Live Music at the Hollywood Bowl: Herbie Hancock and “Celebrating Peace”

August 31, 2012

By Don Heckman

It’s good to see Herbie Hancock occasionally step away from his office job as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Creative Chair for Jazz and take a seat, instead, at a keyboard.  His official presence in a jazz advisory capacity has certainly had salutary effects upon the Phil’s perception of jazz.  But so, too, has the adventurous music he’s brought to his performances.  As he did Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl.

Herbie Hancock

Hancock’s action-packed history as an iconic jazz artist embraces legendary musical associations (most notably with Miles Davis) as well as his own equally memorable and influential outings on albums such as Future Shock, Dis is Da Drum, Possibilities, River: the Joni Letters among dozens of others.  And one of his common themes – reaching back to “Watermelon Man” at the start of his career – has been to balance his boundary-less jazz explorations with continuing forays across stylistic genres.

Herbie Hancock and the Celebrating Peace Band

On Wednesday this tendency was manifest in the eight player ensemble Hancock organized to perform a collection of works focused on the principal of “Celebrating Peace.”

Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter

The group’s orientation reached from the solid jazz credentials of Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassists Dave Holland and Marcus Miller and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana to the tabla playing of Zakir Hussain, the sound design keyboard work of George Whitty and the vocals of pop soul singer Andy Vargas and versatile tenor Kalil Wilson.  Topping it off – special guest, veteran rock guitarist Carlos Santana.

Zakir Hussain

The result of all this creative firepower, coming at the music from different directions, tended to be atmospheric, rather than rhythmically and emotionally gripping in a traditional jazz sense.  But there were high points in the creation of that continually unfolding atmosphere.  Among them, a cover version – featuring Vargas – of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us”; a pyrotechnic drum exchange between Blackman Santana and Hussain in which each player used their unique talents to find common ground with the other – an intriguing approach to fusion; and Hancock’s sophisticated use of electronic devices, including the filtering of sound through his articulated vocal control.

Carlos Santana, Cindy Blackman Santana and Marcus Miller

Add to that the insertion of speech segments from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the opening work, which also combined elements of “Ode to Joy” and “Afro Blue”; stellar bass work, from the stinging electric accents of Miller to the rich acoustic playing of Holland; and the off-center solo encounters between Shorter’s saxophone and Santana’s guitar – not exactly a musical relationship made in heaven, despite their individual mastery.

So give Hancock a “B” for effort, the grade impacted by the unevenness of both the writing and the playing.  Starting with a potentially workable concept/title – “Celebrating Peace” – the evening’s scattered, often fascinating, musical elements never quite came together with enough focus to bring the concept to life.  Nonetheless, let’s hope that, in the coming season, Hancock continues to offer more piano-time to L.A. Phil audiences.

Photos by Bonnie Perkinson


CD Review: Cheryl Bentyne “Let’s Misbehave – The Cole Porter Songbook”

August 29, 2012

Cheryl Bentyne

“Let’s Misbehave – The Cole Porter Songbook” (Summit Records)

By Brian Arsenault

You come back from cancer knowing you are mortal — you are therefore human — so Cole Porter’s ability to “cover the human condition” seems so right for Cheryl Bentyne, long of Manhattan Transfer. And it is. Thoughtful, playful, wry, romantic, longing, lustful.

With that cultured, shining voice that sparkles like late summer sun setting on a rippling sea, she brings us all the varied and rich life of those songs. Life — romance, passion, love, misbehavin’ — is at the core of Porter. And Bentyne as well.

She is back from treatment, from her struggle with those demented cells called cancer and she could hardly be better.  She’s playful on “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” a playful song.  She is moody on “What is This Thing Called Love,” a moody song. She is grateful and pensive on “I Concentrate on You”; a pensive . . .  well, you get the picture.

