming also stood out, but the rock guitar wailing of Joey Sykes didn’t always fit the compositions.

The energy of Prima Jr. and the contemporary Witnesses had the sort of modern and aggressive approach that might have prompted Louis Sr. to give them the old “cut” throat sign at times. That loss of dynamics and subtlety, failing to contrast high energy with soft and low points, was a statement to the understated power of Prima Sr.’s whole generation — gone but not forgotten.

* * * *

Before the big ceremony began, I had a brief conversation with Prima Jr. about the significance of the big day:

DW:  How does it feel to have your father honored with a star on the Hollywood walk of fame?

LP,Jr:  We feel very proud and honored. We’ve been working on this for 20 years. Especially with this being my father’s 100th birthday makes it very special.

DW: What were the greatest lessons you learned from your father’s music?

LPJr.: I feel my father had a joyful lesson to teach everyone. He never did a sad or slow song. He believed that life is too short and anything can happen, so music should make you happy and tap your foot. There are enough problems in the world.

DW:  How would you like today’s as well as future generations to remember your father’s legacy?

LPJr.: People tend to narrow down his career to the few years in Vegas and not his years in New Orleans. My father wrote “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and was a viable hit-making entity for decades, maintaining a style that is accessible, good time music. We just found out that — before he took ill — he was in the process of adding three songs and voice-overs for the film The Rescuers.  Then you also have his hits from the ‘60s. Fifty years of influence. He influenced everyone from David Lee Roth to Brian Setzer in the ’80′s and ’90′s. If he were alive today, he’d still be up on stage swinging with that energy. He never looked back, never stopped moving. Louis Prima remains important because he played pretty for the people.   This is a great day.

Picks of the Week: July 26 – August 1

July 26, 2010

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

- July 27. (Tues.) and 29. (Thurs.) Heroic Beethoven.  A pair of evenings overflowing with the splendor of Beethoven’s boundless imagination.  Pianist David Fray plays the Piano Concerto No. 3.  And Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Eroica Symphony No. 3.  The Hollywood Bowl.   (323) 850-2000.

- July 27. (Tues.)  John Pisano’s Guitar Night.  This week Pisano interacts with the adventurous guitar of Bruce Forman and the ever-dependable bass of Chuck BerghoferVitello’s (818) 769-0905.

Count Basie

- July 28. (Wed.)  Big Band Jazz at the Bowl.  The Count Basie Orchestra, the Dave Holland Big Band and the Dave Douglas Big Band.  Expect a diverse set of perspectives on big band jazz, from the ineffable swing of the Basie players to Holland’s Grammy-winning large ensemble to the outward bound music of Douglas.  The Hollywood Bowl.   (323) 850-2000.

- July 28. (Wed.)  Tina Raymond Trio.  The rising drummer/percussionist performs with guitarist Tim Fischer and bassist Emilio Terranova.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

- July 28. (Wed.)  Ancient Future. The duo of Matthew Monfort, scalloped fretboard guitarist and Mariah Parker, santurist, from the world fusion group Ancient Future, perform selections from three recent albums: Seven Serenades for Scalloped Fretboard Guitar (Monfort); Sangria (Parker); and the re-mastered 30th anniversary edition of Planet Passion (Ancient Future).   The Waterfront Concert Theatre, Marina del Rey.  (310) 448-8900. They also appear at the Fret House in Covina on Sat., July 31.  (626) 339-7020.

- July 28. (Wed.)  Jack Shit.  Blues, country, rock and satire.  Musical entertainment at its extreme.  Click here for a recent iRoM review of a Jack Shit performance.  The Baked Potato.  (818) 980-1615.

- July 29. (Thurs.)  The David Angel Saxtet.  Celebrate Sax Liberation Day with the six saxophonists and the sturdy rhythm section of Angel’s entertaining ensemble. Charlie O’s.   (818) 994-3058.

- July 29. (Thurs.) CJSQ. Saxophonist Chuck Johnson and trumpeter James Smith keep the torch burning for swinging, straight-ahead jazz.  Crowne Plaza Hotel.   (310) 642-7500.

Natacha Atlas

- July 29. (Thurs.)  Natacha Atlas.  Belgian-born Atlas has been in the vanguard of world music artists exploring the boundary-less blending of traditional Middle Eastern music with reggae, rock and electronica.  The Skirball Center. (310) 440-4500.

- July 29. (Thurs.)  Kailash Kher’s Kailasa. Kher is one of the major stars of Indian pop music.  His program will run the gamut of Indian Pop, Rock andBollywood songs.  Twilight Dance at the Santa Monica Pierh (310) 458-8900.

