Live Jazz: Herb Alpert and Lani Hall at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

March 20, 2014

By Don Heckman

Herb Alpert

Herb Alpert

Bel Air, CA. It was another rare performance to remember Tuesday night at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. On stage, veteran jazz trumpeter, band leader and club owner Herb Alpert and his wife, singer Lani Hall, were backed by their fine rhythm team: pianist/keyboardist Bill Cantos, bassist Hussain Jiffry and drummer Michael Shapiro.

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Offering a program reaching from jazz classics and Songbook standards to a medley of tunes from the hit recordings of Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, the performance took place at the center of the rich, colorful environment Alpert has been creating for Vibrato since he first bought the Bel Air club and transformed it into his perspective of what a fine jazz club/restaurant can be. In the process, his paintings and sculptures – abstract but visually gripping – combined with the re-designing of the room to provide the perfect setting for his always-engaging music.

There were no real surprises in the program for anyone who’s heard Herb and Lani in their recent performances at Vibrato. But no worries there. Whether Herb was playing “A Taste of Honey” or singing “This Guy’s in Love with You”; whether Lani was singing Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance” or the bossa nova delight “O Pato,” the results were always fascinating.

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Hearing repetitions of familiar songs can be less than appealing from artists who basically play their “hits” like living juke boxes. With Herb and Lani, however, hearing them perform over the years –singing and playing together — has provided unique opportunities to experience a pair of gifted artists bring new interpretive perspectives to everything they played and sang. As they did on this memorable evening.

Herb has always had a gift for melodic paraphrasing in his solos, and recent years have seen him find even more expressiveness in his improvising, often suggesting the sort of clear-cut, lyrical melody-making long associated with Miles Davis.

Lani Hall

Lani Hall

Lani has been a fine musical story teller since the release of her first album Sundown Lady in the ’70s. In reviewing that album for the New York Times, I referred to her “mix of drama, song, soul and universal emotion that uncovers the real pathos in the lyrics of a song.” Which is precisely what she did in this performance with a deeply emotional interpretation of “Fly Me To The Moon.”

Add to that the superb support of the rhythm section of Cantos, Jiffry and Shapiro, creating a warm setting for Herb and Lani, with Cantos contributing a briskly rhythmic scat version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and Jiffry offering some guitar-like bossa nova backing on his bass.

In sum, call it a mesmerizing musical offering performed with dynamic creativity. No wonder that the overflow audience responded enthusiastically to every song, demanding and getting encores, and wishing for more.

Photos by Faith Frenz.


Record Rack: Lyn Stanley, Lisa Engelken

December 11, 2013

Of West Coast Girls

By Brian Arsenault

The Left Coast is not taken seriously enough by the New York centric jazz “world” as a producer of any jazz, but maybe particularly female jazz singers. Of course, Queen Bentyne is based there now but she’s late of Manhattan Transfer so the East Coast still claims her.

So here come two very different talents to turn our eyes and ears to the West. You know, LA, San Francisco. The places that mostly stay warm but are oh so cool.

 Lyn Stanley

Lost in Romance (A.T. Music)

Only a few tracks are required for the listener to be Lost in Romance with Lyn Stanley. I was there by “The Nearness of You.” By then, she has warmed the room with a series of classics from Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael.

The room is in a small club. Perhaps near the desert. Dim lighting. Bogie and Bacall unobtrusive in the back of the room. Dietrich’s set over, she stays to listen.

The room has a piano that accompanies her so well whenever Tamir Hendelman or Mike Lang sit in. Tenor sax (Bob Sheppard), trombone (Bob McChesney), flugelhorn (Gilbert Castellanos, also on trumpet) in the backing group which plays every note to complement her. Every single note.

And those notes are all full and rounded, almost never sharp and stinging. Perhaps vinyl was required for the richness throughout. I’d like to think so. (two 180 gram 45 rpm albums which I first tried to play as 33s. Slowwwwwwwww. Also available in CDs and downloads for the unromantic.)

The striking blond former ballroom dancer opens and closes the album with songs entwined with dance.

First: “Change Partners,” where she lingers over each note, each moment, seeking her chance.

Last, naturally: “The Last Dance,” where the partner has been found and the evening is regrettably ending but “keep holding me tight.”

In between, the bartender leans in to listen as she asks for “One More for My Baby.” Each word, each inflection so important as “You Go to My Head.”

