Live Jazz: Cheryl Bentyne at Vitello’s

October 31, 2010

By Don Heckman

Dynamic.  Enchanting.  High spirited.  Entertaining.  Hard swinging.  Those were just a few of the words that came to mind during Cheryl Bentyne’s appearance at Vitello’s on Thursday night.  And none of them were really adequate to describe her utterly mesmerizing performance.

Everyone knows Bentyne from her long tenure with the Manhattan Transfer, of course. But, like her other partners in that remarkable quartet, she is less familiar as a solo artist.  Which is regrettable.  Because Bentyne uses all the sophisticated dramatic artistry she has developed in her decades with the Transfer as the foundation from which to build her unique presentations in the spotlight.

Her Vitello’s performance was nominally tied to the release of her superb new album, The Gershwin Songbook.  And there was plenty of Gershwin on the program. An opening combination of “Fascinating Rhythm” and “I Got Rhythm” that tossed the melody in wild meanderings through the – of course – rhythm.  “S’Wonderful” done in an irresistible groove, with bassist Reggie Hamilton and drummer Dave Tull providing the supercharged engine power.  Some delightful interplay with guest singer Mark Winkler on “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”  And an encore version of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” with the sole accompaniment of Bentyne’s husband, Corey Allen, playing rollicking ragtime piano.

But there was more.  An utterly gorgeous, understated but emotionally layered reading of Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye” enhanced by Doug Webb’s equally intimate tenor saxophone solo.  Vincent Youmans’ “Tea For Two” and Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me” done at mercilessly uptempo paces – again featuring fast fingered tenor work from Webb.  And, perhaps best of all, the set piece that was the highlight among highlights of Bentyne’s performance – “Something Cool,” the poignant cabaret jazz tune by Billy Barnes that was a 1954 hit for June Christy.  In Bentyne’s hands it became a gripping, musical short story, told with exquisite blending of words and music – a model display of jazz singing at its finest.

The only downside of Bentyne’s appearance was that it was for one night only.  Here’s one vote for having her back, soon, for a long run.

Live Blues: Taj Mahal and Vieux Farka Toure at Royce Hall

October 31, 2010

By Mike Finkelstein

Legendary blues man Taj Mahal’s performance last week at a UCLA Live concert in Royce Hall drew a large and enthusiastic audience.  It was a night in which we saw an integration of musical styles from many different points on the planet, ranging from the Mississippi Delta to Mali.   In the capable hands of a winsome character like Taj, the program was hugely entertaining.   Though he has recorded material in many styles, using instruments ranging from steel drums to a kora – and everything standard in between – on this night he stuck to stripped down blues arrangements.

With only drums and bass to back him, Taj hit the stage right on time, dressed in white linen slacks and a black sport shirt, spangled with what looked like assorted exotic birds and a wide brimmed white hat.   He immediately plugged into one of several acoustic/electric guitars and played “TV Mama”  which evoked the old Elmore James riff in “Dust My Broom” and featured a very crisp guitar solo.  Though he was not playing slide guitar, he made the riff sound as though he was.

Taj Mahal

Three songs into the set, it was time to wipe his brow and this seemingly routine motion offered a glimpse into how someone with real presence, like Taj, seems to look all the more memorable in a hat. He held the hat up, looked it over like a trusted pet, and observed in a warm, low voice that the hat had attitude, and that it was just looking for a head to sit on.  It wasn’t simply his words that impressed, it was also how he physically assured us of the idea.   Similarly, the graceful arc he displayed in strapping on a new guitar spoke subtly to anyone who was watching.

Throughout the show Taj cycled through guitar, keyboard and banjo, always maintaining a fine balance between singing, strumming, soloing or even whistling.  He seemed to be moderating a charismatic dialogue between these components on each song.  He has one of the most expressive voices you could hope to find.  At times he sounded angelic, other times warm and immediate, and occasionally like a big ‘ol bullfrog.  The rhythm section of Kester Smith and Bill Rich served up streamlined, catchy grooves that fit the tunes like a glove.

Vieux Farka Toure

Songs such as “Blues With a Feeling,” “Corrina, Corrina,” and “Zanzibar” were eagerly received by an audience that seemed fully familiar with Mahal’s repertoire.   On “Blues With a Feeling” he was joined onstage by Vieux Farka Toure, the rising star guitar player from Mali who opened the show.  When these fellows jammed it was an interesting contrast in roots and style.  On this set of standard blues changes Taj veered towards the pentatonic end of the spectrum and Vieux worked more with the major scale, which actually made his own blues licks jump up out of the mix.