- July 30. (Fri.)  Mon David.  Filipino singer David has been convincingly establishing himself as one of the most unique new male jazz vocalists.  The Culver Club in the Raddison.  (310) 649-1776 ext. 4137.

- July 30 & 31. (Fri. & Sat.) Sergio Mendes and Morcheeba. Mendes has been bringing Brazilian sounds and rhythm to the world for more than four decades, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down.  British rock band Morcheeba is the opening act.  The Hollywood Bowl.   (323) 850-2000.

Strunz & Farah

July 30 & 31. (Fri. & Sat.)  Strunz & Farah.  The two-guitar duo’s fast fingered musical romps seem to get better with every outing.  Click here read a recent iRoM review of Strunz & Farah.   Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

- July 31. (Sat.)  Viver Brasil with Katia Moraes. The premiere of Alafia/Harmony, a celebration of peace, as expressed in the music and dance of the Yoruban community, featuring the dynamic Viver Brasil dancers and the charismatic singing of Moraes. Ford Amphitheatre.  (323) 461-3673.

- July 31. (Sat.) Holly Hofmann and Bill Cunliffe.  Hoffman’s flute and Cunliffe’s piano make for an irresistible combination of subtle sounds and driving rhythms.  Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

- July 31. (Sat.)  Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon. Eighties pop-rock hit-maker Benatar teams up with eighties rocksters REO Speedwagon to revisit their hits.  The Greek Theatre. (323) 665-3125.

Judy Wexler

- Aug. 1. (Sun.) Judy Wexler.  Jazz artist Wexler is always a pleasure to hear, with her eclectic musical interests and articulate vocal skills.  This time out she’ll be in a setting that perfectly frames her abilities — a luxurious new downtown music venue, the First and Hope Supper Club

- Aug. 1. (Sun.)  Film: The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi.  The Jazz Bakery’s Movable Feast events feature a film, this time out, celebrating the life and music of Vince Guaraldi, with on-camera appearances by Dave Brubeck, Dick Gregory, Irwin Corey, John Handy and others.   Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax.  Jazz Bakery Movable Feast.   (310) 271-9039.

- Aug. 1. (Sun.)  Gaea Schell. She prefers to describe herself as a jazz pianist who also sings, but the truth is that Schell handles both those hyphenates with plenty of style, imagination and grace.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.  .

San Francisco

- July 28. (Wed.) Mingus Amungus. One of the Bay area’s more intriguing groups, celebrating the music of Charles Mingus in music and dance. Yoshi’s San Francisco (415) 655-5600.

- July 30 & 31. (Fri. & Sat.)  Larry Carlton Trio.  Specializing in smooth jazz, blues and crossover, guitarist Carlton has been doing it well for decades.  Yoshi’s San Francisco.   (415) 655-5600.

John Pizzarelli

- July 30 – Aug. 1. (Fri. – Sun.)  John Pizzarelli. Every time he steps on stage, Pizzarelli’s guitar playing, singing, and whimsical humor affirm the fact that jazz can be as entertaining as it is musically engaging.  Yoshi’s Oakland (510) 238-9200.

New York

- July 27 – 31. (Tues. – Sat.)  Charlie Haden’s Quartet West.  Bassist Haden celebrates the 25th Anniversary of his Quartet West ensemble with the current personnel — Ravi Coltrane, Alan Broadbent and Rodney Green. Birdland.  (212) 581-3080.

- July 27 – Aug. 1 (Tues. – Sun.)  Earl Klugh.  The Grammy-winning guitarist continues to bring life and imagination to the smooth jazz and crossover genres.The Blue Note.   (212) 475-8592.

- July 27 – Aug. 1. (Tues. – Sun.)  Marcus Roberts Trio. Backed by Jason Marsalis and Rodney Jordan, Roberts moonlights from his professorial duties at Florida State University with performances that are virtual living displays of jazz piano history.  Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.  (212) 258-9595.

- July 29. (Thurs.)  Sarah McLachlan.  Jet Blue customers traveling through Terminal 5 at New York’s JFK airport on Thurs., July 29 will enjoy a free, live show, post-security in the Marketplace, celebrating singer/songwriter McLachlan’s new album Laws of Illusion.   Information click here.

Joanne Brackeen

- July 29 – Aug. 1. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Joanne Brackeen Quartet.  Veteran pianist/composer Brackeen displays her dynamic improvisational style backed by the sterling playing of Mark Turner, Ugonna Okegwo and Johnathan Blake Jazz Standard. (212) 576-2232.

- July 29 – Aug. 1.  (Thurs. – Sun.)  Larry Coryell Power Trio.  Coryell, who can do almost anything he wants to with a guitar, cranks up the power, assisted by the equally electrifying playing of bassist Victor Bailey and either Lenny White or Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums.  Iridium.   (212)  582-2121.

