A Year of Up-and-Comers, Old-Timers and a Latin Beat


“Isn’t it great,” my friends often say, “to get to hear music almost every night and listen to all the new recordings?”

And I answer, “Well, yes and no.” Because listening to good music is a nonstop joy, but listening to bad music can make a short evening seem endless. As Duke Ellington once said, “There’s only two kinds of music: good and bad.”

Fortunately, listening to music in an area as broad and diverse as Southern California offers plenty of options from which to choose. And 1999 was a year that brought some remarkable performances.


The most persistent memories, however, are not simply of outstanding musical accomplishments, fascinating as they may have been. Other experiences were equally compelling: the random moments, in performance and on recordings, in which everything seemed to come together in pure musical beauty; the breakthrough efforts by imaginative young artists as they placed creativity above commercialism; the rushing sense of loss associated with the passing of legendary icons.

So here’s a brief, impressionistic view of some of 1999’s many arresting moments.

* Youngsters. There was the wonder of hearing L.A’s emerging young players in action, breaking through the comforting eggshell of their training and testing the world on their own--players such as trombonist Isaac Smith, saxophonists Zane Musa and Scheila Gonzales, pianist Donald Vega, to name only a few. An appearance at Catalina Bar & Grill by the amazingly talented Moscats--from that hotbed of jazz, Moscow (Russia, that is, not Idaho)--was equally fascinating, especially so since their ages ranged from 11 to 15 (!).

* Oldsters. And while we’re acknowledging the new jazz arrivals, let’s not forget the pleasures of hearing the many jazz veterans who displayed their mature wares this year: the inimitable drumming of Roy Haynes and Jimmy Cobb; the classic jazz guitar of Jim Hall; pioneering soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy; trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, still fronting a screaming, mini-big band; pianistic masters of the groove Gene Harris and Ahmad Jamal; saxophonist Charles Lloyd, playing as well--perhaps even better--than he ever has; tenor saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Pharoah Sanders, still doing their thing and doing it well.

* Humor. We were lucky to experience a few reminders of the wit and whimsy that can be present in jazz. No one does it better than Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough, and the opportunity to hear them working in tandem, not once but twice at the Jazz Bakery, made for a rare salute to jazz humor. Violinist Johnny Frigo mixed his world-class violin jazz with his sardonic poetry, and Horace Silver added an alternative view of the music’s lighter side with the spirited tunes on his latest, perfectly titled CD, “Jazz Has a Sense of Humor” (Verve).

* Pianos Everywhere. It’s not an exaggeration to describe the ‘90s as the Decade of the Jazz Piano, and the century rolled to a keyboard climax with a rush of impressive performances. Topping the list was the amazing Gonzalo Rubalcaba, improving with every performance, seamlessly combining the jazz, classical and Cuban aspects of his personal music history. Keith Jarrett’s Royce Hall appearance with his standards trio was his first local engagement since his long recovery from chronic fatigue syndrome, and he sounded as good as ever. But there were dozens of other admirable keyboardists in action, including--to list only a few--Alan Pasqua, Brad Mehldau, Geoff Keezer, Bennie Green, Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed and Jacky Terrasson. Add to that the fascinating series of two-piano live recordings at the Jazz Bakery, especially the scintillating combination of Dick Hyman and Roger Kellaway, and it was a piano year to remember.

* Singer-Songwriters. OK, it’s not a category one usually associates with jazz, but the fact is that we’ve heard a fascinating collection of singers in 1999 who, incidentally, write their own material. Start with Alan Bergman, the wordsmith (with his wife, Marilyn) of hit song after hit song, providing quiet, softly rendered insights into the consummate subtleties of his lyrics. And how to describe Bobby McFerrin, a gigantic talent who succeeds while taking the ultimate risk of complete spontaneity? Italian singer-pianist Paolo Conte was virtually unknown when he appeared at the Conga Room, but his world-weary, prewar jazz-tinged songs were among the year’s major delights. So too was the appearance of the utterly unique Oscar Brown Jr., who managed to combine his jazz sensibilities with a compelling view of African American cultural history.


* Vocalists. It was great to hear Dianne Reeves coming into her own as a jazz vocalist in a set with her trio at Founders Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Her artistic maturity, versatile vocal skills and solid musical intelligence have combined to place her among a very few contenders for the top of the jazz vocalist category. Add to that list Diana Krall, still growing, still filled with potential, her only real hazard the risk of being marketed as a personality rather than an artist. And let’s not overlook the highly personal style the Southland’s Carmen Lundy brought to a Jazz Bakery appearance, the classic singing of Shirley Horn in a too-brief set at the Hollywood Bowl, the blues-based vocals of Barbara Morrison and the innovative work of Kendra Shank.

* Latin Rhythms. It was a year in which Latin music made another of its periodic forays into pop music (thank you, Ricky Martin). But Latin rhythms, of course, have always been present in jazz (remember Jelly Roll Morton’s insistence upon the importance of the “Spanish tinge”?). This year nonetheless saw a rush of Latin-influenced jazz. Jesus “Chucho” Valdes was back again, as was his former group, Irakere. Master percussionist Poncho Sanchez could be heard almost weekly.

Bringing in the Millennium: Still not sure how to welcome 2000 in a jazz milieu? Here are a few recommendations:

* Catalina Bar & Grill. The Hank Jones Trio (with bassist George Mraz) and guest Kenny Garrett will mixing stylish mainstream with Garrett’s post-bop alto saxophone in Hollywood. Dinner and show package, $175. (323) 466-2210.

* The Jazz Bakery. The “Masters of Groove”--the Jimmy McGriff/Hank Crawford Quartet--will swing in the millennium at this Culver City spot with legendary vocalist Jimmy Scott as guest. Dinner and show package, $175. (310) 271-9039.

* Rocco Ristorante. The sophisticated center for jazz in Bel-Air features the Chuck Manning Quartet in a celebration that also showcases the club’s first-rate cuisine. Dinner and show package, $150. (310) 475-9807.


* La Ve Lee. Might as well make it a complete, two-night Latin jazz New Year’s weekend at this cozy Studio City restaurant-jazz club. Start with Marco Mendoza, Joey Heredia and Steve Weingart on New Year’s Eve, then wind up with the rhythms of Brasil Brazil (with singers Sonia Santos and Ana Gazzola) on Saturday. Price $100. (818) 980-8158.

* Steamers. More Latin Jazz for the New Year’s celebration in Fullerton with veteran Cuban percussionist Francisco Aguabella, and it’s the best bargain of all--a $10 cover with champagne at midnight. (714) 871-8800.

Passings: Add one more name to a far too long list of jazz departures in 1999. Grover Washington Jr., who died last week at 56 of a heart attack, had the capacity to accomplish the seemingly contradictory tasks of producing fine jazz and palatable instrumental pop. He did so without apology, his primary goal being simply to play whatever he chose to play with style, craft and creativity.

Too often linked to musicians he influenced but who rarely could match the breadth of his skills, Washington was one of a kind. Playing soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, he found the unique voices of each; producing R&B-influenced; instrumental pop, he never abandoned the swing of jazz rhythms. Above all, he possessed that rarest of qualities: an instantly identifiable musical identity. His lovely, soulful music will be much missed.