Doc Wendell’s Prescription For Fat Girl: Fats Navarro Memorial No. 2: Nostalgia (Savoy)

August 4, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon Wendell

For many occasional jazz listeners there are only 3 great trumpeters that come across their minds and lips, and they are of course Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and occasionally Louis Armstrong. For those of us obsessed with the music’s many genres and glorious history (like myself) the list is much longer and consists of dozens of the instrument’s greatest innovators, ranging in a large spectrum of styles.

The player who made me want to quit the guitar and trade it in for a trumpet in college was the great Fats Navarro. I don’t believe one could or should compare the style of “Fat Girl” (as he was nick-named) to that Dizzy or Miles, although he played with both men and was a big influence on Miles. But Navarro’s influence didn’t stop there. Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard (to name just a few) were all students of Navarro’s fluid style. Navarro could be a fast virtuosic player, but it was his lyricism, sweet tone, sense of rhythm, and his confidence that made him so unique and swing as hard as he did. Navarro was one of the key contributors to the bebop era of the 1940s and one of the most important musicians in the entire history of jazz.

Just about every Fats Navarro record you can find is going to be excellent but I thought I’d select the very first one that I ever owned, suggested to me by the great jazz trumpeter and educator Dan Miller many moons ago.

Fats Navarro Memorial No.2: Nostalgia consists of 3 separate recording sessions of the late 1940s for the Savoy label, not only under his own name but also under the names of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Dexter Gordon, and Tadd Dameron.

The first four tracks are from The Fats Navarro Quintet recorded on December 5, 1947, featuring Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone, Tadd Dameron, piano, Nelson Boyd, bass, and Art Blakey on drums.

“Nostalgia” is a Navarro classic. The harmonic brilliance between Rouse and Navarro on the song’s head is fantastic. Navarro and the band swing oh so sweetly. Navarro plays a muted trumpet and produces the warmest tone you’ve ever heard in your life. I could always envision Sarah Vaughan singing Navarro’s solo note for note in my head. It would have been completely logical.

“Barry’s Bop” “Be Bop Romp” and “Fats Blows” are some of the greatest bebop recordings ever made. Rouse (who would play in Thelonious Monk’s band of the ‘60s) was already a unique tenor saxophonist with a fat, round tone and an astute knowledge of the bebop language.

Navarro’s high notes hit you like a left hook from Joe Louis. He then sings melodically through his trumpet with the most amazing rhythm. Navarro’s rhythmic sensibility allowed him to swing beautifully across some the most complex and frenetic chord changes. Dameron’s piano comping is delicately tasteful and the perfect accompaniment for Navarro. Art Blakey’s drumming is much more subdued on these sessions than usual but you can’t imagine him playing any other way on this date.

The next few tracks culminate from the Dexter Gordon And His Boys session on December 22, 1947. Here we have Navarro with Dexter Gordon, tenor saxophone, Tadd Dameron, piano, Nelson Boyd, bass, and Art Mardigan on drums.

“Dextivity,” “Dextrose” and “Index” are burning. Dexter Gordon and Navarro had a brief but very special chemistry. Gordon’s tenor lines unravel slowly, telling a story. Navarro’s solos are shorter but like Bird (with whom Navarro had performed and recorded with several times during his career) Navarro could say it all within four bars. And everything he would play in that short space would be impossible to forget. The sound of Gordon and Navarro together is bright and joyful. The love of this music is felt throughout every gorgeous nuance.

The next session on this compilation was called Eddie Davis And His Beboppers, recorded on December 18, 1946 with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, tenor saxophone, Huey Long, guitar, Al Haig, piano, Gene Ramey, bass, and Denzil Best on drums.
These three sides (“Stealin’ Trash,” “Hollerin’ & Screamin,” and “Calling Dr. Jazz”) have a harder edge to them than the material from the other two sessions. Davis’ tenor sax lines honk and shout like an R&B player, Long’s guitar harmonizes wonderfully with Davis and Navarro. Navarro again plays shorter, more concise solos that are more potent and memorable than Davis’s or Long’s. Fats could take you there as quickly as possible with what sounds like an unmatched level of confidence. He was obviously very aware of his immense talents.

Fats Navarro Memorial No. 2: Nostalgia features some of Fats Navarro’s most brilliant playing from several essential sessions recorded for the Savoy label. Once you hear Fats blow, you’ll never forget it and this is an excellent addition to anyone’s collection.

* * * * * * * *

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

Doc Wendell’s Prescription For Trumpet Bop: Kenny Dorham’s “Whistle Stop” (Blue Note)

July 18, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon Wendell

It’s still hard to believe that Kenny Dorham is not mentioned alongside such fellow trumpet masters as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard. Dorham was one of the most extraordinarily unique musical thinkers to pick up the trumpet in the entire history of jazz. He not only had a highly personal approach to playing, he was also a composer of the highest level.