Live Rock: Jackson Browne and David Lindley at the Greek Theatre

July 25, 2010

By Mike Finkelstein

A quick glance at the billing of David Lindley opening up for Jackson Browne Friday night at the sold out Greek Theater couldn’t help but make fans eagerly anticipate the two sharing the stage at some point.   After all, Lindley had been a member of Browne’s band and a key player in the signature sound of Browne’s most iconic songs for most of the ‘70’s.   The Greek, major venue that it is, always seems to offer an intimate vibe, and pairing these two engaging and accessible personalities set the table for a very memorable and satisfying show.

One of the most successful singer/songwriters ever, Jackson Browne is a very impressive cat both artistically and now, physically.   Time has been good to him.   When he walked onstage with his band you had to remind yourself that the man is coming up on 62 years of age, because he has the same gait and physical presence he had perhaps 30 years ago.  Clad in various hues of black he and the band wove their way through a set that delivered standards like “Rock Me On The Water,” “Doctor My Eyes,” and “The Pretender” as well as delving below the surface for songs like “Time the Conqueror” and “Shape of a Heart.”

Jackson Browne (Photo by Craig O'Neal)

The band was seven pieces large and included Kevin McCormick on bass, Mauricio Lewak on drums, Jeffrey Young on keyboards and backing vocals, Mark Goldenberg on guitar, and the angelic voices of Chavonne Stewart and Alethea Mills on backing vocals.  Browne’s songs are full of dynamic shifts and the band shined as they framed one musical mood after another behind him.   Judging from his body language, he clearly relished leading them through the changes.  Mills and Stewart also added a remarkably beautiful sense of dimension to the vocal mix under Browne’s voice.  Goldenberg, assigned to deliver Lindley’s original lap steel lines on his six string electric, had his work cut out for him.   And he did it skillfully, putting his own style into the solos while staying true to the original lines.

Several songs into the show, Lindley walked onstage and sat down on a chair to play some slide.   On “Your Bright Baby Blues” he played a mesmerizing solo on a multi-neck lap steel guitar.   During musical moments like these you could literally feel the audience members’ spirits rising.   Similarly, later in the set the band played and Browne sang a cover of “Mercury Blues,” which was a considerable hit in the early ‘80’s for Lindley and El Rayo X.   The song roared on lap steel like the open throttled engine of the ‘49 Mercury it celebrates.

Though Browne’s songs often deal with the stickiest and most complicated dynamics of relationships, finding one’s direction, and political issues, they are beautifully constructed works.   His lyrics are layered poetically to go progressively deeper.    His musical arrangements feature stylized signature vocals and instrumentation such as Lindley’s lap steel sound.   On Friday, Browne’s songs of emotional torment and angst were delivered with a dynamic musical style that was always true to the lyrics, playing up the core emotion of the moment. On “In The Shape Of A Heart” he told us the metaphorical tale of a doomed, heart-shaped ruby of a relationship that he finally dropped away for good into a fist-sized hole in the wall.  The poignancy of a song like “Too Many Angels,” which elegantly described a home filled with ornamental angels watching the surrounding dysfunctions, was one of several profound moments of both beauty and melancholy. It was Browne’s poised and warm voice that was so soothingly winsome in conveying the heaviness.  Nearly everyone at the Greek seemed to know the words, and had quite likely lived some version of the emotions behind them. Browne sings with grace of the difficult emotions that are so often the raw materials for making great music.

While what is said between songs at a concert is often just filler, Browne’s banter was so engaging, witty and warm that he really did make one forget they were part of a group of thousands.    The topics ranged from plastic waste at the bottom of the ocean to lost love letters.   At one point on Friday, Browne actually responded to a playful request for “Free Bird” by beginning to sing the first stanza of the Lynrd Skynrd tune over his piano.   It sounded nothing like the original and every bit like a new Jackson Browne song. The band appeared ready to run with it and the audience was certainly curious and game, but an enticing tease was all we would hear. Still, his musical delivery is so distinctive that he had us all going.

David Lindley

David Lindley was billed as Friday’s opening act, although he and Browne played both sets together.   He is truly one of a kind, performing in some of the loudest, most gaudy polyester togs known to man.   With his long gray hair, a pair of very long mutton chop sideburns and wearing spectacles, he sat regally on his chair under a lap steel guitar, looking like a psychedelic version of Ben Franklin.   The huge, full sound that he pulls from his many instruments is the bottom foundation of his music.  Lindley has a well-deserved reputation for being able to play beautifully bluesy music on any instrument he gets his hands around.  For his hour-long set he rotated between acoustic lap steel guitar, bouzouki, and oud.  The latter two — Middle Eastern instruments that he simply delights in playing — have attractive and warm middle range timbres that responded beautifully to the hammering and nuanced bends that he used with them.

