State of Mind: The Los Angeles Times and Me, Pt. 1

October 30, 2008

by Casey Dolan

(This is a chronicle of sorts. I’m dividing it into three parts with the third part making up the largest, and weirdest, portion).

I’ve deliberated long and hard about writing the following since I was laid off by the Los Angeles Times in July. Many memories of working there are fond and it was a turning point in my life, but this week we hear of 75 more layoffs in editorial, bringing the total this year to somewhere around 250 and reducing the entire editorial staff of the paper to 660, roughly slightly more than half of what it was when I came (back) on board in 2000.

How this will affect music coverage — all arts coverage — is easily imagined.

I don’t intend to regurgitate the familiar arguments of Internet vs. print, dwindling advertisement revenue, the folly of Sam Zell’s stewardship and the ESOP construct. Nor do I intend to point many fingers at those who have, willingly or unwillingly, done wrong. (I’m a firm believer in the inevitability of karma. I once worked at a real estate investment trust headed by the most disturbed, corrupt Caligula I have ever had the displeasure of meeting. That man, who continues to mask his evil with a veneer of philanthropy, has sidestepped several federal investigations into violations of securities laws, but someday the courts won’t go in this guy’s favor. I know it).

When I was let go, I had been writing regularly on music, mainly pop and rock. Every so often I would slip in the odd jazz thing or two. I had not been hired as a writer (my dear friend Kevin Bronson once unkindly reminded me of that after one of our exhausting pop staff meetings), but that’s part of what makes the story interesting and reflects a curious light on how the mainstream press chooses to cover popular music.

Being hired in 2000 was a strange comeback for me.

I had done a 6-year stint previously at the L.A. Times in the ’80s as a “wire attendant,” ultimately ending up as the foreign desk assistant. It was just a job to me — an absorbing one, but really a means to pay for rent, food, transportation and recording time and musical equipment. My real vocation was as a musician/composer/producer juggling several projects and I was on a committed career track.

Making music has always come easy to me; making a living from it, far less so. My father, Robert Emmett Dolan, had been a successful film composer, but he never wanted me to get into the business. I began piano lessons at age four, but it was clear early on that I was undisciplined and lacked the sort of drive that propelled him as a child music and mathematics prodigy (he attended college at 14). In my teenage years, he encouraged me, instead, to be a writer. He was a hyperliterate man and recognized that I had some talent with words. Thus began a split in focus which has lasted my lifetime.

After some amazing luck in having poems published when I was young, I burned out on writing while doing a degree in English Literature and minoring in Politics at UC Santa Cruz. When I traveled to Ireland after graduation to write a novel, I wrote myself into a neurotic stalemate. I returned as a failure.

On my wise mother’s suggestion, I commenced studies in harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and, lo, excelled! Soon after, I formed a band, Red Sneakers, with some college friends (including the highly-regarded multi-intrumentalist/composer, Doug Wieselman) and we dove into the hotbed of the 1979 Los Angeles punk and new wave scene. The band played constantly for two years (too often by today’s standards) but fizzled out more or less because of my drunken antics on the stage of the Troubadour in front of a packed house of hundreds. Another band began and ended, then…another…and finally a solo offer from a major label ended in sordid sexual contingencies and poverty in a New York loft. I came back to L.A. with that now-familiar feeling of failure. Sitting in the adjoining seat, Dennis Quaid comforted me on the plane home. This was 1983.

I took the above-referenced low-level job at the Los Angeles Times to survive, during which time I played with and produced an instrumental band, the Satellites 4 (with the varied lineup of Doug Wieselman, Marvin Etzioni, Danny Frankel and me), co-wrote songs with Michael Steele (bassist of the Bangles), produced records by Milo Binder and a fabulous songwriter named Kyle Johnson (whose unreleased album featured performances by Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Richard Thompson, Al McKay (Earth, Wind & Fire), Bruce Fowler, Walt Fowler (both from Frank Zappa’s band and Bruce is one of the major film orchestrators today), Jerry Donahue (the Hellecasters) and Bruce Kaphan (American Music Club)). I was sober, organized, taking meetings and boring Gary Gersh (then A&R at Geffen) with all my projects.

