Live Jazz: The Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble at Vitello’s

November 7, 2011

By Tony Gieske

Billy Childs comes right out and admits it: He was inspired by Laura Nyro.  He liked her collaboration with Alice Coltrane on Christmas and the Beads of Sweat.

And so he formed the Jazz Chamber Ensemble, which also has at its nucleus, piano, acoustic guitar, and harp. A version of this he brought to Vitello’s Saturday ((Nov. 5))  with salutary results, to paraphrase Walter Pater.

Marvin "Smitty" Smith

Naturally, his familiar guitarist partner Larry Koonse gave Childs as good as he got during this improvisation-laden evening.

And there were a couple of added solo attractions riding the dashing rhythm section  of Hamilton Price, bass, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums.

One was harpist Carol Robbins, who found a groove as down-home as you could ask with no flowery embellishments.  The other was the avant-garde saxophonist Katisse Buckingham, whose tonality bucking duel with Childs on the latter’s extended work in E flat partook of the historic in its last measure-for-measure exchanges.

(Robbins had preceded the Buckingham performance with some fours-trading of her own.)

Childs likes to create tone poems based on physical landscapes. Tonight, however, he worked with a foundation of music alone, which in my opinion is what one ought to do. Hate to have to thank Laura Nyro.

Photos by Tony Gieske.

Live Music: Robert Davi Sings Sinatra at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

September 23, 2011

By Don Heckman

The row of stretch limos lined up inside the mini-mall at the top of Beverly Glen Tuesday night made it instantly clear that some sort of special event was taking place at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  As it was.

Frank Sinatra’s name in the title of any musical event lends a unique cachet, of course.  And this one – headlined “Davi Sings Sinatra” – had the added presence of actor Robert Davi, whose credits reach from films (License to Kill, Die Hard, the Goonies) to television (Profiler, Stargate Atlantis), as well as his directorial debut in The Dukes.

So, okay, there’s nothing strikingly new about an actor reaching out for a career as a singer.  And Sinatra-inspired tribute shows – by Sinatra simulators, imitators, and the real deal — Frank Sinatra, Jr. – show up with considerable regularity.

But Davi is something special.  Start with his charismatic presence, his laid back Italian manner and, above all, his musicality.  By the time he’d finished his second number – “Nice ‘n’ Easy” – and was swinging smoothly through “At Long Last Love,” it was apparent that he was clearly in touch with the content, the details and the spirit of Sinatra’s way with a song.

Backed by a stellar, hard swinging big band, he continued on, offering one classic after another.  He tapped into the jaunty swing of “Come Fly With Me,” “Luck Be A Lady” and “Fly Me To The Moon.”  And followed up with a tear down the walls romp through “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”  His balladry was rich with emotion in tunes such as “Moonlight In Vermont,” “It Was A Very Good Year,” “Angel Eyes” and the rarely heard “Summer Wind.”  And his story telling abilities were a constant presence, adding convincing authenticity to each of his interpretations.

True, Davi remained closely in touch with the Sinatra versions of the songs.  In many cases, anyone familiar with the original recordings by ol’ blue eyes would have found it easy to sing along in unison.  But that was perhaps understandable, given the title of the show.  More importantly, the performance came across as an affectionate, deeply respectful acknowledgement of an artist who has had a creative impact upon Davi (whose 1977 debut as a screen actor took place in Contract on Cherry Street, with Sinatra).

Many of the songs will also be present on Davi’s debut recording, Davi Sings Sinatra; On the Road To Romance, scheduled for release on Oct. 24.  And that’s worth checking out by anyone who didn’t make it to Vibrato on Tuesday night.

Still, by the end of the long, entertaining program, one couldn’t help but wish for an opportunity to hear Davi’s obviously extensive vocal skills applied to other material, as well.  To songs, for example – and there are dozens that would fit his personal style — offering opportunities for him to reach deeply into his own interpretive abilities.

Hopefully that’s what will come next.

Live Rock: Don Henley at the Greek Theatre

September 20, 2011

By Mike Finkelstein

Los Angeles.  On Saturday night, Don Henley played the Greek Theatre backed by an eight piece band (two guitars, two keyboardists, two female backups singers, bass and drums) and a seven piece horn section.   It was a no frills affair on a rather Spartan stage, but one that allowed him to play a wide range of tunes.   As a super successful solo artist and a founding member of the Eagles he can pretty much do what he wants and his audience will trust him.   And this is for good reason.   Henley played all of his solo hits, along with a tasty array of diverse covers, and of course a handful of Eagles songs.  He was in fine vocal form and his voice is as recognizable as ever.    Sharing reflections and stories, he was relaxed and appeared to hugely enjoy the ride at the controls of such a big band.

