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Sounds Worth Repeating

Jazz Legacy features crowd-pleasing style at Jax in Glendale

By John Sollenberger 12/24/2015

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Saturday night offers a chance to shake the post-Christmas blues by catching some jazz at Jax Bar & Grill in Glendale. That’s when Jazz Legacy comes in for one of its regular visits. 

The group is led by trombonist Steve Johnson. The artist has earned a high ranking in the musical world, performing tunes by greats, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other masters. 

Johnson is accomplished in a wide range of styles, from be bop and soft pop to classical and salsa. He’s performed with such artists as Ray Charles, Buddy Collette, Little Anthony, The Temptations, Benny Carter, and many others. 

His work has appeared in a variety of television productions, and he’s gathered a group of top-flight musicians to delight crowds wherever they play. 

Visit the group at jazzquorum.com.


 

John Sollenberger - Pasadena Weekly (Dec 24, 2015)

Jazz Legacy at Jax for New Years Eve 2014

 

By Kirk Silsbee

December 27, 2014 | 12:07 a.m.

 

We have no shortage of New Year’s Eve entertainment options — Trombonist Steve Johnson leads his Jazz Legacy band at Jax in Glendale.

 

For the past couple of years, Johnson’s quintet is one of the pillars of the monthly music schedule at Jax. His music career is a nod to the adage that the race is not always given to the swift; providence might also be another relevant concept.

 

As a student player in the 1960s, he devoured an instruction book by the late pianist Frank Strazzeri (1930-1914) as he studied at the old Dick Grove Workshop in Hollywood. “Strazzophonic” is a pianist’s manual for playing fourth intervals and augmented chord voicings, and Strazzeri’s insight into modern harmony profoundly affected Johnson. The book brought Johnson up to speed on what cutting-edge players like John Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard were playing.

 

As well as a broadened harmonic palette, it gave Johnson a deep reverence for Strazzeri’s special genius for composition and arrangement. It also showed him that even though Strazzeri was of the earlier bebop generation, his writing was perennially modern and timeless.

 

Johnson’s quintet has a tenor sax-and-trombone front line with a rhythm section. He made a career as a high school counselor but always kept his hand in music — playing occasional gigs, participating in rehearsal bands and, of course, hearing some of the live jazz banquet that SoCal offered. He spent many nights hearing Strazzeri in the band of alto saxophonist Art Pepper and with the informal group co-piloted by trumpeter Conte Candoli and trombonist Frank Rosolino at Donte’s in North Hollywood. Their routinely brilliant displays of craft, technique and ongoing emotional expression were, in many ways, a graduate course for Johnson.

Johnson took Rosolino as his prime instrumental inspiration. He was the clown prince of trombonists, an innovative master. Rosolino’s originality, technical supremacy, sense of swing and fluidity have remained Johnson’s idea of how the trombone’s musical business should be conducted.

Some years ago, Johnson engaged Strazzeri for some casual jobs and began their professional relationship. The subsequent Jazz Legacy band has shown unusual insight into Strazzeri’s music, which combines an introspective delicacy of themes with strong rhythmic components. The passing of the great pianist/composer earlier this year has made Steve Johnson’s Jazz Legacy the living memorial to the music of Frank Strazzeri.

