Live Jazz: The Bill Cunliffe Big Band and Quartet with Harry Allen at Vitello’s

December 10, 2013

By Don Heckman

Bill Cunliffe’s accomplishments are many. Not only is he a world class jazz pianist, composer and arranger. He’s also acknowledged for his many skills by his musical compatriots. He’s been honored with a Grammy Award, a Down Beat Award, multiple Grammy nominations, and several Emmy nominations. Add to that a winner’s award from the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano competition.

Bill Cunliffe

Bill Cunliffe

It’s unlikely that either Cunliffe or his full house audience at Vitello’s Saturday night were giving much thought to his many attainments. The focus on this engaging evening of music was on the here and now of Cunliffe’s multiple skills, as he opened the performance with his sterling quartet and topped off the evening with a big band full of the Southland’s finest players digging into his rich textured, briskly swinging music for large jazz ensemble.

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

The performance was enhanced by the presence of tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, one of the rare contemporary masters of traditional and swing style improvising. Working with Cunliffe’s quartet in a program of tunes ranging from standards (“But Not For Me”) to Christmas tunes (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”), his soloing flowed with the captivating lyricism of such predecessors as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.

Harry Allen

Harry Allen

Like them, Allen’s playing recalled the old admonition that jazz improvisers, when playing standards and ballads, should also be familiar with the words of the songs. Each melody he played came to life with the intimate, story-telling connectivity of a jazz vocalist.

Allen also soloed brilliantly with Cunliffe’s big band, as well, playing with such appealing musicality that the band’s five saxophonists – whenever they had a rest – were completely focused on his warm, inventive improvising.

But the band, playing Cunliffe’s ever-fascinating compositions and arrangements, also offered their own superb playing. The charts, which included selections from a soon to be released Cunliffe big band recording, were definitive displays of his far-reaching creative imagination. The high points included the bossa nova classic, “The Girl From Ipanema, a hard-driving Cunliffe original – titled “Bonecrusher” – from his Latin CD, and a glorious take on “’Round Midnight” featuring Allen at his finest. Topping off the big band set, guest artist Grammy-winning composer/arranger Nan Schwartz conducted her own briskly swinging arrangement of “Sunny Side of the Street,” and dedicated it to her mother, a former Swing era big band singer.

Memorable musical nights at Vitello’s are not unusual. And this one was no exception. How could it be, with Cunliffe in the command position, aided by the stellar work of Allen, the superbly crafted arranging of Schwartz, and – above all – the splendid playing of the gifted musicians, including the Southland’s finest, in the Cunliffe band.

So give thanks to April Williams, Vitello’s music manager, for opening the door for Cunliffe, his music, his guests and his players. Let’s hope they return again, soon.


Live Music; Natalie Cole and Chucho Valdes at the Hollywood Bowl

August 15, 2013

By Don Heckman

It’s no mystery that singer Natalie Cole has followed in the musical footsteps of her extrordinary father, pianist/singer Nat “King” Cole. Along the way, she’s won nine Grammy Awards after 21 nominations. Her 1991 album Unforgettable, which included an interactive duet, with her late father, on the song “Unforgettable,” triggering the granting of Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Traditional Pop Performance.

Natalie Cole

Natalie Cole

All that was in mind Wed. night at the Hollywood Bowl, as Cole offered a performance overflowing with her superbly adept singing. Although she’s come through numerous difficult periods, personal and otherwise, Cole has survived, still capable of capturing the affections of a packed house of enthusiastic listeners at the Bowl.

Cole’s performance was driven by dynamic musical energies. Whether she was singing standards such as “Stardust,” “The Very Thought of You” and “Smile,” or some of the Latin songs that have captured her attention recently, she displayed the consummate entertainment abilities that have characterized her work for decades.

Natalie Cole

Natalie Cole

Arriving on a stage as a bundle full of confident excitement, her skills were functioning at a velocity that never diminished. Backed by the rich timbres of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by Gail Deadrick, as well as the rhythmic grooves of her own instrumental sextet and the empathic vocals of her trio of backup singers, Cole didn’t miss a beat along the way, finding the inner musical and emotional heartbeats of everything she sang.

