Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lenny White: Live and New York Hot with the Anomaly Band at Catalina's

West Coast jazz has traditionally been cool to the East Coast's hot. Dave Brubeck is always pictured in white linen slacks playing an open air concert-by-the-sea, while Charlie Parker is shown popping a Saturday night sweat in his sharkskin suit, squeezed onto a crowded nightclub stage.

The iconography extends to the West Coast audience. Like a glass of
chablis, chilled, slow and laid back compared to an East Coaster's whiskey shot, feverish, fast and hard. The stereotypes are simplistic and a bit unkind, but contain a kernel of truth.

Which made the way in which the West Coast tradition was stood on its head all the more fun last Friday, Saturday and Sunday (August 20-22) when Lenny White took the stage with his Anomaly Band at Hollywood's Catalina Bar & Grill.

Catalina's lazy Blue Note-style dinner club atmosphere that has set the tone for the L.A. scene along with
Vitello's, the Baked Potato, Jazz Bakery and Herb Alpert's new Vibrato Grill, filling the void created by the disappearance of 50's West Coast club institutions like Shelly's Manne Hole and the Lighthouse, was about to get loud.

Minutes before the first set guitarist Jimmy Herring, the jazz/rock-blues shredder of jam band Widespread Panic fame who regularly plays at 110+ dB in large arenas, voiced his concern for the cocktail-sipping diners seated at the tables in front of the stage. He said he had been fussing with positioning his monitor before the show, trying to find a way to angle or baffle it to save their ears. Then he smiled. The boss had just said it was time to go on.

White smartly started the set with the same high- energy track he uses to open his new
Anomaly CD (Abstract Logix, 2010), "Drum Boogie," a funky, full tilt New Orleans- flavored bouncer that started simply with bassist Richie Goods playing a smoothly articulated but hard- plucked line that jolted the song to life like a pair of defibrillator paddles and gave it a hard push that kept it going to the end. When Vince Evans came in, leaning hard on the organ keys and goosing the amperage, the band jumped enthusiastically and exploded into this great set-opener like a vigorous heartbeat.

Before anyone in the band could cool off, the rhythm section of White, Goods and Evans lowered the gear into a range where I've never heard a "jazz" band go. "We Know" is
hard, hard, fat-bottomed rock and roll bravura like what Cream and the James Gang did in the 1970's, a song of such auditory impact that Herring's earlier concerns made immediate sense. In truth, the monitors were not revved that high, but the sheer neural impact on the small room of a couple hundred people was of a similar magnitude as stacks of Marshall amps in a baseball stadium. The sound filled every molecule of matter in every corner of the building. And when the guitar solos started flying from Tom Guarna and Jimmy Herring. the deal was sealed. No one would ever confuse what these guys were doing with any jazz they'd ever heard before. This wasn't just jazz/rock, it was jazz/ROCK. This was new.

When the music ended, the stunned audience of Angelenos sat and quivered for a minute. As they did, White grabbed a microphone and stepped out from his kit into the lights and deadpanned, "Welcome to a quiet night of jazz at Catalina's."

After a beautifully serene "Dark Moon," written by guitarist David Gilmore, the band tore into White's magnificently deconstructed and re- arranged composition "Door #3" from his Present Tense (Hip Bop, 1995) which, among other things, showcased the individual talents of the players by letting each take a solo. White's arrangements don't always do this. Gratuitous soloing has overtaken much of mainstream jazz, live or recorded, for reasons of fashion and crowd-titillating commerce as much as anything else, but not White's (asked why, White simply said, "It's boring.") So until Evans opened "Door #3" with a growling, sweetly bluesy Jimmy Smith- like organ solo, his sturdily sensitive comping had not drawn any attention to itself... in many ways, the test of true artistry. But then, did he ever pull the ripcord on his parachute. With a sizzling foundation rumbling under the floor, the guitarists stepped in and began the kind of weaving of rhythm and lead guitar that is only possible with accomplished players (Dicky Betts and Duane Allman come to mind) playing so seamlessly that it sounded like one eight-handed guitarist playing two guitars.

The tune which is probably the heart and soul of this band arrived the next night.

Ushered in by an opening keyboard cascade, "Election Day," no matter where it is placed in the set, is a warning of the storm that is always brewing on stage. Named simply for the day it was written, November 4, 2008, it is in many ways the signature anomaly of White's recently released CD. It is arranged by White in a way that opens it to what only these seasoned jazzers could have made it do. They made it swing. Ferociously. Not only did it thunder, it danced and shook. Each time Goods and the guitars pushed the bridge (reminiscent of the little cadenza at the end Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker") White would push it a little harder from the drum kit, shifting the rhythmic emphasis just slightly until this all-out rocker was sliding and slamming like an anvil on the back of a flat bed truck.. This is energy and muscle not heard since the earliest days of rock and roll, when for brilliant moments the music rocked and rolled.

