An Appreciation: Mike Melvoin

February 29, 2012

By Brick Wahl

Mike Melvoin

I got a few wonderful emails from Mike Melvoin over the years. Beautiful things.  He wrote just as he talked, which is my favorite kind of writing, and then talked a lot like he played. Jazz players write the coolest emails sometimes, just perfect little written things, honest and funny and down to the bone true.  Anyway, this was the last one I got from Mike Melvoin. He was responding to my first Keeping It Real post. As usual, I was incapable of saying something intelligent in return. I get so flustered when a jazz master writes anything back, I don’t know what to say and I don’t think I said anything in reply to Mike except maybe a thanks. I had no idea he was so sick. You can’t tell from what he wrote here.  It’s from Jan 20th, just a month before he died.

Here’s what Mike wrote:

Dead on, Brick!

I pass along a couple of defining ideas to the occasional student I meet.

First: “The only thing more important than having a good time is having good time.”

And the former is dependent on the latter. The core purpose of our music hasn’t changed since we were hired to grease up Saturday night. If we achieved that, the music had a healthy fan base. If we put some other purpose in front, the fan base was sure to desert us as you are so right in observing. Those of us players who fire the blood pulse with the historic language of the blues put asses in seats. Not just geriatric or academic ones but across the board asses who come to us to feel good. 

And second: “There are no points for being admired, only for being believed.” 

I don’t do this to be thought of as a good player. I do this to get those who hear me to feel as good as I do.  Jazz well played is a physical music first and foremost.  Thank you for the much needed reminder.

Hoping your Saturday night is delicious and our music helped make it so.


Mike Melvoin

That last line says it all.  No wonder everyone’s missing him.  Very sorry to see him go.

CD Review: Magnolia Memoir — “The Perfect Crime”

February 29, 2012

Magnolia Memoir

 The Perfect Crime (Peak/eOne Music)

By Devon Wendell

For the past two years, the Los Angeles five piece ensemble Magnolia Memoir has attracted a large fan base with captivating live shows in which the group combines traditional jazz with R&B and poetry-fueled alternative rock.

Finally, Magnolia Memoir has released its long awaited major label debut recording: The Perfect Crime.

It’s apparent from the opening numbers “Good Girl” and the title track “The Perfect Crime,” that it was worth the wait. Lead singer Mela Lee’s Billie Holiday-meets-Macy-Gray-in-a-dark-alley styled vocals and introspective lyrics glide atop of band leader Alexander Burke’s vibes and keyboards in a haunting and hypnotic manner.

There are even hints of Gwen Stefani’s Betty Boop like vocal delivery on “Good Girl”, and “My Doorbell” but the sinister arrangements take you away from that overtly pop world.

Magnolia Memoir

Magnolia Memoir also takes on a daring feat by making an album that consists almost completely of ballads. It’s the uniqueness of each band member that makes this a successful experiment. Mela Lee’s mood-establishing lyrics and vocals, Aron Forbes’s spidery guitar fills, the steady bass of Gordon Bash, and the subtle drumming of Matt Lucich, as well as the horn section (John Roberts: trombone, brass arrangements, Jamie Hovorka: trumpet, flugelhorn, and Rich Rossi on tenor and baritone saxes) are what keep The Perfect Crime from becoming redundant.

Although Magnolia Memoir is a L.A. band, the sound on The Perfect Crime is much more reminiscent of an after-hours New York City Band. The title track, “Just Might Do” and “Let It Go” have an early ‘70s Lou Reed/Velvet Underground feel to them.

Mela Lee softly crying out “What we had was so beautiful but we don’t have it anymore” on “Just Let It Go” with Aron Forbes’s drone guitar arpeggios take you to the corner of Avenue B in Lower Manhattan at 4:00am. No images of Sunny Santa Monica here.

The album’s down side is that it feels too somber at times. This is evident on the Radiohead-esque “222,” which offers no hope at all in Lee’s lyrics about lost love and misery. Burke’s evil funhouse keyboard sound effects and vibes, though creative, don’t help lift the mood any.

After digesting the fact that there will be no upbeat tunes here, the highlight of the album is the acoustic version of “The Perfect Crime,” featuring Matthew Santos in a duet with Lee. This is dark enough to make Leonard Cohen sulk in silence for a month. The harmonies produced by the two are brilliant and most importantly, not overproduced. This is a raw sound.

So many bands try for that retro Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, “Look at me, I’m a poet rocker” sound and it comes off sounding forced, unoriginal, and fake. What Magnolia Memoir achieves on The Perfect Crime is sincerity. This recording is also a slap in the face of those jazz purists who say that nothing new or interesting is being done with traditional jazz today.

The Perfect Crime is blissfully dark, harmonically and lyrically inventive, and honest.

