Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Of All My Vices, Jazz Is My Favorite: Listeners' Series, Vol. III

I have no idea really who all is reading this (if anyone), and it seems kind of foolish to air my dirty laundry on the Internet (especially since both of my parents have made remarks implying that they have peeked at this site). Nonetheless, confession is good for the soul, and although unconditional love is usually the purview of parents alone, I’m laying it all out there.

So here it is. I have a few vices. And I’ve been fortunate thus far, because my tendency to overindulge in my vices tends to be offset by the practicalities of life. For example, my affinity for single malt Scotch is mitigated by an unwillingness to suffer from a post-Scotch headache. Fancy shoes? Wear them too long and blisters and a backache ensue. Pride prevents me from admitting to my Brady Bunch rerun fixation, and common financial sense means that as much as I would love to gamble all the time, I must partake in moderation.

Jazz gorging, however, has had no downside so far. It’s not hard to find free or inexpensive shows, no one seems to be pushing the hooch at jazz clubs, and it feeds my soul like nothing else. So when I saw an opportunity to nurture at least one other vice while enjoying fine jazz, I couldn’t resist.

The third installment of my Jazz Listeners’ Series took place on Tuesday night, June 25 at Hollywood Park Casino. Gambling, Scotch AND jazz?!?!? What more could a girl ask for? The Tamir Hendelman Trio was the featured act, and as I am a huge fan it was a no-brainer.

Three seems to be the magic number for these series, so I was joined by the ever-stalwart Emily Hands and Christy Luna, jazz fan extraordinaire with energy that would put a two-year-old to shame. I put on my new very favorite strappy sandals and decided to go early to get my gamble on. Emily hadn’t gambled in ages so was willing to join me to try our luck at ye olde games of chance. As I had never been to Hollywood Park Casino, I wasn’t sure what to expect; however, my experiences with Las Vegas casinos have been many and varied so I thought I’d be fine.

Imagine my surprise when we walked in the door. It was not crowded at all. AT ALL. I sniffed, expecting to smell the unmistakable aroma of generic cigarette smoke. All I smelled was desperation. I looked at Emily. She looked at me. We walked toward the gambling area and noticed that approximately 10% of the tables were actually in use. Now, those 4 tables were crowded – but the rest of the casino floor was a vast wasteland.

Why Hollywood Park Casino sucks compared to Vegas
** There were no scantily clad cocktail waitresses hawking “free” drinks
** The tourists in Hawaiian shirts were missing
** None of the locals were carting around oxygen tanks since there was no smoking permitted
** The bottles of booze at the bar had fancy measurers guaranteeing that not a drop more than one ounce made it in each mixed drink.

Why Vegas sucks compared to Hollywood Park Casino
** Hollywood Park Casino had a Pink’s hot dog cart. Pink’s. For real.
** I don’t think I spent $20 and I got to hear a live jazz show, stuffed my face, had two drinks and parked at the valet. And I wasn’t a high roller.
** Although it was 100 degrees outside when we arrived, when we left it was a breezy 70 degrees.
** While the smell of cigarette smoke does lend a certain je ne sais quoi to casino ambience, the lack of it meant that I didn’t have to take 4 showers when I got home.

But I digress. I’m all over the place here. Let me give you a recap of the show itself. Tamir Hendelman is the pianist for the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra as well as for the Jeff Hamilton Trio, and between those huge commitments manages to find time to do session work and lead his own trio. This was my second time hearing his trio perform and as before they did not disappoint. Backed by Carlitos del Puerto on bass and Dean Koba on drums, the trio made the crowd happy with a mix of standards and original tunes.

Emily, Christy and I settled into our seats in the lounge, amid dimmed TV screens since there was no satellite racing. It was really weird. James Janisse, former DJ from KKJZ, was the MC and it was nice to hear his voice again (even though he kept referring to Tamir and crew as “cats,” which is kind of cool the first couple of times but after awhile I started singing “Memories” in my head). The place was full with a good proportion of jazz fans despite the whooping of the occasional jackpot winner in the background.