“Musicians Pay Tribute to ‘Strazz’” by Kirk Silsbee          Up to the first of the year, one sure bet for jazz in Southern California were the monthly nights at Jax; pianist Frank Strazzeri held musical court there.  Though seldom acknowledged nationally, he was one of the reigning masters of jazz piano, with a wealth of composition and arrangement background that informed his playing.  A quiet giant, there were few jazz greats of the past 60 years with whom Strazzeri hadn’t crossed paths.  He died quietly on May 9th in Rochester, at the age of 84.         Trombonist Steve Johnson, a Jax fixture like Strazzeri, will lead a tribute to his mentor on Friday at the club.  Johnson’s Jazz Legacy quintet has functioned as a kind of living homage to Strazzeri’s music: its book is mainly derived from the pianist’s voluminous library of compositions.  “The highlight of my career,” Johnson emphasizes, “has been playing with Strazz.  I would observe him writing arrangements for the band and I’d learn.”“It was all about the sound to Strazz,” Johnson points out.  “He’d give note clusters a chord name, but he’d start from the sound first, then notate it.  For the tribute show, we’ll be playing just his music.”Strazzeri was born in Rochester and studied at the Eastman School of Music.  His job as house pianist at a local jazz club saw him backing giants like Billie Holiday and trumpeter Roy Eldridge.  He played traditional jazz in New Orleans and led the resident rhythm section at the Black Magic club in Las Vegas for years, before settling in Los Angeles in 1960.  His playing and arranging abilities made Strazzeri valuable to TV and recording.  His choice playing made him a favorite pianist to vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, alto saxophonists Bud Shank and Art Pepper and trumpeter Chet Baker among many others.“I like melody,” Srazzeri stressed in 2011.  “Everything I write goes into all kinds of styles.  I’m inspired by anyone who writes a good song and I want to be part of that scene.”That love of melody came with a capacity to pull it out of the air for the pianist.  Jeff Takiguchi, who holds down the bass chair in Jazz Legacy, played for eight years with Strazzeri in a duo at Chez Nous in Laurel Canyon.  “I was in my early development,” Takiguchi offers, “and it was the greatest musical education.  He was from the old school—he’d just start playing and I had to figure out the key and follow him.  He played things in odd keys and time signatures.  It was an unbelievable workshop and the experience raised me on several levels: I learned a bunch of tunes, their correct chord changes, and I learned from his harmonic sense.” “His playing had the essence of bebop,” the bassist clarifies.  “He used the hippest chord changes and harmonies, but his right hand was so melodic.  He was like a combination of Bud Powell in the left hand and Bill Evans in the right.  And I’ve never heard anybody do that the way Strazz did.  But aside from his playing, his tunes were really great.”Johnson was drawn to Strazzeri’s compositions before he played with him.  “They’re a great mixture of emotion and structure—inventive but not crazy.  Always full of emotional content, but his music has fantastic structure.  Strazz was always reaching, always trying in his work.”  Reminded that a working knowledge of classical music underpins Strazzeri’s writing, Johnson elaborated, naming a favorite Russian composer: “He loved Alexander Scriabin and there are a lot of colors—bright and muted—with spaces in Frank’s music.”      “Strazz was a jazz samurai,” Johnson pronounces.  “He lived second by second in the music.  He was so quick—he could transpose saxophone parts from the piano with ease--yet he would hone his compositions over time.  He could be distracted by pain, but he really was happiest being totally in the moment within the music.”    Burbank Leader, June 21, 2014

In Memoriam: Frank Strazzeri

Reports that the veteran pianist Frank Strazzeri had died began circulating a couple of weeks ago. They were impossible to confirm until now. Strazzeri died at 84 on May 9 in his hometown, Rochester, New York, but he Frank Strazzerispent most of his career in Los Angeles. He moved back to Rochester in late April following a final engagement at the Glendale club Jax, where he often played in his final years.

After attending the Eastman School of Music, in 1952 the 22-year-old Strazzeri worked as house pianist at a Rochester nightclub, accompanying visiting performers including Roy Eldridge, J.J. Johnson and Billie Holiday. He moved to New Orleans in 1954 and played traditional jazz in bands led by Sharkey Bonano and Al Hirt, but his main interest was in bebop. Soon, he went on the road with Charlie Ventura, then Woody Herman. At Herman’s suggestion, he settled in Los Angeles in 1960. Like many L.A. jazz musicians, Strazzeri used his skills to work in recording and television studios while also playing with a cross section of jazz artists, among them Bill Perkins, Art Pepper, Terry Gibbs, Bud Shank, Louis Bellson and Chet Baker. When filmmaker Bruce Weber was producing the Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost, the trumpeter designated Strazzeri to supervise the music.