On Blue Note’s Whistle Stop, recorded on January 15, 1961, Dorham is joined by tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, his longtime partner from his days in the original Jazz Messengers. It would always swing when these two would get together. To quote Horace Silver: “Their work together was so hip you know, it was super hip.” Accompanying Dorham and Mobley are Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.

The opening track “Philly Twist” is a cooking up-tempo hard-bop staple. Of course the title is a play on words, referring mostly to drummer Philly Joe Jones whose groove behind the complex rhythm changes of this piece makes everyone swing beautifully. Dorham and Mobley’s solos compliment each other perfectly. Kenny Drew’s blues-flavored piano back-up dances around Dorham and the entire band with taste and soul. Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones both take brief but brilliant solos.

“Buffalo” is a pure blues. The thoughtful lyricism in Dorham’s solo makes this one of my all-time favorite solos by this master. And nobody can make the blues swing like Hank Mobley. Every note of his solo on this composition is sweet, honest, and hard at the same time.

“Sunset” is a Dorham masterpiece. Dorham’s muted trumpet solo is thematic and beautifully melodic. Mobley too solos without losing sight of the composition’s theme. Like most of Dorham’s compositions, a unique mood is established from the first four bars on.

The title track and “Windmill” swing like a tornado. If one was to present two examples of why Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley were true pioneers of the hard-bop genre, “Whistle Stop” and “Windmill” would exemplify this perfectly. Dorham’s distinct knowledge of the bebop language combined with some swinging blues is what helped to define this sub-genre. And Mobley plays some of the finest solos of his career here in a style that is just as unique and timeless as Dorham’s. The rhythm section is relentless. Jones and Chambers are so in sync with each other and they make every nuance burn with love and dedication.

“Sunrise In Mexico” features some of the most delightfully syncopated trumpet lines ever played by Dorham. This modal style ballad gives Dorham, Mobley and Drew plenty of space to stretch out.

The album closes with the soft and elegant “Dorham’s Epitaph.” Dorham stated that he wrote it to be just that. It’s a very brief piece but it cements all of the compositions together perfectly.

Whistle Stop is one of the most potent and timeless releases on the Blue Note label.

It just doesn’t get much better than this. This is a must for all music lovers.

* * * * * * * *

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

Live Music: The Best Memorial Day Party Ever! Paul McDonald’s Big band at the Typhoon Jazz Restaurant.

May 28, 2015

By Norton Wright

Santa Monica, CA. One of the unique experiences on today’s jazz scene is “Big Band Night” at Typhoon Restaurant at Santa Monica Airport in Los Angeles. On Memorial Day evening listeners are ready to experience a veritable bacchanal as the band on stage is Paul McDonald’s big, powerhouse, 17-piece orchestra.

The band hits at 8 p.m. but you should get to the Typhoon as early as 6 p.m. not just for the scenic view of the flight line’s airplanes from the restaurant’s top floor, because it is you who are about to fly. The excitement is palpable – and wow, does it ever grow!

McDonald is already there in the working togs of shorts and a t-shirt setting up the band’s music stands, laying out the charts for each band member, positioning eleven microphones with their maze of cables leading to the sound mixing board of Typhoon’s indefatigable audio engineer, Toro. These two gents have worked together before and move deftly through the all-important sound check under the watchful eye of Typhoon’s owner, Brian Vidor.

Vidor has run this massive, jazz room for twenty-five years, his crowd of regulars is already piling in to the bar and the restaurant’s thirty tables. The conversation level begins to boom! Lots of gleeful greetings, talk of jazz, what’s going to happen tonight? You get the feeling that this jazz ritual has been going on forever. Evocations of Shelley’s Manne-Hole, Donte’s, The Lighthouse, maybe even Toulouse Lautrec’s Bal Taberin. Lautrec always surprised, so like him, what has McDonald got up his sleeve tonight?

7 p.m. – one hour to show time, but already the band members are arriving. They’re old friends, gathering early, clearly enjoying one another’s company. Adjusting the lights on their music stands, organizing their charts, unpacking their instruments, their pace leisurely like cool gunslingers again prepping for a night at the O.K. Corral.

7:30 p.m. – Paul McDonald reappears in sartorial splendor, dark suit, necktie, neat handkerchief in his breast pocket. He’s mellow but also keenly attentive to any missed details in readying for the band’s 8pm start. He greets his band members, then moves about the restaurants saying hi to old friends, but he’s regularly checking his wristwatch. This is a genteel producer and showman at work. He sees his band settling into their seats and holds up ten fingers to them. Ten minutes before start time. The crowd is quieting in anticipation. Five fingers to the band, five minutes to go!

Paul McDonald

Paul McDonald

8 p.m. – McDonald at his electric piano counts off the up-tempo beat for the opening number  – and the band explodes into “This Can’t Be Love”! The sax section puts you away, drummer Steve Pemberton drives the band up and over, and the night flight takes off! Paul Young is 200 pounds of roaring trombone solo, Ron Barrows, super casual in a baseball cap, answers with his own sizzling trumpet solo, and you start to remember that all theses musicians are solo stars in their own right.

