Jazz With An Accent: A Conversation with Sammy Figueroa

October 23, 2014

By Fernando Gonzalez

Miami, Florida       

Puerto Rican percussionist Sammy Figueroa is a versatile, resourceful player whose extraordinary career includes performing, recording and touring with a dizzying list of jazz, pop and rock stars and groups, including trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Sonny Rollins (his current employer) and the Brecker Brothers but also David Bowie, David Lee Roth, Ruben Blades, Annie Lennox and Mariah Carey.

Sammy Figueroa 2In 2001, Figueroa quietly settled in South Florida. He organized a band, when in town he played at places such the defunct Van Dyke on Lincoln Rd. in Miami Beach and recorded three albums that garnered him two Grammy nominations. He now also has his own “The Sammy Figueroa Show” every Monday morning on Miami’s WDNA 88.9 FM.  Unassuming and with a puckish sense of humor, Figueroa is also an irrepressible storyteller. He doesn’t just answer questions, once he gets on a roll he playacts entire scenes, bringing to life characters and situations with the timing of a comedian.

Here is a (very) abridged version of a conversation at his Miami Beach place in which he discusses his beginnings in music as a salsa singer, Miles, Dali and his elephant and his latest project, Talisman, a set of original music recorded in Sao Paulo, Brazil with Brazilian singer Glaucia Nasser and a terrific band featuring guitarist Chico Pinheiro, pianist Bianca Gismonti and young pandeiro phenom Bernando Aguiar.

Fernando Gonzalez: You have spoken about first hearing jazz when you were 15. What were the circumstances?

Sammy Figueroa: Very simple: I lived an isolated life, I didn’t go out, I didn’t play with other kids, I had a big afro, was very skinny and they used to kick my ass at school. So I stayed home — and discovered jazz. The first record was Clare Fischer and his big band, and I thought it was amazing. Then I heard Sam Cooke, Herbie Hancock — and then I heard Miles and I thought “Oh yeah, I’m in.”
Any little money I made doing some horrible gig, I’d spend it on records. I was living with my mom, I wasn’t paying rent. So I locked myself in the room and listen to this stuff until three in the morning. My mother would bang on the door for me to go to bed. After listening to Clare Fischer, Herbie, Chick, all those guys, when The Beatles came out with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” it wasn’t that impressive.

FG: You were playing percussion at the time?

No, I wasn’t playing at all. I was singing with a quartet. I was doing gigs as a singer in hotels. And then Bobby Valentin, the great salsa bass player, heard me and said “ You sing pretty good. Do you ever sing salsa?’ “Nah, Not really.” “Why don’t you audition for me next week?” So I went home and listened to Joe Cuba and started imitating Cheo Feliciano and went back to Bobby and told him “ OK, I got it.” So he auditioned me. So the band starts playing, I start improvising and he goes “Damn, you are really good!” “Really?” So I joined the band and for five years I was the lead singer for Bobby Valentin. I didn’t play percussion, I was a salsa singer.
The congas came later. While I was with Bobby, Fania [the Motown of salsa] offered me a contract — and my mother went completely crazy. She said “What!? You are not going to do what your father did and blah, blah, blah.” My father was a singer and had died an alcoholic. And I’m glad she did stop me because then I turned to percussion. Nobody would teach me so I started practicing with a broken conga that my neighbor had. I had to learn by myself, invent my own exercises. But I did a little gig with Perico Ortiz, the great trumpeter and arranger, and … I became Perico’s percussionist for four years. He got me into the instrumental thing.

FG: You’ve worked with so many people, pick three artists you liked to work with the most.

On the road I loved working with the Brecker Brothers. I liked working with Miles. It was so much fun. It was so unpredictable. He was out of his mind — but that was what made it interesting to me, and we became very close friends. And, of course, I love Sonny Rollins. He’s unpredictable. I should also mention David Bowie and [Brazilian pianist]Tania Maria. Tania took me places that never, in my wildest dreams I thought I would go.

FG: Can you share a story with Miles Davis?

We could spend days on Miles — he lived in my apartment for almost a year and also almost burned it down cooking, but let me just tell you how we met.
I didn’t know Miles. I only knew him by his records. By the time I joined Miles [in 1980] I was a household name in New York. I had already done 50-something records and I was a well-known studio guy.
So I was in my little apartment in New York, with my then wife, I was already in bed, I had came back from a session late and my phone rings at about 2:15 in the morning. I pick it up and I hear (imitating Miles’s rasp) “Hey man, what’s happenin’ motherf#@^&*” and I go “Click” and hang up. Who calls at that time? I thought he was [trumpeter] Lew Soloff my closest friend. He would be the one to do a stupid thing like that. Then the phone rings again. “Thank you for hanging up mother%$#” and I go “Who is this?!” “It’s Miles Davis” And I say , “Oh yeah, sure, Miles Davis,” and hung up. And then the phone rings again and I hear this other voice [formal] “Is this Sammy Figueroa? This is [Miles’ producer] Teo Macero.” Now my eyes are wide open … “You just hang up on Miles — twice. I’ll take care of him. But if you want the gig get your ass over here. Now!” … So I took a cab to the old Columbia Records studios and I walked in and saw this really black guy, I mean blacker than coal. He’s seating in a chair just looking at me, and I say “Miles, I’m so sorry I didn’t know” and without saying a word, he got up and punched me in the stomach! He punched me so hard that I fell on the floor. I couldn’t breathe. And I’m thinking “I got up at 2:30 in the morning to get punched in the stomach??” So I just reacted and I hit him. I hit him so hard he fell over the piano and I broke his lip. I saw this little thing falling, going over the piano like a crow. And Teo comes out the booth: “What the fuck happened here??!!” I’m looking at Miles and apologizing “I’m sorry Miles,” and he looks at the blood from his lip and says “”Damn, that’s a good right hook mother#@^%” And that was that.