I was extremely surprised when I was asked to do the film,” Strazzeri told Bill Kolhaase of The Los Angeles Times in 1993. “(Baker) played with hundreds of piano players. But I think he felt an alignment with me, a buddy thing, that made him feel comfortable. I used to break him up quite a bit. He lived on the sad side of life, you know, the doom-and-gloom thing. So I’d crack jokes and make him smile.

Strazzeri also played for Joe Williams, Maynard Ferguson, Les Brown and—Elvis Presley. Surprised? He toured several times with Presley in the early 1970s and struck up a friendship with him based on a mutual interest in karate.

When I brought it up, Strazzeri told Kolhaase, he said ‘Wait here.’ He came back in his karate outfit, and we spent the whole night talking about it. He showed me how he could kill me. And when I got up the next day, there was an envelope with $300 in it tucked under my door. Every time I talked with him he’d give me money.

Strazzeri’s primary source of income, however, was from his music, which continued long after his work with Presley. Among the colleagues with whom he worked most closely was saxophonist and flutist Bill Perkins. They recorded together on several occasions in, among other settings, Strazzeri’s sextet Woodwinds West. For the liner notes I wrote for their album Somebody Loves Me, Perkins told me,

His choruses are classics in melody. When we were playing together at Dino’s in the earlyStrazz & Perk days, I taped most of what we did. I’d go home and listen to the tapes. My intention was to listen fox myself; that’s human nature. But I would find that I was riveted to his solos. I kept thinking of the early Lester Young because, like Pres in those days, Frank never repeats himself. He has the gift of beautiful melody. I never get tired of listening to him.

There are few videos of Strazzeri. Here’s one. He has the first solo on his composition “Relaxin’,” filmed at Spazio in L.A. in 2010 with trombonist Steve Johnson’s Jazz Legacy. George Harper is the tenor saxophonist, with Jeff Littleton, bass, and Kenny Elliott, drums

From the 1973 Strazzeri album View From Within, this is his classic “Strazzatonic.” The all-star sidemen are named on the album cover.

Trombonist Johnson reports on his blog, Strazzeri told him that following the death two months ago of Jo Ann, his wife of 63 years, it was his dream to return to Rochester and be among family members.

Frank Strazzeri, RIP

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Review of The Sands of Time CD by Scott Yanow

STEVE JOHNSON’S JAZZ LEGACY The Sands Of Time   In his career Steve Johnson, a trombonist based in the Los Angeles area, has played with many notable names including Ray Charles, Don Ellis, Grover Mitchell, Benny Carter and Willie Bobo. In recent times he has been leading the Jazz Legacy, a hard bop quintet. In its repertoire along with some standards are an extensive number of songs by veteran pianist Frank Strazzeri, who is often a member of the group. Jazz Legacy has a regular monthly gig at JAX in Glendale near Los Angeles.   The Sands Of Time features Johnson, tenor-saxophonist George Harper, bassist Jeff Littleton, drummer Kenny Elliott and Frank Strazzeri himself performing nine of the pianist’s best originals. The blend between the two horns (who sometimes recall Hank Mobley and either J.J. Johnson or Frank Rosolino) is quite attractive, the songs are excellent vehicles for the musician’s improvisations, and Strazzeri (79 at the time of this recording and now 82) proves to still be in prime musical form.   The CD begins with “Relaxin,” which is Strazzeri’s best known original. Other highlights include the melodic and catchy “The Sands Of Time,” the quiet but spirited jazz waltz “On A Moonlit Night,” the romping blues “Strazzatonic,” a ballad feature for Johnson on “Jo Ann,” and the mysterious Mid-East flavored “Gulf Of Aden.” On virtually all of the selections, Harper, Johnson and Strazzeri take fine solos while Littleton and Elliott (who also get occasional solo spots) are stimulating and swinging in support of the lead voices. The music is classic hard bop without sounding derivative or dated.   Musicians looking for fresh material will find this disc to be full of attractive and fresh-sounding songs that are waiting to be discovered. Straight ahead jazz fans will simply find The Sands Of Time to be a fun and swinging set of music that they will want to acquire.   Scott Yanow, author of ten books including Bebop, Trumpet Kings, Jazz On Film and Jazz On Record 1917-76