True, there were a few selections with arrangements that tapped a bit too deeply into the soul and r&b stylings that have occasionally characterized Cole’s work over the years. And one can’t argue that she handles the genre with considerable effectiveness. But she was at her best when she was working in the arena of the Great American Songbook, preferably when her performances were brightened by the jazz tinges that she – like her father before her – does so well. No wonder her entranced listeners seemed captivated by everything she did.

The evening was opened by Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes. Much revered as one of his country’s most gifted musical artists, multiple Grammy-winning Valdes was also the founder of the honored Cuban jazz band, Irakere.

Chucho Valdes

Chucho Valdes

For this appearance, however, he played with the accompaniment of his five piece group, with bass and three percussionist-vocalists. And the setting was just right for the full range of Valdes’ rhapsodic piano style, applying lush classical passages to the more lyrical passages in his constantly intriguing improvisations. Add to that his irresistible rhythmic montunos, powerfully driven by his mesmerizing piano lines.

By the time he was finished, Valdes – as in all his performances – underscored the intimate linkages that have long existed between jazz and Cuban music.

As one of the climactic high points of the program, Valdes and Cole performed as a duo on a couple of numbers. Together, they brought a convincing array of jazz, in some of its many forms, to the far-ranging stylistic varieties of the Bowl’s Wednesday night jazz series.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.


Live Music: Tony Bennett at the Hollywood Bowl

August 4, 2013

By Don Heckman

Any night one hears Tony Bennett in action is a night to remember.  And his performance Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl was no exception, made even more memorable by the fact that it was taking place the day before his 87th birthday.

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

Hearing mature artists in performance at the Bowl is not unusual.  But hearing an artist approaching 90, in complete mastery of his skills, doesn’t happen often.  And Bennett’s performance, lasting nearly an hour and a half, singing more than two dozen hits – most of them tracing to his extraordinary, multi-Grammy winning career – was an event for the memory books of the packed house, enthusiastic audience.

In fact the songs, as always in a Bennett performance, were the heart of the program.  No distractions, no complicated stage settings, no orchestra.  Only Bennett, backed superbly by the sterling accompaniment of pianist/music director Lee Musiker, guitarist Gray Sargent, bassist Marshall Wood and drummer Harold Jones, singing a collection of great song classics magnificently.

Tony Bennett with Lee Musiker, Gray Sargent, Marshall Wood and Harold Jones

Tony Bennett with Lee Musiker, Gray Sargent, Marshall Wood and Harold Jones

Bennett, like Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat “King” Cole and others, came to maturity as a musical artist at a time when popular music meant the classics – from Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Kern and other song-writing giants – of the Great American Songbook.

But the key aspect of any Bennett appearance, including this one, traces to his remarkable ability to combine the warmth and intimacy of his rich, baritone voice with his utterly convincing musical storytelling.  Whether he was singing upbeat songs such as “Watch What Happens” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” or darker musical tales such as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or “Who Can I Turn To,” Bennett displayed his masterful capacity to reach into the deepest heart of a song.  And that quality was present whether he was singing such unlikely tunes as Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” or such familiar Bennett hits as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” or “The Good Life.”

Tony and Antonia Bennett with bassist Marshall Wood

Tony and Antonia Bennett with bassist Marshall Wood and a birthday cake

The musical pleasures of the evening wound up with anther familiar song,  “Happy Birthday,” offered by the audience in an all-join-in interpretation led by Bennett’s daughter, Antonia Bennett.  A jazz oriented singer in her own right, she had thoroughly revealed her excellent musical legacy by opening the evening with her versions of Songbook classics ranging from “Too Marvelous” to “From This Moment On.”

Call the evening a memorable performance by a veteran musical artist still very much at the peak of his powers.  Whatever elixir – or vitamins — Tony Bennett is taking these days should be made universally available.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.


Picks of the Week: July 23 – 28.