His set featured songs by Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon and also his own funny tune called “Cat Food Sandwiches,” about dubious backstage cuisine and the beauty of headcheese.  Like Browne, Lindley, too was charming and entertaining between songs.

The sun had been barely setting when the show began with Browne and Lindley warming up their open-tuned instruments.  Three hours later, with a near-full moon rising, both men were still on stage together, wrapping up a great show.

To read more of Mike Finkelstein’s reviews click here.

Quotation of the Week: Michael Jackson (3)

July 23, 2010

‘A little over a year since his premature death, Michael Jackson’s creativity, his thoughtfulness, his sensitivity and his humor are still vital and alive.


“The meaning of life is contained in every single expression of life.  It is present in the infinity of forms and phenomena that exist in all of creation.”

Michael Jackson


To read more Michael Jackson Quotations of the Week click here.

Live Jazz: Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin, Dianne Reeves, John Scofield, Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal at the Hollywood Bowl

July 22, 2010

By Michael Katz

There was a pleasing aura of comfort that emanated over the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night, the result of a group of musicians closely associated with L.A. that turned the sometimes imposing amphitheatre into their own personal living room on a chilly mid-summer’s night. From former L.A. resident and recent director of the Bowl’s jazz program Dianne Reeves, to native Lee Ritenour (celebrating 50 years on the guitar) and Dave Grusin, with enough movie and TV scores to qualify as an honorary native, the performers had a perfect rapport with the audience, who in turn lent them their attention in ways not always evident at L.A.’s largest venue.

Dianne Reeves

Dianne Reeves opened the show with a rousing, blues-tinged “Today Will Be A Good Day,” which featured Romero Lubambo on guitar, showing that his skills go far beyond his native Brazilian rhythms. Though Reeves has been best known for her lush interpretations of standards, especially since her work on the film “Goodbye and Good Luck,” there was nary a jazz standard in the program, and for this night it showed off her versatility with crisp, swinging versions of her own compositions and jazz-tinged versions of classic r&b numbers. Most impressive was an improvised vocalese tango, delivered in sultry fashion, abetted again by Lubambo, as well as a sterling rhythm section with Peter Martin on piano, Reginald Veal on bass and Terreon Gully on drums. Equally stirring was her dramatic reading of the ballad, “Goodbye,” which had the Bowl audience pindrop silent. Reeves used a continual vocalese patter to communicate with the crowd, urging them to join in the chorus on a soulful version of  “Just My Imagination,” and a later nod to Michael Jackson to close the set.

Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin

Taj Mahal

Lee Ritenour led off the second half of the program by introducing the conceptual  6 String Theory highlighted in his latest cd and immediately yielded the stage to bluesmen Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal. With Taj on acoustic guitar and Keb on an understated electric, their vocals took precedence on “Government Cheese” and “Honky Tonk Woman.” Blending in Taj Mahal’s slightly crustier voice, the two had a folksy, roadhouse feel,  reminiscent of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Taj picked up the harmonica as Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin joined in, backed up by Marvin Lee Davis on bass and Sonny Emory on drums, for a rollicking “Am I Wrong.”

Keb' Mo'

Ritenour featured his jazz chops on the next couple of tunes, starting with “Wes Bound,” his tribute to Wes Montgomery from the album of the same name. Up to this point, pianist Grusin had been lurking in the background, but he took center stage for the beginning of a Jobim medley, soloing beautifully in “Fotografia.” Ritenour then kicked in with “Stone Flower” from his Twist of Jobim CD, which has become a signature piece in his live shows.

John Scofield

John Scofield joined the group for the next three numbers, showing off an astonishing versatility. First he joined Ritenour on a tribute to Les Paul entitled “LP,” the two of them trading riffs with a Nashville accent, ably filled out by Grusin who was now manning a candy apple red electric organ. Next came “Lay It Down”, a rock-funk burner with Scofield and Ritenour bringing the crowd to its feet with one sensational lick after another.  Finally, Ritenour stepped back and let Scofield lead the quartet in another highlight of the evening,  a searingly beautiful version of “My Foolish Heart,” his acid-tinged tones reverberating in heartbreak.

Dave Grusin stepped in next with an equally compelling turn, playing solo piano on “Memphis Stomp,” from his solo piano soundtrack for Sydney Pollack’s film of John Grisham’s The Firm. Grusin combines a classic jazz swing style with his  western roots – fans of his recognize it most memorably in his hit “Mountain Dance” – and his work, particularly in this score, showed off his ability to evoke a sense of place.  You could almost see the backdrop of Grisham’s novels in his performance.

