by Scott Yanow
There are relatively few people alive who had the opportunity to see Billie Holiday (who passed away 60 years ago) perform. The play Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill, which was performed at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank, made it possible for today’s audiences to imagine what it was like.
For the Burbank production, Deidre Henry starred as Billie Holiday while joined by actor-pianist Abdul Hamid Royal (who plays piano quite well and in the correct style) and bassist James Leary. The semi-fictional but realistic show takes place in early 1959 at a Baltimore club. Lady Day is aging and ailing, both physically and emotionally. When Deidre Henry initially enters on stage, she was purposely faltering but gets stronger as she goes, getting into explaining herself to the audience. Ms. Henry really had Holiday’s phrasing down well and, although the voice that she displayed was a little stronger than Lady Day’s at that point, it was quite effective. Along with performing such songs as “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “When A Woman Loves A Man,” “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “Gimme A Pigfoot,” “Foolin’ Myself,” “Strange Fruit,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” and “Don’t Explain,” she did a lot of storytelling about Holiday’s life, inspirations and frustrations. Some of the acting was quite emotional and the Holiday character almost breaks down a few times (and came dangerously close to tripping once) while the pianist did his best to both put up with and soothe her.
It is all quite believable and while the show (written by Lanie Robertson) ends on an optimistic note, one knows that Billie Holiday did not make it much further. Hopefully this production will return to Southern California in the future. It was very well done and Deidre Henry deserves a lot of credit for her human portrayal of Billie Holiday.
Although she loved singing songs from the Great American Songbook when she was growing up, Josephine Beavers chose a more conventional life as a housewife, just singing now and then on the side for many years. However back in 1993 she had the opportunity of a lifetime, recording an album arranged and produced by her friend pianist Ed Vodicka that found her in the legendary Capitol studios joined by a large all-star orchestra. The upcoming reissue of that special music, which will be coming out in the fall, has inspired the singer to make a comeback after rarely performing during the past 30 years.
At Feinstein’s at Vitello’s, Josephine Beavers was joined by pianist Ed Vodicka, bassist Kirk Smith, drummer Kendall Kay, trumpeter Nolan Shaheed, and tenor-saxophonist Charles Owens. The rhythm section began the night with a nice relaxed and swinging version of “I’ve Got The World On A String,” the two horns made the group a quintet on Sonny Stitt’s “The Eternal Triangle,” and then Ms. Beavers began her extensive set with a joyous version of “I’ve Got A Lot Of Living To Do.” She had just begun her comeback two weeks earlier but already sounded quite comfortable and her voice was equal to how she sounded decades ago.
On such songs as “Where Or When,” a sensitive version (complete with verse) of “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” “Change Partners,” “Night And Day,” “I’ll Be Around,” a dramatic “Cry Me A River,” “’S Wonderful,” “The Good Life,” “But Beautiful,” and a voice-piano duet on “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Josephine Beavers put on a fine show, assisted by Vodicka’s excellent arrangements. The banter between the two between songs (the pianist was quite funny) added to the warm atmosphere that one felt in enjoying the comeback of Josephine Beavers.
I have seen Vitello’s performance space many times over the years under several different names and setups. It has never looked better than it does in its current version. The seats are more comfortable than before, the seating is much more logical (everyone can see the stage), and the décor is beautiful. One hopes for the success of this important room which is now being directed by Michael Feinstein.
BILL HOLMAN AND OTHERS AT BEST FROM THE WEST
The latest of the biannual jazz conventions put on by Ken Poston and the Los Angeles Jazz Institute was titled “Best From the West,” celebrating Los Angeles Jazz. There were 19 concerts over a three-day period at the Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel. I caught four sets from one day, each of which was memorable in their own way.
First, trumpeter Carl Saunders led a sextet consisting of tenor-saxophonist Jerry Pinter, the up-and-coming trombonist Ido Meshulam (doubling on bass trumpet), pianist Christian Jacob, bassist Dave Stone and drummer Steve Schaeffer. Saunders, sounding as strong and effortless as always, displayed his rare ability to hit very high notes quietly and to play endless phrases with the speed of an Arturo Sandoval. He and his group performed their brand of West Coast cool jazz on some of his originals (including one based on “Street Of Dreams”), “Blue Room,” a lowdown blues and “I Got It Bad.”
The Chris Walden Big Band was outstanding, performing its leader’s mostly straight ahead arrangements including a shouting blues, “Cherokee,” and several originals. There were many strong soloists including altoists Jeff Driskill and Kristen Edkins, and trumpeter Kye Palmer with the ensembles driven by lead trumpeter Wayne Bergeron. Also in top form was the Tom Kubis Big Band which, with Kubis on tenor and supplying arrangements, were highlighted by such numbers as “It’s A Wonderful World,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “Chelsea Bridge,” Kubis’ original samba “Rise and Shine,” an uptempo “Stella By Starlight,” and even inventive versions of “Bill Bailey” and “Pop Goes The Whistle.” Among the key soloists were trumpeters Ron Stout and Jeff Kaye, trombonist Alex Iles, and altoist Sal Lozano.
But the star of the festival was 91-year old Bill Holman. His orchestra is still arguably the best in the land and his arrangements are both remarkably complex and swinging. Still quite sharp, Holman proudly introduced his band from memory (without looking at them), only forgetting the bassist’s name until he had to glance at him. The outstanding band played his very original arrangements of Billy Strayhorn’s “Raincheck,” Thelonious Monk’s “Friday The 13th,” a dreamlike version of “Round Midnight,” “Scarborough Fair” and “The Man I Love,” none of which sounded like any other group’s versions. Among the many soloists were tenors Doug Webb and Kirsten Edkins (who had a battle on one song), altoist Bruce Babad, and trumpeter Ron Stout with Carl Saunders leading the trumpet section.
