By Scott Yanow
The good news is that for the first time since 2019, there are concerts scheduled at the Hollywood Bowl with the performances beginning on July 3. Everyone has missed going to the beautiful and historic venue.
The bad news is that this year’s lineup, from the jazz standpoint, is the worst in decades. Jazz is almost entirely absent and one wonders why Herbie Hancock, the LA Phil’s Creative Chair for Jazz, is doing such a poor job.
If one thinks that is an unfair criticism, here is the schedule for “Jazz Plus,” the Wednesday night so-called jazz lineup: Ledisi (July 24), Dave Koz and Tower Of Power (Aug. 8), Sergio Mendes (Aug. 15), and Herbie Hancock (Sept. 26). With the exception of the Hancock show (nice of him to book himself!), even Sherlock Holmes could not find any jazz at the Hollywood Bowl this year.
For those who might think that no one in jazz could possibly fill the seats, I suggest such obvious names as Diana Krall, George Benson, and Harry Connick Jr. for a start. Why not have a jazz singer’s night with Dianne Reeves or Manhattan Transfer plus a pair of up-and-coming vocalists? Why not try a big band evening with Gordon Goodwin and two other ensembles, or perhaps all-star tributes to Chick Corea and Miles Davis?
The Hollywood Bowl in their press releases have yet to mention the obvious cancellation of this year’s Playboy Jazz Festival. Perhaps they should hire someone who considers jazz to be important.
A LIVESTREAM REVIEW OF A C LEWIS’ HIP POCKET
Drummer, percussionist, composer, and marimba player AC Lewis has had quite a wide-ranging career, performing classical music with various symphony orchestras (including the San Francisco Symphony), contemporary chamber music, ethnic and World music, rock, and jazz, and leading the A C Lewis Trio and his group HipPocket. He has also been an influential educator for 35 years
On April 23, Lewis led a particularly colorful and inventive performance by HipPocket, an ensemble that he calls a “polymetric African-rock-jazz-classical septet.” The group consists of A C Lewis and John Hanes on drums and marimbas, Will Berg on tenor, alto and flute, tuba virtuoso Zachariah Spellman, Christina Simpson on viola, guitarist Barry Finnerty, and bassist Aaron Germain.
The music that they performed during two continuous sets was often tightly composed but also left room for improvisations and was full of variety. The harmonies and the blend between the frontline of Berg’s horns, viola and tuba were quite colorful, the performance covered a variety of moods, and the music always held onto one’s interest. Lewis’ polymetric concept, which often found the musicians playing in different rhythms and time signatures simultaneously, worked quite well and kept the music fresh and unpredictable.
The first five numbers were performed without pause and included transitions between the songs. It began with a mixture of Hanes’ “I’m Fryin’” and a 1962 instrumental by Joe Meek called “Telstar” that introduced the unique ensemble. “Sleep Sara” (based on a Shona Mbira melody and written for Lewis’ daughter when she was six months old) featured a childlike melody played by Lewis and Hanes on a shared marimba. They were gradually joined by the others with viola, alto and tuba playing beautifully behind the marimba during a peaceful and picturesque performance. A drum interlude that had Lewis and Hanes having a musical conversation with each other led into “Garner,” a polymetric piece that featured several rhythms and time signatures being played at once. Spellman displayed his virtuosity on tuba, speaking through his horn and utilizing multiphonics and circular breathing. “Garner” evolved into “Ghana,” a complex piece that featured a repeated eccentric rhythmic phrase, the viola soloing over the pattern, and many different ideas and colorful voices overlapping with each other. “Ghana” gradually faded away and was replaced by Maceo Parker’s “Doin’ It To Death,” an assertive and dominating theme that repeated regularly while building up in passion with Berg’s alto improvising on top as the ensemble almost sounded like a big band. It was a fitting conclusion to the suite.
The second half of the performance began with “The New Normal,” a through-composed Lewis piece that was written the night that he lost his first gig due to the Covid lockdown. Starting with Berg’s unaccompanied tenor, it then became a moody ballad that evolved into a medium-tempo piece with different overlapping patterns and instrumental voices. While dense it was also strangely danceable, ending peacefully and with a little bit of optimism. “Oyob” had a pattern being played on the marimba by Lewis and Hanes over pretty horn harmonies. Berg took the lead for a time on flute with the viola adding to the color in the background and the other musicians contributing attractive sounds and ideas. The atmospheric original eventually went back to focusing on the marimba. After that piece faded out, the performance concluded with the Colombia cumbia “La Pollera Colora.” Guitarist Finnerty made percussive sounds, Germain played a sliding pattern on his bass, and the two drummers interacted with each other. The piece had a military feel but was also danceable and a bit celebratory with Finnerty’s guitar flying over the ensemble at its conclusion.
The music performed by A C Lewis’ HipPocket was so memorable that I wish I could view the performance again. Be sure to catch this very original ensemble whenever you have the chance.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG ON MOSAIC
The Mosaic label, which is famous for its definitive limited-edition box sets of jazz greats, recently released boxes featuring Louis Armstrong and Joe Henderson. The Henderson set will be reviewed in the near future.
