Live Jazz: Herb Alpert, Lani Hall and Sergio Mendes at the Hollywood Bowl

July 18, 2013

By Don Heckman

The 2013 summer season of jazz at the Hollywood Bowl clicked into place Wednesday night with the performances of Herb Alpert, Lani Hall and Sergio Mendes.

Alpert and Hall, in particular, offered a musically rich, rhythmically energetic program of material ranging across jazz classics and American Songbook standards spiced with the music of Brazil.

Although he may be best known for the establishment of the Tijuana Brass in the sixties, and for shaping it into one of the most successful groups in pop music history, Alpert has always been a determinedly jazz-focused trumpet player, as well.  And his performance at the Bowl offered an impressive recollection of the depth of his skills as a jazz artist. Add to that his similarly gifted talents as a visual artist, which were on display in the form of a large Alpert painting as a backdrop.

Bill Cantos, Lani Hall, Hussain Jiffry, Herb Alpert and Michael Shapiro

I’ve heard Alpert many times, playing impressively in many settings over the past decades.  But this time out, his opening set was a performance to remember.  Standing alongside his wife, singer Lani Hall — backed by pianist/keyboardist Bill Cantos, bassist Hussain Jiffry and drummer Michael Shapiro – he played with the cool,  musically imaginative aspects that have always been at the heart of who he is as a jazz improviser.  And he revealed the impressive extent of those aspects, no matter what he was playing – in songs reaching from the Tijuana Brass memories of “A Taste of Honey” to such far-ranging song classics as “Besame Mucho,” “Moondance,” “Lets Face the Music and Dance” and “La Vie En Rose.”

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

Lani Hall and Herb Alpert

The always captivating musical presence of Hall added another convincing jazz element to the set.  The lush timbres of her voice, combined with a brisk sense of rhythm, have always been a vital part of her style, reaching back to the early ’70s.  But in recent years, Hall has become an even better musical story-teller, finding the heart of a song in all her expressively intimate performances.  And, in this concert, she did so in deeply musical, lyrically compelling readings of songs such as “Fly Me To The Moon,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”  The latter tune, in particular was interpreted by Hall with a uniquely personal rendering that reached far more deeply into the song than the jaunty, often-imitated Sinatra version.

Alpert and Hall were extremely well served by the presence of Cantos, Jiffry and Shapiro.  Each is an impressive player in his own right.  But they also added a collective, even symbiotic, coming together to find an utterly memorable approach to each of the songs in their program.

Sergio Mendes Band

Sergio Mendes Band

Less can be said for the Mendes part of the evening.  Performing with an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists comparable to his Brazil 66 (etc.) ensembles, he devoted most of his set to such familiar items as “Waters of March,” Agua De Beber” and “The Look of Love.”

The Brazil 66 sound and style of the ‘60s had its appealing qualities – qualities that underscored the band’s many pop music successes.  But in an apparent effort to reach out to a broader listener demographic, Mendes added a rapper to several tunes.  And the results largely obliterated the most appealing aspects of the Brazil 66 memories.

Fortunately, Alpert, Hall and their fine accompanists had already brought jazz authenticity to the Bowl’s 2013 schedule in their opening set.  Hopefully, their world class program will represent the start of an equally memorable summer at the Hollywood Bowl for Southland jazz fans.

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Photos by Faith Frenz

Live Music: The Lado B Project at Vitello’s

May 17, 2013

By Don Heckman

Studio City, CA.  Brazilian music nights are not uncommon in Los Angeles.  Not with the city’s substantial population of world class Brazilian players – along with the American musicians who have developed considerable competence with Brazilian music over the years.

The Lado B Project is a combination of both, blending a collection of players who brought a full palette of musical perspectives to a compelling musical evening.  Their performance at Vitello’s on Wednesday night was a magical display, underscoring the rich, panoramic qualities of Brazilian music.

Catina DeLuna

It could only have been done this way by some of L.A.’s most versatile musical artists.

Start with Brazilian-born singer/pianist/composer Catina DeLuna, whose many diverse activities include the founding in Sao Paulo of Serenata Braxileira, which specialized in classic Brazilian songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s.  Singing solo, playing hand percussion, occasionally moving to the piano to accompany herself, she was the central focus for most of the songs.

Otmaro Ruiz

Otmaro Ruiz


Add the eclectic Venezuelan pianist/accordionist/arranger Otmaro Ruiz, whose resume, overflowing with credits reaching from Herb Alpert and John McLaughlin to  Arturo Sandoval and John McLaughlin, underscores his remarkable, genre-crossing skills. In addition to his solid piano accompaniment, he brought some atmospheric accordion playing to a few of the selections.

The guitar is an essential element in Brazilian music, and one couldn’t have asked for a more skilled player than guitarist Larry Koons, who is at the top of the list for virtually all music contractors, largely because he brings so much musicality to whatever genre of music he plays.  On this night, he used acoustic guitar, roving freely across the many Brazilian rhythms filling the evening’s program.

Larry Koonse and Catina DeLuna

The rhythm team added their own appealing qualities. Aaron Serfaty was a first call drummer in his native Venezuela before he moved to Los Angeles.  And bassist Edwin Livingston, also with an impressive resume, lists the Marsalis brothers, David “Fathead” Newman, Natalie Cole and Stanley Jordan among his many associations.