Henley et al opened the show with, of all things, a snappy version of “I Put A Spell On You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.   Having gotten our attention, he then began to deliver the goods, dedicating “Dirty Laundry” to Rupert Murdoch.   Written during the thick of the Reagan years, the song is a scathing set of observations about the falseness, vapidity, and twisted nature of the news media.  It vividly brought back the feeling I had when I first heard it — that finally the ideas I also held were coming through the car radio.

On “Dirty Laundry” and every other song performed at the Greek, the two keyboardists had all of the signature lush, whooshing, ‘80’s keyboard sounds dialed in. The two guitar players, Stuart Smith (he replaced Don Felder in the Eagles) and Peter Thorn, also nailed every note and tone of the long, hot guitar solo at the rear of the recorded version.   For that matter they impressively nailed every crackle and squeal of all the original tracks they covered.

Most of the world likely knows that Don Henley began his career as a drummer, first in Linda Ronstadt’s backing band and soon thereafter in his new band, the Eagles.  They soared to unmatched heights of success in the excessive mid- to late-‘70’s.  By the ‘80’s the Eagles had to take a rest and Henley embarked on a solo career.   It was at this point that his position on stage in live shows changed.   In solo shows he no longer drums live, only singing from behind the mike stand and playing guitar.   It was interesting to watch his body language Saturday night.   He sang with two feet planted and standing very straight up without much in the way of leaning or twisting, nor many demonstrative waves of the arms and no leaps.  Perfect form helps a singer control their breathing, I’d reckon.

About half way through the show, Henley shared a story about how he and Jack Nicholson were dialoguing the same rising (though nameless) movie actress “at one of those Hollywood parties.” As the story went, Henley failed to bum a cigarette in any smooth manner from her.  Watching Henley go down in flames, Jack quipped, “Nice work, Henley.”   Later that evening, Henley went home and wrote “The Last Worthless Evening.”   That song turned out to be one of the best pop tunes ever on the subject of dating and finding a soul mate.

As Henley’s two hour set unfolded one couldn’t help but be impressed with how many hits the man had played for us and, still, how many he couldn’t possibly include.   Each number brought us back to where we were in the ‘80’s when we perhaps weren’t partying but thinking about more serious things with the car radio on.  It struck me that many of his songs really have endured robustly.   In “The Boys of Summer,” there is a line about seeing a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.  It still sounds ironic as it reminds us that as “establishment” as a Caddy may be, many krunchy college Deadheads of the ‘80’s became established enough to actually want to drive one … and fly a freak flag with the sticker.

Henley’s ability to put strong social commentary into smooth rhyme has always been the calling card of his solo work. His narrative of the ‘80’s was refreshing at the time for its truth and candor and for his eagerness to call things as he saw them.  Though many of his hits go back around 30 years the lyrics still work well today as narratives for the struggles involved in maintaining one’s personal social integrity.

The most effective popular art usually succeeds at capturing what many of us are thinking.   Henley’s songs are full of lines that do just that.   On Saturday we all knew the “bubble-headed bleach blonde” in “Dirty Landry” who “could have been an actor but wound up here” dishing the dirty laundry “with a gleam in her eye.”   Rolling around LA, we can all relate to the sentiments in “Sunset Grill” :

You see a lot more meanness in the city
It’s the kind that eats you up inside
Hard to come away with anything that feels
like dignity
Hard to get home with any pride

A Don Henley show would certainly have to include several Eagles hits and this was no exception.   Nothing too far below the surface in the Eagles’ catalogue made the set list.  We got “One of These Nights,” “The Long Run,” “ Life In the Fast Lane”   “Desperado,” and “Hotel California.”   “Witchy Woman” was on local radio several times last week but it didn’t make the list on Saturday.   Still, if you are filling up a Don Henley/Eagles set list there are going to be many fan favorites left off in the interest of time.

No worries, and actually, Henley’s choice of covers was one of the most intriguing parts of the show.   He was happily all over the map with his selections.   He did understatedly quip to us, as they swung through Kool and the Gang’s “Funky Stuff,” that, “Sometimes you get tired of playing country rock.”   This was ironic because there really wasn’t anything country in the set.  Henley and his band also covered “Guilty” by Randy Newman, Otis Redding’s  “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,”   Jeffrey Foucault’s “Everybody’s Famous,” Eric Hutchinson’s “You Don’t Have to Believe Me”and, oddly, Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule the World.”   Fittingly, Henley saved “I Will Not Go Quietly” for the second encore (and dedicated it to Sting, who is closing in soon on 60 years old).