You can almost imagine Cheryl singing in one of Porter’s luxury Paris places while he accompanies on piano — Scott Fitzgerald might be there — she is so right for his music. The song list is so “Alright with Me“: the alluring “Begin the Beguine,”  the ironical philosophical “Just One of Those Things,” the easy graceful “I Love Paris.”

If you are more twentieth century than twenty-first, you know these songs, you just know them even if they were written years, decades before you were born.  In my notes, I kept wanting to write that this song then this song then this song is at the center of American popular music. I was right each time.

And Cheryl Bentyne’s recording of each one of these songs here could serve as the classic rendition, the real deal version, the core of Porter’s musical vision. “Begin the Beguine” rises to a nearly operatic quality, think Italian aria. “It’s Delovely“ is a little Porter wordplay that shows creativity can come from the light side as well as the dark.

There is joy in his music that makes it endure. The Beatles have that quality. Not so many others.

The musicianship throughout is superb: the late James Moody’s sax wonderful on a couple tunes, Corey Allen echoing Porter’s piano surely, Chris Tedesco perfect where a trumpet is needed and on and on, all of them.  I like that Cheryl lists herself as one of the musicians, her voice her superb instrument.

As “It’s Delovely” finally got me to stop taking notes and just listen, sway a little listen, I knew somehow that Cheryl had saved the best for last on this album, confirmed by my journeying to a smoky room that now exists only in black and white films from, say, 1939 in “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” That’s right, it’s not just a song in her hands: it’s a movie, it’s a book, it’s the American songbook.

And the title song done like a tinny recording from the earliest days of making records, well, it’s a treat for all.  It concludes the album on such an upbeat note.

One of the things cancer steals is the brightness of your mind and soul. The darkness gathers. When they told me I had it, I wandered out of the doctor’s office and could have been hit by a truck I was so distracted.

But cancer is no longer a certain death sentence. I recovered and this wonderful American artist did as well. To sing the songs of another great American artist.

What one cancer survivor can perceive in another is the recognition that life wherever it springs from — and Porter is all about life — is very, very dear and not to be missed for even a moment.

To read more reviews and posts by Brian Arsenault, including his occasional column, “Short Takes,” click HERE.


Picks of the Week: Aug. 27 – Sept. 2

August 27, 2012

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Jason Marsalis

- Aug. 27. (Mon.)  Jason Marsalis Quartet. He may be the youngest member of the illustrious Marsalis jazz family, but drummer/vibraphonist Jason has already established his own impressive musical identity.  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

- Aug. 28 & Aug. 30/ (Tues. & Thurs.)  Carmina Burana. German composer Carl Orf’s cantata, a dramatic setting of medieval poems, is performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Childrens’ Chorus, directed by Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de BurgosHollywood Bowl. (323) 850-2000

- Aug. 28. (Tues.)  Sachsa’s Bloc.  An eclectic group of musicians from countries across Europe offer a collection of music ranging freely across gypsy jazz, contemporary jazz, flamenco, swing, blues and country. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400

Wayne shorter

- Aug. 29. (Wed.)  Celebrating Peace.  Herbie Hancock has gathered a stellar array of musicians to join together in a musical celebration of the pleasures of peace.  The cast includes Wayne Shorter, Marcus Miller, Zakier Hussain, Dave Holland, Cindy Blackman Santana, Carlos Santana and others.  Hollywood Bowl.  (323) 850-2000.

- Aug. 31 and Sept 1. (Fri. & Sat.)  John Williams Maestro of the Movies.  “Musical Maestro” would be a more accurate title for Williams, whose film scores reach from Star Wars and Superman to E.T. and Harry Potter.  He’ll conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in selections from many of his hit films, including a film sequence from E.T. accompanied live by the Philharmonic.  The guest artist is violinist Gil Shaham. Hollywood Bowl.   (323) 850-2000.

