Live Music: Cat Conner at Catalina Bar & Grill

November 18, 2014

By Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA.  Jazz vocalist Cat Conner‘s performance at Catalina Bar & Grill last week was clearly expected to be a special event, which is precisely how it turned out.

Cat Conner

It was, first of all, a release party for Cat’s new CD, appropriately titled Cat House. Add to that the fact that any of her performances are exciting events for fans of jazz singing. And, adding memorable jazz icing to the cake, she was accompanied by a collection of the Southland’s finest, most versatile jaz musicians.

The latter aspect was no surprise, since her stellar six piece band – saxophonist woodwind artist Gene “Cip” Cipriano, pianist Tom Ranier, guitarist John Chiodini, trumpeter Ron Stout, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Joe La Barbera – are all present on Cat’s new album. And it was also no surprise that Cat – like all singers hosting a CD release party – devoted her program to a collection of songs from the CD.

The Cat Cpnner Band

The Cat Cpnner Band

Any of Cat’s many fans will attest to the fact that the Canadian-born songstress is always a joy to hear, regardless of the circumstances. And even more so when all the musical elements are firmly in place, as they were in this outing. Appearing comfortable, relaxed and completely at ease from the first moment she stepped on stage, Cat underscored the appealing musical empathy of her program with an equally engaging interaction with her audience.

Cat Conner sings with her band

Cat Conner sings with her band

The musical highlights of her performance were especially present in her choice of songs from the album. And especially so in such varied selections as a briskly swinging ‘How Much Do I Love You,” a vocalese version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and such varied American Songbook classics as “You Are My Everything,” “Baltimore Oriole” and “What A Little Moonlight Can Do”

Cat Conner

Cat Conner

Topping off her program, Cat added a poignant original song, “People Say (Song For Rob).” Written for the infant son she gave up for adoption many years ago, she introduced it as “a song to finally allow me to say how I felt for all the years of yearning for him.”

It was an extraordinary ending for a memorable musical evening, an evening glowing with convincing evidence of Cat’s ability to find the heart of a song – from jaunty swing tunes to richly emotional ballads.

All of which is equally present, as well, on her new CD Cat House. And fans of jazz singing who were not present to share the pleasures of her CD release party are hereby advised to check out the album for a full musical offering of Cat Conner’s vocal artistry.

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Photos by Faith Frenz


Live Music: The Thelonious Monk 2014 International Jazz Competition Gala

November 11, 2014

By Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA. The 2014 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition came to a dramatic conclusion Sunday night in a All-Star Gala event at Dolby Hall in Hollywood. This year, the Competition was for trumpet players. And the three finalists each offered a display of their considerable skills in a setting that allowed each player to perform a pair of selections of their own choice. And it was no surprise that works by Thelonious Monk were popular choices.

Inevitably, there was a winner, a second and a third place finisher, as follows:

1st Place Winner: Marquis Hill from Chicago.

1st Place Winner: Marquis Hill from Chicago.

 

2nd Place Winner: Billy Buss from Berkeley

2nd Place Winner: Billy Buss from Berkeley

3rd Place Winner Adam O’Farrill from Brooklyn

But the prevalent thought that came to mind while hearing these fine young players in action was the firm belief that each of the prodigal musicians had displayed all the skills required for successful careers in the musical world in general and the jazz world specifically. And, win or place as a finalist, they all will benefit from the visibility associated with having placed so high in such a major competition.

In addition to the Competition finals, the Gala presented a concert clearly intended as a celebration of jazz itself, in its many shapes, sizes, styles, disguises and a lot more. As a result, much of the music was far more closely related to pop, blues, rock, soul and beyond. No problem there, except in the passages attempting to shoe horn those genres into a jazz setting.

In its best, moments, however – especially when singers Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves, and instrumentalists Herbie Hancock, John Beasley, Wayne Shorter, Marcus Miller, Stefon Harris, Joshua Redman and others were on stage – the program’s jazz roots were ever present.

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Taj Mahal

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Taj Mahal

The Gala concert was hosted by Kevin Spacey, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Don Cheadle, Goldie Hawn and Billy Dee Williams. It included performances by a multi-generational group of all-stars including Musical Director John Beasley, Pharrell Williams, John Mayer, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Wayne Shorter, Queen Latifah, Jimmy Heath, Chaka Khan, Taj Mahal, Dianne Reeves, Marcus Miller, Kenny Burrell, Stefon Harris, T.S. Monk, Joshua Redman, Jon Faddis, Billy Childs, Vinnie Colaiuta, James Genus, Theo Croker, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Dontae Winslow, Melissa Aldana and others.

