There was the night about a decade ago that I was hanging out at Hollywood & Highland with a multi-Grammy winning pal and then sharing a table at a jazz dive with three other Grammy winners watching an Oscar winning pal playing some terrific saxophone. At the time, tho’, that didn’t seem anything special. I don’t know if that sort of jazz scene exists anymore, cool digs where Grammy winners and brilliant musicians and stoners and writers and fans and movie stars mix together like it was the most natural thing in the world, and the music cooked and sometimes was so in the pocket that the murmur of voices and laughter subsided completely as a saxophonist reached the essence of a melody and then released it into the ether with a final drawn out breath.
(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….
Uh oh. Nobody emote. You might weird out this Scandinavian piano trio on ECM. Not exactly Bud Powell or Monk, this stuff. Is this what a century of peace, socialism and drunken blonde sex culminates in? It’s so careful. So tentative. So pretty. It’s good, sure, but I never liked Bergman movies either.
Finland I can understand, but they’re not Scandinavian in anything but propinquity. They’re more like an Estonia’s hip, rich uncle. Or the people on the nice side of town pretending they are not distant cousins of those crazy Hungarians in the trailer park. (Finnish has fifteen cases, Hungarian twenty eight, now that’s crazy.) But I understand the Finns, I think, mainly because I can’t understand then. I mean they’re loud, party too hard, love hockey and crazy rock’n’roll and hate when people push them around. That I can understand. I just can’t understand what they are saying. Now Swedes, Norwegians, Danes I could understand fairly easily, would be conversant in a year’s time. Might even get to like lutefisk. But Finnish? I mean just how many ways can you say potato? Which reminds me that I was at a fun Finnish party once, above a sauna. They made greyhounds in a huge bucket and didn’t tell any of the girls–they invited mostly girls–that it was Everclear (jet fuel in a bottle) and not vodka. The poor things got smashed. One pretty little blonde–they invited mostly blondes–got her foot stuck in a waste basket and stumped around for a moment, bewildered, the most darling Jerry Lewis you ever saw. The Finns laughed and said potato fifteen different ways. Great party, but we left before the orgy in the sauna.
The computer is shuffling its little brain out and switches from Sven Svensson or whoever to Tania Maria. Piquant. It’s on Concord and is about as far from the ECM label as Rio is from Flekkefjord or Bodø. Sunny Brazil. Brazilians I can understand. They’re crazy, for one thing. I understand crazy. And everything they do there could possibly wind you up in bed or in prison. I understand horny and dangerous, too. And they have the best music. Some of the worst music, too (it’s too bad the military didn’t ban Arp synthesizers when it banned everything else), but also some of the best. Tania Maria is riffing up a storm here, pounding the piano with almost Monk like muscularity, such strong little fingers she must have, and the melody flows this way and that, like a borboletta going from flower to flower. Hips sway, undulate, go backwards, then that way, then the other way, and finally two steps forward. Uh oh, dig that bass. It’s huge. Now she’s doing a cuica with her voice, and the cuica is doing the voice beneath crazy hand clapped syncopation. Repeated figures on the piano, building and building. Now more of the clapping,and the cuica voices and voiced cuicas, and a pile of overdubbed vocals in ways that would just confuse and frighten Scandinavians. I hear they dig this in Finland, though. If they can say potato fifteen or twenty different ways, who knows how many ways there are to say samba. It’s so much simpler in Brazil. You say potato, eu digo batata.
Ran into Kevin Kanner last nite. Apparently he’s in town for a brief spell. We reminisced and bitched and told stories you don’t repeat. That guy is such a great jazz drummer. And I mean jazz drummer. You could drop him into a Blue Note session two generations ago and he would swing those mothers like mad. He’s just got that thing, that blues thing, deep down, that goes back all the way to the beginning. He could play with Louis Armstrong in Chicago, I think, or with Lester Young in Kansas City. He could fill in for Jimmy Cobb or Tootie Heath or Art Taylor–especially Art Taylor–in a hard bop New York City. He wouldn’t play like them, he wouldn’t copy them–that’s not what jazz is about, mimicry–but he sure the hell could sit in when they had to sit out for some jazz player’s reason or another, better left unsaid. He could sit in and swing, really swing, and the cats would turn around and nod, just nod, and he’d know he was in the groove, in the pocket, solid. That’s Kevin Kanner. He’s back in New York City now, where his playing always fits in somewhere, uptown, downtown, Brooklyn, wherever the music is cooking. He’s doing well, since he plays more like a New York drummer, and less like one of our own. The players swing back there and experiment out here. Well they experiment back there too, obviously (that’s where it started!), but they also swing hard, way hard, which seems passé among the new jazz generation in L.A. The state of the art here in downtown is just that, art, which is kind of ironic since swinging Kevin Kanner pretty much kickstarted the whole scene when he brought his weekly jam session east from the Mint. It grew and grew into something world class out here, that Blue Whale scene, daring and innovative and full of everything but the old school. Everything but the blues. What would Ray Brown say? Kanner asked once, and apparently Ray Brown would have said go to New York. Which he did. Other drummers, like Zach Harmon and Dan Schnelle and Tina Raymond, filled in nicely and were more attuned to the new vibe. They can be wild or textured or subtle or ethnic and in Harmon’s case especially, absolutely brilliant. They can switch time like you or I switch socks. Which wasn’t Kevin’s thing. Not at all.