- Aug. 31. (Fri.)  Wolfgang Schalk Quartet.  Guitarist Schalk celebrates the release of his new CD Word of Ear with pianist Andy Langham, bassist Michael Valerio and drummer Tom BrechtleinUpstairs at Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

- Sept. 1. (Sat.)  Wendy Fraser.  Singer-songwriter Fraser has been described by the LA jAzz Scene as a “diamond in the rough” and “a musical force to be reckoned with.”  She makes one of her rare appearances, backed by guitarist John Chiodini, saxophonist Rob Lockhart, bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Kendall Kay. Upstairs at Vitallo’s.  http://www.vitellosjazz.com/event/wendy-fraser  (818) 769-0905.

Barbara Morrison

- Sept. 1 & 2. (Sat. & Sun.)  Barbara Morrison returns to Catalina’s for an exciting weekend featuring a pair of different settings: With the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center Big Band (Sat.), and the Barbara Morrison Quartet (Sun.)  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

- Sept. 2. (Sun.)  John Proulx and Pat Senatore.  Pianist/singer Proulx’s laid-back vocals recall the intimate singing of Chet Baker.  He’s backed by the ever-versatile, always supportive Senatore on bass.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- Sept. 2. (Sun.)  Madeleine Peyroux“The Party Oughta be Comin’ Soon!”  Singer/songwriter/guitarist Peyroux has been one of the music world’s most unique talents since she first arrived on the scene in the mid-‘90s.  And she’s still charting her own creative pathway through song. The Broad Stage.   (310) 434-3200.

Louie Cruz Beltran

- Sept. 2. (Sun.)  The Fourth Annual La Vida Music Festival. La Vida returns with its annual celebration of the great pleasures of Latin music, in all its forms.  And what better time to do it than during National Hispanic Heritage Month.  This year’s far-ranging music features Louie Cruz Beltran and his Latin Jazz Ensemble, Incendio, the Plaza de la Raza Youth Mariachi and the Ted and Pablo Choro Ensemble with special guest Chalo Eduardo.  The Ford Amphitheatre.  (323) 461-3673.

San Francisco

- Aug. 29 – Sept. 2. (Wed. – Sat.)  Bela Fleck & the Marcus Roberts Trio. It’s an off-beat combination – Fleck’s unique banjo playing and the straight ahead jazz trio of pianist Roberts, drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan. They’ll no doubt play selections from their new recording together – Across the Imaginary Divide. Yoshi’s San Francisco.  (415) 655-5600.

Washington D.C.

- Aug. 30 – Sept. 2. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Mose Allison. The inimitable Bard of the Bayou and his suitcase full of songs can always be counted on to provide a swinging, blues-driven evening of song and wisdom. Blues Alley.   (202) 337-4141.

New York

- Aug. 28 – Sept. 2. (Tues. – Sun.)  The Jenny Scheinman Quartet.  Violinist Scheinman showcases her eclectic musical interests with pianist Jason Moran, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Rudy RoystonVillage Vanguard.  (212) 929-4589.

- Aug. 28 – Sept. 2. (Tues. – Sun.)  Charlie Parker Birthday Celebration.  What would have been the 92nd birthday week (the actual birthday is Aug. 29) of the legendary alto saxophonist is celebrated with a musical tribute from Tom Harrell, trumpet, Vincent Herring, alto saxophone, George Cables, piano, Victor Lewis, drums and Lonnie Plaxico, bass.  Birdland.    (212) 581-3080.

Ron Carter

- Aug. 28 – Sept. 2. (Tues. – Sun.)  The Ron Carter Big Band.  Bassist Carter has played with everyboy and led a variety of his own ensembles.  But this, his first big band, wasn’t established until 2011, with arrangements by Bob Freedman.  Featuring a line of major NYC players on stage and Carter up front, expect musical magic to take place.  The Jazz Standard.   (212) 889-2005.

London

- Sept. 2. (Sun.)  The Story So FarRonnie Scott’s Jazz OrchestraPete Lang leads an assemblage of the U.K.’s finest jazz players in an exploration of the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, the Rat Pack and Benny Goodman.  Ronnie Scott’s.   (0) 20 7439 0747.