Directed by DeLuna’s informative musical guidance, with Ruiz’s arrangements, Koonse’ authentic guitar work, and the propulsive rhythms of Serfaty and Livingston, the music came vividly to life.  Much of it, reaching back to songs of the ‘20s and ‘30s, was unfamiliar to American audiences.  But there was no denying its appeal – or, for that matter, the appeal of more easily identifiable songs from Antonio Carlos Jobim, among others.

The only thing missing was some background on the earlier musical selections.  Printed programs are rarely present in night club performances.  But a list of song titles, composers’ names and genre descriptions of the selections from the pre-WWII years would have further enhanced this otherwise fascinating evening.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.

Jazz CD Review: The Daniel Bennett Group

May 9, 2013

The Daniel Bennett Group

Clockhead Goes to Camp (Manhattan Daylight Media Group)

 By Brian Arsenault

When Clockhead Goes to Camp this summer, you should go with him. Like summer, this album is irrepressible.

I was reminded recently that Charles Mingus said “Making the simple awesomely simple . . . That’s creativity.“ The Daniel Bennett Group takes us to a whimsical place where the simplicity and sensibility of children has not been lost.  Rather, it has been found in this music.

The Daniel Bennett Group

The Daniel Bennett Group

I will soon be giving this album to a near one-year-old not because it is a children’s album — I generally hate the sing songy drek that is passed off as kids’ music — but because it is beautiful enough to delight a child. Or the child in you.

Oh yeah, the song titles.  They’re all like that:  the title song, “An Elephant Buys a New Car,”  “The Old Muskrat Welcomes Us,” even a scary one — “Cabin 12 Escapes into the Night.“

In fact, I was so pleased — nay, delighted — by the album’s whimsy that it wasn’t until the fourth track, “Dr. Duck’s Beautiful New Kitchen” that I went, hey, this is a jazz album. And that it is.

The title song is a remarkable piece full of nuance.  Bennett is as adept on flute and clarinet as he is on alto saxophone. On this tune, you may not always know where the instrument changes occur. At least I wasn’t.

Daniel Bennett

Daniel Bennett

Tyson Stubelek’s percussion work is outstanding throughout; rhythmic from here to Brazil and on to Africa. Peter Brendler is one of those bassists whose playing you aren’t constantly aware of because he lays it so naturally underneath; self effacing for the player but deeply satisfying for the listener.

What I have to say about guitarist Mark Cocheo can’t be separated from Bennett, not because he isn’t excellent in his own right but because the two seem like brothers musically, picking up from each other seamlessly.

Two great examples of that connection come on “Whatever it Might Be” — with an imbedded poem by Rimas Uzgiris that is hardly childlike — and “Paint the Fence.”

On “Paint the Fence,” the acoustic guitar and flute are partnered, not simply played together. On this loveliest piece of the album you may envision Tom Sawyer on a great spring morning carrying the paint pail he intends someone else to labor with.

Bennett’s flute on “Nine Piglets” is like a warm breeze through the trees.  Cocheo’s guitar smoothly picks up the freedom of the melody.

“Sandpaper is Necessary” (more great song titling), gives us Bennett playing his sax alone. But he’s not really alone.  His notes dance along as Charlie Parker might have played them.  Bennett has listened to them all — Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins come to mind as well as Bird. I flatter myself that I recognize a tribute to them all in the fleeting two and a half minutes here.

On “John Lizard and Mr. Pug” near the end of the CD, we return to the gentleness of the opening songs as Cocheo’s guitar counterpoints Bennett’s alto saxophone. Lizard and Pug walk down a country lane.  I wonder if “Pressed Rat and Warthog” were ever this happy.

The “Ten Piglets” and Coceho’s guitar lead us out of the album‘s magic. Regretfully. A bit like leaving childhood, at least if your childhood included lots of very fine music.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Live Music: Dori Caymmi at a Jazz Bakery Movable Feast

February 23, 2013

By Cathy Segal-Garcia

Los Angeles, CA.  Here I am, sitting in the Kirk Douglas Theatre, waiting for the world-renowned guitarist/vocalist/composer/arranger/producer, Dori Caymmi, to come out to start the show. A beautiful theatre, slanted up seating, with a medium large stage on the floor, the newest and most intimate of Center Theatre Group’s family of theatres.

We scored a seat in the very front center, so I’m pretty turned on because I love being close to musicians.  Being a singer, I like to feel up close and personal, feeling like I’m actually part of the band.  There’s a stool in the center with an expectant mic, a piano and keyboard, a stool in the center back, and drums.  I’m excited!

The group, a quartet, comes out after an introduction from Jazz Bakery founder Ruth Price. Dori’s voice is at once beautiful and distinct.  A rich baritone, with depth of emotion that make my insides release.  Add that voice to a slow bossa beat, with subtleties of the rhythms and harmonies coming through the players…and it’s romantic and beautiful from the very first moment.

The music is harmonically leading and surprising, which is part of what makes it so amazing to listen to.  Within the same song, there are passages of different lengths, that are significantly different, but they relate and flow out of each other and into the next; like a river, running gently and endlessly, around rocks and curves, on and on.