To read more reviews and posts by Devon Wendell click HERE.

Live Music: I See Hawks in L.A. at McCabe’s

February 28, 2012

By Mike Finkelstein

On Friday night at McCabe’s, I See Hawks in L.A. played a release show for their new album New Kind of Lonely. Joining them on the bill were their like-minded compadres, Old Californio.  Both bands write and play songs about the beauty, past and present, of living in California.  While both are exceptional electric country rock bands, Friday night was a stripped down acoustic format.  With its walls of guitars and its performer-friendly sound system, McCabe’s was a fine choice in which to go unplugged.  Onstage, the joining link between the two bands was Paul Lacques, a founding member of the Hawks, and a true MVP who also sat in for the entire Old Californio set on dobro.

What’s in a name, anyway?  Consider I See Hawks in L.A.  Not that long ago, but certainly a world of change earlier, the L.A. basin was rural farmlands, orchards, creeks, groves and mountains with little or no development. It was a great place to live as a soaring, predaceous bird.  Though the landscape has certainly changed, there are still hawks in L.A.  We don’t often catch a glimpse of them but when we do see one above the freeway or a business park, it’s a keeper moment of the day.  An intrepid hawk reassures us that the bigger picture is still intact; it is a fleeting link to an impressive past.   This sentiment surely powers ISHILA’s songwriting.

I See Hawks in L.A.

One of the first things one hears with the Hawks is that they sing together seamlessly.  Lacques’ and Rob Waller’s voices mesh tightly and Paul Marshall covers the top end to assemble a sweet, accent-free three part harmony.  Waller’s lead vocals sound very familiar, evoking a host of different midrange singers but, happily, he always sounds like the singer of the Hawks.

For New Kind of Lonely the Hawks decided to go very close to all acoustic, and for this show the lineup was Lacques on lead guitar, vocals, and dobro, Waller on lead vocals and guitar, and Marshall on upright bass and vocals.  The percussion for the bulk of this set came from their picks, fingers and strings. Interestingly, neither guitar was plugged in, just miked, old school.

The sound on Friday was crystal clear — enough room for the guitars to intertwine while sounding distinct, and nice separation on the bass.  Lacques had all kinds of room to embellish and he was on his game, approaching his fills from many tasteful angles.  Mostly he played flat-picked bluegrass runs, but he also ornately colored his tone with two note chordal runs and timely flourishes.  He didn’t show off with speed or any of the usual guitar trickery — that is just not his approach, though when he needs to be he is very quick.  His style was all about using what works best to bring a song vividly to life.

New Kind of Lonely is loaded with strong material, so the night was filled with rich moments.  While they do juxtapose urban images with their considerable appreciation for mountains, sky, and the sacredness of the desert in songs like “Mary Austin Sky” they also go further.  “The Spirit of Death” was a beautiful song inspired by and dedicated to local fiddle sensation Amy Farris, whose death hit the group hard. “I Fell in Love With The Grateful Dead,” was a light-hearted, descriptive set of recollections, but it was also an interesting piece of music to listen to.  Towards the end of the song the Hawks turned on a dime, much like the Dead might have, headed into a jazzy segue for a tasty several moments, then back to the original feel.

The Hawks served up another nice contrast when “Highland Park Serenade” transcended from a fondly wistful, yet resigned present tense description of HP to a marvelous Spanish chorus and instrumental section where you can nearly smell the carne asada cooking as the sun sets.  On Friday, Richie Lawrence was on hand (from the deepwater port of Stockton, no less!) to further color the song with his accordion.  Lacques’ sounded nothing short of beautiful over the swirl.

About half way through the set the Hawks brought out their charismatic buddy Cliff Wagner, in blue denim overalls, with tats on his forearms, and looking like he might have walked in out of the West Virginia night.  He tore it up on the most hillbilly leaning song of the night, “Hunger Mountain Breakdown.” It seemed altogether fitting that he played a banjo with fish inlays down its fret board.  No doubt about it, the interplay between Wagner’s banjo and Lacques’ dobro satisfied mightily.  And it was fun to watch Lacques dip the slide into a finger picked chord to spin it along.

These are tough times for a talented band struggling to be heard.   The internet is an easy place to be heard or downloaded, but it’s very hard to get paid for your music there.  In order to finance New Kind Of Lonely the Hawks reached out to their loyal fan base much like public radio does.   They offered a creative series of premiums ranging from a day at the shooting range to lessons in composting and terracing techniques with the different band members…and it all worked out.   You just have to root for a band with this much talent and adaptive skill to beat the odds and reap some success.