Tokyo

- Aug. 30 – Sept. 2. (Thurs. – Sun.)  The Mingus Big Band.  The rich musical legacy of bassist/composer Charles Mingus continues to find new musical expression in the hands of the superb Mingus Big Band. The Blue Note Tokyo.   03.5485.0088.

Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter photos by Tony Gieske. 


Live Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl: Diana Krall and the Los Angeles Philharmonic

August 26, 2012

By Don Heckman

Diana Krall

Diana Krall just keeps getting better.  She strolled across the stage at the Hollywood Bowl Saturday night with all the confident panache of the major musical star she has become.

What a difference from the Diana I knew nearly two decades ago.  The Diana who then sometimes remarked about her recurrent fantasy that she might trip on the hem of her gown and fall to the stage if she took more than two steps away from the safety of her piano bench.

But that’s all gone now.  Saturday night’s Diana, a musical gem in the elegant setting of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by her close friend Alan Broadbent, positively glowed in a performance embracing the full range of music – vocal, instrumental and both – that her art now possesses.

In addition to the Philharmonic, she was also in the company of her regular creative associates, guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Kariem Riggins.  Together and individually they played with the full range of swing, subtlety and sophistication that Krall’s interpretations demand, with Wilson’s soloing serving as both a catalyst and a counter to her vocals.

In her early years, Krall’s singing often seemed driven by the rhythms and the flow of her piano playing rather than the lyrics of a song.  Since then, she has become a convincing musical story teller, finding the heart and expressing the inner meanings of songs via the phrasing and rhythms of jazz.

The Diana Krall Quartet

Those qualities were especially apparent in her renderings of “I Just Found Out About Love,” “Let’s Face the Music” (including the verse), “I’ve Grown Accustomed To His Face” and Gordon Jenkins’ emotionally rich “Goodbye,” done as an encore with the Philharmonic.  Add to that her atmospheric version of Jobim’s bossa nova classic, “Corcovado” and a pair of briskly swinging takes on “Fly Me To The Moon” and “Pick Yourself Up.”  Her unexpected shift, at one point, into a delightful version of the Beatle’s “Come Together,” suggested a whole new area of repertoire for her to explore

Anthony Wilson

And there was a lot more: Wilson’s soloing on “Love Letters,” “I Was Doing All Right” and “Cheek To Cheek”; Hurst’s bass solo on “Do It Again”; and Riggins’ sturdy, propulsive drumming throughout.

The orchestral arrangements performed by the Philharmonic were mostly provided by Broadbent and German arranger Claus Ogerman – settings exquisitely designed to provide rich texture for Krall’s voice while capturing the mood and the meaning of a song.  Broadbent also opened the performance with several of his own impressive works for orchestra.

Four years ago, I reviewed a Krall concert at the Hollywood Bowl with virtually all the same participants (except for drummer Riggins).  I had a carp or two to make then about some of her vocal tonal qualities.  But no more.  Her work now is admirable in every aspect.  A mature, imaginative and assured musical artist, she has accomplished the rare feat of balancing  multi-layered creativity with an abundant capacity to entertain and illuminate.

Photos by Bonnie Perkinson.


Live Music at the Hollywood Bowl: “Midsummer Mozart” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Nicholas McGegan and violinist Henning Kraggerud

August 24, 2012

By Don Heckman

“Midsummer Mozart” was the headline for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Thursday night Hollywood Bowl concert – the second this week with English conductor Nicholas McGegan at the podium. And, as with his dynamic leadership of a Haydn program on Tuesday, he again guided the talented Philharmonic players through a strikingly authentic set of interpretations.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Any well-performed summer evening of Mozart at the Bowl is a pleasure, and this one was no exception, despite the fairly conservative choice of selections. Opening with Symphony No. 32, the first set closed with the Violin Concerto No. 4. The second half was devoted to the Chaconne from Idomeno and Symphony No. 39.