Her phrasing is close, intimate, personal. Not like Sinatra’s phrasing but with Ol’ Blue Eyes’ requirement that you listen to the story, that you feel it might be sung directly to you.

I don’t think her talents are best suited for Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” but she shines on George Harrison’s “Something” which Sinatra called the only really good love song in eons.

On “Fever”, the warmth becomes heat. Peggy Lee may have been the first white girl singer so openly sexual but Lyn Stanley takes it a bit sultrier, plays with it a bit. A touch of how Marilyn would have sung it. Finger snaps as percussion.

Another strength of vinyl; each time you get to flip the album or put on the second disc (may I say record), you’ll be pleased there’s another side. You’ll wish you were at that imaginary club that night. But go ahead, careful not to smudge the grooves, put on the album and soon you will be.

Lisa Engelken

little warrior (CD Baby)

If Lyn Stanley is the epitome of classic romance and the classic American songbook, Lisa Engelken is the postmodernist purveyor of pain and alienation.

. . . for there must be a god to exist such a godless man. . .”

If Lyn Stanley rounds each note and lingers for its full effect, Lisa Engelken frequently blows through lyrics with staccato phrasing. Everything at times is a single chopped note since she must move on and not linger.

send me keys

send me jets

send me trains . . .

and don’t forget instructions as to what to do with your remains”

Don’t get me wrong. Lisa’s range of emotions, as well as octaves, is extensive. The album includes the reflective “little warrior” title song and Chick Corea’s gently rolling “sea journey.”

But pain is near at all times. It’s integral to her art.

blue valentines” is Tom Wait via Billie Holiday (can’t beat that for melancholy) through Lisa. The band gets it. Bill Cantos’ piano chords keep a somber pace. Sam Bevan’s bass descends with her voice. Sadness keeps a grip impervious to whiskey.

She moves with Joni Mitchell’s “cold blue steel & sweet fire” to some very personal hell vision of “. . . vicious gnawing in the veins. . .” This seven minutes, a dark trip, is orchestral, at times symphonic — Lisa says she wants to sing it with the San Francisco Symphony — but some of the musicians may have hooves and tails, maybe even horns.

Even in the supposedly upbeat “viva la felicita,” an alleged ode to happiness, the chorus in Italian is “eh poi, eh poi?” what else, what else is there? Can’t get more post modernist than that. Like an Italo Calvino short story.

For this album to end on the sweetness of “All I Do Is Dream of You” is either ironic or an inside joke. This is a singer pushing some boundaries and a long way from romance. But we know the World needs more than one vision.

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


Photo Review: Lyn Stanley at Vitello’s

December 9, 2013

Photos by Bob Barry and Faith Frenz

Studio City, CA. Singer Lyn Stanley’s first creative expression was ballroom dancing. And she did it so well that she won three events and two national titles in ballroom competitions in 2010. But her affection for, and expertise in dancing were always intimately connected to her equally passionate attraction to music in general and singing in particular.

As she began her singing career, strongly motivated by the music that had always been present in her family, Lyn was constantly drawn to the linkages between music and dance. And when she met the legendary jazz pianist and accompanist Paul Smith – whose credits reach from Ella Fitzgerald to Mel Torme — his guidance led her on the path to the creative vocal career she had been seeking. The release of her first album, Lost In Romance, announced the arrival of an intriguing new musical talent.

Lyn’s performance at Vitello’s last Friday was a stirring display of her fascination with song and dance. Further enhancing the evening, April Williams, Vitello’s musical manager, arranged for the installation of a wooden tile floor to encourage dancing, as Lyn featured many of the songs from her new album. All of which motivated us to present a photo review of this impressive new vocalist in action, backed by the stellar band of pianist Bill Cantos, bassist Kevin Axt, guitarist Grant Geissman, saxophonist Rickey Woodard, drummer Kendall Kay and music director Steve Rawlins.

* * * * * * * *

“Little Drummer Boy”

“I Just Want To Make Love To You”

“One For My Baby” with Bill Cantos and Kevin Axt

. “My Foolish Heart”

“What Am I Gonna Do With A Bad Boy Like You” with Kevin Axt

* * * * * * * *

First, third and fourth photos by Bob Barry.  Second and fifth photos by Faith Frenz.


Live Jazz: Herb Alpert, Lani Hall and Sergio Mendes at the Hollywood Bowl

July 18, 2013

By Don Heckman

The 2013 summer season of jazz at the Hollywood Bowl clicked into place Wednesday night with the performances of Herb Alpert, Lani Hall and Sergio Mendes.