How I managed to do all this and hold down a full-time job is beyond me, but I did. The bubble burst in 1990 when I quit the Times on the hunch that Geffen Records was about to sign me as a staff producer. The hunch was wrong and it never happened (my hiring would have been tied to a specific project I was working on. The artist elected to blow off Geffen Records, who elected to blow off me).

I ate rice and beans for three years, worked on two or three more album projects but gradually dimmed from industry sight. Pride kept me from returning to the Times.

to be continued…

New Web Address: We’re Going Indie, Baby!

October 30, 2008

by Casey Dolan

All readers be advised: As of Dec. 1, 2008, our new address will be We’re growing by leaps and bounds and setting up our own sovereign nation. No longer a WordPress colony (although their rule was benign), we will continue to forge ahead where music critics fear to tread!

Thanks for the support so far and please spread the word.

Live: Milton Nascimento and the Jobim Trio

October 30, 2008

by Don Heckman

Milton Nascimento celebrated his 66th birthday a few days before he performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall Wednesday night.  And there was still a trace of celebratory spirit in his appearance with the Jobim Trio.

Milton Nascimento, Paulo Braga, Paulo Jobim and Daniel Jobim

Milton Nascimento, Paulo Braga, Paulo Jobim and Daniel Jobim

The program, one of a string of bookings across the country, supported his recently released CD, “Novas Bossas,” recorded with the Jobim trio.   Actually, the Trio was a quartet for this event, consisting of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s son Paulo playing guitar, his grandson Daniel playing piano, with bassist Rodrigo Villa and drummer Paulo Braga.  But the clear focus of the evening centered around the same goal suggested by the CD title — a new approach to bossa nova.

Understandably, given Antonio Carlos Jobim’s preeminence as the composer of the majority of the Great Brazilan Bossa Nova Book, most of the program traced to his catalog, with the addition of a few Nascimento tunes, A Dorival Caymmi song and an appealing new number by Daniel Jobim.  It’s hard to go wrong with chestnuts as familiar, and as tasty, as “Agua de Marco,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Inutil Paisagem” and “Samba Do Avaio.”  But it was also not what one might call a particularly intriguing new view of bossa nova.

At its best, Nascimento’s emotion-drenched voice, with its rich bottom and soaring falsetto high notes, has always been one of the glories of Brazilian music.  But, for this performance at least, it occasionally seemed to have lost its way, drifting into byways of uncertain pitch, and too rarely displaying the warm, charismatic qualities that are central to his performance style.  Also receding too far into the background — his capacity to transform a song into his own musical image.  Maybe the birthday celebration lasted a little too long.

The backing of the Jobim trio (quartet) was first rate.  But one could argue that its tendency to remain in a classic bossa nova groove tended to further diminish the “Nova Bossa” aspects of the evening.  Even so, Daniel Jobim’s piano work and his occasional vocalizing suggested that the Jobim lineage is strong.  And Braga’s playing — as always — was a model of beautifully articulate drumming.

Photo by Leonardo Siqueria

CD Reviews: Canaries

October 28, 2008

By Don Heckman

Patricia Barber

“The Cole Porter Mix” (Blue Note)

Back from the distant roots of her last album – “Mythologies” – Barber dips into some 20th century mythology via the inimitable songs of Cole Porter.  And keep that word “inimitable” in mind, because what makes this program unique is the inclusion of three Barber originals – “Late Afternoon and You,” “Snow” and “The New Year’s Eve Song” – clearly inspired by Porter.  Barber’s interpretations of the Porter originals are the soul of cool, understated yet intense, blending words and music with a deceptively offhand manner that instantly demands closer listening, more involvement with songs such as “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” “You’re the Top” and “Get Out of Town.”  Her own tunes are in some respects even more fascinating.  Barber has displayed great songwriting versatility over the years, but this particular challenge has brought out some of her finest work.  Yes, inspired by Porter, but a deep reflection of Barber’s own, most intimate lyrical personality.  Listen, too, for the fine tenor saxophone fills by Chris Potter, especially his wildly out of context, but fascinating nonetheless, set of choruses on “In the Still of the Night.”  Definitely not still.


