Amir ElSaffar

(2009–Brick’s Picks, LA Weekly)

When we first heard Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers, we freaked. This was a couple years ago and tucked away in the culturally conservative Los Angeles jazz scene—which as a rule never mixes nothing with nothing if it ain’t been mixed before—well, the crazy mesh of jazz with Arabic music was a revelation. This wasn’t like playing Miles Davis music with horns and sitars, this was the maqam of Iraq—the land of the two rivers, where ElSaffir’s father was a musician—as learned by a jazz trumpeter, improvising the melody (ruhiyya) of each piece on his horn, accompanied by oud and dumbek, buzuq and frame drums, and the Persian born, Bay Area residing saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who can blow through quarter toned runs here and the blues there like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Which it is, really. Just listen to ElSaffir’s gorgeous tone, to the long drawn out blues lines, and his flights up and down and around those crazy near eastern scales. And how it all winds up in an absolutely swinging, Ornettish “Blues in Half E-Flat”. Rarely have two supposedly inimical civilizations melded together so beautifully. Bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Alex Cline fill out the four piece more than ably. They’re playing Monday, one night only, at the Jazz Bakery.

Oscar Hernandez

(March, 2012)

 

Pianist Oscar Hernandez played the Blue Whale last nite…the joint’s first ever Latin anything show. This one was pure Latin jazz with a helluva band, including a righteously fired up Justo Almario on tenor and bassist Carlitos Del Puerto, who has the coolest hair this side of Esperanza Spalding. Good crowd, loud and drinking and taking up every seat, a few danced in the back, and the response was ecstatic. Not a lot of Latin jazz in LA between summers. People were jonesin’ for some. Hernandez poured it on. amazing virtuosity, I mean the cat can play a mean piano, aggressive runs and crazy fingered dances all across the keyboard…piano both melodic and powerfully percussive…the drummer and conguero got caught up in it and wailed, laying out crazy latin polyrhythms that Hernandez would plunge through. That is when he wasn’t all grace, Justo and he doing the danzon thing, very old style Cuba, all ballrooms and ladies in white chiffon dresses. Then back into a rumba, the drums laying out that montuno rhythm from way back in the forest there where the slave drivers can’t reach, that ancient african sound at the heart of Cuban music. That’s a wild sound, an alien sound, we have nothing like it here in the States, something so unadulteratedly African. But when the congas begin you can feel the whole room tense up in anticipation, waiting for Hernandez to unleash it on piano, that driving, staccato piano line that means were in for several minutes of serious business. It was too…descargas, Cachao style, heavy Cuban jam sessions, players taking turns with burning solos, and Carlitos right there in the middle, laying down one helluva mean bass line. Me and the whole room were digging every second of it, every note, and it’s a shame it had to end but it was a Thursday and Friday morning beckoned early, sleepy mornings at work hearing Oscar Hernandez’s piano still in our heads. Latin jazz done right is soooo good, that mix of virtuosity and jazz skills that doesn’t lose the fundamentally Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythm and vibe that pumps it forward. Oscar Hernandez could write a book on that. Maybe he has.

Katia Moraes

(I can’t recall what this bio was written for…but I found a draft of it in my files)

Of all the zillions of musicians and singers and artists and songwriters and entertainers I ran into through my LA Weekly columnist gig, Katia is one of my favorites. In fact, I’d say she’s one of my top two very favorites but it might start a catfight. So we’ll just leave it as one of my very very favorites. She’s a helluva singer, an incredible live performer, and even her lyrics in that heavily accented English are wonderful. She is brilliant and intensely intellectual and way smarter than me and I hate saying that. And when a couple years ago she decided for the sheer hell of it to start writing short stories it was infuriating because she was instantaneously so goddamn good at it. In English no less, a language she has yet to master verbally, to say the least. And don’t get me started on her enthusiasm and sincerity. There isn’t  a jaded cell in that body of hers.

Not long ago she asked me to help polish up a press release. Her copy was a lugubrious mess, as often happens to people who write fiction when they try to write something as dull as a press release. I whipped it into shape quickly. Not quick enough, though, as she was on my case in a panic the moment she emailed it to me. I said call me if you have any questions. Ring ring, she’s on the phone arguing. Ten minutes later she calls again and fights me on another sentence. Then another call, another sentence. I had planned on going out and here I was spending a Friday night at home trying to teach English to an angry carioca. She argued and argued and argued. I was right on every point, of course–I mean, the English language is what I do–but I had to fight line by line anyway. Not that I wanted to argue. She did. And she gets her way.  When at last she was satisfied I swore I’d never do that again. No more writing for Katia. Of course, I had said that before. And will say again next time. She’s a writer, a helluva short story writer. I have a soft spot for writers,  especially the crazy ones.

