Zach Harmon

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

Zach Harmon is back on the drum kit at the Foundry on Melrose (between Vista and Gardner) every weekend. That’s a way cool thing, since we dig the way he plays. It’s different, for sure. His toms lay almost level, his cymbals are oddly placed way too close to each other and just a hair above the rims of those toms. He even sits different. He doesn’t sound like other jazz drummers. His rolls sound different and look different. He accents weird, he stomps the bass weird, his bombs drop in the oddest places. His solos—and man, can the kid solo—are like rolling, splattering waves of ferocious intensity that taper off into almost nothingness and then explode back into life so loud it scares people. We even heard a story about him using a samurai sword to sweep across the cymbals, making terrifying clangs and looking a Wisconsin farm boy gone berserk. Of course he can swing, of course he can be a beautiful accompanist on a vocal gig. He can do all that. But you really need to see him let loose, playing just the way he wants to play. On those warm nights when the Foundry leaves the French doors open you can literally hear him solo for blocks up and down Melrose. He drives those trios, drives them hard. Hell, he’s the only drummer we’ve ever seen give Tigran Hamasyan a run for his money. Of course it turns out he’s got another gig Friday (see below) so someone else will be on drums that night with the brilliant young pianist Mahesh Balasooriya, a cat whose feel for jazz at the roots—you should hear him on a blues—is so utterly natural he sounds like he’s played this stuff for fifty years. Harmon’s there Saturday, though, with pianist Otmaro Ruiz. They’ll be throwing ideas and riffs at each other at a pace that will test the strength and willpower of bassist Matt Cory. The Foundry can be noisy, but we love this place, there’s a bar three feet from the stage, amazing grilled cheese sandwiches, a young vibe, and dames like you don’t see in jazz joints ever. Free, too.

Tigran Hamasyan

Oh wow, I’d forgotten this one. It’s from 2008, only a few months before the Wall Street apocalypse that pretty much wiped out the old L.A. jazz scene. I’d written a longish review of a Tigran Hamasyan show as the lede of a Brick’s Picks column and it made an unexpected splash, splashing as far as Armenia (via Glendale) and I got a call from the Armenian Reporter asking if I could do an expanded version for their paper. The money was several times what I received from the LA Weekly. Plus it’d also appear in the Yerevan edition and I could stare at a column with my byline and a completely incomprehensible alphabet. I’d walk the streets of Glendale with my head held high. I’d be one hip dude in Fresno.  The link is long gone, though. As is the paper. As is the whole jazz world I lived in then. Gone. Just memories.

But goddam those were the days. I’d jump in my fancy car and hit two or three clubs a night. Do that a couple nights a week. There were that many clubs and that many players and that much action.  It was a whole different vibe then, with no cover charges and four sets a night and you could come and go as you pleased. People spent cash and credit like it was going out of style, which it did, come that autumn. That was a fall that really fell, man. That jazz scene — my jazz scene — never recovered. Jazz became an untenable business model. It’s back now, but so different. Hefty cover charges and strict show times, and that link between the players and patrons is sundered. No longer can you banter with the musicians on stage or even off, you can’t or heckle no matter how good naturedly, you can’t even wander up and drop a ten spot into the tip jar after the greatest sax solo you’ve ever heard. Don’t even think of calling out a request. It’s a Jazz Bakery world now, very formal. It’s art and concerts and  deadly serious and no talking it’s a shame. For me, anyway. I feel vaguely uncomfortable with all the seriousness. I miss the intimacy of the old dives, and hanging out between sets at the end of the bar cracking wise with the players eyeing the women. Yeah it was low brow, sometimes, and no, it wasn’t Art in a formal sense. It was jazz, real jazz. Informal, spontaneous, nearly always great and sometimes, like this Tigran gig, absolutely brilliant.

Claude Nobs and jazz legend Quincy Jones were at an event in Hollywood recently, reminiscing about their years putting on the annual Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Someone asked Nobs (he’s the “funky Claude” sung about in “Smoke on the Water”) about the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition held there recently.  The two had been judges, and Nobs remembered that all the young contestants had all played piano so beautifully, showing off their Thelonious Monk, you know, or Herbie Hancock or Bud Powell, each performing one of the master’s tricks. But there was one very young man, Nobs said, Tigre–and he stumbled on the name—who was completely original. Jones agreed. They’d never seen anything quite like him before. The ideas, the technique, the whole approach to the piano and the music—it was all so unique. The originality of genius perhaps. This young man has that. Nobs sighed and shook his head. Just can’t recall the name. Tigre-something. You people here, he’s lives here, you must know the name….

You mean Tigran Hamasayan?

Yes! That’s it! Oh man….if you haven’t yet you must see this young man play the piano! Continue reading