Musical Theatre: “A Night With Janis Joplin” at the Pasadena Playhouse

August 10, 2015
Mike Finkelstein

Mike Finkelstein

By Mike Finkelstein

If you have even a kernel of curiosity about the legend of Janis Joplin or if you simply want to see some great rock-related live musical theater, you will want to get to the Pasadena Playhouse and see A Night with Janis Joplin before it closes on August 23. Putting this production into this beautifully restored venue in Old Towne Pasadena is a superb match.

They nailed the hippie esthetic — a classy set in a classy theater. The stage was covered with some of the snazziest hippie tapestries available, an iconic Egyptian-styled chair that Janis made famous, several very groovy, fringed lamps, and of course the velvet, boas, fringes, and beads in the costuming.

This production, created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, is signed, sealed and delivered with the uncanny performance by Tony-nominated Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin.

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin

To say she becomes Janis Joplin for the role may sound clichéd, but it was downright mesmerizing to watch Davies nail all of Janis’ mannerisms, quirks, and nuances in speech, song, and posture. Her speaking voice had the same giggling, twang and her hair even hung down from her temples just the way Janis’ did when she bent down to belt out a phrase. It seemed to me that Davies didn’t need to stretch much to carry the role of Janis Joplin.

And Davies was hardly in a talent bubble with a supporting cast of similarly powerful girl singers surrounding her as the Joplinaires. The girls also played the part of the girl group the Chantels, whose haunting gem “Maybe” was a huge influence on young Janis’ appreciation of how well music can put across powerful emotions. Yvette Cason (Aretha Franklin/Nina Simone), Sylvia MacCalla (Bessie Smith/Odetta), and Jenelle Lynne Randall (Etta James) all did justice to the luminaries they portrayed.

A Night With Janis Joplin is not a plot heavy show. In fact, the format is more or less like a VH1 Storytellers show, where the performer chooses material, introduces it anecdotally, and then performs it with a band. In A Night With Janis Joplin, Janis affably welcomes us into her life and presents us with the songs and the emotions that powered them for her. Because it’s musical theater, we get to see her talk about Etta James, Nina Simone, Odetta, Aretha Franklin and Bessie Smith, and then have these characters come out and proceed to lay down exactly what Janis is talking about.

The script is cleverly written to allow Davies to welcome us with stories from Janis’ vantage point. She leads with stories like when she and her siblings made their house cleaning chores into a production, performing Porgy and Bess and other musicals to records supplied by their mother as they worked. Following this lead-in is a great comparison of “Summertime,” sung bluesy and powerfully by Jenelle Randall and then rearranged by Big Brother and the Holding Company. The band’s version of this ubiquitous song was an early glimpse of the possibilities in interpreting traditional tunes with a rock slant. The elegantly busy bass lines, the beautiful harmony guitar lines, and the wonderful dynamics of the new version were an innovative high water mark at the time. Janis’ vocal on it was classic and to watch Davies sing it Friday was to know that she has been doing it for most of her life. She owned it. The band gave “Summertime” a real workout as they also did to “Piece of My Heart,” and “Cry Baby.”

A Night with Janis Joplin - Photo by Joan Marcus

A Night with Janis Joplin – Photo by Joan Marcus

Janis brought up the notion that songwriters ask so many good questions…but don’t answer them. The choices of songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Down on Me,” and “Tell Mama,” give us a sense of what rang true to Janis in other people’s music. One major theme of Janis Joplin’s life was that though she yearned for real love, she also needed to be on stage to be whole. And these considerations were often at odds with each other. She made the point that she just might not choose a good man over a good audience. This was a person who would not hesitate to go against the grain if it meant being true to herself.

It’s impossible to think about Janis Joplin without confronting the fact that alcohol and drug abuse led to her untimely death at the young age of 27. There’s no way around the fact that she was one of the founding members of the “27 club,” which also tragically includes mega-talents like Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. Though she casually picks up a bottle once in the show, the subject of booze, drugs, and self-medication are just not part of the program. It would have been fun to listen to the spunky and insightful rationale for this behavior that Davies’ Janis could surely have supplied.

Towards the end of her abruptly shortened career, Janis severed ties with Big Brother and took on Full Tilt Boogie as her backing band. It was with them that she made some of her most appealing and tastefully arranged music. Songs like “Half Moon,” and “Move Over,” and “Get It While You Can” would have been worthy of making the cut in the production, even though “Kozmic Blues,” and “Bobby McGee” did. Still it’s six of one and half dozen of the other. The material in the production is top flight, and it’s played and sung impeccably. Davies is a true dynamo as Janis, and transcended the show into something very special.

A NIght With Janis Joplin, photo by Earl Gibson III

A NIght With Janis Joplin, photo by Earl Gibson III

Walking out of the Pasadena Playhouse, I felt like I’d gotten to experience more of Janis than I had anticipated, both musically and spiritually. As I watched people sporting flowers in their hair, bell bottoms, and headbands like it was a costume party, I had to once again realize that the hippie days were, at their purest, a very creative time in history, and Janis Joplin was as iconic a hippie personality as there ever will be. But those days are long gone and a show like this is the closest most people will probably come to connecting with it. I’m delighted to have known her music years before she died and to know that a show like this one does real justice to her legacy. And what could be more important than that?

