Innocent When You Dream – Celebrating the Music of Tom Waits

Innocent When You Dream – Celebrating the Music of Tom Waits

Vocal music connects with listeners through lyrics, melodies, and arrangements. Instrumental improvisation is rare and usually serves as a device for building the energy of the song. The mystery of a magical pop or rock tune lies in the mix of lyric, melody, and presentation.

Jazz on the other hand is about virtuosic instrumental performers composing in realtime without a net. The soloist’s ability to spontaneously create, usually on top of complex, rapidly moving harmonies can take the audience on a powerful and unexpected emotional journey. This stripped-down, solo-driven intensity can lend a static quality, a kind of esoteric minimalism to what many people think of as “jazz”.

Just as jazz harmonies and styles have evolved over the years, restless jazz musicians have explored new approaches to making their music, mixing improvisation, ensemble writing, and genres not usually associated with jazz. For me, this pursuit of innovation has always been key. I love music that balances the direct emotion of pop and roots styles with the freedom and sophistication of contemporary improvisational techniques.

I was very excited to hear Brandon Bernstein’s new CD,  “Innocent When You Dream – Celebrating The Music of Tom Waits”. The band, Brandon Bernstein (guitar), Aaron Shragge (trumpet, shakuhachi), Matt Otto (tenor sax), Greg Leisz (pedal steel and dobro), Ryan McGillicuddy (bass), and Jason Harnell (drums) take an ensemble approach to the material. The group’s sound is wide open but still deeply connected to the core of each of these songs. While there are solos throughout, this is not a blowing date, but a conceptual work, merging the skills and personalities of these fine musicians with the unique songwriting of Tom Waits.

Choosing Tom Waits as the starting point for this music is quite ambitious. Waits is a multi-faceted, iconoclastic artist, from his powerful voice (and Radio Shack bullhorn), to his theatrical song-cycles, dramatic arrangements, physical presence and deeply emotional songwriting. Rather than trying to capture the ‘Big In Japan’ totality of Waits, the band has taken an approach similar to the traditional jazz read on Tin Pan Alley tunes. Some of the tracks are true to the tone of the Waits originals and others use his version as a springboard for something fresh and unique to this band.

A few highlights…

The album, opens with ‘Good Old World’ originally done as a waltz. Matt Otto has arranged the song in a somewhat brighter 4/4 meter, opening up new possibilities. Brandon Bernstein and Otto contribute thoughtful, melodic solos, and Greg Leisz adds a touch of mystery and a hint of Robert’s Western World. The arrangement teases the listener, playing with new directions, but staying close to the introspective emotion of Waits’ original. Jason Harnell’s fills are free and colorful, letting us know that the band is listening and ready to let the music go where it will. The opener tells us that these musicians are quite comfortable exploring this unique mix of musical styles.

Aaron Schragge’s modal arrangement of “Blue Valentines” drops the slight tongue-in-cheek, noir jazz vibe of the original, favoring the bones of the song itself. The band treats it as a pensive jazz ballad with introspective solos by Schragge and Otto over Brandon Bernstein’s hypnotic chordal vamp. Jason Harnell’s out-of-time fills add color and dynamics, pushing and pulling the mood.

The title track, “Innocent When You Dream”, arranged by Brandon Bernstein, artfully mixes the melancholic melody (Schragge and Otto) with pedal steel guitar, creating a blend of country longing, and “last dance of the night” bar room glow. Harnell paints fills and colors on the canvas of the song. It works.

“Flash Pan Hunter” always reminds me of some sort of demented Max Fleischer cartoon. William Burroughs’ lyrics conjure up images of grainy, distorted, psychopathic, vegetation and mechanical contraptions going about their daily business. Schragge’s treatment takes a different look at the song, bypassing the wackiness and playing the tune as a rubato ballad with a long free introduction. Schragge plays shakahachi flute on this track which clearly sets the tone for the arrangement.

Berstein’s straight forward arrangement of “The Long Way Home” features Greg Leisz and almost hints at a Caribbean feel. Cowboy jazz with a light touch.

The record also features performances of “Picture In a Frame”, Frank’s Theme”, “Can’t Wait To Get Off Of Work”, and two original group improvisations, “Orphan” and “Fishbone”.