Local favorite Lucinda Williams opened the show with a set that went from ethereal and spacey to flat out rockin’ in the space of about half an hour.   While the rocking numbers kicked up the dust, her set was the most compelling when the sound was subtle and atmospheric, steered this way by the very tasty delay, e-bow and slide work of guitarist Blake Mills.   Songs like “Copenhagen,” and “Born to Be Loved” swirled through the clean open night air, courtesy of the great PA system at the Greek.   Towards the end of the set, Mills found the chance to romp in overdrive and cut loose with a blistering solo on “Honeybee” and it sounded red hot.

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


Live Jazz: Joni’s Jazz with Herbie Hancock and an All-Star Ensemble at the Hollywood Bowl

August 18, 2011

By Michael Katz

Jazz has always attached itself to the popular musical idioms of the day, from Tin Pan Alley to the Beatles and even (gasp) hip hop.  But Wednesday night’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl highlighted a reverse aspect, Joni Mitchell’s mid-seventies adaptation of jazz into her own style of songwriting and performance. Make no mistake, even with musical giants like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and even absent Ms. Mitchell in person, the voice was distinctly Joni, her words weaving poetic narrative, her rhythms enticing and challenging.

Herbie Hancock

The program was divided into a first act of songs mostly from Court and Spark and Hejira, and the second act re-creation of The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Although Herbie Hancock won a Grammy for his CD River: The Joni Letters, all the arrangements Wednesday night were the work of co-leaders Brian Blade (drums and a sparkling blues guitar on “Strange Boy”) and Jon Cowherd (keyboards). They brought in a first rate ensemble, with Tom Scott and Mark Isham out front on tenor and trumpet.

Glen Hansard

The five guest vocalists all brought something different to the program, and it’s a pretty good bet that the disparate audience of diehard Joni fans and Wayne/Herbie followers made some new musical acquaintances. Glen Hansard, the Irish singer from The Frames and the film The Commitments made only one appearance in the first set, but it was a sprightly rendition of “Coyote,” which highlighted his own guitar playing, the percussion of Jeff Haynes and dueling solos from Tom Scott and Wayne Shorter, who played a soaring soprano sax throughout his appearances.

Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann comes closest to resembling Joni Mitchell in voice and appearance, which is probably an unfair comparison, akin to the trumpeters who assume the Miles Davis chair in re-creations of his bands. But she was out front to start the show with “Court and Spark,” steady and heartfelt, though the mix of the ensemble behind her was a little strong. Throughout the evening she had some of the signature Joni tunes, including “Free Man in Paris” and, in the second half,  “Shades of Scarlet Conquering” and the title track, “Hissing of Summer Lawns,” which featured Herbie Hancock providing some haunting piano accompaniment. Hancock only appeared on three tunes, but he was in top form each time.

Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson brings her own unique style to everything she touches. Her voice is low and sonorous, her readings always with a spark of originality. She had three numbers in the first act, including “Hejira,” with a lush solo by Mark Isham, but most notably Joni’s hit “Help Me,” which started with the familiar opening chords and moved toward a plaintive, thick-as-molasses second chorus. Unscheduled but equally moving was “Blue Motel Room,” which turned into a duet with Tom Scott. Wilson’s vocals, which can fall an octave below the tenor’s midtones, make for a stunning combination, which was repeated during the second set’s opener, “In France They Kiss On Main Street.”  It’s a pairing that could easily stand up to an album of its own.

Chaka Khan

Chaka Khan projects an entirely different presence. She’s a diva, but played it with a degree of understatement and reverence toward the material. “Strange Boy,” with Brian Blade playing a Delta blues guitar and Greg Leisz on steel pedal guitar, was a soulful performance and “People’s Parties” was effectively funky, with her ability to soar into soprano at a moment’s notice. Her two contributions to the second set, “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” and “Sweet Bird,” were both sensitive and dramatic interpretations.

Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling always seems to rise to the forefront in these group presentations, although his introduction was a bit shaky, with a Sinatra reference that seemed out of place. “Black Crow,” coming early in the first set, featured a terrific solo by Shorter, but overall seemed a little disjointed. His later contribution to the first set, “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” (the lone piece from the Mingus album) was a perfect vehicle for him, and teamed him with some sparkling piano work from Hancock.  Elling’s voice has a stark clarity to it, no small advantage in an evening when five different singers are interpreting an artist whose lyrics are central to the show’s purpose. There were times, especially during the second act performance of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, – which despite its acknowledged excellence is still not as familiar to many as Joni Mitchell’s earlier work — when you had to adjust to the different intonations of the artists to pick up the lyrics.  Not so with Elling. “The Jungle Line” doesn’t require much in the way of subtlety, but “Edith and the Kingpin,” enhanced by Shorter and Scott on their saxes, was presented with the patented Elling sensibility.

Glen Hansard finally made it back with “The Boho Dance” and, to close the show,  “Shadows and Light.” By the end, the hope that Joni Mitchell might make an unscheduled appearance had given way to a satisfaction that a segment of her work, under-appreciated by many, had been revived in high style, artfully arranged by Blade and Cowherd and performed with heart and spirit by the group they had assembled.