Properly warmed up, the band launched into a deftly-composed Tom Guarna piece called "If U Dare," a deceptively simple- sounding piece of jazz/rock that utilizes a combination of Lenny White's vigorous drum corps/ rock and roll drumming to set the pace and ethereal jazz chording. His fluid soloing opened up enough room for Jimmy Herring to join in the fun, and was a perfect companion piece to the classic Joe Henderson piece "Gazelle," which White had first performed and recorded with Henderson 40 years earlier at the legendary Lighthouse, along with Woody Shaw, George Cables and Ron McClure. In the sure hands of a jazz/rock composer/arranger (and aficionado) like White, "Gazelle" was transformed by his band into the purest kind of jazz/rock, a description which undoubtedly rankles purists but which speaks a higher language for anyone who has been listening to jazz since Miles worked over James Brown's "Cold Sweat" beat (whose composer, Pee Wee Ellis,
ironically, was working over Miles' "So What") on 1968's Filles de Kilimanjaro and has heard subsequent works like Emergency!, Bitches Brew, Sweetnighter, Red Clay, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, Birds of Fire or Head Hunters. Pure Jazz/Rock is such a delicately conceived blend that, like a perfect martini, it fills your head as nicely as it fills your senses. White's version of "Gazelle" loped along, gracefully coiling and flexing before each jump but never exerting itself and sounding like it could run forever. In the tradition of Henderson's Milestone recording that produced "Gazelle," In Pursuit of Blackness, White grabbed Guarna and Herring in the dressing room just before they were ready to go on stage Saturday night and excitedly explained a last-minute change in the tune's break. The two guitarists played it together incorrectly once, figured it out and practiced it right twice, then said as one, "we got it." When the band finally played it as the final number of the set, Guarna and Herring ripped it up.

No question, it was the killer tune of the set.


For the most comprehensive interview ever done with Lenny White, check the article I wrote for AllAboutJazz.com, "Lenny White: Jazz/Rock Collides Again":


And as for the big question... by the time you read this, there will be but one more chance to see this band of killer-virtuosi jazz/rockers: November 20-21, the Abstract Logix Music Festival, 2010
, to be held at the Lincoln Theatre, 126 E. Cabarrus St. between Wilmington St. and Blount St. in the beautiful southern city of Raleigh, North Carolina. In addition to Lenny White and his Anomaly Band, Souvik Dutta, president/founder of Abstract Logix Records and event organizer, has already confirmed jazz/rock giant John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension, the Jimmy Herring Band, Wayne Krantz, Wayne Krantz (ex-STEELY DAN) with Anthony Jackson and Cliff Almond; Alex Machacek Trio with Jeff Sipe (APT Q258) and Neal Fountain; Human Element (Matt Garrison, Scott Kinsey, Arto Tuncboyaciyan); Introducing Ranjit Barot (India's Best Kept Secret on Drums); and an All Star Tribute to John McLaughlin as the Grand Finale.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

L.A.’s Jazz Bakery Still Homeless But Alive This Week at the L.A. Premiere of New Film, “The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi”

The Jazz Bakery, one of Los Angeles’ most revered jazz establishments, is still homeless after closing its doors last spring, but it is still alive and living off the fat of the land.

Running a non-profit jazz club that features big national acts and low ticket prices 7 days a week ain’t easy. When your philanthropic landlord dies and the new owner(s) announce they’re turning your club into a furniture store, you need to be imaginative. http://jazzjazzersjazzing.blogspot.com/search?q=ruth+price

What Owner/Chief Bottle Washer Ruth Price has done since May 31 of last year is what she calls a Moveable Feast. Even if there is not a permanent place to hear them, jazz artists line up and play for Ruth’s club wherever it happens to be this week. Regina Carter, Tierney Sutton, Hubert Laws, Mose Allison, Dave Frishberg, John Beasley, Benny Golson and his quartet of Bill Cunliffe, Bob Magnusson and Roy McCurdy, Tomasz Stanko, Antonio Sanchez, Pharaoh Sanders, the list of musicians who support and have been supported since last summer goes on and on. The Jazz Bakery will never die because it lives in their hearts.

This Sunday, August 1st, the Moveable Feast starts with a 3:00 p.m. wine reception at the Silent Movie Theater (611 North Fairfax, Los Angeles, CA 90036) before the curtain goes up at 3:30 p.m. on the Los Angeles premiere of “TheAnatomy of Vince Guaraldi”, a film by Andrew Thomas and Toby Gleason. The film features Dave Brubeck, Dick Gregory, George Winston, Irwin Corey, John Handy, Malcolm Boyd and David Benoit, among others. Leonard Maltin will moderate a Q & A. Tickets are $20.

The promo I received points out to astute observers that despite the name of the theater, the film about Vince Guaraldi is “definitely NOT a silent film.”

Sunday, July 25, 2010


How is jazz legend Annie Ross celebrating her 80th birthday? By performing this Tuesday (and each Tuesday) night at 9:30 in the Metropolitan Room at 34 West 22nd Street in NYC
. Imagine that, at a time in life when ma people are inclined to sit in a rocking chair and sip tea, Annie Ross dolls herself up and does the second set at a swanky cabaret while the swells sip at their martinis and enjoy a style of music that few recall, and many fewer still perform. In Ms. Ross's case, it is a brand of musical magic that only she has ever attained. Or to be fair, that she, Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks attained. So in a way, it stands to reason that she keeps performing. Anyone who had the energy to write the crazy, swinging jazz standard “Twisted”, full of its harmonic hairpin turns and rhythmic gear changes, and then sing it, could easily feel the need to eschew artistic quietude sing as regularly as she can. There must have been something in the water supply back in the day, because I recently heard from a New York jazz fan that Jon Hendricks has been fairly active performing as well, and that he and James Moody had engaged in "a scat-sing cutting contest that you wouldn't believe" at the Blue Note last year. At the time, Jon was 83 years old and Moody 87...