That press release was for her tribute to Elis Regina. Katia is soooo Elis. Her voice. Her vitality. Her vivaciousness and charisma. Her mastery of the gamut of Brazilian music. The high voltage sexuality. Guys swoon. They melt. They have terrific crushes on her and can’t believe I am blessed to know her. They ask me if it would be OK if they emailed her. I laugh. She’s in show biz, man, she loves that kind of attention. Email her. And they do and then tell me that Katia answered, and are thrilled to death.

Ya know…. I probably blurbed her dozens of times in the Weekly. Ran out of adjectives. She’s that good. You don’t run out of adjectives unless they’re good.

She ought to be a super star.

Brick

Mali

A massacre in Bamako, echoing Paris. Alas, this is far from the first time in recent years that Mali has had a run in with blood mad extremists…just a couple years ago, you’ll remember, fanatics ran riot over the northern half of the country, declaring their own Islamic state, Azawad, killing and brutalizing non-believers and apostates and the unlucky, and notoriously destroying the Islamic treasures of Timbuktu. They looted the ancient university, blew up tombs, and ransacked the Islamic libraries, burning manuscripts the way conquistadores had set fire to the codices of the Aztec and Maya. They even banned music. A Mali without music seemed an impossibility, but they were quite serious about it. They said they’d cut out my tongue, a singer said after the town was freed again by Malian and French forces. The insurgents fled into the desert, haunting the mountains and the shifting dunes, moving by night, glowering, remembering, planning revenge. Continue reading

Ligia

Woke up with a tenor saxophone solo going through my head and I can’t remember whose and it’s driving me nuts. It’s just a fragment, fifteen or twenty seconds of somebody blowing something really nice. I can’t really even hear the rhythm section. I’m not one of those cats who wakes up hearing a Hank Mobley outtake and recognizing it. I know guys like that, though. Most of them are players. Jazz players know everything about jazz. Well, they don’t, not everything, but to a layman they might as well, we can’t tell the difference. The other kind are jazz critics. Not all of them, but the serious ones. The encyclopedic Scott Yanows and Don Heckmans and Kirk Silsbees and Richard Ginells and Tom Meeks et al of the jazz universe. We’d all be hanging together in the Playboy Jazz Festival press room looking expertly and the conversation would turn to jazz players, then jazz sessions, then jazz sides, then jazz solos, then outtakes. That’s when you find out that basically you’re just a glorified rock critic. I mean these guys know everything. It’s like listening to baseball fanatics rattle off stats. I’d stay quiet, then slip off and stuff the complimentary beers into my jacket pockets to take back to our seats. You weren’t supposed to take them outside but I hate rules. Give the wrong time, stop a traffic line the poet said. Once I copped a whole bottle of wine. Then went back and got another. You just can’t trust some people. That wine sure went down nice with Wayne Shorter’s set, though. Wayne was so out, I mean he didn’t give a flying fuck if the crowd liked it or not (they didn’t) and his band–Brian Blade on the drums, John Patitucci on bass, Danilo Perez on piano–were so intense, and I’d slipped into the seats they reserve for VIPs and network newsmen and beauty queens…like the beauty queen who sat next to me, in fact. Lovely. We chatted, me and Miss California. It wasn’t a bad gig, really, being a jazz critic.

Stan Getz. Obviously. Ligia. The Jobim tune. Once the guitar filtered in I recognized it. João Gilberto’s playing is so instantly identifiable. Well, it is now, though it would have spared me some annoyance if I recognized it an hour or two ago. Of course now the whole tune with guitar and bass and drums is going through my head over and over. But that’s OK, I absolutely love this take. I have it on a comp–think it’s The Lyrical Stan Getz–and not  on the original. I can hear the long solo blowing through my cerebral cortex now. There are worse earworms. Ça Plane Pour Moi, for one. You even think of that name and the infuriatingly catchy chorus will skip around inside your skull like a broken record. Like it is now, in fact. Brick, you’re an idiot.

Richard Ginnell and Scott Yanow surrounded by rich people and looking way too smart for their own good. Playboy Jazz Festival, 2011. Photo copped from scottyanow.com.