FG: And then there is wah wah pedal incident …

Oh yes, the wah wha pedal. He was going ‘wah wah wah’ with the trumpet and I hated it.  Then Miles has to leave the room and I’m looking at the thing, looking and looking, and Marcus [Miller] looks at me and says “Leave it alone Sammy.” But I was sick of it so I pulled it out to unplug it and because it was so old it broke and the springs came out — so I hid it, I threw it awy. So Miles comes back after 20 minutes and asks “Where’s the wah wah pedal?” and immediately looks at me ”Sammy!” “What are you looking at me for?” And he says “Who else would do such a crazy thing like that. These mother f@#% are nice. You are crazy.” And this is all happening in that first night.
He picked the trumpet and started playing. He didn’t sound good. It wasn’t until 5 in the morning that we kept one track where he sounded really good. That was ‘Man With The Horn.’ The rest of the album we did it over the next four days.

FG: Did you eventually establish a good relationship with Miles?

The best . He called me at my house 15, 20 times a day. Teo [Macero, his producer] would say “Hey I took care of him for 30 years, now it’s your turn. Bam.”
He became a dear friend. He lived in my apartment for about a year.

FG: Any one particular moment you recall?

There was this time when Miles was talking on the phone at the house and he goes “Yeah …yeah … yeah … yeah,” and I’m looking at him like “Who is that?” And he looks at me and shrugs so after 20 minute she hangs up. “Who the fuck was that?” He goes “It’s that mother#@^ Salvador Dali. He calls me every day and I don’t know what he’s saying.” And I go “Wait, that was Salvador Dali?.” That was life with Miles.
Miles painted and Salvador loved him and called him every day. Salvador was crazier than Miles. Crazier. A few weeks later we played Barcelona and he came to the show. … He ended up inviting me to his house and I ended up staying there for the day. The following day he had the opening of an exhibit and [his wife] Gala spent the whole time looking for an elephant, calling every zoo, the circus. And I´m seated there watching all this and thinking “These guys are nuts.’”
They did find the elephant, by the way. So for the opening Dali arrived riding the elephant. He made an incredible entrance. He was the king of self-promoters.

FG: You became a bandleader late in your career. What did you take from the different bandleaders you have worked with?

When I moved to Miami, actually [producer, friend and long time collaborator] Rachel Faro, jazz booker Don Wilner and [jazz producer] Ron Weber put a band together for me and I did my very first gig ever as a leader at the Hollywood Jazz Festival.
Rachel Faro: “It was funny because I had to force him to put his congas center stage,” she says.
Sammy Figueroa: It wasn’t fear, I was used to being onstage it’s just that I was so used to be in the background.
As for leading a group, my way out has always been joking around and having fun. I make them laugh, I make them comfortable  they don’t want to go anywhere. But when you deal with difficult guys, I wasn’t really a leader I was too scared, really. A leader is strong and will fire you in a minute. Like Miles. I didn’t have that.

FG: How did you approach your work in Talisman? This is not a straight up Brazilian record. The grooves are Brazilian, obviously, but one can also hear Puerto Rican bomba, Afro-Uruguayan candombe, mambo rhythms even African grooves. What was the plan?

What I played in Talisman is part Brazilian and part Latin because I didn’t want to interfere with what they guys were doing . We had with us [pandeiro player] Bernardo Aguiar and he’s wonderful. So I wanted the guys to play the authentic stuff and I’d play bomba and plena or a really fast mambos for example — and it worked perfectly. If I had played Brazilian conga, which now I know how to play, it would’ve been too Brazilian. Then it wouldn’t have anything to do with what I wanted to do which was to bring the two approaches together. When you are mixing different styles you have to know where and when to put them. Is like a chef. If you put too much condiment you overpower the natural flavor of the food. You need to put the right amount and keep it simple.

EPK Sammy Figueroa and Glaucia Nasser

 


Here, There & Everywhere: The 2013 Jazz Grammy Awards

February 11, 2013

By Don Heckman

The 55th annual Grammy Awards are now history.  But not exactly history-making, especially in the Jazz categories.  It’s hard to imagine anyone being surprised by most of the results.  Or, in fact, by most of nominations.

That’s not to demean, in any way, the work of the jazz artists who did receive Grammy statuettes yesterday.  The list of winners includes Chick Corea and Gary Burton, Esperanza Spalding, Pat Metheny, Arturo Sandoval and the late Clare Fischer’s Latin Jazz Big Band, in the five Jazz categories; and Chick Corea, the late Gil Evans and Spalding and Thara Memory in the Composing and Arranging categories, which have become virtual adjuncts to the Jazz listings.  One could never dispute their skill, artistry or worthiness as winners.

On the upside, it’s good to see the Latin Jazz Category returned to the line-up this year.  But the overall process itself is still uneven, to say the least.  Start with the first category, “Best Improvised Solo.”  What in the world are the standards a voter should use to make choices here?  Improvisation, by definition, is improvised.  How does one determine which spontaneous musical invention is “Best”?

“The Best Jazz Vocal Album” category mixes male and female singers in the same group.  Aside from the reduced number of possible nominees that can be chosen in a gender non-specific category, is it really fair or logical to ask voters to make comparisons between, say, Esperanza Spalding and Al Jarreau?

