Los Angeles Jazz Institute Presents: East Coast Sounds
Published on June 3, 2010
Out of the Cool & Into the Hot – May 27-30, 2010 – Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel
There are moments for a jazz CD and concert reviewer when the stars align and the skies clear to let heavenly musical bliss flood your senses. It can occur when listening to a CD and a particular passage straightens your spine, brings a smile to your lips, and perhaps a mini-bolt of electricity brings a warmth that flows from your fingers down to your toes. When this rare sensation arrives, all is well with the world.
Listening to live jazz in a concentrated multi-day festival allows a greater chance for this jazz nirvana to appear. One of my first reactions when this occurs in a concert setting is to look around and see if others have seen and heard the light. It is a magical and mystical experience when you observe this telepathic exchange of energy. You can recognize when the non-verbal transference has taken place. There is a small bit of recognition between strangers – a nodding of the head accompanied by an occasional body sway. I’ve always felt a particular bonding at these moments, a near religious experience shared without the need for further communication.
The Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s theme weekends have provided these blissful moments for me perhaps more than at any other jazz festival. I am used to attending jazz festivals where my age – presently 57- puts me in the median demographic. Not so at the LAJI weekends, where I could be considered a youngster, as many of the attendees in Los Angeles were actually at the Jazz Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach back in the 1950s where Chet Baker, Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers, and Bud Shank held center stage. These were times never to be repeated when the so-called cool music of 1950s Southern California defined West Coast jazz.
Since 1994 attendees from around the world eagerly anticipate revisiting the “Promised Land” biannually. Some of them obviously were not in LA during the golden age of West Coast jazz, but they at least have LPs and CDs from this period. For them returning with like-minded devotees is a like a journey to Lourdes for the cure – at least for 72 hours.
What makes me return to the smog-filled, manic traffic environs of LA is the rare opportunity to both hear the remaining living jazz legends – most at least in their 70s – and to share their love of jazz, occasionally venturing out towards other genres of the 1940s to 1960s jazz period. It is special to have this chance both in concert as well as in panel discussions that are open to audience participation. Here we are provided with more magical moments than anywhere else, especially where jazz fans can mingle with their idols. Only on exclusive jazz cruises is this opportunity offered elsewhere.
Let me take the time to share some of this Spring’s moments to cherish:
On Friday, Mr. Music, Al Cohn, was feted by Terry Gibbs and Bob Brookmeyer. Gibbs felt that Cohn ranked with Charlie Parker and the 1940s horn player, Johnny Mandel, as the trio of most melodic instrumentalists. Brookmeyer placed Al Cohn along side Zoot Sims and Lester Young, certainly heady company. A fascinating story was shared about the prior head of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, and Nixonian honcho, Leonard Garment, who both played distinguished saxophone during the early Zoot and Cohn days. Brookmeyer made the pithy comment that ex-saxophonists who stop playing go into the government whereas trombonists have too much pride to make the transition.
Also on Friday, Med Flory’s combination Jazz Wave Big Band featuring Supersax lit up the crowd with “Let’s Play a Little Wake Up Music” and “One for Woody.” Med’s bantering with his band and comments to the audience kept everything loose. Flory has aged like vintage Scotch.
Friday evening had a musical tribute to Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, which featured Grant Stewart and Harry Allen. They resurrected the swing magic that Zoot and Al brought to the stage as well as the sense of musical humor that the two tenor giants shared. The duet, “You and Me” was particularly moving.
One of the many highlights of the weekend was the late Saturday afternoon concert by the Johnny Mandel Big Band. Johnny’s band was made up from a dream team of Los Angeles-based session players. They had the drive and swing of the 50s Basie band along with the sophistication of an Ellington contingent. The national treasure that is Johnny Mandel recreated the magic of his classic compositions “Low Life,” “Close Enough for Love,” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.” However, for me, the biggest goosebumps and aural ecstasy came with rapturous readings of “Emily,” and the theme for MASH, “Suicide is Painless.” Solo honors were numerous and included Bob Efford on “I Wanna Live” and the many solos of Pete Christlieb and Carl Saunders.