July 23, 2013

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

– July 23.  (Tues.)  The Postal Service.  The electropop band – featuring Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello – celebrate their 10th anniversary.  Greek Theatre   (323) 665-5857.

- July 24. (Wed.)  Dave Damiani and the No Nonsense Orchestra.  Vocalist and leader Damiani sings with the colorful sounds and swinging rhythms of his No Nonsense Orchestra.  Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

Josh Nelson

Josh Nelson

- July 24. (Wed.) Josh Nelson: A Tribute to Mulgrew Miller.  Pianist Nelson, rapidly emerging as one of the stellar pianists of his generation offers a tribute to one of his influences.  Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

- July 25. (Thurs.)  Bill Cunliffe’s Imaginacion Quintet. Composer/arranger/pianist Cunliffe displays his affection for Latin jazz in a collection of his fine arrangements. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- July 26. (Fri.)  Geoffrey Keezer “Heart of the Piano.”  Grammy-nominated Keezer celebrates the release of his CD, Heart of the Piano, his first solo project in 13 years.   Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

- July 27 & 28. (Sat. & Sun.)  Chicago: The MusicalThe six Tony Award-winning show receives a sensational production on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl.  Brooke Shields directs, and Samantha Barks performs the role of Velma.  The Hollywood Bowl. (323) 850-2000.

Amy Grant

Amy Grant

- July 28. (Sun.)  Amy Grant.  Grammy Award-winning Grant stretches her appealing vocal skills from gospel to pop.  The Greek Theatre.   (323) 665-5857.

San Francisco

- July 27 – 28. (Sat. & Sun.)  The John Pizzarelli Quartet with Jessica Molaskey.  Guitarist/singer Pizzarelli and his wife, musical thatre star Molaskey have become an always-entertaining, musically fascinating performance act.  Yoshi’s Oakland.     (510) 238-9200.

Seattle

Diane Schuur

Diane Schuur

- July 25. (Thurs.)  Diane Schuur. As she approaches 60, Schuur continues to develop the musical possibilities of a beautifully soaring voice and a Sarah Vaughan-influenced style. Jazz Alley.    (206) 441-9729.

Chicago

- July 25 – 28. (Thurs. – Sun.)   The Ron Blake Quartet. Fast-fingered, improvisationally adept saxophonist Blake continues to expand his impressive jazz skills.  Jazz Showcase.    (312) 360-0234.

New York City

- July 23 – 28.  (Tues. – Sun.)  The Fred Hersch Trio with Joe Lovano. A pair of jazz veterans, each a deeply imaginative artist get together for a rare and compelling exchange of improvisational ideas.  The Village Vanguard.   (212) 255-4037.

- July 23 – 27. )Tues. – Sat.)  The Masters Quartet.  The title – “Masters” – doesn’t overstate it at all.  How else to describe a quartet that includes pianist Steve Kuhn, saxophonist Dave Liebman, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy HartBirdland.    (212) 581-3080.

London

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis

- July 23 & 24. (Tues. & Wed.)  The Wynton Marsalis Quintet. London is gifted with a very rare opportunity to hear the always-compelling playing of trumpet/impresario Marsalis in a night club setting. Ronnie Scott’s.    +44 20 7439 0747.

Paris

Robert Glasper

Robert Glasper

- July 25 & 26.  (Thurs. & Fri.)  Robert Glasper Experiment. Pianist/composer Glasper is in an exploratory phase, producing live performances and recordings revealing a creatively curious, musically questioning mind.  Paris New Morning.    +33 1 45 23 51 41.

Tokyo

Eric Alexander

Eric Alexander

- July 27 (Sat.)  Eric Alexander Quartet. Saxophonist Alexander finished just behind Joshua Redmand and ahead of Chris Potter in the 1991 Monk Saxophone Competition.  And he’s been aiming for the sun ever since with his articulate, hard-swinging style. Tokyo Blue Note.   +81 3-5485-0088.

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Wynton Marsalis photo by Tony Gieske

Robert Glasper photo by Bonnie Perkinson.