Old Californio went with two acoustic guitars (Rich Dembowski and Woody Aplanap), piano (Levi Nunez), electric bass (Jason Chesney), dobro (Lacques) and an improvised drum kit (Justin Smith on a snare and a suitcase!). Their set was only about a sweet half hour long, but it left us wanting more.  It just goes to show that if you have strong tunes they will shine in any format.  A good batch of songs is just that!

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE

Picks of the Week: Feb. 28 – Mar. 4

February 28, 2012

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Carol Robbins

- Feb. 29. (Wed.)  Carol Robbins. She’s that rare musical combination – a jazz harpist.  And Robbins has brought it off in convincing style, playing with everyone from Frank Sinatra and the Manhattan Transfer to Billy Childs and Dianne Reeves.  This time out, Robbins does it her way. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

- Feb. 29. (Wed.)  Jimmy McHugh Music Celebrates Black History Month.  He doesn’t seem to be mentioned as often as Gershwin, Porter and Kern, but McHugh’s list of contributions to the Great American Songbook is just as impressive.  To mention only  a few: “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “I’m in the Mood For Love” and dozens more.  The McHugh songs will be interpreted by John Proulx, piano and vocals, singers Sherry Williams and Deana Martin (McHugh’s goddaughter), with Chuck Berghofer, bass, Joe LaBarbera, drums.  Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.

- Mar. 1 (Thurs.)  Aaron Serfaty/Otmaro Ruiz Quartet, Drummer Serfaty and keyboardist Ruiz, long-time musical companions, have assembled a new quartet, featuring Catina De Luna, voice/percussion, and Johnathan Richards, bass, blending Brazilian rhythms with a Venezuelan twist.  Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

- Mar. 1. (Thurs.)  Raya Yarbrough. CD release party.  Singer Yarbrough’s far-reaching musical skills – as a performer, a songwriter, arranger and more — shine through in everything she sings.  She’ll be featuring selections from a new album. Blue Whale.  (213) 620-0908.

Oleta Adams

- Mar. 1 – 3 (Thurs. – Sat.)  Oleta Adams.  The evocative, soul-filled voice of Adams has been a memorable experience since her 1991 debut album, Circle of One, with its impassioned single, “Get Here.”  Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear her up close and personal. Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

- Mar. 2. (Fri.)  Danny Janklow.  Twenty-two year old alto saxophonist Janklow has already been acknowledged by Wynton Marsalis as an outstanding talent, and he’s performed with the likes of Benny Golson, James Moody, and Marsalis, among others.  The gifted young artist displays his skills here in the company of Theo Saunders, piano, Pat Senatore, bass, and Kendall Kay, drums.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

Bernadette Peters

- Mar. 3. (Sat.)  An Evening with Bernadette Peters.  Fresh off a six month run of the revived Follies on Broadway, Peters does a solo stint, recalling some of her stellar moments from Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George and others.  The inimitable Peters will no doubt also include something from Follies, as well.  Valley Performing Arts Center.    (818) 677-3000.

- Mar. 3. (Sat.)  The Estrada Brothers Latin Jazz Band.  Together for decades, the Estrada Brothers Band has seen some shifting personnel.  But the group’s fundamental ability to bring life, spirit and believability to their view of Latin jazz has continued to get better over the years. Steamer’s.   (714) 871-8800.

San Francisco

- Mar. 3. (Sat.)  Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  The South African choral group made its international breakthrough via their presence on Paul Simon’s Graceland.  Since then, they have established their own credibility, introduced the world to the fascinating choral sounds and musical culture of South Africa, and won three Grammys.  Palace of Fine Arts Theatre.  An SFJAZZ 2012 Spring Season event. (866) 920-5299.

- Mar. 4. (Sun.)  Liz Story.  One of Windham Hill’s early New Age artists, Story’s piano playing and composing possessed far more compelling musical elements than most of the wallpaper music of the style.  Her current work is even better, finding the compatible territory between classical, jazz, pop and pure contemplative sounds. Yoshi’s Oakland.   (510) 238-9200.


Benny Golson

- Feb. 28 & 29. (Tues. & Wed.)  Benny Golson Quartet. Tenor saxophonist and composer of a string of jazz classics, Golson seems to like nothing better than getting on stage and playing a straight ahead jazz set.  As he does here, backed by bassist Ray Drummond, drummer Jason Marsalis and pianist Sharp RadwayJazz Alley.   (206) 441-9729.

Washington, D.C.

- Mar. 1 – 4. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Mike Stern & Dave Weckl.  A pair of jazz fusion masters, guitarist Stern and drummer Weckl find common jazz cause with the empathic assistance of bassist John Pattitucci and saxophonist Bob Francheschini.  Blues Alley.    (202) 337-4141.