The Paul McDonald Big Band

The band quickly propels through the applause into the second number, the Cubop standard “Mambo Inn,” and you hear why McDonald has added a second percussionist to the band. MB Gordy’s array of conga drums, bongos, and timbales absolutely crackle with polyrhythmic intensity.

About now you may be thinking that the guys in this band are awesome – but wait till  you hear the band’s two lady musicians. There are all kinds of ways of being beautiful, and Barbara Loronga’s trumpet and Lori Stuntz’ trombone are just outrageously gorgeous! Loronga’s soloing throughout the night (deftly using a mute on some numbers) reminds of Lee Morgan’s blazing yet note-perfect virtuosity – and in the night’s most poignant moment, as the classically-trained trombonist Stuntz is soloing through her beautiful take on West Side Story’s “Tonight, Tonight,” the hushed crowd is so moved that from the back of the room some start to reverently sing the lyrics.

In the audience, Susan Watson, one of the original performers in 1958’s production of West Side Story, is so taken by the by the grace of Stuntz solo that she gets outright weepy!

A word about composer/arranger/pianist/bandleader Paul McDonald’s consummate showmanship and his West Side Story medley that closes the first set. In this first hour, you’ve already been treated to the amazing speed of Gary Herbig’s alto and Dean Roubicek’s tenor on every solo they take. (Eric Morones is in the hunt too, joyously jousting with Roubicek as to who’s the fastest sax in the West). Mike Parlett is at home with the entire array of woodwinds from alto sax to flute, and young Caesar Martinez equally impresses, doubling on baritone sax and clarinet.

So adding some of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story score to this hot mix heralds a heart-thumping finale! McDonald kicks it off on electric keyboard with a dazzling solo, Ken Wild switches from acoustic bass to electric bass propelling the band into overdrive. The familiar themes of  “I Want To Be In America,” “Maria,” and “Tonight, Tonight” rise up in McDonald’s arrangement joyfully reminding of Bernstein’s jazz heart, — and in the last bars of this West Side piece Tony Bonsera’s trumpet goes stratospheric! What a way to end the first set!

Now what can McDonald do to top this in the upcoming second set? And he’s got the additional challenge that during the intermission the packed crowd is now roaring in conversation. But if Leonard Bernstein was a good choice to end the first set, how about another American musical icon, Aaron Copeland, to start the second set?

And so it is that without any introduction, the band just blasts off the second set with the opening of Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, the four-person trombone section (Young, Stuntz, Duane Benjamin, and Robbie Hioki) sounding the profound gravitas of the fanfare as the trumpet section soars atop, all in a display of brass firepower so awesome that it immediately quiets the reveling crowd. McDonald moves the number into a jazz groove with a keyboard solo evidencing what an exceptionally intense, soloing artist he is, and again MB Gordy’s congas – and tambourine! –  add wicked, hard-throbbing grooves to the fanfare. It all would have made Aaron Copeland kvel!

Next, the night would be incomplete without a blues number, and McDonald gets into it at the keyboard with his own composition, “Forget About The Past,” so down that it poses the question, “Why do the blues make listeners so happy?

The crowd has been waiting for Steve Pemberton’s drum solo and he does not disappoint, starting with brushes on snare and cymbals, then letting that soft touch escalate into dynamite drumstick work and kicking off the tune “Seven Steps” with trumpeter Jeff Jarvis burning the joint down with his fast and fiery solo.

So is there another surprise that showman McDonald can call forth in this last set to top off the evening? Yes, and she arrives in the person of the lissome songstress, Marianne Lewis. If you’re not acquainted with Lewis you may wonder how she is going to fare in a big-band context given that her website credits include her choir directing, leading of spiritual, consciousness-raising, empowerment groups, and listing CD’s of her own song compositions sung with gentle jazziness. You may be expecting Mother Teresa — but you are blissed out when Lewis arrives on the bandstand in a sexy, slinky, black-lace evening dress! With three excellent background singers, Jacquelyn A. Brown, Ramon Pratt, and Valerie Chevanaugh Fruge – she launches into “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Something’s Gotta Give” and a jazzy, funky take on Earth Wind & Fire’s “In The Stone.” Clearly Lewis is bringing it tonight, and you’re in for a very good time.

Later after a quick costume change into a short white lace dress, she spots heartthrob singer, Dave Davis, in the audience and gets him to join her on stage for an impromptu and flirtatious duet on “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me.” During the song, Davis fixes on Lewis’s come-hither dance moves and short dress as if hoping for a wardrobe malfunction. Clearly this wolf is appreciating the swan in more ways than one, and the crowd just loves them.

As the evening heads for the finish line, the band and Lewis run through “Stormy Weather,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” Sergio Mendes’ “Mas Que Nada” – and by the time the band hits its  arrangement of Tower of Power’s  song, “A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing,” everyone in the crowd is up and DANCING!