All were displays of Mozart’s extraordinary blend of lyrical melodiousness and brilliant mastery of sonata form. But one couldn’t help but wonder why the program didn’t offer any of the more well-known, much loved Mozart classics – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the Piano Concerto No. 21, the Overture to Marriage of Figaro, Symphony No. 40 to name only a few. Yes, I know… from a producer’s or a programmer’s point of view, the works may be too frequently heard. But there’s no reason why – in a “Midsummer Mozart” program at the Hollywood Bowl, a time for relaxed, laid-back listening, at least one Greatest Hit shouldn’t have been on the bill.

That said, there were ample pleasures in the program. Among them: the lovely woodwind passages, beautifully performed, in both the Symphonies; the Austrian folk dance passage in Symphony No. 39, in which Mozart’s love for the clarinet is displayed in a delightful clarinet duo; the rich textures of the ballet music from Idomeneo.

Henning Kraggerud

And, best of all, the performance of the Violin Concerto No. 4 by Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud. In an evening filled with beautiful music, the Concerto, superbly played, Kraggerud stole the show. Much honored throughout Europe, he has also been seen with some frequency in the U.S., but this was his debut appearance at the Bowl. And the first thought that came to mind after his performance was simply – how soon will the Philharmonic bring him back.

Composed by Mozart while he was 19, the Concerto No. 4 reflects his deep understanding of the violin’s potential. Investing the Concerto with ample opportunities for technical display, he also incorporated passages urging the performer to freely explore its expressive lyricism

Kraggerud took advantage of every possibility the music offered, from soaring, high harmonic melodies to rhythmically surging double-stops and rich interaction with the orchestra. In sum, it was one of the fine solo appearances of recent memory.

No wonder the audience demanded an encore – which turned out to be a solo piece by a Norwegian composer.  And no surprise that McGegan, at least a foot shorter than the towering Kraggerud, hugged him with sincere enthusiasm at the close of the Concerto. As I said, the high point of the night. It was Mozart as, one suspects, Mozart himself would have wanted it played.


Konik’s Commentary: “Creating Something Out of Nothing — The Art of Being Funny In Los Angeles” (Part 2)

August 24, 2012

Music of all sorts, especially jazz, has had a long amiable relationship with comedy and comics, reaching back to such inimitable comedic improvisers as Lord Buckley, Lennie Bruce, Mort Sahl, Steve Allen and many others.  L.A., always a center for gifted humorists, continues to play a vital role in the unfolding development of contemporary comedy.  In this post, author and musician Michael Konik continues his survey if the current Southland scene.

By Michael Konik

The most electrifying comedians in Los Angeles are capable of doing prepared material, yet they seem to shine brightest when they’re improvising “off book,” reacting to the present. The term of art is living in the moment. The now. Comedians with powerful improvisational skills hear and see and smell whatever is happening in the atmosphere and find ways to glean the funny out of it. What might seem at first to be distractions or irrelevancies in less capable hands turns to gold in the grasp of performing alchemists.

Nick Turner

Two of the most consistently killing comics on the scene, Pete Holmes (the voice of the E-Trade babies) and Nick Turner (a recent import from NYC who recalls the volcanic charm of Jackie Gleason), are masters of living in the moment. They don’t pretend things aren’t happening when they are: a woman with crossed arms and a sour face in the second row; the clatter of dishes from the kitchen; the audible gasp of a room that might not be quite onboard with their bit about bestiality. Audiences sense that anything could (and will) happen. And that it’s going to slay.

Watch enough comedy in Los Angeles and you’ll encounter stellar writing (Myq Kaplan, Jimmy Dore, Jamie Lee), flawless delivery (all hail the Sklar Brothers, whose negotiation of space with twinned timing appears to be telepathic), and instantly likeable stage personae (Doug Benson, Jim Hamilton, Melissa Villasenor). If you’re lucky, you’ll get it all in one consistently powerful act (Patton Oswalt, Chelsea Peretti, Rory Scovel). The truth is, not everyone in Los Angeles is reaching for the stars, poking at the edges of the comedy universe. Many, many comedians here – and everywhere else, but especially here, where the casting offices are located – have modest ambitions. They do observational comedy or tell jokes about the latest Spiderman movie or share a cute story about their family, and it’s all very pleasant and charming. You sense their goal isn’t to be an artist but to land a Taco Bell commercial.

