Live Jazz: The Clare Fischer Big Band at Typhoon

February 7, 2013

By Michael Katz

Santa Monica, CA.  Anyone who has followed the Latin jazz scene in Southern California is well acquainted with the work of Clare Fischer. The keyboardist and composer, who passed away in January, 2012, left a trove of compositions, including “Pensitiva” and “Morning” and a large jazz ensemble that his son, Brent, has been leading for the past decade. Tuesday night at Typhoon, in Santa Monica, Brent used the occasion of the band’s Grammy nomination to present an eclectic set of Latin, straight ahead and classically influenced jazz.

The Grammy nomination (Best Latin Jazz) is for Ritmo! and over two sets, the band  covered most of the tracks on the CD.  Its energy base stemmed from a pulsating rhythm section that featured Quinn Johnson on electric keyboards, providing the kinetic backdrop that Clare had contributed to the Cal Tjader sound. Billy Hulting kept things percolating on the congas and Ron Manoag was steady on the jazz drums and percussion. Brent Fischer provided splashes of support on the vibes, though he stuck mostly to gilding the basic melodic lines, and Ken Wild held forth on bass.

Brent Fischer and the Clare Fischer Big Band

Brent Fischer and the Clare Fischer Big Band

The opening numbers “Funquiado” and “Guarabe” showed off the depth of the band’s sections. The trumpets featured Rob Schaer as section leader and the veteran Ron Stout as lead soloist. Stout helped launch the evening with his work on “Funquiado,” while Josh Aguiar and Brian Mantz took the lead on “Guarabe.” The most stunning turn on that composition was by the great trombonist Francisco Torres. Torres, who has shined throughout the jazz scene here in LA, has a sound both lush and strident. His solos snapped both band and audience to attention, then melted back to the insistent beat of “Guarabe.”

Ten years ago, Brent Fischer recorded a jazz arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition and the various movements were integrated into both sets Tuesday night. Brent took full advantage of a woodwind section that had all the players doubling on saxophones, clarinets and flutes.  Alex Budman, the leader of the section, excelled on alto, flute, and even piccolo. In the movement that opened up the second set, tenor sax player Tom Luer picked up his flute and bari saxist Lee Callet completed the trio on alto flute. Later, on “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks,” the section switched to clarinets, with Kirsten Edkins delivering some beautiful work on soprano sax.

One of the highlights of the evening was “In The Beginning,” which I would list as my favorite Clare Fischer tune that I never knew he’d written until last night.  Hubert Laws recorded it on one of his classic CTI albums, with Clare on keyboards. The frenetic lines at the song’s outset reflect the chaos of Creation, then drop slowly into the primordial ooze of a funky blues riff. Lee Callet, on baritone sax, grabbed that blues line perfectly and carried it home, handing it off to Budman and then the rest of the band as Brent Fischer led the ensemble back to its early scramble.

There were lots of moments to admire over the evening’s performance. The space itself, on the second floor of the airport’s small terminal, provided surprisingly good acoustics; all the solos were robust and clear. Trombonist Scott Whitfield had a nice scat-singing chorus as the second set opened, to go along with strong playing throughout. I especially liked the tenor sax work of Tom Luer. There’s a select few on the instrument who possess an unmistakable sound.  I wouldn’t put anyone in the class of Trane or Getz on the basis of a few solos, but Luer’s tone was reminiscent of Ernie Watts; he’s someone I’d like to hear more from.

As the second set continued to a typically diminished LA crowd, I put my pen down and floated along with the rhythms of the band’s particular West Coast Latin sound,  one that was carved out  by the likes of Cal Tjader and Clare Fischer and continues on with Poncho Sanchez and Brent Fischer. It seems particularly suited to our climate, even on a chilly February night.  The band closed with a three part medley, “Canonic Passacaglia, Blues and Vamp ’til Ready,” which featured, among others, Tom Luer again on tenor and Josh Aguiar on trumpet.  Fischer added a flourish on vibes, and that was the end of the pre-Grammy celebration.

Whether they win or not, it’s a terrific legacy to a great sound.

* * * * *

To read more reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.

Click HERE to visit Michael Katz’s new personal blog, Katz of the Day.