From there the show fell into an easy listening pop-jazz groove, featuring Ritenour and the band in “Getup Standup” and finally “Smoke N’ Mirrors,” which featured a rousing extended percussion solo with some terrific stick work by Sonny Emory. The whole crew, including Dianne Reeves, came back for “Why I Sing The Blues,” with an L.A. down home feel that had the crowd up in the aisles, stamping their approval.

To read Lee Ritenour’s Q & A about the making of  “6 String Theory” click here.

To read more reviews by Michael Katz click here.

Q & A: Lee Ritenour

July 21, 2010

By Don Heckman

Lee Ritenour’s latest album, 6 String Theory, is a landmark recording in his long, high profile career as a versatile, high visibility guitarist.  His career – reaching back to his first professional gigs as a teen-ager – has been remarkable.  Performing in thousands of sessions as a young guitarist with the likes of Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, Sonny Rollins, Pink Floyd, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, he was one of the founding members of Fourplay, and his own recordings have resulted in 17 Grammy nominations, one Grammy award and 35 charted songs.

Despite the multiplicity of concepts and productions in his 40 albums, however, Ritenour has never conceived a recording project quite like “6 String Theory,” which ultimately became a stunning, all-star guitarists’ jam session as well as The Yamaha 6 String Theory Guitar Competition — an international contest for young guitarists.  It all began, he told me in a recent conversation, with an anniversary.

* * * *

DH: Lee, if you’re saying this project was stimulated to some extent by your 50th anniversary as a guitar player, you must have started at a very young age.

LR: It was.  And I did start playing when I was young — in 1960, when I was eight.

DH: Definitely young.  Do you remember why you picked the guitar?

LR: Well, it was an interesting time.  1960 was the time of the guitar.  It was coming out of the woodwork.  Everybody from Roy Rogers and Gene Autry to Elvis.  The folk thing was starting with the Kingston Trio.  And the Blues guys were showing up, and then rock ‘n’ roll was coming with Chuck Berry.  In a couple more years it would be the Beatles.  And jazz guitar was already blooming with people like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass.  And here in L.A., Howard Roberts and Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Tal Farlow.  Add to that, my parents were jazz fans.  My father was an amateur piano player and he had a lot of records around the house.  So I got the bug for music early on from all that combination of things.  But I think I may have been born to the guitar.  I remember when I was a kid putting two rubber bands on nails in a stick.  So the vibration of the strings was my thing, I guess.

DH: And not only did you start playing the instrument early, but you also made your first recording, professionally, when you were sixteen.  How did that come about?

LR: Actually it was my first session.  In fact there were a few sessions around that period.  Most of them were demos.  But the one in particular that stands out was with the Mommas and the Poppas.  John Phillips was supposedly producing a band that I was a part of.  That was around ’68. I think the leader of the band was selling him drugs; he was a really good connection.  Anyhow we went up to John Phillips’ big mansion in Bel Air, where he had a studio – very rare for those days.  We did some sessions with this band, that didn’t go anywhere.  But then he asked me to stay and record a session for the Mamas and the Poppas.  But it didn’t come out at that time. I looked for years to see if it was ever released.  And maybe it was, but much later.

DH: How soon after that did people start calling you “Captain Fingers?”

LR: Wow.  That goes back a long time, too, back to my twenties.  My second album was named Captain Fingers, And there was a song I wrote called “Captain Fingers.”  During that period – around ’76 or ’77 — people started calling me that.  It was sort of the time when fusion was meeting jazz and rock and stuff.  I had a fair degree of chops, and some of the fans started using the name – ‘How ya doin’ Captain,’ one guy would always say to me.  So then I wrote the tune, used it for the album title, and then it just stuck with me forever.  I even named my production company Captain Fingers.  And it still has that name.

DH: Yes, I see it’s on the cover of the 6 String Theory album.  A project that’s a kind of culmination of all of the above – the early musical beginning, the drive to succeed, the fast fingers?

LR: In a way.  There were actually a lot of reasons for the project. One of the main things was that in 2010 I really wanted to celebrate the guitar, and my own little personal celebration of playing it for fifty years.  But also, since I was a kid, I’ve always loved all the different styles of guitar playing.  My own playing is all over the map.  But I really did love jazz and blues and rock and classical and country and acoustic when I was growing up.  I’d check out John McLaughlin one day, and then Segovia the next day, and then Jimi Hendrix.  Anyone who could play the guitar well, I was checking him out.

DH: Were all those different styles and your fascination with them what led to the title 6 String Theory?

LR: I think this thing was bubbling around in my head for years – that someday I was going to figure out a way to put all those things together.  Then the phrase 6 String Theory came to mind.  And so I said, ‘Okay, so what if we sort of make this scientific exploration of the guitar, call it 6 String Theory, and break apart the boundaries.  And what if I were to put all these styles on one record…[Laughing] Like I do sometimes, anyway.

