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Jazz Jewels

Improvisational music has many homes in Los Angeles and its environs. Here is a jazz lover's look at some of the best.

January 22, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What makes a good jazz club?

The obvious answer is "good jazz." But it's an answer that misses the point in a region filled with far more good jazz than even the existing venues can handle. New York City excepted, Los Angeles has as many first-class players as any other place on the globe. And it continues to be a necessary destination for many nationally touring performers.

Still, granting the consistently high quality of the music available in Southern California, there are differences among the places in which it is performed--

differences in terms of musical style, bookings, setting, attitude, price and location. Each room has its own unique qualities, its own personal listening ambience. So here is a descriptive, highly selective list of the Southland's 10 most interesting jazz rooms.

The Best Pure Jazz Club: With its classic jazz club stylings, Catalina Bar & Grill has all the attributes of a classic jazz bistro. Situated in a slightly seedy area of Hollywood but remodeled in August to improve both the sight lines and the sound, it has the feeling of a large, warm club room. What makes it the premier Los Angeles jazz club, however, is its bookings, which consistently bring in such major jazz names as Dianne Reeves, Joe Zawinul, Pharoah Sanders, Roy Hargrove, Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman, etc. The Heath Brothers--saxophonist Jimmy, bassist (and Modern Jazz Quartet regular) Percy and drummer Albert "Tootie" (who also joined the MJQ in 1995)--are performing this weekend, followed by pianist Gene Harris on Tuesday and drummer Jack DeJohnette on Feb. 4.

Equally important, Catalina's cachet as a venue favored by talented artists tends to create a generally respectful listening environment. Service is discreet while performers are playing, and it's a rare evening when a noisy table intrudes on the music. And, unlike many classic jazz clubs, Catalina has an excellent kitchen--supervised by owner Catalina Popescu--with a basic but well-prepared cuisine dominated by fresh greens, pastas and seafood.

The Best Concert-Style Jazz Club: Initially based in a small room in the Helms Bakery building, the Jazz Bakery moved a few years ago to a much larger room in the Helms building.

Singer Ruth Price, who has directed the club--actually a nonprofit organization--since the beginning, chose the inherent financial problems of a concert venue rather than the income-producing setting of a restaurant and bar. But musicians seem to favor the opportunity to perform before a seated, nondrinking audience, and many listeners like the idea of paying a flat-fee ticket price without having to worry about buying a minimum amount of food or drinks.

The Bakery has generally matched Catalina in the high level of its bookings. Recent performers include Cyrus Chestnut, Bob Dorough, Joe Henderson, Chuck Mangione, Marsalis, Joe Lovano, etc.

This weekend legendary English pianist George Shearing is appearing with bassist Neil Swainson, followed on Tuesday by emerging young jazz stars Don Braden, tenor saxophone, and Dominique Eade, singer.

The Best Jazz Room With a View: Situated on the south side of the Bel Age Hotel, just off the Sunset Strip, Club Brasserie's window wall looks out on the vista of the Los Angeles basin. At night, when jazz groups are performing, the city lights provide a panorama reminiscent of the view from a Manhattan high-rise.

This attractive room has until recently tended to focus on first-rate local acts. But in the last month or two, nationally known performers like saxophonist Greg Osby and pianist Brad Mehldau have appeared, strengthening the quality of the programming.

It's already one of the city's most pleasant places to hear jazz, and the combination of enhanced bookings, a good location and an elegant setting give the Brasserie the potential to become a significant jazz venue.

Mehldau is back at the Club Brasserie tonight with the Richie Vitale Quintet, followed by pianist Bobby Lyle's Trio on the weekend and bassist Buddy Montgomery's group next Friday and Saturday.

The Best Art Deco Setting for Big-Band Jazz: It used to be called the Moonlight Tango, and the change to simply the Moonlight hasn't changed the Sherman Oaks club's policy of bringing in some of the area's finest large jazz ensembles every Tuesday night.

Bill Holman, Anthony Wilson, Frank Capp, Gregg Field and Mike Barone have all brought their bands into the Moonlight's urbane, '40s-revisited environs. Last week, trumpeter Louise Baranger appeared, leading a hard-swinging 10-piece band. Next week, two-time Emmy Award winner and 12-time Grammy nominee Bob Florence appears with his scintillating orchestrations and his roaring Limited Edition Big Band.

On other nights at Moonlight, owner Lenetta Kidd features swing music by the Pat Tuzzolino Swing Band, the Zoot Swing Band and the Moonlight Swingers, occasionally stepping to the microphone to add her own upbeat vocals to the entertaining mix of nostalgic rhythms.

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