Live Jazz: the Bob Sheppard/Otmaro Ruiz Quartet at Vitello’s

December 24, 2012

By Don Heckman

Studio City, CA.  On any given night in Los Angeles, world class jazz can be found in venues stretching from Orange County to Ventura County, with many stops in between.  And Saturday night was no exception, when the prime quartet of saxophonist Bob Sheppard and pianist Otmaro Ruiz (with bassist John Belzaguy and drummer Jimmy Branly) performed a stirring program at Vitello’s in Studio City.

The selections were varied – Horace Silver’s “Barbara” and Bernie Miller’s “Bernie’s Tune” among them, in addition to originals from both Sheppard and Ruiz.

But the highlights of the evening virtually all traced to the jam session-like improvising, allowing each of the players to stretch out in completely spontaneous fashion.  Sheppard was, as always, articulate, expressive and imaginative, on both tenor and soprano saxophones.  Ruiz’s eclectic style added Latin touches to his solos, occasionally tossing in a rousing montuno in contrast to his authentically boppish single note lines.

Otmaro Ruiz, John Belzaguy, Bob Sheppard, Jimmy Branley

Otmaro Ruiz, John Belzaguy, Bob Sheppard, Jimmy Branley

Give credit, as well, to the rhythm team of Belzaguy and Branley, the engine that kept the band in high gear for most of the set.

What was missing, however, was very little reference to the music promised in the advertising for the evening: “Celebrate the Season! – Latin Night – Feliz Navidad.”  Despite the generally high quality of the playing, there was little in the program specifically oriented to the holiday.  And, with the presence of Venezuelans Ruiz and Belzaguy and Cuban Branly, one might have hoped for something more in the way of Latin jazz excitement.

Also missing was the unannounced but rumored sitting-in presence of some of L.A.’s fine jazz singers.  Several were in the audience, but failed to take the stage.

That said, it was nonetheless an evening of the sort of world class jazz I mentioned above.  And, heard in action, regardless of their selection of material, the Sheppard/Belzaguy quartet’s playing was a potent reminder of the sort of jazz that’s available almost every night in the Southland.

Here, There & Everywhere: The 2012 Jazz Grammy Winners

February 13, 2012

By Don Heckman

The 2012 Grammys are in, and once again there’s not much sound of surprise in the results.  Certainly nothing in the same ballpark as last year’s Best New Artist award for Esperanza Spalding.  That’s not to say that any of the wins were undeserved.  Because they all were the products of gifted artists doing their best. Nor were any of the nominees any less deserving than the winners.

Still, both the awards and the Recording Academy’s current approach to jazz raise some questioning observations.  Take, for example, the inclusion of Terri Lyne Carrington’ s The Mosaic Project in the Jazz Vocal grouping.  Doesn’t it seem inevitable that a collection of songs by such major names as Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson and, yes, Esperanza Spalding (among others) is going to have a major head start in any competition against recordings by single artists?  What chance did the other nominees – especially the unusually superlative trio of albums from Tierney Sutton, Roseanna Vitro and Karrin Allyson – have against a full line-up of such musical heavyweights?

Notice, too, some of the repetitions: multiple nominations for Randy Brecker, Fred Hersch and Sonny Rollins.  Great artists, all, but where are the nominations for the youngest generation of jazz players?  It’s worth noting that Gerald Clayton is the only nominee still in his twenties.  And Miguel Zenon is the only nominee still in his thirties.

Add to that several aspects in this year’s awards procedures that underscore the diminishing role that jazz is playing in the Grammy overview.  Start with the reduced number of categories.  In 2011 there were six: Contemporary Jazz Album, Vocal Album, Improvised Jazz Solo, Jazz Instrumental Album (Individual or Group), Large Jazz Album and Latin Jazz Album.

This year, there are four: Best Improvised Jazz Solo, Best Jazz Vocal Album, Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Some jazz fans won’t miss the Contemporary category, despite the fact that its absence eliminates the presence of some fine, pop-oriented jazz stylists.  But the Latin Jazz omission is unforgivable, and should receive careful re-consideration in the planning for next year’s Grammys.

In the listings below, I’ve also included Best Instrumental Arrangement and Best Instrumental Composition, because, in these nominees, the emphasis is almost completely in the direction of jazz.  They could easily have had different orientations — pop, rock, electronica, classical and otherwise — given the all-inclusive nature of the descriptions “Instrumental Arrangement” and “Instrumental Composition.”

