Land Brings Taste of Bebop Past to Local Scene

Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

The jazz man, recently returned from gigs in Paris and Rome, walked in dressed as a gentleman of the piazza: black ventless suit with suppressed lapels, black pinpoint dress shirt, floral print Italian silk tie. He moved slowly and elegantly to the stage to greet his young blue-jeaned California sidemen, extending his 66-year-old hand and cocking his head slightly to reveal the ever-ironic smile.

Harold Land Sr. is like that. Probably given that handshake, that smile, five thousand times before.

Land has been in the music that long, carving seamless sonic sculptures with a tenor saxophone that at times barely contained the girth of his sound. It was the strength of his musical conception that got him discovered and hired in 1954 by legendary Clifford Brown and Max Roach, launching a career that also would include collaborations with Cedar Walton, Billy Higgins, Red Mitchell, Bobby Hutcherson, Gerald Wilson, Blue Mitchell, Buster Williams, Curtis Fuller and others of jazz's first rank.

Popular artists with a jazz bent would seek him out as well, and that accounts for his years-long association with Tony Bennett.

At the time he was discovered by Brown and Roach, however, Land was playing L. A.'s segregated clubs--a tough existence in a demanding, protean musical form that offered little financial reward. As if to gird himself for those club nights, he'd look the beast in the eye by day and participate in exhausting practice sessions with John Coltrane's equally obsessive partner, Eric Dolphy, at Dolphy's L. A. apartment.

All of this, of course, would suit Land for a life of musical integrity and worldwide touring under all conditions, from the humblest basement club to posh cruise ships to the Montreaux Jazz Festival to Carnegie Hall--to, only weeks ago, Europe's finest nightclubs.

Now, on a recent Saturday night, it's California 66, the grill-your-own steak restaurant, in this humble city by the sea. The place is on California Street, a block up from the throbbing Bombay Club, where hundreds of the young and restless clutch drinks and clot before the derivative funkster Curtis Traylor, and directly across the street from The Sportsman restaurant, closed but for a glowing blue neon LITE sign.

When the money's right, Land brings his own band, the L.A.-based Harold Land Quartet. When he's simply working for his fee, as he was on this recent Saturday night, the jazz man appears as a special guest and experiences a sort of musical potluck on the bandstand.

His bandmates were California 66's house band, led by pianist/singer Johnny Veith. Veith, depending upon the night and the crowd, is known to glide from firm bebop into schmaltzy lounge tunes: This 40-year-old Eastman School of Music graduate is a master musical chameleon. On bass was Henry Franklin of Riverside, a sturdy jazz player; on drums, Ventura's Jim Christie, noted for his playing with country star Dwight Yoakum.

Clearly, it would be a tall order when the jazz man arrived. Jazz, for all its improvisational "freedom," is a technically demanding form that makes group precision especially difficult. Often, a throw-together band will run through a few tunes ahead of time, particularly the original compositions of the featured guest. But not on this night. Land, a practitioner of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, spent the half-hour before the opening set chanting in his room at The Country Inn on Thompson Boulevard.

From the time he walked in, shook hands, and said hello, it was only minutes before he took the stage.

With no warm-up on his own instrument, Land launched into a blistering, arching, soulful rendition of "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes." He played it aggressively and with complete facility over a varied harmonic terrain, revealing imagination and deeply felt emotion. His tone, a masculine timbre at times reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders, grew warmer and rounder as the intensity of the tune escalated, burnishing and polishing an expanding mosaic of notes. For all this, Land remained unrelenting in his pace and, with circular hand signals for more propulsion from the drums, in his insistence to the band that they keep up with him.

Later, when asked about starting off with such an ambitious piece, Land would issue that ironic smile and say: "Yes. I like to start with that because sometimes the intensity will be sustained for the entire set."

It wasn't, plainly, though that had to do with the time it took for the band to find sure footing. It found it, however, in the second set, at 11:30 p.m.: Land's impassioned, bebop-chiseled rendition of "Lover" somehow galvanized his sidemen into playing with the urgency, boldness, and risk that Land has been surrounded by all his playing life.

For those few minutes, nothing else mattered.

Real art--the kind drawn in a musical vocabulary forged 50 years ago in segregated joints--got created. It got created on California Street in a restaurant with a turquoise surfboard mounted over the bandstand and in which a pink wooden hand, pointing westward, is mounted to a sign saying "BEACH."

It got created in a place where the $10 cover charge kept some Venturans huddled on the sidewalk looking in, but where that same $10 seemed a bargain passage to the relatively few--about 50--inside.

To Land, dignified ambassador from jazz's fecund age, it was merely another night at the beach, if you will. "Chanting helps me keep my energy, I feel, in most situations," he noted.

With that, the jazz man, his suit coat still properly buttoned, packed up and headed back to the motel down the street. His wife would be waiting for him. Land had driven her back earlier, on break between the first and second sets, so she could chant and rest.

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