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

Herbie Hancock photo by Tony Gieske.

Live Rock: Peter Frampton at the Greek Theatre

August 2, 2011

By Mike Finkelstein

In 1976, at the peak of his popularity, Peter Frampton once mentioned that, “There is no tomorrow until I play today.” On Saturday night at the Greek Theater Peter Frampton played for three hours, putting the music at a premium, in one of the more memorable performances one could hope to get a glimpse of. I would doubt that many people who came to this show expected it to include three hours of music. You just got the feeling that Frampton felt so good about the band and about playing in general that for this type of tour he would play the whole night without an opening act.

The show consisted of two sets, with the first being a play-through (not in album sequence) of the entire Frampton Comes Alive album (2011 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Frampton Comes Alive), and the secnd set focusing on newer material and chestnuts from his past. He was in the zone every minute of the way, on all levels and he and his band could have gone on longer..

Prior to FCA, live albums, especially double live albums were mostly a courtesy from already successful bands to their fans documenting their live sound. When Frampton was with Humble Pie, they recorded the classic double live album Rockin’ the Fillmore. Humble Pie live were truly the stuff of legend and the album was a commercial breakthrough in the lucrative US market, but Frampton left the band to go solo before it was released on 1971. By 1975, Peter Frampton’s solo career was languishing, his records were not selling so well and he was running out of money to keep his band together and on tour. However, his live shows were always well received for his appealing musical vibe and, yes, his good looks.

So, the obvious and most sincere thing to do was to record a live album. It was recorded (mostly) in San Francisco where he had a great relationship with his audience. On FCA, one can hear the immediacy between the audience and the band captured in the sounds of the audience mixed cleverly with the music. The album offered a bounty of different styles, atmosphere and the sheer delight of getting off playing great music. It went on to be the best selling album of 1976 and introduced him to many more new fans. For several years after this, every other band on the circuit seemed to be releasing a double live album, trying to catch the same magic. To say the least, 1976 was a huge year for PF.

On Saturday, 35 years later, Frampton was still thin, much of his celebrated golden hair was gone or gray, and he had maintained his tenor voice and his self-effacing charm and wit. He and his cohorts picked right up like it was still 1976. Happily, Stanley Sheldon, the original bassist on the album was right there next to PF for this show (both original keyboardist/guitarist Bob Mayo and drummer John Siomos have passed on). Starting a little before sunset, and holding his black Les Paul, Frampton launched the band into the first track of FCA, “Something’s Happening.” As on the album the band’s sound gave the music a lot of space to develop. In particular, the drums featured a lot of subdued but busy cymbal work, suggesting strummed acoustic guitars. Loud snare and tom work were kept to a noticeable minimum and the light approach allowed us to really listen clearly to the other instruments.

During the 70’s the Fender Rhodes was a popular choice of keyboards for it’s warmth and clarity and it was always a part of the signature PF sound – which is why keyboardist/guitarist Rob Arthur played one for most of the show. He also moved between a Hammond organ and playing guitar.  Serendipitously, Saturday’s crowd sounded a lot like the one on the record. There was very little of the hooting that rock concerts often seem burdened with. People did know the words and pockets of fans would sing along quite audibly, on cue and even with the beat.

Several things set a group of songs like those on FCA apart from a lot of other rock music. The tunes, particularly the showcase song of the album, “Do You Feel Like We Do,” call for continually building tensions up chordally, rhythmically, and dynamically and then ripping each one of them loose in a dynamic wash of sound-not unlike unveiling a sculpture or watching a wave break. And, of course, featuring the talk box guitar effect has given the song a more timeless than dated appeal because it still sounds cool. That song will always be FM rock in its most iconic form.

The FCA program also called for covering “Jumping Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones. Frampton’s arrangement stayed true to the riff to begin with, but basically turned the song delightfully inside out. They reshaped the riff often throughout the song, added syncopation to still other parts, and even inserted their own atmospheric turnarounds to transform the song into something new. By his arrangement the song walked with an inviting new gait. The two huge hits “Show Me the Way” and “Baby I Love Your Way” got the ladies into the summer sway. For a while it looked like the summer of 1976.

Whether he took a distorted or clean solo, Frampton’s guitar was always in the front of the mix, never obscuring the qualities of what he was playing over. It takes considerable preparation and a lot of gear to sound this versatile while turning on a dime. He had a small, clean-sounding Fender amp, a rotating Leslie speaker, a full pedal board of effects, several blistering Marshall heads to the side of the stage and it all fed through three Marshall cabinets on stage. No matter what tone he was actually using, his sound always came across with smooth clarity. His lines were at once jazzy and clean, then scorching and swirling. He had such an appealing palate of tones and such an interesting approach to his note selection, that he had the audience…quietly eating out of his hand because they were listening to the man own the moment.