A Night With Janis Joplin continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through August 23.

* * * * * * * *

To read more posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


The Central Avenue Jazz Festival This Weekend

July 25, 2015
Brick Wahl

Brick Wahl

By Brick Wahl

In my heart of hearts, my favorite jazz festival ever has always been the one held every year on Central Avenue in the shadow of the Dunbar Hotel. It’s close to the roots of jazz in this town, it has band after swinging band, the musicians play like their lives depended on it, and the crowd is serious jazz loving people. Not college kids or rich westsiders or hipsters or tourists or even jazz critics, just people. Jazz people.

And it’s back again this weekend, both Saturday and Sunday, for the twentieth time. Not sure how many I’ve been to but enough that I keep bumping into people I remember on the street there. I’m gonna run through the acts and time and location and incredibly groovy parking set up (Secure lots! Shuttles! Free!) but if you’re already bored by my banter you can head straight through this link to the Central Avenue Jazz Festival itself and read the same thing but with less words and better graphics.

First, where is it? It takes place on Central Avenue, the epicenter for all that was glorious in west coast jazz in the thirties and forties and even into the fifties, between Vernon Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Take the 110 to the MLK exit and head east to Central Avenue. You’ll run right into it.

Parking info is linked here and it’s dreamy. A block shy of Central Avenue on Martin Luther King is Wadsworth Elementary School. It’s free, secure, plentiful and best of all there’s a regular air conditioned shuttle service to carry you the three city blocks to the Festival. It winds you through the charming neighborhood and then stops and the doors open and the sounds of pure jazz fill the bus. You are there. And there’s even another elementary school–Harmony Elementary–that is the same thing. Secure, free and only a block away from the grounds. There’s even a shuttle from there as well, though you can walk the block faster. It’s up to you and your aging knees.

Food and non-alcoholic drink galore, all of it good, some awesome. Peach cobbler to die for. The bean pie man. All that soul food your doctor warned you about. Who knows what else. Plus fruit drinks you are not allowed to pour anything stronger into by law. You read it here first.

There is lots of seating, lots and lots, but never enough. Feel free to bring your own. It is so casual and live-and-let-live no one will care. While people listen here, seriously listen, the vibe is more like the very back of the Hollywood Bowl during the Playboy Jazz Festival, but without the inflatable furniture. Or spliffs. Or smooth jazz.

The Central Avenue Jazz Festival

Because there will be no smooth jazz at the Central Avenue Festival. None that I can see on the schedule this year. Evil types had forced some bogus stuff on the bill the last couple years but from the looks of the schedule this year, all those evil types have been purged. There is not an act this year that is not 100% the real thing. If I am wrong, I will eat my hat, and it’s a big hat.

There are two stages, one at either end, and acts will be appearing in shaded comfort in the lobby of the Dunbar Hotel as well. One stage has more of the main acts, the other more of the newer acts. That varies a bit but that is the gist. Let’s look at the line up on Saturday:

MAIN STAGE 

Saturday, July 25 

11:45 am   LAUSD Beyond The Bell All-City Jazz Big Band–the newest jazz generation cooks.
1:00 pm  Henry Franklin: The Skipper and Crew–They call him Skipper (dig the hat) and he has a kicking quintet that wails in a mid-period kind of John Coltrane way. This crowd brings out the best in them.
2:30 pm Alfredo Rodriguez Trio A phenomenal young pianist from Cuba (if I remember right), he puts on a ferocious show of virtuosity and energy and is a blast to watch. Nice guy, and another of Quincy Jones’ discoveries, and lets hope Quincy is there to dig the scene as well.

 4:00 pm Gerald Wilson Orchestra—We just lost Gerald who would be a ninety-something dervish in front of the most exciting big band on the planet, and between tunes he’d regale the crowd of his days living at the Dunbar hotel seven decades ago and playing at the Club Alabam just next door. It never got more magical than that for me. His extraordinarily talented son Anthony Wilson is leading the band now, and the talent on stage are all superstars, even if the jazz world isn’t yet aware of it. Kamasi Washington–a genuine star–should be there too, just erupting in molten tenor flight the likes of which you have not heard in a long time. (And then he’s over at California Plaza the same night!)

5:30 pm And Poncho Sanchez takes us out, and my guess is he’ll really be working the Stax soul and bugulu as well as his signature Latin jazz sound. Groovin’ to say the least.
And that’s only one stage, there’s another:

 2ND STAGE

  Saturday, July 25

There’s three great sounding saxophonists in a row here. I’ve written about the astonishing talent of Glendale’s own Christopher Astoquilca, and caught Aaron Shaw and Braxton Cook on YouTube. All three are highly recommended so tear yourself away from the main stage for a spell and check some of each. I love how the Festival is booking these brand new jazz artists like this. And the crowd pleasing teenaged bluesman Ray Goran plays some searing guitar to finish out the day on the second stage.

