L.A. Jazz Scene 2008: Alive and Swingin'
Later in the set, Harper and company performed "Africa Revisited," a song dedicated to Coltrane. Bassist Louis Spears joined the band in creating that heavy, rhythmic pulse from Coltrane's memorable Africa/Brass Sessions (1961). Henderson's bright, bluesy trumpet revealed an inner ease and confidence honed by years of practice and performance. No need for rapid-fire trumpet pyrotechnics, feeling and nuanced personal expression constitute his mature style. Then Harper's tenor, alternating between cries of hunger and sighs of peace, expressed a full range of human emotion, while the band rejoined him to take the tune out.
Harper's long overdue gig at the Jazz Bakery provided Angelenos a rare chance to hear a great but woefully under-recorded artist in his prime. Equally rare was Henderson's appearance in Los Angeles. Harper and Henderson, both great musicians, both deserving of greater recording and performing opportunities.
Practice Pays Off
Van Nuys, California
July 18, 2008
Azar Lawrence, the saxophone master who has returned to the jazz scene after a too long hiatus, strode into Charlie O's, tenor sax in hand, nearly 15 minutes late. When I asked him if he'd been stuck in traffic, Lawrence replied, "I was practicing and lost track of time." He then proceeded to demonstrate to the intimate club's enthralled listeners that practice, indeed, pays off.
Lawrence opened the evening with an unrestrained intensity and power that threatened to ignite the parched San Fernando Valley hills. On John Coltrane's "Impressions," Lawrence, joined by Theo Saunders (piano), Onaje Murray (vibes), Jeff Littleton (bass) and the ageless drum master, Roy McCurdy, took off on a flight of Trane-inspired, heat-generating improvisation.
On "Afro-Blue," Lawrence picked up his soprano, and, if it was possible, raised the level of intensity. Rocking back and forth, chorus after chorus of notes came flooding forth from Lawrence's horn. Theo Saunders, equally possessed by Coltrane's spirit, pounded the ivories like a jackhammer, as he matched Lawrence note for note. Murray soloed next, moving back and forth over the vibraphone, like a frenzied dervish. McCurdy drove the band relentlessly, like an engineer feeding coal into a train's burning belly, while Littleton laid down the bass foundation.
Finally, Lawrence slowed the pace, playing "Say It Over and Over," another song famously recorded by John Coltrane. Lawrence's tenor blew romantic tones, revealing the wide range of his musical sensibility. And the audience sighed collectively, overwhelmed by the music's lush warmth.
Azar Lawrence exploded onto the jazz scene at a tender and all too vulnerable age. By the time he turned 21, he was touring and recording with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Miles Davis. Unfortunately, his meteoric rise to the top of the jazz pyramid proved too dizzying, and Lawrence veered away from his true musical path in life. Happily, the Spirit has redeemed him. In the last two years, Lawrence has been making up for lost time. He's recorded two of his own CDs, has been sitting in with old friends like McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders, and leading his own bands in the Southland from Long Beach to Van Nuys, and back East in New York and Washington,D.C.
Today, Azar Lawrence burns like a bright, hot flame at the altar of his muse. Given the ever-present fire danger in the Southland, a fire truck should remain on call when Lawrence blows.
L.A.'s Good Fortune
Culver City, California
November 12-15, 2008
November couldn't have gotten off to a better start. First, in the wake of Barack Obama's historic victory, the venal Republicans have crawled off to hide under a rock. Then, the summer heat belatedly but mercifully relaxed its stranglehold on the Southland. And finally, two long years since his last appearance here, the incendiary Sonny Fortune opened a 4 night gig at Culver City's jewel of a non-profit music venue, the Jazz Bakery.
Fortune, although admittedly exhausted from travel and lack of sleep, hit the bandstand running. This dynamic, master, multi-instrumentalist (these days he's tripling up on alto and soprano sax, as well as concert flute) is too much of a professional to give less than 100%. Ably assisted by a well-rested, local rhythm section of Theo Saunders (piano), Henry "the Skipper" Franklin (bass), and the ageless, redoubtable Roy McCurdy (drums), Fortune treated the sparse but enthusiastic opening night audience to his volcanic, post-bop musical offerings.
The saxophonist opened his show with Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." Played up-tempo, torrents of notes flooded the room from his soprano. Cascading soulful beauty in their wake, Theo Saunders' fingers raced across the piano keys.