Glass enclosure

Bud Powell backstage, Paris, 1959. Astonishing photograph. Jon Mayer posted this, sent to him by a fan who’d snapped the pic a half century before. Bud and Mayer shared the bill, Bud doing a set, then Jon, then Bud, then Jon. Now one of LA’s best jazz pianists, Jon Mayer was a young kid in from NYC and on top of his game, ideas coming at the speed of light, fingers flying. Bud Powell was good then too, but epileptic and post-electroshock therapy. He probably looked out on a world in two dimensions that never quite connected, un poco loco, wondering how much he had forgotten.



Pete Christlieb


Pete Christlieb was so goddam good at the Desert Rose tonite. The applause after every solo and every tune was loud and prolonged, impassioned even. I know I was transfixed…Christlieb has this huge sound, strong and muscular, and a tone you never really hear anymore. We caught the last set, and he owned that room, filled it with sound, danced around the melody like a boxer always on his toes, jabbing, pulling, throwing the sudden punch, or the slow motion sidewinder that lifts the tune right off its feet. And sometimes he was that fighter on a leisurely run down the beach, throwing jabs and dancing, one two, one two, one two three and pow. The band was so hot, Jon Mayer especially, playing like only he does, these brilliant solos like shards of blues and jazz strung out in  perfect, crazy, beautiful forms. No sweeping arpeggios for Jon Mayer, rather he breaks them up and reassembles them, like you know jazz pianists did before they were all university trained. Chris Conner was in heaven on his 180 year old bass just out of the shop–repairing that thing took two years, and when he pulled out the bow and followed Christlieb’s fiery solo you can hear just why it takes two years to revive a 180 year old bass….the thing resonated like you can’t believe. This ancient, beautiful sound quality, so rich, a perfect match to Christlieb’s own rich tone. And drummer Mark Z Stevens–this is his trio, and his  weekly gig–was so freaking tight, tighter than I’d ever heard him here, that in the pocket doesn’t do him justice. What a quartet this was.  But it was really all about Pete Christlieb, that sound, that style, that presence. Maybe a dozen or so bars in I was thinking Dexter Gordon and suddenly he’s doing Dexter doing Good Bait and I nearly fell out of my chair…a bit further on he’s quoting Sonny Rollins. And why not? He’s in their class. That’s how good Pete Christlieb is, he’s one of the greats. One of the true greats. A hundred years from now they’ll be lining up all these tenor players like gods, and Pete Christlieb will be in that pantheon. Yet  not even jazz fans in this town realize that, most of them. If they knew–if they’d seen what I just saw tonight, heard what I heard–they would know that, know what a lifetime of saxophone dominance the man has coming out of that horn, and they’d beg for the chance to sit four feet from the bell of his saxophone, eyes closed, sipping whiskey and wondering how it was that they happened to be in such a right place at such a right time. But that’s jazz, man, that’s the nature of improvisation. It just happens, and you have to be there. And I was. For that last set, I happened to be right there, in a perfect seat, with a perfect drink, in perfect company, hearing perfect jazz saxophone. Pure jazz it was, people, the purest, and it was beautiful.

The Mark Z. Stevens Trio (sometimes plus a horn, as tonight) is there every Saturday night from 7-11 p.m. at the Desert Rose, corner of Prospect and Hillhurst in Los Feliz, right across from the new Cap’n’Cork. In fact it stands on the grounds of the old Cap’n’Cork, where Ernie Kovacs bought whiskey and cigars and dreamed up his next crazy show on ABC, all proto-psychedelic and surreal and hysterically funny. I think about that every time I’m there eating one of their hamburgers or just drinking a whiskey (Irish, Kovacs preferred sour mash) and watching and listening. The food is good, the bar is full, the waitresses gorgeous, and the jazz is just fine.

(And in 2016 the Trio is still at the Desert Rose every Saturday night.)

Jon Mayer again

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.

Jon Mayer

Saw Jon Mayer last nite out in Beverly Hills. A trio gig, with rock solid down the middle Chris Conner on bass, always good, and Roy McCurdy on drums. They don’t make drummers like Roy anymore. All that power. Not Elvin Jones power, but metrical power, swinging like he swung everybody, Cannonball Adderley and everybody. Jon was playing a huge piano that was last tuned in 1967 or thereabouts but he didn’t seem to have much trouble with it. I was at Charlie O’s one nite–might have been this very same trio–and I was sitting with John Heard back at the bar. Heard was digging Mayer’s playing, totally digging it, and said Mayer was the real thing. “That’s the way they used to play” he told me, “trying stuff on the fly, taking big risks like that. Just pure creativity. They don’t do that anymore.” He said something like that, anyway, back at the bar downing a brandy, me a whiskey. We listened to Mayer working through whatever it was he was aiming at, and I got it. Heard what John Heard was hearing. Saw in Jon Mayer’s face that creative process Heard was marvelling at. Sometimes an idea wouldn’t pan out and Jon would curse to himself and strained a second to rebuild it into something that would work. Fearless improvisation, falling back on nothing but the centrifugal force of pure jazz improvisation to carry it along. It’s like Mayer doesn’t see a beautiful lattice of possible patterns, nothing he learned in school, nothing somebody else did before. That doesn’t even seem to exist to him. He’s not making art, like pianists tend to do anymore, he’s making jazz. Pure jazz. Jazz the way it was played in NYC in the 1950’s, when he was first gigging. You can imagine the heavy cats he had to play with, play for–hell, there was a session with Trane, even–back when jazz was at its absolute apogee. Those were then days that all jazz musicians look back at now as Olympian, as something jazz players now would give anything to be part of, and Jon Mayer was there, really was. You can hear it in those crazy clustered chords of his, these sensitive yet almost dissonant things he drops in where almost everyone would lay out a straight melodic line. I mean he’s not dropping any huge Monk clomps, not even dropping one handed bombs like McCoy Tyner, but instead turning the melody into pieces, oddly shaped pieces he lays out with spaces between them that distill into single notes that plash on the keys like drops of rain water. He does this even in the most gorgeous tunes, a magnificent Green Dolphin Street or something by Tadd Dameron, or something he’s drawn up himself.

I dunno, I find writing about jazz piano impossible, absolutely impossible, and I flail around looking for ways to explain something that I don’t even understand. I wrote about jazz in the LA Weekly for seven years and never did learn how to write about jazz piano. I failed again with this. But Jon Mayer’s piano playing affects me like no other, I just listen in disbelief wondering how his musical thought process works. And I wonder if anyone else in town realizes what a treasure this jazz player is, and why they aren’t lining up to see him. He’s that good.