He doesn't get around much any more on the Ventura County front, but bassist Henry "Skipper" Franklin has been such a familiar face around town for the last several years that he should be considered an honorary citizen.
Franklin, a friendly veteran on the Los Angeles scene and beyond, has a resume that includes stints with Roy Ayers, Willie Bobo, Hugh Masakela and, from the left end of the spectrum, Archie Shepp. He also was something of a house bassist for years in Ventura, helping to solidify the jazz tradition at 66 California.
The Perris resident made countless liaisons and had encounters over several decades with other worthy players from Southern California, many of whom may not be well-known on the general jazz landscape but who play with purpose and intensity. Tonight, he will show up to celebrate the release of his latest CD, a fine one called "Bass Encounters," featuring many of the musicians he has played with lately, including many familiar to the 66 California stage.
Chief among those is Theo Saunders, one of the best pianists in Los Angeles at the moment and an anchor on the project. He is the only musician, aside from Franklin, who appears on every cut on the CD, which was recorded in two sessions with two groups. Musicians included are Willie Jones III, an L.A. drummer who has made good internationally, trumpeters Jerry Rusch and Gilbert Castellanos, saxophonists Herman Riley and George Harper, guitarist Mark Waggoner, drummer Carl Burnett and percussionist Taumbu.
More than just another standards session, the CD has an overall vision and diversity that offer fresh sounds and ideas. There are two nice tunes by Al Hall Jr.--the opening "Theme for JoJo," which appeared on Franklin's 1970 album, "The Skipper," and the gently chugging "Puff of Vapor," with an especially good solo by Saunders. Sylvester Le Blanc turns in a Leon Thomas-like vocal on a bluesy-cum-African tune, "Eslilan," a Sudanese folk song revisited, that is also accented by Taumbu's colorations.
While mostly tucked in nimbly, but intrinsically, in the rhythm section, Franklin kicks off Saunders' tune, "Lynford's Lament," a lovely brood of a piece written for the late Lynford Stewart, father of jazz critic Zan Stewart and a longtime Ojai resident. They amp up the energy on the Latin-driven Saunders tune "Vision Quest." Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile" is the best-known tune on the set and showcases Waggoner's limber guitar skills.
The album closes on a graceful, albeit bass-less, note, with Barbara Morrison singing the ballad "You Bring the Sun Out," backed by Saunders, with soft inflections from Taumbu.
Overall, Franklin has called on friends and associates to assemble a CD that makes a contribution to the West Coast jazz fabric. Ventura, too, should be proud. The regular jazz forum that is 66 California undoubtedly played a role in cementing the musical ideas at hand.
Henry Franklin CD release party, 9 p.m. today at 66 California, 66 California St. in Ventura; 648-2266.
OPERATIC CONVOLUTIONS: Opera fans in these parts generally have to be content to make the trek down to Los Angeles, opera being a medium that only really comes alive when it's live and onstage. At least once a year, though, the cause of opera seems very alive in the area, thanks to Marilyn Horne.
Ever since the famed mezzo-soprano took the reins of the vocal department at the summertime Music Academy of the West a few years ago, higher caliber vocal students have flocked there, and the opera productions in the past three years have been sterling.
Her choices for those productions have been engagingly offbeat, steering clear of the comfy staples that too often show up in opera companies. This year's model, staged last weekend, was Richard Strauss' fascinating quirk, "Ariadne auf Naxos." Some find its strange brew of comedy and tragedy and inconsistent musical language disconcerting, while some think it is, in the end, one of Strauss' best works.
Controversy or not, it's clear that the opera's back story is critical to its unusual creation. It began as a one-act version of a Moliere play, retooled by librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal, and was badly received at its premiere in 1912. It was dramatically reworked in 1916 and a wonderfully absurd prologue was added.
In the piece, singers and a frustrated composer struggle with an insensitive aristocratic patron's demand that two separate works, a comedy and a serious opera, be presented simultaneously, ending in time for the nine o'clock fireworks.
On a more local note, Lotte Lehmann, who helped found the Music Academy and bring the attention of the music world to Santa Barbara, appeared in the original production and subsequent Strauss operas. She staged it with the Music Academy in the 1950s, and its return last weekend, via Horne, carries a poetic justice.
The singing talent was solid, especially Heidi Bieber as the vampish Zerbinetta, who steals the show with her aptly tragic-comic second act aria about her successive lovers, and mezzo-soprano Liesel Fedkenheuer as the composer. In the first act, she confers dignity on a key aria, as the score turns suddenly Wagnerian, and the tension between art and entertainment--a running theme in the opera--is highlighted.
Other elements fell nicely into place, as well. The orchestra, under Randall Behr's baton, played well and David Zinn's set design was modest but entirely effective, and it's reasonable to assume that Strauss and Lehmann would be pleased.
Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com