The 2nd song showcased the pianist, Bill Cantos, singing his own keyboard solo… Wonderful!   Vocally exciting, and great musical ideas… motifs repeating and developing into an exciting build and gentle drop.

Dori Caymmi

Dori Caymmi

A slow, painfully beautiful “Corcovado” was next.  How do the great Brazilian musicians create this gorgeous style, time and again?  Dori is having a love affair with the song, with the notes, the way they sit in the harmony, the Portuguese lyrics….

And yet right after, this sweetheart of a man makes a joke relating to his “depressed versions of Brazilian music,” before going into a mind blowing arrangement of “Brazil.”  I have never heard or imagined a more beautiful and interesting arrangement.  It took me at least  32 bars before I recognized it.  The form seemed different, the chords were definitely beautiful substitutions, and even the melody, sung and played by Dori at first, seemed only slightly familiar. At a slow, sensuous groove, with all the rest, it was truly a holy experience.

Jerry Watts on electric bass was a prominent part of the music.  A versatile and strong musician, in this setting, as each musician, he held his reins and released at just the right times.  Playing his bass like a guitar, his rhythmic choices seemed comfortable and perfect, even with their complexity.

The drummer Aaron Serfaty was unobtrusive in the best way, to say the least.  Percussive, as if adding to an orchestra, light and perfectly rhythmic on his small drum set

Dori , soon to be merely 70 (how lucky are we, to be able to hear him more) was relaxed and talkative in between songs…making the audience love him all the more.  He talked about his father and mother, Dorival Caymmi and Stella Maris, both famous Brazilian musicians.   And an upcoming recording project he will do with his sister (famous vocalist Nana Caymmi) and brother (famous musician Danilo Caymmi)…dedicated to their Dad.  Then he played one of his Dad’s hits …”Acontec Que Eu Sou Baiano.”   Dorival was known as “the poet of the seas of Bahia.”

It was difficult to make notes while I listened; the music was so touching to the soul and the ears that I didn’t want to be distracted from it.  And yet, when I’m excited by music, I want to write about it.

And speaking of making love to the songs…how about making love through the songs?  Like a good lover, the music and the musicians find a sensuous wonderful groove, lock into it, stroke it with notes and harmony until, building slowly and gradually, it’s obvious that it must release…

“The Harbor”…(sigh).  Dori told a beautiful and sad introduction about the music of his father…about how he would tell about seemingly simple things like stepping on pieces of wood in the water that led to the boats.  And how, now, there is no more of that; it’s all been commercialized.  Dori wrote “The Harbor” as an ode to the old way.

Brazilian musicians and singers tend to state the melody as written, milking it with the tone of the instrument and the emotion of the voice.  That’s why listeners fall in love with the basic songs, with their melody and harmony.  American jazz singers, however, learn that the songs of the Great American Songbook were written down very basically.  A singer learns them, then changes them – with the phrasing, the melody, the rhythm.  And I believe not even the composer expected or desired you to sing it as exactly as it was written.

One gets the idea that Brazilian composers want something else.  Or perhaps it’s the culture that leads the performing artists into this kind of musical perspective.  A perspective in which the language and flow of the story – via both the lyrics and the music — communicate deeply the imaginative tales of their rich history and culture.

I left the concert with a lovely CD, my soul filled with beauty, and a desire to sing with Dori.  The perfect response to a perfect musical evening.

To read more about Cathy Segal-Garcia on her own website, click HERE

Jazz CD Review: Emy Tseng’s “Sonho”

January 23, 2013

Emy Tseng

 Sonho (Self Produced)

 By Brian Arsenault

If the reality of burgeoning world music can be encapsulated in a single individual, I submit in nomination Emy Tseng.  Taiwanese born, raised in the American Midwest, Ivy League educated (she appears to have overcome it) singing Brazilian jazz, in Portuguese of course, with a couple of American jazz standards thrown in for good measure. (More about that later.)

Her debut album Sonho, Portuguese for Dream, is just that in places.  Dreamlike. There’s the very first tune, “Aquelas Coisas Todas” (“All Those Things”); Brazilian dreams: beaches, beauties, beverages, bistros, bossa nova.  Brazil has a myth, a legend, a romantic sense of passion and languor that Tseng acquired in Greenwich Village and honed in the Washington D.C. Brazilian music scene.

Emy Tseng

Emy Tseng

Don‘t sneer. The legend, the essence, is often sensed most strongly by those who know first  only the myth. But Emy Tseng is real. A remarkably clear voice. An adept student working hard at her craft. More than that, a gifted artist starting on a long path.

You don’t have to know the language to hear the allure in “Berimbau” with her sultry voice playing off Andy Connell’s soprano sax. (More about this guy later.) And if “Berimbau” flirts, Caetano Veloso’s “Coração Vagabundo” seduces. Again a dream: It’s deep dusk and a few dancers move smoothly on the floor. Andy Connell’s clarinet doesn’t accompany, it sings with her.

You see, I don’t know Portuguese. Like a lot of gringo Americans I have a passing acquaintance with English, some street slang, and little else. So I have to respond to the music and her voice as instrument.

Except in a few places.  “California Dreamin’” is a surprise – yes, the Mamas and Papas song — but it fits because she does it as melancholy and mournful and gives it a greater depth than a cold, broke hippy. Another dream.  Matvei Sigalov, an acoustic guitarist, plays wonderfully here and elsewhere on the album.