For ticket prices and directions to the Metropolitan Room:

Annie Ross's career was in full swing long before she began work with Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks, in 1952 penning lyrics for and performing Wardell Gray's "Twisted." After joining forces in 1957 to create the landmark vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, they were the premiere jazz vocal group in the world. Along with Hendricks and Lambert, she continued to pioneer the emerging field known as vocalese
, the difficult but highly rewarding writing and singing of lyrics to already-composed jazz tunes and helped to make this sophisticated form sensationally popular. Various people are credited (or take credit) for "inventing" vocalese, but no one ever took on the bop harmonies rhythms and did it like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

An inspiration to singers from Joni Mitchell and Bette Midler, to Cheryl Bentyne and Janis Siegel and Lorraine Feather, Annie Ross is the undisputed champion.

To a musical queen, long may you reign.

Annie’s 1952 classic, “Twisted,” courtesy of YouTube:

And courtesy of wolfgangsvault.com, Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross live at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 2, 1960 “Swingin’ ‘til the Girls Come Home” by Oscar Pettiford

Happy Birthday, Annie!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lorraine Feather: On the Road (Less Traveled)

Lorraine Feather’s live performances are legendary. Her skills as a lyricist, well known to fans of her recordings of Waller and Ellington material, and recent work like her critically-acclaimed new CD
Ages (Jazzed Media, 2010), bloom wildly under the stage lights. Where some performers like to glance sideways with short anecdotes between songs, Feather prefers to be a real raconteur and plunge in headlong, punctuating her insightful musical commentary with tales that are integral to the performance.

As Will Friedwald wrote of her performance at the Algonquin in his
New York Sun review of February 8, 2008, “Lorraine Feather is expanding the jazz repertoire in her own idiosyncratic way and showcasing the power of composition as much as the power of performance.”

But despite the great press Feather has always gotten for her live shows, she’s not been much of a road warrior of late.

Part of the reason for this has been logistics. After being based in Los Angeles and performing with pianist/composer Shelly Berg, she and her husband Tony Morales moved to the San Juan Islands north of Seattle, while Berg accepted a position as Dean of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. Literally, they’d moved to opposite ends of the continental U.S.

“I've had something of a hiatus from live performing with Shelly. It's challenging to work things out logistically/financially with us so far apart, but we just booked the Lakeshore Jazz Series in Tempe, AZ for February of next year, and we'll be doing more." Their geographic separation has also been an artistic barrier for her, because in a world teeming with jazz pianists, Berg is that uniquely adept stylist whose vast technique and repertoire have enabled him to successfully channel Feather’s ghostly songwriting “partners” like Fats Waller and keep her tidal wave of stride and lyrical intricacies flowing fast enough and accurately enough to support her in performance. Shelly Berg has been a hard act to follow.

But just this last week the lyricist/singer got together with the phenomenally gifted young pianist, Stephanie Trick, for two days of rehearsal. Already considered by many of her peers to be among the best stride pianists in the world when she was but 21 years old, Trick was invited to perform at the 2008 International Stride and Swing Summit in Boswil, Switzerland and has been invited back again this fall.

Feather described their first collaboration with admiring praise, saying “. . . she not only is spectacular but she learned “You're Outa Here” [Feather’s lyricised rendition of Waller’s “The Minor Drag”] for the occasion, transcribing it herself exactly as Dick Hyman played it [on Feather’s recording
New York City Drag (Rhombus, 2001)], supporting the melodic or rhythmic variations I did on the original track .”

The result is that she and the 23-yr.-old St.Louis-based phenom are putting together a stride show “we are going to launch in the spring. Irvin Arthur (iarthur@parkavenuetalent.com) of Park Avenue Talent is booking it.”

All of which portends well for thee and me.

"I'm ramping up to do more live singing. I had a great gig June 12th at Bake's, near Seattle, with two terrific Seattle musicians, pianist Randy Halberstadt and bassist Jon Hamar [doing material from
Ages] and will be doing a big band thing with the Spokane Jazz Society on September 26th. Russ [Ferrante, composer of the haunting “The Girl with the Lazy Eye” on Ages and founding member of the Yellowjackets] and I are going to be performing in L.A. together before long.”

If you have the opportunity to see Lorraine Feather perform live in one of these venues, don’t hesitate.

She’s also been hard at work writing and recording a new CD.

"The process of doing a new album, with writing involved, takes about a year from starting the first song to the mastering process at the end for me. I have songs in the works with Eddie [Arkin] and Russell, and there's one that's an adaptation of a piece by the Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi. There is a concept, which I'd describe as being on the mysterious and trippy side.”

So it’s good news for Lorraine Feather fans, who can look forward to a “mysterious and trippy” concept album, and a year that will feature live performances in small, intimate settings as well as bigger ones, including a big band romp through her rich Ellington-based material. Dates will be posted as they become available.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Stanley Clarke Returns to the Studio with Hiromi and Saxophonist Bob Sheppard

Stanley Clarke and Lenny White recording a solo with Hiromi.