“The Best Instrumental Jazz Album” is a fairly straight-forward category.  But there are a pair of Chick Corea nominations in this group (especially since he also has two other nominations and a couple of wins in this year’s Awards).  Chick is one of the world’s finest jazz artists, and always worthy of being heard.  But, with the relatively small acknowledgment of jazz in the overall Grammy Award process, shouldn’t the honors be spread around a bit more?

The “Best Large Jazz Album” is hard to figure. It includes only three nominees – especially odd given the surprising numbers of large ensemble jazz recordings that have been arriving lately.

The ”Best Latin Jazz Album” winning choice is a much-deserved acknowledgement of the prolific and musically compelling Latin jazz work of the late Clare Fischer.  And it is done so amid a gifted group of artists reaching across the wide territory of Latin jazz.

Finally, the Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Arrangement, and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) categories can all be praised for the high quality of the nominations, all much deserved.  And it’s especially rewarding to see the honoring of the late master arranger Gil Evans – with nominations and a win – for selections from the Centennial album, a collection of previously unrecorded Evans compositions and arrangements.

Last year I signed off on my Grammy comments by underscoring the fact that every jazz player –like every other musical artist – has to be delighted to receive a gold statuette.  The same applies this year, and every year.  But once again the significance of the Grammys to jazz, and the Awards’ commitment to truly honoring one of America’s greatest cultural contributions, continues to diminish.  Jazz deserves better care.

Here are the Nominees and the Award Winners:

JAZZ AWARDS

31. BEST IMPROVISED SOLO

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***WINNER:CHICK COREA AND GARY BURTON

”Hot House”  (Track from  Hot House Concord Jazz)

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.

- RAVI COLTRANE

“Cross Roads” (Track from Spirit Fiction Blue Note)

- CHICK COREA

“Alice in Wonderland” (Track from Further Explorations Concord Jazz)

- KENNY GARRETT

“J.Mac” (Track from Seeds From the Underground Mack Avenue Records)

- BRAD MEHLDAU

“Ode” (From Ode Nonesuch)

 * * * * * * * * * *

 32. BEST JAZZ VOCAL ALBUM

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***WINNER: ESPERANZA SPALDING

Radio Music Society (Heads Up International)

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.

.

DENISE DONATELLI

Soul Shadows (Savant Records)

 – KURT ELLING

1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project Concord Jazz)

-  AL JARREAU  (and the Metropole Orkest)

Live (Concord)

- LUCIANA SOUZA 

The Book of Chet (Sunnyside Records)

 * * * * * * * * * *

 33. BEST INSTRUMENTAL JAZZ ALBUM

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***WINNER: PAT METHENY UNITY BAND

Unity Band (Nonesuch)

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.

- CHICK COREA, EDDIE GOMEZ, PAUL MOTIAN

Further Explorations (Concord Jazz)

- CHICK COREA AND GARY BURTON

Hot House (Concord Jazz

- KENNY GARRETT

Seeds From the Underground (Mack Avenue Records)

 – AHMAD JAMAL

Blue Moon (Jazz Village)

* * * * * * * * * *

34. BEST LARGE JAZZ ENSEMBLE ALBUM

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***WINNER: ARTURO SANDOVAL BAND

Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You) (Concord Jazz)

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.

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- GIL EVANS PROJECT

Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans (ArtistShare)

- BOB MINTZER BIG BAND

For The Moment (MCG Jazz)

 * * * * * * * * * *

 35. BEST LATIN JAZZ ALBUM

C

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***WINNER: THE CLARE FISCHER LATIN JAZZ BIG BAND

Ritmo! (Clare Fischer Productions/Clavo Records)

,

,

- CHANO DOMINGUEZ

Flamenco Sketches (Blue Note)

- BOBBY SANABRIA BIG BAND

Multiverse (Jazzheads)

- LULCIANA SOUZA

Duos III (Sunnyside Records)

- MANUEL VALERA NEW CUBAN EXPRESS

New Cuban Express (Mavo Records)

* * * * * * * * * *

 59. BEST INSTRUMENTAL COMPOSITION

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.

***WINNER: CHICK COREA

“Mozart Goes Dancing” (from Hothouse, Concord Jazz)

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.

- CHUCK LOEB

“December Dream” (from Esprit De Four Heads Up International.)

 - CHRIS BRUBECK AND DAVE BRUBECK

“Music of Ansel Adams: America” with the Temple University Symphony Orchestra (BCM&D Records)

- BILL CUNLIFFE

Overture, Waltz and Rondo” with the Temple University Symphony Orchestra (BCM&D Records)

- BILL HOLMAN

“Without A Paddle” (from High On You Bosco Records)

 * * * * * * * * * *

 60. BEST INSTRUMENTAL ARRANGEMENT

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***WINNER: GIL EVANS (Gil Evans Project)

“How About You” (from Centennial:Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans ArtistShare)

.

.

- MICHAEL PHILIP MOSSMAN (for the Bobby Sanabria Big Band)

“Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite For Ellington” (from Multiverse Jazzheads)

- BOB MINTZER  (for the Bob Mintzer Big Band)

“Irrequieto” (from For The Moment MCG Jazz)

-WALLY MINKO (for Arturo Sandoval Band)

“A Night In Tunisia (Actually An Entire Weekend!) (from Dear Diz (Every Day I Think Of You Concord Jazz)

- GORDON GOODWIN  (for Arturo Sandoval Band)

“Salt Peanuts (Mani Salado)”  (from Dear Diz (Every Day I Think Of You Concord Jazz)

 * * * * * * * * * *

 61. BEST INSTRUMENTAL ARRANGEMENT ACCOMPANYING VOCALIST (S)

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***WINNER – THARA MEMORY & ESPERANZA SPALDING (for Esperanza Spalding)

“City of Roses” (from Radio Music Society Heads Up International)

.