There’s her marvelous closing rendition of the classic jazz standard, “Close Your Eyes,” where she is accompanied only by David Jernigan’s wondrous acoustic bass. What’s created are spaces, silences between the notes of the two that would please even those discerning guys at ECM. Did I close my eyes? Yeah, for a moment, to hear those most comforting words  “I’ll be here by your side” in pure tones. Delicious.

On another standard that has become a jazz classic, “I Thought About You,” I thought about Emy doing a big piece of the Great American Songbook on a future album. Johnny Mercer songs, Cole Porter songs, Gershwin maybe.  It wouldn’t be better than her Brazilian jazz but, I think it might be very good indeed.

Still, she needn’t stray far from Brazil.  “Na Beira do Rio” shows how that distinctive Brazilian style of rhythm and melody can heighten emotional content with a singer who feels it. Sigalov again helps entrance us.

But the guy who really knocks me out on the album is the previously mentioned Andy Connell, who puts in two distinctive performances on clarinet and two more on soprano sax.

The clarinet is such a terrific instrument to listen to, but it’s often pushed aside, it seems, by our obsession with brass.  I have it too.  It’s, well, it’s brassy, commanding attention. But the clarinet floats on high and rides the wind when played by a guy this good. Similarly, the soprano sax seems often neglected for its larger siblings but is equally evocative.

Tseng, in the best jazz tradition, lets Connell and the others be showcased strongly, often as equals on songs.

If you’re like me, you tend to like your music “from the street” and to be a little suspicious about too much of an academic music background for rock or jazz. Hell, Tseng’s academic credentials even include a degree in Math. Yet the mistrust of learning and over-reliance on “street cred” can be distinctly anti-intellectual. A formal quality education in music also has the potential to expand creativity, not diminish it.

Emy Tseng will prove that, I think.

To read more posts, columns and reviews by Brian Arsenault click HERE.  

Live Brazilian Music: Dori Caymmi at a Jazz Bakery Movable Feast

June 25, 2012

By Michael Katz

Ruth Price brought The Jazz Bakery back to its once and future home in Culver City this weekend, and Westsiders gratefully filled the Kirk Douglas Theatre to capacity Saturday night for a stunning performance by Brazilian composer/singer/guitarist Dori Caymmi. Caymmi boasts a family lineage that predates the samba and bossa nova movement of Jobim, Bonfa, Joao Gilberto and others. His father, Dorival Caymmi, was one of Brazil’s most enduring songwriters, perhaps best known in this country for “O Cantador” (“Like A Lover”); his siblings, Nana and Danilo, have long been a fixture on the Brazilian scene.

Dori Caymmi

Dori, silver haired now and humorously giving nods to age, has a haunting, darkly romantic voice. Singing almost entirely in Portuguese, he manages to communicate the feelings of loss and yearning almost intuitively. His rich, dark tones draw you into the music and his quartet ably provides the texture to fill in the linguistic gaps.

The first third of the ninety minute concert touched on songs from Dorival Caymmi’s era and beyond. Dori used the familiar melody of Jobim’s “Desifinado” as an opening bridge to “Aquarela Do Brasil.” Ary Barrosso’s anthem has stood up to all manner of interpretation; Caymmi’s is brooding, almost foreboding. He gave way to Bill Cantos on keyboards and synthesizer, and Jerry Watts on electric bass. If you are used to the sometimes lush accompaniment of strings and flutes that have supported Caymmi on his recordings and augmented much of Jobim’s music, the electronics can be a bit jarring at first, but Cantos handled them with a light touch, adding his own vocals later in the set. Mark Shapiro handled the full range of percussion instruments, contributing to the drama inherent in Caymmi’s voicings.

There followed one of Dorival’s compositions, a more upbeat, samba-like tune, and then Jobim’s “Corcovado,” introduced by Caymmi’s spare guitar fingerings, dropping down into a minor chord. Like many of the great Brazilian guitarists, Gilberto in particular, Caymmi uses the guitar in an almost surgical fashion. His performance is less a singer accompanying himself than a duet between voice and strings. Shapiro, in particular, is expert in adding the Brazilian rhythms unobtrusively and on “Corcovado,” Cantos contributed a falsetto vocal, skipping lightly over his keyboard patter.

The middle third of the evening was devoted mainly to Caymmi’s latest CD, Poesia Musicada, which sets to music the poetry of Paulo Cesar Pinheiro. Caymmi performed three songs, all in Portuguese, most of which defied any direct translation – “Estrelo Cinco Pontas” roughly comes to “Five Point Star” — but that was about the extent of it. Still, the romantic tenor of the poetry-set-to-music came through without much need for it. The third song, “Velho Do Mar,” an elegy to the coastal city of Bahia in the era when his father was a young man, communicated a longing for a world left behind that resonates especially well here in Los Angeles.

