George Kahn and the New West Coast Jazz


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By Scott Yanow

“I disagree with the notion that jazz is dead or that it is in the museum stage where all of the important musicians who people listen to are now dead," says pianist-composer George Kahn. “I believe that there is a great deal of life in the music and it is still a very viable and fun art form. Also, West Coast Jazz has been unfairly maligned historically. Some writers have inaccurately said that black people did not play it, and that it was manufactured and too educated, whatever that means. I want to let people know that West Coast jazz is a wonderful music that is very much alive."

West Coast Jazz is usually thought of as the dominant style of jazz played in Los Angeles in the 1950s by such musicians as Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, the Lighthouse All Stars and the Dave Pell Octet. It features soft tones, advanced harmonies and quiet rhythm sections. When hard bop from New York emerged and became jazz's modern mainstream, West Coast Jazz took a backseat but it never disappeared. George Kahn is helping to revive the feeling of the vintage style but in a more modern fashion.

“West Coast Jazz is not only viable but it has the opportunity and ability to broaden its base," declares Kahn. “It is why I don't just play 'Stella By Starlight' and 'Autumn Leaves' for the umpteenth time. On my new CD Cover Up!, I picked out songs that might get John Mayer fans who had never heard a jazz album to consider acquiring my CD because they will know some of the tunes. I hope that my recording will give many people a door into this wonderful music."

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Wes' Coast
George Kahn
From Cover Up!

On Cover Up!, George Kahn, along with bassist Brian Bromberg, drummer Alex Acuna and such notable guests as tenor-saxophonist Justo Almario, trumpeter John Fumo and guitarist Pat Kelley not only perform four of the leader's infectious originals but songs associated with Cream ("Sunshine Of Your Love"), Pink Floyd ("Comfortably Numb") and John Mayer ("Waiting On The World To Change"). These are not lightweight cover versions but transformations of rock anthems into swinging jazz, adding to jazz's repertoire. On these versions of the cover songs, their formerly hidden secrets are brought to the forefront with “Comfortably Numb" working very well as a ballad and “Waiting On The World To Change" getting the feel of a gospel tune. In addition, Jerome Kern's “Yesterdays" and Paul McCartney's “Yesterday," rather than being played as a medley, are combined in one intriguing performance.

George Kahn is actually originally from the East Coast (New Rochelle, New York). He studied classical music and graduated from Boston's Brandeis University. While he picked up experience playing a variety of styles, including touring with a disco band, he was very attracted to the music of such jazz pianists as Dave Brubeck, Ramsey Lewis, Joe Sample, Vince Guaraldi, early Herbie Hancock, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Horace Silver. After moving to Southern California and becoming part of the local scene, he played with an improvising New Age group, studied arranging with the legendary Spud Murphy, and in the late 1990s formed his own label, Playing Records.

By having his own company, George Kahn could play whatever music he liked, and what he most wanted to perform was West Coast Jazz. “I think West Coast Jazz is both a style and a feeling. There is always a relaxed laidback feeling at any tempo, sort of like a dry martini rather than beer or whiskey."

Thus far George Kahn's music can be heard on six CDs. While Conscious Dream is a New Age set from 1985 that was not released until he formed his label, Out Of Time features the pianist with the great late drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Richard Reid. Freedom Vessel has a group that includes bassist Dave Carpenter (who recently passed away), drummer Joe LaBarbera and guest altoist Eric Marienthal. Midnight Brew features Kahn's regularly working trio of the time plus Marienthal, tenor great Justo Almario, trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, guitarist Larry Koonse and singer Tierney Sutton. 2004's Compared To What teams Kahn with bassist Brian Bromberg, drummer Alex Acuna, Marienthal, Almario and trumpeter John Fumo. A similar group (with guitarist Pat Kelley) is featured on Cover Up!

One of Kahn's originals on Cover Up!, “Wes Coast," sums up what he considers West Coast Jazz. “It has a classic jazz form, the melody is cool, and it has enough melodic content and direction that it sets a tone for where the solos will go. To me that is really what makes the best jazz. The melody should give the band members a direction yet not be so restrictive that it forces players to do a specific thing." “My main goal is to share my music with as many people as possible."

George Kahn looks forward to touring outside of Southern California, bringing his brand of West Coast Jazz to the rest of the country.

This story appears courtesy of Imaginary Friends.
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