Stanley Clarke was in the studio this past week with producer Lenny White to record some sonic pyrotechnics with Japanese pianist Hiromi and guest saxophonist Bob Sheppard. Clarke's working band were also on hand: Ruslan Sirota on keyboards, Ronald Bruner, Jr., on drums, and Charles Altura on guitar. This "fiery" (as Clarke aptly described them) band of young guns play their instruments like thrill-seeking street racers and bring it with more than enough horsepower to support Clarke's high-energy musicality.

The diverse tunes featured on the album will include a nugget from Clarke's and White's days with Return To Forever - although I missed getting to hear them record it, White supplied a clue: "Wait 'til you hear what we did with 'No Mystery,'" he said wide-eyed. "It is rocked-out." Amongst the other tunes is a tribute to the great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins penned by Clarke, and a tune written for Clarke by his keyboardist Ruslan Sirota.

Producer Lenny White and keyboardist Ruslan Sirota.

Asked to describe his composition, Sirota says
"it's called 'Soldier.' It's a very story-like piece. When hearing it, you clearly get the different chapters of the journey: the contemplation, the battle, the realization and the hope, and it's all laid out for the bass guitar."

Balancing the seriousness of that, Sirota noted that the Sonny Rollins tribute "is a funkyfied homage" that he thinks "may very well be the happiest tune Stanley ever wrote."

That's saying something. Stanley Clarke has been writing happy songs right from the start, and has written some of the happiest and most memorable jazz tunes ever recorded. By the time he was 26 years old he had written three of them that were destined to become standards: "Light As A Feather," "Silly Putty" and "School Days."

Here comes another one.

Jazz/rock legends Stanley Clarke and Lenny White.

Contented composer and bassist, Stanley Clarke.

Producer Lenny White.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jazz/Rock Collides Again: Lenny White's First CD of Original Material in 10 Years Due in the Stores This May

Drummer Lenny White is set to open the bomb bay doors next May and drop his first CD of original material in 10 years. When Anomaly (Abstract Logix) detonates there will be a big, LOUD technicolor explosion of musical colors. It won’t be quite what anyone expected next. But with Lenny, it never is.

“It’s back to what I used to play. But it’s a little more… rockin’ than anything I’ve done. If people thought Astral Pirates was rock… this is rock. The CDs that are made today are usually more funky oriented—fusion… it’s close to R&B, that kind of vibe. I didn’t want to do that.”

Anomaly is decidedly not fusion, but jazz/rock, with the emphasis on the rock half of the conjoined form. In fact, if jazz/rock is jazz with rock sensibilities, this is rock/jazz, rock with jazz sensibilities.

“It’s a little more of an experiment for me to really go back to playing rock. Roots. It’s got other things, too. But the rock really is… rock,” he continued, his face breaking into a wide grin. “It’s called Anomaly...”

How much of an anomaly is it?

“This album is angular,” he said in his thoughtful, measured way. “It goes in different directions. I was just making music I like to make. It’s probably the first recording I’ve done just of things I like to do.”

Which means rock, as you will soon discover. Unlike many jazzers who came up strictly in a jazz tradition, White grew up steeped in rock and roll as well. It means that when Miles Davis needed another set of drums added to Jack DeJohnette’s to provide textural colors for Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969), he used Jackie McLean’s 19-yr.old drummer, Lenny White.

It also means opera. Opera? An extended piece on Anomaly is based on a selection from an opera he had been writing for several years. But it isn’t your mother’s kind of opera. He says the passage he performs was written when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. “It woke me up. The idea is that it’s time to be accountable.” Titled “The Wait Has Lifted the Weight,” he characterized this symphonic work, which features everything from him doing a spoken word introduction to the talented Bernard Wright using his magically wired keyboards to play one of the most inspired “guitar” solos I’ve ever heard, as “a spiritual that is about my roots.”

Another track called “Water Changes Everything,” featuring impassioned vocals from R&B diva Nicki Richards in some exotically glistening world music, means to transport the listener to a new level of understanding, a state of grace, and succeeds.

Another track is a fairly straight rendition of a composition done by White’s old collaborator and friend, saxophonist Joe Henderson, “Gazelle,” done as the purest kind of jazz/rock, an even 50-50 mix reminiscent of those great early 1970s CTI sessions, with hard bop space and rock repercussions.

Yes, the key concept on this recording is the way it keeps coming back to a sharp, rock-centric focus, a hard-hitting kind of rhythmic drive that pushes the listener along, tune after tune, in a visceral, heart-pounding, headlong rush.

Remember the feverish, exhilarating excitement of hearing Sly and the Family Stone’s Woodstock performance of “I Wanna Take You Higher,” or the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter?” Remember the first time you were propelled pell mell through the musical universe created by Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” or Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love?” Remember the seismic energy of the bass as it pummeled you and took over your breathing, and the drums as they overtook your heartbeat?


Like a great number of jazz fans, I’ve been listening religiously to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) for many years. When he made this revolutionary recording with White and DeJohnette, guitarist John Mc Laughlin, bassists Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks, pianists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, and all the other great musicians, Miles had referred to them collectively as “the best damn rock and roll band in the world.” Like a few, I’ve repeatedly listened to the box set of the complete recording sessions, plus every other recording of that virtuosic ensemble that I could lay my hands on. And I’ve listened to a great deal of the music it has spawned. But as profoundly as I love so much of what Miles and many of the others did, I’ve never really thought of it as rock and roll.