New York

John Pizzarelli

- Feb. 28 – Mar. 3. (Tues. – Sat.) John Pizzarelli Quartet.  Singer guitarist Pizzarelli, as musically intriguing as he is entertaining, is always fun to hear in the intimacy of a night club setting.  Hopefully he’ll play some of the intriguing musical collages from his new CD, Double Exposure.  Click HERE to read an iRoM review of a recent Pizzarelli performance.    Birdland.  (212) 581-3080.

- Feb. 28 – Mar. 4. (Tues. – Sun.)  Monty Alexander continues his musically eclectic residency at the Blue Note.  With special guests Sly & Robbie, Harlem Kingston Express and others.  (Check club website for schedule).  The Blue Note.    (212) 475-8592.

- Feb. 28 – Mar. 4. (Tues. – Sun.)  Matt Wilson Arts & Crafts Quartet. There’s plenty of artfulness and a lot of craft, too, in the all-star band drummer Wilson has put together, with trumpeter Terell Stafford, keyboardist Gary Versace and bassist Martin Wind Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola.   (212) 258-9800.

Sheila Jordan

- Feb. 29. (Wed.)  Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton. A summit meeting of two great jazz masters.  Jordan and Clayton are utterly unique stylists, but they share the singular belief in the limitless possibilities of the jazz vocal art.  They’re backed by Cameron Brown, bass and Jack Wilkins, guitar.  Cornelia St. Café.   (212) 989-9319.

- Mar. 3. (Sat.)  Maria Jacobs.  A jazz-driven singer, Jacobs brings musicality, persuasive story-telling skills and a warm and supple voice to her intimate readings of the Great American Songbook.  The Metropolitan Room.    (212) 206-0440.


- Mar. 3. (Sat.)  Chris Potter Quartet.  Saxophonist Potter is arguably one of the most gifted practitioners on his instrument of the past decade or two.  He’s at his best backed by the solid rhythm team of Adam Rogers, guitar, Craig Taborn, keyboards, Nait Smith, drums.  A-Trane.   030/313 25 50.


- Mar. 1 – 4.  (Thurs. – Sun.)  Helen Merrill.  Veteran singer Merrill, whose remarkable skills have not always received the attention they deserve in her native U.S.  But wise Japanese jazz fans have accorded her much warranted musical stardom.  Blue Note Tokyo.    03.5485.0088.

Brick Wahl: Keeping It Real 2

February 26, 2012

By Brick Wahl

Just realized there are still comments bouncing around on this. Don Heckman’s got clout….

My whole point in that original rant is that if things continue as they are there will be no place left to play. The jazz scene has shrunk by at least two thirds in the past ten years. Clubs literally cannot afford to book the stuff. It not only does not draw people, but it literally drives them away. People leave. They listen a bit, get bored, pay their tab and leave. More leave than don’t leave in many, if not most cases. You book jazz and you will have empty rooms. The exception is the Blue Whale, but that exists because USC is nearby and has such a strong jazz program. It’s the hang for all those kids and their friends, and for jazz fans who can’t believe there is a club booking such cool crazy shit like you can see at the Blue Whale. The downside of that is that those kids don’t buy a lot of drinks and even less food. College kids are broke, and college kids who study jazz are, um, bookish….and party they don’t. If people don’t party the club doesn’t make any money. And if clubs don’t make money they close….or change music. Even the Blue Whale complains about a lot of lousy turn outs (though they seem to be doing well whenever I’m there.) .

Brick Wahl

And, oh yeah….the Movable Feasts are big successes…but they are concerts…. They are presented as concerts, marketed as concerts, structured as concerts. Concerts have always done much better than clubs. They feature well known names from NYC or Europe. Plus the place has, I believe, student rush tickets. And most importantly of all…the Jazz Bakery does not rely on bar tabs and door money for its funding. It is supported by patrons. That’s how it stayed open all those years when no one was showing up a lot of nights. But as far as genuine jazz clubs — not performance spaces but clubs that try to feature jazz a few nights a week — well, those are disappearing fast. Vibrato makes its money off its menu. Blue Whale by being a hip college joint with a vast pool of young talent to feature.. And there’s scattered other spots that have the weekly jazz night that does well. But they are few and far between, and certainly not part of any city-wide jazz scene, a scene that existed a few years ago.

So players can say that they play for themselves and don’t worry about whether people like it or not (and I think that is the general attitude)…..but that means that within a couple years there will be virtually nowhere to play And certainly almost nowhere to play for pay. I used to fully support that attitude, I loved it. Then I noticed that all the clubs were gone.

Btw…one of the signs of the shrinking jazz scene is its fragmentation….there’s a young experimental scene that’s centered at the Blue Whale; there’s a very white mainstream jazz scene that finds a home at Vitello’s, and the black cats hang on at Nola’s and a couple other small spots. There always was a young cat-old cat divide and a white cat-black jazz divide in LA, certainly in the seven or eight years I was writing things up. I was always trying to get the scenes together more. To mix ideas, influences, players. But the opposite has occurred. I don’t know what to say about that. Except that I don’t think it’s a good thing.