The opening set by Toure, son of the legendary Ali Farka Toure, was also very well received.   Playing a Joe Satriani model Ibanez guitar, dressed in authentic Malian garb, Toure and his band proceeded to keep the audience engaged and bopping for an hour.  His set consisted of songs that featured several different sets of three or four chord changes and a whole lot of guitar soloing on top of it all.  Although the words to his songs were not in English he was very explanatory between songs as he politely relayed to the audience how he was finding America.

Watching the young man from Mali arrive on the UCLA campus, then play the blues onstage with Taj Mahal on a Korean made guitar, which was designed by an American rock ‘n roller, really made the world seem just a little bit smaller — if only for the length of an entertaining evening.

Taj Mahal photo courtesy of UCLA LIVE.

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

Live Jazz: The Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band at Vitello’s

October 29, 2010

By Tony Gieske

Gordon Goodwin is one bandleader who really knows how to fill a room. I don’t know why his band looked so big. He doesn’t have strings or French horns or anything. But it seemed to fill half the upstairs room at Vitello’s Monday.

The Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band Phills Vitello's

I guess it’s just kind of a phat band, or Phat band, as he proclaimed on a wall-filling red, white and blue banner. I thought maybe he might have Pol Pot on trumpet, or maybe Phats Navarro.

Willie Murillo

No, it was a guy named Willie Murillo, who got off  alarming growl trumpet solos in the course of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Goodwin’s chart on this would have gladdened Gershwin’s melancholy heart. It rolled along like George’s old man river, only phaster.

And like every other number all night long, it swung, boldly and impeccably.   A player could not very well help doing that with the great Bernie Dressel, of Alf Clausen’s “The Simpsons” band and the Miles Evans band, at the drums.

Bernie Dressel

The great Wayne Bergeron, whose chops were a little down, ceded the trumpet glory to Murillo and later to the great Bob Summers, who devised a poised and well designed chorus or two on a classic ballad.

A charming looking young gent named Andrew Synowiec played electric guitar with clarity and momentum, and the bassist, Rick Shaw, had everybody’s back, no trivial  feat since there were 18 up there.

Fortunately, Shaw was working with a Panormo-style bass, a large, broad-shouldered Italian-bred instrument with a Stenholm “C” extension that  lowers the E string to a C.

Andy Martin

Among the other commanding soloists  were the renowned Andy Martin on trombone; the expert Brian  Scanlon, Jeff Driskill  and Sal Lozano on saxophones and fearless Jay Masen on baritone saxophone.

Aside from the stomach-turning red uniforms, what you remembered was this band’s bright but brawny precision — tight, agile and plenteous — and the masterly writing by Goodwin, which is as it should be with his training as a film  scorer on  FernGully: The Last Rainforest, The Majestic, Glory Road, National Treasure, Remember the Titans, Armageddon, Star Trek: Nemesis, The Incredibles, Hot Rod, Get Smart, Snakes on a Plane, Race to Witch Mountain, Coach Carter, Bad Boys II, Con Air and Gone in 60 Seconds.

The Big Phat Brasses

As well as the beloved classic, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, his score for which the Phat boys sliced and salted with, uh, relish.

Photos by Tony Gieske.  To read and see more of Tony’s essays and photos at his personal web site click HERE.

Q & A: Nathan East

October 28, 2010

By Devon Wendell

Nathan East’s long, illustrious career has firmly established him as one of the world’s top bass players and an impressive composer.  Recently I had the chance to speak with with him about his latest release with the group Fourplay, “Let’s Touch The Sky,” as well as some of the high points in his work with Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder and many other major stars.

DW: Let’s start with the new album, Nathan.  How does it differ from past Fourplay albums?

NE: Let’s Touch The Sky marks the beginning of a new  chapter in the Fourplay songbook with the addition of our newest member, guitarist Chuck Loeb.  Chuck brings a  fresh  energy to the mix with his compelling guitar style and sophisticated compositions.  This project also contains  three vocal songs when we normally only include one.

DW: Your smooth and soulful vocals are featured on your composition “I’ll Still Be Loving You.”  How do you approach singing and vocal arranging?

NE: I have a great deal of respect for a variety of singers like Sam Cook, James Taylor, Nora Jones, even John Mayer and although I’d never try to jump in the ring with them, I imagine how they would approach a vocal and I try to sing with that kind of spirit.  It’s nice to have role models!  I also try to write in a range that I know my voice can handle, so I normally gravitate toward the soft & soulful ballad which suits my voice.