.

- NAN SCHWARTZ  (for Whitney Claire Kaufman)

“ Wild Is the Wind”  (from The Greatest Film Scores of Dimitri Tiomkin” LSO Live)

- GIL EVANS  (for Gil Evans Project and Luciana Souza)

“Look To the Rainbow” (from Centennial:Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans ArtistShare)

- SHELLY BERG  (for Lorraine Feather)

“Out There” (from Tales of the Unusual Jazzed Media)

- VINCE MENDOZA  (for Al Jarreau and the Metropole Orkest)

“Spain (I Can Recall)” (from Live  Concord Records)


Live Jazz: The Clare Fischer Big Band at Typhoon

February 7, 2013

By Michael Katz

Santa Monica, CA.  Anyone who has followed the Latin jazz scene in Southern California is well acquainted with the work of Clare Fischer. The keyboardist and composer, who passed away in January, 2012, left a trove of compositions, including “Pensitiva” and “Morning” and a large jazz ensemble that his son, Brent, has been leading for the past decade. Tuesday night at Typhoon, in Santa Monica, Brent used the occasion of the band’s Grammy nomination to present an eclectic set of Latin, straight ahead and classically influenced jazz.

The Grammy nomination (Best Latin Jazz) is for Ritmo! and over two sets, the band  covered most of the tracks on the CD.  Its energy base stemmed from a pulsating rhythm section that featured Quinn Johnson on electric keyboards, providing the kinetic backdrop that Clare had contributed to the Cal Tjader sound. Billy Hulting kept things percolating on the congas and Ron Manoag was steady on the jazz drums and percussion. Brent Fischer provided splashes of support on the vibes, though he stuck mostly to gilding the basic melodic lines, and Ken Wild held forth on bass.

Brent Fischer and the Clare Fischer Big Band

Brent Fischer and the Clare Fischer Big Band

The opening numbers “Funquiado” and “Guarabe” showed off the depth of the band’s sections. The trumpets featured Rob Schaer as section leader and the veteran Ron Stout as lead soloist. Stout helped launch the evening with his work on “Funquiado,” while Josh Aguiar and Brian Mantz took the lead on “Guarabe.” The most stunning turn on that composition was by the great trombonist Francisco Torres. Torres, who has shined throughout the jazz scene here in LA, has a sound both lush and strident. His solos snapped both band and audience to attention, then melted back to the insistent beat of “Guarabe.”

Ten years ago, Brent Fischer recorded a jazz arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition and the various movements were integrated into both sets Tuesday night. Brent took full advantage of a woodwind section that had all the players doubling on saxophones, clarinets and flutes.  Alex Budman, the leader of the section, excelled on alto, flute, and even piccolo. In the movement that opened up the second set, tenor sax player Tom Luer picked up his flute and bari saxist Lee Callet completed the trio on alto flute. Later, on “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks,” the section switched to clarinets, with Kirsten Edkins delivering some beautiful work on soprano sax.

One of the highlights of the evening was “In The Beginning,” which I would list as my favorite Clare Fischer tune that I never knew he’d written until last night.  Hubert Laws recorded it on one of his classic CTI albums, with Clare on keyboards. The frenetic lines at the song’s outset reflect the chaos of Creation, then drop slowly into the primordial ooze of a funky blues riff. Lee Callet, on baritone sax, grabbed that blues line perfectly and carried it home, handing it off to Budman and then the rest of the band as Brent Fischer led the ensemble back to its early scramble.

There were lots of moments to admire over the evening’s performance. The space itself, on the second floor of the airport’s small terminal, provided surprisingly good acoustics; all the solos were robust and clear. Trombonist Scott Whitfield had a nice scat-singing chorus as the second set opened, to go along with strong playing throughout. I especially liked the tenor sax work of Tom Luer. There’s a select few on the instrument who possess an unmistakable sound.  I wouldn’t put anyone in the class of Trane or Getz on the basis of a few solos, but Luer’s tone was reminiscent of Ernie Watts; he’s someone I’d like to hear more from.

As the second set continued to a typically diminished LA crowd, I put my pen down and floated along with the rhythms of the band’s particular West Coast Latin sound,  one that was carved out  by the likes of Cal Tjader and Clare Fischer and continues on with Poncho Sanchez and Brent Fischer. It seems particularly suited to our climate, even on a chilly February night.  The band closed with a three part medley, “Canonic Passacaglia, Blues and Vamp ’til Ready,” which featured, among others, Tom Luer again on tenor and Josh Aguiar on trumpet.  Fischer added a flourish on vibes, and that was the end of the pre-Grammy celebration.

Whether they win or not, it’s a terrific legacy to a great sound.

* * * * *

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.


Live Jazz: The Gary Foster Quartet at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

June 10, 2012

By Don Heckman

It’s always a good night at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. when the club’s Music Director, bassist Pat Senatore, books some of L.A.’s finest players for a laid-back, quasi-jam session performance.  On Friday night, it was a quartet led by alto saxophonist/flutist Gary Foster, with pianist Tom Ranier, drummer Ramon Banda and Senatore.  In two sets of far-ranging tunes, they affirmed – as happens so often at Vibrato – the skill and imagination that courses through the Southland’s impressive community of resident jazz artists.