It’s an exuberant finale — and what a memorable way to end a Memorial Day weekend!

P.S. The Paul McDonald Big Band is such a celebration of jazz music , soloing stars, and genuine surprises that this orchestra merits bookings at the likes of the Playboy Jazz Festival, the KJAZZ Radio Summer Benefit Concert, and other major jazz venues.

And L. A.’s Chamber of Commerce, City Council, and Mayor Eric Garcetti should be proud to have the legendary Typhoon Restaurant as “Big-Band Central” in Los Angeles. In just the last month this attractive and spacious location has hosted the jazz orchestras of Emil Richards, Clare Fischer (directed by Brent Fischer), Steve Spiegel, Mark Hix, Tim Davies, Mike Price, and Charles Owens.

For anyone coming to visit our city, of course Disney Philharmonic Hall, the fountains of the California Center, the New Getty Museum, and the like are must-sees.  But no visit to Los Angeles is complete without catching Big-Band Night at Brian Vidor’s Typhoon Restaurant so aptly located at Santa Monica Airport where the great American art form, jazz, proudly takes flight every week.

* * * * * * * *

To read more posts by and about Norton Wright click HERE.

Picks of the Week: Feb. 19 – 24.

February 20, 2013

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Ron Kobayashi

Ron Kobayashi

– Feb. 20 (Wed.)  The Ron Kobayashi Trio.  Versatile pianist Kobayashi’s resume reaches from Mel Torme and Margaret Whiting to Teddy Edwards and Kenny Burrell.  Here he’s on his own and in the spotlight.  Steamers.

– Feb. 20. (Wed.) Monk’estra.  A Big Modern Jazz Band.  John Beasley.  Pianist/composer/arranger Beasley displays his imaginative musical wares with a big band featuring the works of Thelonious Monk.  Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

Larry Goldings

Larry Goldings

– Feb. 21/ (Thurs.)  Larry Goldings Piano Trio.  He’s an impressive jazz organist, but this time Goldings applies his keyboard skills to the classic jazz piano trio.  Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

– Feb. 21 – 24. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Dudamel, Shaham and the Los Angeles Philharmonic with German Romanticism.  Dudamel and violinist Shaham dip into the rich, emotionally textured music of the Romantic era.  On the program — Wagner: Music from Gotterdammerung; Brahms: Violin Concerto; Schuman: Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish). Disney Hall.  (323) 850-2000.

– Feb. 22 – 24.  (Fri. – Sun.)  The New West Symphony and violinist Rachel Barton Pine.  The New West Symphony presents another weekend of music across the Southland.  Boris Brott conducts Ms. Pine and the NWS in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, followed by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).  Performances take place:  Fri. at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center.   Sat. at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.  And Sunday at Santa Monica’s Barnum Hall.   (805) 497-5800.

Bebe Neuwirth

Bebe Neuwirth

– Feb. 23. (Sat.)  Bebe Neuwirth.  Stories With Piano.  You know her from her long run on the hugely successful sitcom, Cheers.  But Neuworth’s also an appealing cabaret singer and dancer.  Scott Cady, piano.  Valley Performing Arts Center.    (818) 677-3000. 

– Feb. 23. (Sat.)  Cecilia Coleman Quartet.  Pianist Coleman, a much-favored Southland jazz regular before moving to New York, Coleman makes a rare L.A. appearance.  She performs with Steve Huffsteter, trumpet, Pat Senatore, bass and Kendall Kay, drums.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

– Feb. 23. (Sat.) Robert Randolph presents the Slide Brothers.  With special guests: the Otis Taylor Band. The pedal steel guitar in all its glory, led by master player Randolph and the four Slide Steel Brothers.   CAP UCLA at Royce Hall.

– Feb. 23. (Sat.) The Los Angeles Chamber OrchestraJeffrey Kahane, multi-talented Music Director of the LACO, opens the evening with an in-depth discussion of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4 at the Orchestra’s annual “Discover” concert.  In the second half, he conducts the work from the piano.  Ambassador Auditorium.  (626) 354-6407.

Trevor McShane

Trevor McShane

 – Feb. 23. (Sat.)  Trevor McShane.  His real name is Neville Johnson, and he’s also one of the entertainment world’s highly regarded attorneys, as well as an ambitious performer.  He describes his songs as rock-folk-country-pop, but a more accurate description would be a contemporary singer/songwriter in the classic mode of James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, etc.  McSHane/Johnson will be joined by Lloyd Price and the Fleetwoods’ Gretchen ChristopherMcCabes.     (310) 821-5858.

– Feb. 23. (Sat.)  Roadwork Ahead.  Featuring Bill Mays, piano, Peter Sprague, guitar, Bob Magnusson, bass, Jim Plank, drums.  Pianist/composer Mays is well known for his accompaniment work.  But he’s also a prime jazz artist on his own.  He’s not in L.A. often, so take this opportunity to check him out. Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

San Francisco

Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson

– Feb. 21 – 23.  (Thurs. – Sat.)  Cassandra Wilson. Blessed with a warm and intimate voice, Wilson makes the most of it with her intimate, musical story-telling skills. Yoshi’s San Francisco.