There were plenty of Caymmi originals left in the program, including “Obsession,” which Sarah Vaughan recorded in 1987 on her Brazilian Romance album (with English lyrics). Caymmi’s rendition, not surprisingly, is dark and dangerous, wordless in parts, with some outstanding keyboard work from Cantos. Toward the end of the set, Caymmi picked up the pace with three numbers from Brazilian Serenata, his 1991 CD that has had the widest following here. Voce Ja Foi a Bahia?, a samba written by his father, turned the mood upbeat, with Cantos again supplying a vocal accompaniment and Jerry Watts utilizing a rounded-off timbre on the electric bass to keep the tone pulsating. Caymmi closed out the set with “Amazon River,” the anthem that begins and ends Serenata, and brought the band back for “Ninho de Vespa,” – literally “Beehive,” a traditional samba-esque tune from the same CD.

All in all, it was a rewarding evening for the jazz-starved Westside. It was great to see the Kirk Douglas theatre filled and we can only hope that the new Bakery will be laying it’s foundation before too long.

Jazz With an Accent: CD Reviews

December 11, 2011

By Fernando Gonzalez

Catching up with some interesting/mind-expanding/beautiful/provocative (and by now not so) new releases

Mario Adnet

More Jobim Jazz  (Adventure Music)

Brazilian guitarist Mario Adnet’s exquisite follow up to Jobim Jazz (Adventure Music, 2007) not only pays tribute to Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, but also composer and arranger Moacir Santos (whom Adnet and saxophonist Ze Nogueira celebrated in the terrific Ouro Negro) and, obliquely, to Gerry Mulligan who, as it turns out, was a great influence for a generation of Brazilian jazz musicians.

In fact, in a nod to Mulligan and Santos’ ensemble of choice, Adnet utilizes variations of Mulligan’s Tentet (originally bass, drums and eight winds) throughout the recording. The writing is smart, full of detail, and in places will, undoubtedly, evoke Santos’s sound (check “Takatanga,” or the opening of “O Homem”). And while Adnet intelligently stays away from the most obvious material (as he did in Jobim Jazz), he doesn’t entirely shy away from Jobim’s evergreens such as “Bonita,” “Wave,” and “Samba do Aviao” while finding something to say in his own voice, an achievement in itself.

Dori Caymmi

Poesia Musicada  (Music Taste)

It seems hard enough to find the words or the gestures to pay tribute to one’s late father. But if you are a singer and songwriter and your father happens to be one of the greatest composers in your country’s history, things can get mighty difficult. Which makes Poesia Musicada (Poetry to Music) — the tribute by Brazilian singer, guitarist and songwriter Dori Caymmi to the memory of his father, the great Dorival Caymmi, one of the foremost composers of Brazilian popular music, who died in 2008 — all the more touching and impressive.

The 13 songs here, all by Dori Caymmi and his long time writing partner, lyricist and poet Paulo Cesar Pinheiro, evoke elegantly and soulfully the themes, the moods, and the landscapes of Bahia, the northeastern state in Brazil on the Atlantic coast that was Dorival’s birthplace and a profound source of inspiration for his music.  The titles alone – “Velho do Mar,” “ Canto Praieiro,”  “Dona Iemanja,” – with their references to sea, the beach, and the characters that populate them, are a clear enough indication. But then, tracks such as the opening “Marinheiragem,” about lovers on a moonlit beach, or “Rede,” a jewel of a love song framed in sea imagery, could’ve been by the master himself.

Most of the songs feature Dori Caymmi singing, accompanying himself on guitar, but the arranging in the disc also includes, at different times, subtle uses of cavaquinho (a small four string, ukelele-like guitar), accordion, flutes and strings.  Caymmi has a deep, warm voice and an understated, almost conversational, delivery that draws the listener in, perfect for this deeply personal, and poetic, tribute.

To read other reviews and posts by Fernando Gonzalez, click HERE.

Live Brazilian Music: Daniela Mercury at the Greek Theatre

October 14, 2011

By Don Heckman

Brazilian singer/dancer/songwriter Daniela Mercury is a Latin Grammy Award winner, a prolific creator of best selling albums (more than 20 million), and one of her country’s most visible and popular female artists.

So it was no surprise at the Greek Theatre Thursday night when the audience members – liberally populated with the Southland’s Brazilian community – found it impossible to stay in their seats, transforming the evening into an all-join-in celebration of Mercury’s memorable songs.

As so often happens in Brazil, virtually every number was enlivened by audience sing- and dance-alongs, buoyantly encouraged by Mercury.  And in the final climactic minutes of her program, when she asked the audience to rush – following her lead – from one side of the aisles to the other, most of the crowd joined in, following her instructions with the enthusiasm of a bunch of high spirited fifth graders.

Nothing wrong with a performer who can trigger that kind of passion from an audience.  And Mercury communicated a seemingly genuine sense of joy in what she was doing – whether she was smiling happily, shouting commands to her musicians, dancers and the audience, or telling stories between songs in English and Portuguese.

But what made the program compelling for listeners who were not especially driven to samba in the aisles or join in the choruses of Mercury’s songs was the musicality of her art, a fullness of creativity that added memorable substance to every note she sang, every move she made.

Much of her program suggested a contemporary version of Tropicalia – the movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s that opened Brazilian music to elements from other cultures.  Obviously fascinated by African music and dance, Brazilian poetry and cinema, Mercury’s company of musicians and five dancers showcased some of the colorfully eclectic material from her album, Canabalia.  At one point, she sang along with a Carmen Miranda recording from the late ’30s.