DH: [Laughing]  Sometimes even in one solo…

LR: And what if I was able to put all these masters together – as many as I was able to get on one record, and then add some new talent.

DH: You’ve done concept albums before.  I remember the Twist of… series, especially the Twist of Jobim album.

LR: Yeah, someone actually said, ‘Oh, so you’re doing the Twist of Guitar now, huh?  And in a way, it’s true, but this was the biggest Twist of…. I don’t think I’ve ever done a bigger project than this one.

DH: Probably not.  Organizing sessions with a list of players that includes John Scofield, B.B. King, Pat Martino, Steve Lukather, George Benson, Vince Gill, Mike Stern and a lot more had to reach beyond a few phone calls.

LR: I was touring during the complete lead-up to the album, while it was all being put together.  And every time we’d run into another guitar player, I’d be hitting on them.  Robert Cray, Joe Bonamassa, Benson, Mike Stern, Scofield.  I was like this salesman guy.

DH: You also included some intriguing young professionals, as well.

LR: Oh, yeah.  There’s Andy McKee, a guitar player from Kansas who’s had 80 million hits on his YouTube video — a pyrotechnical player, but he’s very musical. And Joe Robinson, a wicked guitar player from Australia, won the Australia’s Got Talent TV show when he was 16.  And I had to have one shredder on the record, and that was this kid Gutherie Govan, from England.  He ended up playing a tune in 5/4.  It was a hard song, and it came out almost like a Coltrane thing in that it was a wall of notes.  But they’re all the right ones.

DH: Despite all the different players, their different locations and different schedules, you managed to get most of them including the stellar names, along with the equally stellar rhythm section players, into the studio together.

LR: There’s twenty guitar players on the record.  Only four were overdubbed, primarily for scheduling reasons.  I had to go to Vegas to record B.B. King; Vince Gill was recorded in Nashville; Tomoyasu Hotei in Tokyo; and Robert Cray in Santa Barbera.

DH: But it was the Yamaha 6 String Theory Guitar Competition aspect of the project that made it much more than a just a recording, didn’t it?

LR: For sure.  I thought, how about if we also had a contest and the winner of the contest would get certain prizes, and the grand prize would be that you get to play on the record.  Then I took it further and thought, let’s divide it up by strings – six strings meaning six different genres: jazz, rock, blues, classical, acoustic, country.

DH: How did you get the word out?

LR: We put up a website, with Yamaha – it’s still up with all the results — and asked for contestants, and they started coming in from all over the world, the first from Denmark. Close to 500 people finally entered from 45 countries in those six categories.

DH: How did it work?  Did they send music clips, MP3s?

LR: The way the site was built, you could pick a category and then submit two five minute videos.  They had to be videos.  We didn’t want any CDs because they could be manipulated too much.  But they were very hard to judge.  On the last weekend we had two days left to decide on the finalists, and we had 32 guitar players who were all phenomenal.  And that’s where the technology failed; the videos just weren’t good enough to give us a real picture.  We had to see them in person.  So we got the number down to 17, and we invited them – from around the world – to make an appearance in L.A.  Thirteen of the them finally showed up.

DH:  And the winner..?

LR: Was 16 year old Shon Boublil, from Canada.  He plays the last track on the recording, and he was awarded a four year scholarship to Berklee. He won in the classical category which perfectly fit the record, because that was the only musical category that I hadn’t covered yet.  It’s programmed last, and it’s kind of fitting that we go through all the different categories and then we end up with a track that’s the foundation of the guitar.

DH: It’s an amazing project, Lee.  And a demanding one, too.

LR: Actually, the making of the record was pretty simple.  It was the year and a half before that was tough.  Conceiving the contest, setting it up, gathering the sponsors, judging all the submissions, then calling all the players, getting everyone on board, orchestrating schedules, picking material, arranging music.  But once we got it all together and hit the studio it was like magic.

DH: And worth every minute of effort?

LR: You bet.  It was real fun.  And I had the best seat in the house.

* * * *

Lee Ritenour performs selections from the 6 String Theory album tonight (Wed., July 21) at the Hollywood Bowl with Dave Grusin, Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal and John Scofield.  The album is now available in stores.  In October, Monster Music will release a a 5.1 surround sound version with additional bonuses that include a ten minute high definition, making-of-the-record film with  footage from the recording, as well as naked rhythm section tracks for playalong purposes.

Photo by Faith Frenz

Picks of the Week: July 19 – 25

July 19, 2010

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

- July 19. (Mon.)  Rachael Sage.  The music of New York singer/songwriter Sage has been described as “Elton John Meets Kate Bush,” but she’s a lot more unique than that – a musical happening in her own right.  Genghis Cohen.  (323) 653-0640.