Portland, Oregon

Steve Kuhn

Steve Kuhn

Feb. 20 – 24.  (Wed. – Sun.)  The Portland Jazz Festival.  Always one of the best-planned, best-programmed jazz events of the year, the Festival continues to offer some irresistible music.  But it sells out fast.  Still available for this week: On Wed. Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts.  On Fri. A Tribute to Art Blakey including Javon Jackson, Bobby Watson, Curtis Fuller and more.  Also on Fri., the Steve Kuhn Trio.  On Sat., Steven Bernstein’s Sex Mob.  On Sun., Nancy King.  Check the PDX website for complete information.  The Portland Jazz Festival.  (503) 228-5299.


– Feb. 19 & 20. (Tues. & Wed.)  Jack DeJohnette Quartet featuring Don Byron.  Jazz Alley. Drummer DeJohnette has found the perfect reed player for his Quartet in the imaginative playing of the versatile Byron.  Jazz Alley.

New York

– Feb. 21 – 24. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Benny Green Trio.  He’s played with everyone, and with good reason – his ability to bring captivating inventiveness to his jazz mainstream style.  Green With Georgos Antoniou, bass, Kenny Washington, drums.  Jazz Standard.


Billy Cobham

Billy Cobham

– Feb. 20 – 24.  (Wed. – Sun.)  The Billy Cobham Band: Tales From the Skeleton Coast. The always dynamic drumming of Billy Cobham celebrates his latest album with an electrifying band including two keyboards, violin, guitar and steel pans.  Ronnie Scott’s.    +44 (0)20 7437 5081.


– Feb. 22 (Fri.)  The Bjorn Ingelstam 5Tet.  “Tribute to Lee Morgan.”  Trumpeter Ingelstam leads a quintet of Denmark’s finest young players in a tribute to the iconic jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan.  Jazzhus Montmartre.    (+45)70 263 267.


– Feb. 20 (Wed.)  The Bill Charlap Trio. He comes from a highly successful musical family closely associated with the musical theatre.  But Charlap’s focus has been, and continues to be the jazz piano that he plays with complete authenticity. The Blue Note Milano.    02.6901 6888.




– Feb. 20. (Wed.)  Noa and Gil Dor.  The irresistible Israeli musical partnership of singer Noa and guitarist Dor enhance their intimate musical togetherness with the string quartet of Vincenzo Di Donna and Luigi Di Maio, violins, Gerardo Morrone, viola, Anonio Di Francia, cello.    Teatro Jolly di Palermo.  091.6376336.


– Feb. 22 – 24. (Fri. – Sun.)  Fourplay.  Grammy-nominated Fourplay has had some personnel changes in the guitar chair over the past two decades.  But the addition of Chuck Loeb to the regulars – keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason – has invigorated the band’s always lively style.  Blue Note Tokyo.    +81 3-5485-0088.

Live Jazz: Jane Monheit and John Pizzarelli at the Valley Performing Arts Center

May 14, 2012

By Don Heckman

I pushed aside one of my rules Saturday night – the rule that says once a year is enough to review most artists.  When I saw that Jane Monheit and John Pizzarelli were performing together at the shiny new Valley Performing Arts Center, I decided to make an exception to the fact that I’d written about both of them well within the past year.  The idea of hearing these two uniquely gifted artists working off each other was too much to resist.

As it turned out, however, they weren’t exactly doing an evening’s performance together.  Each did their own set, with the Monheit/Pizzarelli togetherness of the evening consisting of only three songs.  I”d obviously hoped for more, and the response of the full house crowd suggested that they would have been happy for more, as well.

But there are no complaints about what we got during the brief duo segment: A lovely rendering of “Tonight You Belong To Me,” the duet Monheit sings with Pizzarelli on her new album, Home. A gorgeous vocal by Monheit on Ivan Lins’ “Love Dance,” with Pizzarelli’s guitar providing the rhythm.   And a brisk pairing – backed by the Pizzarelli band – on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

Jane Monheit

Beyond that, the evening consisted, as I’ve already noted, of two individual sets.  And Monheit came close to stealing the show with hers.  Blessed with extraordinary vocal skills, she used them all at the service of her musical storytelling.

On her opening “Old Devil Moon,” she swung briskly with bassist Neal Miner, matching and joining him in phrase after phrase.  Her version of “Look For The Silver Lining,” was a stunning display of musical paraphrase, transforming the original into a unique improvisation.  The same was true of “Stardust,” in which Monheit came up with one brilliantly spontaneous line after another – jazz singing at its finest.

And there was more: A touching “I Wish You Love,” a reading of “Every Time We Say Goodbye” that displayed the full gamut of her gift for far-reaching emotional dynamics.  A jaunty “I Won’t Dance,” recalling her video duet on the same tune with Michal Buble.  And another Brazilian delight – Antonio Carlos Jobim’s soaring “Samba de Avaio.”  All of it supported superbly by her pianist/arranger Michael Kanan, drummer (and husband) Rick Montalbano and bassist Miner.