Saturday night was devoted to the 50th Anniversary celebration of Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, directed by Bob Brookmeyer, who was noted to have arranged many of the Concert Jazz Band’s charts back in the day. Brookmeyer certainly had the band whipped into shape, but it was the brilliant baritone sax playing of special guest, Scott Robinson, that stole the show. Robinson, who can and does play most any horn, uncannily brought out the tone of Mulligan’s sweet lyrical playing. He gave a masterful performance Saturday night, only equaled by the Festival finale work on bari sax again with Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra.
Sunday’s conversation with vibist Teddy Charles was quite interesting. Charles told moderator Kirk Silsbee that he entered Juilliard “on a fluke.” He was mentored by Hank Jones, and he gave both Frank Morgan and Wardell Gray their first recording. His Tentet recording was voted Downbeat Record of the Year. I found his LA concert Tentet revisit to be highlighted less by his tentative vibes playing than by the ample solo space he gave to his sidemen, especially saxist Kim Richmond, trumpeter Ron King, and guitarist Doug McDonald. His long time drummer, Ed Shaughnessy, did a superb job with propulsive stick work.
Three of the more emotional panels/concerts closed out the weekend. A panel honoring the memory of drummer Tiny Kahn was made up of Terry Gibbs, Johnny Mandel, and drummer Jeff Hamilton (who was born the year that Kahn died). To most jazz fans, Tiny Kahn is not well known. However, his influence on future drumming legends, including Mel Lewis, is profound. Tiny was a giant lumbering man, who at 6’ 1” inch and over 300 lbs. made an imposing figure. He died tragically of a heart attack at only 29, yet his drumming and arranging left a lasting influence. Hearing Terry Gibbs, at age 85, choking up describing his best friend from age 6 to 29, was deeply moving. Tiny had a rough adolescence with his weight, yet Gibbs was there for him and he shared stories of the two of them playing along to Basie drummer Papa Jo Jones, while ensconced in the family basement, brought a lump to the throat. Kahn has been gone since 1953, and only had an active jazz career for around eight years, but Terry Gibbs helped the audience feel that they knew Tiny.
Later Sunday afternoon, backed by a super band that included Jeff Hamilton and Harry Allen, Gibbs took us on a journey with Tiny, playing Kahn’s charts of over 61 years. Tiny’s arrangements still sound fresh and vibrant. More importantly, they swing like crazy. “God Child,” “So Long Joe,” and a gorgeous arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” stood out with the latter featuring an exquisite clarinet solo by Rob Hardt.
Just when I thought that there could be no more highlights to the weekend’s festivities, along came the closing concert by Bob Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra. Brookmeyer has been splitting his time between the U.S. and Europe, and his New Art Orchestra has both European and American members. We heard LA-based musicians play several selections from the New Art Orchestra’s CD, Spirit Music. Band members included Bobby Shew, Billy Kerr, Steve Huffstetter, Bob Efford, Joe LaBarbera, and the aforementioned instrumentalist extraordinaire, Scott Robinson. To say the audience was moved is an understatement, as Brookmeyer’s compositions were an evocative mix of classical and jazz motifs. They had an exquisite symphonic quality that words can not describe. Tracks such as “New Love,” “Dance for Life,” “Poor Maria,” (written for Maria Schneider), as well as “Ceremony” (Bob’s paean to his wife), and the four part “Celebration Suite” were simply sublime.
Watching Scott Robinson sitting in the audience, face held in his hands, in rapt attention and waiting for his turn to come onto the stage, was priceless. You could tell how moved he was by Brookmeyer’s compositions. Bob, while conducting the band, clearly showed his joy of the moment by smiling and laughing, filled with emotion. We all were…
When their second set was completed, I walked over to where the LAJI Artistic Director, Ken Poston, was sitting. He was in rapture just like the rest of us, having a magical moment. I had to shake his hand in appreciation for putting together this special weekend. We said little and just grinned, equally drinking in this stunning performance of the New Art Orchestra.
It was a joyous moment in a weekend chock full of treats. Mr. Poston deserves accolades for continuing to put together dream theme weekends. (A tribute to Frank Sinatra will follow this Fall.)
You had to be there. I’m so glad I was…
- Jeff Krow All photos ©2010 Mark Sheldon