12:00 pm saxist Aaron Shaw Quintet
1:00 pm Christopher Astoquilca A-Tet
2:20 pm Saxophonist Braxton Cook Quartet
3:40 pm 15 years old blues guitarist Ray Goran

And then inside The Dunbar Hotel there are two acts, both featuring community programs nurturing the youngest jazz player:

 Saturday, July 25
  A Place Called Home’s band

2:00 pm Beyond the Bell Combo (LAUSD jazz with I believe Ndugu Chancler directing)
OK, that was all just Saturday. Sunday is just as brilliant:

 MAIN STAGE

Sunday, July 26
11:30 am Jazz America–more of the scary talented young people

12:45 pm  Barbara Morrison The indomitable singer–one of LA’s best ever–will lord it over the stage and owning every song she performs, no matter who did it first. Essential viewing.

2:15 pm John Beasley & MONK ‘estra It’s hard to say too much about how great this band is. It’s pure John Beasley, in that’s he’s taken all the Monk compositions, rendered them new without reducing their Monkishness one iota, and the result is thrilling. State of the art jazz that never gets bogged down by art…this is maybe the best new big band on the planet. Not that I’ve heard every new big band on the planet, but I’d be shocked as hell to hear anything better than Beasley’s mad contraption. Basically, ya gotta be there.

3:40 pm Arturo O’Farrill Quintet The son of NYC latin jazz legend Chico O’Farrill, he had been leading an orchestra doing his pop’s arrangement. Can’t wait to see what this five piece will do.

5:10 pm  Kenny Burrell Big Band You’ve heard of this absolutely legendary jazz guitar player (who, if I remember right, was Duke Ellington’s favorite guitarist). This band recently did a wildly successful show at the John Anson Ford and here he is repeating that success. As you might have guessed, when an icon is leading a band, the ranks are filled with incredible players. What a way to finish he weekend on the main stage.
Of course, there’s a whole other stage:

2ND STAGE

Sunday, July 26 

12:00 pm Saxist Tony White Quintet. Apparently this outfit cooks. Old pals of mine Gary Fukushima (on piano) and Mike Alvidrez (bass) are in the ranks so I will be down there taking notes and making them nervous.

1:25 pm Excellent young pianist Jamael Dean and his quintet.

2:50 pm I’ve seen violinist Dayren Santamaria steal the show at a couple Mongorama gigs and here she is with her own band  Made In Cuba. Can’t imagine this being less than great.

4:20 pm Trombonist Ryan Porter and his group shook the festival to the foundations last year.You’ve seen him with Kamasi Washington, and Kamasi and much the same crew should be back for this one, grooving massively.

And then inside The Dunbar Hotel on Sunday: 

12:00 pm Very talented, very young saxophonist Devin Daniels

2:00 p  A Place Called Home group back one more time.
OK….be there. Hell, it’s free, the parking is there, there’s a freaking shuttle, and the jazz should be absolutely wonderful. Get off the couch and go. OK, gotta run, I’m late for a klezmer gig. (I am, seriously.)

See ya down there people. It’ll be good to see so many of you again….
Brick


Doc Wendell’s Prescription For Bop and Beyond with Roland Kirk’s “Rip, Rig, And Panic” (Emarcy)

July 22, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon Wendell

By the mid 1960s, Roland Kirk had already established himself as one of the most unique forces in jazz. Being blind and able to play up to 3 horns simultaneously (and even a nose flute) was enough to get people’s attention. But aside from the visual stage performance, Kirk’s music was texturally and harmonically distinct. Kirk played tenor saxophone, manzello and flute and his compositions are still special and timeless.

On January 13, 1965, Kirk was joined by pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Richard Davis, and the great Elvin Jones on drums at Rudy Van Gelder Studios in Englewood, New Jersey to record Rip, Rig, and Panic. This highly experimental album combines hard bop, post bop, and avant-garde jazz in a delightfully peculiar manner that is impossible to forget.

Roland Kirk

Roland Kirk

The album’s opening track, “No Tonic Press” is a tribute to Lester Young. The track has no tonic in the “head” or melody line. Kirk starts out on tenor sax alone, but soon is playing tenor and manzello at the same time. Jaki Byard’s stride piano solo swings beyond belief. Elvin Jones drives this track’s rhythm with some of his typically brilliant drumming.

Kirk and the band’s rendition of “Once In A While” is almost a note for note tribute to Clifford Brown’s own masterful trumpet version from his performance on the live album Art Blakey At Birdland from 1954 on Blue Note.