John Pizzarelli

Pizzarelli’s set overflowed with his characteristic rhythmic buoyancy.  Opening with “Will You Still Be Mine,” he proceeded with a rapid fire romp through the Great American Songbook: “It Wouldn’t Be Make Believe,” “Just You, Just Me” and “Will You Still Be Mine,” often tossing in segments of his high spirited, guitar and voice riffing

`           The balance of the program surveyed material from his new album, Double Exposure, in which he combines seemingly disparate songs into unlikely musical marriages.  Among them, Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” was blended with the standard of the same name.  Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” was musically cut and pasted with Tom Waits’ “Drunk On the Moon.”  And John Lennon’s “I Feel Fine” came together with Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder.”

The result had a certain kind of novelty value, sometimes more than that.  But more often, one simply hoped for one or the other of the two songs within any of the blendings to simply come to life on its own.  Pizzarelli delivered it all with his usual panache.  But – recalling his charming December program at Disney Hall — I kept missing the musical byplay and the witty banter with his wife, the talented Broadway singer, Jessica Molaskey.

A final word about the new Valley Performing Arts Center, which is a stunning addition to the artistic life of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.  Pleasing architecturally, it also offers a large warm and inviting people space inside a stunning marble, tile and glass environment.  Add to that the hall’s excellent acoustics and generously comfortable seating, and one can expect that audiences from the other side of the hill will soon discover the pleasures of this impressive cultural destination.

Live Jazz: KPFK 90.7’s First Annual Hero Award Tribute to Billy Higgins at Catalina Bar & Grill

May 3, 2011

By Tony Gieske

You wouldn’t figure that an event honoring the late Billy Higgins would have drawn a full house to Catalina’s on a Sunday night.

Billy Higgins

We here in musician-creamy Los Angeles understand that Higgins — always smiling! — was the go-to guy if you wanted to record with a cat who was there mainly to help you.  A sideman.  His name was never the biggest one on an album cover.  That spot would go to someone like Max Roach, or Art Blakey, or Elvin Jones.

True, Higgins, who died 10 years ago, did headline with his friend Ornette Coleman back in the late 1950s.  But more often his name inhabited the small type on albums such as the ones with Donald Byrd, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Milt Jackson, Jackie McLean, Pat Metheny, Hank Mobley, Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, David Murray, Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins, Mal Waldron, and Cedar Walton.

But you had to be deeply dyed in the jazz wool to think of him as the star he actually was.

Yet here was this bowl-you-over turnout, cars filling the four-story parking lot next door, with KPFK, the radio station that was putting on their first  annual fund-raiser, charging $75 per person and turning folks away.  The rejects fostered a brisk trade in slick programs and posters with Higgins’ picture in glorious black and white.

Eric Reed

Inside, there came in glorious live or taped audio such jazz figures as Clayton Cameron, Bobby Hutcherson, Kenny Burrell,  John Beasley (the musical director), Gerald Wilson, Leon Mobley,  Will Calhoun, Phil Ranelin, Richard Grant, Charles Owens, Eric Reed and of course Coleman.

“Billy was one of the most special human beings,” the white plastic alto man said in a message read on the stand. “He had something to do with the reason we’re all alive.”

“He was very, very pure,” Coleman added. “He could make me feel so good and proud of the way he executed (on the stand). And (most important) he never had one derogatory or unappreciative thing to say about anybody.”

“He didn’t really want to take a lot of drum solos,” said Reed. ” ‘It’s my job to make everybody else sound good,’ he seemed to feel. And in some kind of way Billy Higgins made it all sound amazing.”

Kamau Da'ood and Charles Lloyd

Poet Kamau Da’ood, the Horace Tapscott alumnus who co-founded the ground-breaking performance space World Stage in Leimart Park with Higgins, shouted a passionate poem about bones, and John Densmore, a founding member of the Doors, did likewise.

But it was the saxophonist Charles Lloyd who transcended the verbal — although he first spoke a few words with undeniable  conviction — in a moving unaccompanied instrumental elegy to his longtime traveling mate in the land of the jazz future.  It is a future toward which, he seemed to mourn, his old friend can journey no longer.

Photos by Tony Gieske.  To read and see more of Tony’s essays and photos at his personal web site click HERE.

Q & A: Norton Wright, Fine Art Painter, Television Producer and Lover of Jazz

May 5, 2010

By Don Heckman

Fine art painter and television producer aren’t exactly career terms that are often heard in the same sentence.  Not even in the wildly multi-hyphenate world of Los Angeles.  Add to that the description “life long jazz fan” and the combination becomes even more unlikely.  But not completely.  Because all those labels – and attributes – apply to Norton Wright, whose name can be seen in the producing credits of numerous television shows and movies, reaching over the years from “Captain Kangaroo” and “Sesame Street” to the Emmy Award winning series “Freestyle” and tv movies starring Charlton Heston, Debbie Reynolds, Susan Lucci, Ed Asner and others.  His most recent film, “Safe Harbor,” was aired on the Hallmark Channel last year.

