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Marcus Miller, Theo Saunders

Great Jazz at the Granada and on Record/Download


Friday, August 26, 2011

Jazz of a funkular nature (or is it funk of a jazzwise nature?) will lend a nice buzz to the normally fairly staid quarters of the Granada on Friday night, when the DMS band comes to town. This would be keyboardist George Duke, bass sensation Marcus Miller, and alto David Sanborn, none of them strangers to the business of mixing up groove and elements of jazz tradition—and, blessed be, without that nasty, slickster aftertaste of the dreaded “smooooooooth jazz” cheezwiz. Even though the show will likely lean to the right of jazz proper, we can likely expect some serious groove-machinery, and sophistication in the margins of the music.

While some may focus on the conventionally upfront roles of the keyboardist and saxist in the outfit, those in the know also know that Marcus Miller is one serious and multi-faceted musical force, a chops-blessed bassist of distinction and master of his own school of playing, as well as bandleader, producer, and film scorer. He’s one of jazz and pop’s great etcetera-ists.

For a taste of his breadth and musical depth, check out Miller’s recent album A Night in Monte-Carlo (Concord), quite possibly his finest album to date, and hardly a one-dimensional affair. Such is the confusingly diverse nature of Miller’s musical being. Far more than just a live festival recording, Miller’s new cast-of-many outing was a commissioned project, with orchestral arrangements and guests like trumpeter Roy Hargrove and singer Raul Midón (who lends his burnished pipes to a few tracks, including the gospel-soul Miller original “Your Amazing Grace,” as well some limber faux horn sounds with his voice).

Miller, whose famous early alliances included Sanborn and, more importantly, the almighty Miles Davis; Miller provided a critical sounding board and vital collaborative firepower in the final chapter of Miles’ life (1926-1991). On Miller’s wowing and more or less career-summarizing new live album, instead of including Miller’s now famed tune “Tutu” (title track of the beloved mid-’90s Miles album), he goes for a lesser-known beauty “Amandla,” the title track of Miles’s last official album before his passing in 1991. Continuing the Miles story, but in reverse, vis a vis the elemental power and glory of the Miles catalogue on virtually any jazz musician of the past 60 years, Miller goes for an updated a-go-go shuffling version of the vintage Miles tune “So What,” the opening track to perhaps the best-selling jazz album of all time, the 1959 classic Kind of Blue.

Elsewhere along the intentionally style-meandering song list on the album are the worldbeat-ly fusion opener “Blast!” and a gentle closer of “Strange Fruit,” actually recorded back home in Los Angeles, with guest Herbie Hancock adding his wise touch and Miller showing his wares on one of his “other” instruments, the bass clarinet. Miller also revisits, and revises, the stuff of jazz standards, with “I Loves You Porgy”—leaning into the melody with a Jaco Pastorius-like fretless bass sound—and fashioning a lush, string-adorned sound garden on “I’m Glad There Is You,” featuring Hargrove in his deepening, maturing-as-we-speak ballad mode.

Come to the Granada for a dose of the funky stuff, with brainy asides. Check out A Night in Monte-Carlo for a bigger picture of what makes Marcus Miller such a special figure in modern music.

FRINGE PRODUCTS, CONT.: For several years, Santa Barbara (and Ojai and Oxnard before that) had the pleasure of musically knowing keyboardist Theo Saunders, a New Yorker who played with Carla Bley and many another jazz scene notable before heading West to seek his … well, peace, and his fortunes of the soulful sort. Saunders played around town in various settings and could always be counted on to summon up chops, soul, and humor, and to generally bring it, even if the gig was on the casual side.

Saunders has lived in Los Angeles for many years now, and once or twice returned to these old stomping grounds to play, at SOhO and such. Anyone interested in hearing what we’re missing should listen to the wonderful new album Intergeneration, by the Theo Saunders Sextet, on his own TSM (aka Theo Saunders Music) label. Leading a band including some of the better L.A. jazz folks, with saxists Chuck Manning and Zane Musa, trombonist David Dahlsten, bassist Jeff Littleton and drummer Tony Austin in the fold, Saunders is putting forth some of the more recommended jazz coming from the West Coast at the moment. As for the leader, Saunders’s piano work is stellar and musical, to suit the setting, and his voice as a composer sometimes resembles Dave Holland’s medium-size band writing, in an intricate but tasteful modern jazz mode.

Saunders shows the proverbial firm but freeing role as leader-composer for his ensemble. The album opens with the “Top Hat Shaman Stroll”—with alternating currents of complexity and buoyancy fitting the contrasting implications of the playful mutant title. Other high points include the medium-swinging amble of “Laria’s Bounce,” the coolly glowing introspection on “Queen of Tangents” and “Jürmala,” and the restlessly energetic “Trapeze for Two Atoms.” Percussionist Ray Armando joins the sextet for the tangy “Free South Africa,” with its simple, catchy head and geo-cultural colorations ranging from the South African vibrancy of Dollar Brand to Afro-Cuban pulsations. Saunders takes on and gives fresh new flair to the familiar turf of an uptempo “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and—from a less expected corner of the cover song omniverse—“Sixteen Tons,” a slow creep thang to end the album on an after-hours note.

Sure was nice to hear Saunders up close and personal in the 805 back when, and nice to hear him now down there in the big, bad naked city, in person or in one’s recorded music format of choice. It ain’t necessarily impossible that he could bring his charges up this way for a gig again one day. (Hint, hint.)

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