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Photo of Prince

By Mark Towns

Hollywood Bowl was the site of some great Jazz and World Music shows in August. Highlights include Angelique Kidjo's appearance on August 9 with her “Tribute to Salsa” featuring Kidjo singing many of the most well-known standard female-vocal salsa hits, including “Quimbara,” “Usted Abuso,” and “La Vida es un Carnaval.” Kidjo channels Celia Cruz when she does these songs, and sounds great doing so. Conga master Pedrito Martinez opened the show with a short set by his band featuring some outstanding fusion-inspired, timba-tinged Cuban Jazz.

Photo of Prince

Pianist/composer Herbie Hancock's show at the Bowl on August 23 was earth shattering in its explosive creativity. A veritable musical genius, Hancock was like a man possessed, performing like someone on top of the world with nothing left to prove as he produced wave after wave of magical soundscapes from his fertile imagination which, at age 77, still shines as bright as ever, if not more so. On this night, the audience witnessed one of Hancock's greatest performances.

Opening the show for Hancock was hometown favorite, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, fronting an astounding orchestra with horns, strings, and even a choir. Washington's set was everything that is good about jazz – edgy, smart, unpredictable, heartwarming, dangerous, soulful, and cool. Unless someone is doing the kind of jazz Kamasi Washington is doing, jazz is dead.

More brilliance was in abundance at Zebulon on August 13 when Brazilian Jazz composer/vocalist/guitarist Joyce Moreno and her band hit the stage. One of the top legends of Brazilian music, Joyce wowed the crowd with her original masterpieces, as well as her hip Brazilian Jazz rearrangements of well-known Jazz standards including “Fever” and “Love For Sale.” Stay tuned for an in-depth interview with Joyce to appear in this column soon.

Photo of Vicente Amigo on stage

Latin Grammy Award-winning Flamenco composer and virtuoso guitarist Vicente Amigo performs in Los Angeles on Wednesday, September 20 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. Originally from Córdoba, Spain, Amigo is setting the world on fire with his fretboard histrionics as he does his part to keep the “flame” in Flamenco burning. None other than iconic Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny has called Amigo “the greatest guitarist alive.”

I recently spoke with Amigo about a range of topics, including Flamenco's relationship to Jazz, the live music scene in Spain, and his songwriting process.

Photo of guitar

Mark Towns: How would you describe what you do to someone who has never heard you?

Vicente Amigo: I would say that I interpret basic human feelings through my guitar.

LA Jazz: How did you learn to play music?

Amigo: Practicing a lot. All I can remember as a child was playing the guitar. Everywhere I went I brought along my guitar and I would spend hours every day playing and practicing. Technique-wise, I was fortunate to learn with some of the best "Maestros" around: with "El Tomate," "El Merengue" until I was 12 or so, and then with Manolo Sanlucar, until I decided to tour solo when I was 19.

LA Jazz: Do you see similarities between Flamenco music and Jazz music?

Amigo: They are very similar in many ways and very different in others. Flamenco has a much more strict structure, where one can improvise, but always within the "compas." Jazz has more freedom in that sense. In the end, I believe all music is related and has certain things in common. We are all descendants of the mother "Music." Some of us are more distant cousins than others, but all music is related in some way or another.

LA Jazz: What are your thoughts on Flamenco Jazz, Flamenco Fusion, and Nuevo Flamenco?

Amigo: I like everything that is good - that makes sense. I do not believe in rules when it comes to music. I believe in what is natural. Music must come to you naturally, and you should play what feels right to you.

LA Jazz: Do you see any need to balance tradition with innovation in your playing?

Amigo: No, as I said for me I do what is natural and what my heart says. I have the Flamenco tradition wired into my system, and I am unable to think or sound "unflamenco" due to this. However, I love to explore and mix myself with new music. I never want to stop learning.

LA Jazz: What advice would you give someone just starting out who wants to go into music full time?

Amigo: Follow the truth. Be true to oneself and to what is in your heart.

LA Jazz: Do you think there is an inverse relationship between musical complexity and music popularity?

Amigo: Yes, no doubt, with music, literature, film, and art. When something is a bit more complex, it takes time to appreciate it--to learn and really get what the artist is trying to transmit.

LA Jazz: Describe your songwriting process. How do you go about creating a new song?

Amigo: I like to sit at home on my couch and play for hours each day--searching. I usually look for the melody first--a short "Falsetta" on my guitar. I then explore and try to add parts to give it structure. Sometimes I end up with 15 minutes! I always try to tell a story or express a particular feeling in my playing. This will dictate the lyrics that I normally always write at the end. It does not always work this way--sometimes a lyric pops in my head, and I then try to express that lyric through my music.

LA Jazz: What is the live music scene in Spain like in 2017? Is the scene there supportive of live music?

Amigo: Very few places in the world are supportive of live music the way music should be supported. Spain is no different. There have been constant cuts in cultural budgets for a long time now, and I believe it is much more difficult for young musicians to play live, especially in something like Flamenco.

LA Jazz: In what part of the world do you find the most receptive audiences for Flamenco?