Wright’s color-filled “JazzWorks” paintings, which include titles such as “Mysterioso” (saluting Theloious Monk),” “Four Miles” (saluting Miles Davis), “Good Vibes” (saluting Terry Gibbs), “Touch of Silver” (saluting Horace Silver) and “Take Five” (saluting Dave Brubeck), have had various gallery showings over the years.  But at the moment many can be viewed – up close and personal — in the seemingly unlikely setting of the Wine Bistro Restaurant at 11915 Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, California.  In a recent conversation  – peppered with his wry humor and jovial story-telling – Wright talked about his love of jazz, his painting, and the unlikely integration of his left and right brain activities.

* * * *

DH: Let’s start with your background, Norton.  I know you studied art at Yale with the famous Bauhaus painter and teacher, Josef Albers.  But I also know that you managed to sneak away most weekends, and take the train to New York to hear jazz.

NW:  Oh, yes. Those were the days. I was a big fan of Marian McPartland.  Still am.  I remember in the Hickory House days, in the mid-fifties, I’d go there with my college roommate and we’d camp out there starting at 9 p.m. Marian was playing with Joe Morello and Bill Crow.  Marvelous.

DH: A terrific band.

"Valse" (Saluting Bill Evans and Claus Ogerman

NW: Right.  And then there was the intermission pianist — a thin, gawky guy, played a lot of notes, and we couldn’t figure him out.  His name was Bill Evans.

DH: I’d call that a full evening of jazz.

NW: But it usually was just the start.  At one in the morning, Julius, the headwaiter, would lock the door, but we’d get to stay.  A little while later there’s a knock on the door.  It’s Tony Scott.  He comes in.  Another knock.  It’s Sal Salvador.  He’s just come through town.  And one after another they would show up.  Jackie Paris, the singer.  And when the Metropole down the street closed up, maybe Jimmy McPartland with Bud Freeman, and the party would go on until five or six in the morning.  The greatest musical time in my life.

DH: When you got back from the service in the early sixties, Bill Evans had been with Miles on Kind of Blue, become a major star, and jazz had evolved rapidly.  And you were still as much a fan as ever, even of the new stuff coming along.

NW: Sure.  George Russell with things like “Ezz-thetic.”  And Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.  Ornette Coleman.  But the guy I’ve always liked, no matter what era, has been Herman Foster, the blind pianist.  Never made a huge name for himself, mostly backed singers.  But I have these two albums he made in which he starts in full musical orgasm.  And his music lights you up.  I can feel my whole metabolism kick up listening to this guy.  And I listen to him a lot, still.

"Floating Castle" (Saluting Lee Konitz)

DH: But you also wound up in commercial television – as a producer.  An area that would seem to be light years away from both jazz and painting.

NW: But I didn’t abandon either one.  And the reason that this painting thing became so important to me is that I was spending – still do — a good chunk of my time with my left brain on as a producer, where spontaneity is the last thing that you want.  In fact, when it does happen there, it’s usually called desperation.  From a producing standpoint, you’re turning on the side of your brain that balances your checkbook.  It’s people and facilities and budgets and timelines and deliver dates.  It’s prying the leading lady out of her dressing room with a crowbar when she has half of Bogota up her nose.

DH: Definitely left brain dominance.

NW:  Yes, but it’s not to say that every now and then in the producing business that your heart doesn’t lift.  There’ll be times when you’ll look at a rewrite and a tear will come to the eye or you’ll roll around on the floor laughing, and that is spontaneous.  The other time that it works for me in the movie production business is when the score is added to the picture.  And that which you thought was kind of good, your heart beats faster, and it’s that magic that happens when music elevates a dramatic moment, and really tells you what it’s about.

DH: Would that all television and film producers had the same sensitivity to music.  But, okay, so if that’s the left brain of producing, then what about the right brain aspects of painting?

"Four Miles" (Saluting Miles Davis)

NW: In the kind of painting I do, I look for spontaneity and minimum structure.  That’s not to say completely spontaneous.  A jazz player knows the difference between a twelve bar blues and a thirty-two bar ballad.   There’s a basic structure in 16th century mannerism that’s based on a diagonal from the upper left hand corner to the lower right.  And I sketch those in, just a little bit.  From then on, I just go.  A commercial illustrator friend of mine told me that a painter should always control the painting.  And I told him, “No, that’s absolutely wrong for me.  I want the painting to tell me what to do.  And I think that’s similar to a jam session where you start out knowing what you’re going to do, and then Anthony Wilson does something else, and that gives you another idea about where you’re going to go.  In other words, the music tells you where you should go with your sax solo.  Which is not at all like doing a commercial illustration of a cowboy in which he has to have the sun in the upper left hand corner and leave room for the Marlboro logo across his moustache.

