On a Monday a little more than a month ago, in the Room Upstairs at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks, drummer Rayford Griffin was on fire, playing with expression and verve in an ad-hoc trio with bassist Sekou Bunch and pianist John Beasley.
The musicians--taking part in a Monday night series that began in March and that the 50-seat room's owner Dale Jaffe had dubbed the Le Cafe All-Stars--played jam-session style. They performed with elan but without benefit of a rehearsal, spontaneously calling their program, including a number of jazz classics.
The 34-year-old Griffin, perhaps best known for his tenure with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty throughout the 1980s, returns Monday to Le Cafe, bringing a different ensemble. He will be joined by guitarist Kevin Chokan, bassist Bunch and pianist Mark Stephens, a foursome that a few years ago was known as the Fresh Crash Crew. As before, they will figure out what they're doing when they get on stage, though Griffin said the material would be "jazz- and funk-oriented."
"I wanted an open night when I could book artists who became available at the last minute. My regular scheduling, where I'm booked about two months ahead, didn't allow for that kind of spontaneity," said Jaffe of the Monday night affairs, which he now calls Secret Sessions.
The session participants are mainly those who regularly work, or attend, Le Cafe. These include drummers Griffin and Terri Lyne Carrington, bassists Bunch and Tony Dumas, pianists Beasley, Billy Childs and Terry Trotter, violinist Karen Briggs and saxophonists Brandon Fields and Bob Sheppard.
"But these musicians will often be playing with different people than you're used to hearing them with," said Griffin, who produced and performed on saxophonist George Howard's latest GRP Records release, "Cross Your Mind."
"It's like you don't know what it's going to be, but you're almost guaranteed that it's going to be good due to the caliber of people who play there," Griffin said.
Griffin called the room the "Baked Potato of the '90s," where people like Lee Ritenour, Harvey Mason and Larry Carlton used to work in the '70s. "I've heard a lot of really good bands there. It's like the main room in Los Angeles for quality contemporary jazz musicians," Griffin said.
There are surprises, to be sure, said Jaffe, such as the night a month ago when the renowned Brazilian singer-songwriter Ivan Lins showed up, playing a duo setting with keyboardist-saxophonist Larry Williams. "That was really special," Jaffe said.
Since the Room Upstairs is small, Jaffe is trying to get his artists to accentuate the acoustic aspects of their music, or, if they play electrically, to keep things toned down.
Pianist Childs, who made a rare duo appearance at Le Cafe a couple of Mondays ago, relishes playing in the small space. "It's like a club, and the chairs are right up on top of you," he said. "But it's like a concert space in that people don't talk."
Childs is one artist who worked a Secret Sessions on a last-minute basis. "I was having lunch there with Tony Dumas on Monday a couple of weeks ago when Olivier Valbois, the night manager, came up and asked me if I could work that evening," he recalled. "So we did and it worked out pretty good. We played about an hour-and-a-half set."
The Room Upstairs was started by Jaffe's mother, singer Lois Boileau, about 12 years ago. Boileau still works the room, and Jaffe pointed out that since it's ideal for singers, he's trying to book more of them for the Secret Sessions.
"When you have a good to great singer in this room, it's a wonderful experience," he said.
\o7 Secret Sessions take place every Monday, with shows at 9 and 11 p.m., in the Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. $5, two-drink minimum. Information: (818) 986-2662.\f7