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Brick's Picks: Saxophone Operators 

Wednesday, Aug 19 2009
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We dig saxophone. It’s the iconic jazz ax. Trumpets once reigned, a long time ago, and clarinets had their sweet little run too. But once solid hard-blowing Coleman Hawkins got the sax out front, that was it. Lester Young came in right after that, so spooky and perfect and lackadaisically gorgeous. Then Bird turned everything inside out with his thing, rushing here and there and everywhere at once. You try to follow those solos, your eyes’ll cross. And then Trane? Oh, lord. You put Trane’s thing on top of Bird’s thing on top of Hawk’s things and all-around Prez’s thing, and you got harmonics gone nuts, fingers going crazy, you got all that forced air rushing through that sax and notes and chords flying free from that bell, making crazy patterns, and if you could see them, if the notes were different colors, they’d be filling rooms, all squiggly flatted fifths and minor sevenths and whole bars of chords piling up everywhere. Think of that next time you’re sitting there in some jazz joint, the sax man blowing his ass off. Imagine all those notes. Not even the piano emits as many notes (and those would be neatly stacked or maybe scattered across the floor like shards of a glass enclosure). Nope, it’s the sax that makes the most sound in jazz. There’s just literally more jazz to be heard coming out of it. Music theory, this ain’t. We just dig the sax.

So we’re digging the great saxophonery in town this week. Ben Wendel’s at LACMA on Friday. His live jazz is intense, driving, swinging, funky, angled in unexpected ways, and always with some of the best of the fierce young players this town is spitting out lately, all jazz angry and tough and absurdly talented. This one is super highly recommended, people. As are Friday and Saturday nights at the Café Metropol, with the often astonishing tenor Walter Smith III blowing that fancy pasta you ordered right off your plate and into somebody’s lap. Smith is one of those cats who hits hurricane velocity, and we’re not talking screaming here. He is not a free player. Every note is exactly where he planned it to be, it’s just that when he’s on a tear, his ideas can gush out in a torrent that is almost overwhelming. Like Wendel, Smith’ll be tapping into that same pool of intense sidemen — Josh Nelson and those other cats at the Foundry on Melrose.

On Saturday Charles Owens is at Spazio, and nobody this side of Eric Dolphy plays like Owens when he is fired up. He explodes, melody and harmony bucking like mad, wanting to be free. No one plays the blues like him either, so way down, so funky. He’s got the fired-up and edgy Brian Swartz on trumpet for some hot interplay, and Kenny Elliott on traps. On Sunday The Gathering play the Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena. Woodwind maestro Jesse Sharps tethers this bunch together, keeping aflame Horace Tapscott’s Arkestra concept (been a half-century now!) with one of this town’s most exciting younger tenors, Kamasi Washington — and with a mess of other great players, some masked dancers and African drumming. We’ve raved plenty about Washington lately, getting crowds out of their seats, hollering before his solo is near halfway done (memories of Paul Gonsalves at Newport). Sharps has matched him with vocalist Dwight Trible; the acoustics are such at the Levitt that his tremendous voice will carry clear through Old Town, wafting over the busy traffic. Eerie.

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Pianist Theo Saunders is having a busy summer all over town, and this Monday he has a quartet at Charlie O’s with Chuck Manning on sax. The very impressive Theo Saunders Sextet plays Vibrato on Thursday, with Manning again on tenor and soprano Zane Musa on alto and soprano. Musa is a wild man at times, his solos on either horn are edgy, passionate and wildly exciting. Manning plays smart, pushing his Joe Henderson envelope, a creative, exciting soloist. And Manning’s own Wednesday gig at Spazio is especially interesting: It’s the resurrected L.A. Jazz Quartet of some years back, with guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Mark Ferber. And we’ve somehow nearly made an afterthought of two monsters of the tenor sax. Ernie Watts is back again at one of his packed Charlie O’s performances on Thursday. ... If there were a definition for a fine, powerful sax player, Watts would fit nicely. He has a solid, hard Coltrane sound. And Pharoah Sanders is, well, Pharoah Sanders. Kicking off a three-night stand on Thursday, he’ll burn Catalina’s up every set every night.

There’s a fundraiser for a hurtin’ Steve Gutierrez, featuring Ronnie Laws, Benny Maupin (there’s a brilliant saxophonist!), Bobby Rodriguez, Justo Almario and a zillion others at the Culver City Radisson, 3 p.m. Saturday, $25. That’s cheap for that talent, and you’ll feel all good inside. If you’re broke or cold-hearted, though, check out the unbeatable Johnny Polanco & His Conjunto Amistad at LACMA on Saturday at 5 p.m., or for a couple bucks at the Autry on Thursday. The shows will be packed with dancers and people watching dancers. The band will be cooking. Does Polanco play the saxophone? Hell, no, the trombone. And percussion. And his tres playing knocks us out every time. It’s got soul, baby.

(Brick can be reached at brickjazz@yahoo.com.)

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