I miss him out here, not just because he’s such a swell cat but because when he was behind the kit you’d have no worries at all that this shit was gonna lag, gonna stumble, gonna transform into crazy meters and advanced music theory. No, it’ll just be jazz. That’s all. Just jazz. That’s Kevin Kanner. Just jazz.
Last night the wife sez let’s go to Vibrato. It’s way the hell up in Bel Air, where you spend money not even spending money, and there are rich people all around you, balding and important and trophy-wived. Chuck Manning was there with bass and drums, a sax trio, pure jazz, one of those set ups where it’s noisy no matter what you do. It brought out all the Joe Henderson in him, and he wailed nicely, crazy torrents of notes that sailed over the heads of the rich people and bounced off their wine glasses till even they noticed and applauded. The jazzers in the crowd dug it. Loose limbed straight ahead is a hard find in this town anymore. We sat at the bar and talked to the bartender who plays weirdo punk rock on his own time, unbeknownst to the rich people, and pretty waitresses walked by with platters of food that cost more than one of my car payments. It was sticky with humidity even inside, where the vast space between the diners and the ceiling renders air conditioning moot on these Jersey-like summer nights. We sat still and drank and listened. A “Listen Hear” got the crowd moving, swaying balding heads, trophy wives jiggling and jingling. I wish I could remember the title of the next tune but the house bassist Pat Senatore and drummer Kendall Kay locked into a groove that got people really excited. They cooked right through to the end, with a hard bop finish. You think saxophone trios and it always comes down to Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard, blowing Caravan for half an hour. This had those moments. It being a restaurant, you can only go so far, Sonny circa 1957 would scare the nice people now. Those were crazy times–crazy places, crazy people, crazy music. Now we take what we can get. And if Chuck Manning can get away with some intense blowing at Vibrato–even though to him it was a cake walk, nothing special–then we’ll take it. Jazz is a special thing, harder and harder to find. And when I find some like this–off the cuff, unplanned, going with the flow–I dig it. Totally.
We’ll be on the Westside again today, though this time it’s a pig roast full of heavy metal guys and intellectuals. Ya never know in this town.
(Brick’s Picks, LA Weekly, 2006)
Sometimes it must seem like we’re rattling off the same names here week after week, but what so special about jazz (or any improvisational music) is that you’re never seeing the same thing twice. That’s the whole point of the stuff. A player might call out the same damn tune every week, but it won’t sound the same as it did the week before, or the week before that, or the week coming up. And more than likely several players across town are calling out the same damn tune on the same night, but once past the head (that is, the patch of melody at the beginning that you’ll recognize) it’s all unexplored country. A more educated writer could explain how and why, but we’ll just say that while you need to know that stuff to play the things, you don’t need it at all to hear it, and to dig it. Just listen as a soloist spins a story through his horn. It might be the prettiest thing you ever heard, or the bluesiest, the saddest, the strangest, the most romantic, the most visceral. But if you listen to it, and then feel it…you’re on to something. You’re on to digging what is to be a jazz fan, and just how good it feels to me moved by a solo, or be amazed at how players—the people on piano, bass, drums, the horns—make interweaving patterns, vibrant dynamic things, sounds you can almost see unfolding before you, and how they all come back together again at the head, that is where the melody of the tune suddenly reasserts itself. And that is the coolest damn thing.
(Brick’s Picks, LA Weekly, 2006)
And we’ve been hipped to a couple books that’d make some cool xmas gifts ideas. Bari blowing/beatnik looking/mystery writing Skoot Larson’s The No News is Bad News Blues is a fun read; his trumpet playing, hard drinking, weed smoking, record collecting accidental detective Lars Lyndstrom stumbling into a terrorist plot. Fans of Bill Moody’s Evan Horn books will dig it. Moody’s tighter and leaner, but Larson’s storytelling is like a free ranging live jazz session. And if you know San Pedro (or Oslo) at all you will love the settings. Peter Levinson’s Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ in a Great Big Way is a terrific read. The Big Band Era was a whole ‘nother universe, and don’t fall for the “innocent times” stuff our parents/grandparents dropped on us. These guys lived hard, played hard, worked hard, fought hard and (in Dorsey’s case) died hard. The book bear up the legend: T.D. was not an easy man to know, let alone play for (or worse yet, be married to.) But he sure could play some pretty trombone. Those were amazing times, with the music, the arrangers, the tours, the War, the movie stars, the kids, the dancing, the partying, and the segregation and desperate poverty that so many players, white and black, Irish and Jew, rose from. Levinson’s energetic prose brings the era vividly back to life.