That’s cool. But we feel about these comedians – and there are hundreds of them performing regularly in and around Hollywood – as we do about smooth jazz musicians. They may have the chops and technical facility of their arty brethren, and they sound OK noodling over a groove, but the stories they tell are expertly constructed nursery rhymes, not epic novels. They aim for the middle and almost always hit their target. The visionary folks we’ve been digging the most don’t do Spiderman jokes; they help us understand why movies like Spiderman are symptomatic of a society and popular culture that’s rotting like a sunbaked fish carcass.

Ron Lynch

An alternative paper here recently published one of those weirdly talismanic Top-10 Lists that matter deeply to some people. We noticed that two shows we attend regularly were mentioned. What’s Up Tiger Lily – understand that comedy shows are never called “The Sunset Boulevard Comedy Show,” they must be named obscurely and ironically – is our favorite show in town. The ethos is strongly alt. Plenty of mainstream club comedians doing their mainstream material perform here, as well as numerous talents you’ve seen on Comedy Central and every place else. But the audience at Tiger Lily rewards the Bamfords and Pepitones and the Lynches – the out there on the edge performers – with their most enthusiastic applause and deepest laughs. At another show we see a lot because it’s around the corner, The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, which is held in the rear of Meltdown Comics, in a space dubbed the Nerdist Theater (as in Chris “The Nerdist”-podcast Hardwick), the ethos is strongly comic book. The amiable hosts and guests tap into the audience’s communal experience thumbing through their favorite Iron Man or standing in line to see the second Harry Potter movie, or going to their first Al Yankovic concert, and everyone has a good time. As a sub-species of nerd ourselves, we appreciate the inclusive attitude. Yet we seldom leave this show feeling transported or touched, or that anything consistently subversive or intellectually dangerous has occurred. The Meltdown rarely seeks transcendence; most of the time the show is justifiably content with merely being funny.

Is that enough? For most comedy consumers it surely is. Most of us see live comedy because we want to laugh, to feel good – or at least a little better than when we’re at work or fighting with the boyfriend.

Some of us want all that and a little more. We want to be astonished and amazed and thrilled and powerfully glad to be alive, as we are at the best jazz concerts or art exhibits. For connoisseurs and careful listeners, the danger of being a comic who’s aiming for somewhere around the middle is that when you miss you end up too low to be interesting.

Pop-culture-obsessed comedians — the kind of comics who open their act with thesis statements like, “People who don’t watch TV are either pretentious or poor,” the kind of comics who construct their act around how hot and sweaty Darth Vader (or Batman, or whatever) must have been underneath his black cloak — these pedestrian quipsters seem oblivious to the possibility that there’s a big, complicated, maddeningly unknowable and vexing world out there beyond the screens we stare into. Attempting to make sense of the mystery of consciousness, and doing it honestly and openly, might be what stand-up is actually all about.

In the vibrant Los Angeles comedy scene, we’ve learned that one not need to be a “political” comedian to be engaged with the realm of ideas. One only needs to have something to say. And know how to say it funny. Or be willing to die trying to figure it out.

To read Part l click HERE.


Konik’s Commentary: “Creating Something Out Of Nothing — The Art of Being Funny in Los Angeles” (Part 1)

August 24, 2012

Music of all sorts, especially jazz, has had a long amiable relationship with comedy and comics, reaching back to such inimitable comedic improvisers as Lord Buckley, Lennie Bruce, Mort Sahl, Steve Allen and many others.  L.A., always a center for gifted humorists, continues to play a vital role in the unfolding development of contemporary comedy.  In this post, author and musician Michael Konik surveys the current Southland comedy scene.