Incidentally, saw Jon Mayer at a bare Desert Rose a couple Saturdays ago. He was brilliant as ever. Highly recommend seeing him there if you’re near Los Feliz on a Saturday night. And Ben Wendel and combo at a very packed Blue Whale a couple weeks ago was a thrill, man. Loved every second of it. And so sorry to see that Mssrs. Melvoin and Holloway slipped away this past week. Oh well.

OK…..I’ve run outta words…..take care everybody….

To read Brick Wahl’s Keeping It Real 1 click HERE.

CD Review: Dion’s “Tank Full of Blues”

February 26, 2012


Tank Full of Blues (Blue Horizon)

By Brian Arsenault

I was in kind of a bad mood and prepared to take a real snooty attitude about Tank Full of Blues by old rocker Dion.  Then these clean guitar licks kicked off the album and it was like I just walked into a darkened blues club smelling of beer and barbecue where this tight little band was just launching a set.

The title song sets a strong pace that the rest of the album sustains throughout.  The strengths are many:

- A stripped down three piece band with Dion singing and playing neat blues guitar.

- A terrific rhythm section of Bob Guertin and Robert Guertin.  Are they the same guy?  They play so well together that they could be.

- A steady stream of songs that just make you want to get up and move about and thank god, as Dion’s self written liner notes say, for “bodies that respond to a backbeat.”  It’s enough to make you dance alone in your own den even if you are old enough to know better.

This is a guy who had hits in the prehistoric days of rock when it had barely defined itself in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  But by now it’s known that’s no reason to dismiss him. I mean I’ve known white guys can play the blues since I first heard the Paul Butterfield Blues Band years ago but I just didn’t expect this album to be so good.

The publicity sheet on the album has Dion supposedly spouting an overwrought definition of the blues as “the naked cry of the human heart.” But the album proves that the purpose of the blues is to make you feel better when you don’t.

The opening bars of “You Keep Me Cryin” have a true John Lee Hooker quality and I can’t say anything better about a blues song than that. This song had me bouncing in my chair when I was trying to take notes. So I stopped and just bounced.

“Do You Love Me Baby” has a classic blues quality and an intelligent lyric about the complexities of your relationship with your woman. “My Baby’s Cryin’” continues that exploration about a man who would change if he could — most of us fit there, maybe — but at least “shoulda shut my mouth.”  Maybe all of us fit there.

There’s a tribute song to Robert Johnson, Clapton’s god, called “Ride’s Blues” that I’m quite sure Johnson would have liked (and Clapton, too).

About the only two songs on the album that aren’t pure stripped down blues are “I Read It (In the Rolling Stone),” a humorous reflection on what it takes to stay hip, and the closing “Bronx Poem.”

“Bronx Poem” touches a lot of idioms from spoken beat poetry, to doo wop to rock ‘n’ roll (of course) and even a touch of rap.  Dion tells us he’s “got aces up my sleeve.”  Yep.

To read more reviews and posts by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Live Jazz: Judy Carmichael at Vitello’s

February 25, 2012

By Don Heckman

There’s a long history of great jazz artists, reaching as far back as Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, who understood the value of communicating, connecting and – yes, here’s that awful word – entertaining an audience.  It’s a history that hasn’t had much impact upon recent jazz generations.

When those qualities do appear, the primary reaction that surfaces in this observer is a sense of regret that they don’t turn up more often.  That listeners too rarely have the opportunity to feel a part of a musical experience, rather than simply serve as the fourth wall.

Thursday night at Vitello’s was one of those rare exceptions, a performance in which communication and connection were on full display before a packed house of enthusiastic Judy Carmichael fans.  And by the time she finished, it was fully apparent that anyone in the crowd who hadn’t been one of her followers when they arrived, had surely been converted to the Carmichael musical canon by the time they left.

Count Basie used to call her “Stride,” and her early supporters also included the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Benny Carter.  All because Carmichael – a slender, curly-haired California girl – established herself, in an era of post-bop, fusion, crossover, cool jazz, etc., as an unlikely, but thoroughly authentic practitioner of early jazz piano styles in general, and stride piano, in particular.

Nearly three decades after she first came to prominence, Carmichael’s mastery of stride style – with all its note-filled musical pyrotechnics — is as impressive as ever.  And she demonstrated it on Thursday night from the first energetic notes of her opening selection, “Lady Be Good.”

Other displays of her propulsive stride playing – backed by the empathic playing of guitarist Larry Koonse and tenor saxophonist Harry Allen – followed.