You can catch the band (with Doug Livingston substituting for Greg Leisz) performing a free CD release concert at 7:30, Saturday May 1 at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, CA. You can find this music in the iTunes Store, at and at CD Baby. You can also purchase CDs by contacting Brandon Bernstein through his website.

Jensen-Macchia-Lockett-Briggs at The York 3-21-10

I played a very nice gig at The York in Highland Park Sunday night. The band consisted of yours truly on guitar, Frank Macchia on bass flute and tenor sax, Tommy Lockett on bass, and Frank Briggs on drums.

…a mix of standards and my originals…

Great players, friendly staff, and a good crowd at this hip, neighborhood bistro….


Rizzo, Breadman, Oles – March 5, 2010 at The Blue Whale, Los Angeles

At The Blue Whale in downtown Los Angeles last Friday night I was reminded of the spirit of openness and musical invention I experienced as a music student in Boston. I was quite fortunate to stumble into  a very inspiring, wide open, musical community. Gary Burton’s groups included groundbreaking guitarists Mick Goodrick and Pat Metheny and featured new composers like Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, and Michael Gibbs. The music was crossing boundaries, exploring approaches beyond the language of bebop and post-bebop traditions. Manfred Eicher’s ECM records was a rising force, bringing European classical harmony and a lush sonic palette to the mix, and ‘world music’ influences were making deep inroads into the American improvisational tradition. Some of the most influential guitarists in the last thirty years passed through Boston during this time; John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Mike Stern, and many others less well known. It was an exciting time when anything seemed possible.

Tom Rizzo (Maynard Ferguson, Doc Severinsen) guitar, Scott Breadman (Jose Feliciano, Lindsey Buckingham, The Rippingtons) percussion, and Darek Oles (Brad Mehldau, Billy Higgins, Pat Metheny) upright bass, brought their unique, collective sound to this intimate venue. After warming up with their take on a couple of classic tunes (including a beautiful version of Bill Evans’ “Time Remembered”), they dug into their own material, primarily composed by Rizzo.
Rizzo is a seasoned writer and his strong compositions focused the band’s identity and sound. His guitar playing has a playful, uplifting feel. He is a modern, straight-ahead guitarist with fluid single note and chordal chops. His lines are melodic and he builds his solos well, developing thematic ideas and directing the energy of the band. I enjoyed his use of harmonics and at one point he played a comping figure that sounded like a Brazilian berimbau. It was great. Rizzo’s “straight into the amp” tone was warm and present. His sound sat perfectly in the room between the bass and percussion.
Darek Oles is a powerful, emotive bass player. His time feel and intonation were dead on, laying down a solid foundation for the trio’s explorations. His solos were melodic and passionate. Rizzo’s light touch and sensitive, conversational accompaniment was the perfect compliment.
Breadman has mastered a multitude of percussion styles from around the world. He seamlessly integrates a variety of techniques across his unique setup: congas, tablas, cymbals, hand percussion and various miscellaneous noise makers including a frying pan. He is very sensitive to dynamics and at one point laid down a solid fatback groove with only a shaker and a few accents…Right in the pocket…Breadman moves effortlessly across his array of instruments, following the ebb and flow of the music.
I saw this group several weeks ago and they sound more comfortable and adventurous with each gig. I look forward to hearing this band develop and grow…Perhaps extended compositions, grooves, free improvisation..Who knows? With musicians of this caliber anything can happen.
The Blue Whale is a great new music room in downtown LA. It’s comfortable, hip, and has an excellent bar…see Mitch for his special concoctions. The proprietor, Joon Lee is committed to showcasing the best musicians in LA. They are continually expanding their music nights. Check the online calendar and Facebook page for updates. The club is a little off the beaten path, on the top floor of a mall in Little Tokyo, off of East 1st between Grand and South San Pedro. Drop in for a drink and enjoy the great music…then tell your friends!