Q&A: Gregory Porter at the Playboy Jazz Festival

June 6, 2013

By Devon Wendell

On Saturday, June 15, Gregory Porter will be headlining the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival at The Hollywood Bowl. The trailblazing jazz vocalist and songwriter has become one of the most important male jazz singers to come along in decades since the release of his debut album Water (Motema) in 2010, which was nominated for best jazz vocal album at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards.  His sophomore album Be Good (Motema) (released in 2012) earned him a Grammy nomination for best traditional R&B performance last year.

We recently discussed Porter’s rapidly growing career.

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 Devon Wendell: Tell me how it feels to be headlining the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival this year?

Gregory Porter: Very exciting, I’m honored.  I went to see Joao Gilberto at The Hollywood Bowl many years ago and I thought, “Wow, this place is big with such a grand stage!” I remember wondering if I’d ever make it to a place like this one day.  And now I’m going to be there at the Playboy Festival!

DW: That’s really something.  And in addition to that, you were recently signed to Blue Note Records, one of the great historical jazz labels. How does that feel?

GP:  Pretty amazing. I got more congratulations from my friends on Facebook than I did for my Grammy nominations. (laughter) The importance of that record label to black American music history is incredible. The documentation, style, and record cover design. And the most encouraging thing about Blue Note is that they told me to stay doing what I’m doing.

DW: Let me congratulate you as well.

GP: Thank you.

DW:  Who are some of the jazz musicians who inspired you when you were growing up and what was your first introduction to the world of jazz?

GP: Well the first artist who spoke to me in an emotional way was Nat “King” Cole.  The music was extraordinary and my mother used to say “Boy you sound like Nat ‘King’ Cole!” (Laughter)  Plus Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s recording together, Joe Williams, Leon Thomas, Andy Bey, Carmen McRae. But I’ve been inspired by so many artists, jazz and not: Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, The Beatles and Stevie Wonder, A lot of soul and gospel because that’s what was around a lot when I was a kid in both L.A. and Bakersfield and my mother was a minister.  The preachers I grew up around really impacted me.  Minister Ted Johnson sounded like Leadbelly and Pastor Richardson sang like Sam Cooke.  Elder Duffy had an almost James Brown style (Laughter) Growing up in Bakersfield, Black people moved there from The South because of the agriculture, working in the fields and so on. That generation had songs that they brought with them so when we convened in church, we sang this old music, country, gospel, blues. It was not sophisticated, not new, not mass choir, just hands clapping and (Singing) Bless that wonderful name of Jesus.  The gospel blues.

DW: Did you appreciate what it was all about then?

GP: No. I didn’t appreciate that sound at the time because I thought, “Oh, I’m around these old people singing these old songs,” and “It’s hot in church, I’d rather be out playing with my friends.”  But at the same time, it’s the basis of where I come from when I go to that spiritual place in things like “Work Song,” and “1960 What?” I blur the lines between gospel, soul, and jazz. It’s all given me license to have a more soulful expression in jazz.

DW: You’re such a powerful and imagistic songwriter. Tell me about your songwriting process. Let me ask you the old question: Do you come up with the lyrics or melody first?

GP:  The melody and the lyrics come together and the bass line and rhythm follow shortly. It may sound strange but maybe they’re working themselves out in my subconscious mind before they come to my full attention. When I wrote “Be Good,” (Singing) She said lions are made for cages to look at in delight. That just came to me just like I’m singing to you. I don’t spend a lot of time reworking something I’ve written initially based on something I felt. Sometimes it just comes to me and feels right.

DW: Musically and philosophically speaking, tell me about the differences between your debut album Water and the latest album, Be Good.

GP: I think they’re extensions of each other. Be Good is as much about love, protest and songs about culture and family as Water is with its mentioning of Harlem and “Real Good Hands.” There’s more family and love stories in Be Good.  If I look at both as self analysis, the themes reappear, the vulnerability. The man that’s singing “Illusions” is also the person who is singing “Hey Laura.” But the protest in Be Good is more subtle. It’s a conversation that comes out of neighborhoods that feel squeezed by gentrification, the people that were there unable to afford the rent now because it’s the new hot property.  Love is really what I’m trying to get across in the music in all of its forms. I’m trying to talk about the full spectrum of the human experience.