Denise Donatelli

“What Lies Within” (Savant)

It’s a mystery to me why Denise Donatelli isn’t a much more visible jazz singer.  There’s so much that’s right about this new CD that it’s almost redundant for me to sort through the beauties of each track.  So, in a more general sense, Donatelli has a marvelous instrument, blessed with a honey and cognac sound, effortless range, and the capacity to articulate every note – whether Autobahn cruising or on-the-beach strolling – with relaxed precision.  There are, of course, other singers with comparable technical skills.  But what makes Donatelli so convincing is the way she applies those skills to her utterly convincing lyrical interpretations.  All of that is in especially rare form here with an unusual, musically demanding program that includes such fascinating choices as Ivan Lins’ “Sails,” Chick Corea’s “Crystal Silence,” Clifford Brown’s “Daahoud” (“:Beloved”), Joni Mitchell’s “Be Cool” and J.J. Johnson’s “This Lament.”  With impeccable support from pianist Geoff Keezer, bassist Hamilton Price, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, saxophonist Bob Sheppard and trumpeter Carl Saunders.


Boz Scaggs

“Speak Low” (Decca)

It’s been a long stretch since “Lowdown,” “Lido Shuffle” and “What Can I Say?,” Scaggs’ hits of the mid-’70s, but the years have served him well.  “Speak Low” is his second CD of standards.  And at first glance the immediate image that came to mind was that of yet another aging rock artist seeking resuscitation in the Great American Songbook.  But the first couple of tunes — “Invitation” and “She Was Too Good To Me” – quickly dissuaded me of that notion. This is a set of performances from a guy who places everything he has at the service of the music, not vice versa (as in several other CDs of standards by former rock stars).  Scaggs’ vocals, the warm, reedy quality of his sound, the conversational quality of his phrasing, the innate sense of swing, have a lot more to do with Johnny Mercer than they do with Mick Jagger.  Add to that the superb selection of tunes – ranging from “I’ll Remember April,” “I Wish I Knew” and Mercer’s “Skylark” to “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” “Dindi” and “Save Your Love For Me” — the Gil Evans-inspired charts by Gil Goldstein, and Bob Sheppard’s fine saxophone work.


Nina Simone

“To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story” (Sony Legacy)

If Nina Simone were still alive, she’d undoubtedly have my head for including this exceptional boxed set in a CD round-up titled “Canaries.”  But, however important and inflluential she may have been as a public figure and an activist, she was also an incomparable musical artist.  And that’s what is on full display in this 3-CD, 1-DVD overview of her extraordinary career.  All the “hits” are included – “I Loves You Porgy,” “Young, Gifted and Black,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” — covering Simone’s career from 1957 to 1993 with selections from her Bethlehem, Colpix, Philips, RCA, CTI and Elektra recordings. As well as a DVD of a previously unreleased 1970 documentary.  That’s an impressive line-up of materials, enhanced by commentary from her biographer, David Nathan and rare photographs. But it’s the songs that are the grabbers.  Heard in large groups like this, in performances stretching over decades, they affirm that Simone belongs on the Olympus of jazz singing, one of the art’s never-to-be-forgotten goddesses.

Humor: I Need Your Grammy Vote

October 28, 2008

By John Altman

I’m really disappointed.  My new CD – “The Jazz Soul Of Paris Hilton” — has not been nominated for a Grammy. The follow up to my brilliant CD “Britney Spears – The Jazz Years.” it has garnered rave reviews in the Jazz Press and received NOT ONE vote in this year’s Grammy build-up. I worked closely with Paris, herself, assembling an all star-aggregation of jazz talent to interpret the Abdullah Ibrahim/Boney James-inspired compositions composed by the reality TV star and all around credit to society.

I’m especially proud of “I Come From Barack Obama with a Banjo On My Knee” for its understanding of social issues that concern the talented Ms Hilton.  Accompanied by all-star players, it is reminiscent of Max Roach’s “Freedom Suite.”  Paris, along with guest rappers Jay Z, Jazzy B and fiery jazz virtuoso sax man,  Kenny G, delivers an astonishing piece of jazz social commentary.  Backing her is an incredible, handpicked line up of jazz artists, including Herbie Hancock on clavinet, Woody Allen on clarinet and Wynton Marsalis on the internet.  With possibly one of the best rhythm sections ever assembled in the history of jazz recording – George Segal on banjo, bass virtuoso Charlie Haden on second banjo, Marcus Miller showing his versatility on solo banjo, and Diana Krall and Elvis Costello sharing drumming duties – showing why jazz is still a living art form appreciated by millions all over the world.

