Live Jazz: William Galison at the Whitefire Theatre

October 31, 2009

by Devon Wendell

It was an evening of pure, traditional jazz delivered with sensitivity and originality by harmonica wiz William Galison and his quintet on Thursday night at the Whitefire Theater in Sherman Oaks.  Backing Galison in the L.A. Modern Jazz Series concert were pianist Otmaro Ruiz, clarinetist John Tegmeyer, bassist Greg Swiller and drummer Dan Schnelle.

Opening the set with the Charlie Parker classic “Billy’s Bounce,” Galison and Tegmeyer immediately established an original sense of harmony between the chromatic harmonica and clarinet. Instead of trying to mimic Bird and Miles’s original recording, Galison proved that less is more, choosing to play well thought out and tasteful phrasing with soul and a true knowledge of his instrument, without falling back on fast scales or abandoning the over all theme of the piece. Tegmeyer’s playing, though sweet, was more frenetic, which created true dynamics between the pair.  Here and elsewhere, Ruiz’s piano work tended to start soft and tender and slowly build in intensity, prompting the very pure rhythm team of Swiller and Schnelle to give it their all, very much the way McCoy Tyner would push Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones to climactic heights which John Coltrane could explore.

On Galison’s composition, “New Samba,” the band laid down a hard-bop samba motif, with Galison and Tegmeyer interweaving in and out of each other’s lines perfectly, without stepping on each other’s phrasing.  As Galison said to the audience, “Clarinet and harmonica are like family, or like peanut butter and jelly.”

Though almost every jazz artist has covered “Body and Soul,” Galison’s rendition was one of the most mournful and bluesiest versions I’ve ever heard, playing high note bends on the harmonica and making the instrument cry and plead with very few notes. It was, without a doubt, a highlight of the set.  His slow vibrato, in fact, was closer to that of tenor sax balladeer Ben Webster than that of his mentor and chromatic harmonica master, Toots Thielemans.  Tegmeyer’s solo, though confident and skillful, could hardly match Galison’s emotional outpouring on this standard.

Just Friendswill always be associated with Bird’s incredible reading of this classic ballad on the Charlie Parker with Strings album.  Galison’s cover was closer to the version by Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins on the album Sonny Meets Hawk. Again, Galison chose not to mimic Bird’s laser like runs and instead rode slowly and soulfully behind the bass, drums and piano. His ability to slur notes and expand upon the song’s well known melody was astonishing.

On “Whitefire Blues” (Galison’s on- the-spot ode to the show’s tiny theater  venue), he switched from chromatic to diatonic harmonica, delving straight into a pure and slow Chicago blues shuffle, paying tribute to blues harp masters Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter and Junior Wells, with squawks, wails, moans, and sharp bends.  Ruiz’s playing was in the authentic vein of Chicago blues piano veterans Eddie Boyd and Otis Spann, instead of sounding like a jazz player trying to oversimplify the blues.  Swiller’s bass walked with purpose and groove, and Schelle held down a solid foundation for Galison and Tegmeyer.  It was obvious on this number that Galison has a pure understanding of the blues, which is also the foundation of his jazz soloing.   This was true alley music from the Windy City even though Tegmeyer’s playing sometimes seemed out of place – a reminder that Howlin’ Wolf and the others never seemed to include a clarinet in their musical mix.

Johnny Mandel’s composition “Emily,” made popular by Henry Mancini, closed the set, with Galison and company choosing to emphasize the romantic ambiance of the original theme. Tegmeyer’s clarinet shined on this number, playing fast yet graceful runs to match Galison’s voice-like lines.  The band remained strictly within the jazz mainstream, convincingly calling back to a different era.

Galison’s enthusiasm and joy for the music – whether pure jazz or the blues — was present in each number,  Although he spoke with warmth about his former teacher and mentor Toots Thielemans, it was obvious, in this refreshingly intimate and memorable jazz performance,  that Galison has found his own style.  Unlike the countless other chromatic players have hung on to Thielemans’ every note for the past several decades, Galison is a true original.

To read other posts by Devon Wendell, click here.

Live Jazz: Lew Soloff at Charlie O’s

October 30, 2009

By Don Heckman

Trumpeter Lew Soloff is the very model of a veteran jazz artist — fluent, articulate and imaginative in almost any musical setting. His resume, far too long to list, reaches from Blood, Sweat & Tears to Gil Evans.