Amigo: I am fortunate to find my audiences very receptive everywhere. London, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Munich, Paris, Madrid, etc. In my hometown of Córdoba, they are always extra enthusiastic, as they are in most parts of Andalucia (Seville, Malaga, Granada, etc.). However, I find that audiences are receptive everywhere. Flamenco is universal. We talk about love, joy, sadness--very basic human emotions which everyone can identify with.

Listen to good music. It's out there. Seek and ye shall find.

Photo of writer Mark Towns

Mark Towns is a staff writer and columnist you can contact him at

By Mark Towns

August 2017

Photo of Tony Bennett and band

Tony Bennett performed at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday and Saturday, July 14 and 15, 2017, just under 3 weeks shy of his 91st birthday. Dudamel and the LA Phil opened the evening with a set of easy-listening favorites, including “Charade” and “Moon River.” Following intermission, Bennett literally ran onto the stage to a standing ovation and proceeded to belt out all his hits, backed by his superb quartet featuring Billy Stritch (piano), Gray Sargent (guitar), Harold Jones (drums), and Marshall Wood (bass). The set included almost two dozen standards from the Great American Songbook, including “I Got Rhythm,” “I'm Old Fashioned,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “One for My Baby,” and, of course, Bennett's biggest and best-known hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

Bennett at times sounded a little rough around the edges, something you might expect from a 91 year old. But he can still belt it out powerfully, punctuating the music with long intense notes at just the right places. Bennett's timing is impeccable, and he delivers the lyrics like he's telling a story that he's lived, every note nuanced perfectly with the wisdom that comes only with age. Tony Bennett is a natural treasure, and gives us all hope for the future by demonstrating that, at the age of 91, it's possible to tour the country doing 90 minute shows, to sing great, and to run onto the stage to do it, no less.

Photo of Brent Fischer

Photo of Brent Fischer

Brent Fischer is a Grammy-winning bassist, producer, composer, and arranger. His late father, Latin Jazz icon and multi-genre arranger extraordinaire Clare Fischer, created the family tradition of writing and arranging with a rich harmonic palette that has become the Fischer trademark. In addition to bass, Brent also excels at vibes, keys, and drums, and moves easily between Jazz, Pop, and Symphonic works. His arranging credits include Usher, Al Jarreau, Michael Jackson, Elvis Costello, The Roots, D'Angelo, and many others. Brent keeps his father's legacy alive by fronting various projects featuring the music of Clare Fischer, including The Clare Fischer Big Band, Latin Jazz Big Band, Latin Jazz Group (formerly Salsa Picante), Clarinet Choir, and Jazz Corps (30-piece brass band).

I spoke with Brent Fischer recently about Latin Jazz and his background growing up the son of a music legend.

Mark Towns: How did you learn to play music?

Brent Fischer: I was surrounded from birth by the unique music of my father, Dr. Clare Fischer. My earliest memories are of lying under his grand piano with our family dog, Bachi, listening to him compose or practice. The minute he knew I was old enough to behave in a recording studio, he took me there. By age 5, I was watching guys like John Guerin and Harvey Mason record with him. I had already set up my tinker toy boxes at home like a drum set and was banging on them with sticks. My dad got me my first drum set at age six and I was playing beats within a few months. I was soon one of Joe Porcaro's youngest students. He'd teach me while Dad taught Joe's son Steve Porcaro piano. Then I took up Bass at age 14, Chapman Stick at 16, and finally learned to play keyboard, vibes and marimba as part of my degree at Cal. State Northridge. By then, I had already started working professionally at age 15 when the first Salsa Picante album I played on won a Grammy in 1981­a good way to start my career!

LA Jazz: Who are some of the artists you've worked with or gigs that you've done that stand out in your mind as being the most memorable or satisfying?

Fischer: When I started with Salsa Picante, the drummer was Alex Acuna (later Walfredo Reyes), the timbalero was Luis Conte, and the congero was Poncho Sanchez. I had to really pull my own weight right from the beginning, and I'm a better musician for having been thrown into that heavyweight situation. I've worked with many different incredible musicians over the decades in many genres, but the biggest gig I ever did was to write for and perform with Prince and Beyonce at the 2004 Grammy Award telecast. We opened the show, and I'm honored to have been included in that moment in Prince's career.

LA Jazz: Is there a particular artist, genre, or composer who inspires you to create new music, or to take your own playing to another level?

Fischer: Besides my father, who still inspires me in every way imaginable, it is the cross genre combination of writing I've developed that gives me the greatest challenge and pleasure. In everything that I write, there is as much influence from Stravinsky, Bartok, Van Halen, and Gentle Giant as there is from Palmieri, Tjader, Veloso and Jobim.

LA Jazz: How do you define Latin Jazz?

Fischer: Afro-Latin rhythms and melodic structures of traditional origin combined with the harmonic vocabulary most often associated with the Jazz idiom. However, if you ask this question of a thousand different scholars, you will get as many different answers. That's what I love about its all-encompassing nature.

LA Jazz: Do you see a need to balance tradition with innovation in your playing?

Fischer: I've accepted that there is a blend. It's just a question of how much. There will always be people who are more purist and those who are experimentalist. As someone who is most often in the middle, I just hope the two extremes can find a way to get along.

LA Jazz: What advice would you give someone who is just starting out in music?