DW: You grew up in California but currently live in Brooklyn. How has the energy in New York influenced your songwriting in comparison to California?

GP: In New York, the streets outside of the people’s homes are extensions of their living rooms. If I walk to my coffee shop, I’m saying “Hi” to 20 people who feel like they have some ownership in the neighborhood. The thought of family and neighborhood comes together between my house, the coffee shop, and the few blocks near where I live in New York. Watching people’s lives and their ups and downs has had a profound affect on my writing.  On the other hand, California’s great, the air’s fresh and sweet, there’s space between houses.  But there’s something about hearing somebody next door arguing about a check that bounced. (Laughter)

DW: Which compositions of yours best reflect your own life experiences and personality?

GP:  There’s a song on the upcoming album called “When Love Was King.”  Some of the lyrics are: “When love was king, he lifted up the underneath and all is well he did bequeath. To all those who toil without a gain so they would remember his reign. The hungry children first he think to pull their lives from the brink. Beside him stood his mighty queen of equal force, wise and keen.” In these themes, I mention feeding hungry children, gender equality, and eradicating poverty. The idea is not to write a political song to beat people over the head with, it’s to lay it down for them to agree with or not. There’s one song on my upcoming album that I don’t agree with. But I’m singing it.   “Water” is one that reflects me, the redeeming and regenerating qualities of it fascinate me. That theme comes up on all of my albums.

DW: Songs of yours, such as “1960 What?” and “On My Way To Harlem,” paint a clear and educational picture of African American history, culture and experience.  Was it your intention, when you were writing the songs, to educate listeners of other cultures?

GP:  Yes, If it’s a curiosity that wells up in me, then I assume that someone else may want to feel that energy too.  The whole world has been supplied by the art, writing, and political thought that’s come out of Harlem, so I felt a connection and ownership to it even when I was a little boy. Like films on The West Coast, or the great songwriting that comes out of Memphis or Nashville, Harlem is a special place. If we don’t preserve and protect the things that create energy, the world will be worse for it.

DW: Lyrically, you’re also one of the best storytellers to come along in music in a long time. Tell me about some lyricists and writers in general who have impacted you as a songwriter.

GP: I realized when I started to write that the more personally you write, the more universal it can be. We all have those direct stories that make us human, then more humans get it. (Laughter)  I was thinking of an album Jobim recorded where he’s singing with his grandchildren and he’s singing in the words that his grandchildren would sing. I read the beautiful lyrics of Milton Nascimento. And as far as the American book of standards is concerned, it’s just genius after genius.

DW: You’re labeled as being a “jazz vocalist.”  Are you content with that label or do you find it limits your ability to reach a broader audience?

GP: No. I’m a jazz singer for sure. I even felt like that when I was primarily singing gospel. I would always deviate from the melodies and look for other harmonies to play around with while I’m singing songs that had been in the canon of gospel music for a hundred years.  So I’m a jazz singer formed by gospel, blues, soul music, and anything else I want to add. That’s truly the tradition of the music.

DW: Can you mention some examples?

GP:  Sure. The purest of jazz vocals for me: Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, all extended the bounds to include other genres of music. And it’s not a slight to say that my style has also been influenced by classic ‘70s R&B. If you hear a piece of Donny Hathaway in me, good, God almighty!

DW: Sounds great.  Thank you so much Gregory, for your time and wisdom.  I’ll see you at The Bowl.

GP: Thank you, looking forward to it.

