Chet Baker and the Old Jazz Guys

There’s a new movie about Chet Baker which is on our Netflix list, but somehow I also put there the old documentary about him, Let’s Get Lost. So we watched it thinking it would be the new movie with Ethan Hawke as Chet and found it was the old movie with Chet as Chet (apparently the new movie is a movie about the making of that old movie…).

Chet Baker

It started with scenes in clubs in Los Angeles in the 1950s and reminiscences about those clubs from the era of the West Coast Sound, where Chet played in little store front establishments with people such as Dizzy Gillespie, before he became the victim of his drug habit, and aged and waned before our eyes.

Old jazz guys in Los Angeles bemoan the fact that the jazz and club scene isn’t what it once was, and when they do that, I roll my eyes, but the documentary enabled me to see what they mean. They complain regularly about the places that have closed down, and I can make a list from the time I’ve been here. The third night after we moved to Pasadena, we went to the Pasadena Baked Potato (yes, that’s what they serve) and I noted there weren’t many people there; the next day it closed. We used to go to the Hollywood Baked Potato; it closed. We went to Charlie O’s, and one evening found it was closing that very night (the singer for the evening was pretty bewildered, too). The Pasadena Jazz Institute lost the plot and closed down. The Vic in Santa Monica just closed. While sometimes the places lose clientele, as often as not it’s because the owner gets bored.

I am as struck by the new places that open. On Monday we were at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo (don’t ask me why it’s there), in a street called after Ellison Onizuka, the Japanese American astronaut who died in the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Vocalist Jessica Vautor was celebrating her birthday and her CD with the most original and creative arrangements of standards by Vardan Ovsepian on piano and extraordinary jazz cello playing by Artyom Manukyan (there were non-Armenians in the band as well). That was only Monday. Tuesday there was the New Breed Brass Band from New Orleans doing a free outdoor concert, and on Thursday Sara Gazarek and the New West Guitar Group doing another free outdoor concert, and on Friday Asian American Connie Han’s lively piano trio at Red White and Bluezz. Don’t listen too much to the old jazz guys.

Jessica Vautor

I See Hawks in LA

In about 1915, we were told, four years before women got the vote, a band of suffragettes whom the L.A. Times dubbed rabble-rousers used to meet in a house in South Pasadena. In 2015 we went to hear another band do a concert in the garden of that house, not knowing this story but always keen to hear I See Hawks in L.A.

The name comes from one of their first songs, which with typical originality, quirkiness, and sly humor imagines the predatory birds hovering over our city as they sense that the “big one” is imminent. The Hawks are a country trio, but theirs is “California country,” not country as played by men in big hats. The guitar expertise comes from Paul Lacques, he with the very long grey hair. The vocals come from Rob Weller, who is a dead ringer for one of my faculty colleagues; I often do a double take on the latter. The other indispensable Paul, Paul Marshall, plays bass.

Hawks couch

Rob is younger than the others. My favorite Hawks song is actually called “California Country.” It tells the story of someone’s lifetime journey from green fields to urban sprawl, but the singer is still rejoicing to be “living in California country.” Rob explained one time that Paul Lacques had to revise the dates in the song so that it became plausible on Rob’s lips. The song goes on to recall getting stuck on the freeway in Glendale near where we live, on the way to trying to see the annual meteor shower. Lo and behold, that shower is to happen tonight, and Kathleen and I will look for it, but we’ll avoid the Angeles Crest.

Through the music of the opening acts at this particular show, I realized more clearly two things about the Hawks. The first opening act was a teenage singer-songwriter whose songs were confessional and musically loose, though therefore not very hummable. The Hawks tell stories but their songs are hummable, singalongable. Indeed, their songs are indulgent or wasteful in the sense that they throw in extra melodies and don’t develop them. They know another will come along in a minute.

The other two opening acts were striking in a different way. In both cases the bands were playing songs that some players had never played before (and without music charts). How could they do that? Because most country-type music (like most pop music and much jazz and rock) utilizes one of a number of standard formats in terms of the number of bars and the chord sequence. So though the tune may be unfamiliar, you can know where the song is going structurally and musically, and you can join in even if you’ve never played it before. You couldn’t do that with many Hawks songs. They’re not illogical or disorganized. But you commonly can’t predict where they might be going. Yet when they get to the end, they have been somewhere, lyrically and musically. It’s a mark of a musically great band, I’d say.