In the second set, having met their big pop obligation, Frampton and the band could really get down to the business of playing. Most of the hour and fifteen minutes was spent on instrumental tunes culled from the Fingerprints and Thank You Mr. Churchill albums. During this set the band and particularly Frampton covered a whole lot of musical ground, schooled the musicians in the audience, and thoroughly entertained everyone else. Bopping, grooving and remaining precisely on the delicate pulse of the music he made each chord, each phrase, and each note count several times over. Drummer Dan Wojciechowski, who had to play with considerable restraint in the first set, was set loose in the second set and he did indeed pop and crack his drums louder and more often.

There were super sweet harmonic moments shared with guitarist Adam Lester on “Float” from the Grammy winning Fingerprint album as well as a jazzy Django-infused reworking of“All I want To Be (Is By Your Side).” He delved into obscure tracks like “White Sugar” and “Just The Time of Year” from Frampton’s Camel and even broke out a fine rendition of Humble Pie’s raucous take on Muddy Waters’ “Four Day Creep.” Then he closed the show with a talk-box instrumental treatment of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.”

In a time when many guys a little younger than his 61 years are pretty much mailing in the hits when they tour, Peter Frampton gave an inspired performance on Saturday. And really, how many of his peers would even consider attempting to maintain that kind of stamina for one night much less a whole tour? The word “outstanding” certainly describes Frampton himself and Saturday’s show. Wow!

To see more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

Live Rock: Los Lonely Boys and Los Lobos at the Greek Theatre

July 31, 2011

By Mike Finkelstein

On Friday night a not quite sold out, but certainly revved up, Greek Theater audience was treated to a most appealing double bill of high profile American Latino rock bands.   Beginning their impressive career well over three decades ago,  Los Lobos first blazed the trail that Los Lonely Boys now walk.   Now, Los Lonely Boys are a hot young act that headlines above Los Lobos. But the two bands are friendly and the members mixed and sat in freely during each others’ sets all evening long. The night’s music was a celebration of blues, Norteno music, rock ‘n roll, and Tejano music, to name but a few of the influences that converge somewhere near the borders of California and Texas with Mexico.

Los Lonely Boys

Los Lonely Boys are brothers Henry Garza on guitar, Jojo Garza on bass, and Ringo Garza on drums, out of San Angelo, Texas, and they call their music Texican rock ‘n roll.  While they have an appealingly huge, warm, and busy sound, they also manage to give each other a lot of room to flap their instrumental wings at any moment.   They aren’t locked into a rigid set of arrangements, but what they play is ultra tight, and they do love to jam.   On Friday, these jams percolated  and would burst into snips of songs like “Sunshine of Your Love.” As LLB tap an idea around between them – much like kicking a musical hackeysack — these fellows sound as though they have been playing music with each other all their lives.  Moreover, when Henry and Jojo sang together it was often in unison.   Their voices are different enough to contrast but similar enough to blend as one.

Los Lonely Boys’ songs are based mostly on blues progressions fleshed out with a lot of smooth syncopation.  Each song had a lot of room for experimentation.  Every idea was laid down, elaborated upon enough to advance the song and then gave way to the next one. The lyrics were mostly about desire as in “Oye Mamacita,” and “Road to Nowhere” or lifting the spirit and making the world a better place, as in as in their huge hit, “Heaven.”   Then again, “16 Monkeys” was quite whimsical and playful.   It will be intriguing to see where a group this talented will take their songwriting in the future.

No power trio will fly without a charismatic leader who plays hot lead guitar and sings.   Henry Garza is cut from this rock star cloth.   He is tall with long hair, long arms, long legs, and a very engaging vibe to him onstage.  Most importantly he has the sound – the big, sizzling Texas Stratocaster sound made popular by Stevie Ray Vaughan and several others after him.    His style on guitar brimmed with showmanship and motion, but he stayed within himself and allowed his sound, rather than an excess of notes,  to get the point across. We first got a glimpse of him during Los Lobos set when he walked on and guested on three songs, tearing it up with the Wolves on “Hey Joe,”  and “La Bamba/Good Lovin’.”

The power trio is a tried and true lineup in rock which demands that each player cover a lot of musical ground to keep the sound interesting.  What actually put LLB over the top instrumentally was Jojo’s bass performance.  He plays a six string bass, which gives him chordal possibilities not available on 4- or 5- string basses.    In its higher ranges, a six string bass moves into the realm of a baritone guitar, which meant that Jojo could meet his brother Henry in the same tonal registers and then peel off elegantly up or back down to the bass registers.   Since a 6 string bass has an extra high and low string Jojo’s lines were riveting, as he skillfully constructed his runs to include the high highs and the low lows.  It gave them a modern sound and proved that a six string bass can work beautifully in a rock band.