Scott Yanow - LA Jazz Scene (Apr 4, 2012)

Stellar Legacy

Jazz Legacy brings an all-star show to Jax

By John Sollenberger 05/31/2012

Friday night offers a killer jazz performance at Jax Bar & Grill as Jazz Legacy stops in for a set. 

 

This talented quintet is headed up by trombonist Steve Johnson, who has soared to the heights of the music world in a variety of styles — be bop, soft pop, classical and salsa. Along the way, Johnson’s performed with artists including Ray Charles, Buddy Collette, Don Ellis, Little Anthony, The Temptations, The Captain and Tennille, Johnny Polanco and Benny Carter. Johnson’s work has also appeared in various television productions, including an ABC Movie of the Week.

 

At Jax, Johnson will be joined by a stellar group of pro musicians with impressive track records of their own. On tenor sax is Carl Randall, who’s worked with Freddie Hubbard, Bill Withers, Buddy Collette and others. Pianist Serge Kasimoff has performed with Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Francisco Aguabella. Bassist Chris Haller has lent his talents to Billy Eckstein, The Coasters and Sonny Bono, while drummer Mel Lee has worked with the Fifth Dimension, Lou Rawls and Dionne Warwick, among many others. Visit jazzquorum.com to learn more.

 

 

“Trombonist Keeps Legacy Alive” by Kirk Silsbee

 

         Step into Jax Bar & Grill on Brand Boulevard any night that Steve Johnson’s Jazz Legacy band is on the stand and you’ll quickly notice the quintet’s full sound.  Johnson’s trombone and Carl Randall’s tenor saxophone coalesce into thick sonorities, regardless of the tempo.  Another feature is the easy camaraderie of the players.  Ages may vary but the singularity of purpose unifies it in overt and recessed ways.

         The band has tremendous propulsion and visceral force.  Randall, long known for his work with Gerald Wilson and the late trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, is one of the great local saxophonists.  He’s a dynamic player who builds his solos with intuitive architecture.  Pianist Serge Kasimoff says, “When Carl solos, the rhythm section can get a little aggressive.”  Drummer Mel Lee, another veteran, seems to hit a little harder—without moving the time—behind Randall.  

The convivial setting—Jax is a restaurant and bar, after all—doesn’t crimp the music at all.  Their music is a living monument to the music of pianist and composer Frank Strazzeri, who also plays at Jax.     

         For Johnson, the band is a culmination of his life in music.  A degreed musician, Johnson found job security in the L.A. Unified School District—first as a teacher, then as a counselor.  In his retirement, leading a band is a long-held ambition that all of his years playing in big bands, Latin outfits and rehearsal units never quite satisfied. 

A Syracuse native, Johnson’s family moved to Glendale when he was six.  He picked up the trombone in grade school, discovered jazz on station KBCA-FM, and played his first job at 13.  “It was at the Three Oaks in Montrose on New Year’s Eve, ‘64/’65,” he chuckles.  “Twenty dollars for four hours work and I was hooked.”

Johnson graduated from UCLA and played in the bands of Don Ellis, Tommy Vig, even Ray Charles. Though he supported his family with public school work, Johnson always kept his hand in music.

He had a weekly gig at the Hilton Hotel on the Universal City Walk for a year.  When he needed a substitute, pianist Frank Strazzeri was suggested. Johnson used to hear the pianist in the company of one of his trombone idols, the late Frank Rosolino, in the 1970s, so he was doubly awed at the idea of working with Strazzeri.  “Rosolino is my favorite trombone player,” Johnson states flatly.  “I love his fluidity, his swing and his highly original technical approach; it’s very advanced.”  Johnson’s ballads at Jax showcase his own lush sound. 

