Pete Christlieb


On Friday Henri’s in Canoga Park was cooking.  The John Hammond Trio–with Jim Hughart on bass, Ralph Penland drums—has been together a helluva long time, and they play like a real unit…to top it off, tenor sax ace Pete Christlieb has been playing with them for a long time now, probably for hundreds of hours.  They come together for some pretty intricate ensemble like arrangements that you just won’t see in most clubs.  It’s an older, more relaxed style of jazz, some classic Blue Note feeling, and then sometimes it reminds me of even older sessions, like the feeling that is on that Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio record.  Reaching back, these guys, to Prez and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.  Christlieb is just a superb saxophonist…he sits there on a stool between solos grinning and bouncing about like an oversized cherub,  and then he picks up his horn again and blows these long, bluesy cadenzas just packed with ideas, and then suddenly sails into an effortless–my vocabulary is failing me here–an effortless flight that just fills the room with so much energy.  And he makes it seem so easy.  I had been listening to that record he did with Warne Marsh, Apogee, on the way out there and damn if he didn’t quote it once or twice.  Christlieb with Hammond and his trio is yet another absurdly underrated jazz experience that this city offers, and they seem to play at least weekly.

The seventies

Saw a Tonight Show late last night from the late seventies. My god look at those ties my wife said. Johnny Carson was uptight, mildly paranoid, his timing off, the monologue died in a series of unfunny Jimmy Carter jokes. It was hot today he said. How hot was it shouted an audience member. Shut up! Johnny yelled back. Ed was laughing hysterically as each flop followed the other. Carnac the Magnificent began with Johnny fluffing the trip schtick so he nearly fell and then blowing the delivery of the lines. Again, Ed laughed all the harder. Out came the first guest, Tony Curtis, is a flaming white disco outfit and so buzzed he radiated paranoia. He stood, frozen, as the audience applauded and unable to think of what to do he nearly saluted. He walked over stiffly, introduced himself to Johnny with a formal handshake, then to Ed, and sat down and gave an interview so coke freaked it was uncomfortable to watch. Johnny wasn’t much better. Tony was not exactly at the peak of his career in 1978 and was promoting The Bad News Bears Go To Japan. One got the impression he did not like children. The clip shown was Tony explaining to a five year old why people get naked when having sex. These were obviously the pre-McMartin preschool days.

Next guest was Steve Landesberg. He comes out supercharged, rubbing his nose, and delivers a rapid fire series of jokes and random ethnic accents at an adenoidal high volume shout, and looking coke dazed each time the audience laughed. Then he strutted over to his chair where he and a slightly more relaxed Johnny and Tony began a strange conversation that veered back and forth, everyone stepping on each others lines, Landesberg doing assorted foreign accents way too loud, and all having a very excited good time. Next up was Bess Armstrong, very cute and a little too chemically edgy and funny but not quite as high strung as Tony or Steve. She said she was from Baltimore. BALLIMER!!! shouts Steve. Tony makes an unannounced trip backstage. Returned very excited. All four were having a grand old time talking and joking and laughing way too loud at the wrong time. Oddly, though, even with the combination of coked out Tony Curtis and Steve Landesberg and a pretty young single actress it never got dirty. Not even a little bit. Not even after that Bad News Bear clip. Then came the very charming and witty eighty-nine year old Merie Earle. No wonder it never got dirty. Grandma was in the house. Tony, Steve and Bess froze, completely silent. Not a peep till Johnny winds up her interview (which was the only coherent part of the night) and Steve shouts out something random in a loud Puerto Rican accent. As the credits rolled, Pete Christlieb (probably, from the tone anyway) took off on a gorgeous saxophone solo.

Ya gotta love the seventies.

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.)

Warne Marsh

A buddy of mine was smoking a jay with Warne Marsh outside Donte’s after the last set. Warne said hey man, you think you could spot me a joint for tomorrow’s gig? Sure man, love to. Turned him onto to a very nice bomber. Next night Warne died on stage, sax in hand, just like that. Warne was stoned, he was playing, he was gone. Poof. It was sad, but it was jazz. My pal explained it to me…ya see, I turned him onto his last high. Yeah man, I said, wow. My friend said well sure, you get it, but a lotta straights might think that’s fucked up, Warne Marsh being dead and everything…but I think it’s kinda cool. I mean he died with his boots on. He died stoned. He died blowing beautiful stoney solos. Damn man, what else could you want?  I said I did think it was kinda cool. Yeah, my friend said, that’s what Warne’s compadres were saying. They said dying flying blowing has gotta be the way to do it. Warne was no dummy. Wasn’t nobody’s fool. Makes sense to me, I said. My friend nodded, concentrating on the joint he was rolling. You have any Warne Marsh records? I pulled out one of the sessions with Lee Konitz, and Warne is weaving around Lee’s airy lines, and my pal takes a deep drag off that freshly rolled joint and closes his eyes and I think he’s back at Donte’s. He hands me the joint. I declined. I gotta drive, I said. So I remained in the now listening to a record, while he slipped into a Warne Marsh space. He held up the joint. This is some good shit man, tightly rolled, slow and steady burning. He sounded like an old Lucky Strike commercial, though I didn’t know if he meant the weed or Warne. Or both. I took a deep breath and got a second hand taste. Wow. I closed my eyes and there was Warne. Just like that. Magic. A marijuana time machine. The vinyl spun and the analog music was right there, like real. Those grooves grooved, man. Warne takes off. I could almost see the golden bell of his horn. My friend’s pot smoke weaved around my head. I leaned back and listened.

It’s years later now and I’m digging Apogee as I type this, and if I had a jay right now I’d be at this session too, watching and listening. I don’t. But Pete Christlieb and Warne Marsh are dancing around each other on Magna-Tism, the student giving the teacher a run for his money. Damn.

Lee Konitz blowing, Warne Marsh waiting, Al Levitt on traps. Somewhere in Holland c. 1976.