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


Picks of the Week: Mar. 5 – 10

March 5, 2013

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Karen Benjamin and Alan Chapman

Karen Benjamin and Alan Chapman

- Mar.6. (Wed.)  Karen Benjamin and Alan Chapman.  The husband and wife team of singer Benjamin and pianist Chapman bring an impressive blend of musicality and entertainment to their compelling, always illuminating excursions through the Great American Songbook.  Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

- Mar. 6. (Wed.)  George Kahn Trio with Gina Saputo.  Veteran jazz pianist Kahn and his group lay down a vibrant mainstream backing for rising young singer Saputo. Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

- Mar. 6. (Wed.)  Anne-Sophie Mutter.  Grammy-award winning violinist Mutter displays her far-ranging musical interests in a program reaching from Mozart to Lutoslawski.  She’s accompanied by pianist Lambert OrkisValley Performing Arts Center.

- Mar. 7. (Thurs.)  Thelonious Monk Institute All Star Sextet.  A group of the gifted young players from the Monk Institute display their wares with trumpeter Terrell Stafford and singer Lisa HenryVibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

Gulstavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel

- Mar. 7 – 10.  (Thurs. – Sun.)  Dudamel Conducts The Gospel According to the Other Mary. The Los Angeles Philharmonic performs composer John Adams’ composition based on a text drawn from the Bible by Peter Sellers.   Disney Hall.   (323) 850-2000.

- Mar. 7 – 10. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Rachelle Ferrell. One of the most extraordinary voices in pop, soul and jazz makes a rare Southland appearance.  Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

- Mar. 8. (Fri.)  Janice Anderson with the Select Quartet.  Singer Anderson’s richly emotional, story-telling interpretations are backed by pianist Chris Dawson’s fine quintet.  Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

- Mar. 9. (Sat.)  Terry Trotter Trio. Pianist Trotter is a first-call player whose credits reach from Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to a long list of films and recordings.  He performs with the equally in-demand drummer Peter Erskine and bassist Chuck BerghoferVitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

San Francisco

- Mar. 7 & 8.  (Thurs. & Fri.)  Jose Feliciano. Guitarist/singer Feliciano had his first big hits – especially “Light My Fire” in the late ‘60s.  In his late ‘60s, he’s still going strong and still winning Grammys.  Yoshi’s Oakland.    (510) 238-9200.

Seattle

Lydia Pense and Cold Blood

Lydia Pense and Cold Blood

- Mar. 7 – 10. (Thurs. – Sun.) Lydia Pense and Cold Blood. The memorable ‘60s blues, rock and soul band of Cold Blood has gone through various incarnations, with Pense’s richly emotional, Joplin-influenced vocals always present as the showcase talent. Jazz Alley.    (206) 441-9729.

New York

- Mar. 8 & 9.  (Fri. & Sat.) Celebrating Dizzy Gillespie.  Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra of New York.  Deeply influenced by Gillespie, trumpeter Faddis possesses a rare understanding of the great jazz artist’s creative imagination.  He performs with Jimmy Heath, tenor saxophone, Steve Turre, trombone and conch shells, Ignacio Berroa, drums, Pedrito Martinez, congas.  The Rose Theatre.     (212) 258-9595.

London

Chick Corea

Chick Corea

- Mar. 6. (Wed.) Chick Corea and Vigil.  Always in search of imaginative new musical ideas, Corea’s intriguing new group, Vigil, includes saxophonist Tim Garland, guitarist Charles Altura, bassist Hadrien Feraud and drummer Marcus GilmoreRonnie Scott’s.    020 7439 0747.

Paris

- Mar. 7. (Thurs.)  Billy Cobham Band.  Drummer Cobham, a force in jazz fusion since the ‘60s, continues to lead compelling young bands.  New Morning.    33 1 45 23 51 41.

Berlin

- Mar. 8. (Fri.)  Julia Hulsmann Trio featuring Theo Bleckman.  The inventive work of singer, songwriter and pianist Hulsmann is critically praised in her native Germany, but too little heard in other countries.  She performs her with the envelope-stretching vocals of Blecknann. A-Trane.  +49 30 3132.

Milan

Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling

- Mar. 6 & 7. (Wed. & Thurs.)  Kurt Elling.  Grammy-winning jazz singer Elling has thoroughly established himself as one of the jazz world’s major male vocalists.  Blue Note Milano.    +39 02 6901 6888.