Beyond that, the vigor, the excitement and the sheer facility of Mercury and her dancers – who included her daughter, Giovanna — were mesmerizing, enhanced by carefully planned stagecraft and lighting.  The stellar six piece band – including her son, singer-guitarist Gabriel – was the subtle, but vital propulsive engine, charging and stimulating every aspect of the show, from the lively adventures on stage to the happenings in the audience.

Mercury makes few appearances in Los Angeles – only two that I can recall over the past decade or more.   Hopefully there will be others in the not too distant future.  As this remarkable night affirmed, she is an artist with a great deal to offer, from every aspect of her richly imaginative creative skills.

Live Music: Katia Moraes and Sambaguru at Vitello’s

April 23, 2011

By Don Heckman

Any performance by Kátia Moraes and Sambaguru is a gripping tour through the seemingly infinite rhythms and far reaching passions of Brazilian music. And their appearance at Vitello’s Friday night offered all that and more.

Moraes has been one of the Southland’s most dynamic singer/dancers since the ’90s. A frequent star of Carnaval celebrations, her performances sizzle with rhythmic high voltage and soaring melodies. But the work she does with the six piece ensemble Sambaguru takes in a far broader perspective.

Katia Moraes and Sambaguru

In her non-stop set Saturday, the music cruised through a brilliantly kaleidoscopic collection of Latin music. Surprisingly, the only element missing was bossa nova — Brazil’s best known genre, and the staple of most Brazilian ensembles appearing in this country. But no problem. The music, most of it written by Moraes and keyboardist/composer Bill Brendle, along with the intensely rhythmic playing of Sambaguru, provided a colorful, richly succulent musical banquet.

One could make a convincing case for Brazil as the source of some of the most richly diverse musical forms created by any single country in the world. And Moraes and Sambaguru adventured convincingly through many of them — from the sophistication of samba to the African-tinged rhythms of Bahia — and all stops in between.

Although Vitello’s upstairs room had been fitted with a dance floor, Moraes’ frequent calls for members of the audience to try out their samba steps produced no results. Fortunately, she offered a few of her own, recalling the irrepressible dancing she once did with groups such as Viver Brasil Dance Company and the Folk Ballet of Brasil. Too bad she didn’t do more.

Backing Moraes’ fiery, audience-grabbing singing and dancing: special guest Miguel Gandelman, tenor saxophone, bassist Hussain Jiffry, percussionist Kevin Ricard, drummer Tony Shogren and keyboardist Brendle. Together, they created the sort of performance that deserves a far wider hearing. It’s time for the programmers and producers at Disney Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, the Greek Theatre and beyond to check out the utterly mesmerizing music of Kátia Moraes and Sambaguru.

Q & A: Herbie Hancock and “The Imagine Project”

June 27, 2010

By Don Heckman

Herbie Hancock’s storied career has been one of the most remarkable in jazz history.  An influential pianist for more than four decades, moving freely from the most esoteric improvisational forms to the entertaining arenas of pop crossovers, he has been in the vanguard of expanding the horizons of jazz expressiveness.  Last year, his album River: The Joni Letters, a transformative collection of the music of Joni Mitchell, became the first jazz-oriented album to win the Grammy Album of the Year award.

On Tuesday, June 22, the release of his newest audio and DVD  album, The Imagine Project, opened far wider creative territories, illuminating Hancock’s fascination with the global universality with which music reaches from culture to culture. Recorded in locations reaching from India, Brazil, Colombia and Mali to Paris, London and Los Angeles, Hancock joins with an international list of music superstars that includes Dave Mathews, Anoushka Shankar, Jeff Beck, the Chieftains, John Legend, Seal, Pink, Wayne Shorter, Susan Tedeschi, Juanes, Derek Trucks, India Arie, Chaka Khan, K’Nan, James Morrison and Lisa Hannigan.

Last week, we sat in the sunlit patio of Hancock’s home in the Hollywood hills, as he described some of the unusual, often humorous adventures of creating an album in worldwide locations.

DH:  Herbie, as I understand it, the concept for The Imagine Project actually began to materialize while you already were in a far corner of the world.

HH: It was an interesting piece of serendipity, or synchronicity.  When I was first putting the concept for the record together and pulled Larry Klein in as the primary producer, and we were just laying the foundation of it down, the decision was made that it would be great to go to various countries to get the flavor of the culture.  You get the taste of the food, the atmosphere, the people. And if we’re really going to honor various cultures, it makes sense to be there.  And it turned out that I was already scheduled to go to India with Martin Luther King III as a partnership between the Thelonious Monk Institute and the State Department with the student band from the Monk Institute to represent America’s culture in a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s decision to travel to India to study Gandhi’s non-violent methods.

DH: But doing the album wasn’t actually a scheduled part of that trip?

HH: No, but I thought, “Hmm, I got this trip coming up to India.”  But it was coming up right away, like in about ten days or a couple of weeks.  And we hadn’t really decided on songs or anything.  We hadn’t gotten that far.  But we decided to see if there was a day off where we might be able to record in India.  Then Larry thought about this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke with references to music.  And I liked it.  You know,  It’s deep.

DH: A German poem, that Larry Klein adapted into a piece called “The Song Goes On” to record in India.  That’s getting global pretty fast, I’d say.