Other guest appearances include Cuthbert Marsalis, the least known member of the jazz dynasty, probably because he is an English aristocrat who does not play any musical instruments and did not invent jazz in 1980.  Also present: the legendary godfather of Smooth Jazz and easy listening — Cecil Taylor.  Michael Buble croons the all time favorite, “I Never Heard of Mel Torme,” and James Carter plays “Salt Peanuts.”  Oops, that should read Jimmy Carter, reprising the famous White House duet with Dizzy Gillespie that defined his jazz credentials.

Some of the critical raves:
– “I laughed till I cried” – Don Heckman, LA Times
– “What a load of rubbish” – Nat Hentoff
– “Is this man serious?” – Brick Wahl, LA Weekly
– “Brilliant!!!” – Stanley Crouch, NY Times
– “My personal iPod favourite” – George W. Bush

Please vote for me in category 10,996 of this year’s Grammys – “Best Jazz and Hip Hop album by a Country Smooth Jazz Crossover Artist Not in the English Language”

I promise not to write again until the Emmys are upon us, when I will be soliciting votes for my two reality shows – “News Reading With The Stars,” in which professional ballroom dancers learn to play pro football and read the news, and “America’s Idle,” in which no one has a job any more due to the bizarre global economic policies of the last 8 years.

John Altman is a musician (alto saxophone), award-winning film and television composer, writer and all-around raconteur, who decided that it was time for a commentary on the expanding list of Grammy categories.  He will be performing with his quartet at Spazio in Sherman Oaks on Friday November 7.  (818) 728-8400.

Here, There and Everywhere: The Times

October 27, 2008

By Don Heckman

When I attended the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition events this past weekend, reviewing for Jazz Times magazine, I ran into many friends from the jazz community.  Since the Competition is an international event, there were folks from L.A., as well as many other parts of the country and the world.

Every one asked me about the diminishing presence of jazz coverage in the Los Angeles Times.  Knowing that I have been covering jazz, and other musics, at the paper for more than twenty years — as the principal jazz critic and jazz writer since Leonard Feather died in 1994 — they all expressed concern about whether they would continue to read my commentaries in the LAT.

Today I’ve received a flurry of emails, as well as copies of letters sent to the Times inquiring about the cutback in jazz coverage.  Some have distorted or misunderstood the situation, as I discussed it with my friends and colleagues at the Monk gathering.  So I thought it would be useful to simply explain what I know about it.

The reduction in jazz coverage at the Times actually began 7 or 8 years ago when jazz was moved into the Pop Music area.  Prior to that I frequently did three or four reviews a week, as well as a Sunday record review column and a Friday Jazz column.  Under Pop Music, the coverage was reduced to two reviews a week, the Sundy jazz record review section to once a month, and the Friday column was discontinued.

Several months ago, a new editor  took over the reins of the Pop Music department from the acting editor.   I was told, almost immediately, by her that jazz reviews would be reduced in number, and would essentially have to be pitched to her for approval   That represented an immediate and significant change, since — as one who is deeply aware of developments in jazz, here and elsewhere — I had generally done my own scheduling of reviews, with oversight from the acting editor.  In addition, the Sunday jazz record review spotlight disappeared.

In scheduling my reviews — of both live concerts and recordings — I tried to balance the major name programs with as much coverage as possible for the Southland’s huge array of world class jazz talent.  That approach became virtually impossible when the reviews were cut back to one a week.  Within a month or two, they were cut to one every ten days.  After that it became a matter of submitting events I thought were important, and hoping that coverage would be permitted.  It usually wasn’t.

About two or more months ago, I was advised that the free lance budget for Pop had run out for the year, and that I should contact my editor in late December to consider what could be covered when the new budget came into effect in January.  Basically that meant that I could do no reviews for the last 3 1/2 months of the year.

Let me add a little background here.  Despite my 22 years and over 5,000 bylined reviews, articles and stories in the LA Times, I am still nominally a free-lancer, since I’ve always refused offers to go on staff.  What this means, of course, is that — if there is no free-lance budget — a staff writer could be assigned to cover jazz reviews, despite the fact that there is no one on the staff who is qualified to do so.

Starting about a month ago, I began emailing my editor, pointing out that — if only one jazz event could be covered before the end of the year, it should be the Monk Competition event at the Kodak this past weekend.  My request was refused several times.  I informed the Monk folks of the situation, and they began to contact my editor to urge coverage. Eventually, she apparently agreed to do so, assigning a staff writer to do the review.  It will appear in the paper tomorrow.