Review of the Bob Sheppard Quartet at Vitello’s, Feb 25, 2010

Last night I caught Bob Sheppard’s quartet upstairs at Vitello’s in Studio City. Bob is one of the best saxophonists in Los Angeles and this was a particularly exciting band; Steve Cardenas on guitar, Jeff D’Angelo on bass, and the remarkable Steve Hass on drums.
Bob is a versatile player with a beautiful, rich and detailed sound. He has absorbed the music of the jazz masters as well as pop styles, and created a strong personal voice. He burns without overwhelming the band, leaving plenty of space for musical conversation. The interaction between these guys was remarkable. It was a pleasure to watch them listening to each other. At times the exchanges between Sheppard and Cardenas were reminiscent of the classic Sonny Rollins – Jim Hall quartet.
Bob pulled up a mix of standards, originals and lesser heard jazz tunes including two delightful Thelonious Monk compositions; “Green Chimneys” and “San Francisco Holiday”. Of particular note was his gorgeous rendition of the Jimmy McHugh ballad, “Say It (Over and Over Again)” perhaps best known as recorded by John Coltrane on the classic “Ballads” album.
I first heard Steve Cardenas many years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area when we were both playing with trumpeter Jeff Beal’s bands. Steve’s playing knocked me out back then and today he has become one of the premier voices in modern jazz guitar, performing with a wide range of artists including: Paul Motian, Norah Jones, John Patitucci and Ben Allison. He is an esteemed educator and is in town for a guest semester at CalArts. Besides his brilliant guitar playing, Steve is an expert on the music of Thelonious Monk. His book, The Thelonious Monk Fakebook is the definitive collection of Monk’s compositions. Steve’s playing is fluid and musical, moving seamlessly from muted two and three note voicings into perfectly voice-lead chords and flowing single note lines. He was always listening, responding to the music around him, developing motifs, and continually surprising with his ideas. His tone was warm with just a bit of edge. He has a slightly bluesy, behind-the-beat time feel which compliments his melodic phrasing and contrapuntal lines.
I had not heard Steve Hass play live before but was immediately enthralled. He has enormous energy, rock solid time, and swings like a master, incorporating Cuban, African and Middle Eastern influences without ever losing the groove. At times he played with his hands, brushes or mallets (in combination), moving back and forth in response to the other musicians. Steve is an exciting inventive player, not afraid to take chances. He grooves hard but never overpowers the rest of the band. He has worked with a myriad of top artists including The Manhattan Transfer, John Scofield, Art Garfunkel, Billy Joel, George Benson and Ravi Coltrane. It was a real treat to discover this fantastic drummer.
Jeff D’Angelo is one of the most sought after bass players in Los Angeles and has a longstanding musical relationship with Bob Sheppard. He sounded particularly good last night, holding down the center of this four-way conversation. His sound was rich and warm, he contributed some excellent solos and really hooked up with Steve Hass.
The folks at Vitello’s have created a comfortable, intimate environment for this great music. They are aggressively booking outstanding musicians and have established several regular events including John Pisano’s Guitar Night and Larry Golding’s Organ Night, both featuring a revolving door of great guest artists. The Tiramisu is good too!
Keep your eyes and ears out for this quartet. If you have a chance, check out Steve Cardenas while he’s in town, and please support Vitello’s and live music in LA.

Mike Clinco Quartet at The Oyster House

I caught guitarist and composer, Mike Clinco with his quartet, at The Oyster House in North Hollywood Monday night. Mike is a fluid, melodic player with a warm, open, sound and a great relaxed feel. He has worked with many extraordinary artists including: Bo Diddley, Bobby McFerrin, Ella Fitzgerald and Henry Mancini. Mike has composed music for film and television, including underscore and source music for ‘Big Shots’, ‘Outer Limits’, and ‘Sex in The City’.

Mike’s group featuring Jeff Driscoll on tenor, Adam Cohen on bass, and Bob Leatherbarrow on drums, played a mix of originals, jazz standards, and tunes by John Abercrombie, Jerry Bergonzi, Vic Juris, and Marc Johnson (“Union Pacific” from The Sound of Summer Running…a great record featuring Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and Joey Baron). Singer Janelle Sadler and trumpeter Ron King sat in for a couple of tunes adding their magic to the mix.
The sound of the group was conversational, chamber jazz with a swinging groove and a deep pocket thanks to Adam and Bob. The melodic interplay between the guitar and sax was super musical and sensitive. The rhythm section listened hard, provided solid, energizing support and contributed some nice solos.
Mike and I both studied with the late Charlie Banacos, legendary jazz educator. In one way or another, Charlie’s influence touched many of the musicians who were there last night. 
Great players and a wonderful night of music. Thanks Mike! I’m looking forward to the next gig…