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Jazz Review

Edwards Tribute Soars Over Hurdles

April 09, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Teddy Edwards celebration at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Fine Arts Complex on Saturday night didn't quite turn out as announced. It was, indeed, a celebration, a tribute to one of the Southland's legendary jazz artists, a tenor saxophonist and composer who has been a significant musical presence in the area since the mid-'40s.

The program actually began with a 5 p.m. screening of the Don McGlynn documentary, "The Legend of Teddy Edwards." The concert that followed at 8 p.m. was scheduled to feature Edwards with his Brasstring Ensemble, a 16-piece orchestra featuring five brass, five strings and a six-piece rhythm section.

But just before the start of the program it was announced that Edwards would not play, and would be replaced by tenor saxophonist Herman Riley. A few moments later, Edwards himself came onstage to inform the audience that chemotherapy treatments (for an undisclosed illness) had provoked muscle spasms in his arms that made it extremely difficult for him to perform.

It was disturbing, of course, to hear of Edwards' condition, and one wishes him a speedy recovery and a productive return to playing. Under the circumstances, however, he couldn't have asked for a better replacement than Riley--like Edwards, a too-underrated Southland musical treasure who moves easily from jazz to the blues and mixes elements of both.

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Fortunately, Edwards' absence as a player did not mean that he would not be present on stage. Looking surprisingly fit, he led the ensemble through a full evening of his compositions, adding a touch of humor to his announcements as well as frequent and generous acknowledgments for the work of his musicians, individually and collectively.

Edwards' compositions for the ensemble were largely in big-band style, with the brass represented by three trumpeters and three trombonists, and the five string players (three violinists, viola and cello) playing the role of a saxophone section. Many of the well-crafted arrangements, in fact, voiced the strings in block harmony fashion, suggesting the charts had originally been written for standard big-band instrumentation (trumpets, trombones, saxophones and rhythm section).

Riley, working in front of the ensemble, soloed on almost every number, his brawny, muscular sound cutting through the music with crisp incisiveness. His darkly persuasive tone was especially effective on "Georgia," and his passion for the blues surfaced dramatically in the alternating cries and whispers of his soloing on Edwards' "Glass of Water" and "Dirty Old Blues."

Trumpeters James Smith, Jerry Rusch and Ted Murdock, and trombonist Garnett Brown were among the ensemble's many other effective soloists, with singer Lisa Nobumoto adding energetic vocals on a few Edwards songs.

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Less expectedly, impressive improvising was also provided by several of the string players, notably violinist Dan Weinstein and Yvette Devereaux and violist Keith Barry (surely one of the rare jazz artists on this often misunderstood instrument). Devereaux's explosive set of choruses on "Dirty Old Blues" was a highlight of the evening.

Despite the high quality of the evening's individual elements, it was Edwards, appropriately, who brought them all together in a fashion that was both entertaining and musically enlightening. His slender, elegant demeanor, his amiable presentation and the musical history present in both his compositions and his remarks were the essential keystones of the concert. Added up, the result was a richly deserved acknowledgment of an invaluable Los Angeles musical treasure.

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