Fischer: I'll pass along the same advice my esteemed cousin Andre Fischer (founder of Rufus and producer of Natalie Cole) gave to me: always play with musicians who can kick your ass! Additionally, educate yourself, listen critically, be humble, and be ready to learn new things for the rest of your life.

LA Jazz: Do you think there is an inverse relationship between musical complexity and music popularity?

Fischer: Typically, I'd say the number of chords in a song is inversely proportional to the number of people willing to listen to it, but it also applies to rhythmic and melodic complexity. Fortunately, there are usually enough educated listeners in any genre, which enables more profound sonic architecture to still be appreciated.

LA Jazz: Do jazz artists have a responsibility to entertain, or should the music speak for itself?

Fischer: Both! I prepare to host every concert I emcee with a mix of humor, intellectual stimulation, history, and interesting anecdotes.

LA Jazz: How do you differ musically from your dad, Clare Fischer?

Fischer: I usually tell people to listen to my compositions “Rainforest” and “New Thing” so the difference will become instantly apparent. On a deeper level, as I continue to carry on his legacy of working an extremely large harmonic and orchestrational vocabulary, everything I do is an amalgamation of his influence plus the hundreds of other artists I've been exposed to and had the pleasure of working with over the decades. I've been told many times that our sonic similarities are obvious, but that I've created my own aesthetic. This is very gratifying because its exactly what I set out to do.

This summer continues to be a great one for jazz in L.A.

Photo of Brent Fischer

Check out burning Flamenco Jazz guitar shredders Strunz and Farah at Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood on Friday, August 25 and Saturday, August 26.

The Baked Potato is still one of the best places in the world to hear jazz. Don't miss The Return Of The Infamous Cecilia Noel And The Wild Clams All Star Latin Jazz Party there on Thursday, August 10. You can hear great jazz every night of the week at “The Spud” as it's affectionately know. Go.

The Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena features Son Jarocho Latin Fusion music by the group Los Cambalache on Saturday, August 20 in a free concert at 7:00 p.m.

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The “Latin Sounds” series at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)continues every Saturday in August, 5:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m. featuring Bill Cunliffe and BACHanalia with Carol Bach Y Rita on Saturday, August 5, The Ted Falcon Brazilian Project on Saturday, August 12, and Buyepongo on Saturday, August 26.

Great upcoming jazz shows not to be missed at The Hollywood Bowl include Angelique Kidjo's Tribute to Salsa featuring The Pedro Martinez Group on Wednesday, August 9, Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington on Wednesday, August 23, and Trombone Shorty on Wednesday, August 30.

The Blue Whale Jazz Club in DTLA features great jazz every night. Just go.

Mambo's Cafe in Glendale features great Cuban food and Latin Jazz every Tuesday and Thursday night. Reservations are highly recommended.

Zebulon in Silver Lake features a rare appearance by Brazilian legend Joyce on Sunday, August 13. Do not miss this show.

And the Ritmo Caliente goes on...

Listen to good music. It's out there. Seek and ye shall find.

Photo of writer Mark Towns

Mark Towns is a staff writer and columnist you can contact him at

By Mark Towns

JULY 2017

Photo of The 39th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival logo

The 39th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival was held at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday and Sunday, June 10 and 11, and featured quite a number of surprises, the biggest and most pleasant being that finally, after years of suffering through technical issues with the sound mix--often huge issues which detracted from the performance­this year--the sound mix was perfect this time. Let's hope this is the start of a new trend.

It was no surprise that Taj Mahal and Keb Mo's new band, TajMo, was a huge crowd-pleaser. Blues works very well with the party atmosphere that goes on at the Festival.

Not so well-received was one of the most anticipated groups on the bill, Hudson (whatever that means), featuring veteran drum ace Jack DeJohnette, ex-Miles guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski from Mediski, Martin, and Wood, and bassist Larry Grenadier. Perhaps because they followed such a killer set from TajMo, Hudson's brand of meandering quasi-fusion quickly lost the crowd, as virtually no one applauded their songs. Only when DeJohnette sang (yes, drummer Jack DeJohnette sang!) did the crowd seem to perk up. But when the highlight of your jazz set is a cover version of “Up on Cripple Creek” by The Band sung by a non-singer, you just might be in trouble.

Another surprise was Jacob Collier. If you've seen his videos, they're pretty impressive. But in person, his one-man-band trick came off as less than satisfying. Collier writes great arrangements, plays a mean piano, and has an adequate singing voice. If he would take a cue from another talented multi-instrumentalist by the name of Arturo Sandoval, who followed Collier on the bill, and take his music on the road with real musicians playing all of the parts that, currently, Collier runs around the stage playing to backing loops and tracks, he potentially could have the best touring act around. As it is, there's something comical about seeing his frantic one-trick-pony shtick. It's entertaining for a couple of minutes, but gets old quick. Perhaps Jacob Collier was born too soon for this. If he came along 100 years from now, perhaps he and his clones could perform all the parts.

Photo of Arturo Sandoval

Other Playboy festival highlights include the above-mentioned Arturo Sandoval, whose Latin Big Band did not disappoint. They were fabulous, with maestro Sandoval wowing the crowd with his virtuoso explorations on trumpet and piano. Percussionist Tiki Pasillas was featured on a brilliant maraca solo on a piano-maraca duet. Actor/musician Andy Garcia on bongos was also a crowd favorite.

