Thirty years after the heyday of his famed fusion outfit Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, the saxman is still so identified with that group — which featured Robben Ford and Joe Sample, among others who rotated in — that he’s done two recordings under that name in the past decade and recently played Tokyo with that billing. Considering his deep connection to the city (which has also included hundreds of sessions and years of well known TV and film work), it’s ironic that he’s having such a blast living in a cabin near Tehachapi, a small mountain town two hours north.
Scott’s charming local eatery The Apple Shed may be a hundred miles and many musical lifetimes removed from The Baked Potato in North Hollywood — where The Tom Scott Bebop Quartet evolved into the L.A. Express — but, to quote the title of one of his more popular 90s GRP recordings, he feels Born Again among those brilliant vistas, not to mention breathing the clean air. The title of his last smooth jazz recording, 2002’s Newfound Freedom, says it all about where he’s at these days.
Despite his vast success in the contemporary jazz funk realm, he’s taking that freedom in an unexpected direction on Bebop United, a spirited live recording of a straight-ahead jazz concert he performed at Manchester’s Craftsman’s Guild in Pittsburgh in December 2004 (and released on the MCG label). For Scott, blowing hard and exploring the subtleties of these eight selections — including three Scott originals, plus classics from Wayne Shorter (“Children of the Night”), Chick Corea (“Tones For Jones Bones”), Cannonball Adderley (“Sack O’Woe”) — takes him back to his roots when he recorded two LPs for Bob Thiele’s Impulse Records at age 19-20 in the late 60s.
“This album is basically Born Again live, with some of the same tunes I did on that record played at MCG, a totally unique jazz venue, and featuring all East Coast guys, including Gil Goldstein and Randy Brecker,” he says. “They approached me about adding Phil Woods to the bill, so I wrote special arrangements for two altos on a few tunes. I played on a session with him back in the 70s and always loved his playing. He may be in his 70s but he still plays with a lot of fire. The gig grew out of a few dates I did with the Born Again instrumentation at Catalina Bar & Grill in L.A. My agent told MCG’s Marty Ashby about it, and he suggested we do it back East. Some fans have wondered how I can switch so easily from a very pop record like Newfound Freedom to this, but it’s just a different aspect of the music I love. I just do what I enjoy doing and stay in the moment, and the way people perceive it is up to them.”
In other words, it’s the fans and critics who have issues when he jumps from traditional to contemporary and back. He likes the fact that his R&B based “smooth jazz” embraces a simpler, more accessible style, with an emphasis on passion and communicating a unique statement in an uncomplicated way that still is meaningful. “I like to bring that passion to my trad jazz dates,” he says.
Jazz purists might balk at the “meaningful” part of this, but he somewhat appeases their sense of intellectual superiority when he adds, “the challenge of bebop is different, involving a whole lot more thinking, chords, harmonies and faster rhythm patterns that are more cerebral. When I play the R&B stuff, my solos are a lot more dynamic as a result.”
Scott refers to the Ellingtonism that “good music is good music” in adding, “Regardless of the style of music, certain principles remain the same. The best fusion and smooth jazz share certain characteristics that bebop doesn’t have, but each side must maintain a certain level of accessibility for it to appeal to people. Bebop is a more complex style of music, but when you think of the genre’s great records like Miles’ Kinda Blue, they are very easy to understand, and I try to tap into that aspect of the music when I do dates like Bebop United. I’m always fascinated about what makes audiences respond to certain things and reject other styles, but I’m grateful that my upbringing exposed me to so much that I didn’t have to make such black and white distinctions.”
Every so often, as a result of the happy jazz schizophrenia that defines his catalog, Scott has to endure critiques that certain, smooth-oriented efforts are “shamelessly contrived” in comparison with his returns to his cooler and artsier L.A. Express mode or his occasional traditional dates. But his evolution into the pop and funk realm was hardly by design or an attempt to sell more albums.
“I built a whole career by accident, discovering that I was a member of a band that was drawing large numbers of people every week to see the L.A. Express,” he says. “It occurred to me that the people coming to the shows liked the fusion more than the bebop, so we lurched into the R&B soul funk style without thinking twice. Because I had my day gig as a studio musician, I wasn’t desperate to discover a style with popular appeal. But I loved the idea of an audience enjoying what I’m doing. I mean, even Phil Woods did an album with all synthesizers, trying to reach more people through his art. The role of a jazz musician has always been to draw on the popular music of the day and create and interpret from the heart. I feel like I’m always walking on that bridge between what I want to create and what people want to hear.”
DAVE KOZ & FRIENDS AT SEA: In a sad and poignant but somehow life affirming way, the maiden voyage of Dave Koz & Friends at Sea — which sailed in November aboard Holland America’s ms Oosterdam from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta — was more than simply another spectacular musical time with great artists and enthusiastic fans aboard a state of the art ship. All thanks to Audrey.
Audrey Koz, Dave’s mom, passed away after a brief illness on November 4, the day before the cruise set sail. Koz, attending to his family and Audrey’s funeral arrangements, didn’t arrive till Tuesday, when he flew from L.A. to Mazatlan, but his opening night statement, read Pat Prescott, his morning show partner at 94.7 The Wave Los Angeles, set the tone for the week.
“Make this cruise a party,” he said, “a celebration of my Mom’s life.” Of course, there were some beautiful poignant musical tribute moments along the way, from Chris Botti and (musical director) Brian Simpson’s gentle trumpet/piano rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You” to David Benoit’s dedication of “9/11,” Koz and Patti Austin’s unique improvisational take on “Smile” and Koz’s tender “Over the Rainbow”.
Then the party began, with headliners Jeff Golub, Jonathan Butler, Wayman Tisdale, George Duke, Kirk Whalum and Jeffrey Osborne going full force in making this a memorable event both musically and spiritually. Capturing both of those elements best was one of the most talked about shows of the week, a Sunday afternoon gospel hour headlined by smooth jazz apostles Whalum and Butler, who shared the joys of their faith with the smooth jazz faithful.
1) Jim Brickman, The Disney Songbook (Walt Disney Records) – Drawing on his love for all things Mickey and perhaps remembering the musical innocence of his gig years ago composing for The Muppets, the famed pop pianist romances beloved classics and creates a few of his own via two gorgeous tunes inspired by the first-ever DVD release of Cinderella.
2) Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts (Arista)
3) Rent Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Warner Bros)
4) Johnny Rodgers, Box of Photographs (PS Classics)
5) Michael Buble, Caught In The Act (Reprise)
New and Noteworthy
1) 2002, The Emerald Way (Real Music)
2) Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Long Walk To Freedom (Heads Up Africa)
3) Unwrapped Vol. 4 (Hidden Beach Recordings)
4) Jamie Cullum, Catching Tales (Verve Forecast)
5) Armik, Desires: The Romantic Collection (Bolero)