Gary Foster

Foster will be the first to acknowledge that his playing contains traces of sound and substance influenced by his close friend and occasional musical companion, Lee Konitz.  But what he does with those qualities is completely his own – a style rich with melody, even in briskly swinging up-tempos, enhanced by articulate, always intriguing rhythmic phrasing.

Ranier’s style, equally expressive, underscored by his classical roots – was the perfect creative counter for Foster, made even more empathic by the fact that Ranier is also a saxophonist and clarinetist in his own right.

The program of material, seemingly selected on the fly, ranged from familiar Songbook standards to a few jazz classics (many of which were equally indebted to chord changes from standards).  The Johnny Mercer/Jimmy Van Heusen classic “I Thought About You” was the opener, a perfect vehicle for Foster to demonstrate his warm tone and lyrical phrasing.  Other, similarly memorable ballads followed: Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now”; Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “It Could Happen To You”; and a lovely bossa nova from Clare Fischer, featuring Foster’s soaring flute lines.

Faster lines were delivered with crisp, enthusiastic drive, underscored by Senatore’s solid, in-the-pocket bass lines and Banda’s percussive enthusiasm.  Among the most memorable: Ranier and Foster motoring in unison through a fast-fingered Konitz-Marsh line based on the chord changes of “Out Of Nowhere”; a Tadd Dameron bebop classic – “Hot House” – based on the changes of “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

A well balanced program, in other words, performed by a quartet of players thoroughly capable of bringing it to full musical life.  And fully characteristic of the sort of first rate jazz that can be found on almost any given night at Vibrato.  Now, if we could just persuade the crowd at the bar to pay as much attention to the music as they do to each other…


Here, There & Everywhere: The 2012 Jazz Grammy Winners

February 13, 2012

By Don Heckman

The 2012 Grammys are in, and once again there’s not much sound of surprise in the results.  Certainly nothing in the same ballpark as last year’s Best New Artist award for Esperanza Spalding.  That’s not to say that any of the wins were undeserved.  Because they all were the products of gifted artists doing their best. Nor were any of the nominees any less deserving than the winners.

Still, both the awards and the Recording Academy’s current approach to jazz raise some questioning observations.  Take, for example, the inclusion of Terri Lyne Carrington’ s The Mosaic Project in the Jazz Vocal grouping.  Doesn’t it seem inevitable that a collection of songs by such major names as Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson and, yes, Esperanza Spalding (among others) is going to have a major head start in any competition against recordings by single artists?  What chance did the other nominees – especially the unusually superlative trio of albums from Tierney Sutton, Roseanna Vitro and Karrin Allyson – have against a full line-up of such musical heavyweights?

Notice, too, some of the repetitions: multiple nominations for Randy Brecker, Fred Hersch and Sonny Rollins.  Great artists, all, but where are the nominations for the youngest generation of jazz players?  It’s worth noting that Gerald Clayton is the only nominee still in his twenties.  And Miguel Zenon is the only nominee still in his thirties.

Add to that several aspects in this year’s awards procedures that underscore the diminishing role that jazz is playing in the Grammy overview.  Start with the reduced number of categories.  In 2011 there were six: Contemporary Jazz Album, Vocal Album, Improvised Jazz Solo, Jazz Instrumental Album (Individual or Group), Large Jazz Album and Latin Jazz Album.

This year, there are four: Best Improvised Jazz Solo, Best Jazz Vocal Album, Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Some jazz fans won’t miss the Contemporary category, despite the fact that its absence eliminates the presence of some fine, pop-oriented jazz stylists.  But the Latin Jazz omission is unforgivable, and should receive careful re-consideration in the planning for next year’s Grammys.

In the listings below, I’ve also included Best Instrumental Arrangement and Best Instrumental Composition, because, in these nominees, the emphasis is almost completely in the direction of jazz.  They could easily have had different orientations — pop, rock, electronica, classical and otherwise — given the all-inclusive nature of the descriptions “Instrumental Arrangement” and “Instrumental Composition.”

Ultimately, the single word that comes to mind in considering all the above is “irrelevant.”  Receiving a Grammy award continues to be one of the music world’s greatest honors – for the individual artist.  And every jazz player –like every other musical artist – has to be delighted to receive the gold statuette.  But the overall significance of the Grammys to jazz, the Awards’ full commitment to honoring one of America’s greatest cultural contributions, continues to diminish.  And if it continues in its current direction, the long, historical Grammy/jazz connection won’t just be irrelevant, it’ll be non-existent.

Here are this year’s awards:

Best Improvised Jazz Solo

 Winner.  Chick Corea : “Five Hundred Miles Highfrom Forever.

Other Nominees:

Randy Brecker: “All or Nothing at All” from The Jazz ballad Song Book

Ron Carter: “You Are My Sunshine” from This Is Jazz.

Fred Hersch: “Work” from Alone at the Vanguard.

Sonny Rollins: “Sunnymoon For Two: from Road Shows, Vol. 2.

Best Jazz Vocal album

Winner: Terri Lyne Carrington and Various Artists: The Mosaic Project.

Other Nominees:

Tierney Sutton Band: American Road

Karrin Allyson: ‘Round Midnight.

Kurt Elling: The Gate.

Roseanna Vitro: The Music of Randy Newman.

Best Jazz Instrumental Album

Winner: Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny White.  Corea, Clark & White.

Other Nominees:

Gerald Clayton: The Paris Sessions.

Fred Hersch: Alone at the Vanguard.

Joe Lovano/Us Five: Bird Songs.

Sonny Rollins: Road Shows, Vol.2

Yellowjackets: Timeline.

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album

Winner: Christian McBride Big Band. The Good Feeling.