Marcus Miller is one of those rare musicians who knows how to play great jazz as well as totally engage the audience. Highlights of his set included his classic funk-jazz tune Maputo, as well as a great instrumental version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” a song which Miller introduced as having “the most funky Motown bass line of all time.” And although he's not known as a vocalist, Miller ended his set singing lead vocal on “Da Butt,” the #1 song he wrote for the band E.U. for the 1988 film School Daze.

What's up with these jazz instrumentalists (Jack DeJohnette and Marcus Miller) suddenly singing?

Photo of The first-annual Arroyo Seco Weekend festival logo

The first-annual Arroyo Seco Weekend festival took place on the grounds of the golf course next to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday and Sunday, June 24 and June 25. The event featured three stages and a lineup ranging from jazz to alt rock to blues to classic rock to funk to folk. Saxophonist Bennie Maupin and his band, featuring Munyungo Jackson on percussion, performed a great set of straight ahead and funk jazz. Maupin, who first came to prominence with Herbie Hancock's Headhunters band, naturally included crowd-pleasing Headhunter hits “Butterfly” and “Chameleon” in his set which, unfortunately, through no fault of the band, was marred by sound mix issues. There was feedback which lasted throughout the entire first tune and most of the second tune--way too long for the source of the feedback to not be found and fixed. The event will hopefully continue to book jazz, and, just as importantly, obtain sound engineers who have jazz sensibilities. The mix for the jazz sets in the relatively small Willows tent was exceeding too loud for the space. If you wanted to hear lots of kick drum and bass, you were in luck. However, that's not really what jazz is about, and the poor sound mix­for jazz--spoiled otherwise great sets by not only Maupin, but those by Jeff Goldblum with the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra and Roy Ayers as well. The super-loud, bass and drum-heavy mix worked ok later on this stage for R&B sets by William Bell and funk powerhouse Galactic. But you cannot blast a jazz band through a sound system the same way you would a rock, funk, or pop band. Audiences deserve better. Other than the sound issues with the jazz groups, the festival was extremely well-run, and here's hoping that it continues successfully.

Photo of L.A.

The Central Avenue Jazz Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, July 29 and 30. The event always features a healthy dose of Latin Jazz, and this year is no exception. The Saturday, July 29th lineup includes sets by Dayren Santamaria & Made in Cuba as well as Conganas featuring percussionist Christian Moraga. More Latin Jazz happens on Sunday, July 30 with sets by Jose Rizo's Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars and bassist Oskar Cartaya's latest project, The Rican-nection. The festival is free and a must-see.

Photo of L.A.

The Jazz Bakery presents jazz guitar giant Pat Martino on Saturday July 8 at the Moss Theater in Santa Monica. Martino will be performing with an organ trio featuring Pat Bianchi on Hammond B3 and Carmen Intorre on drums.

Vocalist and L.A. Jazz Scene contributor Cathy Segal-Garcia is now curating a jazz series at Downtown L.A.'s Bar Fedora. The series features mostly Latin and Brazilian Jazz, with a great Saturday lineup in July featuring Brazilian guitarist Paulinho Garcia on July 1, Ted Falcon's Brazilian Project on July 8, Will Brahm playing Cuban and African jazz on July 15, Dionne Warwick protégé Eliana Estevao on a special Friday edition of the series on July 21, and Brazilian jazz with Mari and Leo Nobre's group Nobresil on Saturday, July 29.

Notable shows in July at Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood include Louie Cruz Beltran's Latin Jazz Orchestra on Friday, July 7th, and drummer Rayford Griffin's band on Thursday, July 27.

The Baked Potato is still one of the best places in the world to hear jazz. Go any night of the week, and jazz and fusion lovers will consistently find the music to be outstanding. In July, recommended shows include Latin Jazz on Wednesday, July 12 with the band Navarro featuring an all-star lineup including Joey Heredia (drums), Brandon Fields (sax), Joey DeLeon (percussion), Rene Camacho (bass), Michael Angel (guitar), and band leader Joey Navarro (keyboards). Other Spud shows of note in July include club founder Don Randi and his band featuring percussionist Pete Korpela on Saturday, July 22, and Don's son and club manager Justin Randi's band Nothin' Personal on Tuesday July 18. Percussionist Lenny Castro performs with Mitch Forman's group on Saturday, July 15.

The summer concert season at The Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena in July features a great lineup including Latin Jazz with Pete Escovedo on Sunday, July 2, Louie Cruz Beltran on Sunday July 16, fusion jazz with Lao Tizer on Sunday, July 23, and psychedelic funk stalwarts The Chambers Brothers on Sunday, July 30. The Levitt Pavilion concerts are free and start at 7:00 p.m.

More free shows take place in the outdoor Hancock Park area at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) every Saturday in July, 5:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m. The “Latin Sounds” series features Conjunto Costazul on Saturday, July 1, Brazilian sounds with Frances Livings' Ipanema Lounge on Saturday, July 8, Grammy-winning composer and pianist Oscar Hernandez and Alma Libre on Saturday, July 15, Yamila Guerra's Cuban Latin Band on Saturday, July 22, and salsa with Chino Espinoza on Saturday, July 29.