President Bill Clinton and Herbie Hancock

President Bill Clinton and Herbie Hancock

As if the presence of all the stellar names on that list wasn’t enough, the Monk Institute also honored President Bill Clinton with the Institute’s 2014 Maria Fisher Founder’s Award. Each year, the Founder’s Award is presented to an individual who has made major contributions to the Institute, the perpetuation of jazz, and the expansion of jazz and music education programs. President Clinton received the award from Herbie Hancock, Chairman of the Monk Institute, with a smile and a wave to the crowd. He did not, apparently, ask to sit in on tenor saxophone.

The Gala ended with a crowded backstage party for participants and friends of the Monk Institute, enlivened by conversations already speculating on possibilities for next year’s Monk Competition.

Which was good news for music education. Proceeds from the All-Star Gala Concerts support the Institute’s jazz education programs in public schools across America.

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Photos courtesy of Steve Mundinger/Thelonious Monk Institute Of Jazz


In Conversation: Herbie Hancock and Don Heckman at Book Soup

November 9, 2014

By Bonnie Perkinson

On November 3rd,  a rare event took place in West Hollywood. The kind and welcoming staff of Book Soup had an In Conversation event with two giants of jazz: the singular genius, Herbie Hancock; and the soft spoken, elegant, musician and music critic Don Heckman.

The aisles were filled with people of all ages, delighted to have  the opportunity to hear the wise and ever youthful Mr. Hancock, share stories from his life and autograph his new book.

His memoir, Possibilities, written with the fine assistance of Lisa Dickey and published by Viking, will soon be read  by lovers of jazz and music worldwide.

Herbie Hancock gestures with hand 2

The crowd was taken by Mr. Hancock’s kindness, wit and contagious optimism, while deeply moved by his strength and capacity to visit and discuss the rougher waters of his life.  As well as his patient willingness to autograph dozens of new copies of Possibilities.

With the mindless worship of idiotic celebrities in our time, what a privilege it was to spend an evening with a legend of such inventiveness, so lacking in pretense, and brave as a man and musician. We should all feel fortunate to be living while Mr. Hancock is here to lift us up with his joyous sound and horizons of possibilities.

A great deal of thanks should be given to KPFK – 90.7 FM, a proud sponsor of the evening. The station has brilliant and diverse musical programming and delivers news with no corporate funding.

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Photos by photo-journalist Bonnie Perkinson.


Live Jazz: Bob Sheppard with the Pat Senatore Trio at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

November 2, 2014

By Don Heckman

Bel Air, CA.  Some of the best nights for jazz in Los Angeles take place on the week nights when the city’s prime jazz destinations – Catalina Bar & Grill, Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc., the Blue Whale and beyond – schedule appearances by the Southland’s finest side men (and side women). By the players, in other words, who spend most of their time working as back-ups, rhythm sections and big band section players. Many of whom are also busy studio musicians, performing daily on the sound tracks for films and television, on recordings for everything from country music and the blues to jazz, pop and classical music.

Bob Sheppard and Pat Senatore

Bob Sheppard and Pat Senatore

Friday night at Vibrato was a good example. Bob Sheppard, a master of woodwind instruments of every shape and size, gave a full fledged display of his far-ranging jazz skills, backed by bassist Pat Senatore’s equally skillful trio of masterful instrumentalists (Senatore, bass; Tom Ranier, piano; Ramon Banda, drums).

At its best – which was throughout the entire set – the music had the laid back, spontaneous creativity of a jam session. And with good reason. Sheppard and the Senatore trio players have plenty of familiarity with each other, in all sorts of musical settings. And a relaxed, laid back gig in the amiable environs of Vibrato’s jazz-friendly setting allowed plenty of room for the music to flow freely.

With good reason, Sheppard was at the center of it all. And watching him proceed from one instrument to the other was not just a display of versatile technique. It was also an opportunity to enjoy the work of a masterful jazz artist – one who hasn’t yet received the widespread recognition that his talent deserves.

Bob Sheppard

Bob Sheppard

And there was another aspect as well. Sheppard played tenor and soprano saxophones, flute and clarinet. Many multi-instrument doublers, when they shift instruments, tend to play each from the same musical perspective (despite their inherent differences). But not Sheppard. Switching easily from soprano to tenor, for example, he was always firmly in touch with the unique qualities of each – and so, too, for his approach to the flute and the clarinet. The results were compelling, a fascinating display of imaginative versatility.