DH: That reminds me of what Ornette Coleman once said: “How can I know what I’m going to play until I play it?”  And then there was Harold Rosenberg, the art critic, who wrote about a painting as the produce of the encounter between the painter and the canvas.  That sounds pretty close to some of the things that happen in jazz, as well.”

NW: Yeah.  For me, in terms of the process, first and foremost is the business of me encountering a canvas and putting stuff on it that I hope is going to be unstructured, spontaneous and surprising.

DH: Okay.  We know you’re not an image painter – no Marlboro cowboys – so the JazzWorks aren’t portraits, they’re abstractions.  But what happens when you’re doing a JazzWorks painting, when you’re working on something inspired by a particular musician?  Don’t you listen to that musician while you’re doing the painting, and doesn’t that tend to guide your hand as you work?

"Aloft" (Saluting Chris Botti)

NW: Nope.  In fact, sometimes it’s a kind of retrofitting process.  I use music to trigger spontaneity.  But I don’t listen to a lot of different things.  And somewhere in the course of the visual structuring of the painting — the color tones, the horizontal relationships that kind of look like melody to me, and the vertical relationships that sort of have the feeling of a harmony of colors — a particular jazz artist will come to mind.  In the painting “Aloft,” for example, I don’t know if I was deliberately listening to Chris Botti, but that was a time when I was frequently playing his CDs in the studio.  And, hearing that floating tone of his, suddenly I thought “I’ve got two elements in this painting: I’ve got a firmament in the bottom.  And the second element floats at the top.”  And I thought, “This is the tone of Chris Botti, who seamlessly seems to float over this rich orchestration.”  And that loftiness, that airness led me to feel that it was a salute to Chris Botti.

DH: So, it’s like you said earlier, the painting tells you.  And since jazz is so much a part of who you are, the painting frequently tells you something that triggers a jazz response.

"Mysterioso" (Saluting Thelonious Monk)

NW: Right.  It’s like when I was doing “Mysterioso.”  It’s got the opposition of complimentary colors, it’s got blood red against thalo green.  Well, that’s like hitting a black note and a white note together, doing a diminished second.  It just jumps off the canvas.  I was exploring what you could do with shock in coloration.  And who shocked us more than Thelonious Monk in terms of the deliberate juxtaposition of the incompatible?  So that’s when I discovered that it sure did look like how Thelonious sounds.  Rather than the reverse approach — that I’m listening to Thelonious as I do the salute to him.  It actually goes the other way.

DH: Norton, I know jazz has always been an intrinsic part of your life, and your paintings.  But you listen to other music as well, I gather, while you’re in the studio.  How do you decide what to put into the CD player on any given day?

NW: It changes for me.  Yesterday, because of the way a painting was going, I knew it was going to work.  And when I know something’s going to work, I tend to put on happy stuff.  When I’m struggling, I usually put on the gloomy stuff.

DH: Like what?

NW: Well, like the Polish classical composer, Gorecki.  He’s got a choral work with Dawn Upshaw, and when I’m struggling I put that on because it’s contemplative.  And it’s dark, and it’s slow and it’s not ebullient at all.  It’s like a human struggle, which is something that art can be.

"Spectacular" (Saluting Diane Schuur)

DH: And when you’re not struggling?

NW: When you’ve already gone around the corner and you know you’re putting on the finishing touches to the visual, it’s time to put on Diane Schuur and the Basie Band.  The record that won the Grammy.  That just rocks along.  She’s so good on that. And she has a way of being able to shift from the up tempo stuff to something where the lyrics really make a difference.  You just get the feeling with her that there’s a tenacious and gorgeous spirit in that lady.

DH: If I were to ask which specific jazz artist you feel most reflects the way you work and think, who would come to mind?

NW: It probably changes from month to month.  I’ll say this, though.  Lee Morgan is my kind of guy.  He’s muscular, he’s daring.  I don’t know if I paint like Lee Morgan sounds, but I sure would like to.  I was a boxer at one point, in college, and I wanted to be Rocky Graziano.  Because he improvised, he had a huge right hand, and he was passionate and he was terrific.  Regrettably, I fought like Willie Pep.

DH: And what about your overall body of work?  What would that resemble, in a jazz sense?

NW: Much as I love her, it wouldn’t resemble Marian McPartland.  I think I’d have to go back to Herman Foster again, starting out in full orgasm and just getting better.  And I like to think that’s where my appetite is, in art and in life.  It’s so short, and so precious a period of time, that I really don’t want to spend it logically building something.  I just want to jump in feet first, and have so much fun.

DH: Thanks, Norton.  It’s been great talking with you.

* * * *

Norton Wright’s exhibition of New Paintings can be seen at the Wine Bistro Restaurant, 11915 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, CA.  (818) 766-6233.

Norton Wright is represented in Los Angeles by the Susan Schomburg Gallery.  (310) 453-5757.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 255 other followers