First show I ever saw at Charlie O’s was the Dave Pell Octet. Mort Sahl walked in and sat at a nearby table. Pell blew long, airy solos in a set of Lester Young. This is Prez’s horn, he said. I heard Mort Sahl tell someone that Prez had left it to Pell in his will. The band was swinging, precise, beautifully charted, a lot of Shorty Rogers arrangements, very West Coast. The crowd dug it. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. Out back in the parking lot silver hairs huddled, giggling and smelling of weed. We stepped back inside just as Dave Pell counted off a perfect Lester Leaps In. He crooked the horn at an angle, shut his eyes and let the notes flow.
Rest in peace.
(LA Weekly, 2005)
On 52nd Street alto saxophonist Med Flory once gave Charlie Parker his last five dollars. Bird paid Flory back bigtime, though, when Med arranged his solos into Supersax. Bird…Med’s eyes light up. The wisecracks cease. He’s one of the kids who heard “Ko-Ko” and flipped. Parker revealed whole new dimensions, musical universes. So what if bop drove the folks away? The hell with popular shit. On this night John Heard will anchor the rhythm section, guests will sit in, Carl Saunders will play miraculous trumpet. The sets will be bop, blues, maybe a casual vocal. Med’ll sit on his beat-up sax case, take a deep breath and blow like a crazy mother, eyes wild, lost in progressions. Then, remembering it’s his 79th birthday, he’ll come up for air, wiping the sweat from his eyes. “I just love to play, man” he’ll say, as the pianist unravels the melody.
(from a Brick’s Picks in the LA Weekly, c. 2007)
The table was so close it abutted the stage, and when Azar blew that soprano of his you could look straight up into its innards and almost see the frantic rush of notes coming out all harmonized. It was that close. So close that you could feel the rhythm section, Lorca Hart’s pounding toms and John Heard’s thrumming bass and Nate Morgan’s jagged chords vibrating through the stage and through the table and into our bones. They had a groove going, a monster jazz groove, and it was unstoppable…even Azar gave into it and left the stage to let the groove whirl itself senseless, turning and turning, ever widening. Morgan’s fingers were completely mad, pounding and pirouetting insanely intricate melodies out of Monk and McCoy and the blues and Chopin. Lorca, laughing, was all motion and whirring sticks. Yet things did not fall apart, for holding down that center was Heard, just his second night back at Charlie O’s after a long, scary illness. He leaned into his instrument and laid out a perfect lattice of bass notes that held everything together as it propelled it all forward. No mere anarchy this. This was an infinite groove. This was a happening. This was jazz in all its overwhelming power, deep black music played white hot. Nothing else mattered. Not the whole crass music business, not the manufactured pop and rock and hip hop that passes for American culture anymore, not a music press that pompously elevates mass-produced trash into art. None of that mattered, not an iota. This was a Sufi moment, all the horrors of the world dispelled by the twirling monster groove. No one slouching nowhere. When at last it came to a stop, the audience, spent, exploded with applause and rushed the stage to congratulate the players like they’d won the Stanley Cup.
But then if you dig jazz you’ve been there. Moments like that don’t happen every time, but if you see enough jazz you’ll experience them. It’s one of the very last things in America, this battered America, that can take a sick and tired you and make you feel like you touched the sun. It still does what the American music industry has destroyed in almost every other music. It remains real, unpackaged, spontaneous. It’s immune to marketing campaigns and image consultants. They may have killed rock and pop and the rest, sucked them dry, but they haven’t touched jazz. Certainly not that night at Charlie O’s…for if there had been any A&R people in the audience that night, as Lee Ving once said, they certainly went and died.