But what Soloff brought Thursday to the first of two appearances at Charlielewsoloff_photo O’s had another quality – a quality not always present in the performances of veteran jazz artists. And that quality was a desire to communicate, to apply his many skills to a selection of music that would accomplish the dual task of entertaining his listeners while allowing him the opportunity to explore his ever-active improvisational curiosity.

Working with the solid musical companionship of Jerry Vivino, tenor and soprano saxophones and flute, Larry Goldings, piano, Mike Merritt, bass and James Wormworth, drums, Soloff shared the music, as well as its making, with his receptive audience. Charlie O’s is one of the Southland’s coziest, most amiable places to hear music, and never more so than when Soloff was cracking jokes – describing J.S. Bach as a pretty good composer – restarting a tune when it didn’t move in the right direction, and dedicating numbers to a few of the many musicians in the audience.

The range of his playing was impressive. On “There Is No Greater Love,” he deconstructed the tune, alternating pointillistic fragments with held notes – sometimes very long held notes — gradually bringing it all back together. Bach’s “Air on the G String” was done — hesitantly at first, then more convincingly – with Merrit’s bass. And Soloff’s own “Istanbul” displayed its Middle Eastern qualities with Vivino on flute and Soloff on piccolo trumpet.

Part of the evening was also given over to tributes to other trumpet players. First: a jaunty New Orleans-style tune with Soloff’s atmospheric rendering of Louis Armstrong, and Vivino doing an equally engaging version of Sydney Bechet’s soprano saxophone style. Next, a pair of pieces closely associated with Miles Davis, with Soloff playing Harmon-muted trumpet on “Seven Steps to Heaven” and opening the horn for a lyrical “My Funny Valentine.”

Despite some rough spots here and there, there was no questioning the inventiveness of the playing, or the sheer musicality of the set. Veteran that he is, Soloff brought his life long love of music to every note, from the first to the…last.

Lew Soloff also performs Saturday night with the John Heard Trio at Charlie O’s.

Quotation of the Week: Thelonious Monk

October 29, 2009

.Thelonious Monk

“I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing — even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.”

– Thelonious Monk.


To read other Quotations of the Week click here.

Live Jazz: Isfar Sarabski at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

October 27, 2009

By Don Heckman

Isfar Sarabski.  Remember the name.  No, it doesn’t flow as freely across the lips as, say, Herbie Hancock or Keith Jarrett.  But you’re going to be hearing it, nonetheless.

Only nineteen years old, Sarabski is a jazz pianist from Baku, Isfar SarabskiAzerbaijan.  And his first U.S. appearance, Monday night before an invited audience at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc., revealed a talent with impressive potential.  Performing first as a soloist, later with bassist Pat Senatore and drummer Erik Klass, his playing ranged freely from hard swing to pensive lyricism, while incorporating some of the intriguing rhythms and melodic phrases of his native land into his music..

Like other pianists who come from cultures in which a solid classical foundation is an essential element in their training, Sarabski clearly had the skill to execute anything that occurred to his adventurous improvisational mind.  Romping through bebop tunes, his mastery of the genre’s classic vocabulary was thorough.  Slower tunes were enhanced by fine-tuned harmonic originality that brought new shades of color to every line.  And, on a whimsical rendering of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” he displayed a willingness to build a solo in a way that reached out to his listeners.

Sarabski, who won the piano competition at the 43rd Montreux International Jazz Festival, cites Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson as inspirations, and characteristics of all those iconic figures occasionally surfaced in his playing.  More interesting, however, was the influence of a lesser known – in this country – artist, Azerbaijan’s legendary jazz pianist, Vagif Mustaphazadeh.  And it was the subtle presence of the same sort of mugam-like modes, sweeping arpeggios  and off-center rhythms favored by Mustaphazadeh, especially in Sarbski’s slower numbers, that added such a unique quality to his music.

There were times when Sarabski – like many young players – poured too much content into his solos, moving quickly from one idea to another, without allowing them to evolve and develop.  And his fast-fingered technique also tended to be used as a showcase rather than as a support for his striking inventiveness.