But Carmichael has evolved in recent years into a performer with more than a handful of keys to offer her listeners.  Fully recovered from vocal cord surgery that had made singing impossible for years, she is now emerging as a convincing, warmly appealing vocalist, as well.  Her renderings of “You’re Driving Me Crazy” and a saucy “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You” suggested that she has the potential to be included in the upper echelon of female jazz singers.

Her set was enhanced by other musical shifts of gears: “The Lamp Is Low” delivered with subtle bossa nova rhythmic accents; a duet with Koonse on a hard driving blues in which his bop-driven lines danced merrily across Carmichael’s surging stride rhythms; a very different, voice and saxophone duet with Allen on a delicious romp through “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”; and yet another duet, this time featuring Koonse and Allen – with Carmichael listening approvingly – on “How Deep Is the Ocean.”

Between songs, her buoyant personality and whimsical story-telling took over.  Riffing off memories (some friends from high school were apparently in the crowd), spontaneously coming up with one-liners inspired by audience reactions, she was as improvisationally inventive with words as she was with her piano.

A helluva performance, on all counts.  Instrumentally exciting, vocally engaging, musically compelling and marvelously — I’ll say it again — entertaining.

To read an iRoM interview with Judy Carmichael, click HERE.

(The inimitable Brick Wahl wrote a recent iRoM commentary about the relationships between jazz musicians and their audiences.  Click HERE to read it.)


February 24, 2012

By Michael Katz

I’ve made it no secret over the years that I consider The Monterey Jazz Festival one of the world’s great musical weekends.  This morning MJF, celebrating its 55th anniversary September 21-23, released a preview of its program:  Pat Metheny, Esperanza Spaulding,  Trombone Shorty and a new edition of the Monterey All-Stars highlight an exciting list of performers. There had been some grumbling last year among season ticket holders that seats had to be renewed before the schedule was announced. I doubt anyone will be complaining this year.

With young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire already announced as the featured artist and guitarist Bill Frisell as the comissioned artist, MJF needed some big names to complement such ambitious choices; they found them, and more. Pat Metheny is scheduled for a rare two performances on the main stage, the first on Saturday in a superb trio led by Jack DeJohnette with Christian McBride, then Sunday in a quartet with sax player Chris Potter, drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Ben Williams. That set will be followed by a duet featuring DeJohnette and Frisell.

Meanwhile, the new edition of the Monterey All Stars looks sensational.  Dee Dee Bridgewater, who gave a rousing late night performance two years ago with her band, headlines this group with Benny Green, McBride, Akinmusire, Potter and drummer Lewis Nash.

The two afternoon concerts should both be real crowd pleasers. Trombone Shorty, who laid waste to the festival two years ago, will be anchoring the Saturday afternoon blues/roots show. Emerging star Esperanza Spalding will take the main stage Sunday afternoon, following the award winning high school bands and the Next Generation Band.

There is, of course, much more to come, with five stages to fill, and the Friday night main stage show yet to be announced. But the backbone of the festival looks terrific. With Pat Metheny sure to bring his devoted following into town and Trombone Shorty and Esperanza Spalding drawing a younger crowd, ticket sales figure to be brisk for MJF’s 55th.

To read more reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.

Click HERE to visit Michael Katz’s new personal blog, Katz of the Day.


CD Reviews: Mary Black and Cathy Jordan

February 22, 2012

Mary Black

Stories From the Steeple (Blix St. Records)

Cathy Jordan

All the Way Home (Blix St. Records)

By Brian Arsenault

There are Irish Angels in the Air(waves) or at least there should be on any radio stations left with heart and soul.  Blix Street Records is softening deep winter with the back to back releases of Stories from the Steeples by Mary Black and All The Way Home by Cathy Jordan.

On a sunny winter’s day on Maine’s Casco Bay, for those fortunate enough to be on the bay (or unfortunate if a squall comes up), the air is so clear you can see the whole 80 miles or so to the snow capped peak of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. That’s how clear these two magnificent voices are, yet each is equally distinctive and won’t be mistaken for the other.

Mary Black

They are, of course, both distinctively Irish, and where Jordan’s singing is mostly devoted to traditional songs, Black’s is attuned to more contemporary compositions springing from the same musical and poetic heritage.  As an American (Irish American only by marriage but good luck is not to be discounted, as the Irish well know.) accustomed to repetitive chorus lines and just a couple of verses in pop tunes, the poetry of these songs (tales put to music, as it were) touches me deeply.

Each of the song’s verses could be published as poems without the music, and some have, they are that good.  But why would you want to? The music is so fine, the musicians so talented.