Sheppard and the Senatore Trio played their way through an appealing program: some floating bossa nova, airy flute sounds on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave”; lyrical soprano saxophone on “In Your Own Sweet Way”; hard driving tenor on “Easy Living”; a pairing of “Perdido” with “I Want To Be Happy.” And a lot more.

An evening, in other words, that was a reminder of how much fine jazz can be heard on any given week night in the Southland. Check the informative calendar of LA Jazz  and you’ll find something appealing on virtually every night.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.


Live Music: Robert Davi at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

October 24, 2014

By Don Heckman

Bel Air. Robert Davi was back at Herb Alpert’s elegant Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. at the top of Beverly Glen last night. And, as always happens in his performances, he spent most of his program demonstrating his belief in the Great American Songbook as “America’s Shakespeare.”

Robert Davi

Robert Davi

Davi, whose acting career began in a film starring Frank Sinatra, has been one of the most convincing Sinatra-influenced vocal stylists for most of his career. But, unlike the growing cadre of Sinatra wannabees, he’s never been an imitator. Inspired by Ol’ Blue Eyes, he has instead invested the lyrical expressiveness and rhythmic swing of the style with his own considerable interpretive skills.

As he did Thursday night at Vibrato. Backed by a solid, six piece band led by his music director, pianist Andy Waldman, Davi offered a program mixing Sinatra classics with an intriguing range of tunes from a variety of other sources.

For many responsive listeners, the Sinatra songbook items – “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Just One of Those Things,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “That Old Black Magic,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “The Best Is Yet To Come” and “That’s Life” among them – were the high points. And there’s no disputing the fact that they were brought vividly to life within a Sinatra framing shaped by the Davi imagination.

Roberto Davi and his band.

Roberto Davi and his band.

Other songs were equally persuasive: a warmly intimate reading of “Moonlight In Vermont”; a stunning medley of “Old Man River” and “River Stay Away From My Door,” thoroughly displaying the rich timbres of Davi’s mellow baritone voice; a Broadway stage-worthy version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”; and a rendering of “New York, New York” deeply touching the heart of every former New Yorker (including this one) in the room.

Robert Davi walking the room

Robert Davi walking the room

Davi enhanced lengthy segments of many songs with tours through Vibrato’s forest of tables, using a wireless microphone to create an informal, living room setting. And he was typically humorous, as well, often jokingly arguing with some of his show biz friends in the crowd about the correct identities of various songwriters. In one especially amusing segment, he recalled meeting “Russia’s Frank Sinatra” during a concert program in Russia. Imitating what he heard, Davi sang “The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else” with what can best be described as a hilarious Russian accent.

Robert Davi

Robert Davi

As he has done in past performances, Davi also sang “The House I Live In,” from a mid-’40s short film, featuring Sinatra. The film, rare for the time, offered powerful opposition to Anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. And Davi, always a strong supporter of the best characteristics in American culture, underscored the song’s contemporary value at a time when those characteristics are most needed.

In sum, Davi’s performance was a virtual seminar in how to bring imagination, creativity, musicality and the sheer pleasures of entertainment to a beautifully expressed evening of song. And it was done so well that it aroused – for this listener – a feeling I’ve occasionally had at past Davi performances: the desire to hear his extraordinary skills at the service of a even wider repertoire of songs.

Among the possibilities: more works by the incomparable Alan and Marilyn Bergman; more songs by Leonard Bernstein; and Davi is more than versatile enough, as well, to find some offbeat musical riches in the singer/songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s.

That said, Davi’s performance was another musical night to remember. And when he returns to the Vibrato stage, we’ll be there once again, packing the house, along with his legions of enthusiastic fans.

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Photos by Faith Frenz


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

October 9, 2014

By Don Heckman

Bel Air, CA.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. became a very special place when Herb Alpert took it over a few years ago, transforming a small venue in a mini-mall at the top of Beverly Glen into a fine food connoisseur’s delight and a world class showcase for jazz.

Herb Alpert and Lani Hall

And it becomes even more special when Alpert, his wife, vocalist Lani Hall, and their all star band put in an appearance. As they did Tuesday night.

The fact is that there’s nothing quite like hearing Alpert perform in his own club. There’ve been musician club owners over the years – Shelly Manne, Ronnie Scott, Igor Butman, to name a few – all of whom played in their own venues from time to time.

Herb Alpert

But when Herb Alpert plays in Vibrato, he’s not just on stage at his own elegant Bel Air bistro. He’s performing in a virtual art gallery, surrounded by walls displaying his large, colorful abstract expressionist paintings and his sculptures of musicians in the act of playing. Add to that the remarkable collection of repertoire that he brings to his performances – selecting material reaching from his latest albums to hit songs from his Tijuana Brass successes of the ’60s.

