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Bowie's Versatile Brass Fantasy Definitely Worth the Long Wait


Midway through his first set Tuesday at Catalina Bar & Grill, trumpeter Lester Bowie reminded the audience that "it's not what you play, but how you play it."

The remark well describes the startling performance of Bowie and his 10-piece Brass Fantasy ensemble. The eight-horn, tuba-anchored ensemble cartwheeled though an unlikely program of R&B oldies, pop tunes and roots music, giving each a thorough make-over in the process. The clever, sometimes clownish arrangements served to frame Bowie's equally slapstick play.

Bowie began the concert by announcing he'd tried for 14 years to bring the ensemble to L.A., then led the band in a scorching, rhythmic fanfare, a sure announcement that they'd arrived, all introduced by a gong struck by Bowie's partner in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, percussionist Don Moye. The tune's intensity, not to mention volume, set the evening's high-spirited tone.

Bowie himself wasted no time issuing his trademark smears, growls and blistering runs. Wearing his signature lab coat and scooting around to the music, the trumpeter made for a strong presence, often winding up like Hideo Nomo as he delivered knuckle-ball lines.

Expert at coaxing a wide array of tonal effects from his instrument, Bowie used two microphones, one providing enrichment for only the lowest of tones. During a dream-like rendition of "Birth of the Blues" he created the strong, even, toneless breaths of a distance runner then parodied much of jazz trumpet history in an often comical solo.

The music's funky, R&B-inspired tempos were powered by tuba player Bob Stewart, whose persistent invention and endurance made strong impressions throughout the evening. Moye and drummer Vinnie Johnson pushed the music in more subtle ways.

Whitney Houston's hit "Saving All My Love for You," its familiar refrain stated as a brilliant fanfare, went through a host of solo-challenging moods and tempers. Improvisations were decorated with a variety of brass-based riffs, call-and-response passages and general mayhem, often topped with impossibly high notes from first trumpeter Mac Golletton. Standout solos came from trombonists Luis Bonilla and Joshua Roseman, French horn player Vincent Chancey and tuba player Stewart.

Bowie's energy and exuberance, on display even when he's not playing, made this date especially involving. Here's hoping it won't be another 14 years before the Brass Fantasy again has a chance to play on our imaginations.


Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy appears tonight through Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. $14, tonight and Sunday; $17, Friday-Saturday. (213) 466-2210.

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