It may well be that the letters that are being sent to the LAT, expressing concern about the reduction of jazz coverage, will be responded to with some minimal coverage of jazz by staff writers with little knowledge of the music.   And tomorrow’s review of the Monk event will no doubt be cited as evidence of the paper’s continuing interest in jazz.  This, despite the fact that it will be the first review of a jazz event in the paper since August 1. (And, even so, it’s labeled as “Pop Music.”)

But I can only wonder why the Music department seems to have a budget to employ a free-lance reviewer one or two times a week to write about European classical music, while similar funds cannot be allocated to the Pop department to allow me to continue the coverage — however modest in numbers it may have to be — that jazz needs and deserves.

I have no inside source of information at the paper, although it’s apparent to everyone that the problems seem to be multiplying rather than diminishing.  (I’ve heard that 75 more people were fired today.)  But my real concern is simply for the knowledgable representation — in one of the country’s largest urban centers — of the music that is America’s greatest cultural achievement.

Live: The Monk Competition Finals

October 27, 2008

By Don Heckman

Remember the name.  Jon Irabagon.  One of the smallest, most unassuming candidates in the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition ran away with the first place prize Sunday night at Kodak Hall.  Although “ran away” doesn’t fully encompass either Irabagon’s accomplishment or the quality of his playing.

Jon Irabagon

Jon Irabagon

Technical skill was a complete given for this competition, with every one of the original twelve semi-finalists displaying virtuostic command of their instrument.  The real question facing the stellar line-up of judges — Jane Ira Bloom, Jimmy Heath, Greg Osby, David Sanchez and Wayne Shorter — was what the contestants would do with their fast fingers.  And Irabagon, in the semi-finals, as well as the finals, consistently used his skillful dexterity at the service of rich, imaginative improvisational explorations.

His version of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” was stunning, taking the song to the outer limits of re-imagination, valuing the interaction between sounds and silences, while still remaining firmly in touch with the classic melody.   Like the other finalists, Irabagon also did a number with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater — “Just Friends,” in their case.  And here another, equally intriguing side of Irabagon’s musicality emerged via the spontaneous, often witty, always swinging exchanges with the entertaining Bridgewater.

The other two finalists — Tim Green and Quamon Fowler — won 2nd and 3rd places, respectively.  And the margin of difference was slim.  Green had appeared to me, at the semi-finals, to be one of the most out-of-the-box inventive of all the players.  But he seemed more subdued, less adventurous, at the finals, which may have impacted his final standing.  He nonetheless has all the making of a significant new arrival.  Fowler’s tall, imposing presence, combined with an eclectic style that reaches easily across genres and generations, virtually guarantees that he will join the many Monk finalists who have moved on to successful careers, despite their 2nd or 3rd place finishes.

Herbie Hancock, B.B. King and Bono

Herbie Hancock, B.B. King and Bono

While the Competition, itself, was the most appealing part of the evening — as it always is — for jazz fans, the program was a fund-raiser, as well.  As such, it included special awards to B.B. King and businessman Paul D. Allen, as well as a gala performance reaching from sets by young Monk Institute-supported high school jazzers to a stellar line up of jazz, blues and pop artists.

Appropriately, the long, highlight-filled program was titled “The Blues and Jazz: Two American Classics.”  And with King, Keb’ Mo,’ Joe Louis Walker and Robert Cray on stage, the blues was well covered in all its fundamental manifestations.  Add to that the sterling jazz vocals of Bridgewater and the inimitable Cassandra Wilson, and the instrumental contributions of Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Heath, Terence Blanchard, George Duke, Terri Lyne Carrington, John Patitucci, Poncho Sanchez and Lee Ritenour, and the jazz perspectives were fully filled in, as well.

Bono and the Edge, busily dashing around the stage, added some pop blues — as well, no doubt, as a boost in the ticket sales.  And the whole shebang wound up with a cluttered, but enthusiastic all-join-in romp through ‘Let the Good Times Roll.”

Ultimately, however, the evening was less about all-stars, of every stripe, and more about the valuable, continuing work of the Monk Institute in supporting and sustaining the music that is America’s most significant cultural achievement.  That, and the arrival of Jon Irabagon.


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