Other Nominees:

Randy Brecker with the WDR Big Band: The Jazz Ballad Song Book.

Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: 40 Acres and a Burro.

Gerald Wilson Orchestra; Legacy.

Miguel Zenon: Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook

Best Instrumental Arrangement

Winner: Gordon Goodwin: Rhapsody in Blue.

Other Nominees:

Peter Jensen: ‘All or Nothing At All” (for Randy Brecker with the GDR Big Band)

Clare Fischer: “In the Beginning: (from the Clare Fischer Big band’s Continuum.)

Bob Brookmeyer: “Nasty Dance.” (from the Vanguard Jazz Orchstra’s Forever Lasting).

Carlos Franzetti: “Song Without Words” (from Alborada).

Best Instrumental Composition

Winner: Bela Fleck and Howard Levy: “Life In Eleven” from Rocket Science.

Other Nominees:

John Hollenbeck: “Falling Men” from Shut Up and Dance.

Gordon Goodwin: “Hunting Wabbits 3 (Get Off My Lawn) from That’s How We Roll.

Randy Brecker: “I Talk To The Trees” from The Jazz Ballad Song Book.

Russell Ferrante: “Timeline” from Timeline.


Picks of the Week: Jan. 16 – 22

January 15, 2012

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Clare Fischer

- Jan. 16. (Mon.)  Clare Fischer Big Band.  The multiple Grammy-winning composer/arranger/pianist (and more) has a resume reaching from Dizzy Gillespie and Donald Byrd to Prince and Paul McCartney, with numerous stops in between.  His own groups have reached from small to large, covering a brilliantly eclectic array of creative styles.  This time out, it’s his dynamic, colorful music for big band.  However, because Fischer is recovering from a recent heart attack, the performance will be conducted by his son, arranger/composer Brent FischerVitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

- Jan. 17. (Tues.)  Pia Zadora. Singer, actress, Golden Globe winner and Grammy nominee Zadora has always been at her best in live performances, when her natural skills as an entertainer are on full display, as they undoubtedly will be here. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- Jan. 17 – 21. (Tues. – Sat.)  Gilad Hekselman.  Critically praised Israeli jazz guitarist Hekselman is the winner of the 2005 Gibson Guitar Competition.  This week he introduces himself to the Southland via a string of appearances around L.A., mostly with Ben Wendel, tenor saxophone, Dave Robair, bass and Ferenc Nemeth, drums.  On Tues. with John Pisano and Robair at Vitello’s.  On Wed. with the Matt Otto Quartet at the Blue Whale.  On Thurs. with his Quartet at Alva’s Showroom.  On Friday with his Trio  at Agoura High School.  And on Saturday with his Quartet at the Blue Whale.

- Jan. 19. (Thurs.) Billy Childs Electric Band.  Ever eager to take his probing musical curiosity into different territories, pianist/composer Childs takes a break from his chamber jazz ensemble to turn on the switches of his Electric Band.  The Baked Potato.  (818) 980-1615.

- Jan. 19 – 21. (Thurs. – Sat. ) Chris Minh Doky.  Danish bassist/producer Doky has thoroughly established himself – via his own groups, his producing, and the band he formed with his brother, Chris – as one of the vital players in today’s contemporary, crossover jazz scene.  His group, the Nomads, is energized by the vibrant drumming of Dave Weckl. Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

- Jan. 20. (Fri.) OVOCirque d’Soleil’s latest extraordinary adventure opens at the Santa Monica Pier. This time out, the company’s incredibly gifted performers, musicians and artists take on the world of insects, a world enlivened by elements that are “tender and torrid, noisy and quiet, peaceful and chaotic. ” All of which becomes even more engaging when a mysterious egg appears in their midst.  Cirque d’Soleil’s  OVO.  Under the big top at the Santa Monica Pier.

- Jan. 20. (Fri.) KALPA.  A fascinating multi-media event takes place in the wide open spaces of the Getty Center Entrance Hall Steps and Arrival Plaza.  Created by Hirokazu Kosaka, it has a score by Yuval Ron.  Performers include Tetsuya Nakamura, harmonica and Japanese circular pan flute, Yuval Ron, autoharp and electronics, Rafael Lopez-Barrentez, vocals.  The Getty Center.    (310) 440-7300.

Elis Regina

- Jan. 21.  (Sat.)  “Elis: A Celebration.”  Singer/dancer Katia Moraes has assembled a tribute to the legendary Brazilian singer, Elis Regina – an influence on Moraes’ musical growth from the time she was a teen-ager.  The event includes a photo art exhibition, a video screening, and a live performance, all focused on memories of the remarkable Elis.  Brasil Brasil Cultural Center.   (310_ 397-3667.

- Jan. 21. (Sat.) Kathleen Battle.  The gorgeous voice of soprano Battle is applied to a program of spirituals, backed by pianist Cyrus Chestnut and the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers.  Royce Hall. UCLA Live.    (310) 825-2101.

Gretchen Parlato

- Jan. 21. (Sat.)  Gretchen Parlato.  In a jazz world populated by a continuing line of newly arriving female singers, Parlato continues to hold her own.  Applying her subtle range of vocal sounds with creative insights, telling musical stories enriched with flowing rhythms, she is a memorable performer – one of a kind. The Musicians Institute Concert Center.  A Jazz Bakery Movable Feast.    (310) 271-9039.

Jan. 21 – 22. (Sat. & Sun.)  New Shanghai Circus.  Acrobats, tumblers, contortionists and strong men, aerial ballet and flying trapeze acts  – and that’s just the beginning of the astonishing sights presented by this extraordinary collection of talented artists.  Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.    (562) 916-8501.