DW: From Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, and Michael Jackson, to Lionel Ritchie, Eric Clapton and Herbie Hancock (To name a few), you’ve recorded with such a diverse list of the greatest musicians ever. What were some of the greatest highlights of your career?

NE: There certainly are many wonderful highlights that I will be forever grateful for, among those is sharing the stage with the late George Harrison who also became a very dear friend.  Hanging out in the studio recording with Quincy Jones & Michael Jackson was very special, everyone involved is at the top of their game, and you know while you’re recording that history is being made .. it’s very exciting!  Performing for the Queen of England and Nelson Mandela at the Royal Albert Hall in London was most memorable especially having the opportunity to meet them after the performance!  But I’d have to say that performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to an audience of two million people at the Inauguration Concert for Barack Obama pretty much tops the list of highlights.  I must admit I’ve been blessed with some good ones!

DW: How has jazz inspired your playing and composing?

NE: Again there are so many wonderful role models like Bob James, Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny & Keith Jarrett that have set such a high standard for playing and composition that it’s easy to be inspired merely at the thought of such excellence. In jazz, you’re always composing whether you’re improvising a solo or writing a song, the creative process never stops and it’s most inspiring to study the greats and try to figure out how they arrived at such masterful conclusions.

DW: Who were some of your earliest influences?

NE: Wes Montgomery (my all time favorite guitarist), Vince Guaraldi, Ron Carter, Ray Brown, Scott LaFaro, Charlie Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley & Quincy Jones to name a few.

DW: Tell me about how Fourplay was formed.

NE: In 1990, Bob James recorded an album called Grand Piano Canyon.  He asked Harvey Mason and Lee Ritenour to recommend a bassist for the project.  As my good fortune would have it, they both recommended me.  Bob,who held an executive position at Warner Bros Records at the time,was so intrigued by our musical chemistry that he proposed the idea of forming a quartet.  He even suggested the name Fourplay.  A few months later we were in the studio recording our quartet as new artists on Warner Bros. otherwise known as Fourplay.  Thank you Bob for that vision.

DW: As a bassist and composer what do you try to bring to the table when recording with other artists?

NE: I try to bring musical integrity and a positive spirit to every session.  My goal is to support and enhance the musical environment whatever it may be.  I shoot for creativity and uniqueness in my performance. There’s an intangible ingredient in music that completes the connection between the mind, heart and soul.

DW: At what moment did you feel you had truly arrived in the big leagues of the music business?

NE: Touring the country with Barry White & The Love Unlimited Orchestra at age 16 was a good indication of things to come.  Also, getting calls from people like Quincy Jones, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Lionel Richie .. a pretty good indicator that you’re in good company.

DW: Usually bass players are either “pocket” players or more melodic. Your style balances both. Do you feel that dichotomy is lost among today’s younger generation of players?

NE: As a young player, you just go for it and stay in the moment which is not a bad thing but with experience comes wisdom and that’s when I think the balance and good instincts come into play.

DW: Name some bass players out today that have caught your ear — if any.

NE: Esperanza Spalding! She’s a bright and shining star with a compelling career ahead of her.  Hadrien Feraud and Dominique Dipiazza .. these two players from France are absolute virtuosos with impressive technique and taste.  I still enjoy Pino Palladino, Marcus Miller and of course Abraham Laboriel Sr.

DW: Name some of your personal favorite recordings you’ve done so far.

NE: With three decades of recordings to draw from, I have quite a few favorites.  I’m very proud of all of our Fourplay recordings including this latest one.  Also all the Anita Baker records especially Compositions.   Birdland from Quincy Jones Back on the Block, Eric Clapton Change  the World and Tears in Heaven, Michael McDonald Motown, Philip Bailey Chinese Wall, Kenny Loggins Love Will Follow and recent CD’s by Andrea Boccelli & Michael Bublé.  These are just a few of my favorites.

DW: Have other instruments other than bass influenced your style?

NE: Absolutely.  I was influenced by the lyrical playing of sax men Cannonball Adderley, Charlie “Bird” Parker & John Coltrane.  I gravitated early on to the piano of Vince Guaraldi, I loved his music on the Charlie Brown specials.  Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Pat Martino & Pat Metheny’s masterful guitar styles are all still very influential.

DW: If you had to classify your style, what would you call it?

NE: That’s a bit tricky because I love playing in different genres, Jazz-R&B-Pop-Rock-Classical but if had to come up with a classification for my style, it might be “Warm-n-Fuzzy”. [He laughs.]

DW: Are there any artists you haven’t recorded with that you’ve always wanted to, if so who are they?

NE: Pat Metheny, Donald Fagen, Sting & Paul McCartney.