Coming up during Oct. 24-27 (at the Four Points Sheraton at LAX) for the Los Angeles Jazz Institute is an inspired idea. “World Series Of Big Band Jazz” will be celebrating earlier big bands from around the world including tributes to Quincy Jones, Michel Legrand (Legrand Jazz), the Tubby Hayes Big Band, Gil Evans, the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Orchestra, Lalo Schifrin, Dizzy Gillespie (his 1948 European tour), Stan Kenton, and Ted Heath. For more information contact 909-939-0777.
One of the world’s greatest flute players, some would say the best, Hubert Laws has been a master for over 50 years. While he has not recorded often enough as a leader during the past 20 years, he is certainly playing at his peak these days. The Jazz Bakery at the Moss Theater presented Laws and his current group which featured pianist Mitch Forman, Rob Mullins on electric keyboards, bassist John Leftwich, drummer Joey Heredia, and guest violinist Dayren Santamaria.
The night began with the lightly funky groove of “Bloodshot” which had some colorful interplay by the two keyboardists, hints of “Listen Here” at one point, and some hot flute-violin unisons. After “Stay With Me” and “Bimbe,” Laws received a standing ovation, just a half-hour into the program; he seemed visibly touched by the audience’s reaction. It was not until the fourth number, “My Time,” that violinist Santamaria was featured but she was worth waiting for, impressing everyone. Laws played piccolo on “Mean Lene” with the same fluency that he shows on flute, adding color to the music. After what might have been the first intermission ever called at the Moss Theater (it was brief), Laws stretched out on unaccompanied piccolo for five minutes, displaying his virtuosity and classical background before launching into an uptempo version of Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin.” A ballad medley of “Lament” and “My Ship” preceded the highpoint, a stirring “Malaguena” that had a particularly inventive arrangement, a beautiful blend of flute and violin, and explosive ensembles fueled by Mullins’ keyboard playing.
It was a great night of music. Someone should record this band.
One of the most significant alto-saxophonists of the past 30 years, Kenny Garrett always puts a great deal of passion and intensity into each note he plays. That was certainly true at the Moss Theater before a packed house in a performance sponsored by Ruth Price and the Jazz Bakery. With solid support and fiery moments from pianist Vernell Brown, bassist Corcoran Holt, drummer Samuel Laviso, and the colorful percussionist Rudy Bird, Brown was in top form. He started with a modal original in 6/4, got into a Pharoah Sanders late-1960s groove on the next number (his playful solo over a fairly simple chord structure hinted at Sonny Rollins in the 90s), and improvised with great fury on an uptempo original that was climaxed by five minutes of his unaccompanied playing. Other performances included a rhythmic piece on soprano-sax that ended with Miles Davis’ “Jean-Pierre,” a beautiful rendition on alto of “My Foolish Heart” that included some phrases worthy of Charlie Parker, and a 5/4 groove that had Garrett (on soprano) and Brown taking inventive solos over a one-chord vamp. The audience loved everything that Kenny Garrett played, but he did unnecessarily showboat a bit, signaling on several occasions that he wanted more applause from the audience which took away a bit from the spontaneity. Otherwise, it was a great show.
A powerful hard bop-based trumpeter from San Diego, Gilbert Castellanos has been so consistent in his career that it is easy to take him for granted. At the Moss Theater in a Jazz Bakery show, Castellanos paid tribute to the late great Kenny Dorham with a set of his compositions. Leading a group also including tenor-saxophonist Teodross Avery, pianist Joshua White, 15-year old bassist John Murray, and drummer Tyler Kreutel, Castellanos started the night with the highpoint, a version of “Philly Twist” (Dorham’s tribute to drummer Philly Joe Jones) that was so hot and exciting that it would be difficult to top. The medium-tempo boppish blues swung very hard and had inventive solos from each of the players.
During the evening, Castellanos was able to capture Dorham’s sound on the trumpet while still managing to sound like himself, Avery’s hard tone and post bop ideas fit right in, and White often stole the show with his creative and consistently surprising improvisations. Drummer Kreutel kept the music swinging (occasionally throwing in a drum roll worthy of Art Blakey) while bassist Murray showed that, even at his young age, he is ready for the big leagues. Among the other highlights of the night were “Night Watch” (which had some spectacular trumpet and a tenor-bass duet), “Lotus Blossom,” “The Fox,” and “Una Mas” although surprisingly “Blue Bossa” (Dorham’s best-known composition) was not played.
It was great to get a chance to hear some live bebop, a rarity these days.
Six months ago I saw the delightful jazz singer Carolyn Martinez perform at Catalina’s Bar & Grill. Recently she came back and barely repeated any of the songs from the earlier show while performing at the same high level. She was joined by pianist Bill Cantos (who also took a few vocals), bassist John Leftwich, drummer Michael Shapiro, and guest tenor Doug Webb.
After an instrumental version of “Star Eyes,” Ms. Martinez was in top form on such numbers as “The Song Is You,” “Call Me,” “I’m In The Mood For Love” (which started as a duet with bassist Leftwich), “Better Than Anything,” “The Look Of Love,” and “So Many Stars”; the latter had some particularly warm tenor from Webb. Her vocal duet with Cantos during “On The Street Where You Live” was quite memorable and featured some exciting harmonizing. Add in “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” and a version of “Sentimental Journey” on which Carolyn Martinez sang very similar to Doris Day, and one had another memorable evening. Hopefully she will get around to finally recording sometime in the near future.