Live Jazz: The Mike Lang Trio at Catalina Bar & Grill

By Don Heckman

It’s easy to take many musicians for granted.  The musicians, that is, who create the infinite array of melodies, textures and rhythms that are the soundtrack of daily life.  On television and film screens, Muzak, iTunes, videogame music tracks, favorite CD collections, and so on.

“Studio musicians,” they’re called, usually with a minimizing tone of voice.  But the fact is that Los Angeles film and music studios are filled with players who possess amazingly far-ranging skills.  Including many who are fully adept at music of every genre and style, who bring imagination and authenticity to whatever is demanded of them.  And many more with impressive jazz skills.

Musicians such as pianist Mike Lang.  With credits reaching from Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald to Milt Jackson, Lee Konitz, Barbra Streisand and beyond, with performances in more than 2000 film scores, Lang has never lost touch with the jazz roots that reach back to award-winning performances while he was still in college.

Mike Lang and Alex Frank
Mike Lang and Alex Frank

Last night at Catalina Bar & Grill, Lang worked in the intimate setting of a piano jazz trio, backed by the subtly interactive playing of bassist Alex Frank and drummer Jim Keltner.  And as the evening’s music began to flow, Lang’s stylistic diversity and richly inventive imagination took over, fully revealing the creative qualities that have made him a first call pianist for many of the iconic jazz figures of the past five decades.

The first selections reached into the classic jazz songbook – first with Henry Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses,” then Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sun Flower,” followed by a linkage of three tunes — Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece,” Miles Davis’ (with Evans) “Flamenco Sketches” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time.” Lang’s touch was perfect for each, finding the lyricism of the Mancini song, the jaunty qualities of “Little Sunflower,” the floating, Erik Satie memories of “Peace Piece,” the modalities of “Flamenco Sketches” and the poignancy of “Some Other Time.”

The rest of the hour and a half set explored further: the improvisational challenges of a pair of John Coltrane works – “Naima” and “Moment’s Notice,” and a take on “Georgia On My Mind” recalling the soulfulness of Ray Charles.  Add to that several originals by Lang, all memorable, especially his “A Rural State of Mind,” which sounded very much like a song ready for lyrics.

Lang managed to make the most of a piano with a few jangling strings, especially in mid-range, that often distorted some of the rich harmonic clusters in his chordal vocabulary.  But, with the sterling aid of Frank and Keltner, he led the trio beyond the occasional warped sounds, into an engaging evening of prime piano trio jazz.

Mike Lang may well be back in the studio today, invigorating the music track for yet another new film.  But the imaginative jazz skills that are at the heart of his music will still be stirring, ready for the next opportunity to be displayed in their full expressiveness.

Photo by Faith Frenz.

To see more photos and reviews by Faith Frenz click HERE. 

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