DW: What kind of bass are you currently playing?

NE: I play my Yamaha BBNE-2 Signature series 5-String bass.

DW: You started out on cello. What initially made you want to play electric bass?

NE: I’d listen to the high school stage band rehearse from outside the closed door and the bass just sounded so cool supporting all those horns.  The Motown records also caught my ear, mostly because of the genius of James Jamerson’s incredible bass lines.  My ear just gravitated to the bass in most of the music I was listening to and again I’m just thankful for the many role models of the bass.

DW: You were a member of Eric Clapton’s band for quite a number of years from the ’80’s to the ’90’s. Explain what that experience was like.

NE: It’s a wonderful experience on so many levels to make music with such an iconic musician.  Eric became like a brother to me, we had many laughs, shared some tears and covered a lot of ground traveling around the world for more than 20 years.  I’ve learned so much from him about life in general and I’m grateful for the life-long friendship that we established.

DW: Funk pioneers like Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins have certainly influenced most bass players in all genres. How has the funk effected your approach to playing?

NE: I’ll never forget hearing Larry and Bootsy for the first time.  They both blew the roof off of the house when they played and revolutionized the way we all approach the bass.

DW: What lessons do you hope younger bass players will learn from your style?

NE: Well, not necessarily just from my style, but I hope young players become well rounded musicians and continue to push the boundaries of the instrument. Listen to all styles of music and incorporate them into your own development.

DW: What does the future hold in store for Nathan East?

NE: In the immediate future, Fourplay will do a bit of touring in the US and Japan in support of our new project.  (tour dates are listed on

I’m moving more toward writing and producing these days which I really enjoy.  I’m currently in production on a new Anita Baker CD.  We’ve worked together since the early 1980’s and it’s been fun to watch her progress since her very first Songstress album.  You can imagine how honored I was when she called and asked me to produce her.  Anita’s voice is a national treasure and to work with such a gifted artist is a producer’s dream.  I’m also working on a book documenting some of the amazing experiences that have contributed to the blessed life I live and love so much.  Lastly, one of my long time ambitions is to record my own solo project with some of my friends that I’ve made music with over the years, simply celebrating music!

DW: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Nathan.  It’s been a pleasure.

To read more posts by Devon Wendell click HERE.

On Second Thought: “Night of the Lepus”

October 27, 2010

The irrepressible Brick Wahl joins our hardy band of commentators just in time for a Halloween look back at one of the oddest horror films of the ’70s.

By Brick Wahl

I stayed up way late last night to watch the epic Night of the Lepus once again. Janet Leigh, Stuart Whitman, Rory Calhoun, Bones and a whole bunch of huge, crazed, carnivorous rabbits.  We’re talking late night early 70’s eco-horror at it’s finest. Or to quote the sheriff:

“Ladies and Gentleman, there’s a herd of giant killer rabbits  coming this way and we desperately need your help.” Delivered straight. High beams flash and horns blow in appreciation.

I have to say that it’s been 35 years since I first heard that line and it still packs a punch.  I was young then, a smarmy teen, and laughed in hysterics when I first heard it… Last night I listened in admiration at the hapless little fuck of a nothing actor forced to utter it (through a megaphone no less), and wondering about who the talentless hack was who wrote it, and how could he have ever written it, and was he drunk at the time, or suicidal, knowing full well that this was his one shot at the big time, any kind of big time, and all he could come up was a line about giant rabbits.  Audiences must have laughed themselves silly. No one blamed the actor…who was far enough from the camera to maintain a degree of anonymity, thank god…but only the youngest children in those seats, popcorn all over their laps and ssssshing their giggling older brothers, could not fail to see just how pathetic that sentence was.

Now, though, I’m older, lots older.  I’m not a rock star, or President, or a world famous writer or world famous anything. I don’t live in one of those big houses on the hill. So I can feel the pain of the actor with that megaphone. He needed the bread. He had bills to pay, mouths to feed (and not rabbit mouths). We all do humiliating things. We have all uttered warnings about metaphorical herds of killer rabbits.  Or something to that effect.  Just not so incredibly stupid.

The wife and I drove across the lonely stretches of the Colorado Plateau this past summer.  It’s that highland, arid, dry grasses, sparse, so lonely, that stretches from the northern third of Arizona to the Rockies, and north into Utah and Colorado. There’s nothing there. Cattle, lean and weather beaten. Some small towns, abandoned farms. Nights are vast and black and full UFO’s and other scary things. Days are haunted by long vanished Indian civilizations. I love it there. This was the setting for the movie. Way out there. At some point on a trek, when we get off the interstate and head off on some state highway or county road and things get really empty out there, I think of Night of the Lepus. To me, the high Arizona desert and those goddamn rabbits are permanently enmeshed. And at some point on the trek, I find myself saying aloud that there’s a herd of giant killer rabbits heading this way.