Tokyo

- Mar. 6. (Wed.)  Gregory Porter.  At a time when female jazz singers seem to be dominating the jazz world, Porter is attracting growing attention to the male side of the vocal field.   Blue Note Tokyo.   +81 3-5485-0088.


Live Jazz: Charlie Haden, Larry Goldings and Tri-Tone Asylum at Castle Press

February 14, 2013

By Don Heckman

Pasadena CA.  It was a night to remember.  A jazz concert in a printing company. The machine-filled Castle Press in Pasadena, to be precise.  With some of the performers positioned on a stage that consisted of a 460-ton printing press.   Add to that the party-like atmosphere, with listeners scattered across folding chairs and bleacher seats, quaffing wine as they enjoyed the music and the unusual setting.

But  what made last Monday’s program so special — beyond the remarkable location — was the announced presence of iconic bassist Charlie Haden.  Teaming up with pianist Larry Goldings, he was performing a day after he had received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Recording Academy (the Grammys).

Haden was stricken with post-polio syndrome in 2010 (the consequence of a polio attack when he was 15).   Beyond some jamming at home with Pat Metheny,  he has performed rarely since 2011. And some audience members, aware of his physical maladies, apprehensively awaited his appearance as the climactic moment in the performance.

Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden

But there was no need to worry about the quality of Haden’s playing.  He and Goldings only did one number, but they made the most of it.  And it was a distinct pleasure to again hear the rich, dark timbres and melodic lyricism that have always been the uniquely appealing characteristics of Haden’s bass playing.   Add to that his intimate musical dialog with Goldings, occasionally calling up his classic Jasmine recording with Keith Jarrett.

The evening’s program, presented by MUSE/IQUE, was titled Jazz Laid Down.  In addition to Haden and Goldings, it featured the determinedly contemporary cross-over jazz of the electro-acoustic band TriTone Asylum.  The six piece ensemble included Allen Mascari,  tenor saxophone, Peter Sepsis, bass, Todd Wolf, drums, Jameson Trotter, piano, Andy Waddell, guitar, and Philip Topping, EVI.

Trit-Tone Asylum

TriTone Asylum

And what, you might ask is an EVI?  The initials stand for Electronic Valve Instrument.  Although it contains its own synthesized sounds, it also can be used  with sampled sounds, and is played with the same lip control and three-valve articulation of an acoustic trumpet.

Both the ensemble sound and the players’ interaction were impacted by the textures of Topping’s EVI playing.  Blending the basic acoustic setting of a jazz quintet with the variable tones of the EVI, they brought some fascinating new views to such familiar jazz items as Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower,” Ralph Towner’s “Icarus” and Hampton Hawes “Sonora.”  The latter item also served as accompaniment for a jazz-driven solo dance by Haylee Roderick.

Ultimately, however, it was Haden’s appearance that was the high point of this unusual evening.  And one left with the hope that his impressive performance was an important step on his road to full recovery.

Photos by Ben Gibbs.


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

.

***WINNER:CHICK COREA AND GARY BURTON

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

.

.

- 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

.

***WINNER: ESPERANZA SPALDING

Radio Music Society (Heads Up International)

.

.

.

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

.

***WINNER: PAT METHENY UNITY BAND

Unity Band (Nonesuch)

.

.

- 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

.

***WINNER: ARTURO SANDOVAL BAND

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

.

.

.

- 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

,

***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

.

.

***WINNER: CHICK COREA

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

.

.

- 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

.

***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)

.

***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: A Busy Friday Night at Vitello’s and the Out Take Bistro

February 10, 2013

By Don Heckman

Studio City, CA.  Sometimes a music reviewer just has to do a lot in a single night – often unexpectedly.  As I did on Friday.  Even though it hadn’t actually started out that way.

My schedule for the evening originally included a stop at Vitello’s  to hear the Bill Cunliffe big band in action.  I”d written about the band fairly recently, but with Cunliffe nominated for a Grammy in today’s 2013 Awards (after winning a statuette in the 2012 Grammys), it seemed a good time to give another listen to his richly textured big band writing.  Add that the fact that he’d promised to include more selections from his jazz interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and it was a performance that clearly offered some fascinating musical attractions.