Ultimately, the single word that comes to mind in considering all the above is “irrelevant.”  Receiving a Grammy award continues to be one of the music world’s greatest honors – for the individual artist.  And every jazz player –like every other musical artist – has to be delighted to receive the gold statuette.  But the overall significance of the Grammys to jazz, the Awards’ full commitment to honoring one of America’s greatest cultural contributions, continues to diminish.  And if it continues in its current direction, the long, historical Grammy/jazz connection won’t just be irrelevant, it’ll be non-existent.

Here are this year’s awards:

Best Improvised Jazz Solo

 Winner.  Chick Corea : “Five Hundred Miles Highfrom Forever.

Other Nominees:

Randy Brecker: “All or Nothing at All” from The Jazz ballad Song Book

Ron Carter: “You Are My Sunshine” from This Is Jazz.

Fred Hersch: “Work” from Alone at the Vanguard.

Sonny Rollins: “Sunnymoon For Two: from Road Shows, Vol. 2.

Best Jazz Vocal album

Winner: Terri Lyne Carrington and Various Artists: The Mosaic Project.

Other Nominees:

Tierney Sutton Band: American Road

Karrin Allyson: ‘Round Midnight.

Kurt Elling: The Gate.

Roseanna Vitro: The Music of Randy Newman.

Best Jazz Instrumental Album

Winner: Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny White.  Corea, Clark & White.

Other Nominees:

Gerald Clayton: The Paris Sessions.

Fred Hersch: Alone at the Vanguard.

Joe Lovano/Us Five: Bird Songs.

Sonny Rollins: Road Shows, Vol.2

Yellowjackets: Timeline.

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album

Winner: Christian McBride Big Band. The Good Feeling.

Other Nominees:

Randy Brecker with the WDR Big Band: The Jazz Ballad Song Book.

Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: 40 Acres and a Burro.

Gerald Wilson Orchestra; Legacy.

Miguel Zenon: Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook

Best Instrumental Arrangement

Winner: Gordon Goodwin: Rhapsody in Blue.

Other Nominees:

Peter Jensen: ‘All or Nothing At All” (for Randy Brecker with the GDR Big Band)

Clare Fischer: “In the Beginning: (from the Clare Fischer Big band’s Continuum.)

Bob Brookmeyer: “Nasty Dance.” (from the Vanguard Jazz Orchstra’s Forever Lasting).

Carlos Franzetti: “Song Without Words” (from Alborada).

Best Instrumental Composition

Winner: Bela Fleck and Howard Levy: “Life In Eleven” from Rocket Science.

Other Nominees:

John Hollenbeck: “Falling Men” from Shut Up and Dance.

Gordon Goodwin: “Hunting Wabbits 3 (Get Off My Lawn) from That’s How We Roll.

Randy Brecker: “I Talk To The Trees” from The Jazz Ballad Song Book.

Russell Ferrante: “Timeline” from Timeline.

CD Reviews: Machito, Bobby Sanabria, Arturo O’Farrill, Pedro Giraudo

July 20, 2011

Big Band with a Latin Accent,Then & Now.

By Fernando Gonzalez

El Padrino (Fania/Codigo)


The big band occupies a special place in Latin Jazz history. For starters, in the 1940s and ‘50s, the orchestras led by Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and Machito, the real life Mambo Kings, not only defined a certain sound, putting jazz instrumentation, harmonies and improvisation to true Afro-Caribbean grooves, but also seemed to bring out the whole country to the dance floor.

A lot has happened since.

Those classic bands remain the high water mark in Afro-Caribbean jazz.  But the term Latin Jazz has regained its true meaning,  encompassing a broader, truly Pan American sound.

The two-disc compilation El Padrino  revisits the work of Frank “Machito” Grillo and his exceptional band The Afro-Cubans. Anchored by friend and his brother-in-law,  saxophonist Mario Bauzá, an essential figure in the development of Latin Jazz, Machito and His Afro-Cuban blended sophisticated jazz arrangements and improvisations over authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms.  The results were explosive.