HH:  Right.  But it gets better.  What we initially saw was the English version.  Now what’s funny is that, you know, these ideas are forming as we’re going along.  First there was the idea of doing it in India.  And conceptually doing it in Hindi.  But we didn’t actually implement that until we were in the studio.  There was a guy there that actually did a translation from the English into Hindi, using the Erdu written language.  Then we discovered that Erdu uses the same written characters that are read in Arabic.

DH: Ah, the international plot thickens.

HH: Right, and even more.  We were looking for a singer with a warm, round tone, and Larry found an Indian singer named K.S. Chithra, and she agreed to do it.  So she gets to the studio, she looks at the Erdu lyrics, and we come to find out she’s from South India, where they speak Tamil.  They don’t speak Hindi.  [Laughter].  So the decision was made to do a phonetic translation of the Erdu phonetically using Roman characters of English, because English is the common language in India.  And she could read the characters phonetically the way we do.

DH: But Wayne Shorter’s on that track, too, and he wasn’t in India with you.

HH:  Nope.  That happened later.  He happened to come over one day for a completely different purpose. But he had his horn with him.  And so I asked  him, “Do you have a minute to listen to something, and see if you feel comfortable about playing on it.” I was actually thinking about the song, “Don’t Give Up.”  So he listened to some of it, but I could see in his face it wasn’t really right for where his head was at the moment.  So anyway we wound up instead just starting to play ‘The Song Goes On.’  Just a few bars went by.  And he stopped us.  He said, “Okay, okay.  Let’s go.”  And he goes in the booth, we press the record button, and he’s listening to the track, first time, and just responded.  One take.  That’s what you hear on the record.  It doesn’t get better than that.  He acts like he was there in the room as part of the orchestration of the moment.”  So we got Wayne Shorter involved, we got German involved, we got English, we got ancient Roman and we got Erdu and we got Hindi.

DH: With a slight connection with Arabic, too.

HH: Right.  All that involved in one piece.  And with all that going on, everything pointed toward the fact that this was the right direction to go in.

DH: Having realized that, did you then make a grand plan of what the rest of the album was going to be?  Or did you just take things one step at a time?

HH: Well, we had decided to take advantage of that one opportunity and we were now in a different stage of the project.  You gotta start somewhere.  Like Miles said to Gil Evans when they were planning that album, Miles Ahead + 19.  Gil was scratching his head and he said, ‘Well, Miles, what should I do?’  And Miles said ‘Start it off!’

DH: Count on Miles to put it succinctly.

HH:  Yeah, so to speak. [Laughter] Anyhow, we came back to the States and then we started figuring out some other cultural combinations.  One idea was I wanted to have Africa involved.  For several reasons.  Not just because of my own personal heritage, but because that continent is the ancestral home of humanity.  That’s the common bond between all human beings on the planet.  And so we were looking into that.  Larry did some research and found out that there was new music happening in Mali, where they’re being influenced by the blues.  And by rhythm ‘n’ blues from here.  It’s gone back there and creating a new kind of hybrid music.

DH: And on John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which opens the album, you bring some of those elements together, with a line-up that includes Mali’s Oumou Sangare, India Arie, Pink and Seal.

HH: Right.  And Jeff Beck, too.  The interesting thing about the song “Imagine” is that the intro, which opens the whole record, came way after the fact.  What happened was Pink and Seal went into the studio to do “Don’t Give Up” and they both were excited about what was happening, and the concept behind the record.  But they both were kind of sad that they were playing on top of a track that I was already on.  They had both kind of expected that they would be able to record with me.  So we came up with the idea, “Hey, why don’t we make an intro for “Imagine?”  And just do it in the studio that way.  Which we did.

DH: What about Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’?”  That’s another interesting combination, with the Chieftains, Lisa Hannigan and Toumani Diabate, also from Mali.

HH: I got this hare-brained idea that we could put some kind of African foundation with some Celtic music.  Actually, it wasn’t because I knew in advance it would work.  It was because it was the farthest thing I could think of from African music.  ‘Cause I was looking for something that would be the most far-fetched, at least to a lot of Western ears.  Or a lot of American ears.  So I went on iTunes to see if I could find something. So I found one of those world beat radio stations, one that was particularly dedicated to Celtic music.  I’m listening to different things, and all of a sudden I hear one section in one of the pieces, and I said, “Wait a minute.  Am I crazy, but I think this can work.”  So I glued something together with an African piece.  It didn’t fit perfectly, because the tempo didn’t match, but it was close enough where Larry Klein came in the next day and I showed him what I was messing with.  And he said, “I hear it! I think this can work.”

DH: There actually is a kind of rhythmic correlation between Celtic and some kinds of African music, isn’t there?  Especially in the 6/8 patterns?

HH: Right.  And that’s when we decided we were going to try it.  It was Larry’s idea to add the Chieftains, if they’d be interested.  What I didn’t know, until I talked to Paddy Moloney, the leader of the Chieftains, was that they’d done a lot of things with various cultures.  With Asia, with Japan, with Spain.  And he told me there was a definite cultural link between the folk music of certain of those areas – that they have the same roots.

DH: You actually began to assemble that track in Paris, though, didn’t you?

