Man, I miss Charlie O’s…

(Charlie O’s closed it’s doors on the last night of August, 2011. I still miss the place. Here’s some things pulled from Brick’s Picks columns back in the day, just to remind you why you were always there.)

Charlie O’s has a solid seven straight night’s of killer jazz music this week. Every one a pick. If you can manage to do all your shopping in the vicinity of Victory and Woodman you can just kinda pop in on your way home every night. (There’s a 7 11 nearby, a liquor store, always a yard sale or two in the area, that should work.)  It kicks in hard with tenor Ernie Watts on Friday…if you’ve heard his latest, the live To The Point, then you know what’s in store.  Then on Saturday tenor Pete Christlieb takes over, with that shiny namesake horn of his and just blows solid, swinging stuff. (and his classic Apogee with Warne Marsh is a terrific stocking stuffer). Then on the Sabbath cometh Benn Clatworthy, another mighty player who wanders off the blues map as often as not, looking over edges, soloing through unknown territories, smacking into unseen walls…. We love this cat’s style. Check out The Decider, a nicely succinct display of his chops and thinking. For Big Band Monday they brought in the great Med Flory’s JazzWave. The heart of which is SuperSax (you crate diggers take notice), those massed brass and reeds playing Bird solo’s rendered into large ensemble arrangements without dropping the tempo an iota. Wild. Then on Tuesday it goes deep again with Theo Saunders’ quintet built around his imaginative Monkish-McCoy flavored constructions that lets soloists go some serious places. Great jazz. Then the trumpet players wind up the week with Jack Sheldon on the night before Christmas and Carl Saunders grinching up Christmas night itself. Like we said, every night’s a great one….

…..Now how about the genuine nightspots….real jazz junkies collect at Charlie O’s in the Valley. It’s this town’s straight ahead epicenter, and the crowd is purist, half of them players themselves, the rest jazzophiles. These people demand the real stuff, three sets worth. There’s usually no cover (except on Big Band Mondays) and there’s no minimum, what else you want? This Friday check out saxman Justo Almario, a Colombian whose impassioned sound is shot through with Trane (much like fellow South American Gato Barbieri used to, though Justo can bop with the best, too.) In fact, the great tenor work continues all weekend here….with the mighty Don Menza on Saturday, his is a big, fat powerful tone, the kind that as they said of Dexter Gordon, seems to fill the whole  room. And on Sunday it’s Doug Webb, who delivers with a passionate intensity and nods to Trane and Joe Henderson and Hank Mobley and all the rest of those cats. We dig him. Real jazz in a real jazz freak’s club.….

….Since the legendary all night contest when Lester Young finally cut Coleman Hawkins, tenor battles have been a jazz tradition. Crowds love it: Herman Riley and Rickey Woodard brought down the house last year at Catalina’s going chorus after chorus. But such matches are rare anymore. Battling tenor albums are even rarer. A particularly splendid example, Apogee, had Pete Christlieb and his mentor Warne Marsh going at it across two sides and the result was joyous, intoxicating hard bop. Alas, Warne is gone, but Christlieb has found a worthy sparring partner in mighty Don Menza. They sound nothing alike but share a passion for aggressive soloing and their past matches have been electrifying. No one gets humiliated—these are more chivalrous times—but the competition is real as the two battling tenors strive to outblow each other at Charlie O’s this Friday, April 13. It’s a perfect way to kick off a great week of local jazz…..

…..Charles Owens is at Charlie O’s again this Friday, with the fine quartet of pianist John Beasley, bassist Edwin Livingston, and drummer Roy McCurdy. Last time Charlie O played Charlie O’s he finished the night with a suite of half a dozen tunes, included some Miles, an incredibly funky “Cold Duck Time” (bassman John Heard owned the tune that night) that actually had people dancing (at Charlie O’s!), and then into a profound take on a movement from A Love Supreme that eventually segued naturally, somehow, into an extended avant-blues workout on “Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On”.  His playing had tapped all his specialties—the blues, the straight up, the hard bop, the spiritual and the out there. It went unrecorded of course.  Owens has few recordings. A few old LPs if you can find them, and last year’s fine So Far So Good but like so many of our local horn masters (and Owens plays nearly as many reeds as Rahsaan Roland Kirk) you have to catch him live. He’s a different animal in different venues: catch him in Dwight Trible’s Band and he summons up the ghosts of masters past, simmering low or exploding in Dolphy-esque fireworks. At the World Stage last year he went into the stratosphere with percussion accompaniment, an event we described deep in the pages of “The Best Of L.A.”  In a blues band he’s down and dirty. But at Charlie O’s he’ll run down the middle, veering into some blues here, some craziness there, but always back to the righteous straight ahead with an unparalleled “Eternal Triangle”. Don’t miss this one…..

….When alto saxist Zane Musa takes off it is a sight to behold. He leans into the wind and seems to blow out the crazy chords with every ounce of his being, rocking back and forth in some sort of jazz ecstasy. It’s a style not for everyone—some prefer their players cool—but for fans his wild Bird progressions, gutsy Maceo funk and all that Cannonball seem just right. Those influences and inspirations fuse into white hot flurries and molten blues runs that never fail to kick up the pace on the bandstand a notch or three. On Friday at Charlie O’s he’s backed by a terrific version of the John Heard Trio, with bassist Heard, drummer Roy McCurdy and pianist John Beasley.  An excellent way to open up the jazz week….