But those are qualities that will undoubtedly be modified as Sarabski matures, and has the opportunity to hone his skills with players who can challenge him to produce his finest work.  Even so, he is, at the moment, evolving into a pianist with the ability, the imagination and the desire to add a potentially new and fascinating perspective to the 21st century jazz world.

There will be one more opportunity to hear Sarabski later this week in his first public appearnce in the U.S.  He performs with bassist Greg Swiller and drummer Erik Klass on Friday,  October 30 at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre.  Tickets are available from  (213) 485-4581.

Picks of the Week: Oct. 26 – Nov. 1

October 26, 2009

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

charitoOct. 26. (Mon.)  Charito.  Japanese singer Charito performs convincingly in areas reaching from jazz to r&b and soul music.  She also appears at Yoshi’s Oakland on Oct. 27 (see below).   Catalina Bar & Grill  (323) 466-2210.

Oct. 27. (Tues.)    John Pisano’s  Guitar Night is always one of the Southland’s most enjoyable jazz events.  And this week it’s even better, with Pisano swapping riffs with the veteran guiratist Gene Bertoncini.(who’s played with everyone from Benny Goodman to Wayne Shorter).  Spazio. (818) 728-8400.

– Oct. 28. (Wed.)  Sony Holland.  One of the most interesting members of northern California’s prolific crop of first rate jazz singers, Holland has now moved to Los Angeles.  Here’s the first local opportunity to see and hear this adventurous new addition to the Southland’s own gallery of world class jazz performers.   Catalina Bar & Grill (323) 466-2210.

– Oct. 29. (Thurs.)  The Diva Den.  With Kristen Korb, Kathleen Grace and Inga Swearingen. Divas they may be, but Korb, Grace and Swearingen are far more focused on the impressive musicality of their singing than their status as young prima donnas.   Vitellos Restaurant.  (818) 769-0905.lewsoloff_photo

– Oct. 29. (Thurs.)  Lew Soloff Quintet Veteran trumpeter Soloff, once a stalwart with Blood, Sweat & Tears, has also been a first call player for every imaginable musical style.  THis time out, catch Lewie doing his own thing.    Charlie O’s.   (818) 989-3110.

– Oct. 29. (Thurs.)  William Galison  Quintet.  Harmonica virtuoso Galison – who’s worked with Sting, Barbra Streisand and Jaco Pastorious, among others, makes a rare Southland appearance.  Toots Thielemans calls him “The most original and individual of the new generation of harmonica players.”  The L.A. Modern Jazz Series at the Whitefire Theatre, Sherman Oaks.   323.251.0748.

– Oct. 29 – Nov. 1. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Eldar. He’s been an adventurous pianist since he was fourteen.  Now a more mature player, he’s finding a way to balance his enviable virtuosity with  Catalina Bar & Grill (323) 466-2210.IngaSwearingenSide

– Oct. 30. (Fri.)  Inga Swearingen.  In addition to her participation in the Diva Den (see above), Swearingen is a compellingly original singer in her own right.  A frequent guest on A Prairie Home Companion, she brings diverse musicality – from jazz to Swedish folk songs – to everything she sings. In this performance, she celebrates the songs of Johnny Mercer.  LACMA (323) 857-6000.

– Oct. 30. (Fri.)  Bill Cunliffe.  “The Blues & the Abstract Truth, Take 2.” Pianist/composer Cunliffe, always exploring intriguing creative areas, does his own interpretation of the Oliver Nelson classic.   The Culver Club in the Radisson Hotel Los Angeles Westside. (310) 649-1776.  .

– Oct. 30 (Fri.)  Dengue Fever.  Lead singer Chhom Nimo provides offbeat element in Dengue Fever’s Cambodian power rock sound.  The Broad Stage.

– Oct. 30 & 31. (Fri. & Sat.)  Sandra Booker.  Her New Orleans roots are the fundamental source of Booker’s singing, which also blossoms into straight ahead jazz, r&b, soul, Brazilian and beyond.  No wonder she has a resume that reaches from Wynton Marsalis to Billy Higgins.  Hollywood Studio Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-9917.

