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Two Weeks, Two Masters--One Club

For the last two weeks of April, and not for the first time, the Jazz Bakery in Culver City was the place to be in Los Angeles County if you wanted to hear world class jazz. From the 20th to the 25th the club hosted the great vocalist Andy Bey and his quartet in an all-too-rare California appearance, followed by a five day engagement with the mixture of grace and power that is the Larry Coryell Trio that began on April 27th. Both artists are touring behind particularly strong new releases and, while they are obviously two very different musicians, seeing them in close proximity of each other I was struck by several common elements in their performances.

Andy Bey's new release is the acclaimed American Song on the Savoy Jazz label and the set I caught last Friday unsurprisingly drew heavily from it. Bey began the evening at the piano, kicking things of with the Howard Arlen' chestnut "It's Only a Paper Moon." Bey's playing and singing were both pretty sparse to begin with, and the veteran performer seemed unafraid to at times drop out entirely and dramatically, leaving the song's rhythmic onus on his talented but young rhythm section of bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Mark McLean. This technique worked very well, Bey's abrupt chords and baritone whisper helping build tension while the bass and drums kept the piece moving. Bey led the tune to an exuberant finish, his vocals gaining in volume and intensity. His solo here was striking as well, a succession of single notes that might as easily have been rendered by the cool trumpet of Chet Baker or quintet-era Miles Davis.

Bey continued with "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," not on his latest disc but certainly in keeping with its theme. Bey varied his attack accordingly from song to song, using more of a two-handed approach to the piano on this and other songs in the set. For "Never Let Me Go" and most of the rest of the set the group was completed by Paul Myers on Spanish guitar. His delicate playing really added a beautiful element to this and other numbers such as Duke Ellington's "Caravan," but perhaps nowhere so much as on the group's rendition of English balladeer Nick Drake's "River Man," the set's most significant departure from the American songbook theme. Abandoning the piano to stand and sing this one, Bey distinguished himself here as well, his articulate phrasing accentuating the mythic quality of Drake's lyric and hitting notes so low he at times sounded like a Tuvan throat singer. Myers departed and, for the final number Bey remained standing to deliver his lyric to the Thelonious Monk classic "Straight, No Chaser" complete with an extended scat solo.

I returned a few nights later to the Bakery to see the Larry Coryell Trio, a unit consisting of the veteran guitarist, drummer Paul Wertico and bassist Mark Egan. Larry Coryell will forever be known for his ground-breaking work in what came to be known as fusion in the late 1960s, yet those who know his music well understand that it contains many dimensions. His forthcoming Tricycles CD, due in June on Favored Nations Cool, finds Larry tackling several more or less straight ahead jazz tunes as well as revisiting a few of his early compositions. Like the Bey date, Coryell's set reflected some of the same material as his current disc, augmented by other material that fit much the same mood.

Larry Coryell played his signature model Cort hollowbody guitar through a Roland Jazz Chorus amplifier and seemingly used no other effects. His playing evinced marvelous technique, but used always as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Whereas a less seasoned guitarist might've tried to get cheap applause from the audience with acrobatic fingering displays, Coryell invariably found the most economic and effective ways of playing, a much more sublime display. Though his playing was at times cerebral, he also displayed a tremendous lyric gift on ballads such as Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" and Monk's "'Round Midnight." Bassist Egan added harmonic depth with his excursions into the melodic range of his instrument.

Two of Coryell's early compositions revisited on Tricycles provided two the nights highlights. "Good Citizen Swallow," a prescient composition from 1967 marrying a countryish major pentatonic riff to jazzy chords was given a strong reading--imagine a sizzling duet between Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery and you should have some sense of the tune. "Spaces Revisited" was a real tour-de-force for the trio, highlighted by the explosive playing by Wertico on a five-piece drum kit. I had to count the number of pieces a couple times to make sure; were I blindfolded I would've guessed he had a larger kit a la Keith Moon or at least Jack DeJohnette. Coryell closed his show with a workout on Coltrane’s "Giant Steps" followed by the encore of "Midnight."

Both Andy Bey and Larry Coryell are musician's musicians. Hearing them in an intimate venue like the Jazz Bakery one had to be impressed not only by their artistry and mastery of technique, but with the emotional richness of their playing. While Coryell’s program featured several of his originals, I was struck by how similar the balance of his set list was with Bey’s, both featuring Monk & Ellington prominently and both offering renditions of Kurt Weill’s "Speak Low." I guess even the musician’s musicians have their own musicians that they continue to learn from throughout their lives.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: And Bey & Larry Coryell
  • Subtitle: Andy Bey & Larry Coryell at the Jazz Bakery
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