But it's undeniable there was a renaissance in jazz that began with those Bitches Brew sessions, after Miles had gotten a running start on Filles de Kilimanjaro (Columbia, 1968) and In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969). For a dozen years afterward, jazz and rock collided to produce sublime kinds of music no one had ever heard before, music heard only rarely since. The collision of the two forms produced what was eventually labeled Jazz-Rock.

White soon joined his friends Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea and played with Return To Forever, one of the seminal bands that sprang from the Bitches Brew matrix. The new music had the power and volume of rock and roll, but the harmonies and rhythmic approach of jazz. Mahavishnu Orchestra rocked it a little harder. Weather Report improvised it more, and the Headhunters funked it up. All were magnificent artists playing brilliantly.

But, with no disrespect intended for Miles or anyone else involved, I’d never thought of it as rock and roll. So when Lenny had said “it’s rock,” the reality of what he was saying didn’t quite hit me. Not that I didn’t trust him to tell me the truth. Lenny White places great value on communication and is among the more honorable people I’ve ever known – the first time I ever interviewed him I told him to feel free to retract any statement he later regretted making, and his response was: “It’s okay. I don’t say anything that I don’t mean.”

No, the reason his statement wasn’t registering is that I had redefined rock & roll in my own mind as it relates to jazz. Over the years I had developed an idée fixe, a fixed idea, about what constitutes rock and roll, much in the same way some jazz purists tolerantly accepted jazz/rock as an art form but say it is not jazz. On one level this is just wordplay, because the music exists as itself no matter what it is called. The musicians play it well or not. You like it or you don't. But the music is called something and it is discussed. The discussion that blew up when Bitches Brew was released in 1970 became an argument over not only what to call it, but whether it was jazz. Or rock. Or neither one.

Or both. It is jazz/rock. Going back recently to the "cold sweat" beat of Filles de Kilimanjaro and the straighter rock beats of Bitches Brew, I've already discovered a lot of room inside the the word "rock." And thanks to this new recording of Lenny White's, I'm going to keep listening.

Anomaly was recorded last year whenever Lenny had a few hours to spend in the studio. It was a busy time for him, culminating in a world tour with two of his old Return To Forever band mates. Corea, Clarke & White, as they eventually billed themselves (instead of the original Power of Three, which implied that their name was really Return To Before Forever or the Power of Four Minus One) had opened their tour September 2 at the Hollywood Bowl shortly after a brilliant, wildfire-orange sunset. Ten weeks later he and the boys had taken a short break over Thanksgiving, and during a 12-hour layover at LAX on his way to Tokyo to begin the Asian leg of the tour, Lenny opened his laptop and cued up the first tune, “Drum Boogie.” Then he handed me a pair of headphones, put on a pair of his own, and turned up the volume. I was immediately struck by the fattest bass line I’ve heard in years, an ominously dramatic Victor Bailey funk riff that feels like he’s gunning a dangerously hot engine. The explosion that follows goes from zero to 60 in a couple bars and takes off like a nitro-fueled dragster, all tightened and powered up by White’s driving drum kit rhythms. When guitarist Nick Moroch (a veteran of Adventures of Astral Pirates band and several other of White’s recordings) blisters his distorted attack like he’s pouring it through a supercharger, I could scarcely believe my ears.

I looked over at Lenny, who was watching my reaction.

But before I could say anything the next track, “We Know,” had started. The only way I could ever have known this was music produced by Lenny White is that he was sitting right next to me. What I was hearing had the hard, low-frequency bottom of a James Gang or Bad Company recording. Anchoring the rhythm section with him is his friend and frequent collaborator, Stanley Clarke, a very rare bassist whose training on upright bass has enabled him to employ the electric instrument as a guitar and not just an amplified washtub, a bass guitarist who plays his axe like it’s a Stradivarius. Clarke is soon joined by Moroch playing a blazing guitar solo with chords voiced in ways only a jazzer could conceive. A second guitar solo comes from another veteran of White’s collaborations, David Bendeth (known more these days as the producer for bands like Paramore and Breaking Benjamin) who picks up where Moroch left off and puts on a shredding exhibition that goes until the tape stops running. At the end of the tune I took off the headphones and just stared at Lenny for a minute. My astonishment must have been obvious, because he laughed at me. “I told you it was rock!” he said.

So make that clear in your mind. “Drum Boogie” and nine of the other tracks on this CD are the most inspired, hardest driving rock anyone has done in years, recorded by a master jazzman who knows how to hit a down beat. It is also fresh and new. It is not Fusion. It is not updated Prog Rock or sweetened Grunge Rock. It is not re-tooled Metal or juiced-up New Age. It is cranked up, grab-you-by-the-balls Rock played with jazz sensibilities and values.

Jazz-Rock collides again

In fact, this music collides with a force you’ve never quite heard jazzers play before. This is hot, hissing explosiveness, much closer to Jimmy Page or Brian May than Django Reinhart or Pat Metheny. Like a real racing engine, the bone-jarring thunder created by White and his various guests will pin you to the back of your seat.