Collections such as El Padrino are samplers, conditioned by available recordings, licensing issues, and the curator´s taste. That said, the music here is a treat.  Fittingly, the set opens with “Tanga,” a Bauzá composition considered the first Latin jazz piece,  and goes from there. It includes fine examples of the band in full flight (check “Wild Jungle,” “Cannonology,” featuring Cannonball Adderley, Ray Santos’ Latinized blues “Azulito,” or “Mambo a la Savoy,” for starters).  And it also showcases the woefully underrated singer Graciela Pérez — Machito´s foster sister, better known simply as Graciela. Recognized as an interpreter of ballads, her work on El Padrino offers a good argument for reconsidering her standing as a big band singer, contributing a sense of swing and a certain cheeky sassiness (check “Si Si No No”) to the music. The collection also includes tracks with Marcelino Guerra (“El Guardia con El Tolete”), and flutist Herbie Mann (“Brazilian Soft Shoe,” “Love Chant”).

Cooly riding this beast of a band was Machito, front man, maraquero (maracas player) extraordinaire, and a singer with an expressive, caramel toned voice and impeccable sense of time.  Decades after it was a originally played and recorded, Machito’s music has lost none of its power and grace.

Tito Puente Masterworks Live (Jazzheads)

Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, Conducted by Bobby Sanabria

Timbalero, composer, and bandleader Tito Puente once built an explosive orchestra that became one of the friendly competitors of Machito’s band at the now legendary Palladium Ballroom on West 53rd St. and Broadway.  Leading a big band of students at the Manhattan School of Music, drummer, percussionist and educator Bobby Sanabria celebrates Puente’s work in Tito Puente’s Masterworks Live.

The repertoire nods to Afro-Cuban religious music (“Elegua Changó”),  some classics (“Picadillo,” “Ran Kan Kan,” “Cuban Nightmare,” but not “Oye Como Va”),  and a couple of jazz standards (Oscar Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark,” “Autumn Leaves”).

While most of the arrangements in this recording are reconstructed from Puente’s original versions, as Sanabria explicitly points out in the album notes, “the performances here are not nostalgic.”  Instead, he and his charges update Puente’s sound while going for the precision and excitement of his bands. That’s not only a worthy tribute to the past, but also a celebration of the future of this music.

40 Acres and a Burro (Zoho)

Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra

Pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill has held together the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra for more than three years after losing its home base at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Better yet, O’Farrill and the orchestra have continued to push and grow, exploring beyond Afro Cuban music while consistently producing rich, valuable work.

In 40 Acres and a Burro, O’Farrill smartly explores rumba (the explosive “Rumba Urbana”) and Puerto Rican bomba (in the knotty, angular “A Wise Latina,” written to honor Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor).  He looks into Brazilian choro (Pixinguinha’s “Um a Zero” in a fine arrangement by Nailor Proveta — leader of the excellent Banda Mantiqueira – featuring superb playing by Paquito D’Rivera on clarinet).  There’s also Afro-Peruvian festejo (“El Sur”), modern tango (Astor Piazzolla’s “Tanguango”, turned here into a tart, urgent New Yorker tango),  an Afro-Latin-Celtic piece (“She Moves Through The Fair”) and a couple of classics, the bolero “Almendra” and  Dizzy’s “A Night In Tunisia.”

Not surprisingly, O’Farrill and the band sound at once precise and loose-fitting. There is brilliant ensemble playing and soloing and, most engaging, they also sound fearless. They can even transmute anger and pointed  social commentary into sly fun — just check the title track.

Córdoba (Zoho)

Pedro Giraudo Jazz Orchestra

While O’Farrill’s adventurous big band Latin Jazz takes Afro-Caribbean rhythms as a point of departure, New York based bassist and composer Pedro Giraudo anchors his music on traditional styles of his native Argentina.  Córdoba — titled after the Mediterranean city, and a province in Argentina where Giraudo was born — is his  fifth album as a leader and shows an increasingly sure hand both in writing and arranging.

The approach here is orchestral, not merely tutti intros plus solos over the rhythm section and splashes of big band writing.  Rather, Giraudo uses sectional call and response, contrapuntal textures, tempo changes, and a muscular use of the rhythm section. There’s a reason why his press material speak of Charles Mingus, Carla Bley, and Duke Ellington as influences.

