Infinite groove

(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.

Azar Lawrence

Azar Lawrence

Derrick Finch

Listening to Jackie McLean’s Old and New Gospel. Ornette’s demented trumpet here reminds me of the time I was down on Degnan in Leimert Park going back and forth between the World Stage and Sonny’s Spot. There was some pretty Ornettish trumpet blowing going on at Sonny’s, though I think they were aiming for Miles. It’s a difficult instrument, the trumpet.  I headed back to the World Stage where Azar Lawrence was blowing his head off on tenor, utterly mad, and the vibe in the room got really deep. Nate Morgan’s hands ran blue pirouettes across the keys, crazy and beautiful and perfect. Afterward Derrick Finch sat at the piano and man, what a player. A lot of that old stride in his style that night. Richard Grant picked up his muted trumpet and played some absolutely gorgeous horn. Beautiful player. There was a fast “Autumn Leaves”. A Miles tune. Some others. Bass player joined in for one before splitting.  Then as a duo again they worked out two ballad interpretations: “Giant Steps” and “Confirmation”. Finch finally had to leave and the few of us left in the room walked outside. We hung out front on the sidewalk a bit, Finch talking about his jazz hopes and dreams. Big dreams. This was before the recession and everything seemed possible. Then it was time to go. As we were getting into our cars, you could hear Grant in there alone, blowing another “Autumn Leaves” into the empty room.

Derrick Finch handed me his business card that night. I just found it again, by chance, digging through a desk drawer. It brought all this back. I pulled it out of the drawer and tucked it into a folder full of obituaries and memorials, then put it aside. Things stuck in folders tend to be forgotten. But every time I drive east on the I-10, past the wind farms and Palm Desert and into all that nothingness, I’ll remember that card, and that conversation, and Richard Grant blowing the saddest, loneliest “Autumn Leaves” you ever heard.

(First paragraph was from 2005…the second added in  2009, after Finch’s death in a car accident near Palm Springs.)