- Jan. 22.  (Sun.)  Los Angeles Chamber OrchestraMostly MozartAndrew Shulman conducts the versatile and gifted players of the LACO in Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, the Violin Concerto No. 3 (featuring violinist Nigel Armstrong) and the Walton Sonata For Strings. Royce Hall.  UCLA Live.   (310) 825-2101.

Ojai

Ron Eschete

- Jan. 21. (Sat.)  Ron Eschete Trio.  Seven string guitar master Eschete joins forces with Joe Bagg, B-3 organ and piano and Paul Kreibich, drums, to generate an irresistible example of the musical pleasures of the classic jazz organ/guitar/drums trio,.  Ojai Jazz Concerts at the Ojai Valley Community Church.    (805) 746-0936.

San Francisco

- Jan. 20 – 21. (Fri. & Sat.)  Bobby Hutcherson Birthday.  The veteran vibist shares the excitement of his 71st birthday (On Jan. 27) via a musical celebration featuring a musical encounter with the impressive young vibes player, Warren WolfYoshi’s San Francisco.     (415) 655-5600.

Santa Cruz

- Jan. 19. (Thurs.)  Mads Tolling.  A Grammy-winning, former member of the Turtle Island String Quartet, Danish-American violinist Tolling offers a musical tribute to electric violin path-finder, Jean-Luc Ponty.   Kuumbwa Jazz.   (831) 427-2227.

San Diego

- Jan. 18. (Wed.)  The Family Stone. Some of the most electrically exciting music of the ‘70s is still vibrantly alive in the hands of original members of Sly’s Family Stone: Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini and Greg ErricoAnthology.    (619) 595-0300.

Seattle

- Jan 19 – 22. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Jeff Lorber Fusion.  When keyboardist Lorber first came up with the concept of jazz fusion in the late ‘70s, it was invigorated by deep jazz roots.  As it is today, especially with a line up like this, with Randy Brecker, trumpet, Eric Marienthal, alto saxophone, Lionel Cordew, drums and Ron Jenkins, bass.  Jazz Alley.     (206) 441-9729.

Washington, D.C.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

- Jan. 19. (Thurs.)  Rudresh Mahanthappa.  Rapidly establishing himself as one of the most critically praised new voices on the jazz alto saxophone, Mahanthappa is bringing new ideas and sounds to jazz.  He’s featured here as one of four India-related jazz artists (with Sachel Vasandani, Sanjay Mishra and Rez Abbasi) appearing in the “Indian Jazz Series” from Monday through Thursday.  Blues Alley.   (202) 337-4141.

Boston

- Jan. 21. (Sat.)  Pat Martino Organ Trio. Despite a pair of career absences that took him completely away from music for more than a decade (the first due to a brain aneurysm, the second when his parents became ill) Martino – one of jazz’s most virtuosic guitarists – has continued to build a solid musical career.  Here he performs in classic organ trio setting. Regatta Bar.    (617) 661-5000.

New York

- Jan. 17 – 22. (Tues. – Sun.)  The Chris Potter Quartet.  Sometimes taken for granted, for his ability to make other groups sound compelling, tenor saxophonist Potter is nonetheless a unique talent in his own right, one who deserves every jazz listener’s full attention.  The Village Vanguard.    (212) 255-4037.

- Jan 17 – 22.  (Tues. – Sun.)  Bill Frisell, Ron Carter and Joey Baron. It would be hard to imagine a more inventively adept, musical versatile trio of players than this stellar group.  Expect something new and magical every night. The Blue Note.    (212) 475-8592.

Lou Donaldson

- Jan. 19 – 22. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Lou Donaldson Quartet.  At 85, alto saxophonist Donaldson is still going strong.  The traces of his early allegiance to Charlie Parker are still present, but Donaldson long ago embraced them with his own stirring improvisational methods.  The Jazz Standard.    (212) 889-2005.

- Jan. 22. (Sun.)  Carnatic Sundays.  South Indian music is on full display in this intriguing evening of music.  Karavika is a string and tabla ensemble exploring the intersection between Carnatic music and American blues, jazz and folk music. The Arun Ramumurthy Quartet features the virtuosic violin of Ramumurthy in a quartet with bass, jazz drum set and the two-headed South Indian mridangam drum.  Cornelia St. Café.    (212) 989-9319.

London

- Jan. 16 & 17. (Mon. & Tues.)  Carmen Lundy. Singer/songwriter/actress Lundy is a jazz rara avis, a female  vocalist who also writes her own songs.  And who does so with imaginative skill.  Add to that the fact that Lundy also finds new stories in the standard jazz songbook, bringing fascinating perspectives to material old and new.  Ronnie Scott’s.  020 7439 0747.

Milan

- Jan 17. (Tues.)  John Abercrombie and Mark CoplandSpeak To Me, the first duo recording of guitarist Abercrombie and pianist Copland, released late 2011, was a classic display of subtle, thoughtfully conceived jazz interplay at its most mesmerizing.  The Blue Note Milano.   02.69.01.68.88.

Tokyo

Pat Metheny

- Jan. 20 – 28.  (Fri. – Sat.)  An Evening With Pat Metheny.  With frequent musical associate bassist Larry Grenadier on hand, inventive Metheny will no doubt offer the  full range of sounds and music – hopefully including his 42 string Pikasso guitar – he’s been exploring lately in his constant creative adventuring.   The Blue Note Tokyo.    03.5485.0088.

Ron Eschete photo by Bob Barry.