At the center of his music, Alpert – at 79 – reminded us that he is still a remarkable trumpeter and a gifted improviser. Not often given sufficient credit for the quality of his instrumental skills, he once again displayed his Miles Davis-inspired ability to bring a song vividly to life.

And let’s not overlook Alpert’s unspoken, but significant subtitle of “philanthropist” in recognition of the large generous funding he has bestowed upon University music programs and gifted young artists in many genres.

All those elements and more were present Tuesday night when Alpert and Hall – backed by pianist Bill Cantos, bassist Hussain Jiffry and drummer Michael Shapiro – celebrated the release of their new album, In the Mood.

The Herb Alpert Band

When Alpert noted that the performance was the start of a tour introducing the album, he also added, whimsically, that they did not include the classic Glenn Miller hit “In The Mood” on the CD, or in their set of the night. But no problem there. After romping through “Chatanooga Choo Choo” the band also dug into “Blue Moon,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Let it Be Me” and more from an album displaying all the signs of presenting Alpert with his next Grammy Award.

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Other highlights included entertaining looks at both Alpert’s and Hall’s stellar pasts. The Tijuana Brass medley called up stirring memories of the Alpert band that topped Bob Dylan and the Beatles on the Billboard charts in the mid-’60s. And an Antonio Carlos Jobim medley showcased Hall’s mastery of bossa nova songs (and Portuguese), reaching back to her stint with Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66 as she applied her warm, intimate contralto to songs such as “The Waters of March,” “Corcovado” and “”Samba de Uma Nota Só.”

As always, Alpert and Hall were superbly backed by Cantos, Jiffry and Shapiro who consistently found the perfect balance between energizing the rhythm while supporting the headliners’ many interpretive subtleties. And Cantos, a versatile singer/instrumentalist in his own right, has recently added colorful synth textures to his fine piano work, as well as his own back up vocals on a few tunes.

In sum, call it one of the most notable musical experiences of the year. All of the Vibrato appearances of Alpert and Hall have been memorable. As was this one. And I (along with, I suspect, the many members of the packed house) look forward to many more.

* * * * * * * *

Photos by Faith Frenz

 


Live Music: The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall

September 23, 2014

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles CA. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra can always be counted on to deliver an evening of rich musicality. And Sunday night’s performance at Royce Hall in Westwood was no exception.

The headline event in a rich program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. But, typically, LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane also scheduled a pair of intriguing works – Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 5, with soloist Juho Pohjonen and Lines of the Southern Cross, the latter the premiere of a work newly commissioned by the LACO from Australian composer Cameron Patrick.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

The evening opened with the new Patrick composition. Introducing the work, Kahane noted that the music “acknowledged the traditional owners of Australia and custodians of the land, the Australian Aboriginal people.” Patrick did all that and more, in a work that also captured the broad, far ranging landscape of Australia, from its mountain peaks to its ocean depths via some especially expressive writing for the strings. And the LACO interpretation of Southern Cross convincingly introduced it as a significant new work that deserves wide hearing – in live performance and on recordings.

The Saint-Saens Piano Concerto, sometimes called The Egyptian, was described by the composer as the representation of a sea voyage. And there are passages in the piece that do so, in characteristically French impressionist style. The work is also a virtuosic showcase for the piano soloist, and Pohjonen was effective on all counts, from the lyric passages to the most technically demanding passages.

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Ludwig Van Beethoven

The climax of the evening, understandably, was the Beethoven Symphony No. 5, one of the most frequently performed pieces in the entire catalog of classical music. And any well-interpreted performance of the work resonates with its long history. Written in the first decade of the 19th century, it was created at a time of considerable unrest for the Western world and for its composer. Europe was in the midst of the Napoleonic wars. And Beethoven, in his mid-thirties, was becoming aware of the fact that the deafness he had begun to experience was progressive, and would continue to worsen.

Since then, No. 5 has also been heard, and viewed, from a variety of symbolic interpretive perspectives, starting with the V for Victory aspects of its four note, opening motif.

Jeffrey Kahane

Jeffrey Kahane

But ultimately it is the gripping quality of the music itself that makes No. 5 a work to be heard in every possible opportunity. In the capable direction of Kahane and the equally capable playing of the LACO’s masterful musicians, the music came to life in especially persuasive fashion. Perhaps best of all, the musically symbiotic togetherness of the LACO’s players, combined with Kahane’s seeming desire to open the way for the music to find its way produced a stunning performance, overflowing with passionate intensity.

Altogether, it was another significant entry in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s long lexicon of memorable performances.


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