Alpert and Hall, in particular, offered a musically rich, rhythmically energetic program of material ranging across jazz classics and American Songbook standards spiced with the music of Brazil.

Although he may be best known for the establishment of the Tijuana Brass in the sixties, and for shaping it into one of the most successful groups in pop music history, Alpert has always been a determinedly jazz-focused trumpet player, as well.  And his performance at the Bowl offered an impressive recollection of the depth of his skills as a jazz artist. Add to that his similarly gifted talents as a visual artist, which were on display in the form of a large Alpert painting as a backdrop.

Bill Cantos, Lani Hall, Hussain Jiffry, Herb Alpert and Michael Shapiro

I’ve heard Alpert many times, playing impressively in many settings over the past decades.  But this time out, his opening set was a performance to remember.  Standing alongside his wife, singer Lani Hall — backed by pianist/keyboardist Bill Cantos, bassist Hussain Jiffry and drummer Michael Shapiro – he played with the cool,  musically imaginative aspects that have always been at the heart of who he is as a jazz improviser.  And he revealed the impressive extent of those aspects, no matter what he was playing – in songs reaching from the Tijuana Brass memories of “A Taste of Honey” to such far-ranging song classics as “Besame Mucho,” “Moondance,” “Lets Face the Music and Dance” and “La Vie En Rose.”

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

The always captivating musical presence of Hall added another convincing jazz element to the set.  The lush timbres of her voice, combined with a brisk sense of rhythm, have always been a vital part of her style, reaching back to the early ’70s.  But in recent years, Hall has become an even better musical story-teller, finding the heart of a song in all her expressively intimate performances.  And, in this concert, she did so in deeply musical, lyrically compelling readings of songs such as “Fly Me To The Moon,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”  The latter tune, in particular was interpreted by Hall with a uniquely personal rendering that reached far more deeply into the song than the jaunty, often-imitated Sinatra version.

Alpert and Hall were extremely well served by the presence of Cantos, Jiffry and Shapiro.  Each is an impressive player in his own right.  But they also added a collective, even symbiotic, coming together to find an utterly memorable approach to each of the songs in their program.

Sergio Mendes Band

Sergio Mendes Band

Less can be said for the Mendes part of the evening.  Performing with an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists comparable to his Brazil 66 (etc.) ensembles, he devoted most of his set to such familiar items as “Waters of March,” Agua De Beber” and “The Look of Love.”

The Brazil 66 sound and style of the ‘60s had its appealing qualities – qualities that underscored the band’s many pop music successes.  But in an apparent effort to reach out to a broader listener demographic, Mendes added a rapper to several tunes.  And the results largely obliterated the most appealing aspects of the Brazil 66 memories.

Fortunately, Alpert, Hall and their fine accompanists had already brought jazz authenticity to the Bowl’s 2013 schedule in their opening set.  Hopefully, their world class program will represent the start of an equally memorable summer at the Hollywood Bowl for Southland jazz fans.

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Photos by Faith Frenz


Live Music: Bill Cantos, Mari Falcone, Alan Bergman and Lillias White in a Society of Singers Program at Café Cordial

May 22, 2013

By Don Heckman

When the Society of Singers  (often referred to with the appropriate abbreviation S.O.S.) has a performance program it can best be described as a win-win event.  A winner in the sense that it raises funds for the S.O.S programs providing financial support for singers in need.  And a winner in the sense that audiences at S.O.S. events always experience programs of appealing musicality.

Which was exactly what happened at Café Cordial Monday night, when an enthusiastic turnout of S.O.S. supporters was entertained by the stellar line up of Alan Bergman, Bill Cantos & Mari Falcone and Lillias White.

Bill Cantos

Pianist/singer/songwriter Cantos was the emcee, the primary accompanist, and a performer in his own right for most of the evening.  As humorously entertaining as he was musically versatile, he assembled and managed an evening filled with songs.

Many came from his own growing catalog of works, others were provided by the always engaging Alan Bergman.  And at least one tune –- the whimsical “Everybody’s On the Phone” – was co-written by Cantos with Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

The program kicked off with Cantos’ “Morning Coffee,” followed by his “Sensibility” and “Who Are You?” Each song was delivered with the convincing, story-telling qualities and delightful humor that Cantos brings to his performances.  Add to that his far-ranging musicality, often scatting in unison with his piano lines, sometimes humming back-up counterpoint lines to his melodies.