By Michael Konik

Lately we’ve been immersing ourselves in stand-up comedy and feeling altogether good about it. You can be addicted to a lot worse things than endorphins.

Much of the past year in Los Angeles has been spent closely observing comedians doing their thing: ranting, rambling, telling jokes, riffing, raving, singing songs, reading from a script, making it up on the spot, playing it safe, taking risks. Being funny. Being very funny. Or not. But always trying to find the magic, searching for that moment or that thing that connects us all – most of us, anyway; the ones who get it – in a sense of real delight and shared understanding, similar to the way we communally react to live music or to a brilliant actor telling the truth.

Los Angeles is home to an enormous number of funny people, a minority of whom work in the entertainment industry. Like United States Marines and professional athletes, many aspire; few may serve. But whether or not Universal or ABC ever comes a callin’, these hordes of funny people require an outlet for their talent – an outlet being anywhere there’s a microphone and an audience. You can enjoy low-priced, high-quality comedy in Los Angeles seven nights a week. Some of the consistently excellent shows are free.

The best stuff happens in venues other than comedy clubs, where the noxious mixture of (overpriced) two-drink minimums and lowest common denominator humor tends to produce more anxiety than laughs. Although many of the most successful comics in L.A. perform at tourist favorites like The Comedy Store, The Improv, and The Laugh Factory, they’re at their freest and most effective at alternative spaces, like a sex toy shop, or a Mexican restaurant, or a comic book store. Local audiences know this, and these “underground” shows are usually well-attended. And funny.

Super funny. We’ve laughed more in the past year than in the previous five combined.

What we’ve seen is an astonishing variety of approaches to the art of making strangers happy. There’s no correct way to do comedy; either it works or it doesn’t. Yet, though there might be an infinite number of ways to get laughs, almost all the really funny people in Los Angeles – the impossibly funny people — have one trait in common: they’re blazingly intelligent.

They’re imaginative, creative, fearless, and all that important stuff. But they’re also spectacularly smart. They seem to have larger ambitions than making a ha-ha. They’re questing, yearning for something larger and possibly more important than giggles. They’re on a journey. We get to go with them.

Maria Bamford

Watch Sarah Silverman. Watch Eddie Pepitone. Watch Greg Proops. Watch Maria Bamford and Dana Gould and Ron Lynch. These folks are so smart they can name their Podcast “The Smartest Man in the World,” as Greg Proops has, and only be exaggerating a little.

Another thing the great ones have in common is that they have nothing in common with other performers. The great ones aren’t doing a style of comedy. They’re defining a style. They’re Duke Ellington’s favorite superlative: beyond category.

Eddie Pepitone

Whether blazing trails that sometimes straddle themurky line between stand-up and performance art (Lynch; Bamford; Pepitone) or writing material that explores ideas and connections that no one seems to have thought about previously (Gould; Silverman; Proops), the comedy masters always seem to be doing their own thing, without any regard to how it’s “supposed to” be done. Their only rule is that they must always be themselves.  Marc Maron, T J Miller, Brody Stevens, James Adomian — if anyone else were foolish enough to construct his act as a diluted imitation version of these peculiar and easily identifiable comic geniuses, the results would be the opposite of hilarious.

Like serious jazz musicians, serious comedians concern themselves with content and form. Cats like Reggie Watts (who isn’t LA-based, unfortunately) and the Walsh Brothers (who are) often make audiences wonder what exactly it is they’re witnessing. Is it joke telling? Is it stream-of-consciousness gestalt therapy? Satire? A prank? Uninhibited weirdness? Yes and no and all those things and maybe none of them. That’s when comedy is exhilarating: when you’re not sure what’s coming next and you can’t wait to find out.

We don’t mean to suggest that the best comedians are the humorous equivalent of Coltrane or McFerrin. But they seem to be coming from the same spiritual place, where possibilities are endless and the fear of failure never overpowers the impulse to create something out of nothing.

To read Part 2 click HERE.


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