Hollywood and Highland Center feature a free jazz concert series in their Central Courtyard on Tuesdays in July beginning Tuesday, July 11. Latin Jazz is featured this year with Pete Escovedo and his Latin Jazz Orchestra appearing on Tuesday, July 25.

The Hollywood Bowl is always a great bet, with highlighted shows in July including Tony Bennett on Friday and Saturday, July 14 and 15, and Jack Johnson on Sunday, July 16.

The Blue Whale Jazz Club in DTLA features Brazilian Jazz on Wednesday, July 12 with the Fabiano Nascimento Group.

Mambo's Cafe in Glendale features great Cuban food and Latin Jazz every Tuesday and Thursday night. Reservations are highly recommended.

The Satellite in Silverlake features fusion funk with Trishes on Monday, July 3.

Listen to good music. It's out there. Seek and ye shall find.

Photo of writer Mark Towns

Mark Towns is a staff writer and columnist you can contact him at

By Mark Towns

June 2017

Photo of jazz man

What is Jazz? Louis Armstrong, who virtually invented the idiom, famously stated “If you have to ask, you'll never know.”

It's one of those questions that, if you ask a hundred people, you'll receive a hundred different answers.

One thing is for sure, though – Jazz is based on musical improvisation.

But what makes an improvised Blues solo “Blues” while an improvised Jazz solo is “Jazz?” Or why is an improvised Rock solo “Rock?” Or an improvised Indian raga “Indian music?”

There are certain “licks” (musical phrases) that make up the vocabulary of improvisation in Jazz and other idioms. But when Jazz innovators like Ornette Coleman, Jaco Pastorius, and Allan Holdsworth came along and advanced the genre with new musical vocabularies, it was still widely perceived as “Jazz.” Why is that?

So maybe “Jazz” has to be intricate licks? But what happens when a Jazz player plays simple licks (like parts of many Miles Davis solos)? Is he no longer playing Jazz when he plays “simple” phrases?

Once a person is defined as a “Jazz” player, does that mean that all subsequent sounds that come out of that person are “Jazz” just because the individual is?

Can a Jazz musician play Rock? Or Blues? Is “Jazz” the person or the licks? If a Rock musician plays a Bebop lick in her solo in a Rock song, is that Jazz?

If an Indian sitar player played improvised Raga licks with a walking upright bass player and a drummer playing Swing, is that Jazz?

Is the beat the determining factor? Is Swing always Jazz? No, because a lot of Blues and Rock and Roll have “Swing” beats. How about a vocal song with a Swing beat? Is that Jazz? Maybe. How about a song with a Swing beat with instrumental soloists? Jazz? Probably. How about a Swing beat song with a Rock guitarist taking a solo over it? Is that Jazz? Maybe.

Perhaps the best answer to “what is Jazz?” would be “it's complicated.”

Photo of the words its complicated

Then what is Latin Jazz? Usually, it is music with Latin percussion instruments in it, and usually it's not Swing. Typically, Latin Jazz consists of the basic Latin dance rhythms (mambo, cha cha cha, bolero) underpinning “Jazz” improvisation. One would be remiss not to include mention Afro 6/8, güajira, danzón, rumba, and other Latin rhythms in a discussion about Latin Jazz. And, of course, there are all the Brazilian rhythms. And don't forget Spain. And...and...

So what is Latin Jazz? Again, it's complicated.

I asked some of the leading figures in the genre how they define Latin Jazz.

Chucho Valdes (Grammy Award-winning pianist and founding member/leader of Cuban band Irakere): “Latin Jazz is the union of two elements very important in America: the Jazz that has African roots as well, and the tradition of the Afro-Cuban music. Originally it was made by Dizzy (Gillespie) and Chano (Pozo) and Mario Bauzá and Chico O'Farrill."

Eddie Palmieri (Grammy Award-winning pianist and bandleader): “Latin Jazz is the fusion of the 21st century. It has the greatest harmonic structures of Jazz and it has the greatest rhythmical patterns in the world -- the most complex and the most exciting -- which are the ones we play in our Latin genre of dance music.”

Jose Rizo (host of Jazz on the Latin Side on radio station KKJZ, bandleader, composer, music producer): “Latin Jazz is Jazz with a the integration of Latin American rhythms. And Brazilian is definitely part of that, with the bossa nova and the samba. And of course Afro Cuban rhythms, the cha cha cha, the mambo, descarga, the rumba. But there is also Latin Jazz with South American rhythms. I've heard it done very successfully with Peruvian rhythms and Colombian rhythms. So it's basically Jazz integrated with Latin American rhythms. And the basic feel of everything is African. Because Jazz and Latin American rhythms both have their roots in Africa.”

