(from a Brick’ s Picks in the LA Weekly, c. 2007)
Several years ago i can remember walking into a posh Valley jazz joint and realizing, alas, no one else had wandered in. The place was so empty that the lounge area where the musicians set up away from the main dinner room seemed cavernous….which was too goddam bad, as one of the best pianists in jazz was up there with a remarkable quartet and the music was simply stunning. Chuck Manning was subbing for the regular saxophonist, and the stuff he came up with…free thinking rushes of chords that just filled up all that space in the room, or low tones, held, that flowed over the rhythm section in shades of blue…wow, and when he and the pianist met in the middle entirely new compositions burst out of whatever standard they were doing, completely new creations that took the breath away and then disappeared forever when they got back to the head and the traditional melody fell into place. Oh man, this jazz music is so ephemeral. All the recorded jazz that there is in the world—your entire music collection—it’s just an infinitesimal bit of all the jazz that’s ever been and will never be heard. Improvisation, it comes, and it goes. If you’re there, you’re lucky enough to hear it and maybe later you’ll remember a bit of it, can even pick out a trace on the piano, or try and write about it. Maybe a photo you took will spark a snippet in your mind’s ear. Maybe, just maybe, there’s even a recording somewhere. Those recordings….jazz fanatics can be driven mad by those, like that junkie following Bird around, desperately trying to catch every last note of his solos on a wire recorder before the bartender threw him out for not buying anything. Imagine that poor tortured bastard, haunted by all Bird’s solos that the world never hear again unless he can catch the sounds on his tinny little machine…and imagine his desperation as he was tossed again out into the street, hearing Bird’s alto spinning brilliance into the air that disappeared like a morning fog in the brutal summer sun….
Went to the Desert Rose tonite to see saxophonist John Altman with the Mark Z Stevens Trio (Mark on drums, Chris Conner on bass and Jon Mayer on piano.) Alto Kim Richmond sat in for a stretch, always a joy, and the superb Mike Lang sat in for a pair of tunes on piano at the beginning of the second set, playing beautifully as always. While Lang played, Jon paced the room like a mountain lion smelling blood. He wanted to be back up there. After his second tune Mike Lang returned to the bar as the crowd applauded warmly. Jon sat down at the bench, an evil gleam in his eye, like it’s the 1930’s and it’s a cutting contest and it’s his turn now. Altman counts down and Jon went instantly mad on the piano, crazy comping, big fat angry chords with all kinds of Monkish space in between, and when it was his turn to solo he did so with a vengeance, grabbing the melody with both hands and whirling it into submission…building and building, each run more intense and impressive than the one before, beautiful figures and shards of melody and turning the old chestnut–damn I can’t remember the tune right now, but you’ve heard it before–turning it into something stunning, muscular, and intensely creative, just absolutely fearless improvisation. When he resolved it and dropped back into the head the crowd burst into loud, sustained applause, the kid behind me whooping like it was a rock concert. What an absolute treasure this cat is. Learned his art in NYC in the crucible of the fifties, brilliance and self destruction going hand in hand. He dropped out for a couple decades, wound up in L.A. No one here plays like Jon Mayer, and yet somehow he remains in the shadows. No one said jazz was fair.
John Altman is back at the Desert Rose (on Hillhurst at Prospect) wth the same stellar trio (the house trio, in fact) next Saturday. And if the crowd is lucky someone will sit in on the piano for a couple tunes, and then Jon will explode with pure creativity again. The purest.
A jazz promoter asked a fascinating question:
Do you think Bird would have dug Ornette? I have wondered about this. Not that Bird is the ultimate arbiter of good and bad, but Ornette was arguably the next major innovator in the music and Bird died JUST before Ornette came on the national scene.
And the consensus was yes, Bird would have dug it.
But I think maybe the commenters, nearly all of them jazz musicians, were looking at this from our own perspective today, thinking that Bird thinks like we do. I’m not so sure. Bird might have appreciated it, as a concept, maybe, but I think he wouldn’t have liked the delivery. Ornette was a huge jump from be bop, a totally different philosophy. Bird was reworking the rules of swing, but still within the rules. Ornette rejected those rules. That is a gigantic conceptual leap and there’s no reason to assume that Bird would have dug it. Don’t forget Max Roach punched Ornette out, sucker punched him, it’s said, in the green room after a set. Max was not pleased. I remember when I used to have long conversations with old be boppers–they’re few and far between now–I was struck by their conservatism, jazz-wise. It’s a generational difference. I’m not so sure that Bird would have been able to reject his own ideas and embrace Ornette’s rejection of be bop. Revolutionaries rarely accept the next revolution, especially as it is nearly always a reaction to what they had themselves created. Today we still see Louis Armstrong as a reactionary, as revolutionary as he was, because he loathed be bop and all it represented. I doubt Bird would have hated Ornette, but I can’t see him taking it too seriously.
I’m not a jazz musician, though, so I really don’t know. I’m just riffing, off on a tangent, doing my own thing. The ideas come and the words just flow with them. Let go of the narrative and let pure free thought express itself, see where it goes. That seems appropriate somehow.
So long, Ornette.
Ornette Coleman, c. 1959.
Simply fantastic nite at Desert Rose, with Theo Saunders and Chuck Manning’s thrilling jazz improvisation within a stream of classic tunes–Trane, Newk, Wayne Shorter, lotsa Monk and at least one of Theo’s own compositions–as combo leader Mark Z Stevens wore Chuck Barris’s duds (really) before an exhuberant packed house. Fyl and I kept seeing all these old jazz pals, like we were back at Charlie O’s, me and George Herms lost in the be bop or laughing at the wrong times. Oh it was glorious.
On another Toshiko Akiyoshi bender. Hard to believe these platters are over forty years old, the music sounds brand new. Lush, complex, burnished, swinging and, like, very smart. A lotta notes, Med Flory told me, and Steve Huffsteter hits a high one, and a higher one, and another.
Man, Edie Adam’s did a devastating Marilyn Monroe parody. If Marilyn hadn’t been so fucked up she might have sued. It surpassed even SCTV’s Catherine O’Hara and Andrea Martin at their cruelest. I saw it on the Edie Adam’s box set, I imagine some one has put it on YouTube as well. Also, among the many long buried treasures revealed in this collection is a solid dozen minutes of the Woody Herman Big Band c.1963, and what a blazing aggregation that was. You could hear that music in a club now and it would still sound state of the art. Were I Scott Yanow I could rattle off the soloists, but alas I ain’t. A smoking young bunch they were however. And in that very same program the daring Edie gave Jack Sheldon six or seven minutes to go a surreal monologue about falconry that was as hysterical as it was weird. Clean, though. She must have warned him.
I met Edie Adam’s several times. Had a few extended conversations. Wonderful stories, wonderful lady.
Ran into Louis Van Taylor last nite. Damn what a player. Had one of those casually intense conversations that are the hallmarks of jazz players, and I remember how I had to earn my way into those conversations by writing like a motherfucker. I gotta say I miss that rarified air. I vividly remember the moment I realized I’d been accepted into the fold when me and some of LA’s finest players were sitting in a Glendale bar between sets, surrounded by drunks and Armenians and insulting each other. You’re one of us, they said. Fuck you, I said. Mutual respect, be bop style. If you’re gonna write about jazz, you need to write as well as they play.