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Herman Riley’s horn falls silent

Wednesday, Apr 18 2007
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My favorite piece of writing I’ve done in the L.A. Weekly was about saxophonist Herman Riley, who died last weekend. It was the result of an incredible half-hour interview during which Herman spun out his life story, an experience that was hard to boil down to its very essence. But then I thought about how he did just that in his playing, and the words rolled out.

When he read the short article, he told me it was one of the first times he had ever seen anything in print about himself — just him alone. I couldn’t believe that this man, this extraordinary saxophonist, had been ignored by the jazz media. He deserved reams of coverage, but getting 200 words and a picture made him happy.

This town never realized just how extraordinary Herman Riley was. How he could move you. How you could get utterly lost in his ballads. His notes fade away into memory. And when we go, the memories go. I once asked him when he was going to record again. He had only a single album, released sometime in the ’80s and impossible to find. He said he was thinking about it, but wanted to wait until he was ready. Now, I can only listen to him in my head, stretching out the notes of a ballad, till nothing remains but air and a room stilled, feelings rising deep in my bones.

But life — and music — goes on. Jazz was born, some say, in New Orleans funeral marches. It will be a bittersweet tribute when Irvin Mayfield & the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra perform New Orleans: Then and Now at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Thurs., April 26. Blending Professor Longhair and Louis Armstrong, spirituals and blues, a little Ellington and trumpeter Mayfield’s own tunes, the NOJO remind us of the incredible creativity of their fearfully wounded city. Mayfield’s experience of the disaster is far from academic: He lost his own father in Katrina’s wake.

Charles Owens digs Joe Henderson. “One of the greatest sax players that ever passed through this universe,” he says, “in the same league as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.” So for the excellent Luckman Jazz Orchestra’s season finale, guest conductor Owens has decided upon an evening of music from the Grammy-winning album Joe Henderson Big Band. Henderson’s mix of relaxed cool and improvisational fireworks makes for terrific orchestral dynamics. An exciting concert, and a fine tribute to Henderson. At the Luckman Auditorium, Cal State Los Angeles, Sat., April 21.

Powerfully swinging saxist Don Menza celebrates a birthday, first at the Back Room (with trombonist Scott Whitfield) on Fri., April 20, and then at Charlie O’s on Sat., April 21. Menza’s muscular sound was entirely self-taught. No schooling, no instructors, no influences. Just pure Menza. And the effervescent pianist Alexandra Caselli brings her quartet (with saxist Steve Marsh) into Jax on Mon., April 23. Don’t underestimate Jax... This joint is so small and the bar so noisy that players take chances here they wouldn’t dare at more established clubs. When young drummer Bill Wysaske’s hard-bop quartet plays here on Wed., April 25, downtown denizen Jason Goldman is on alto, and you never know who might sit in.

Downtown at Café Metropol, vibist Yotam Rosenbaum performs his eclectic compositions on Fri., April 20, and bari Adam Schroeder is there on Sat., April 21. At Land on 2nd, Vinny Golia’s Friday Nite Band go waaaaay outside on Mon., April 23; then, Wed., April 25, that edgy drummer Harris Eisenstadt and some out-jazz all-stars interpret Wayne Shorter to celebrate his new The All Seeing Eye + Octets. Also on this impressive bill is a group led by pianist Richard Sears and vibist Chris Dingman and a quintet led by trumpeter Phil Fiorio. If you’d like to motor west, there’s an interesting week at Vibrato, beginning with the advanced post-bop of the highly recommended Cecilia Coleman Quintet (with saxist Jerry Pinter) on Fri., April 20. Finally, on Tues.-Wed., April 24-25, Herb Alpert appears with Lani Hall. You’ll remember her gorgeous singing on those Brasil ’66 hits, and she still sounds great. Opening both nights is pianist Theo Saunders with Vibrato’s booker and house bassist, Pat Senatore, who played bass on all of Herb’s TJB albums. And you know all those songs too.
 

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