Photo of paper with notes on it

Otmaro Ruiz (pianist, composer, bandleader): “There are two contexts. One gets me into trouble all the time, and the other one is the accepted one - the holy Latin Jazz definition. For many people, Latin Jazz is everything that is the fusion of Jazz improvisation with strictly Afro-Cuban tradition. I try to view Latin Jazz in a very inclusive way. For me, Latin America, as a Latino, as a true Latino-born, for me Latin America starts in Tijuana and ends in Patagonia, Argentina. So anything that is made by Latin people, with any Latin American roots, and combined with Jazz harmony or improvisation, to me that already is Latin Jazz. But I get in trouble saying this, because there’s a lot of pride in the fact that Afro-Cuban has dominated the scene from the 40's. But, again, the nature of Jazz is that Jazz is the bastard child, by nature, of European and black music, and the nature of Jazz is to keep morphing and mixing. That is its nature from birth. So, from the 60's and 70's, Jazz started expanding in this fusion, you know, when Mahavishnu did it with Indian music, when the Brazilian boom happened, all these - that’s the nature of Jazz. So for me, it's just so limiting to say that Latin Jazz should stay in the realm of the Caribbean when there is so much more information and tradition in other countries.”

Sheila Escovedo (aka Sheila E - percussionist, singer, author, actress): “It's hard to define in a sense, because it's not just about the music. It's also the culture and how we speak. First of all, you don't have to be Latin to play Latin Jazz music. Anyone can play Latin Jazz music. On the West Coast, most musicians back in the day played Latin Jazz music, which allowed them to be free to not stick to, like if we where doing R&B music, it would be 2 and a 4. For Latin or Latin Salsa, they would make sure you had to play to their clave, which would be 2-3 or 3-2. So for Latin Jazz artists, we didn't always apply our playing to the clave. It was more about being free Latin Jazz, and expressing in a different way with percussion. And again, not just because we were percussion players, but Latin Jazz, you know, it could be a trio. Like I said, you don't have to be Latin to play Latin Jazz music.”

Eddie Resto (bassist): “Afro Latin Jazz I like to define as Jazz melodies, harmonies, textures, solos, along with classic Jazz repertoire, all set next to a plate of rice and beans. The rice and beans are the rhythmic environments. They can be the Cuban son, guaguancó, danzón, cha cha cha, or Mozambique. They can be the Puerto Rican bomba, plena, or danza. They can be the Venezuelan joropo in 3/4 and 6/8 times or the gaita and others too numerous to mention as the Afro Latin culture has produced so many musical genres. Duke Ellington affectionately called this influence 'The Latin Tinge,' as his collaborations with Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol resulted in the Jazz classic “Caravan.” Dizzy Gillespie, who had sat next to Mario Bauzá in Chick Webb’s orchestra in the 1930s, knew the power and excitement that came from employing Afro Latin rhythms in his compositions. He called this new and exiting direction 'Cubano Bop.'”

Oscar Hernandez (Grammy Award-winning pianist, bandleader, composer): “Latin Jazz is having a good understanding of both genres (Jazz and Latin), and combining them to form the concept. Usually it means playing Jazz harmonies and improvising over Latin rhythms.”

Photo of the 28th annual Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Music Festival Logo

In other news around town, the 28th annual Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Music Festival took place Memorial Day weekend at Rancho Santa Susanna Community Park in Simi Valley. Highlights included trumpet legend Sal Marquez (formerly with Frank Zappa, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, The Tonight Show Band, and others) performing with Doors guitarist Robby Krieger's band. Krieger often employs jazz sidemen in his solo projects, and has always incorporated jazz sensibilities in his own guitar solos. During Krieger's show-closing number, “Light My Fire,” the mega-hit which originated as a Robby Krieger composition, the song's extended solo section took a detour into a few choruses of “My Favorite Things” a la John Coltrane. So did that make it into a Jazz song?

Opening for Krieger's band were The Yardbirds, featuring original drummer Jim McCarty with his current touring version of the band. Other than McCarty, none of the rest of the band are original Yardbirds, but they faithfully recreated all the hits and B-sides from the band's heyday in the mid 60's when iconic British guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page took turns as lead guitarist for the group. Jeff Beck, of course, after leaving the band, went on to create some amazing Jazz-Rock Fusion, including collaborations with ex-Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer.

So since Jeff Beck could be called a Jazz player, were his solos with The Yardbirds “Jazz?” And since the band's current touring guitarist recreates those solos, is that Jazz?

One of biggest Yardbirds hits was 1965's “For Your Love,” which featured a prominent bongo part. So if Jeff Beck, who plays Jazz, was playing with a bongo player in the Yardbirds in the mid 1960's, was that Latin Jazz and we didn't even know it?

Duke Ellington probably came closest to sorting this all out when he said, “There are two kinds of music – good music and the other kind.”

And the Ritmo Caliente goes on...

Listen to good music. It's out there. Seek and ye shall find.

Photo of writer Mark Towns

Mark Towns is a staff writer and columnist you can contact him at

By Mark Towns

MAY 2017

Photo of Carlos Santana and Ray Briz's band in tijuana 1960

Photo of Carlos Santana and Ray Briz

“I don't know why fortune smiles on some and lets the rest go free," sings Don Henley in the Eagles song “Sad Cafe.” For every musician and band you've heard of, there are multiple others around the world who are just as “good” that you've never heard of.

Everyone has heard of Carlos Santana. Ever hear of Ray Briz?

Photo of Ray Briz
Ray and Carlos were childhood friends in Tijuana. They attended the same elementary school and would hang out and jam after classes and on weekends. Of these two kids, one went on to become a virtuoso jazz keyboardist who can do things like play Giant Steps at any tempo, etc. and has a great Sinatra-like singing voice. The other doesn't sing and can't solo very well over complex chord changes. Which one would you guess would become world-famous?