HH: We were there for three days working on some other songs, including “Tamatant Tilay/Exodus” with the African group Tinariwen.  But Larry did a scratch track for “The Times They Are a-Changin” and sent it to Paddy, the day before we were flying to Dublin.  When we got there, Paddy was freaked out.  Because he had originally heard just the scratch track that Larry had done, and then when he heard the real one that we were going to use, he didn’t know what to do.  He was kind of shook up.  So I come to the studio and I say to Larry, “Play it again.  Play the piano track.”  And he did that, and Paddy was fine.  So we added the bass and the drums, and now we had a kind of patterny thing going.  I mean [guitarist] Lionel Loueke had added some variations, but it didn’t throw Paddy off.  So then we recorded on top of that,   When we got the take that we thought we wanted, we brought in the Chieftains.  And right off the bat it went perfectly.  I went, “whew!”  And Paddy went, “Oh, I see!” The other thing that he did is, at the end of the vocal on “The Times They Are a-Changing,” he played a little kind of Celtic melody.  I don’t know if Paddy wrote that, or if it’s a folk melody.  But I remember when he played it, I had tears in my eyes.  It was so pretty. Every time I heard that melody, it would just touch me.  Actually, part of my heritage is Irish, and I was wondering, “could it be reaching into my own Irish roots?”  Whatever!  I don’t know.

DH: But isn’t that the whole point of the recording?

HH: Right. Exactly.

DH: What about some of the other tunes?  “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke’s song.

HH: This was around the end of the project.  We didn’t have time to fly into London. We made a kind of basic track, because I had never met James and I didn’t know what he would be comfortable with.  I didn’t want to throw any curves at him.  So we made a fairly simple kind of track for him to sing over and we sent that over the Internet.  And because of the time difference, they got it the next morning.  It was evening for us.  So he was able to record that day.  And they were able to send it back.

DH: Doesn’t Morrison sort of represent what’s going on here, too?  Because when you hear him talk, he has a sort of sweet, high voice, with a strong English accent.  And then he starts to sing…

HH.  And it’s like he’s from Detroit!

DH:  [Laughing]  Exactly.

HH: That’s a hybrid right there.

DH: Serious hybrid.

HH: Right, but we had to do some work on that track. James did a great job.  And I thought it worked with the basic track that we had put down.  Then Larry listened to it and he said, “I think you should do another track.”  And I said, “Oh.” Because I had a couple of little twists and turns in the rhythm.  Nothing to throw him.  But I just… I had to do something.  And Larry said, “I don’t think you need to have those.”  Larry actually had another idea that he got from something I had played.  And, you see, Larry’ll say something, and I trust his judgment now.  If he has an idea, there’s something there, and I have to find it.  We tried a few takes and we were on to something.  And finally it started to kick in, and it works. I can’t even divine or describe how it works.  But it makes James’ singing have another dimension.  The end of that piece, by the way – because the words say “A change is going to come” — I wanted it to evolve into something more toward the future.  I mean that piece was written during the civil rights movement.  Somebody said it was the last piece that Sam Cooke recorded, and the last piece that he wrote before he was killed.  And it was inspired by Bob Dylan.  So there’s another linkage.

DH: This album is not really just about music, is it?

HH: It’s an important message about the family of man.  That we are all the same people.  We need to build a future where we work together.  And it takes our willingness to be open to cultures outside of our own, and embrace those cultures.  Because guess what?  Those are our cultures.  We’re Americans, we’re immigrants.  Those are our cultures.  They’re not foreign.  They’re where we came from.

DH: But this is also not a Herbie Hancock record, at least not as a soloist.

HH:  Right.  I’ve made Herbie Hancock records already.  I don’t feel I have to do that any more.  It’s not about me, it’s about we.  But I could say that it’s my vision.  So in that sense I connected the pieces.

DH: What’s the bounce back for you, when you’re doing something else?  What do you take away from this when you are doing a strictly Herbie Hancock performance?

HH: Interestingly enough — in a lot of cases – the pieces have a very rudimentary harmonic foundation, .  And you know me, I like to re-harmonize.  But the chord structures are real simple, like folk music.  In some cases there are exotic elements like African rhythmic things going on and all that.  And just folk things too. This Celtic thing sounds to me in essence like the root of some American folk music.  Blue grass and so forth.  Because of all this, I learned new ways of playing while I’ve been doing this record.  And so I’ve added to my experience of improvisation.  And I had to pull it out of myself.  I had to do it the way an actor has to do a part in a movie. You gotta find it in yourself.  Maybe it’s that commonality that you have with the music of another culture.  Because it all comes from the human spirit.  We all have babies, and we all have spouses and partners.  I mean we’re more similar than we are different.  It’s in each of us, even though it’s not always that easy to find.

DH: You know the old definition of country music.  It’s three chords and the truth.

HH: [laughter]  That is valid.  The truth is that’s the key, right there.  But I’m really fortunate in that I didn’t have any doubt that I could find it.  It didn’t have anything to do with ego. I believe we have infinite capacity.  But it was a challenge, and I just had to find solutions.  And I learned.  I didn’t try to force it into bebop, or force it into any of those more natural choices that I might make.  That would have been easy, but it wouldn’t have fit.

DH: You’re saying The Imagine Project represents another part of you.

HH  Right, right, right.  So that’s what I can take away.  A broader palette that I can choose from.

DH: Sounds like the first step toward the next album.  Thanks, Herbie.

Photos by Faith Frenz


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