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Chuck Koton

13 Feb 2024 4:18 PM | Chuck Koton

Gratefully Live: Favorite shows of 2023

#10.  January 13, 2023.  Virtuosic pianist Bobby West, back in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles during a break in his years long Taiwan residency, opened The World Stage’s 2023 season of Friday night concerts. His trio, which included long time veterans of the LA music scene, bassist Kevin O’Neal and drummer Jerrell Ballard, began with the thunderous and instantly recognizable George Gershwin composition, “Rhapsody In Blue.” The rest of the evening rocked with this hard swingin’ trio performing original compositions from West’s highly acclaimed recording, “Leimert Park After Dark.” If you’re living in Taiwan or gonna be there soon, look up Bobby West!

#9.    July 20, 2023. Pianist Adam Ledbetter brought an inspiring band into The World Stage that transformed this historic Leimert Park venue(founded over 35 years ago by jazz giant Billy Higgins and world renowned poet Kamau Daaood), into the church that it often becomes. Along with  his better half, vocalist Kizzie Ledbetter, and Houston born drummer Reggie Quinerly, the Cats and “Catress” truly lifted the spirits of all. Their original composition, “Train,” created a dynamic tension that built more and more as Ms Ledbetter’s vocals buoyed up the listeners to “climb on board” the Freedom Train. Then Mr Ledbetter exhorted the audience to join in with his dexterous, rapid rapping of his spiritual experience and, all the while, the talented, slick drumming of Reggie Quinerly drove the beat with restrained yet insistent rhythms. The Ledbetters make every performance feel like Sunday! 

#8.   June 8, 2023.    Tenor saxophonist Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq, a long time fixture on the Los Angeles jazz scene and an integral member and often the leader of Horace Tapscott’s Pan African People’s Arkestra (PAPA), departed the US several decades ago. Eventually resettling in Germany where he has continued performing for European audiences, Abdul-Khaliq has regularly returned to Leimert Park in Los Angeles for gigs where he has seamlessly stepped right back into the scene, performing with his own bands as well as with PAPA. His band cooked at The World Stage, reminding the listeners in the room, as well as those watching via “live stream,” that he is at the top of his game! 

#7.   Jan. 9,2023.     One of the top drummers of the last 35 years, Marvin “Smitty” Smith brought his All Stars to the venerable Baked Potato in Universal City, just a stones throw from where “Smitty,” along with brilliant tenor saxophonist, Ralph Moore, played for several years in the Tonight Show band. Joining Moore on the front line were veteran multi-reedist Dale Fielder and rising star, trumpeter Chris Lowery who gained invaluable experience and exposure the last few years with Azar Lawrence. Recently arrival to the LA area, keyboardist Adam Ledbetter  and veteran bassist Edwin Livingston rounded out the band. A sold out audience was treated to a night of hard swinging, straight ahead jazz that included compositions by Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner and Thelonious Monk.

#6   Feb. 24, 2023.  The World Stage audience was treated to a celebration of Los Angeles born and raised jazz giant, Dexter Gordon, by an all star band of veterans. Like a previous tribute when the tallest jazz fan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, presented Maxine Gordon and her memoir of life with Dex, the front line included tenor sax masters Justo Almario and Teodross Avery. The dynamic veteran of the drums, Roy McCurdy, was joined by first call Cats, pianist Theo Saunders and bassist Henry Franklin. The band swung hard on “The Chase,” with Almario and Avery pushing each other like Gordon and Wardell Grey famously did on Central Avenue in the 1940s!

#5   June 22, 2023. Since 1999, the Healdsburg Jazz Festival has been presenting the finest unadulterated jazz to its devoted California wine country audiences. Founder Jessica Felix literally and figuratively received her flowers as she stepped down as festival director. New musical director, bassist and band leader Marcus Shelby, organized a stirring tribute to two of the music's legends who ascended to Jazz Heaven this past year, legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and master of the Hammond B3 organ Joey DeFrancesco. The front line of recently named NEA jazz master saxophonist Gary Bartz, the great tenor and soprano saxophonist Azar Lawrence and Pharoah's son, tenor saxophonist Tomoki Sanders led the performance of Sanders’ compositions. Brian Ho, on organ, represented DeFrancesco's legacy and the interstellar rhythm section of pianist Marc Cary, bassist Marcus Shelby and, legend in his own right, drummer Billy Hart drove the band  through the tribute. The Cats generated cheers and tears from the audience when they performed Sanders' transcendent composition “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” An unexpected highlight of the performance came when young Sanders mimicked his father's inimitable way of introducing his band mates, a display that elicited plenty of amazement from the audience. The Cats may be gone, but the music lives on!

#4)  June 15, 2023. Legendary pianist and composer Horace Tapscott’s Leimert Park, Los Angeles based Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, now led by drummer Mekala Session, performed their spirited, joyful yet, at times, solemn music to a wildly responsive and appreciative audience at The World Stage. On the tune, “Dred Scott,” composed by the late Nate Morgan, bass clarinetist James Andrews and bassist Joey Ector established a haunting groove with their deep, low notes. The bass drum of Session joined in, followed by the powerful horns to express a mood of profound and sacred outrage at this ugliest of decisions by the US Supreme Court. In 1857, the infamous Chief Justice Taney “interpreted” the Constitution to rule that Black Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” That is the nation’s history, still reflected in white supremacy today, which the Black nationalist creative arts movement has been dedicated to overcoming since the 1960s. Now in its 62nd year, the “Ark,” as it is known, continues to keep the Black community-based mission and musical legacy of founder and visionary Tapscott alive. When one considers the criminally scant financial resources that Tapscott and the Ark have had to subsist on for all these years, the accomplishment rightfully assumes mythic proportions. 

#3)  Sept. 23, 2023. The venerable Charles Lloyd, at 85, as inventive and unrelenting as ever, and with a still mesmerizing tone, closed his set at the Monterey Jazz Festival with his iconic composition,“Forest Flower,” which he had performed with universal acclaim on this same stage in 1966. Unforgettable!

#2)  Oct. 23, 2023. Marcus Miller brought his latest band, featuring trumpeter Russell Gunn, into Catalina's Bar & Grill in Hollywood for 4 sold out nights of pure jazz funk! One only needed to hear the band perform, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” to understand why a line of people snaked around the club for Miller’s second set. 

#1)   Sept. 23, 2023. The Azar Lawrence Experience closed out the Monterey Jazz Festival and, as they finished the 90 minute set (twice the allotted length), the audience was screaming & dancing in the aisles and in front of the stage. Saxophonist Lawrence blew ecstatically on his eponymous original composition from the recently re-released 1976 Prestige recording, People Moving! Lawrence’s performance seared the ears of the listeners and reminded them that the young saxophonist who performed in the bands of Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyler and Miles Davis in the 1970s, still played this fiery music like no one else on the scene today. 

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