Which kinda wrecks the whole mood, since it’s the stupidest line from the stupidest critters-gone-wild flick ever. Dumber even than Frogs, where the vicious racist wheelchair-bound Ray Milland gets his karmic comeuppance from a house full of just regular sized frogs who apparently will kill him in some unexplained way (I swear, they’re just regular ol’ frogs), or dumber even than a terrified Marjoe Gortner asking Ida Lupino where’s she’d gotten that big chicken (it was a big chicken).

But there is nothing so profoundly dumb as killer bunnies. Huge fluffy killer bunnies. Not even DeForrest Kelly can make it believable. And he dealt with Lizard Men, salt creatures, and hortas. He just looked sad in that little mustache. I hope Janet Leigh was nice to him.

But I digress.

Rock CD Review: Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Mean Old Man”

October 26, 2010

Jerry Lee Lewis

Mean Old Man (Verve Forecast)

By Mike Finkelstein

Often, when a host of stars gather together to record with one of their legendary influences, the results are rather ordinary.   Jerry Lee Lewis’ latest release, Mean Old Man, produced by Jim Keltner and Steve Bing, is a refreshing and tasteful departure from this syndrome.  The personnel on this album are indeed stellar, the performances are inspired, and most importantly, the choice of material is winsome.

Jerry Lee Lewis is probably best known as one of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll musicians to have huge success, having lit the up the radio world more than 50 years ago with exhilarating and suggestive classics such as “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’On.”    Between his music and his controversial reputation for hard living, he has influenced the tastes and imaginations of generations of musicians. An elite group of these folks helped JLL make this album.  The personnel fills a true A-List and includes Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Tim McGraw, Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Slash, Shelby Lynne, John Fogerty, Gillian Welch, Mavis Staples, Robbie Robertson and Nils Lofgren.

Mean Old Man allows Lewis to adapt his vocal and piano styles to material ranging from gospel to rock ‘n roll to several speeds of country. You can hear these folks stepping into the moment and making the songs sound special.   He rocks with guests like Kid Rock and Slash on “Rockin’ My Life Away,” and then with Ringo Starr and John Mayer on “Roll Over Beethoven.”

Lewis and Kid Rock’s approach to the same song are quite a contrast.  Lewis’ vocal sounds warm, poised and soulfully in control, while Kid Rock howls and growls his way through, perhaps giddy to actually be in the studio with the Killer, himself.   Still, what really propels the track is Lewis’ trademark rolling piano meshed with a streamlined boogie-woogie rhythm section.

After listening to Mean Old Man, one cannot help but be impressed by Lewis’ country sensibilities.  All of the tracks in this collection have a country bend in their arrangements, and this suits Lewis’ voice and piano.  Setting his style over steel guitars, skipping snare drums, and simple clean bass lines in the country tradition works like a charm.   He shines as he sings “Swinging Doors” with Merle Haggard and “Whiskey River” with Willie Nelson.   He sings beautiful duets with Gillian Welch on “Please Release Me,” and  “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” that deliver the heartache and lament in sparse, whining glory.  The latter, in particular, is a reminder of the huge value in a good song getting the right arrangement.

No less than three Rolling Stones appear among the guest stars.  With the addition of a fine, swelling steel guitar track and Jerry Lee’s voice “Dead Flowers” transcends into the truly country song it was likely conceived to be.  It’s interesting to hear Mick Jagger singing backups on this very familiar track as it becomes apparent that the sentiments in this song are tailor-made for a voice like Lewis’.   Keith Richards joins Jerry Lee for a romp through “Sweet Virginia” that features a gem of a piano break by Lewis (and cleaner shoes for Virginia).   Ron Wood joins for the title track written by Kris Kristofferson and sung proudly, yet with restraint and resignation, by Lewis.

Time after time on Mean Old Man the songs become topical for Lewis.  Whether the song is about boozing, womanizing, rocking, remorse or redemption they all seem as though they could have been written with him in mind as the singer.  Thanks to Lewis, the star-filled line-up, the arrangements and the performances, this eminently listenable album succeeds in delivering the essence of the songs.