Alan Bergman

Alan Bergman

Up next, Bergman offered one of his typically irresistible performances.  Hearing a songwriter sing his/her own songs is always an insightful experience.  But never more so than with Bergman, who is, in addition to his songwriting partnership with his wife, Marilyn, also a convincing singer in his own right.

Before he started, he offered one of his familiar nuggets of background on the art of writing song lyrics, noting that “the words are on the tips of the notes, and we have to find them.”  And then he proceeded to prove his point with his versions of “The Windmills of Your Mind” and “You Must Believe in Spring” (both classics written with Michel Legrand) and  “That Face” (written by Alan as a successful marriage proposal to Marilyn).

Lillias White

Lillias White

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Tony Award-winning Broadway star Lillias White then joined the Cantos trio for a jaunty, soulful group of numbers.  Beginning with Canto’s “You Got Me” she followed with a hilariously rocking “I Want A Big Fat Daddy” and the lyrical “Love Wins.”

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Mari Falcone and Bill Cantos

The evening was topped off by Cantos and his wife, pianist Mari Falcone.  Interacting musically, sharing the keyboard on their electric piano, they offered delightful renderings of Cantos’ “Perfect Day” and “Smoke and Mirrors,” along with a climactic “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing.”

Call it a musical evening in which everything went right, from the quality of the performances to the support for the Society of Singers.  All of which provided plenty of good reasons – musical and otherwise — to show up for the next S.O.S. program.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.


Live Music: Dori Caymmi at a Jazz Bakery Movable Feast

February 23, 2013

By Cathy Segal-Garcia

Los Angeles, CA.  Here I am, sitting in the Kirk Douglas Theatre, waiting for the world-renowned guitarist/vocalist/composer/arranger/producer, Dori Caymmi, to come out to start the show. A beautiful theatre, slanted up seating, with a medium large stage on the floor, the newest and most intimate of Center Theatre Group’s family of theatres.

We scored a seat in the very front center, so I’m pretty turned on because I love being close to musicians.  Being a singer, I like to feel up close and personal, feeling like I’m actually part of the band.  There’s a stool in the center with an expectant mic, a piano and keyboard, a stool in the center back, and drums.  I’m excited!

The group, a quartet, comes out after an introduction from Jazz Bakery founder Ruth Price. Dori’s voice is at once beautiful and distinct.  A rich baritone, with depth of emotion that make my insides release.  Add that voice to a slow bossa beat, with subtleties of the rhythms and harmonies coming through the players…and it’s romantic and beautiful from the very first moment.

The music is harmonically leading and surprising, which is part of what makes it so amazing to listen to.  Within the same song, there are passages of different lengths, that are significantly different, but they relate and flow out of each other and into the next; like a river, running gently and endlessly, around rocks and curves, on and on.

The 2nd song showcased the pianist, Bill Cantos, singing his own keyboard solo… Wonderful!   Vocally exciting, and great musical ideas… motifs repeating and developing into an exciting build and gentle drop.

Dori Caymmi

Dori Caymmi

A slow, painfully beautiful “Corcovado” was next.  How do the great Brazilian musicians create this gorgeous style, time and again?  Dori is having a love affair with the song, with the notes, the way they sit in the harmony, the Portuguese lyrics….

And yet right after, this sweetheart of a man makes a joke relating to his “depressed versions of Brazilian music,” before going into a mind blowing arrangement of “Brazil.”  I have never heard or imagined a more beautiful and interesting arrangement.  It took me at least  32 bars before I recognized it.  The form seemed different, the chords were definitely beautiful substitutions, and even the melody, sung and played by Dori at first, seemed only slightly familiar. At a slow, sensuous groove, with all the rest, it was truly a holy experience.

Jerry Watts on electric bass was a prominent part of the music.  A versatile and strong musician, in this setting, as each musician, he held his reins and released at just the right times.  Playing his bass like a guitar, his rhythmic choices seemed comfortable and perfect, even with their complexity.

The drummer Aaron Serfaty was unobtrusive in the best way, to say the least.  Percussive, as if adding to an orchestra, light and perfectly rhythmic on his small drum set

Dori , soon to be merely 70 (how lucky are we, to be able to hear him more) was relaxed and talkative in between songs…making the audience love him all the more.  He talked about his father and mother, Dorival Caymmi and Stella Maris, both famous Brazilian musicians.   And an upcoming recording project he will do with his sister (famous vocalist Nana Caymmi) and brother (famous musician Danilo Caymmi)…dedicated to their Dad.  Then he played one of his Dad’s hits …”Acontec Que Eu Sou Baiano.”   Dorival was known as “the poet of the seas of Bahia.”