Cathy Jordan

The interplay of joy and sadness, of love and violence, of pathos and humor heightens the tension and the tenderness of both albums.  Where Stories from the Steeple begins with a tale of two lovers destroyed by a father’s anger, “Marguerite and the Gambler”,  All The Way Home begins with the revolutionary saga of “The Brave Fenian Men” who led the rising of 1916, a critical moment in Irish nationalist history.  The intermingling of personal and political passion is essentially Irish.

Then again, so is singing.  The remarkable Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses is about to embark on a singing tour.  Joyce himself was a singer of significant renown, that talent carried no doubt into the poetry of so much of his writing.  It’s said that Ulysses should be read aloud to fully hear that poetry, that music, and I think it’s true.

The music on these two albums is as much a trip to Ireland as Ulysses is a walk through Dublin even if you’ve never been there.

There’s heartbreak for anyone and everyone whose ever had a “break” with a lover and hoped that “Faith in Fate” might heal matters. Ritchie Buckley’s saxophone playing is nearly as pure as Mary’s singing.

Cathy’s rendition of “Banks of the Foyle” reminds us that all can be cast out and grieve for home no matter where we’re from.

Speaking of home, both albums end with a reuniting, in the title song in Cathy’s case and in the “One True Place” beyond in Mary’s.

Yet for all the fine songs on both albums, it’s not the individual tunes I will most cherish.  What’s dearest is the journey to places in the land, in the heart, in the mind, in the soul that are essentially Irish and therefore universal. It’s been said, after all, that there’s no place you can go on the planet that you won’t find the Irish.

To read more reviews and posts by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Q & A: Judy Carmichael

February 21, 2012

By Don Heckman

Judy Carmichael is a jazz rarity — a lively, contemporary pianist who has been specializing in classic jazz piano styles, especially stride piano, since the early ’80s.  Count Basie nicknamed her “Stride,” and her early career was also aided by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Benny Carter, Freddie Green and Roy Eldridge, among others.  Performing in all parts of the world, often with the support of the U.S. Information Agency, she has a fan base reaching from China and India to Brazil, Europe and beyond. 

She is now celebrating her 15th year producing and hosting her Public Radio Show Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired, broadcast on over 170 stations throughout North America and abroad and on NPR NOW Channel 134 on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio. Her recordings and music books are available at, or by mail order through C&D Productions, P.O. Box 360 Sag Harbor, New York, 11963. 

Judy Carmichael makes a rare appearance in her Los Angeles home town on Thursday night at Vitello’s in Studio City.  She’ll be backed by the sturdy support of guitarist Larry Koonse and saxophonist Harry Allen.    Vitello’s.  (818) 769-0905.

I spoke with Judy last week about her remarkable jazz journey.

* * * * *

DH: Okay, Judy, let’s start with an absolute basic.  When and how did music first come into your life?

JC:  I can’t remember exactly.  I played ukulele when I was 3 and think I started piano shortly after or the same time.  I took lessons for a couple years, quit, and started again.  I probably only took for a total of three or four years.  It was the John Thompson books.  I think I made it to Book Four.  My teacher scared me and didn’t teach me theory and I wanted to understand what was going on beyond playing the notes.  So I quit and never thought I’d pursue a career as a musician.  I got my first job STILL not knowing what key I was in!

DH: But you did indeed wind up pursuing a career as a musician.  How did it get started?

JC: I was a German major with a French minor in college, and one of my classmates said there was a job I should audition for playing the off night for a pianist in Newport Beach on the Pavilion Queen, an old ferry boat that was made into a floating cocktail party.  I got the gig by playing one tune, “Maple Leaf Rag.”

DH: That was the beginning, but it took a while to get up to speed, didn’t it?

JC: Yes.  I didn’t think about a career in music until my mid-twenties, when I got serious encouragement from Harold Jones, Freddie Green, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan, all great supporters of mine in my early years.  Benny Carter and Roy Eldridge encouraged me as well, and were both instrumental in spreading the word and getting people to take me seriously.  I wouldn’t be a professional musician today, if those people hadn’t basically told me I had to do it.

DH: Stride and classic jazz piano styles have been at the heart of your music for years.  Can you remember the first time you heard someone playing stride or classic jazz, and who it was?

JC: Sure, that’s easy.  Count Basie on “Prince of Wales” with Benny Moten.  Changed my life, and at that moment I wanted to learn to play like that, even though I had no context for the music.  It also never occurred to me at that point that I would learn this music and play it for a career.  I didn’t know who Basie was.  I was twenty two and known as a ragtime player, exclusively.

DH: And hearing that Basie recording shifted your career direction?

