Thursday, August 19, 2010
HOT NIGHTS, HOT JAZZ AND SOME LOW-DOWN BLUES!
Speaking of yesterday, as if the day itself wasn’t hot enough, with the temperature hovering around 102, Jerry and I found the evening almost the same as we experienced an evening of very hot jazz at La Sierra University, a tiny not-very-well-known private institution here in Riverside.
It was just an accident that last month I happened to notice a wee 8-pitch announcement buried in our local newspaper about a free “Pierce Street Jazz” series being put on by La Sierra University. Apparently it has been going on monthly for some time, and after attending last month’s program, we resolved to make this monthly event a priority.
Last night we listened to the Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq’s quartet, comprised of Gary Matsumoto on piano, Fritz Wise on drums, Henry “the Skipper” Franklin on upright bass and Fuasi himself on saxophone. Other than the wonderful music all these jazz musicians make, the best part is that the venue for their performance is the university’s Alumni House, a real honest house, renovated to accommodate smaller groups of maybe 50 people or so in a single room. The jazz musicians set up in a corner, enabling those of us who can’t get enough of jazz get to sit within spitting distance, so to speak, of the musicians.
Last month’s group was led by a fellow on the guitar, and the music was cool, cool, cool. This time when we walked in the door and heard Fuasi in a final short rehearsal with the group, we knew “hot” was going to be the operative word this month. Except for a short break, at which time cookies and punch were available (again free), we had almost two hours of my favorite stuff! If you laughed at the cookies and punch bit, you must understand that La Sierra University is a Seventh-Day Adventist establishment and the jazz milieu is not that of a smoky cocktail lounge, where most of us got our first introduction to jazz. But the cookies and punch are not the issue; the wonderful music and talented musicians are.
I sat close to the pianist and was able to watch his fingers fly over the keys. Afterwards I asked him several questions that had come to my mind. First, I wondered to what extent ahead of time he knows what his “improvisations” will be. He said that playing jazz is kind of like speaking. He knows what he is going to say, where he’s going to begin and where he is going to end, but he doesn’t always know for sure how he’s going to say it, what words he’s going to use. He said within the framework set by the composer, the improvisation is a living creation and not consciously controlled in detail by the brain. I asked him if he ever surprises the other group members by what he comes up with, or put a little differently, does he ever blow them away by what he plays. He said if that happened it probably would be more likely at a rehearsal than at an actual performance.
And then I asked him a question that came to mind as I studied his hands: do pianists ever have a problem with carpal tunnel syndrome. He laughed and said yes, it’s an occupational hazard! He says they do hand exercises to prepare their hands for playing, and take great care of them, of course, but as happens with any repetitive motion activities, it can always happen. He’s known 80 year old pianists who have never had a problem and some as young as 20 who have already had surgical repair.
I looked at a piece of his sheet music and what I saw was a simple one-page rendition of a tune. If there were hundreds of notes on it, then the number of notes he played had to be in the thousands. I was amazed at his talent and even more amazed at his brain – the brain of any jazz musician who can create such sublime music and so easily execute it in front of my eyes. This fellow is young, a graduate of UCI in 1999 and was “discovered” at Steamers Café in Fullerton, Orange County’s little hidden gem of a jazz venue.
How lucky we were to discover “Pierce Street Jazz.” It is hard to believe that this is being offered at no cost to us. The University arranges for financial “sponsors” of the evening, making the event a cooperative effort between the educational, commercial and artistic organizations in the city. I am not sure how many months Pierce Street Jazz will continue, but you can believe that Jerry and I will be sitting there up front and personal for as long as it does.