The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946-1966 is a seven-CD set organized by Ricky Riccardi (who has written two superb books on Armstrong’s career) that is overflowing with gems. The first two CDs have the great trumpeter-singer’s “singles” from the 1946-66 period. Most of the music dates from 1946-47 and serves as a transition between Satch’s big band and his formation of his All-Stars. While a dozen selections are the last recordings by Armstrong’s orchestra, of greatest interest are his small-group sides which include two numbers with the 1946 Esquire All-Stars, four with trombonist Vic Dickenson and clarinetist Barney Bigard (highlighted by “I Want A Little Girl” and “Sugar”), three songs with trombonist Kid Ory from the film New Orleans (including the earliest version of “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans”), and sessions from June 10 and Oct.16, 1947 that have Armstrong joyfully interacting with trombonist-singer Jack Teagarden. On “Jack-Armstrong Blues,” Satch takes his finest recorded solo of the 1940s (five exciting choruses that build and build) and other highpoints include “Rockin’ Chair,” “Fifty-Fifty-Blues,” the initial recording of “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” “A Song Was Born,” and “Please Stop Playing Those Blues Boys.” Also on the first two CDs are a feature for trombonist Trummy Young on “Tain’t What You Do,” one of the better versions of “Back O’Town Blues,” two numbers (“Cabaret” and “Canal Street Blues”) from 1966, and both versions of 1955’s “Mack The Knife” (one with Lotte Lenya sharing the vocal) plus many alternate takes.
The other five CDs on this box contain all of the music (with a large number of alternate takes) from Armstrong’s top two albums of the 1950s (Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats) and his unique collaboration with Dave and Iola Brubeck (The Real Ambassadors). Producer George Avakian had originally spliced together the best parts of numerous performances by the Armstrong All-Stars (with Trummy Young and Barney Bigard) for the Handy and Fats Waller tribute albums. The Mosaic set is programmed so one can enjoy the released albums first before digging into the alternates. Ricky Riccardi’s lengthy liner notes straighten everything out so listeners can discover where all of the music originally came from in addition to hearing previously unreleased performances from Armstrong during two of his greatest recording projects. The highpoint is a magnificent version of “St. Louis Blues” on which Louis Armstrong is heard at the peak of his powers. Other highlights include “Basin Street Blues,” “Loveless Love,” “Ole Miss Blues,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” and dramatic versions of “Black And Blue” and “Blue Turning Grey Over You.”
The Real Ambassadors album was a unique project, an anti-racism play that states that the most successful ambassadors for the United States are the jazz musicians, particularly the king of them all, Louis Armstrong. Satch had an opportunity to learn material and to play a role not that different from what he was experiencing in his real life. He is joined on various tracks by his All-Stars, the Dave Brubeck group (although without Paul Desmond), Carmen McRae, and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. “Summer Song” is the most memorable selection but this work (which was only performed once live with the original cast) is still topical and the many alternates are generally quite intriguing.
The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946-1966 (available from www.mosaicrecords.com) is essential for all Louis Armstrong collectors.
ORNETTE COLEMAN – THE TERRITORY AND THE ADVENTURE
Ornette Coleman permanently changed jazz, opening up the music far beyond the chordal improvisation of bebop. The altoist played speech-like solos, largely did away with chord structures (often improvising off of one chordal center), and created a form of freely improvised jazz that has influenced a countless number of musicians since 1960, While often ridiculed during his lifetime (particularly in the early years), his way of playing gave soloists new ways of creating new music.
The Territory And The Adventure by Maria Golia is a fascinating book. Ms. Golia, who managed the Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center in Fort Worth during the 1980s and ‘90s, obviously did a great deal of research not only into Coleman’s career but into his background, that of his contemporaries, and the history of Fort Worth, Dallas, and Texas. There is a great deal of new information in her book about Coleman, particularly about his later nonmusical artistic activities, his general philosophy, and the way that that he influenced other artists including from very different fields. Even those who consider themselves experts on the altoist will find much to learn from this well-written and scholarly book.
There are also some faults to the 368-page work that should be mentioned. There are perhaps a half dozen minor mistakes that could have been eliminated by a jazz-oriented proofreader; vibraphonist Lionel Hampton was not a xylophonist and Louis Armstrong died in 1971 not 1973, etc. While Maria Golia covers Coleman’s Texas years with great detail, his important period in 1950s Los Angeles is largely skipped over. For example, there is no mention of him having worked as an elevator operator, reading music books while on the job. Virtually nothing is said about Coleman’s early recordings for the Contemporary label and very little about most of his other records; there is no discography. That is a shame because his main musical legacy is to be found in his recordings. There is an excessive amount discussed about the activities of the Caravan of Dreams and there are sections in this book where so much is written about other subjects that Ornette Coleman largely disappears from the story. One never really learns what caused Coleman’s death in 2015, and much of the final ten pages are surprisingly bitter as the author complains about the state of this country and its abandonment of utopian dreams.
Despite that, The Territory And The Adventure has many bright moments, fresh stories, and fascinating information about the life and times of Ornette Coleman.
Anat Cohen Tentet – Happy Song (Anzic) – The clarinetist’s 2017 release features her tentet performing a suite of varied material arranged by Oded Lev-Ari. Ranging from Brazilian to klezmer, fusion to joyful swing (Benny Goodman’s version of “Oh Baby”), the very enjoyable program will keep one guessing, just like the very best jazz.