“From Bechet, Byas, And Fats” is dedicated to Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, and Fats Waller. Kirk’s love of the history of jazz is prevalent throughout this track and the album. You can hear faint traces of Bechet at first when Kirk plays the melody line on soprano sax, and just a dash of Byas when he switches to tenor sax. But mostly you hear Kirk’s own style. There is the influence of John Coltrane in some of Kirk’s tenor lines but most tenor players were heavily inspired by Trane in 1965.

“Mystical Dream” showcases Kirk’s beautifully melodic flute playing. Byard’s solo is short but perfect. Elvin Jones starts off softly but is driven to more aggressive heights by the middle of this piece. Like Eric Dolphy and Yusef Lateef, Kirk brought atonality to the flute, making the instrument swing in new directions.

The title track is an exploration in sound and color. Kirk plays some hard but swinging microtones on the tenor sax until you expect to hear the sound of a glass breaking. The band then takes off, improvising around an ascending melody line. Kirk and the band venture “out” into the avant-garde here. Kirk eventually is playing tenor sax, manzello, and stritch all at once. Byard’s solo sounds like an odd mixture of Cedar Walton and early Cecil Taylor, and Elvin Jones just cooks. Davis’s subtle bass line is perfect for this sonic adventure.

“Black Diamond” is a modal ballad in the style of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” It sounds more like Brubeck on acid. Kirk’s manzello floats atop Byard’s piano comping and the pulsating rhythms of Davis and Jones. Kirk’s lines are harmonically brilliant.

“Slippery, Hippery, Flippery” is another sonic journey that feels slightly like Pharoah Sanders’ music of that time. Eastern music influences are definitely present here. The music is harsh, chaotic, and beautiful.

Roland Kirk’s music becomes even more important with time. Although this may not be one of his most popular releases, Rip, Rig, And Panic is one of his greatest; a true gem on all levels. Do not miss out on this one.

* * * * * * * *

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


Live Impressions: Rich Little at the Laugh Factory

July 21, 2015

By James DeFrances

Las Vegas. Last week, veteran master impressionist Rich Little premiered his new show at the Laugh Factory in the Las Vegas Tropicana Hotel and Casino.

The brand new show “Rich Little Live” tells his life story through a series of archived video clips, live impressions and music. Often billed as the greatest impressionist of all time, Little soared through plenty of his most famous impersonations.

On the bill were his impersonations of legends such as Jack Benny, Jack Lemmon, Richard Nixon, Johnny Carson, Ronald Reagan and more. In a career that spans over five decades Little had the privilege to call many of the stars he impersonates his personal friends.

Rich Little as Jack Benny

Rich Little as Jack Benny

An enthralled capacity level crowd beamed at the impressive video montage being shown on the large monitors. Excerpts shown included Little guest hosting The Tonight Show (which he did 12 times), The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts (of which he appeared in 24), The Judy Garland Show (his first television appearance) and The Dinah Shore Show to name a few. One of the highlights of the night was Little singing an updated parody version of Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” as Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood and Willie Nelson.

An excellent singer in his own right, Little went on to perform Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore,” Frank Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town” (with the original seldom heard verse) and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” The musical segments were directed superbly by Little’s personal arranger and conductor Chuck Hoover who played every instrument on his synthesized keyboard.

Rich Little as Richard Nixon

Rich Little as Richard Nixon

Most famously known for his impersonation of Richard Nixon, Little also portrayed a re-enactment of the Ronald Reagan White House press conference (which he filled in for) and Bill Clinton, who Little explained was “a man who wrote a lot of material for me.”

In an hour long show that ended almost too soon, Little closed by thanking the audience for their support over the years and sang the self-penned torch song “I’ll Be Here Till The Bitter End” sitting on a bar stool accompanied by just a piano.

Little appears in the Laugh Factory theatre every night at 7PM except for Mondays and Fridays and will be performing his “Jimmy Stewart and Friends” show at The Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on July 31st.

* * * * * * * *

Photos by James DeFrances. To read more reviews by (and about) James DeFrances click HERE.

 

 


Picks of the Weekend in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York City

July 10, 2015

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Barbara Morrison

Barbara Morrison

– July 10 and 11. (Fri. & Sat. Barbara Morrison. She’s been busy around town lately, but Barbara Morrison is always a musical pleasure to experience. Here’s another welcome opportunity to hear her up close in action. Steamers.  (714) 871-8800.

– July 10 and 11. Fri. & Sat. Jack Jones. Grammy winner Jones, still sounding great in his late seventies, delivers songs in the classic pop and jazz style of the ’60s. Catalina Bar and Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

San Francisco

Macy Gray

Macy Gray

– July 11 & 12. (Sat. & Sun.) Macy Gray. Multiple Grammy award winner singer/songwriter Gray celebrates her latest album The Way. Yoshi’s.  (510) 238-9200.

Seattle

– July 10 -12. (Fri. – 12.) Boney James. Jazz Alley. Smooth jazz acts don’t often make the Picks of the Week here at iRoM. But if we’re going to choose one, there’s none more popular in ths genre than saxophonst Boney James.  (206) 441-9729.

