Jazz With an Attitude
Resourceful keyboardist Liz Kinnon names as major influences such heralded pianists as Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans. But the guy that got her going in the first place, the fellow she cites as the primary reason she’s a musician today, is that late ‘60s-era rock ‘n’ roller, pianist-singer-composer Leon Russell.
“I just flipped over his writing, his playing, his songs,” said Kinnon, 40, of the man who inspired her to play piano at age 15. “The groove in his music just killed me.”
At the same time that Kinnon sought out rock, her mother--Carol Easton, author of the Stan Kenton biography “Straight Ahead"--and her father, a bookstore owner, played jazz around the house.
Soon, the youngster, who was born in Van Nuys and raised in Redondo Beach, began to accompany her parents to the Lighthouse in nearby Hermosa Beach. There, the fledgling keyboardist heard such greats as Horace Silver, Sonny Stitt and Milt Jackson. Today, Kinnon calls those visits the best education she had.
“Just watching and listening to those musicians, I think I got an attitude,” said Kinnon, who plays with the Jazzbirds on Friday at Chadney’s in Burbank. “These players were serious about what they were doing.
“And just being in the jazz atmosphere at a young age made certain things more natural for me, like improvising, playing without music on the bandstand, and the interaction between the musicians.”
Asked how that Lighthouse experience still influences her, Kinnon said the word again: “Attitude.”
“I can’t think of a more specific word,” she said. “Take music seriously but have a lot of fun. If it’s not fun and you can’t be proud of it, find something else to do.”
When Kinnon plays with the Jazzbirds, the fun factor is high. “Our personalities work, they meld,” said Kinnon, a charter member. Then she knocked wood.
Playing with the group, co-led by brass players Betty O’Hara and Stacy Rowles--is a pleasure. “Betty and Stacy are two of the most lyrical players I know,” she said. “Just to listen to them is a luxury.”
In the Jazzbirds, Kinnon gets plenty of exposure as a soloist and contributes to the band’s book of originals and arrangements. Writing, she said, is just as much fun as playing, and often more rewarding.
“I feel like my writing is more original than my playing,” said Kinnon, who graduated from the Dick Grove School of Music’s Composing and Arranging Program in 1981. “I don’t have any regrets or criticisms about what I’ve written, while I do about what I’ve played. Once I’ve written something, I don’t change it. I’m happy with it.”
Two of her originals that the Jazzbirds regularly play are the waltzes “J.J.,” for her nephew, and “Early Morning.” Among her arrangements is “Manteca,” the Afro-Cuban jazz classic that Kinnon and the other Birds got to play with co-composer Dizzy Gillespie on a jazz cruise.
Latin and Brazilian rhythms are among Kinnon’s favorites.
“There’s a forward motion to the rhythms that I love,” she said.
She’s played with Brazilian groups such as Octavio Bailly’s quartet, featuring the renowned Claudio Slon on drums, and Glen Garrett’s big band, Fejoada Completa. On her roster of Latin and salsa employers are Poncho Sanchez and Bobby Redfield.
A working professional for the past 20 years, these days Kinnon freelances. Married for almost 11 years to reed man Dick Mitchell, Kinnon is the mother of two children: Kevin, 4, and Andy, 2 1/2. The musician said having children drastically altered her musical life, but she’s better off for it.
“The kids come first. I spend a lot of time with them,” she said. “Now I don’t have the chops I used to, but I’m a richer human being.”
* Liz Kinnon appears with the Jazzbirds, Friday, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., at Chadney’s, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank. No cover, one-drink minimum per show. (818) 843-5333.
QUICK HITS: I’ve raved about Stephanie Haynes over and over in these pages, and why not? She’s at the top of my jazz-singer list, and many others’ as well. The woman has wonderful taste in songs and her beat could knock down a wall. Hear Haynes tonight, 7-11, at Ca’ del Sole (4100 N. Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood; no cover, no minimum; (818) 985-4669).
In the mornings, Jennifer York flies our skies, reporting on traffic and weather conditions for KTLA-TV Channel 5. By night, she slips into a sleek outfit and hits the town with her bass fiddle. York and her quartet play a variety of jazz Friday, 7:30-11 p.m., at Papashon (15910 Ventura Blvd., Encino; no cover, no minimum;  783-6664). On Saturday, the band scoots over to Chadney’s.