JC: I was never enthusiastic about playing piano as a career, but when I heard Basie I knew I wanted to play like that, with or without a career.  I always thought I’d be a comedic actress or have my own variety show or be a language scholar and run around the world speaking lots of languages and do whatever I could to support that life.  I never wanted to play tunes I don’t love and have never been good at it.  My heart isn’t in it.  To this day I’ve never played “Happy Birthday.”  People find that hard to believe, but it’s true.  I’ve always been hired to play exactly what I play, which has limited me and helped, probably in equal measure.  God bless the men who have hired me as a sideman (side person), because I’m the last person I’d hire in that regard.

DH: What was it that, specifically, drew you to stride piano as your musical focus?

JC: I’m a huge fan of other kinds of jazz, but I’m drawn to rhythmically swinging music and will always play that.  I’m a high-energy person and am naturally drawn to hard-driving music.

DH: In music and beyond, who were your models, if you had any, and why did you choose them?

JC: [The artist] Ray Eames, whom I was fortunate to know the last few years of her life.  Loved her passion for art and for only pursuing work that had a bigger purpose.  Carol Phillips, who started Clinique and whom Time magazine mentioned as one of two women in a sea of men in their issue of the most influential business people of the 20th Century (the other was Estee Lauder).  Carol made the initial gift to my not-for-profit which allowed me to get my radio show Jazz Inspired off the ground.  And Basie, Freddie Green and Benny Carter, for their class and understated way of presenting their music and moving through life.

DH: In the beginning of your career, you were, and in many respects still are, an unusual sight as a stride pianist.  Did you meet with resistance, with questions doubting your authenticity, as a young, white female playing stride?  If so, how did (do) you handle them?

JC: Constantly, with musicians, until they heard me play and then they supported me.  Same with audiences.  I wore jackets, never dresses, until I got older and had a reputation as a player.  I always played down the female aspect so people would focus on my music rather than my surfer-girl appearance.  I’m older now so I wear whatever I want, which is a relief.  Although, hilariously, people still sometimes imply I’m getting by on my looks, which is a riot to me, since I’m far from my twenties.  I always got more support from black musicians from the bop school, interestingly.  The more traditional players never supported me, which is fascinating, when you figure Jobim and Tommy Flanagan dug me more than guys playing more in my direction.

DH: You’ve added vocals to your performances fairly recently.  How did that come about, and how has it affected your performances?

JC:I love singing and it’s only a few years old.  I had two vocal cord surgeries when I was in my late teens and never tried to sing consequently, even in the shower.  My being able to sing is a shock to everyone, especially me. Now that I’m singing, I want to sing ballads.  Singing is bringing out a much different side stylistically and rhythmically.

DH: You do a great deal of traveling and perform all over the world.  Do you find that stride and classic jazz piano trigger different audience responses in different places?

JC: Everyone likes stride and swing music.  It’s upbeat, rhythmically engaging, harmonically accessible.  When asked how he’d like to die, Dave Brubeck said:  “Playing stride piano.”  That says it all.

DH: Judy, your NPR show, “Jazz Inspired,” has been on the air for more than a decade.  What inspired you to do it?

JC: I wanted to feature people who would never get an hour on NPR, but should.  I also wanted highly celebrated people who don’t have to promote anything to get an opportunity to talk about their creative process.  Jazz also gave me a unique way to start a conversation with professionally creative people and hopefully inspire the listener and also educate and inspire them.

DH: Given the title of your show, does inspiration, as a concept, intrigue you, in music and beyond? And who are some of the guests you’ve had on?

JC: Inspiration and creativity are everything to me.  I think everyone should develop these aspects of their lives.  Some highlights:  Robert Redford, Seth MacFarlane, John Lithgow, Neal deGrasse Tyson, Blythe Danner, Billy Joel.  Tony Bennett will be on in a couple weeks.

DH: In your busy career, you’ve also written several stride piano instruction books.  That obviously seems to indicate that you believe stride can be studied from a book.  But I’m assuming that’s not how you learned stride and classic jazz.

JC: I wrote these books (which are now compiled in a new edition from Alfred Publishing) exactly for the person I was in my early years, when I wished I’d had a book like this.  This is much easier than learning as I did from the records.  To my amazement this book has been spectacularly successful and spawned other books on stride.  This success has been the biggest surprise of my career, other than that my vocal cords have healed enough for me to sing.

DH: Judy, you’ve been performing for more than three decades, with all sorts of honors and acknowledgments.  Is it still as satisfying as ever?  Are there areas of “inspiration” that you would still like to explore?  How do you see it all unfolding in the next few years?

JC: I’m having more fun now than ever.  I want to sing more, play with larger ensembles, write lyrics, and have my own TV show, which is close to happening, I’m happy to say.  I also want to improve my tennis game and break 80 on the golf course.

DH: Thanks, Judy.  Looking forward to seeing and hearing you at Vitello’s.

Photos courtesy of Judy Carmichael.


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