Jazz CD Review: “CTI Records: The Cool Revolution”

October 25, 2010

CTI Records: The Cool Revolution

Straight Up, Deep Grooves/Big Hits, The Brazilian Connection, Cool and Classic (Masterwork Jazz)

By Fernando Gonzalez

There was a time when jazz was the popular music of the land.  But that was a long time ago on a planet far, far away. Here on earth, selling jazz has been a hard business for years. In the late ‘60s, Creed Taylor found a way. Then a producer for Verve, he created his own label — Creed Taylor Incorporated or CTI — first as an imprint of A&M Records and then, in 1970, as an independent.

Freddie Hubbard

CTI had a distinct sound, striking packaging, and a repertoire that, in the jazz tradition, often drew its repertoire from the pop music of its time in the hope of reaching a broader audience. And CTI also had the players. Its roster included  Freddie Hubbard,  Antonio Carlos Jobim, Milt Jackson, Jim Hall, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Hubert Laws, and Airto Moreira. Moreover, as the accompanying liner notes underscore, CTI became also a “repertory company of sorts,” one in which bona fide leaders appeared as each other’s sidemen, giving the playing an unimpeachable quality.

George Benson

CTI did sell records. How many of those who bought, say, George Benson playing Jefferson’s Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” moved on to the jazz of, say, Monk or Miles or Charlie Parker, is anybody’s guess and, perhaps, beside the point. (It can be argued that the CTI experience also set the stage for what came to be known as Smooth Jazz — and the discussions that came with it.)

Paul Desmond

This four disc set, grouped under the headings Straight Up, Deep Grooves/Big Hits, The Brazilian Connection and Cool and Classic, offers a wide angle view of  CTI and its urban-oriented Kudu sister label.

Hubert Laws

The discs includes gems such as Turrentine’s “Sugar,” Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” and a cool Paul Desmond reading of Jobim’s “Wave,” as well as tracks such as Benson’s “White Rabbit,” or Hubert Laws’s reading of Gabriel Faure’s “Pavane” or Deodato’s take on Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra .“

The tensions between art and commerce are part of the very identity of jazz.  And as this collection remind us, they are all there, in the music of CTI, well played and perfectly unresolved.

Picks of the Week: Oct. 25 – 31

October 24, 2010

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

- Oct. 25. (Mon.)  Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band.  Los Angeles has a full crop of big bands, performing with some (if still not enough) frequency.  And the Big Phat band is one of the best, collectively and individually.  Hearing them at Vitello’s is like having them perform for your own private party.  Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

- Oct. 26. (Tues.)  Kristin Korb.  Combining the seemingly incompatible skills of vocalizing and bass playing, Korb does so with ease, musicality and a rare quality of thoughtfulness in her musical story telling.  Charlie O’s.  (818) 994-3058.

Jason Marsalis

- Oct. 26. (Tues.)  Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet.  His older brothers have identified Jason as the most talented member of the Marsalis family.  And, whether true or not, there’s no doubting his ability.  A superb drummer, he’s been impressively exploring the vibes lately.  He performs with bassist Will Goble, pianist Austin Johnson and drummer David PotterVitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

- Oct. 27. (Wed.) Neil Sedaka. [This concert has been postponed due to illness.  It will be rescheduled to Tuesday, Dec. 7.  Original tickets for the Oct. 27 program will be valid on Dec. 7.] Singer/songwriter Sedaka was churning out hits just before the Beatles (and the British) arrived.  But he came back a decade later, and – at 71 – continues to entertain audiences with his familiar, and well-crafted songs. Disney Hall.   (323) 850-2000.

- Oct. 27. (Wed.) Larry Goldings Quartet.  With Harry Allen.  Keyboardist Goldings and saxophonist Allen – an eminently like-minded musical pair – offer a program featuring selections from their whimsically titled new album, When Larry Met Harry. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

- Oct. 28 – 30 (Thurs. – Sat.)  Three Phantoms In Concert.  A perfect Halloween celebration: Craig Shulman, Kevin Gray and Brad Little, all of whom have played the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, perform selections from that classic musical, as well as memorable songs from Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Guys and Dolls, Nine and more.  Segerstrom Concert Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center.  (714) 556-2787.

Cheryl Bentyne

- Oct. 29. (Fri.)  Cheryl Bentyne “The Gershwin Songbook” Bentyne’s crystal sound has enlivened the Manhattan Transfer for decades.  Her solo excursions are equally compelling, and even more so when applied to the irresistible songs of the brothers Gershwin.  Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.

- Oct. 29. (Fri.)  Moscow State Symphony.  Renowned for their interpretations of Russian classical music the Moscow State Symphony performs a diverse offering of great works.  On the program: Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, Op. 45,  Bruch’s Violin Concert No. 1 in g minor, Op. 26 with violinist Jennifer Koh, and the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.  (562) 916-8501.