What makes jazz/rock jump is the rhythms. The key to the unusual musical hybrid is contained quite literally in the drum sticks, so it’s probably quite logical that the genre’s next great recording would come from a drummer. In no other form do the timekeeper’s acute engineering skills play a bigger role in the music’s locomotion, the way the other band members set their clocks. Every member of a rock ensemble hears that downbeat in his head like a hammer on an anvil, but a jazz player is always challenged to play his sophisticated changes over the top of it, and even leave it behind. The band know that any one of them can have a bad night. But if it’s the drummer who is having a bad night, everyone else is in for a bad one, too—no band can be any better than its rhythmic foundation.

Conversely, if he’s having a good night, the gig has a chance to be a good one. It is how the music is built. John Lennon's story of the Beatles' formative period when he and McCartney knew they needed a seasoned professional on the drum kit and went after Ringo Starr, speaks directly to the point. To form rock’s first real supergroup, drummer Ginger Baker recruited a bassist and guitarist to form a trio with people famous for their mutual dislike for each other, but through his leadership and single-minded determination was able to overcome the attendant obstacles and keep Cream together long enough to make history. A short while later it was another drummer, Billy Cobham, who joined forces with jazz’s premiere electric guitarist to create Mahavishnu Orchestra's very rock-oriented jazz. It was soon after that when Lenny White’s phone started ringing.

In late 1972, Chick Corea was mulling the idea of forming an electric band with a rock and roll rhythm section and called White from Japan. He asked his friend from the Miles Davis sessions if he was interested in joining him and Stanley Clarke, to replace Airto Moreira (who needed to return to New York with his wife, Flora Purim, and their newborn child) for an upcoming engagement at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner. White jumped at the chance to play what he knew would be (and has since characterized as) a week of “fantastic music… really great.” On the last night of that fortuitous gig, three other local musicians sat in with them: guitarist Barry Finnerty, plus two players who were soon offered spots in Corea’s newly formed electric edition of Return to Forever, ex-Santana percussionist Mingo Lewis and guitarist Bill Connors. Corea also offered the drum chair to White.

Who respectfully turned him down. He liked the band he was playing with, the large Latin rock band Azteca. Formed by ex-Santana percussionists Coke and Pete Escovedo, this talent-rich group employed 17 musicians, including bassist Paul Jackson, trumpeter Tom Harrell, and ex-Santana guitarist Neil Schon, and had recorded an excellent debut LP for Columbia, Azteca (GNP Crescendo.)

Then a few months later another juicy offer came his way. This time from Herbie Herbert, who was managing some groups around the Bay area and had an idea for a new band he wanted to form with Neal Schon and bassist Ross Valory. What Herbert had in mind was a supergroup, a power trio, and he needed someone on the drum kit with rock and roll power. White was part of the Santana circle, part of the swirl of talent that flowed through that organization and through the band Azteca. White accepted the invitation to rehearse with them, but when it was time for a decision, he said he had to decline. White’s accountant may never forgive him for not taking the job with the band soon to be called Journey, but as the poor bean-counter must know by now, Lenny White has always listened very closely to his Muse.

He’d gotten another call from Chick Corea. Airto was gone. Upon their return to New York, Corea had hired his old friend Steve Gadd, but despite Gadd being a talented and well-regarded drummer, he was not a perfect fit. What was needed for this band was a unique combination of jazz sensibilities plus rock and roll power, precisely the kind White could supply. What he wanted was the drummer he had offered the job to in the first place. Clarke, who was creating the band alongside Corea, also knew White’s wide range of capabilities from the work they had done together in Joe Henderson’s band. Corea had written new material that he wanted to record. This was electric jazz that needed rock’s rhythmic concussion and bluster. And the young guitar player, Bill Connors, was playing like he wanted to un-seat John McLaughlin and Eric Clapton from their thrones. Was he interested?

Lenny White stood at a crossroads. He was in high demand as he stood at the precise point in time and space where Jazz and Rock were converging. It was unlikely that Chick Corea had spent much time listening to the Beatles, or that Neal Schon had heard Kind of Blue more than once or twice. What is important, however, is that Lenny White had.

Soon after arriving in New York, he joined Corea, Clarke and Connors in the studio and they recorded the seminal Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polygram.) Together with Mahavishnu’s Birds of Fire (Sony) recording, these two recordings invaded the airwaves and shook the musical universe. The kids may have been listening to Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but they were listening to Return To Forever. The bar had been raised to an all-new level of virtuosity and power, and the second phase of jazz/rock, what might be termed Power Jazz/Rock, had begun.


I’d like to suggest that with Lenny White’s Anomaly, a third phase may have begun. Yes, it’s true that Progressive Rock could legitimately have made that claim. But that was then. This is now. This is new music. Call it Phase IV if you like.

A few quick takes on the different tracks:

1) Drum Boogie – As stated in other words elsewhere, this is high-pressure, rip-it-up funk that Sly Stone and George Clinton, Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins will be listening to. I can’t get enough of Victor Bailey’s opening riff and Bernard Wright’s beefy, in-your-face organ work. This tune went straight to my top 10 all-time favorite opening tracks.

2) We Know – Described earlier, but wait till you hear the sublime guitar choir of Nick Moroch and David Bendeth, with Stanley Clarke on bass. There’s great electric guitar, and then there’s electric guitar played by journeyman jazz musicians who can play anything, and have chosen to play rock.

