Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Lesson in Improvisation: Listeners' Series, Vol. I

As a Leo there are moments when I get a teeny tiny bit out of sorts if I am not in COMPLETE control of things. I like to have a plan. And I like it when things go according to MY plan. It’s a wonder that I have any friends at all; moreover, since jazz is based on improvisation, the fact that I love jazz is an irony that is not lost on me.

Tuesday night, May 30, 2006 marked my first bi-weekly Jazz Listeners’ Series. The original plan was for our party of four to meet at Mandaloun, a new jazz club in my neighborhood, to hear the Joe LaBarbera quintet. I scoped out the place about ten days prior to hear Monty Alexander’s trio. It was a fabulous show, and a beautiful venue, and I left that evening more excited than ever to kick off the listeners’ series at my new very favorite jazz club.

A few days before the series show I called Mandaloun to make our reservation. As I dialed the number, I was giddy with anticipation. I knew which table to request. I knew what I was going to order for dinner. I knew that this show was going to set a standard for future series. I could envision throngs of people clogging the streets, clamoring to come out and hear even a few bars of some great jazz. Lost in my reverie I almost didn’t notice the hostess shouting “Hello?? Hello??!?” in my ear. Oopsie. “Oh yes,” said I, in my most high-falutin’ voice ever, “I’d like to make a reservation for the Joe LaBarbera quintet show on May 30.” With no regard whatsoever for the jazz dynasty that I had created in my head 30 seconds ago, she unceremoniously said, “We’re not doing jazz anymore.” Click. That was it. I was so stunned I didn’t even bother to call back and ask why. In hindsight I’m glad I didn’t, because my fear is that the answer was lack of audience, and that thought breaks my crusty old rock-hard heart.

At that point, however, I was in a quandary. I had to dazzle and impress my friends with an authentic straight-ahead jazz experience and I had no Plan B. My control freak Leo alter ego threatened to rear her ugly head, but the spirit of jazz got hold of me. I had to improvise. So I thought – if I had no calendar and no phone and no idea what bands were playing, where would I go for jazz on a whim? The answer came to me in an instant: Charlie O’s.

Charlie O’s is a dive jazz club in Van Nuys. It has no frills, no bells, no whistles, no cover charge – but the audience is often populated by jazz musicians and the place feels more like a jam session than a jazz concert. It occasionally boasts big name jazz acts but a typical night at Charlie O’s is at its worst decent music in an intimate setting.

Enter Inga Czech and Kimiko Miyazawa, the charter participants in the jazz series (our fourth participant and the waitlisted folks were unable to join). Knowing these ladies, I was certain we’d have a good time regardless of who we heard or where we heard them. In fact, improvisation is what brought us all together to begin with. I met Kimiko a couple of years ago at a jazz club – fancy that. I was with a group of about six people and Kimiko had come alone. She saw what a good time we were having and on a lark asked my sister Kim if she could join us. Years later we’re still hanging out at jazz clubs together. As for Inga, we met in the mall one New Year’s Eve. She was with her friend Marla, whom I’d met a couple of weeks prior on a cruise but due to our good friends Bombay Sapphire and Mr. Belvedere it took us about 20 minutes to figure out how we knew each other. Inga’s foot was broken and she was having a tough time finding fancy shoes for a party. I offered to lend her a pair of bejeweled flip flops and we’ve been friends ever since.

L-R: ¾ of Pam Howell, Kimiko Miyazawa and Inga Czech at Charlie O’s

The calendar for Tuesday night at Charlie O’s featured the Med Flory Quartet, which allegedly consisted of Med Flory on sax, Tom Ranier on piano, Dave Carpenter on bass, and Frank Capp on drums. I say “allegedly” because in line with the theme of this missive, the real lineup was improvised. Now, I’ve seen all of the musicians listed on the calendar out at gigs and would recognize them on sight. Needless to say, I was a little confused when the musicians took the stage, because what I expected based on the calendar was not happening. But let me stop talking about it. Let me SHOW you…

Clearly, not only is the music itself all about improvisation, but on occasion the components of a band can be improvised. Arguably you have to be in the mood for it, but the lack of structure that night was a lot of fun, especially since the choice of venue was improvised anyway. There appeared to be no set list, so Med Flory would ask the audience for requests, then turn them all down and come up with a tune he wanted to play. He had a banter going on with Marty Harris on piano that had us in stitches all night. And at nearly 80 years old with a zillion TV and movie credits under his belt, it’s no surprise he could entertain us whether he was playing the sax or not.

The gig started with the four-piece band playing jazz standards that were of the “tip of your tongue” variety. Carl Saunders arrived a couple of songs into the first set. Rather than being called to join the band onstage, Carl walked in the back door while the band was playing a tune, his gig bag on his shoulder, and marched up to the bar. He ordered a drink and unpacked his trumpet while the band was playing. Once he got his cranberry juice, he walked up to the bandstand and played a solo, right in that same song, as if the most natural thing in the world is to walk into a jazz club and start playing with the band, unannounced.

Kimiko, Inga and I sat at the bar, situated halfway into the audience. The place was about half full, and the people seemed for the most part to be there to hear the music and not to socialize. It’s less library-like than some shows I’ve seen, but made me ponder the concept of “jazz atmosphere.” I’m still trying to reconcile it. We felt free to applaud and cheer after solos and visibly enjoyed the music, but we got the occasional dirty look from other patrons when we were “too enthusiastic.” Lately I’ve felt restrained at shows – like I don’t want to make any noise at all. But being with Inga and Kimiko, who were enjoying the music with an abandon that the musicians obviously appreciated and fed off of – I realized that such enthusiasm will help perpetuate the local jazz culture. I’m finished sitting on my hands – thanks, ladies!

We had a lovely night, stayed for two sets and managed to be on the road before 11:00 p.m. – not bad for a school night. Before we headed out, Med Flory and Roy McCurdy obliged us with a photo taken by Matt, the bartender. Med obviously enjoyed posing with the ladies and instead of saying “cheese” proclaimed, “I’m with the good stuff!” Gotta love that.

L-R: Pam Howell, Med Flory, Inga Czech, Kimiko Miyazawa and Roy McCurdy