It's funny how life turns out. It's kind of like that musician joke: What's the difference between a blues musician and a jazz musician? A blues musician plays three chords in front of a thousand people and a jazz musician plays a thousand chords in front of three people.

Photo of Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana is a master innovator at fusing blues and rock guitar with traditional Latin rhythms, and is deservedly world-renown for his pioneering musical explorations, his soaring guitar solos, and and his genius at assembling amazing bands of great musicians and vocalists­not to mention his stamina at keeping it up over fifty years. Santana has cemented his place in music history. His childhood friend from Tijuana, Ray Briz, who I'm sure even Carlos himself would admit is a “better” soloist from a purely technical standpoint, at age 69 just released his first album, Latin Experience, on his own label.

Latin Experience contains fifteen instrumental Latin Jazz Fusion tracks, all composed by Ray Briz. Ray (piano and keyboards) is backed by San Diego-based musicians including the great trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, along with Hollis Gentry and Steve Fierabend (woodwinds), Dave Hoffman (trumpet), Cesar Lozano (drums), Peter Starbak and Daniel Bustamante (bass), and Tommy Aros and Charlie Chavez (percussion).

The tunes range from Chick Corea-like Fusion Jazz and Funk to traditional Mambos, Cha Cha Chas, Rumbas, Bossa Novas, and Boleros. The Fusion-inspired tunes are complex tour de forces (tours de force?), yet maintain a great sense of soul and groove. Fusion music can be a slippery slope, too often sounding more like technical exercises than music. Not so with the writing of Ray Briz. Even in Ray's most complex tunes, you hear the humanity in the music. Ray's music is from the soul to the soul.

Photo of Carlos Santana

Ray's love of standards is evident in his writing, as hints of classic melodies weave threads of familiarity throughout the pieces. The compositions are new, yet somehow have the ring of familiarity akin to meeting someone new whom you like immediately and feel like you've known all your life.

I spoke with Ray recently about his new album and about his experience growing up in Tijuana.

Mark Towns: Tell us about your early musical background

Ray Briz: I played bass my first years. My brother played guitar. We had a band in Mexico for 15 years called Los Stukas, in which I played Hammond B3 organ. After that, I came to the USA. I basically played by ear until I had an excellent teacher, Bud Conway, who taught me the jazz idiom. He had played with all the great ones­Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, etc. I formed a band when I came to San Diego called The Elements. Frankie Avalon and I had the same agent. I gave him one of my songs to give to Frankie, but he never released it. I played at the Hotel Meridien in Coronado for seven years and my friend (rock guitarist/vocalist) George Thorogood and his wife used to come see me every year, and George would sit in with me.

L.A. Jazz: Who inspires you musically?

Briz: I always liked the traditional players like Oscar Peterson, Peter Nero, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Bill Evans, etc. They were a great influence on my playing. On the Latin side, I like the music of Sonora Santanera, Grupo Niche, Eddie Palmieri, Antonio Carlos Jobim, etc.

L.A. Jazz: How do you balance tradition with innovation in your playing?

Briz: By trying to do a little bit of both on my playing, listening to newer guys too. I love Dave Grusin's chords.

L.A. Jazz: How do you define Latin Jazz?

Briz: Jazz with a Latin Rhythm.

L.A. Jazz: What advice would you give someone just starting out in music who wants to learn to play Latin Jazz?

Briz: To learn first of all the concept of Latin music, and then apply it to Jazz rhythms.

L.A. Jazz: Do you think Latin Jazz will ever reach a larger audience?

Briz: There are more and more Latinos in America now, and eventually, Latin music is gonna be very important in America's market. I think eventually people are gonna catch up to it.

L.A. Jazz: Do you think there is an inverse relationship between musical complexity and music popularity?

Briz: I think people need to be educated to both (complex and popular) and merge them up to get the best out of it. And it is our job (as musicians) to expose this music to all.

L.A. Jazz: Do jazz artists have a responsibility to entertain, or should the music speak for itself?

Briz: If it's a matter of survival, of course you have to entertain. But if is about writing your music, you should do so with no restraints. Expose your concept with sincerity, and don't do it for commercial purposes. That is the only way that your idea of music will come across, and if people like it, the better.

L.A. Jazz: Tell us about your experience growing up with Carlos Santana.

Briz: Carlos Santana and I lived in the same neighborhood and went to the same elementary school, Miguel F. Martinez. His father was a friend of my father. My Father was an actor and dancer, and he was Vice President of the Actors Guild in Tijuana, so he had to deal with every musician and actors, including Santana's father, who was a mariachi violinist and wanted Carlos to be the same. But Carlos liked the guitar and used to hide to practice because his father wanted him to be a violinist.

We are the same age. We used to hang out--us and some friends--to play with acoustic guitars on 4th St. where I lived. Carlos loved that song "Apache," and he played it so much that we used to nickname him "Apache." We used to play a lot of (instrumental rock)songs by The Ventures. But most of the time, we'd just horse around in the neighborhood. He was ahead of me when it came to music, because he started playing on Revolution Ave. in Tijuana when he was under age. That's basically where he got he's training - playing in clubs.