3) Forever – Song stylist Nicki Richards has written the lyrics and stirring vocal arrangement here, and then used her powerful vocal instrument to sing them on this tribute to Michael Jackson. White’s composition and orchestration demonstrate, once again, his skills with writing music for the human voice.

4) Dark Moon – Guitarist David Gilmore’s lilting, swinging guitar work suits his writing on this tone poem, which finds everyone in the band in a kind of expansive, uptown Saturday night mood, ready to hit it and take in the night.

5) Gazelle – Easily one of my favorite tracks on this CD, this has a killer groove that lopes and prances along with the energy and grace of the African antelope it is named after, and features one of Lenny White’s rare drum solos that does just as intended: without presenting a distraction from the other musicians, he advances the song’s concept with rhythmic figures that dance along inside his composition with his signature sense of poly-rhythm and counterpoint.

6) If U Dare – This Tom Guarna composition is played by the same personnel as are on “Gazelle” – White, Guarna, Bailey and talented keyboardist George Colligan. These guys have a naturally complementary sound that seems to allow them to find and hit their stride almost instantly. Featuring Lenny’s one other drum solo on this CD, this tune and “Gazelle” create such a classic jazz/rock sound that they beg to be stretched out in live performance.

7) Election Day – Written in 2008 on election day, this is another metal monster like “We Know” that is a group of untamed jazzers in a rock-and-roll blowing session that just builds and builds, Lenny stomping out endless bass drum variations under the chorus’s guitar bridge that is reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” until Moroch and Guarna come in with their Tabasco-hot guitar solos. Along with a triple keyboard attack from Wright, Colligan and Vince Evans, the wall of sound would overwhelm if it weren’t swinging so hard.

8) Coming Down – Just what it sounds like, this is a musical interlude that eases the listener down from a great height, firmly if not always quietly. Tom Guarna’s expressive guitar solo sizzles and Victor Bailey’s fretless bass solo smokes like the embers of a slowly dying fire. This time the White-Guarna-Bailey-Colligan quartet are joined by Bernard Wright and Vince Evans on keys, amplifying one of the nicest jazz/rock sounds in a long time.

9) Catlett Out of the Bag - Lenny White pairs up here with legendary Headhunter drummer Mike Clark for a crazy rhythmic interplay that every funk drummer in the world will listen to and study like a drum clinic. It starts innocently with a straight snare and cymbal figure, but then turns abruptly into a rippling back-and-forth exchange between White and Clark that layer-by-layer adds elements, first with Vince Evans’ keys and then Bernard Wright’s slowing rolling synth bass. When Danny Walsh’s sax comes in with Jerry Z’s organ, and then Tim Ouimette’s trombone, you’ll hear a sweet sound unlike anything you’ve likely heard since those old Headhunter days, and finally when Guarna comes in with his fire-breathing guitar, he blows the lid off and the slow-cooking stew boils over (if you listen closely you’ll hear Guarna play a lick that Jimi Hendrix first did and that Skunk Baxter later did a variation on with Steely Dan...and which he multiplies times ten.)

10) Water Changes Everything – The sounds and textures of far-off thunder and the cleansing downpour of pure water that it ushers in, make this strike a humanitarian chord for me that goes far beyond politics. More fundamental than money, easier to drill for than gold or silver, pure drinking water is the difference between life and death, the make-break point between civilization and barbarism. Writing with Sammie Williams and Rennie Hurst, White employs six vocalists and creates a wall of aural sound that is at once light air and more than big enough to fill the room.

11) Anthem – The title says it. Part heavy metal grandeur, part spiritual, part stadium rock that would look and sound great with space opera light-and-laser show to open a live concert in a big venue.

12) The Weight Has Lifted the Weight – This is an extended blues performed orchestrally and operatically to convey Lenny White’s thoughts about his roots, and his reflections on the cultural paradigm shift that occurred with the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Many times a blues composer will fall into the abundance of clichés we have come to identify with this musical form, but not so here. It is firmly in the tradition without being tied to it. I have seldom heard a composition that struck me with such emotional impact, in large part because of an extended guitar solo -- which, I learned after hearing it, is actually being played by the fantastically talented keyboardist Bernard Wright, on some combination of keyboard sampler/synthesizers that I don’t technically understand. But if perception is reality, what I hear Wright playing whenever I listen to this piece is as much a guitar as it would be if he were plucking strings. Lenny told me he had originally thought of a number of different guitarists for this, Eric Clapton among them, but that from the beginning he had thought Wright would be the best, provided it could be done. Let me assure you, it can be done. This is an inspirational, heart-rending work, best understood in its own terms, as is all great music, and best experienced simply by listening to it. Lenny White and I are both citizens of arguably the last free nation in the world. It is the only nation in modern history to ever have fought a civil war in order to emancipate an enslaved population and then freed them; the only nation to ever have fought successfully to preserve the rights and personal freedoms of anyone granted citizenship, regardless of race, creed, property or station; the same country which, all these years later, elected a black man to the most powerful position of leadership in the world. May God grant that it remain so.