The first set consisted of 7 tunes, including originals “Babushka” (precious), “Israeli Waltz” (gorgeous) and “Bennissimo” (groovalicious). The standard “The More I See You” had a super cool bass intro with what I could swear were some strains of “Nature Boy” before launching into an up-tempo swingfest, and Tamir’s melancholy take on “Singin’ in the Rain” was just sweet enough not to make me cry.

At the set break I thought it would be great to get the series’ participants’ takes on the show so far. I told them that for posterity I’d like to get their impressions.

Pam (to Christy): “What did you think of that first set?”
Christy: “It rawks. R-A-W-K-S.”
Pam: “Great.”
Christy: “And swings.”
Pam: “Cool.” (turns to Emily) “Emily, what do you think?”
Emily: (looking a bit put on the spot) “Oh s%^&!”

So we ordered a round of drinks and spent a whopping $8.75 (total), snapped a photo with Mr. Hendelman himself and got ready for the second set. When I asked him what he had in store, he responded “I have no idea.” I love jazz. Seriously.

Now, those who know my jazz proclivities know that I do play favorites, especially when it comes to the classics. Favorite old-school vocalist: Ella Fitzgerald. Favorite old-school composers: George & Ira Gershwin. Favorite old-school big band leader: Duke Ellington. Imagine my glee when the second set began with an Ellington medley! Yee haw. We were treated to the ever-fabulous “Caravan” (worrrrrrrrrrldly), “In A Sentimental Mood” (swoooooony) and “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me” (bluuuuuuuuuesy). And there was an encore. Are you sitting down? "Someone To Watch Over Me" (dreeeeeeeeeemy). Sigh.

The balance of the second set also included some high-energy bebop, an original ballad, and some Thelonious Monk, and even though there was a pretty raucous crowd enjoying themselves in the lounge, the rest of the audience seemed really into it. One of the things I appreciate about Tamir as a bandleader is that the sidemen were featured frequently. Dean and Carlitos did a fabulous job not only as “backup musicians” but as significant soloists and contributors in their own right. As for Tamir, watching him play the piano with the passion and enthusiasm that he conveys makes me want to take up lessons again. (All of you piano teachers who just died a little at the thought, don’t worry – I won’t actually do it.)

Bottom line – the show was fabulous, and in addition to being great performers the band had another thing in common: they all looked like there was no place they would rather have been that night. Regardless of whether or not that was true, the crowd certainly appreciated it. And even though I didn’t get my gamble on, I will make a point to check out the venue – and the trio – again!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Improvisation Redux: Listeners' Series, Vol. II

As I get invested in this listeners’ series concept, the theme of improvisation in jazz resounds more and more. The second Jazz Listeners’ Series was held on Tuesday, June 13, 2006 and the best laid plans again eluded me – and once again, the result was definitely more interesting, thought-provoking and perhaps even more entertaining than my original plan.

This summer, Hollywood and Highland is hosting a Tuesday night wine and jazz series. It’s a large open-air courtyard in a shopping and theater complex, and one would think it wouldn’t be conducive to jazz. Because I was considering it for a series event, I thought I’d check it out ahead of time, so a week prior Josette Jaramillo graciously agreed to join me for an evening of jazz and socializing.

We started our due diligence event with a gourmet food court dinner, then made our way down to the courtyard for wine and music. Joey DeFrancesco was the featured performer, and if you’ve never heard jazz played on a Hammond B-3 organ you MUST do it. Seriously. It was really a lot of fun. We did observe that the Joey D. crowd is definitely different from the traditional jazz club crowd – he has a cult following including a guy who drove from the South Bay in rush hour traffic just to hear him, as well as a couple who danced all night (mostly out of synch, but it didn’t matter because they were having so much fun). My arch nemesis, who shall remain nameless, was also there that evening, flitting from table to table entertaining her people. It’s fun to have a nemesis. It really is. (Insert scary minor chord here.)