- Oct. 29. (Fri.)  Bill Cantos Trio.  Pianist/singer/songwriter Cantos is a convincing musical hyphenate, bringing imagination, skill and swing to everything he plays. Hopefully he’ll play some of his own memorable songs.  Cantos will be joined by his equally versatile wife, singer/composer Mari FalconeThe Culver Club at the Radisson.   (310) 649-1776 ext. 4137.

Julie Esposito

- Oct. 29. (Fri.)  Julie Esposito.  She’s an eclectic singer, capable of bringing musical authenticity to a far-reaching range of styles.  And, as  if that’s not enough,  Esposito manages to have an extensive career in law in her spare time.  (Or is it vice versa?)  This time out, she sings a mini-tribute to her father, the fine Chicago-based jazz pianist/arranger Gene Esposito.  Esposito also shares the stage with singer Frank Messina in a group of Broadway tunes and American Songbook standards.  The Gardenia.  West Hollywood.  (323) 467-7444.

- Oct. 29. (Fri.)  Blame Sally. The San Francisco-based quartet is an all-female collective of singer-songwriters: Pam Delgado, Renee Harcourt, Jeri Jones and Monica Pasqual.  But their gender is less significant than their expressive musicality — and the fact that each is a talented writer/performer with something unique to say.  Different though they may be, they perform with the empathic togetherness of musicians who intuit and value the musical connections that exist between them.  Boulevard Music.  (310) 398-2583.

- Oct. 30. (Sat.)  Monica Mancini and Friends.  Mancini’s latest album, I Loved These Days, features her convincing readings of songs from the singer/songwriter era of the ‘60s and ‘70s, aided by the presence of the likes of Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson and Jackson Brown.  Will they be among the “Friends” who appear with her?  Only one way to find out.  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

- Oct. 30. (Sat.)  Tom Rotella Quartet.  Guitarist/composer Rotella has recorded with everyone from Cher and Frank Sinatra to Herbie Hancock and Luciano Pavarotti.  As well as writing and/or performing on soundtracks for Sex and the City, The Simpsons, The Tonight Show and more.  But he says he gets his greatest kicks performing live, which he’ll do with the Pat Senatore TrioVibrato Grill Jazz…etc. (310) 474-9400.

Julie Kelly

- Oct. 30. (Sat.)  Julie Kelly’s Birthday Party.  Singer/guitarist Kelly brings a rare sense of joy to her songs – fully apparent on her new CD Everything I Love. She’ll be celebrating her birthday and the new album, backed by the John Heard Trio. Charlie O’s. (818) 994-3058.  And don’t forget that Julie appears regularly, concentrating on her love of Brazilian music in her Brazilian Hour Happy Hang, on Thursdays at Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

- Oct. 31. (Sun.)  John Daversa’s Contemporary Big Band.  Trumpeter Daversa brings in Halloween with his “scary big band.”  With a stage full of L.A.’s first team players performing Daversa’s unpredictable, the results should be supernatural.  Baked Potato.   (818) 980-1615.

San Francisco

- Oct. 25. (Mon.)  Karrin Allyson.  Female jazz singers have been arriving by the dozen, but Allyson continues to hold her own as a convincingly complete jazz artist.  Expect to hear, and enjoy, her range across repertoire from John Coltrane to Antonio Carlos Jobim.  Yoshi’s San Francisco.   (415) 655-5600.

- Oct. 27. (Wed.)  Harvey Wainapel’s Alegritude.  Saxophonist/clarinetist Wainapel has spent more than a decade in Brazil.  His group Alegritude is the product of everything he learned during those years of immersion in bossa nova, samba and all the other rich elements of Brazilian music. Yoshi’s Oakland.   (510) 238-9200.

Leo Kottke

- Oct. 27 – 29. (Wed. – Fri.)  Leo Kottke.  Multiple Grammy-nominated Kottke achieved high visibility during the singer/songwriter years of the ‘70s.  But the roots of his music – then and now – have always been in his impressive acoustic guitar virtuosity.  Yoshi’s San Francisco.   (415) 655-5600.

- Oct. 29. (Fri.)  Bitches Brew Revisited. The 40th anniversary year of Miles Davis’ iconic Bitches Brew is celebrated in contemporary fashion by the group of Graham Haynes, trumpet, Marco Benevento, keyboards, Antoine Roney, woodwinds, James “Blood” Ulmer, guitar, DJ Logic, turntables.  An SFJAZZ Festival event at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. (866) 920-5299.

