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.
Damn, I wish I could get that Dexter Gordon tone in my writing. You can feel the reed vibrating between your teeth, a big man’s sound that fills the room, every corner, every crevice, the ceiling to the floor and even reverberates in shot glasses and empty beer bottles. Toward the solo’s end it disappears out the lowest register of the horn and the pads close on air, then silence. Fried bananas, he sez, very tasty.
[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.
(Writing about Gil Bernal, from 2009. Sometimes if it was a slow week, not much to write about, I could give a couple hundred words to someone I dug in particular. I’d just seen Gil and he nailed me, the night, vibe, tone and feel were so on, and it came out in the next week’s column. Somewhere I have the email I got from him afterward. It was cool when you’re inspired by someone enough to stretch like this which in turn inspires them even more. It’s a rare thing when jazz and words come together like that, each feeding off the other, on the same plane, in the same groove, that primordial space where music and language both evolved, making people people.)
We’ve also got to pick Gil Bernal at the Café 322 on Friday. Sure it’s not his quintet, just a loungy trio (with drummer Billy Paul sounding nice as usual), and Gil sings some for the folks, but when he picks up that horn and blows it takes you back. Not the chops so much as the sound, a big fat tone, pure, solid. No one plays like that anymore, that Lester Young thing, or that Dexter Gordon sound from those later European releases when Dex was stoned 24/7 and anyone stoned 24/7 would pick up some of that Prez feel…but jazz musicians don’t stay high all day and all night anymore, and that languid bluesy muscular ever so sad vibe is gone, such a shame. But they live longer and play a lot longer, so you get a cat like Gil Bernal blowing strong into his 80’s. But sometimes you long for that old sound, rooted in the time before be bop, more relaxed, more easy, less notes, more feel, maybe, when a man could hit the stage at eleven and play till dawn almost, when there was so much more time for solos to work themselves out and what’s the hurry? Gil Bernal’s sound has some of that. He leans back on the stool and eases a blues out of the horn and lets it flow, the band stepping back, the thing wafting through the room, filling it, and the jazzbo’s in the joint just freeze. The bartender pours you another Jamesons. Damn a reefer would go good right now. Someone says something but you don’t hear it. You don’t hear any words at all. All you hear is that horn.