– Nov. 1. (Sun.)  First Annual Asian-American Jazz Festival. Any doubts about either the quality or the quantity of jazz taking place in Asia will be completely dispelled by this all-star line of talent.  Among the headliners:  Hiromi. Charmaine Clamor. Prelude. Mon David. Gary Fukushima.   Japanese America National Museum Forum.  Asian-American Jazz Festival (617) 281-7285.

San Francisco

– Oct. 27. (Tues.)  Charito.  Japanese jazz singer makes her second Mads TollingsCalifornia appearance in two nights (see above).  She performs in collaboration with the San Francisco American Jazz Festival.  Yoshi’s Oakland (510) 236-9200.

– Oct. 29. (Thurs.)  Mads Tollings Quartet. Violinist Tollings, a two-time Grammy Award winner takes some time off from his work with the Turtle Island Quartet to front his own group.    Yoshi’s San Francisco.   (415) 655-5600.

Nov. 1. (Sun.)  Pamela Rose. Adventurous singer Rose presents “Wild Women of Song: Great Gal Composers of the Jazz Era.”  It’s a multi-media production with music, narrative and visuals.  Yoshi’s San Francisco.  (415) 655-5600

New York

– Oct. 27 – 31. (Tues. – Sat.)  Pat Martino Organ Quartet.  Guitarist Martino, always an exciting player on his own, leads an especially fiery band, with Eric Alexander, sax, Jeff “Tain” Watts, ron-carter-pic-1drums, Tony Monaco, organ.  Birdland.   (212) 581-3080.

– Oct. 27 – Nov. 1. (Tues. – Sun.)  Ron Carter Trio with Mulgrew Miller and Russell Malone.  A stellar trio if there ever was one, with Carter’s magnificently creative bass playing leading the way.  Opening act is the trio of drummer Francesca Mela. The Blue Note.    (212) 475-8592.

Click here to check out Mike Katz’s iRoM review of the Carter trio during their recent  Los Angeles appearance.

Live Music: Gal Costa and Oscar Castro-Neves at Royce Hall

October 25, 2009

By Don Heckman

Bossa nova has never needed anything more than a guitar and voice to deliver its message.  And the performance by Gal Costa and Oscar Castro-Neves Saturday night in a UCLA Live concert at Royce Hall affirmed just how musically convincing that minimal combination can be.

Costa has been a star of Brazilian music since the Tropicalismo movement of the ‘60s, and Castro-Neves wrote his first hit song, “ Chora Tua Tristeza,” in the mid-fifties when he was sixteen.  Individually and in combination, their work reflects the music of Brazil’s past half century.

Gal Costa 2Costa made it clear at the beginning of the evening, however, that – although her recent recordings embrace many other genres – the duo would concentrate upon bossa nova for this particular concert  And, for an American audience (liberally sprinkled with Southland Brazilians), it was an excellent decision.  Initially flowing from the compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim and the guitar playing and singing of Joao Gilberto, bossa nova has been, for the past half century, one of the world’s most popular and far reaching international forms of music.

Castro-Neves also mentioned, at one point, that he viewed the program as an evening of intimate music, as though it was being presented in a parlor to a group of friends.  And, despite the size of Royce Hall, that’s pretty much how the evening felt from this listener’s perspective, as well.  Most of the tunes were delivered in a similar fashion.  Castro-Neves played an introduction, either establishing a simmering bossa nova rhythm or laying out some lush arpeggios, and Costa began so sing.  Looking elegant in a beautiful gown — her youthful manner and demeanor transforming her sixty-three years into nothing more than a number – she sang with the warm timbre and expressive interpretations that have characterized her work since the beginning.

The duo surveyed most of the classic bossa nova numbers —Oscar Castro Neves “Corcovado,” “Desafinado,” “Triste,” “Insensatez,” “A Felicidade” and “”Garota de Ipanema” among them.  On many, the Brazilians in the audience sang along with Costa, a common practice in Brazil, underscoring the intimacy of the program.  The only English language song (other than a verse in “Garota de Ipanema” – “The Girl From Ipanema”) was “As Time Goes By,” sung by Costa with the same sort of convincing, story-telling qualities she brought to the other songs.  And, with “Aquarela do Brasil,” her singing and Castro-Neves stirring guitar rhythms provided an echo of the samba foundations of bossa nova.