Chicago

Pharez Whitted

Pharez Whitted

– July 10 – 12`. 9Fri. – Sun.) Pharez Whitted Quintet. Chicago’s trumpeter Whitted doesn’t yet have the visibility his skills deserve, but he’s doing his best to keep hard bop alive. Jazz Showcase.  (312) 360-0234

New York City

– July 12 (Sun.) The Cast of Phantom Sings Andrew Lloyd Webber. The current Phantom on Broadway, James Barbour joins the hit show’s cast in a tribute to the show’s composer. Birdland.

Washington D.C.

Jean Carne

Jean Carne

 

– July 10 – 12. (Fri. – Sun.) Jean Carne. ‘The 40 Year Tour). Veteran singer Carne celebrates a career that reaches across jazz, blues, pop and beyond. Blues Alley.   337-4141.

 

 


Live Jazz: Highlights From the 37th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival At The Hollywood Bowl.

June 16, 2015

By Devon Wendell

It’s hard to believe it’s that special time of year again. Yet another annual Playboy Jazz Festival has come and gone. And with it, memories of drunken conga lines, the smell of cheap weed in the summer air, and a plethora of musical acts ranging from actual jazz, r&b, rock, and even gospel.

It’s already been stated many times and by many journalists that the Playboy Jazz Festival isn’t for jazz purists so let’s skip all of that and get started with my highlights of the two days.

Saturday

The Los Angeles County High School For The Arts Vocal Jazz Ensemble ( Abigail Berry, Lee Anilee, Jordyn Warren, Sofie Thurston, Crisia Regalada, Keana Peery, Ezra Behem, Haley Carr, Griffin Faye, Pedro Ramirez, Wesley Tani, Henry Tull, Caleb Collins, Isaac Sims Foster, and Evan Wright on vocals, Dornell Carr, piano; Julian Gomez, bass and Alec Smith on drums. Directed by Pat Bass) kicked off Saturday’s program and they were marvelous.

The vocal harmonies that these kids produced were complex, soulful, and mature. The band’s rendition of “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” was one of the high points of Saturday’s program. Soloists Evan Wright, Henry Tull, and Caleb Collins scat sang with total mastery. These kids could easily be the next Manhattan Transfer.

Chilean born Melissa Aldana is one of the most unique tenor saxophonists in the jazz world today. Although you can hear hints of influences like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Sonny Rollins in her playing, Aldana already has her own distinct voice on the tenor sax at the tender age of 25. Aldana and her solid trio (Pablo Menares on bass and Jochen Rueckert on drums) played a set of all originals such as the mellow “New Points,” the bop flavored “Bring Him Home,” and the Latin swinging “Desde La Lluvia.”

Aldana plays mostly in the upper register sounding more like an alto sax than a tenor. And she has an original sense of harmony and texture. The highlight of Aldana’s set was her original tribute to Sonny Rollins called “Back Home.” On this piece, Aldana sounded a little like Sonny Rollins’ early 60’s playing on the RCA/Victor label but for the most part she stuck to her own style with confidence and ease.

Aldana is definitely an artist to watch out for.

Try to imagine John Coltrane’s classic “A Love Supreme” being performed by a loud, gritty, gospel-rock steel guitar band from the Deep South. That is exactly what A Sacred Steel Love Supreme: The Campbell Brothers “A Love Supreme” sounded like during their performance at The Bowl on Saturday. The Campbell Brothers performed all four suites of “A Love Supreme”: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalm.” This wasn’t your typical Coltrane tribute by any means but his message of love, unity, and spirituality are what gospel music is all about so this soulful experiment made perfect sense. And this music brought the Bowl crowd right to the heart of American “roots music.”

Chuck and Derrick Campbell’s Steel Guitars produced an eerie, hypnotic, and psychedelic effect like blues you would hear from Mississippi’s Northern Hill Country. And the rhythm section (Carlton Campbell on drums, and Daric Benettt on bass) was sublimely funky. This is something you have to see to believe. Legendary jazz composer and arranger Gerald Wilson passed away on September 18th, 2014 at the age of 96. Wilson’s son Anthony Wilson and The Gerald Wilson Orchestra (Anthony Wilson, conductor and guitar; Carl Saunders, Winston Byrd, Chris Gray, Bobby Rodriguez: trumpets; Les Benedict, Francisco Torres, George Bohanon, Robbie Hioki: trombones; Scott Mayo, Randall Willis: alto saxophones; Rickey Woodard, Kamasi Washington: tenor saxophones;Terry Landry, baritone: sax; Brian O’Rourke: piano; Reggie Carson: bass; Mel Lee: drums; Yvette Devereaux: violin; and Eric Otis on guitar) celebrated the master’s illustrious legacy with a fantastic set of real big band jazz.

The set included some of Wilson’s most inspirational compositions and arrangements, such as “Triple Chase” with a burning tenor sax solo by Kamasi Washington, “Blues For Nya Nya” and Wilson’s incredible arrangement of ‘Perdido.” The entire band was swinging beyond belief and the arrangements were true to Wilson’s original charts.

