Dave Pell

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.

Dave Pell

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Kevin Kanner

(2013)

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.

5-9-2013

Saxophonery

[from a Brick’s Picks in the LA Weekly, c 2009]

We dig saxophone. Sometimes more than anything. Saxophones are sooo jazz. Almost iconic of the whole music. Trumpets were once, a long time ago, and clarinets had their sweet little run too. But Coleman Hawkins, big solid hard blowing Hawk, he put the sax up there in a spot no one has really been able to bounce it from for any serious stretch of time. Lester Young came in right after that, so spooky and perfect and lackadaisically gorgeous…if Coleman Hawkins put that boot down solid then Prez just kinda slid in like a man in his socks on a smoothly waxed floor. Then Bird just turned everything inside out with his bebop thing, stepping here and there and everywhere at once almost. You try to follow those footsteps. Just listen to a solo and try to follow it. Try. Was that work or what? Your eyes crossed, huh? And then Trane? Oh man. You put Trane’s thing on top of Bird’s thing on top of Hawk’s things and all around Prez’s thing I mean, man…..you got harmonics gone nuts, fingers going crazy, you got all that forced air rushing through that crazy saxophone (and it is crazy…look at one close up) and notes and chords flying free from that bell, making crazy patterns, and if you could see them, if the notes were different colors, they’d be filling rooms, filling whole night clubs, all squiggly flatted fifths and minor sevenths and whole bars of chords piling up everywhere. Piling up like fluff or soap bubbles, wonderful notes everywhere, just pouring out of a saxophone like some kind of crazy fountain. Think of that next time you’re sitting there in some jazz joint, the sax man blowing his ass off. Imagine all those notes. Not even the piano emits as many notes (and those would be neatly stacked or maybe scattered across the floor like shards of a glass enclosure.) Nope, it’s the sax that makes the most sound in jazz. There’s just more jazz to be heard coming out of it. Music theory this ain’t. It’s just that we dig the sax.

Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker

Coleman Hawkins blowing, Bird listening.

Lester Young

My pal Vince Meghrouni–a fine saxman himself–posted this picture of Lester Young. Vince loves Lester Young. Loves Dexter Gordon more, probably, but he loves Lester Young. It’s a haunting photograph, he’s so thin, so gaunt, really, playing for nobody but the photographer in a bare room. Just the bed, a phone, a clarinet, and a saxophonist. I asked Vince if he knew the when and where of the thing. He said sorry, he didn’t. Just one of the things plucked from Google. He just dug that it was Prez. Others liked that it was Prez too. Prez! they said. The President! Imagine that….you’ve been dead for more than half a century and people see your picture and say, simply, Prez! A nickname of a nickname transcending generations.

But it’s such a sad, haunting shot: Beautiful and sad. It looked to me to be near the end.

Lester Young--Jazz City

I dug around the web for a while, looking for answers. Turns out the photo is by Dennis Stock from a single volume collection entitled Jazz Street. You can find it but it’ll cost you, it’s a rare one. Stock was one of those post-war photographers, that New York City feel, film noir, far too early in the morning. It seemed a harder time then, at least in the cities, far from the suburbs, and photography bore that out, black and whites of blacks and whites wreathed in smoke, thinking, listening, worrying, angry. Mr. Stock shot all these jazz pics in the late 50’s, from 1957 onward. Prez died in ’59, and looked decidedly less frail in the Sound of Jazz in 1957 (playing that perfect solo for Billie Holiday) than he does here, so this is probably closer to the end, maybe 1959. He was suffering from cirrhosis (as you can plainly tell here). I heard that he lived in a flat across from one of the jazz clubs (the Vanguard?) and rarely emerged, essentially drinking himself to death. His last few official recordings from this time sound a little frail, but they still swing. I’ve got a couple live things, board recordings I think, that sound sloppy drunk, though I like them anyway.  He did a couple gigs here and there those last couple years, but wasn’t getting out of his room much.  Drink, illness, maybe mental illness, maybe all three. He made a last stand in Paris for a couple weeks in late ’59, nearly drinking himself to death in the process and probably breaking a lot of jazz lover’s hearts with that sound still coming out of that body. Dexter Gordon seems to nail that as Dale Turner in Round Midnight. Lester Young returned to NYC and did finally drink himself to death a couple days later. He was forty nine years old. They buried him somewhere in Brooklyn. It must have been one helluva funeral. Everybody would have been there, telling stories, remembering better times. Mingus wrote “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” soon afterward. A ridiculous hat, a beautiful tune. You can’t see the hat in this picture. You can’t hear the saxophone, either, but you can imagine it. You look, and if you know Lester Young’s music, your mind fills in the sound for you. It fills that whole room, a thin little man, a bed, bare walls and all that saxophone. A black and white photo and the lightest, most gorgeous tone you’ve ever heard. Perfection.

“Fine and Mellow” from The Sound of Jazz, 1957.

(Lester Young takes his solo about two minutes in. Within two years, both he and Billie Holiday were gone.)

Lawrence Welk

Wow. Lawrence Welk.

I’ve never been able to watch The Lawrence Welk Show long enough to see if that’s Eddie Miller blowing sax. But this was one of Lester Young’s favorite shows. Yes it was. He loved Perry Como too. A friend of mine lived next door to him. Every time he dropped by Prez’s pad, he was listening to a damn Perry Como 78. Listening to it over and over. Obsessed with it. Said he was trying to learn it. My friend couldn’t hear what Prez was hearing and went back upstairs and listened to bebop. I wish I knew what Perry Como song it was that Lester Young was listening to over and over. No doubt it slipped into one of those airy, lazy solos of his, perfect and gorgeous and so square but you’d never know it. Lester Young, a bottle of gin, a saxophone and this, The Lawrence Welk Show. Geniuses can be so strange.

Uh oh, the tap dancer.

One of those records nobody talks about.

One of those records nobody talks about.