Los Lobos

Los Lobos opened the show, hitting the stage as the sun went down, and powered through favorites like “La Bamba,” “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” and “Don’t Worry Baby.” Their 90-minute performance also included two runs through “Cumbias,” a high-energy style of Latin dance music. Over the years (30+) the Wolves have built up a very impressive catalogue of songs in both English and Spanish.  On Friday no less than four of their tunes were sung in Spanish.   “Yo Canto” was a standout and the title cut of their new album Tin Can Trust was mesmerizing.   The band has always featured its members changing instruments.   While we are used to seeing David Hidalgo switch from guitar to accordion routinely, he actually sat in on drums with the Lonely Boys on “Heaven.”   At times the sound system at the Greek didn’t really seem to achieve the separation between the two guitars and Steve Berlin’s baritone sax that it has before.   Still, it wasn’t the sort of inconvenience that could stop a band like Los Lobos from making its musical points.

As the show progressed it became clear that this was a double billing of bands who play great music and live to play.  The stage was at times a revolving door for members of both bands and their delight in the moment was infectiously obvious.  It made for a very special night of music, indeed.

To see more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

Live Jazz: Phil Upchurch and Sonya Maddox-Upchurch at Vitello’s

July 24, 2011

By Tony Gieske

I’d like to thank a guy on YouTube  who saved me the trouble of thinking up a lead for this review of  Phil Upchurch’s set at Vitello’s the other night.

“One of the few guitarists to take really scary chances when playing and leave you on the edge of your seat,” the guy who called himself “taildragger51″ wrote.

I knew what he meant because Upchurch’s album Darkness, Darkness, which got played for two straight days at a party I went to in Chicago, contained a perfect example of this ability  on the track titled “What We Call the Blues”: One great ending after another, each one more brilliant, deep and satisfying than the last. And none of them interfering with the full size backing band.

So Upchurch’s tact proved all the more remarkable during his performance at the side of his new bride, Sonya Maddox-Upchurch. She is an agile singer with a voice like clover honey; and it would be hard to find a performer who knows more about staying out of the way of the star, without false modesty. You should hear him on YouTube with organ star Jimmy Smith on “Chickenshack.”

At Vitello’s, the songs were all originals with solidly built chassis, adroitly positioned climaxes and big endings. Upchurch again formed a kind of shadow government as his wife emoted. The lyrics were another ball of wax.

A typical example was one about a “trophy wife” whose husband doesn’t love her in the hallway, only at the party on the other side of the door.

That is an idea of a sort, but perhaps it belongs to the genre with which Mrs. Maddox-Upchurch is handier, the singing commercial. She is the CEO of Wondervision Entertainment and Music, and has performed in more than 200 TV commercials for such clients as Listerine, Orville Redenbacher Popcorn, Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Gatorade.

The couple dedicate their spare time to spreading the gospel with their Christian Music Marriage Ministry. And they are members of the Crenshaw Christian Center, led by Frederick K.C. Price, D.D.

OK, OK, it may seem like a long way from what we call the blues. But I gotta say these two guys can blow.

Photos by Tony Gieske.  To read and see more of Tony’s essays and photos click HERE.

Live Jazz: Chris Botti, Bobby McFerrin and the Yellowjackets at the Hollywood Bowl

July 14, 2011

By Don Heckman

Chris Botti made his third consecutive L.A. appearance in July Wednesday night.  This time, he was at the Hollywood Bowl, following July concerts in 2009 and 2010, almost to the day, at the Greek Theatre.

And this performance, like the earlier ones, defined why Botti has become the music world’s best selling instrumentalist.  Touring the world with a stellar ensemble for 300 or so appearances a year, he has created a musical entertainment as fine tuned and superbly functioning as a TAG Heuer Grand Carrera.

Chris Botti

The program for Wednesday’s concert had some striking similarities to the 2009 and 2010 appearances.  All three opened with “Ave Maria” and “When I Fall in Love.”  Other pieces – “Emmanuel,” the “Theme from Cinema Paradiso,” “The Look of Love” and “Caruso” (from Botti’s Italia CD) were also heard on all three programs.

If that sounds like substantial repackaging, one could make the case that virtually all major touring musical artists offer programs liberally sprinkled with familiar items.  Entertaining his audiences with musical authenticity is clearly Botti’s goal, and he achieves it with winning regularity

What makes his programs most intriguing for jazz listeners, however, is the fact that Botti and his impressive musical companions do not – in the way that many pop artists do – perform as living juke boxes, repeating their hits note for note, with no creative variation.