Photo from http://www.iseehawks.com/

Willie and Alison

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No one makes Kathleen sing along like Willie Nelson. He was having that effect on most people at the Santa Barbara Bowl last week. Why the Santa Barbara Bowl, you ask? Because we could get cheap tickets for $50, and that’s as much as I will pay. There were 5000 people there; I guess the concert took in $500,000. The cheapest tickets for the Los Angeles concert were $80 in a 7000-seat venue—you can do the math. Anyway, it’s nice to have an excuse to go to SB. And sitting at the back in the cheap seats you can see the ocean. In addition, why is it called the Santa Barbara Bowl, Alison Krauss asked. Yes, why?

Maybe they had an excuse to charge a lot because the concert was a double-header. Alison Krauss is not your average opening act, though the people in the expensive seats were the average expensive-seat-audience in failing to arrive for the opening act. This was unwise because Alison and her band can carry a concert on their own, and usually do – they were the main act the previous time we saw them, four years ago, a couple of weeks after I had my prostate out, but that’s another story.

Record

Alison has the world’s best player of the dobro (a lap steel guitar), Jerry Douglas. She also has Dan Tyminski, whose voice you hear coming out of George Clooney’s mouth in Oh Brother (Dan’s wife says that her husband’s voice and Clooney’s face constitutes her dream man). But most of all she has her own pure, subtle, elegant, mesmerizing voice. I’m still humming “Baby, now that I’ve found you.” But she sang fewer songs than I expected; I think because she is careful about not overdoing it because she has had vocal chords trouble. But anyway she is also a formidable fiddler. She is bluegrass for people who don’t like bluegrass.

07222015_Willie_Nelson_08_r175x200When Willie Nelson came on, a giant Texas flag dropped behind him. One also has to comment on his age (82), but over against Alison its significance lies in one’s sense that he has lived in his songs for so many decades. The voice that’s husky or gravelly (not pure like Alison’s) helps to convey that impression. The songs come from deep inside. Maybe that’s especially true of On the Road Again, but it’s also somehow true about the songs that don’t necessarily relate to his own experience.

Kathleen and others were especially vocal during Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys with the telling line, “They’ll never stay home and they’re always alone, even with someone they love.” A striking aspect of Willie’s set was the way he letting one song flow into the next seamlessly without missing a beat, song after song. Another striking aspect was that most songs lasted two minutes and twenty-five seconds, presumably because they were written by people such as Hank Williams back in the days of 78 r.p.m. records when every song had to get itself over in that time.

Willie’s band was only himself plus two percussion (!), bass, harmonica, and keyboard, which made for a crisp, clean sound. It gave great prominence to the virtuoso harmonica, and it also exposed Willie’s guitar work in a way that made clear what a virtuoso he himself is.

SB-Bowl-Eve

Baldy Mountain Jazz

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A half-wit once tried to change the name of the Baldy Mountain Jazz Band, which plays at The Press Restaurant in Claremont. The building used to house the local newspaper’s printing presses, but it’s now the home of an adventurous and tasty chef (last night quail was on the menu) who is almost worth driving the nineteen miles for. It’s definitely worth it when Baldy are there playing New Orleans-type jazz (which is hard to find in Los Angeles).

Mount Baldy rises 10,000 feet above where we live. It’s where we can most often see snow, and where Leonard Cohen spent five years in a Zen monastery before coming back down and touring again after his manager made off with his money (so we owe her a debt of thanks; maybe even Leonard does). I like to picture the band trekking down the mountain to play and then trekking back to resume their jobs as tree-fellers or whatever. To encourage that impression, one or two wear plaid shirts, and one wears a cap and suspenders (braces in Brit-speak).

Actually they are bank managers and builders and the like. The leader and trombonist used to be a retired science professor, but alas he passed away last year. They include a father and son duo (in their seventies and forties) on guitars, a trumpeter who plays drums to do them a favor, and a pianist who is the band’s musical arranger and indispensable heart.

The odd thing is that they almost seem to make a point of never having what I was taught was a “proper” New Orleans front line—trombone, trumpet, clarinet. In Britain in my teens, the great controversy concerned whether the addition of saxes was an act of betrayal. Nowadays saxes have an unquestioned place (but this is California). The new leader also plays flute, and Last night claimed that one of the numbers had never been played on flute before.

John

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