You never know where you’re going to run into top-caliber jazz in L.A., as I was reminded of the other day. I was checking out an art sale when I happened to encounter a particularly intriguing band playing outside the art gallery in the frigid weather we’ve been hit with lately.
As described on their website (http://www.redhillquartet.com/) the members of the Red Hill Quartet “bring the influences of African, Indian and Middle Eastern music while being solidly entrenched in the jazz tradition.” The group, based in Echo Park just northwest of downtown L.A., consists of Harvey Lane on tenor and soprano saxes, Ricky Luther on vibraphone and keyboards (he played only vibes on this gig), Mark London Sims on electric bass and Leonice Shinneman on drums and tablas.
They play original tunes almost exclusively, many written by vibraphonist Ricky Luther. If I had to categorize their original material, I’d venture to say that it’s a sort of post post-bop mélange of shifting modes and altered modes, topped off with memorable melodies and underpinned by an unwavering commitment to swing.
The arrangements offered plenty of room for all the players to stretch out and develop solos thematically without being self-indulgent. Thankfully, the band demonstrated respect – without condescension – for its audience by framing bass and drum solos with chordal downbeats signaling the start of a new chorus. And, in another demonstration of the band’s generosity, you can hear complete versions of a couple of their tunes on their website.
They opened their set with a Luther tune called “Squeezer Floyd,” a luscious exploration of the above-mentioned modes in 6/8 time. I’ve been a sucker for the churning, rolling rhythms of 6/8 time ever since I cut my teeth on Mingus’ “Better Get It In Your Soul” and Coltrane’s “Afro Blue,” so I was hooked after four bars. Luther wrings a ton of mileage out of his vibes, filling out the middle with richly textured comping and soloing as if he were born with mallets in his hands. Lane was quite the high-fly act, delivering adventurous yet organic variations on the melody on his soprano sax. Bassist Sims laid down the bottom with a terrific, warm tone, alternately walking and punctuating with propulsive rhythmic counterpoint. And drummer Shinneman provided the glue that held it all together, utilizing his prodigious chops to both complement and spur on his bandmates.
Later in the set, the band launched into a jazz interpretation of “March of the Lion,” from French late-Romantic composer Saint Saens’ musical suite, “The Carnival of the Animals.” A stately, haunting melody that shows just how much emotion and depth you can get out of Dorian mode, the tune showcased Shinneman playing tablas. Now, there are a lot of guys out there who play at playing the tablas, but Shinneman demonstrated a virtuosic command of tone and phrasing.
They closed with a blistering post-bop tune composed by saxophonist Lane entitled “Mobeus Trip.” By this time the sun had gone down and Lane was shivering and his teeth were chattering. But I never would have guessed it from the heat coming off the bandstand.
The Red Hill Quartet has two CDs available on CDBaby: “Red Hill” and “Echo Park.”