After the show, Josette and I were feeling pretty jazzed and decided to hit another performance. We drove to the valley and got to Charlie O’s in time to catch Tony Inzalaco’s quintet. I’ve mentioned the show briefly on the “Recent Shows” page but I definitely plan to catch these cats again. It was so much fun to hear original music in the straight-ahead genre with musicians who were clearly enjoying playing the tunes. Between sets, Tony was kind enough to pose for a photo.

L-R: Pam Howell, Tony Inzalaco and Josette Jaramillo at Charlie O’s

Ah, but I digress. I’m actually here to talk about the series, and the second series event was fantastic. In typical LA fashion, we had a bevy of last-minute cancellations that made wait-listing moot, so our series was a party of three: Emily Hands, Matthew Horner and myself. Emily is a dear friend and co-worker whose love of art, music and life in general make her a joy to be around. Colonel Matthew Horner, another dear friend visiting from New York for a few days, makes his living representing opera professionals and was delighted to be a part of the listeners’ series

L-R: Matthew Horner, Pam Howell and Emily Hands at Hollywood and Highland

I was very excited about hearing Chuck Berghofer and the Midnight Jazz Band, and knew that we’d be in for a real treat. We got to Hollywood and Highland in enough time to enjoy a glass of wine before the show began, and as we watched the band set up I immediately noticed that something was awry. Once again, the old bait and switch: while the bandleader was still Chuck Berghofer, and the pianist was still Tom Ranier, Gary Foster was not there with his saxophone, and Joe LaBarbera was not on drums. Instead, Pete Christlieb played tenor sax, and Kendall Kay was on drums. It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that LA jazz listeners must be prepared for improvised sets.

Our party made our way down to the courtyard to sample wine and cheese and I caught another glimpse of my arch-nemesis (insert scary minor chord here). Again, she was making the rounds and everyone seemed to be oblivious to the palpable discord between the two of us (including her, as she is unaware that we are enemies). I pointed her out to Emily and Matthew, who very diplomatically acknowledged her pure evil but encouraged me to get over it, then we settled in to enjoy the show.

One of the things I like about the Midnight Jazz Band is that because the bandleader is a bassist, the tunes tend to be rhythmically driven – and when you add that to melody players who are solid musicians, the music has this tight, clean (but not sterile) sound that makes it easy to tap your fingers without losing track of what’s going on. I would apologize to any musicians who may have read this far for being pedestrian, but this is a listeners’ series, not a players’ series. However, if you have any clues or suggestions as to how we might better interpret the music, please do share them. Unless you are my arch-nemesis (insert scary minor chord here), in which case we must talk through third-party mediators only.

It was great to enjoy the show with Emily and Matthew, who are both knowledgeable musicians in different genres. We chatted easily between songs but when the music started up we were all entranced. The setting at Hollywood & Highland doesn’t have the feel of an intimate, cozy jazz club yet their warmth and love of music transformed us to a different place. One observation that Emily made was that there seemed to be quite a few young people there who were “into” the music – and that observation gave me hope for the future of jazz.

Between sets, I had the opportunity to speak with Chuck about the change in personnel for the show. We shared the observation that replacing Gary Foster with Pete Christlieb and Joe LaBarbera with Kendall Kay gave the band a different sound – it was softer and smoother. It’s not better or worse, necessarily, just different. And it will continue to amaze me that jazz musicians can stand in for one another on short notice and it sounds like they’ve been practicing together for years. It blows me away. I was able to grab Chuck and Tom Ranier for a photo for posterity before the second set began, and I must have telepathically informed them of my love of the tune “Cottontail” because they played it just for me. Aw, c’mon, a girl can dream, can’t she?

L-R: Pam Howell, Tom Ranier and Chuck Berghofer at Hollywood and Highland