Botti’s first lyrical phrases on “Ave Maria,” for example, followed by pianist Billy Childs’ inventive excursion through “When I Fall In Love,” immediately made it clear that familiarity would breed inspiration, not predictability.

Other highlights produced similarly compelling results: the dynamic violin playing of Caroline Campbell; the extraordinary work of the Botti band – pianist Childs; guitarist Mark Whitfield, bassist Carlitos Del Puerto; drummer Billy Kilson; keyboardist Andy Ezrin.  And, perhaps most remarkable of all, singer Lisa Fischer, moving with utter ease from the balladry of “The Look of Love” to her extraordinary, tenor-range rendering of the Italia theme.  Add to that an unexpected guest performance by Micheal Buble, topping the evening with a soaring duet with Botti on “My Funny Valentine.”

Bobby McFerrin

At the start of the show, the question raised by the first few numbers from the opening act — Bobby McFerrin and the Yellowjackets — was what in the world they were all doing on the same stage together.  Singer McFerrin, one of the most musically gifted performers on the face of the earth, seemed to be used primarily as little more than another melodic voice alongside Bob Mintzer’s tenor saxophone and EWI  (electronic wind instrument).

All that changed with McFerrin’s spontaneous solo number, which triggered a burst of vitality – from the Yellowjackets, as well as the crowd.  The rest of the set continued on a rising arc, with McFerrin and the Yellowjackets interacting superbly, thoroughly demonstrating the compatibility of their unique jazz skills.

Chris Botti photo by Tony Gieske.

Live Jazz: Deborah Pearl sings her Benny Carter songs at Vitello’s

June 26, 2011

By Don Heckman

The vast accomplishments that made Benny Carter a jazz icon are far too numerous to mention here.  Suffice to say that he was a brilliant instrumentalist (on saxophone, trumpet and more), a gifted composer/arranger for everything from small jazz bands to symphonic orchestras, the creator of a string of Swing Era big band classics, the songwriter of such memorable songs as “Key Largo,” “Only Trust Your Heart,” “When Lights Are Low” and much, much more.

When singer/writer/actress Deborah Pearl became friends with Carter and his wife, Hilma, she realized that something was missing from the Carter catalog of accomplishments.  Despite the fact that he had written the hit songs noted above, his catalog of music was filled with dozens or rich, lyrical melodies, few of which had ever had lyrics written for them.

After Carter passed away, Pearl asked Helma for permission to write some lyrics for a Carter song.  Hilma agreed.  But the songwriting soon became more than a one-tune goal, building up to the 13 song folio included in Pearl’s new recording, Souvenir of You: New Lyrics to Benny Carter Classics.

Deborah Pearl

On Friday night at Vitello’s, Pearl — backed by the stellar ensemble of pianist/arranger Lou Forestieri, alto saxophonist/flutist Don Shelton, bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Jimmy Branly — offered an impressive musical introduction to the new body of Carter songs included on the album.

Pearl was a quirky performer.  Wearing a dark beret, horn-rimmed glasses and a frequent smile, she introduced every song with an anecdote and, often, a laugh. Her goal in many of the pieces — especially songs such as  “Skydance For Two,” “Wonderland (Isle of Love)” and “People Time” — was to honor the long, loving relationship between Benny and Hilma Carter.

Hilma and Benny Carter, Lou Forestieri and Deborah Pearl

Other songs pursued different Carter goals: “Souvenir of You” was written as a tribute to Johnny Hodges, a theme that Pearl addresses in her lyrics; “An Elegy in Blue” memorializes a Japanese friend of Carters, and Pearl’s poignant lyrics evoke the sadness of a friend’s passing.

Although her prior background has been as a writer, actress, commercial singer, filmmaker and more, Pearl’s performance of the Carter songs resonated with jazz authenticity.  Occasionally scatting, or singing in tandem with Shelton via Forestieri’s hard swinging charts, she delivered each song with convincing believability – as a jazz vocalist and as a story teller.

She was immensely aided by the fiery alto saxophone and dynamic flute playing of Shelton, as well as the solid support of the rhythm trio of Forestieri, Shelton and Wild.

The recording, Souvenir of You: New Lyrics to Benny Carter Classics, is now available.  But one hopes that Pearl also does more live performances of the songs produced by her extraordinary partnership with Carter’s rich musical imagination.