Personnel in addition to Lenny White:

Bailey, Victor – electric and acoustic bass

Bendeth, Davidelectric guitar

Blackman, Donald – organ piano

Clark, Gregg – lead and backing vocal

Clark, Mikedrums

Clarke, Stanley – electric bass

Colligan, George – keyboards

Evans, Vince – keyboards

Fambrough, Charlesupright bass

Gilmore, David – electric guitar

Goods, Richard – electric bass

Guarna, Tom – electric guitar

Herring, Jimmy – electric guitar

James, Irenebacking vocal

Moroch, Nick – electric guitar

Ouimette, Tom – trumpet, trombone

Richards, Nickilead and backing vocal

Thomas, Vaneese – lead and backing vocal

Walsh, Danny – alto and tenor sax

Weeks-Reynoso, Michellebacking vocal

Williams, Chris – lead and backing vocal

Wright, Bernard – keyboards

Z, Jerry – organ

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Platinum Legacy of Bitches Brew

This photo was taken during a recent video interview I did with Lenny White (parts of which will be published here on this blog, later in an interview and article and in a documentary film-in-progress... and as soon as I can manage, a snippet on YouTube.) Between the two of us we are holding the platinum record awarded to Miles Davis on September 22, 2003 when his 1969 recording Bitches Brew was certified for sales of 1 million copies. (Thanks for the photo help to Aaron at Bluebird Imaging)

We were setting up lights and cameras in the living room of Vince Wilburn's house to do the taping while Lenny was in town to master his new CD,
Anomaly (Abstract Logix) scheduled to be released in May. As my DP, Mike, and his assistant Nolan, raced around getting everything ready, Lenny and I got involved in a discussion of Bitches Brew. From up on the second floor of the house, Vince, who had overheard us, shouted down the stairwell asking if we'd like to see Miles' platinum record that he'd been awarded. The answer, of course, was hell yes...

Miles Davis' record sales were a big topic of conversation in Miles: the Autobiography for a number of reasons, all stemming from the fact that Bitches Brew had sold so many copies. After it was released in 1970 no one at Columbia, not even Clive Davis, had ever seen a jazz album sell so briskly.

Miles fueled the discussion of its commercial ascendancy for years with his claim that the revolutionary recording was the bestselling jazz album of all time. No question, the sales figures were staggering. But in truth, in 1986 -- many long years before his own platinum record was awarded --
the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) had certified Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters platinum. Miles' boast was probably true for a period of time, roughly from April 1970 through the end of 1973. But Herbie Hancock's album Head Hunters, issued in October of 1973, sold at such a rate that it was the first jazz recording ever certified gold by the RIAA -- a mere 6 months after it had been released -- thanks largely to the enormous influence of Bitches Brew on both the buying public and the people at Columbia, who, emboldened by Miles' success, were devoting large resources to marketing the new jazz/rock genre. It took another two years after Head Hunters went gold for Miles' own landmark recording to reach the required 500,000 sales plateau. But in fairness to Hancock's mentor, it would require a fair bit of diligent research to determine, one way or another, what the best-selling jazz album truly was as of 1989-1990 when Miles' autobiography was being written and published.

There wasn't always an RIAA, and even after their arrival as the industry arbiter in 1952, there have been frequent changes in the award criteria.
Ten years before the RIAA even existed, Glenn Miller had received the very first gold record as a gift from RCA for having sold 1.2 million copies of his 78 rpm single "Chattanooga Choo Choo". Four years later, in 1958, when the RIAA boys started handing out their own gold records as sales awards, and began establishing standards for such matters, the criteria for a gold record was $1 million in sales. At 1941 prices, that's a lot of choo choos.
But the real problem in corroborating Miles' assertion is that the byzantine accounting methods, like many things about the record industry, have never been particularly transparent. The advent of easily downloaded digital musical files in the last 5 years or so may or may not have made the record-keeping less complex. Frederick Dannen's excellent book, Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business, might have us ascribe the industry's ills these day to its own nefarious business practices and avarice. Though that's a matter for discussion on a different day. As with prizefighting, another industry that places questionable characters in close proximity to large piles of cash, the devil is in the details.

But as is true of all life, including the worlds of music recording and prizefighting, the truth shall set you free. Informed of the most up-to-date, accurately calculated sales figures per the RIAA, Miles would be very pleased. On October 7, 2008, they certified that his own Kind of Blue had sold 4 million copies. And this was a year before that spectacular recording was reissued by Columbia/Legacy as part of the extended celebration of its much heralded 50th anniversary. Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is unquestionably the best-selling jazz album of all time.

As for the most revolutionary jazz album of all time, there can be no doubt that Bitches Brew has had greater impact than any modern jazz ever recorded. Like it or not, it changed not only jazz but blues, and ultimately rock and roll. It changed what was recorded and how it was recorded. Lauded by many and excoriated by a few, it was the matrix for the personnel
who went on to play in Tony Williams Lifetime, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Headhunters and Return To Forever.

Which brings me all the way back to Lenny White. Lenny has produced a most startling recording called Anomaly. Aptly titled. It's more than a breath of fresh air, it is a damned hurricane. We have heard a lot of good jazz/rock in the last 40 years. But while Return To Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra rocked it pretty hard, this new recording is the first jazz/ROCK I've ever heard.

Check back right here on jazzjazzersjazzing.blogspot.com next week for the whole inside scoop on Lenny White's CD, Anomaly. Like the title implies, Lenny figures this is nothing like what you'd expect from him. Take it from me, he's right. And if you'd like to hear rock and roll played by jazzers, you are going to dig it. A lot.

Stay tuned.