Picks of the Week: August 2 – 7

August 2, 2011

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

- Aug. 2 (Tues.) Yes and Styx. Two of the classic rock franchises — still going strong — team up for a display of some of the archetypal music of the ’70s and ’80s. The Greek Theatre.  (323) 665-5857.

Jessica Molasky and John Pizzarelli

- Aug. 3 – 7. (Wed. – Sun.) John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molasky. Collectively and individually, the married team of singer/guitarist Pizzarelli and vocalist Molasky make for one of the jazz world’s most entertaining acts. Capable of generating the humor of the great husband and wife teams of the past, they also bring a rare blend of musicality to their singing and playing that is uniquely their own. Catalina Bar & Grill. (323) 466-2210.

- Aug. 3 – 7. (Wed. – Sun.) Clarinet Fest 2011. Everything you ever wanted to know about the clarinet, or hear about the clarinet will undoubtedly take place in this large assemblage of programs and seminars. Clarinet ensembles of every stripe will perform.  Among the many highlights are performances on Sunday by the Eddie Daniels Quintet and the Clare Fischer Clarinet Choir. But there are numerous others, from many other parts of the world. Clarinet Fest 2011 in the Valley Performing Arts Center at CalState Northridge.

- Aug. 4. (Thurs.) Ron Kalina’s Birthday Bash. Versatil jazz harmonica player Kalina — who also plays piano, leads a celebratory evening of music to remember. He’s backed by vibist Gino Antonachi, bassist Pat Senatore and drummer Ryan Doyle. Vibrato Jazz Grill…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- Aug. 4. (Thurs.) Hippiefest. The annual installment of music from the peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll generation returns for the sixth time. The headliners are Dave Mason (Traffic), Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad), Rick Derringer, Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals and Gary Wright. The Greek Theatre.  (323) 665-5857.

- Aug. 4. (Thurs.) Yemen Blues. The Skirball’s always entertaining, free Sunset Concerts continue with an appearance by a band that produces a steaming gumbo of music spiced with elements of jazz, blues, Jewish melodies and African grooves. Don’t plan to sit still when this band starts to kick it. Skirball Center.  (310) 440-4500.

Annie Sellick

- Aug. 6. (Sat.) Annie Sellick. Her bold, assertive style, blended with occasional touches of vulnerability make Sellick an appealing singer — one whose work warrants a wider hearing than she seems to be receiving. Steamers.  (714) 871-8800.

- Aug. 6. (Sat.) Judy Wexler. Critically praised jazz vocalist Wexler celebrates the release of her third CD, Under A Painted Sky, backed by some of the stellar players on the album — pianist/arranger Alan Pasqua, guitarist Larry Koonse, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Steve Hass. Vitello’s.  (818) 769-0905.

San Francisco

- Aug 5 – 7. (Fri. – Sun.) Los Van Van. It’s been more than four decades since Juan Formell organized the fusion Cuban band Los Van Van. Expanding on the traditional charanga style, instrumentally as well as the choice of material, he created a band that continues to provide musical thrills at every performance. Yoshis Oakland.  (510) 238-9200.

Turtle Island String Quartet

- Aug. 7. (Sun.) Turtle Island String Quartet. When the Turtle Islanders first posited the notion that the members of a string quartet — if they possessed the right blend of talent and imagination — could play with the creative liberation of a jazz group, it seemed a radical idea. (Despite the fact that their goal also included reviving the improvisation that had been for centuries a fundamental part of classical music as well.) But they’ve made their case convincingly, winning Grammy awards and opening an expressive pathway that more ensembles should explore. Yoshi’s San Francisco.  (415) 655-5600.

Seattle

Aug. 4 – 7. (Thurs. – Sun.) Bill Frisell. Ever on the trail of another musical idea, Frisell’s Beautiful Dreamers features violinst Eyvind Kang and drummer Rudy Royston in a challenging, but potentially productive musical setting. Jazz Alley.  (206) 441-9729.

Chicago

Charles McPherson

Aug. 4 – 7. (Thurs. – Sun.) Charles McPherson. It’ll be an evening of Charlie Parker revisited when McPherson steps on stage. But not in an imitative sense. McPherson’s connection with Parker is inspirational, and the results are always musically compelling. Jazz Showcase.  (312) 360-0234.

New York

-Aug. 2 – 4. (Tues. – Thurs.) McCoy Tyner expands his usual trio format to a quintet featuring the two saxophone front line tenorist Ravi Coltrane and alto Gary Bartz. And it’s hard to imagine a more compatible assemblage of world class players. Birdland.  (212) 581-3080.

- Aug. 3. (Wed.) The Center for Improvisational Music. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi, alto saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Kris Davis, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Gerald Cleaver — present and former faculty members — celebrate the 10th anniversary of the School for Improvised Music’s pioneering work in the exploration of the art of improvisation. Cornelia St. Cafe.  (212) 989-9319.

London

Claire Martin

- Aug. 4 (Thurs.) Claire Martin. She’s often described as England’s best jazz singer, which may well be true. But Martin is more than that — a versatile performer with the capacity to find the inner life of whatever she sings in whatever style. She appears with the Richard Rodney Bennett/Bobby Wellins Quartet. Ronnie Scott’s.  020 7439 0747.

Tokyo

- Aug. 2 – 5. (Tues. – Fri.) Joyce with special guest Sergio Santos. Singer/songwriter Joyce — who now occasionally also uses her last name, Moreno, has been a highly visible figure in Brazilian music since the MPB era. Still an engaging performer, she appears here with the gifted guitarist/songwriter/singer Santos, whose talents are still too little known in the U.S. The Blue Note Tokyo.  03-5485-0088.


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