It was difficult to make notes while I listened; the music was so touching to the soul and the ears that I didn’t want to be distracted from it.  And yet, when I’m excited by music, I want to write about it.

And speaking of making love to the songs…how about making love through the songs?  Like a good lover, the music and the musicians find a sensuous wonderful groove, lock into it, stroke it with notes and harmony until, building slowly and gradually, it’s obvious that it must release…

“The Harbor”…(sigh).  Dori told a beautiful and sad introduction about the music of his father…about how he would tell about seemingly simple things like stepping on pieces of wood in the water that led to the boats.  And how, now, there is no more of that; it’s all been commercialized.  Dori wrote “The Harbor” as an ode to the old way.

Brazilian musicians and singers tend to state the melody as written, milking it with the tone of the instrument and the emotion of the voice.  That’s why listeners fall in love with the basic songs, with their melody and harmony.  American jazz singers, however, learn that the songs of the Great American Songbook were written down very basically.  A singer learns them, then changes them – with the phrasing, the melody, the rhythm.  And I believe not even the composer expected or desired you to sing it as exactly as it was written.

One gets the idea that Brazilian composers want something else.  Or perhaps it’s the culture that leads the performing artists into this kind of musical perspective.  A perspective in which the language and flow of the story – via both the lyrics and the music — communicate deeply the imaginative tales of their rich history and culture.

I left the concert with a lovely CD, my soul filled with beauty, and a desire to sing with Dori.  The perfect response to a perfect musical evening.

To read more about Cathy Segal-Garcia on her own website, click HERE


Live Music: Alan Bergman at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

November 16, 2012

By Don Heckman

Bel Air, CAAlan Bergman made one of his too-rare club appearances Wednesday night in an utterly captivating performance at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   It’s always a pleasure to hear songwriters do their own music.  And even more fascinating when the songwriter is as fine a performing artist as Bergman.  In his mid eighties, his voice is still young and warm, his phrasing alive with interpretive expressiveness.

Alan Bergman

Of course it helps that Bergman and his wife Marilyn have written some of the most extraordinary song lyrics of the past few decades.  Working with such stellar composers as Michel Legrand, Marvin Hamlisch, Johnny Mandel, Dave Grusin and others, the couple has produced Academy Award and Golden Globe Award songs.  In 1983 three of their songs were included among the five Academy Award nominees.

Performing before a packed house crowd sprinkled with music and film world celebrities, Bergman presented the same relaxed demeanor he usually displays in his occasional live appearances.  Backed by the superb accompaniment of pianist Bill Cantos and bassist Kevin Axt, he led an intriguing musical tour through the far-reaching Bergman songbook (as well as the offbeat addition of a hilarious Cantos song, “Everybody’s on the Phone,” sung by its composer.)

Starting the set, Bergman noted that it would be an evening of love songs – of love in all its many manifestations.  And he delivered on the promise — not surprisingly, since love is the primary topic of so many of the Bergman songs.  But there was more, too – much more.

The first two songs, the jaunty “Nice and Easy,” followed by the poignant intimacy of  “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?, ” immediately revealed the creative depths of the Bergman’s love lyrics.

Alan Bergman

Other, equally far ranging tunes included the cri de coeur of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” the stunning sequence of images in “The Windmills of Your Mind” and the unabashed expressiveness of “That Face” (actually written by Alan Bergman as a love song to Marilyn Bergman).

Add to that such breakout hits as “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and “Memories (The Way We Were).”

And there was some new material as well, including the whimsical description of the Bergmans’ working relationship – “One Washes, One Dries” – the rap style of “The Lord Made Woman,” and a gorgeously melodic partnership with composer Roger Kellaway on “A Place That You Want To Call Home.”

Mentioning some of the gifted composers he and Marilyn have worked with, Alan offered a brief but illuminating thought about their process, as lyricists.  “The words are on the tips of the notes,” he said.  “And we have to find them.”

That they’ve done precisely that was amply clear in the program of songs he sang.  While each of those songs is fully capable of standing on its own, his readings – for this listener – are the definitive versions.  I’ve heard Alan do a similar program several times in the past.  But on this night his performance was exquisite, lovingly grasping the fullness of each song, finding the magic linkages between the words and “the tips of the notes.”

Photos by Bobby Colomby.


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