- July 19. (Mon.) Elvis Schoenberg’s Orchestre Surreal.  With a stage name derived from Elvis Presley and Arnold Schoenberg, composer Ross Wright has assembled a 20+ piece ensemble for whom “eclectic” only begins to describe what they do. Typhoon Restaurant. (310) 390-6565.

The Labeque Sisters

- July 20. (Tues.) and July 22 (Thurs.)  Magnificent Mozart. Mozart is always “magnificent,” of course.  And especially so when Katia and Marielle Labèque are playing the Concerto for Two Pianos, K.365.  Nicholas McGegan also conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Symphony No. 36. (Linz), K.425.  The Hollywood Bowl.   (323) 850-2000.

- July 20. (Tues.) James Taylor and Carole King.  For anyone who remembers the ‘70s, it doesn’t get any more nostalgic than this.  Taylor and King may be in their sixties, but they still know how to get to the heart of a song.  The Honda Center, Anaheim.   (714) 704-2500.

- July 20. (Tues.) John Pisano’s Guitar Night.  Pisano and guitarist Federico Ramos bring a touch of Rio to Studio City, backed by bassist Jose Marino and drummer Enzo TodescoVitello’s. (818) 769-0905.

- July 20. (Tues.)  Johnny Crawford Orchestra.  Crawford and his line-up of veteran big band players celebrate the Artie Shaw centennial with “Begin the Beguine” and much more.  Typhoon Restaurant.   (310) 390-6565.

- July 21. (Wed.)  Melissa Sweeney and Bill Cunliffe. Singer Sweeney and pianist Cunliffe are both show biz hyphenates – Sweeney as a film producer (Split Ends), Cunliffe as a Grammy winning arranger/composer.  Performing together, their unique talents combine into an impressive musical blend. Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.

Jamie Cullum

- July 21. (Wed.)  Jamie Cullum.  Every Cullum performance is an adventure, enlivened by his intriguing vocals and his unpredictable piano work (sometimes on the keys, sometimes on the strings, sometimes elsewhere.  He’s a true original, quirky, but always musical and always a pleasure to hear.  Ford Amphitheatre.  (323) 461-3673.

- July 21. (Wed.)  Joe Bagg Organ Trio. Keyboardist Bagg displays his proficiency on the B-3, backed by guitarist Jamie Rosenn and drummer Ryan Doyle. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

- July 21. (Wed.)  Lee Ritenour and Dave GrusinJazz at the Bowl brings an impressive group of six-stringers to interact with Ritenour and Grusin: Keb Mo, Taj Mahal and John Scofield. Dianne Reeves adds her virtuosic vocal stylings.  The Hollywood Bowl.   (323) 850-2000.

- July 22. (Thurs.) Jovanotti.  One of Italy’s most charismatic performers brings his highly personal blend of song, funk, rapping and an occasional classical touch to Twilight Dance at the Santa Monica Pier.   (310) 458-8900.

- July 22. (Thurs.)  Pinky Winters.  With a career that reaches back to the ‘50s, Winters’ fine jazz singing has been in action only intermittently over the decades.  But she’s back in action and very much worth hearing.  Charlie O’s.  (818) 994-3058.

- July 22. (Thurs.)  Parno Graszt.  The Skirball’s Sunset Concert Series opens with a no doubt high spirited performance by a Hungarian Gypsy folk band that always manages to get a crowd to their feet.  The Skirball Center.   (310) 440-4500.

Billy Childs

- July 23. (Fri.)  Billy Childs Trio.  Taking a break from his globe-hopping gig with Chris Botti, Childs gets down to piano trio basics.  Expect the best.   Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

- July 22 – 24. (Thurs. – Sat.) Joan Rivers Live! Yes, live, to be sure.  The one and only, as sardonic as ever, making an extremely rare Los Angeles club appearance.  Don’t miss this one.  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.  .

- July 23. (Fri.)  Tom Peterson Quartet. Saxophonist Peterson is everyone’s first call player, fully capable of fitting into any setting.  But here we get to hear him in his own solidly swinging, ever-inventive mode, backed by the Pat Senatore Trio.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

- July 23. (Fri.) “Music at the Zoo: Classic Rock Night” And classic rock it will be, with Eagles, Beatles, the Grateful Dead and Heart tribute bands, as well as the songs of The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and more.  The Los Angeles Zoo.  6 p.m.   (323) 644-6042.