When Johnson formed Jazz Legacy, Strazzeri’s book--a treasured corner of jazz writing--was a natural choice.  Bassist Chris Haller, who also plays in Frank’s trio, observes: “His tunes are state-of-the-art masterpieces; there are no clinkers.  I wake up in the morning, singing those tunes in my head.”

“Even though I’m a trombone player,” says Johnson, “I’m really inspired by Strazz.  I love his ideas, the sound he gets from the piano, his swing and his clear chord voicings.  For me, he’s the total package.”

         In the fourth grade, Johnson had the drums in mind when music instruction was offered and he resisted the pressure to play violin.  “I held out until the next year,” he recalls.  “I wanted to play melodies, but I didn’t want to play a reed instrument and they had all the trumpeters they needed, so I got the trombone.”  He adds: “I got into music for the sound.”  Judging by the results at Jax, Johnson got what he wanted.     

 

Glendale News-Press, January 27, 2012

Kirk Silsbee - LA Times/Glendale News Press (Jan 26, 2012)

 

STEVE JOHNSON'S JAZZ LEGACY at JAX by Myrna Daniels, LA Jazz Scene, January 2012

I entered Jax in Glendale, expecting to hear Frank Strazzeri but unfortunately he wasn’t able to make the gig. I hadn’t heard him in a long time and was looking forward to saying hello. I interviewed him years ago for a cover story and admire him tremendously. I spoke briefly with Steve Johnson, who would be leading the group, which would be playing some of Strazzeri’s compositions. Jax looked festive, with twinkling Christmas lights and trees scattered all around the place. There was a happy buzz as the band set up. The band consisted of Steve Johnson-trombone Carl Randall-tenor sax, Chris Haller-bass, Serge Kasimoff-piano and Mel Lee- drums. They began with “ So What” which allowed for good solos from everyone. Haller and Lee had the foundation nailed tight with a fine, churning beat that anchored it all. The frontline work from Johnson and Randall was terrific as they worked the familiar opening lines to Miles Davis’ classic. Serge Kasimoff is a very fine pianist and I remember hearing him at many clubs in the past. All that experience and talent made for a fine rendition. A quick, Latinized “Happy Birthday” for a patron reminded me what a great Latin stylist Kasimoff is as well. “A New Thing” was a quick, snappy tune and Randall’s feisty tenor solo set the mood. Johnson’s trombone was played with great skill, good phrasing and control. Kasimoff’s piano solo was light and quick, followed by short solos from Lee and Haller. Johnson and Randall played the closing lines with perfect symmetry before everyone stopped on a dime. Johnson took the first solos for the mid-tempo Strazzeri tune, “Why the Dreams”. Randall used lots of notes in his solos sounding very purposeful. Clean simple accompaniment from Kasimoff, Lee and Haller made for a tune that was uplifting while having all the jazz qualities we like. Jax was buzzing with energy, everyone getting in the holiday mood. “Frank’s Blues” was not a gut-bucket blues but the blues intention was there. Johnson’s muted T-bone solos was a fine addition, while Randall’s solo was grittier, looser. Strazzeri’s “The Sands of Time” was upbeat and happier. It was quite perfect for ambiance of the room. It was a busy, energetic tune and each player added strong solos. This is a solid group of musicians who played with so much spirit and integrity. For big jazz fans the music was great. For those out for a fun night the music helped promote jazz as more than just background music. Steve Johnson served as Executive Producer for the CD, The Sands of Time featuring the Music of Frank Strazzeri. Strazzeri and Johnson are joined by Jeff Littleton, Kenny Elliott and George Harper. For more info see http://www.jazzquorum.com I also send my best wishes to Frank Strazzeri and hope he’ll be performing soon.  

Myrna Daniels - LA Jazz Scene, January 2012 (Jan 4, 2012)