On several numbers – including a lush rendering of “Dindi” – Castro-Neves moved to the piano.  On others, he used his guitar to trigger string pad samples, adding an atmospheric, orchestral sound behind his guitar.

Ultimately, however, it was the songs, and  the rich artistry that Costa and Castro-Neves brought to them, that mattered in these memorable interpretations of some of the 20th century’s most compelling music.

Live Jazz: Lee Ritenour at Catalina Bar & Grill

October 25, 2009

By Devon Wendell

Lee Ritenour kicked off a three-night stretch at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood Friday with a powerful set filled with jazz, rock, blues, and  funk for the guitar aficionado.  His performance was a celebration of his upcoming album Six String Theory album, dedicated to the guitar’s vital role in the genres of rock, blues, country and jazz.  The album features guests such as B.B. King, George Benson, John Scofield, and introduces The Six String Theory contest, in which guitar finalists in each category will be chosen to compete based on standout audition videos. The grand prize winner will be featured on a track on the album and win a full scholarship to The Berklee School of music.

Backed by a trio of some of the finest players in jazz andLee Ritenour r&b — keyboardist John Beasley: bassist Melvin Davis and drummer Will Kennedy – Ritenour opened the set with Boss City” from his 1993 Wes Montgomery tribute album Wes Bound. Starting the tune with Montgomery’s trademark guitar octaves, he combined jazz phrasing with straight ahead blues licks.  Using the bright, reverberated tone that he is known best for, phrasing with incredible dynamics, Ritenour alternated from hard and loud to sweet and low, incorporating volume and wah-wah effects with a clean tone.  The funky pulse-like synchronicity between Davis and Kennedy sustained the rhythm in a tight groove, with Beasley adding some Larry Young styled, simulated B-3 organ effects on his electric keyboard.

Next, the band took the pace down with the Oliver Nelson classic, “Stolen Moments,” with Ritenour playing some slow, melodic blues leads, his lines displaying his more delicate and economical sensibilities.  Davis and Kennedy, meanwhile, kept the gut-bucket, shuffle rhythm feeling intact, their subtle, propulsive groove bringing to mind Jimmy Smith’s smoky, after hours soul.

On Antonio Carlos Jobim’s familiar tune “Stone Flower,” Ritenour and company ventured into a more psychedelic, Miles Davis -fusion sound rather than the traditional Brazilian style of the original.  Ritenour’s boundless energy, effortlessly alternating between lead and rhythm, increased the energy and volume level, driving Davis and Kennedy to reach out and explore heights.  Beasley brought the band back down with a wonderfully sensitive yet eerie solo. The tune, in sum, was a fine display of focused improvisation without overindulgence.

On “Wes Bound,” Ritenour’s solo leaped from jazz to blues to rock, at one point using a slide with a distorted tone to create an odd, yet imaginative, pedal steel sound.  He then shifted gears, quickly dropping the slide and playing lightning fast arpeggios and lead runs. Beasley again countered with a trippy, utterly original  organ solo.

Ritenour switched to nylon string acoustic guitar for “Waters Edge,” starting off unaccompanied, playing with a flamenco feel and Segovia-like chordal movement.  The band joined in at precisely the right moment with Davis playing an amazing solo on his 7-string electric bass, mimicking Ritenour’s guitar phrasing and tone, while humorously singing along with each note.  It was one of the standout moments of the set.

Ritenour then spoke of his first meeting with the recently deceased Les Paul as he picked up one of the late master’s signature guitars, launching into “Smoke ‘n’ Mirrors” — an up-tempo number with a late ‘60’s blues rock ambiance and  a dash of ‘80’s jazz fusion.  The result was Ritenour’s most impressive solo of the evening, as he aggressively attacked the guitar with dizzying speed and staccato picking, fearlessly venturing out of pure jazz and into all  the genres of music that will be the focus of his Six String Theory project.  Joined by the other players, he led the way in a romp through a tight, yet high spirited free form jam, with the band never losing sight of the song’s motif.

Though the set was short, with the band fully warmed up and hitting a peak only as it came to a close, Ritenour and his dedicated trio kicked off what will surely be an exciting weekend at Catalina’s with a sense of musical diversity, fun, and virtuosity. They finish their three performance run tonight.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 255 other followers