Op Ed Commentary: Morgan Ames on Millennium Women and A Cappella

June 17, 2011

Morgan Ames apprenticed with Quincy Jones; sang/contracted singers for Queen Latifah for opening of 2010 Super Bowl; sang backgrounds on 2011 Oscar telecast and with Celine Dion for 9/11 telethon, conducted singers onstage for Paul McCartney at a Green Peace concert at the Hollywood Bowl (“Hey Jude”); has written songs with Johnny Mandel, Bob James, Dori Caymmi; co-wrote “Baretta’s Theme” (“Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow”) with Dave Grusin (now a popular ringtone); has had songs recorded by Roberta Flack, Peggy Lee, Djavan; co-produced Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra which was #1 for 33 weeks and garnered two Grammys;  has performed with Chaka Kahn, Mariah Carey, John Williams and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra; sung in “King Kong,” “Spider-Man,” “Matrix Reloaded” and “Revolutions,” “Sister Act” I and II, etc.; has sung and/or written vocal arrangements on recordings with David Foster, David Benoit, Amy Grant, Vince Gill, etc.  Here, Morgan’s comments about vocalists and vocal arrangers include insights broad enough to reach across the full breadth of creative activities.

By Morgan Ames

I have been the leader/arranger of an a cappella group (Inner Voices) for over 20 years and the music environment never sits still.  For instance, clever vocal work with choreography is currently in fashion, thanks to TV’s Glee.  Smirk-free a cappella is heard regularly on TV talent shows and schools everywhere.  Group singing will go out of favor again, you watch.  No point worrying about it and I don’t think most vocal arrangers do.  When you love voices suspended by their own weight, all alone, a cappella, you just do.

The path of women vocal arrangers follows the path of evolution for women generally.  If you think you can do it, you do it.  But good vocal arranging is an art that comes slowly.  You have to acquire a taste for heartbreak, which is to say, hang onto your sense of humor.  Most important, build up your craft skills.  My experience as a music professional all these years is that in certain areas of music there is no mercy relative to craft skills, not for women.

Skill breeds respect and without it, professional work is sparse and not much fun once you’re out of your 20s — your early 30s if you’re really cute.  It’s a good thing too.  You spend a lot more time in your career older than younger. The lion’s share of artistic satisfaction comes later.  It deepens as you do.  When I hear groups at a vocal faire or whatever, I often wish they would rethink their arrangements, or think them at all.  Vocal percussion is omnipresent and some groups think that if someone has a microphone in his mouth, the song is arranged.  It isn’t.  Another trap is the wall-of-sound approach.  Someone in the group picks a time feel, often repetitive (thank you, acid jazz), falls into a familiar chord pattern and just keeps cycling.  Someone else scats like a balloon losing air.  Then: end big and stop.  But there is an ocean of difference between finishing an arrangement and stopping because it’s long enough.  A stop happens and a finish is earned.

If you’re a woman musician out there now, believe me, craft skills are the secret.  They build your confidence and neutralize intimidation – especially from the guys.  Music schools and classes are everywhere.  If you’re a singer, and the majority of vocal arrangers are, you already have a good start.  Of course, the music style of your particular group impacts your arranging choices, but even styles which appear relatively simple, doo wop or folk, for instance, are not.  The work of great groups just sounds simple.  The era of doo woppers hanging out on the front porch in Philly is pretty much played out.  On the other hand, if you don’t know what you’re doing, arrangements can get ridiculously over-complicated, driving everyone in the group crazy, and sucking energy out of the song.

I never start writing an arrangement until I see it in my head.  I kind of meditate on the song, in silence.  For me it’s important to cast a song like a movie among the brilliant singers in my group.  I get a feel pretty quickly about who should stand out, whose persona fits the lyric.  I’m not afraid of space.  I vary from block chords to one voice to a duet in sixths all in maybe eight bars. It’s called dynamics.  Four voices have an entirely different weight and color than two.  One singing loudly versus four singing softly or vice versa gives surprise and dimension.

Here’s a good exercise: pick a classic vocal or background vocal arrangement  (some killers: Bobby McFerrin’s new Vocabularies, Mervyn Warren’s Hallelujah from Soulful Messiah, Respect by Aretha Franklin, I Just Want to Stop by Gino Vannelli,  O Brother Where Art Thou with music put together by T-Bone Burnett).  Then do some serious analysis.  Why do you love it?  Why in detail.  Really go there.  Arranging is about problem solving, note after note.  I grew up doing this obsessively, and still do it.  I have listened to the first Take 6 album hundreds of times and still learn from it.  If you’re drawn to southern sounds, T Bone Burnett knows everything about bluegrass and other mountain vocal styles.  The late Gene Puerling is still the Bach of vocal arrangers.

One more tip if you want to be really good: don’t ignore that, uh, well, that funky little spot in the arrangement that never quite worked.  Come on, figure it out and do it right.  What separates the pros from the non-pros is the polishing, the finishing up, the unglamorous part.

Vocal arranging is harrowing if you do it right, but you get to love the process eventually because of what it gives back to you. You may find, like me, that the more you arrange, put out fires caused by the last chord you wrote, etc., the more you fall in love with the art.  Welcome to the subtlest, silkiest club in music.


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