On “Nancy Jo,” trumpeter Winston Byrd played one of the most original trumpet solos I’ve heard in years, demonstrating true range, imagination, and originality.

Anthony Wilson not only conducted, but also played some Kenny Burrell style electric guitar on “Blues For The Count” (Wilson wrote this piece for Count Basie in 1945) and the legendary George Bohanon’s trombone solo cooked.

On “Viva Tirado,” Bobby Rodriguez played an amazingly melodic trumpet solo and Yvette Devereaux’s violin solo was reminiscent of Ray Nance’s work in Duke Ellington’s Band.
This was a warm and loving tribute to Gerald Wilson and it’s always refreshing to hear true big band jazz at the Playboy Jazz Festival or anywhere else for that matter.

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock

Whenever Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock get together, you never can predict what they are going to do but it’s always something special. Shorter and Hancock were joined by The Thelonious Monk Institute Of Jazz Performance Ensemble, consisting of Michael Mayo on vocals, David Otis on alto sax, Daniel Rotem on tenor sax, Ido Meshulam on trombone, Carmen Staaf on piano, Alex Boneham on bass, and Christian Euman on drums.

Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter

The set began with The Monk Institute Of Jazz Performance Ensemble performing an ethereal arrangement of Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die.” The young players in The Monk Institute Band were phenomenal. Daniel Rotem’s tenor sax work was original and flowed with countless ideas. Vocalist Michael Mayo’s voice floated magically over the instrumentalists as they all soloed.

After this number, Shorter and Hancock joined the band for Daniel Rotem’s “Who Is It?” which showcased Rotem’s originality as a composer as well as tenor sax player. Wayne Shorter played soprano sax. His lines were sparse and perfectly placed. Hancock shared solos with the wonderful Carmen Staaf who gave Herbie a run for his money.

After a brief version of Hancock’s classic “Cantaloupe Island,” The Monk Institute Of Jazz Performance Ensemble exited the stage, leaving Shorter and Hancock alone. What happened next was one of those truly magical moments between two giants who have played together for over half a century.

On Hancock’s “Speaks Like A Child’” the two men had a beautiful musical conversation through their instruments. Hancock played big block chords on his synthesizer while Shorter improvised some powerful syncopated lines on the soprano sax. It was like they could read each other’s minds.

The Monk Institute Of Jazz Performance Ensemble returned to the stage after this number, performing Carmen Staaf’s composition “New April.” Staaf’s elegant but swinging piano chops went with the theme of the composition perfectly and Rotem, Otis, Meshulam, and Shorter all traded solos. It’s was “true democracy” to quote Shorter. Each band member was supportive of one another without any egos getting in the way.

Next, a true festival highlight. Eddie Palmieri is a true genius and master on all levels. His performance on Saturday night with his Afro-Caribbean Jazz Band (Eddie Palmieri, leader, piano; Luques Curtis, bass; Vincente “Little Johnny” Rivero, congas; Anthony Carrillo, bongo, and Carmen Molina on timbales.) was one of the great moments of the entire weekend.

Palmieri and his band were joined by some very special guests. On the funky classic “Coast To Coast,”
Palmieri and company were joined by the amazing Ronnie Cuber on baritone sax. Cuber’s baritone lines danced gleefully with the percussionists and with the instantly identifiable Eddie Palmieri percussive piano accompaniment.

The highlight of the set and of the Saturday program was “Samba De Sueno.” Joe Locke was the guest soloist. Locke played all of Cal Tjader’s original vibe parts (Palmieri originally recorded this piece with Tjader) and Palmieri played one of the greatest piano solos I’ve even heard him play. His one of a kind sense of space, dynamics, and syncopation on piano swung harder than life itself. Palmieri just gets better and better with age.

Alfredo De La Fe danced across the stage as he played his red violin along with Palmieri and the band. De La Fe’s virtuosic skills and showmanship had Palmieri grinning from ear to ear. Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison sat in on “VP Blues.” Harrison was on fire, playing a wonderfully original alto sax solo. Palmieri’s piano solo was totally different but equally as brilliant as on “Samba De Suneo.” This time Palmieri played softly and gently, showing what a dynamic musician he truly is. This was Latin jazz at its best.

Sunday
Sunday’s program started off with The LAUSD/Beyond The Bell All-City Jazz Big Band (Steve Murillo, Jamir Pleitez, Ashton Sein, Ellis Thompson, Max Kim, saxophones; Anna Menotti, Harshpreet Suri, Karl Wylie, Rene Cruz, Christopher Vargas, trombones; Andrea Palacios, Nathan Serot, Mark Trejo, John Morillas, trumpets; Giancarlos Arzu, Gabe Feldman-Franden, Keelan Walters, Tyler Kysar, James Morgan, Cameron Evans, rhythm section. Under the direction of Tony White and JB Dyas.)