- Oct. 30. (Sat.)  Nellie McKay.  Quirky singer/songwriter/pianist McKay brings wit and a sardonic humor to songs that range from well targeted social activism to subtly engaging lyricism.  An SFJAZZ Festival event at the YCA Forum.   (866) 920-5299.

New York

- Oct. 26 – 30. (Tues. – Sat.)  Pat Martino Organ Quartet.  Guitarist Martino makes the most of the classic organ quartet format with a line-up that includes Tony Monaco, Hammond B-3 organ, Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone and Jason Brown, drums.  Birdland.   (212) 581-3080.

Gerald Clayton

- Oct. 26 – 31. (Tues. – Sun.) Gerald Clayton Trio.  L.A.’s Clayton – whose father John and uncle Jeff are two of the co-leaders of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra – is thoroughly establishing himself as one of New York’s rapidly rising young jazz piano talents. Village Vanguard.   (212) 929-4598.

- Oct. 28 – 31. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Houston Person Quartet. Tenor saxophonist Person’s muscular sound and expressive style spent years working with Etta Jones.  But he’s a powerful player in his own right, mixing bebop with a strong seasoning of soul.  Jazz Standard.   (212) 576-2232.

- Oct. 28 – 31. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Mike Clark’s Indigo Blue.  Clark’s drumming was one of the driving forces in Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and his funk drumming beats have been sampled by everyone from Prince to Janet Jackson.  But he’s been stepping out on his own lately, as he does here with the stellar ensemble of trumpet Nicholas Payton, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and bassist Christian McBride Irididum.  (212) 582-2121.

Live Jazz: Denise Donatelli at Vitello’s

October 22, 2010

By Don Heckman

One of Denise Donatelli’s most unique characteristics as a jazz singer is her confident willingness to perform in complex musical settings with stellar jazz instrumentalists.  Her new CD, When Lights Are Low, is a good example.  Like her previous release, What Lies Within, it includes arrangements by Geoffrey Keezer that virtually translate some of the tracks into art song settings.

Attractive as the charts may be, they can also make their own demands.  But Donatelli can handle them.  Credit her innate musicality with her capacity to find her own interpretive pathways through an instrumental countryside that sometimes insists upon maintaining its own atmospheric milieu.

All of which was apparent Thursday night at Vitello’s, when Donatelli celebrated the release of the album, backed by Keezer, guitarist Pete Sprague, saxophonist/woodwind player Rob Lockart, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, with singers Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh adding back-up vocals on a few tunes.  In some cases – “Don’t Explain” was one – the ensemble sound was less lush in timbre than the larger, string-rich ensemble present for those tunes on the recording.  But, in most of the selections, her singing was showcased within carefully framed and structured arrangements.

Each chart called upon Donatelli’s vocal versatility.  Occasionally – as in segments of “It’s You Or No One” – she was asked to supplement her articulate rendering of a song by adding wordless vocal sounds to the textures of the instrumental ensemble. Often, her readings were surrounded by complex counterlines.  Yet, despite the fact that some of the extended soloing left her to simply stand there, listen and smile, despite the fact that Smith’s busy, high decibel drumming sometimes seemed to overwhelm Vitello’s intimate performance room, Donatelli appeared content to maintain an equally level playing field with her musicians.

But there also were passages – her vocals on “Don’t Explain” and “Kisses (Cantor de Noite)” – in which brief opportunities opened up for Donatelli to tell the musical story in her own way.  And it was in those moments – reminiscent of the voice and piano version of “Why Did I Choose You” on the album – that her rich interpretive skills came fully into the spotlight.

It’s worth noting that the sound reproduction didn’t help matters.  Given a more carefully blended audio mix, one in which the central focus was on Donatelli’s vocals, the integration of voice and background would have been far more effective.  As effective as it is on the album, When Lights Are Low, which underscores Donatelli’s growing visibility as she rises toward the highest levels of the jazz vocal art.

Photo by Faith Frenz.

Here, There & Everywhere: “Smigly” returns

October 22, 2010

By Don Heckman

I’ve written before about Allen Mezquida’s remarkable animated character Smigly — an Everyman for the 21st century.  Not only is Mezquida an imaginative visual artist, he’s also an impressive jazz alto saxophonist.

In this latest installment of Smigly’s adventures, titled “Noise,” the little guy discovers how difficult it is to live life in the moment.  It’s an experience most of us have, probably every day.  The sound track features Mezquida’s alto saxophone from, he says, “a recording I did almost twenty years ago.  And like the earlier Smiglys (which can be found on YouTube), it is aimed directly at  a place “where your cranium is attached to your funnybone.”


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