….There are a pair of saxophonists bookending the weekend at Charles O’s that absolutely slay us every time. On Friday we got Charles Owens, fresh from a big LACMA appearance. A masterful player (and orchestra leader…the Luckman has done brilliantly under his direction), Owens plays just about every reed and woodwind ever made (just dig him on English horn) and plays a mean dirty flute; but it’s on tenor that he is on fire. At the World Stage we’ve seen him go what looked like utterly out of his mind, all Dolphy and Kirk and late period Trane or a way gone Sonny running down East Broadway, you know, crazy clusters and Fulani scales and notes flying so fast, damn…. And at Charlie O’s we’ve heard the most soulful A Love Supreme, the crowd utterly silent, not a whisper or a stir till it fades on that final bass thrum…then hot damn it’s Charlie getting down with Eddie Harris, music so funky people are actually dancing at Charlie O’s, and so greasy they’re getting drunk. That’s Charlie Owens, delivering. And that’s part one. Part two is Benn Clatworthy, same stage on Sunday. You’d never think a foul mouthed Michael Caine-as-Alfie-sounding Brit would play saxophone as good as any Yank, even better than most. He’s got a voice on that thing, steeped in mid period Trane, in Booker Ervin, in lots of Sonny Rollins when Sonny was the greatest of them all. But that’s just the sound. But the ideas, the vision, the places he goes, pushing, daring…god damn. Nobody in LA does this. Maybe nobody nowhere. It can be the most radical. It can be the most hard bopping. It can be so gorgeous you will not draw a breath till that horn has expended his. His is an intense, radical, beautiful jazz playing and still completely in the tradition. So there ya go, two of LA’s most exciting saxophonists, just waiting for your ears. Oh…and who’s got the floor on the Saturday between them? Tenor Don Menza is who, and he can kick anybody’s ass. Don’t let no one tell you this town ain’t got great saxophone players…..

…..We first remember seeing pianist Otmaro Ruiz some years ago at Charlie O’s, where he once was pretty regular on the piano bench. We walked in one night and a perfect maelstrom of piano chords was filling the joint, customers yelling, the band in a jazz frenzy. We’d never heard jazz piano like that, the mad chord progressions, the crazy Latin rhythms we couldn’t identify, the things plucked from Chopin and chunks of Monk and Bud Powell. It was a different bar inside then, some ridiculous piano lounge layout from days when people hung in places like that, smoking too much and picking each other up, and the crowd stood round the piano and there’s was no way to see who the hell was making that crazy wonderful music. Otmaro Ruiz someone said. Who? Otmaro Ruiz, the Venezuelan guy. Like that explained it. But he really was an exotic, inexplicable genius back then, and just as thrilling now. We saw him with Dwight Trible at California Plaza this summer, and every time he soloed the audience shouted with excitement. He’s always exciting, with a mess of players or just a duet. He can completely blow your mind with some one-of-a-kind Latin American meets jazz thing, or an absolutely gorgeous melody awash in color, or an utterly mad explosion of ideas that defy words completely. He has a trio at the Blue Whale on Friday…..

….Charlie O’s is the quintessential jazz room. Outside is a non-descript stretch of the Valley, but you walk inside and it’s dark, with a low stage at one end and a handful of players jamming their asses off. So leave it to this joint to book saxist Chuck Manning with John Heard’s house trio when you’re all supposed to be home with the eggnog and Andy Williams. Manning’s intensity really comes out here with John Heard behind him, there’s a toughness to his sound at Charlie O’s. He probably has that sound everywhere he plays, actually, it’s just something you notice more at Charlie O’s, the way you notice the chance taking at the World Stage or new ideas at the Blue Whale. A great room has a vibe, and Charlie O’s has that bad ass nothing but straight ahead vibe. Which makes it special. And not sappy on Christmas Eve….

….Now Charlie O’s has a purist vibe, too…but it’s still a place where you can just waltz in on most nights (there is a cover on Mondays) and sit at the bar and down a few as well. It’s a jazz joint, our one true jazz joint, and as jazz has always been made in joints since time primordial, it is in that sense maybe the purest jazz venue in town. It certainly has a helluva line up this week, beginning with house band the John Heard Trio (with drummer Roy McCurdy and pianist Theo Saunders) hosting a pair of Trane-mad saxists this weekend: Justo Almario on Friday and Azar Lawrence on Saturday. Saunders’ McCoy Tyner inspirations connect especially well with Azar; his Monk underpinnings work beautifully with Justo. On Sunday trumpeter Carl Saunders leads his sextet there…the man’s technical skills are extraordinary, his Live at Charlie O’s (of course) is a veritable handbook on the things one can do on a horn without need of another breath. And grooving trumpeter Elliott Caine has his Charlie O’s debut on Tuesday. But the high point for us is Theo Saunders again, fronting his own sextet on Wednesday. He’s collected some exceptional players: tenor Chuck Manning and alto Zane Musa (both are fine and completely distinct soprano saxophonists as well), his longtime trombonist David Dahlsten, and the powerful team of bassist Jeffrey Littleton and drummer Tony Austin. Saunders is an underrated composer (word has it that he has several albums of stuff out somewhere), his pieces can be difficult, if beautiful, and are rhythmically complex, his solos are always surprising and for some reason we really dig his unpredictably right-on-the-money comping best of all. Four whole sets of the stuff and no cover, baby, just a couple of drinks. Can’t beat that.



4 thoughts on “Man, I miss Charlie O’s…

  1. Pingback: The jazz that I knew and loved | Brick Wahl

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