Photo of Carlos Santana and Ray Briz in tijuana

He sold me and my brother Tony his first electric guitar, a fat old Gibson with one pick up and one button, that we traded later on at Apex Music for a flashy Rickenbacker. If I had known he was gonna be so big, I would have kept it! He went to the USA while I went on to travel with a 6-piece band throughout Mexico. Ever since he won so many Grammys, my communication with him decayed. I lost track of him until a few years a go when he came to Tijuana after a concert in San Diego and we hung out at a restaurant to chat and reminisce. I was then playing and living in San Diego when one of our mutual friends, Jose Molina, Carlos' childhood next door neighbor, called me and said that he wanted to get together in Tijuana for lunch, so we did. We had a nice chat recalling of all our times as kids, but we had to leave because eventually the people discovered it was him and starting surrounding the table asking for autographs.

I guess when Henley sings about how fortune smiles on some and lets the rest go free, he means free to eat lunch without having to be mobbed by fans and having to early-terminate the meal.

Ray Briz is old school in that he does not have a web site, and does not currently have distribution for his great new album, which is available on CD only--no downloads, no Spotify, no iTunes. It's great music – as “good” as it gets. Sometimes, you have to go the extra mile to get something good. Get Ray Briz's CD. You will be glad you did.

If you're in the San Diego area, Ray performs a few times a month there with his trio at Eddie V's, where he'll have the CD's available for purchase. Otherwise, you can email him directly at for more information on how to get one.

By Mark Towns April 2017

Photo of broken record
Photo of Oscar Hernandez new CD cover

Music album sales in the U.S. have dropped by more than half since 2007. In 2016, the number of album sales, including CD's, digital-only releases, cassettes (yes, they're still a thing), and vinyl was approximately 200.5 million units, down from over 500 million units sold in 2007, according to . Of that number, 26% were physical product (vinyl, CD's, and cassettes), while the rest were streaming. So last year, close to 50 million physical CD's were sold in the U.S. Jazz hovers around the low end of the sales spectrum genre-wise, accounting for around 2% of total album sales. Facing these odds, any jazz artist today who is putting out an album is very brave. But if you're a musical artist, what else are you going to do with your creative output? An artist must create, statistics be damned.

Photo of Audio wave
Photo of Oscar Hernandez new CD cover

Latin Jazz pianist Oscar Hernandez, founder of Spanish Harlem Orchestra and former musical director for Rubén Blades, has released a new recording, The Art of Latin Jazz, released on the Origin label. A veteran performer who has appeared on hundreds of albums by others, this is the first album under Oscar Hernandez's own name. “I have always been busy doing other things,” Hernandez explains as to what took so long. Those “other things” include winning three Grammys. The Art of Latin Jazz is definitely Grammy-winning quality. The album features Hernandez's L.A.-based band: drummer Jimmy Branly, percussionist Christian Moraga, bassist Sawa Perez, saxophonist Justo Almario, and features a special guest appearance by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos from San Diego. The album release party is Friday, March 24 at The Blue Whale. The band will also appear at the Thousand Oaks Civic Plaza PAC on Saturday, March 18.

Photo of Audio wave
Photo of Vocalist Mari Nobre's new CD cover

Vocalist Mari Nobre's new release is called Live and Alive on the Chrome Records label. The album, recorded live at her band's May 27, 2016 performance at the Jan Popper Theater at UCLA, features the omnipresent Justo Almario on sax and flute, Mari's husband, bassist Leo Nobre, fine piano work from Daniel Szabo, Angelo Metz on guitar, and Mari on vocal. The band stretches out on classic Latin and Jazz selections including “Chega De Saudade,” “Frenesi,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Corcovodo,” as well as on an original composition, “Linda.” “I think that this release is a very special one because it is a live album, and in an era of so much auto-tuning and second takes, I wanted to offer something real and raw,” says Ms. Nobre. “I am presenting this album exactly how the live concert happened.” The album release event is being planned for May, and will be announced on Mari's web site

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Photo of Vocalist Anita Robles new CD cover

Vocalist Anita Robles is releasing a new album, The Good News, Even on Rainy Days on her own Anababe Music label. Consisting of six previously-released selections and four new ones, the album features classic songs including Body and Soul, In My Life, and Contigo Aprendi done Latin Jazz style, along with Anita's pop and inspirational originals. Backing musicians include jazz heavyweights Mitch Forman, Larry Williams, Dori Amarilio, Aaron Serfaty, John Belzaguy, Rico Belled, Richie Gajate-Garcia, Ramon Stagnaro, and the ever-present Justo Almario on flute. The CD release show takes place in Eagle Rock at Columbo's on Saturday, March 25.

Photo of Audio wave
Photo of Sax

Other great new releases sure to delight your ears include guitarist Pat Kelley's Sing Me Back Home, bassist Kristin Korb's Beyond the Moon, pianist Bill Anschell's Rumbler, and Organic Trio's Saturn's Spell featuring guitarist Brian Seeger.

Thanks to all artists who continue to bring the world wonderful new sounds.

And the Ritmo Caliente goes on...

Listen to good music. It's out there. Seek and ye shall find.

Photo of writer Mark Towns

Mark Towns is a staff writer and columnist you can contact him at