These kids may be young but they played some amazing original big band arrangements of John Scofield’s “I’ll Take Les,” Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar” Kenny Burrell’s “Chitlins Con Carne” and Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” These weren’t just kids forced to play this music in school. You could feel their love of jazz and knowledge of big band swing. These kids surely have a bright future ahead of them.
The Jones Family Singers came all the way from Texas to perform a set of no-nonsense, gospel music that was truly one of the most electrifying sets of the festival.

On originals such as “I Am,” “Bones In The Valley” and ‘Down On Me,” lead singer Alexis Jones belted out some of the most powerful tenor vocals I’ve ever heard. The call and response between Alexis, Bishop Fred A. Jones, and the backing vocalists were mesmerizing. And they were backed by the tight yet funky rhythm section of Kenneth Freeman on bass and Mathew Hudlin on drums. You couldn’t help but shake something or get up and dance to this music. The Festival people should have put them on much later, when there were more people in the audience to take part in the joy of this music. The Jones Family singers danced across the stage in unison and urged the crowd to get up, dance, and rejoice. Those who got to the Bowl early enough did just that.

I cannot think of many musical things better in life than seeing tenor sax master Jimmy Heath play with The Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. That is exactly what went down as The Dizzy Gillespie Big Band (Jimmy Heath, tenor sax; Sharel Cassity, tenor sax, flute; Antonio Hart, alto sax; Mark Gross, alto sax, vocals, and flute; Gary Smulyan, baritone sax; Frank Greene, lead trumpet; Caludio Roditti, Freddie Hendrix, Gregory Gisbert, trumpets; Jason Jackson, lead trombone; Steve Davis, Jeff Nelson, trombones; Douglas Purviance, bass trombone; Abelita Mateaus, piano; John Lee, director, bass; Tommy Campbell, drums; Roger Squitero, congas, percussion.) performed on Sunday afternoon.

The big band arrangement of Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” (popularized by Gillespie in 1945.) swung beautifully. Jimmy Heath’s tenor sax solo was elegant, soulful, and inventive, as was Antonio Hart’s alto solo. On “Beboppin Too,” Mark Gross sang Gillespie’s vocal parts followed by a fine trombone solo by Jason Jackson. The highlight of the set was hearing all of the trumpeters trade solos on Gillespie’s masterpiece “Things To Come.” Claudio Roditi’s trumpet style sounded closest to Gillespie’s. Although the band added some new twists to these compositions, the arrangements were respectful to the originals and performed with love of this amazing, timeless music. I would have come to the festival just for this.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band (Mark Braud, trumpet, vocals; Charlie Gabriel, clarinet, saxophone, vocals; Rickie Monie piano; Joe Lastie Jr., drums; Clint Maedgen, saxophone, vocals; Ronell Johnson, trombone; Ben Jaffe, bass sousaphone.) delivered a set of fun New Orleans jazz that delighted the Bowl crowd. The band took the Bowl straight to Bourbon Street on tunes like “I’ll Fly Away,” “I Think I Love You,” and “Rattlin Bones.” Braud, Gabriel, and Maedgen all shared the lead vocal spots. The horn lines danced around each other with joyful precision and by the time the band got to the funky “It’s Your Last Chance To Dance,” the entire bowl crowd was forming conga lines and dancing through the isles. New Orleans Jazz is about having a good time and this was one of the most delightfully fun moments of the weekend, capturing the true spirit of The Playboy Jazz Festival.

Blue Note’s 75th Anniversary Presents: Our Point Of View (Robert Glasper, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums; Lionel Loueke, guitar; Marcus Strickland, tenor sax; and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet) was an interesting tribute to the Blue Note Records sound of the early to mid ‘60s.

The band opened with Wayne Shorter’s “With Hunt” with fantastic solos by Strickland, Loueke, Glasper, and Akinmusire. Glasper’s piano solo was reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s on the original recording but with a little more blues to it. Akinmusire sounded more like Woody Shaw than Freddie Hubbard, and Kendrick Scott definitely paid homage to Elvin Jones on this post-bop classic.

As fine as this performance was, it was the band originals that were harmonically most fascinating. Kendrick Scott’s “Cycle Through Reality’ and Marcus Strickland’s “The Meaning” had a modal feel with a dash of the avant-garde to them. Glasper’s piano work was stellar on both pieces. Unfortunately towards the end of the set, the band started to venture too far into overused funk/fusion clichés which distracted from the originality of the first three numbers.

Third World is a legendary reggae band. Maybe it was the contact high I was getting from all of the weed smoke around me but these guys kept sounding better and better. They performed their hits “96 Degrees,” “Try Jah Love” and “Now That We Found Love.” But the biggest surprise of their set was the bands pure reading of Andrea Boccelli’s “Time To Say Goodbye.” The band’s lead singer AJ Brown not only sang this song in operatic style but he sang it in both Italian and English. This won the band a standing ovation. Neither I nor the other audience members saw this coming. It was great to see a rock fueled reggae band with such range.