As foundation, Giraudo uses traditional rural Argentine styles — the slow, blues-like baguala,  the zamba,  and the chacarera. This is big band Latin Jazz with a different, fresh  accent.

Latin Jazz CDs: Paquito D’Rivera and Tito Puente

September 16, 2010

By Fernando Gonzalez

Paquito D’Rivera and the Pablo Aslan Ensemble

Tango Jazz Live At The Lincoln Center (Paquito Records)

Cuban reedman Paquito D’Rivera has been a leader in exploring the possibilities of Latin American styles in a jazz context. He had already whetted his appetite for some kind of jazz tango fusion in his 2007 Funk Tango. Add to this his many personal and professional relationships with Argentine and Uruguayan musicians (quite a few of them members of his working group at one time or another), the long history of tango in Cuba ( in part no doubt nurtured by a sense of familiarity given the proximity of tango and habanera) and you knew that a Paquito D’Rivera tango project was just a matter of time.

He couldn’t have found a better partner for it than New York-based Argentine bassist and bandleader Pablo Aslan, a pioneer in exploring tango with a jazz sensibility.

Aided by a strong, musically bilingual group including trumpeter Gustavo Bergalli, violinists Pablo Agri and Nicolas Danielson,  bandoneonists Michael Zisman and Raul Jaurena, pianist Abel Rogantini and drummer Daniel Piazzolla, D’Rivera and Aslan offer here a program made of old tangos (“Viejo Smocking”), modern tango standards (Astor Piazzolla’s “Verano Porteño”), Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye,” and five originals. This is no lab experiment. The music feels lived-in. The soloing is not only fluid but feels idiomatic to the moment (are we now in jazz territory or is it tango?).

Whatever else can be made of it, this music swings. Drummer Piazzolla, grandson of Astor, the master of New Tango, plays a key role here,  subtly pushing, filling up spaces, nudging this and that way but always discreetly. And D’Rivera sounds completely at ease, adding humor, spice and a certain Caribbean flair to tango’s innate melancholy.

Tito Puente

El Rey (Fania)

Timbalero, composer, arranger and bandleader Ernest Anthony “Tito” Puente Jr., who died in 2000 at age 77, enjoyed an extraordinary, 50 year career that took him from the dance floor of the Palladium and the Woodstock generation to Latin jazz icon status and fin-de-siecle Rickymania. He was both a showman and a true artist with a legacy of more than 135 albums. Almost by definition any Puente compilation will fall short of the full picture (full disclosure: I know this first hand, I was the annotator of the 2001, two-volume The Complete RCA Recordings). But Tito Puente El Rey, part of Fania’s series A Man And His Music,  is an excellent primer that should also satisfy Puente’s fans.

This two-disc compilation, 45 tracks in all, takes us from 1949 through 1981 and the music here is often breathtaking. It includes Puente classics such as  “Abaniquito,” “Ran Kan Kan,”  and “Babarabatiri.”  The original 1962 version of “Oye Como Va,” later made a global hit by guitarist Carlos Santana, is here, as well as the classic Cuban singer Beny Moré´s song “Que Bueno Baila Baila Usted,” from Puente’s 1978 Homenaje a Beny (which won Puente his first GRAMMY).  There is also Puente’s arrangement of “Batuka,” a nod to Santana, and a Santana- flavored remake of “Para Los Rumberos” from the 1972 album of the same name. (Santana had included it in his 1971 Santana III and according to Puente’s longtime friend Joe Conzo, Puente adapted Santana’s intro and tag — which the guitarist had adapted from a Puente riff.)

But the list also includes nods to salsa (Puente had a standard dismissal at the ready when someone asked what it was: “Salsa is what they put on the food. This is what we’ve always played: Cuban music.”), to disco,  as well as short-lived musical trends such as boogaloo and shing-a-ling. There are also cameos by Celia Cruz (“La Guarachera,’”) La Lupe (“Oriente”), and Santos Colón  (including “Oye Como Va” and “Babarabatiri”) among others.

Throughout, the writing, the playing, the musicianship requires no explanations, no justifications,  no concessions for the passing of time. This is what being immortal is.

Just play it.

To read more of Fernando Gonzalez’s reviews and posts click HERE.


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