- July 23. (Fri.) Jackson Browne and special guest David Lindley.  Singer/songwriter Browne and guitarist Lindley have been making music together at various times for nearly 40 years.  Their current appearance celebrates the release of the dynamic duo’s Love Is Strange. a 2-CD live recording of their Spanish tour in 2006. The Greek Theatre.  (323) 665-3125.

Ernie Andrews

- July 23. (Fri.) Ernie Andrews.  The male jazz singer field may be relatively sparse these days, but we can always be thankful for the presence of Andrews, who sings anything and everything with style and substance.  The Culver Club in the Raddison. (310) 649-1776 ext. 4137.

- July 23 (Fri.)  Bern.  Drummer Bernie Dresel leads his wildly versatile band of singers and musicians in the first appearance at The Baked Potato.  (818) 980-1615.

- July 24. (Sat.)  Mercury Falls and painter Norton Wisdom. Mercury Falls – saxophonist Patrick Cress, guitarist Roger Riedlbauer, bassist Eric Perney and drummer Tim Bulkley – perform their ambient jazz textures, while Wisdom paints spontaneous images to capture the musical moment.  Royal-T.  (310) 559-6300.

- July 25. (Sun.) Louis Prima: Star on Hollywood Blvd. Trumpeter Prima, whose career reached from his mid-‘30s hit, “Sing, Sing, Sing” to his ‘50s trend-setting lounge act with Keely Smith, receives his star on the Walk of Fame.  Prima’s son, Louis Prima, Jr., performs some of the classics after the ceremony.  11617 Vine St., south of Hollywood Blvd.  11:30 a.m.

San Francisco

- July 19 & 20. (Mon. & Tues.)  Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca. Lemvo’s turbulent Congolese percussion rhythms are skillfully blended by his Makina Loca players into a tasty gumbo of salsa, rumba and soukous. Yoshi’s San Francisco.   (415) 655-5600.

- July 21. (Wed.) Etran Finatawa. The trance-like grooves of Niger’s “Stars of Tradition” are as mesmerizing as ever in their new album, Tarkat Tajje/Let’s Go!Yoshi’s Oakland.   (510) 238-9200.

New York

Carol Welsman

- July 19. (Mon.)  Carol Welsman Quartet with Harry Allen.  Welsman’s velvety vocals, rich sense of swing and embracing balladry are backed by saxophonist Allen’s driving mainstream style.   Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.  (212) 258-9595.  

- July 20 – 24. (Tues. – Sat.)  The Maria Schneider Orchestra. Arguably among the most adventurous of the contemporary big bands, Schneider’s stellar players make the most of her atmospheric charts.  Birdland.  (212) 581-3080.

- July 20 – 25. (Tues. – Sun.)  The Barry Harris Trio. Bebop still lives, in every sense of the word, in Harris’ ineffable piano.  Village Vanguard. (212) 255-4037.

- July 20 – 25. (Tues. – Sun.)  Monty Alexander: Harlem-Kingston Express. Jamaica’s Alexander finds common ground between uptown jazz and Caribbean rhythms. Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.  (212) 258-9595.  

- July 22 – 25. (Thurs. – Sun.) Larry Willis Quintet.  Keyboardist Willis has proved his chops in every imaginable setting, from Jackie McLean and Stan Getz to Carmen McRae and Blood, Sweat & Tears.  This time out, he leads the quintet of saxophonist Joe Ford, trombonist Steve Davis, bassist Steve Novosel and drummer Billy Williams. The Jazz Standard. (212) 576-2232.

- July 21 & 22. (Wed. & Thurs.)  Jeff Lorber Fusion. Keyboardist Lorber led the way in the early years of fusion, and he continues to stretch the envelope, this time celebrating the appropriately titled new recording, Now is the Time, dipping into the jazz roots that have always been the foundation of his music.  Iridium.  (212) 582-2121.

- July 23 – 25. (Fri. – Sun.) Geri Allen and Timeline. Pianist Allen showcases selections from a pair of new albums – the tap dancing sounds of Live (Dig) and the solo piano excursions of Flying Toward the Sound. Iridium.  (212) 582-2121.

Here, There & Everywhere: Allen Mezquida’s “Smigly”

July 18, 2010

By Don Heckman

Allen Mezquida is a fine jazz alto saxophonist.  But he’s more than that -– talented and imaginative in a field that is, he says, “a unique way to also present my jazz music.”

That field is animation.  And Mezquida, a brilliant animator, has created a character – an irresistible character – named Smigly, who is an Everyman for the 21st century.  In his most recent appearance, Smigly learns, first hand, how “rough it is out there,” notes Mezquida “for the jazzer.”

Mezquida’s dark, but extremely telling humor is also manifest in a variety of equally penetrating ways in other Smigly adventures.  Here’s a link to experience Smigly’s world – a place in which your cranium is attached to your funny bone: Smigly.


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