Well that’s all folks. That’s my highlights from the 37th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival. There were some spectacular moments followed by some not so inspiring ones but everyone was having a blast under the warm Southern California sun and that is the whole point of the festival. See you next year.

* * * * * * * *

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

 


Picks of the Weekend: June 5 – 7 in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, London, Paris and Milan

June 4, 2015

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Eddie Daniels

June 5. (Fri.) Eddie Daniels and Roger Kellaway. The clarinet hasn’t been one of the lead jazz instruments since before the bebop era. But when it’s in the masterful hands of Eddie Daniels, lucky listeners have a chance to hear the full potential of the instrument that Mozart loved so much – and with good reason. Add to that the presence of the incomparable pianist/composer Roger Kelllaway and you can expect to hear a transformative evening of musical invention. Vittello’s E Spot Lounge.  (818) 769-0905.

June 5 & 6. (Fri. & Sa. The Oz Noy Trio. Israeli guitarist Oz Noy is a true stylistic virtuoso. With the number of elements active within any given performance it’s no wonder he says “It’s jazz; it just doesn’t sound like it.” But it’s always worth hearing, especially when the trio includes drummer Dave Weckl and bassist James Genus . Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

June 6. (Sat.) The Doobie Brothers. The Doobies have been entertaining us since the ’70s, and they’re still at it. But this’ll be a special event, with the participation of Pat Simmons, Jr., the son of founder Pat Simmons, along with the Eagles’ Don Felder. Be prepared for a show to remember. The Greek Theatre. (323) 665-5857.

Andrea Bocelli

Andrea Bocelli

June 7. (Sun.) Andrea Bocelli. The Hollywood Bowl. The great Italian singer, at home with everything from opera to Broadway classics, performs at the Bowl in a lease event, a production of
Andrew Hewitt and Bill Silva Presents. (323) 850-2000.

San Francisco

Marcus Miller

Marcus Miller

– June 5 – 7. (Fri. – Sun.) Marcus Miller. Bassist/bass clarinetist Miller is a uniquely compelling musical pleasure to hear — and always a creative surprise, as well. Yoshi’s  (510) 238-9200.

Seattle

– June 4 – 7. (Thurs. – Sun.) Spyro Gyra. Expect to be captivated by the groove when Spyro Gyra’s in action; but there’s also a hard-swinging undercurrent of straight ahead traditional jazz. Jazz Alley.  (206) 441-9729.

New York City

Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider

– June 5 – 6. (Fri. & Sat. ) The Maria Schneider Orchestra celebrates the release of a new CD, the first in a decade, titled The Thompson Fields. Birdland.

– June 5 – 7. (Fri. – Sun.) Tootie Heath 80th Birthday Celebration. Drummer Tootie Heath will star in his own party in a jam with bassists Ben Street (Friday) and David Wong (Sat & Sun); pianists Ethan Iverson (Friday) and pianist Jeb Patton (Sat & Sun); and special guest saxophonist Jimmy Heath (Sun).  Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.  (212) 258-9800.

Hiromi

– June 5 – 7. (Fri. – Sun.) Hiromi: The Trio Project. Always beyond definition in her pianistic encounters, keyboardist Hiromi is especially intriguing in the wide open environment of her trio, with drummer Anthony Jackson and bassist Simon Phillips. The Blue Note.  (212) 475-8592.

– June 8. (Mon.) A Celebration of the Life and Music of Lew Soloff. The New York City jazz community assembles to honor the memory of Lewie Soloff, whose superb trumpet playing was matched by his warmth, amiability and deep capacity for life-long friendships. The celebration takes place at the Borden Auditorium in the Manhattan School of Music. Participating musicians include Wynton Marsalis, Randy Brecker, Jon Faddis, Jimmy Owens, Cecil Bridgewater, Steve Tyrell, Chris Potter, Ray Anderson, Gil Goldstein, Danny Gottlieb, Mark Egan, Sammy Figueroa, Manhattan Brass, Jeff Berlin, Fred Lipsius, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Pete Levin and Jesse Levy. This event is free to the public and begins at 7:00 p.m.   Doors open at 6:15pm for early seating.

London

– June 5. (Fri.) Jacky Terrasson Trio. French pianist Terrasson is a jazz classicist, keeping the mainstream vividly alive, and even more so, with the sterling rhythm team of Thomas Bramerie, bass and Lukmil Perez, drums. Ronnie Scott’s.  +44 20 7439 0747.

Paris

– June 7. (Sun.) Jazz Pour Le Nepal. A gathering of France’s finest jazz artists perform in an effort to raise support for the survivors of the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Call it a jazz version of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. Jazz for Nepal. Paris New Morning.

Milan

– June 5 & 6. (Fri. & Sat.) New York Voices. The remarkable five part harmonies of the New York Voices are among the most appealing of the many jazz vocal ensembles. Don’t miss one of their rare appearances in Europe. Blue Note Milano.  +39 02 6901 6888.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 255 other followers