The most gripping big band arrangements and compositions are usually well crafted combinations of inspired writing and inventive soloing.  And Cunliffe’s composing and arranging have always blended those qualities into irresistibly appealing musical banquets, enhanced by the playing of a world class assemblage of Southland players.

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

On this night, as always, the Cunliffe band was overflowing with fine artists.  All deserve mention for their ensemble and solo playing.  But I have to highlight the especially impressive work of Bob Sheppard, playing lead alto (and lead soprano) in the saxophone section, the strong tenor saxophone soloing of Rob Lockart and Jeff Ellwood, the always superb trumpeting of Bob Summers and Carl Saunders, the equally sterling trombone work of Bob McChesney and Andy Martin, and the propulsive rhythm section work of drummer Joe LaBarbera, bassist Jonathan Richards and guitarist Larry Koonse.

Bill Cunliffe

Bill Cunliffe

The first part of the set was mostly dedicated to Cunliffe’s originals, which roamed freely across a gamut of styles, delivering them with convincing jazz authenticity.   Next, a pair of vocals added a different perspective: first, Dawn Bishop soaring through “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”; next, April Williams – who, as Vitello’s jazz producer, has transformed the club into a major jazz venue – sang a delightfully evocative version of “You Can Always Count On Me” from the musical City of Angels.  Listening to her, one couldn’t help but wish that she would make more singing appearances in the room, especially with the musical theatre material she does so well.

There was also an unexpected, but welcome performance by a guest artist – trombonist/composer Chris Brubeck.  Nominated (with his late father, Dave Brubeck) for a Grammy in the same category as Cunliffe, Chris was invited to share the stage the day before the Awards.  Chris responded with a warmly ingratiating trombone solo on the lovely ballad written by his father and mother, “In Your Own Sweet Way.”

The Cunliffe Band’s set closed with his re-imagining of the Bach Goldberg Variations, which he has re-titled The Goldberg Contraption.  But it was far more than a “Contraption” – more like a smoothly functioning Swiss watch, with Cunliffe’s transformation of Bach’s flowing harmonies and shifting counterpoint into an utterly believable jazz framework.

And there was more on the Vitello’s agenda before we could leave.  When the Cunliffe Band set concluded in the upstairs room, more jazz sounds were heard downstairs, where pianist John Campbell was playing for late diners and bar-hoppers in the club’s just-added musical setting, “Downstairs Piano Nights.”  No one interprets the Great American Songbook with more imaginative readings than Campbell.  And, even in a room filled with chatting listeners, he easily managed the demanding task of entertaining his audience, while approaching each song with fascinating creativity.

Cat Conner

Cat Conner

But we had another stop to make before our evening was over.  Leaving Vitello’s, heading straight down Tujunga to a right on Ventura Blvd., we quickly arrived for the last few tunes at the Out Take Bistro.    It’s a Friday night gig usually featuring “Cat & Cip” — the vocals of Cat Conner and the saxophone and clarinet of Gene “Cip” Cipriano.

On this night, however, they were joined by a stellar array of players in a virtual jam session format.  The group included trombonist Dick Nash and guitarist John Chiodini (frequent partners of Cat and Cip), as well as clarinetist Alex Budman, soprano saxophonist John Altman and trumpeter Brian Swartz.

Gene Cipriano and John Chiodini

Gene Cipriano and John Chiodini

.

We arrived just in time for an all-join-in jam on “Take the A Train” allowing plenty of space for the talented crew to stretch out.  And the final wrap up reached out to feature Cat’s warm, engaging vocal in a jaunty song reaching back more than a hundred years – “Hello, Ma Baby.” It was the perfect ending to a musical evening embracing everything from big band jazz and the music of J.S. Bach to the Great American Songbook, ragtime, and beyond.

* * * * * * * *

Photos by Faith Frenz.


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.


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